Although, I blog primarily about my Language Arts classes, I also teach two sections of 6th grade History (World Cultures). We’re studying the Middle East right now and going through some pretty complicated material. Today students were reading a summary of the World War I peace settlement. I’d asked them to highlight the important information in preparation for looking at a picture that their text described as a visual metaphor, which we would label.
As I walked around the room, I saw highlighting bleeding indiscriminately across the page. This was actually one of the better examples…
It’s in these moments that I’m tempted to resign myself to total despair. Students were clearly frustrated and I was, too. I’ve learned that if I don’t try something quickly, the thoughts spin out of control (in my head), and I spend a week in a funk convinced I should have been a lawyer.
K piped up, “Ms. Stewart, How do we know what’s important? Isn’t it all important if it’s written down?”
This felt manageable. “Ok, imagine you’re leaving your house in the morning. There are certain items of clothing that are essential. There are some items that are still important but not essential. When you’re underlining or highlighting, look for the essential parts. Look for the pants.” (Sixth graders are still innocent enough for this kind of metaphor to be silly but not out of control.)
K again. “But Ms. Stewart, what if we don’t know what the pants are? If you gave me a paragraph describing [our school], I would know to highlight information about the Middle School and the Fine Arts building, but not the information about the fish bowl (our name for the small windowless meeting rooms). But I don’t know anything about the World War I peace settlement, so how am I supposed to know what to highlight?”
Hello! Earth to clueless teacher!
I said, “Wow. That was really thoughtful, K. Someone explain to me what K just said.” Another student, “She meant it’s hard to decide what’s important when you don’t know what the thing is about.”
“Ok,” I said. “We’ve got two choices. Never read about anything we haven’t personally experienced or figure out ways to determine what’s essential without maybe totally understanding what we’re reading, at least not in the way you understand the school. I can tell you that first option probably isn’t going to work for you or me in the rest of school or life, so let’s see if we can read this together and find ways to identify the essential parts.”
I projected my copy of the text. We worked through it together stopping to rephrase what we just read, noting unfamiliar vocabulary, looking at the relationships between words, and realizing that we could just draw a line from the picture instead of having to underline entire sentences. About half-way through, I thought Cool! We’re doing a close reading. This was not anything like what I had planned for today.
Today’s class reaffirmed my commitment to a classroom where kids can talk back without fearing that I’m going to get angry. I don’t allow disrespectful comments, but I also don’t assume I’m the only authority in the room. If the lesson you need isn’t the lesson I’ve prepared, we’ll chuck it. If the lesson you need is one I don’t feel as prepared to teach, I’ll do what I can today and prepare so I’ll be ready next time.
It would have been easy just to restate my original directions and then tell students to be quiet. Honoring K’s comment and reorienting the class to address it meant admitting that I did not know what was best for the class that day. It also means I need to spend some time reading up on teaching annotating and note-taking strategies, especially as a way to help students construct meaning.
The learning never stops. Thank you for teaching your teacher today, K.