Teaching and The Heart

The world of education is awash in ideas about teaching and learning, and it’s an exciting time to work in schools. As more teachers, students, administrators, and thought leaders feel inspired and empowered to innovate in schools, the more we will confront ideas and pedagogies that can transform how we do school.

But if we’re experimenting enough, we’ll also find out what won’t work. One of the dangers, as I see it — and as I recently wrote in the current issue of McDonogh Magazine — is the lure of the “fad.” A fad is often a one-size-fits all method, unit, or lesson that is seen to be a panacea for student ennui. Good teachers know better than to fall prey to junk — or at least they recognize a fad for what it is while experimenting with it.

But we nevertheless have to be open to experimenting, particularly as we face rapid change in schools and in the world; no institution can afford to ignore what’s happening around us. We have to be comfortable when some idea doesn’t work; the occasional dud or dead end is not a block to growth — it is the stuff of growth.

But, in a market saturated with every kind of idea, Web site, book, article, and app about what works best in schools, where does the curious teacher begin? Even a glance at a great site like Edutopia can overwhelm us. PBL? E-portfolios? Brain-based learning? It’s no wonder that well-intentioned teachers would want to go back to what they’ve always done!

All of this has been on my mind this summer. McDonogh launched its Academic Strategic Plan, LifeReady, a year ago, and we went right to work on helping to realize the Plan’s objectives to which we are holding ourselves responsible. We felt that the stories around project-based learning were so strong that PBL would be a wonderful launching place for us. Dr. Thom Markham led dozens of teachers from every division on a multi-day training in this approach to teaching, and it was invigorating at the time and during the school year when students were benefiting from really engaging projects.

This past summer, we had the pleasure of welcoming Thom back to McDonogh. We also welcomed Dr. Sarah Leupen, a facilitator of Team-Based Learning (TBL), to campus, and she was a complete hit with faculty. Her workshops complemented the approaches Thom offered, and I could really see momentum in the faculty.

There are so many other ideas to explore and try, but I had an insight at one point earlier this year. Sarah was in the midst of explaining how TBL works, and she said something most of us understand, even if unconsciously: students learn when they have some emotional connection to their work. This is not a new insight, of course, but it’s no less powerful because of that. It’s common, for instance, for adults to say to each other, “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” That is true. I believe that I have been blessed with this reality myself (and I know the difference because I’ve had many other jobs that were indeed “work”). And just as it’s true that love renders work a pleasure (even very hard work), it is also true that learning where some, well, “love” is generated will also be a joy.

And I just got to thinking that all of the pedagogical theories, tools, and ideas that are being generated have, as their denominator, a core objective, which is to get kids to connect emotionally to their work — indeed, to love their work.

So read the books, articles, and Web sites, for these will empower us to do great things for kids. But, at the end of the day, if you don’t get to Edutopia or to BIE, don’t fret: just remember that your primary job is to find a way to get kids to be passionate about what they’re doing and learning. You’re a teacher. You can do this.

I’ll be returning to this idea again, I’m sure. But I wanted to get some of these thoughts down. I’d love to hear what you think.


About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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