• Noa Daniel

My River, My Mountain-  A Day of Learning with Jennifer Abrams

I took on a bevy of different lenses throughout my day of learning to swim in the deep end with Jennifer Abrams and my learning teams. Learning Forward Ontario partnered with Ontario Principals' Council to bring author and consultant Jennifer Abrams to lead us through the foundational skills she discusses in her newest book, Swimming in the Deep End. We hosted this event at Richmond Green, which made it accessible to the 7 boards that were represented and the over 125 attendees.

Our first activity was to introduce ourselves by using the prompt: my river, my mountain. Jennifer modelled this by providing a literal geographic example from her home in California (Pacific Ocean, Sierra Madres) but invited us to use it as a metaphor to initiative a dialogue with our partners. I’ve extended the metaphor to frame my reflections. I see rivers as something that flow, and mountains represent challenges.

As a classroom teacher and in my work outside of school, I think a lot about andragogy (teaching adults) versus pedagogy (teaching children). They have often been posed as polarities, but there are many things that they have in common. Jennifer referred to a list called Adult Learning Assumptions, and the two assumptions that resonated most are the ones that I believe connect andragogy and pedagogy. The first reads, “Adults have a drive toward competence, which is linked to self-image and efficacy.” I see that as equally true for children.

Struggling with a sense of self is why many students and adults don’t build efficacy, so if this is a key to learning at any age, it makes me wonder why we wouldn’t nurture this more in general and, especially, in schools. Some of these expectations are embedded in Ontario’s Health curriculum, but helping students develop a positive self concept or become more efficacious are things we can help students learn. As such, it should be embedded in the Learning Skills. How we can promote these essential transferable skills?

The bottom of the list noted that, “Learning is the continual process of identity formation, or growing into more of who you are becoming.” I wish this was discussed more in pedagogy. Learning and identity are interrelated, so if more teachers created opportunities for students to be and see themselves at school and use learning experiences to inquire into who they are and how they view themselves, they could learn more effectively. As culturally responsive educators, we need to consider all social identities and their intersections. We can do more to embed self exploration and discovery of self through school. Wouldn't it be amazing if students were carried by a river of learning that helped them unfold a better sense of themselves?

If there is one goal that I have this year in relation to teaching students, it’s equity. This a mountain that I started climbing a few years ago, and I’ve been doing a lot of unlearning along the way. Jennifer helped me articulate questions that I hope will help improve my practice and work towards the ideal that all of my students feel seen and valued and that there is a clear sense of fairness in my classroom. Here are the ten driving questions that I took from the day to assist in the climb:

1. How can we build the deep relational trust needed to help individual students learn?

2. Are we living up to what we expect from students?

3. How can we look through the social identity lenses at learners and improve our communication with them in order to become more culturally responsive educators?

4. How can we become more proactive and allocentric when confronting resistance?

5. How can we see and help our students overcome invisible boundaries?

6. How can we pose better questions so that all of our students can answer them?

7. How can we manage our facial reactions to interact with students in perpetually courteous and respectful ways?

8. How can we demonstrate our belief in their competence?

9. What questions are we asking/could we be asking about whose voices are being heard, whose voices aren’t being shared and whose voices are being silenced?

10. If you know/can anticipate that students are going to be negative about a learning experience (I teach Grade 8; it’s pretty much a given), how can we subtly request that they suspend cynicism and open their minds to what is to come?

If being an impactful educator for my students is my goal, then there ain’t no mountain high enough...ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from it. Thank you, Jennifer, for helping me on the journey. I’ve added many new tools and a power pose to my skill sets.


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