May 16, 2022

The Deliberate Messes We Should Make More Often

The Metaphor:  From the Learning Space to the Planning Space

As I was teaching the other day, class had ended and my classroom was a slight mess.  Chairs were pushed out, markers were on tables, bins for supplies were haphazardly on counters, and one or two leftover papers had fallen to the floor. To make matters worse, my board was filled in colors of blue and red, of not-so-neat handwriting that reflected the discussion of students from class that day, and a once neatly drawn two-column chart had become four boxes of unequal shapes.

My learning space, reflecting the positive energy of learning in my class that day, was in a state of manageable disarray.

To remedy this before the next bell came in, I immediately went to work.

Chairs were pushed in neatly.

The board was erased to be sparkling white again.

Markers were returned to bins; bins were returned to counters.

Books were stacked neatly, but not too high that they would fall, and left over items were returned to the “Lost Items” location, where they would be retrieved the next day.

In a matter of minutes, my room was once again organized and ready to greet the next incoming class of students.

The unfortunate part of this story is that in the process of making things “neat” again, I wish I had taken just another small breath to more fully replay the joy of the experiences that created our “mess.”

Like most educators, I don’t think I’m the only one who works to tidy the learning space in my classroom, but I find this desire to be neat and organized true in other aspects of my life, as well.  In my lesson planning, for instance, I often find myself “hiding” the notes of inspiration for future units when I wonder if I should be sharing them more often.  After all, these deliberate and thoughtful messes of my lesson planning life are often at the heart of my unit and lesson planning designs.

This leads me to wonder:  Should I, as a teacher, and we, as educators, take more pride in our deliberate and thoughtful messes, especially the ones that guide our instruction?   Should we share the thoughtful notes, annotations, and layers of lesson planning with others?  With students?  Is there a way to do this effectively?

The “Messes” Behind The Lessons We Share

The act of lesson planning itself reflects intention, connection, and concern for the students we teach.  Yet, for me, there are usually layers to my planning process, and only the “neatest” layers, the “packaged” layers, are the ones that are transparent for students to see.

The truth is that often the layers prior to my plans might be slightly more connective in thought than the plans that I post.  In my personal notebook space, one idea leads to the next, thoughts are crossed out, later considered again, until, finally, a pattern of thinking begins to emerge.  It is this layer of thinking that I find myself rarely sharing.

With an upcoming unit I’m currently trying, I’m wondering if it would be beneficial for students to see a work space that illustrates my unit planning layers in action.  I wonder:

1. Would this give students an “inside look” at all of the learning connections embedded within our learning or all the possibilities for learning just awaiting further study?

2. If the students saw proof of me “thinking about my thinking,” would this process of metacognition encourage students to be more astutely aware of our collective, collaborative “chase for learning” as a class?

In my own mind, this “chase for learning” upholds the standards and works actively to make learning thoughtful, investigative, and actionable. In fact, currently when I plan, I usually find myself in deliberation over the same set of reoccurring questions.  These reoccurring questions help me to build “frames” for the unit, and they encourage me to consider the supports for the essential questions I’m implementing. The following is a list of questions I tend to consider the most.

Essential Questions To Ponder For Any New Unit

1.  What is the essential question? What is the “big idea” that could travel with my students into life, beyond my own classroom?

2.  How does this question promote problem solving or curiosity?

3.  Why will students be invested?

4.  How will I involve the students to make the learning relevant?

5.  How will I make the students strengths and talents an essential piece of our collaboration?

6.  How will I encourage thinking to promote a process of realizations?

7.  How will I ensure that there are multiple pathways of learning?

8.  How will my students experience co-creation?  How will they develop the learning opportunities with me?

9.  What will self discovery look like?  How will the Habits of Mind be embedded?

10.  How will the students create products that honor individual thought and have real world significance?

11.  How will my teaching be uplifting to my students?  How will it move them from one place to the next in a way that is relevant to who they are or what they can offer to others?

12.  And, what will the students know, understand, and be able to do because of our work together?

Anyone can see that the questions we are considering as educators now are perhaps much more expansive than the lesson planning process I was once taught, and much greater than the space that traditional lesson plans allow.  I’m wondering:  Where do educators plan their ideas for personalized learning? What does this look like for different educators and subject areas, and should this process of planning units be the same or different across subject areas? In essence, where do we, as educators, create a road map for learning that feels authentic and intrinsic for our own thinking?  Here are three questions that perhaps capture my curiosity best:

Where Do Educators Dream, Plan, and Wonder?
  • Where do we, as educators, dream, plan, wonder, and connect ideas?  What are the materials, the design methods, or graphic organizers we tend to gravitate toward the most?
  • How are these thinking spaces similar to or different from traditional lesson plan templates? What do they allow for that traditional lesson planning might restrict or exclude?
  • How can our transparency in showing students our layers to unit planning enable co-ownership of the learning experience for our students? Is this even possible?

The questions above spark my curiosity and my passion for further understanding personalized learning.  With our own educators’ Habits of Mind, our own persistence, our own willingness to learn, and our own ingenuity and creativity, I am sure there are a plethora of paths and conversations that we have yet to explore.  As I reflect and talk with others, I’m looking forward to learning more about these deliberate and messy paths of learning.

Please feel free to comment to the questions above regarding “Where Do Educator’s Dream, Plan, and Wonder?” after you read this post.  I would love to hear your ideas!

Shawna Parkinson

Shawna is an English/Language Arts Teacher at Mason High School. Her posts often appear on Allison Zmuda's Articles are cross-posted with Shawna's permission. Twitter: @ParksinonLearns

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