Are you ready for more authentic work?

Emerald Connection, Monday, September 27th, 2021

“How do you relate to Ramona?” is a much more interesting and complex question than “What does Ramona do that makes her brave?” Both inquiries assess one’s comprehension of a book, but the former involves high-level thinking and association. In their English/Language Arts class, Jen’s 3/4 students, the Golden Foxes, have begun a deep dive into identity. How do we construct our own ideas of the ‘self’, and who are we in relation to others? To help her students formulate real understandings for themselves (without resorting to the vocabulary of a graduate-level semiotics course), Jen has constructed ways for them to identify their associations with characters in familiar fiction.

While reading, the Golden Foxes are looking for ‘mirror’ and ‘window’ moments within stories. Mirror moments involve empathy: how do the feelings and actions of a character remind you of something you’ve experienced? Windows revolve around sympathy and compassion: how does the character’s experience teach you something new that you hadn’t thought of before? The key to such exploration is authenticity, since students need to be able to truly answer such questions honestly, rather than arriving at pre-loaded responses. For Jen’s assignments, authenticity occurs within individual choice and group discussion, similarly complex methods of teaching that she has mastered over years of practice. In this case, students have already considered an array of possible books, read their back covers, made predictions, and then chosen their own particular reading groups with peers based on their interests – one group is currently reading Ramona the Brave and another Maniac Magee. The autonomy and empathy involved in finding their own ways into groups has led to engaging discussions as they read the texts with their classmates. They use the books to explore identity-related questions: what are the traits by which characters define themselves? What do they display outwardly to others? What do they keep on the inside? Students then locate and discuss their own different answers within the modes of mirror and window associations. In the process, Jen checks in with each group to help them sort through their complex insights, assess their comprehension of the plots, and make predictions. As the unit unfolds over the next few weeks, the Golden Foxes will apply their findings from the texts to larger, self-defined projects that they’ll construct to showcase their own identities. For example, past projects have included a set of skis decorated with icons exhibiting specific interests, weavings and hand-made bracelets with symbolic meanings, and personal narratives. In each case, the students will use ideas that resonate with them from the texts they’ve read, apply their own critical writing to help organize their ideas, and present their finished products to the larger class. As a result, they’ll gain both mirror and window understandings of each other’s different, authentic work, and they’ll further learn to value the individual contributions of classmates within the communal context of a class group. (I did that sort of thing in grad school, but not so much in primary school. Pretty cool.)