Friday, December 9, 2011

Kiah Abendroth: Observations from the Classroom

In addition to working with my fabulous mentor Lynn, I’ve recently had the opportunity to observe one of LCI’s other great Teaching Artists, Katie [Felipe’s mentor]. She taught four classes of young teens about music, the blues specifically. I wanted to reflect a bit on that experience:

One of the first things I noticed was Katie’s continual use of questions. Intellectually, I know that this is one of the cornerstones of LCI’s teaching philosophy, but seeing it in the classroom brought a deeper level of understanding. I had limited LCI’s questioning to the more philosophical questions, such as: “What do you notice about this music?” What I hadn’t considered was the use of basic/informational questions.

Within the first-half of Katie’s lesson, she always discussed the historical context of the blues. Every time she got to this point, she would pause and ask: “Does anyone know when the blues started?” This was particularly memorable to me because it’s not what I would have done. I would have just informed the class. However, in doing this, I would have missed an opportunity to engage the students more deeply. Asking a question helps to spark curiosity. It draws the student’s attention to the gap in their understanding, cultivating a space for that information to go. This concept reminds me of the old Zen story about the “full cup” syndrome, and I think high school students may be especially susceptible to this. The story is as follows (quoted here from Bradford W. Swift’s Life on Purpose: Six Passages to an Inspired Life):
It appears a young seeker of wisdom traveled to the remote reaches of the world to learn enlightenment from the master. But before the master would even consider teaching him, he invited the young man to participate in the tea ceremony.

So, they retired to the tea garden where the master began the much venerated tea ceremony, preparing the water mindfully, adding the tea leaves just so, etc. The master began pouring the tea into the young seeker’s cup, talking politely as he did so. As the cup began to fill, the student-to-be grew nervous, yet the master continued to pour. The cup filled to the brim, then the tea began to pour over the rim.

“Master, master,” cried the young man. “You are over filling my cup.”

Finally, with a smile, the Zen master stopped pouring the tea. “Yes, and you are like the cup; so full there is no room for enlightenment.”

Listening as though you already know everything is listening with a “full cup.” When Katie asked the class the question regarding the historical origin of the blues, she helped to create space in their cups. I’m sure more kids in that class will remember where the blues came from thanks to this simple twist in approach.

Something else that was memorable for me was the amount of reassurance and encouragement Katie provided throughout the lesson. Here’s a some examples of ways in which she accomplished this:

1. Removing intimidation. I noticed the use of phrases such as, “Just take a stab at it,” encouraging the kids to not be intimidated by an activity.

2. Positive Feedback. “What I’ve seen so far looks really, really good.”

3. Student Examples. As soon as one of the students would finish an activity, Katie would walk up to them and make a comment to the class such as, “She’s totally done! See, no big deal.” Then she would ask the student if she could share what he/she had done. They always complied, and this helped to further reduce any intimidation of the task.

This type of encouragement seems vital. The kids are being asked to take a lot more “risks” than normal. They’re being confronted with situations where there’s no right answer. This is, in fact, supporting two different elements of the ten Capacities for Imaginative Learning: “Taking Action” and “Living with Ambiguity.” As I mentioned in my previous blog post, “LCI’s Teachings and the Imagination”, using these ten Capacities can be challenging at first! It takes practice and can feel like a big change, especially if you’ve become accustomed to learning in a different, more restrictive setting. Constantly providing encouragement seems to be an integral part of implementing the Capacities successfully.

In discussing the observation afterwards, another key concept was reinforced: the idea of learning as a personal journey. This has several implications. Firstly, the instructor must teach to their audience. Every age group and classroom is unique, and this should be taken into consideration when planning. This awareness must also continue as the lesson progresses, honoring that the students are learning and thus your audience is changing. Katie had a great analogy that likened this sensitivity to cooking (great cooks work with the food, watching it carefully as it progresses in order to get the best results).

My most important realization on the topic of “learning as a personal journey” was: you can’t make the learner have a meaningful experience, all you can do is present them with the space to do so. This is a compete shift in perspective for me. I see now that, in the past, my focus would have been more on the information than the student. My goal was the transfer of information. Now, my focus is on creating an environment that encourages exploration. It’s about the student engaging in activities that lead to growth, personal discovery, and inspiration.

It is my sincere hope that I can begin to implement all of these things the next time I’m in the classroom. Beyond that, I hope that I can remain an “empty cup” throughout my journey as an educator-- always ready to continue learning, growing, and changing.

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