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Maintaining the Road of Learning


I have spent my entire life living in Michigan, the Great Lakes State, the state of ever-changing 
weather, the state with two seasons (despite claims to the contrary); Winter and Road Repair...
a state loaded with metaphor potential. And in as far as this is all true, I would like to link a Michigan-related metaphor to learning and an encouraging recent experience.

One month ago, I welcomed a brand new group of foreign language students into my classroom.
This group had been blessed by the energy of a very gifted and caring colleague of mine for the first
three trimesters of their learning, and because of this, I knew that they had come to me well-
prepared. So immediately, on the first day of class, we launched into learning...learning about each
other, learning about our interests, our fears, our hopes, all of those first day activities.

In a very short time; however, it became clear that this class was different from others that I had
experienced in the past. The group represented a full spectrum of everything: family backgrounds,
interests, ability levels, maturity levels, socio-economic diversity, future life expectations, etc... The
only homogeneity within the group was in its consistent diversity. Beyond this, I was able to identify
early on that this very broad spectrum of learners, if met properly, stood a good chance of being built
together as a team... perhaps being guided toward making large strides in community and learning
success. All of this despite incredulous looks and avoidance of conversation from many individuals
on the first day.

The challenge was clear, and the first unit of the trimester was to be the testing ground.
Over the course of the unit, we built in a broad variety of learning and practice scenarios, and
through them, students encountered each other in shifting combinations of partners and small
groups to learn, co-teach, practice, apply, and partner-quiz… all on the way to making the learning
real, applicable, and using it as an avenue for getting to know each other.

With each new culture, grammar, and vocabulary concept, students self-identified their comfort levels, 
and we used this data to mix them into groups of varying strengths and weaknesses
which allowed stronger students to help others while becoming stronger themselves
through that helping. We moved from large-group brainstorming and ideating, to small group and
partner break-out sessions, to application of concepts in our individual lives. We also practiced
learning on walks, with songs, with internet tools, skits, role plays, and games. Then came the time
to evaluate our learning. Students prepared for a skills-based written evaluation and an oral
proficiency evaluation to test their ability to speak about the topics we had been learning.   

What did we discover? Well… now to the metaphor…

The part of Michigan in which I live is quite rural. Our neighborhoods are surrounded by farmers’
fields, and our landscape punctuated by unpaved roads. To reach my home (which is on a paved
road) we must travel on a gravel road. That gravel road experiences the extremes of every season,
and each extreme has its way with the road. The sun and wind turn it to dust. The rain and traffic
reduce it to a minefield of craters. The spring thaw renders it often impassable, but still, we need to
travel the road to reach our home. If; however, the county succeeds in its plans to regularly maintain
the roads, travel is much different. Cars last longer, repair costs go down...residents are happier.

In grading the class’ unit assessments, we discovered that for many of the students too many
seasons had passed with too little learning maintenance and that this reality had led to bumpy and
impassable roads for many in the class...and for several reasons that directly reflected the diversity
of the class.
So I decided to share the metaphor with the class...the metaphor of the road, and everyone understood 
where I was leading them. I explained to them that learning is much like traveling on a road, 
and we need to stop normal activity from time to time to maintain it... I wondered how they felt
about us doing some “road maintenance” before leaving for Christmas break.

What a wonderful surprise that every student, without exception, agreed that we should do just that
“work on our road”!

Today, we completed day three of road repair, and I couldn’t be more pleased. The class joined in,
concentrated and focused, as we reviewed old concepts from previous classes, practiced new
applications of those concepts, and interwove them with the unit we had just completed. Students
who just a few short weeks ago had looked at me incredulously and attempted to avoid
conversation were engaging me and each other to “fill holes”, “pack down limestone” and “grade the
road.” 

Now, as we break for the Christmas holidays and brave the Michigan roads, whatever they might
offer, we have maintained our learning roads and can hopefully return in January… pothole-free and
traveling smoothly.

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