Thursday, January 8, 2015

Why Make a List

I recently was in a class and watched a teacher do a very 'teacher-like' thing: he made a list on the white board. He had the students read a passage, then went back with them to pick out certain things from the passage that answered a question he had posed, and he then listed the responses on the board and he had his list. He stood and looked at it and looked at the students and said "There it is - there are the answers".

That is something we have all done. There is something comforting about a list, something that says 'we have done our digging and right before our very eyes is the organized result of that digging'. I liked his list and thought that the digging had been fruitful to this point - but then I wondered what he would do with the list, because if you don't do something with it, it is not very helpful at all.

When I was a boy we would go to Knott's Berry Farm and every once in a while would be allowed to pan for gold at the little attraction set up for that. The operator would give us a pan and show us how to dip the pan into the running water and sand and gently shake it to find the gold flakes. They would appear and then the nice man would put them into a little clear container with some sand and we could show the world that we had indeed found our gold flakes. We could take the container home and put it on a shelf and look at it. But that was all and after a short while it was meaningless. It would have been more meaningful to take the gold and create something, but there was never enough and even if there had been, who knew what to do with it?

Lists are like the little flakes of gold. Unless we do something with them they lose their meaning after a very short while. 

Making lists seems like a good exercise to help students dig but it is only the beginning of a good thing, not the end. The next question is what will you do with the list on the board? Here are a couple of ideas.

1. You could ask students to identify the most meaningful thing on the list for them and then discuss how each student sees it a little differently.

2. You could use the list to illustrate a progression in the thinking of the writer, to show how an idea goes from a starting point to a fully developed idea.

3. You could create the list at the beginning of class and then use it as the outline for your teaching, following point by point the lessons you want to highlight.

4. You could use 2 lists from similar passages to do some compare and contrast exercises and see how an author views things differently at different times.

I know that there are other things you could do with a list but the important thing is to do something with it. Otherwise, you just have a little container with unused flakes of gold. 


  1. Thanks for writing this! When you write on the board your back is to the class, and so you're a little less engaged with them; whatever you write should be worth the trouble!

  2. An excellent thought/practice no matter what you teach. Thank you!

  3. Really wish I would have read this BEFORE my class today... Facepalm...I totally looked back and admired the list we made!