Saturday, May 30, 2015

Making new learning traditions

A year ago I was leaving the Ponta Delgada airport in the Azores with the motion that I probably wouldn't return. I had just participated in a conference on "interdisciplinarity," in which I was just about the only speaker with an interdisciplinary approach. During the conference I was treated kindly, spoiled actually, and taken under the wing of my friend and colleague Joao Cabral. I took the attention of this professor from the University of the Azores as a special courtesy that was being extended to me as the (unexpected) keynote speaker. Joao and I enjoyed hours of discussion, touring the main island of San Miguel and finding a common language of interests. 

A year later I got an email from Joao asking whether I'd like to visit the Azores again. Sure, I thought. The idea of convening a two-day seminar on teaching and learning sounded interesting. Later as the details started lining up I admit I felt some trepidation. A seminar on teaching math in elementary school? Where did I fit in there? 

Turns out that after not a little wrangling and departmental give-and-take Joao had gotten his way to bring me to the Azores. He wanted me here because of my expertise with teaching in an interdisciplinary environment, not because I'm a math person, which I'm not. Still, unsure of my role before coming I decided to bring some zometools as a gift to the department, especially his ebullient and talented colleague Elena, who teaches geometry, patterns, and symmetry through origami. I have to say as an aside that my colleagues at the University of the Azores are some of the most energetic and creative teachers I have ever met. They wear their erudition lightly, with a sense of humor and the deepest commitment to their students. 

The first day of the conference I handed out Zometool kits to student participants. And after my presentation Joao, who should have gone up next, offered, "why don't we ask the students to play with the zometools next?"  

I've used zometools with spectacular results with my Boston University undergraduates and design students at the Boston Architectural College. They did the same job here at the University of the Azores. Students used them with engagement, energy, and a spirit of exploration that bubbled over to the faculty who were there. In fact that afternoon we did a professors-only session with the zometools. My colleagues had the same experience as the students. When they presented their projects to our small afternoon group there was a great feeling in the room. The air had been cleared, people had done some serious play, and the energy was intense. The materiality of the zometools brought out patterns of experimentation, collaboration, and fun. Adults, kids, graduate students, undergraduates, budding designers, would-be business people, and teachers-in-training find the zometools irresistible. Could we make new learning traditions with these?

After the morning session the second day we tried the zometools again. The big box of toys was emptied onto the floor in front of the podium and we began to play. Elena had brought her students, an unexpected change in the program that required some adjusting. But that was the tone of the seminar. Keep communication open, learn from each other, and stay flexible. That's the way of the classroom too. It's a cognitive sanctuary where we need to encourage play, dialogue, and reflection. And as always, students are the center as we make new learning traditions. 

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