If you follow me on social media, I’m positive you are sick of hearing about the County Fair. Over the past week my nieces and nephews have been at the local County Fair with their animals: pigs, sheep, horses and beef cattle. Before you start asking about my own storied experiences showing animals at the fair… let me make this easy, I was a D-, falls far below, does not meet expectations kind of farmer. My Fair participation was often with items I had baked, and I was successful in all manner of baking, but my animal ‘showing’ was limited to one sad year with dairy calves in the mid 80s.

My nieces and nephews, however, are raised by the more talented farmers in the family – my brother, sister and their spouses. Watching this year was different than years past… they are pretty grown. The youngest showing in the junior fair turned 10 on the first day of the Fair and that is really the age that they start owning the process more independently. (not independently, but more so…) They needed fewer reminders, they spoke confidently about their projects, they really delivered during showmanship. What it allowed me to do was watch; watch them proudly exhibit the projects they’ve been working at since the depths of the WI winter. There were a number of jokes online about my nieces and nephews winning every ribbon, of which they did not, but they were ready and did well.

And what does doing well and being ready mean in this context? Doing well means that they (along with the support of their families) got these animals ready to show. This includes so many walks to the back of the farm for my nephews that they would have had no trouble hitting their 10,000 steps on any given summer day. Being ready means that the animals are properly fit, fed and broke to lead. Ready means they knew how to be in the ring confidently, able to answer questions from the judge and hold the space alongside all the other exhibitors.

Now I will pause a moment to say that they didn’t love this all the time. This isn’t easy work – some of them enjoy it more than others – but they all made it through the tough moments, persevered and showed up to exhibit their work to the entire county.

I’m not sure there is a better example of learning and it has nothing to do with school. How might we use these types of learning exhibitions drive what learning can be, without the fixation on sustaining the institutional parts of ‘school’? How might we allow moments like this in a child’s (non-school) learning ecosystem influence how we approach learning at school? How might we make school feel less like an institution and more like learning? Not sure if these questions make a ton of sense, but as I walked away from the fair yesterday seeing the impact the whole thing left on the kids… the excitement and anxiety going into the show, the nervous energy at the sale, the long faces when they loaded those animals up for the market… it was real-life, authentic, and meaningful.

I think we are missing something when we fail to see who the kids are, as humans, and not just students. They are capable of powerful learning, and it doesn’t necessarily happen at school… how can we (as teacher/school leaders) build upon who they are, honor the human side of the child and think deeply about what needs to shift if we do that.