Saturday, July 27, 2013

An Educator's Manifesto

I spent the last two days enthralled in a professional development in which, along with several of my colleagues, I learned how to implement a process called "shared inquiry" by specifically utilizing a program known as Junior Great Books.  I don't use the term "enthralled" loosely, and I say that because, in most cases, professional development is mind-numbingly boring.  Most of the time, especially when learning to implement some "revolutionary educational program," it is little more than a pitch delivered by a salesperson disguised as an educator.  But, this was different.

Was Dr. Fred Hang trying to sell us a product?  Well, yeah...He was.  He provided each of the participants with a catalog of products available for use in the classroom, but he did so more of in a "If you want more, check out what we have available" kind of way.  It was very subtle and an extremely brief portion of the time we spent.  The rest was used to genuinely demonstrate the process, teach us how to do it, and to allow us to draw our own conclusions about its apparent effectiveness.  Teachers in our district are required to use the program throughout the year, and so the products are available to us free of charge, but if that weren't the case, I would still be eager to use it in my class.

The idea behind the process is to allow students to cooperatively explore a piece of writing by doing as the name suggests: asking questions.  But it isn't that simplistic.  In fact, the process is very rich and deep and begins by the instructor posing a broad question, with many different possible answers, none of which can be considered "right" or "wrong."  The process, you see, requires students to use whatever text is being discussed as support or evidence for whatever their own perception and opinions may be.  It helps develop reading comprehension and writing skills, but it also helps develop a richer vocabulary and teaches students how to effectively discuss ideas.  It forces the participants to utilize a text to create thoughtful, coherent, and arguable opinions based on real evidence.  And, on a broader scale, it forces you to recognize that, many times, there is no true black and white, but a whole lot of grey. 

To demonstrate the process to the group, Dr. Hang began by asking us a very broad question that was only loosely related to the material we were about to read.  We shared some of our answers, and, before we really even began, you could already see the huge variation in how each of us understood and responded to the question.  Then, he read the text, a Chinese folk tale, aloud to the entire group.  Upon completion, he posed a new question, directly related to the text.  The question was, "According to the story, was it wise for Kao Meng to build the shrine for White Wave?"  I know that sounds like gibberish to you, because you haven't read the text, but just know it was perfectly clear to those in the room, and is only meant to give you an idea of the kinds of questions this program utilizes.  Obviously, the question leaves things open to interpretation...Which is the whole point of the exercise.

He gave us a few minutes to formulate a response, and then the open discussion began.  He called on a few individuals to share their answers and almost immediately, just like in the introductory question, you could see differences.  And with each answer, in order to dive deeper into the mindset of whomever was speaking, he would only respond with questions.  This forced each of us to think deeper and deeper about why we provided a particular response.  It gave us ample opportunity to see that everyone in the room thought about the question in different ways, and often provided evidence or responses that I, and many others, might not have even noticed or ever considered.  It was fascinating, and many of us began to rethink our original position because of the multitude of convincing arguments coming from throughout the room.

Before we knew it, the discussion had lasted for almost 45 minutes and had veered far away from the original question.  With each additional response and probe, we began to explore totally new facets of the story that might have seemed trivial upon first glance.  But, as the discussion progressed, we found that even the most subtle of details could have a profound impact on the story and how we perceived its meaning.

What was even more surprising was, when we finished, Dr. Hang pointed out that with the Junior Great Books program, that story would be used in the 3rd grade.  That same question would be posed to boys and girls no older than 8 or 9, and here we were...A room full of intelligent, college-educated adults completely engaged in an almost hour-long discussion.  He then showed us a video of an actual 3rd-grade classroom doing the same thing.  And you know what?  Many of their responses, and much of their discussion, was almost verbatim the same as much of ours.  It was incredible to see.

At that point, for the first time in a long time, I was truly excited about teaching.  And I found myself harkening back to a moment at the very beginning of the day, when Dr. Hang had gone around the room and asked each of us to introduce ourselves and explain, briefly, why we teach.  We heard all the normal responses, "I want to help kids," or, "I could never imagine doing anything else," or, "I want to have a positive impact on kids."  They were all about the same.  Mine included.  But, as I witnessed this all unfold, and as I watched the video of that 3rd-grade class in Chicago, I began to understand exactly why I teach, and why I teach social studies, specifically.

That one activity illustrates exactly why social studies is important for kids to know.  Most people find it inherently boring, because you're basically learning about a bunch of folks that have long since been dead.  It's difficult sometimes to demonstrate to kids why that is important to them and their everyday lives.  But, being a part of that activity led me to one of those proverbial "A-ha!" moments that so many veteran teachers speak of.  History is one of the few subjects that is all about perception...There is no right or wrong, or specific set of laws guiding it.  History is totally based on the point of view of the person studying it, and how they go about studying it.  Even the events themselves change if you choose to look at it from another perspective.  The Civil War, for example, looks one way if you examine it through the lens of a Union commander.  But, if you look at the same events through the eyes of a Confederate, or an African-American, or even a woman...The picture changes significantly.  Students in the classroom, similarly, will look at those things differently.

To me, that's what is so exciting.  And why it is important.  It isn't just about looking at historical events through different points of view...It's about understanding that every single person views the world differently, and bases their own ideals and perspectives on their own personal experiences.  That is a skill that can help young kids develop into rich, fulfilled adults able to thrive in an ever-globalizing world.  And while I can't use the Junior Great Books program every single day, I can take the ideas and the process of discovery and apply it to virtually any lesson I might be covering.

I know that I might appear to be idealistic in describing it...It's very likely that come November, I'll be so frustrated and annoyed that this post will sound like a foreign language.  But, for the first time in a really long while, I don't think that will be the case.  I'm truly eager and excited to dive into this school year with a new set of tools and skills.  I truly feel more prepared than I was before, and feel this process can actually have a positive impact on kids...Not only in the way they read and process information, but in how they listen to others.  In how they perceive the world around them.  My hope is they will be able to open their minds a bit, and understand that it's OK to be different.  Without deviating from what they perceive to be normal, how will they ever be able to grow?  The last two days have helped me understand that, and has given me a new-found enthusiasm to share that idea with my students.

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