An essay I read recently talked about the importance of drama in learning, and its usefulness to us as teachers. The author made sure to delineate between “drama” and “theater,” explaining that drama is participant centered and theater is audience centered. The former is for the people acting, working through the material. The latter is for the entertainment of the audience.
Curriculum is like this, I think. Too often, it turns our students, colleagues, administrators into an audience. Overwhelmed teachers, caring teachers, new teachers and old, those wanting the best for their students can all fall into the trap of looking for that next right curriculum, for the steps we need to follow to magically engage our students in “learning.”
But curriculum is not learning; nor is it teaching.
Puakailima T.M. Davis, in the essay “Hana Keaka,” tells us about “curriculum as lived” versus “curriculum as planned,” specifically focusing on the power of doing in the process of real learning. We learn from taking action, from trying, from failing and reflecting and adjusting. Ma ka hana ka ʻike. Stephen Malkmus uses different words to tell us the same thing: “Go now. If you do not know how, youʻll learn along the way.” Davis goes on to connect this to the idea that words are real, visceral parts of this doing, of this work. Words are not abstract, not merely symbols. They have the power to create images in our minds and become part of the work of discovery and learning.
When we tell our stories, or share our knowledge, or dramatize a historical moment, we are not passing mere ideas into the ears of others. We are creating concrete images in our own minds and the minds of the readers/listeners. More importantly, when we put into words our experiences, our learning, our struggles or worries or pleasures and hopes, we are actually creating something new. We are not simply coding existing ideas into words and sentences. When we find the words we didn’t even know we wanted, we create new meanings, see new pathways, find new connections.
We change ourselves, we add to our knowledge, as we find the words.
And so, writing is our teacher.
When I write, I am exploring the space at the edges of my experiences. Struggling for the words, as I am now, is the work that does not simply clarify something for me, but it in fact changes me and creates new meaning. Reflecting on our days, putting our experiences into words is a powerful teacher.
When we practice regular, reflective writing, we are not narcissistically performing our words for an audience. We are offloading all the trauma of the day, discovering new threads to follow later. For teachers, this kind of writing can be a powerful meditative tool and also can become an integral part of our own learning to be better teachers to our students. Similarly, this kind of writing can be a learning tool in our classes, for our students. They can use reflective writing to sift through, make sense of, and find new ideas in the often chaotic detritus that is their lives, in and out of school.
I have long thought about my job with students not as “teacher,” not as one responsible for passing on knowledge to individuals waiting to learn. How presumptuous of me, after all, to think my thoughts and views are the ones my students need to have. No, I think about my job as one of helping students explore the edges of their own lives, to help them teach themselves about their own skills and talents, their own communities, stories, and connections, through self reflection and writing.
Whether we are trying to describe the feeling of touching hands with someone electric or we are trying to remember a calculus equation, when we are forced to struggle to find the words, we discover more than we knew before.
The learning is in the writing, not in the curriculum.