I am at the end of a scintillating day of professional development at McDonogh School. 30 teachers — PreK-12 — have spent the day coming to understand understanding. Vaija Wagle, newly retired from Washington International School (and I mean, like, last Friday), is our teacher. Trained in the work of the Project Zero classroom, she led us to think deeply about our roles as teachers and what it means for students (and us) to truly pursue the work of understanding — the very heart of this endeavor we call education. I have been working with the Visible Thinking protocols for a while now, and I am eager to work more fully with the Teaching for Understanding framework. In brief — today has been simply brilliant!
I had a new insight today — a connection, really, with an experience on the Shakespeare front where I spend most of my days. We were studying Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Jabberwocky,” and after a very deep dive into the poem via the See-Think-Wonder protocol, we were to share our interpretations of this poem through a single medium. For my group, it was sound and sound alone — no words, even! Other groups were to do this work visually, physically, etc. I was delighted at how invested every teacher was. There was none of the “this isn’t real work” rhetoric; rather, people saw the strength of this meta-cognitive exercise to extend learning beyond the immediate subject to other parts of our lives.
Our group got to work on what we thought the poem was about. To cut to the interpretive chase, we more or less interpreted the poem to be about a son who confronts a beast (the Jabberwocky) and that this was symbolic of how we must all confront our “Jabberwocky,” whatever that may be in our lives. We decided that each of us would be responsible for one stanza of the poem and to find a sound that would capture the “event,” so-to-speak, of that stanza. It was a great deal of fun, to be sure, but this effort was really so much more, for our work necessarily looped us through the very matter of the poem in a specific, recursive way. In the ELA classroom, we call this a close reading. And so, by focusing on an objective (or object) beyond the subject under study (the topic we, as teachers, need to “cover”), we, quite readily, did the work of the discipline. It was merely re-framed to engage us with a generative question to which we could relate.
I often talk about the notion of the object-beyond-the-subject with regard to the performance-base teaching of Shakespeare, which I do at McDonogh and which I teach for the Folger Shakespeare Library. When I am teaching teachers about the performance-based study of Shakespeare, I will say that a concrete set of practical problems connected with the staging of a scene will, of necessity, draw us through the same content we would ordinarily just lecture about. Let’s say you had a scene with four characters, you’d begin by asking some basic fact-finding questions: who enters where? what time of day is it? is so-and-so carrying a knife? By getting students to see a problem or challenge beyond the membrane of the subject itself (here, Shakespeare’s text), students’ eyes are re-directed to worry about something else. This has the happy effect of siphoning the anxiety away from the struggle about “what it all means” — at least as the first concern. When concrete, practical problems are the primary focus, a strange thing happens: meaning(s) start(s) to look after it/themselves. The possibilities of the text appear, and students find themselves in the throes of constructing interpretations — and not just looking for the one answer (we talked a lot about this today). To students’ surprise and delight, they are understanding Shakespeare!
I found this object-beyond-the-subject phenomenon present when using the thinking routines today in our workshop. Yes, we were using our phones to find sound effects to re-tell the “The Jabberwocky,” and yes we were laughing and having fun. But we were also engaged in sustained thinking about a difficult and challenging poem. And when we were done with out exercise — though hardly done with understanding fully Carroll’s text — we had not only come away with a clearer understanding of the poem; we had also rehearsed ways of thinking that could now live in us going forward.
I’d like to write about this more — and maybe with an image of what this object-behind-the-subject might look like. I think this very important, and so I’m glad I got to share my thinking with you.