I spent Monday exploring the concept of nonlinguistic representation with a group of middle school teachers I’ve known for years. We began the day discussing whether or not schools were killing creativity, and then we tore into piles of Legos, Play-Doh, and magazines in an effort to share out our greatest hopes for our students.


I’ll admit: I was nervous about asking secondary-level teachers to use these materials, but I shouldn’t have been. It was a lot of fun, and their work led to some important conversations about what matters most in education.

Teachers used their nonlinguistic representations to raise some incredible questions, and I wonder how others might respond to them. For instance: as children, we all enjoy singing and dancing. When do we stop doing this? Why? Is it because we feel that dancing can’t accomplish anything meaningful? Because that certainly isn’t true. And why do our students sometimes lose their passion for learning? How does that happen, and how do we engage them? What IS READING anymore anyway? What is learning? What is teaching? When we speak about citizenship, are we considering all of what that might mean?

One teacher hinted at the massive change that we’re all called upon to be a part of in this great limping system of ours. “It’s like we’re trying to fit ROUNDED beings into SQUARE holes,” she suggested. Essential elements are being lost along the way, and because some of them aren’t standardized, we often forget they are priorities. Maybe if we began our work by defining ALL of what we really hope to cultivate in our students, we could use our standards, curriculum, instructional strategies, and assessment practices to get us there.

Sometimes, it feels like every new practice we’re asked to consider merely becomes another tool we’re expected to add to our already overflowing toolbox. The teachers that I worked with on Monday never approach their professional development in this way though, and that’s why I always feel so fortunate to work with them. They see curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices as a meaningful synthesis of what it means to serve children well. They always seek to discover how new learning might leverage their other powerful practices or replace those that aren’t working effectively for students. They realize that it’s not about adding more to our toolbox. It’s about continually refining what we do, testing it, and making decisions based upon the results. They get it, and it’s teachers like this who energize me. They energize their students too.

These teachers realize that learning doesn’t happen when professionals choose to close their classroom doors and work in isolation from one another. “I think it’s really important that we help students learn how to work together better,” one of the teachers suggested. “I want them to be able to get along. I want them to be able to learn from one another,” she said.

And then she held up this image:


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