Teachers as Learners in Kenowa Hills

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January 19, 2017

Teacher: Annie, what's the chemical formula for water?
Annie: H I J K L M N O.
Teacher: What are you talking about?
Annie: Didn't you say it's H to O?

This joke reminds me of an exchange that took place at a well-child visit for my 3-year-old son. The doctor asked him to count “one to 10.” My son answered, “One, 10.” Naturally, my job was to better explain the doctor’s expectation. The thinking in my son’s mind should match the thinking in my mind and what I assumed was in our doctor’s mind. This simple task should have one right answer.  As I was about to explain what the doctor was really asking my son to do, Doc said, “That’s the best answer.”
This gave me pause. Was it really the “best” answer? That could be argued I’m sure; nonetheless, the answer was not wrong. If it wasn’t wrong, I suppose it didn’t stand for being corrected. It was simply different; certainly more efficient. I laughed it off. I thought it was cute and funny and when we get in the car, I will explain what the doctor was really asking because I know my son knows how to count using every digit up to 10.  
Similarly, I am certain Annie’s teacher in the joke above would probably “correct” Annie or ask someone else who could give the answer that matched the teacher’s thinking. Annie then might believe that she is not smart or capable of doing complex work like chemistry because her background knowledge and experiences were “wrong.” Therefore, she had better play it safe by being passive, quiet and compliant in hopes she can survive the class by making enough right moves. Or, just the opposite, she might completely disengage and act out because it’s just too hard to figure out what the teacher means or wants. 
I wish I could say the counting incident at the doctor’s visit was an a-ha moment and that I immediately shifted my thinking and classroom practice from “Guess what the teacher is thinking,” to “What are you thinking?” It wasn’t. My perceptions of my role as a teacher had been solidified and affirmed for decades.
I learned how to do school and to guess the teachers’ thinking, too. Many of us had caring teachers who “spoon fed” us information because that was the understanding of how to ensure every student had access to the same knowledge and opportunities for success. By and large, this is how school has been done and why we have students like Annie who heard what the teacher told her and interpreted it based on her experiential knowledge. If we do not engage students in the work of learning to make meaning, they simply do the best they can to comply.  Compliance is neat and tidy. It’s easier to manage and understand; yet, it doesn’t always get results – even for those who know how to jump through the hoops.
Kenowa Hills is focused on learners and values the work of learning. There are many different ways to describe this complex process.  Here is a definition from “The New Social Learning” by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner: “We define learning as the transformative process of taking in information that – when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced – changes what we know and builds on what we do. It’s based on input, process and reflection. It is what changes us.”
As Knights we are seeking to understand our identities as learners. We know that learning can be messy and challenging, which means we have to be flexible in our approaches to making meaning and the amount of time we allow learners to do this. As learners, we know it’s imperative to engage in discourse to make meaning and solve problems interdependently as well as independently. We need to be observant and listen to seek understanding by suspending judgment. We develop our sense of curiosity and ask more questions. When sharing thinking, we provide evidence or reasoning. We name and employ thinking strategies and know when and why to apply them in order to continuously confront uncertainties as we move through life and wherever it leads.  These abilities allow us to be adaptive. If we know how to be adaptive – how to learn – we can embrace and live life knowing that change is inevitably part of it. We can thrive.
Personal Mastery a complex journey that we are bravely and boldly confronting. We are learning from each other and from our students. The more we learn from each other, the more we value this important shift to a collaborative culture focused on continuous improvement. It requires a safe place to do the uncomfortable work of making mistakes and learning from them. Getting comfortable with this discomfort means we are always on the edge of new learning and growth.  This environment is created when we presume positive intentions from all, listen to seek understanding, and pause to consider others’ points of view. Each day, we continue to take the next step forward on this learning journey with the understanding that If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together (African proverb).
Check out these articles that describe how teachers go well beyond the traditional professional development days to grow thinking together. KH teachers engage in each of these:
Professional Learning Communities (half-day Wednesdays)
Classroom Learning Labs CLL (half day during the school day)
Learning alongside an Instructional Coach (during school day)

Photo: Mr. Bernard hosts a CLL; Purposeful Talk in action

Tracy Horodyski is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2016-17, the 10th year Meemic has partnered with the Michigan Department of Education for the MTOY program. She’s a reading interventionist and instruction coach at Zinser Elementary in Grand Rapids and has more than 15 years of classroom experience.
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