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Coming to Our Senses: Balance and Creative Learning

by Linda Rightmire
February 20, 2014

It was a beautiful spring afternoon, downright hot, and the sprinklers were on the lawn at the school, all quiet at this late hour. It was a nice school in a quiet suburb—fairly advantaged in the scheme of things.

It was the mid-1990s. A colleague and I were there to check out their new equipment. The admin had gotten help from IBM to set up a couple computers with a new program. Clunky by today’s standards, this software let you walk down a path in the forest, notice a sparkly bit on a tree, and lo and behold, click it and there’s a bear cub peering out at you. Sure we make fun of it today—but at the time, it was part of appreciating nature. Specifically, it related to our district environmental centre on a lake outside town. 

Don’t get me wrong: everyone has their passion and computers were the cutting edge at the time. But I was appalled to think folks were so excited about this—couldn’t we just spend money to take the kids out there? 

This centre in the forest was a jewel for our district. All grade fives got a week’s stay, but teachers wangled it for other classes if they could. Of course, some kids have outdoorsy adventures with their own families—but most do not. For many children, some spiders in the shrubs, or watching the crows pull crusts from the trash can on the playground are what counts as a ‘nature experience.’ 

p: woodleywonderworks via photopin

I experienced a powerful disconnect—it was rude to scoff at what the principal was clearly so proud of. But how could it compare? Why sit at a machine when we can give kids real experiences, dipping up tadpoles, laughing and getting soggy and muddy themselves. Or listening for the strange sounds in the forest when we would sit so quietly, and being really cold at night in their sleeping bags on the rustic beds in the cabins. In the morning they can fry eggs and pancakes like real campers.

Of course, this software was just the beginning. Amazing to think how far we’ve come—the next year we were all internetted and thinking Netscape was so cool. Now it’s 2014. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were all created in the mid-2000s, just a few years ago—but we barely recall “the time before”. 

“...[T]echnology changes so rapidly that it clouds our memory of things as they existed but a few years before... We lose a part of our humanity, a historical sense of our recent selves.” (Bauerlein)

So we rush forward feeling ‘the future is now’, having heard our whole lives that we were teaching kids whose later lives we could not imagine. 

The lure of it all is inescapable—and I’m right there with you. Browsing dozens of URLs, falling down any number of rabbit holes. The world is fascinating, and every reference, every image—it’s all right there at your fingertips.

Teens text hundreds of times a day and keep their phones nearby day and night. Parents don’t dare suggest cutting off Facebook and texting—it’s a new “place”, an entirely new layer of socialness. You might as well say they can’t go to the mall with a friend. And parents don’t want their kids left behind—they clamour for more SmartBoards, raising money with bake sales, even while the playground equipment needs sprucing up. But it creates a frenzy, this siren call of gizmos.

We know the curriculum is fragmented as it is. It takes longer than you thought to set up the activity—writing or maybe a craft. Finally everyone is pretty much into it. There is a happy buzz —but you are watching the clock: it’s snack time prior to recess, or someone’s delivering the lunch and milk orders. Or you must get the spelling pre-test done. “Stop, everyone—put that away, we’ll work on it tomorrow...” 

As teachers we get caught up in that rush of many demands, but children and parents will thank us if we can ourselves present a calm demeanor. We should reassure people, “It’s okay. Really.” As educators our job is to step back and find this balance—to give adequate time to each lesson. In some ways “less is more.” 

A favorite teacher of teachers used to say, “Stop interrupting the children!” The forty-five minute period seems far too short to do the intro and get into quality work—the work that requires thought and depth. 

In the past few decades we have really learned how to use great interactive approaches. When hyped in advance with rich sensory details—“imagine the smells, the sounds”—even small children can form an ‘Oprah’ style panel that responds to deeper questioning from their peers. 

“So how did you feel, Cinderella, when you saw your sisters in their fancy clothes, going out the door to the party?” Or, “Were you afraid, when the fairy godmother said the coach would turn back into a pumpkin if you were late?” 

Not only do these take time in the set-up, we know that kids, when put on the spot, need time to think—‘wait time’. Your children can be trained to be very courteous in this regard. “Just wait, give him a moment,” while you all listen briefly to the furnace fan and the classroom noise next door. It’s a thoughtful pause.

Another approach uniquely offers a structure for study in depth. It generates excitement through the very natural power of “the hunt” and the satisfaction we feel when we find new treasures. Learning in Depth (LiD) is the brain child of Kieran Egan, whose earlier work helped teachers vividly tap into kids’ imaginations with the power of story.

The structure of LiD is audacious to consider: in a child’s first year of school, he or she is assigned a topic they’ll work on individually for their entire school career, spending one hour each week to learn everything imaginable about the topic. Looking at the suggested topics chart, we see they are all nouns—bones, mountains, stone—though some are more abstract or broad such as humour or counting systems. Others are already a lifetime study for adults—musical instruments, sacred buildings. The sheer diversity offers rich performance and display opportunities over the years—weaving and spinning, Olympic games, dance. 

The notion that the topic is assigned brings an instant response from many—why not let kids choose? In fact, the point is made that all these topics are worthy of great depth of inquiry and pursuit. It proves the point, in not being your choice—not dinosaurs, not Lego. You can easily imagine how ‘apples’ leads to a visit to an orchard, an interview with an orchardist, cooking, and categorizing. The apple in myth and history—odd to think both Eve and Snow White fell to its juicy temptation.

Whether apples, bridges, or castles, the school community creates a ‘buzz’ around this event—the day you learn what your topic is to be. To take one topic year after year gives children a lot of scope with technology, a variety of presentation forms, collaboration opportunities, and not least, real world connections. It can be argued this is a holistic approach at its best.

Schools and families involved often praise LiD. A wealth of resources and examples of student work can be found on the LiD website. 

Step back and remember our sunny day with the sprinklers and a little bear in the tree on the screen. We will learn the technology along with our kids, but we must make wise choices to show how the sensory richness of the world can be brought to every hour. 

As adults we know what feels good, what wholeness and balance feel like. So too we must nourish some calm in our own classrooms. Children need time for play and exploration in the material world. It will sound odd to say, but now we must actually build it in, since many do not get much time for it otherwise. 

Don’t forget—less is more.

Linda Rightmire on Reading Today OnlineLinda Rightmire offers workshops and mentoring sessions on a structured partner reading approach that emphasizes Allington’s Six Elements of Reading Instruction. She also tutors students in individual and group reading sessions, and works as a teacher on call in the Kamloops-Thompson School District in British Columbia. Her articles have appeared in the regional daily newspaper and elsewhere. 
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