Preparing the Ground for Learning Something New: Part II

Preparing the Ground for Learning Something New: Part II

“Behold, a sower went forth to sow . . .” (Matthew 13:3)

Preparing garden2A couple of months ago, I talked about the parable of the sower and the seeds. You remember the story: A man sows seeds; some of them grow, some of them don’t. The seeds that fall on stone have no topsoil to accept the roots. The seeds that fall in the weeds are choked before they can reach the sun. The seeds that fall on fertile ground grow tall and strong.

I used the parable to talk about schools. I talked about the “garden” as the larger school community, with the adults as the “seeds” who have potential for growth and change within that community (personal, cultural, organizational)—growth that can be encouraged or stifled. The questions I raised were: Whose responsibility is it to make sure those seeds grow? Whose fault is it if growth and change do not happen? Is it the ground’s fault for not being hospitable, is it the seed’s fault for falling in the wrong place, or is it the sower’s fault for not tending the garden properly?

This time around, I’d like to change the focus. After all, the garden we’re talking about wasn’t built for our benefit, was it? We have an important role to play, and we need to feel inspired and fulfilled. School reform, improvement, and change depend on the work we do, every day. But those things aren’t important because of their effects on us. Schools exist so that our students can learn and grow. The garden was built for them—and in some sense, every grade we teach is a “kindergarten.”

Whose Garden Is It?

So here we are, back at our parable: this time, the students are the seeds. Some seeds fall on rocks, some fall in the weeds, and some fall on fertile soil. We love to say in our mission statements that “all students can learn,” but we know, sadly, that not all students do learn. Not with equal success, at any rate. Some students never really “click” in school; some students start strong, but see their progress choked and strangled along the way; some students thrive. Perhaps our parable can help us see some of the challenges in a different light.

Let’s start at the top. Not all of the seeds land in fertile soil. Whose responsibility is it to make sure that doesn’t happen? Is it all right for a teacher to say, “Look, I taught the lesson; if they didn’t learn it, that’s their fault”? People do say such things, especially at the college level, as this open letter to college freshmen demonstrates. And there are plenty of high school teachers who feel the same way. Maybe there are even some elementary and middle school teachers who would agree. We do our best. We bring our A-Game. We give them the good stuff. If they don’t care, or they’re too distracted, or they simply don’t have the good manners to sit still and behave, well…that’s their fault, or their parents’ fault, but it’s not ours.

It’s an easy thing to say, and it probably feels good to say it. But is it fair? Blaming the students strikes me as being unrealistic, at the very least—especially in high-poverty schools where we know many students are coming in without having had a decent meal to start the day or a quiet place to do their homework. There are students stranded on the rocks or lost in the weeds long before we meet them to begin our work. To blame them for the life circumstances they didn’t choose is more than a little bit unfair. We have to do the best we can, with each of them, regardless of where they have fallen.

This isn’t just pretty poetry. There are real weeds growing out there, choking the life out of the seeds we try to plant. Deprivation and stress have actual, physical, neurological effects on the development of young brains. They’re not irrevocable effects, but while they’re working on the brains of young people, they can be profound. To what extent can students living with those kinds of stressors be asked to “take ownership of their learning”?

We may not be able to remove the stressors from their lives, but we have to do what we can to mitigate the effects. Eric Jensen speaks extensively of this in his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, providing an array of strategies to help develop and strengthen things like executive functioning and short-term memory.

What about students who have enough to eat at home, but eat a ton of sugary garbage? Maybe these students act out or pass out in our classroom? Should they be expected to own their behavior? If not, who is responsible? What about students who live in homes of economic advantage, but who suffer from anorexia, or bulimia, or bullying, or simply some level of social awkwardness? What about the affluent student I once had, who lived at home with a maid while both of his parents traveled for work? Any of those things can get in the way of learning—and at a certain point in life, you do have to take ownership of the challenges you face, even if other people have been the causes of those challenges. But where is that dividing line—that point after which it’s no longer other people’s responsibility to “fix” you, if that’s even possible?

As the letter from the college professor seems to hint, that line is getting pushed deeper and deeper into young adulthood. Should we expect middle school students, regardless of their background, to understand what healthy eating and sleeping habits are, and start developing them? What about high school students? What if we explicitly teach those habits? Are students responsible for adopting them then? What aspects of their lives should we expect them to own, and by what point? If the parents, the teachers, and the students themselves all come to the school building with different expectations, it’s going to be a pretty chaotic garden.

Designing the Garden for Growth

It’s more important than ever to ensure that the “soil” we provide is as healthy as it can be. If we can’t predict or control where our students come from, we have to pay extra attention to one thing our students share: the culture and the environment of the school. We have to make sure that every aspect of the school supports and communicates a culture where every kids feels known as an individual, liked for who he is, and valued as a learner—a culture where learning is paramount and where questions are more than simply tolerated. Those things have to be real and present, from the moment a student walks in the door of the building to the moment he sits in his seat in a classroom.

Environment can have a powerful effect on people. Human beings respond and react instinctively and reflexively to their physical surroundings. I remember visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona, and being amazed at the strong, visceral feelings his architecture evoked as I moved from room to room. He knew exactly how he wanted me to feel in each room, and in the transition from room to room—and everything about the structure and the furnishings was designed to create those feelings in me.

How carefully and thoughtfully do we design our classroom environments? A classroom can focus children’s attention on things that support instruction, or it can fragment and shatter their attention with too many dazzling, pretty things that are fun to look at, but can sometimes be overwhelming and headache-inducing. The walls of the room should do more than entertain and please; they should teach.

And what about the larger geography of the room? What does the layout of the classroom communicate to students? Does it tell them that learning is a formal and isolated experience, that their relationship with the teacher is meant to be one of quiet attention and obedience (they sit here, looking at you; you stand there, talking to them), and that they are meant to have no relationship at all with their peers (eyes on their own papers; no passing notes, etc.)? The room can tell them all of that, without the teacher having to say a word. Which is fine, if the main thing the teacher is after is obedience. Rooms designed like that are why students are shocked to see teachers out in the world, and aren’t quite sure how to interact with them; it’s a sign that the formal, me-here-you-there dynamic has never been altered for them.

If we want, at least some of the time, an environment that can support collaboration and exploration, discussion and reflection, the traditional rows of seats facing the teacher’s desk are probably not helping us. Can we change them? Shift them around to create different dynamics and a different energy in the classroom? I’m not saying one arrangement is 100% better than the other; teachers who arrange desks in conversational groups can get stuck in a rut, too, forgetting that one arrangement won’t serve all of their needs, all the time.

And let’s not forget that subtle changes in the outside environment can trigger changes in behavior and attitude, as well. I might feel happier in the bright, cheerful art room than I feel in the dark and dreary science lab, just because of the surroundings—and forever after, I’ll think positively about art and negatively about science. Or, conversely, I might perform much better in a calm, dimly lit room than in a room with bright, fluorescent lights. I might do poorly on a particular math test, just because it was raining that day. Or I might do better on the math test because of the rain—because usually, I get distracted by the birds in the trees and the kids playing out in the playground.

Yes, it’s complicated. One size, one approach can’t fit every student perfectly. It can’t even fit one student perfectly, day after day. Yesterday’s “best fit” for Student X may be all wrong today, for reasons we barely understand.

Children Are Not Begonias

This is where our garden metaphor falls apart. If you’re planting begonias, you figure out what begonias need and you give it to them; end of story. But children are surprising little shape-shifters; what they need is a constantly moving target…as we learn from a pleasant, little ditty from the musical, The Fantasticks.

This doesn’t mean teachers should have to prepare 30 different lesson plans for 30 different students and shuffle them, day after day. But it does mean that we should always have a few different ways of modeling, demonstrating, and explaining things to our students, and a few different ways for students to show us that they have learned. It does mean that we should be okay with the fact that some students “get” a new concept right away, while other students need to reflect and percolate a little bit before the light bulb clicks on. It means we have to be flexible and adaptable, willing to bend and shift—improvise, as I said a few months ago.

It’s a challenging garden we tend, and the plants that grow from the seeds we plant can be surprising and unpredictable. You think you’ve planted, fed, and tended your garden this year just like you did it last year, but you get completely different results, without ever quite knowing why. It’s what makes this particular gardening job so challenging . . . and so wonderful.


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