What my baby has taught me about learning
“What’s it like to be off from school?”
“What do you do all day now that you are not working?”
“Do you miss teaching?”
“Don’t you just love watching Netflix all day?”
Anyone who has taken any time off from their regular career to care for their children might feel the same twinges of irritation at these questions. As if caring for a young person was just a frolick in the fields all day long. Oy! While my wife goes off to work each morning, I consider my “work” to start the moment that squishy boy wakes up. As a teacher though, I see this role as just a different kind of teaching. So no, well meaning auntie or stranger in the park, I don’t miss teaching because my classroom just transformed from 23 giggling girls to one bouncy boy. And as the diehard edu-nerd that I am, it is impossible for me to not constantly be contemplating how a baby’s learning can teach me more about teaching. Here are four things my baby has taught me about learning:
Repetition (and purpose) is Kind of a Big Deal
I will say this, I loathe drill like work in class. I detest hammering in basic facts. I am deeply irritated with having to re-explain / teach / remind my students how to use a comma for the 18,000th time in the school year. But if watching Baby Kirsh has taught me anything, he just does the same thing over and over (and over and over) again until he masters it.
Right now, he’s pretty baller at getting toys (or hands, or hair, or our dog’s fur) into his mouth. But this “skill” took many months of repetition for him to master it. First he was just batting at things, then he was grabbing, and then he was just bringing the object around his face, and now he is fairly consistently getting the thing into his mouth (much to my horror when a second ago that sock was sitting in a puddle of pee on his change mat). He didn’t mind going over this same skill a bagillion times because he wanted to master it.
You have to care about the skill / concept / thing you are trying to learn and then you will happily go over it again and again until it’s solidified in your knowledge bank. Moreover, if you really want to understand something deeply, you have to examine it many times, from many angles, and in many different contexts to “own it”. This doesn’t mean hammering basic facts in, but rather (I believe) parsing down the curriculum to key concepts / ideas and using content to keep coming back to these enduring understandings.
2. Novelty is the Sparkle of Life
Every few weeks, I change up the books in our little chair-side baskets by the couch and the rocker in Ambrose’s room. Every week or so, I switch the toys dangling overhead on the little baby play mat. And every couple of weeks I do a rotation of the toys on hand and see what might be interesting now given his age and stage. Should I have been a kindie teacher? Maybe (except totally not). But I’m also keenly aware now how new things bring a clear sense of wonder and curiosity. You can tell super quickly when a baby is losing interest and conversely it is clear as the midday sun when a baby is totally digging a toy, a book, or the new way the wind feels on his skin as he is drinking in the sight of a big oak tree in the park.
Change things up! Take the children out of the class, bring them on a scavenger hunt through the school, stage a role play in the yard, lead them into new ways to discuss / debate / debrief their reading. Find new ways to deliver the same idea (*cough* comma lessons, anyone?) throughout the year. Get out of your own comfort zone and change up what your students are expecting. That “novelty” means that new synapses are firing together in the learner’s brain and because it is novel they will remember it better…it just stands out better!
3. And Yet Consistency is Key
When we were trying to get Ambrose to sleep a little longer through the night, we came across great “sleep training” advice from a friend. Basically, it doesn’t matter what “method” you try, just be consistent and your child will eventually figure out how to get more shut eye. Some methods may work more quickly than others, but if you find something that works for you, be consistent and you will eventually see results.
For the record, we have been using the “pick up / put down” method and for the first few nights, there was–how shall we put this–an ample amount of screaming time. But then, as we stuck to it, Baby Kirsh started to get the hang of putting himself to sleep solo (not sleeping on us) from awake. Now we are sleeping more at night and much more confident about our choices, since we are seeing some positive changes.
It is tempting to change up everything you are doing everyday (or every year) to keep things sparkly or perhaps as new research and fads come out in the edu-scene. I think it is important to be clear on your own teaching philosophy so that the bedrock of your pedagogy reflects this. Yes, you should dress up and take your children on that role-play simulation in character to teach them about the plight of the Acadians, but it is equally important to be consistent with your routines, expectations, classroom management systems, and overarching philosophy governing your everyday choices in your classroom. I like to think that students feel safest when the routines in the classroom are consistent so that when those novel experiences do happen, they truly stand out in the best way possible.
4. Sleep is More Important Than Homework
A confession: having a baby has made me obsessed with sleep. How do I get more of it? How I teach Ambrose to find it on his own? What is the best way for encouraging my boy to sleep? And why oh why does my child constantly wake up from his naps screaming? My quest for juicy naps and chunky night slumber has made me realize that sleep is the bedrock to mental health. When I don’t get a good night of sleep, I’m a severely unhinged mother. When baby Kirsh doesn’t sleep, he is a deeply troubled demon.
As a teacher, I wish I could somehow tuck each of my students to bed at a reasonable time. But since professional boundaries thankfully prevent me from being that crazy teacher, I would gladly trade in nightly homework for the agreement that students read every night for 20 minutes and go to sleep at 9:00pm. In every teaching conference moving forward, I want to start by asking parents how sleep is going. If the student is going to bed at 11:00om (and with Google Docs, it’s so much easier to see when students are staying up too late to work on their assignments), talking about study habits, learning skills, or extension work comes secondary to getting their sleepy head to bed!
For those of you teacher-parents out there who have taken time to be with their child intensely, what insights have you gained (or have been re-solidified) about teaching by watching your babe learn?