Honoring the Learner: Bonnie Dawkins' Journey

In this issue of the LML e-letter, we interview educator Bonnie Dawkins on her new book, Honoring the Learner.

Honoring the Learner is a unique book-part memoir, part professional development-and also a great story! How would you describe your book to someone who is unfamiliar with it?

Bonnie Dawkins: Honoring the Learner follows a year in the life of a teacher-me-and her students. It was the year I implemented the advanced learning system called the Let Me Learn Process® (LML) in my classroom.

In the book, I chronicle the way in which I taught students how they each learned uniquely.  I document the journey that began as I shared with them how I, too, learned, and how together we would experience self-discovery. I describe the strategies I taught the students and applied myself to maximize our potential as learners. The book shows how we used knowledge of ourselves as learners as the basis for everything we did together.

Honoring the Learner is organized around the months of the school year, August through June. Each chapter reveals the unfolding of knowledge and awareness that developed as the students and I looked at our learning, and how it affected our work as individuals and as a learning community.

I began with conversations with individual learners, and moved to vignettes showing group interactions as my students infused LML into group work. The vignettes are written in present tense to situate the reader in my classroom in the moment. The reader is watching as I’m teaching and learning alongside my sixth graders. I wanted to share the emotional component that is essential to gaining insight into our learning processes. Too often we overlook the affective dimensions of learning in classroom life; we’re used to focusing on the acquiring of facts. I wanted to bring those classroom situations to life, so the reader understands the challenge of changing our habitual ways of interacting and the joy of new achievements.

Each vignette is followed by my reflection about the significance of that month’s event-stepping outside of my own classroom, in effect, to speak directly to the reader about what I was thinking, doing, and feeling. I wanted readers to get to know me both as participant in the action and as practitioner, and as implementer and researcher as well. I’m intentionally wearing all these hats to reveal what happens when teachers and students use LML with intention. I think that insider’s perspective will be valuable to others in learning how to implement LML.

I stress that LML is not an addition to teachers’ already-busy curricular schedules. Rather, it is a tool to help them teach more effectively, by keeping the focus on learning and learners. To demonstrate that, I included the lessons and units that I ordinarily do with my class at that time of year and showed how LML complemented, not undermined or derailed, my work.

Finally, for each chapter, Bob Kottkamp provides his analysis, a more global educational perspective on what is happening with the students and me. Bob was my mentor and advisor at Hofstra University. He’s watched my development over many years.  It is fitting that he continues to observe in this book how I now use this process with my own students.

You have had a successful career as an educator.  Why, then, did you begin to feel dissatisfied with your professional life a few years ago?

Dawkins: I love the work I do and have always felt teaching was a calling for me. I come to school each day understanding that I have a mission beyond my subject or level: to help my students develop their unique capacity as human beings. My sense of purpose hasn’t changed since I entered teaching, but it took me years to understand how to shape that capacity more effectively. It wasn’t until I started using LML in my own life that I recognized its power to enhance my teaching.

I realized that unlike other professions that have a shared technical language, education lacks a common language to talk about learning. Without a common language, conferences with other teachers about students often devolve into judgment-laden interactions, filled with assumptions about perceived student behaviors. Frequently, the teachers’ observations are inaccurate and negative. Teachers can’t talk about how students are unique, without saying they are good in some things and bad in others, in effect, sorting them into piles:  students are described in terms of being “slow readers,” “good readers”  “sloppy workers,” students,” “bossy,” “unorganized, etc.” These descriptors have a dismissive quality I always found problematic, because our job as educators is to foster students’ development. Some behaviors are actually those of learners attempting to make sense of what is happening in their classrooms. Intuitively, I understood that, but didn’t have the tools to defend these learners’ actions to colleagues.  I felt frustrated.

And I saw that kids internalize negative attributions in ways that diminished their potential: they decide they are “bad writers” or can’t “do” math, and so on. That always bothered me-having just begun their academic careers; students were having their potential capped. I wanted them to be freed from self-limiting beliefs. But after years of coursework, workshops, conferences, and professional development, I found no good answers to this problem of labeling.

Before meeting Christine Johnston, I never met anyone who could talk about how people learned uniquely that made any sense. Terms in education get thrown around so frequently that they mean nothing in the end.  Most learning styles theories and other models fall flat because they don’t teach the learner how to use their abilities to leverage change and be more successful. And they are only applied to children, ignoring the fact that we all learn throughout our lives.

LML had much more power than anything else I’d ever seen. I felt it in my own life first, long before I used it in my professional work with kids. LML provided descriptive, non-judgmental language to apply to learning tasks and behaviors that removed hurtful stigmas. It offered tools and strategies for the student to leverage change. It made sense.

What value does a teacher gain when she thinks of herself as a learner -when she applies her knowledge of her Learning Connections to her work?

Dawkins: For many learners, school is a labyrinth. I wanted to give students tools to navigate through this maze of procedures, assumptions, knowledge, and assessment. I stopped focusing on my good teaching and focused instead on students’ great learning. What I gained was the greater confidence that I had a way to discern evidences of learning diversity in my classroom, and the assurance that I would be able to address them, because I had a way for the learners and me to talk about their thinking, how they liked to work, and how learning tasks made them feel. I could see for the first time who was actually there in my classroom! I knew how to change my teaching strategies to reach learners I historically had found difficult to reach.

I recognized how my learning affects who I am, how I think, and why I value certain things over others as a teacher. I think I am a more effective teacher now than ever, because I’ve recognized how to keep the classroom environment safe for all, honoring their uniqueness. And I can make the curriculum accessible to learners without having to generate 20 different lessons a day to meet individual needs. More importantly, I’ve given students the tools to advocate for themselves, by learning how to forge, intensify, or tether their learning patterns to fit the task at hand. That’s a powerful gift to offer someone.

How does your exposure to LML reflect itself in your attitude and your teaching?

Dawkins: I listen more effectively and see things differently now. I keep my sights locked on what things look like from the learner’s perspective. School is overwhelmingly canted in the teacher’s direction, not necessarily the learner’s. As a historically successful learner, I didn’t experience the challenges many students have in trying to learn in school. LML raised my awareness of how schools run a certain way, against the grain of many learners’ needs.

My job has always been to advocate for students.  Now I see it as more global. I’m giving them lifetime skills-insights, knowledge, and strategies that will help them beyond any classroom. I recognize that for some students, their learning and their schooling have been incompatible, and they are at risk because school isn’t designed to accommodate their learning needs.

Why do you think the classroom has failed to be a place where teachers and students can journey as learners together?  What do you think could be done to change this?

Dawkins: Historically, schools have been factories, handling groups, not individuals. Students who learned the way teachers taught, who conformed to the norms, succeeded. But many students don’t thrive there. They are not engaged, but rather misunderstood and/or marginalized.  We all know of fascinating, engaging, curious individuals but who were not good students. That gap doesn’t have to be there, but we have to accept change.  Schools are remarkably stable institutions, often resistant to change, partly because those who work there are pretty comfortable with the ways things are. Most teachers were successful learners in the system. The status quo works for them.

Teachers are also judged by the extent to which they are in control-of knowledge, of procedures, of “delivering” classroom curriculum and of students’ behavior.  The problem with that model is that students by default become passive, not active, learners. NCLB has certainly exacerbated this problem-keeping the focus on narrowly defined skills, requiring that students demonstrate their learning in limited and highly prescribed ways. Learning is not a neatly designed, streamlined and linear endeavor that can be marked off on a multiple-choice test.

As a teacher who remains a learner first, I began to make my own learning more explicit, say “I don’t know” more frequently, and draw upon the strengths of the kids in the class more. I reduced the power differential between teacher and students. I see myself as a greater facilitator of their learning than before.

My recommendation?  Teachers need to be aware that their classrooms will continue to reflect their own needs, not their students,’ unless they see the connection between their teaching and their own learning. They are absolutely intertwined. Teachers need to engage in a system of reflective practice, so that they can begin to monitor these assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors, and learn how to use feedback from students, about students, to help them change their practice.  LML is a form of reflective practice. It uses data about the students, provided by the students themselves as the basis for understanding how to reach each individual.

Teachers want to leave the classroom each day knowing that they’ve made a difference in their students’ lives.  LML gives the teacher those tools to be able to do just that-it’s the learners’ individualized learning plan, given to us by the learners themselves!

No one should be working in school with learners without a robust knowledge of how people learn. All learners in every school should be identified and recognized by their unique learning-kids and adults alike.  In the ideal school, all adults are LML aware. Understanding yourself is the key to understanding how to with others, achieve a goal, figure out what to do in a situation. Without real data (provided by the LCI, for example), we’re back to making assumptions. When we make assumptions, we frequently make mistakes.

The LML process, already used in K-16 education and business, should be the model for fostering greater learning everywhere. We are learners everywhere we go, every day. LML provides the tools for effective interaction and living successfully.

Who can benefit from reading your book, and how can it help them in the classroom and elsewhere?

Dawkins: I think that anyone who’s wondered if things could be different in their lives would benefit from reading Honoring the Learner. It is about making and sustaining intentional change; about liberating and transforming ourselves from our old, reflexive ways of thinking, doing, and feeling, to become the individuals we aspire to become. The story is about an elementary teacher in a suburban school district, on one level. But my struggles to become more responsive, more reflective, and more successful form a universal story of an individual wanting to develop new capacities to serve others more effectively.

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