Incidental Learning

When I was ten and younger, my school energy, questions, and wonderings swarmed around play and friends.  Would I get to the swings before they were all taken? Was she mad at me? That boy who sits behind me is so…distracting. And that other boy. .. Even though I was a “good student,” kids and playtime dominate my memories of elementary school.

I bring this up because of a conversation with “J” on Friday. She had to be separated from her best/attached-at-the-hip friend for an hour and was beside herself.  I reassured her she would survive and asked, “Do you think your classroom learning is helped or hurt by your friend?” She answered, honestly. Their friendship disrupted her learning. The fact that academics are happening around her is incidental. I thought about moving her to the another classroom. It might help. But that’s not the point.

She’s not alone. She’s prototypical. Kids engage kids and reaching ten-year-old students’ academic needs depends on remembering that we are social beings. Some students may appear more engaged with top-down teaching, but honestly, most of those kids are faking it. Young students need adequate room to do with their peers, while we observe, listen and coach. In the end, we share accountability for the learning.

So this week when faced with an academic need, one that students have trouble with year after year, where strategies have been taught and practiced, taught and practiced, but still, struggle, we went for the social: group work.

The task: Find character traits that match quotes taken from our read aloud.

The teach: Short, sweet and catchy. Thank you, Kimberley Moran, for turning me on to this fantastic site.

The tools: A list of words (potential traits), quotes from our read aloud Some Kind of Courage (thank you, Tara Smith),  devices to look up words, paper, colored pens, scissors, glue, and your reading partner. And oatmeal cookies served as a tribute to the beloved horse in the story and the reason for so many of the character’s actions.

The process: Lots of talk and tries that led to more paper. Discussion about words and about why that word fits or doesn’t fit with that quote. Some hang on to ideas, looking for the appropriate quote. Others massage quotes to fit the intended trait.

The product: Various stages of approximation and completion.


The learning: At best, the work is incremental and cumulative. Learning builds. Year after year and at differing rates. Hooking in their peers into doing that work helps most making learning happen and seem incidental.

2 thoughts on “Incidental Learning

  1. I love how empathetic and sympathetic you are to the true inner lives of your students, Julieanne. I think if more of us remembered how WE were when we were young, the more we would try to find opportunities for social/emotional learning in our classrooms. Great post!

  2. Such a challenge to overcome the social issues in a classroom, especially with 5th graders. Love this lesson. Looks like it was really engaging to your students.

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