[…] inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners – and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”
– Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel Lecture
Several years ago, towards the end of a literary unit on The Diary of Anne Frank, I asked my students to develop their own culminating independent project task. I gave them a lot of freedom to identify and pursue a topic that sparked their interest and that had a strong connection to the text we had studied and its key themes. Many chose to research topics related to the Holocaust or human rights abuses that took place since War World II. Some focused on exploring other texts written by or about child victims of military conflicts.
Nicole’s choice was completely different and unexpected; she had already read a few wartime diaries by children and decided to write her own. She wanted to combine her own research about World War II and her creative writing skills to produce a fictionalized account of life in hiding in an eastern European country during the war. “Can I do that, Mr. Glogowski?” she asked, after explaining her plan.
The immediate answer that popped into my head was “I don’t know.” I absolutely loved the idea of giving Nicole an opportunity to practice her creative writing skills and combine them with historical and literary research. Clearly, Anne Frank’s diary — its literary value and the context it describes — had made an impression on this budding writer, and she wanted to contribute something of her own to raise awareness of this horrific time in our history. But there were other thoughts as well, much less positive:
- What if this is perceived as trivial by her parents, her peers, and even my colleagues? How does Nicole’s idea compare to that of Jakob, who chose to do a research-based podcast on the Rwandan genocide, or that of Victoria, who chose to develop a multimedia report on the Nazi Olympics? Can I justify creative writing as a valuable final project?
- Shouldn’t I push Nicole to do more, to do something more “scholarly”? Shouldn’t I encourage her to do something more demanding, something that’s … not as easy for her?
- This is a highly sensitive topic: Writing in the voice of a fictionalized child, victimized by the Nazi regime over 60 years ago, is an unusual project for a young teenager … and potentially a controversial one. Anne Frank and many children since lived through unimaginable horrors and lost their lives. Is it appropriate for Nicole to pretend to be like them, to assume their identities, to speak in that voice … all while typing her work on a new laptop, in the comfort of her home in suburban Toronto?
Meanwhile, Nicole was waiting for an answer. With all these thoughts swirling about in my head, the only thing I knew for certain was that I … just didn’t know. I needed time to think about this. “This is a very creative and unique idea, Nicole, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea for a final project. I’m also not sure about writing in the voice of a child in hiding. Let me think about it, and let’s discuss it tomorrow. I may have some questions for you.”
Yes, I was buying time. But I needed time to think this through.
The next day, when I pulled up a chair to sit beside Nicole at her desk and discuss her project, Nicole pulled out three printed pages: She had already started writing! She asked me to read them and tell her if she was on the right track. I did, and our conversation, although hushed, soon attracted the attention of the other students.
“You’re pretending to be like Anne Frank. So cool.”
“Where is this happening?”
“That’s kind of weird, Nicole”
“How do you know what to write?”
And then a lengthy and fascinating discussion ensued. For two full classes, Nicole and a small group of her classmates continued to discuss the pros and cons of her project. Finally, Nicole decided against her initial idea and embraced a new, modified plan.
What happened during those two classes, among a handful of my students, had a profound impact on my understanding of teaching and learning. I said very little, but I observed and took detailed notes.
So how does this connect to teacher professional development? In two ways, I believe.
1. Education today must be about building communities of inquiry with our students. Allowing my students to discuss Nicole’s project made it possible for them to:
- Address a real-life question/problem
- Engage intellectually as well as affectively
- Work in the context where no single definitive and authoritative answer existed
- Engage in dialogue to construct a solution, both for themselves as individuals grappling with this issue, and for Nicole as a recommendation to be offered to a friend/classmate
- Experience what it means to be part of a community of inquiry
- Start preparing for active participation in a world where they need to be critical thinkers, caring and effective collaborators, and creative problem-solvers.
Over the course of two days, various voices and points of view were heard, considered, explored, evaluated, and critiqued. I helped manage the discussion, asked questions of my own, but never used my teacherly voice. I often said “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “What do you think?” or “Let’s consider this ….” As a result of this discussion, and my involvement as a participant – not a teacher – the students built new understandings of how to: participate in a debate, offer advice, share their views, build and refine arguments, be sensitive to the views of their peers and diplomatic when discussing their work. They discussed the serious moral questions involved in writing about the Holocaust or assuming the point of view of a historical or fictional figure in a context of complex historical events. All that learning took place in only two days and with minimal contributions from me, their teacher.
Needless to say, when the discussion came to an end and Nicole formulated – with input from her friends – a modified version of the initial idea, I knew that my classroom needed to become a space where students are free to build knowledge together, and that I needed to take the necessary steps to reconfigure my classroom practice.
2. In-service teacher professional development must be about questioning our practice and learning from it. It must be classroom-based and self-driven.
This valuable learning opportunity emerged in my classroom because instead of saying Yes or No to Nicole’s idea, I admitted that I just didn’t have the answer, that I needed time to think about it. After two days, I had incontrovertible proof that I needed to create more opportunities in my classroom to be a “participant observer” (Wells, 2002) and let my students construct knowledge together. In short, my willingness to face my uncertainty and then share it with the students, helped me learn with and from them, and foster a student-driven community of inquiry.
I often think back to this experience when I think about teacher professional development. If we want our students to be critical thinkers and contributors, agile problem-solvers and people committed to building more equitable and participatory societies, we must be competent inquirers ourselves because only then can we engage our students in meaningful inquiry, problem-solving, and collaboration that helps them acquire dispositions they need for an increasingly complex world.
In order to foster communities of inquiry in our schools and classrooms, we must be inquirers ourselves. We must probe and question and reflect upon our practice. Teacher development must emerge from our classrooms, in the form of critical inquiry into our own practice. It must begin with “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”, or “I wonder why or how ….”
After all, as Szymborska argues so beautifully in her Nobel Lecture, “Any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: It fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life.”
Wells, G. (2002). Inquiry as an orientation for learning. In G. Wells & G. Claxton (Eds.), Learning for Life in the 21st century. Sociocultural perspectives on the future of education (pp. 197-210). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.