Classroom Perspectives

Teaching the Teacher: Experiential

By Cameron Conaway

Every conversation we have is either about an experience or is shaped by one. Simply experiencing is not enough, however, we must also reflect. As Emerson stated, “The years teach much which the days never know.” Some experiences we create, others are thrust upon us. We are in control, though, of how we work to understand and extract meaning from experience. Butter, sugar, eggs and flour will not beat themselves into a cookie.

Experiential learning is the process of making meaning from direct experience. The Association for Experiential Education defines the practice as a, “philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values.” Donald Murray, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, once said, “Writers write to learn, to explore, to discover, to hear themselves saying what they do not expect to say. Words are the symbols for what we learn. They allow us to play with information, to make connections and patterns, to put together and take apart and put together again, to see what experience means.” In the teaching realm, legendary educational thinker and philosopher, John Dewey, even wrote a book about the topic titled, Experience and Education (1938). This is a preface to say that I am stating nothing new here. Experience works if you work it. Sometimes, like the cookie, the longer you savor experience the less likely you’ll reach for another from the same batch. So, here’s to the health of body and mind. Let’s now transpose experience so we can use it for the future.

During a first period spelling lesson, one student raises their hand and asks why the word “receive” has the letter “e” before the letter “i.” As you are about to explain the “i before e except after c” rule, one boy in the back of the classroom says: “I always remember because if I can ‘C’ the ‘endzone’ then ‘I’ have to get there. Here, the student has used his experience with football to remember a spelling lesson. Rather than moving on and talking about the “i before e” rule, acknowledge that the strategy certainly works and if any other students can remember it that way, great! Write it on the board. Show excitement. Admit that you’ve never heard that tip before. Continue with your “i before e” speech. During second period, incorporate the new football tactic along with your own tried and true. See if it sticks.

After a new government law passes, several of your students have been deported. Your other students may ask what happened. While maintaining privacy, simply tell the students that they had to go to another school, then, a few weeks later, incorporate a lesson where students will write about what it might feel like (or felt like if they’ve had that experience) to be uprooted, to leave home, to be comfortable somewhere and then have that comfort come to an immediate end. Participate in the lesson with your students. Share your writing (and, therefore, your experience) with them as they so frequently, honestly and innocently do with you. This way the experiential learning is mutual.

Has there been a time in your teaching career when you’ve felt displaced or like an outcast? How did you overcome it?

Cameron Conaway was an instructor for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. The residency allowed him to spend two years teaching in diverse environments throughout Arizona – from the Tohono O’odham Native American Reservation to lower income high schools, from University Honors classes to juvenile detention centers. His book, Until You Make the Shore (Jan 2012, Salmon Poetry) grew out of his experiences teaching inside the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center in Tucson, Arizona. He is currently studying Muay Thai kickboxing in Thailand thanks to the sponsorship of To ask Cameron questions or to join his team, connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.


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