Summer has all but rolled up its beach towel for the last time this year. The iced tea is staring contemplatively at its winter companion the kettle on the stove. Kids have adorned classroom walls with the last dispatches from Florida vacations, and teachers everywhere are pondering where to go next to keep their classrooms alive.
Before I go into a classroom, I start by planning certain activities: “lessons” you might call them. The only problem is you can’t plan a real lesson. Not the kind that kids remember as well as their Summer vacation to Siesta Key. Those “lessons” are only opportunities we search for and grab a hold of if we can catch them. They’re like fireflies that start to fade as soon as we close the jar lid. It’s hard to keep them glowing, but that’s what they demand.
The firefly metaphor speaks to something else about teaching which is hard to understand: the impermanence of learning confined within a classroom. Fireflies can’t live in the jars once we trap them for examination and neither can the intrinsic motivation of a group of kids stay trapped for long within four walls.
Student success can only take flight once it is freed from the control of a “teacher” and the classroom. Kids are so used to being subordinate once they get through middle and high school, it’s hard to rekindle any glow that’s left in them. Their love for learning, what made them raise their hand so fervently in elementary school, has been trapped in a compliant glass bulb devoid of any real goals.
If we want to see kids the way we see them the first week of school, when they yearn for our attention, raise their hands out of curiosity and not obligation, and truly seek to learn, we need to make changes in the ways we speak and act as teachers. It’s that intrinsic glow which drives exploration and makes kids move their pencils, scroll their mouse wheels, and engage with others in conversation.
Though we may want to trap them at times, to rally them for a brief moment of awesome light, we can’t lose what makes them glow in the first place. Their luminescence comes from the childlike desire to go somewhere new and to be guided along the way by the others. A hopeful classroom relies on the lights of students to illuminate. An optimistic teacher balances the pursuit of that light with the search for what it will shine on.