All year long, we have worked towards the goal of internalizing and making habitual this idea: reading is thinking. There is the text, and in the act of reading it, we are thinking and making meaning. Last week, we arrived at an interesting point in our nonfiction topic based book clubs – these are groups of four or five students reading different books about the same general topic. As I’ve written about here and here, this is a very structured unit of study which borrows heavily from Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study, Franki Sibberson’s The Joy of Planning: Designing Minilesson Cycles in Grades 3-6, and Chris Lehman’s Energize Research Reading and Writing Fresh Strategies to Spark Interest, Develop Independence, and Meet Key Common Core Standards, Grades 4-8. We start small with a lot of modeling and me taking the lead in thinking out loud and showing my kids how I go about the process of “reading as thinking”, then move to partner work to practice and finally there are book clubs. The first time I’d tried book clubs like these was last year, and my kids blew me away with the type of high level thinking they displayed in discussions which I uploaded here. One of my regrets last year was that my kids did not have a way to share some of this “big thinking” with their classmates. This year, I wanted to find a way to incorporate that “big thinking” into their final presentations. I asked my kids to consider their texts with two questions in mind:
- what did I learn?
- what can I teach?
Their presentations would incorporate both what they had learned through reading their individual books, as well as the “big idea” their groups could come up with – a summation of what their reading about a particular topic had led them to think about that topic. The collective response to the unveiling of this was a collective HUH?? So, I did my best to try to explain what I was getting at, with only slightly greater success. Part of this difficulty in communication was due to the fact that I wasn’t particularly sure what this type of work would look like beyond, “discuss your books and see if you can come up with a “big idea” that connects your books.” Which brings me to Vicki Vinton’s timely post this week: “Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control.” In it, Vicki discusses the power and challenges of inviting open ended questions into our classrooms. And I was thinking of these lines when I was looking upon the puzzled faces of my sixth graders:
And I hold on, as well, to the belief that if we don’t open up our lessons to encounter the unexpected, we limit the opportunities for students to show us what they’re capable of doing without us as well as where their thinking breaks down.
“Let’s give it a try,” I suggested, with more certainty than I felt. At first, the discussions were random and pointless – as sixth graders are often wont to do, my kids started tossing about ideas impulsively:
The group that read various books about war: “War is bad!” “War is destructive!”
The group that read various books about inventions: “We need inventions!” “Inventions are awesome!”
The group that read various books about the Civil Rights movement: “The people who fought for Civil Rights were really brave!”
…and each statement was inevitable followed with a “there, we’re done..now we can read/look out the window and see the snow falling/whatever…”. Not a great start. And I confess that there were many moments when I felt as though I had lost control of the classroom, shouldn’t I just gather everyone on the reading rug and bring this to an end? But after a bit of pushing, a bit of encouragement, their thinking began to expand.
For some groups, the level of excitement (and noise) began to mount as ideas were explored, questioned, delved into, elaborated upon. Now I was hearing things like:
“The type of inventions discovered seems to depend on what a society seems to need at the time, what people could really use and were ready for – even if they didn’t know it themselves.
“The people in the Civil Rights movement were really experimenting with ideas about how to get people to change their minds – they tried many things, because they didn’t know what would work.They were willing to try anything.”
Not all groups arrived at this type of discussion, of course. And, when the dismissal bell rang, I knew I would need to spend more time on Monday helping these groups find a way to arrive at “big ideas” of their own. I am hopeful. I also had a raging headache. We had muddled our way from “huh??” to “hey, I think we get this!” Had an outsider walked in and wanted to know what all the noise was about – what would I have said? And, what had we accomplished in the course of the period – for no essays had been written, no worksheets had been filled out?
So I return to Vicki’s post about creating spaces for learning in our classroom; sometimes it’s wonderfully freeing to allow our kids to define the terms of their own learning – to let them mess about with ideas, flounder, clarify, and arrive at something that’s all their own. Sometimes, it’s rather nice having that elephant in the classroom!