Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Taking A Walloping For Growth: Jennifer Bohnhoff On Shocking Trees - And Students - Into Doing The Unexpected

A number of years ago I bought a peach tree from a reputable mail order plant company.  The object that the mailman delivered didn't look anything like a tree; it looked like a tall, thin cardboard box containing a stick with a few spindly roots on one end.

I took a deep breath, planted the tree, and waited.  Two months later, when the stick remained a stick, I called the customer service number listed on the catalog.

"Do you have a big wooden spoon?" the friendly woman on the other end of the line asked me.
"Yesss," I answered, completely baffled by the question.
"Good," she said.  "I want you to take that spoon outside and wallop the tree but good."

At first I thought this was some kind of hidden camera trick.  Or, perhaps, the customer service lady wasn't so much friendly as crazy.  She quickly explained that sometimes trees that are shipped with their roots bare become dormant and need to be shaken up a little to help them grow.

I felt a little sheepish walloping a little slip of a tree with a wooden spoon, but a week later that tree had leaves on it.  The next summer I was picking peaches.

A similar thing happens in my Civil War novel, The Bent Reed.  As the story opens, the family is debating whether to cut down an apple tree that has yet to produce apples.  After the Battle of Gettysburg rages around it, the tree bursts into bloom.  My little peach tree was not the inspiration for these scenes.  In a case of life imitating art, The Bent Reed was written long before the peach tree was ordered.

Sometimes students become a little complacent, even a little dormant in their reading habits and need a little shock to their systems before they're ready to grow.  I'm not proposing you wallop your students with a spoon, but I am proposing you shock their systems by challenging them to read something outside their comfort level.

Channeling students toward books that are a little above their reading level or are on subjects they've never considered can really shock a reader into growth.  Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Reading out loud to students can whet their appetite for vocabulary and sentence complexity that they might not dare tackle on their own.  Once they're intrigued, they may take up the book on their own.
  • Reading about other subjects, places or historical periods can whet a student's appetite for new concepts.  Follow up with a list of related books, or better yet, a trip to the library so that students can continue their research.
  • "Front load" information with visuals such as maps and timelines, and mini lessons featuring new vocabulary so that students have more prior knowledge with which to tackle difficult or unfamiliar subjects.
  • Be kind when students struggle with new vocabulary and concepts, especially when they mispronounce words that they've never seen before.  The safer students feel in the classroom, the greater the risks they're willing to take.
  • Model inquisitive behavior by reading outside your own interests. Share the experience and what you learn with your students.
  • Get excited about learning new things!  Enthusiasm is contagious.
No use beating around the bush: if you are a teacher, you should bludgeon your students with kindness, with information, and with enthusiasm.  Who knows?  Your action just might bear fruit!  You just might shake them out of their complacency and awaken in them a new love of learning. 

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a 7th grade social studies teacher and the author of several books for middle grade readers.  You can learn more about her and her books at her website.