Re-thinking learning for the 21st Century

TIL…It’s Okay to Quit.

As some of you may know, I am an endurance runner. Running is a big part of my life, not because I want to be some sort of speedster but because it taught me a lot about managing my anxiety, taking on challenges, accepting change and being open and accepting to uncertainty. I think running has shaped my practice in many ways. There’s something about the training challenge that drives my want to explore inquiry, try new lessons and embrace creativity. Something about running has developed an innate interest to pursue new things, ask questions and most importantly, “try hard things”. 

“it’s by trying hard things that we learn how tough we really are.”

A little throwback to the first year I ran my own team at the Ontario Science Centre

For many years, I worked at the Ontario Science Centre. It’s there that I met an inspiring mentor/manager/friend who shaped my mentality for teaching. She approached every challenge with the quote above. She looked at every difficult moment as a situation to learn and to grow. She told me that if running was something I wanted to pursue, to not be afraid of it and to welcome every challenging moment with open arms. I didn’t believe I could run. At that point in my life, it took me about 43 painful minutes to run 5km. I honestly didn’t think I could run more, faster or ever run for 1 hour without walking. I remember lying on my basement floor thinking , “is the body even allowed to feel this much pain?!”

Turns out, it all ended up okay. I ended up getting hooked onto this running thing and actually ended up a little competitive in the sport. I found a community, a team and a love for challenging myself season after season. This school year, I’ve had a really hard time adjusting to the school year.  For all of September it drove me nuts trying to figure out why I was constantly tired and struggling to find the excitement and happiness I normally feel with the beginning of the school year. I taught grade 9 science last year and was teaching grade 10 science this year. I knew the students who I was teaching well and we had phenomenal rapports! They even called me the GOAT. I knew it wasn’t my classes nor students tiring me out.

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Funny Story: my grade 9s went on and on about how I was THE GOAT and I was so confused, almost appalled. How could these young teenagers go about calling me an animal!?!?! How rude can they get!!? Turns out, “the GOAT” has a different meaning. My bad folks…my bad.

A little throwback to when I worked at the Ontario Science Centre and was a popsicle stick puzzle master.

Like any scientist, the only appropriate thing to do at this point was to analyze every detail of my day and think of a plausible hypothesis as to what was changing my teaching mood! After talking it through with a couple friends, my partner and my coach, I finally figured it out. I signed up for a marathon that I did not want to do. Most of the time, in these situations, most people will transfer their bib or try to sell it. Well, unfortunately, the race directors of this specific marathon created a policy where no transfers, re-selling of bibs or change in events were at all possible. None at all. Trust me, I tried. I tried desperately to change my bib around in July. No success. I tried to give it away for free, to switch to the half marathon but the race directors were strict and did not allow any changes. It’s a shame to think I couldn’t give my bib away to someone who really would have loved to run.

So here I am, dragging my feet through a grossly hot summer running hard workouts and high mileage training for this marathon that my heart’s not really set on. For anyone who’s run a marathon or for all of you with amazing empathy skills, you know–a marathon is mental, if you’re not feeling it mentally, you’re probably not going to love the marathon. After a long chat with my coach and a long mental battle, I had officially decided to bail on this marathon and change my entire fall running line up.

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For a couple days, I was very hard on myself. I kept thinking about what a bad role model I was to the students, that I was a quitter and that I wasn’t displaying much grit to face challenges. I thought that I was letting my students down by failing to model perseverance.

Then, one day this week, a student asked me when my fall marathon was going to be. I explained to them that I had made the decision not to run a marathon this season but to redirect my focus to running a half marathon later this season in hopes to qualify for another international race. I apologized to the class saying that I felt a bit of guilt for changing my goals because I spend so much time in my classroom talking about the fun in pursuing challenges and here I was giving up on my challenge! Without realizing the cloud I was carrying, my student (quite confused) asked, “Wait Ms. Lu, I don’t get it. Why do you feel bad? How’s what you’re doing different from us? You took feedback from your coach and made a change. That’s like when you mark our graphs and tell us next time not to make the same mistakes, right?” Another student chimes in, “Yaaaa. So you just changed your goals, but your goal is still a goal, right?” Of course a smartie pants in the room had to point out, “Ya but a half is way easier than a marathon!!” Then the SUPER SMARTIE pants of the class had to silence the room with one sentence, “Guys. Let’s be real–this ain’t BABY FOOD.”

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Yes, so turns out, 15 year old slang is weird. Apparently, baby food is the equivalent to our “that was easy” button. Everyone decided to settle on the fact that they were proud of Ms. Lu and excited for whatever runventure was next. I was surprised. I didn’t realize how much students didn’t care what I was doing, but cared simply that I was chasing a goal; that I cared about bettering myself, that I cared about progression. I tell them a lot about how one year in high school isn’t everything and that they’ve got numerous moments and all the time in the world to pursue opportunities to help them grow, change and grow more. It just came to me that, somehow, I had forgotten to apply that to myself.

So being the impromptu teacher we all are, I decided to re-frame my lesson based on this little moment I had. Don’t worry, we still talked refraction in my class and rocked the Optics lesson. However, I decided that we would take a small detour and write a little goal for ourselves for term one…something we want to achieve either in science, school, sports, socially, ANYTHING. Then, we wrote out an Action Plan. Woah. Did I just do a mini-cohort 21 thing in my classroom? Then if we felt comfortable, we shared it with the class, because we’re just all part of Ms. Lu’s dysfunctional science family, right (disclaimer: my students came up with that creative crew name)?

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Then, I realized how much of a load was lifted off my shoulder. I am still running the same mileage, workouts and distance I did in September, but I was coming into my classroom excited, energized and better able to teach! I was inspired, motivated and overall, happier. All this…because I shifted my goals a bit. I felt a lot of guilt at first, but my grade 10s made me realize…I didn’t change my idea of having goals and trying hard things, I didn’t give up on pursuing a challenge–I just changed what my challenge would be. To them, I was modelling exactly what I preached: taking feedback, adjusting, adapting, and most importantly improving. An important lesson for me but surprisingly, a lesson that opened up a conversation in my classroom. Somehow, this learning experience for myself has set up a classroom dynamic where my students actively and regularly check-in about their goals, openly talk about what they want to achieve and most importantly, share with one another how they are adjusting, adapting and improving themselves. Fingers crossed for developing a culture of growth mindset this year in grade 10! If you managed to make it through my long ramble…#thankyou #cohort21 #excitedforthisjourney

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  1. Garth Nichols

    Wow! What an incredible story May! There are quite a few runners amongst this group (check out @ckirsh and our #Cohort21 podcast: where she’s done a mini-series on running) and the learning is very similar – we run to know challenge, to seek calm and to reflect.

    Great job adopting the action plan approach with your students as well. Great turn around time on this. Can’t wait to hear more about it in our second F2F!

    @nblair @jbairos @mwilcox @amacrae

  2. Jess Sheppard

    Love this, @maylu! It’s great to hear about how your change in goals became such an important learning(/teaching) moment for your students, and has helped promote feedback and foster the dynamic in your classroom. Running is awesome!

  3. Jennifer Bairos

    What a great story! I can really feel your passion and excitement build as you described the path you went on with your students.

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