By Holly Zimmerman and Kristine Gullen
“Mommy, is Spiderman a good guy or a bad guy?” my three year old inquired as we watched our first episode of the cartoon the other day. At first I was taken aback, as we all know the crime fighting, web throwing, bemasked man to be a nerdy but endearing hero. So, in defense of the American Dream, I responded, “Spiderman is a good guy, Danniella.”
Of course, the literature teacher in me could not stand that concrete answer. I was cursed with a need to extend her thinking. So I continued with, “What makes you ask?”
And with the wisdom of a toddler, she reasoned: “Mommy his mask eyes look mean and I saw him hitting people.” Suddenly, I saw the story with new eyes.
This is often the joy of teaching literature to teenagers: they help you see the story with new eyes. But who helps us to see our practice with new eyes? When is the last time we approached familiar material with fresh perspective… or even with overwhelming uncertainty?
Most of the teachers I know have spent years calibrating a great compass, but we all still hesitate to head off into uncharted territory. It’s unsettling and unknown. Yet it’s what we ask our student to do every day.
So instead of walking into your classroom each day with the certainty of good guys vs. bad guys, consider these ways to embrace the mind of a child.
1. Hand over the Compass
Teenagers label assessments as arbitrary and unnecessarily torturous, yet they are the first to beg for a detailed rubric when they’ve got an assignment on the way. Try inviting them into the front seat by letting them design the assignment, reasoning through the requirements with an agreed upon list of skills.
2. Pull over and Ask for Directions
Embrace the vulnerability in telling students when you are headed somewhere new, and ask them to help you get there. My students often feel honored and exited to be a part of a “classroom pilot.” When I identify myself as a novice alongside them, they are more apt to be on my team and help the project succeed
3. Send up a Flare
Try inviting a guest into your classroom as a storyteller, instructor, evaluator, or coach. It can be unnerving to have another adult in the room, but it often re-energizes and re-focuses the learning.
4. Redraw the Boundaries
Encourage your students engage in the surrounding community through service or genuine inquiry. Future employers and professors are eager to communicate with students about the skills they need to succeed, and anybody likes to be honored for their expertise.
5. Put one Foot in Front of the Other
I often find that just dipping my toe in is never enough—I always go back for more. The momentum of Uncharted Territory is infectious—it will spread from you, to your students, to your colleagues and back again.