KWL and Student Voice

The Know, Want to Know, Learned (KWL) chart is an incredibly important instrument for the Constructivist educator. In the classroom in which I student teach we have used this method a few times, particularly with topics to which students have before been exposed. The KWL chart worked particularly effectively during a lesson on slavery in colonial America in my AP US History class. With an issue as important and charged as slavery, my mentor teacher and I wanted to make sure we weren’t just covering what students already knew about the oppressive institution. We wanted to get them to start questioning deeper into the institution itself — question slavery in ways they had never thought to before.

We began that particular lesson on slavery, then, with students writing down what it was they felt they knew. We then had students write down remaining questions they had about it — what they still wanted to learn, gaps in their own knowledge and understanding. We then asked students to share these questions with the class, and wrote several of them on the board. As students began sharing, more thought up new and thought-provoking questions like how did this all begin? Why African slaves in particular? What about guilt? Morality? Does morality itself change with time? How do we reconcile anachronistic notions of “right and wrong” when studying slavery? Are we willing to forego morality for profit always? Do we do this now? How directly in front of us need oppression be to see it as wrong?

These types of questions got the whole class reeling. They were stimulated by their classmates’ questions, and kept coming up with more of their own. They were so genuinely curious, astonished, confused, and angered by the whole institution in a way I am certain many had not been before. The energy in the classroom was intense — I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before.

When my mentor teacher began showing images to the students of the Middle Passage ships, shackles, whips, the students shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They didn’t keep quiet though. Once the questions had begun, there was no stopping them. The students now knew what they wanted to know, and they wanted their questions answered right then and there. They realized some of their bigger questions would never be satisfactorily answered that day, and that was an important lesson to learn.

At the end of the lesson we asked that students write a third column after “What I know” and “What I want to know,” titled “What I learned.” The students took up the last five minutes of class writing fiercely away. We plan to collect these notes during our next notebook check to see what questions they felt we answered, and what new questions the lesson spurred in them. What we were most interested in, of course, is getting these students to think in a different way — a more investigative, anthropological, intense, critical way — about slavery than they ever had. I think we achieved what we had set out to do. Those KWL charts will certainly tell us more.

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