Extra Ordinary

illuminatedCreative Commons License Vinoth Chandar via Compfight

The other day something small happened that caused me to think about big things.

We’d been writing short informational pieces (in this case descriptions) and, like last year, I brought in a large number of Indian grass stems from the prairie I am growing on the hill behind the house. The kids measured, observed, and dissected the stems. The goal was to write a physical description of the plant.

Like last year’s project, the kids noticed the joints that make up the stem of the plant; the way the leaves wrap around the stems and emerge from the joints; the way the joint pattern repeats all the way up the stem and into the seed head. They marveled at the lightness of the stem (nearly 7 feet tall!), hollow but flexible and strong. They saw a similarity between Indian grass and a more familiar grass -corn- a common sight in the ag fields in Iowa.

I wandered the classroom watching the kids interact with each other and their specimens; I asked questions and made observations. When I dropped by R.’s table, I noticed a lot of erasures on a drawing she’d created to help her see the grass more slowly. Sensing a story, I asked her about the erasures.

With an excited smile, R. said that she had looked at the grass, then drawn it from memory. But then, when she went back to look again, she noticed that her memory had placed a lot more leaves on the grass than actually existed, so she erased to make her drawing more accurate: “The picture of the grass in my head had a lot more leaves on it. When I looked at the grass again, I realized that I had not really noticed how many leaves there were! So I went back and changed it (my drawing.)”

A small thing, right?

But what a wonderful experience to have. In that small moment, she had learned a huge and valuable lesson about how our minds work, what (re)vision really means, and she felt, through lived experience, how changing your mind (and knowing you did it!) can, quite literally, change your mind. Through that interaction, too, I was able to help name for her how she opened her mind to see what was there, how she changed her mind when the world did not match her idea of what the world might be; how these small actions are what learning is really about, and, ultimately, what life is about.

Does the experience of revising one’s thinking get measured by the tests “that matter?”

Yet, isn’t this kind of interaction at the heart of each conversation teachers have with a child? It’s at the heart of any workshop model we use in reading, writing, science, or any other area of inquiry.

In addition to the planning and the assessing, maybe teaching is also most fundamentally about these momentary interactionsAt the heart of my teaching heart are those times I help a child notice the monumental in the ordinary and, together, we set that moment on the table to study.

6 thoughts on “Extra Ordinary

    • Oh, Kim! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. As November winds up, I’m feeling some sense of dissatisfaction with the push-push of the school year, the headlong rush into the next thing. This little project was nice to do precisely because it helped me (and the kids) slow down a bit. I think my favorite “teaching” is to roam the room and talk with the kids while they are trying to figure stuff out. I love to hear them talk to each other. I love to offer thoughts. I love learning about what they see.

      And, as always, I love your photos. I have to get back and take more photos. (And write more poetry…) 🙂

  1. I do love these views into your classroom, the way you observe your students, and draw insights to move your teaching forward. So inspiring.

    • Thank you, Tara. I wish everything was always so intimate and exploratory. Those are my favorite times. But, too often I think, I have such a set of things the kids “need” to learn that I don’t give them enough time to dig into something and explore. I’m trying to clear more space, like we did in this post…but it’s harder than it should be for me to accomplish that. Sigh.

      Thanks for stopping by. I love to read your thoughts that you post on your blog(s). Thanks for your always practical, soulful thoughts.

  2. No surprise that I loved this, Steve. And it’s right in keeping with the process of thinking that seemed to be the focus of so much that I heard at NCTE last week. What seems different here is that you created an opportunity for kids to engage in this work, but didn’t ‘teach’ it as a mini-lesson with you showing how you revise your thinking than asking the kids to practice that as a skill or strategy, which still seems to be a common pedagogical practice. I can’t help but thinking, though, that the learning went in deeper because the kids weren’t trying to do the strategy; they were ‘just’ trying to understand the prairie grass, using whatever tools and habits of mind they were in the process of developing.

    • Thank you so much for stopping by, Vicki! I’ve been doing way too many mini-lessons these days, too little of the kinds of work that I wrote about here. I’m not sure why…This kind of exploratory work has been more difficult since moving to fifth grade. But, you’re right! A more open-ended kind of “lesson” like this one feels best to me. Basically, it’s really simple: Provide something that has the potential for being rich and meaningful. Approach the situation as a teacher inquiry. Step back. Walk around. Ask questions. Notice stuff. Wonder. Then, ask for what students saw/noticed. Report back what I saw/noticed. Together, develop more general “ideas” built toward helping transfer ideas from one situation to another. Why don’t I do that more often? I think whatever is the answer to that question will be at the root of a certain restlessness I’m feeling lately.

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