Monday, November 9, 2009

Buying into Learning

I have been accused by some of overly simplifying aspects of education. I suspect there is an element of truth in that although I do think the work of a philosopher is to seek the truth and find out what is important and what isn't important If that be true then I submit I am guilty.

One of the educational "facts" that I firmly believe (you don't have to agree with me--it could be a fascinating discussion if you didn't) is that buying in to the learning activity enhances that learning. Do you remember the three ways of learning that I wrote about much earlier in this blog? There was the expository function which included but not limited to reading, writing, talking and listening. The performance function included such things as dance, singing, acting, and all sorts of doing. The investigative function was just that--learning from your experiences.

One of my contentions is that the performance and investigative provide more "learning" power then does just the expository. Having a teacher tell you something is good but figuring it out on your own is better. Hence the big debate in mathematics on whether we should teach by the expository mode (teacher tells, shows and the students do problems) or the investigative mode (teacher provides a problem and the students seek an answer), [an aside to my favorite math teacher--yes I know I overly simplified this explanation. Sorry.] will probably continue beyond my lifetime.

But let me give you an example of "buying into the learning" that I tried and failed miserably only to be successful in the end. I was teaching fourth grade in a suburban school district and we were suppose to "do" the Western Movement in the United States. I could at that time just tell my class to get out their Social Studies books and we would continue to read how the pioneers started on the east coast, then moved into the central part of the nation and finally through the Rockies and into the Pacific coast area. I was lucky--I didn't have to worry about Alaska and Hawaii not states at that time. Let's face it listening to a student in the class read three or four paragraphs about pioneers of which the kids had little inkling of what they were was boring. REALLY boring. It was an easy way to cover the material, notice I said cover not necessarily teach the material.

So I came up with what I thought was a smarter way of teaching the Western Movement. I asked the kids if they could bring in pieces of quarter inch plywood about 12 by 18 inches in size. My plan called for putting a map of the United States in the opaque projector and have them trace the outline of the United States on their piece of plywood. Then we would nail some small strips of wood for the east coast mountains and a slightly larger piece of wood for the Rockies. Then as a class we would take Paper Mache and cover the plywood maps with appropriate mountains, plans and coastlines. Where could I go wrong with this lesson plan? Let me tell you the ways....

First, getting the plywood was almost the end of the project. I had told the children we wanted scrap plywood, nothing good. And although I told them the approximate size, like many children they thought that if that size was good maybe something bigger would be better. So they brought three feet by five feet pieces of plywood. I finally said it had to go back--we had no place in the classroom to store all these larger pieces. Eventually we had the thirty six pieces of plywood and even then it took up a lot of space. We also needed the small fairing strips for the mountain ranges but since the sizes of the plywood varied, we needed different sizes of strips. One dad must have taken piety of a dumb teacher for he brought in four or five foot size pieces of wood suitable for using as support for the mountains.

I asked around about how does one make paper mache? I was given all sorts of advice but basically it was two parts flour to one part water. "Okay gang, we need to have you bring from home enough flour for your maps." My mistake was not to tell them how much flour. And I'm not sure all the kids asked mom for the flour--they just brought in bags. Open bags of flour. I had white colored kids, ghost, clothing and all for a couple of the children. They thought it was tremendous--"Mr. Blackwell had never done anything this good before."

One of my colleagues did mention that if I used paper strips, the paper mache was easier to work and I wouldn't need as much flour. So back to my kids--we need some newspaper. I think there were several families who didn't see the morning news--it ended up in my classroom.

Finally the big day. On a Friday before a long weekend (Monday was a holiday) we started first thing after lunch count. No spelling. That in itself was worthy of a holiday as far as the class was concerned. We started with each child with their plywood outlining the map of the united states with the opaque projector. Only a few had to turn the plywood over and start over. Some wanted to include Canada and some wanted Mexico. "No, just the United States-now pay attention!" Then I had several of the boys cutting the six foot strips into proper lengths. "You need TWO pieces of wood for the mountain support." "And don't forget to nail them." I remember going around the room having some of the children removing the strips--they were either in the Atlantic or the Pacific--talk about staying within the lines.

I also had children cutting up the newspaper into thin strips. After lunch we mixed flour and water and newspaper. As far as the kids were concerned this probably was the best part of the day. I had buckets ready for this part of the project and the kids mixed, "more water please" and "more flour quick," from all parts of the room. I have to admit even after all these years this was a low point for me. This was not going well. Not at all.

I eventually got all the strips nailed in the correct places and the paper mache was soon being put on their maps. A few had the Appalachian mountains larger then the Rockies. And there were a few mountains added for good measure here and there. "I wanted mountains there, Mr. Blackwell." I remember saying don't forget the Mississippi river and someone saying "I have to start all over." Oh dear. With thirty six kids it was a mad house to say the least. I spent much of the time just keeping control and the noise down to a pitch battle. The paper mache was all over the place, on the desks, the floors, some windows and definitely on every kid. But the kids were happy--this had been a great school day. I was not happy.

We cleaned up the room the best we could and left our maps drying on each desk. Tuesday when class would start, we'd colored our maps and draw the wagon trains tracks on our paper mache maps.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. Tuesday morning, after being told by the principal that the janitors were very upset with me, I headed for my room. I was several rooms away when I began to smell something. And it got stronger as I got closer to my room. I opened the door and the smell nearly knocked me over. It seems that no one had told me that you need salt in the paper mache mix to keep it from moulding. As I walked around the room holding my nose I saw several really good topographical maps with a nice coating of growing green on the mountains.....and in the plains as well. But the smell was overwhelming.

I was surprised that most of the kids were not that disappointed that we had to scrap all the paper mache stuff into the garbage--some even threw the plywood in as well. With the windows all open we soon cleaned the air. I will admit I was very unhappy with myself and the project. It just wasn't worth it. We'd go back to reading the textbook for social studies. Bummer.

So when social studies time came about I said, "Get your social studies books out--don't forget to clear your desks of other work." They were a good bunch of kids and they did just that. We opened to the appropriate page and started reading. EXCEPT, we didn't get a paragraph into the reading when someone wanted to know exactly where were the Blue Mountains--were they part of Appalachian mountains? "St. Louis was near the Mississippi river so they were already across part of the United States." I sat back and was amazed at the discussion that the class had on the western movement. Somehow all that paper mache had garnered more learning then I was expecting. Indeed, in the weeks to come more good discussions came out of the western movement for the class. "How far can you walk in a day?" "How much food can you take?" "There is no refrigerators on a covered wagon!" Somehow the kids knew more then what was just in our textbooks. Whether it was from discussions around the dinner table, from outside reading I'm not sure. But the kids were up to standards when it came to knowing about the western movement. I was pleased with them. All they wanted to know was when were we going to do another project like that one--that was fun!

I still think kids need to "buy" into the learning to learn. Doing is better then being talked to...or at. And my final word on this. DON'T FORGET TO ADD SALT TO THE PAPER MACHE!

And don't forget to thank a teacher. Their lesson plan might have gone awry and they need a pick me up.

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