An amazing thing happens with fifth grade students after holiday break. I’m not sure if it’s due to the gradual emergence into preadolescence or if it’s the desire to be back in a structured environment among their young colleagues; whatever the reason…they change. Their voices come out; occasionally in unison, but often as individuals. Their ability to articulate their thoughts both in text and in discussion, continues to amaze me; constantly reminding me to never underestimate their capacity to grow.
This afternoon, while nearing the end of our current read aloud, The Watson’s go to Birmingham: 1963, one perceptive student interrupted and asked me to backtrack and repeat the dedication at the beginning of the book. If you haven’t read Watson’s, it is Christopher Paul Curtis’ fictitious account of an African American family’s trip to Birmingham at the same time as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. That question led to an impromptu time-line activity led by the students. It was fun to watch students, without prompting, wander to the back computers to research important dates in African American history. Other students were checking for information in their text book and on my bookshelves. Their goal was to map on the whiteboard, some of the major events bringing our country from that tragic moment…until now, a week prior the inauguration of the first African American president. The spontaneous discussion, brainstorming, analyzing, and synthesizing could not have been witnessed in my classroom a few months ago (at least not at this level-and independently). Watching the process unfold, I observed a community of learners in action. Students were comfortable enough with one another to truly collaborate fearlessly. There was no assignment so there could be no failure. Scaffolding their progress was their focus toward a common and achievable goal.
Keeping it real: Moments like this are what make starting a new year so difficult. Each year, we grow with the students we teach; we ultimately unite as a network to challenge and support each other. Establishing trust and comfort must happen early in the year, but it is certainly not immediate; it is built through constant questioning, listening, and sharing. We have worked very hard to achieve it and will have to work even harder to maintain it.
As usual, I learned much from my students today.