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When we were about to officially start our investigation of energy, I decided to ask the class a single big question: “What is energy?”

In preparation, I looked around the classroom to take an inventory of materials that might eventually be useful. A few years ago, I would have grabbed all of the materials and then hunted for even more books in the library; I would have filled an entire book display, hoping to tempt the class to read and uncover the facts I wanted them to know. That worked okay. Sometimes the children would look through the books and glean a few ideas, but mostly they liked to quickly peruse the pictures and then set the books back on the shelf. I found the deep potential of the books lay wasted on the shelf.

And so, as a teacher-researcher, I was curious about how to better use print to support our investigations. Now that I was trying to help children construct their own understanding, my strategies as a teacher were beginning to change.

I knew I had to be careful. I wanted to know what resources we had, but I also wanted to keep them scattered around the room like hidden treasure, buried and waiting to be discovered by determined children.

We had a set of science reference books that sat on our shelf virtually untouched. They looked a little old and unexciting, but I knew that the information contained in those books was valuable – both because they were very thorough, and because they were written at a level that was, with a little work, accessible to a third grader.

In order to help myself think about big ideas related to the topic of energy, I grabbed the book about energy off the classroom shelf and read through the table of contents and a few key pages. It was a good reference book. Sneakily, I tucked the book away in a stack of teacher resource books in order to hide it from the children. I was launching our big investigation the next day and I did not want there to be any easy answers. I wanted the children to wonder first. I would use the book, just not yet. It was too soon.

And so we started. “What is energy?” I asked. Everyone thought they knew… until they had to write an explanation. Suddenly seeds of doubt crept into their minds. “Energy is… at least I think… well what about… actually, I am not sure!”

We began to share our ideas as a class, as a group of thinkers. The more we chatted, the more ideas were sparked but mostly it was questions that found their way to the forefront of our minds. When the conversation ended, our wonderings far out-numbered the things we felt we knew.

As we continued our journey, I pointed the children away from books and towards themselves. We searched for examples of energy in our everyday lives. We took trips to the forest to ponder the role of energy in that space, and visited the middle school to see their projects about energy. All along we theorized, trying to answer our own questions with evidence from the world around us. And we also started asking questions. One question would lead to another and soon we had pages and pages of questions. “When you first asked us about energy,” one child explained, “I thought I knew what it was. I thought the question was easy. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know. And the more I figure out, the more I wonder. I am starting to collect a lot of questions.”

Yesterday, I finally sifted through the stack of books on my desk and pulled out the science reference book that I had tucked away over a month ago. I was wondering if it was time to put it in the hands of the children. As I looked through the pages, something remarkable began to happen. I was poring over every page. I found single sentences to be profound. I felt that we could spend a month thinking about one sentence and the pages were full of them! I wanted to share the book with the children, but I spent an hour trying to decide which page was right. Each one seemed to confirm our theories or answer our questions. Each page seemed like the most valuable -- until I turned to the next to decide that it must be the most valuable page.Treasure, indeed. I had always thought the book was a solid resource but now, in my mind, its value had multiplied.

This morning I showed them the book and casually read through the table of contents like it was no big deal that at least half of their questions could be answered in one section or another.

The children gasped with excitement as I read section titles like “electromagnetic energy” and “energy in chemicals”. I asked who might be interested in a photo copy of certain sections. They raised their hands as if they were going to burst.

“I am going home and asking my mom for that book!”
“I want to read it SO bad!”

“Instead of making photo copies for me like the rest of the class, can I just be the one to have the whole book since I pretty much am going to read every page?”

I could see their eyes widen. I could see their brains salivating. They were so hungry for the information contained in that book. I knew some children were being a bit over-dramatic, but I could tell that the interest was genuine. And best of all, they didn’t need me to convince them of the value of this book. They knew.

I watched one child, who had finished her work early, steal the book off into a quiet, almost secret corner of the room to devour the contents. It was so different from years past, when they had more resources than they cared for, right in front of them, just gathering dust on the shelf. This year, a single book was more powerful than all of my collections in all of the past years combined. So what had changed?

It seemed as if not feeding them for a while let them build up an appetite. The scarcity of easy answers left them with no choice but to power up their own brains. They were asking questions they really wanted to understand. But the funniest part of all was that my sneaky plan had worked best on myself. I was right there alongside the children asking and thinking with them. Maybe my genuine engagement had something to do with theirs. In the end, I knew where the power of this experience was rooted; we were experiencing the power of wonder.

About the Author: 

Andrea was drawn to Sabot at Stony Point by the school’s respect for children’s interests and ideas, by the opportunities for students to make connections between subjects and disciplines, and by the ties to nature that the program fosters. She used to dream of starting her own school, but no longer needs to now that she’s found one that matches her own vision! Before joining our faculty in 2009, Andrea taught first and second grade for three years in Utah. She holds a dual Bachelor’s degree in elementary and early childhood education from Brigham Young University.