clearing the fluff

“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” – A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

I needed this bit of Pooh Bear wisdom this week. It seemed like my students were not listening. Was I that boring?

Then Pooh reminded me that they might have a bit of fluff in their ears. And then I realized that I was that bit of fluff. I was too much in their ears.

Sometimes, despite my best intentions, I talk too much in class, especially at the beginning of the semester when it seems like there is so much they need to know.

That was the case at the start of last week. Some students engaged in the conversation, but none of them was practicing the work of analyzing a text that we needed to practice. I was too much in their ear for them to be able to pay attention to the text and to each other.

There was a lot less fluff on Friday.

On Friday, I talked to the larger group for less than five minutes. All I did was explain the plan.

First, you are going to work in small discussion groups to analyze the text. Specifically, look for 1.) the purpose of the piece – the big idea the author wants to convey, 2.) the examples and other evidence he used to support the purpose, and 3.) the writing strategies he used to convey his purpose.  At the half hour, I will then ask you to write a one paragraph evaluation of the piece based on your discussion.

Then, I stopped talking and listened.

I heard very little from one group, so I wandered over and asked some specific questions to get them going. As I joined each group, I found that they struggled most with defining the writing strategies, so I tried to ask one specific question about the evidence that they pointed to that would help them see how and why the author made choices.

But mostly, the question I asked was “What makes you think that?”

And, that’s when the fluff cleared.

As each student defended his thinking with specifics from the text, I said something like: The author chose that strategy for the very reason you said. He spent more time putting in sensory details for this scene over all the others and, based on what you just said, he succeeded in conveying his point to you.

And once one student in the group got going, they all had something to say.

I spent the weekend reading the paragraphs they wrote at the end of their discussion. Everyone got at least one good point down. {insert sigh of relief}

I just finished tweaking my plans for Monday’s class. I’m conscious now of the fluff that can float around at the beginning of the semester and I think I sewed up the seams well enough to keep it under control.

Thank you Pooh, for your constant wisdom. (And, thanks to all the great teachers I have worked with who showed me the way.)

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