Don’t Forget the Magic Part of Teaching

Recently, a colleague asked me to share some assessment data from the first quarter of the school year. I was in a grouchy mood and listed a number of excuses as to why I was too busy to comply. Later, I apologized and my colleague said she was disappointed by my initial negative response. She went on to say “I was a little surprise by your comment, in the sense that of all people you are the one who I never saw it coming from. You are always innovative and creative, your students love your class, they feel comfortable and safe.”

Now it was my turn to be surprised.

Education seems to be moving in a direction that is putting more and more emphasis on statistically measurable teaching and assessment practices. And yet, what made me stand out in the eyes of my colleague were teaching behaviors that represented completely different, non-measurable skills.

Questions popped into my mind:

  • Why isn’t there more balance in the value placed on the wide variety of skills, behaviors, and practices we use and value as educators?
  • In placing more value on quantifiable skillsets over more intangible ones, are we in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water?
  • Does this baby/bathwater idiom still mean anything? It’s been around since 1512, according to Wikipedia!  

Intrigued by these thoughts, I reflected on my teaching practice. Wondering if I was the only one who placed value on intangible practices, I sent an email to a few of my colleagues – teachers who, like me, enjoyed a reputation of being “fun” or “cool”. Here’s what I asked them: Above and beyond generally accepted effective teaching practices, what else do you do in your classroom to engage students and to enrich the overall learning experience for your students?

Here are some of the responses:

  • I use puzzles, I play guessing games, I have an open lunchtime to help kids do well. I let the kids chew gum during tests.  I slide around in my socks … kids think that I am a big kid, and for the most part they enjoy coming to my class.
  • I think relationships make kids want to be in class, so I try hard to keep up with what I know is important to each kid.
  • I incorporate many songs and games in our morning meeting. The sillier I am the more excited the kids get! We have a couple of routines in class like in the morning message I tell them they have magic fingers. (All they do is wiggle their fingers ) Throughout the year I change what magic fingers can do!
  • When doing number sequence like counting the days in school I normally add movement. For example: jumping, clapping, making patterns. I also “trick them” when counting the days of the week. Like I will point to a number twice or go back.
  • I use guided relaxations/mindfulness activities for kids.

The responses were encouraging to me, but they revealed an inherent problem with intangible, non-scientific practices – sure they are fun, but because of their intangible nature, how do you actually know that they are having a positive impact on student learning?  

So, I started digging online for evidence.

Without that much Googling I found a relevant article on opencolleges.edu.au, an Australian teacher resource website. The article stated: “Brain research suggests that fun is not just beneficial to learning but, by many reports, required for authentic learning and long-term memory.” 

The article went on to quote from the book Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher by Dr. Judy Willis:  “The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery,’ where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”

I found this quote reassuring in the sense that it solidly connected emotion and learning. But, I was also a little glum as the movement towards statistics and data, which I call a ‘bottom line’ mentality, is education totally void of emotion. It reminds me of Hollywood movie media that celebrate weekend box office numbers and not the craft of movie making. Don’t get me wrong – data is important. We wouldn’t even know about the impact of emotion in the classroom if someone didn’t look at data. I am just wary of education swinging too far in one direction and losing sight of other, equally important facets of instruction.  

The next source I looked at was right on my bedside table. I had the good fortune to see a presentation by Dr. Douglas Fisher, a professor in the College of Education at San Diego State University, at the 2017 Tri Association Annual Educator’s Conference. Dr. Fisher spoke about strategies that have a positive impact on learning and one of them was student-teacher relationships. When I was developing this post, I recalled Fisher’s presentation and decided to dig deeper into this area. So, I flipped through Dr. Fisher’s latest book, Engagement By Design by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Russell J. Quaglia et al. The chapter about relationships concludes with this idea: “…there is good evidence that teacher-student relationships facilitate learning and are worth the time investment. If you ever doubt this, think about what happens when you run into students from years ago. What is the first thing that students say to you? ‘Do you remember me?’ The always ask the same thing because they want to know whether the relationship mattered enough for them, they talk about the things you did to make them feel welcomed or invited into learning, how you were fair and equitable, and how you advocated for them while helping them grow.”

Don’t you want to be the kind of teacher kids remember? I certainly do – so today I decided to rock my pizza socks!

Ed Ex!

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