By Teachers, For Teachers
I remember Mr. Ford. One day during my freshman year in biology, Mr. Ford walked in. He was a substitute. “Hi everybody. I’m Mr. Ford. Mrs. Phillips will be out for the next two weeks and I’ll be here until then.” His announcement wasn’t unexpected, but what was unexpected was that for the next two weeks, I learned more in biology class than I did the rest of the year. What was the difference? Mr. Ford seemed to know as much about biology as Mrs. Phillips did. He was able to keep a disciplined class, helped us with our labs, and assigned and graded homework just like any other biology teacher would. But there was something different about how he approached our subject: He seemed to genuinely enjoy it.
One day Mr. Ford brought in petri dishes. Nothing unusual, until he said, “I was out at the nature reserve last evening walking around and found some samples of the microbes we were talking about.” Our stunned response: “You mean he actually likes doing this on his free time?” and then “Can we see them?”
One of the most effective teaching strategies we can use to inspire greater learning in their students is to simply model it themselves. Mr. Ford didn’t just enjoy biology; he helped us see his joy and his learning. The result was that he inspired a classroom full of previously bored students to get engaged in their learning. Teachers who model learning inspire learning.
So let’s look at a few simple teaching strategies teachers can use to take their independent learning and model it for their students.
One nice, passive way to share with students what you’re reading is to have a poster displayed in your classroom. A laminated poster can easily be written on with a dry-erase marker and updated with the title of the book and author you’re currently reading. Other features of the poster could include a picture of you reading, a list of your favorite books, and even a list of your favorite genres.
What’s nice about this is that your students can see that you don’t just love to read about your subject. English teachers might read about history, history teachers might read romance novels, and science teachers might read about zombies. It doesn’t matter; as long as students see that their teachers read something in their spare time, students passively pick up the idea that they can read in their spare time, too.
A nice classroom bonus: including a “Currently Reading” poster for students, too. Give students a chance to imitate you and list their own books!
Ever accomplish or produce something on your own that could illustrate your learning? Bring it in and show your students! Maybe you gave a presentation at an educator’s conference. Maybe you finally got that article published. Or maybe you were given an award for some achievement. Show off these milestones for your students.
Or maybe you have independent work beyond the education realm you can showcase. How about that piece of furniture you built? Or that novella you’ve been working on? Or those exercises that have changed your health? Whenever you can, show students that you’re more than a one-dimensional teacher. Show them you apply the value of learning to all passions in your life.
Another bonus: If you can’t bring in an actual artifact of what you’ve been learning, snap some photos or record some footage instead!
What we end up teaching students often ends up being a fraction of what we actually know. Plus, teaching has become much more about what students learn, discover, and apply on their own rather than what we just tell them. However, it may be especially instructive for us to tell students what it was like for us to learn about whatever content you may be focusing on.
Talk to students about what you were curious about, what your questions led you to, what resources you discovered, what conclusions you came to, or anything else related to your preparation of classroom material. Sometimes students feel like teachers merely turn to “Page X in the classroom manual and copy the lesson,” but showing them our story behind the lesson can go a long way for them following in our footsteps of learning.
Take advantage of the massive sharing opportunities that accompany digital tools. Start a Twitter account, a Pinterest board, a Google+ profile, or a blog and share your learning with the world. Then let your students see it.
Using these tools to share your learning allows you to connect with others from around the world who are learning about the same areas. These network connections will mutually share ideas and resources that will stimulate your learning even further. The benefit for students comes when they see how you are leveraging these resources in an adult, professional manner to expand your knowledge. Students often use these same platforms, but often for strictly social or entertainment reasons. When they witness how a professional uses these tools, the more likely they’ll be able to imitate that behavior too.
Modeling your learning can be as simple as telling a story. Learning, after all, is a story. It’s a process that has a beginning, middle, and (sometimes) an end. It involves characters and plots, mysteries and conflicts, climaxes and resolutions. Tell stories about times you learned.
The stories don’t have to be complicated or even that entertaining. “One time, I learned. Here’s what happened … ” and off you go. Doing this once in a while with your class shows them that learning is a part of life. And once they especially see that it’s a part of your life, they’ll more consciously incorporate learning into their own.
It can be fun to show students what you’re working on currently, but why not take them into the past and show them something you did a while back? Doing so gives students a glimpse of something they don’t often see: Their teacher when they were younger and less skilled.
At times I have shown students work I did while in high school or college. I’ll tell them about my process of creating it, and even make fun of my flaws. This enables students to envision me as a learner and see that even their immaculate teacher was once just like them. This, in turn, helps them feel more confident with where they’re at and understand that learning is a lifelong process of trial and growth.
The whole idea beyond modeling one’s learning is to demonstrate to students that you, too, are a learner interested in growing your skills and knowledge beyond where they’re currently at. And when students see this modeled for them, their own understanding of and appreciation for the learning process will be amplified. The result, hopefully, is that they will ultimately feel more inspired to get engaged in their own learning process.
How do you model your own learning? What would you add to this list? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.