Or The power of ‘bridging’
The concept of ‘bridging’ in Let’s Think lessons is, in essence, an opportunity for learners to reapply understanding that has begun to emerge in a previous session. No one learning activity can ever anchor new learning. It needs to be ‘bridged’ to new contexts, using a range of approaches. Why?
Well, if we continue in the realm of Graham Nuthall’s research (The Hidden Lives of Learners) learning is the result not of classroom activity but of the way students experience and make sense of these activities. This sense-making is highly individual. It is centred on a learner making connections between newly encountered material and their existing knowledge. So what you learn can be limited by what you bring to a session, and what you choose to pay attention to. It’s not as reliable or predictable as we might wish it to be, so it needs some repetition – with a twist. This latent individual potential can also be influenced by the culture and connectivity of the group of learners. How I interact with the group can further marginalise or it can support and scaffold my sense-making beyond what I can learn on my own.
So – back to our 4 families in their Celebrity Squares.
Remember we have 13 group members aged 10-79. So far, involvement has been voluntary. There have been visible – though not necessarily reliable – signs that some learners feel more at ease sharing their thoughts with the group than others. And some naturally go quieter as the complexity of ideas develops.
In the previous session, the group had reached some subtle evaluations of the effect of style choices in the 5 different narrative openings to The Bridge. Just how much of this had each learner understood of the session?
Write your own opening the ‘The Bridge’
My invitation to the group to write their own opening to The Bridge, or continue one of the shared openings had been initially low key
So what we do when we are in the classroom here is to invite students to write their own opening and we share the different versions in our next sessions. Does this sound like something you would want to do?
The group decided they wanted to go ahead and agreed a date to have them completed and share them in another video call.
Looking back, this was the session that anchored our new way of being together. Perhaps this was the combination of the responsibility to produce a passage, the courage to share it, and the care and attention to respond to each other’s work. Nobody had to do this, but we did.
What is more, when we came together one Sunday afternoon, it was swiftly agreed that each writer would read their work aloud. The documents had gradually popped up in our WhatsApp thread over the course of the day, so that we could all access them visually. Without this being an entirely conscious decision, I remained in the role of tutor for the group, inviting writers to share, but feeling a responsibility that we should not just offer platitudes of praise, but return to the pleasurable rigour of reapplying our previous thinking about story openings, how they set up expectations and position us in relation to the characters. These offerings are worthy of our consideration.
Our young people’s writing
In this post, I am sharing the writing from the young people of the group, aged 10-14.
What resonated in the live group responses, is that we heard echoes of very different aspects of our previous session in each young person’s writing. These aspects were self-selected and self-generated, from within the rich, socially constructed learning landscape of the Let’s Think sessions.
Suddenly, the soldier noticed a quick shadow running onto the other side of bridge. Slowly, he took out his gun and walked towards the person. His shoes tapped gently onto the cobblestone walkway. He wasn’t sure who it was at first, but then the fog cleared, and he realised that it was a woman.
“What are you doing here at this time of night?” he said.
The woman remained silent. He put his pistol back in his pocket. He took a few more steps forward.
“I am asking you again, Mrs. You’re not meant to be here.”
“I want to go to the other side of the bridge.” She said quietly.
“Well, Mrs. I have orders that whoever crosses the bridge will be shot.”
“My family is there.”
The soldier leaned against the side of the bridge. He looked at her.
“ If I let you go, then I’ll lose my job. If I shoot you then…”
He took a deep breath in. She turned around and started walking back. She could hear the man panicking. He reached into his pocket again and took out his pistol. The woman thought she could run away in time but she was too late.
He shot her.
This was the writer I had been most concerned about in previous sessions. The semi-visible indicators of learning had been hard to fathom. Hearing them read this passage aloud was extraordinarily moving and at once reassuring. We were being offered a privileged window in to the hidden life of this learner who had thought deeply about pace, drama, focus, characterisation and the role of dialogue – an understanding of the concepts coming in to play without perhaps a need for the words themselves.
I asked the group to consider:
- This is a third person account but from whose perspective are we experiencing the action? How has the writer achieved this?
- How do we feel about the soldier and the woman in this version? Is this playing with our sympathies?
Her eyes scanned the atmosphere. Lost in the fog, she crept over to the soldier, careful not to scare him. His face lit up in recognition, remembering the incident that occurred between them many months ago. When she got to him, she searched for excuses to cross the bridge then when her mouth opened no words sprouted out. Speechless, she stood in front of him in fear the gun now pointed at her head. The young man sighed.
“I let you past once, now turn around.”
She shook her head trying to figure another way, now scared of the near future. She pleaded to him but he softly repeated
“You know what’s going on. You know about the war. I will only ask one more time, turn around or I will pull the trigger.”
She then sees a way past him. She doesn’t hesitate she runs straight past him.
Each step she took her heart pounded faster. Confused from her decision he stood and took aim. She ran now half-way across the bridge, her brain so thrilled that her plan worked she thanked God for her still existence on earth, celebrating in her mind.
But no one can out run death. Some of us can control his speed while others cannot and poor Mary Dunnett couldn’t
“BANG” there she lay. Her foot reached the south, yet her body lay on the bridge.
What a rich counterpoint to our first writer. The very same moment – both had been drawn to the climax – and a connection had been made with passage E from the previous lesson.
Again we explored questions of perspective ‘With whose eyes are we seeing…’ but also more complex questions of sympathy. Do we have more sympathy for this soldier, even though he has only 2 lines of dialogue?
We explored our reader reactions, then would return to the writer and ask if they had anticipated or intended this reader response.
Version 3 – a continuation from Passage E
It was now or never, while he was still smoking. She scrambled up the bank and on to the bridge…
“Who’s there?” the soldier called out, “I have orders to stop anyone from crossing this bridge. I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it.”
Mary stumbled out of the fog and into the light of his lantern.
“I am only the lady from the village over the bridge, I am defenceless, please let me across the bridge”
The soldier pondered over her request before replying,
“Orders are orders, and so no one gets past me, including you.”
Mary stomped round the side of the bridge and down to the bank where she saw a hooded figure.
“Who are you?” she whispered. No reply.
“Who are you?” she repeated still with no reply.
She was about to shout out when suddenly he replied, “No need to shout at me lady, the soldier may hear us”
“Well who are you?
“Why I’m Todd, Todd Swift” he said before shaking her soft hand with his rough and dry one.
“What do ya need?”
“I need to get over to the over side of the river, and quickly.”
“Sure thing I only need, say 100 dollars”
“100 Dollars! Where am I supposed to find that money?”
“Times are rough, now no one takes my boat ever since they built that awful bridge, so nowadays my prices have to be high and stay high if I want to make money at all. If you can’t pay, I guess you should be going”
“Please, I’m begging you”
The boat left the dock and went into the mist where it disappeared from sight…
You’re probably wondering what is happening, and how Mary came to be here…
We lighted on the very deft choice of character detail, particularly in the creation of Todd the boatman – his hooded figure, his rough, dry hand, his honest survival instinct. The added insight we have into the mental life of the learner, is that for them, the learning was about narrative sequencing, not just narrative technique. They have committed to the idea that for this to be the opening, then a flashback will be a difficult but necessary structural shift. We talked about our focus on Mary who takes us through the landscape but is only lightly drawn, our relative lack of sympathy for the soldier, our greater interest in Todd than in Mary.
Thomas sat shivering at his desk. His hands sweaty. His mother had forced him to join the war. Thomas was small and scrawny and didn’t have much fight or courage to do anything brave. His mother just didn’t have enough money for the both of them. Thomas only followed instructions. He never had his own opinions. Opinions were his biggest fear. He had followed his mother’s instructions ever since he could speak. Thomas was 20 now and 5’6”. He was a Unionist, though he never really paid any attention to the way other people lived their lives. He just picked what his mother picked.
His mother was small and round with short black hair and a voice as high as the rolling hills.
We were rather astonished for a moment at the power of this resonant Hemingway-esque simplicity. The decision to embody the narrative in the psychology of the soldier had not emerged from a given model, but from this learner’s individual sense-making. Two weeks prior to this, discussions in sesson 1 about the responsibility of the soldier had morphed into speculation of how we warned the woman that he would shoot, how he spoke to her and how he felt about his duty to carry out orders – the decision to shoot. What we all began to talk about here, was how we could already imagine the character of Thomas, the reluctant soldier, on the wrong side of history, who would face the ultimate coming of age test on the prow of the bridge. And what a powerful narrative driver that would be.
What is starting to happen here?
A few points of fact seem important to share here:
- The writing of these openings happened during the Easter break.
- These young people did not have to write.
- None of them write ‘for pleasure’ at home.
- None of them had to be asked or reminded to write for the Let’s Think group.
- The writer of passage 4 – Thomas the soldier – is perhaps the most reluctant writer.
- They completed the piece and said aloud – ‘Done. I actually enjoyed that.’
- No adults supported the process and there was no overt teaching of writing other than discussing the fable and the 5 possible story openings.
Then, a powerful moment of tutor metacognition.
It seems that making the time and space for short, visible artefacts of learning to emerge is as important for the group dynamic as it is for the tutor to gain insights in to the hidden lives of learners. This session was the crucial hinge. The learning of individuals, what they had chosen to take and make sense of from the sessions was made visible, owned by them, shared by them and the group celebrated and explored these creative differences.
After this session, visible indicators of motivation and engagement switched dynamically to the young people. When will the next session be? Can you send the Zoom link to my email address? Young people were sitting centre stage and square on to the computer screen.
We will end with a testimonial from one ‘Celebrity Squares’ resident 12 year old:
I enjoy Let’s Think due to the idea of being free instead of locking your ideas in your head. It encourages you to share your ideas, and it might be a bit scary at first but because of the repetitive lessons it becomes more comfortable, and becomes an activity you can’t wait for. It a great way of sharing your thoughts and listening to the ideas of others which might benefit you later in life. I love the none detailed texts, because they don’t show much of the detail about the characters so you can come up with ideas yourself, and hear the ideas of others. For The Bridge, we were asked to find out whose fault it was that the lady died. We listened to everyone thoughts and that gave us a better understanding of the characters.