Stealing the Thinking

                I began the 2018-19 school year last Tuesday with the ACPS New Teachers’ preservice sessions.  The district I taught in prior to coming to Albemarle has adjusted their calendar so they can start earlier.  They had students in the schools last Tuesday.  The new school year always brings excitement and anticipation, especially for the new teachers.  It also brings Dr. Dan Mulligan.  I didn’t think to ask how long Dr. Mulligan has been coming to the new teacher inservices, but I remember seven years ago, when I was new to the county, sitting in a session led by Dr. Mulligan.  He’s able to encapsulate the bulk of best practice into a rapid-fire review, and do so in a way that holds your attention.  I’ve enjoyed every session I’ve been to, even if there’s some repetition.

                This time however, I heard him say something I’d never heard from him before.  He said, “Don’t steal the thinking,” meaning, from the students.  I’ve known this intuitively, but I like the way he’d phrased it.  I like it when someone is able to hand me back an idea better than I found it.  I’ve thought on this after the fact, and remember reading Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman and Weingartener.  It was old even when I read it, but I was curious.  I’d read an article in the NCTE English Journal that was a retrospective questioning the book’s relevance in the new millennium.  It sounded interesting, so I read it.  For someone like me, who was backing into teaching (I didn’t go to Ed school until after getting hired)  I learned a lot from the book.  The thing that really got me though was wait time, and how well it actually worked.  Now, wait time isn’t the only thing that prevents thought theft—try saying that three times fast—but it allowed me to consider the idea.  And, in reading that book, I also discovered Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death—an amazing read to this day, and one I’d like to see a new edition of, though Postman passed away.

                I think the time that thought stealing became clear to me was when I first started using my one-ended stick thought experiment.  I’ve called it a Zen koan too, though I don’t know if it’s that either.  I did discuss this before in a previous entry—here.  In thinking about it, I realized the way I pose(d) the question was not as well executed as I thought.  I’d ask “what does a one-ended stick look like?” which was the question posed to me long ago.  What I should have asked was, “How is it possible that every stick is a one-ended stick?”  It was the question I meant for students to consider.

                When I first asked that question, I didn’t give the students enough wait time.  I no longer recall how much Postman and Weingartner recommended, but for my question a few seconds, even a minute isn’t enough.  The first few times I ended up giving my answer.  When I did, I was stealing their thinking, and it was hard thinking too.  I regret that happened those first few times, but I am glad that I figured it out, and then refused to share my answer, which has now changed a few times.  Not to mention that I just revised the question itself as I’m writing this.  My uncle who posed this question never told me his answer.

                Here’s where I’m going.  We had a good, long, productive struggle those days I rolled out the question.  Lot’s of heavy thinking.  But the few times before I stopped telling my answer, the students would look at me and say, “that’s it?” or “I knew there was a trick.”  They felt duped.  It was palpable.  The first time I figured it was my delivery.  The second time, I began to wonder if it was a stupid question.  The last time, I understood what it was.  I robbed them.  I stole their thinking.  That left me feeling pretty bad.

                Now the level and depth of thinking in a classroom varies.  This wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d been working on a brief grammar point.  And, it is important, if the students are unable to reach the solution to guide them.  But, reflect as you’re at work planning, or teaching, “am I stealing their thinking?”