I’m lucky to be married to a brilliant early childhood educator. But I’m not just bragging. I share this, because her perspective on teaching really young students we have has given me a lot of insights to my own work with third graders.
One thing that has stayed with me is the way my wife talks about the ideas and conversations she shares with four year-olds. Recently she shared a conversation she had with one four-year old about patterns in skip counting. Together they noticed that you could get to 12 by counting three 4s OR four 3s. Although they didn’t name this, they were naming the commutative property, a third grade standard!
What struck me most about the dialogue she relayed to me, was the respect she showed for this young person’s ideas. It was clear through her tone she genuinely admired his thought process. As teachers, we are traditionally seen as the bearers of knowledge. Even when using language like facilitate, student-centered or inquiry, we often still expect students to defer to our chosen strategies, skills or ideas in our classrooms. Breaking this pattern can be hard, but it’s not impossible.
A good place to start is with a simple axiom you’ve probably heard: Ask three before me.
It’s a good motto to teach kids, especially in elementary classrooms, because it keeps a teacher from dealing with a dozen raised hands at once. Nobody likes to feel like a ping pong ball, bouncing the room from one confused student to the next.
But when we think about it, “Ask three before me” is more than just a way to create breathing room for a teacher to conference or do small group instruction. It also sends a message to students that the teacher is not the only knowledgeable person in the room. In fact, knowledge and assistance can come from another eight year-old! Thus a simple motto helps to democratize the flow of education and break down the traditional teacher-student hierarchy.
In my class this year, I’m trying to take this motto one step further. I’m not just going to hold my students to it, I’m going to try to hold myself to it. In class conversations – whether we’re tackling multiplication or the theme of a read aloud – when a student asks a question, I’m going to ask three other students before I try give my own thoughts.
I’m hoping this reinforces the same message that “ask three before me” sends during independent work time. I am not the only one with answers. I am not the only one who can help. I think this will also force me to be more patient as our class works more collectively to arrive at an idea.
Whether your students are four or fourteen, sometimes it’s easy to feel frustrated when they “just don’t get it”. A lot of times it can be tempting to jump in and explain or clarify. But when we do this, we run the risk of missing new perspectives and valuable misconceptions.
Last week, my students and I were reading Kathryn Otoshi’s One, which is an excellent anti-bullying read aloud. I asked the students to share who was a “change maker” in the story, a character who made a positive difference in the community. I had two preconceived ideas in my head. One was a change maker because he stood up to Red, the bully. Blue was a change maker, because he invited Red to rejoin the community after he left angrily.
Thanks to my students, I was introduced to a third change maker: Red. Red was a change maker, because he made a change in his own attitude by ending his bullying behavior.
If I had ended the conversation early to force the students to my own conclusion we would have all missed out on an invaluable lesson from the story.
It may sound simplistic, but I found it a powerful example of how asking my students before sharing my own ideas led to new and profound learning. I’m hoping that by “asking three before me” this year, we’ll discover a lot more invaluable ideas along the way.