In my last blog post, I wrote about the work my students and I started as readers this year. Our first reading unit was a part of a larger Inquiry into Story that combined our first reading and writing learning targets. As readers, we began our year by looking at stories as mirrors and windows, based off of the brilliant work by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. The first part of our work is described HERE.
After we spent time building our reading community, building trust and looking at how we can see ourselves reflected in the texts we read by studying the stories that other people tell as mirrors, we switched our focus to look at the stories that other people tell as windows that give us glimpses into the lives of others and that allow us to grow our empathy and understanding for the people we share this world with.
We began by first building on the ideas that we ended with when we shared the books where we saw ourselves reflected. As I described at the end of my last blog post, my students and I began a conversation around the idea that some kids have an easier time than others seeing themselves reflected in the books that they read. We talked about how groups of people have traditionally been left out of children’s literature and have had to fight for a long time, and continue to fight daily, to find themselves represented and represented accurately in books.
We began our study of stories as windows with a similar idea. We talked about how having your own stories heard is a form of power. We discussed the groups of people who have had to fight to have their stories heard and believed and we talked about how this can lead to an unequal balance of power. We also talked about one of the ways that we can work to correct that imbalance is to actively seek out the stories of those who have not been heard in the past and listen to those stories in a respectful way.
It was at this point that I knew we would heading in the right direction. One of my students raised his hand and said, “So, are you saying that by listening to the stories of other people, we are really helping to give people more power who haven’t had it before?” Yes. As always, I was amazed at how quickly ten and eleven year olds are able to grasp these concepts and how eager they are to grapple with them.
The chart below anchored our discussion and tracked our thinking so we could refer back to it the next day.
The next we started to talk about how we could listen to the stories that other people tell in a way that would really allow us to learn from those stories. Here is the chart I made after our discussion that would remind us of the brilliant ideas that my students had.
With these ideas solidified, we were ready to begin practicing. I wanted to make sure that the first story that I chose to share with my students would be one that could easy us into some of these ideas and give us a chance to practice building empathy and understanding by listening to the words that a story was telling us.
So I decided to begin with the beautiful picture book, Stepping Stones, written by Margriet Ruurs. The book tells the story of a Syrian family who escapes Syria in search of a safe place to live. The first day, I simply read the picture book and asked the students to think about what this story can help us to better understand about the lives of other people. As usual, the kids’ comments were filled with brilliance and empathy and also many unanswered questions.
Their comments were also filled with evidence of misunderstandings and misconceptions. As always, when we begin these conversations, there are comments made that might make us, as educators, want to cringe. However, it is precisely these moments when I feel luckiest to get to do this work. Because over the next few weeks, I knew these cringe-worthy comments would lessen. I knew that we would learn to push our misunderstandings and misconceptions into questions and I knew that we would end up at a place that was so much better when we simply walked through this uncertainty together.
On the second day, I handed out a typed up copy of the text of Stepping Stones so that we could do a closer read of the text in order to start to document what we were able to understand and also the questions that we were left with. One of my district reading units is on questioning. So I was able to wrap those learning targets into this work as we learned ways to ask questions that would better help us to understand complex social issues. Most of this teaching was done through my own modeling and by helping students craft questions from the things that they did not understand.
Once each student had a copy of the text, I began to go through the text on the document camera and think out loud about the parts of the text that helped me to understand something new about the lives of Syrian refugees, I marked these places in the text by underlining them. I also thought out loud about the places in the text that left me with questions or left me with something I thought might be true but didn’t really know for sure. Here, I simply placed a question mark.
After reading through a few paragraphs out loud to my students and modeling my own thinking, I then asked them to work with someone near them and to continue working through the rest of the text, marking it up in the same way. As I walked around, I could tell that already my students were relying less on what they thought they knew and more on what the text said and the questions that it left them with. This was already evidence of growth.
The next step was to take some of the pieces of text that we marked and write them down on a note taking sheet that would allow us to push our thinking further through writing. THIS IS THE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT THAT WE USED. Again, I modeled for the students, taking the actual words that were in the text and using writing to push my thinking about what this helped me to understand about this person’s life, what this helped me to understand about the world and the questions that this left me with.
Again, after going through a few paragraphs of the text, I asked the students to continue the work on their own.
The next day, I asked students to get into groups and share the thinking that they wrote down. I asked them to first focus on sharing the understandings that this story gave them about this one person’s life and about the world. After spending time talking about their understandings, I asked them to now begin to collect the questions that they were left with. I asked them to write down the questions they had on post-it notes and I collected those post-it notes on two charts:
That night, I took the post-it notes and typed up a giant list of questions. The next day, I handed each student THIS DOCUMENT to help us sort through all of these questions and combine them into some BIG questions that could lead us into a guided inquiry.
I took a few of the first questions and thought out-loud about whether each one was an important question in helping us to better understand the lives of Syrian refugees or if it was a question that could be saved until later. After modeling a few questions for the kids, I then put them into groups and asked them to continue sorting those questions.
Then, we came back together and started looking through our lists to look for questions that were asking similar things. In this way, we began to combine our questions to give us fewer questions that might lead us to deeper places. Again, I asked the kids to finish this work in small groups.
I then collected the students’ documents and further combined the questions until we were left with six big questions. THESE WERE OUR BIG QUESTIONS.
Once I shared these with the kids, we talked about how we might go about answering these questions. We talked about the different types of sources that might help us to answer these questions and I also introduced the idea that the first story we read was one that was written ABOUT Syrian refugees and not one that was told BY a Syrian refugee. This led us to the idea that when we were working to really understand the lives of other people, we had a responsibility to seek out stories that were told BY those people themselves and not just about a group of people by an outsider. This was a concept we would build even further on later.
So the next day, I introduced a list of resources to the students. All of our resources were listed ON THIS RESOURCE DOCUMENT. We talked through the different types of resources, noticed the mix of print resources and digital resources and also the mix of resources that had Syrian refugees telling their own stories and resources that were written about Syrian refugees.
I then handed out THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that the students would be asked to use as they walked through this guided inquiry and tried to select resources that would help them to answer our big questions.
A quick note on inquiry at the start of the year. In the past few years, I have found out just how powerful inquiry can be and just how much of our reading curriculum can be covered through inquiry. However, I also have learned how difficult inquiry can be to do and to do well. So at the start of the school year, our inquiry process is a very guided one. While all of these questions came from the students, they had a lot of help in crafting them and narrowing them down. And before I am ready to send my students off to collect their own resources, I want them to first practice selecting and using resources from a collection that I have curated.
As the year goes on, we will do more work in evaluating sources and becoming efficient at locating sources. We are not there yet. However, I also do not want to wait to release my students into inquiry until they have all of those skills in place. That is why, at the start of the year, I spend a lot of time gathering resources and giving them to my students to use. The idea is that no one student will use ALL of these resources, but they will start to develop the skills that they will need to select the best resources for them and for the questions they are trying to answer.
So on the first day with these resources, I selected a resource for us to look at together. We began with one of the Newsela articles. I read the article out loud and started to underline any information that I thought would help me answer one of our big questions. I then placed the number of the question that the information helped me to answer next to the part of the text that I underlined. As I read, I also modeled how I was still noticing the questions that I was left with because the inquiry process is an ongoing one and I wanted my students to see the power of noticing and holding onto the questions that popped up.
When we finished the article, I transferred my thinking to my note taking document so that I could begin to collect information from multiple sources that helped me to answer these questions.
And then. I set my students off. They had the questions, they had the note taking document, and they a list of resources to use. And they had some beginnings of understanding of how they were supposed to tackle all of this. Over the next few days, as my students worked, I conferred. I met with students we talked about how to use video clips effectively, we talked about how we could notice when a source helped us to answer multiple questions and we talked about what kinds of sources would best help us answer what types of questions.
After a few days, I asked the kids to look at their notes and think about the ONE question that they cared the most about and felt like they were best able to answer at this point. I then put the kids into groups based on what question they selected. In these groups they shared understandings and they shared the resources that they used. After talking with their groups they had more time to simply focus on the one question that they wanted to answer. I shared with them that they needed to make sure that they had MORE THAN ONE source that helped them to answer the question they selected. This led us into a discussion of the importance of using multiple sources when trying to answer big questions.
At this point, it was clear that my students understanding was growing. It was clear that they were learning how to learn from the stories that other people told. And it was also clear that every one of my students was deepening their empathy and understanding towards Syrian refugees.
And now I needed a way to capture that and also to capture some evidence of how my students were doing in terms of our learning targets. So as a final bit of assessment, I asked my students to write out one full answer to the question that they had selected. When I do this work with my students, the kind of work that makes them better readers and also better human beings, I work hard to also wrap this work around the Common Core standards and my own district’s curriculum standards so that this work does not become separate, but rather a part of what we do every day.
So I knew that one of the things I could do was use this work to give my students an opportunity to show evidence that they were able to ask deep questions and use multiple sources to answer those questions.
To help them to do that, I took the one question that no one in either of my classes chose to answer and I used the resources I provided in order to take my own notes to answer that one question. I focused on question number 5. HERE ARE THE NOTES THAT I TOOK.
I shared these notes with my students and then I modeled for them how I was able to look back on these notes and pull out some big ideas. I modeled this for my students by color coding all of my notes to correspond to the big ideas that they discussed.
The question that I was answering was, “What is the journey like for refugees after they leave their homes?” The first big idea that I noticed was that several of the sources I looked at discussed how people leaving Syria had to leave most of their possessions behind and traveled with almost nothing. So I looked through, with the kids, all of the notes I took and highlighted in red all of the notes that talked about how refugees had to leave things behind. I then noticed how many of the sources I looked at talked about how refugees had to move from place to place within Syria and many ended up staying in refugee camps. So I highlighted in yellow all the notes, from all of the sources that I looked at, that talked about moving from place to place and staying at refugee camps.
I continued with this process until almost all of my notes were highlighted. I then asked my students to go into their own notes and organize them in some way. Many of them chose to color code their notes as well. Here were what my notes looked like in the end:
Finally, on the next day, I modeled for my students how I looked at my notes and used them to begin writing an answer to my big question. I typed the start of the answer in front of them and modeled the way I shared my big understanding first and then supported that with multiple pieces of evidence from the text. Here is what that modeling looked like:
And then I sent the students to work.
And they worked hard.
This work really mattered to them. Yes, I was teaching them the fairly boring skills of writing a constructed response to a question and using text evidence to support their answers. But they were doing that work in response to question that they crafted and about something that they cared about. They were working to better understand the life of another human being and the then wanted to share that understanding with others. We talked about how their understandings alone were not enough to convince someone else that they understood someone else’s life. In order to do that, they would have to be able to support what they were saying with evidence from the sources that they read.
And because that all made sense to them, my students were able to craft beautiful responses. Our final step was to share our answers with other people in class who did not answer our same question. So our evidence of learning became tools for teaching someone else.
And on the last day of our work, we went back to the story that started it all. I reread the book Stepping Stones to my kids and we all sat in awe at how much more we were able to understand. As I said to my students after our second reading of this book, they now know a process through which they can come to better understand any person’s life. I told them that I was not suggesting that every time they read a picture book about someone else’s life that they then follow that up with three weeks of questioning and research and writing. However, I do ask them to now take the knowledge that they have and use it to better both in and out of school when they read a story from someone’s life that they do not fully understand.
Because I truly do believe that this is how we start to do better. We listen to each other’s stories and work to understand that which we cannot understand right away. This is how we start to heal this broken world and if we don’t teach our students a process through which to do that, then there isn’t much hope that they are going to figure it out on their own. But when we show them the power of asking questions and guide them through the process that they can use to answer those questions responsibly, then we are creating the kinds of humans who can go out into this world and make it a better place.
In my next blog post, I will write about how this work then led us to investigate the idea of the “danger of a single story” which, of course, originated with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant TED talk by that same name.