Honoring Interests and Connecting Our Learning

WriteOut 2018-07-22

Each spring for the past few years, I’ve been teaching #ED677 at Arcadia University (see this year’s blog). We start with a prompt that my colleague Paul Oh (@poh) came up with a few years back when he worked at the NWP to support thinking about one’s interests and learning that is connected. Here is the prompt and my response to it this year.

Describe an interest that you had as a young person, whether or not that interest was recognized as learning in school. Write or make something about it that you can share with others … Tell us about what might have piqued this interest. How did you pursue that interest or what did it make you think about? What and who supported you as you dove deeper? In what ways were your interests connected to school, or not? What were the implications?

When I think back, I remember that I did a lot of structured activities as a kid – swimming, playing baseball, and practicing ‘cello are the main things I remember, and I remember they involved a lot of fun but also a lot of struggle. I wasn’t a bad swimmer or athlete but I also wasn’t great and I struggled with the attention I needed to get better and the pressure I felt to succeed; I just couldn’t quite grasp the balance around it all as a kid.

At that time, my mother was a nurse. In her free time, however (and I mean all of her free time), she would make things. She would make our clothes, delicious whatever-was-in-the-fridge dinners, costumes for school plays, presents and gifts for family and friends, etc. Halloween was the biggest deal – less for us in a way and more for her as she would roll out her latest creations with us in the middle of them.

Ironically, because making things was her solace in many ways, making was the province of my Mom and we let her have at it and participate when she invited us in. As I grew older though, I began to make more things and found myself completely absorbed when creating – whether it was a card or a gift for another, or it was my own costume, a project at work, large-scale puppets for street theater (see spiralq.org), or simply dinner for that evening. It was my own bit of escapism I started to realize, but it was also a realization about the way that I learn. While I didn’t always make the best or perfect things - my mother really is a talent beyond and a hard act to follow - I found that when I let myself explore and not expect a certain outcome, I could be very creative with whatever materials and situation I find myself engaging with. And within this creativity came a “flow” that I recognize can actually be a true source of happiness for me (https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow).

Learning what this flow feels like was the breakthrough and made me directly reflect on the ways that I had been learning, and was taught to learn, and why those structures sometimes didn’t help me access what I really needed; and why that balance of persistence and expectations was so hard for me to balance to as kid. Not that creativity shouldn’t involve struggle, and certainly it does. But experiencing flow reminded me that I could approach even more formal activities like sports or ‘cello playing with a bit more flexibility and discovery; with a little less concern for outcomes and more a focus on learning what was possible with the materials (ie. pulling hair across wood with strings, hitting a leather ball with a wooden or metal bat, moving my body through water rapidly), and where I could tap into moments of flow and creativity along the way.