Teaching through Questions

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

I had a very eventful summer.

One event I want to speak about is my trip to Massachusetts.

I took Amtrack to Deerfield, MA for an education conference. After completing my work in Deerfield,- which I must tell you about- I caught a ride to Boston, with my friend, Erin, who kept asking me if I was sure MFA was going to have what I was looking for.

I didn’t know what MFA had but I had high hopes. She described to me a particular painting.

When you enter the museum, one of the first paintings you may see is one of a white man about to be eaten by a shark. That painting is in relation to what we spoke about at the conference. I’m not going to tell you more, just let me know what you think.

She dropped me off at the train station and after we parted, I found a pizza shop took a bite, then took the train. It just so happened that I arrived during rush hour and Boston’s MTA sucks….it’s worse than NY! We stood in the station for over 15 minutes listening to the conductor scream at us.

“Somebody is standing too close to the door! Move in! Push in!”

After that very unpleasant train ride, I was really happy to get out and explore. So, while I waited for my friend, Josh, to meet me, I walked around Savin Hill looking for something to photograph and came across this wall mural, showing how Savin Hill looked 500 years ago.

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After studying the mural, Josh called to say he was near.

Hey Lilly, where did you say you wanted to go?

Boston’s Fine Art Museum. I want to see what African American artist they have up.

Josh chuckled. Lilly, this is Massachusetts.

The way he said this is Massachusetts sounded like it wasn’t America.

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Are you sure you want to visit BMA?

Of course. They should have at least an artist or something that will inspire me.

Okiee.

When we arrived, we stopped at the desk hoping to get in for free. Which really did happen after telling the receptionist who we were and what we did.

Because Josh is located in Boston and basically knew the museum like the back of his hand, I first depended on his knowledge to locate black art and know exactly where to go. But, after going through the first gallery, everything begin to look different to him as they were doing a lot of renovations, so we went to the desk and asked for a map.

Excuse me, can you please tell us where to go to check out any African American artist?

African American artist?

Yes.

Oh, well….I’m not sure…humm, Let me see.

Josh and I spent over 15 minutes stopping at desks. It was daunting, watching each young receptionist study the map and search in the museum’s database for a roster of African American artist . All of them came up with one painting by Kehinde Wiley,  John, 1st Baron Byron

I couldn’t believe that out of the entire museum collection, at that time, there was only one piece of work done by an African- American or black American! One?

Each receptionist apologized and said it was because the museum was in the middle of making renovations.

I am not the best person when it comes down to directions so Josh lead us to the gallery and after going up and down steps and stepping on and off the elevator we were at peace.

When we entered the wing, Josh walked right and I turned left.

There it goes Josh! Kehinde Wiley!

Oh my gosh Lilly! Look at this!

We stood watching it for a while.

We were so happy when we found Wiley’s piece that we took several pictures in front of it. Josh had more to say concerning the art- the strokes, the vibrant colors, the model. I simply was glad to see it and also unsatisfied with the museum.

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Josh, who is an aesthete, was like a child. After Wiley, I was ready to go, but Josh kept stopping to read and ponder. I think he may have enjoyed the museum more than me. He definitely made our visit fun.