Monday, September 23, 2013

On Grade 6

In addition to the administrative duties involved in my job as Assistant Principal, I am teaching 6th grade history.  All of our administrators teach and I love being in the classroom.  So when I first took the position, I wasn't the least bit fazed at this part of the job.   In fact, I would be hard-pressed to give up classroom time with  students, so it was essential to the switch.

In the spring, working with the other Middle School history teachers, I selected a textbook for the class.  Over the summer, I read the textbook and I thought about the topics I would teach and the skills the students need to develop.  I felt confident about the venture.  Come August, I sat down to make actual  daily lessons.  And then I panicked.  One day, as I sat in my newly-arranged office I actually thought "well, I'll just ask to go back to my usual teaching responsibilities with 11th and 12th  graders."  As if that was something that could just immediately occur at T minus one month until school began.

Instead, I took a deep breath and thought about approaching my planning on a day-by-day basis.  Lectures, discussions, and assignments of the sort you have with 16 and 17 year olds were out.  But I had a few ideas for daily lessons in mind; the book and my fellow middle school teachers had others.  I began to pull together day-by-day activities.  By the time school started, I had a plan for my first unit on the Romans……seven weeks of instruction in the bag.  A plan at least, but one bathed in uncertainty: would this work?

Within the first few days of class, it was clear that my plans were good.  What I hadn't expected was the enormous enthusiasm 10 and 11 year olds bring to the table.  In high school, you have to work pretty hard in the first few weeks to establish a rapport and get the students to take the risks to discuss big ideas.  The social context has to be overcome first; they have to trust the teacher and their classmates to really explore complicated ideas, some of which are completely new to them (looking at you, federalism).  There are periods when discussion is just a painful trudge.  Eventually, the class takes on a personality and then the learning really gets going.  Hanging over it all is the reality of material that must be covered to have the students ready for the SAT, the ACT, AP tests, and college beyond.  These are ever-looming events and the students must be prepared for them.  

But in the 6th grade, it's all out in the open.  Ask a question and every hand comes up.  They can hardly wait to share their ideas and to be heard (even on the occasionally off-topic idea).  And some of their ideas are just spot-on wise.  I hadn't quite expected such brilliance from the mouths of kids whose pencil is perpetually lost and whose binder is to large for them to get their arms around.  But it is thrilling.  It can be breath-taking to watch them think and wrestle with new ideas.  Time is immaterial; we can take as long as it takes to really understand something.  It feels luxurious, this kind of time.

Classes pass in the blink of an eye.  They laugh.  I laugh.  My mind whirls with other things we can do together.  We explore some fascinating notions and we move forward at a pace that suits all the learners in the room.  It's freedom.  And it is fun, so much fun.

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