As a group, 6th graders are really rather quixotic. Sometimes they can be very impressive by showing behaviors of maturing young adults, but then turn right around and demonstrate way too many attributes of toddlers. Despite this rather indescribable mixture of personality traits, they are a very interesting group of kids to teach. One of the times that these kids are a true pleasure to be with is when they open themselves up to try new things. Frequently, getting them to participate is like pulling teeth, but when they do, their wonderment at discovering what they are capable of is extraordinary and exciting to watch. That’s just what went on today in my 7th hour class.
Our usual Friday fare for lessons is a whole group lesson in reading strategies. The kids all move their desks into a circle and I join the circle in my chair. This is a time for all of us to be on equal footing, with no one person, especially me, in the lead. Students are free to offer their thoughts, questions, predictions, and clarifications at any time as I read the story aloud to them. I encourage them to take charge and try to forget that I’m even in the room. “Talk to each other, not to me”, I remind them constantly. “Try asking your own discussion questions of the group, rather than depending on me to ask questions.” This is another plea that goes unanswered. What I am trying to do is have the kids participate in a Socratic discussion. Now for those of you who are from the old school method of teaching where the teacher lectures and students take notes, the Socratic discussion is described as “…a conversation, a discussion, wherein two or more people assist one another in finding the answers to difficult questions. Why did Socrates proceed in this manner? Despite his many claims of ignorance Socrates understood better than those with whom he spoke that it was not enough simply to “learn” facts, to memorize lessons, or to parrot lectures. To know truly, to seek wisdom, one must work toward understanding.” (www.angelicum.net) To me, I can’t imagine a better way to develop an understanding of basic reading strategies then to be able to practice using them in conversations with a group of peers all involved in the same book, and where all thoughts are welcome; no one is ever wrong. Even better, the teacher stays out of it, and let’s them make their own discoveries about the story.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, think again. I have been working on this since the beginning of the year with all of my classes, and every Friday, it’s the same thing. The kids all focus on me and direct their comments to me, not their classmates. They sit and wait for me to come up with a question to discuss rather than asking their own. A while ago I asked the kids why they found this such a difficult thing in which to take part. Imagine my surprise at the quick, simple answer; “We’ve never done this before, at least not just like this!” My kids claim that their teachers have always directed the conversation by asking them their own questions, and then getting answers. They haven’t had the chance to totally direct the conversation from their point of view. I don’t know that that’s true, and I somehow doubt it, but that is their perception. So, what to do now? It was back to the drawing board for me.
The first thing I did was to look into my own actions. Was I contributing to their inability to talk to each other by talking too much myself? Okay, no snide remarks from those of you who know me. Did I need to let them be silent longer to get someone to finally pipe up? Good, at least I now had a small game plan for me, the only control in the midst of a lot of unknowns. But what about the kids? How could I get them to take charge and be the teachers? Yesterday and today, I tried something new to deflect their focus on me. I put one of my classroom’s ‘toys’, a stuffed cat, in the middle of the circle on top of an inverted trashcan, and asked them to talk to the kitty if they wouldn’t talk to one another. I figured if I at least diverted their attention from me we were on the right track. Well, being the positive person that I am, I think there was a modicum of progress, but truthfully I wasn’t feeling as if we had accomplished much. Then today during my last class, when I was thinking I might never find success with this, I had an idea. As soon as I asked a question, I hid my head behind the book. Some students who had started to speak stopped in mid sentence, others giggled, still others gasped. You could almost hear them thinking, “What is up with our freaky teacher?” I counted silently to keep myself from giving up and talking. Not knowing how long to count, I kept going, knowing only that if I stopped, I’d be right back where I started, no student oriented discussion.
Fifty, fifty-one, I hear students adjusting themselves in their desks. Some were loudly whispering, “What’s she doing?” Others whispering back, “We’re supposed to talk to each other, ask questions, and share answers.” YES! flashed as a neon sign in my head. At least they could now say what it was they were supposed to do. Trust me, with 6th graders that’s a miracle, as they usually shrug their shoulders and mumble “I dunno”, when asked a question. Fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four, now I’m hearing actual full sentence comments. What? Did I also hear a question? Wait for it,… whoa,… now I’m hearing multiple answers from others, and more comments. All right, there were even a few predictions. Then almost as quickly as it started it stopped, but I had met with success, right? Oh yeah, and when I stayed behind my book and counted off another five numbers…more discussion started! When that discussion died down, I emerged from behind the book with the biggest smile I think I have ever had. One student asked, “Is that what we’re supposed to do?” “You got it!” I responded. “Hey that’s fun!”, another said, “It’s almost like you’re not here!” Well, that’s one of those 6th grade type comments that could be taken either as a compliment or insult, but again, being a positive person, I took it as a compliment. We continued our reading, and I continued to hide behind the book. At the end of this exhilarating class period the kids were as revved up as I was. Life was good, and then I had to ask how I could get them to always talk like that without having to hide behind my book. The same student who thought it was fun that I “wasn’t there”, blurted out “Hey, you should wear a paper bag over your head!” …(deep breath, remember, you are a positive person…)