The Intricate Puzzle of Teaching and Learning

You stare at a table covered with hundreds of colorful and tiny puzzle pieces.  While you have almost finished putting together the outside border, you’re still missing a few pieces.  You look and look for what seems like an eternity, to no avail.  The pieces you are searching for seem to look like every other piece.  Your vision is blurred looking at all those small, intricate pieces.  Frustration grows within you like magma slowly bubbling up within a volcanic tube.  You want to complete the border before moving onto your next task, but you just can’t seem to find the pieces you are looking for.  A small part of you wants to wipe the puzzle pieces off of the table and walk away, but giving up or walking away are not things you do.  So, you persevere.  You imagine the scattered puzzle pieces are like pebbles in a river bed.  You know that specks of gold must be mixed in with the quartz and granite.  You carefully scan each piece again, but this time, you are more focused.  You’re on a mission.  You have a clear goal in sight.  Suddenly, as your laser focus peers downward at the puzzle pieces, you find one of the pieces you are looking for.  Then another, and another, until you have found just what you are looking for.  After hours of concentration and madness, satisfaction washes over you like snow blanketing an evergreen tree in the forest.  You did it.  After failing for so long, you met your goal.  You put your mind to the task at hand and got it done.  You feel amazing, powerful, and so proud of yourself.  You realize now that you really can do anything you set you mind to, and that feels really awesome.

Like the puzzle builder, my fifth grade students and I had similar experiences in the classroom this week.  Prior to our Thanksgiving Break, my students conducted their student-led conferences with their parents.  They talked all about their growth as fifth graders.  They shared their hardships and highlights, and even explored their goals for the coming weeks.  These conferences were amazing.  My students clearly know themselves as learners, thinkers, and problem solvers.  Then, we had a week of vacation, filled with many days during which the students probably were not thinking about their math goals or progress in the classroom.  Will they remember what they talked about in their conferences when they return to school, I wondered.

To set them up for success, I had my students revisit their goals upon returning to school from the Thanksgiving holiday, much like the puzzle builder begins by putting together the border of the puzzle first.  I wanted my students to begin the week on a solid foundation.  While the first few days back proved challenging for all of us, as we struggled to fall back into a routine, we persevered and kept at it.  A few students struggled to use compassion when reminding their peers of the rules of our classroom.  Others were feeling a bit under the weather.  Some were under much stress as they prepared to star in big, dramatic productions this weekend.  When I noticed that my students were faced with adversity, I addressed it then and there.  During our Morning Meeting, we talked about how to handle stress using deep breathing, guided meditation, and much more.  We also discussed how to talk to peers in effective and kind ways.  I helped them over their hurdles that seemed to be blocking them from working towards their goals.  I helped them refocus and see the puzzle pieces in front of them.  By the end of the week, every student had finished their metaphorical border by working towards their goals.  Many of the students even met some of their long-term goals.  It was quite amazing.  Despite the struggles they faced earlier in the week, they kept their eyes on the prize and applied the strategies they had mentioned in their student-led conferences over a week ago.  They had made much progress in such a short time.  Amazing!

Like those die-hard puzzle makers with the patience of watchmakers, my students and I persevered through our challenges to accomplish our goals this week.  Although I was worried that my students would forget all of the wonderful things they had said during their student-led conferences about what they needed to do to continue to grow and develop as fifth graders, my students reminded me that they are exceptional girls and boys capable of greatness.  A few students who struggled to stay focused during math class prior to the holiday break, put forth amazing effort to stay on task and finish their work in a timely fashion this week.  Two students who love to help remind their peers of our class norms but struggled to do so in appropriate and nice ways at the beginning of the week, showed great growth and were able to be kind classmates by the close of the week.  A few students who had difficulty staying focus and on task back in mid-November, worked with a renewed sense of focus and concentration this week.  All of my students showed great progress and growth in the fifth grade throughout the week.

But how?  How did all of these amazing things happen?  We were not in school for a whole week, and therefore, they were most likely not thinking about the goals they mentioned during their conferences.  How were they able to all return from break and apply the strategies and meet the goals they mentioned to their families during their student-led conferences?  Was it that I had them review their goals on their ePortfolio at the start of the week?  Did this help set them up for success?  Was it their natural perseverance that helped them be so successful this week?  Or was it the student-led conferences themselves?  Because they know themselves as learners and students so well, was that what enabled them to have such a transformative week in the fifth grade?  Is ownership and self-responsibility the cause of the amazing things that happened in the fifth grade this week?  Students who have been unable to solve problems on their own all year, were doing so this week.  Students who struggled to finish pages in their math workbooks prior to Thanksgiving were solving complex math equations in science to calculate the speed of a marble this week.  What’s that all about?

While I’m no psychologist or fancy scientist, my Spidey teaching instincts tell me that my fifth graders had such a phenomenal week in the classroom because they do know themselves as learners so well and are intrinsically motivated to meet their goals.  They want to improve and grow.  They want to have more focus.  They want to improve upon their grades.  They want to do better, and so they did this week.  While I was unsure of how things were going at the mid-point of this week, I kept reframing my thinking and found new ways to help better support my students and propel them forward.  I was like the puzzle builder, frustrated at points, but then worked through my struggles to accomplish my goal.  And it was so worth it to see my students ace their spelling test, generate creative cultural myths, and finish chapters in their math book this week.  Wow, is just about all I could say as I walked out of my brilliant little school on Friday afternoon.  The pieces of our complex classroom puzzle all came together this week.  Reason 2,175 why I love being a teacher.

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