In my position as a gifted support teacher, I have the opportunity each day to work with regular education students and their teachers. Last week, I had the pleasure and privilege of joining a first grade class, taught by a wonderful, talented young teacher. (I can say that now that I’m no longer in the “young” category.) It isn’t often that I get to work with primary grade students, and my experience in that classroom got me thinking about the way we do things in school and about the verbs we use to describe it.

During our lesson last Friday, we were doing a science experiment. The students have been learning about rocks, and the investigation that day was called “Washing Rocks.” Sounds like a yawn-fest if ever there was one, even to me, a science geek.

But when the students heard we were going to do science, there was such obvious joy and excitement in the room. The teacher, Miss Hill, briefly reviewed what the students had done the previous day, then announced (with what I have learned is typical first-grade-teacher enthusiasm) that today they would get to wash their rocks! One little girl in the room was so full of glee at this announcement she couldn’t contain herself. She cheered, “Yay!” and clapped her hands as only a six-year-old child can. This was a revelation to me: she couldn’t wait to learn something, but even more important, she walked into every experience, no matter how small, with the expectation that she would learn.

Throughout the half-hour experience that followed, while the students were dipping their rocks into cups of water and watching what happened as a result, there was an intense buzz and energy in the room. Every single child was engaged in the process, every one had perceptive observations, and every one was having his or her world expanded at least a little.

Those students were learning, and more than just what happens when a rock gets wet. In a half hour, they learned about how to look closely at something and see the details; they learned how to share, both materials and responsibilities; they learned that sometimes you make a mess…and then how to clean it up; they learned how to communicate an idea with someone else; they learned the power of a shared experience; and they learned that learning is exciting.

Too often we spend our time in school doing the wrong verb. So much of school is about educating instead of learning, and the differences are vast. Students learn, but teachers educate. I look at a room full of first graders and I see children who are thirsty for knowledge and understanding.

I fear that the response of many educators to that thirst is to pour a bucket of water on their heads. The results are about as effective, too. After years of telling teachers they need a drink and getting doused instead, I think our students become soggy and cold and uncomfortable. It’s no wonder that when I visit many fourth or fifth grade classrooms, I see students who simply want to get through the day. They’ve learned how the game is played: education is going to happen to them regardless, and it makes little difference whether they bother to learn. When they ask why they need to learn it, or whether they may learn something they’re interested in, or how it connects to their real world, we just educate them harder or slower or louder or faster, pouring on more water. We quench the fire instead of the thirst.

I for one am beginning to choose my verbs more carefully. I want to focus on learning, not educating. I want to engage students, not deliver instruction. I want to discover, not cover. What other verbs do you need to use more wisely?