Intelligence

Learner Voices   09 June 2017
By Cali Ragland


On Wednesday, June 7th, a new learner-centered magazine made a big splash in the education world. Trailblazers, a national publication created by and for learners amplifies the voices of young learners who have stories and ideas to share about the learner-centered movement.

The magazine’s co-founders and SparkHouse participants, Anya Smith-Roman, Kaylyn (K.J.) Winters, and Abigail Emerson took advantage of the creative freedom afforded to them at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation by launching this project at the end of 2016.

The message of Trailblazers is as simple as it is profound—Young Learners, Big Voices, New Paths. By curating guest articles from youth around the country (and world), Trailblazers sheds light on the powerful insights learners are ready to share if the conditions are right. With permission from the Trailblazers team and the article’s author, we are providing Pioneering readers with a sneak peak of one of their first issue’s articles and invite you to check out the full issue here.


 

For the first time, I was engaged and empowered. I too could understand knowledge and had a voice.

Cali Ragland
Learner, Perkiomen Valley High School

Growing up, I simply assumed I was unintelligent. While kids added numbers written neatly on Ms. Woodrow’s notepad, numbers flew through my brain, spinning frantically as I slowly waved my fingers, piecing them together. When Ms. Woodrow gathered us in a circle to share a story, everyone touched each word with index fingers and slowly pronounced letters. Words jumbled in blurs of syllables and trembled against the inside of my throat. I just could not do it; letters and numbers were elusive friends, taunting me anytime I came near their playground.

One day before gathering to read a story, a woman knocked on Ms. Woodrow’s door. Mrs. Bear and I walked to a quiet room and towards a grey cubicle. We reviewed the warm sounds of letters and read sentences into the blanketed air. We wrote words onto note cards until the pencil’s graphite shoes stumbled over the word “bed.” Mrs. Bear leaned over. “Do you know how I remember how to spell the word ‘bed’?” Her pencil drew the letters in lowercase bubbles.“I think of Cali…” Her pencil drew a figure with long hair, its head resting on the “b,” a pillow.

Next, she drew the figure’s feet propped on the face of the “d.” “…sleeping in her bed…” Her pencil covered the little figure in a blanket; the graphite warmth falling down over the letters. “…dreaming at night.” Silver clouds rose from the figure’s sleeping head. My eyes glinted at the transformation before me. My lips fell open at the realization of this word. It had an infectious beauty. Fireworks rose in my brain, the colors and fire falling, streaming through my head and catching my neurons into flames. For the first time, I was engaged and empowered. I too could understand knowledge and had a voice.

 

I thought that to be a genius required insane intelligence. But, there are twelve qualities of Genius: curiosity, playfulness, imagination, creativity, wonder, wisdom, inventiveness, vitality, sensitivity, flexibility, humor, and joy.

Cali Ragland
Learner, Perkiomen Valley High School

That night, I emptied the bag Mrs. Bear gave me on the floor, separating the puzzle of note cards. Arranging the laminated words and piecing together their jagged edges, I formed a sentence. My soul flashed. I had created that sentence. I read it aloud, then mixed it up. I thumbed through each note card, saying the words into the living room’s listening air. I closed my eyes and spelled, the letters’ sounds linking to create a unit of meaning. I read each story carefully. When I finished, I emptied the bag’s contents again and read to my mother, new smiles growing after each word. Like the queen of One Thousand and One Nights, I was Scheherazade, telling word stories every night to myself, my sister, and my mother.

In the elementary school library, I sat among the kindred spirits of the books and their authors, feeling my obsession with words came from the same spark in their souls. A fire lit within me to gather stories.

This spark of curiosity continued into middle school when “Creative Expressions” appeared on my schedule. Opening the door, a man with wild hair and a lab coat splattered in paint gleefully welcomed us in a German accent. Dr. F, a substitute, discussed the class in a frenzy. The next day, our teacher, Mr. Heidt—who looked suspiciously like Dr. F with smoother hair—began class with an invitation to free write based on his own exclamation and a quote by Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “Uh! I got a fevah!; ‘It is a glorious fever this desire to know.’” This was my clicking moment. Creative Expressions ignited my spark of curiosity into a passion for learning. Mr. Heidt taught me everyone has the potential for Genius. I thought that to be a genius required insane intelligence. But, there are twelve qualities of Genius: curiosity, playfulness, imagination, creativity, wonder, wisdom, inventiveness, vitality, sensitivity, flexibility, humor, and joy. I learned to value my own qualities and those qualities in others.

It’s remarkable that school has been a place that has both made me feel hopelessly unintelligent and lit my soul on fire in wanting to know more. While I gained confidence in myself as a learner (mostly in reading and writing) when still very young in elementary school, for much of my elementary school experience, my feelings of being simply unintelligent persisted. I always felt behind or slow as the class was being taught a lesson by the teacher. Until 7th grade Creative Expressions, I never felt so empowered as a learner. These feelings of empowerment came from the idea that I could learn or do anything as long as I was curious. Mr. Heidt gave us a space filled with color and strange odds and ends that peaked our curiosity and allowed us to chase our passions and create.

 

If schools can transition from teachers as “holders of knowledge” to “facilitators of learning” and can provide spaces for students to chase their curiosity and passion instead of extinguishing it, students can become geniuses: life-long learners and innovators.

Cali Ragland
Learner, Perkiomen Valley High School

Realizing I was not simply unintelligent and that all can learn and create with passionate curiosity was a moment that changed my life personally. It also highlighted the need for education to shift from teachers being “holders of knowledge” to them being “facilitators of learning.” Part of facilitating learning is helping to peak learner curiosity and then providing an environment where students feel comfortable chasing that curiosity, solving problems, and exploring a subject more deeply.

Another clicking moment—one that made me think about the need for education transformation—occurred for me in a tenth grade geometry class. In math, I have always felt under-confident. Although I appreciated math as a subject that could be fascinating, I was never curious enough or truly believed that I could understand it. I simply memorized steps to complete the seemingly irrelevant problems. This changed during my sophomore year in high school. My geometry teacher showed the class Powerpoints about what fascinated and confused her about geometry. She gave us space to wonder, and we were given time to work through problems and proofs on our own and in groups. For the first time, I had a math teacher speak with me—a student in an average/lower level math course—about math as a critical thinker and curious learner. Although I understand that geometry might afford itself to this type of learning because it is so visual and self-reflective (as it often involves proofs), I wonder how my experience with math in school would have been different if my math teachers had always shared with us what excited and confused them in math and had given us space to wonder. How would I have grown as a learner? These experiences have shown me that I (and everyone) can learn and do anything with their own curiosity. I just need to be in an environment that doesn’t, as educator George Couros has said, extinguish it.

Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talents; I am only passionately curious.”

There is a poster of Albert Einstein in the library at my high school that says: “In school, he was no Einstein.” Einstein wasn’t a genius because of his schooling or any special talents. He was a genius because he chased his passionate curiosity.

If schools can transition from teachers as “holders of knowledge” to “facilitators of learning” and can provide spaces for students to chase their curiosity and passion instead of extinguishing it, students can become geniuses: life-long learners and innovators.

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