Monday, February 9, 2015

Why I #LoveTeaching: It’s About Finding Flow

When everyone is working toward the same goal, in the same space, a room throbs. The space hums. The activity doesn’t matter so much as the intentionality: to concentrate effort and become a part of a process of meaningful work. The energy moves into flow. I have experienced flow in all kinds of learning situations—both as a student and as a teacher (I am always a learner, in whatever role). I have felt it in yoga classes, while working in gardens, doing service work building houses, in book groups, in writers’ workshops, in professional development. It happens to me alone, too, when I write, when I run or hike, sometimes when I cook.   

This sense of engaged awareness, lack of distraction, a distorted sense of time, loss of self-consciousness —humming along with the work and with others—these are qualities that characterize flow experience. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1996) flow involves deep immersion in an activity, producing feelings of success and competence, sometimes joy. We know it when we feel it.  

I love teaching for many reasons, but I love teaching best when flow happens in my classroom. I have experienced this shared energy in a silent session of independent reading or writing: the only sounds may be pages turning, pencils moving, or keys clicking, but the palpable vibration is there, collecting in the spaces between us.  I have experienced it in discussions: insights are almost visible as they zing around the room, one speaker building upon the ideas she has just heard, passing her insight like a ball of fire to the next speaker. Faces open, alight, eyes widen, voices catch—“ah ha!”—in moments of realization. “We’re getting it; we understand!” When it happens during class, the bell will come as a surprise, and students may say “Class went by so fast today!”

I can’t force flow in my teaching, and I can’t pretend to know how it works, but when it happens, I always just let it. I do believe there are conditions I can create in order to find flow. I can help students to feel comfortable by honoring their expertise and voices, giving them opportunities to take ownership of their own thinking, offering choices of meaningful work, and being there to guide their inspiration—and I think setting these intentions helps. I can’t predict it, though, and when the magic begins to happen, the best I can do is ride along on the waves, even if it interferes with my lesson plan or curriculum schedule.

When a classroom is humming with flow experience—when my students and I are positioned as fellow learners, breathing and growing together, I feel read and whole, as if I am doing my life’s work. And I think my students feel it, too. Even when it happens only rarely, flow experience keeps me engaged—it’s the heart of my practice, and why I love teaching.    

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: Harper Collins.  

A note: this post is my contribution to the #LoveTeaching Campaign, a celebration of teacher love during Valentine's Week, 2015. Information is available here

Friday, February 6, 2015

Context Matters

This week, I asked my preservice English teacher students to think about context.  When I did, I meant for them to think about contexts for learning inside their classrooms as they begin to design unit plans for the middle school students with whom they are working. Because I am writing with my students, I planned to blog about our classroom context, too, but I find myself struggling with the larger sense of context—sense of place and space that shapes who we are and what we know.

For example, when I taught public school in Morgan County, West Virginia, my students there (and I, too) were set in a particular context. It was a fairly rural community, so we might see deer on the hillside behind the school or a heron in the run that flowed through campus. A student might bring me a bag of morels in April or venison jerky in November. Berkeley Springs is also an art town, so we might make art in English class, or students might be involved in local productions of Shakespeare plays. The blend of rurality and creativity meant that I needed to consider a spectrum of diverse needs in my classroom: in the same class, I might have a student who brought me a gift from her trip to France, as well as a student who needed explicit instructions on using crosswalks during a field trip to DC.  

In a small town it was easy to connect the community to the curriculum. My colleagues and I worked to bring county residents—writers, artists, legislators, educators, and officials into our classrooms. We also worked to bring our students out into the county to find learning there—in one interdisciplinary course that I helped to co-teach, we took our students to the recycling center, to the local soup kitchen, to the new courthouse construction site, and elsewhere out into the community to serve and learn, applying content in context.

This kind of learning that is centered in the particular of space and setting is explored in the work of David Sobel, The Place Based Education Collaborative, Foxfire, and others. They tell us that context matters—that people, place, and meaning-making are intertwined. We can help students understand the world if we emplace their learning in a context.

Now, in suburban Atlanta, I have to admit that I feel a bit out of context, myself. I get lost easily, and not in a meaningful way, driving past WalMart after strip mall after Target after strip mall and on into the city. The highway overpasses and four lanes of traffic offer little sense of community or purpose—except to keep moving past exits to the right and the trash in the median on the left. When I think about my students, I wonder about the contexts from which they view this world, how this context shapes the questions they ask, what they need to be taught. I wonder how to connect them to a context that I have yet to begin to adjust to or to understand myself. There must be a community at the center of this suburbia—in order to really teach and learn in a way that connects me to my students and to a clear sense of purpose and place, I know I must find it. I just need to keep exploring. Perhaps, if I ask, my students can help me to do that.