A colleague of mine who taught Philosophy and Ethics at the high school level would start the first day of class each year with the following practice. She would sit at the front of the room and not say anything. Students would begin to look around at one another, smile, and shrug their shoulders. Uncomfortable with a silent, passive teacher, someone would inevitably ask something like, “Ms. Watson, what are we doing today?” To which she would pipe up enthusiastically, “Ahhh! A question, now we can get started!”
Questions are an effective starting point for learning. Open-ended questions, those without a predetermined singular correct response, require the recipient to think, to consider the context in which the question is being asked, and to respond after considering variables. The Bement School has spent considerable time, resource, and energy mapping its curriculum over the last several years. Guided by the advice and recommendations of experts in the field, we began with essential questions and then determined the content that will allow for rigorous and critical analysis of the question. Each unit in all subjects at all levels begin with essential questions to construct our learning.
In sixth grade English class, our essential questions are: What role does participation have in the building and maintaining of communities? How do you strike the right balance between dependence and independence? Sixth graders are reading Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman to explore these questions. Seedfolks tells the story of thirteen persons who are linked by a newly developed community garden in Cleveland, OH. Each of them shares their personal story leading up to the garden, contributes to the garden in a unique way, and changes as a result of the garden. While this common literature anchors our discussions, meaningful learning occurs when students apply their broad personal experiences and uncommon sets of knowledge to the analysis. By articulating a response that is influenced by their culture, race, gender, and other socio-economic factors, each student constructs and accelerates the learning for all students.
This understanding is foundational to teaching and learning at The Bement School. Students from all across the country and the globe converge to pose, ponder, research, and discuss these questions. This presents an amazing opportunity. I watched the coverage of the demonstrations in Hong Kong this summer. Naturally my interest was heightened given the number of students at Bement from both Hong Kong and China, and it was interesting to hear the perspectives of parents who arrived on campus with their child. Even if we do not speak directly about the demonstrations in class, students from these countries are influenced by what they have witnessed and what they have read and heard about these events, and they bring that voice to our classroom.
More so, local students, many of whom reside in more rural environments here in the Pioneer Valley, also contribute their experience and knowledge to our learning. For some students, farming has been a substantial part of their family’s life for generations, and all students that grow up here have been influenced by the economic, cultural, social, and political culture dominated by agriculture and food production. Learning is advanced when these students share a table and engage in conversation with students who have primarily grown up in urban environments. The image of a community garden can take many forms!
I return to the essential questions that guide our sixth grade English class pertaining to the role of participation in building and maintaining community and striking the right balance of dependence and independence. Whether a local day student, or a domestic or international boarding student, students will draw from the rich and fertile context of personal experience and prior knowledge to connect these questions to their past, their present, and their future. As a teacher, I have some ideas that I will impart to the class. The learning that I appreciate the most however, happens when students think critically about the questions. Sometimes, the local and global perspectives find common ground and intersect, and at other times they are very different and never connect, like parallel lines. It is moments like these that enrich our learning and make our community stronger.