This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Brett Slezak
The biggest question that surrounds The Fluency Project at the CREATE Lab is “What is Fluency?” I don't have an answer for that question. As a cohort of teachers and CMU partners, I'm not sure any of us have quite figured out what that answer is. In fact, the answer might be that there is no exact answer. The ambiguity of what it is we are trying to create together as people muddling through the process is exceptionally freeing and equally restricting. I am sure that in that statement somewhere, there is a deep metaphor about the current state of education and what it means for students to be ready to take on the future. However, I believe that right now our immediate task as a group is to notice the little things that Fluency brings to our classes and explore how we can make the abstract more tangible for others.
One thing that is clear about Fluency is that it values having values. If you haven’t checked out the “Values” tab on this website, go ahead and do that now; it will give you some context. A couple of weeks ago, I took this idea of values a little more serious than I have in the past while lesson planning. In our freshman health classes, students are coming to the end of a learning unit about all of the major body systems. Body systems have always been a major unit in this class and it has always taken up a major portion of our time. It makes sense from a “school” perspective. Not only is it important to understand your own body, but the content is Keystone testing eligible and is cross-curricular reinforcement with our freshman bio-classes. However, when students learn about the body systems, it is so easy to think about them from a purely mechanical process (and even easier to teach about it that way). This isn’t a new reflection for me by any means. I’ve always known that I wanted to do more with this unit and how it was taught, but just could never find the right ideas. Knowing this, I set out to plan at least one lesson differently this go-around and purposefully take a different approach in how students were learning. Usually the first question I ask myself when planning (as do most teachers) is, “What do I want the students to learn by the end of the period?” And usually I answer it with something like, “be able to apply the skin’s functions to their own person wellness.” It is always some edu-jargon that has been drilled into my being as a teacher, but this time though, I told myself that regardless of success or failure, I would let the Fluency Values answer my question. The edu-jargon I came up with this time time: “Students will understand how the skin can impact relationships.”
Here is what happened….
When students came into the classroom, we exchanged our opening of class pleasantries, took attendance, and got ready to learn. To get away from the hectic speed of our normal days, I explained to the students that we were going to spend the first half of class not talking and just listening. Each students was going to put in their earbuds, find a comfortable spot, avoid contact with other people and just listen to a podcast on their iPad. No videos, no other work, no distractions… just listening. The program they were listening to was a segment from a Snap Judgement called “Skin Deep.” The story is a really interesting chronicle of middle school kids trying to find the perfect date to the big dance at their summer camp. It just happens to be that the kids at the summer all have varying ranges of skin conditions. As the students sat silently around the room, it was interesting to note the myriad reactions they were experiencing. Some of them were struggling to focus on just listening to something for 20 minutes, a few were laughing out loud, and one was even crying. The reactions was visceral, intense, personal and real.
When everyone finished the podcast and had a few minutes to digest what they just consumed, it was time to get together and create some meaning around what just happened. In the spirit of summer camp, we all got into a big circle and with a few pre-planned questions and just talked about our reactions. Initially we talked about some of the different skin conditions that the students had never heard of and then moved on to some of the impacts these conditions might have on daily living. Eventually though someone asked the question, “Why were some of you laughing? It is pretty messed up to laugh about kids who can’t help what they got.” It was the first deep question we had. One of the laughing students replied, “No, no. I don’t know why I was laughing. It was just funny! Not the kids problems, just the dance thing.” After some more blame deflecting and pressing uncomfortable questions about what was so funny, we finally got to our moment. One of the laughing kids realized, “I guess when I think about it, why the whole thing is funny… those kids even though they are younger and have skin conditions… those kids are us. We do the same stupid stuff when we ask people to dances. We cause drama over dating. You don’t have to have a skin condition to do that stupid stuff.”
In that moment, everyone in the room saw a little bit of themselves in all people. We were able to get past the labels we force onto people and see just how shared the human experience is. Did we learn something about the skin? Sure. But more importantly we learned a bit about the importance of relationships and people, and I learned a little bit about what The Fluency Project might be.