"Thinking about your thinking!" This is what the 5th graders in Allie Gross’s Detroit Future Schools classroom at Plymouth Educational Center yell back in unison, in response to the question, "What does metacognition mean?"
This is not because the definition has been drilled into them through rote memorization. Rather, it is because Allie has built a strong culture of "thinking about your thinking" in her classroom over the course of the school year, with support from DFS artist-in-residence Conja Wright.
AMP’s Detroit Future Schools program is a year-long digital media artist-in-residence and teacher professional development program. Its goal is to prepare Detroit area youth to envision and actualize a more just, creative, and collaborative world. We look for 11 Essential Traits of Habit, Character and Mind in students, teachers and artists to measure our progress towards this goal. Metacognition is one of those traits.
After observing Allie’s classroom for two hours, I saw how integral this trait is to all of the other Essential Traits. When students take ownership over their own knowledge, they lay the foundation for self-determination; they are able to reflect on not only their actions, but the thought processes that guide those actions, ultimately giving them more power to determine for themselves who they will be in the world.
Allie is clear about who she expects her students to be in the world: people who will change the world by first changing themselves. The students lead each other in a call and response chant every day:
Be the what? Be the change! Change the what? Change ourselves! Change the what? Change the class! Change the what? Change the world!
As the DFS artist-in-residence, Conja Wright reinforces the classroom culture of metacognition and self-transformation through the integration of media arts. Since the beginning of the school year, Conja, a librarian and professional storyteller, has immersed students in the idea that they can be authors, not simply characters within the story of their lives and their worlds.
During the first quarter of the year, Conja read and analyzed creation myths from a variety of cultures with the students. Throughout the rest of the year, she is helping students build the skills they need to tell their own stories about who they are, what their relationship to their environments is, and what it means to be a "changemaker."
The role storytelling plays in changing the world is no simple matter. It triggers questions like, who has the power to tell stories? How do stories gain power? What is the responsibility of storytellers? Neither Allie nor Conja are interested in pretending that it is, just because their students happen to be 5th graders. They embrace the complexity of these questions and use them to build the metacognition their students need.
On the day that I visited the class they were grappling with the question, "to shoot a photo or to help: what’s the most effective way to change the world?" The week before, they had analyzed a photo of a woman who had been shot by the police in Haiti, after stealing some chairs. In the photograph she’s laying on the ground, surrounded by a ring of photographers.
The question of "to shoot a photo or to help" had germinated even earlier in the year, during a "changemakers event," in which the class spent the day cleaning up a park in their neighborhood. That day, Conja worked with a team of students to photograph the clean-up. This documentation effort had raised a question around the value of doing changemaking work versus telling the story of changemaking.
The students drew upon these past experiences, as they launched into a "Fishbowl" conversation on the topis. A "Fishbowl" is a standard DFS practice for structuring an equitable conversation. The conversation begins with a small group of chairs in the middle, with the rest of the class observing. After the conversation has gotten going, any student on the outside can "tap" themselves into one of the chairs by tapping one of the other students out.
Allie began by reviewing the rules of the Fishbowl with the students. These include things like, "use evidence," "engage in conversation, don’t just try to convince people of your opinion," "seek a common vocabulary." The Fishbowl starts, and Allie transcribes the whole thing, with as much accuracy as possible. She doesn’t participate in the conversation at all–it’s entirely the responsibility of the students to self-facilitate, another core DFS practice.
Below are excerpts from their conversation:
"I’m going to start by defining effective. ‘Effective’ means when we clean up the park. It’s effective because we’re doing something with the community. But it’s more effective to shoot a picture than to help, because then a lot of people can see it."
"I disagree with Kamaree and Danielle, because if you help, then the person you help can spread the word and so can you, and then people can know more about the problem through the person that helps."
"I want to ask Daniel a question—why wouldn’t you do both?"
"If you took a picture you wouldn't have enough time to help…"
"I disagree with Daniel, if you take a picture and put it on the Internet millions of people can see it."
"A lot of people can’t afford to get on the Internet!"
"What if they don't like the Internet?"
"Usually some people… I’ll let Nya go. I’ll finish my point after."
"Can we get back on topic?"
"First, I want to say something about the real question…. I would want to take a picture. If you take pictures more people will know. I understand what Daniel is talking about with people not having computers but instead of talking about problems, what about solutions? Like making flyers instead."
The Fishbowl discussion lasts for about 10 minutes. Allie calls everyone back to their seats and they begin to analyze the transcript together. She asks the class, "do you think this was a strong or weak Fishbowl? Why or why not?"
"I really think it was slightly good because first we started off talking about the topic, but then we got a little off because we got mad about Daniel’s answer… then people started yelling and they weren’t taking turns."
"I think this fishbowl was all right.. I only think we had issues with transitioning, but otherwise I noticed Nadia, Daniel, Bronson were tracking and asking questions… I think it’s good we figured it out."
After discussing what went well and what could have gone better, they set goals for a second Fishbowl: do better at providing evidence, stay on topic, people on the outside should do a better job of "tracking" the conversation. They also add two sub-questions to the topic: "what source would you use to spread the word?" and "what does change the world mean?" Here are some excerpts from the second Fishbowl:
"I think they should do both, like Niyah said, in the picture of the woman who was shot I saw all the photographers trying to get the best picture so they could get photography awards. I don't think it’s right. They could have taken her to the hospital."
"Why did they shoot her instead of arresting her just because she stole? Some criminals steal more."
"It could have not just been that she stole the chairs while the police tried to take her away. She could have assaulted an officer. You wouldn't kill someone for stealing chairs, there are more valuable things in the world."
"I want to hear from Elijah."
"you shouldn’t get shot for stealing something."
"I was going to ask, why did she steal the chairs? Did she need it?"
"I’m sorry for cutting you off but Ms. Gross just said stay on topic."
"Did anyone think they could put it on the Internet? Someone could start a protest or something, like when the kids heard that the school was going to close and they protested for it to stay open."
"Actually I think he made a good point, he made a text-to-world connection… how one text is like another… and I think you should do both because actually if I had to choose I would do both, Because the police should get bad guys but they were the bad guys."
"I changed my mind, people can effect change by putting it on the internet, then people can start a protest, like the protest where the kids walked out of class to get their point across."
After the second Fishbowl ends, they do another transcript-analysis. This time they focus on two questions: what was strong or weak about the process of our Fishbowl? and what was strong or weak about the content? The students conclude that the process of this Fishbowl was worse than the first one because there were more people walking around the room, causing distractions. Then they turn to me and ask my opinion. I tell them that think the content was noticeably better because they got to what I saw was the heart of the issue: what does it actually mean to change the world?
Then they ask me what I’m planning to do with the story that I’m writing about their class. I tell them that I’m going to put it on the Internet so that other people can learn about the work they’re doing in their classroom to change themselves to change the world. But then I start to wonder, is that the most effective way to change the world? They’ve got me thinking about my thinking...
Written by Jenny Lee.