The language we use has a real power to influence how we understand our world—and act in it. –Kristin Lin, Editor, The On Being Project
My wife Joanna and I just finished facilitating two wonder-full institutes on Deeper Learning in Christian Schools and are planning a third in the Dominican Republic. David Smith has been with us (in spirit–see his book On Christian Teaching), prompting us to think more deeply about the implicit messages in our teaching practices. The ways in which we design curriculum, instruction, and assessment; the ways we utilize space, time, and resources; and the ways we structure leadership and communication operate at a level deeper than cognition, more formative than what we think and talk about with our heads.
Even the name we assign to our practices carries a formative message. It is through language that we make meaning of our experiences, that we shape chaos into order, just like the logos in the beginning. How we name something affects how we understand it, how we feel about it, and how we act. I was intrigued by Mark Allan Powell’s challenge (in Chasing the Eastern Star) to think of how we might name the parable we often call “The Prodigal Son.” What if we called it The Forgiving Father? The Loyal Son? The Two Lost Sons? The Foolish Father? The name we give this story has a significant effect on the way we read the text and the message we get from it.
This issue of naming brings me to “the hook,” also known in education as the lead-in, anticipatory set, advance organizer, provocation, or set induction. The intent to engage students is similar, but each title implies a different “lesson-view.” The language we use conveys our assumptions about who the learner is, what the subject is, what the purpose is for our learning. What does the “hook” imply?
There is a lot we could unpack in the metaphor of the “hook.” But we don’t have to sink very deep to catch the primary implication–that our students are not naturally inclined to learn, that we have to somehow trick them with shiny objects, catch them against their will, and pull them grudgingly into our boat.
I know it’s just a word, but words themselves are anticipatory sets: they activate our schema and evoke all manner of preconceptions, associated feelings, and experiences. (Reading teachers, see “The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently” by Thomas Lux).
There are other educational buzzwords that we should probably replace. When I worked with EL Education, the first word we banned was “fieldtrip.” What do you think of when you hear this word? What associations do you make? The trip to the farm, the aquarium, the museum. Kids running around looking for the next “shiny object.” And whenever possible, the gift shop! Ice cream! How do you prepare yourself and your students? What do they anticipate when they prepare for a “fieldtrip”? EL Education schools don’t take fieldtrips: they do fieldwork. Fieldwork is what adult professionals do: fieldwork is research in the real world. Fieldwork demands an entirely different preparation and expects an entirely different result.
Or, who comes to teach your class when you are absent? Probably the “sub.” What is activated in your students’ minds when they hear the word “sub”? And what does that say about the person coming in to teach them? I encourage schools to call them “guest teachers.” Welcoming a guest gives an entirely different message than having a sub!
David Smith suggests that we imagine our teaching as an act of hospitality, welcoming even our students as guests: “[W]hat if we thought of teaching as an act of hospitality, and of the classroom as a hospitable space? . . . How might this image of the classroom offer resources for facing difficult students and insensitive behavior? How might it frame the relationship to knowledge that we model, and the amount of time we give to student voices and contributions? What kinds of learning might help students to become more hospitable towards others?”
How might this idea of teaching as hospitality frame our intent to engage students in learning? In the spirit of hospitality, let’s call it an invitation. An invitation sets up a fundamentally different context for learning than a hook. I asked Joanna, who serves as principal of New Covenant School, to describe how she invites her students on the first day of school into the great adventure of learning in order to serve the King who calls us to build for His kingdom–a kingdom of justice, stewardship, healing, reconciliation, restoration. Here is the invitation she described:
At New Covenant School in Arlington, Massachusetts, we dress in our finest outfits for our opening ceremony to reflect the importance of the work we will do in the coming year. At some point in the ceremony I hold out a rolled-up parchment scroll edged in gold and bound with a rich purple ribbon. I tell the students that I found it on my desk and ask if they think I should open it. Of course they do! I unroll it with a flourish, scan it quickly, then share that it is an invitation from the King.
A paragraph addressed to each class invites them to use their learning during the year to build for His kingdom in a particular sphere, thus giving a hint of what their expedition will be, but not giving it away. For example, the King may invite one class to give particular honor and respect to people who are lonely and forgotten in our culture. It asks them to work in such a way that these people know that God has not forgotten them. Later the students will learn that they will be writing the life stories of the elderly at an assisted living facility. Another class may be asked to steward one of God’s most amazing creations through conservation and make it available to those who don’t have access to it. The class later discovers they will be studying water and raising money to support digging wells in developing nations.
With each of these invitations comes a special gift–one of our six words of servanthood that will be key in doing this work: “Respect” for those working with the elderly and “Integrity” for those learning to conserve and share clean water. Each teacher posts the invitation to her class in a prominent spot in their room. As a new trimester opens, we revisit the invitation and share the ways in which we have responded. By the end of the year, each class presents to the community how their work has built for the Kingdom.
Next month I’ll share some other ideas about creating engaging invitations.
Offered in the spirit of hospitality, an invitation communicates messages like my friend Carol Ann Tomlinson describes in her article in EL Educational Leadership. Every teacher would tell their students they believed these things, but the challenge is to align your practices with them–in deed, not just in word:
I have respect for who you are and who you can become. I want to know you. I have time for you. I try to see things through your eyes. This classroom is ours, not mine. There is room for what you care about in what we learn. Your peers and I need you here as a partner in learning. I will help you understand yourself and your world [*and your God!] through what we learn. . . . Your success is central in this classroom. . . . There is great support for you here but no room for excuses. I watch you and listen to you carefully. I make sure that I use what I learn to help you learn better. You’re growing, but you’re not finished growing. There is no finish line in learning [∗about yourself, your neighbor and your God].
∗ additions mine
Just like children need partners in learning, so do we teachers. I invite you to get your tickets to our third annual Deeper Learning Conference: Deeper by Design: The Impact of Our Practices in Denver on February 27-28, 2020 (pre-conference on the 26th). David Smith will be with us exploring the subtle but essential alignment of our beliefs, our words, and our practices. Look for registration to open September 1, 2019.
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.