An apple—that sweet symbol of education: Knowledge, as many have depicted it as Eve’s forbidden fruit; Nutrition, in mind and body; Red, the color of exes on wrong answers and of the weight of test grades; Folk patriotism, as Johnny Appleseed’s token gift; Autumn, when school activities begin; Frontier Heritage, the rustic nostalgia of the little schoolhouse in the country; Well-roundedness, like the Greeks, like the Renaissance; Social Support, as the apple was one of the gifts given to teachers by parents to feed them; hard cider, because alcohol is a common use of retreat from the stress of teaching.
Mine is not like other apples teachers sometimes have on their desks. This one is a puzzle. Literally, it is a wooden puzzle in the shape of an apple.
It was given to me by Mrs. Oetgen, my kindergarten teacher. She was my first public school teacher, and she was obsessed with apples. She loved apples and she loved children. She was that classic image of a kindergarten teacher you have, with all the cuddly memories of a teacher that cares for little kids and teaches them all kinds of things and wears knitted sweaters for every month of the year.
I don’t know if I ever actually brought her an apple, though many students did for her especially as students do in that image cemented in our culture.
Twenty years later, she found out I was going to be a teacher, and she gave me an apple—the wooden 3D puzzle apple. And so I put it on my desk.
My students love to fiddle with things, and sometimes, if they’ve finished their work, I let them take apart and put back the apple. It’s not an easy puzzle, and sometimes it takes them a whole class period, which is why I rarely give them the privilege of attempting.
Education is a puzzle.
That is what it has come to signify for me after my first year. Education is something we are continually trying to put together, figure out.
The puzzle reminds me that I should never sit on my haunches and coast through lesson plans, because I’m here to work through a puzzle, not just carry out a routine.
When I see kids trying to solve it, I am reminded that education is more of a puzzle for the students, who are trying to piece together the knowledge and skills they are being acquainted with. They are trying to solve problems, decrypt language, salvage information, and piece together complexity.
Watching someone put together a puzzle and see what image or shape it has created—this helps me keep in mind what the goals of education are. I can’t just show the students how I solve the puzzle and ask them what I did. I can’t just hand them a diagram and tell them to memorize the steps. I can’t just give them the history of puzzles. I need to work with them to use puzzle-solving strategies with the end goal in mind of them being able to solve the puzzle themselves, either alone or in a cooperating team.
Why? Because the goal of getting the students to learn is sometimes as much of a puzzle for me as learning is a puzzle for them. I have to know what it’s like to struggle, and be aware that this is what I do, and this is what they do.
Puzzles, mazes, riddles—these are fun things that push people to accomplish something. But they can become frustrating as well. Let’s all admit that education is a big puzzle for us all, for everyone in the community. Once we do that, we can take it on as something that can be fun, engaging, and rewarding.