Summer travels can lead to learning about teaching strategies…here’s what my trips taught me!

With Labor Day past and summer’s end nigh upon us, it seems valuable to spend some time in the past tense today reflecting on the important learning that comes when a teacher takes a breath and spends some time away from her students.

Unlike last year, where I spent the bulk of my vacation time in Germany with students, this summer I focused on visiting family across the country.

It was a very different kind of learning, but no less applicable to my classroom. Rather than learning to speak another language, I was able to reflect on and refine some skills for communicating with those who might speak my tongue, but who might be difficult for me to understand.

Finding a common language

My first trip was to Hawaii where I spent two weeks caring for my eleven and fourteen year old cousins.

I had never been to Hawaii before and was eager to explore Oahu’s historical and natural landmarks. My youngest cousin, who has been on the island his entire life, wanted to hang out with friends and play video games.

One morning, I decided to forgo my tourism and sat down to have him explain the video game he was playing. He rambled on for nearly an hour about the strategies and successes he had reached in his game. This brief conversation led to a deeper connection than we had before. Later that afternoon, he reciprocated my efforts by joining me on a hike to a spectacular waterfall.

Hiking Diamond Head wtih my cousins and sister-in-law. What a view!

I realized in this conversation, amongst others we had when I was there, that everyone has passions they can discuss in great detail. Pausing to listen to those passions is important. I was reminded what I need to learn what my students love to talk about and let them talk.

Just as engaging with my cousin helped me to convince him to try something new, being mindful of my students’ passions will inevitably help me to find the common ground necessary for moving forward towards new ideas and experiences. As the school year gets under way, I need to remember to pause and listen more often. By making that connection, I’m pretty sure our other interactions will be much richer.

Assume best intent

My second trip was to California. Here I spent time with my brother, sister-in-law and the world’s greatest nephew* (*unbiased opinion).Visiting art museums with the cutest baby in the world.

My brother and I don’t always see eye to eye. We are only sixteen months apart and he was two years behind me in school. I was (am) the consummate rule follower and my brother always worked hard to establish his independence. While I was a model student, he prided himself on beating the system.

Now, as adults, we occasionally have conversations about education, which show how our vastly different experiences in the K-12 system shaped our positions today. It is difficult for me not to get worked up about this. However, I learned this summer to pause and think about what my brother is actually communicating.

School didn’t work well for him. He was a gifted student who wasn’t challenged by many teachers and when he got bored, he broke rules. While he may have found better ways to self-advocate, it is also a shame that he didn’t have more opportunities to be truly engaged in his learning.

There are always going to be opportunities to discuss ideas with people who disagree with me. Going into conversations thinking a person is wrong automatically guarantees that the conversation will not be successful. My cousin in Hawaii taught me to listen for a person’s passions; my brother taught me to assume best intentions.

My brother is a new father and I need to remember that when he discusses education with me, he is trying to inform his decisions as a parent. His intentions are sound—as are mine—and when we are able to respect that in each other, our conversations are always going to be valuable, even if they are sometimes contentious. I will inevitably have one or two difficult conversations with parents or students this year. Remembering to pause and look for common intentions in our dialogue will hopefully make those conversations more productive.

Embrace your story

My final trip this summer was to visit my grandparents in Iowa. On the long car ride across Nebraska, I listened to Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. It was fabulous. As she told her stories, she alluded to the significance of acknowledging your roots and celebrating the unique quirkiness that is inherent in all of us.

When I finally arrived at my grandfather’s house, I was able to sit on his front porch and listen to his stories about raising my dad or running wild on his childhood farm. Two days later I sat on my grandma’s porch listening to stories from her thirty years as a second grade teacher.

What a gift to be able to hear my grandparents explain their stories and to see how it weaves into my own. I’d like to offer that kind of opportunity to my students as well. I’m not sure how this will look yet, but I hope I can push them to explore their roots and participate in metacognitive thinking about how they have become the wonderful young men and women they are today.

While my locales were much more exotic in June and July, I hope that my classroom will be just as rich an environment of learning. I look forward to watching my students embrace the story of our classroom—and find more tools for communicating their passions and intentions.

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