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June 27, 2018

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Listening to Teachers: Sorting vs. Seeing Our Students

March 7, 2018

Ellen and I spend a good amount of time discussing what it means to SEE rather than SORT people--particularly children, and particularly now,  when it seems like so many are needing us. 


When stakes are high and people are demanding answers to complex problems yesterday, sorting is efficient. It also makes us feel certain about our decisions, and certainty is a quick antidote to fear. 


Seeing requires time and patience and a willingness to suspend judgment. It also challenges our certainty, often producing more questions than answers and uncovering complex problems that are not easily resolved.


It takes a lot of courage to see our students. 


We've spent a whole lot of time wondering: how might we do this better, and how might we help others do the same. These are crucial questions, because professionally, each of us is responsible for facilitating initiatives that influence large numbers of adults and children. When time and resources are limited and people are counting on us to deliver solutions, it's all too easy to resort to sorting. 


Becoming aware of this reality was an important first step for us, and illuminating it for others has become helpful, too. Awareness isn't enough, though. We find that most people need concrete practices that help them create change. We found our inspiration in an unexpected place: the design thinking community. What's design thinking? It's a collection of stances that enable us to see one another better, in order to create highly satisfying solutions. You can learn more about it here.   The strategies that follow are fundamental to the practice.


It all begins with empathy.




Three Ways to Begin Seeing Rather than Sorting Students


  • Immerse Yourself in Their World: 

We engage learners when we invite them to bring their world into our classrooms. We begin to see them even better when we leave our classrooms and enter their world. Where do your students spend most of their time outside of school? Where do they live, work, and play? Visit those spaces. See them inside of them. How does this change what you know about them? How will it deepen your connection with them?


  • Observe and Reflect Before You React

I used to be a stickler for the rules, maintaining a fairly authoritative stance at the front of my classroom and even grousing about kids who were disrespectful. I bought into rigid disciplinary systems and empathized with overwhelmed colleagues who complained about over-indulged "kids these days." And it's true: some kids are over-indulged. Seeing children--especially those who challenge us--in all of their complexities can help us reach them in ways that rules do not, though.


Observation is a useful tool. Rather than reacting to misbehavior, consider documenting it first. Suspend judgment, grab a notebook, and document everything you notice about the context, the kid, and the ways that others are reacting. Use what you learn from observation, not your assumptions, to theorize about what might be causing the behavior. Then, consider asking some good questions. If your documentation only validates your assumptions, it might be helpful to call on a colleague for support. Who tends to see and think about kids and situations differently than you do? Invite them in, and ask them to make their own observations. Seriously. This helps. 


  • Interview Your Students

Interviews add important context and dimension to our observations. Ask broad questions of the kids you're striving to see before posing others that are far more pointed. Record exactly what they say, not what you hear, and invite them to tell stories and use analogies and metaphors. They add nuance. 


Finding the Time


I know this seems overwhelming. I know that it takes time that most of us feel we don't have, and that's why many choose to implement these approaches only when they're struggling to understand and engage a small number of atypical kids. I get that. It's a solid way to begin the work of seeing rather sorting. 


It's not enough, though. 


You know it's not enough. 


So, here's my next question: If seeing our students is important to us--if it's something we value---how might we begin designing contexts for learning that honor and support this value system? In other words, rather than merely covering content and focusing squarely on academic growth, how might we begin designing curriculum that enables students to acquire knowledge and skills in ways that also help us see them better?


I hope you'll share your thoughts here, on Facebook, or on Twitter as Ellen and I begin exploring the potential for experiential learning to accomplish this. 









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