"Engagement is the glue."
My almost 9-month old hasn’t started crawling. My husband and I are trying a variety of techniques to encourage him, including modeling how to crawl, enticing him with Cheerios, helping position his body with his legs underneath him, and moving his arms and legs so that he feels what we’re trying to get him to do. None of these things has worked (yet). I shouldn’t be shocked by any of this. My years in the classroom have taught me that kids do things as they’re ready. When they have the requisite skills and the intrinsic motivation, they’re capable of figuring out a lot, which is one reason I believe authentic learning is crucial. So, he hasn’t yet figured out this skill, but he keeps trying, and we keep trying to encourage him to stick with it. But it’s hard because he usually starts to cry at a certain point, and I have an internal wrestling with whether to make it easier for him or whether to encourage him to try and push through his frustration and keep going. Figuring out which side to land on is never easy; I have to read his cries closely, pay attention to when he stops reaching out with as much vigor, and guard my own reaction so I don’t inadvertently and subconsciously communicate to him that I don’t think he’s going to do it this time. Parenting is hard (cue every parent anywhere nodding in agreement).
Something that regularly feels tricky as a working mom (complete with Working Mom Guilt) is traveling away from my son. So I was glad when, on my last trip, I heard Cornelius Minor speak. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now (if you’re on Twitter, I HIGHLY encourage you to follow @MisterMinor), and it was delightful to get to meet him. Kris had heard him speak before, and she wasn’t wrong about his charismatic, engaging energy and way with words. He said something that’s really resonating with me. (Some context: He was talking about ambitious teaching and how no one can attain mastery in 50 minutes.) “The thing that actually teaches you is your practice. Engagement is the glue that keeps students stuck to the practice. My job is not to teach toward mastery. My job is to [provide] the glue [engagement] to get them to stick to practice.”* I think this is brilliant in many ways, and I’m going to focus on two of them. 1) Practice really is the thing that teaches us. In traditional subjects, doing the lab, repeating the process of implementing the quadratic equation, reading book after book, analyzing one event and then another, actually speaking a foreign language, trying to make the basket, all of these improve when we stick with them. That’s where the learning happens (often because those are moments where we make mistakes). So many students I’ve worked with identify that they need to do something before they really get better at it, and I think that’s just generally true of people. You learn to tie your shoes by tying, you have a learner’s permit so you can practice driving with a level of support, you figure out how to bake a cake by reading instructions and then baking a cake (or many cakes-I know which I would choose). Practice informs your next attempt; it makes you more adept at doing what you need to do. “Work time” in classes can be difficult (from a management perspective and from a student productivity standpoint), but I also think it’s necessary. Kids need time to practice, blunder through things, and have an expert help them problem solve.
2) Cornelius defines the job of the teacher as keeping students engaged in their practice. I really appreciate this. Many teachers can speak to the importance of building relationships with their students because, even when the work is hard, your students will keep at it if they trust you, and you’re able to encourage them. I think building relationships between all members of a classroom is essential; it’s the foundation on which everything sits. But I’d argue that without engaging, authentic learning experiences, and thereby without practice, there won’t be a lot to sit on top of that foundation. So not only does the teacher need to build a relationship, but also she/he/they need to scaffold the kinds of opportunities that students find relevant and important. They need to figure out what the glue is so that students are not only willing, but also excited to go back to incredibly difficult tasks for 180 days. Parents are their child’s first teachers, and I’m on day 272. I need to encourage my son, I need to give him real work that he’s ready for, and I need to provide opportunities to get him to stretch and take his next step (figuratively for now; literally in a few months). I need to nurture, or provide, the glue that helps my son keep practicing. And so I’ll wait, more or less patiently, while he tries over and over and over and looks to me for what he needs. I hope you’ll do that, too, come September. *Kris and I compared our notes from Minor’s talk, and we’re both fallible (who isn’t?). I used bracketed words as my own insertion to help the reader. Photos courtesy of Sara Bailey.