I sat with one of my boys today while he was very passionately working on his TED talk.  I wanted to meet with him, specifically, due to the topic he chose for his upcoming talk.  In fact, one of the first days we began generating ideas, he mentioned that he wanted to talk about how time travel was possible.  Most of the kids laughed and didn’t actually think he was serious.  I, too, was a bit skeptical, as the concept is hard for most adults to swallow. Regardless, I let him begin to explore his topic; little did I know, he already was a wealth of knowledge on it. In hindsight, I’m very glad I didn’t squash the idea.

1538905_10202112291705983_5395208760635498426_nSo I met with him today, wondering just how well this talk was materializing.  I had viewed his organizer he was using to set up the structure of the piece, but I was interested to see how his explanations and evidence actually were panning out.

Within minutes, I was lost.  It was mostly due to the lack of clarity in his writing. As most children do at his age, he was not fully explaining his thinking; he was assuming that his readers would know just as much as he did about the basics of relativity and time travel.  In fact, he went so far as to poke fun at me for not knowing more about black holes, dark matter, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Defining the Undefined

So what did I do?  I asked him to make a list of content-specific terms that he thought people might not know or that they might need defined.  He eventually landed on a set of terms including dark matter, black holes, wormholes, space time, and dimensions, as he would be referring to the “fourth dimension,” time, a great deal in his talk.

“Well, don’t you think you might want to discuss dimensions, in general?” I queried.

“That’s easy, though,” he replied. “It’s like length, width, and height.”

“Yes, I know that, but let’s ask the class.”

I quickly got the class’s attention within seconds.

“Hey, guys,” I began, “who knows what the three dimensions are?”

Silence filled the room, and two hands tentatively rose from their desks.  The student with whom I was conferencing turned back to me wide-eyed.

“Thanks, guys,” I said back to them.

In this instance, specifically, this student learned something especially powerful: In order to really get some effective feedback on his talk and fully explain himself, he was going to have to actually figure out what people did and did not know.  He was going to actually listen to others who didn’t know anything about his topic.

And that’s when I saw an opportunity.

I’ve noticed that most of my kids often gravitate to their friends when conferencing for writing, and it makes sense. Writing is a rather vulnerable activity, and it can be very hard to expose your thoughts to someone with whom you’re not close.  But here’s how I pitched it today:

“Guys, today I want you to try and find someone else to conference with–someone that you wouldn’t normally think to conference with, and here’s why.  When you give your talk, you want to make sure you are explaining all of the things that your audience might not know, just like how Carter is going to have explain more about the four dimensions.  So here’s what I want you to do: Find someone who doesn’t know anything about your topic or who doesn’t find your topic interesting.  Why do you think I want you to do that?”

“So we’ll get good feedback?” someone replied.

“Yes, I want you to get good feedback, but I also want you to be able to see how well someone who is not knowledgeable on your topic understands it the first time through.  I also want you to see what you can do to make it more interesting for those people who wouldn’t normally be interested in your topic.”

As conferences began, my classroom buzzed with inquisitive feedback. Students were asking others to define terms and, more specifically, asking where they found evidence for some of these claims they were making.

Welcoming Divergent Thinking

Too often, in our classrooms, we spend time trying to build our children’s self-confidence, that we forget that critical feedback is necessary, helpful, and conducive to growth when done in the right way.  Kids need to be able to see that not everyone will fall in love with their topic and instead, need to empathize with their audience in order to see what they can do to engage them.  Further, by engaging in discussions such as these, we instill the value within them that divergent thinking and thoughts that differ from ours are, in fact, a good thing–something we can use as fuel for future ideas and inspiration.

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