Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Spark

Yesterday, in the first days of December, it finally happened in my class. After three months of learning together every day, we finally had an intellectually exciting conversation that had my students enthralled.

This class was not overjoyed about performing mineral tests or looking for rocks outside. Finding patterns in lists of equations does not excite them. Reading many stories by Ezra Jack Keats and learning all about him didn't do it for them. Books that in other years have sparked conversations about race and identity seemed not to register. Thinking about maps and the ways people use them passed unnoticed. Many of the lessons and projects that have, in the past, led to waving, wiggling hands and excited bursts of conversation had little impact on this class.

Don't get me wrong: they have had fun in my class. They do enjoy filling their pockets with rocks, but more in a collector's style than that of a geologist. They love to cook (and I think we should cook more). When we went roller skating, they demonstrated incredible persistence and cheer, despite repeated bruising falls. They have worked hard on a huge mural of a local neighborhood we visited that accompanies graphs of data they collected on that visit. They love to hear a good story.

But they have enjoyed many of these things as children, not as learners. Of course they have learned from them, and of course they are children, and should enjoy things as children. It's just that this group is not particularly intellectually engaged (yet). They are very, very wiggly. They are quite concerned with what each other are doing at every moment, and love to tell each other what to do. They always have urgent needs, whether for the bathroom or a glass of water or to see the nurse. There is, in fact, an incredible, often overwhelming amount of activity and conversation going on in my classroom. It's just that most of it does not center around learning.

So, great authors didn't do it. Exploring rocks didn't do it. Maps of unknown places had no effect. What is the subject that, this week, has made my students watch and listen with wide eyes, wave their hands in the air, and beg to share their ideas? Ladies and gentlemen, we have been thinking about what makes rocks get smaller and smoother.

When we did these lessons last year, they passed virtually unnoticed. Although my students had fun brainstorming where rocks come from, and they enjoyed the exploration of sand, silt, clay, pebbles, gravel, and humus, it wasn't a topic that particularly grabbed them. This year, though, the second graders are fascinated.

For two days we brainstormed what might make rocks smaller and smoother: water falling on them, or when they bounce around in a river. Tree roots pushing them. People walking on them, or cars driving on them. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and volcanoes came up. Meteorites were a subject of great debate. We went outside and looked around to see what evidence we could find of changing rocks. We made lists. We talked a lot about where sand comes from. How come you can't lie down on a bunch of pebbles and be comfortable, but sand, which is just pebbles made much smaller, is soft to lie on?

Teo was quite sure that people make sand. "How do you think they do that?" I asked. "They rub rocks," he answered confidently. "Whose job do you think that is?" I wondered, grinning. "Geologists!" he replied. Silly teacher. He described groups of geologists whose only job all day was rubbing rocks, in order to make all the sand on all the beaches. Lovely.

Yesterday, we read a book that talked about rocks, soil, and sand. They were entranced. I drew pictures of mountains, boulders, rivers, and oceans on the board. They asked why sand sticks together when it's wet. They wondered how rocks melt in fire (like in a volcano). They frowned when I talked about the earth moving, as in an earthquake. (How can the earth move?)

It was fun. It was so fun. As I sat there listening, and as they sat there listening to each other with a minimum of redirection, I had a flash of what I love about being a teacher. The fact that I didn't feel it until December this year does not make me too optimistic about the rest of the year. But at least the spark came this once.

1 comment:

  1. What a stroke of luck to find your blog! I taught second grade out of grad school up in MD and have been teaching 6th grade for the last six years in NC. In my experience with low-income, urban, middle school students, intellectual curiosity has been hard to come by. VERY hard. (Hello...thinking children...where are you?) I loved your distinction between children and learners. For me, a major challenge has been helping the former see themselves, and act like, the later.

    BTW, I love your writing style! Looking forward to visiting your blog again. Happy Holidays. Ms. Cook