Lessons Learned In Combat

Engaged Chaos

I am so grateful to have an administrator who kicks ass and knows what engaged learning looks like. In all honesty, she’s better at spotting it than I am.

I say this because, just recently, if anyone else had walked into the classroom where I facilitate a literacy block each week, they would have probably run screaming from the room, their hands over their ears. I was in the midst of facilitating a writing & illustrating workshop during which the first and second graders with whom I was working were knee-deep in illustration study. Since September, my students and I had spent many, many minutes poring over piles of picture books, looking for what we “noticed” that illustrators do and exploring some of those noticings more deeply.

On the day in question, the students had moved, as they always do, from talking about what they noticed (in this particular case, how illustrators use color) to trying out what they were noticing in the books that they were making (and by “books” I mean the five-paged, hastily stapled together packets of plain white paper I had provided them with) while I flitted from table to table, conferring. My principal had missed our discussion–what I considered the “meat” of that day’s work–and was observing/evaluating me during this less-structured time.

I began sweating profusely as I noted the level of talk in the room, the pair of boys at one table who were feverishly scribbling with red colored pencil to make the zombie war they were writing about come to life on the page, the two girls who were arguing with one another about who was going to share what she had written that day first, and the gaggle of students who could not help but “rush” me with pleas to “look what I did!” With ten minutes left of the block, as I gathered the group together on the rug for share time, I couldn’t help but cringe at the thought of what my principal would say to me during our post-observation conference.

I didn’t even have to wait that long. Later that afternoon, she stopped me in the office to marvel at how those children, each and every one of them, had been engaged in their work during that workshop. “It was UNBELIEVABLE,” she said with her signature intensity. “They were working, they were excited, and they were all. Completely. Engaged.”

And while I had hoped that that was what was happening, I didn’t really know. Because even with all of my talk of student-centered teaching, and honoring students’ natural desire to talk and play as they learn, there will always be that “traditional” (for lack of a better word) educator in me that worries when the talk gets too lively, when the work gets too playful, when the exuberance gets–I don’t know. Too exuberant? But is there such a thing? Is there such a thing as too much engagement?

The short answer is no. Of course not. Engagement–sweeping, full-on, joyful engagement–is what I want for all of my students, all of the time. True, there are times when we need to honor the needs and desires of our more introverted learners (myself included) who need a calm, quiet environment in which to learn. But we also must not be afraid of the liveliness that comes with unabashed engagement in the real work of readers and writers. It may look or sound like chaos at times, but an educator with a clear understanding of children and of learning–like my principal–is able to see it for what it truly is.

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