Monday, October 14, 2013

Wow! It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Remember thematic studies? Classroom inquiries? Author studies? I’m talking about years ago during the Whole Language movement. Well…the good news is that thematic study is back, but now it has new very different supporters, which leads me to believe it is a very useful idea indeed. I almost can’t get over it. Thematic study is something progressive and conservative educators agree on. It’s a beautiful thing.

Which leads me to my very pragmatic question: What are we studying? None of the really fine new standards documents—with the exception of the Next Generation Science Standards— are dealing with content. They are dealing with process. The new social studies document, for example, The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of the K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (NCSS, 2013) has an inquiry arc, but what is being inquired about? Maybe I am still a concrete thinker, but I am concerned about how all the pieces fit together. And don’t get me wrong; I think this spanking new document lifts the level of conversation immensely. Still, I want to see how it works in real life.

So I am proposing a stopgap measure today—some nonfiction books that I think could jumpstart some inquiries right away.

1.     MALCOLM LITTLE: THE BOY WHO GREW UP TO BECOME MALCOLM X by Ilyasha Shabazz (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and MALCOLM X: A FIRE BURNING BRIGHTLY by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins, 2000). These are two picture books.

First of all, I am not sure that Malcolm X is a good choice for biography study in the primary grades, since his transformation as a thinker is quite significant and this is not dealt with in the first book at all. In spite of this, these two biographies are so vastly different that they should generate plenty of questions for inquiry. The first book, written by Malcolm X’s daughter is—as you might expect—a loving tribute to a father. Yet it leaves out a great deal about his life because (among other things) it concentrates on his childhood. The second book reveals much more about the controversial aspects of his life, and that too should generate questions. What is important to know about Malcolm X? Why?

2.     PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA by Claire Nivola (Farrar, 2009), WANGARI’S TREES OF PEACE by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2008), and SEEDS OF CHANGE by Jen Cullerton Johnson (Lee & Low, 2010) (All titles are picture books.)

These are only some of the books about the Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who did so much to plant trees in Kenya and alert the world to environmental issues However, they tell her story quite differently. How? What do these various accounts reveal? What do they leave out? What should people know about Wangari Mathai? Why?

3.     THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX by Leon Leyson (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

This moving memoir by the youngest survivor on Schindler’s List suggests that Oskar Schindler was a hero because he did, to quote Joseph Campbell,  “the best of things in the worst of times.” Should we consider him a hero? What is a hero? Can a person the author describes as “an influential Nazi” also be a hero?

            Of course, we want children to raise issues for inquiry, but we can also suggest questions and model the process. Right now the challenge is designing coherent, stimulating, manageable curriculum that puts the standards to work in our classrooms. The good news is that literature—fiction and nonfiction—will play a big role.

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