Yesterday my main work was with 8th graders, but then I had one assembly with 4th graders. That is the widest spread in this week’s visit (outside of the grad students I Skyped with last night) and as always, fascinating. The 8th graders here have been working on writing for years, and it shows. Their challenge yesterday was to write the first paragraph of a historical fiction short story they have been researching — bringing together what they know about a particular historical figure with the skills in writing they have practiced for years. As expected the room split by gender, three crowded girls tables where they prefered to squeeze closer then to move away, the boys spread out on the edges in smaller clusters. The girls immediately began sharing their work, making encouraging comments, crossing off bits, suggesting changes, and, also quickly settling on some kind of order — who was the best as the table. The boys worked individually, it would not have occured to any of them to ask for or to offer help.
That was the sociology of the moment. In terms of art, male or female, best writer or student who struggled to get one sentence down on a page full of splotches and ripped spots, the pattern was the same. They were very good at scene setting — time, place, moment, event mood. But for a piece that was meant to show a key moment when their person changed, became who he or she was to be, the person strangely invisible — often not named or described. And over and over they chose the same moment — the actor, singer, sports figure, about to go on stage, his/her fate to be decided in that moment. That was a good choice, but I wondered if these children of American Idol and Facebook might live in a world of the blow-up, the moment of mediated life change where you make it or break it — the world of celebrity and broadcast where you have this One Big Chance to catch the world’s attention.
The fourth graders were, as I have seen everywhere, great. I have to say teaching history to fourth graders is a pleasure, a blessing — they are so engaged, lively, eager to think, to ask questions, to show what they know, to be taken on a journey. I wonder if we shouldn’t switch around our view of Social Studies and Science — make 4th grade a Year of Questions — open minds, show kids many areas and prompt them to ask many questions. So that as they move on to 5th grade and middle school they will enter the curriculum with minds already stimulated and eager to find answers. Right now, fourth grade (in NJ but I think elsewhere) is State History — as soul killing an approach as I can imagine. But what if instead it was The Year of Questions — to launch those bright minds into the rest of their education.