"Mr Robertson, can I google what Shiloh looks like?"
"Huh?" (side note: "huh" is a much more common teacher response to student questions than we admit, and for good reason- kids ask bonkers questions sometimes)
"For the project, we are making Shiloh and we want it to be right."
This is where that Flow Chart Of Responses that lives within every teacher's brain lights up. What to say, what to say. Can't go down that path, never go down that path. This one? Hmm, perhaps clarity is required.
"Shiloh is a fictional dog, the story is made up. He doesn't exist."
"Right, but what does he look like?"
This, at its core, is a reading comprehension problem right? Which still makes it my problem, which means I still need to teach it. The student could, in theory, google what Shiloh looks like. Google will kick back the cover of the book, which has a picture of the titular dog on it (along with a boy that looks like a young Matt Smith). But that's not actually what the dog looks like, is it? That's the nature of a novel, you never really know what anyone looks like, even if the author wastes a bunch of words telling you what a character looks like. We, as readers, learn through reading or are taught explicitly that it's our job to help paint the picture. A novel is a cooperative effort. We are constantly filling in the blanks. That's one of the reasons movies based on books can be so frustrating- no one looks right! Another, bigger, more mature reason is that the studio ruins a perfect piece of literature (looking at you, The Dark Tower which was perfectly cast and terribly written).
My job then is to help the student go through the book and find the parts where the dog is described at all. Maybe a breed is mentioned, or a color. We can google those things. She can be as specific as possible without literally googling the fictional animal.
OR...Don't know what a beagle looks like? That's ok, neither did Charles Shultz, didn't stop him. Draw what was in your head. I help the student overcome her concern about her drawing skills (or skillz, as none of the kids say). I stress that the point of the assignment is not a photorealistic dog but that her finished product in some way represents what she thinks is the most important part or main idea of the story.
But Doug, some of you say, you should give her greater choice and then she won't have to draw at all. Reader, you are seeing one assignment of hundreds, and limited choice allows for great growth when presented properly. She can try to draw the dog this time, and in that struggle learn.
When my students ask to google things like this, things that should have grown in their heads, I tell them no. Google is not the fount of all knowledge. Use what you have first. Give me something else that you need to look up. If your students are anything like mine they could spend hours looking for juuuuust the perfect picture and then what? If you're a student I had one year, then you put your paper up to your Chromebook screen and start to trace with a very sharp pencil until your blue-haired teacher catches you at the last possible second and stops you. True story.
I get to teach my kids to trust themselves and to read deeper. Some of us haven't developed the ability to make a movie in our minds as we read. That's taught. We can't just assume that kids will do it. I've taught enough years to know that when I say, "You know how when you're reading you can see the book in your mind, almost like a movie," I've got a bunch of students with a look on their faces that says "Nope. No, I do not know that. I see words." Then I get to help them find the books that can be their movies. And I get to help them visualize and create those worlds. It's not enough to say it. It's too easy to reduce teaching to simple things like that. If I'm passionate enough about learning and make the room learner centered then learning will just happen. No, we are intentional. We are professional. Ve haff vays ov makink you theenk.
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.