|Stop Holding Us Back (M.A. Reilly, 2014)|
I spent yesterday teaching small groups of second graders from Newark Public Schools as their teachers and other visitors looked on. These are children I have taught before. We have shared good books together and so the work unfolds in ways that are both predictable and not. During the morning session, one group of children partner-read The Emperor's New Clothes and then independently wrote responses to three questions. The teachers and I reviewed their work during lunch. Rather than traditional guided reading, this type of guidance focuses more exclusively on comprehension. Reading their written responses allows me to see some of the confusions the children have about the text--and it is a complicated text to read--as well as what they seem to understand. This knowledge helps me to plan for a possible conversation the children and I will have after lunch.
It's 1:30 in the afternoon when I meet with the children again and what is most noticeable, and not surprising, is that all of them from time to time offer responses that are not rooted in the actual text at all, but rather represent truths they know and want to apply. We talk for an hour and the children work hard to determine why the emperor continues parading without his clothing after he hears the child say he is wearing no clothes. Edmund offers that the emperor doesn't believe the child. Juliana says that's not true and is able to locate in the text where the emperor directly states that he believes the child. This prompts all of us to reconsider what else might be influencing the emperor to continue doing something that is at best embarrassing. This is a challenging question and one that has caused each child to ponder what they know, what they know to be true about the emperor, and to consider what might be worse than parading without clothing.
"Why would the emperor do that?" asks James with a certain amount of indignity.
Why indeed? I think.
In all the boisterous talk that follows, it is the quiet utterance that is most important to hear. Marc says the single word, dignity, in response to what the emperor loses. His statement catches the ears of his peers and they begin a heated discussion about the emperor, his relationship with his subjects, and how his actions protect his job, but cost him the respect of his subjects. I physically sit back in the chair as I know they will wrangle with this question and no longer need the language I was loaning them. Now that language is too bulky, too much in the way. They have found their own words and are trying out some big ideas, such as:
- The emperor is a bad leader. He cares only about himself.
- He cares more about keeping his job than being honest with his citizens.
- The emperor is not courageous.
- The emperor would rather be without clothes than have his advisers think he is unfit for his job.
- The emperor is not honest.
- The emperor knows he is lying.
- The emperor has lost his dignity.
- The emperor has lost his money and he won't say anything to the swindlers because he has to keep up the lie.
I listen and when there is a lull in the conversation I ask the children, "Do you think if you reread the book tomorrow and talked a bit more about why the emperor makes the final decision to continue parading without clothes that you might be able to write a response to question 3?" They wear big smiles on top of their confidence and nod their heads indicating, yes. I next ask them: "Would you agree to allow your teacher to send me what you write as I'll be in Boston tomorrow? I'd like to read what you had to say." Again, they indicate yes.
At that moment, it's almost as if their collective confidence was a living thing in the room alongside us. It's big. Present. Powerful. And I know they have caught fire when the school day ends and they will not leave the classroom. Thirty minutes later and they are still trying to figure out where they can get their hands on copies of the book and other stories by Hans Christian Anderson so they can read it again at home. Juliana tells me she's going to go to the library as soon as her mom can take her.
"You can take out the book and they let you keep it for ten whole days," she tells me as only an 8-year-old can sound. I listen and make a silent nod of thanks that we still have public libraries in our country.
Others in the group are already planning to borrow the book so they can bring it home to read again. And they look to their teacher who lets the know this is possible. I listen as they finally leave the classroom and notice that they are continuing the conversation about the emperor and his lack of leadership on their own as they make their way down the long hallway.
Learning requires the space to be wrong--as does good teaching. This shift from more traditional approaches to guided reading to guiding children's reading through conversation is challenging and necessary. When the teachers ask how they might best prepare for such conversations we talk about reading the text carefully, sharing your perspective with another teacher, preparing, asking, and answering good questions, recognizing that the conversation will take twists you did not plan for, and becoming comfortable as the lesson will not turn out the way you may have intended as the lesson no longer rests solely in your hands.
The learning is a made thing that happens among people. This is a liberating truth: the work that is made does not and cannot rest solely in the hands of the teacher. This is, in part, what makes it so powerful.