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Commentary: As we teach, we have to learn

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2011 - Once I taught a third-grade student who chronically disrupted class. Bright and moody, this boy could turn from chatty to aggressive in a split second. If he sensed a provocation -- an eye roll, a mean mugging from a classmate -- he exploded.

When this happened, most of his teachers, including me, would split him off from the group. We sent him to a chair by the classroom door, or outside the door in the hallway. We sent him to the office for an "In-School Suspension." I think we supposed that banishment was the best practice when faced with classroom disruption. After all, a teacher can't let one student wreck the environment for the whole class, right?

Here's the thing about knowing a thing or two about teaching and learning processes: You become far less certain about what constitutes this big gassy concept known as "best practices." Any teacher can control how and what she teaches. What cannot be controlled is how and what students will learn. Or when learning, once underway, will snap into place.

The best chance of any teacher developing a set of best practices is to develop that teacher's ever-adapting personal stance around students -- a stance that includes an understanding of the social and cultural identity of each of her students and a deep awareness of what is going on as people learn. Here are four very basic things to remember about learning.

Connecting: People who are learning make connections between what they already know and what they are trying to know. If you are learning something on your own, you will learn by trial and error, connecting the memory of what happened from trial to trial, building your knowledge out of your experience.

Active: People who are learning are doing something, either with their minds or their bodies. They are not empty vessels awaiting the transmission of knowledge or content. Teaching cannot be imagined as pouring facts and ideas into students' heads, like filling up a tank with gas so an engine can run.

Social: Learning happens in the context of others. How people feel about the people they are learning with (and around) has a great deal to do with what kind of learning takes place. People will learn when they are functioning in the gap between what they already know (or can do) on their own and what they can know/do with the help and guidance of a more knowledgeable person. (We have known this for nearly a century, thanks to a Russian researcher called Vygotsky.)

Transformative: Learning is a process that changes us from being one kind of person into another kind of person. A person who can now spell "because." A person who can calculate the area under the sine curve. A person who can change the tire of a car. Every little or big thing we learn changes us.

Back to my volatile third grader, who is having a particular fit on a particular day when we are having a writing lesson. I know I have to try something other than banishment. Banishment is a superficial and temporary fix. It does nothing at the root of the behavior, where learning happens. If anything, exile makes everything worse for all of us. So what's the opposite of banishment? I am trying to figure out (to learn!) the best way to teach this boy.

I command him to approach me. I take his hand, the one he does not write with. I pretend to open an imaginary glue stick, and in all seriousness of purpose I pretend to glue to our palms together -- his right to my left. "Now we are stuck together," I say, calling him by name. "Calm yourself down, sit here and write."

In moments, my student's expression changes from scowling anger, to surprise, to delight. As he writes, I sit as if nothing special were happening. I have no idea whether what I am doing is right or wrong, a best practice or a worst practice. I only know that it feels right, that the whole class feels calmer, less afraid, more like a community of people with a shared purpose. Our purpose? To make school a place for learning.

Imagine that.

Inda Schaenen is a writer and teacher in St. Louis. 

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