In teacher Kim Renneker’s third grade classroom at The Hill School, every Tuesday throughout the academic year is cause for celebration.
It’s not a holiday. It’s not a day with no homework. It’s not a lunch break when there’s plentiful pizza for one and all.
Instead, it’s simply a time dedicated to a class project known as “Let’s Celebrate,” when, once a week, a different student in the room stands up in front of their classmates and talks about a journey they are experiencing in their lives.
Renneker explained, “They can share about a musical journey by singing a song, share about their journey as a writer or a poet, or demonstrate another skill they are learning, practicing, or enjoying. In the past, students have shared journeys involving sports, dance, cooking, sewing, riding, or travel. They set up posters, they do videos, sometimes they bring in a live animal, anything that will help them share their journey.”
We think this is a wonderful validation exercise. Children enjoy sharing about themselves and benefit from an opportunity to practice public speaking skills. They also have a chance to answer questions and explain in detail about themselves. It is so much fun to learn about each member of our community.”
Renneker is a Texas native and a long-time teacher now in her second year at Hill. She started “Let’s Celebrate” last year based on a similar program she used at another school. The children draw straws to determine the presentation schedule, and later in the year, several other teachers and administrators come to her room to celebrate their journeys, as well.
She continues, “The program is designed to provide a fun, celebratory way for kids to learn about one another, find inspiration in others’ journeys, become comfortable with public speaking, and take away lessons from each story we hear. But, a bit below the surface, we are purposefully exposing students to themes and habits of mind that will serve them well throughout their lives.”
Last year, one student talked about her love of sewing and brought in the pillow she’d been creating. Another did a journey talk on how important music was in her life and said that one day she hoped to be a music therapist. Another student and her family had recently moved from a suburban setting to a nearby farm. She brought in goat milk soap, goat milk brownies, and a dessert made from berries picked on the property.
The farm experience was new to her family,” Renneker said, “so she had a lot to share about the expectations of what she now had to do. She talked about her daily chores, taking care of animals, planting flowers. And then the children asked questions.”
And not just any questions.
Renneker divides queries into two types—thin questions and thick questions.
The thins are easier to answer, maybe even with a yes or no response from the speaker. The answer may be a fact, or it may clarify some information. It’s who, what, why, when, where, how much?
The thicks are more complicated, requiring conversation-encouraging questions. There may be more than one answer and the responses may be complicated, with many more details necessary. They could begin with “What if…?” or “Why did…” or “What happened when…?”
Said Renneker, “a thin question might be ‘When did you learn to ride?’ or ‘What’s the name of your horse?’ The thick questions might ask about the goals of their journey, why they chose that particular journey, or how they felt when it was happening.”
“We use the question and answer session at the end of each journey-talk to discuss lessons from that story. This also allows us to reinforce important habits of mind in the students. We talk about being life-long learners, having goals, and the practice of thinking about the next step you can take, even if it is a small step, toward accomplishing your goal. We help the children view setbacks as a normal and valuable part of growth.
One student shared an informative journey-talk about fishing. He taught the class about fly fishing, trolling, cast net, and deep-sea fishing from his many fishing adventures with his grandfather. His advice? “Patience, don’t give up; there are always things you don’t expect. Enjoy the surprises that always come along.”
And another child said she wanted to be a writer and wrote a paragraph for the class about her pet bird.
It went like this:
I awake to the cawing of Basil, my pet bird. ‘Ugh! Basil!’ I groan, clutching my pillow in front of my face. Basil doesn’t take my request. Instead, since she is a mocking bird, she shrieks. ‘Hally, Jaqueline isn’t getting up!’ She pauses, then starts chatting again! ‘Basil is very cute and loving!’ I roll my eyes. Basil can be so annoying sometimes.”
Such wonderfully evocative writing from a third grader?
Let’s Celebrate” for sure.