Joy Kirr is a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. Her 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of their learning experiences... Want to have her speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is Joy's PORTFOLIO.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Ambiguity as a Learning Tool

The Building Learning Communities conference in Boston always inspires and challenges me.

Even though this was my fourth consecutive year presenting sessions, I was also asked to present one of the keynotes. Wednesday and Friday are reserved for one-hour keynotes, and Thursday is for three-four 15-20 minute keynotes. Thank goodness I was asked to present on Thursday!

I'd known about this presentation since November. Ideas percolated around my brain for months before I started putting ideas down on paper. I had not been told what to speak on, and the closer it got to July, the more I got to thinking I was on my own to decide.

This ambiguity was so difficult for me. Sure, I could set my own sessions for the week - those were based on where I felt my strengths lie, and I had many resources to share for when participants had questions. The 20 minutes in front of 500 people?? It was like choosing the right song for "American Idol"! (mine would be "Broken Wing" from Martina McBride!)

As I wrestled with what the message should be, and who my audience was, I never thought that not knowing - this ambiguity - this uncertainty - was what was so difficult for me.

That is, until the day AFTER my keynote, Ted Dintersmith - author of What School Could Be - said that ambiguity scares students. Taking a path where they might fail is scary. He says that we have many "Go fetch a dog biscuit" kids. They are really good at following our directions. They are not good with ambiguity.


I immediately thought - that's why the keynote was so difficult for me! If Alan November had told me what he wanted, I would do it. If nobody cared for the idea, I could blame it on someone else...

I figured it out. I had to! I did have parameters - It had to be ready by July 26th at 8:30 am, and it could be 15-20 minutes long. I also felt I had to share something about shifting... shifting SOMEthing. I didn't want to talk about Shift This (which of course, you can purchase right here 😉).

I also knew I didn't want to use the ideas from my "Shift the Culture" one-hour presentation. I had to create something new.

With these parameters, I thought about the history of my learning at BLC, what I've learned from others, and I decided it should be about shifting the language.
(Yes, deaf education is part of my journey.)

I was geeked to say hello (again) to the other two keynoters - both passionate educators on the other ends of the spectrum - Aaron Polansky from a vocational school in Massachusetts, and Pana Asavavatana who works with K-2 in Taiwan! When I got to BLC on Wednesday, Aaron said he'd changed his message a few times already, and he even changed it further the night prior! I think he had a tough time with the ambiguity, as well. I think Pana had her message about literacy ready to go (I could be totally wrong about that - we didn't have much time to talk) - even though we all had nerves galore!

I became more comfortable with the message in it as I went through sessions on Wednesday, the day prior to the most nerve-wracking thing I've had to do in a long time. Others at BLC were talking about change, and shifts they're trying to make, and how "others at my school" weren't on the same page.

The morning of the presentation, we were told our order (what a relief when I found out I'd go first!), and Alan said, "Your topic is genius hour, right?" My eyebrows went up and I froze for a moment. 

I said, "Nope. It's on shifting the language. Labels we're given and such."

He only said, "Interesting!" and went on explaining more plans for the next hour... Phew!

The ambiguity I was offered was a gift in disguise. I learned so much from brainstorming, trying different ideas, considering past conference messages, putting together much of what I've learned, and listening to the audience / participants the day prior. I tweaked two or three things based on what I'd learned Wednesday, and I was as ready as I'd ever be Thursday morning.

How did it go?

I'm happy with what I did. I have no idea what I actually said... I had my notes, but don't remember  using them. I did hear laughter in all the right places, and I saw many heads nod. Reactions and expressions of gratefulness from educators the rest of the day solidified that I had reached them in some way. They felt included. They felt as if I knew them. They felt empowered. Alan told me I'd done a "fabulous" job, and a few told me they had tears (which I didn't expect).

My lessons learned?

-Go with your gut. Say what you feel you need to say. Speak from the heart.
-Use the ambiguity as a learning experience. Research, reflect, brainstorm, tweak, get feedback...
-Provide students more chances every day to struggle with - and learn from - such vagueness.
-When they struggle with uncertainty, help them to notice all they are learning.
-Provide tools for them to persevere, so it will be easier for them the next time around.
-As always, these challenges should come without any grade attached...
-Um... hello - doesn't this sound a bit like Genius Hour? Or personalizing learning - ALL DAY?!

Challenge for all of us - How can we incorporate more opportunities for our children / students to struggle with ambiguity during our school days?

A HUGE thank you to Alan November and the BLC team for providing me this experience. More huge kudos to Aaron and Pana - we did it!! Everyone loved your messages! Let's put a handle on helping students and educators make more connections! I'm excited to read about your own reflections.

Here's the "moment" I made using Twitter - to capture some of the essence of my message. Stay tuned for further posts as a result of reflections from this fabulous conference!

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