Making Connections, Part 1: The Road Not Taken

I am guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs while she is away on vacation. I have been enjoying your comments and hope to respond to some of them this weekend. For the next few days I will focus on the topic of “connections” and “relevance” in learning, though other topics may pop up here and there.

I run two lunchtime literature clubs at my school. The fourth graders just finished reading A Little Princess. During our discussions, I encourage delving into the text and discussing it on its own terms. I am not a big fan of “accountable talk,” “making predictions,” “making connections,” and so forth when they assume precedence over the subject matter itself.

One student brought up the part where Sara spends her money on hot buns for a beggar girl. “She made a self-to-self connection,” the student said. I felt sorry that students are learning such ghastly terminology, however well meant. Why are students not encouraged to say, “She understood how the girl felt” or “She felt compassion for the girl”?

There is a great push in schools—in professional development meetings, training literature, evaluation rubrics, and general discussion—to make the learning “relevant” to students’ lives. The assumption is that students will learn more if they can relate the learning to themselves, consciously and explicitly, using applicable jargon (“text-to-self connections,” “text-to-world connections,” etc.). The idea of relevance goes back to antiquity, but its proponents often treat it as a recent and marketable discovery. For instance, the International Center for Leadership in Education owns the “Rigor/Relevance Framework (TM).”

In a sense, there is no arguing with relevance. Learning must pertain to us in some way, or we would be unable to understand it. The problem (to paraphrase Robert Pondiscio) occurs when teachers are required to have students make connections to their lives–when relevance becomes orthodoxy. Forced connections tend to be shoddy, and they presuppose a certain dislike of subject matter. Those who mandate connections assume that learning would be difficult, obscure, and abstract without them. In reality, the best connections are often the ones that come not from deliberate connection-making but from immersion in the topic at hand.

Consider these two contrasting lessons on the well-known Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” This poem seems to be about choosing the less popular path in life, but there is much more to it than that.

Lesson 1: A class reads “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. After a brief discussion of the poem, the teacher asks the students to think of a time when they had to make a big decision. They “turn and talk” to a partner about it, then write about it, both on a big chart and in their journals. At the end of the lesson they post their charts on the wall and “share out” about their big decisions. The teacher leads the class in a “gallery walk” to view the charts. End result: they have heard about big decisions that others in the class have made. They remember little of the poem except that it was also about a decision. But… they have “made connections.” They have been “engaged” in the learning process. They have “collaborated.” The teacher has used the “workshop model.” They have a chart on the wall as “evidence” of their learning.

Lesson 2: A class reads “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. After they have read and discussed it, the teacher has them read it again, more slowly. She asks them challenging questions. Its meaning is not as clear as before; ambiguities and ironies come up. On the one hand the roads are more or less the same; on the other, the speaker says that at some point in the future he will say, “I took the one less traveled by….” What is going on here? Is there a difference between the roads, and if so, what makes the difference? They read the poem again. Still more questions and contradictions arise. They start to notice patterns and rhythms. They think about the time frame of the poem: what is the past, present, and future? What does it mean for the speaker to anticipate telling a story about the past “somewhere ages and ages hence”? And why the “sigh”?

In the first case, they heard a few personal stories from classmates. In the second, they gained insight into a poem and perhaps thought more deeply about their own lives.

Which lesson offers the richer connections?

Which one teaches more about the poem?

Which one is not encouraged at professional development trainings?

Tomorrow I will write about “making connections” between subjects.