It seems like the students are waiting for something. I’m teaching a class at a public middle school in Boston, and on my first day of teaching it struck me that everyone was waiting. They’re waiting for the next activity, for the class to end, to go home at the end of the day, to be out of middle school, sometimes to be out of Boston. The middle school is large, and dismissal takes place over the course of at least 20 minutes, during which students remain in the classroom of their last class and wait for their bus to be called over the intercom. There’s a transition, then, from waiting as posturing during class, to literal waiting, when students aren’t allowed to leave the room for any reason, even to use the restroom. The transition to dismissal time is sometimes subtle, and the sense of waiting for the time to pass pervades. It seems like teachers are waiting too, for the sense of relief as the hallways clear, for students to settle down, for support, for appreciation. The waiting itself is distracting. I’m in a special position, though, coming in as a volunteer unbeholden to anyone else’s timetable. I want my students to stop waiting, just for awhile, and be right here. I want them to feel that they’re part of what happens around them, that their not-waiting is needed and that they are needed. I want what they learn to be so fabulous and necessary that they go after it and want it to not be over. If they wait, I want it to be with breathless anticipation. If they wait, I want it to be a waiting that feels the passing of time more heavily than not, the waiting before finding out.
For Dewey, being in the moment is central to learning. ‘We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.’ That eloquent statement comes from Dewey’s rejection of ‘preparation’ as a way of validating education in and of itself. I think this sort of future-oriented education is ever more pervasive, and one of the criteria I’m told to meet through my middle school class is college readiness. There can be slippage between preparation and waiting. I want my students to know today, though. I want them to feel in their bodies what it’s like to be in eighth grade, and how the sun moves across our sundial in March specifically, in the cold air, today.
The website of Teaching for Understanding, an initiative through the Harvard Graduate School of Education, poses the question ‘what is something you really understand?’ When I read that, I wondered if I could write a short list. I discovered that there are few things I really feel I understand, and those things are not the things that I spend most of my (academic) time trying to understand. This was a sort of delightful realization, though, and I didn’t really mind. Realizing you don’t understand something reveals a certain sense of acquaintance.
So there’s another alternative—if not an uncomfortable, eager, motivating sort of waiting, I want for my students a delighted waiting. I want a waiting that acknowledges endlessness, where that endlessness is inside. I want waiting for understanding to be a curious internal unfolding. There are so many ways to provide situations for this type of learning, and so many ways not to. I like imagining these students as their best learner selves, in curious eagerness and curious patience, and I go from there.
Dewey, Experience and Education, p.49.