I was working with a small reading group of first or second graders the other day and we were reading a picture book of a boy and a salmon. He had been wanting to catch a salmon, but for all the hours he spent trying, he never caught a salmon.
And then, as things just happen to help the plot, a bald eagle dropped a salmon. Slipped out of its talons and just happened to land in the boy’s hole where he was digging for clams, which had a little bit of water, but not much.
While I read the story, I asked my small group whether they had gone clamming before. One student was able to describe his experience in vidid detail. I talked about my experience clamming on the East Coast and the difference between Razor clams and the one’s I dug for. Most of the kids didn’t have a clue what we were talking about and couldn’t imagine. Some had never been to the coast and had never seen the ocean.
Well, the boy realized that the fish was in trouble, and even though he had intended on catching a salmon and eating it, watching the salmon start to drown without water was unbearable. He had a shovel, but the ocean was quite a bit a way.
I like to ask kids to problem solve while reading. What would you do, I asked these first or second graders what they would do to get the salmon into the ocean. A few said to just pick it up and carry it to the ocean. I tried to explain the difficulty of picking up a large thrashing fish that has a whip of a tail. To top it all off, the salmon is in some water, so is still slippery. The kids in my small reading group couldn’t imagine this. Most, perhaps all, had never touched a fish or tried to carry a live one. Even little trout are slippery as heck; might as well be trying to grab a bar of wet soap. Most, if not all, of these kids probably have never seen a bar of soap now that disinfecting soap comes in squirts from a bottle. Greased pig metaphor did little to help create understanding.
Anyway, in the book the boy, the boy digs a channel from his clamming hole to the ocean and water is starting to come in to help the salmon swim back to the ocean. And then one of the students must have been reading my mind because he said, “why not take the shovel and dig the fish up into the shovel and run to the ocean?” I thought this kiddo was brilliant.
Earlier in the school year, I was working with fourth or fifth graders; they were working on a crossword puzzle, though it was more like one person would get the answer and give it to the rest in the group, which is not my definition of helping. There was one answer that was just throwing them a curveball. None of them could figure it out. The kids were expecting that the answer be identical to the text, but the text mentioned the word gas, but the crossword puzzle was looking for the word gasoline; the kids couldn’t figure out that gas and gasoline is the same thing.
How do we teach better problem solving abilities?