Slice of Life: Teaching to Our Lead Learners

slice of life

Kelsey has enrolled in a new course I’ll be teaching in the fall, Literacy in the Digital Age. Here’s something you should know about Kelsey: she has already created a new Pinterest board on digital learning for this course–even though it doesn’t start for another month. Here’s something else you should know about Kelsey: she started using Pinterest to organize her own teaching and learning boards in my Methods course–after she decided the tool I was teaching my students to use, Diigo, didn’t work for her.

She has so many qualities I admire–initiative, independence, resourcefulness, courage. She also has this way of challenging her professors without offending them that I absolutely wish I could emulate. Everyone thinks Kelsey is so sweet when really, Kelsey is the squeakiest of wheels. It’s kind of magical. Plus, she’s really fun to be around.

Kelsey is working on her English Education degree. I think every one of my colleagues has stopped by my office at some point in the past year and said something along the lines of, “Wow, that Kelsey! She is going to be a phenomenal teacher.”

And she is going to be a phenomenal teacher. Because first and foremost, she’s a phenomenal learner.

Kelsey doesn’t need to take Literacy in the Digital Age; it won’t count for any of her requirements. She’s electing to take the course because she wants to learn. Honestly, she already knows enough to teach the class herself. She’s the poster child for connected learning. She has a terrific blog where she writes about education; she vlogs; she tweets; she attends professional conferences, she networks.

Kelsey is what Howard Rheingold would call a lead learner:

A teacher can do a great deal to facilitate the conditions from which learning communities emerge – but only the learners can make the real magic happen. In my ten years of teaching face to face and online, I’ve discovered that the sine qua non of the truly magical co-learning experience is a lead learner or two – people who will try the activities and read the texts I prescribe, then not only share their own learning with the group, but take an active lead in firing up co-learners and helping them join together into a cooperative community. Whenever a lead learner emerges, face to face or online, I know we have a good chance of acting not just as knowledge-acquiring individuals, but as a community of inquiry that makes sense of knowledge together.

When I saw Kelsey’s name on the roster for the Digital Literacy course, I knew I had my lead learner. And suddenly Literacy in the Digital Age became a lot more interesting to me as a course–as well as somewhat more challenging.

Teaching a student like Kelsey is a joy–as well as a responsibility. I had been envisioning a course where we would start slow, dip our toes in, wade out a few steps. But Kelsey is ready to dive into the deep end on the first day. I don’t want to hold her back. And now I’m puzzling over ways to create a course structure and schedule that will be as inviting to her as it will be to the student who has never published anything more than a Facebook status update on the web. I’m excited about all of the ways this course can become a “community of inquiry.”

When you have a lead learner–someone who will take risks, who will challenge herself and her classmates and you–so many doors open.

12 responses to “Slice of Life: Teaching to Our Lead Learners”

  1. Kelsey seems like a phenomenal student. This is a good model for me to show my English Education students. Thank you for sharing about this wonderful future educator!

  2. Wow! I love your post on lead learners, Elisabeth! I have had a few of these in my classes and would love to pay homage to their transformative role in my teaching the way you have done with Kelsey 🙂

    • Thanks, Renae! I hadn’t realized just how important lead learners are to my teaching until I saw my class roster and suddenly my vision for the class dramatically expanded. Also thinking about what this means for my course planning when I don’t know any of my students and I don’t have lead learners identified in advance who will help me elevate my teaching.

  3. Oh gosh, when you said I was the star of your post, you weren’t joking! I’m flattered to say the least. Suppose I’ll have to start working on my “Ode to Ellington?”

    When I realized I had more credit hours not being used for my scholarship my first thought was, “I have to take one last class with Ellington before I graduate (because she bakes the best homemade goodies).” I was about to retake College Comp before I stumbled across Digital Literacy, a challenging course taught by the most challenging and cat-loving instructor. It was definitely a win-win. I’m really looking forward to learning from each other this semester!

    • No odes necessary and thanks for reminding me that college students like baked goodies. I will not show up empty-handed to class. How many ways can we work cats in?? I mean, that’s what the Internet is for, right? Cat pix, videos, and memes. Thanks for challenging me to be better this semester.

  4. this is so great to read! I have been trying to reach my way back to teaching after being home with kids. I have been thinking about questions we can ask to drive learning and thinking at whatever level student. Like beginning not with “what is multiplication?” Which some just know and some do not, but instead “what way/s do you use to combine equal groups of something?” Which would allow all levels to do thinking work . . .

  5. Wow, Elisabeth ~
    I totally needed to veer over to read this post today showcasing your student.

    I taught a foundations of reading course at a university and decided it wasn’t for me, after ONE course. It felt like being “with the kids” in the elementary was more who I was (well, why wouldn’t it? I’ve been there for 25 years?).

    But, then I read your words and realize that I did not give higher ed. a chance. There are amazing students out there that need instructors who guide, yet also allow to take off on their own, as you do.

    Kelsey – I’m not sure where you live, but if you ever need a job, head to Minnesota!!

    Shari 🙂

    • Shari, those foundations courses can be killers! So difficult to find ways to teach them that reflect what we know about learning. I did not love teaching college again at first either. (I was an academic first and left to teach high school). I loved teaching high school and felt at first like I wasn’t making the same kind of difference in my work at the college level. But that has really changed for me as I have developed a deeper understanding of what my pre-service teachers need and what I have to offer. I think the biggest mistake I made when I first started teaching college was the same mistake I made in my high school classroom at first–teaching as I had been taught. I didn’t become a good high school teacher until I threw out what I knew and did something different. I’ve followed the same trajectory in my college teaching career. Now I’m constantly experimenting with ways to do school differently, and I love my work. Maybe you will have to give higher ed another chance!

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