This week, we asked two more of our Upper Elementary teachers, Mark Harvey and Shelley Sommer, to share some of their favorite stories that illustrate those moments of joyful discovery when an idea really clicks for a student and the “aha!” epiphany brings new life to learning.
Mark’s Kite Story
Teaching in a Montessori setting provides for many direct experiences of Aha moments. These can occur whether students are utilizing age-appropriate materials to master concepts, engaging in discussions (formally or not), figuring out how to read graphs, discovering a connection between events, or solving a complex or simple question. Reaching that Aha moment can be as rewarding for the teacher as it is for the child. Even those who are less vocal about their discovery usually show brightened faces and eyes during their moment of clarity.
The sixth-years recently designed and built kites using very light dowels and thin plastic. They did this as a culminating project to further implement ratio and proportion work. Part of the on-going project involved tracking and analyzing (other) pertinent data to then determine what adjustments needed to be made to their design in order to make it more effective. Placement of the crossing dowels was their decision. One child who placed the rod’s centers over each other created a shape that easily tipped and flipped as he tried to fly it. After many attempts he said, “I know…I’ll add a tail to give weight to one corner.” He excitedly looked for the nearest usable material and found some yarn. Upon creating a cord, he taped it to the bottom of the kite and asked, “Can I go test it now?” So, out we went again, to make further discoveries about wind currents and proper tension needed to assist in lift.
In the social realm, I have also observed aha moments pertaining to the group in general. One example of this is evident through the children realizing the effectiveness of the class meeting structure, and then implementing it on their own. Shortly into the year the students ran and participated in the meetings with little to no redirection from us, the teachers; therefore, meeting a landmark moment. Using this structure, the children recently came upon another aha moment. The students were listing sandwich options to prepare for an upcoming Upper Elementary-provided staff lunch menu, with the proceeds going to our Heifer fund raising. Eventually they realized there were many meat options but only one vegetarian option. Someone said, “Hey, one option isn’t enough.” The light bulb went off for the group at that point and in turn they provided more to decide upon.
These moments are a large part of what I enjoy as a teacher, whether directly or indirectly. Each child has many of these moments as they progress through their education and life. My role is to cultivate these moments and take note when they arise.
Shelley’s Symbolism Story
Reading good books with 5th and 6th grade students is wonderful. The kids are imaginative and enthusiastic—and they are just beginning to understand the power of literature. One of the concepts we introduce over the course of the year is symbolism.
In order to show the students how authors use symbols to convey meaning, we begin with picture books. I might show a picture of a character who feels sad and point out that it is no coincidence that the accompanying picture shows rain and closed doors. And, then, we look at the end of the book where, of course, the sun is out, birds are singing, and the windows are wide open.
From there, we begin looking for symbols in text. I direct them to clues that point to some further development in a story—for example, calling attention to a garden that was stagnant during the book’s central conflict, but has “new buds” on the trees at the end.
I encourage them to pay attention to things that may have escaped their attention when they were younger: colors, weather, doors, and windows. The “Aha” moments are theirs, not mine, and it’s rewarding to watch them begin reading at a higher level. It’s literally as if a light switch has been flipped on when they see that, in Tangerine, for example, the character who wears glasses because he has trouble seeing, actually “sees” better than anyone in the book.
In their eagerness to play this new “game,” the kids sometimes begin finding things where nothing is there. They think everything means something. I always think of Natalie Babbitt, the author of Tuck Everlasting, who when repeatedly asked the meaning of the man in the yellow suit, replied that sometimes a man in a yellow suit is just a man in a yellow suit! Regardless of their stumbles along the way, it is a privilege to watch them continue their journey as readers and thinkers.
[This post originally appeared in Rhythm & News, the Inly School newsletter, on April 24, 2009.]