Embracing Discomfort: Who Defines Success in Our Classrooms?
I would like to be one of those teachers I read about in books, who thoughtfully plans and implements lessons and then shares the beautiful, breath-taking results with you. You know, the kind of thing we all gush over, but secretly hate just a little?
In my world, life seldom goes like that. Learning in my classroom and for me as a teacher looks more like a scene from Vacation with Chevy Chase driving the family station wagon while dead Aunt Edna is strapped to the roof. We keep it real in J207.
This project was a stellar example of that kind of chaos. With one exception: it didn't look that way from the outside. Outside it had the glossy veneer of a Hallmark movie.
Cue sappy music.
Here's what one would have seen looking in on my little snow globe classroom: Kids were on task. Like, really on task. They diligently went through the list of assignments and projects we had done and created plans for their letters. They conferred with me as they read through graphic organizers documenting the pages they had read, assignments completed, and the myriad Writer's Notebook entries we had done across the semester. The eyes lit up with joy as they realized they had read more pages than the year before, actually finished books they had started, and as they found entries in their notebooks that actually meant something to them.
And, you would see me, proudly congratulating students as we discovered successes, honestly believing that my class had helped these kids grow. Really. It was a very positive end to the semester. We all actually felt good about it.
So what is wrong with me? Why can't I just leave well enough alone, enjoy the moment and go eat some peppermint fudge?
Why have I started this blog post three different times, painted my bathroom, done two Body Combat workouts, and still am not satisfied with this rosy analysis?
Let me tell you why.
The students I teach have been labeled by our education system as struggling. And, I'm not denying that they do struggle with what our system has decided is important. My deeper question is about what education finds valuable.
I had to guide a lot of kids to see what I considered obvious successes. They had read more pages than previous years, had finished books instead of abandoning them, could articulate which books they liked now and why. I saw exemplary reading-ladder progressions from short, simple books to more complex literature. I saw kids choosing their words carefully and telling me something didn't look right in attempts to edit their letters. These should have been glorious celebrations.
It wasn't that it was a bad project or that the kids weren't appreciative that they got to highlight successes. This was all true. But it was also true that they didn't deeply own these successes because they didn't trust that they mattered. There are too many not-successes that loom larger than this small pile.
Those not-successes are ever present in our system, where compliance and being a point-chaser are the gold stars of true achievement. We give lip service to grit and failure as a path to success, but for our kids who truly struggle, we simply label and push through. On their best days, someone wants to save them. On their worst, they're told they'll never amount to anything. Both of these options stink.
None of this is what I want for the students I teach, our classroom, our school, or our world. I don't want success to be an isolated celebration carefully crafted by me to ensure that all kids find the nuggets of gold I've hidden in our class. That's not what this is all about.
Here's what I really learned from this project:
- I have not gone far enough in my classroom to create an environment where learning belongs to my students. I haven't made it clear that beyond choosing their own books, I deeply value students' thoughts, ideas and passions. My class has still been the traditional structure of I lead and you follow. That has just reinforced the notion that I hold all the power and they hold none.
- I have over-valued reading and undervalued writing. Yes, I'm sure I can justify this - it is a reading intervention class, right? But I don't want to justify it; I want to fix it. To become literate people, students must see that reading the words of others is powerful, but so are their own words. Their voices and ideas and the messy process of exploring and clarifying both must be valued in equal weight with the voices we are reading.
- Students need more time to dig into what they're learning, to explore, contemplate and question. Yes, going faster keeps everyone moving, moving, moving, always doing, doing, doing. But does it leave room for curiosity, wonder, or genuine interest? Isn't that what learning is really about?
- I must stay open when these moments of discomfort enter my teaching world. I don't care if this is my 3rd year or my 23rd year, there is room to grow. If I sugar coat, then I accept the status quo, and that is not the road to empowerment. We are going to have to wander around together reading, writing, talking, and listening deeply to each other to figure out how to make out classroom a genuine learning space that truly empowers literate humans.
I would not trade the way our semester ended for anything right now. It's where we are on this journey. It was valuable to start the conversation about what successes we noticed this semester. But instead of a culminating project like I thought, I now see that it is a door I opened, one that students aren't sure we're really going to walk through. But guess what? I can't turn back. We have to walk forward into the new semester and be willing to build on what we just started. Messiness is sure to come. Uncertainty. Discomfort.
But that's what real learning is, right?
Have a wonderful break and a Happy New Year!