Sometimes I find that the most powerful lessons aren’t the ones I spend hours planning but the simple ones the children spend minutes questioning. This blog post is about how my third grade class learned by asking questions and how I learned to allow them to lead the lessons.
Last year a little girl in my class skipped art to finish up an ELA project. While she was cutting and drawing she started singing,
L- is for the way you look at me, O- is for the only one I see….
-Wow, Hailey, that’s a very old song, where did you hear that one at?
I don’t know…. maybe a movie. But I really like it. Ms. Hurley, who sings that song anyway?
-I am not sure. I think Frank Sinatra.
Who is that?
-A white man who sings really good.
What? He’s not black.
-No. Hailey. Maybe a black person does sing it but I think Frank Sinatra sang it first.
-You should look it up.
I got up from my desk and went to the computer.
-Wow Hailey, a black person did sing it as well. It looks like Nat King Cole was the first to sing it.
Who is Nat King Cole?
-That’s a great question. I am not sure who he is outside of being a singer.
I clicked the video and we listened to the song.
-Wow Ms. Hurley. He sounds really good! I would want my boyfriend to sing like that!
-We should find out more about him.
–Yes, we should.
The conversation changed the entire school year for us. I couldn’t answer Hailey’s question by reading the class a picture book on Nat King Cole because there isn’t any (that I know of) so we had to do our own research.
When the class returned to the classroom, Hailey asked if she could sing the song and tell the class where it came from. We played the song and that was just the beginning… The class agreed that they should know who he was.
We stared with his music. We listened to some of his songs which meant more questions. This allowed me to teach them how to conduct research.
I sat and watched as they spoke in groups and was very impressed when they jotted down their questions. Since the Black History Show was approaching, I picked a Nat King Cole song and worked his life into the lessons. They went home and watched YouTube clips about his life and the sad life of his daughter. Some of their parents shared that they danced to his music at their weddings. One little girl watched an entire documentary by Candacy Taylor on Route 66. Needless to say, the lessons got deep. Real Deep.
One night I stayed up pondering if teaching them about Route 66 was too much. They wanted to know more about it and Gabby was telling the class about the documentary. I didn’t think they would sit there and be interested in it.
I was still pondering the thought when I went to Massachusetts during Dr. King’s birthday weekend. I met African American Storyteller, Onawumi Jean Moss at the Eric Carle Museum. Initially, I had a desire to meet her because I was interested in hearing stories about the south but it’s true that story tellers don’t just tell stories. They teach! And that’s what happened when I was in her presence. She spent over two hours mentoring me! (I felt so much love)!
During the conversation, she spoke on how to teach terminology to children, and I shared with her that a little boy had asked me the meaning of kicks, while I was teaching them the song, Route 66.
Route 66, she replied, in our history is over two thousand miles long. It is a sun down strip. If black folks were caught on that strip… after sun down anything could happen to them. Don’t teach [them that song], unless you teach that history.
Her comment said two things to me. If I knew my class was ready for this, then don’t hold back. But, if there was any doubt, then don’t teach it to them. I thought about them asking questions and fining out answers before me. Not waiting for my validation.
The next week, we spent the entire week learning about Route 66.
They sat through the entire documentary and jotted down questions to ask Candacy Taylor. They watched the Nat King Cole documentary and discussed why they thought he sang Route 66 even though according to history it wasn’t a friendly highway for blacks.
They wrote their own stories about Nat King Cole’s life. Drew pictures. Wrote plays. They learned to listen to jazz and swing. When I played the Nat King Cole station from Pandora, whenever they heard his voice, they would say, That’s Nat King Cole! When we went on trips to enhance understanding of history and art, they compared Bobby Troupe to Jacque-Luis David and Nat King Cole to Kehinde Wiley.
“Nat King Cole made the song, Route 66, popular, even though Bobby Troupe wrote it. Just like this painting of Napoleon…for me, Kehinde Wiley makes it more…better….”
They immersed themselves in the content entirely, drawing me in as well. I didn’t know when the lesson would end and found myself hoping it wouldn’t. They built on each touching conversation about segregation in the south and about the hypocrisy of America.
When it was time for their show in February, they performed with power and exuberance. It was a honor to hear our principal tell me that their skit brought tears to her eyes ( I need the school permission to post the video of their show).
At the end of the school year, they performed their own play titled, Nat King Cole and the Green Book and had great reviews from the teachers and children alike.
While I taught many lesson with this class, this by far was one of my favorite and it wasn’t even a lesson first thought of by me. It was taught because they were asking questions.
I saw this dude in Brazil and when I got back home, I had to do a double take when I saw him in Harlem…waiting for someone to take him home.