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Connecting Big Ideas

By Anessa Quirit, Year 5/ 6 teacher

This article is based on an interview of Year 5/6 teacher Anessa Quirit in June 2018. In it, Anessa describes her use of THE HUNGER GAMES, PART 1 with her students to explore identity and enable them to further see how they have agency and power in the world to affect positive change.

As a part of the Year 5/6 teaching team, Anessa outlines how the literary work is placed within Wooranna Park Primary School’s upper primary curriculum of ENIGMA MISSIONS as a provocation. A remarkable part of her story is how she uses the novel to teach algebraic mathematical concepts to underscore the citizens right to vote.

Anessa also outlines how she worked to motivate a most reluctant student to complete her Enigma Mission and move beyond an inquiry project towards becoming a committed learner.

How we got started

It all started with the overarching idea that we were exploring that year around the theme of identity. As a teaching team, we knew we wanted the kids to feel empowered. Empowered enough so that they would be motivated to take action in some way, to have a positive effect on the world. 

So, there I was trying to think about what kind of book I could read with the students in which the character was thrust into a situation where she wasn’t out to seek power. Instead, the pressures of society thrust power on her. She had to sink or swim. 

The key things that I remember about that year were the discussions. The rich discussions that the students and I had around their feelings of who they were, came out of their perceptions of the world. I remember one discussion around an incidence of bullying in the class. The kids really had had enough of ‘the bully’ in question.

I remember the feeling in the room changed the more the children understood where the bullying person was coming from. They didn’t have to be angry at ‘the offender’ anymore. The power to forgive other people was really big.

Setting the challenge

MockingjayPart1Poster3

I remember other snippets. At the time we had just started using Google Drive to store the students’ materials. We were looking at the “Six Cs” at the time by Michael Fullan and the Deep Learning rubrics. We were trying to figure out how we could collaborate, how we could allow collaboration with the limited resources that we had. What we ended up doing was looking at the historical links between the post-apocalyptic dystopian world of Hunger Games, and real history. 

As a teaching team, we encouraged them to go and research: find out what they could and come back and tell us. 

What we found was that the kids identified, for instance, some of the commonalities between ancient Rome and the gladiator games in Hunger Games. How the games were actually used as a mechanism to control the people, to keep them happy so that the emperor could continue doing what he wanted to do.

I thought the students’ perceptions were great, but how could we make the collaboration work. After all, students were running on a timetable that favoured them working in so many different spaces in the school.   

Why learning collaboratively is so effective

We started using a common task, around the creation of a Google slideshow.  Within that structure, students were able to chat, have discussions and critique each other’s work and see ‘live’ how the slideshow was coming together. The idea was not necessarily to create a single presentation. Rather, it was a platform for students to share ideas and critique each other and go, “Right, go back and check that fact. I can see where you’ve found it, but this is where I’m coming from!” So cross-referencing, active cross-referencing, active questioning of what’s going on. It was amazing.

At the time, I was just looking to solve a problem: I can’t get all these kids in one room at the same time, and that’s not going to happen with their timetable.  What’s more, as a part-time teacher, I had to balance being at home and answering prompts through student emails like, “Can you do this for me? Can you check that for me?” But it was wonderful to see how they totally drove the collaborative process. And then what they did was bring in what they had learned and what they’d found out.

They made links, with their suggestions going off like firecrackers… there was a feeling of fireworks. Bouncing ideas off one another was authentic … showing them what happens in the adult world as well as the classroom. For instance, the students were relating concepts and ideas of things like consumerism through the novel. They began to relate how the characters in the novel were so obsessed with what they were putting on their faces. Through this, they saw how the people in the story world didn’t have time to think about the welfare of the whole society.

Connecting mathematics and more?

There were quite a few connections they were making through Hunger Games that were notable.

One of the ideas they explored prompted me to send a letter home because it was quite risky. The letter advised parents that in studying Hunger Games, their child would be exposed to facing feelings of being ostracized. The exercise was voluntary, but anybody willing to participate had to understand what to expect. I went to the team of Year 5 & 6 staff and said, “Right, so how can we do this so that students have a true insight into being treated differently and segregated from others?”

We decided to base the situation around a group of students not being allowed to have the use of lockers. They also had to stay inside at recess and lunchtime, and prepare the room for the next class. So they had to do all these chores. 

I noticed that the kids developed quite an interesting buzz about them.

So I decided to push the issue further by turning it into a math thing. I wanted to introduce algebra by examining the possibilities and patterns of dispensing fairness. For instance, if you’re eight years old and you have two votes, and you have a vote every year, figure out an algorithm to find out if your family needed extra sustenance in the way Katniss’ family did? How is that fair? Is it okay to not be fair? 

We actually did an entire series of workshops where we looked at algebra and pattern making.

It was remarkable. I had students who couldn’t count past their fingers participating in the math. Sure, they needed more assistance and guidance, but they did it. 

Showing how mathematics is a core part of inquiry

I just went, “Okay. I don’t care what you think you know. Forget about the answer, I just want to know what you’re thinking. Let’s devote all of our energy to that and then worry about what comes out of it later.” 

So I kept them focused on,

“Don’t care about your answer!

I will never care about your answer.

We probably won’t even discuss the answer.” 

I continued to say such things especially in the face of children who didn’t believe me. I’d say to them, “Okay, just try me, but don’t ever bring a pen to my class. Bring a pencil instead!!”

In time, the kids were turning around and saying, “I’m going to algebra class now, everybody. I’ll see you later.”

Wow, this is algebra

You know, there was just such excitement of, “Wow, this is algebra.”

Some got it right away. Less confident children developed into more confident ones as their ability grew with every attempt.

The student that went from counting on his fingers to doing algebra is now in Year Eight. He’s studying science and mathematics at the John Monash School of Science. He’s doing mathematics courses above his chronological age. So this child went from “Oh, I’m awful” before we undertook algebra to figuring out logically how mathematically things fit together. He just had this idea that “Oh, that’s my worst subject” and by the end, he was very different.

It made that ethereal algebra, where you’re incorporating letters and numbers into something that’s tangible, that’s workable, that students saw applying to real life.

I applied the same approach to directing a student-teacher when he wanted to teach students how to calculate the perimeter of a square and triangle. “Well, that’s great, but why is it that way?” His response was “I don’t know.” So I drew the square, and I said, “Right, how do you find the area of this, base x-height, right? Okay, so then, how do you make a square into a triangle? Half the base times the height. That’s what I want students to see:  when you know why it is the way it is, you are not just plugging in numbers.

I was one of those students who was all right with maths up until a certain point, and then everything just got overwhelming. So I know how kids feel. 

I need to know them as people

The tension between teaching something and interacting emotionally with students is difficult to separate. Holding high expectations for an extremely vulnerable student really challenges your resolve.  Saying, ‘I don’t care where you’re coming from, you can still achieve so much’ is part of the tenacity I bring to teaching. What I’m really saying “Yes, I’ll help get you there. Come in with the right attitude, and I’ll help you get there.” I’m very upfront with the kids. It’s probably just part of the American in me, that I just don’t have time for nonsense, but that they know I love them.

Alongside my determination, however, I know that I need to know them as people, that I can learn with them.  That’s really what Amanda (not her real name) drove home for me. I had to know her and she didn’t let me in until I knew her as a person. She didn’t let me in until she saw I wasn’t gonna give up on her.

I imagine students saying to themselves,

“Don’t tell me that I can’t do something, just let me have a space in which I can try to figure out how I’m going to do it. If you tell me I can’t do something, why should I listen to you?”

You know, that’s probably one of the best aspects of working here at Wooranna Park. I don’t know if the Principal sees the kind of school he’s created. And I don’t often go into his room to tell him all the wonderful things that are going on. I just continue working in them, and if he hears about them, great.

Challenging a disconnected student

When I think of how Wooranna enabled me to work with Amanda (not her real name), I imagine her arrival in grade five, very disconnected, just looking out the window.  She really grated on me because I’m doing everything I can to try and get her engaged in the classroom. It was this fine line of irritation and what I noticed in the person before me. 

It was July and she was still not doing her work. She was just away with the fairies.

I’d known a little bit of Amanda’s background. I knew that she had been whisked away with her mother and her brother when the children were previously at Wooranna. And then all of a sudden she pops back up in grade five. 

Right, what’s going on?

I sat down with her many times trying to get through to her, and I’m like, “Right, what’s going on?”  Not surprising to me, she was very reluctant to open up. But I persisted.

You see, the girl was doing tally marks to count, and she’s only getting to five. What’s going on? Okay, there’s trauma. Where did she go? So I asked her what school she’s been to. She said she’d been to two or three different schools, and in that time that she had been told, “You can’t do this work.” And so, she was put with ‘the babies’. That’s how she described it.

So I worked out that she had been ‘streamed’ according to what teachers had perceived that she couldn’t do. Consequently, she had labelled herself, “I can’t do it. I’m out, I’m done.”

But then she ended up coming back to Wooranna. 

Amanda loved animals and I decided that I would use that fact as my way to relate to her. Passion led. It had to be that. I can’t worry about what she could write or what she could count. 

I had to work to get her to answer, “What do you want to do?” Not in any casual way but in the context of what I was doing with the whole class through our reading of Hunger Games: what could you do to make a difference in the world?

The provocation 

I’d heard on the radio that the RSPCA had a cupcake fundraiser coming up in August, so I feed this to her.

I said, “Well, what are we going to do for the animals?”  I don’t know, she responded, I’m going to make a poster.” “No, you’re not! You’re not making a poster! I elaborated on what I had heard on the radio about the cupcake fundraiser. Sell cupcakes, donate money to RSPCA.  “Does that sound like an idea you want to do?” Amanda added, “I can get my mom involved.” “Yes, please. Great. Wonderful.”

So we set off to create a plan. I prompted her to go and figure out how many people might want to have cupcakes. I asked her to figure out a recipe. We’ve got to figure out how many times we have to make the recipe. There was none of this, “Let’s learn your adding and your repetitive addition.” Rather, “How many batches of cupcakes are we going to make? How are we going to do this? How are we going to fund the materials.”

Mum’s involvement was crucial

By this time, Amanda’s mother had become involved. She then advised me “My mum’s going to take me to go and get the materials.” I’m so pleased. 

I hadn’t seen her mother very much at all and mum had a lot of other issues. But the mum wasn’t moving on the task either, she wasn’t doing anything. She was saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” but then not following through. 

Whenever I helped Amanda with the planning, I had to walk her through it, step by step.

We wrote out a letter to the school, that I started for her and she finished it. We then edited it together.

When we came closer to the day, it was clear that she didn’t have a plan. She couldn’t do the activity. The whole task was on a precipice, “I need you to do something, show me something, show me some effort, show me something. I know you want to do this. Let’s get there.” 

We got to the day that we were supposed to cook the cupcakes. The mother came in with the supplies but Amanda didn’t have any plan on how she would do the task. And so we all sat down, and I am close to saying, “Well, that’s it. We’re done.” I was really at that point. Amanda was in tears. I took a minute and I walked away. Mum consoled Amanda. I said, “I’m going to come back and you’re going to figure out what you want to do” And so I when came back, mum stepped in, and said, “Right, we’ll go and do this at home, and we’ll come back in.” 

Turning away from a sense of failure

RSPCA CUPCAKE DAY as a great mathematics task

Amanda’s blocker was not knowing how many cupcakes had to be made. She just had to try and figure out the solution to that problem. We had all of the surveys. She had surveyed everybody.

From that point on, with her mom committed to doing the task with her, she started moving. But by now it was the end of August. So I said, “Never mind the RSPCA deadline, we’re doing this next week.”

So I sat down with her and asked her “How much money do you want to make?”

She meekly responded, “Oh, I want to make $100 or whatever.” 

On the day in question, Mom brought some stuff down. She had been very ill and couldn’t walk very far: she had to take public transport to get to school. But Mum was now very committed. We got past all the blockages. Finally, we made and sold the cupcakes.

Collaboration as altruism

Amanda had a core group of classmates whose skills she could rely on, who helped get her to where she needed to go. There was all of this altruism going on in the classroom, and that’s an underestimation of what I was witnessing. It was just who the students were as young people. They knew Amanda needed help, and they offered to assist her in counting, collating and delivering the cupcakes. They also cooked them and did the washing up after it was all over. 

By the end of the entire experience, she had sold over $350 worth cupcakes.

Her mother had come in to help her. It changed everything … but not blatantly. It was just in who Amanda was as a person. She was finally able to stand in front of a group of people, which she couldn’t do before, and just say, “This is what’s going on, this is what we’ve raised, this is what we did.”

Allowing students to feel their power to change things

The completion of the RSPCA Cupcake Project transformed Amanda in a matter of two months. But then I gave her a further challenge when I said to her, “Your journey’s not ending. You’re going to go down to the RSPCA. You’re going to call them and let them know you have raised money for them. Rather than hand it over as an anonymous donation, you’re going to explain what you’ve done.”

It was October by then, and it seemed to take forever to have a school cheque drawn up because, once again, Amanda was blocked by the school procedures to act on her instructions. I explained “I want to know you have a voice. I want other people to know you have the voice.” So I sent her to speak for herself so that she would say she had the power to make a serious request of an adult.

Showing a student that she can get what she needs

There continued to be issues with drawing the cheque for the RSPCA with office staff where I actually had to tell Amanda, “You’re going to come against people who just don’t understand and you have to fight.” I was giving her this message multiple.

Despite it all, we got the cheque drawn up and I said, “Right, I’m going to pick you up at your house, on my day off, and we’re going down to the RSPCA.”

So I drop my kids off, one at school and the other one with the grandparent, and I went over to Amanda’s house. It was very confronting. The girl had a number of animals that she loved, but the house revealed a family in crisis. It gave me a glimpse of what she went home to every day, but the love that was there with her mother, even if she was physically and emotionally fragile.

Solving the enigma of failing students

Through the experience, Amanda seemed to grow in her understanding of what it meant to rely on somebody to support her, even though there were awful things at play.  However, I couldn’t tell her that I knew about those things. I could do just what we had done together in the classroom

Coincidentally, when we went down to the RSPCA, the receptionist informed us that she had attended Wooranna Park Primary School! The ensuing conversation made Amanda relax a little more.

When the receptionist called down the Head of Fundraising and presented the cheque, we got a personal tour of the facility. I could tell that Amanda wanted to get further involved so I asked how young people could become volunteers to look after the animals on site. We were told that they could come and cuddle the animals and help out.  I left the details for Amanda to work out with her mother in their own personal time.

Lost and now I’m found

I didn’t quite realize the impact that the experience had made on her until later on in the year.

It was around Father’s Day when I had a conversation with Amanda’s mother where she told me that she and Amanda had gone to newsagency to get a Father’s Day card. Instead of looking at the cards,  the girl went straight to the back of the store and picked up a math book and said, “Mum, I need to practice my math, can you buy me this book?”

The fact that the mum had such a moment to share off the cuff, told me that Amanda had changed, not just her skills but more so the belief in herself to do things she couldn’t do before. 

The next year, and I wasn’t even there at school that day, Jennie [Vine] told me that during reading a John Marston’s poem with the line “I was a sailor. I was lost and now I’m found”, Jennie asked the class “What does that mean?” And Amanda stood up and said, “I was lost and now I’m found.” 

Listen to the interview

The original interview was around 36 minutes. Here’s a section of it. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I was, speaking to an expert and committed educator who works tirelessly in supporting her students to become lifelong learners. The recording highlights how Anessa’s used The Hunger Games as a provocation of students learning algebra (11:51)

FROM HUNGER GAMES AND FINDING A CONNECTION TO ALGEBRA