Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bulletin Boards

When I first started teaching at the intermediate grade level after having taught elementary music, I was assigned a classroom in a new elementary school that at the time was quite innovative.  It had a number of large circular buildings divided into four classrooms with restrooms in the center of each building.  No halls to clean or heat, each classroom had a door to the outside which had covered walkways.

In each classroom were two walls, one was covered mostly with a blackboard, the other wall was composed mainly of some sort of soft wood quite accessible to thumb tacks, pins and staples.  It was considered by the principal to be the classroom bulletin board which he wanted filled all of the time.  The outer wall was curved with mostly windows.  

I was not a good bulletin board person.  I did not have the creativity nor the inclination to spend a lot of time putting up material.  At first I let the kids in my room put their papers up but my principal wanted sometime more and let me know his desires.  Now this so-called bulletin board was about ten feet tall by about twelve to fifteen feet wide.  By my standards it was a royal pain in the...but I had an idea.

The class was studying in Social Studies the wester expansion.  Starting with the original thirteen states the class was to cover the migration westward until we hit the Pacific ocean.  In my day (I dislike that phrase but it is appropriate) Alaska and Hawaii were just entering statehood so our textbooks did not mention them.  I also had the assignment of teaching geography, mostly of the states, rivers, mountain ranges, etc.  Sort of fun, actually.

But the bulletin board was nagging at me.  So I decided to cover the entire wall with butcher paper and cover the paper with a large map of the United States (I can't remember if we put up Alaska and Hawaii--probably but I cannot be sure).  But how to do it was somewhat the problem.  I could borrow from the janitor a stepladder so both the kids and I could staple the paper right up at the ceiling.  Not a big problem.  But how to get the map drawn was the problem.  I thought about making a transparency for the overhead but that meant I would have to copy a US map onto a sheet of paper and then go into the Intermediate School district to make the transparency.  This meant a lost Saturday and driving into Seattle proper.  

What I finally decided was to ask several students who lived within walking distance to the school if they would be willing to come back after dinner and help me draw the outline of the United States and the individual states.  When the class found out about my evening project at least half of them wanted to come. "Mom will drive me here and pick me up!"  But I stuck with my original four or five walkers.  The reason for the night work was that the opaque projector just didn't have the power to project that far during the daylight hours.  Even with the lights turned off we couldn't darken the room enough to see the outline.

So one night I went back to the classroom, got out the opaque projector and by placing it just outside the entrance door, we could see the outline covering the entire wall.  When the kids came, I handed them a black felt pen and turned them loose on a section of the map.  It was just an outline of the country and then the outline of each state.  No rivers or mountains or names of the state.  That turned out to be the right thing in the long run.  Brilliant even thought it was not planned.

So there I was with a map of the United States covering my entire so-called bulletin board.  The class was enamored with it and we had fun guessing which state was which.  I was good with the east coast states but most of the kids had traveled during the summers and knew the west coast states better then me.  Talk about delight when a kid can beat their teacher at getting the right answer. Did I make mistakes on purpose?  I'm not telling and I'm sticking to this story.

I also assigned a state to each student to research, write about, and eventually give a talk to the entire class as to what their assigned state was all about.  But I only had about thirty five kids that year (I later had over forty kids in my classroom) so we had a few states to spare.  I gave the class some guidelines as to what they should be looking for for information about "their" state.  Population (this wasn't important to them--numbers that large had no meaning), cities, rivers, ports, agricultural areas were also good subjects of interest.  History of the state and state flag was also to be on a lookout.  Then I said I'd give bonus points for who were the native Americans that lived there before the western movement.....things like that.  The kids ate this stuff up.  My one set of old World Books did yeoman work.  The "N" volume got the brunt of the assignments.  As the kids "found out" about their state, I began to have them post notices, pictures and such onto the state with thumb tacks.  I got groused at in the office for using two boxes of thumb tacks--they normally only gave out a half a box to each class!  

My principal was still not happy but he really couldn't complain.  I did cover up my bulletin board--it just didn't fit his sense of what a bulletin board was suppose to be about.  And I suspect his comments about me in the files probably said I didn't cooperate all the time.  But I have to admit that the kids and I learned alot from our bullitin board map.  

Would I do it again today?  Nope.   In todays world I would assign a state to each of my kids and then have them do a section on a class web page.  But using this method I would have to be a bit more organized.  Because information about each state is so huge the class and I would have to decide "which knowledge is of most worth."  Now the kids would have to pick and choose.  Is this video of something worth that much gigabytes?  Does this picture really say something about my state?    This is all good stuff on how to learn.  And, yes, I would have the kids do some sort of an electronic presentation to the class about their state--powerpoint here we come!  What would I do with the extra states?  Assign them to some of the faster students in the class. They might complain but I doubt it.  This sort of learning has great enjoyment to it.  I suspect i would hear a lot of "...look what I found!" and groups of children going over to see what's new.    What would be difficult for me about all this?  How do I test the entire class on the Western Movement, knowledge of the states, geography, history of the states and so on.  Lots and lots of material to cover.  I don't like to test but I do need some sort of a base line.  How did I do in teaching this stuff?  What should I do differently next time?  How can I improve and become more efficient?  You get the picture.

And what about the damn state tests measuring all the kids?  Do they test the knowledge of how my kids put together their presentations?  Does the state test measure the enjoyment of learning that I think my kids would have in doing this assignment?  

I did this project for a couple of years.  Highly successful.  It is interesting that I learned as much as the kids did each year.  By the way, the entire class had to do the State of Washington, our home state.  By the time we got to it, the kids were skilled researchers and ferreted much more information then was in our textbooks.  Some parents also got involved as many had lived in different places within the state.  My kids were delighted.  I would also like to try something different by letting two or three girls do their states together.  Girls learn better in a group according to the research.  I'd like to give it a try.

I'd like to thank my principal from those days for egging me on in covering the bulletin board in my room.  It wasn't what he wanted but it turned out to be a good thing for my class.  They were great kids.

And thanks to all those teachers (who are now probably retired like me) who shared their ideas with me so I could do a better job of teaching.  That won't happen if we have merit pay.  But thanks all, you were great.

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