Thursday, September 11, 2014

Learning Zen

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to

DAY 11: What is your favorite part of the school day and why?

I've been struggling to pin down the one part of the school day that's my favorite, and I think it's because my experience is so different from day to day. These days, even my prep period is unpredictable. It's during first hour, which should be great for getting labs ready and making last-minute copies, but these days it's been a lot of "Help! My iPad isn't ____ and I need to use it in 10 minutes!" Having been in that situation many times myself, I don't want to leave teachers or students in the lurch. But it also makes my prep period a little chaotic most days.

So, instead I'm going to interpret this prompt a little more broadly and try to put into words the moments of "learning zen" that keep me going as a teacher. If you're an educator, you already know what I'm talking about. Although there may be some specifics that differ from teacher to teacher, in general I'm thinking about those moments when all seems right with the world. A lesson is unfolding as you imagined it, students are engaged, and the learning is truly visible.

Recently, one of these moments occurred in Biology class. Although the circumstances for this type of experience can be varied, for me it always results in a sense of "flow;" like the student learning is a perpetual motion machine instead of that wind-up car I have to constantly attend to. Students feed off each other's engagement, and thereby learn more in the process.

Before diving into the topics of photosynthesis & respiration, Biology students had designed experiments to see how snails and pond plants use and release carbon dioxide. Each team ended up setting up different experiments, therefore we needed a way for them to share their results with the rest of the class so an overall conclusion could be established based on all the evidence. To accomplish this, each team was required to create a video that showed the results of their investigation, and the video was then shared with the other teams. The only requirements of the video were that #1, every team member needed to be involved and, #2, the team needed to explain their claim, evidence, and reasoning in the video.

And this is when the magic happened. Once they were given some direction, the students really took off on the assignment. I got to stand back and watch them discuss, teach, and come to conclusions within their teams about what claim their evidence supported and how best to display that in a video. For the most part, all students were engaged and thinking deeply. Some teams were pretty creative in the videos as well. They had fun planning how they would share their evidence, and a few even personalized the video. After almost four weeks of school, I started to see the teams gel together, enjoy each other's company, and compound each other's learning. It was a joy to behold. Below is an example of a finished product.

So, although I can't really pinpoint my favorite part of the school day, I can say with certainty that these sporadic moments of "learning zen" are one of the reasons I continue to love my chosen occupation.  Not only are the students grappling with challenging concepts, but they're also experiencing positive interactions with their peers and enjoying themselves, which causes the new concepts to "stick" even better. 

What does "learning zen" look like in your classroom? What can we do as educators to foster this type of experience for students? I look forward to hearing from you!

Photo from Roberto Zingales at Flickr.

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