Monday, May 20, 2013

"It is better to know how to learn than to know"

Have you ever had that sneaking suspicion that, at one time, many years ago, you were provided with everything you needed to know about life, but have somehow been slowly forgetting and losing sight of these things along the way? I do, and I am pretty sure that I learned most of those important life lessons from Dr. Seuss. My personal favorite as a teacher is one that escaped me as a child: “It is better to know how to learn than to know.”

I could not have said it better myself, nor will I try to. I have tried time and time again to introduce, explain, and instill this sentiment in the consciousness of my students, and have thus far failed to truly convince them. And yet with with this statement, the much-beloved author of classics like Green Eggs and Ham and Whorton Hears a Who speaks to the heart and soul of the teaching profession.

I think its really important, and here’s why. At some point in their upbringing, students are engrained with the idea that they go to school to be filled up with knowledge, like pouring some measurable content into an empty vessel. We reinforce this expectation with a variety of formal assessments, which we prepare students for by cramming them full of useless information which they will regurgitate later and promptly forget. Students are taught through this process that knowing the right answer is the end game. When they arrive in the real world and are expected to think and problem solve and use content that was not delivered to them in a cookie-cutter format, many are lost. They feel unprepared, and why shouldn’t they?

I love the idea of a teacher as a facilitator, rather than a delivery person. My job is to facilitate learning, not to fill the students up with knowledge. I would much rather a student leave my class knowing how to discover and arrive at an answer on their own than to leave knowing the answer alone. That is what I hope for my students, and that is what I try to provide them with. I want to teach them how to learn, and boy do some of them need it! Years and years of the kind of instruction described above provides me with students who come into my class aghast at the idea of doing some critical thinking, of answering the question “why” and practicing guesswork long before they arrive at the “right answer” with which to fill in the blank. Slowly but surely I chip away at the deep-seated thoughts and behaviors which are single-mindedly directed toward the acquisition of knowledge, rather than the process of learning. One encounter at a time, I try to show my students how much they already know by simply practicing that process: always reminding them that how we learn is just as important as what we learn.

Some of my favorite ways to do this:

1. Asking “why?” (my favorite question to use in the ESL classroom)
2. Asking “how do you know?” (drawing their attention to the process they used to arrive at the answer)
3. Silence (not filling in the missing information for them, but waiting to allow them time to do it themselves)
4. Teaching the process by which they can arrive at the answer (ex. First, notice this....then, ask yourself this....)
5. Focusing on the journey, not the destination (I often grade homework and other assignments as simply complete or incomplete, and when I check assignments I ask them about how they did it, rather than pinpointing individual answers for accuracy)

This is often an uphill battle! Many of my students have these expectations: they want the right answer and they want it from me, as soon as possible. I try to model behavior which focuses on how to learn, rather than what to learn, as often as possible in my classroom. Even though it has taken students some time to recognize the value in this approach, I think it is totally worth it when I can reach a student and instill in them a confidence in their own skills and abilities, rather than a headful of compartmentalized knowledge.

And maybe I’ll print the quote and post it somewhere in the classroom, because even if the students don’t take my word for it, I know none of them would dare question the wisdom of the illustrious Dr. Seuss.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Walking through fear

Last weekend I presented at my very first conference. From the initial inspiration to the proposal to the acceptance to the preparation to the presentation itself, it felt like a really long process. To be honest, even though the results were overwhelmingly positive, and I am already looking into future opportunities to present again, the process itself was truly arduous, painstaking, and at times completely disheartening. It was a challenge, to say the least. But then again, what rewarding experience isn’t?

You already know what happened in the beginning....I prepared, edited, and submitted two proposals which could not have been more different. Both were interesting, challenging, and very near to my heart and my experience. And both were accepted! I ended up choosing which to present by listening to that little voice, my gut instinct, and preparing a presentation around a topic that I have been working with in one form or another for two years now: English Language Learning with Found Materials. The inspiration was born when I was teaching English in Tibet, the idea was honed during a graduate class in Research Methodology, and the project was created as my MA field project. I had a long history of working with this topic, and had developed an almost too-close personal connection and investment with it. When it came time to consider presenting at a conference, this project was a natural choice. Also during this time I had begun to tweet, blog, and take newfound responsibility for my own professional development. I wrote about and reflected on my own experience as a teacher, I connected with other teachers in person and online and took a sincere interest in their experience, and I took my day job to the next level with new roles and responsibilities in the classroom and outside of it, all with the goal of improving myself, my abilities, and what I bring into the classroom. The idea of presenting at a conference had been brought up in more than one of these setting, and doing it seemed to be a logical next step in my journey of professional development.

Needless to say there was a LOT riding on this conference for me. Most of which I had built up with my own expectations. I was stressed, I was nervous, I was on edge. I felt overcome with fear. Fear that the audience wouldn’t like me, fear that the audience wouldn’t think I was brilliant, fear that there would be no audience, fear that there would be no audience and everyone would find out that there was no audience and pity me, fear that the audience would be so bored they would fall asleep in their seats, fear that the audience would think it was so cute that someone so experienced as I thought I could present... get the idea. Basically, I was insecure. I AM insecure. There, I said it. Now you know and I know and its out in the open and we can move on. I fear how others will perceive me because I don’t perceive my own self-worth accurately. I fear judgment because I judge myself. Hell, I just got to a point writing this post, where things have taken a turn toward the vulnerable and exposed, and am doubting whether or not to post it, because maybe it would be better to save face in front of relative strangers on the internet. Why do we do that? I am, in this moment, making the conscious decision to walk through my fear and take action despite it. I will do the same thing with this blog post that I did at the conference. I will acknowledge the presence of fear and take action. I will not back down.

And I wonder...if more people were honest about feeling fear, if more people told the truth and said “Yes, I was afraid. But I did it anyway,” then maybe people would be more likely to take these risks and do the things that terrify us but are really important for us to do. I wish someone had told me about how scared they were to present, how they doubted their own abilities, how they had a small thought in the back of their mind that maybe no one would show up to see them, but how, most importantly, they showed up and did it anyways I wish someone had shared that experience, so I would have known that it is possible. Instead, I went in, blind and alone (as we tend to do). And let me tell you, for the record, that I was afraid but I did it anyway.

The mental challenge of this process was not totally unfamiliar to me. However, it did take me by surprise. I guess I felt that because I was presenting at a professional conference I was somehow beyond the totally normal insecurity and self-doubt that plague us as human beings. I don’t know why I expected this to come easily, because the good things which are worth working for rarely do. I am happy to report that I showed up and presented at the CATESOL 2013 Northern Regional Conference, despite the fear, despite the bumps in the road, despite any number of trivial reasons I felt qualified me to stay home that day. Having had the experience, I now feel confident that I can do it again. Not that it will be easy, but that I can do it. That kind of acceptance doesn’t come easily, and I am so grateful for it.  And if sharing my experience and getting honest about that whole fear thing helps someone else show up and do the best job they can despite the fear, then that's an even greater gift. So thanks.