One of the most difficult concepts to teach middle school students is the idea of universality. I like to talk with students about universal themes in literature, and I’m always fascinated by how difficult it is for them to identify ideas that would cross generations or cultures.

I’ve tried letting students brainstorm, a guided brainstorm, and last year, I even resorted to handing out a list. No matter what though, it just seemed like a lost cause. However, I tried something new this year–partially serendipitous but also partially out of my refusal to just “feed them” what I wanted them to know.

We were reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, which turns 50 this spring. I’ve never taught the novel, so I was apprehensive that my students might not relate or that the slang would put them off. Nevertheless, I forged ahead, and I made a conscious decision not to mention the time period or anything about S.E. Hinton, which is a departure from my usual hook of an introduction.

It was risky because this is a book with a great hook–how many books are written by a student only a few years older than them? But, if anything, I am willing to take a risk to try to improve student engagement and understanding.

As we read, I heard even the reluctant readers talk about what was happening or telling me they were reading ahead. One student insisted that he had to watch the movie to make sure they “got the characters right.” This, in and of itself, is plenty of reason to use the book, but a really amazing thing happened that I was daring to hope for: authentic discovery.

After we finished the book, I asked them if it mattered that the book was written by a 16-year-old girl, fifty years ago (read S.E. Hinton’s impressions of such a raw book here). First, they were surprised, but they all agreed that it didn’t matter–the book was still valuable and they still loved it.

I asked them to figure out, in their Resource Groups, why something this old and outdated could be their favorite book this year (more about Resource Groups here). It was so exciting for them to come up with the idea that there are some experiences and ideas that everyone can relate to, no matter where they are from, or what their age is. When a girl in my third period class asked if there was a word for that, I almost burst into tears. Yes, as a matter of fact there is. It’s called a universal theme.

We then created a list–a real one, authentic to their experience this time, contextualized in a way to make it really meaningful–and they were able to understand what a universal theme is and how to identify several of them. This experience has left me wondering if teachers, me included, steal the joy of discovery in the process of trying to “cover” concepts and curriculum.

In my Project-Based Learning Classroom, when they are exploring their own topics, the discovery is there and that’s why they love it so much (read about PBL and discovery here). However, when I was working with a more traditional assignment, I failed to allow that authentic discovery because my goal was for them to be able to answer the final assessment question: “What universal themes are present in The Outsiders and how are they relevant to you? Choose two to discuss.”

This is a worthy goal, to be sure, but reflecting on this experience has made me recognize that even with traditional assignments, we need to allow the time and space for discovery with our students instead of the overemphasis on “covering” the content.

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