Last week was quite amazing for me. I was able to EXPERIENCE some great events in my role as an educator. To be clear, this post is inspired by one of these experiences, a session called Now That’s A Good Question. Erik Francis, the presenter and author made his audience reflect on the differences between experiences and tasks. Then, we examined the classroom environment and questioning techniques used in schools. The key to success revolves around the questions we are asking our learners and the types of experiences we provide. The problem facing many classrooms is that we are providing tasks more often than not. This got me to thinking about my educational experiences. What can I remember about my own learning? If it was an experience, I will recall it. However, if it was a task, I likely memorized for the moment and moved on. Now for the fun part! I am going to reflect about my educational experiences as a learner and also as a teacher in a two-part blog post. DISCLAIMER: I remember the names of the teachers I had because they each impacted me in their own way, but I will not be using their names to respect their privacy.
Preschool: I don’t remember much besides the fact that it was near this really cool park. The park was made of tires of various sizes. You could climb all over the place. It seems appropriate that the experiences I remember from this age revolves around play. We encourage play to assist children to learn, and this mentality should continue as we age.
Kindergarten: I hope it wasn’t full of tasks, but I only remember (with detail) two things from kindergarten. The first was a fun experience and it taught most of us how to “act” and understand humor. A set of twins were in separate classes, and I was in a room that had one. The other class and their teacher decided to see if my teacher would notice if they swapped places. One morning the boys switched classes, and we had to keep a straight face! We called him by the wrong name and our teacher never noticed! When we revealed our trickery, I recall the teacher being embarrassed for not noticing the swap, but we all had a laugh. The second experience was one that taught me a greater lesson. Our teacher made sure we understood the impact of current events and the value of living in the country we do. I can recreate the image of us sitting on the rug with her talking to us about Desert Storm. War isn’t something kids can typically grasp. However, having a girl in your class whose father was fighting in that war sheds light on the seriousness. I experienced our talks about parents being far away. We were not faced with tasks, (writing this girl’s father, as he became our classroom pen pal). We experienced it.
1st Grade: The first thing I remember was definitely a task, but it was such a big deal that it became an experience. To clarify, experiences aren’t always positive as we all should understand. I will never forget a spelling word that my teacher provided for me. Tyrannosaurus Rex (yup, this teacher thought I needed a challenge) was a spelling word. I also remember stressing and studying the word relentlessly at home because I wanted to prove to the teacher that I could spell it. Back story for you, I didn’t like this teacher very much and the reason is another experience. This teacher told us a story at the beginning of the year about how she came to America on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims. I went home and told my parents that my teacher was a liar. I said she would be way too old and it was impossible! Obviously, this teacher was telling a joke and some kids may have believed her, others shrugged it off, but it became my obsession to prove she was telling us a fictional story. You know what is cool about that experience? I was learning the concept of time, history, math, and how to make an argument.
2nd Grade: This will happen a few times during my educational reflection. I do not remember much besides the fact that we had a student-teacher. She was pretty, and we all liked her more than the cooperating teacher. I know I learned in 2nd grade, but maybe I did not experience too much. Did the teachers fail me? I do not think so, as I always liked school. How could it have been better?
3rd Grade: Remember, experiences are not always positive. I recall one thing above all memories when I look back on my third grade experience. In fact, I think this is one of those memories that I always bring up when discussing the things you remember most from elementary school. This was when I learned about racism. The teacher most likely did not realize she was teaching this lesson, but I was well aware of her actions. A black boy in my class, a friend of mine, was singled out all the time. As background, he was the only black child in my class and was part of a school community that was 99% white. He was a bit of a troublemaker and would need extra help at times with concepts, but he was a great kid. I remember talking at recess with students trying to figure out why our teacher was always harder on this boy. I talked to him about it as well. I wondered if he was doing things bad that I didn’t know about. All he would say is that she didn’t care about him. I don’t think I realized what was really happening until the following year when this boy was required to repeat the 3rd grade in a different classroom. He is the only student I personally know who had to repeat a grade during my educational journey. I remember being angry about this, for I lost touch with my friend because we were now in separate grades, had different schedules, and he was forced to make new friends with his new grade level. I remember thinking about telling my parents that my friend failed because the teacher hated black kids. Now, I don’t know if repeating the grade would have happened if he had a different teacher or if it helped this boy with his academics. I do know that he owns his own business and that he became successful despite the adversity and hate he faced. This is the only thing I remember from 3rd grade. I think that says a lot.
4th Grade: I don’t remember any projects or in class experiences. I do remember the teacher and I consider her one of the individuals who helped shape my passion for learning. This was the first time I was encouraged to question things in class. Before this grade, if it was not about the topic, or possibly against the directions, it was suppressed. I recall my parents asking to talk to me about school, they said they got a phone call from my teacher. “Oh crap!” I was way off, this teacher wanted my parents to know that I had an inquisitive personality. At times I could be blunt and speak my mind, but she wanted to foster my questioning in class. I can’t thank that teacher enough for letting me know it was okay to go against the grain as long as I could defend my reasoning.
5th Grade: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” My 5th grade teacher was a sweet woman at the end of her career. She could have avoided potential controversy, but that wasn’t who she was. She understood that she needed to remain relevant with her learners. I remember listening to the verdict of OJ Simpson in class and discussing our thoughts and feelings about the case. Please remember that this was 5th grade and not a high school criminal justice elective. I know it is hard for teachers to interpret what is appropriate to discuss in their classroom, but as educators, it is our duty to teach the whole child.
6th Grade: Ugh! Middle school. Need I say more about what I experienced? I will keep it relatively positive with two distinct experiences. Let’s get the awful one out of the way, for even when adults may think they are being positive, a child can take in the worst possible manner. Was anyone a Presidential Physical Fitness Award Winner? I was athletic, and I qualified for a few events when I was younger. As I got older, some kids became the anointed athletes of the class, and I was always the surprisingly fast one. Luck of the draw, I hit puberty in phases and I was pretty big for a 6th grade boy. Regardless of my size, I was not thin. I will never forget approaching the pull-up bar in front of the class. I completed 5 pull-ups. It wasn’t the best (not even close), and plenty of kids completed 0. So, what’s the big deal about 5 pull-ups? The teacher applauded my task, and it turned into one of the worst experiences. “Wow! That was really impressive for a kid your size.” I never told anyone about how this impacted me, no one laughed, it wasn’t something that the teacher meant to be hurtful when I reflect. Yet, in that moment, I was a shell of myself and felt so exposed. It is amazingly tough to be an educator and get it right with every student you work with. Luckily, I also met the teacher who would inspire my love for mathematics and be a model for the type of teacher I would hope to be while in 6th grade. He was a young man, who had a way to command the room without being the one talking all of the time. At the time, it would certainly have been a complete shift in how teachers approach their classroom. The experiences in that classroom are what has allowed me to be a teacher and aspiring educational leader with perceived success in connecting with my learners and providing them worthwhile experiences.
7th Grade: I remember two things from 7th grade. The Stock Market Challenge in math was a lot of fun. We did that with a student-teacher who was a natural teacher. In fact, the cooperating teacher did not even do anything until January after he was gone. When she took over, my love for math shifted due to an approach that was anything but applicable to the real world. My other 7th grade experience is one I am not proud of. I was a bystander who knew that students were taking advantage of an older teacher, but I did not do anything about it. I saw kids work harder to avoid learning than it would have been to appreciate our studying of geography. Why an experience? Students competed in a contest to see who could walk around the classroom the most amount of times without being noticed or caught. It was dubbed the “_____ 500.” I never took a lap, but I experienced 13 year old kids taking advantage of a teacher who had bad eyesight and was a bit of a nutty professor. It impacted me enough to feel sincere sadness when I heard that he passed away a few years ago. He deserved a better classroom of learners to provide the knowledge that I know he wanted to share.
8th Grade: You would think as the memories become closer in distance, they would increase or involve something more “educational”. I will start with the ones I consider a true experience. I remember appreciating literature more than years before, for it was the first time I read The Diary of Anne Frank. It was also when I witnessed my Reading teacher cry during class as we discussed the novel. Some kids laughed after class about it as I now know they lacked empathy, but I was touched and realized how powerful it can be for a teacher to shed their layers and be themselves in front of their students. This teacher connected with us even more as the year went on. Unfortunately, her husband passed away unexpectedly during her time with us. Upon her return from her leave of absence, she was incredible and poured herself into our experiences. Scary event coming up. I will never forget sitting in my Algebra class when a student grabbed another student by the arm and repeatedly stabbed him with a pencil. This was also a few weeks after Columbine, so you can imagine that something like this could raise incredible alarm. We all froze, including our teacher when it happened and luckily the aggressor stopped before it got worse. It appeared to be unprovoked and the two were seemingly friends. Why did it happen? We would later find out that the student was unstable and faced a lot of issues at home. He had also experimented with drugs and alcohol. The victim told a joke and the student in question reacted the way he did. It was one of the first times that I realized kids had things going on at home or in their heads that no one knew about, things I would never experience or really be able to understand.
High School: I decided to discuss each year on their own for my early years. Now, I will encapsulate 4 years of what I consider to be a great high school experience. While, in 8th grade I made the decision to apply and attend a private high school. This choice led to experiences day in and day out as opposed to an overbearing amount of task oriented learning. I don’t want to drag this on or cut it short, so here is a just a few of the experiences I remember.
- I went on my first real date. (Fast forward: we are married, have 2 children, and are buying our forever home in November.)
- I found out that there is always someone smarter than you, faster than you, or stronger than you.
- I definitely learned that actions have consequences.
- I fell in love with a sport that changed my direction and focus in life.
- Instead of going to Italy and Spain for a school sponsored learning experience (because of one of those consequences), I was able to work with young children and disabled adults at St. John of God. This experience literally shifted my career path to education.
- I still remember about World and British Literature because we related the novels to Memento, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Northern Exposure, and Apocalypse Now.
- I got in my first and only fist fight. I am not proud of it because it also made me realize that I was the one who was wrong in the scenario.
- I remember sitting in AP Biology when an airplane crashed into a building in New York City. I recall every class being suspended and students gathering around televisions to learn that it was the World Trade Center that was collapsing before our eyes.
- I also remember how to gamble and why counting cards is incredibly difficult. Having a math teacher that teaches you probability and how to use a graphing calculator to project winnings at table games from the Atlantic City casinos is an experience most would remember.
- I remember an ugly experience that involved social media (the early days).
- I discovered that I had a lot to work on in regards to being a better sibling to my brother.
- I remember formulas, authors, a few quotes, how to write a paper in MLA and APA, and so much more.
College: I am not going to talk about my college experience that much as not everyone has one or needs to have one. College benefited me in many ways, graduate school even more. The truth is that college came with an equal amount of experiences and tasks. The great thing about being an education major is that you go into schools/classrooms and experience a glimpse of what your career could be like. I worked lunch duty, helped students after school, and dressed up for a Halloween parade. I also taught robot-like lessons where I was center stage so my professors could decide if I would make a good teacher. It was expected that I knew my content and could share that with students. I now hope to help in changing that mindset for future teachers.
Writing about my experiences has been an experience itself. I never thought to put it all in writing. Granted, this is not everything, but take a look at the stories I shared. How many have anything to do with curriculum? Not many, right? The ones that do, come from special teachers, teachers that I loved having. Teachers that understood that experiences are what create a learning environment that will foster memories that will stand the test of time. I challenge you to reflect on your experiences. It should be easy since you will not be able to remember the tasks. You will probably have a few special projects, painful moments, or you might not be able to remember that much at all.
The goal for educators is to provide as many experiences as possible at every grade level. When our students are grandparents talking to their family about their school days, they should have a list that is long and exciting. My list may not be that long, yet. For, I am still a learner and part of those experiences involve my teaching career. Part 2 of this post will include my honest reflection about the experiences and tasks that I gave my students. Understanding my strengths and weaknesses will only make me stronger.