Weekly Thought: Students Create Extraordinary Classrooms

by Patrick on March 14, 2011

Illustration of PatrickAny time I’m asked to reflect or write about what I believe about education, I always seem to talk about the class’s last project. No matter what we’ve been exploring, the work is so inspiring, I want everyone to know about it. The latest project my third grade class completed illustrates everything I believe about exceptional education: students interest and opinions drive the curriculum, schools should be hands on, encouraging students to work together, and parents and staff should collaborate to reflect work together to build a strong school culture.

I had just finished reading a book about Teddy Roosevelt. I was planning to have a brief discussion about his life. The students, however, had a different agenda. They discussed at length the environmental issue that would cause the conservation president to “totally flip out.” They decided to design, create, and open a natural history museum just like Teddy Roosevelt had when he was only nine. This museum would inspire people to love nature, teach them about Teddy’s life and inform them about environmental issues affecting us today. The Teddy Roosevelt Museum Project was on.

Within forty minutes the students had not only chosen a new area of study, they had also made a plan for the next month of school. Exceptional instruction has nothing to do with the ability to come up with a picture perfect products at the end. Its success is rooted in a students feeling comfortable and empowered to make decisions about what they learn, and how they choose to demonstrate their knowledge. Did you catch that?Student interests and ideas drive extraordinary classrooms.

The job of the educator is to connect as many questions and new insights to what the students are already brining to the table.

In one full swoop, we addressed standards in earth science and civic responsibility. In language arts alone we read for information, wrote essays, and spoke eloquently to our museum guests. Standards were not driving my instruction. They were the necessary tools of achieving our common objective. Like all learning should be, the topic was meaningful and relevant to the classroom.

The next five weeks was a whirlwind of planning meetings and curating our ever-expanding collection of prized shells, feathers and fossils.

We made dioramas and created two massive wall displays on his life. We built a gift shop in the corner, assembled a team of security guards and even had a group working on advertisement/publicity. A life-sized Hopi monument was built in the corner. Each day was different. Groups shifted and changed. The classroom was slowly becoming transformed into a real museum!

This project illustrates the importance of hands-on curriculum in education. When kids’ hands are moving, their minds are working. When students are building and creating, they internalize what the state standards expect them to, while also learning far more. They master how to work together with their peers. They understand how to share ideas, how to collaborate, how to compromise. They begin to understand who they are in the group and how they contribute to it. These are the skills that individuals need to be successful in the workplace and the social world.

I celebrate that their interest is high. That they’re learning, in a way that “tricks them” into learning. So often, kids are sent the message that schoolwork is laborious. I feel so happy that I’m able to teach in a school where we can infuse play into learning. It sounds frivolous to our auditors, to the state inspectors and the school board. It might even sound like that to parents who aren’t familiar with this type of learning. But I live it. I’m there.

I realize that the diverse opportunities that my students are given to learn enable them to internalize the content. It transforms them into life-long learners. It is an opportunity I wish for every student that goes through any school system in this country, or any other, but I fear it doesn’t happen very often.

My hope is that you join the movement. My hope is that the movement spreads, quickly. Because we need this kind of educational experience more than ever right now.