Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Going Fishing

Sometimes, or maybe even most times I’m not sure where our conversations in the classroom will go.  It’s like going fishing, you can pick a good spot and have some good bait but it may take a while and even then you might not get a bite.  We are using the practice of looking for “Big Ideas” in all of our academic subjects, but it mostly shows up in Reading and Social Studies.  As our read-aloud book we’re into Crash by Jerry Spinelli right now.  For those unfamiliar with the book, Crash is a popular middle school football player who along with his friend Mike DeLuca are picking on Penn Webb, a neighbor who doesn’t wear the latest clothes, doesn’t believe in violence (his family is Quaker) and has a perky attitude that drives Crash and Mike crazy.  I began the conversation by re-stating some of the threads we began in our last talk.  What follows is a transcript of the conversation, some comments that simply re-state the last one are edited.

Mr. Slick: We heard from some people that Crash was being a bully and people said that perhaps people do the bullying thing because they can’t think of anything else to do, they’re narrow minded, they don’t think they have a lot of choices.
Yarahi: Yeah, they don’t know what to do, being  a bully is all they know so it’s comfortable, it’s the only thing they know and they keep doing it even though they’re kind of sad.
Trent: I think the bullies didn’t know how to express their emotions.
Mr. Slick: Do you think that people like Crash or Mike will get it?  Will they learn how to express their emotions? What can you do?
Niko: Maybe you could not be a bully, you could handle it inside
I’m always looking for a possible shift in the conversation that might lead to another idea, to continue the fishing metaphor it’s sometimes like looking for stepping stones to use while crossing a stream.  Sometimes I’ll ask a question, or re-state a point to help things move along.
Mr. Slick: Say some more about that Niko.
Niko: like their emotions inside, maybe they could talk about it
Mr. Slick: Do you think sometimes people need help?
Niko: yeah, like anger management
Yarahi: Usually people can’t do everything by themselves.
Trent:  If they have a counselor they could talk about what they’re thinking, because they might not know how to help themselves.
Mr. Slick: Is this what you’re saying? If someone takes the step and goes to talk with a counselor it’s opening themselves up and saying I don’t actually know everything, maybe I could use some help, Is that what you’re saying?
I feel like we’ve stated a new idea at this point.  We began with the idea that bullies are narrow minded and act the same way out of habit, we’ve now introduced the idea of there being an inability to express emotion and getting help that “opens you up to another possibility”
Yarahi: Crash is narrow minded, he only has one target.
Mr. Slick: One target? Sounds interesting, tell me more.
I’m always listening for some phrase or idea like this.  It’s an interesting phrase and seems like it might have some possibilities for further discussion.  These talks are always about how far can we extend our thinking, how many new ideas can we add to our collection of thoughts on a subject.
Yarahi: He thinks that he’s the only one who matters and that he gets to crash into people, whoever he wants because they don’t look like him, or think like him, he gets to pick on people
I often like to re-state a point to make sure we’re all on the same page, but also to give more power to the thinking.  If the teacher makes a point of re-stating what you just said then it just might be important.  Yarahi is not a regular participant in our reading conversations so I’m definitely trying to build up her confidence here as well as re-stating what I think is a good point
Mr. Slick: What I hear Yarahi saying is that if Crash thinks he’s the only person who gets to crash into people, using that metaphor then he might think that everyone else has to deal with me, everyone has to play by my rules.  What if everyone went around thinking like that?
Yarahi: it would be crazy
Mr. Slick: It would be chaos.
Yarahi: He thinks it’s all about him
Mr. Slick: I wonder if you go around with that kind of attitude you end up lonely because you’re looking more at what’s different between people.
Those are some great ideas there.  These conversations are an important part of our work in the classroom.  We started with an idea of someone being a bully which we’ve talked about before, but you took that and really looked at that big idea, you talked about how a person is narrow minded because they only see things one way and how that cuts off possibilities.  We talked about how if you’re looking at differences all the time you start to separate yourself from others, so you end up lonely.
Here’s another point in the conversation where I re-state what we’ve said so far and remind students that we’re doing valuable work and we’re really getting somewhere.  I think this is an important element of teaching especially when you’re striving for higher order thinking skills.  There may not be a lot of obvious sign posts along the trail to say that you’re making progress, it’s not like climbing a rope in gym class or kicking a football where you can chart your progress in how much further you climbed or kicked today.
Samantha: Crash doesn’t even notice that he’s making fun of people for doing ordinary things, like Penn Webb being on the cheerleading team, boys can be cheerleaders.
Yarahi: I think Crash is trying to make others think like him, he wants Webb to feel bad because he thinks it’s weird, Webb doesn’t think it’s strange at all.
I think he really doesn’t like to be Crash, but he’s gotten himself into that and now he can’t get out.
Mr. Slick: What I hear now is the beginning of a new idea, that bullies can do a couple things, they can try not to be a bully and get help, and change or they can try to make everyone else think like them to..
Zachary: Embrace the bully!
Mr. Slick: Yes, embrace the bully, be like the bully, think like the bully that way you can look around and say “Well, everybody thinks that way”  I hear it in school sometimes when people talk about a TV show or a musical group, someone will say “That show really stinks” and they expect everyone to go along with them.
(several students agree with this)
It seems to me that people want to be in a group where people think the same things as you do, is that true?
Samantha: yeah, nobody wants to be weird.

So, did I get any bites on this fishing trip? I think so.  The conversation stayed around the idea of bullying but we approached it from several different angles and talked about some ramifications or those actions and connected the characters in the story to some of the issues and experiences going on in our classroom.  As I shared in a previous entry I don’t put much energy into the old “text to self” connection because it’s usually a dead-end.  That said, I do think there’s value in bringing student’s personal experiences into the discussion.  Edited out of this transcript are several people talking about how they hear people making fun of Justin Bieber or One Direction etc. which took up about a minute of conversation time when I brought up people talking about a TV show or musical group.  I recorded this conversation on an iPod which was handy because it’s small and easy to use but also because it showed that this conversation took over ten minutes.  That’s usually the minimum for delving into the big ideas of our read-aloud books.  It seems to me that if you want to promote higher order thinking skills (which is the goal of the research project I’m conducting this year) then you need time to let the skills develop.  They have to be nurtured and while I don’t have any specific data on this, I would guess that many students are not being pushed to expand their thinking or even just given the time to think in other areas of their lives.  And so every day students in my classroom can expect a few little trips to down to the stream of ideas flowing by to see what we can catch.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Talking About Books And Life

Talking about books and life.

In our read-aloud book discussion we’ve come up with some new big ideas to consider.  To review, the “Big Ideas” are what we’ve called “Ideas from inside a book that can be talked about outside the book”.  In other words, these are ideas that are inspired by something that happens in the book, but involve bigger issues often of fairness, equality etc.  In the book Crash by Jerry Spinelli the lead character, John “Crash” Coogan is talking about a neighbor, Penn Webb, as being strange because he’s a Quaker and doesn’t play with guns and also doesn’t have a lot of expensive clothes or toys. We stated our first big idea like this –“Sometimes people assume that everyone thinks the same way they do and that “different” is “weird”.
Several students expressed sympathy for Penn Webb.  One said “I know someone who surgery and he acted different and people were scared and thought he was weird.”  We talked about how that person might have felt as well as why people might react that way.  Students began to acknowledge that sometimes it’s shocking to see someone who looks different.
One student said “I broke my arm and people thought I couldn’t do anything they assumed that I couldn’t do anything, they didn’t ask.”  This was an interesting turning point in the conversation – it made sense that once someone told the story of their friend having had surgery and people staring at them that other medical stories would follow, but the comment form Cody about the broken arm gave me a chance to steer the conversation in a slightly different direction.  As a teacher and conversation tour guide I’m always looking for how we can go deeper into an idea.  The old stand-by “text to self” connections can be a dead end because in most cases there’s not really much you can say. “Oh, you had a dog just like in Because of Winn Dixie…that’s nice”.  I’m finding that students are often willing to keep going in a conversation with a little guidance, or sometimes a lot of guidance, after all this is very new territory for many of them.
At this point I asked “Is there any problem if people are assuming you can’t do something?” Students responded that in that case they wouldn’t even have a chance, that you should always give someone a chance.  We talked around the idea for a bit and came up with the statement that when you’re prejudiced against someone then you are not allowing them to do everything possible.  I asked “Could we say this? Prejudice destroys possibility?” and everyone agreed that was a good slogan.
We weren’t done with the conversation however, one student noted that in the story Crash was starting to hang out with an obvious bully who he thought was his friend because he liked the same things as Crash.  Chase said “He’s going to get trapped into doing and saying things he shouldn’t because he’s not really paying attention” We circled back to our use of the word “possibilities” and  added another idea to our list, “When you’re not open to possibilities you might end up missing out on a good friend just because they seem different and you might end up hanging around with jerks just because you think they’re really cool”.
I always like to point out to the class the amazing journey we’re taking in our conversations.  We started by noticing an incident in a book, we then took that idea and re-stated it as a “Big Idea” or “Thesis Statement” and then kept on talking and kept on pushing the idea further to see what kinds of doors it would open.  We then walked through those doors like we owned the place, because we do.  Questions are the keys that open the doors and expand the borders, inquiry is the air we breathe and we are all teachers and we are all learning every day.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Stepping Stones

At the core of our reading/thinking/talking about/writing about work is the practice of growing big ideas.  Anything that grows needs food and the food for our big ideas includes paying attention (to everything), believing your ideas are valuable, being willing to graft your ideas on to someone else's and time, precious time.  The best ideas usually come about five to ten minutes into a discussion.  This is worth noting because it takes patience on the part of a teacher to allow the conversation to wander a bit before finding an interesting path to follow.  Also many reading programs focus on predictions and inference which are usually noted on a graphic organizer and are essentially closed conversations.  "I predict that Gilly's mother will take her home",  or "I infer that Gilly is mad because she's always sighing",end of comment, end of conversation, end of thinking.  Our talks are less like filling in the blank spots on a wall and more like throwing stones out ahead of us to walk on, the path is always forming in front of us.
Today's conversations began in morning meeting as we sang the song "Love Makes A Family".  We always sing a song to begin the day and students take turns choosing the song. The lyrics describe various family types, adopted children, separated parents, same sex parents, multi-generational homes etc. and all are called a family because of the love that is present.  The students all agreed that families can look many different ways from the outside, and that love does indeed make the family.  Alayna suggested then that "The whole world is really a family, because if we all loved each other then we'd really be a family".  Others agreed and talked about how you can go back in history and somewhere along the line we'd all have to be related.  Later in the day when we were discussing our read-aloud book "The Great Gilly Hopkins" by Katherine Paterson the students were noticing that Gilly had really changed since the beginning of the book.  She was no longer selfish and rude, but now a caring member of her foster family.  Chase suggested that the change started happening when the others were sick and she had to do more work to take care of everyone, that having more responsibility made her a nicer person.  Jocelyn said that "Gilly had changed her perspective" and now "She saw things in a new way".  I asked the class what might have caused this change in perspective (and also congratulated Jocelyn for added a great word to our classroom vocabulary).  Isabelle said she thought the pivotal moment was when Mrs. Trotter, the foster mother, had called Gilly her own child.  "That's when the family was made" Isabelle said, and of course someone else said "Love really does make a family".  I felt like we had uncovered some great new ideas and gathered a few  new stepping stones to continue our conversational journey.