A single canvas is laid in front of me, my life on display in the colors of my choice. One picture to be painted, unfolding in a multitude of inks. There is one story to be captured relentlessly and without pause. There is no series of canvases and no white out. This is it. What do I want to paint, to write, to live? These questions present themselves to each one of us every single moment of every day in the plethora of decisions we are called to make. There is no replay button but I CAN move graciously and clearly through the inevitable changes, which will come my way. I can lead my life as I choose. What does leadership look like in the midst of learning or in the midst of teaching, or both? The culture of learning environments is swiftly changing and we are able to cultivate an environment, which spurs our learners on to a lifelong love of exploration and adventure. This is exciting and yet sometimes daunting. I hope this podcast brings us all to a place of yearning for a paradigm which embraces our own love of learning and sets out stepping stones for others in their own journey.
Positive learning environments are an excellent stepping-stone forward to authentic learning experiences. When people have a sense they are welcome, included and valued, there is a beautiful vulnerability that allows an inquisitive mind to start the journey. When instructors value the philosophy of “learning” and welcome the diverse nature of the process, the first stepping-stone is laid. This posture will encourage the students not only to engage but they also begin to create pockets of safety for other students. This should take place in LIFE and when we learn this in the classroom, it is my hope that it ripples forward. We are learning everywhere and the classroom environment is one extension of that process. As we learn to create safe and positive learning environments in this closed, controlled setting, it will become more familiar as we take the underlying principles with us wherever we go. Bruce Wilkinson, in The Seven Laws of the Learner (1992) remarks, “what you think has a powerful and undeniable impact on everyone you meet both in and out of the classroom” (p.83). Ask yourself the question, “What impact do I want to make?”
The Alliance for Excellent Education has four elements for creating a positive learning environment: “For students to learn, they must feel safe, engaged, connected, and supported in their classrooms and school,” and that “teachers are an essential part of fostering the type of learning environment in the classroom that supports student success”. Let’s unpack how we can construct these four elements within our learning centres.
- Stepping Stone of Connection
Typically, there may be a gap between the instructor and the student, which inhibits the learning process. How are we connecting with our classrooms? Do we walk in and begin the lecture on the first class or do we take the time to allow the students a glimpse of who we are, as well as learn a little bit about our students. This allows a sense of “knowing” which will translate into a collaborative learning environment. Each situation will be different but it is important to allow the first impression to be one that invites participation. Entering a classroom, introduce yourself warmly, with eye contact to each student. Then proceed to connect with a story of how you “learn” and what inhibits your learning. Next, invite each student to introduce themselves in the same fashion. Give a time limit in order to make it short and sweet, yet meaningful. This is a technique to forge connection and build bridges to safety, engagement and support.
- Stepping Stone of SAFETY
Each student arrives at that desk with a story. In my youth, angry, hurtful words were hurled at me; I allowed them to define me as a failure. Those words found their way into my heart and ripped apart something precious; my value. I would know myself as “less than”. Something inside of me longed to be applauded, to be valuable. This would play into my passion to create a safe environment for my sphere of influence; free of verbal abuse and negativity. In my case, these words also held me back from speaking up publicly for fear of rejection or stepping out to try something new and scary. While we cannot change the past, we can create a safe environment for our students to speak out, feel valued and respected. One way to do this is to speak out the old adage, “there is no dumb question”. To establish an atmosphere of safety, you could use the “Muddiest Point” technique. The student writes on a 3×5 card, something in the lesson, which is unclear or “muddy” to them. The instructor will read the cards, and address each “muddy point” in order to bring clarity. Through this exercise, it is important for the instructor to value each muddiest point as valid with no gestures or words that would dismiss or ridicule the author of that card. This will build a bridge of safety and value to the students as they move forward.
- Stepping Stone of SUPPORT
Support is crucial. As a learner, it is important to feel supported in the journey. As an instructor, we want to instill that sense of support in practical ways that will cause the student “to cast off the fight, flight, freeze pattern and instead pause, reflect, and manage”(Barsh and Lavoie (2014) McKinley Quarterly, p.2). If a student is already feeling connected and safe, there is a good chance that support is already expected. Support comes in many ways and when the overwhelmed feeling launches, it is important to continue to give your student time to pause, reflect and then manage the workload without old patterns of “defense or neglect (fight or flight)”. One practical solution to support would be to check in with the student on workload and have a very clear outline of expectations and assignments. Our goal is to come alongside our student in the learning journey. One example of support: A class moving into Third Grade after being in a K-1-2 split for many years entered the new classroom. The children were surprised there were no “centers” where they had enjoyed learning for three years. In past, the students would come back and longingly gaze at their “centers” and visited their previous environment often until they got used to their new surroundings. This particular time, the students piped up, “can we help set up the centers”, thinking it was just not done yet. The answer is critical. The teacher replied, “YES”. Her classroom invited the learning center model because the students felt supported. My friend who taught K-1-2 said that class hardly came back to gaze into their old surroundings because they found an environment of support. Kudos go out to that teacher for recognizing how to come alongside her class.
- Stepping Stone of ENGAGEMENT
Learning new patterns can be difficult and yet life is an array of themes colliding and colluding in a flutter of beautiful brokenness. Our day-to-day interactions are the small steps we take in living our entire life. The reality is that we see life through a biased perspective that influences everything we do. When we understand that, we have more grace and empathy for one another. We are not there to just impart knowledge, it is much more complex. When we embark to create a pathway to learning it is our privilege to provide a safe, supportive and connected environment, which would support healthy engagement. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, “one instructional approach that could reverse these trends is the student centered approach” where curriculum is tailored individually. These skills would include “thinking critically, using knowledge and information to solve complex problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, learning how to learn, and developing an academic mindset”. These skills “known as the deeper learning competencies are not only skills students need to succeed in school, but the ones that will enable them to succeed in careers and life”. This is our goal – each student set forth with confidence. As an educator, we have the privilege of being a catalyst for greatness in the members of our community, even the youngest ones.
We want to model learning well, to become our best self and not be a stumbling block for others but rather a stepping stone. George Bernard Shaw captures this thought in his words, “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege – my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake” (Carnegie, p.324). Shaw goes on to say, “Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations” (p.324). So as we move into creating our learning environments, let’s make them splendid so the future generations have a path forward to the best learning adventure possible.
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