By Karla Hilliard
Background: Teaching can be a lonely job.
Ever have that stuck feeling? It’s just you, your brain, and some ideas that are either genius or ridiculous, there’s no telling which? Ever have the unfortunate realization that you are more or less constantly surrounded by teenagers and now regularly use the words Same!, Right?, and It’s Lit? Ever want to FaceTime the teacher downstairs after something weird or wonderful happens in your classroom just to know another living, breathing, available adult “gets it”? Ever have someone pop their head into your classroom to find you singing this:
Yeah, me too.
For this week’s Best Thing, I give you: COLLABORATION. It is truly the best.
I teach Honors English 10 and English 10 at Spring Mills High School in our brand new STEAM Academy. Because 20% time is our guiding principle for STEAM enrichment, we spend every Friday, periods 1 through 4 as an 82-person class with four content teachers – Biology, Mathematics, Social Studies, and English (that’s me) wearing many hats, some of them uncomfortable (like anytime I have to math).
Like most everything, we learn by doing. And designing and running this academy is no exception. Some weeks, we know exactly the thing to do – the concepts to scaffold to, the seeds to sow, the supplies to gather. Some weeks, we have no idea. The four of us gather in my room in our STEAM-centric flexible seating and throw ideas at the wall to see which ones stick.
During one recent meeting, not many ideas were making it to the wall and not much was sticking. We knew where we needed to go: hydroponic gardening systems. We knew what we needed to do: design a challenge that highlighted for students the parts of a whole. We Googled, we Pinterest-ed, we took stock of our supplies: leftover papier-mâché, a disassembled Homecoming float, various cardboard, straws, popsicle sticks, some spaghetti noodles, and standard bio lab equipment and classroom supplies.
We hemmed and we hawed, we thought and we discussed, we became frustrated and weary. After some time of this, we turned off the Google machine and tapped into the real power of collaboration.
We began with the basics – Where are we going? What do the students most need? How can we effectively design a challenge that nurtures and grows these ideas?
Suddenly, our bio teacher says, “What about Rube Goldberg machines?! You know, they can see how one action causes another and how each one depends upon the next for the machine to function as a whole.”
What happened was collaborative magic. It was one of the most organic lessons we’ve pulled off. The next day, all 82 of our STEAM Academy students were tasked with building Rube Goldberg machines in three class periods using only the supplies they could find.
Here are a few results of the challenge and four STEAM teachers’ willingness to fight the good fight:
Karla Hilliard teaches STEAM Academy English and AP Literature and Composition at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She has been a classroom teacher for 11 years. When she isn't teaching, you can find Karla hanging with family, cooking up a good meal, reading up on educational trends, crocheting soft things, or eating spoonfuls of peanut butter.
Karla serves as Executive Vice President and Head of of Secondary Affairs for WVCTE and she is a contributing writer at www.movingwriters.org. See what's happening in her classroom at www.hilliardsclass.com or connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.
Background: Parking Lot, Spring Mills High School
It was Monday. I was grouchy. I got out of my car, juggling my coffee, school bag, and lunch box.
“Good morning, Mrs. Salfia!” called a young lady dressed like the Statue of Liberty. Another student walked by me wearing a giant Uncle Sam hat and a fake white beard. Around me a horde of red, white, and blue clad students filed into Spring Mills High. One young man zoomed past me, his American flag cape flapping behind him. All around me were wild costumes and excited chatter. I looked around at the joy spilling into and down the hallways, and I felt my bad mood dissipating.
It was ‘Merica Monday, the first day of Spirit Week.
The Best Thing: Spirit Week
For you non-teachers, Spirit Week is the week leading up to Homecoming, and most schools allow themed dress-up days. For teachers, Spirit Week is a difficult time to get any real intellectual heavy lifting done, but I’d like to argue that for many schools Spirit Week is one of the “Best Things” of the year.
Here’s why I love Spirit Week:
So next time Spirit Week rolls around, and your knee jerk reaction is to grumble about loss of instructional time and changes to your schedule, try to see this week through the lens of a "best thing." As another way for us to reach our students, and get them to take ownership in their community, schools and classrooms!
And also, there's a chance you'll get to have an ancient Greek hero in class--which is never a bad day at work.
Happy Fall Everyone!
ByTeresa Shockey Campbell
Every summer I have the opportunity to refresh and renew as a school teacher. I am an avid vegetable gardener, and I would like to share with you how my garden is my field of dreams, and how it contributes to my constant motivation as a teacher...
Every spring, I plant green beans. My husband tirelessly cleans up, weeds, and then tills my garden for me. Then he goes through and makes tiny rows for me to plant my beans. I plant them all on the same day at the same time. They are quickly covered with soil and watered. Each bean gets the same amount of water, and each bean receives the same amount of sunlight. My husband continues to weed the rows for me as they grow into tiny seedlings, so that I can get my joy of reaping what I have sown. Interestingly, although each bean was planted at the same time, watered at the same rate, and received equal sunshine, when I go to pick, some beans just aren’t ready to be harvested.
I equate this to my students every year. While all of my students have received 9 years of education before they enter my class, not all of them are ready for the “harvest.”
Why is that?
Just like my beans, why are students, who have so many more variables in their lives than simple green beans, expected to be equal learners? And, how as an educator, can I transfer my knowledge of harvesting green beans to helping my students learn and grow?
Now, I go through each row of beans in the early morning when it’s cool and quiet. I tediously search the leaves of each plant and pick the largest, longest beans that I will later that day “put up” (my grandma’s phrase for canning and storing for the winter) for later dinners throughout the upcoming year. When I see small beans and tiny blooms waiting to sprout, I think to myself how they have not grown at the same rate as the big beans.
Do I just pick the good beans and move on? Absolutely not!
I go back in a few more days, with bucket in hand, and I check for the growth on those tiny beans. I will not let them go to waste. They will also be part of my harvest! I always can between 55-65 quarts of beans each summer. Just because a few beans are slower at developing, I will not let that shrink my canning numbers. It’s a process. It’s a long process. I don’t just plant and just pick – remember, these little fellas need rain and sunlight. If it gets too dry, I have to water them. When the weeds start to invade, they must be held at bay so as not to overtake my plants.
And just like my beans, teaching my students is that same long process.
I have to get the higher level achievers (big beans) ready to move forward, and I have to keep checking on my strugglers (tiny sprouts) to see what kind of extra help they need: extra time, a different passage to read, or a breakfast to eat to fill their tummies. When I keep adding these extra strategies to my classes and my students, I see growth, and they see growth. We are all encouraged to keep learning, to keep growing, to get ready for that harvest of the next grade!
This is my garden, my classroom, and my “field of dreams.” I hope you, too, will cultivate your classrooms into your own “field of dreams.”
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you reach the "big beans" and "little beans" of your classrooms? How do you teach all learners despite their varying abilities?
Leave us a comment, connect with us on Facebook, or Tweet us your thoughts @wvcte!
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