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Guest Blog by Heather Lyon

This blog was updated from the post originally published on Heather’s website, on November 14, 2019 and is being re-posted here with permission.

About a year ago, I was reminded of a book that I bought but hadn’t yet read called The Learning Challenge by James Nottingham.  I had heard about it from Melanie Kitchen (check out her blog here) during a professional development (PD) session she was co-facilitating.  We watched this video which did a terrific job explaining the concept of The Learning Challenge that Nottingham has created.  Anyway, I was so intrigued that I bought the book on Amazon as we were sitting there (the Buy It Now feature is dangerous for me) but when it arrived just two days later, I put it on my coffee table and there it sat.

During a subsequent PD session with Jessica Karnes, a staff developer with Erie 1 BOCES who concentrates on social studies, she had us go through The Learning Challenge process and I remembered not just that I bought (but hadn’t yet read) the book, but why I wanted to buy it in the first place.  The image below summarizes this process but I don’t expect that by looking at this without a real explanation that it will resonate with you as it has with me.  Nevertheless, I wanted to share it with you and to share with you what it’s making me think about.

One of the pieces of this process is to pose a question about a concept(s).  During the PD with Jessica, for example, the concepts were hero and terrorist and we were asked to explain each.  As we did this, Jessica questioned our responses in a Socratic way that really pushed our thinking.  If we said a hero was someone who sacrificed on behalf of others, she might ask us if mother birds who feed their babies but not themselves were heroes?  If we said that a terrorist was someone who used fear to get what they wanted, she might question then is a terrorist a parent who buys an Elf on the Shelf to “watch” the kids on behalf of Santa so the kids can demonstrate they’re worthy of gifts?  You see the point.  We often are the ones giving students the definitions when we should be asking them to think about what they already know and struggle through how messy concepts are.  This struggle creates investment in the learning and broadens their ability to not just think, but to listen to others, reflect on their own beliefs, and be open to the idea that through listening and reflection, their ideas can grow and change.

Based on this experience and my reading of the book, I keep thinking about the question what is a teacher and what is a student?  If you had asked me this question a week ago, I’d be willing to bet that my answer would be different than what it is right now.  I’d also be willing to venture that if I had the chance to have this conversation with you, that you would impact my thinking.  This is why I truly would love for you to reply to this letter.  I am genuinely interested in your thoughts so I can have my beliefs challenged, broadened, validated, and questioned.  In truth, at this moment, I feel like my response to the question is one that has and will continue to change throughout my life, and while part of me wishes that it was a clean and easy answer, an even larger part of me knows that if it was, I would be disappointed.

Heather Lyon is author of Engagement is not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal).  Heather is a former English teacher and has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and an Ed.M. in Reading from the University at Buffalo. She is an Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology for Lewiston-Porter Central School District in Western New York. Heather lives with her husband and three children, who make her smile and teach her the importance of kindness, respect, and patience.  Please follow Heather on Twitter @LyonsLetters and visit her website