Tag Archives: opening minds

What Will You Teach Into?

I am a week away from bringing my second daughter into the world, and after yesterday’s horrific shooting in Texas, I find myself revisiting the same fears I’ve often had when I consider my progeny. Primarily, I wonder: what kind of world am I bringing my children into?

As I fretted about this to my husband last night, he reassured me with statistics about how unlikely it was that either of our daughters would ever be involved in a shooting, an act of terror, a horrific trauma.

That’s not what I’m worried about, I told him–not that they’ll die or be injured by one of these awful events. I’m much more worried about the world they are going to have to live in, day in and day out.

A world where a 26-year-old makes a conscious decision to attack a church full of people. A world where this incomprehensible event has become common enough that it is, less than 24 hours later, already being reduced to a sound bite: “This isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem.” A world where a conversation about terror and murder has become more binary than complex. It is; it is not.

I don’t want my girls growing up in a world that doesn’t know how to talk about, seek to understand, or attempt to solve these unexplainable problems–problems that certainly cannot, to me, be boiled down to a single cause or effect.

do want them growing up in a world where we try to talk about these things. A world where these conversations are never taken for granted, where they continue to happen, no matter how difficult and painful, as Kylene Beers writes in “Once Again:”

“Honestly, though, I don’t want tomorrow to be easier. My fear is that this day you face tomorrow has become too easy. My fear is that your students won’t expect that this horrific killing will be discussed. My fear is that tomorrow is just another Monday.”

As a teacher, a mother, and a citizen, I cannot agree more with Kylene. I feel more powerless in the latter two of those roles than I do in my work as a teacher, though, for I feel that teaching is where I can make a difference. I feel it is where we can all make a difference.

This week and every week, I hope teachers are having difficult conversations with our students. I hope we are not shying away from the ease of ignoring our nation’s pain in favor of teaching about comma splices or symbolism or character development. I hope our time with students is deliberately geared toward talk about these incredibly complex, nuanced topics. Kylene says it well:

“No one ever told you that you’d need to know how to sit with children or teens to talk with them about people in churches getting killed by a gunman or little kids in a school getting killed by a gunman or families at a concert getting killed by a gunman. No one. And you didn’t sign up for that. You didn’t. But they will watch you and they will listen for what you say and what you don’t say.”

I hope you are grappling with this and asking yourself:

For what purpose am I teaching?

And I’m talking about a larger purpose than the day’s essential question or the target content standard. I’m talking about how the day’s lesson fits in with the culture of the classroom, the messages we want kids internalizing day in and day out, the life lessons we want them to learn as painlessly as possible.

One of the texts my students and I study that helps us learn to frame instruction this way is Peter Johnston’s excellent Opening MindsIn class on Friday, we discussed Johnston’s closing claims (p. 123-124) about research-based instructional design:

 

  1. Our singular focus on academic achievement will not serve children or their academic development well.
  2. The individual mind is important, no doubt, but as the center of the academic universe, it is overrated.
  3. We have to take seriously the fact that the adult is not the only teacher in the room.
  4. Children’s social imaginations should be taken more seriously. They are the foundation of civic society.
  5. Our interactions with children in the classroom influence who they think they are and what they think they’re doing.
  6. Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.

We spent time unpacking each claim, wondering how to apply it to our varied content areas and age groups, but dwelled on the last claim:

Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.

We were reminded that none of us became teachers so we could fix comma splices. We became teachers because we wanted to change the world–our world, and our students’ worlds–for the better.

This Monday morning, I want us to keep that goal in mind as we teach and plan and reflect on how we’ll spend our time with young people. How will we make sure that our work together is meaningful?

quotes-about-doing-meaningful-things-3

If you don’t already see your work as a teacher as powerful, if you don’t see your role as one of an agent of change, try looking at this familiar work in a new way. Your interactions with children in your classroom influence them in powerful ways. You have the unique power of being able to help them develop their social imagination, their empathy skills, so they’ll never reduce a tragedy to a single cause with an unimaginable effect.

You have the power to choose: what will you teach into this week? Making meaning? Or making life meaningful?

Shana Karnes is a worrywart in the best of times, but an idealist in the worst of them. She is grateful every day to work with amazing preservice teachers at West Virginia University, to be mom and wife in a beautiful family, and to be able to write and think and learn with her friends here at Three Teachers Talk. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader

Mini-Lesson Monday: Developing Social Imagination by Making Connections

imgresI’ve been reading Peter Johnston’s excellent Opening Minds with my preservice teachers, and it’s a must-read.  One of the skills Johnston says the most open-minded students possess is that of social imagination, or being able to understand “what others are feeling, to read people’s faces and expressions, to imagine different perspectives, to make sense of abstract ideas, and to reason through this.”  In other words–empathy on all levels.  It strikes me that this is both a reading skill and a life skill.

To have your students practice social imagination, as well as grapple with a complex issue, try the following mini-lesson–which I believe I’d stretch out over two class periods.

ObjectivesDistinguish the differences between meaningfulness and happiness according to the article; Connect the concepts of meaningfulness and happiness to yourself, the characters in your independent reading books, and people in the world.

Lesson: First, I’ll emphatically booktalk Viktor Frankl’s 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning.  This book, written in just seven days while Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz, argues that life is always worth living as long as one feels they have a purpose.

Next, I’ll distribute copies of The Atlantic‘s article “There’s More to Life than Happiness,” which pairs Frankl’s book with current research on happiness vs. meaningfulness.  To give students a purpose for reading, I’ll ask them to read the article with a pen in hand, noting the differences between a happy life and a meaningful life.  

To get kids synthesizing the information, I’ll ask, “Once you’ve finished the article, answer this in your notebook for a quickwrite: which do you think is more valuable–a happy life or a meaningful life?”

The article is lengthy, and I’ll allot 30 minutes for students to read and respond in writing before we debrief.  As a whole class, we’ll have a discussion in which we focus on what the article argues, what the students believe, and how culture may have nudged us to believe those things.

imgres-1The next day in class, we’ll refer back to the article before beginning independent reading time.  “As you read today, pay attention to the characters in your book–are their lives more happy, or more meaningful?”

When we wrap up silent reading time, I’ll ask students to turn to a neighbor and tell about the characters in their book, and whether they’re happier or more purpose-driven.  This time will double as peer book recommendations as well as a quick assessment of the text-to-text connection.

After asking students to share out any really great characters they heard about (to give the class more reading recommendations), I’ll ask students to open their notebooks and quickwrite about a text-to-self connection–“is your life right now filled with happiness or meaning?  Or both?  What do you want for the future–happiness or meaningfulness?  Freewrite about this issue in general.  These responses will stay private.”

After writing, I’ll ask students to grab a post-it note and make a text-to-world connection–from their parents to friends to public figures to entire communities, countries, or cultures.  I’ll collect the post-its for a quick assessment.

Follow-Up: I’d like to return to the idea of meaningfulness vs. happiness with a reading or writing unit on the issue.  We could collaboratively study almost any novel, poem, story, or article in reading workshop through the lens of identifying purpose vs. happiness, or explore the issue further in a writing workshop geared toward either narrative, informative, or argumentative pieces.

How might you have your students consider the issue of meaningfulness vs. happiness?

 

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