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2016: The Year of…

By Craig McKinney, AVID Staff Developer

Did I ever tell you about the time I thought I was cooking quinoa, but instead mixed up a big batch of boiled chia seeds? It was an honest mistake. I had scooped quinoa and chia seeds that afternoon into separate bulk bags at Sprouts, written down the code (but not the name of the item) on each twist tie so that the checker could charge me correctly, and brought home my healthy purchase to cook. Wanting a delicious and healthful savory side dish to go with my meal, I looked up the instructions online for cooking quinoa (1 cup quinoa, 2 cups water; boil 20 minutes) and started making dinner.

Unbeknownst to me, I inadvertently scooped out a heaping cup of chia seeds instead of quinoa.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the culinary experience of chia seeds. In the last several years, they’ve been moved from growing green “fur” on ceramic pets (“Ch-ch-ch-Chia!”) to being praised by health-food gurus for their nutritional value: high fiber, protein, calcium, antioxidants, and more. In their uncooked form, the seeds look like, well, gray-colored quinoa grains. When you mix them with liquid, however, they begin to form what scientists have best been able to describe as “sludge.” Most websites recommend adding a teaspoon or two to your protein shakes, soups, or snacks. I boiled an entire cup.

As soon as I noticed the gelatinous pan-full of chia goop and realized my mistake, I had two options: 1) I could throw the chia away and start over, or 2) I could try to do something with my creation.

Option 1 seemed like the best choice at first. After all, I had failed at my attempt to cook quinoa to accompany the chicken breast that was baking in the oven. I did not come up with the correct response, and there was no way to turn this into a palatable savory side. No one wants to eat chicken with chia phlegm for dinner. But if I abandoned my creation, how would I dispose of it? I didn’t trust that my not-Hefty kitchen trash bags would safely contain the mass all the way to the dumpster, and any attempt to wash this glop down the sink would surely end with an expensive visit from a plumber.

Option 2 presented some fun challenges. I recalled vaguely seeing Chia Seed Pudding on the dessert menu at a restaurant, and I wondered if I could make something similar. What might happen if I tried to turn this accident into a not-so-bad-for-me after-dinner treat? I added a little milk, some sugar, and some vanilla and continued to boil. The mixture thickened even more into a lovely pudding-like consistency. I removed the pan from the heat, scooped the pudding into dishes, and cooled it in the fridge. And you know what? It was delicious, so much so that I made it again later on purpose.

In our classrooms, I’m afraid we often create students whose only choice when faced with a challenge is Option 1. In their minds, there’s a right answer—a correct result, one path to a solution, a single definitive interpretation. If they don’t come up with the lone answer that the teacher is seeking, then they’ve failed. They can start over or simply give up.

What if we helped students embrace Option 2? Education, after all, should be about a search for knowledge and understanding. Students should cultivate a playful curiosity.

In fact, I’m decreeing that in my world, 2016 is “The Year of Playful Curiosity.” I hope the students and teachers I work with open their minds, banish their insecurities, and wonder “what if?” along with me.

Imagine what would happen in English classes if students trusted their own ideas and didn’t feel compelled to run to the Internet to find out what The Scarlet Letter really means. What if they fiddled around with sentences from books they were reading to explore how the author put words together? They might even try playing with words in similar ways in their own writing.

What if classes raised more questions than answers? What if teachers didn’t predetermine the “right” answer to the essay or discussion question beforehand, but only decided what criteria would demonstrate a successful response? What if students grew accustomed to playing around with ingredients, with numbers, with ideas, and with concepts in a safe and exciting environment?

When I think of playful curiosity, I think of one of my favorite English professors from my Southwestern University undergrad days, Dr. Debbie Ellis. Clad in Birkenstocks and sporting an unruly cascade of blond hair so long that she could sit on it, Dr. Ellis loved to pose playful questions. I recall with delight answering essay questions on tests (that’s right, her tests were actually fun) in her Intro to Literature, Chaucer, and Shakespeare classes: “Who was the most villainous character in all the short stories we read?” “How would the plays have been different if Shakespeare had switched the fool, Feste, in Twelfth Night with the fool, Touchstone, from As You Like It?” Dr. Ellis didn’t have a correct answer in mind. In fact, she celebrated the unexpected and well-defended unusual response. After each test, she compiled a handout with excerpts from her favorite responses; seeing that your answer made the handout was a mark of accomplishment and a source of pride.

Our world today makes achieving a state of playful curiosity a struggle. When you can google any factoid you seek, watch a video instantly of someone performing most any task, ask a question online and get a response, and cut and paste someone else’s idea and try to pass it off as your own, taking the time to wonder, to play, to try, to fail, to revise, to retry, and to explore seems almost wasteful. But isn’t this where the real learning occurs?

If we’re going to make this playful curiosity thing happen in 2016, we’re going to have to un-program our students. We are going to have to change their mindsets about school, and, in many cases, we’re going to have to change some of our own mindsets and break old habits.

I invite you to jump on my bandwagon, to embrace the idea of playful curiosity, and to re-envision what your classroom will be like in 2016. I don’t have all the answers about how to do this, but I’m curious to see what they might be. Let’s play around and figure it out. We might end up with sludge, or we might end up with something new and awesome!

For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.


This painting was created for Craig by his students: Kavina Hsu, Amy Wang, and Sara Watters.Craig McKinney is an English Language Arts Instructional Specialist for Plano ISD. A Dallas-area native, Craig attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he received degrees in English and Sociology. He earned his master’s degree at the University of North Texas. During his 22-year teaching career at Shepton High School, Craig taught English, Humanities, Latin, and the AVID Elective. He also bakes a mean loaf of sourdough bread, serves as an officer of his university’s local alumni association, and loves herb gardening, attending cultural events, and playing board games.


Want to read more blogs from Craig? Check these out!

Why Can't the Whole Year Be Like the First Day of School?
How We Do This All Day Long
10 Painless Ways to Manage the Kinetic Energy in Your Classroom

10 Ways to Infuse Your Final Exam Reviews With WICOR
Do Your Students Know How To Ask Questions?
Loaded Questions
Your Teacher WICOR Summer Homework
A Brain-Based Paradigm Shift
In the Classroom: Setting House Rules
Giving Thanks: A Reminder

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