The Hard Way #SOL23 22/31

The students in grade 9 were seriously squirrely. I moved around the classroom, reading aloud from a children’s version of Jack and the Beanstalk, trying to teach plot development and elements of a narrative through a familiar structure (fairy tale) in a (potentially unfamiliar) story, but the minute I moved away from a set of desks, chatter began behind me. Phones came out. Once, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wad of paper fly at someone’s head. Nothing mean, mind you, but the students were obviously bored.

Harumph. This was a good lesson. I knew it. A) I’d done it before and B) I knew these kids well enough to know that they needed practice before they would be able to analyse a story on their own. On the other hand, I had to admit that it wasn’t working. At all.

We slogged through the plot analysis. I did the character voices. I highlighted vocabulary that would help them effectively discuss texts. I had them create their own diagrams. Nothing. The low-level “behaviour” continued and an oppressive sense of fatigue permeated the room. At the end of class, I asked what was up? They hesitated; I prodded – was this too easy?

YES, they said. Yes. Too easy, too boring, too baby-ish.

Harumph again. At home that evening, I stared at my lesson plans. Clearly they needed to change. But how? Well, I thought, if they think they can do something harder (internally I rolled my eyes), I’ll give them something harder. I wish I could tell you that I was doing this because I thought it was right, but the truth is I kind of wanted them to realize that they needed guidance.

I chose two short stories and found excellent versions online, pdfs that offered support for students who needed it (vocabulary, questions, pauses for reflection) and extensions for others. I deleted the lesson I had planned for the next day, the careful scaffolding of ideas and thinking, and moved straight to the big ideas in the unit. I didn’t bother with the extra vocabulary glossing I would have usually done. “Too easy,” I grumbled. “Well, this will be hard enough to fix that.”

The next day I explained the assignment briefly, handed out the stories and stood back, ready to watch the students struggle a little. They didn’t – at least not really. They formed small groups, found audio versions to support their reading, read out loud to each other or read silently. They used the vocabulary and questions provided as support. One student read quickly to the end of his story, then called me over, irate: “Seriously? Is this the end? Why would they leave us on a cliffhanger?”

I protested, “It’s not a cliffhanger. You know exactly what happened.”

Wolves,” he spat, turned back to the story, and started writing. I almost laughed out loud.

As I watched them working, I knew the joke was on me. The day before had been all about me, even though I would have told you it was about them. I had done this; I had done that; they had done very little. Today, given a desirable challenge (how many other students rushed to get to the ending that had so infuriated their peer?), they were (mostly) hard at work, leaning on each other and moving at the pace they chose. They laughed and gasped and, sure, they didn’t actually finish the assignment, but they were engaged. So now I knew: this class needed more challenge and less scaffold and I needed to revise the rest of the lesson plans for the week. I guess sometimes I still have to learn things the hard way.

13 thoughts on “The Hard Way #SOL23 22/31

  1. Oh yes, the “hard way” and I are well aquainted and you made an interesting observation which I’ve been thinking about: “more challenge and less scaffold”. This is where the ideas which come from “The Thinking Classroom” make sense. It’s difficult to know what will challenge them, but your observations here show that you are paying close attention, noticing, and responding.

    And my favourite of your observations: “They laughed and gasped and, sure, they didn’t actually finish the assignment, but they were engaged.” I’m holding onto the learning in process rather than completion. Wonderful window into your classroom.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a perfect slice! I felt like I was there. And this is SO true! I am finding again and again how capable students are. We want to scaffold so much, but they want challenges.


  3. I was identifying with that feeling. “This has worked before, so obviously it you (the class) that is doing something wrong.” Sometimes it’s that leader (or those leaders) in the room that really make or break something, and you can’t just eject those leaders and reject their influence. If they say it’s great, many will jump on; if they say it’s babyish, good luck. You may say it’s learning the hard way, but it seems like it’s just you adjusting to the unique group of individuals we call a class. I also enjoyed the eye roll and the, “okay, you asked for something harder…”


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