Stupendous or Stupidity?

I think the hardest part of teaching is the letting go. We all talk about not being teacher centered, and for the most part we are all working towards that dance of when to step in and support and when to lean back and let the struggle happen. It’s hard, because even after many years of experience, it is always a scary call. Should I have leaned back sooner? Did I wait too long to step in? What is that super fine line between stretching and shut down frustration? It makes learning messy. And it is also where the deepest learning happens, where children build confidence and, yeah, where teachers get all gooey eyed about the job. Because when it works, all the frustrations and the fear of just how chaotic it looks, because, well it is, disappear.

So that is where I am right now with fourth grade. We just finished a project in Scratch. This was a goal oriented process, a mixture of direct instruction to build in background knowledge and some necessary skills and then the workshop time so students could play within the program. We culminated with students animating their names. A project I developed fifteen years ago when I first encountered Scratch and one that is still successful today. Students then created a WeVideo of one thing they learned in Scratch. As you can see, this was a unit with a lot of tech, a lot of teacher instruction and multiple points of assessment to see what the students learned and how well they could apply it. It is what I consider to be a concrete project, because I can point to all the learning and I have a shiny product at the end.
It was great.

Naturally, the next unit was going to be much messier. Loaded with feelings of success, I may have overreached. Presently the fourth grade are working in pairs or groups to research and then later debate two sides of an issue. I have done this before. Before the pandemic students were randomly placed on two different sides of the proposed soda tax in Philadelphia. It was a smashing success and I had several gooey eyed teacher moments around the whole project. Unfortunately, there was no such low hanging fruit this year. No new tax to debate and no issues that I thought were fourth grade friendly. So, in a moment of pure stupidity or inspiration, depending on your perspective, or my mood at the moment, I decided to let the students brainstorm their own ideas. What did they care about? What did they want to research and debate? I thought, for a split second, that I was a genius and I was having such a senior seasoned teacher epiphany. Pull from the students! Immediately we had teachable moments. For example, when a student wanted to have all plastic straws banned, I asked if she really wanted to research the other side of that, or did she just want a platform for her opinion. We decided that if you came up with a topic you had to be willing to debate both sides, as the side chosen would be random.
So here we are, fresh off spring break and the students are knee deep in research. The goal is to find facts and figures to support their opinion. And oh my is it messy and chaotic and I am seriously not feeling brilliant, or seasoned or anything remotely like a teacher at all. Instead I am running from one group to the next helping them to think of points to research. Because the sad reality is in fourth grade the student’s expectation is they would put a topic into the search engine and out would pop all the reasons they were right. So instead I am doing my dance. And it goes something like this:

“What is it that you want to say?” Me
“That football is dangerous.” Student.
The topic here is should football be allowed to be played in schools.
“Okay, how can you tell if something is dangerous?” Me
“Because you could get hurt?” Student
“Great, so what do you want to know?” Me.
“How many people get hurt playing football?” Student is hopeful they are on the right path.
“Absolutely. How about if we say students instead of people?” Me.
“Okay, should I google that?” Student.
“Sure, let’s see what happens.”

These conversations are taking place over and over again. And we are slowly getting somewhere. And students are learning that they have to think of a question from multiple perspectives and they have to dig a little. And then, sometimes, (okay, maybe more than sometimes,) the information is there but they need help pulling it out. So we read it together and think about what makes sense. And sometimes they find something that actually supports the opposite side of the argument. Which is really funny because they get quiet and beg me not to share it. Winning is apparently important here. And even though we have had several conversations about the difference between a debate and a fight or argument, and they can clearly tell me the difference, the information has been disdained. Sigh.

In five minutes, the fourth grade will hustle into the library, because they are super excited about this project. Even though they are all struggling they are also all incredibly invested. Some have been researching at home and the conversations continue in the halls, on the playground and at dismissal. They are learning how to form a question for research, how to take down information and in the next few weeks how to present the information. As I write this, I am excited for them and for me. In ninety minutes, after I have seen both groups of fourth graders I will be exhausted and stressed and questioning my teaching ability.

Because learning is messy.
For all of us.

2 thoughts on “Stupendous or Stupidity?

  1. A teacher I respect strongly recommended (ie. put a copy on my desk with a post it note after several in-person conversations) Todd Shy’s new book Teaching Life: Life Lessons for Aspiring (and Inspiring) Teachers. I’ve been reading it a bit at a time over spring break, and it is the metaphorical hug we all need right now. He describes it as a “why to” book for teachers, rather than a “how to,” and it’s full of stories like this one about his own experiences in the classroom, where learning is indeed unpredictable and messy and also can be wonderous and eye-opening. Enjoy the journey as well as the result!

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