Friday, September 15, 2017

Learning in Trust and Trust in Learning

It's a real struggle for many teachers to let go of content and control. It can be hard to let go to trust your students to know that they have the best intentions at heart.  But the more you can do this, the deeper the students will delve into their learning.  

Read and imagine this exchange between Eve, Poppy, Pam, and Lizzie (pseudonyms), a smart group of fourth grade girls of mixed ethnicity in a Title One school in Colorado.

The scene- the students are in Inquiry Circles discussing the book they are reading, The Watsons Go to Birmingham:1963 (Curtis). In this part of the conversation they are examining characters in the text while learning about the civil rights era in the United States.

Here, they wonder about Bryon the older brother in the story. The girls discuss whether or not he can be trusted, or is telling the truth.  In the beginning of the conversation the teacher (Ramona) is not at the group. She enters about half way through and contributes to the conversation. She is monitoring more than one Inquiry Circle and dips in and out of the meetings occurring around the classroom. Eve's job in the Inquiry Circle is to encourage making connections to the text, and so she begins:

Eve:        Does anyone have a connection to that?  Byron trouble.  Does one of you?  (Pointing her pencil at each of the three other girls.)
Poppy:   Yes.
Pam:       Can you tell your connection?  Lizzie, you go first.
Lizzie:    How like my brother every time- 'cause when we got our bunk beds, I got to sleep on the top. And he was like, “On the bottom is better!”  And it’s not!  Because it’s all like you could hear the person move on the top, and he was just fooling around with me just to try to go up there.
Poppy:   My connection is from my big brother, Ben.  He’s thirteen.  And when I try to call my mom’s he acts like he’s not there. And then she actually calls out his name. He’s like really there and so she’s like Ben go away!
Ramona: And so you gotta judge him out a little bit.
Poppy:   And so he usually does that every day that I usually see him. And so now I don’t even believe him when he’s trying to tell the truth because-
Ramona: So you don’t trust him.
Poppy:   Yea.  It’s kind of like  “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
Ramona:  So, do you think Byron’s gonna be like that?  I assume you’re talking about Byron even though I wasn’t here.
Poppy:   Yea.
Eve:        (Raises her hand to speak) Well, one time I was about six years old and my brother- I used to sleep with my brother, because I was afraid of the dark. And one time he told me to go get him a glass of milk with the light on.  He turned the light off and he’s like there’s a monster coming for you that just ran under the bed. So now I don’t trust him anymore.
Ramona: Sometimes, it’s hard to trust your big brothers and sisters.
Poppy:    'Cause they always try to fool you around and try to make you believe. 

First of all, what's notable in this scenario is that these 4th grade girls know how to "do" an Inquiry Circle on their own. They draw each other in for comment, do not hog the conversational floor, and they build on each others ideas. It's a real conversation. They are able to dig into this character collectively and by the end they show they really "get" Byron and his motivations.

Secondly what is notable is how the teacher assumes the best in her students. Rather than assume they are off task with their discussion of the connections to their families, she assumes that they ARE talking about the text. She knows that it was Bryon, in the book, that they must be referring to in their connections, even if Byron's name is not yet mentioned. The teacher's preparation for today's Inquiry Circles is evident in her knowledge of the book, its characters, and what the students read for this meeting. This preparation allowed her to drop into the conversation and guide them fluidly.  But, that preparation at home the night before was not enough.  Here, her preparedness is clearly paired with her trust in the girls ability to have an academic conversation about the text on their own. She prepared them for this and now she can trust that the conversations are good in that space. And she is right! That is the art of teaching.

This three minute interchange is a powerful example of the art of teaching.  Ramona accomplished so much in this short interchange.  She gently brings them back to the text with positive intention, and got an affirming response from Pam. She affirmed, to the girls, that they were on the right track by engaging in real conversation with them. She validated their third space interactions (it's hard to trust your big brothers and sisters).  And, she checked and confirmed that the goal of the conversation was directly related back to the book. All of this was done in a way that kept the conversation going, and built rapport with her students through the learning.

This example gives us a look into the classroom of an expert teacher, who has mastered that art. She trusts that they want to learn. She affirms their contributions, and validates their connections to the work.  It sounds simpler than it is.  But it is definitely something to strive for as we develop our own art.

If I were to assess this collaboration on a Common Core Rubric, these girls would be all scored as advanced.  And the teacher... well, she's pretty amazing!

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