Friday, June 1, 2012

"A Student in Flight"


“A Student in Flight”

By John Hardison

(follow me on Twitter @JohnHardison1)

Opportunities to be a student are everywhere, every day. By accepting an impromptu flying invitation the other night, I was reminded of the state of education as seen through my students' eyes. Please stick with me until the landing of this essay and you'll see, too.

Just the other night my next door neighbor texted me with an alarming, "Hey, you wanna go fly for awhile?" No doubt I had to do a double-take, and then I quickly texted back two, monosyllabic words to convey my enthusiasm.  The local airport was literally two miles away, so we were opening the hangar doors in no time.  My neighbor, a newly licensed pilot for all of a month, walked me through the pre-flight inspection, and being the incessant seeker of knowledge that I am, I soaked it all up. I was ecstatic as I followed my young, but confident, first-month pilot and stepped up on the wing of the Piper Cherokee 140, a late '60s plane that had been meticulously restored to a polished white with navy blue trim.  Being a buck seventy and 5'9", there is no doubt I could be mistaken for Captain Average, but I felt like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as I sat down in the tiny, four-seat cabin.  I was resting my butt in a closet with wings. My trusty pilot, Nick, continued to teach me about his 1,300 lb. toy and all of its gauges.  I was mesmerized.  Enthralled. The hook was in me.  I swear I remember every word he said and what each gauge represented.  My iPhone 4S was burning hot as I was snapping pictures, narrating videos, texting my family to prepare them for the fly-over, and, of course, tweeting to the world (or to my slowly burgeoning group of following colleagues) my newest adventure.  If I would have remembered, I would have started a new Evernote book of facts. Lord knows I was quickly retaining a catalog of pilot's terms.  The always exciting, and sometimes bumpy, takeoff was next. With a radio headset covering my ears, a padded microphone comfortably perched on my bottom lip, and my reliable, handheld fruit computer recording any personal hints of trepidation, we effortlessly lifted off the ground and into a sea of air.  Calm and exhilarating.  All at once. We quickly reached a cruising speed of about 120 MPH, but it felt like we were floating at 5.  I had to quickly snap out of my hypnotic trance as we did a quick flyover to wing-wave at my family below, which surely induced a bit of fear-based adrenaline from my 7-year-old daughter. Even high above I could see her Shirley Temple curls. As we climbed a bit higher, Nick managed to continue his confident delivery of terminology and proper flying procedures just before he mentioned the 2G roll.  By this time, I was taking in all the sights.  The trees. The local prison. Yonah Mountain. The ball field lights as the sun slowly began to set and give way to manmade illumination. Heck, even the golden arches of Mickey D's. All sights merged together on a canvas that could only be imagined, or seen, at 2500 feet. At about this time, the paint on my mental canvas began to run a tad as Nick began a 2G roll.  I guess that's when it registered that 2G was 2 x the force of gravity.  Rolling ever so painfully to my right with my shoulder against the vibrating door, my head morphed into a cranium full of rattling bricks. I was nauseous and felt like I was about to blow chunks.  "Nick, dude, you gotta roll back out. This is tough, brother." Being the polite host of the flying aluminum can, Nick leveled the plane and gave me a few seconds to regroup.  My senses weren't far behind the leveling of the plane. 

My equilibrium returned to normal levels and the contents of my stomach slowly settled.  I was comfortable, and in awe, again.  Nick's voice interrupted my musings."All right, now, see the rudder pedals at your feet?" I nodded."Well," he continued, "press the right pedal and watch what is does." I complied. "Now, try the left. See?"  I realized what I had heard so numerously about small engine planes on the tarmac...you steer with your feet.  Pretty cool stuff, I thought.

But it was nothing compared to what happened next. After a quick recap tutorial on some of the gauges and the actions of the yoke, or control column, Nick turned the control of the plane over tome.  "It's all yours," he said.  "Play as much as you want. Just pick out a benchmark ahead and go towards it."

I did as he asked. Yonah Mountain. Cleveland, Georgia. About 3,000 feet high.  Much higher than we were in the plane.  This local landmark offers visitors a challenging hike to the rock-faced apex, a location used also by thrill-seeking rappellers. With a few minor adjustments, I had the plane headed towards this mountain I had already trekked once before but had desperately longed to conquer again ever since. I pulled back on the yoke, and the plane climbed high and fast.  With a sudden but innocent push on the yoke, the plane dropped its nose so quickly I was reminded of that jumping gut sensation produced by any kick-butt rollercoaster. The entire time Nick laughed, smiled, taught and completely supported me as I respectfully, and cautiously, played with the plane. 

My navigating experience probably lasted all of five minutes, but it felt like an hour.  My senses were heightened the entire time, and I was totally engaged. 

Even though I never made it to the majestic Yonah Mountain (partly because of the distance required and the overwhelming reality that we would have created a small, white blemish on the side of my chosen benchmark), the short plane ride was a monumental lesson for an educator of fourteen years.  Nothing that happened after I released the control column registered with nearly the same magnitude.  Not the descent towards the runway as the sun faded in the west. Not the awkwardly bumpy landing guided by a novice pilot. Not the tarmac taxi via the rudder pedals.

In fact, I felt as if I finally landed and made a smooth transition the next day when I stepped into Studio 113, an interactive Language Arts classroom equipped with a centered, hexagonal stage, a rudimentary recording studio, flush-mounted ceiling speakers, Chroma-key painted walls, and an adjacent mini-lab of eight computers.  In essence, our Language Arts classroom is a learning environment that seeks to bring literature to life by using the creative intuition of the talented students.  Basically in Studio 113, as the students have dubbed it, any problem/project based assignment is doable when coupled with students’ inspiration, creativity, and personal interests.  On any given presentation day in this creative classroom, students and educators navigate through a number of creative presentations that range from web-based projects such as Glogster, Prezi,Weebly, Voki, Twitter, ToonDoo, Animoto, Xtranormal, and many others to non-web-based creations like improvisational/parodiable skits, authentically written songs, traditional paintings and drawings, and a variety of persuasively motivated projects created through a diversity of movie-making software.  In this shared and very collaborative classroom, the students’ resourcefulness is limited only by their imaginations.

Just like my next-door neighbor so smoothly and uncannily guided me through a quick, but appropriately concise, tutorial on the ins-and-outs of flight navigation, my approach as an interactive language arts instructor is oftentimes the same. The students and I introduce the proposed standards and objectives to the new unit of study and begin to ask pivotal questions like, “How does this unit relate to me and my world?” We immediately make an attempt to connect the proposed unit to each student.  After all, if students don’t see the upcoming lessons as relevant, what’s the point?  Within the first couple of classroom hours, we seek to dive directly into the unit by allowing the literature to showcase the mastery and brilliance of words that inspire, entertain, and ultimately prompt students to question and challenge their world.  Don’t be mistaken, however.  This process is never inactive or strictly sedentary.  Very similar to the demanding and complete involvement during my first piloting experience, students become actively engaged through a variety of authentic learning structures that require attention, comprehension, teamwork, spontaneity, and accountability.  With or without technology, these structures or learning models allow the students to collectively take control of the reins while a seasoned instructor stands nearby and properly guides them through any difficult questions.  The powerful structures are as diverse as their names.  Ranging from “The ChosenOnes” to “Random Chaos” to “Stage Fright” to “Flip Forum with Silent Discussion and Unaware Speaker” to “TNT,” each model serves as a separate gauge or instrument to measure students’ levels of understanding and interest.  In essence, it’s “Playschool” with balanced structure and organization, and just like Nick, I laugh, smile, teach, challenge and completely support the talented students as they energetically analyze and play with the literature and standards.

After revisiting our classroom approach for the entire school year, perhaps I have landed at the impetus of my frustration at semester’s end. It is this. While administering the American Literature End-of-Course-Test, many students caught my attention while they were working through the state exam.  Being the hard-working students they are, they hunkered down and white-knuckled the exam.  They had worked hard all year.  Habit took over now.  However, something was missing.  Something we had witnessed all year as a class, as a learning family.  As I walked around the classroom to proctor the exam, the students’ faces told the truth.  I witnessed lack of engagement and undeniable boredom. The students’ sighs and shoulder shrugs seemed to exhale and release any frustration, and although the EOCT definitely asks the students to read and comprehend while demonstrating understanding of key standards and objectives, it fails to measure certain critical skills needed for future employment in an expanding world economy. These include collaboration, technical knowledge and efficiency, writing prowess and perhaps the most important aspect of all…innovation.

As I slowly and quietly meandered through the many tables and learning stations in our classroom, I observed many apathetic test-takers. However, one student seized my attention.  I can’t erase his expression. With a sluggish lifting of his head, I witnessed that he was undeniably losing the fight against H.E.S. (Heavy Eyelids Syndrome).  He hadn’t seen me watching him fight through the test.  He batted his eyes, shook his head, and exhaled a long, therapeutic breath that nearly parted the hair of his peer sitting directly across the table. But with a sudden shift in focus, he seemed to notice me for the first time.  His eyes met mine, and I witnessed a look, a stare, that I not seen from him all year.  Although we looked at each other, we were undoubtedly centered on a shared challenge. I immediately recognized the message revealed with those glazed eyes, numb from multiple choice questioning, and I believe we saw the exact same thing. After flying high all year long with active learning environments and creative and expressive projects, we both saw in the distance and on the horizon a scholarly mountain we both wanted to climb. Instead, the completion of the exam beckoned, and he was forced to turn away.

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