Hidden Support

Master of All Words Our journey into the Wonderland of grade 6 Humanities began with a conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

“What does it mean to be the master of all words?” wondered my grade 6 students. Some students believed that to be master of all words meant you were someone who used ‘big words’. Some thought it meant you were someone who devoured books, and yet others thought it meant you were a ‘good speller’. As they continued to wonder, they asked me if they were right. My response was, “I don’t know, what do you think?” followed by another question, “Is it more important to know the answer to the question or the journey you take to explore your wonderings.”

In a utopian world, students would have chosen the latter choice, but sadly, our young people are programed to believe that ‘smart’ is immediately knowing the right answer. Of course in my quest to dispel the myth that teachers are the keepers of all knowledge,  I leapt at the opportunity to jump on my soapbox and  inform the little darlings that it is indeed about the journey, and that they would learn how to investigate the answers to their questions. I prepared myself to hear exuberant cheering, but was instead met with groanings and mumblings – something akin to learning being too hard.

Teaching is a tricky business, you have to know when to provide support and when to step back; it is a fine balance between challenging students, yet not letting them feel so frustrated that they give up. In a sense, teachers need to provide a form of hidden support – students know they have to go it alone, but also understand you are there to prop them up when necessary. Interestingly enough, I stumbled across a visual metaphor of this hidden support when reading Harper’s August, 2013 edition.

On the page before me were a series of Victorian photographs of infants. As exposure times were longer at this point in time, mothers needed to support their children, but did not want to be viewed in the photograph. As a result, they were often hidden behind furniture or under blankets to create the illusion that the young one was photographed on its own. The children were comforted by their mother’s touch and able to be photographed.

I am like the hidden mothers – there to support, understanding it is about the students, not about me.

Over the past couple of weeks, students have been investigating character traits and determining which traits would make a better citizen. They have delved into dictionaries for denotations, searched for synonyms and connected to a word’s connotations.

Subtle shades of meaning have been explored as they ranked terms from most important to least important when considering citizenship. Enthusiastic discussions could be heard over whether solitary carried positive or negative connotations and whether someone who was solitary would make a good citizen. If my students were older, I would have encouraged them to view Susan Cain’s TED talk, “The Power of Introverts” to help them investigate further.

Just as they felt they had exhausted the words, I introduced them to how words are built – the study of morphology. For some students, terms such as morphemes, affixes, elements, free and bound bases were familiar. For others, they were treading in unfamiliar territory trying to attach meaning to new terms.

Morphemic elements (the smallest units of meaning in a word) such as prefixes, suffixes and free and bound bases were scattered across the tabletops. Students were asked to use the elements to create word sums, labeling elements and noting possible changes to the spelling of an element. They attacked the task with confidence, but soon started to wonder about some of their choices. Immediately, they sought me out to ask me if they were right or what to do.

Hidden support was needed to keep their energy and enthusiasm going. What the students didn’t realize was that it was their questions that provided them with the necessary next steps. All I did was repeat their questions back to them. They would ask, “Is this right – we think that <al> could be a suffix and a prefix but we aren’t sure?” I would respond with, “Can you prove your theory is correct? How so?” They would then rattle off a series of words that use <al> as a prefix and then as a suffix. Another group asked which type of suffix caused a change in spelling. I asked them what their theory was and they left me standing there as they went back to their table to explore possibilities.

I smiled as students walked away from me without waiting for me to acknowledge their responses. They knew they could achieve the task on their own. They just needed a little hidden support. They are becoming masters of all words.

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Building a Community of Collaboration & Curiosity

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Many of us know Lewis Carroll’s Alice. As a child, we lay in bed, stealing a peek into her strange world. A world in which white rabbits run about stressing over time, mad hatters host crazy tea parties, cheshire cats grin impishly, and queens threaten to cut off your head. No wonder Alice had trouble making sense of herself in this odd universe. Alice’s resizing and struggle with her identity symbolizes the difficulties associated with growing up. Her identity displaced as she searches for her niche in a strange world.

Middle school students, like Alice, fall down the rabbit hole, and emerge in a strange world, a world in which they struggle to define their autonomy in an increasingly academic world. This is not an easy world for adolescents or their educators. As an educator of twenty plus years, I believe it is important to help students feel efficacious in their efforts to succeed in the wonderland of school. Efficacy requires a set of strategies that encourages students to tap into and make use of internal resources which allow them to develop and implement a plan to succeed. I believe a collaborative classroom that nurtures students to become independent, critical thinkers is integral to student success.

I believe cultivating collaboration empowers students to not only find their own voice but also find the voices of others. When the classroom environment is designed to build a sense of community in which students seek resources within the group and value collective work, it is understood that collective effort is more effective than individual effort. Such an environment fosters flexible thinking; students know when to integrate and when to assert their ideas and opinions thus creating a cohesive community.

Falling down the rabbit hole for most middle schoolers involves their struggle with asserting their individuality in an environment where social conformity seems to be the norm. It is important that students feel independent yet are part of a greater community.

Alice’s curiosity was a catalyst for her many questions. She certainly was not afraid to point out the idiosyncrasies of Wonderland; in fact she was willing to risk beheading to state the absurdities of the Queen’s laws. Like Alice, middle schoolers require a curriculum that sparks curiosity and begs analysis; although without the risk of losing one’s head. I believe it is important to promote critical thinking in the classroom. As educators, it is imperative we create an environment that cultivates qualities such as questioning, gathering and assessing information, interpretation, open-mindedness, and effective communication in solving intricate problems.

Teaching is a challenging profession that requires passion, patience and perseverance. I readily accept the challenge of providing students with a safe, collaborative environment that encourages independence of thought and introduces tools to help them articulate their thinking because I know it will help them thrive in the adolescent wonderland of education.

I am excited to begin another year of wonder and discovery with my students!