Pretty early in my teaching career, I realized that no matter how well I knew my students, my barometer for the questions that might stir them wavered in its accuracy. Some days I would anticipate a raucous discussion only to be met by a few meager, diffident responses that were really only offered aloud to absolve us all of the weight created by awkward silence. Other days, I would anticipate a quick idea share only to find myself suddenly immersed in intense inquiry. The easy answer here is that teenagers are unpredictable. I could simply sigh in frustration and place the blame on them for their inherent fickleness and never dig any deeper. Honestly, I am pretty sure that I would have some company in this reaction.
The truthful answer, though, is that a whole host of components often beyond their control (the day of the week, the conflicts they are confronting outside the class, the amount of sleep they have been able to accrue, their comfort level with every other human in that room on that day, the text beneath the text in the question itself), could deter or encourage their ability to respond. The other part to this is sometimes the question itself is faulty-maybe removed from any sensible context. Understanding this has lead me toward teaching students how to craft substantive questions for themselves and then turning the role of the asking to them…giving them the power to sculpt and shape our talk in a way that is meaningful to their lives while I am there to simply provide boundary, to push further, to require a deeper exploration, to help maintain respect.
Getting to this point was a process of letting go because sometimes I really just want my students to talk about what I am curious about–to explore the parts of a text that I find super meaningful. I suppose that is a search for connection in some way, but a stronger connection is built on respect . When I respect my students’ ideas and abilities and when I open the opportunity for them to invest themselves in their class rather than simply permit them to operate in mine, suddenly we are in community as learners in a shared space…and in that moment the real learning occurs. In that moment, engagement receives the oxygen it needs to ignite and suddenly school is no longer something we are doing to our kids, rather it becomes an education they are creating for themselves.
But today, I broke my rule. I asked the question. We are preparing to read a story and I wanted to lay a foundation of sorts before I transition the weight of the work to their intellect. I had no idea how they might respond. I suspected they would have opinions to share…I suspected that they would have a stake in the conversation…but I could not be certain. They were to answer first in their writers notebooks (a bit of a free write) and then to take their thoughts on the road with them as they left school and see how lived experience shaped them. Our actual discussion will be tomorrow.
Here is what is interesting–I offered the question and they wrote furiously–some filling pages in their notebooks, others thoughtfully choosing words and crafting ideas with care. I had to call their writing to a pausing point in the last seconds of class, yet even then, some continued to write. It was apparently one of those times where my hope for a question was met with a mirror image in reality.
So, what was the question that stirred them?
It was quite simply this:
What are the implications of the call to “love your neighbor” in this modern world we live in?
I have no idea what they will share, but here’s the thing. Say what you will about teenagers, the fact that they immediately knew what they needed to convey about this question shows us not only a great deal about the world we live in, but also their awareness of their experience within it. I honestly cannot wait for these discussions tomorrow. I imagine their thoughts will be fulfilling, challenging, provocative, honest, and full of heart (and knowing my kiddos, some intense philosophical assertions as well).
I also expect that more questions will arise. And we will chase those too.
(Day Eight–this one was tough–National Championship viewing on Monday makes for a sleepy Tuesday. I struggled all day to make complete sentences just in conversation and the sentences in this blog ended up way too long…sorry about that…but the writing is done! And I am proud of that:) )