Helping Students Understand the World

Winter 2018

By Noel Sheppard

“It’s not our fault. Nobody tells us this stuff!” The plaintive voice stood out from the rest of the sixth grade hubbub. It was November 2015, a Monday morning, and my colleague and I had been asked to talk with our homeroom class about events in Paris the previous weekend, and the massacre at the Bataclan Theatre.

It had been a shocking weekend. Having lived in London for a number of years, I knew Paris and its people well. The events seemed a violation of the memories I had—of crisp December days with the sky such a brittle blue that it appeared it might crack, of the torrid humidity of August in a city almost empty of inhabitants on their annual grandes vacances, and of endless fine meals, in restaurants and at picnics, where even a single peach could become a dessert of exquisite proportions. The world truly seemed to have changed, and my colleague and I wondered what the children had made of it all, what they thought, how they felt. Most of all, we wondered about their fears and whether we could ease them or even explain them away.

We began by showing the students a clip from Casablanca, the scene in which the German soldiers are singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” and are drowned out by a chorus of assorted people singing “La Marseillaise.” We explained to the children that the clip had been trending on social media all that weekend, and asked if anyone knew why. Of course, most children knew that it symbolized French resistance to tyranny of all kinds. But gradually, little by little, details of their further understandings emerged: their fear of a world war, their unease at traveling anywhere outside the United States, and, most of all, their uncertainty about Islam and radical Islamic terrorism.

As part of an erratic career trajectory, I had spent a number of years teaching in East London to Islamic Bangladeshi students, and had also spent time teaching in Malaysia and traveling throughout Southeast Asia. Because of my experiences, I was able to give the children an account of my understanding of Islam with a focus on one of its key principles, the tradition of tolerance of belief. I described how in the main street of Jakarta there is the city’s principal mosque on one side, and the principal Christian cathedral on the other.

As I was speaking, I noticed a quick flash of incomprehension across the children’s faces, and I suddenly realized, “You don’t know where Jakarta is, do you?” As they shook their heads, my colleague interjected helpfully, “It’s the capital of Indonesia.” More blank looks. My colleague and I gazed at each other. I turned back to the class and said, “You don’t know where Indonesia is, do you?” The class erupted into a chorus of indistinct “no’s,” embarrassed murmurs, and nervous laughter. Out of the midst of this din rose that plaintive voice, somehow cutting through the noise: “It’s not our fault. Nobody tells us this stuff!”

A Progressive Education Irony

If you’ve been teaching long enough, you develop a sense about what children are saying; Are they making this up? Are they feigning helplessness? Every now and then, if you listen hard enough, you hear a voice that is genuine, a voice that is serious, a voice that is redolent of deep need. This was one of those moments.

My colleague and I looked at each other, then began to explore further. “Please explain what you mean,” I asked. As the children chimed in, one after another, it was clear that we had uncovered some deep-seated need, some urge, a compulsion almost, to make sense of their world. On reflection, that was not hard for me to understand. I grew up in a time where the only source of information was a daily newspaper and a 30-minute TV news bulletin every evening. These children live in a world of 24-hour news, social media, and a proliferation of online news sources. A steady stream of news and images of the war in Syria, the many acts of terrorism, the plight of millions of refugees, our nation’s sharp shift to the right with the election of Donald Trump, rising concerns over global warming and climate change, political battles over NAFTA, the uncertainty marked by Brexit and Grexit, and a hundred other troubling subjects, were all reverberating in their minds without clarification or much explanation.

No wonder educators notice an increase in anxiety and anxiety-related disorders among students. Children today live in a confusing world of unexplained -isms, wars, and terrors abounding, with little effort on the part of schools to help them make sense of it all—or how to process news coming from unmediated sources. They are pummeled by terms and ideas, places and vocabulary, all colored with an increasing sense of adult despair.

The irony, of course, is that those of us who teach in progressive schools are partly responsible for this heightened student anxiety. In response to a child’s query for information, how often do we say, “That’s a question with only one answer. You can find that on Google”—and leave it at that? How many times have children in our classrooms become adept at talking about power and change, identity and trade, without providing any factual basis to support their opinion? How many times, in other words, have we valued the process over the product, the conceptual over the factual, without realizing the inextricable link between the two?

Occasionally, necessary reminders such as this are important. Conceptual understanding derives from the context that content creates. If we are to develop a conceptual framework that children can apply to a variety of situations, we must build that framework on the foundation of content. Without it, concept becomes meaningless.

Knowing the World

Back in the classroom, my colleague and I began improvising and planning, with the children’s input, a way to address these fears and concerns. This is something we do often, for a number of reasons. It’s a way of modeling cooperation and collaboration in real time. It also shows children that they are being listened to. The central message, however, to this seemingly improvised discourse is that children can advocate for themselves and be successful with their advocacy.

“Do you want us to tell you things? What about if we spent every Monday talking about what you want to know?” we asked. “We could do it in Morning Meeting, and then a little extra homeroom time, for about 30 minutes,” one student offered. “We could call it ‘Know the World Monday,’” another chimed in. “But what shall we talk about?” we responded. “You could give us one of those charts, and we could write down three or four things we want to know about,” came from several voices. It didn’t feel like we were performing school for each other but rather that we were a community of very curious people engaged in enthusiastic learning together.

The charts the students were referring to were the spreadsheets that we often use to record various student suggestions ranging from a “Books I Have Read” list in independent reading to a list of research questions for our unit on writing nonfiction. So that’s what we did. The next day, we gave the children time to fill out a chart that we called “Know the World Monday Class Suggestions.” A quick look at the chart made clear the depth and breadth of the children’s interests, and also their recurring concerns. ISIS was mentioned often, for example. What stood out the most, however, were the number of children who just listed “history” or “geography,” or even “world history” or “American history.” It seemed that we had accidentally plugged into a deep-seated need to simply know more. As one student put it in her portfolio reflection, “Our class really wanted to learn about the world.”

The following Monday there was an air of expectation in the classroom. Clearly what was about to happen was something of far more importance than just a chance to find out about the world. We’d acknowledged a need and, in doing so, had given the children a chance to practice successful advocacy. Subsequently, of course, we realized that we’d upheld one of the central tenets of progressive education: that curriculum must respond to the needs of the learner.

Throughout the subsequent 13 Mondays, we covered everything from a history of the Middle East to the war in Syria, the geography of Southeast Asia to the Korean and Vietnam wars. Each Monday was a time of intensive questioning, unwavering engagement, and subsequent reflections that encouraged further questioning and provided a space for synthesis. Each reflection asked the children to list what they had learned, what else they wanted to know, and how their thinking had changed based on this knowledge.

A History of Proxy Wars

As the program progressed, we realized that we were, in effect, covering one of the principal themes of geography (i.e., the geography of region) in a way that students found compelling because it arose out of their needs and interests. As each week passed, we were constantly surprised by the depth and quality of the students’ observations, but never more so than toward the end of the program. My Korean-American colleague had finished offering her account of the two Koreas and the Korean War, when one of the students said: “So the history of the twentieth century is really just a history of proxy wars.” This is just one of the more startlingly memorable observations students made during the program.

The impact of the program was made clear in students’ end-of-the-year portfolio reflections. One student wrote, “I look back on all I have learned about the world and that makes me feel like I know something I didn’t before. I like to see how my thinking has changed in just a day.” It appeared that we had struck a nerve with our children. Another student recognized that we had provided an opportunity. He wrote, “I appreciate that Mrs. K and Mr. S made such a major deviation for us.” Somehow the pummeling of nonstop media had begun to make sense, and the world was no longer a place of such mystery. In that recognition perhaps lies one of the more compelling reasons for the program’s success: children appreciated that we had responded to their needs.

As the World Turns

In the program’s second year, we began to incorporate elements from the program into our report cards and student assessment. The success of the program has given us the confidence to further develop student-generated assignments, and student-directed learning has become one of the defining characteristics of our classroom. Most of all, through this emphasis on student direction and leadership in the curriculum, we have found a way to deepen the bonds required for a community of learners to function together.

And this academic year? Because of a change in schedule, we now offer “Know the World Tuesdays” as a regular part of our curriculum. The program continues to be based on children’s suggestions, and sadly, Syria, the Middle East, terrorism, and ISIS are still high on their lists. Last year’s class has taken a proprietorial interest in the program, periodically checking in with us to make sure that we’re still doing “Know the World” days. As educators we know that we have a special responsibility to provide information and to speak truth in a post-truth world of fake news and outright lies. The students in this year’s class know that if they have an idea or a burning question their teachers will listen. And each week, as another Know the World Tuesday begins, there is a continued reminder to the children that they can advocate for use of classroom space to make sense of their confusion and curiosity about the world.

Noel Sheppard

Noel Sheppard teaches at the Sheridan School in Washington, DC. He has lived and worked as an educator on four different continents. His favorite place is always the next one.