Today we were working on teaching through our writing (a concept we're working on for the research papers we'll be starting to write soon), so we were practicing with the ways we had identified that non-fiction authors use to teach through their writing (you can see our messy brainstorming here). Instead of getting right into it, I wanted to have my students practice first, so I told them to pick any topic that they know something about, and we were going to take ten minutes to write a paragraph teaching somebody about that topic. Starting with a known topic would allow us to really focus on the craft of the writing. If my students have to write it, so do I, so I did. My topic? Chanukkah. Why? I don't really know other than it's what came to mind when I was trying to think of things that I know about, and we had just been lighting the candles with my nieces and nephews last week at my parents house. And then I shared.
First class: Went just fine. They seemed to like it and they identified the things I had tried to do in my writing. The topic didn't seem to phase them. It did however cause them to question why I chose that topic, which led to my explanation of being half Jewish and half Christian and a bit of background about growing up knowing both sides of my heritage.
Second class: Went fine again, although this time I got applause when I finished reading. That was appreciated because I was actually pretty proud of what I had come up with on the spot and how I had made it interesting for the reader, so I was glad they recognized that. The topic led to some questions again and the basic explanation was fine for them.
Third class (now we're getting to my 8th graders who have had me now for a year-and-a-half): Before I even had time to share my paragraph, Excuse this interruption in your regularly schedule lesson plan...the topic led to a fifteen minute discussion on religions, faith, heritage, the difference between religion's beliefs, where certain ethnicities originated, international travel, rich, poor, levels of wealth and if you can judge someone based on that, and cheese. Somehow we got off on a tangent and it just kept going. I'm not even really sure how it happened, but the kids were really engaged, and I even heard one exclaim, "This is the best language arts class ever!" Hmmmm...should I be concerned?
I'm thinking no. We want our kids to be critical thinkers and participate in discussions, right? Well, there was definitely some critical thinking going on there, and there was debating and making points and arguing perspectives and acknowledging others. It wasn't intended, but it was interesting to hear their perspectives, and the fact that this tangent led to interesting conversation, a little bit of learning (even if not what I thought it would be about), and caused my students to have to make points and defend them...well, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Students need to think, they need to be challenged, they need opportunities to construct arguments, they need the chance to share their thoughts, they need to think sometimes that language arts class can be fun...and if it happens to come from an unexpected tangent instead of a planned lesson or writing assignment once in awhile...well, I'm okay with that.
Now back to your regularly scheduled lesson.