Learning about Learning

02Aug10

Food for thought - a portrait with narrow depth of field

I have really had an exceptional summer of professional development. If there is a theme in the disparate experiences of this last month it is my attempt to understand HOW we learn things and how I can be a better teacher. Beginning at Constructing Modern Knowledge, I have been working on things that are not in my usual areas of strength. I’ve spent very little time thinking about how I teach literature or writing, and this has freed me to think about how we construct understanding.

At CMK10 I spent time working on a computer program that would randomly generate a Shakespearean insult from a list of nouns and adjective phrases. With much trial and error, using other programs as models, and reaching out to the people around me when I had exhausted my own abilities to find the answer, I was able to get the program to not only create an insult but to have a second avatar randomly generate a witty (or lame) riposte.  I then tried to create a second program that created a tessellated image.

What did I learn from this? Well, writing a program is like constructing sentences, and each sentence has an internal grammar and syntax. You have to get this right or your request is not communicated correctly. Then you join the sentences into a coherent paragraph, and the requests run one after the other.  The parallels to writing are exact. But here is the difference that I need to understand. I spent HOURS making certain that each semicolon and bracket was is the right place so that my programs would run. Sure, it got easier. But it was acceptable for me to spend hours getting it right. It needs to be acceptable for my students to spend time, extended time, working on constructing sentences in English. Where does the comma go? Which word changes the meaning? I need to give them the time and honor that building process.

At Oxford I was more within my general area of expertise. Shakespeare and I, we’re like this. But our tutor shook us up my giving us cue scripts (where we each only saw our part and two iambs of cue) of plays that we were not so familiar with. We made meaning from the words themselves. The text became our only clue about who to speak to and how to say it. Fascinating.

And then this weekend I attended a photography workshop with Kyle Cassidy. Again, I have been well outside of my general area of expertise. I take a ton of photos, but they are often crap amateurish, and if I get a good one, it’s sweet dumb luck and a good camera. To say I learned a lot would be true. To say I learned a lot about teaching would also be true. I watched Kyle often. He was in the moment with each student when needed, offering ways to make our work better. He was great with a group. He checked frequently for understanding and worked with small groups on concepts. There was no frustration with students [ahem, me] who didn’t get “it” – whatever “it” was. In short, he was a master teacher, modeling ways to help students construct meaning and see things in a new way.

Here is an example: I did finally get it. And I have an idea for a long-term photo project. To do it well means that I have to learn to control my own light source. Kyle helped me with the basics, and when he saw that I had a rudimentary understanding, he gave me a challenge. “The janitor just showed up and said you can’t shoot here. And you have ten minutes before your performer needs to be on stage. Get the portrait.” A fantastic assignment. Concrete, creative, and with a time limit.

And here is the portrait

Thanks to all the teachers and fellow students who have been my inspiration this summer.  Have a great year and remember – Rock the House.

(My photos – Still Life with Champagne Grapes and Portrait of Angela Enos)



4 Responses to “Learning about Learning”

  1. Wow, you are such a bold learner! Thanks for these reflections!

    • 2 Kate Tabor

      I feel like I will never know how my students feel about reading and writing. I absolutely need to step off the edge and learn something in the way they might be learning. My summer has seen the evolution of me in more ways than I can articulate in any forum. But it was through working with folks like you and Gary and meeting so many others that it was possible. I don’t feel bold. But I’ve lost my heart and soul this summer to my experiences. Thanks, and I hope to see you all again soon.


  1. 1 CMK 2010 – A Huge Success!
  2. 2 Constructing Modern Mathematics or is it History? English?

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