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Voices: Remember the joy of learning?

Aurora teacher Jessica Cuthbertson has a joyful learning experience and it has nothing to do with filling in bubbles, getting graded or working quietly and alone.

Summer vacation. For teachers, the phrase likely conjures images of sleeping in and staying up late, travel, quality time with friends and family, poolside reading of fifty shades of frivolous books and other fill-in-the-blank activities that serve no other purpose but to relax, rejuvenate, renew.

The best teachers I know take a break. A break from grading, planning and daily instruction. But they also use the long, hot days to think critically about their practice, reflect on the previous year’s successes and mentally or physically plan for the first days of a new school year.

Many use summer break to shed their “teacher skin” and step into the skin of a student. They use summer “break” to learn.

Over 30 such teachers from multiple metro-area districts recently gathered in Aurora for a two-day professional learning institute. The workshop was facilitated by New York City schools’ literacy consultants Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton, authors of the recently published book What Readers Really Do — Teaching the Process of Meaning Making.

I was one of the teacher participants. And the experience proved not only to be an amazing way to spend two glorious summer break days, but also a model example of what learning – both professional development for teachers and classroom instruction for students – should look and feel like every day of the year.

What we did – read closely, think critically, question and explore

During the workshop, we read closely, thought critically, reflected, questioned and explored our own reading processes. We discussed the layers and nuances of text complexity — from literary fiction written for adults to picture books. We had rich discussions that allowed us to dig deeper and uncensored talk that supported our learning. We collaborated with others to “draft and revise” interpretations of how texts work, how reading instruction works and, ultimately, how we want our classrooms to work.

Indeed, not only did we do “what readers really do,” we also “did” the Common Core (if implemented in its purest, most utopian sense).

We engaged in a collaborative, authentic learning experience. And as a result, we left the second day committed to creating and constructing authentic learning experiences with our own students in August.

What we didn’t do – take tests, bubble in anything, sit passively

We didn’t take tests – though the facilitators frequently assessed and monitored our needs as learners. We didn’t bubble anything in or respond to prompts or read passages written to meet the criteria of a certain “level” or to “measure” our comprehension. We didn’t sit silently and passively. We didn’t receive nor were we expected to arrive at the “right” answer. We didn’t work in isolation. We didn’t feel inadequate or invisible because we read a text differently or because we brought (or lacked) certain experiences or background knowledge. We didn’t face interruptions or distractions. We didn’t worry about receiving a grade or even if we would receive professional learning “credit.”

Instead, we experienced the joy of learning.

Today’s teachers and students are part of a national culture that values quantifying the unquantifiable. We are so busy “racing to the top” that it is easy to lose sight of the journey along the way. Authentic learning is the journey. It is hard to measure or quantify a chorus of “oh’s” and “a-ha’s” — the murmurings that fill a room after a rich discussion. It is difficult to measure the transformation of a furrowed brow that turns into a spark in a student’s eye when they see a text, a concept, a problem or an issue in a new way. Learning is full of such moments — the internal and external dialogue that is at the heart of authentic learning.

As we prepare to begin a new school year, implement new standards, meet new challenges and brace our classrooms for another year of limited resources, we must focus on what’s in our control — creating communities of joyful learning — and trust that in doing so, our students will thrive.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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