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!

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