I believe that there is no greater gift you can give a child than to show them you are invested in who they are becoming and how they experience the world.
I recently visited an elementary school in northeast Seattle that would be attending Islandwood, a school in the woods, the following week. Met with many raised hands and lots of energy, I shared with the students a few things to expect, guided them through a model investigation, and (most importantly!) asked each of them to complete a short fill in the blank letter. I take these letters back with me to deliver to their instructors. As I poked through the letters from the students in my group I took note of their ideas about what they want to be when they "grow up.” It seemed this coming week we had several doctors, a landscaper, two veterinarians, and a few kids who were still pondering their paths.
Transformational teaching prioritizes a foundation in relationships. It is connected to student’s lives, invested in their motivations, trustworthy in nature, and respectful of their emergent identities. The following week the elementary school students arrived at Islandwood and I picked up the group I would be working with. As we got started we took pause for one of the most important moments of our week, learning each other’s names. I circled my group up at the first possible moment and invited them to each share the story of their name (or a fun fact should they prefer). This moment of connection is often so special, students share about how they got their nicknames, how their name is pronounced, changes to their names over the years, and many connections to community or family. This is an applicable way of showing students that throughout this week we will be invested in one another as a group and even be learning new things about our peers from school. In just a few minutes we started the transformation from operating as individuals to starting to function as a micro-community.
Throughout the week, as we started activities I would frame up what we had learned about each other - for our aspiring doctors here were medicinal plants, for our future landscapers we free explored in the garden, for our passionate veterinarians we stopped at every caterpillar or slug and made room for its safe passage on the trail. As we grew in our knowledge of one another so did our opportunities for learning and connection. Students are navigating their transforming identities and we as educators are there to facilitate enriching opportunities for them to do so. Students deserve to feel connected to and seen by their peers and instructors. There isn’t a cookie cutter way to connect with every kid. As we come to know our students, we can listen for feedback about their motivations and relevant interests and use this to design motivational learning. Slowing down to honor the relationship you are building over the content we are all so passionate to convey will only create stronger outcomes for all students in the long run.
This particular student group spent one evening together wandering into the forest and making identity sculptures out of natural objects. Our challenge was to have one aspect of our identity represented through the design that we could share with the group. We navigated (careful not to step on any sculptures!) to each student's exhibit and listened patiently to what inspired them before asking questions. The unique characteristics of each kid were so evident in their designs. Bearing witness to the development of young children’s identity development is a privilege and great responsibility. Relationships encourage us to be respectful, they help us remember that our curiosities are reflections of our identities. As an outdoor educator in a residential school program, respect is learning about students needs before they arrive and listening to my student’s perspective in whatever format it may be delivered. Strong student-instructor relationships allow us to more intentionally model stewardship, care, and respect for our community and environment.
In what always feels like the longest week ever and no time at all in a 4-day outdoor education program, the students packed up two days later and got ready to go. As they settled into the bus I snuck in for a last goodbye, waving to all the kids I had worked with that week. As I handed each student a little note of encouragement for their continued learning, I felt emotional. Transformative teaching is mutual. It impacts us as educators as much as it does the students. With every relationship we build we learn, grow, stretch, fail, succeed, or reflect in some way or another - a small but mighty transformation all around.