Teaching is a game of gaps. When students enter our classrooms, there is almost immediately a gap: a divide between teacher and student, and a canyon between the known and the unknown. As teachers, it is our job to bridge this gap, but the good news is this:
It’s not as big as you might think.
I recently began a literature unit on signs and stories, and with this endeavor, I’ve welcomed in a brand new bunch of gaps, divides, and canyons — each of which has been excitingly challenging to navigate. I’ve been lucky enough to partner with an incredible teacher and art historian, and she’s helped to bring in a series of images, intended to help us distinguish between an artist’s technique and the meaning which he or she is trying to communicate. This has been a wonderful segue way into how authors do a similar thing, only with text.
But actually teaching reading an teaching them to encounter text is hard, because bridging the gap between what students actually want to read and what they actually need to know how to read can be especially problematic. Kids have to be motivated to read in order to actually get something out of it, and that motivation cannot be forced. It has to be authentic, it has to be intrinsic, and it has to be nurtured carefully. This is why emergent curriculum is so important: if the curriculum comes from the minds of the students, then it is much more likely that there will be buy-in.
So last week, as a part of this unit on signs and stories, I read The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg about a boy, Alan, who loses a dog named Fritz in a man’s garden. Alan ends up finding the dog with the man, named Mr. Gasazi. Unfortunately for Alan, Fritz the dog is turned into a duck which then flies away with his hat. He trudges back to his neighbor’ s house, for he was dogsitting little Fritz, only to find that the dog made it’s way back. His neighbor confides in him that it was all a trick, but Van Allsburg’s images suggest otherwise, leaving students to wonder whether Fritz was actually turned into a duck or not.
I originally chose this book in an effort to draw special attention to Van Allsburg’s images. He designs them so precisely to accompany the text he’s written. The story was a provocation, in a sense, intended to spark their interest in stories and to begin to bridge the gap between the known and unknown, especially in regard to author’s technique and topic.
I finished the book, ending on the final page where Alan finds his hat on the front lawn — the same hat with which the duck flew away — suggesting that the dog was, in fact, turned into a duck. As a result, my students erupted in conversation, positing whether or not it was a trick after all.
“I like this author!” said one of my students, smiling.
“Do you?” I replied.
“Yea!” he continued. “I like how he ended the story. I like how we don’t know.”
And from there I had an entry point into the following week’s lessons. Sure, I had already planned some other stories, but luckily, due to the fact that I plan according to learning objectives, and not according to the text itself, my plans were rather easily changed. This week, as a result of this conversation, I began a book study on Chris Van Allsburg intended to examine his techniques in the context of various topics, and not to worry, I was sure to include the student who had voiced his excitement to read more of Van Allsburg’s works.
Bridging the Gap
The process of bridging the gap between teacher and student, between the known and the unknown: it’s almost like building a suspension bridge. To strike this delicate balance between purely emergent curriculum and purely teacher-directed instruction, it’s important to meet in the middle. A suspension bridge is built in this way, where the construction starts with a large gap between two separate entities, two separate shores. Some posts are put up in the middle, and with these structures in place, construction begins from both sides. Eventually, the two sides meet in the middle, creating a firm structure through which the two opposing shores — formerly two distant bodies — are now connected into one continuous road where thoughts can easily transport back and forth.
And a similar process is true for teaching, as well. True teaching is neither entirely emergent nor entirely prescriptive. It doesn’t only begin from one side or the other. Entirely emergent curriculum balances dangerously on a pathless existence, while purely prescriptive curriculum suffocates and hardens learning into a rigid process. Instead, true teaching — and true learning — is dependent on the relationship between teacher and student. It requires that both the teacher and the student listen to each other, and that this mode of communication goes both ways. It emphasizes the importance of connection, of empathy, and of engagement in a collaborative process.
A process where you can meet in the middle and bridge the gap. Together.