I remember, as a child, cartoon-esque drawings of characters or people having A-Ha moments: A lightbulb appeared over someone’s head as they worked or did something. The simplicity of the pictures always amazed me. The idea of a light being turned on when neurons fire and bridge mental connections is a great metaphor. While it very much simplifies the process, the concept and idea behind what is going on in the brain is conveyed to the viewer. A-Ha moments are actually very complex, neurological happenings that involve many different chemical reactions. Genuine learning comes about through these type of grand realizations as connections are being made in one’s brain. It’s almost like the idea of working through one’s frustration. Perseverance and resiliency are two great concepts that, for me, lead to these A-Ha moments. While for some people, new ideas or answers to problems seem to make sense and happen seamlessly, without much thought or struggling, some people need much processing time and practice to come to a conclusion or answer. I am one of those people. I need to really ponder something before I’m able to figure it out. Usually, after much time playing or wrestling with the question or new concept, a solution or realization seems to just sort of pop into my mind. Those are great experiences. An easy way to see this process happen is by looking at one’s facial expressions. The person might start out with a frown or upset face that slowly or quickly changes to a smile as the A-Ha moment occurs. Learning makes people smile. How great is that?
As a teacher, I love witnessing these A-Ha moments happen for my students. After much time spent working with them or watching them struggle and attempt to solve a problem, it is quite rewarding and fulfilling to see them understand what they’ve been working towards. It’s like finding that missing puzzle piece after minutes of searching for it. I see it most frequently happen for our ELL students when learning new, to them, concepts in English. Although they seem confused at first and can’t wrap their heads around what is expected of them or the concept being covered, after asking questions and processing the information, they just get it. Those are fun moments. “I get it now!” they usually exclaim with a smile on their face. Persevering through challenging times is not an easy skill to teach. It takes lots of practice and reminders. Rather than jumping in and telling students how to solve problems, I find it much more beneficial to let them struggle through it and ask them probing questions to inspire neurological connections to be made when assistance is required. For many students, this is all it takes for them to figure things out.
To help prepare our students for the increased level of critical thinking that will be required of them as well as the larger work load they will face next year, we have been working on challenging our students to rise above where they are, mentally, to be better able to solve problems on their own by utilizing the Habits of Learning practiced in the classroom all year. During the past month, we have been asking students to challenge themselves to do more than just complete an assignment. At this point in the year, many of the boys are capable of exceeding the requirements and graded objectives. Rather than just write about their reading, we expect that most of our students will be able to analyze what they read and make inferences using examples from the text. While we have been using this type of language with them for weeks now, a few of the boys are still struggling to realize why we are asking them to step up and challenge themselves. They usually get frustrated and start over instead of adding to or altering the nucleus of their work. While that is certainly one way to approach what we’re asking of them, it is generally not the most productive way to go about challenging themselves.
Today in Humanities class, the students worked on crafting an original poem utilizing the poetic device of personification. While a few of the students got right to work and crafted brilliant stanzas filled with metaphors and alliteration, a few of the students struggled to begin their poem or choose an object. One student had his idea right away and wrote his first two lines with ease. He was so excited about his work that he shared his poem with me. While he was on the precipice of critical thinking, he was using vague words and simplistic lines to craft his poem. So, I said, “I see what you are trying to do, but I challenge you to use more specific and carefully chosen words in a more complex manner. I challenge you to create lines of poetry that don’t begin in the exact same manner. I challenge you to think more critically about your object as you write your poem.” While I could easily tell that he was a bit deflated after hearing my feedback, he didn’t give up. He began erasing his lines as I conferenced with another student. My co-teacher then approached him in the act of erasing and asked him what he was doing. His response, “Mr. Holt is challenging me to think more critically about my object. So, I’m going to start over and see if I can use more specific words to describe light in a personified way.” I stopped working with the other student with whom I was conferencing and stood up for a brief moment when I heard him utter those words. I almost began to weep. Wow, I thought, he gets it. He totally understood what I asked him to do. He was challenging himself to grow and develop as a student and critical thinker. Amazing! So all of these weeks of reminding the students to put forth more effort into thinking critically and creatively about problems and the world around them totally paid off. They now realize why we have been doing what we’ve been doing in the classroom as their teachers. They too want to grow and learn more. They want to be better able to solve problems and think about new topics or concepts. I was blown away.
While it can be very easy to get caught up in the routine of teaching and not see the bright lighthouses littering the coasts of our classroom, they are there. Our students are listening and growing and applying the skills we’ve been teaching them all year. They are not solid bricks but moldable pieces of clay. It can be frustrating at times when they come across as chunks of solid granite when in fact they are very soft shale sitting at the bottom of the pond that is our classroom waiting for knowledge to build up and push them closer to Earth’s mantle where they can metamorphize into slate or what we might see as able-bodied seventh graders. It’s great to be able to take opportunities like this to reflect on the great work we and our students have done all year and celebrate it. All is not for nothing. They are learning and growing and changing. Mission accomplished, for now, but our work as their teachers is far from done.