As an early childhood teacher I have spent the past 15 years living, breathing, and lifting up imperfection. I have learned that, when it comes to children whose minds, bodies, and souls are incomplete, imperfection, properly framed becomes art. It is the beauty of the drawing that only suggests a human body, but the student has identified, “That’s my mommy.” It is the accomplishment of a student’s hand drawn shape when, for the first time, has become more a letter than a scribble. This slopping through imperfection has been a way of life, with its beauty and power, making my life as an educator meaningful and always becoming.
In my foundations of education course at VCU the “err” of imperfection has followed me into the college classroom. This past week I had a quintessential experience of teaching as the imperfect profession. It wasn’t only that the computer projector had a bulb that couldn’t be replaced, or that the technician who came to help set up a supplementary laptop and projector eventually became a fixture in our class. It wasn’t even that the copies of the article that I had requested from the copy center were not in my mailbox and I had to scramble to find them. It has to do with seats.
I have mentioned many times since the beginning of the course that I was especially uncomfortable with the seating arrangement of our class. It is the classic high school style chair/desk combo arranged in rows, facing the teacher/projection screen. My students have chuckled and nodded but not attempted to change anything.
This week we used a classic adult learning strategy, the jigsaw. In this strategy the students become experts on one area of knowledge (usually an article), then meet with home groups and share their expertise. Finally, a whole group discussion clarifies the subjects and highlights the important discussions shared in the home group sessions. Two of the groups in the class moved into the hallway, immediately sat in a circle, and began to tackle the article and ideas. When they were ready they started talking, naturally, without raising hands or argument. A third group stayed in their seats in the class, sitting in rows, and tried to become experts. After several attempts on my part to get discussion started I let it go. After visiting the groups deep in discussion in the hallway I realized I needed to do something. I was concerned that the classroom group would not be able to fully understand and share their area of expertise in the article. I insisted that the students get up and move into the hall to see what was happening with the other groups. They were, at the very least, surprised. When they saw what the other groups were doing they changed their approach, moved into the hallway and came out of the expert discussion ready to share.
I told my students after the activity, “This is the essence of teaching. Have a plan for how to teach these students, this content, at this time. Have circumstances derail your plan. Adjust your plan. Watch your plan work but, only partially. Readjust your plan. Then figure out how you would do it different next time.”
Starting this week we will not sit in rows, at least if I can help it.