When I think about teaching as an adventure, I cannot help but recall the year our high school wind ensemble set out to learn An American Elegy. You may know that this music was written by Frank Ticheli to remember the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado. Initially, we went through the typical rehearsal process of analyzing structure, harmony, and melody. Then we played through the song in small sections to identify technical issues and resolve them accordingly. Several weeks into the process, I realized the music had not yet come to life; it did not yet feel like it was telling a story. We began a conversation designed to facilitate my students’ internal exploration of the music, starting with event itself. How did it make you feel? Did it change how you see the world? What can we do to help each other process events such as the shootings at Columbine?
I asked the students to talk about the connections between their thinking and the music. What parts or sections connect with your personal feelings about the event? Where do you hear hope and courage? Where do you hear joy and sorrow? What techniques did the composer utilize to create the emotions and images you see when you hear the music? Almost immediately, the song began to reveal itself in new ways. Students had explored their emotions courageously and shared willingly, creating a new collective interpretation of the story behind the piece. Put simply, they had made it their own. I could not have predicted how the students might respond to such dialogue; I did not know how that learning strategy would work out. At the time, I knew only that it was important to create the space and encourage my students’ exploration.
What I learned in An American Elegy seems to be one of the distinguishing features of the teacher as adventurer. To be honest, none of us knows how our classes tomorrow are going to go, let alone how our whole career will turn out; simply too many factors affect these outcomes. We don’t know today which students will be absent tomorrow, whether some larger event will affect our whole school, or even if the lesson that worked so well last year will work as well this time around. Although we hope it does, we really don’t even know if our projector bulb will work all day tomorrow. Regarding our long-term prospects, budgets may change, our own health and other personal circumstances may change, and demographic factors we cannot control may drive student numbers at our school up or down. This reminds us to think in a theological framework and admit that the future rests in God’s hands (as much as we might love for it to remain within our own). But we still want control . . . and teaching as an adventure implies a lack of control.
Of course, in an important sense our teaching does remain in our control. We can predict the main contours of our teaching work and other responsibilities for next year with reasonable accuracy. We can go ahead and make the changes to our courses we thought of at several points in the last few months. We would be terribly irresponsible—tourist teachers in fact—if we decided that everything we did this year would work fine again next year. But knowing that ultimately we can’t control all the factors that give shape to our work, we might do well to adopt the mind-set of the adventurer. Just like travelers, adventurers set out with a plan. Perhaps like travelers they have a kind of “let’s see how this goes” approach to the realization of their plan. And in teaching, we try something and see if it works. We constantly assess our own work, recalibrating what needs to change before we teach this material again, and, of course, sometimes adjusting our theories about instruction or curriculum.
Adventurer teachers see limitless possibilities and opportunities as they gaze across their classrooms. Fundamental to their teaching is a deep belief that every student has the ability and desire to learn. The adventurer teacher fearlessly facilitates learning, using an authentic, open-ended, Christ-centered approach that values critical thinking, global citizenship, and practical application of knowledge and skill. The adventurer teacher finds little utility in common curriculum and standardized assessments. Rather, the adventurer teacher works to instill a connection with the community, allowing local circumstances to influence the path of learning. Life experience enriches learning and enhances student engagement. The adventurer teacher is an active listener who is willing to consider multiple perspectives with grace and humility. Enthusiastic and inquisitive by nature, the adventurer teacher believes that learning is a lifelong process; no matter where we are in life, there is always more to learn. The adventurer teacher is adaptable, continuously learning from previous practice and never afraid to fail.
Derek Brown lives in Beaverton, Oregon, and serves as the assistant superintendent for assessment and accountability at the Oregon Department of Education. Derek was a music teacher in Oregon from 1998 to 2002, and is currently a doctoral candidate at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.