Gifts: A Reflection on Student Thinking

By Elham Kazemi, Co-Author of Intentional Talk and Professor at University of Washington 

“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 25

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, has given me a lot to think about. Since I picked it up this summer, I find myself going back to it again and again. Kimmerer writes about Indigenous wisdom and our natural world. She is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at SUNY,  and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Braiding Sweetgrass is a book to be savored and read and listened to many times over. Each chapter in the book is organized by the teachings of sweetgrass first and foremost and then by many organisms and plants in our natural world—strawberries, maple trees, water lilies, and so on. In the chapter called “The Gift of Strawberries”, she writes about the wonder and generosity of spirit she feels whenever she comes upon a field of wild strawberries. She explains, “Strawberries first shaped my worldview of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward, you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery—and as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source. ”(p. 24-25).

I think about the way I found joy in learning about children’s mathematical thinking and experience and was ever-changed by a chance meeting with Megan Franke. In my first graduate school class, I was assigned to meet and introduce Megan in a proseminar about educational research. As Megan shared the tenets of Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) in that graduate seminar, I remember being in awe that teaching could be all about listening and learning from children’s ideas and experiences.

Since reading Kimmerer, I have been thinking about children’s willingness to share their ideas as gift-giving. What do we, as teachers, do with the gifts children freely give us every day? I have been thinking more deeply about what it means to receive these gifts. How can we be “open-eyed and present” as children share their gifts with us?

Kimmerer describes how the field of wild strawberries was her childhood playground, retreat, and classroom all wrapped up together. She talks about experiencing all that the fields gifted her and that she tried to give back to the strawberries by weeding the ground so they would find more fertile soil for their runners.  She then writes, “Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate” (p. 25).  In the classroom, when children gift us their ideas, what kind of relationship do we establish with them? How do we reciprocate?

Let me share another passage from her chapter on strawberries where she made me think further about reciprocity:

“It’s funny how the nature of an object—let’s say a strawberry or a pair of socks—is so changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity. The pair of wool socks that I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy. I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine. I hope so. But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the politely exchanged, ‘thank yous’ with the clerk. I have paid for them and the reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money. The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange. They become my property. I don’t write a thank-you note to JC Penney.

But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift? That changes everything. A gift creates ongoing relationship. I will write a thank-you note. I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious grandchild, I will wear them when she visits even if I don’t like them. When it’s her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return. As the scholar and writer Lewis Hyde notes, ‘It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.’” (p.26).

I have come back to this passage and reflected on the way I have come to understand young people’s thinking and experiences in classrooms. If children are willing to freely share their ideas with us, then we enter into a particular kind of ongoing relationship with them, and one that I would hope is worthy of the gifts they give us. Children would expect us to attend to their ideas, to appreciate them, to help them listen and take in each other’s ideas. I would want the “feeling-bonds” that would be created as a result to be one of respect and curiosity for their brilliance. I would hope that we would be judicious in our use of instructional materials and our engagement with learning standards to continually reciprocate children’s ideas and experiences, to follow their lead, to encourage them to keep asking questions, to keep seeking.

What I most want for our children is to find school a place where they are known, seen, and heard and where they come to know themselves and others through ongoing, reciprocated relationships.

Next Steps

Listen to Elham Kazemi and other math education experts as they discuss the importance of student thinking in math instruction in the webinar: Experience IM K–5 Math™: A Focus on Student Thinking. In it you will also learn how the curriculum supports teachers to understand and listen to student thinking.