As I have stated many times before, I believe that one of the most dangerous parts of society is the maintained silence on difficult issues. I believe that by not talking about the things that make us uncomfortable, by not speaking because we are worried about saying the wrong thing, of leaving things untouched because we are not exactly sure of the right thing to say, all of this is allowing the very worst parts of our society to continue on unchanged. I believe it is not hyperbole to state that this prolonged silence is killing us. And no where do I believe that is more evident than in our classrooms.
For years, I kept who I was a secret because I was afraid that by telling my students that I was a lesbian would cause too many waves. I might make someone uncomfortable. I sacrificed my own well-being and wholeness as a human being because I was afraid of upsetting someone else. And perhaps because I have already fought that battle, because I have already walked through the worst that they could throw at me, perhaps that makes me more willing to continue to tackle tough topics with my students. Perhaps the fact that my very existence makes other uncomfortable gives me a perspective that makes me more willing than others to bring difficult conversations into my classroom.
Because I know the arguments, I know the fear, I know the discomfort as well as anyone else. I understand that we shy away from discussing race in our classroom because we are fearful of saying the wrong thing. Of someone getting upset. Of someone saying we are forcing our values onto our students. Of someone arguing that our kids are not ready for these discussions. I have heard all the arguments. I have been engaged in these discussions with parents of my students and with colleagues.
And yet, I know that these things cannot stop us from doing what we have to do to save this country we live in from destroying itself.
So we have to find a way. We have to find a way forward. We have to find a way to bring these conversations into our classroom when there are so many factors convincing us not to.
For me, one of the greatest solutions is inquiry.
Actually, I find that inquiry work is the solution to many problems, but the one I want to focus on today is how inquiry can help us to bring in difficult topics to our classrooms and help our students learn HOW to learn about topics that are seen from multiple perspectives and angles.
Last year, I detailed my first experience with inquiry circles as described by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels in their brilliant book Comprehension and Collaboration. Our inquiry circles focus on issues of social justice. Problems that exist in our world that my students can learn more about and then allow their learning to lead them towards action.
What I love most about our work with inquiry is that it is completely guided by the students. The students select the topics that they want to study, the students ask the questions they want to find answers to, the students select and evaluate the sources they will use in order to answer these questions and the students take the action that they believe will make the most impact in the world outside of our classroom in connection with the issues that they have learned about.
This past week, we began our work with inquiry circles.
After introducing the idea of inquiry circles and sharing the learning targets that we will be working towards, I told the kids that the topics that we will be studying will have to come from them. I cannot know what they are interested in learning more about, but I will help them to discover those topics for themselves.
We had a wonderful discussion in one of my classes about how you know what you are passionate about. We talked about the way we hear something on the news or being discussed by others and we sometimes have that desire to listen longer, to linger over the conversation, that those feelings, that inkling that we need to know more to help us understand, those are often indicators of passion. I realized that we need to help our students recognize what passion feels like. What it feels like to want to know more about a topic and be willing to do the hard work to get to that understanding. That is the work that I want to do in my classroom in hopes that it will start to mirror the work that my students will be willing to do in the world outside of our classroom.
In order to help my students to think of topics that they might want to learn more about, I put together THIS slide show of video clips, images, infographics and photo essays. I knew that if I wanted to spark topics that would drive passion and inquiry, I needed to provide my students with access to those topics. I could not hold back. I needed to take this opportunity to bring the world into my classroom in order to help my students learn to better deal with it. At the same time, I needed to make sure that this slideshow would SPARK ideas and not limit them. So I modeled for the kids how I might view a video clip and write down ideas that I saw WITHIN the video, but I might also write down ideas that the video made me think of that were not actually shown.
We used THIS worksheet to help us keep track of the ideas that we were coming up with. We then spent three days looking at this slide show, writing down ideas, meeting in groups to discuss our ideas and coming up with even more ideas. On the fourth day, it was time to start finding common interests. We used THIS handout to help us do this. It details the process that we used, which is a process that comes right from the book Comprehension and Collaboration that I mentioned earlier.
And that is where we are currently. What we have so far are two GIANT lists of topics. They have not yet been narrowed down. We will do that next week. But take a look at the topics that the kids want to learn more about:
Now, I know that one could look at these lists and say, “No way!” Some of those topics are way too intense for kids to learn about. But that is the beauty of inquiry. These topics are coming from the kids themselves. This is what they want to know. These are the things that they want to grapple with. That they want to understand. And because inquiry is student-let by nature, they will learn about these issues in a way that is appropriate for them. They will ask about the things that are just beyond their level of understanding and they will seek out information that will guide them towards that better understanding. They will ask about the things that they are ready to learn about. We, as adults, cannot stand in their way.
What I have learned from my work with inquiry is that students are excellent at self-differentiating. They select the topics that work for them. They choose the topics that they are ready for. They know what they are ready to know. It is amazing and wonderful and we just need to get out of their way sometimes.
So when people tell me that fifth graders are too young to have difficult conversations, too young to tackle the problems of the grown-up world, I will continue to point them to the above charts. To show them that our kids are ready to learn about the problems of this world because with their whole hearts they believe that they will be able to help fix them. As adults we have a choice. We can either continue to pretend that our kids are not ready to meet these issue head on OR we can help them learn how to learn about these issues so that they can understand them from more than their own perspective. I cannot help but wonder what different place our country might be in today if this was work that had been done in school when I was younger. What if instead of spending so much time hiding problems of the world from us, adults had recognized that we were ready and taught us how to examine tough issues using multiple sources and seeking out unheard voices. Where would we be today?
And more hopefully, where might we end up in the future if we start teaching kids these skills today?
They are showing us they are ready. It is up to us to follow them into the work.