Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Summer Is a Time to Grow and Try New Things

I have not posted in about ten days because I took an extended trip to rural Mississippi. Through some previous service experience, I got hooked up with a group who provides after school programs and community support for a small town in Mississippi called Okolona. Okolona has been through some tough times and the educational opportunities have traditionally been unequal. But that is not what this post is about. For my time there, I saw amazing people committed to giving young people the best opportunities available. It was a welcoming community full of love and humility. The kids were wonderful and really loved interacting with people from across the country.  The program was made up of about 40 kids split into three groups depending on age.  Essentially, students, grades 1-8, were divided into three classes. I provided some computer skills development for all classes and also helped chaperone various activities like fishing. It was truly a magical experience for me and reinforced/strengthened some of the views I have about teaching/learning. Here are a few points I took away from the experience. 

1)   It really is all about relationships

This is a view that has taken shape for me over the last year. I want to give a lot of credit to George Couros who so passionately blogs about this and constantly relays its importance. This is not something I was taught in any credential or master’s program, but it has proved tantamount for my success. I was only with the kids for a few days. That means it was essential to build rapport from the start. Regardless of where they are from, kids want to know you care. You don’t do this by asking their grades from the last marking session or for their favorite subject in school. You build relationships by genuinely getting to know them. What are their real likes/dislikes? What are their dreams/passions? If you show an authentic interest in them, it is amazing how quickly they will open up. This is what builds a classroom. Real relationships nourish growth and are a prerequisite for a classroom built on trust, collaboration, and respect.

2)   Kids like to learn

Throughout my time there, I heard things like, “I can’t believe I am learning this” or  “Check out what I am doing”. The program was not about grades or “discipline” or test scores. Students were not competing against each other for marks or class ranks. Young people were learning simply because they enjoyed the process. Basic things like Animoto and Diigo opened up students to researching and showcasing their learning. I firmly believe we are wired this way. Humans like challenges and have an innate drive to better themselves. If we provide the proper structures and systems there is no need to pry kids or promise rewards.

3)   We really learn more from them

I had lots of reflection time over the past few days and I read something that said, “Helping somebody comes from a position of inequity, serving somebody comes from a relationship of equals.” This really struck me. Too often we think of teachers as people who command and conquer, who assert their authority and knowledge from up above. When we acknowledge ourselves as co-learners, great things happen. I honestly learned so much from them. I learned different ways to do math problems (I don’t teach math at all) and the students gave me fishing pointers (it had been years). Additionally, they taught me all about their culture and sports teams. Generally, they just taught me how to love life, even when circumstances are not ideal. If you go into teaching with the attitude that you will not learn from your students, you will miss out.

4)   Hugs counts

I will be honest, I am not a touchy, feely guy (not that there is anything wrong with that) or teacher. For as much as I like my students, I also like to keep a firm perimeter against my person. Usually handshakes and high fives are the ways I show affection. These kids had so much love to give; they would run up and hug you. It made me somewhat uncomfortable at first, but I realized this was their way of showing acceptance and importance. I am not saying you have to hug students, but much like the “relationships matter” section of this post, allow students to understand you matter to them and also have love to give.

5)   Bottom line, experiences like this make me a better teacher 

As I said before, I will take away more from the time I spent there than any kid I taught. I stepped out of my comfort zone and experienced a new way of life, from a completely different part of the country (San Francisco and Mississippi share just a few dissimilarities and have some divergent views about the world). There were different learning styles and different attitudes. This helped me experiment with my craft and encouraged me to try new things out. It is always a good thing to examine your teaching practices with those of other people. I had the opportunity to do so. It then gave me a whole new perspective to reflect from. Simply stated, it also just changed things up a bit. Checking new things out often gives you new energy to return to your home base so to speak.  Although I believe that most kids have the same basic needs and wants, different people go about things with different methods. The things I learned will no doubt help me when I return to the classroom. My students will also see pictures and learn from my experiences. I will show them my human side. This was my vacation and I have pictures and stories to share with them.

In closing, I always advocate trying something new because it provides an opportunity to learn, grow, and be challenged. These are all things humans desire voraciously.

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