Monday, October 23, 2017

The Important Things in Life, and Rules that Help Us Keep Them

In two fifth grade classrooms at John Muir Elementary School last week, I read to the students chapter 12 from E.B. White's Stuart Little, in which Stuart, who, despite being the son of human parents, looks exactly like and is the same size as a field mouse, has taken a one-day job as a substitute teacher. He tells the class that he would like to be “Chairman of the World,” asking them what they think is important and suggesting that the world needs some rules to run properly. The students suggest rules like, “No stealing,” “No being mean,” and “Don’t kill anything except rats.”

After reading the chapter, I asked the students what they thought were the important things in life. Their responses included family, school, education, food, candy, friends, nature, books, technology, and ice cream. I then asked them what in their view were the important things in school, and they mentioned various subjects, having a dedicated teacher, paying attention, and helping other people. We talked about how in order to ensure these things, classrooms needed some rules.

Using an activity created by my colleague David Shapiro, I then distributed an index card to each student and asked them to imagine that their classroom this year would be governed by just one rule, and to decide what that rule should be. The students all wrote their answers down, without including their names, and I collected them and redistributed them so that no one received their own card. The students then broke up into groups of two and decided which of the two rules they had received was the most important, and we took the remaining 12 or so rules and handed 2 rules each to groups of four students, and each group decided which rule was more important.

I put the 6 chosen rules up on the board and asked the students if any of them was inclined to make an argument (expressing a view and giving reasons for it) for whether one of the rules should stay or go. The students were very engaged in this, and in one classroom, the rules we ended up with included, "No bullying" and "No being mean," and we had a long conversation about whether one of these included the other. Many students argued that bullying always involved being mean, but that you could be mean without bullying, and so keeping "No being mean" as the one rule would necessarily prohibit "No bullying." Towards the end of the conversation, however, a student made an interesting argument, claiming that you could bully someone without being mean and giving the example of consistently giving someone really terrible advice, which wouldn't involve being mean because you were being kind and advising the person, but in a way that would ultimately cause them great harm and be a form of bullying. I'm not sure I agree, but I thought it was an inventive argument.

In the other classroom, the final six rules included, "Be the best person you can be." Towards the end of the session, a student asserted that this should be the only rule, because, she argued, if each student is being the best person he or she can be, then the other rules, which included "Do something when asked," "Keep each other happy," and "Be respectful to yourself and others," would all be part of being the best person you can be.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, and Identity

In the picture book Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio (illustrations by Christian Robinson), a bulldog named Gaston is part of a family of poodles. Although it does not come easily to him, Gaston learns to be prim and proper like the rest of the poodles. One day, Gaston and his family meet a family of bulldogs, and Gaston looks just like all of them except for Antoinette, a poodle, who looks just like Gaston's family.  

The parents of each family surmise that the puppies must have been accidentally switched, so Gaston goes to live with the bulldogs and Antoinette with the poodles. Both Gaston and Antoinette soon learn, however, that they don’t feel at home with their “blood” families; Gaston is too gentle for the bulldogs, and Antoinette is too rough for the poodles. The puppies switch back and are happy to be with their original families once more. 

The story ends with an epilogue in which Gaston and Antoinette raise a family of their own, teaching their puppies to be “whatever they wanted to be.”

The story raises questions about identity, including:

What parts of us are important to defining who we are? What parts aren’t as important?
How much of your personality and beliefs come from your parents?
Are we necessarily more like the people we look like?
What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of person does your family or friends want you to be?
What kinds of things can we gain and learn from making friends with different kinds of people?
To foster an inquiry about these questions in a classroom, give each student an index card before reading the story. Ask the students to write down the three most important words or phrases that describe who they are. They could be anything, from something about their bodies, their families, their backgrounds, their interests, or whatever else they find important. You can also frame it as the three things they would say first about themselves when first meeting someone.
When everyone is done writing down their responses, ask the students to share what they have written. Students will likely give a wide range of answers, and often their answers are quite different from what many adults would say. Whereas adults might respond with things like their jobs, their genders, and their ethnicities, children might list their pets or favorite school subjects as the things most important to defining them.
After the initial exercise and reading the story, the discussion can use Gaston’s journey to understanding himself as a way to begin exploring how the students understand themselves and their identities.