Why Learner-Centered Learning?

I always laugh when I tell students that I first became a teacher because I couldn’t get an acting gig.  My early teaching experiences were, for me,  performances; and I was not so much an actor but a conductor, orchestrating a lesson as if it were a symphony, asking questions and pointing to students to answer.  As if I waved a baton, I directed students through the movement that I hoped would lead them to think deeply about what we were reading, prompting one, then another, to think critically about how authors use language to construct meaning, calling on others to unpack the messages within an author’s language choices.  I thought because there was more student-talk than teacher-talk that I was practicing feminist pedagogy, de-centering authority in the classroom to help students own their learning.  When reflecting on these classroom practices, I see myself either at the front or back of the room, yet still central, directing the conversation and, thus, directing the learning.  Now my truth as a teacher has revealed that I must abdicate my role as a conductor if students are to go beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge. 

When I give up the baton and stop directing learning, students find their own voices and agency, fumbling into a realization, improvising jazz riffs, that sets the tone and tenor for the rest of the discussion. Ultimately they become their own drummers, keeping time by constructing their own meaning of their world. In a learner-centered space, students develop their agency and tools they need to deconstruct the dominant culture and uncover imbalances in power. Ultimately, I believe that integrating questions of social justice into education by drawing attention to voices often silenced or marginalized is vital to educating students and is work that is best done in a learner-centered class. 

We can see the theoretical underpinnings for a learner-centered approach in Paulo Freire’s belief in an authentic approach to education that moves students to construct meaning through real and direct participation in the world and through socially-embedded learning in Lev Vygotsky’s social constructivism where students create meaning through human interactions, framing learning within a social process.  When we situate our teaching with an understanding that the social context of knowledge is critically important for learning,  not surprisingly we empower students to take responsibility for their education through opportunities to direct their own learning, particularly now as we find ourselves (again) in the middle of a civil rights debate about the history of our country. A learner-centered approach makes these opportunities real for our students. 

I stand for learner-centered education because learning in this environment cultivates a just and equitable learning experience, motivating even the most reluctant students to engage and manage their learning.  An authentic approach, learner-centered education constructs a social process of learning that also produces effective, and sometimes noisy, education. When students can shape their own learning, it becomes inherently multi-disciplinary as they experience real-world work and learn skills that connect them to the work of their communities to find their place in the greater world. This approach affords students with opportunities to uncover social and political contradictions and wrestle with ways to communicate these discoveries.  We have the responsibility to empower students to find the connections (and disconnections) between their lives and the world they live in.

I believe the vast responsibility of effective teaching requires teachers to move away from the front of the classroom so that they can foster not only questions about social justice but also to help students navigate their learning so that they can answer these questions.  I also believe teaching needs markers and computers, books and music, laughter and passion.  

(Re)Turning the Inside Out: Experiential Humanism

If during our study of the humanities we scrutinize how we experience the world around us and we document that experience visually, verbally, and musically, then perhaps we could imagine that experiencing nature could be a science of the humanities.  At the beginning of human time, our world was nature and our expressions of our world were rooted in the flora and fauna, the rocks and mountains, and the soil around us. Storytelling through parietal art, petroglyphs, and pictographs, poetry and prose helped our ancestors frame their lives within a world they were driven to understand, leading me to believe that since humans have had the ability, we have wondered about our relationship to the world and have expressed that wonderment in literature, philosophy, art, religion, history, and music.  These disciplines within the umbrella of humanities are those expressions about nature and its forces that were once carved or painted on cave walls and sung around fires and are now found on scribbled on paper, painted on canvas, chiseled into rock, and displayed on screens.  Within nature, we can find a tangible and ethereal connection to our world that connects us to those first humans who examined how nature communicates and how we first connected nature to our souls.

Our insatiable need for technology may limit our focus to the 1s and 0s that display roads and speak directions, show dog meme photos, and flash faceted jewel game pieces on our small screens so that we ignore the grandeur of the sky framed by tree canopy and the minutia of the insects in the soil.  Marianne Robinson in her essay “Humanism” asks us to consider the dehumanization that results from this privileging of technology and science over humanities. She grieves for those of us who are “more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being,” leading me to wonder if we stay connected to our screens and to solving problems via these electronic displays, then we are not asking of the trees and the sky, the animals and insects those unanswerable questions we ask of our souls (3).   While our soul “is the self” that Robinson paradoxically claims “stands apart from the self,” our soul, for me, is the part of us that connects us with beauty and the creation of beauty (9). Our appreciation and creation of beauty emerge from a soul that is connected to nature.

For me, these inchoate ideas about nature, humanities, and the soul drive my work with students in Humanities and literature courses, and until I collaborated with a scientist to teach Ecological Rhetoric, I relied on the stories I read in books and heard and viewed on the screen and stage as my connections to the world. Poetry like William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” provided me with “a wild secluded scene [to] impress/Thoughts of more deep seclusion.”  My imagination of a “landscape with the quiet of the sky” was all I believed I needed to connect with nature. And then I observed my Eco Rhet students in their own study of nature at a suburban nature preserve:

A light wind on my face reminds that is chilly though the sun is shining through the tree canopy onto Katie’s journal. She sits side saddle on the edge of the footbridge. Gazing in front of her, she turns a page and begins a sketch, erasing lines, starting again, quickly pulling and pushing her pencil.  With his hood shading his face, Spencer sits on a log at the stream, resting his journal on his lap, watching the water pass by. The sunlight on Nina’s face highlights her features, and I can see her pencil moving. I hear a bird sing “wa – p – wa – p – wa” and watch it fly above the limbs over Nina’s head. Other limbs of dried leaves, gold and brown, hide Eric sitting on a rock, knees bent to form a makeshift desk with his journal resting on his thighs. I cannot see where he is looking but I can see his pencil drawing circles.

Are these students cold? I’m cold, standing here on the path watching them. My fingers are stiffening, holding the top of my journal and resting it on my forearm; my letters are nearly illegible because I cannot keep the pages steady. I wish I were ambidextrous so I could warm up my left hand while writing. The wind is blowing harder, yet the students are not moving. I am watching them in their work, in their observing while helicopter seed pods land on my page.

Before I spent this time watching my students as they practiced observation, note-taking, and sketching, I would have told you the joy I found in teaching came when I was learning and working with others as they learned. I believed my passion came from puzzling through complex concepts and listening to students tease out their own understanding of challenging texts.  The satisfaction inherent in the brain work of analysis, synthesis, and interpretation I once believed was the only food my soul needed. And I once thought I preferred to do this thinking and learning inside, comfortably protected from the weather.

Yet while teaching Ecological Rhetoric, an interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning collaboration between Humanities and Environmental Science, I found a new joy in looking carefully at what is around me, in staying outside of my analytical brain when observing nature and my students while being uncomfortable in a cold drizzle. The exhilaration that once lit fireworks in my brain, celebrating interpretation can also spark small firefly lights when I am noticing and smelling and listening and feeling and tasting. My co-teacher and I work with juniors and seniors in this course as they present remediation plans to improve the health of a selected suburban nature preserve or create projects to encourage visitors to engage with the all that the park has to offer.  To better comprehend their role in understanding nature, the students first practice scientific observation, note-taking, and sketching during field expeditions — ultimately focusing on a specific area of inquiry and formulating a hypothesis about the cause of a problem in that area. In order to take and sketch field notes like those shared by scientists in Michael Canfield’s Field Notes on Science and Nature, students determine the concepts and skills they need and we, the teachers, find the experts to teach them scientific sketching.  Later work in the course includes experimentation and data collection at the preserve, reviews of scientific studies, literary non-fiction, and poetry that illuminate our students’ understanding of environmental concerns.  Student inquiry drives the science content: water quality, biodiversity, non-native and invasive species, and horticulture. Prior to completing their projects and presenting their plans, students discuss observations and data in podcasts submitted for a national student competition, publicizing their projects and the preserve.  This year students are working on several different projects: mitigating poor water quality in the preserve’s stream, building a monarch hatchery and waystation, constructing a pollinator garden, and creating an app for tree identification.

While I am excited about the learning in and outside of our Ecological Rhetoric classroom, I’d like to strengthen our Humanities-Environmental Science collaboration with seamless integration of literature centered on the beauty of the world in nature. I’d like students to value the words of poets and authors who write about nature just as they do the data and conclusions in research studies.  I want our students to read how authors and artists ask the trees and the sky, the animals and insects those unanswerable questions we ask of our souls so that they may pose their own questions. And I want to give shape to my formless ideas about the nature of science within Humanities.

Robinson, Mariane. “Humanism.” The Givenness of Things: Essays.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, pp. 3-16.

Remembering why I started teaching

Last summer I spoke with James Campbell, STEAM Interdisciplinary Specialist at Atlanta Girls School and, more importantly, host of Inspire 2 Impact — a podcast of “real conversations with real educators.”  I am inspired by his work with design thinking and interdisciplinary work students and teachers, and I enjoyed sharing my story with him.  You can listen here.



Instructional Rounds as an Observer

When I first joined our instructional rounds cohort, I came with a modicum of hubris.  Most days, I am a very good teacher, some days an excellent one, and during a few off days, I am proficient. As a reflective practitioner, I re-examine my curriculum for ways to help students discover a social context for knowledge, to find connections between performing arts and science, history and visual arts, literature, and math, believing teaching needs crayons and computers, books and music, laughter and passion.  And until my first instructional rounds observation, I was confident that my curriculum and my teaching were above reproach.


Then I received the first objective, dispassionate observation narrative of a lesson I taught, and the way I thought about my teaching was upended. Previous observation reports I received and those I had written were judgments of teacher effectiveness in the classroom.  Most praised my rapport with students, my presence in the classroom, and the activities that structured my lessons. My own observations of teachers contained this same type of praise along with suggestions for engaging students in constructivist lessons. Yet the observation report I received while a member of this instructional rounds cohort was filled with narrative paragraphs of detached prose and direct quotations of my questions and my students’ answers. As a mirror, this report showed me that I had not de-centered my authority in the classroom, that I still directed lessons like a conductor directs her orchestra. Through the narratives, I saw myself in front of the classroom and drew my own conclusions from the experience of reading what others merely saw, not what they thought about the lesson.


Even more illuminative for me was how the observational process had me re-thinking my own observation practice. When I was head of a world language and literature department, I used observations and my reporting as evidence to reward good teachers and to point out deficits of those who were less effective. I once believed that making note of deficiencies and revealing these to those teachers in my charge were how we could improve teaching and learning.  If I (or someone else) weren’t there to observe and judge, then how would teachers know if they were effective? How could teachers improve their practice if others weren’t in the classrooms judging their plans and the execution of those plans?


For me, now, this observation practice seems as archaic as lecture-based instruction; for this practice underscores an inherent hierarchy that can pit a teacher against her supervisor and ignore the philosophy that frames a learner-center approach to education.  Teachers should be afforded the same voice and choice we give our students, especially when we think about evaluation. Allowing teachers opportunities to scrutinize their own practice in the similar way we allow students opportunities to reflect on their own performance can lead to deeper understanding of learning.

Cultivating Spark

Today’s thoughts while reading Creative Confidence —

I continue to think about how we can use Design Thinking as a platform to design and develop curriculum.  Today’s reading  “Spark: From Blank Page to Insight,” led me to pose questions that I am beginning to feel are crucial to how we think about secondary education.

In this chapter, the Kelley brothers lay out these 8 methods of cultivating spark, for growing creativity:

  1. Choose to be creative
  2. See the world with traveler’s eyes and with a beginner’s mind
  3. Relax your mind, allowing it to wander
  4. Empathize
  5. Observe through field research
  6. Ask “why”
  7. Consider looking from a different point of view to reframe the question
  8. Collaborate with a network

As I started to unpack what it means to empathize with high school students and their learning, I asked: “How might we use empathy and research to understand what our students’ educational needs are?”  With that question in mind, I wondered how teachers can cultivate their spark.  What do they need to see the world with traveler’s eyes and with a beginner’s mind?  How can teachers keep their knowledge and insights fresh in order to cultivate spark in their own students?

My ideas about what students need to learn in English and Social Studies courses are based on my own experience in school and employment outside of education, in what I learn through my own professional development reading in English and Social Studies instruction and curriculum, and (slightly) through what the Common Core Standards identify as necessary for high school students to master.  With this mind, I’ve recognized that I am designing and teaching courses with a seasoned veteran’s mind, through eyes tinged with “I know what is best because I have an M.Ed in this.”  Is this the mindset we want to promote student-centered teaching and learning?

What would it look like for a teacher to have a beginner’s mind and travelers eyes?  For a teacher to empathize with students about what they need to know?  How would a teacher conduct field research and observe what her students need to know?

How do we truly know what students need to learn if we spend our days in the classroom?  We can read books, build our own professional learning networks to hazard guesses about our students educational needs; yet, if our approach to curriculum design is not learner-centered, not centered on empathy and fed by the research we gain through objective observation then how accurate are we as we hypothesize what students will do in their post-secondary school lives? How can we prepare students for college if we don’t venture into a 101 or 201-level  class to see what skills and knowledge they need to be successful in that class?  Are we preparing students for college classes that we took 10, 20, 30 years ago?  I imagine current English 101 and 102 classes are vastly different in scope and skill building than those that I taught in the early 90s, which were not that different than those that I completed in the early 80s.


From fear to courage (within privilege)

IMG_9330Today’s blog post about this morning’s work with Creative Confidence is an example of my own move from fear to courage.




Was anyone else put off by the examples of failure in this chapter?

For me, the failures highlighted were those that people of privilege could afford.  The venture capitalist who passed on Google did not suffer financially from the failure. He remains wealthy, perhaps not as wealthy as he could have been, but nonetheless, he has more than enough money.

How many families could bankroll the Kelley brothers’ destruction of the family piano for the sake of creativity?

Those who are privileged to be able to “bring-your-whole-self-to-work” most likely work for employers in states where components of their sociopolitical identities are protected by employment laws.  Some of us are not as fortunate, thus the fear that we will lose our livelihood stops us from being our authentic selves at work.

Privilege is a safety net that makes the trapeze, acrobatic work of creativity less risky.

What I am arguing in this post is NOT that design thinking is problematic in terms of privilege; I am proposing that the authors of this book may be blind to the privilege they enjoy, and thus this text (especially this chapter) may not resonate with those of us who do not share this privilege.

Pre-reading Questions for Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley and David Kelley

Image result for creative confidenceStarting my MVIFI Summer + Learning today with Tom Kelley and David Kelley’s Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential with Us All.  Today I will start with questions, following a strategy I’ve taught students to use when tackling an unfamiliar text.  Asking questions prior to starting a text leads to greater comprehension while also providing students with their own inquiry into a text. Starting with questions is also a norm at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.  What follows here is my brainstorm of initial questions I have prior to diving into the reading.


  • What is the Kelleys’ definition of creativity?  Does it differ from my own idea that creativity involves an aesthetic appreciation of life and its truths? (This summer I am very interested in truths.)
  • What does it mean to have creative confidence? Is this a belief in your ability to make something worthwhile, something aesthetically pleasing, something meaningful?
  • I am participating in Enhancing your Professional Creativity workshop at SCAD later this month, and I am wondering how this text will connect with the work I’ll do in Savannah.
  • Charlie Rose is quoted on the dust jacket, praising the authors for sharing their secrets about “find[ing] out creative power.”  I wonder if the authors are concerned that Rose has lost his credibility as a journalist.  I wonder if this quote will appear on dust jackets printed for later editions.
  • I wonder what type of work I’ll need to do while reading.  Brené Brown mentions being inspired by the “real-life exercises” in the text.
  • A creative way of thinking, creative mindset, asks us to empathize with users while innovating and to tell compelling stories about our innovations.  My own inability to get out of my head when I am writing stymies my storytelling; I find myself clicking tabs on my browser instead of writing.  Will I learn how to get out of my head and turn off the internal censor?



Digging into Voice — The Poisonwood Bible

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For the next few weeks, we are learning the skill of close reading, what I consider to be the act of picking a

part language in order to reveal meaning.  Today, we dug into Ruth May’s first chapter in The Poisonwood Bible, uncovering her voice by noticing figurative language, diction, syntax, selection of details, and tone. After today’s classes, I am wondering how we can move past identifying her voice as “childish” in order to develop the overall meaning of her chapter. Her presence in the novel.  Does she innocently and matter-of-factly tell us the truth?  Or are her observations and re-tellings of what she’s heard sifted through her filter of misunderstandings?  Why does any of this matter?

The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite novels to re-read and teach.  I hate Nathan each time I re-read — and I try to empathize with the pain of his survivor’s guilt.  I come close, but then Ruth May dies, and I focus my empathy on Orleanna.  The changing point of view in each chapt

er reveals so much more than character traits and plot because we see the story through five pairs of eyes, the eyes of imperfect women and girls trying to make sense of life and their role in the village.  Yet they make little sense of things while living in the village; they must leave it in order to look back and cycle through their memories, each under their

own misperceptions.

Tonight, the students and I are close reading an excerpt from Rachel’s first chapter, analyzing her voice and


how it reveals meaning.  Her first sentences — “Man oh man, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo from the instant we first set foot.  We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves.” — suggest an irony about her observations, her understanding of the situation that the other members of the Price family do not recognize.   Why is it important that we notice Rachel’s use of malaprops, even when her sisters do not? How does Rachel’s vanity filter distort her observations? What can she tell us that Ruth May cannot?

Our practice in close reading this novel hopefully will help us understand why we read literature, priming our pump, so to speak, for our PBL challenge — Why should AP World students read literature?


Why Literature?

I love literature, reading literature, talking about literature, watching literature on the big and small screens. I especially love teaching literature; I love working with students when they discover how authors create meaning.

Today, I began my 15th year of teaching standing in front of an AP Lit class, thinking about how we tear into literature, how we look for patterns in language and symbols, and how we use these ideas to examine a text’s significance.

Preparing for today, I grappled with the controversy surrounding Advanced Placement courses or more specifically, the controversy with the battery of standardized tests in May.  Like the majority of those in Advanced Placement courses, our students want the AP course on their transcript and would be thrilled to earn a 4 or a 5 on the exam.  I want our students to instead find their joy digging into a literary text, putting together the puzzle pieces left by the author.  And I wonder what would happen to scores if we concentrated on reading, analysis, and writing skills and not on practice tests and timed writings. I do not have the courage to try this, not yet.

This year I have the courage to “PBL” our AP Lit curriculum with driving questions that will lead to action.  This year our AP Lit students will wrestle with “Why Literature?” while tackling literary analysis and its place in the “real world.”  For this unit, Identity and Culture, my seniors will figure out how to persuade AP World Studies students that reading literature can reveal cultural values.

I’ll keep you posted.