When we lived in the States, spring break was often a time for slow-paced days at home, sleeping late, organizing the kids’ closets, and taking care of some outside chores. We might have gone to visit friends or family for a weekend, or even braved the Oregon Coast, where unpredictable weather forecasts forced us to pack our suitcases for all seasons.
Now that we are living and teaching abroad, spring break is a whole new experience, that quite frankly, I had never even dared to imagine. Sri Lanka for spring break? No problem! We decided to split our week between the jungle and the beach, we exercised and we relaxed, and we learned about ourselves and the world around us.
Below is a map I saw at a local Sri Lankan school:
At the tender ages of ten and fourteen, my boys still love to travel with their parents and each other. They willingly and enthusiastically embarked on a 21 kilometer jungle hike, during which time the temperature and the humidity agreed on a number: about 90. The UV index was around 12, but because we were below the forest canopy, we didn’t worry about getting sunburned as much as we had to constantly check our shoes and socks for invading leeches.
The boys didn’t complain when we arrived at our destination: no roads, no electricity, no beds. Just delicious jungle food (including wild pineapple!), a cozy campfire, heat lightning that might rival the Northern Lights, and the magic of fireflies. Here’s where we slept that night:
My boys were open to new experiences, were willing to hike up slippery leech laden trails, and sleep on concrete right along side us.
And I think that’s the key. We, their parents, mentors, leaders, the adults in the room, were willing to do all of the things that we asked the children to do, right next to them. Sometimes offering a balancing hand, an encouraging word, or help with a pack, but always next to them, working on the same tasks. Taking the same journey together.
I couldn’t help but see this hike as an analogy for teaching. As an educator, I must be willing to work and learn right along side my students. To be uncomfortable, to struggle, to pick myself up from missteps, and especially to celebrate successes while I’m next to the kiddos. I can’t lecture them about what to do from a podium at the front of the room and then expect them to find success in an authentic task. I have to talk, demonstrate, model, teach, and learn with them.
And that’s when teaching and learning are especially rewarding.
The next morning, our guide, Sanjay, explained that his uncle was offering to take the grown-ups on a short hike up a “small mountain.” Sanjay would stay with the children while the adults explored a little bit. So we did.
I think it’s important to show my kids that while they may not be ready for all things right now, they will be, and the parents can show them what that looks like. As adults, we were willing to embark on another uphill, humid, hot, leechy trek because we had prepared for it, and eventually, they will be willing and able to do the same.
Sanjay’s uncle took us through some tea plantation trails and into the thickest jungle I’ve ever seen. He spoke few words of English, and none of us spoke any Sinhala, so we communicated with facial expressions and body language. Because it was not a “maintained” trail, hiking was difficult and sometimes dangerous. Sanjay’s uncle paused often, pointing to sharp branches or poisonous mushrooms, and using a variety of communication styles, made sure we understood what not to do, where to step, and how to be safe.
Instead of simply using his indecipherable-to-us words, he spoke and showed us what to do, by walking and hiking right along with us.
So instead of using only academic, difficult vocabulary, I will also show my students how to work on authentic tasks rather than simply telling.
Sanjay’s uncle could have rationalized to himself that he “told” us about the dangers in the jungle while he used his Sinhala to communicate with us. But it wouldn’t have worked. And sometimes, I think the words we teachers say sound like Sinhala to some of our students, even when we think that we are being perfectly clear.
He also showed us what we might someday be able to do, if we practice and learn more about the jungle:
He showed us that we could perhaps someday navigate this small trail (barefoot!) ourselves, climb ten meters straight up a palm tree, harvest some nectar, carry those 15 liters down the steep mountain trail, and slowly boil it down into sweet treacle syrup.
Okay, reality check: none of is is aspiring to do that. But he set an example that showed all of us that we could at least manage and find success with this hike. In the same way that some of my students won’t write a term paper on Finnegans Wake, I’m not aspiring to hike barefoot. But I can hike, and they will read.
So we left the jungle and went to the beach.
Reading on the beach is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I don’t think I will ever tire of it, but active boys need to move, so we looked for beach activities for them to try.
The boys decided on surfing, so we signed them up for a lesson.
The lesson started with one instructor showing his two students, my boys, what to do while they were still on the sand. It was a no-risk learning experience at this point. He put the surfboards on the ground, had my boys get on their bellies, their knees, and their feet while they practiced in a no-risk situation.
At no point did he stand at a podium and ask my children to sit quietly, raise their hands if they had any questions, take notes, or to study a rubric.
In an authentic task, notes aren’t always going to be helpful or handy.
The authentic task was surfing. The formative assessments were constant and casual, and at no point did they sound or feel like assessments. It was a conversational, easy, but demanding instructional setting.
It really reminded me of conferring with students in a workshop model.
Agenda: Today you are going to learn how to surf.
Prior Knowledge: What do you already know about surfing? Have you ever been skateboarding? It’s kind of like that…
Mini-lesson: Here’s how you a: paddle; b: get up on the board; c: hold your feet; etc (you can insert any relevant short lesson here).
Conference: Check in: How is this maneuver working for you? What can I help you with right now? Do you need to move on to a next step? During these conversations/conferences, the other boy (student), is listening in and learning, reinforcing or correcting what he already thought he knew, just like in a workshop classroom.
Task: “Get up!” The directions are given only after the students know how to do what’s expected of them. Only then. Not before. There is nothing mysterious about getting up on the board (or in any other task) because the instructor has been observing, teaching, and demonstrating, right next to the learners, only asking them to do what they’ve already been taught to do.
Catch and release: This is when the learners are practicing in the water because they are well aware that they are ready to try. They’ve had practice on the sand, individualized and group instruction, and have an instructor close by to “catch” them when they need help, and “release” them to keep trying, practicing, and learning how to surf.
My boys found success with surfing in the beginners’ part of the beach. They were encouraged and motivated by this success, and the closing part of the lesson was to talk about what they might be able to do next: the intermediate waves, and what the long-term vision is: the advanced waves.
I discovered that one of the reasons I love the workshop approach in a classroom setting is because it mirrors authentic, real-life learning. There is certainly an expert in the room, but that expert strives to allow the learners to become experts, too. And they can learn by watching and listening to each other, not just to the teacher. The learners are motivated to become experts at the task, not looking for an A+ or an “exceeds standards” on a report card, instead intrinsically motivated to become better at what they are trying to do, whether it be reading, writing, talking, thinking, hiking, or surfing.
Authentic learning is the goal. And we can’t do it from a podium.
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