Finding the familiar in the unfamiliar

Many assumed that 2020 would be a year to remember. Perhaps because it was a once-in-a-century numeric milestone where the millennium and decades aligned. Perhaps it was more simplistic than that – did it just roll off the tongue nicely? Either way, many had high hopes for what the 366 days of the 2020 leap year would bring.

However, it is highly unlikely that anyone anticipated what was actually in store. Since ringing in the New Year, we have become accustomed to phrases, new terminology, and lifestyle changes that were simply unfathomable just 12 months ago. Words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘disaster’ and ‘isolation’ have dominated our airwaves and newsfeeds and dictated how we live and exist. I am still caught off-guard and experience moments of “never in my lifetime did I think…”. We are challenged to find our place in our new ‘normal life’ as we grapple to process how much has changed in a short space of time.

The same goes for our children. In their short lives, they have seen daily death tolls and case numbers replace traditional conversations about the weather. They have seen their already small world shrink even further and the familiar become off-limits and potentially a danger to avoid. Their homes became their classrooms. Their friends became fleeting online encounters. Their parents became their teachers and their teachers scrambled to become online education experts. And all of this happened in the blink of an eye.

This week, I have been re-immersed in studies of the liminal space – a transitional space where learning occurs. An intangible space where we are on the brink of transformation; the precipice of change. This is often an uncomfortable space and one which requires reflection, persistence (and a little bit of grit) to pass through. The liminal experience is clouded by ‘what if?’ and this year continues to be filled with many of these unanswered questions.

2020 is proving to be a state of transition for us all. Collectively, we are attempting to navigate an uncomfortable and often extremely challenging version of a reality which we really don’t fully recognise as being our own. Elements appear familiar on the surface but we are thrust forwards into uncertainty by the once distinguishable faces who are now covered with face masks for safety, by the temperature checks as we enter our local stores and by the lingering scent of sanitiser as we dare to bring our hands near our faces. We are all challenged to find the familiar in the unfamiliar.

Yes, 2020 is a year to remember. Just not for the reasons we had anticipated.

But, if our past experiences with the liminal have taught us anything it is that we can successfully transition and transform through periods of change, even those which we don’t necessarily choose to enter. Although we are required to transition through this time whilst ‘socially-distancing’ and isolating ourselves from others, this might be the one time in history where our liminal experiences are more closely aligned than ever before. This time, our personal success depends on us collectively breaking through to the other side.

2-cliffs | Have to have a head for heights. | Louis | Flickr

As teachers, we are privileged with a position of offering a place of safety, calm, learning (and often laughter) for our students. Whilst that place has had to adjust and adapt this year (along with virtually everything else in our lives), our position still bestows the privilege of offering a place of safety, calm, learning, and laughter to our students. They are still looking to us for guidance and answers in an effort to find something familiar and recognisable to hold tight to.

No-one expects teachers to be able to solve the crises that 2020 has delivered. However, I believe that one of the most important roles we can fulfil this year is not about academic growth. Instead, it is about continuing to offer what we always have – a place of calm and safety. Our students will be searching for familiarity in our interactions more than ever before so they know they can continue to depend upon as they battle through their own liminal challenges this year.

We may never return to how life used to be (and some may not want to). But that’s the thing with emerging through the other side of a liminal experience – you can’t ‘un-know’ what you have learned along the way. So, perhaps the question becomes – what will you help your students know that they did not know before when we finally emerge out the other side?

On the threshold, in a liminal space – An Informed Faith

Happy (and safe) Teaching.

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Viewing life and learning through an ‘admiring lens’

I was fortunate enough to have been involved in a professional learning session yesterday at my school. Our focus was on developing engaged and motivated readers and we were investigating strategies which had proven successful in fostering these behaviours in younger students.

There was a particular reference made during the session when it called for teachers to observe their readers and to analyse their reading habits. Not whether they could decode or not, or whether they could read with expression or not, but just their actual reading behaviours when they were reading independently. Do they lose interest? Do they flick pages randomly? Do they fidget, wiggle, get out of their seats, change books multiple times? Do they read with focus?

The series of questions had been designed to serve as one component of creating a ‘reader profile’ of each of our students to develop a mosaic showing their reading skills, preferences and behaviours.

There was a key point which was made whilst discussing the student observations which had been recommended to take place which was to view each student’s skills, preferences and behaviours through an admiring lens. 

This was described as having a conscious mindset to focus on what a student can do whilst still recognising where gains could be made. It was not asking anyone to be unrealistic but instead to ensure that the interaction was undertaken from a positive standpoint.

The phrase immediately resonated with me as I recognised that many situations in life and learning could benefit by us viewing things through ‘an admiring lens’. A simple shift in focus can be tremendously powerful, and perhaps change the tone of conversations with our students (and with each other?).

One would hope that this is a stance that most educators would take but I hadn’t encountered the phrase before, and to me, it summed it up beautifully. So here’s to viewing life and learning through an admiring lens!

Happy teaching!

 

‘Fortunate few’ responsibilities

On Friday my youngest child began her first official steps into starting primary school. It had been a long time coming (for her!) as she’s been asking since Easter how long it would be until she could go to school. So, when her first day of ‘school transition’ finally rolled around, needless to say she was beyond excited.

Whilst she quickly and happily settled into what would be her new learning space along with a moshpit of other 4 and 5 year olds, I did pause to reflect on her good fortune. As a young girl, had she been born in any number of other countries, she would not have been entitled to an education. However, she, along with her two older sisters, have both had not just the right to attend school, but an expectation to attend, learn and then contribute back to their community.

When I studied my own family’s dynamic a little further, I also realised that my eldest child, a boy, who would have been more likely to receive an education wherever he was born may not have been as fortunate to have had the additional help he has needed. As a child with autism, what would his outlook have been if were a child in Zaatari?

So, while Friday was a milestone event for my little one and something that I am consciously aware she is lucky to be experiencing, it is also a timely reminder to remember that millions of others just like her don’t have this as their reality.

There are millions of children just like my own (and yours!) all around the world whom we don’t see. As a result, they are still growing up, but without the skills and knowledge they will need to contribute fully as adults. And, whether we like it or not, those future adults will be involved in making decisions and choices in our global community that we are all a part of.

What then?

#YesAllGirls

Food for thought.

Happy teaching.

 

Mirror, mirror….

One thing that I have come to value more over the past year is the importance of incorporating time for reflection. This is crucial not only for my students, but also for myself as a teacher.

Reflection is about allowing and encouraging individuals to vocalise and discuss the events which have taken place, to think out loud, to suggest solutions they may have discovered and to perhaps pose more questions that they now have. It is a guided practise and one, that when done by skilled educators, has the potential to transform both the learning and culture within the classroom.

As a busy classroom teacher, time is often our nemesis. There is rarely enough time to cover what we want to, so it can be tempting to not bother to try and fit yet another thing into each lesson. However, reflection is not the element to omit! Without an opportunity to revisit what learning has taken place and why the learning was necessary, it can make the entire activity somewhat meaningless. Reflection allows learners to discuss their thoughts and interpretations of the activities, to make connections to their real lives as well as to prior learning, and to begin to pose hypotheses about what future learning they are still yet to uncover.

As a teacher, reflection of our own practice is just as crucial. It requires few resources other than our own observations and honesty, but it can be incredibly powerful when the effort is made. It may not always pretty, and perhaps this is why some educators don’t incorporate it into their schedules. However, reflection reveals incredible insights into the synergy (or lack thereof!) between our lessons and our learners.

Reflecting on your own teaching practice can be as simple as deliberately evaluating our lesson goals compared to our student outcomes. It can also take the form of written notes, peer observation, or even student feedback. The next step is to ensure that whatever revelations are exposed are used to inform your practice – what have you gained from your insights?; what was the purpose of your teaching?; do you need to make adjustments to improve your students’ understanding or mastery?; how does this influence what you will do next?; and so on.

There are a myriad of ways for educators to establish and maintain a reflective practice, as well as methods to encourage and build a classroom culture that celebrates student reflection. Perhaps, however, the most important component is to just ensure that it actually gets done.

Happy teaching!

Limbo within the liminal space

The term ‘liminal space’ may be something that is unfamiliar to many, yet it is possibly one of the most common spaces learners (and people in general) find themselves in. The liminal space is reference to the process of transitioning through a period of change. It is a conscious awareness of knowing that you don’t know something. This is a direct contrast to being blissfully unaware of something altogether (hence, the phrase “ignorance is bliss”, one would assume!). The liminal space defines the transition that learners experience as they travel from the known into the unknown, which for our students (and hopefully ourselves) is something that we experience regularly.

However, many learners (and educators) are unaware that there is a definition of this crucial aspect of learning. Furthermore, many learners (and educators!) are uncomfortable inhabitants once within this space. Some will even resist entering it altogether through procrastination and work avoidance.

The liminal exists whether we like to admit it or not. I believe that our attitude as we approach this space heavily influences the process. Once it is embraced, it becomes our companion that will travel with us from “the ‘what was’ to the ‘next’ (Liminal Space, 2016, n.p.).

As we guide our young learners to embrace this space, we may need to help them to navigate the emotional ambiguity that can come with it. This can be done by reinforcing feelings of self efficacy – the belief that they are capable of learning and mastering new skills and knowledge. It can also be supported by encouraging reflection – making time for learners to consider their own learning, to make connections with prior experiences, to contemplate what they know, what they want to know, and possible strategies to employ to achieve this. We can also model our own transitions through liminal spaces and allowing our students to understand that this is a natural process that all learners experience.

The following quote from Richard Rohr shared by Liminal Space (2016, n.p.) beautifully describes this space:

“where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.”

The liminal space is one that educators should aspire for their students to embrace one day. This may take time and guidance for this to occur, but having an awareness ourselves of this space allows us to both respect and support the transition. Most importantly, it allows our learners (and ourselves) to respect the experience of being within the liminal space. We want our learners to know not to resist it, nor to plough through it panic-stricken and searching for ‘sameness’, and instead understand the beauty and value that comes from the limbo experience of not knowing….yet.

 

Happy teaching!

References:

Liminal Space. (2016). Retrieved on 9th September, 2016 from https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/

 

Putting the ‘personal’ into Personal Learning Spaces

After an absence from my blog, recent academic discussion that I have been involved in has prompted me to reflect upon my understanding and opinions about Personal Learning Spaces.

One’s personal learning space is something that can be highly individualised, but often one that is not consciously decided upon. It is only when we reflect on our own preferences for learning that we then begin to notice the key features that we required in order to be successful lifelong learners. The personal learning space is designed around what our students need in order to demonstrate self-direction in their learning, self-efficacy and self-reflection. For younger learners, these are skills which may only be in the earliest stages of development, but they are crucial skills which their teachers should encourage and support.

Each learner, whether they be a child, teen, or adult, will have reasons which motivate them to learn and offer them a sense of self-direction. Sometimes the motivation will be a desire to avoid failure. Other times, it will be a desire to achieve the end result (e.g. mastery of new learning, a new skill, etc). It may be linked to a learner’s belief of the value the new learning gives them once it’s achieved – is it personally relevant? Whatever it is, it allows a learner to take responsibility for their own learning experience (Smith, 1996, n.p.).

Learners will also have a level of belief in their own ability to succeed which may vary from task to task, subject to subject, and even day-to-day. A learner’s ability to begin a task with the necessary amount of self-belief that they will succeed may be linked to prior success in that area, comments or feedback they have received in that area, or their own perception of the cognitive challenge that lies ahead. I have also found that this area can fluctuate greatly when influenced by seemingly unrelated factors such as life-pressures, social struggles and/or times of stress or duress.

The final area that I am concerned that doesn’t get factored in enough is to teach our students (and ourselves!) to become reflective learners. Students need time to consider what they have learned, to make connections to prior knowledge, and to express their understanding of their new learning to themselves and to others. However, often teachers find themselves finishing up lessons without having included any time for reflection (for their students or themselves) and soldiering on to the next timetabled activity in order to keep up with time constraints.

Given that these factors are all highly personal for each learner (hence the name ‘Personal Learning Spaces’), how does one teacher ensure that they are encouraging and fostering these skills in all of their students? My personal belief is that it comes down to keeping it personal and knowing your students.

A teacher will find it difficult to foster a sense of self-direction if the tasks that they assign for younger students unless they are engaging, relevant to their real lives and have value. In some cases, some learners may need more explicit scaffolding in order to develop self-direction skills, whereas others will need minimal assistance. However, teachers will know when they’ve hit the ‘sweet spot’ in lesson design because their learners will be positively engaged in their own learning and require minimal assistance or external motivation in order to keep going.

I believe this is even more true for self-efficacy. The relationship that you develop with your students will allow you to gauge their self-belief as it changes day-to-day, task-to-task, subject-to-subject. Having a genuine relationship, rapport and understanding of what your students believe about themselves as learners who can succeed is crucial. This knowledge allows teachers to ensure that their students will be faced with tasks and activities that will be challenging, but will still allow for success on some level. We don’t want to be bombarding students with unrealistic tasks which will chip away at their self-belief. We can only avoid doing this when we have genuine relationships with our learners.

As for reflection, this is something that our young learners will need to be explicitly taught. As teachers, how are we factoring reflection into each of our lessons? What questions are we teaching our students to ask themselves about their learning? What do we know about their lives in order to make their learning relevant? What connections are we encouraging them to make with prior learning? When are we ensuring that we revisit the learning pathways we have guided our students along?

So, although ‘Personal Learning Spaces’ asks us to consider something that may vary for each of our learners, it is important that each teacher considers their influence on each component. Just as adult learners would be reluctant to invest time and effort into an activity that serves no purpose, that is not relevant to their needs, and appears unrealistically impossible, so too will our students. As teachers, we have to ensure that we keep things personal with our students in order to create harmony between the lessons we design and the development of the skills they will need to become successful life-long learners – self-direction, self-efficacy and reflection.

Happy Teaching!

The ‘visibly invisible’ people of Aleppo

As my students and my own children prepare for the start of their school holidays today and count down the days until Christmas, many of them are busily creating happy childhood memories which will stay with them for decades to come. Friends, sleepovers, family trips, and new toys and gadgets will most likely fill their minds and their summer days. These are things that most of us consider part of an Australian childhood, and many of us go out of our way to ensure our children are able to enjoy their summer ‘downtime’.

I would encourage you all to consider another reality in Australia, of which there are too many to count. The families who are broken and the fallout that the may children experience. The children trying to fit in with a family they may be temporarily living with as they aren’t able to live with their own for countless reasons. The children who through some miracle are surviving in the ‘family’ that they have, against all odds. These children are also part of our Australian community.

But, I implore you to think even further and not forget what we are allowing to happen elsewhere. While we are stressed about Christmas shopping and extra work-demands, there are millions who are fighting to just survive. We have watched Aleppo be destroyed for half a decade, and millions perish either fleeing for their lives or while simply trying to exist. I would suggest that they have become the most visibly invisible population in modern history. We have watched the reports, the live footage, but rarely did we demand anything needed to change as we did in the Paris and Belgium attacks. Meanwhile, we have consciously forgotten Aleppo and the people trapped there and allowed this to happen. (Warning! This video is very distressing).

So, in amongst creating memories with our own loved ones (which I strongly recommend you do!), it really is time to stop the madness and realise that this is a problem that requires the help of the international community, just as we rallied for each other in #PrayForParis and #OpenHouse in Brussels.