How do I Know What I Think…
Until I Hear What I Say?
Back in the late 80’s I rode in a car to Dayton , Ohio with some other folks from my county, along with my mentor from UVA, Daniel Walsh, to have a conversation at some small conference about that question. That was the name of our presentation–
How Do I Know What I Think Until I Hear What I Say?
Doesn’t that sound strange? However, back then, our instructional facilitator for early childhood, Jamie Endahl, had begun a series of Early Childhood conversations where any K-1 (and sometimes grades 2-3) teacher who wanted to, came together to just talk about our practice. The conversations were powerful. They were life-changing, and they changed practice around our county. I, for one, felt heard for one of the first times in my life. I had a place to talk about my practice, my art, my science of working in a classroom with young learners. It was the beginning of being a Connected Educator for me. The power of finding both like and unlike thinkers to challenge, support and question me was simply amazing.
I’ve never forgotten how powerful doing that conference with others was –Carole Lear, Jamie, Mary Smith, Janice Eiden, Daniel, and a couple of others, I think. We didn’t formally prepare–we simply shared about our EC conversations, and talked about the transformation they had caused in our practice and beliefs.
Simple conversations–but in them, I gleaned new understandings into why and how I was shaping my class to allow K kids to grow and learn. Sitting and hearing others describe their classes, their practices, their beliefs made me delve more deeply into my own–and doing that solidified some things, challenged some things and definitely changed some things.
As another blogger writes in a post with the same name, “It is not until we are forced to articulate our ideas that they take real shape and we can gain clarity around what our thoughts are really about.” And another blogger on yet another post with the same name also says, “I have always found that I work out my view or understanding of something by talking about it. It gets my brain connections working.”
Aren’t those things we want our children to experience and feel? So how do we find time for that in our standardized test-driven classes?
I believe it’s in our literacy classes. I believe it’s in our social studies classes. I believe it’s in our math classes and our writing classes, and our science classes, and our field trip bus rides and our lunch conversations and recess conversations…in other words, whenever we can. We have to get kids talking to one another, sharing thoughts and questioning, listening, challenging and empathizing with one another.
Writing is a powerful way to do that. When we ask kids to write to our prompts, to our directives, in our ways, we stifle what they bring to the table. We stifle what they have to say, because they are living within our constraints. We need to find ways to bring them into the conversation with their thoughts, not what they think we want to hear. I really hate it when smart kids play school and give me the answer they think I want to hear rather than their own thoughts.
Last summer (2012) I was one of the state workshop presenters for writing in the summer SOL workshops for teachers. I was presenting on media literacy, but we began with a presentation for everyone on the state writing tests. The literacy person for the state said clearly in that workshop that they did NOT want to see 5 paragraph essays in the March writing test–and that if they saw a cohort of kids doing that on the test from a particular school that they would know real writing instruction had not occurred. She further went on to say that the typical beginning is to restate the prompt and the typical ending is to ask a question. We’ve all taught those conventions at one point or another. So what do we put in place of it?
How do we “get there” with reluctant writers? How do we scaffold kids who have never felt heard and who often don’t have a clue how to organize their thoughts? How do we keep kids from ending a piece of writing with things like “That’s all forks.” (Seriously, I had a 5th grader write that this week.)
We talk with them. We listen to them and question them–carefully–so they will continue to share. We hold writing workshops. We confer with them, letting them do most of the talking. We share good writing, and we share our passion for amazing and powerful words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs and stories and books. We share our own writing, and talk about OUR process as writers…but we never talk more than the kids. You see, how do they connect to others if they are only writing for the teacher? How do they learn to share and empathize and understand their likenesses and differences form other people if they cannot see those? And most of all,
How do they know what they are thinking if they don’t hear what they say?