I must admit I didn't bring my A game to this lesson. I didn't prepare for this lesson as well as I should have. I was trying something new, and was expecting just basic responses to basic questions. I created a few questions for students to examine with a partner about the benefits and problems associated with the move to agriculture.
The objective of the lesson was to have students to see that there were significant changes to society once we moved to agriculture. Again the structure of the lesson could have easily failed to achieve this goal. Instead it turned out to be a very cool experience for me and the students. The lesson was not spectacular because I wrote great questions, that's for sure. The lesson wasn't great because I had a great plan for the day. The thing that I believe made this lesson go well was the conversations I had with students as they worked on answering the questions. It was these brief discussions with students that turned a bland lesson into one that I had to share with others.
As I moved from group to group, the responses students shared, helped me adjust my ensuing conversations with the next group of students. If the lesson ended with these conversations, I would done about as well I would expect with the preparation I had completed. I would have gone away thinking, I had some good individual discussions, and reflected on how to improve. But the lesson didn't end there. We moved to a full class discussion that went unexpectedly.
Last year in Wisconsin we had a very wet spring and many farmers got their fields planted late. I used this to illustrate that some wouldn't have had enough to survive the winter. So I had students pick 2 students who were very successful and had a significant surplus of crops. Now we had 2 good farmers and several struggling farmers. I asked the successful farmers would they trade some of their food with those who needed it. They agreed, but they wanted something in return. I asked those who were in need of food what they would offer. The first class offered labor and I followed up with how much time would they be willing to work. They started with days, then like an auction, they drove up the bidding until one said they would work forever to food from the good farmers. The other classes went similarly with the addition of selling their own children into slavery, or giving up parts of their land.
This is where the conversation transcended the discussion of agriculture to a walk through major historic events. They saw the development of gender inequality, slavery, the beginning of job specialization and how that too led to inequality. I then examined what the farmer with surplus and now workers gained. They were able to gain power, and wealth. The students also discussed what those individuals would do with the power and to maintain their power. We could have been talking about events of modern times. I need to continue to build to students understanding those connections, but we need to cross that bridge later on.
I feel very fortunate. My students took a lesson that I thought was a doomed and they turned it into a winner. I will say the decisions I made along the way, especially immersing myself into the student's group discussions made a significant difference in how I adapted the lesson and the final results. If I had sat back and waited for the students to just report out, I never would have heard their ideas, or had opportunities to process their levels of understanding in order to create the guiding questions I made as the lesson progressed. I didn't come to class as prepared as I should have but the engagement and connection to students allowed this lesson to prosper and be a meaningful experience for all of us.