You know, questions and curiosity like Maddie’s are magnets that draw us towards our teachers, and they transcend all technology or buzzwords in education. But if we place these technologies before student inquiry, we can be robbing ourselves of our greatest tool as teachers: our students’ questions. For example, flipping a boring lecture from the classroom to the screen of a mobile device might save instructional time, but if it is the focus of our students’ experience, it’s the same dehumanizing chatter just wrapped up in fancy clothing. But if instead we have the guts to confuse our students, perplex them, and evoke real questions, through those questions, we as teachers have information that we can use to tailor robust and informed methods of blended instruction.
So, 21st-century lingo jargon mumbo jumbo aside, the truth is, I’ve been teaching for 13 years now, and it took a life-threatening situation to snap me out of 10 years of pseudo-teaching and help me realize that student questions are the seeds of real learning, not some scripted curriculum that gave them tidbits of random information.
In May of 2010, at 35 years old, with a two-year-old at home and my second child on the way, I was diagnosed with a large aneurysm at the base of my thoracic aorta. This led to open-heart surgery. This is the actual real email from my doctor right there. Now, when I got this, I was — press Caps Lock — absolutely freaked out, okay? But I found surprising moments of comfort in the confidence that my surgeon embodied. Where did this guy get this confidence, the audacity of it.
So when I asked him, he told me three things. He said first, his curiosity drove him to ask hard questions about the procedure, about what worked and what didn’t work. Second, he embraced, and didn’t fear, the messy process of trial and error, the inevitable process of trial and error. And third, through intense reflection, he gathered the information that he needed to design and revise the procedure, and then, with a steady hand, he saved my life.
Now I absorbed a lot from these words of wisdom, and before I went back into the classroom that fall, I wrote down three rules of my own that I bring to my lesson planning still today. Rule number one: Curiosity comes first. Questions can be windows to great instruction, but not the other way around. Rule number two: Embrace the mess. We’re all teachers. We know learning is ugly. And just because the scientific method is allocated to page five of section 1.2 of chapter one of the one that we all skip, okay, trial and error can still be an informal part of what we do every single day at Sacred Heart Cathedral in room 206. And rule number three: Practice reflection. What we do is important. It deserves our care, but it also deserves our revision. Can we be the surgeons of our classrooms? As if what we are doing one day will save lives. Our students our worth it. And each case is different.
So these are my daughters. On the right we have little Emmalou — Southern family. And, on the left, Riley. Now Riley’s going to be a big girl in a couple weeks here. She’s going to be four years old, and anyone who knows a four-year-old knows that they love to ask, “Why?” Yeah. Why. I could teach this kid anything because she is curious about everything. We all were at that age. But the challenge is really for Riley’s future teachers, the ones she has yet to meet. How will they grow this curiosity?
You see, I would argue that Riley is a metaphor for all kids, and I think dropping out of school comes in many different forms — to the senior who’s checked out before the year’s even begun or that empty desk in the back of an urban middle school’s classroom. But if we as educators leave behind this simple role as disseminators of content and embrace a new paradigm as cultivators of curiosity and inquiry, we just might bring a little bit more meaning to their school day, and spark their imagination.