Sunday, January 22, 2012

What Should Learning Look Like?

One thing I've noticed since becoming a teacher is that just about everywhere I look, I see things that make me think about how I teach, my students, or education in general. Sometimes these flickers of thought are inspired by the kinds of things you would expect- an article about education, an advertisement on the radio about increasing graduation rates, etc.- but sometimes, the spark comes from an unexpected place. I had this kind of experience yesterday. I was at my brother's house, and he put the movie Dolphin Tale in for our kids to watch. I had heard of the movie, and it is currently on my waiting list with Netflix, but I figured it was a movie my kids would enjoy, but that I would find fairly boring. I was wrong.

Dolphin Tale - 11 x 17 Movie Poster - Style A
photo courtesy of

While the movie has a very heartwarming message about helping others and the power of hope, that is not what made the movie worthwhile for me. The thing that caught my attention is the role education played in the film. Here's the rundown:

The main character, Sawyer, is a very introverted kid. He doesn't have many, if any, friends, and we learn that he fails pretty much every subject in school. As teachers, we all know kids like Sawyer. For Sawyer, school just doesn't seem to click for him. This is not to say that he isn't intelligent. Early in the movie, we find that he has his own little workshop in the garage where he repairs the remote-controlled helicopters he likes to fly as a hobby, as skill many of us would probably have a difficult time mastering. As the movie unfolds, it is revealed that Sawyer must attend summer school to get credit for the classes he failed. It is while he is on his way to summer school that things begin to happen. Sawyer is riding along the beach when a fisherman yells at him for help. A dolphin has washed up on shore and is caught in the rope from a crab box. Sawyer stays with the dolphin until a marine life rescue unit can come take the dolphin away, during which time he cuts the rope and apparently forms a bond with the animal.

After school, Sawyer goes to check on the dolphin and ends up making friends with the people at the marine hospital. Long story short (too late, I know), Sawyer ends up skipping school (where he was learning about prepositions in a way that makes me, an English teacher who does still teach grammar, want to run out screaming) to spend time working with the dolphin on her recovery. While there, he begins learning about the biology of all of the animals in the center and how to care for them. As an audience, we don't even realize he is learning because it just looks like a kid enjoying what he is doing and the people he is doing it with, but when he bring his mother to center, and she sees her chronic F student giving her an expert tour of the facility and interacting with everyone there instead of quietly sitting in the corner, she realizes what we need to realize as educators- learning is more genuine and more real when it applies to real things. She lobbies the summer school teacher to excuse Sawyer from the rest of the class so he can continue his work at the center, offering to have him write a report to receive credit for the course. The teacher, dumbly in my opinion, refuses. Sawyer continues his work and writes the report anyway. In the end, after seeing how much Sawyer accomplished when he wasn't chained to a desk, the teacher, wisely in my opinion, decides to give Sawyer credit.

The message here- We, as educators, need to be paying attention to our students to see if we have any Sawyers in our midst. I, for one, have made an real effort to start including more project-based learning into my classroom, and I began a project with one of my senior-level classes last year, which I am continuing this year, that requires them to work with a mentor in the community to learn more about their intended career and work with that person to create a project/product that gives them real-world experience in that field, but that isn't enough. I need to open my eyes and ears to find out if there are any kids in my classes that are doing amazing things on their own and figure out a way to tap that enthusiasm and let them bring it to my classroom. So, to any students who may be reading this (for extra credit, which just makes the whole thing feel tainted), do you have a passion for some kind of learning that you aren't getting in school? Are you like Sawyer in any way? To any teachers who may be reading this, do you have any success stories of helping a kid like Sawyer by plugging into their passion, even when it didn't fit your curriculum? Do you have any stories of missed opportunities to do this? How can use what happened in this movie as an inspiration to allow our students the freedom to really learn while still meeting all of our accountability requirements? The challenge is large, but all of the really worthwhile in challenges in life generally are. I look forward to hearing from you.

Monday, January 16, 2012


"The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities."
~Stephen R. Covey

I'm always amazed when I talk to people with hobbies. Whether it is golfing, making crafts, reading (for pleasure), or just about any other thing people do for no purpose other than the feeling they get from doing, I am always envious of hobbyists. It isn't that I necessarily want to do what they do; the fact is that many people's hobbies would bore the daylights out of me. No, the thing that paints me green is simply that they have a hobby. I've never really had what I would call a hobby. I've flirted with hobbies before, and there are a list of things that I would love to spend time doing, but I have to admit that I have always failed to establish something that I regularly do for enjoyment. Don't get me wrong, I do things for enjoyment, but not many of them are productive. I think hobbies should be productive. The problem I have is that by the time I'm done with all of the productive things I have to do on any given day, I don't have much left in the tank for something unnecessarily productive. Then, while doing something enjoyable but wholly unproductive- watching television- I had an epiphany.

I was watching a show called The Middle. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this program, it is a sitcom that centers on a family of five in rural Indiana. The parents both work, and the kids are a strangely familiar mix of people you may actually know. They live in a house that has clearly been decorated bit by bit over a couple of decades of not being able to afford an interior designer, and their dishwasher requires duct tape in order to work. In a sentence, it is a show about my family and quite a few families I know. It is refreshing to see a sitcom that I can relate to. Don't get me wrong, I also enjoy shows about Naval Criminal Investigation Service agents and lovable physicists with a passion for all things nerdy, but I don't really connect with those characters. This connection to the characters in The Middle is the source of my epiphany. The mother, Frankie, comes to the realization in last week's episode that they spend so much time doing the unpleasant things they don't really want to do that they don't have time to the things they really do want to do. She references missing fun holiday events to do laundry and passing on birthdays and anniversaries in order to fulfill other menial household tasks. She realized her "To Do" list was out of whack. Her realization became my realization. My priorities are usually listed like this:

-Things I have to do.
-Things I really should do
-Fall asleep
-Dream about the things I'd really like to do
-Wake up

The fact is that I have a hobby. There are a couple of things that I really enjoy doing. In fact, I enjoy doing these two things so much, that I actually majored in it in college. I love to read books, and I love to write. The problem is that I put all of the things that are supposedly more important ahead of doing either of them as a hobby. Do I read? Sure. I read all of the time, but very little of it is based on enjoyment. I read emails, instructions, and homework assignments. Do I write? Absolutely. I write assignment instructions, emails, hall passes, and feedback on IEP progress reports. I've spent the last couple of years lamenting the fact that I don't have time to read the books I'd like to read or write the things I'd like to write. I find pockets of time here and there, spread out over months of time for these activities, but I'd hardly call that a rewarding hobby. That is until that episode of The Middle when I realized that much like the characters on the screen, I've had my priorities out of whack. I need to start putting my hobbies higher on the list. It depresses me to look at my two blogs (this post appears on both) and realize that children born on the dates of my last posts are old enough to walk. I am resolving with this post to change that. I am resolving to put my hobbies closer to the top of the list. I am resolving to blog once a week (I require my Creative Writing students to do it, why shouldn't I allow myself to do it?) and read a novel a month (A pathetic goal for someone who used to read a novel in a day, but it takes baby steps).

Just to prove that this isn't an empty goal, I am writing this post with a stack of work sitting next to me. I have student work to grade, lesson plans to create, hundreds of pages of assigned reading and assignments from my grad classes, and laundry to fold, but I am taking the time to do something I want to do before I even touch the things I need to do, and I feel better about the day already.