I recently traveled to Northern Ontario with family to fish for four days on Lake Wabatongushi. Aside from “unplugging” for several days, fishing with my wife and our family reminded me of how important it is for educators to put themselves in situations in which they are not the experts in the room and where they must engage in productive struggle in order to figure things out.
So let me start by saying that I am not a fisherman. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy fishing. I used to go fishing with my grandfather when I was really young. Heck, there was even a time when I remember exuberently telling my grandmother how we “went fishing with no poles” when I was six or seven. But despite that, I hadn’t really gone fishing since I was a teenager and would occasionally fish from the riverbank at my grandparents’ house.
So I knew that even agreeing to go on a fishing trip would put me in a situation where I would have to be vulnerable, ask questions, and try many times in order to figure things out. While I was proud that I would write beside my students as a teacher and take risks, I now realize even more that I could have been more vulnerable and uncomfortable in order to learn with and beside them. It’s figuring out the unknown that helps you realize what you don’t know—something that we can do our best to try to figure out what kids do and do not know, but it’s hard to understand because we often are the experts who are far removed from struggle.
Throughout the entire trip, I also thought about how students need to feel safe in order to reveal how they might not know or be able to do something. I knew how to bait a hook, but I didn’t know the difference between a lure and a jig, how to tie a fisherman’s knot in order to secure the boat to the dock, or even how to drive the boat. These were all things my wife had to teach me.
And along the way, I had to ask questions and she provided feedback. “Next time, do this...” she, her father, or one of the other seasoned family members would often tell me. And it was just the support that I needed. It was a gentle reminder that I was doing okay but that there was more to it—a different technique—that I could try next time in order to get better. It’s these gentle nudges that kids need.
While I didn’t catch the biggest fish (I came close with my walleye), I was able to fish. I also didn’t leave feeling defeated but rather empowered, knowing that I would be even more prepared for next time.
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