Summer Series: Wilderness Maxims for Learning; Part 2

woman in jump against mountains

Maxim 2: –Let the weakest hiker set the pace.

Piggy-backing from the previous maxim, this idea flies in the face of school district “pacing guides” and what most of us know about the pace of a typical classroom—perhaps best summarized by the phrase, “Keep up!” This maxim is about not leaving anyone behind; it’s about helping to build confidence and endurance in those who need it most. It would be obvious to say that no peak is worth losing half the climbers to reach, yet pacing guides instill this sense of expendability within school cultures year after year. How can we reorient who is in the lead of the learning process? How does everyone benefit when one person overcomes a weakness?

Connection to Learning:

When I studied to become a teacher, I was placed in a 10th-grade World History classroom to observe a veteran instructor for several months. I recall one day when a student threw her notebook and pencil onto her desk, frustrated, and decried, “He moves too fast!” This surprised me since I felt the instructor was very patient with his delivery of information. He was well-prepared and provided students with a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation at the start of each unit. He would even print transcripts for students who required guided notes. Yet, here was a student that was feeling lost and weak, was overwhelmed by too much new information, and had become unable to continue on the trail.

Of course, I already knew the general story of World War 1 whereas the student was trying to wrap their head around the content for the first time. The class gave her no room for questioning, further exploration, clarification, or even geographic orientation. The student was expected to recite rather than reason. This setup is often considered acceptable by many teachers and administrators, and it is mostly standard practice to march each student up the mountain no matter how many of them fail to reach the peaks. What structures are in place within your classroom to hook and accelerate those in most need of assistance?

tourists walking along path in mountainous terrain

Student-led, research-based units built around a guiding question offer a way out of this trap. Better yet, split the classroom into teams of mixed-ability levels where each team member has a specific job: one guides team research, one records important notes and questions, one tracks time and task expectations, and one reports team findings to the class. Providing students with a research library like Newsela can allow for a ‘jigsaw’ of texts where each team reads a different article about a topic and then presents it to the entire class. There are even ways to gamify content delivery and review using Kagan structures for the classroom. Students in my classroom were very used to mingling to discuss content with other students and add to their notes in the middle of a lecture or direct instruction.

When those who need to build the most skill and confidence set the pace, it actually allows others to conserve their energy while also taking on mentorship roles. Not only this, but everyone ends up seeing more details and building stronger communication skills as the student mentors work with the pace-setters to help them. 

The real secret is that any student can do this on their own (to a degree) if they practice creating more personalized annotated notes or ‘mind mapping.’ This strategy involves using illustrated notes to track conversations with yourself built around questions (and answers) combined with pictures, diagrams, charts, graphic organizers, or maps. A quick online search can unlock active note-taking strategies. Learning can actually be more enjoyable when the learner takes a more active role in gaining knowledge. Teachers and parents/caregivers can learn how to help students build these kinds of active note-taking skills and techniques with practice.

Lost in the Wilderness

Discussion/Journaling Prompt:

If you had to choose today, what is one weakness (a skill or character trait instead of a physical feature) that you would choose to strengthen or improve about yourself? You can either “free write” about anything that comes to mind when you think of this act of self-improvement, or you can consider the following guided questions to explore this more closely:

  • Why does this skill or character trait matter? 
  • What would it mean to be able to be better at this thing that seems so difficult? 
  • How would you feel about yourself knowing that you’ve strengthened this ability? 
  • Are there any personal myths that you tell yourself about why you can’t currently improve this skill?
  • How would improving this skill help you individually and/or as a team member?

There is more to come in Part 3 of this Summer Series on Wilderness Maxims for Learning. Like, share, subscribe, or comment if any of these ideas resonate with you.

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