Posted by Alythea
Sometimes I’m lucky enough to overhear a conversation that fits a question I’ve been carrying around. Maybe due to my sense of murkiness on the topic, I’m drawn to listen but reluctant to join. If I’m really lucky, the conversation helps clarify my thinking, and the people I happened upon have left me with something helpful, something useful.
This happened to me earlier in the school year. My 4th graders had been studying colonization by looking closely at a 1607 map of an English fort on the coast of present day Maine. I had been feeling unsure about what things to tell them about the map and what things to leave for them to discover. It seemed that each detail I had decided to tell – that this English map had been discovered in Spanish archives, for example – overshadowed their own ideas about this document, as if I were somehow more authentic than this map. It was only October after all, and my students were still getting used to critical exploration and to the hard work of developing their own ideas.
On this particular day, my students had just noticed the words “Pars Oriental” and “Occidental” written in small, careful letters. They found the first on the top of the map, written just above the fort’s wall, and the second on the bottom. When I had taught this unit in years past, I decided not to tell students that these words were the equivalent of east and west. There were many words on this map that students did not understand, and if I began explaining one, how could I not explain another?
But these words now seemed different. Since we were also working with a satellite image from Google Maps that included the area on this hand-drawn map, orientation would be a powerful tool for connecting these two primary sources. In addition, we were reading a third source written by the ship’s captain who had transported these Englishmen to North America, and I wanted my students to be able to readily apply his words about building the fort “on the West Syd of the Ryver beinge almoste an Illand of a good bygness” to all three documents. So while I wanted to follow my students closely as they thought their way through the learning territory in these primary sources, I also wanted to do something that seemed a lot like leading them to a promising vantage point. Since critical exploration is about helping students develop their own ideas, I felt conflicted by the thought of introducing this ready-made idea of orientation.
It was the weekend after this class that I happened upon just the right conversation for my predicament. We were taking a break during a Critical Explorers meeting, and Alythea (our director) was talking with someone about the critical exploration she had recently led us in of a painting from the Slavery and Reconstruction unit. She shared that when she and the collaborating teacher taught this in a middle school class, the students had asked if the artist was black or white. She had to decide whether to tell them, or whether to pass the question back to them, preserving the opportunity for them to assemble their own thoughts and theories about the artist’s race.
While her situation was not identical to my own – she was teaching older students about a very different topic – her question, in many ways, was. Deciding what, when and how much to tell students about a primary source is a common challenge in critical exploration. Do I share something I know about a primary source’s background? If yes, do I share it in the beginning or at some other time? Maybe I share something about what students have not yet noticed, maybe I wait to share until they have found it through their own examination. Or, do I simply not tell them anything at all? I’ve found that the less I tell students, the more they seem to hang on to each thing I add or underscore. This is a constant reminder to me of the need to be purposeful with what I decide to tell.
As I continued to listen in on the conversation, Alythea spoke about a critical exploration she and Eleanor Duckworth had once adapted for Eleanor’s course. The class would be studying some historic objects. While there would have been much for students to learn through figuring out that these were butter molds from the 19th century, further exploration would then be limited by how much class time might be left. So, because they wanted students to spend the class time exploring a learning territory beyond questions of what the objects were and when they were from, they decided to answer those questions at the start. The exploration that followed confirmed their sense that telling students something can sometimes lead to more exploration.
For me, this was a helpful idea. Critical exploration has been described as a kind of teaching where students do the telling and teachers do the listening, but it is important for me to remember that it is also one where I need to purposefully define a learning territory. I had done this through carefully choosing the map and the other two primary sources for my students to study, and I now realized that I could further define it by deciding what to tell them about these documents.
This kind of telling, however, takes a different shape from a traditional lesson or lecture. While I might at some point decide that explicitly teaching about the idea of orientation could be a productive move, my job while leading my students in a critical exploration is to stay on the heels of their thoughts and ideas. I help them develop and clarify their thinking in whatever way I can – by asking them to say more, by telling them when I don’t understand what they mean or how one thing makes them think another, by making space for their quieter voices. To avoid the trap of telling my students what they ought to think (“North faces up!”), I give them another thing to think about in addition to the map – word meanings, in this case. Telling my students about the idea of the map’s orientation would likely overshadow their thinking because it is someone else’s idea and not yet their own. However, simply telling the meanings of these three words would open a new and complex set of possibilities for them to explore.
So, I began the next week’s class with just a sentence about “Pars Oriental” and “Occidental” meaning east and west. As one student’s idea of rotating the map 90 degrees clockwise (moving “Occidental” to the left side) slowly filtered through the class, I watched the idea of orientation begin to take shape in their thinking. I felt fortunate to have overheard such a helpful conversation at our meeting.
In much of life, the communities of people that we happen upon determine the conversations we overhear. Online, something different seems to be true, with conversations opening the doors of community. While the topics and students we teach may be different, our teaching and the ensuing conversations have much in common. It is our great hope that criticalexplorers.org becomes a place to be among the conversations of a community of teachers, thoughtful conversations to which all can listen and any can join.
Scott Barksdale serves on the Critical Explorers Board of Directors.