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Head Lines from Steve: November 2021

One of my favorite activities at Calhoun is to walk through our buildings when classes are in session. Our open floor plan at 81st St. makes this particularly rewarding, as it's easy to pass through classes with limited disruption and watch our extraordinary teachers at work. 

Last week, for instance, I visited an Upper School biology lab where white-coated students were gathered around a teacher dissecting an eyeball, with classical music piped in over speakers in the background. I walked through the Lower School–Elementary floor as teachers worked individually with third and fourth graders and their classmates sprawled everywhere – on the floor, on beanbags, on cushions – each absorbed in a book. 

On the third floor, I stopped by a Middle School social studies class beginning a unit on Thanksgiving. First, students called out words or concepts that came to mind when they heard "Thanksgiving." Next, the teacher asked students to draw two columns in their notebooks and list their own responses prior to sharing them. The columns were "What do I think I know about Thanksgiving?" and "What do I want to know about Thanksgiving?"

In subsequent days, this discussion would establish a framework for interrogating the founding story of the holiday. The objective of the unit was not to replace one simplistic narrative with a different simplistic narrative. Instead, one objective of the unit (and accompanying text) was actually to complicate the Thanksgiving story, embedding it in a fuller understanding of social and political dynamics among original inhabitants and European settlers.

Another, equally important, objective was to teach students to be skeptical about what they think they really know, and purposeful in strategizing about how they want to learn. This is progressive pedagogy in practice, learning history and learning to learn at the same time.

Watching our Middle Schoolers grapple with these themes – a practice we ask of our students in different ways from the earlier grades right through high school – I realized that this classroom offered a great roadmap for us all in these fraught times. I urge you to practice a form of it for yourself, and to use it as a template when you talk with your children about just about anything. What do we think we know about...viruses, and what do we want to know about them? What do we think we know about...the experiences of other groups or communities, and what do we want to know about them? 

A phrase I sometimes hear is that schools should teach students how to think but not what to think. I've written elsewhere that I feel this is an unhelpful dichotomy. This social studies class offered another concrete example of how we can, and must, do both.