Taking Different Routes
For many teachers, claims of fairness, particularly in middle grades, can be frustrating and challenging to manage. The phrase “That’s not fair!” haunted me when I first entered the classroom: How do I help students understand and navigate the emotions of their perceived injustices? For many teachers, claims of fairness, particularly in middle grades, can be frustrating and challenging to manage.
For the past few Septembers, I have started the school year with a map that shows the area around the school where I work as a seventh grade humanities teacher. In the center of the map is a heart that represents the location of the school. From their seats, students examine the map on the SmartBoard and think of which routes they take to school. I invite various students up to the board to draw onto the map their individual routes. Once a few students have done so, I ask students what they notice: Some people walk! Some people take the subway! Some people are dropped off!
“Where is everyone going?” I ask. “Everyone is going to school,” they reply.
“But why are we traveling different routes to get to school?”
“Because we’re all coming from different places!” someone inevitably answers.
“So everyone takes their own route to the same destination…” I let this idea settle into the classroom consciousness and then ask two additional questions: How can this map be a metaphor for learning about history, and how can this map be a metaphor for the learning in our classroom?
In the first weeks of school, when many seventh graders are struggling with negotiating a variety of learning issues, the idea that there are varied “routes” to our destinations becomes a metaphor for learning in the classroom, as well as a method of acknowledging diverging perspectives in history, literature and current events. The way we perceive our destination can depend on where we are traveling from. Similarly, the meaning of a civilization, leader or event can be influenced by who is telling the story and the point of view, or “route,” from which it is being told.
This metaphor has also helped facilitate conversations about fairness and equity in regard to learning style, preference and ability. Middle school students can have a strong sense of justice, so it is crucial to describe and acknowledge differentiation, scaffolding and alternative assessments in clear and caring ways. I have frequently explained that an assignment, grade, project or task might vary from student to student. In navigating these conversations, it has been helpful to remind students of this metaphor: “Fairness doesn’t always look exactly alike. You are traveling your own ‘route’ to this skill; another student is traveling their own path.” Equality and equity are not synonymous. We help our students develop empathy for themselves and one another when we give them tools to understand the dynamics and nuances of what is “fair” and “unfair.”
“I thought that the map metaphor was helpful. The map metaphor made me realize that we all learn differently, but it doesn’t mean that one way is good or bad. I felt like it helped me realize that I could learn in a lot of different ways.”
“The map metaphor was a helpful aid for me because it allowed me to realize that not everybody learns the same way, and I may be at a stage in the process where I am working on my own.”
“I think that it helps me feel that if I didn’t take the exact same route as another student did, it does not mean I am any smarter or not smarter than them and vice versa. I feel as though that it is very important to know that everyone has their own ways of learning.”