Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Day I Made My Whole Class Cry

- OR - 
Why what you see when you walk by a classroom isn't always the whole story.

A teacher peered through the tiny window on my classroom door.  Inside, she saw a group of fifth graders, all clutching tissues, sniffing and wiping away tears.  "Well!" she thought.  "Once again, Mrs. Clower has worked those emotional, high-strung gifted kids into a frenzy.  Wait until the principal hears about this!"  She charged off down the hall, righteous head held high, ready to report my failings as a teacher to whomever would listen.

Here's the thing:  appearances can be deceiving.  Would you like to know WHY my kids were crying in class that day?

Taylor and Hailey created a model of Hungary's St. Matthias Church.  Check out the tile roof!
The back story: 
What kind of teacher am I?  
My career as a military spouse provided me the opportunity to practice my teaching skills in a wide variety of locations and schools.  I've taught every elementary grade level, some middle school, worked with high schoolers, and even taught college undergrads (thank you, U.S. Air Force, for providing me with a long and interesting resume').

One of my favorite positions:  the Enrichment Coordinator at two elementary schools.  The Enrichment program (a name chosen to disguise the fact that we were pulling out the gifted and talented) was designed to provide challenges above and beyond traditional classroom work.  As such, it was up to me to design curricula (and provide a classroom setting) that would inspire my kids to become lifelong learners and to learn to utilize their talents.

(Oh my gosh, what a great job!)

I was hired for the position based on several qualifications, even with no previous Gifted Ed coursework:  I had good elementary teaching experience, I had excellent volunteer experience including being a Girl Scout leader and event organizer and a classroom volunteer in my children's GT classes, and I was volunteering and substituting at one of the schools which needed the position filled.  The teachers and principal could see my work ethic and classroom management skills, and knew that I could work well with the staff.

Gfited Students and Project-Based Learning
Gifted students often do not have to exert much effort to maintain grades and remember the material presented in class, and sadly, they often spend vast portions of their day waiting.  (Please note that I am in no way criticizing teachers; it's nearly impossible to meet every child's needs in a traditional classroom and teachers often feel compelled to focus on the lower-achieving students.  This is one of the many valid reasons for providing educational enrichment classes to gifted kids.)   My job, then, was to give the kids real challenges through the study of interesting themes, and help them choose research projects that would occupy their minds and require a great deal of effort.  In addition, I wanted them to have the opportunity to practice some real-life skills that they would need as adults.

Turns out, what I designed was a type of Project-Based Learning (one good explanation is here), which allows each student to choose a topic or theme to explore, create a project, and present the project to showcase his or her learning.  (I started teaching this way early in my teaching career in the regular classroom and have continued even in my library classes.  I do love helping kids work on projects. I appreciate the real learning that is involved, and the fact that each child can work at a level appropriate for him/her is a huge bonus!)

Skills we integrated into almost every unit, regardless of the actual project created:
  • public speaking (how to write a good speech; how to speak clearly and loudly, how to inject personality into your speech and be comfortable and even have fun with your audience, and how to effectively utilize visual aids during your speech)
  • graphic design (utilizing desktop publishing skills and traditional poster-making skills)
  • elements of a quality product
  • time management and planning
  • decision-making
  • working with partners or small groups
  • research and synthesis of data (including evaluation of sources, research and note-taking skills, organization, citing sources)
Do these look like skills adults use?  Are there any that you could use more practice on?  Consider:  What if you had been practicing these skills since early in elementary school?

And now, to the story of my crying kids.

Fifth grade, spring semester.  I've had these kids once a week since second grade.  They've worked hard for me during every unit:  creating an art museum full of Roman statues and a model of a Roman bath (the art museum had a fantastic display of Ancient Roman artifacts the year these kids were in fourth grade, so our unit choice was obvious), inventing new products, creating prototypes, and developing a sales pitch, and discovering the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly and experimenting with organic, non-representational art.

Something a little less academic is in order
They've been through the research, learn, synthesize, create, and present cycle numerous times, and we only have a few weeks of school left.  It's time for something a little less intense.  Their choice?  They wanted to learn some basic cooking skills.  (Cooking skills?  Okay, I think we can figure out some interesting lessons for a cooking unit!)

First up:  Knife handling in the kitchen.  The internet to the rescue!  We watched several different videos about how to safely and easily chop, dice, and mince.  (One of the best on knife use is at The Reluctant Gourmet; http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/chef_knife_skills_video.htm)  To safely supervise kids with knives, I divided the (already small) class into 2 groups:  one group went to the computers to research types of knives, their construction, use, cost, and care; the other group washed hands and got ready to dice and chop.

(This is one of the videos we watched before donning our aprons.  It's Cooking Coarse by Chef Todd Mohr at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiZr9cPPe1Q).

"The root end is our friend," we reminded each other as we diced our onions into nice, neat squares.  By the time both groups were finished, we had piles of diced onions, bowls of diced onions, bags of diced onions...millions and billions and trillions of onions.  The entire hall outside my classroom smelled of onions and we all had tears streaming down our faces.  We finally got all the onions bagged up (to freeze for use in next week's lesson) and I sent my kids back to their classrooms, holding tissues, sporting red, swollen eyes and still sniffling slightly.

To the world outside my door, the kids looked as though they had spent the entire enrichment class in tears.  Had they, in fact, been crying in enrichment class?  Yes.  Was there a valid educational reason for the tears that would not be readily apparent to an outside observer?  Well,  if you discount the wafting odor of onions, the aprons, the cutting boards, and the bags full of diced onions, I guess it's possible that you might think I was making my kids cry.  Sadly, teachers who are willing to judge harshly are also too often willing to disregard the evidence and will jump to (negative) conclusions.

My kids, despite the tears, were delighted with their new skill.  Several went home that very evening and showed their parents how to dice an onion.  It's a life skill, people!

 A "simple" unit becomes much more through collaboration
We finished our unit several weeks later by combining with the other fifth grade group, who had been studying countries and cultures.  We came up with the idea of "Eating Around the World" and created "restaurants" to showcase our learning.  My non-cooking class researched eating habits and typical restaurant decor in a country, while my cooking students researched and planned how to prepare a food to serve from the country.  Each country group built a "restaurant" in a corner of the classroom (separated by sheets hanging from the ceiling) that included tour guides, tables, placemats, decorations, and even "views out the windows."  (Vicky and Zoe spent days after school creating a scene of Venice for the Italian restaurant.  Nate and Riley took apart one of my bookshelves to make a low table for their Japanese restaurant, and even convinced their parents to take them to the local Hibachi place to take a lesson from the cook there.  Payton learned some French to properly greet her patrons.)  We invited third graders to come in, learn about each country, and sample a food from that country. 

Paris, anyone?

Third graders at the Hungarian "restaurant." 
Italian food and geography:  In addition to the mural (not pictured) the girls made a salt-dough map of Venice and a drawing of Pisa's Leaning Tower to show the kids, too.

Sigh...why is it even my simple units end up complicated? 

The answer:  Such is life with gifted kids who have been encouraged to push the limits and do their best work.  Disregard that sigh and instead, celebrate with me!  Here's to crying in class!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Invisible Worlds: Tide Pools

How cool is this Sea Slug?  Nudibranch from http://www.flickr.com/photos/minette_layne/3036620512/
I began both my teaching career and my married life on the central coast of California, which was a big change for this Montana girl. We lived on Vandenberg Air Force Base and (enthusiastically, of course!) began learning all about this new and different world.  While substituting at the local schools that spring, the principal at the school on base asked me to accompany the fifth grade classes on their field trip to Seal Beach. (I was grateful for the advance notice, because one dresses differently for a trip to the rocky beach than to impress potential employers!)  One of the science units taught every year in fifth grade was Ocean Life, specifically the creatures living in tide pools, and the field trip was the outcome of hours of instruction. 
Vandenberg AFB's Seal Beach, sometime in 1987.

My husband and I had been out to Seal Beach before, scanning for gray whales off the coast and watching the seal colony living there, but, unbeknownst to us, a whole world was waiting to be explored right under our feet.  

Why, yes, there ARE seals at Seal Beach!  And much, much more!
 Tide pools form on rocky beaches at low tide.  Water is left behind in crevices and holes, and an entire ecosystem inhabits these little ponds.  Constantly pushed and pulled by waves, creatures either cling tight to the rocks (starfish, sea anemones), swim, hide in holes (octopi), or glue themselves to leaves (sea slugs.)  Exploring a tide pool safely requires instruction (I would never have put my finger into a sea anemone and let it gently suck had someone I trusted not told me it was okay!) and these kids had been taught well.  They knew how to pick up a starfish, how to gently turn over rocks and what they might find, and how to carefully share their finds with others before retuning them to their homes.  It was a wonderful day for this coastal novice!

I returned home that evening and enthusiastically described our day to my husband.  Within days, the Audubon Field Guide to North American Seashore Creatures had made its way into our library, and excursions were made back out to Seal Beach, but we never had as much luck finding exotic sea life.  In fact, I’m not sure Andy really believed me when I would point to a picture in the field guide and say, “We saw this out here!” (The nudibranch above is a great example, although the photograph is borrowed.)

Our original, battered copy of the Tide Pool Field Guide.  (Note:  We haven't lived near an ocean since 1991.  Why do I still have this?  I just love reference books, especially field guides!)

The next fall, I was hired in a nearby district in a very small town called Orcutt.  New to the school, I told the fifth grade teachers that we should investigate the possibility of their kids taking their classes on their “Tide Pool Field Trip” to the pristine beaches on base.  “I live there,” I said, “and my husband works there, and I went on this same field trip last spring with the fifth graders at the base school when I was subbing.  It was fabulous!  We can make this work!”  (Whew, aren’t new, enthusiastic teachers exhausting?)  In previous years, this school had made their trips to beaches near Nipomo and Morro Bay, both tourist locations, crowded, with well-worn tide pools.  Because military installations are not open to the public, Vandenberg’s beaches are much more pristine and natural (in fact, this phenomenon exists on many military installations across the country.  Here in Oklahoma, for instance, Tinker Air Force Base is home to one of the few known populations of horned lizards.) The teachers agreed that if I could get permission and set up the trip, they would try taking their classes to Seal Beach.  A bonus for my husband and I – because we were the “sponsors” of the group, we “had” to be with them the whole time they were on base. 

What a day!  We saw such fabulous creatures, and learned how to find them in the future.  A trip to Seal Beach at low tide became one of our favorite activities for guests, especially those from landlocked states.  (Unfortunately, I'm finding that I didn't document our discoveries with photographs, except for the starfish above.)

Don’t have access to Vandenberg AFB?  You can find tide pools in many other locations.  Check this out! Yelp.com lets you put in a search term and a location.  Users add reviews, and results pop up in a map.  Try “tide pools” in the beach town nearest you and see what locations and suggestions come up.  Check out a field guide at your library.  Then go and explore!  

Screen shot of my Yelp search for "tide pools" near "Lompoc, CA."  Notice the big section of coastline running north/south between the markers?  That's where Vandenberg's private and pristine beaches are located.  Paradise.