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Reflections on Learning Part I: Memories from the Early Years

I can play the moments back in my head like a movie. But it’s more than that. I can see images, but there are also sounds, smells and textures. Even the sense of touch plays a role when conjuring the memories of how I have experienced learning throughout my life.

I have always loved learning. From the early days of kindergarten, moving amongst the Montessori-influenced “stations” to my decision in grad school to write a dissertation rather than sit for an exam, I can see myself in those situations. Like those crazy Facebook compilations that tell you about the year you had, these images tell the story of learning that has helped to form the thinker I am today.

The Rituals of School

It was not only the specific lessons, but the entire experience of preparing for and attending school that I recall so well. Some of you may remember covering your textbooks with paper from grocery bags. It was a ritual we engaged in. And there were those rubber straps we used to hold our books together. Remembering getting snapped by those when you tried to cram too many books together with a single strap? Like trying to contain my enthusiasm for what was yet to come.

I attended a public school only several blocks away from the apartment where I was raised. Each year the walk seemed shorter, but for the first few years, it appeared a substantial distance from home. We walked in groups led by one parent or another from our building. How brave I felt to walk that distance on my own for the first time!

Learning Journeys

My recollections of early learning also include those hours spent at the public library, starting with story hour, and as I began to read on my own, selecting and reading parts of the books I would bring home that day. With my growing independence came the privilege of walking to the library on my own and the freedom to make my own choices as well. The books were the impetus for these journeys, and those walks across town became learning experiences of their own.

Learning How to Fail

While I always looked forward to the start of the school year, not all my memories are fond. Like most, I faced challenges in some areas and suffered several public embarrassments along the way. There was the time I had to use a piece of chalk and string to draw a perfect circle on the blackboard and was brought to tears when I failed. Several times. I’ve since learned to use failure to my advantage, but I’m not sure that I saw the benefits back then.

Becoming Conscious about Learning

I don’t recall discussing learning much back then, except when the teachers in our city went on strike and groups of families banded together to form ad hoc study groups to keep us occupied during the time away from school. But even then, it was a matter of logistics and somewhat an adventure. It was quite a social experience, sitting with a group of 5-6 friends at someone’s dining room trying to focus on the lesson at hand.

Some memories are puzzling, like the one where on a field trip to a nature preserve, my sixth grade teacher lit a cigarette to ward off the swarms of mosquitos that plagued us in the wilds of Long Island. We stuck close to him, inhaling the seemingly protective vapors as we trudged through the unfamiliar wetlands. I can still smell the smoke and see the reflection of my fellow city dwellers in Mr. Klein’s Ray Bans. He seemed hip and heroic. We learned that mosquitoes don’t like cigarette smoke. We learned that Mr. Klein smoked.

Other memories provide their share of humor, such as the time while on a fire drill, my third grade teacher warned us “Not a peep out of you all!” and I unfortunately, literally, “peeped.” I never got into trouble before, but there was something in that challenge that got to me. Upon returning to the classroom, I was placed in the corner and remained there for the rest of the hour. I never “peeped” after that, but I am still somewhat outspoken. And I do love new challenges.

For many of us, the memories of learning remain fixed in the interactions between ourselves and teachers, classmates and others at the school. But where does all that early learning go and what remains of it once we enter the workforce and strive to contribute in meaningful ways?

We’ll pick up on this in our next segment. But for now, please share your own reflections of learning in the comments section below. Do you have a seminal memory from your early years in school? How did those days shape the thinker you are today?

Visit us at Designs2Learn for more on partnering for impactful learning design. Click here to participate in our State of the State in Education Survey introduced in last week’s blog. The survey will remain open until January 9th.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

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