Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Learning and Teaching--best done away from desks

At my desk--but not for long.

I need to explain the title of this blog.  First of all, I wanted several other titles that were already taken, including, "Begin Anywhere" which is one of my favorite quotes (from John Cage), and I use it all the time with students when they're stuck with writing.  I settled on "Teacher Away From Her Desk" because it gets at the kind of teacher I am.  No, I'm not often on vacation.  But I can often be found sitting on the tables in my room, eliciting responses to Catcher in the Rye or Othello.  I might be in the big multi-purpose room of our school, checking in with a student who could focus better outside the classroom.  I might be acting in a student's film, hiking up Mount Monadnock, or painting a mural in a homeless shelter.  I can be found in the bathroom rolling a student's hair into victory rolls for our 1940's Living Museum.  And my favorite teaching moment of all--running toward the warm blue ocean of Cabarete with my 11th grade advisees.  It was a moment of joy and discovery that I'll remember forever, and no lesson planning was involved (though lots of fund-raising was).  I'm lucky enough to teach in a small school where we emphasize learning in a variety of settings and I'm expected to include projects that take me out of the classroom.  But I think even in a traditional, larger school, I'd find myself teaching in the hallways, or side by side students in a circle, and yes, in front of the classroom. I like my desk, and I do spend a fair amount of time there, but that's not where I do my best teaching.

Teaching away from my desk means I'm not talking at the students (though I do that occasionally), but rather I'm asking them to write something, to collaborate with one another, to solve real problems, to create art, and to connect with me and their peers.  The core for me is this--learning is most powerful when students and teachers are doing meaningful work together; that might be writing and producing ten minute plays or planning an event to demonstrate their learning.  It could be reading and discussing a novel together.  Perhaps best of all, it might be traveling to a new place together.

Also, yesterday, as I watched my 9th and 10th grade students tackle some primary and secondary sources relating to WW I, I noticed that they too prefer to learn away from their desks, even when it's something one would think is desk work.  After I handed out the assignment with the packet of readings, a couple students wanted to go out and sit on the stage that is set up for the upcoming play (we don't have an auditorium, so we have hand-built stage that gets folded up when the play it over). They wanted to go over the reading together, discussing the questions as they go, collaborating on answers. These students are bright and inquisitive, and were not just looking to get the answers from one another.  One student wanted to sit by himself on the floor outside the classroom, and another needed to talk through the questions with me.  The entire class worked.  It was a productive hour or so.  Really, I was a bit surprised. They had each selected the place and modality that helped them read and think. And it worked.

So I encourage teachers to keep this in mind--if allowed to, students figure out how they work best, and sometimes it's away from their desks.

And teachers, step away from that desk--run toward the sea with your students.
students who self-selected to work together on reading