From the desk of Alice…
When I was a child, I played outside any chance I could. These were the days before home computers and 500 TV channels, so playing outside was actually more fun than being inside on most days. There were some woods behind our house that my sister and friends and I were allowed to play in all the time. These woods were the border between our neighborhood and a major road in our town. They were not huge, but large enough to make us feel nestled into suburbia.
We spent hours in those woods and pretended to have houses and used moss to make the front yard, laid sticks on the ground to represent the walls, and used trees that were growing to mark off the edges of our “property”. There was a small creek that ran between our back yard and the woods and my father was nice enough to put a small board across the creek bank so we could ride our bikes into the woods and use them as our “cars”. Most of the ground in the woods was just dirt and clear of any thick underbrush and the majority of the trees were tall, skinny pine trees. If you looked up from the deck at my parent’s house, you could easily see us playing in these woods and from the woods, you could easily see the house.
On occasion, our adventures would take us further into the woods. We liked to pretend we lived centuries ago (even though we had our bike/cars) and we would have to go gather food (green plants) or hide from large dinosaurs (which were really particular trees we identified). These games would last for hours and the only thing that brought us in was a thunderstorm or hunger. It was in these hours playing outside that I learned all about the living world.
One day in particular I realized I had ventured farther into the woods than ever before and I could no longer see the house. I was probably about 8 or 9 years old. My familiar dinosaur trees were not around and my sister and friends were not in sight. Instead of panicking, I somehow knew to listen for voices. As soon as I could hear friendly voices, I turned in that direction. I also realized I had followed a logical path and started to notice the way I had come into that portion of the woods. I slowly started walking towards the voices and realized as I walked that the sky above the tree tops grew larger and larger until I got back to my familiar trees and came upon my own yard. That was not the last time I ventured out into the woods and those same strategies helped me anytime I would get a little too far.
Think some more.
As we reveal some of our passions at ERG this month, this story came to my mind. One of my passions is giving kids room to construct their own ideas and figure things out with a little work. As educators, we sometimes fall into the trap of believing students could not possibly come to conclusions without us and because of this belief, we work ourselves to death to tell information, make sure everyone stays on the same page and works at the same pace and spend our lessons talking while students spend the majority of the time listening.
In real life, learning takes place through many avenues. I am passionate about the idea of getting out of the way and allowing students room to process, problem solve, and make mistakes. Not all assignments have to be perfect and not everything has to be for a grade. Sometimes the process you build in for thinking is THE most important part of the lesson. As a coach, I find myself telling teachers that it is ok for students to stumble. It is ok for them to not know the correct answers right away and it is definitely ok to have some silence as they productively struggle.
I encourage you to think of my woods story as a metaphor for learning. One of the reasons I didn’t totally die in the woods was that it was familiar territory. I had already spent hours outside and had basic knowledge of the space. I wasn’t scared or hurt and I felt confident being independent and problem solving since I had logged many hours prior to that experience. Your students are no different. Once you give them basic information, reflect on how often you let them wrestle with a difficult task or make mistakes on the way to a deeper understanding.
Are you trusting the hours they are logging as readers, writers, and problem solvers are helping them grow? How are you designing tasks that stretch your students so they emerge more confident from the process? Instead of stepping in and telling them information, have you considered shifting your role into one that is the quiet observer, gathering informal indicators on progress, ready to slide in if needed, but giving them the room they need?
I feel sure my parents would never have wanted me to get lost in those woods. The funny thing about learning is that sometimes the very thing you are protecting the learner from is one way to deeper understanding. If I had never been lost in the woods, I would never have found the way out.
What woods are your students in and how many ways do they know to get out? And more importantly, how are they carrying that knowledge forward?
Let’s give them room.