The Summer I Learned to Teach

Years ago I was a kindergarten teacher during the academic year, and did various types of work during my summers. One summer, to make ends meet, I signed on with a contractor as a framer. I want you to understand, I did not know the first thing about framing, but there was a housing boom on and they were signing all comers. I walked out of my world in which I was an insider; I knew all the ropes and was even the “go-to-guy” for some of the other faculty.

I entered into a strange new world where I was an outsider; a scary place many of our students find themselves in when they wander into our classrooms for the first time. Somehow I managed not to cut off any digits or fall off any roofs that summer, but I did learn a lot about teaching reading and writing. I will give you several examples.

Work is easier, safer, and more fun in community. There were more insiders (all the other guys) than outsiders (me). Those insiders, although a little profane for my sensitive nature, were all about looking out for the rookie. I took that lesson to heart, and today I make sure that the “rookies” in my adult basic education classes are connected to an insider or two. Often I will have students who have been in classes for English language learners, and have just made the transition to Adult Basic Education. Some are native speakers but are attending their first ever classes since they were last in the k-12 system. Regardless of one’s academic history, whether experienced or rookie, insider or outsider, we all learn best when we are in community, and our students perform better and stick with the program longer and with greater success when we make the effort as teachers to foster community in our classrooms.

Scaffolding helps us accomplish tasks that are difficult or at a higher level. One day it was time to put siding on the house we were building. We started at the bottom, working on our knees. It was easy. After a little while we were working waist high. When we were working chest high it started to get difficult. Then one of the guys took a sawhorse he’d made earlier from scrap lumber and cut it right in two! He leaned the cut ends against the house with the legs on the ground. A few pieces of lumber between them and just like that we had a stable place to stand a few feet off the ground, and the work was almost as easy as before, but at a higher level.

What my insider saw as an obvious solution, I found amazing. It is the same for our students. Sometimes we are so in tune with the academic challenge at hand, we do not even recognize it as a challenge. My insider did not ponder what to do – he likely did not even see it as a challenge – he just took what was for him the next logical step.

When we ask our students to do more difficult work, it is essential, first, that we understand that it may indeed be a huge challenge to them, and second, that we give them the tools they need – and a solid place to stand. We must not assume they have that prior knowledge in their own schemas unless we have provided it to them beforehand or helped them uncover it on their own. If we do a really good job of providing scaffolding for them, our students might even think we are amazing.

Adapt tools to the task at hand. That sawhorse was only one example I saw of insiders using tools in unique ways. They were problem solvers; if the tool that was made for the job did not solve the problem, they tried adapting another tool, or made one from materials at hand. We need to equip our students to be problem solvers too. Teaching them discrete skills has value, but teaching them strategies will help them become problem solvers. No matter how big your hammer is, there are some framing situations in which that nail isn’t going to go in straight; it may be necessary to look at that framing challenge from a new angle.

In the same way, my students may have great decoding skills, and their vocabularies and spelling may be improving every day, but can they construct meaning when they encounter a text full of passive voice? Are they able to identify that the textbook authors are presenting multiple theories, not just contradicting themselves? When they find themselves confused, can they tell me it is the metaphor they don’t understand, or the vocabulary, or the author’s use of non-standard spelling and grammar? Here is a workable definition of metacognition: my students are not simply confused; they can identify the reason for their confusion. That brand of confusion is the foundation for learning.

Foster a sense of agency (the confidence and authority to act independently). As the summer passed, I became more confident in the use of tools (my discreet skills improved). Finally, the insiders decided it was time for me to use my strategies. They gave me a framing problem to solve. I was terrified; I had to think and make decisions; I had to measure, cut, and build, and it had to pass inspection. They gave me a sense of agency. I want to make clear that I was not predisposed toward becoming my own agent. The insiders fostered my disposition. They patiently taught me how to measure and cut and think, and encouraged me in my efforts. Years later the experience, skills, and sense of agency those other men patiently built up in me that summer gave me confidence to design and build a toolshed, and later still, build a garage from plans I purchased from the internet. I was just as terrified at the beginning of each of those projects as I was on that fateful summer day, but I had a new disposition toward taking the risks and accepting the rewards and consequences of doing so.

Our students need the same things from us that my insider friends gave me. They need opportunities to think and express themselves, to look through their toolboxes and choose what they think will solve the literacy challenge they are facing at the moment. They need both the opportunity to fail and the tools needed to avert failure, and we need to offer them both simultaneously. Then perhaps down the road a year or two or ten, those very people who were my students will have the confidence, disposition, and agency to tackle new challenges that come their way – no matter how terrified they may be.

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