A few months ago, my daughter delighted when I brought two giant pineapples home from the grocery. I began methodically lopping off the ends, cutting the gnarly skin off the sides, slicing strips, and coring each strip. Harper was at my heels as if she were at dog awaiting a prized scrap that fell to the floor. She has always loved to be present in the kitchen, but as she’s fun-sized, she’s often underfoot. That’s why my husband and I got her a kitchen helper stand that makes her feel far taller than her current two and a half feet. It also brings her closer to the action, as we’ve let her stir, add ingredients to a pan, or simply watch while we prepare food.
This time around, Harper asked if she could use her helper stand and cut pineapple into chunks for me. I bristled at the idea because ever since she could say “knife”, we’ve taught her that she is to avoid them and vacate the premises quickly, flailing like Kermit the Frog. I then stopped myself, thinking that a non-serrated butter knife couldn’t do much damage, and the pineapple was already lusciously ripe and easy to slice. Despite my hesitation, I handed her a butter knife, gave her a few pointers, and let her have at it.
She surprised me that afternoon. Ever the observer, Harper made sure to work methodically. In no time flat, we had both of those pineapples broken down and stored in the fridge. I marveled at her somewhat-consistent chunks, her careful attention to each knife stroke, her willingness to learn so eagerly.
Once again, my day to day experiences are often my best teacher in my lifelong-learning journey. This kitchen experience is no different than the classroom, and it took a 3-year-old and a pineapple to help me realize something huge. I am a teacher who is guilty of sometimes not trying something with students because of my own hesitance or lack of knowledge about it. What kind of teacher would I look like to my students if I didn’t know how to use a certain tech tool, yet I’m asking them to use it? Dare I look uninformed or incompetent in front of 11 and 12-year-olds?
I cannot think like that anymore. Technology, and its advancements, is comparable to the Wild West, and while I may not know how to navigate all the crags and valleys and mountains, I sure can be a wayfinder for my students and let them explore it on their own. There is nothing I can do to completely keep up with the latest app or educational tech tool, but I know who to ask. And it isn’t always the building or district tech leader- it’s the students. This is their Manifest Destiny, and I am their humble guide on their tech treks.
Saying “yes” when you want to say “no” in the classroom can pay out big dividends when used the right way. A student will approach a task more authentically if they are given some freedom or choice. Consider the quirky housecat- you can offer up a toy or a quick ear-scritch, but if they aren’t asking for it, it won’t happen until it is their idea to do so. You might even be met with an angry tooth or claw. Students are no different. Sure, we all have content that we have to teach, and sure we have tried and true methods that we like to use, but when a little choice in how a student comes to master a skill is offered, suddenly the game changes. They want to engage with the activity. They want to learn in a way that is pleasing to them. They enjoy the challenge of learning. But when it is a forced method, and outdated approach, or just plain boring, careful- you might get the tooth or claw too.
Because Harper’s Safta (Hebrew for grandmother) knew she could cut fruit, she recently asked her to break down a box of mushrooms to throw into a chicken dish. Because Harper was given the opportunity to prove herself with the pineapple- because I said yes- she had not only the confidence in herself, but the confidence of others that she could rise to the occasion. You wouldn’t believe how great those mushrooms looked.
As you dive into your second, tenth, or twenty-third year of teaching and working with students this year, remember that you will never have all the answers. You will never have all the control. You will never know every new strategy and tool and technological advancement that is out there for our kids to use. But if you have a little faith that loosening the reins and letting students explore the unknown will be ok, imagine the kinds of worlds our students may discover if they have a willing guide in their corner. When you trust in the power of “yes”, your students will then trust you to catch them when they fail, guide them through their mistakes, and put them back on the right path.