Everything's a Question

Every teacher knows time is not a fixed entity. It can speed up or slow down depending on the time of the year. I’m constantly reminded how long or short an hour can feel based on how my lesson is going. My first two days with students have made me wonder if someone has been messing with the clocks. Or if the Earth has been rotating just a little bit slower. A lot seems to have happened in only two days. 

Walter Rothschild riding a turtle. Although I’m sure he made important contributions to zoology, it’s hard not to hate him for torturing this turtle.

Walter Rothschild riding a turtle. Although I’m sure he made important contributions to zoology, it’s hard not to hate him for torturing this turtle.

On my honeymoon in Quebec City this summer, I felt that same uncertain relationship with time. While my usual routine consists of doing very little--at least in terms of going places--my wife and I packed in experience after experience. On our second day, we went to the Museum of Civilization, and as we lost ourselves in the exhibits, I couldn’t help but think of all the ideas for writing and teaching that surrounded us: A picture of a man riding a turtle. Why is a man riding a turtle? A carriage being pulled by zebras. There’s a poem here. A display of everyday objects, including IKEA furniture. How about a museum dedicated to forgotten objects from history? An entire gallery devoted to poison, with stories about everything from Mad Hatter’s Disease to assassinations by umbrella. My next novel. I know it seems obvious, but the world is full of ideas for teachers and writers. 

It’s easy to forget that when the school year begins and your attention shifts to content, grading, what to eat for breakfast. 

My first day of classes, I gave each and every student a writer’s notebook. My Econ students seemed bewildered at first, as if I’d momentarily swapped lives with an English teacher and—curriculum be damned—we were about to start reading Beowulf. But writing transcends subject, and a writer’s notebook is a way to encourage students to write more and forge a personal connection with the material. Not to mention, it gets them off their computers. 

For my first prompt, I asked students to think about a local issue and consider why it’s important. By starting local, I was hoping students could begin to see the real-world implications of Economics. Some students wrote about education; some wrote about drug abuse; more than a few wrote about vaping. Everyone read one or two sentences from their response, so by the end, a mosaic of the class’s thoughts and opinions had emerged. After some obligatory snaps, I channeled my inner-professor and said, “I’d argue each and every one of these issues relates to Economics.” We brainstormed a few connections as a class and then, using my brand new clicker, I switched the slide to a picture they’d all be familiar with. One they’ve probably glanced at many times before. 

The back of the Great Seal on the dollar bill. More than just a symbol for the Illuminati.

The back of the Great Seal on the dollar bill. More than just a symbol for the Illuminati.

On the back of the dollar bill, there’s an image of each side of the Great Seal. I’ve seen it countless times before, but I never really knew what it meant. A teacher’s life is full of these random Google searches, just looking for the right tidbit of information to frame a unit or lesson. After a few websites, I’d become an expert. On the front, there’s a bald eagle holding arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. A banner hangs from its beak with the motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one). On the other side, there’s the “Eye of Providence” looking over an unfinished pyramid with thirteen steps, one for each of the colonies, and an additional two mottos: Annuit Coeptis (God has favored our undertakings), and Novus Ordo Seclorum (A new order of the ages). 

Showing my students the deeper meaning of the dollar bill made me feel a little bit like Nicolas Cage in National Treasure, exposing the secrets buried in the world around us. It also gave me the idea for an authentic writing task.

I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues in the English Department with the book Everything’s an Argument. But more than that, I’d argue everything begins a conversation or contains the seeds of a writing prompt or project or lesson, just like I couldn’t shut my teacher and writer-brain off on my honeymoon. It got me thinking a lot about essential questions in general, and the difference between real-world projects and writing tasks and those that only serve to answer a question in a curriculum document. One’s dynamic, the other static. One’s exciting, the other can be, at times, boring.

I decided that my first few lessons could come from questions raised directly by the dollar bill. Is the state of CT really one? Is this the “new order” the Founders had in mind? With this framework, students then went to Census.gov to begin recording data about how Greenwich compares to two other towns in CT. Next week, inspired by the work of Karen Romano Young, one of the presenters at the Connecticut Writing Project this summer, students are going to make infographics using a map of CT to show whether the state is really living up to the motto found right on the back of our money. Drawing, writing, reflecting. Economics is a lot more than stats and charts. 

But that was only one part of my first two days. Onward to American History. After a few opening activities that I’ve had to cut from this post to make sure at least a few people—Hi, Mom!—make it to the end, my English partner, Jess, and I, began our joint poetry unit. 

At CWP, Bryan ended the session by writing an acrostic poem for each and every student in the class. I loved the idea and decided to co-opt it for an intro activity, where each student would interview one another and write an acrostic poem bringing that person to life on the page. Staying true to our philosophy of teachers as writers, Jess and I wrote one for each other too. 

In A Good Fit for All Kids, Kelly Chandler-Olcott talks about the importance of essential questions. “The best EQs could be answered meaningfully in more than one way and at more than one level,” she writes, “while still pointing teachers and students to address common content and skills.” It’s easy to feel like the more essential questions the better. And the more complicated the question the better, too. But lots of complicated questions in a curriculum can have the opposite effect. There’s no room for students to put their own spin on them. Instead, they become static questions created by adults, disconnected from real-world texts and real-world conversation.

The acrostic poems Jess and I wrote for each other.

The acrostic poems Jess and I wrote for each other.

Meeting over the summer, Jess and I brainstormed two key questions that could unite English and history. Sure, we could ask more specific questions for our subjects depending on the unit, but if we had two overarching big ideas, students could always find an accessible—and relatable—way back into the curriculum. To start the year off, we decided on “What does it mean to live in America?” and “How can I use my voice to create change?”

Enter the acrostic poems. Since we’re trying to understand what it’s like to live in America, both in the past and today, why not start with our own community? By writing acrostic poems for one another, we could answer the EQ “What does it mean to be a student in Greenwich High School?” while at the same time using writing to celebrate one another.

At the end of class, each student read their poem honoring a classmate’s summer, favorite hobbies, personality, and then I flipped back to the first slide. 

The question blared from the Smartboard, written simply with black text on a white background. What does it mean to be a student in Greenwich High School? It didn’t feel answered or finite or fixed, it felt real. Our collective voices interacting with one another, making the answer more complex than any enduring understanding could ever be. 

Students began to pack up, dropping their writer’s notebook into a green bin at the front of the class. In the span of only two hours, each student had written a poem, revised it based on feedback, and read it out loud. Each had also had a poem written for them, their passions and personality celebrated in words and speech just like people have been doing for centuries. We hadn’t read the Odyssey; we’d created the Odyssey. 

The bell rang, just like it always does at the end of a lesson, but it didn’t feel rushed or as if time had become as gloppy as molasses. As students rushed past, talking about their weekend plans, high-fiving me and saying how much they liked the lesson—okay, that part only happened in my mind—I felt excited for all the possibilities that lay ahead. And frightened that I had to do it all again next week.

Michael Belanger