powerful moments in education
Deep into Sign of the Beaver (Elizabeth George Speare) at the climactic points of battling wildlife and participating in traditional Penobscot ceremonies, listener attention is on high. Each time I read this book aloud, toward the beginning I regret it slightly- challenging vocabulary and themes for 9 year-olds, but once we are half way through, I remember why I knew it was so important to work through it. (I feel the same way when I read Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, but sharing the idea of a seeming paradoxical happy ending is too good to pass up.)
After my last post about the human condition, I created some unexpected threads of thought for my own use- how silly of me to forget that writing about an idea only uncovers another layer of thoughts, never ending, in fact, like phyllo dough. If you have not read Sign of the Beaver, here is enough to get you by and hopefully cause you to read: Mid-1700’s settler boy and father arrive in their newly “claimed” land in what is now Maine, father treks back to Quincy to retrieve mother, sister, and new baby, boy remains behind to protect new cabin and land, boy gets in trouble with nature and is saved by native boy and grandfather, pact is made for settler boy to teach native boy to read, boys are not happy about it, relationships take interesting forms as story progresses, adventures are had.
We had been working through connections the past few weeks, especially focusing on which connections do not really assist us at that point in time- the ones that are real and important to the thinker for sure, but mostly are a storytelling opportunity which from experience teachers KNOW will distract from the topic at hand… It’s important to cut students off when these begin (what?!?!)- but ONLY if there has already been a considerable amount of work done defining connections for direct understanding and connections which hit the wall on the dartboard, but CAN be used elsewhere for writing or storytelling.
At one point I could tell the kids were wrapped up in the story, many of them making connections with outdoor adventures, hikes, hunting, Boy Scouts…but what about my non-outdoorsy kids? (This one is for you, Amy M. ;) ) It was staring at me right in the face- not just the outdoor survival or evolving friendship of the two boys, but there it was- the human condition again, and once we began to address that, everyone now had a relevant connection opportunity. When we took these thoughts to our Readers’ Response notebooks, students who were clearly enjoying the story, but hadn’t much personal experience with outdoor adventures, now had something even deeper to explore- One girl wrote about the solemn face of the grandfather chief when giving strong instructions to his grandson, connecting that to times when her parents showed a similar expression, and the heart-grabbing reasons for it, leading to her exploring a family relationship in the book. A class discussion began about how it can be awkward when you are expected to play with others or family members, and you do not feel like it would be your first choice, yet when there is patience, connections with others are to be had. A realization that our settler boy simply wants to be recognized by the native boy, and the native boy wants to be recognized by his grandfather- THIS realization birthed new connections that I might not have seen had I not paused to consider the human condition of acceptance.
Each time I have read this book aloud, I have pursued different paths- One time, we made a chart listing the teaching & learning of skills between the boys, another time we carefully documented the change in the boys friendship, scene by scene, and this time, I went in empty because I wanted the themes to organically appear- and they did. Not that the skill chart and friendship evolution are not important- on the contrary- but those years, I entered the book with the plan of zooming in on those themes. This time, and barely passing the 1/2 way point, we have a solid theme to hold on to, with which ALL can connect- the desire for human relationships- and all of the accompanying emotions- jealousy, loneliness, frustration, perseverance, love, friendship, patience, listening, learning…
Not only that, but we began reading the book as we were starting to understand the difference between “fake reading” (saying the words) and real reading (feeling the words). Matt, the settler boy, is trying to teach Attean to read, using Robinson Crusoe, his only book besides the Bible. This gave me such an opportunity to share my OWN connections with the students, making this process so real- how Matt was carefully choosing the parts to read, thinking hard about activities that the resistant Attean might actually want to complete so he could learn the “white man signs”.
Forget the connection, “I’ve been hiking many times- I know just what they feel like right now.” Now we have, “Look how far they have come as friends, as family…are these the possibilities for us as kids?” Kids do not necessarily generalize or look at the big picture- they are not there developmentally. But I know we are getting somewhere as readers when they welcomed the guidance to do so with wide-eyes and protests when it is time to stop reading- we are soooo past, “I’ve been in the woods before….”