Learning From Teaching: 5 Lessons My Students Taught Me

Author Kerry Gans teaches a workshopI completed my first teaching job this week—I did my Build Your Own Story workshop for the kids at my daughter’s day camp. I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty nervous. I knew the material, but could I handle the kids? I fully expected to be learning from teaching as much as sharing what I knew.

I met the kids for an hour each time—some I only met once a week, some more than once. They came in 5 groups: 1st/2nd grade, 3rd, 4th, and 5th/6th/7th. Quite an age spread! I came prepared (but not as prepared as I thought I was), and tried to adapt my teaching on later days to compensate for the mistakes I made in the early classes.

I learned 5 things from teaching:

1. Always have more material than you think you’ll need.

Originally, I expected to see each group once per week, and had planned accordingly. I found out when I arrived that I was seeing some groups twice the first week AND then at least once the second week.

Author Kerry Gans' Build Your Own Story workshopI thought I had figured out how much material I needed for the first hour workshop—but I was wrong. Mostly because the kids had almost no questions, so my Q&A time was unnecessary!

And even though I planned to have extra material the 2nd week, I STILL ran under time with the 3rd and 4th grades! The 4th grade I ran short because I underestimated how long it would take each group to share the stories they had written, and the 3rd because of a mistake I made that I will address later in this post.

2. Active kids are happy kids.

Although this was a workshop, it was also summer camp. I didn’t want it to be a school lecture. The first day I screwed that up with the 4th grade—many of them seemed disinterested, so I panicked and started lecturing rather than trying to engage them.

The second day that I met the 1st/2nd graders, I had them right before lunch. We reviewed what we had learned the first time we met, and then I let them go to writing their own stories. They had a blast, writing and drawing. But when the time came to share their stories, I couldn’t get them back. Their attention had gone. I had the kids who wanted to share come and tell me their stories, so that was all good, but I wondered what I could have done to engage the others. Their councilor said that they had been sitting all morning and really needed to move at that point.

Author Kerry Gans reading to the kidsI remembered this for my last day of teaching, when I created a get-up-and-move game for the younger kids called Wiggle Words. It worked well for getting them up and moving and keeping them engaged.

3. There’s a fine line between being flexible and being overrun.

Since I was learning from teaching, I wanted to be flexible. I tried to engage the kids on their terms, to find out what their interests were. And I discovered that being flexible should come with limits.

The second week, when I had the 3rd grade for the 3rd time, I used all three of the activities I had planned, but still somehow ran short. Any one of those three activities could have been expanded, but I made the mistake of asking, “Do you want to do X? Y? Z?” To which they all replied “No.”

So we played Red Light, Green Light for the last 15 minutes of class.

I realize now that I should have phrased it as “Which do you want to do—X, Y, or Z?”, thereby eliminating the possibility of them saying “No.”  Or I should have chosen myself.

When the next group came in, I didn’t make that mistake again. I also did one extra round of each activity to start with because I knew I would need to.

4. Kids will surprise you.

I admit, I had the most trouble with the 4th grade. The first day I had them I freaked out when they weren’t all enthralled. I may have had similar troubles with the 5th/6th/7th grade if I hadn’t been learning from teaching. Because of the disinterest of some of the 4th graders, I planned a different activity using the same material for the middle grade kids—and it worked much better.

Learning from teaching in summer campSo when I saw that I had the 4th graders again on my last day, I worried that they would not be willing participants in the planned activity—which was to take what we had learned and write their own story. They proved me wrong. I allowed them to work in groups, and the kids I thought least engaged came up with the best-thought-out story!

Another moment that surprised me was when I did Wiggle Words with the 1st/2nd graders. Wiggle Words involves me reading a book, and the kids doing different movements when we encountered an element of story we talked about (character, goal, obstacle, setting). The 3rd graders had participated as expected but the little ones…well, they all wanted to see the pictures in the book, so I ended up surrounded by them and running doing all the movements with them to keep them moving!

5. Be humble, learn from your mistakes.

Author Kerry Gans teaching a workshopI learned as I went. I knew going in that I didn’t know much about teaching, so I tried to keep an open mind. I made sure I had more material for the 2nd and 3rd days of the workshop than I thought I would use. I planned an active game for the younger kids. I changed my interaction with the 4th graders. I improved over the course of these 3 workshops, and I have gained some valuable insights for when I do school visits in the fall.

Overall, I had a great experience with the kids. They taught me probably as much as I taught them. I learned to come over-prepared, to be flexible within reason, to keep the kids active and social, and to stay open to what the kids will show me. And, after being chided by three separate children (including tears from one) upon hearing that I only had pencils to draw with, I learned perhaps the most important lesson of all…

Always bring crayons.

How about you? Any tips for teaching and engaging kids you can share?







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