My school does enrichment clusters, based on the research conducted by Renzulli and Reis. My cluster this time around is Natural Disasters, and of course the children asked immediately if we could build a volcano. They all knew how, and they all knew exactly what would happen. Even so, they wanted to do it.
Last week they built the thing out of sand and glue with a 16 oz. water bottle as the base. Fifteen minutes later I had twelve gooey hands and a table full of water to contend with, along with the expectant faces of children ready to witness the explosion. And
Fast forward to today. The paint came out so they could make the mountain look more realistic, and finally it was time for the eruption. The knowing voices chimed in: "Ok, let's put the water in. Do you think this is warm enough?" "How many drops of food coloring?" "What should we stir this with?" "Ms. M, can I pour the vineger?" "I want to put in the baking soda!!"
At this point I stopped the students. I had read about a different way to add the baking soda and I asked the kids if we should try it. One fifth grader was saying that all it was going to do was bubble over... we've all seen it 1,000 times. What was everyone so excited about? Let's just try it and see if it would make a difference. (I had no idea if it would or wouldn't.)
I explained the new process to the students and J got the scissors and kleenex. We made our little pouches, the kids popped them into the bottle, the requisite orange fizz started bubbling up and....
Orange spray EVERYWHERE! Two feet high, all over the table, all over our shirts, on the floor. Squeals of delight!
The custodians will NOT thank me for this stunt, I'm sure. And as for the parents, they had better hide their food coloring!
Last weekend some of my colleagues and I went to see the movie Water for Elephants. Three of us had read the book; two of my colleagues hadn't. We all experienced the movie differently.
Later at dinner we talked about reading. I am an avid reader. My shelves are full of books and I cannot walk into a book store without spending half of my paycheck. Seriously, I think I have problems. I use my library card to try to save money... and if I love the book I end up buying it anyway.
One of my colleagues said that she is so tired at night lately that she has been setting her alarm for 4:00 AM just so she can make the time to work through the book she is reading. She loves the book that much. Another colleague was shocked by this. She said she has never been so absorbed by a book. She has never stayed up all night to finish a book. Ever.
Never? The four of us were floored.
This particular colleague does not hold read-aloud as a sacred, untouchable part of her school day. Now I can see why. One who has never experienced a love of reading first hand cannot write it as a learning objective for students.
I've been thinking a lot lately about student engagement, because really that is the major piece that is missing in my classroom this year. It feels like a personal blow because engaging the learner has always been a strength of mine. Not so much this year. It seems that no matter what the topic, no matter how I present it, no matter what the activity... to the students it feels like gruntwork. They don't say it out loud, but the message comes across loud and clear. Our conversations lack depth and on some days it feels like I am pulling teeth just to get them to repeat the learning objective, or the instructions - let alone make connections to their personal experiences, to prior learning, or to the bigger world. Instead I hear groans of disbelief when I require a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, or when I take them outside for a science investigation and don't allow them to run amok. Their confidence level is almost nonexistent, and I know that contributes to their disinterest. It's almost as if some have given up on school altogether.
It is so disheartening.
There have been some moments of excitement, of course. Here are a few that we've had in recent weeks:
We are writing folk tales based on traditional Native American and African animal tales (Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears, How the Chipmunk Got Its Stripes). The students are publishing in the way that feels most natural to them, and there is a lovely productive buzz in the classroom during writer's workshop as some are rapping with Garage Band, some are designing comics, some setting the stage for their plays, and some choreographing dances.
I challenged them recently to turn the impossible into the possible, and they worked in teams to get across the gym without touching the floor with any part of their bodies. It tested their collaborative skills and their thinking skills, and though many felt discouraged their excitement and determination kept them engaged.
We are doing an author study about Chris Van Allsburg. I love his books, and have been reading a book a day aloud to the class. I started out by having the children sit back and enjoy his writing and added a new listening/thinking challenge each day. By about book seven or eight students were jumping out of their seats at the end of the story to talk about impossible happenings, time lapses, and themes.
Recently I began blogging with my students. They have been so excited about posting their thoughts online! When we're in the lab they are up and on one another's computers to show one another how to post and comment, and they are calling across the room, "I just commented on yours, can you see it?" "Ms. M, you didn't approve it yet, hurry up!" Some of the other teachers in my building have commented as well, and the students have been pleasantly surprised to find support in unexpected places.
I realize these are just small successes, and maybe the thinking should be so much bigger by now and the learning so much deeper. I guess for my own sanity I have to remember where we began as a class back in August and realize that while the successes are small, at least we have moved forward. Still I want so badly for them to LOVE school, and for them to see the bigger picture.