Deeper learning experiences are needed by our students. Not in two years, not in six months, not next week. Deeper learning experiences are needed by our students today. Right now. This very moment. We need to structure environments where students are deeply engaged in their lives as they are living them.
I know this is true because during the last days of the 2010/11 school year, the worst fear of every teacher was realized for me. My student was murdered. Sean (15), and his younger brother Kyle (13) tragically died in a murder/suicide, killed by their own father. Sean was my favorite that year. In fact, Sean was my favorite student of all time. He was the kid I wished I could have been at fifteen. He swaggered into school with confidence, intelligence, and a never-ending stream of comic book superhero references. Sean and I became close immediately. This closeness in our relationship only increased as we spent many hours together in my after-school Graphic Novel Project, touring statewide on the weekends, selling comics at conventions.
I am still processing the fact that Sean’s death, which affected me so much as a person, has also affected my understanding of pedagogy completely. Deeper learning is a direction that feels right because it allows for a truly student-centered pedagogy. Take this case in point: On one afternoon session of the Graphic Novel Project I asked Sean, along with two other students, to generate up a series of four panel funny strips. We were getting ready to attend a comic convention the following day to sell our comics and I had wanted to try a new marketing gimmick to get customers to our student-run sales table. I told them to make a comic strip, in black and white, on a piece of copy paper. The funniest one was to be the winner. “The winner of what Yurick?” the kids asked. I told them to get to work so that they could see. While the rest of the group was packing, the three team members in charge of marketing worked hurriedly on their comic strips. A half hour passed and I demanded to see the comics. The two other team members handed me their strips. They were funny, but not what I was looking for.
Sean handed me a comic strip. At the top it said, “Muffin-Eats-Man.” Four panels were laid out. In the first a man was holding a muffin in his hand and they both were looking at the reader (the muffin had eyes). On the second panel both the man and the muffin looked at each other. On the third panel the muffin suddenly transformed into a muffin-type monster and leered at the frightened looking man. In the fourth panel the muffin, minus the man, rubbed it’s full stomach satisfied. I laughed out loud and instructed the three students to go to the copier and make 100 prints of the comic. Sean’s eyes went wide, “100 copies… Why?”
“Tomorrow, the first 100 people we see will get a free comic—your comic!” Sean looked really excited. Later after class he approached me and said that he had never seen his art copied 100 times. He felt incredibly honored.
The next day he, and the other students, distributed the comic to everyone at the convention as they were urging attendees to visit our booth.
The “Man-Eats-Muffin” comic may not seem like a deeper learning experience, but it was. Through a rapid iteration process, Sean was able to communicate his vision and see how his work had value, not just to himself, but to others. What I received was a reminder that laughter, silliness, and creativity are accessible to all my students. The most powerful part of the entire experience for me was when I laughed. I hadn’t expected to. In that moment, my pedagogy shifted. It reminded me to get out of the way of my students, and allow myself to be open to surprises.
Facilitating deeper learning experiences is a risky endeavor. The tenets surrounding the practices of deeper learning are new to educators. How are we supposed to know how to successfully balance a “mastery of core academic content” with “collaboration” or “problem-solving & communication”? We know that the goals of deeper learning are ones our students need, but sometimes we are afraid of taking risks because we are unsure that they (and we) will be successful. We are afraid to fail. But this is a fear we must confront. While it may be important to give students access to content, it is equally important that we facilitate experiences that connect them to a love of life. This is the heart of deeper learning practices: a pedagogy centered in student engagement, enrichment, and love of learning. And, on a very basic level, we risk our hearts.
Every year students flood into schools and we, as educators, charge ourselves with caring about these people, and establishing relationships, that we know have expiration dates attached to them. We know that, by the end of the year, we will love this huge group of students that are going to leave us to go onto the rest of their lives. We know that we need to let them go, grieve the loss, and make room in our hearts for a whole new group of students. Changing students yearly isn’t the same loss as a student dying—but they both represent the passing of time. We risk all of this because on a plain and simple level—we know that this is the right thing to do in that we know that teaching and passing on knowledge to others is preferable to living in safe seclusion away from others. But would that even save us from experiencing loss? All relationships end, the good and the bad. Life is finite. I wasn’t aware of how much this paradigm affected my own heart until the year that Sean died. I had fooled myself, every year prior to that moment, that there was more time. That, although my role as their (the students’) teacher was ending, there would be more time. When Sean died I realized that there really is never a guarantee of more time.
I counseled many of our students after Sean’s death and often we would talk about how terrible the entire experience had been. I would say to my students, “You know, if Sean had died just one year earlier, we never would have known him. He would have never been my student, or your classmate. If I had to choose between not knowing Sean, and having read about a tragedy that happened to an anonymous high school student, and knowing Sean and having to deal with this pain —I would choose knowing Sean.” This idea, the idea of choosing Sean, is my motivation. Not only do I want to make sure that kids like Sean, the ones who are weird and love comics, are lifted up within our system, but I also want to ensure that we remember that the lives of our students are happening right now. Death is the one guarantee we have in this existence, but life is something we craft. We need to craft experiences in the classroom that are worthy of our students’ time, because now is the only time we really have.