Saturday, April 21, 2012

I Made it to the Weekend!

What a week it’s been! Monday professional development, Tuesday District math meeting, Thursday 54 students to the river for water monitoring, Friday 54 students into downtown Birmingham and in between all that two  class Skype sessions with our friends in Bear Creek Vancouver,  meetings with parents, a tutor session with another parent on the capabilities of Khan Academy and , oh yes, a smattering of teaching! Some of these things are unavoidable and some, no, many of these things are self-inflicted. I don’t know how I do it, but I do know why I do it.

The things that cause me the most stress in a week at school are oftentimes the things that I bring upon myself. Taking 54 students to the River Rouge requires extreme preparation and organization which happens before, during and after school. Physical testing bins have to be loaded with oranges, flags, tape measures, timers, thermometers, and meter sticks. Chemical testing bins have to be loaded with the correct testing tabs for phosphates, nitrates, pH, Dissolved Oxygen, Fecal Coliform, and B.O.D. Color charts, timers, thermometers, goggles, vials, foil, gloves, and distilled water are all required to conduct the tests. Benthic testing bins need trays, tweezers, magnifying glasses, identification charts, spoons, gloves, ice cubes trays and nets. On top of that add 12 tarps and 15 pairs of waders , it makes for quite a haul .Not to mention organizing the 54 kids into groups, training them to conduct the tests and complete the paperwork, transporting them there and back, all the time ensuring they are safe both in and out of the water. Why do I do it? These photographs answer that question.

Taking students outside of the classroom brings joy to both me and the kids. I’ve never seen them happier than when they catch a crayfish or spot a snapping turtle. Chemical testing in the classroom is nowhere as much fun as it is on a riverbank when testing water you have just scooped straight out of the river yourself. And measuring the speed of an orange as it bobbles in the current towards you as you’re standing in the middle of a river -well you just can’t recreate that in a classroom can you?
And two field trips on consecutive days what was I thinking? Friday was the culminating field trip for a unit about sustainability. Students have been studying how local businesses fulfill the needs and wants of the community and how they can be more sustainable. On Friday afternoon we dressed up as eco-clowns and descended upon downtown Birmingham armed with brochures, flyers, cameras, Flipcams, clipboards  and Larry ( the Trash Free Friday mascot ) ready to educate and inform the local business community. As I walked into a local beauty salon cold, with five students with green hair and clown wigs I had a moment of complete confusion about what I was doing. As soon as my students began to speak it became clear. Despite their own nerves, they were so articulate about their learning and were true ambassadors for their school and class. When they were turned away they thanked people for their time, picked themselves up and headed into the next business with just as much enthusiasm as before. Fifty four students managed to hand out over one hundred brochures and post ninety flyers in windows about their project. By the time I got home I had already received an email from one of the businesses requesting a spot on our honor roll. Why do I do it? Because on Friday afternoon my kids made a real difference in their community and had a great time doing it.

At the beginning of this post I said I didn’t know how I do it. That’s not true. I manage to do these crazy wonderful things because I don’t do it alone. I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who are equally as passionate about kids having authentic learning experiences as I am. My amazing Skype partners in Vancouver, Monica Noakes and Natalia Russo, are patient and persistent as we struggle with technological issues. They are tolerant when I go missing in action for a few days and they understand that sometimes learning is messy. My science team mate , Tammy Brown, is an organizational whizz kid and is right there by my side before and after school loading bins, folding tarps, counting oranges and checking that I don’t forget anything , thereby ensuring the success of my Rouge trip. My partner in crime, Rick Joseph, is flexible and open to any outrageous suggestion I make. He is the yin to my yang and always has my back, covering my weaknesses and playing to my strengths. Most importantly I have a truly outstanding parent population. There is absolutely no way I could make these experiences happen for my kids without their support. They unfailingly volunteer to join us no matter what the request, taking time out of their busy schedules to support us, contributing immensely to their children’s education. Thank you all for not only helping me do my job, but for helping me love my job.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Thinking Inside The Box

I foolishly attempted to clean up my classroom during my lunch break last week and time ran away from me. I dug out five huge washing machines boxes that I had been hoarding  for months, sure they had some useful purpose .They were scattered around my room for me to ponder upon that purpose when my fifth grade math class arrived, and that’s when a possible purpose became apparent.
The students immediately asked what they were for, thinking I had some cool activity planned for them and rather than being disappointed when I explained I didn’t, several of them excitedly asked if they could work inside the boxes! Curious, I agreed and watched as the kids organized time allocations and order of rotation. Within minutes I had a room full of boxes of kids! Some students paired up while others climbed in alone with cushions and stools. Some boxes had legs hanging out, some had heads sticking out some were completely closed in. I was fascinated and interested to see whether kids would be productive or merely amused and distracted by the novelty of it. Sure enough, the majority of students who opted to work inside the boxes were highly productive.
Intrigued, I asked the kids why they liked being inside the boxes and answers included being able to close out distractions, getting comfortable and being in a darker environment. I thought for sure this must be a fifth grade thing but was amazed when my sixth grade math class did the exact same thing. I knew there was something more to this when a sixth grade student clambered out of the box to check if he had completed a problem correctly. I constantly have to remind this child to show his work and when I asked him where it was he told me it was in the box. I asked him to go get it and he explained that it was in and on the box. He had scribbled his work on the inside of the box!
I flattened the boxes when the kids went home but the next day they ran in asking if they could work in the “learning pods” and the “think tanks” again!!And it certainly made me stop and think. We increasingly ask our students to be creative and innovative, to dream, discover, and design. As I reflect on my own creative process the physical space I inhabit plays an important role. Here I am typing behind closed doors in a quiet space. I frequently get ideas when I’m walking or swinging on my patio chair or reading. I find I’m at my most creative when I’m alone, and once I’ve had time to formulate my own thoughts I feel confident to share them  articulately with colleagues to facilitate a more meaningful discussion.
As we rethink and redesign teaching and learning to meet the needs of the 21st century student, we also need to rethink what a classroom looks like. Technology has enabled us to provide students many choices in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. Our classrooms also need to provide choices in terms of “learning spaces”. Sitting on stools under harsh fluorescent light may work sometimes for some kids but I’m now convinced that I need to provide some alternatives. I’ve always had floor cushions and carpet space but I’d like to provide more options to help create an environment where creative juices can flow freely. I asked the kids what environment they would like and it certainly got those juices moving. They dreamed of spaces that offer solitude and spaces that facilitate collaboration, indoors spaces, outdoor spaces, bright colorful spaces and darker muted spaces, quiet spaces, lively spaces; spaces that allow movement, spaces that allow stillness.
When we talk about 21st century tools a big old empty box isn’t the first thing that comes to mind but the boxes themselves have inspired a torrent of creative thinking in my room. Students have asked to paint them and install them as permanent features. Who knows where this will take us, hopefully to the creation of a workplace that inspires imagination and the discovery of new ideas.