Today was the first day of a new term, or quarter depending on which schedule you are used to. I got to school today after a weekend full of grading finals, preparing the snow thrower for the upcoming winter, maybe this year it will make it the entire season, and even a little fun with my wife at the Packers game. When I arrived I knew I had to prepare for wrapping up my lesson on the move to agriculture. I had students create skits and perform them in front of the class, but needed a way to pull the ideas together to allow for the transition to civilization.
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.
I have made it a point to spend more time talking with groups while they are working. I want to sit in on their conversations for many reasons. One important one is to engage the quiet student who would otherwise be lost in the large group conversations. This time those conversations rescued my failing lesson.
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.
If students were able to understand that gender inequality started as a result of farming, I would have been happy, but the lesson didn't end with this revelation. As the conversation continued I found the concept of surplus dangling in front of me. I then provided them with a little scenario to help illustrate the idea of inequality of wealth and power that results. I told them some of them were good farmers, some struggled with growing crops.
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.
Here it was, the beginning of slavery or at least indentured servitude or debt slavery and it came from the students. I could see the lights turn on for many students as soon as I restated the idea that a fellow student had just volunteered to work for ever for the other farmer. They were processing what this meant. Some even asked him if he was willing to be a slave for the rest of his life. Others playing their role, offered up other classmates, and some their own children.
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.