It’s summer! I just moved from North Carolina to Wyoming to start a new job. I’m getting settled in. Posts between now and August 21st will be intermittent as I get up to speed. Regular content will resume August 21st.
Recently, I drove about 1800 miles to move from Durham, NC to Laramie, WY. You can do the drive in three days if you’re willing to drive 8-10 hours a day and stop only for necessities. I didn’t want to do that and took 5 1/2 days to get here stopping to see the sights along the way.
One of the places I stopped at was the City Museum in St. Louis. I had no real understanding of what this place was and simply went on the recommendation of a friend who said I had to go there. If you’ve never been, there is no way to explain what this place is like (however this site and this one do a really solid job). One of the things they are known for is an elaborate, man-made cave system that you can explore. However, that’s just one aspect of this place which encompasses 600,000 square feet.
There are, of course, other things you need to know about this place. For example, there are slides everywhere. You can be walking around and suddenly a hole appears next to you. It could be a tunnel that you can climb through OR it could be a slide that leads to who knows where. You have to decide if you want to take the slide or not, and it’s not a simple decision to make. Taking the slide means letting go of exploring where you are at, and you might be interested in seeing what lies ahead. If you go down the slide, you will end up someplace that may or may not appeal to you, and getting back to where you had been before you took the slide isn’t necessarily easy and, in fact, may never happen.
Why? Because there are no maps at the City Museum. You just have to go for it.
And during my experience there I couldn’t help but think about how what I was doing in the museum helped me better understand myself as a teacher and just how scary it could be to be a student in one of my classes.
It’s not that City Museum doesn’t have any directions as far as where things are. When you enter the lobby there’s a sign that tells you the cave system is directly ahead. That’s kinda about it. You have to figure out where things are and, as a result, end up getting annoyed, frustrated, scared, and excited. I experienced at least all of those emotions.
The whole no map thing reminded me of how I recently started exploring the idea of creating customizable paths in my class this fall. The options for students would be to have a map – completely crafted by myself to meet goals I had determined – or to create their own based on a set of choices placed before them (and then they can tailor their experience towards their own goals). What I learned through my experience at City Museum is that this isn’t as straight-forward as having students decide which path they want to take.
Why? Because sometimes you challenge yourself and get completely freaked out.
The first thing I did at the museum was enter the cave system. But I immediately found out I didn’t understand what was going on. Do I just start climbing anywhere? Go through any opening? Is that allowed? I was an adult conditioned to a system where there are rules that I should follow, and I kept looking for someone to tell me what to do.
There was an opening in front of me so I started to enter it when a woman said, “You are brave.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I can’t make myself go down that part,” she answered. “It’s dark and narrow.
Upon closer inspection I thought, well, it does look a bit scary, but I can do this. And in I went.
And she was right. It was dark and narrow. And while I knew, logically, that I was completely safe and that, eventually, I would come out of this dark and narrow place I couldn’t do it. I panicked. I could have pushed forward, but doing so would have required me to make a series of decisions about which way to go (there were usually options and this was rarely a straight path) and put up with my fear and discomfort. But I didn’t do it. I let the fear take over and I backed out the way that I had come in because I knew that would get me out of the tight spot I had gotten myself into.
How This Experience Informs My Teaching
For me, City Museum asked me to take risks. I didn’t know where I was going most of the time. I didn’t know where I would end up. Sometimes things got uncomfortable. I realized I ask my students to do the same. I ask them to do things that are not a big deal to me but that are a big deal to them. I am sure there were plenty of kids running around the museum that day that would not have understand my panic in the caves. For them, it was nothing, you just keep making decisions about which way to go and you end up where you end up. Some of them likely had been enough times that they knew where they were going.
Second, when students take risks I need to give them options if they push themselves too far. I pushed myself too far in this example. But I knew how to get out of it (back out the way I had come in) and doing so had zero consequences. I didn’t fail at the museum or get kicked out. I simply made decisions from there on out that didn’t put me back in the same position. Yes, this limited my experience at the museum but I don’t regret it. I wasn’t ready for all the experiences the museum had to offer. However, I learned a lot just from wandering around within the spaces I was comfortable. Being in the museum was so new that it was overwhelming. I didn’t need to take it all on at once. What I needed was multiple trips. Over time I would likely start pushing my boundaries a bit.
If students take risks, and go farther than they are ready, then I need to consider what that means in the context of class. I want students to take risks, and I like the idea of them deciding how much of a map they want to be provided with. However, I learned it’s easy to get excited about push yourself too far. When that happens, there needs to be a way out that comes without consequences.
If the idea is to learn, but to also push yourself, then I have to recognize that sometimes this will fail. Just like I recognized that I didn’t want to continue on in a particular part of the cave system so too might students realize they have taken on too much or selected a task that ended up being more than they were ready to take on. This isn’t failure, and we shouldn’t treat it as such. This is recognizing one’s one limitations at the moment and adjusting accordingly.
Yes, I could have kept on in the cave system despite the overwhelming fear and panic I felt within the tight space I had wandered into. But what would it have accomplished? Probably nothing but relief when I got myself out – which is exactly what I felt when I backed myself out. What would have been the point of dragging it out? Yes, I would have learned that I was capable of doing it and surviving, but I would have just endured it. I don’t think I would have learned much else.
I don’t want students to endure class. I want them to learn and grow. And giving them that experience might require backing up and re-configuring the path. I need to remember to make space for that.
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