Returning to the Root: Reflection and Collective Learning

“We must ask ourselves, ‘What is it that we are trying to do, and are we doing it as effectively as we can?’ For the answers to these questions are inherently political.” – Chinua Achebe

The wisdom needed to envision radical learning already exists in ourselves, our communities and our students.

On Monday morning of the last school week in December, my mentor teacher threw out the lesson he had originally planed for the day. It being the week before winter break and the holiday season, he himself felt preoccupied and could sense that the kids’ minds were elsewhere. Instead of sticking to the usual a.m. schedule, he asked everyone in the class to go back into the files of corrected and graded work which they’ve been saving since the start of the year, and take a look back at everything they’ve done so far. The class spent the majority of the morning crafting letters to their families, reflections in their own words on what they thought they’d learned thus far in the school year, what they’d enjoyed, what they’d struggled with, what they were proud of. “I realized this morning that we’ve just been going and going in here, and have barely taken any time to reflect on what we’ve actually learned and accomplished together,” he said to me. “And that’s my fault. I felt like we needed to do something looking back before we push forward again.”

Back in the beginning of December, on an afternoon when the class was particularly distracted, a lesson my mentor was teaching was having trouble getting off the ground. Students were obviously unfocused, uninterested in following the discussion, and kept interrupting the lesson with jokes and side conversations. After pausing to address the class several times, with increased frustration each time, my mentor teacher abruptly stopped the lesson in mid-sentence, saying, “This isn’t working.” I was expecting him to reprimand the class with even more seriousness than before, and perhaps threaten them with negative consequences. Instead, he directed the entire class over to the living room (another area of the space with rugs and pillows), away from their tables and desks. Once everyone had sat down, he spoke: “We are clearly having trouble focusing today. Everyone is goofing and joking–which I love to do–but not when it is keeping us from learning. I’m a little distracted today myself, and I want to ask you all what it is that is making it so hard for us all to focus. Is it because we’re tired? Because we just came in from recess? Why are we all having such a hard time staying on top of it today?” We went around in a circle, and students expressed what it was that was distracting them–what occurrences that day or that week were keeping their minds off the tasks at hand–and what it might take to get back into what we were doing in class. After a thoughtful and informative discussion, we had come up with a few strategies for staying focused even with everything else that was going on, and moved back to the seats at the front of the room to start the lesson fresh.

In a moment when a preoccupation with achievement and productivity are dominating every aspect of the field of education–in correspondence with the powerful businesses and individuals in whose interests such a focus works–honest reflection of any kind can be rare. Reflection that happens not as a form of professional development or statistical analysis, but as an earnest and critical discussion between and amongst all community members is even more rare. What both of these moments with my mentor hold in common for me is that they start with an educator pausing in the midst of their hectic and demanding work to reflect on the effectiveness of their own means of communicating, structuring and guiding their community. Equally, they engage the larger community–teachers, students and staff–as intellectual partners in the conversation. The question or problem that the educator began by identifying in themselves is posed to the entire learning community, relying on its many perspectives and experiences as a reservoir of knowledge. By pausing to examine the bigger picture of the classroom–differentiating between what it was set up to do and what new purposes the educator hopes to bring to it, asking whether that new vision is being honored, and allowing for all members of the community to have voice in answering that question–the educator becomes not a leader of but a facilitator for the learning process, incorporating their and others’ wisdom into the structure of the classroom, engaging students in the process of reflection, and creating room for them to question and critique the space just as the teacher is trying to.

A close friend of mine once said to me that the most revolutionary ideas are not new ones at all, but ones that have been around for centuries, maybe millennia, maybe forever. The most radical ways of defining our communities, of sharing our resources, of working and learning together, are not solely hovering in the ether, waiting to be articulated. They are just as much present in our traditions as devalued populations, our lives as marginal communities, and our sensibilities as oppressed people. In this sense, radical learning is not solely about uprooting systems of domination and gross inequity, but is equally about returning to the roots of our own histories, experiences and wisdoms as poor and working folks, queers, people of color, disabled, immigrant, and traditionally voiceless people. It is about listening over the din of reform and achievement, the barked orders of private and conservative bodies, to the knowledge and brilliance which already exist in ourselves, our peers, our families and our students. If, as educators, we are genuine about our commitment to learning as a collective and liberatory process, we must learn to honor our own instincts, trust in our own relationship to the communities of which we are a part, and to treat them as the spaces of inquiry and critical thought which they are constantly revealing themselves to be. We must learn to take the issues with which we are struggling as educators and pose them to our larger learning communities, holding them up for collective scrutiny, and giving every voice the chance to share its wisdom in addressing them.

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