What Did You Learn Today?
I was sitting on the floor, fixing a desk, when one of my students and her mother came into the room. They were unaware of my presence as the mother helped her daughter gather her homework. Looking at the board, she said, "Nothing is written down for math. What did you do in math today?" Her daughter's response was, "Well... basically, we drew a mountain and that's about it."
If her summary of the day's events hadn't been so comical, I would have been mortified by her answer. Was this all she remembered from my complicated lecture on long division? Though I was tempted to hide myself further under the desk, I stood up and probed my student's memory further. With the right questions, she was able to tell me that the mountain was a metaphor for the steps involved in learning long division and that we'd spent most of the class discussing quotients and remainders.
Her mother was satisfied with this but I was not. My student, quite understandably, remembered the most unusual and silly part of the class and not the lesson. While I'm happy that my students have vivid memories of the metaphor, it is useless unless they recall the metaphor's meaning! I was concerned that this might be the typical kind of answer parents received to that age-old, important question, "What did you do in school today?"
At the end of the next day's lesson, I decided to ask that question myself. "If I were your father and I asked you what you did in class today, what would you say?" The response I got was interesting. Most children could give a vague answer, but not as specific as I would have liked. They could tell me we did long division problems, but it would have been more accurate to say we did problems with a four-digit dividend. I helped them to form this more precise answer.
This exercise, naming what we've learned at the end of each class, has become a routine part of the class and the kids love it. Each of them is eager to come up with the most precise answer. They strive to capture the finest detail that separates today's lesson from previous lessons. I love it, not because it prepares my students to be questioned by their parents, but because my students are refining their own understanding.
It's very easy for a student to let the activities of the day become a blur. Even the best students in the best classes can go through the routine of the day without taking a moment to reflect. But by taking a few minutes each class to discuss what we've learned and give a name to the work we've done, the knowledge they've gained is no longer a blur, but a firmly held concept. It becomes a hard piece of knowledge with clear edges.
Furthermore, this exercise helps the motivation of my students. Naming what we do helps them to remember that each day holds a new lesson. It is very satisfying to look back on a class and say, "We've accomplished this." One of the things that sets VanDamme Academy's curriculum apart from others is that we want our students to hold their knowledge conceptually; knowledge that can be put into words and has a clear connection to reality. It is a goal we pursue doggedly. Naming each lesson is one more way we achieve that goal.