Miner's Candles and Hinky PinksWhen I first moved into my house, my hair was long and parted in the middle, I wore granny glasses and long flowery dresses, and I wanted to bring the mountains into the city. So with all my hippie optimism, I dug up the miner's candles in the foothills and transplanted them in my city garden. I found columbines and little red elephants for a backyard plot. Oh, the miner's candles grew and spread and in a few years could be found in my neighbors' yards and in fields blocks away. The columbines died after one season and the little red elephants didn't even come up that first year.
What I didn't know about gardening was that altitude mattered and so did the surroundings. I didn't think that the little red elephants growing by the stream needed that water and that the miner's candles were profuse because they were, well, simply weeds. I had an imaginary vision of the garden I wanted to create, but I didn't have enough knowledge to make that garden a reality. Instead, I relied on aesthetics -- uninformed aesthetics, I must admit -- and naive enthusiasm.
That attitude, sadly, carried over into my teaching. In those first few years, I naively believed that if I could create a garden in my classroom, the students would grow. So like I plucked the mountain flowers and replanted them in my city garden, I plucked lessons that I discovered and replanted them in my classroom. And like my home garden, I didn't check that the growing conditions were right, and I didn't consider the future of those lessons.
With just a bit of a blush, I remember hearing about a teaching practice that sounded engaging and, frankly, fun, so the next day it might be the lesson of the day. After listening to a college professor talk about hinky pinks, I developed a lesson where we "hinky pinked." Somewhere I heard about having students play with language through metaphor, so we figured out what was like an unsharpened pencil lying on an empty desk. And then I heard about how to teach students to write a sure-fired, guaranteed high quality essay with five clearly defined paragraphs. Those teaching practices were the miner's candles of my teaching: random and unprincipled.
And when I visit some classrooms I see the teaching version of my gardening from those days long ago. I see some teaching practices that are like those miner's candles: spreading like weeds. Others are like the little red elephants: can't grow in the setting that they've been transported to. But the reason they can't grow are more insidious than my innocent plucking of flowers and hoping that they would spread. Some of the practices that I see can't grow because they simply shouldn't grow. Just like miner's candles don't belong in a city garden, some practices don't belong in a classroom.
And some practices result from teachers who are like the gardener that I was those years ago. I didn't know what I was doing, but I had the best of intentions and I knew I wanted the beauty of the mountains in my backyard.
A few years ago I hired a landscape architect and invested in books on gardening. The yard that I have now is filled with whirling butterflies, delphiniums, and lavender. They fit within the environment of the city, and the flowers rebloom each year.
That's what we need as we plan for the garden of our classroom. What are the practices that work? That with tending will produce the results we want? What are the weeds we need to yank out of the ground, and what's the fertilizer that will nurture the roots? And what do we need to learn in order to be the best gardeners of young minds that we can be?