The Threads That Run Through: Understanding Conflict


At PDS we have outlined overarching themes for each grade level. First graders examine similarities and differences, and second-grade students survey connections. Third graders take a look at systems while fourth graders study innovation. In fifth grade students investigate perspectives, and in sixth grade we analyze conflict.

Conflict is at the center of every great story, both in fiction and life, and our most honorable heroes face animosity with courage, humility, and grace.

In our 6th-grade reading class, we look at conflicts in literature and in our world. We begin the year reviewing the four different types of conflict we see in stories. A character may have a clash with another character (Man vs. Man), or he may struggle in his own heart or mind (Man vs. Self). Sometimes a protagonist contends with difficult elements in the environment (Man vs. Nature), or he may stand against his culture or community (Man vs. Society). As we read, we find different types of conflicts and mark them in our books discussing them as we go. We also try to make connections between the specific conflicts we see in the text and those we see in the world.

Our assigned summer book Surviving Hitler contains many examples of each type of conflict. Our boys understand and connect with the story and it serves as a fantastic introduction to World War II and our 6th-grade social studies curriculum. In social studies, our boys explore major global conflicts in the 20th century asking “Is war ever justified?” 

While reading I Am David in the first trimester, we look closely at the man vs. nature and man vs. self conflicts David faces escaping the Communist concentration camp and fleeing to Denmark. The boys further consider man vs. self conflicts as they create their “I Am” projects reflecting on their own internal conflicts.

In the second trimester, we consider man vs. man and man vs. society conflicts. As an introduction, we look at primary documents examining pictures from the American Civil Rights movement. (Last year we visited the National Civil Rights Museum, but we were unable to do that this year because of renovations.) Then, we read The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. Most of the book focuses on man vs. man conflicts (Byron vs. everyone), but there are several man vs. society conflicts as well. After reading Watsons, we inquire into apartheid-era South Africa before reading Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg. With Jo’burg we focus mostly on man vs. society conflicts and investigate the lasting economic effects of apartheid.

The study of conflicts continues in the third trimester as the boys select from books that further our inquiry. During both the second and third trimesters, we also complete several small group projects. The projects serve dual purposes. First, they allow the students to show their understanding of the books in a more authentic–creative way. Second, it offers the boys the opportunity to work through real conflict. I rarely allow the boys to complete a project alone. They must work with a partner(s) on their project and hold one another accountable for the work as they go. I try not to interfere unless necessary. They must develop the ability to share ideas and collaborate. They must learn to give positive and negative feedback to their peers (via the Ladder of Feedback protocol).

Why do I want my students to understand conflict? I want my students to recognize different problems in the world and challenge the way things are. I hope that by better understanding conflict they will develop the character and determination needed to create change. Perhaps they will learn to engage problems and not flee from them, and hopefully, my students will learn to persevere through challenges to grow deeper and become more capable leaders. William Ellery Channing said, “. . . difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict (“Self-Culture,” September 1838). I hope my students develop resolve.

I’m still learning the best way to scaffold and design the learning activities to help my students develop a deep understanding of conflict–and I’m still working on teaching ways to resolve conflict into the class, too. Assessment of student understanding is a weakness, and I need to make changes moving forward. However, I’m pleased with the progress of the class overall. I need to develop and refine things further, but we are on the right track.

This is the last post in a series of reflections on the throughlines for my 6th-grade reading class. Check out the overview of the series or the posts on thoughtfulnessmaking connections, and student voice.