Making Room for the Unexpected

August 17, 2016

This piece by Jane Ehrenfeld, Inspired Teaching’s Executive Director, appeared in Inspired Teaching’s July/August newsletter. 

Just over a monjane-dimyan-ehrenfeld-headshotth ago, I began a new phase of my journey with Center for Inspired Teaching, assuming the role of Executive Director. While our Founder and President Aleta Margolis focuses on spreading our message in order to change public expectations about school, I am leading Inspired Teaching’s work with educators to change the day-to-day reality of school. We are determined in our efforts, as leaders of Inspired Teaching and as teachers ourselves, to transform the school experience from one that is based in compliance to one that promotes engagement for all students.

It is fitting that my first month on the job took place in the midst of the Summer Intensive portion of the Inspired Teaching Institute, which sits at the core of everything we do. Our Institute engages teachers intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Rooted in the principles of inquiry-based instruction and improvisational theater, our professional development looks nothing like the norm: there are no PowerPoint presentations, no rows of desks, no single expert delivering information. We teach teachers the way we expect them to teach their students – with movement, questioning, active learning, and joy.

With incredible focus and careful planning, we design an experience that leads teachers through the Wonder-Experiment-Learn cycle. Every activity has a clear objective, and we encourage participants to discover the goals themselves. While a great deal of experience and research lies behind our instructional stance, we choose not to rattle it off at length. We know that deep understanding and true ownership come through authentic engagement: experiencing, questioning, grappling, applying prior knowledge, and connecting learning with mind, body, and soul. We leave enough space so that teachers can figure out how to use the tools we share in their own contexts, so that each becomes an Instigator of Thought® in his or her own unique way.

Favoring engagement over compliance and teaching with some openness can lead to the unexpected. Surprises can be scary as a teacher, whether you’re teaching a classroom of first-grade students or an Institute of veteran teachers. Many teachers have been trained to believe that the opposite of total control by the teacher is utter chaos for students. With the right supports, though, the opposite of total teacher control should be shared ownership of the classroom. Of course the teacher remains an expert and authority; but if she learns to cede some control, in safe and thoughtful ways, then her students get to contribute their expertise, too. When the Inspired Teacher opens up opportunities for students to pursue their interests within a purposeful structure, he extends learning beyond the bounds of the lesson, making it more meaningful. Surprises do not have to derail; they can enhance.

When I was a first-grade teacher in Boston Public Schools, I worked hard to carve out room for healthy, productive, and joyful surprises in the midst of the pressures of a high-stakes, high-intensity job. I reflected on this in an essay published in Education Week in 2002, noting: “I have taught only inner-city children in public schools where the standardized test pressure is intense and the sense that there is little time to waste if we want our students to catch up with their wealthier, whiter peers pervades everything we do. There are many people . . . who would say that two months of poetry, a morning spent discussing Greek and Roman mythology, even a short and mystifying conversation with a student, are all stealing valuable time from the curriculum.” I understand that urgency. But, as I wrote then, “My classroom is a far better place when I listen to my children: to a question I have never imagined, a request for information that is not going to be on any test but that they just want to know because they are curious and at this very moment it is important, or to a conversation that leaves me puzzled but sometime later opens a window into the way they think, and in turn makes me a better teacher for them.”

I wish I had had the support and training of Inspired Teaching as I tried to strike this balance in my classroom. I think that’s why my favorite part of the Institute is guiding teachers to make room for the unexpected. In one activity, we ask participants to stand in pairs and take turns saying one word at a time, back and forth, together building a story. It can be incredibly difficult to follow someone else’s lead and to accept your partner’s contributions. It can be frustrating to hear the story you had mapped out in your head evolve in a new direction. But the stories that participants create, which are full of surprise and whimsy, remind teachers that it is possible to structure lessons with enough constraints to focus and enough freedom to spark creativity.

For those teachers who have come through our programs and who have been beautifully practicing Inspired Teaching in their own classrooms, we ask you to sign up to pilot our Instigator of Thought Online Challenge and to join our Instigator of Thought Network. We hope this platform will provide you the support I sought as a teacher in Boston, focusing your attention and sparking your creativity, and giving you a community to turn to as you learn how to thoughtfully, safely, and joyfully make room for shared ownership with your students. If you have not received an invitation, please email Mandy Brown (, and she will sign you up. Your feedback this pilot year will be invaluable as we fine-tune the platform before publicly opening it in school year 2017-18.

This is only the beginning. I’m excited to continue the journey with all of our Inspired Teachers, and the whole of our Inspired Teaching community, in the months and years to come.

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