Embracing “Icky” as a Learning Stage

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I’m attempting a more Universally Designed approach to reviewing and deepening my students’ understanding of the essay and that means more up-front prep for me, but then it’s in my students’ hands to Choose their Own Learning Adventure.

I established a bank of resources–videos, texts, graphic organizers, and images–and then sat back and allowed my students to take control of their learning instead of simply recording and repeating my one unique presentation on the topic. It has been a good challenge for me to let my students be responsible for their own learning and make meaning for themselves.

I watched as students took their time, selected options, watched and rewatched short video lessons, took textbooks and reference materials from the shelf–and struggled productively to make sense of the concept of a thesis.

Half -way through the process, we talked together as a class to share our emerging understanding of thesis statements. This allowed me to help them consolidate their learning as well as to eliminate any misconceptions. The class then had an opportunity to practice identifying strong and weak thesis statements, finally constructing an example to share with the class.

While we talked, I asked my students to give me a “show of thumbs” which is one of the formative assessments we use to check-in with our understanding. Most students were in what I call the “icky-middle”: not entirely confident, but not utterly lost.

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I encouraged them to embrace the icky middle–because that middle ground is what learning feels like when we encounter something new. Some students laughed, some grimaced and wanted to push the icky feeling away. For all of us, it was a good opportunity to stay in touch with the messages our body gives us about how we learn. Confusion and productive struggle feel like a physical threat. It can elevate stress hormones and cause anxiety. By naming that feeling as part of learning something new, my hope is to empower students to lean into the struggle and not fear the discomfort. If they can recognize the feeling and not fear it, then the struggle becomes a companion and not an enemy; it becomes a signal for real learning, and not something shameful to be avoided.

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Bud to Bloom

I read a post on Edudemic written by Patrick Larkin called “How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.” The post got me thinking about all the different ways we make learning comfortable or uncomfortable for ourselves and our students.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

I don’t know who has a harder time dealing with discomfort: students or teachers. On the one hand, some of my students demand easy answers and rote assignments. They want to know precisely which details are worth memorizing or what one-right-answer can be found in the textbook. They like the comfort of worksheets with predefined limits. They demand “study guides” that are little more than veiled versions of the test. It takes us a while to move away from this mindset toward the open fields of intellectual risk, argument and counter argument, and original creations. More than once this year, a student has said to me, “Just tell me what to write. Just tell me how many sentences. Just tell me how many pages.” These students are stuck between anxiety and their own comfort zone.

On the other hand, teachers can be too quick to judge themselves and their practice, sticking to the safe paths already marked and traveled. It takes courage to experiment with new methods and when we fail to meet our own expectations, the sting can take a while to fade. When it comes to technology integration, it can feel like there is so much to know that even the smallest change feels like walking into a minefield. Doing things the way they have always been done feels safe and soothing. To upend our curriculum, examine our pedagogy, confront new research about how students learn best: all of these things can send a wave of panic in motion. No one who loves teaching wants to think of the work we do is less than our best, but often that’s what we are left to conclude. It’s even worse if we work in an environment that feels punitive or makes us question our own competence. Self preservation can make staying comfortable feel like our best option. It’s a fatalistic version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Just as students need to know they are safe to step outside the boundaries of what they know and find familiar, teachers need that support from one another and from our leaders if we are ever going seek a little discomfort over staying comfortable. Any learning endeavor has a curve. Many times it starts with a goal that seems daunting or just too far away. It demands patience, practice, and persistence for us to achieve it.

Just when the flower feels snug in the bug, it's only holding back the bloom. Gotta keep blooming and show your colors.

Bud to Bloom

As for me, when I first read the title of the article, it made me think of a rosebush. As the stem develops a bud, the flower develops inside a nice, safe, protected place, but it only fulfills it’s purpose once it splits open into a blossom. If we allow ourselves or our students to stay only where it feels safe and comfortable, we keep from blossoming to our full potential.