At the beginning of this year, we posted the intentions letter that we craft to focus our attention, activate our eyes and ears as the children play with new ideas, and offer opportunities insights towards next steps. As a teaching team, we worked to craft a big question that will serve us through our journey. Taking what we know about children this age, the current state of affairs, and what they have a right to know, this question formed…
How might exploring stories, patterns, and perspectives of local history inspire action as mindful citizens in today’s increasingly complex world?
This – along with the other questions that live inside of it listed in the letter – are pretty meaty questions for third graders, but I know that they are competent and capable and ready to sink their teeth into questions like these. We need citizens in our world who will be able to see, listen and think in this way – and I believe that these third graders want to be those citizens. If our goal is to create collaborative and courageous learning communities, we should give the children real and meaningful work to practice within to do so. If our hope is to create powerful citizens and changemakers that will create a world we want to live in – where stories matter, where people matter, where the whole matters – then we need to create schools and learning communities where the children are invited to engage in our world today, right now, as well as in the future. But in order for these questions to sit in our learning community with a purpose, each child will have to feel connected to it in a really authentic way. Within these ideas and questions, we are working towards finding personal connections while offering the children space within the story to go further than just their small bubble.
We began this year real personal – finding the history and the stories in ourselves through thinking about who we are and where we live. We let our friends into the inner workings of our names, our houses, our special objects, and our neighborhoods. The intention to start from this way is to develop a connection as we work out from the center. Maps were how we played with this growing idea – thinking about our houses that are in our neighborhoods that are in our city. Through this work, we also found connections to each other: similarities with where we live as well as differences. Talking about landmarks helped bridge the community and was a way to offer a connection with each other. We heard children ask each other things like, You have a Fred Meyers in your neighborhood, too? Is your street busy or quiet? What is the name of your taco shop?
Thinking and sharing landmarks in our neighborhoods created a lot of energy for the children, which pushed me towards introducing a familiar landmark to help us break into the history of Portland. We needed something that could easily connect us – a place where we could all see ourselves in the present so that we could envision what occurred in the past. We brought to the children a landmark that I knew most had a connection to – Providence Park. I knew that children had a personal connection to it – some love the sports teams that play there, almost all of them drive past it – but even though they had this personal connection to this place today, there was so much that was unknown to them, because it was covered up. In some cases, that “covered up” was literal – there used to be a creek, Tanner Creek, flowing where now is cement – and other cases, the “covering up” was social: the place is closely connected to Portland’s “hidden” multicultural and working-class past. How could I help the children excavate this site?
I brought in our first introduction to the story through this article, What Lies Beneath: The History of Tanner Creek. This very exciting story painted a picture of a familiar part of town for me and my students that were potentially full of some really complicated history. Inside of this one story lived issues of ecological, political, and social tension and unrest. Questions about who has the right and authority to mess with nature, who makes choices towards change, what happens when land that was once undesirable becomes desirable, whose voices are heard and who voices are silent and what happens to those who don’t want or don’t ask for the change.
The children continued to explore their wonderings and theories by taking the MAX train to the neighborhood as we searched for more information that would add and contribute to their understanding. As we explored this part of the city, they were trying to imagine where they are now and how it could have looked in the past. They flocked to the plaques that commemorated the creek, as well as the manhole cover where they could actually hear the creek flowing. Alexa wondered, ”If information about Tanner Creek is written on the ground, does that mean that other people know about it?” In her question, I hear her wondering if other Portlanders are grappling with the idea of this landmark in our city that has disappeared and if others are wondering about what happened and what changed about this place in our city. I hear her really thinking about what happens when things change and wondering if she cares, do other people care?
As the children make their way through this story, uncovering new ideas, building on their understandings, asking bigger and more specific questions, I am paying attention to places in their understanding that can serve as an entry point to get deeper into, as our question states, the stories, patterns, and perspectives of local history that will inspire action as mindful citizens in today’s increasingly complex world.
I listen to their ideas on why they think this story is important…
Skye: Lots of people didn’t know about this before, I bet lots of people don’t know about this and it’s something special that we know.
Carly: I think we’re actually learning about this creek because we’re like, no one knew it went under the stadium. It’s just a new thing and it gives us a lot of fun stuff to learn about.
As we continue to share our thinking, Emmy throws out an idea:
I notice that…this is something that could happen…a bunch of people don’t know about it, so if we put up signs near it, that could bring a bunch of people down by the water and other people would want to start a march to get them to shut down the stadium.
And now we’re seeing, even in October, the pull to bring this “call to action” forward. Emmy’s idea of creating signs to inform people of the creek and the hope of getting “them to shut down the stadium” is an example of an 8-year-old taking action as a mindful citizen. She is showing us what it looks like when we feel injustice – which in this case is the potential unfairness of a creek being covered up and they want for it to live in this space naturally the way it has in the past – and she wants to propose a solution. And because she lives in this community where we share ideas and share our provisional thinking, she is ready to have a go.
And as you can imagine, not all the citizens in this situation have the same idea or wants concerning this subject…
Allen: I don’t want them to shut down the stadium.
Fred: I think that Emmy is trying to say is maybe, they can have signs to put up so that people know that there’s actually a lake under there, I mean a stream.
Why would it matter to people?
Polly: Because its like intention vs impact. They just thought it was a stadium, but some people didn’t know it was a creek and they might want one.
Tyler: Couldn’t they just have taken down the stadium right away? If we take down the stadium, would they put back Tanner Creek? I want us to think about this because then we wasted the stadium
Nick: There are buildings and streets and lots of things.
Allen: I don’t think we should tear the stadium, that’s close to my house and if we tear it down…
Emmy: So when I said that I didn’t mean like the whole place, just that one part. It would take a really long part to rebuild because in some places we could just lift up the stadium and move it really far away and they could choose where it goes.
And here Emmy is, working as a citizen to make her idea and wants visible in her learning community with other citizens who also have their own ideas and wants. And together, in this collaborative and courageous learning community, she gets to experience what it feels like to deliberate and negotiate a complicated subject in a safe way. As Emmy brings her ideas to the community, she is giving all of us the opportunity to consider the complexity of what it means to be a community, a society, a democracy, and a city.
And this is where we are now, slowly peeling away at this one place and this one story of our city that holds so many stories, places, voices, and perspectives. I’m hopeful that our intentions letter will project a path that will lead all of us to new understandings of what it means to be a young changemaker – because I know that is what the world needs.
Readers, where are you seeing your intentions in your curriculum? What ideas and issues are your children slowly peeling away at this point in your school year?