Three years ago my husband came home one day and said, “We should raise chickens.” It was a random comment that somehow picked up steam in the weeks that followed, and a month and a half later, we had built a coop and our toddler was picking out baby chicks to take home.
Neither my husband nor I had any experiences raising chickens. He grew up in Milwaukee, and though I grew up in cornfields, my grandfather had given up cows, pigs, and chickens before I joined the world. On top of that, we lived in a newly developed neighborhood in suburban San Antonio — not exactly rural living.
There were lots of reasons we shouldn’t have taken on our hens: we had never done it before, we knew nothing about their needs, we had a small backyard, and our homeowner’s association strictly forbade farm animals. Nevertheless, we spoke with our neighbors (who agreed to keep mum if they could have fresh eggs), found plans for a coop, read blogs and watched videos, and suddenly became the neighborhood experts on raising healthy egg-layers. And we loved it.
When people found out that we raised chickens, I can’t tell you how many times they said, “You don’t look like a chicken person.” At first (and strangely), I took this as a compliment. Their faces and tone seemed to say that growing chickens was a less than desirable way to spend one’s time. But after about the twentieth time of hearing that, I started thinking: What does it mean to “look like a chicken person?”
I began to wonder if that same thinking was happening in the minds of the children in my own classroom, but in a different context. Reading the first chapter of The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros only solidified my concern: What if I have created an environment where students feel they don’t fit the description of student? What if the ways they crave to learn are not the ways I am allowing them to learn?
On the first day of school this year, rather than go over policies, procedures, and the syllabus as I have in the past, I wrote a question on the board: What does it mean to educate? The class brainstormed ideas mostly consisting of the notion that education is centered around a person delivering the education. They talked a lot about teachers in school and learning from talking to their friends. After we created a list, the students had free reign to use any resources the school provided them in order to expand their understanding of what it means to educate; they could use Chromebooks, other students, teachers, administrators, custodians, librarians, books, etc.
Every student nearly jumped out of his/her seat when I said it was time to go investigate and interview their resources. When it was time to return to class and share their favorite definitions, they shared things like “to provide an opportunity for another person to learn,” “to broaden your worldview,” and “using tools to improve skills.” All of their favorites were centered around the student now instead of some supposedly all-knowing education deliverer. When they synthesized their favorites and wrote their group definition of education on the board, we all realized that being student shouldn’t look the way we’ve always allowed and encouraged it to look — a student, in a desk, hand raised, waiting to see if what they think is correct. Being a student, as it turn out, can look however each child wants/needs it to look, and in that way, no student should ever have to feel that they don’t fit the bill of student.
I am so grateful my husband followed his curiosity three years ago. We bought three hens in Texas, and then 25 chickens when we moved to Illinois. We went from one small coop to three coops and a huge free-range pasture. And now, we breed our own chickens. I never imagined our interest could take us this far, and I’m excited to know that we still have so much more to discover.
As it turns out, I guess we do look like chicken people. And for the rest of my life, my goal as an educator is not to uphold the age-old definition of student. Instead, I want my students to write themselves in as new and different entries to an old, old word.