I was inspired this week by another series of blog posts I stumbled on recently, which (if I’ve gotten the chain of inspiration right) Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres of the original Two Writing Teachers adapted several years ago from the wonderful scrapbooking blogger Ali E. The posts were all in response to a challenge called One Little Word, which asks teachers to think about a single word they want to hold on to in the new year to help them stay focused and grounded. And whether it’s Dana Murphy sharing how the word float found her or Tara Smith recounting the journey that led her to embrace the word pause, these posts once again demonstrate the richness and depth of teachers’ thinking. They also reminded me of a word I’d been meaning to write about for a while: huh. It’s a word that’s often accompanied by a scrunched up face or a quizzical look indicating disbelief or confusion. And like the word yet, which I wrote about before, I think it’s an under-rated but powerful word.
It came up, for instance, in a demonstration lesson I was doing with a class of third graders in Staten Island reading the book 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. The book, which is listed as an exemplar text for grades 2-3 in the Common Core’s Appendix B, is about a Maasai village in Kenya which gives fourteen cows to America as a gift of friendship and compassion after hearing about 9/11. And I’d chosen it specifically to see how much students could get of out of a text deemed complex without the kind of prompting and scaffolding that’s offered in many a teacher’s guide and online lesson plans.
The teacher’s guide the book’s publisher puts out, for example, tells teachers to ask a series of before-reading questions to ascertain how much students already know about 9/11 and Kenya, and then to transition to the book by saying, “Today we’re going to learn about a small village in Africa and how they were affected by the events of 9/11.” Setting a context for reading this way by helping students access their background knowledge then giving them a quick introduction to the book is a common practice. And the teachers observing me were a bit worried about what the class might not know. As it was, Staten Island had borne many losses on September 11, but it happened before these third graders were born. And while the class would be studying Kenya later that year, the teachers all thought the students’ geographic knowledge might be limited at best.
But wanting the students to learn not only about the content of the book, but how readers make meaning, I skipped the pre-reading activities and just held up the book and read the title, at which point I heard a huh. It came from a boy sitting in the front whose face was, indeed, all scrunched up, and seeing him it seemed to me that huh was actually an appropriate response for a book with that title and cover. I said so to the boy and then asked if others felt the same, at which point hands went up in the air. I then I asked them to say more about the huh, and they spoke to the fact the title mentioned America but the cover illustration didn’t look like that to them. Plus there were no cows anywhere to be seen.
Unpacking the huh led the class to form their first two questions, Why is the book called 14 Cows for America? and Where does the book take place? They thought they’d found the answer to the second question when we got to the title page where two giraffes had been added to the cover’s scene, and that made them think the book took place in Africa. And when, having already noticed a reference to New York and September, we came to the following page, several children found themselves wondering whether the story the main character tells his tribesmen had to to do with 9/11.
In each case, the students drew on their background knowledge not because we’d explicitly asked them to but because they’d been trying to sort through their confusion. Put another way, they’d drawn on the strategy strategically in order to understand what had puzzled them. And the huh was the engine that drove them to both notice those details and reach for the strategy, confirming what the writer and thinker Tom Peters said: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”
With the connection between Africa and America now established, the students turned their attention to the cows. By the end of the book they felt they finally understood the title, but they continued to wrestle with why the tribesmen gave the cows and especially what purpose the cows were meant to serve. And that confusion drove them deeper into the heart and the message of book.
Their path there, however, was not straight and easy. The first student who attempted to answer those questions drew on his background knowledge again to wonder if the tribesman thought that the cows could be used in the war on terror. When I asked if there was anything in the text that made him think that, he cited the line from the page below about the Maasai having once been fierce warriors, and many other students agreed, pointing out that in some of the illustrations the cows were shown with horns, which they thought could be used as weapons.
As this idea took hold of the room, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to think of what move I could make that would avoid everyone getting stuck on that idea without me suggesting it was wrong. I wound up asking a variation on one of the questions Jeff Wilhelm offers in his great book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: “Did anyone notice any other details that might suggest another reason for the Maasai to give the cows to America?” The students turned and talked about this, and when we came back together to share out, one girl said she still wasn’t sure what the reason could be, but she didn’t think they’d send the cows to war, because, as she put it, “They love their cows. Why would they want them to get hurt or killed?” And at this point another powerful word could be heard in the room as the class mulled over this student’s words and added her thoughts to the group’s thinking: hmm.
Like the seventh graders I wrote about earlier who wrestled with what really happened in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s story “Dozens of Roses,” I think these students initially latched on to an explanation that was in their reach, and the huh’s and hmm’s opened the door to a possibility they’d never envisioned before—that the Masaai gave America the cows as a symbollic gift of compassion. Of course, to fully get that, they had to read the text again. But they did that not because of some pre-determined close reading protocol, but once again because they wanted to answer the questions their huh’s and hmm’s raised. And while that second read also wasn’t neat and easy, neat and easy doesn’t always get us where we need to be—or as high school teacher Joshua Block writes in an edutopia post on “Embracing Messy Learning,” “If [we] don’t allow learning to be messy, [we] eliminate authentic experience for students as thinkers and creators.” And why would we ever want to do that?