This last week, I have been fortunate enough to unplug and enjoy a winter holiday. I have read (for pleasure!) I have thought. I have reflected. A lot. I am affected by last week’s horrible school massacre. I have thought daily about my own Littles and how I am going to handle the conversations, especially the next time we have our Code Red drill. Several people have said, “Surely they won’t even know…” But, they will. People often think that Littles don’t really get it—their larger context in the world. But, I’ve witnessed first hand that they are exposed to the world in a way that adults often ignore or just don’t want to address. I get it, I do. But, I also feel that completely insulating our classrooms from real world happenings is not authentic.
Haud your Wheesht is homage to my Scottish heritage. “Wheesht” is a word that is used when someone wants someone else to be quiet. In your classrooms? It may sound like “shhh!” or “Not now”…or “We can’t speak about that at school…” or “Hold onto your thoughts, I’m talking!” One of the easiest ways to capitalize on relevant moments with Littles is to let them talk, or “unleash the wheesht!” As teachers, we have to listen. While we often listen with our ears, it is equally important to lean in and listen with our eyes and heart, too. When questions happen in the classroom? We have to let them flow. The questions our Littles’ are asking is huge insight as to what matters to them. The sidebar comments, the rush of conversation as they are starting their day or transitioning to something new, all have merit in our classrooms.
There is something to be said about social discourse among your learners; those conversations where we do not utter a word, we just listen. It’s easy to hush our learners—but if we teach our learners to let things flow and actually DO let things flow in the classroom, they will learn how to ask purposeful questions; how to discern what is fair and adequate to speak about; how to defend themselves and how to engage in debate. This is especially true if we don’t exert our adult opinions on the topic at hand. Most of the time, Littles actually model how adults should share differing opinions or ideas. Similarly, by avoiding “wheeshting” our learners, we are creating a virtue of student voice in the classroom. Sometimes the topics that even Littles want to discuss bear witness to world events. Take, for example, last year’s Presidential election (you know the one that no one wanted to talk about!)
My Littles wanted to talk about it. Not with me, but with each other. We spend time each morning with a “mystery object”—could be an old trend, or something I find, or a hint to our next learning framework—and while they sketch it and infer things about it—they talk. This one particular morning, one of my unassuming ones said quite clearly, “My mom doesn’t want Donald Trump to win.” To which another replied, “Well my brother wants Donald Trump to win.” …I sort of held my breath—even though they are 6—you’re just never sure where the conversation is going to go. Where I could have easily said, “Wheesht (I’ve adopted this as our classroom signal for hush), get busy, work, we aren’t going to talk about this at school…” I didn’t. I just listened. In fact, I picked up my phone to record the conversation so I could reflect on it later. The original Little said, “Well if Hillary Clinton wins she will be the first girl President.” Then another little girl joined in and said, “Well Grace for President is a book!” To which another said, “Yeh, but this is real life.” Another said, “Wait. You mean there’s no girl President? Ever?” “Nope. Hillary would be the first.” “Well I don’t think that’s fair.” To which a little boy responded, “You’re right it’s not fair.” And then, “I wonder why boys always win for President” and, “I think people just vote for boys because they just don’t know so they just think boy? President. But I still don’t think it’s fair.” “Yeah, because boys can lie too.”…meanwhile I’m still holding my breath….do I stop the flow? … “Yeah well, Hillary Clinton? Do you know what she did?” My eyes widen and I think, Now…Now…stop it now… “She got caught by the cops. They pulled her over and she LIED and she RAN away from them. So girls lie too.” I was just getting ready to join in the discourse when suddenly one of the Littles who was working on the task but wasn’t part of the conversation said, “Hey guys you know what? I have dance class on Saturday.” What I observed was like a microcosm of adults having a conversation—there’s always that one aloof person who doesn’t really pay attention while two others go at it heatedly. And you know what? It was discourse. It flowed. No one had their feelings hurt and sure there was a little bit of a perspective challenge going on—but it allowed them to think, to argue and to defend without an adult tainting their ideas or shushing their voices.
Teachers, when we stop the flow and do not simply listen, we inadvertently promote the notion that their voices don’t matter and we lose out of unexpected, tangential learning. Communication is one of the 21st Century learning skills, and it’s a challenge to teach the notion of communication with contrived experiences or simulations. It is much more beneficial to witness these skills develop authentically. In fact, had this conversation gone any differently, it would have been a prime instance where I could have interjected a teachable moment about listening, respecting other’s opinions, perspective, fact checking—or a plethora of other important discourse skills.
Building an expectation of social discourse means creating a relevant awareness in your learners. Littles, especially, likely won’t bring in CNN Breaking news stories (although sometimes they do!) However, tapping into sources of current events can set the stage for your Littles to have a reason to engage in social conversation. Ultimately, the most profitable conversations are the organic ones that stem from a Little’s own voice. However, it is all too common that learners are compliant and are hesitant to talk outside of learning boundaries, that they may need a little direction to arrive at the point where social discourse is a daily occurrence.
Lastly, it would be unfair to suggest that all social conversations go exactly as the one I have illustrated. Probably, especially with Littles, there are more of the aforementioned teachable moments that are capitalized upon. I find Littles to be as emotionally charged as some adults when they share social stories or experiences. We have to understand that through social conversations, we have the ability to witness and shape socially relevant responses, too.
So, how can you support social discourse in your classroom? Besides stopping the conversation, what can you do when social discourse doesn’t go as expected?