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The humble green cucumber: Lessons from inside the classroom March 10, 2013

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments.
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 from Dr Carol Birrel

Often the classroom itself provides unique learning opportunities if, as teachers, we remain alert to the possibilities.

Early in this semester, I walked into one of my classes (most of these students are pre-service teachers and I teach Social Ecology subjects)) to find a Muslim scarfed woman crunching away on a small green cucumber. I laughed at the sight of this delightful new way of eating this delicious morsel, as a healthy snack food, in contrast to my narrow pre-occupation of throwing it into every salad I can lay my hands on. I then had a rant to the class about what a wondrous food these Lebanese cucumbers are and asked who else eats them and how, which led into a bit of a discussion on the shaping of the Australian diet (and hence culture) through these ‘legal’ and vital imports. Next? On to the ‘real’content for the class that day.

 The following week, the same student, right at the beginning of the tutorial, unearthed from her bag, a wad of bread, pickles and of course, Lebanese cucumbers- one for each student and two for the teacher. Her mother had asked her, on hearing the story of the previous week in class, how many students were in the class. On the appointed day, she had arisen very early, picked the cucumbers fresh from the garden, made the bread, added the home preserved pickles, and packed them into neat individualized bundles. I was very touched by this gesture, not only by the generosity of my student’s mother, the care and time and effort she had made in this offering, but also, it felt like a real gift from her culture. It was a very humbling moment.

 As all of us crunched and munched on our superb simple repast, I asked why I had been given two (you can imagine what sort of explanations I had come up with!!). The reply? ‘Because in Lebanon, the person held in highest regard after the mother, is the teacher.’ Another humbling moment. And then, discussion took off with absolutely no prodding or poking. A lively, thoughtful and sometimes emotional sharing of the role of the teacher and student in whatever cultural background that student was from. Personal stories of suppressive relationships in China, harsh physical punishments in Iraq, imposed rote learning of huge tomes of texts in Afghanistan, no space for class discussion in Pakistan. On and on it went, the rolling out of these stories that everyone wanted to tell, even the Australian born students- and the rest of the class sat riveted. As the teacher, I was background, yet an integral part as learner also, to the crucial learning that was taking place spontaneously.

 It reminded me of what the ‘real’ learning is.

 In Social Ecology, we speak about the creation of a ‘learning ecology’, a place where the emphasis is on relationships, on ‘connectivities’ that bind us into a learning community that has breadth as well as depth. The teacher in this model is as much a part of the actual learning as are the students. Gone is the role of teacher as sole holder and purveyor of knowledge to be transmitted onto the blank slate of the passive student. A learning ecology is an interactive and vibrant site. You know when it is happening. You can feel it as an opening up of a space that is authentic and heart-felt. It attempts to give voice in the midst of the overwhelming noise of competing curriculum directives.

It is as delicious as any freshly picked Lebanese cucumber eaten whenever and in whatever circumstances!

Dr Carol Birrell is a lecturer in the School of Education, University of Western Sydney


1. Christine Woodrow - March 11, 2013

This is such a great story and a timely one as we reflect on the implications of imposing a narrow assessment of the potential of a good teacher based solely on HSC scores.

2. lisawoods1 - March 13, 2013

A wonderful reminder that as human beings we are always learning and that everyone has something to teach and a valuable story to share. As teachers its important to focus on more than statistics and test scores and allow students to explore and learn through emotion and communication. Thank you Carol!

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