Sometimes, When Plans Break Down - Learning Emerges

Oscar Robles is the Civic Engagement Analyst at Citizen Schools New Jersey. He is an AmeriCorps VISTA Member

A few weeks ago, I was asked to support an exploration for 20 of our students to the New York Academy of Science Robotics Scrimmage, as well as the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. In the week prior to the exploration, I grew more and more nervous.

Let’s provide some context – I have only been with Citizen Schools for about six weeks, I’m not that familiar with how explorations are run, nor have I had the time to develop relationships with the other staff supporting the trip, never mind the students who were coming. “Don’t be nervous, just be yourself and have fun!” advised a coworker. But, as a perfectionist, I wanted everything to go according to plan and follow the pre-determined schedule.

On the morning of the exploration, I woke up very early and paced my apartment making sure I had everything I needed. I arrived at the entrance to the 9/11 Memorial early to double check our group reservation and called the other staff members to confirm times and the meeting location. Again, everything had to be perfect.

What blew me away about the day is how relaxed and calm the students were. The complete opposite of how I was feeling. I started to relax as the day went on and I got a chance to talk with the students. Their attitude was one of curiosity and enjoyment. They didn’t let uncertainty about the schedule or the details impede their ability to appreciate the trip and have fun with their environment and friends.

I learned a lot from that day – mostly, the power of flexibility. I had planned for the students to eat at one location, but they weren’t into the menu and went to a local burger place. I wanted the group to stay together as a whole the entire time, but some grouped up in pairs and trios with their friends and I overheard them having some real discussions about the topics presented to them. “What do the pools at the 9/11 Memorial represent?”, “What is terrorism?” and “Wow, you can do that with robots?”. If things had gone according to plan, I would have had peace of mind. But, it wouldn’t have allowed the students to experience the exploration in their own way. I’ve found personally, that that is the power of learning – the ability to become empowered in that act, to have ownership and learn in the way that suits you best.

As I learn more about Citizen Schools, I’m finding that apprenticeships also give students the ability to take ownership and learn in their own way.  They have the ability to sign up for an apprenticeship that they are interested in and engage in it in their own way, most of the time differently than how they do during their science or English classes.  This ability allows the students to feel empowered about their education and to translate the skills they’ve learned into other subjects. Into high school. Into college and other post-secondary opportunities.

And when one feels empowered, the capability of going with the flow and adjusting as the schedule changes is easier. One is able to intake knowledge and information in a variety of ways, not just “according to plan”.

When have you seen a learning activity stray from plans only to become more effective?