One thing is for sure. Learning is a messy, uncertain process. Many teachers embrace this idea; while others cringe at the thought of anything that is untidy, or not 100% certain. Peter Johnston, in his book Opening Minds, talks about the importance of embracing uncertainty because it’s that uncertainty that opens up dialogue with our kids. My work with teachers lately has been extremely uncertain and messy and I hope the teachers and kids have loved it as much as I have! Today, I want to share two of these stories; one is about a 5th grade student and another is about a first grade student. My hope is that you can see how these messy, uncertain conversations benefited everyone.
The 5th grade girl was in the midst of working on a literary essay about the book, Fly Away Home. I studied her plan below with a group of teachers. Her thesis statement was: Many people believed this book was about a boy in an airport, but it’s really about a boy who was trying to escape life, just like the bird in the story.
We noticed that she was struggling to find evidence to back up her thesis statement. It’s tempting to make a quick decision on why that was the case, but instead we embraced the uncertainty. We wondered aloud if perhaps she hadn’t captured her true thoughts in her thesis statement. Or maybe she didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the book. Or maybe she needed help in what it meant to find evidence. We started our conference with her with these thoughts in our minds. We began by asking her what she thought of the book. When she started to read her plan, we urged her to just talk from her heart. After a few minutes of chatting she said: Andrew, the boy in the story, feels hopeful when he thinks about the bird, but hopeless when he doesn’t think about it. She became silent when we asked her to find evidence for that idea so we finally sent her back to see if with some time she would be able to find some. When she left, we all agreed that the book was probably too hard and we started brainstorming next steps. Ruth, the classroom teacher, was wise and followed up with her a few minutes later. Thank goodness for Ruth’s uncertainty because we were all wrong. She was able to find evidence from the text to support her new thesis statement. She emerged with a much clearer plan for her essay and is presently hard at work composing it.
My next conversation was with a group of first grade teachers, who were studying opinion books with their students. They had started this study by asking the kids to bring in favorite collections from home. Then, the kids wrote opinion books about these collections. The little girl, whose writing is below, wrote her opinion about one of her flower stickers. She wrote; I love the flower sticker because it is really nice.
Once again, we didn’t come to a rash decision on what to teach her. Instead we wondered out loud if she needed more support in creating concrete reasons for her opinion. Or perhaps it was the topic that was holding her back from providing these reasons. Maybe if she cared or knew more about the topic, providing the reasons for her opinion would be far easier. I began my work with work with a group of first students with all of these questions in mind. I asked them about their opinions on many different topics. At some point, I asked them about what they didn’t think was fair in the world and the little girl’s hand that wrote about the flower sticker, immediately shot up. She said she didn’t think it was fair that some people were homeless. When I prompted her for a reason why, she said that homeless people try not to be homeless by going to shelters and then the shelters don’t take them. We were all blown away by her strong opinion and clear reason. Once again, we saw the magic of uncertainty and the power it had for teacher conversation and student learning.
I would love to hear your thoughts on messy teaching and being uncertain! How does this look in your classroom or school? What questions or concerns do you have? As always, I look forward to your comments below or feel free to send me an email.