Meeting Students Where They Are: Building Lessons Around Student Thinking

Last year, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful teacher named Keren who taught fourth grade at a small, progressive school in New York City. Every year, students engage in what the school calls a “Big Study”: an inquiry into a topic that was both engaging and broad enough for every child to find a focus of interest. And for several years, the fourth grade’s Big Study was the Middle Ages.

Keren had shown me the illustrated nonfiction books her students had created the year before—and they were absolutely stunning. Last year, though, she was a little worried, as this class was different than the one she’d had before. Reading level-wise, they almost spanned the alphabet. And they were a fidgety bunch who often interrupted each other. They had, though, seemed engaged with the handful of picture books she’d shared to launch the study. But she feared they wouldn’t grasp the big ideas around power, values and beliefs the way her last class had—and when she’d asked them to write about who they thought had power in the Middle Ages, many of the responses were like this one from a child who seems to have superimposed her own beliefs on a far different era:

“I think people had the power. They believed that wherever they went. This is what was going on with the power.”

My hunch is that many of us have experienced this before: What worked well with one group of students doesn’t really fly with another—or it works for some but not the rest. And when this happens we need to make some decisions. We can continue full-steam ahead and follow our lesson plans and pacing guides. Or we can keep scaffolding until the students get it (which, if all else fails, means telling them what we want them to get—then feeling relieved when they parrot that back.)

But if we truly believe it’s our job to teach students, not curriculum—and we take full responsibility for our students’ learning—we have to be willing to rethink what we’re doing and consider different ways of making big ideas and content accessible to students.

To do that, I asked Keren to gather all the work her students had done so far in the study and bring it to our next meeting. Our job would be to look at the work to see if we spotted any signs or glimmers of emerging understands that we could build on. And we hit the jackpot when we looked at the notes Keren’s colleague had taken during a read aloud of Bonnie Christensen’s I, Galileo, a picture book biography of the medieval astronomer who discovered that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe—and was condemned for that.

By that point in the year, the class was quite used to sharing their thoughts and questions in a read aloud. And as you’ll see below, after hearing the opening pages, they had lots of questions and lots of strong reactions to how Galileo was treated:

  • Just because you don’t understand another person’s ideas, it’s not right to shut them down and dismiss them.
  • Was he in prison in the beginning? Was it a “figurative” prison because he was blind? Or was it the kind of prison they put people in in those days?
  • Why did they treat someone who has good ideas, who’s clever and a hard worker who can figure out the “mysteries of life” so badly?
  • Does this still happen today? Do we treat people badly for ideas other may not understand?

Looking at these notes, Keren and I recognized that the children’s reactions were directly connected to their own beliefs and values, and we began to brainstorm how we might use these responses to first help them see how very different medieval values and beliefs were from their own and, from there, consider the role of power.

To begin with we decided to make a chart that captured some of the children’s thinking, which Keren would use to explain how hard it can be to understand people who lived in a very different time because they didn’t always see things the way we do. And we also decided to record the students’ thinking through a three-column chart that would help consider what they valued, what they thought Galileo valued, and what they thought people of the time valued.

Based on their first discussion about the book, they could easily identify what they valued—and were pretty sure Galileo valued those things, too. But before we tackled the final column,  we read a few more pages from the book. And when we paused so the students could talk, the conversation took an interesting turn: they tried to wrap their minds around the perspective of a person in the Middle Ages:
  • I wonder why at the time they thought the Earth was in the middle?
  • It might have been hard for them to believe something else, because look at the sun, and the moon- it seems like they’re moving.
  • Yeah, they didn’t feel themselves moving, so they had no evidence.
  • And it probably seemed like a crazy idea to think that the sun was the middle of things.

Once that discussion ended, we asked the students to get into small groups to look at a packet of pages we’d printed from I, Galileo and Peter Sis’s book on Galileo, Starry Messengerwhich we thought would push their thinking.

One of the things many of them noticed was a quote from the Bible beneath this illustration in Peter Sis’s book:

“God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.”

Many also noticed—and were struck by the fact—that the Church did not pardon Galileo for what they considered to be his crimes until 1992.

And when we came back together again, they had much to say about that:

  • I don’t think they valued what can be seen with their own eyes- only the word of God.
  • I think people valued other people who had the same ideas.
  • Just who shared the same beliefs- they didn’t value those that didn’t share their beliefs.
  • The Church wanted their beliefs be what everyone believed.
  • It was only like 25 years ago when the Church finally pardoned Galileo and admitted his ideas were correct. I find that shocking.
  • It seems what was valued was more the words of old history. They used the word “tradition” everywhere.
  • It was traditions, because maybe they were scared of change.
  • Change wasn’t something they valued- it was disbelief basically. I mean Galileo proved it, but they still didn’t believe him.
  • Yeah, people weren’t believing Galileo-they held on and valued old traditions.
  • Maybe it would embarrass the Church so they decided to burn people at the stake who had other ideas about the Earth not being the center of the universe.
  • Maybe they thought it would disrespect God. So they couldn’t allow it.

With all these ideas, they were ready to add their thoughts to the final column of the chart:

From there it was an easy step to consider who had power in the Middle Ages. All it took was a little innovation to plan a learning opportunity that began with the children’s own thinking— and a classroom culture that valued students’ feelings, opinions, reactions and thoughts.

To read more about looking at student work to consider a child’s understanding and thinking, see https://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/determining-next-instructional-steps-looking-at-student-work-through-an-improving-stance/

4 thoughts on “Meeting Students Where They Are: Building Lessons Around Student Thinking

  1. I love that this example of innovation or a “transformed task” did not turn reading into a game or a simulation of what’s “real” in an effort to make reading more “authentic.” Reading IS authentic. Thanks for sharing the proof!

  2. Another brilliant post, Vicki! And in this case, particularly timely, as I’ll be meeting with teams of teachers over the next few weeks to analyze mid-year assessments. I know I’ll be able to use some of your ideas to guide our discussions. Thank you! And yes to dinner with you and Colette!

  3. A timely and useful post for me, thanks Vicki. I’m currently working with Year 4 teachers, assisting them to design a unit of inquiry about the Age of Exploration. In the past we have asked students to ‘research’ an explorer, and I don’t feel there was much shift in thinking or development of reading skills. We are just starting our school year here in Australia, and it always begins with a focus on values, community and who we are as a class. I’m now looking forward to capitalising on this in any inquiry done in the classes. I’m looking forward to recommending less but more powerful texts – yay for picture books. And I’m looking forward to conversations with my colleagues about how reading is mostly thinking, as shown in your post.
    Cheers
    Brette

  4. Another post from Vicki that when you read it, you think to yourself…of course, it’s so simple! But it’s very rich and deep. It just goes to show that when we take all the other things that crowd learning for kids (worksheets, activities, etc.) and leave it to learning at it most raw, natural condition, thinking is very deep…and that’s what learning should be!

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