We Need to Treat Education More Like a Garden

On top of teaching full time and raising two curious, active kids (with another joining us in August!), my husband and I also raise chickens and bees and have a pretty substantial garden. Each year, we add more fruit trees, more blueberry bushes, and expand our vegetable section, and every year, I question if we have the energy or sanity left to keep up with it all. But somehow, every year, it gets better and easier to manage — maybe despite or perhaps because of its size. We know that if we’re going to make it bigger and better for our family, we have to find new and better ways of managing growth, weeds, watering, and harvesting the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor.

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In so many ways, managing this garden is like managing a classroom.

You can’t force a plant to grow in conditions that aren’t suitable for that plant.

I have always loved the quote by Alexander den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”  It seems obvious in relation to teaching, and yet every time I read it, it carries new weight for me, both as a teacher and as a parent.

I recently read an article on NPR about a new book by psychology and philosophy professor Alison Gopnik titled The Gardener and the Carpenter. I’ve not yet read the book, but it’s in my Amazon cart because of this description from Sasha Ingber’s NPR article:

“The “carpenter” thinks that his or her child can be molded. “The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult,” she says.

The “gardener,” on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore. The style is all about “creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem.

When I think about those concepts as a teacher, I realize how much I want to be a gardener in my classroom. I think that helping kids find their purpose is the most important thing we can do in schools. Purpose is about finding your place in the world and living your passion, and I can’t give that to a child. What I can do is provide opportunities for kids to find that for themselves in a classroom that supports ALL learners, whatever their current talents and interests.

One of my students, at the end of the year, shared with me that the best thing I did for her and her classmates this year was to give them the space and responsibility to “figure it out.” She said that at some point, there would be a time I wouldn’t be there to answer a question or tell her what to do, and she felt confident now that she had the skills to make good decisions and find the answers she’d need. All I did was provide the soil, water, and sun. She did the growing herself. What more could I want for my students?

You can’t rush (and you shouldn’t want to):

Last night was our first night of a summer that will be filled with picking blueberries, and the thought crossed my mind that it would be so much easier if all the blueberries ripened at the same time. There would be no hunting for the bluest ones through the leaves, I could grab whole bunches at a time, and while it would take more time at once, ultimately, I’d spend fewer hours picking in the heat.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

As educators, we often have this same thought, both as administrators and teachers. It would be easy if everyone “got it” at the same time and in the same context, but it’s not the way it works, and quite honestly, we shouldn’t want it to work that way.

I’m a firm believer that everyone hears a message at the time they need to hear it — or in some cases, when the world needs them to hear it. We don’t know how a stream of thinking will trigger new ideas in another person, and so it’s not only natural for people to learn in different ways, it’s also necessary if we want new, powerful ideas to keep pushing our world forward.

My blueberries get different amounts of water and sun simply because of their circumstance and when each one was pollinated by our bees, but each one will be delicious in its own time, and I’ll be glad to still have fresh blueberries at the beginning of August so that my kids and I can make delicious recipes all summer long. The beauty is not in the ease of the task; the beauty is in the process toward the ultimate outcome.

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If you hover, you block the sunlight.

William Ferriter wrote a really meaningful post recently about helicopter teaching, and how it “strips agency away from the kids in our care, and that’s NOT a good thing.” I am inclined to agree. No, I’m not suggesting we remove all structure and oversight, but I am suggesting that we let kids choose their paths to proficiency and excellence because if we don’t, they won’t know how to acquire new skills when their formal education ends. We might, in fact, be stifling their growth.

In short, channel your inner Elsa and let it go.

I don’t know a single adult who believes they stopped learning when they left school, but I do know a lot of adults who feel like they didn’t learn how to learn while they were in school, and to me, that’s not a problem with those adults; instead, it’s a problem with prescriptive education that assumes all kids can learn in the same way at the same time with the same methods.

If we’re standing over our kids telling them how to do every. single. thing, they can’t stretch to the sun and grow greater than we imagine for them. We need to guide them but also know when to walk away and let them shine. In that same respect, I don’t plant my garden in full shade or full sun. It needs a good amount of both to flourish.

You have to try new things to find better things.

The first year we lived in Illinois and planted our garden, it was a total disaster. We couldn’t keep up with the weeds, everything was totally overgrown, the Japanese beetles took over, and we eventually let the chickens pick through the whole thing.

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This is my oldest with her hens the year the garden went to the chickens.

The next year, we had a choice: We could give up and miss out on the incredible harvest we’d been accustomed to in Texas, we could do it the same way and hope for a better outcome (which is just crazy), or we could try something new knowing we couldn’t be any worse off than we had been the year before. So each year, we’ve taken away something that didn’t work and replaced it with something new that we’ve read online or watched on YouTube. Two weeks ago, my husband looked at our garden and then at me and said, “Did we finally figure this out?” Three years after our initial attempt, we feel confident we’ve found some tried and true tricks, but we also know we’re never done improving, and as climate and pests change over time, we’ll have to keep evolving in our practice, too.

Education is no different. If you always do it the way you’ve always done it, you’re not ensuring success, even if those practices have garnered success for your students in the past. Kids change. Times change. Cultures change. We have to adapt with all of it if we want kids to have long-term success, which is to say that they become lifelong lovers of learning and creating rather than passive consumers of information they don’t quite know how to use for themselves.

Education can’t be a K-12 endeavor where we attempt to manufacture a product to send it out into the world, hoping it won’t malfunction. In that scenario, we’re asking for problems down the line. Instead we’ve got to plant seeds and then help them grow, providing water when it doesn’t rain, and helping the stems stabilize until they can withstand the wind and grow stronger on their own. Eventually, a healthy plant makes its own seeds and grows a harvest more plentiful than one could ever hope to produce.

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Empowered learners: What a student’s project taught me about education

I co-teach a new, interdisciplinary English III/US history course with my colleague Chris. When we designed this class, we knew our kids needed more than what they were getting to prepare them for a world where critical thinking, problem-solving, computational skills, collaboration, creativity, character, and citizenship are valued far greater than fact knowledge and regurgitation. We knew that research proved that teaching our subject-area content and skills cohesively would be more effective than teaching independently. We knew it would be challenging to create a course that personalizes project-based learning, but we also knew it would be rewarding, and let me tell you: It’s been way more of both challenge and reward than we could have ever imagined. We also knew that we had absolutely no idea where to begin.

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Image from Empower by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani (pg. 7).

But it’s amazing what happens when we give kids a voice in their learning. The longer I work with design thinking and PBL, the more I realize that true, meaningful learning doesn’t really happen without giving kids the main voice in it, and their voices — all 60 of them in one room — have been the driving force behind almost every decision we’ve made this year. And for as much as our kids have grown and thrived this year, I have loved becoming a learner again alongside them. They’re teaching me incredible new skills and content through their projects, but their voices and questions and ideas are teaching me even more about myself, both as a person and an educator.

Our very first personalized PBL unit of the year was American History through Education. The kids thought about problems they saw in education and then created essential and supporting questions that they thought might help them arrive at solutions for the individual issue about which they each felt most passionate. They had one-on-one conferences with Chris or I to help them talk through those thoughts and questions. Once they researched and felt they understood that problem deeply and had thought critically about potential solutions, they created a project proposal that investigated the history of the problem, the type of writing/speaking they felt would best help them share their message (informative, persuasive, or narrative), the medium they thought would best help them deliver this message, and an authentic audience with which they should share this message upon completion. After that conference, they were free to start creating their individual projects.

The following video is one of the projects created through that very first unit. Watch what Emily, a junior in our course, developed to encourage educators to allow student voice and develop personalized learning experiences in schools.

For me, this video is both something I celebrate and something that hurts. I celebrate it because I am proud of the way Emily used the design thinking process to develop the concept and product from start to finish. I am proud of how she integrated research and interviews to develop such a strong message in this project. I am proud that she took a challenge posed and conquered it to share an important message with members of ICE and FutureReady as her chosen authentic audience. But it hurts because the faces and voices on that video are my kids. In my classes. And they aren’t the exception to the rule in our schools. If our kids don’t see value in what we’re doing, and if we can’t offer them the pace and challenges suitable for them, we’re going to have a tough time engaging them in learning and empowering them to take the driver’s seat.

Their thoughts weren’t rehearsed or coerced. Emily simply asked them the question, and their responses flowed so easily and naturally. How often are we doing what Emily did, which is asking our students exactly what they need? When we do, how often are we providing for those requests?

And more concerning to me: Why are they waiting to be asked? Why don’t they feel comfortable telling us without being prompted? Are we teaching kids how to advocate for themselves? To see learning as not only their responsibility, but more importantly, also a passion worth fighting for? Why aren’t they telling us — their teachers — what they need from us? Why haven’t we created spaces where that is the norm?

These are questions with which I’ve been grappling all year, and I can see that our course is giving kids those opportunities to discover and explore passions. But it is one course, and it’s not the only course I teach. I have so much more to learn. I have so much more that I want to improve. I’m so glad the experts — my students — are helping me along the way, using their voices to change the narrative of their educations.

Today I gave my students permission to walk out of my class #IMMOOC

This week I attended and presented at #ICE18. It was an incredible conference as usual, filled with lots of passionate educators sharing their ideas and building networks of support. One of the best things about being an adult at a conference (or at an EdCamp) is that if what you walk into isn’t what you thought it would be, you have the freedom to get up and find something that suits your interests, passions, or needs better. No one batted an eye when participants showed up late or left early. In fact, those actions are not only welcomed but are actually encouraged if it means growth is happening. I was thankful that as a student in those sessions, I had the ability to decide for myself.

Then last night as I listened to George Couros, Katie Martin, and AJ Juliani talk about innovation and compliance in schools during season 4, episode 1 of the #IMMOOC, I had an epiphany. How many of my students would walk out of my room if they weren’t worried about the repercussions of doing so? What would it tell me as a teacher, and how could it help me change my practice if that were an option for them?

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So today, I shared that reflection with one of my classes, and I gave them the permission to leave my room if they needed me to change. Here are the parameters:

  • They have to physically walk out of the room. For one, sometimes kids look disengaged when they aren’t, and other times they look interested when that couldn’t be further from the truth; the visual of their leaving the room leaves nothing to be assumed. On top of that, no one has to raise his/her hand and say, “This is boring, Mrs. K.” Yes, I want to teach my kids to ask politely and appropriately for what they need, but I also think it might be a better approach to allow them to challenge my practice silently at first so that when they return, I can be the one to start that dialogue and help them frame a response.
  • They have to come right back. This is where the conversation between George and AJ comes in. Last night, George mentioned to AJ that there is certainly a place in education and the world for compliance. He said something to the effect of, “You can’t submit your taxes to the IRS on Google Slides if you feel like it.” Likewise, kids can’t just leave school. I want to help facilitate their learning, and at the end of the day, all kids want to learn. Both entities want the same thing, and walking away wouldn’t be the best way to accomplish that.
  • They have to tell me what I’m doing wrong and contribute ideas to make the activity better because that conversation is the key to a solution. We’ll redesign in the moment together so that the kids have a say in their learning, and hopefully, that empowerment will be a motivating factor for them as well as a great opportunity for me to improve for them.

 

 

For me, this is an innovation. I’ve asked for feedback before, but this is new because I’ve gotten that previous feedback when I ask for it. Instead, this change allows the kids to give me feedback at any time, which is far better because I’ll actually get that feedback when they need the change; however, there are also parameters with which they have to comply because life is filled with situations where compliance is necessary. They’re not allowed to come and go from school as they please (yet), so I’m trying to innovate inside the box (and still push it out a little bit).