Call me crazy, but when I have 40+ students gathered together in my primary classroom for an afterschool club, I am happy. These kids, ranging from Kindergarten to 7th grade, are generating high levels of excitement about their shared interest- gardening. Our school has a school garden, created back in 2008. The garden has experienced hundreds of students and their siblings come in to get dirt under their nails and come out with fruit and vegetables to share with family members. If you mention worms, watermelon, kale chips, baking bread, bull snakes, gophers, or wolf spiders, the former Garden Club members can tell you our adventures with southwest gardening. But this blog article isn’t about the glory of gardening, but one ah-ha I took away with me this week.
As it was too hot to work in the garden on Wednesday, I decided to bring the garden into the classroom, using potatoes. The middle school students were using technology to create lessons about the history and significance of potatoes as the younger students learned how to apply mathematical skills with potatoes. I was a little worried about adding more curriculum to their loaded day of learning, but the students were overjoyed about teaching and learning from each other. I literally sat back and let them take over the classroom, sharing excitedly about their facts about potatoes and predicting how they can use their potatoes to begin gardening at home. It was uplifting and inspirational to see the empowerment of the middle school students as the “teachers” and the heightened level of interest in learning from the elementary school students. It helped me, a teacher who is bogged down under the pressure of standardized assessments and scripted curriculum, remember the true meaning of education: igniting the spark of interest in students. Without having something purposeful in their lives at school, what is the driving force for students to enjoy their educational experience?
This weekend I stumbled across a powerful documentary from PBS called “Is School Enough?” It directly tied into what I experienced with my Garden Club students this week. The film described several different kinds of schools, educational experiences, and community programs throughout the United States which provide children with opportunities to develop a passion about specific interests while participating in a community. Students at an alternative middle school in Maine applied Project-Based Learning (PBL) and technological skills to help move a retired circus elephant to a newly-designed habitat. Several community programs link students to mentors and experiences that benefit their interests in future careers. Other educational facilities are finding ways to integrate students’ passions and goals into the classroom, making it a meaningful place of purposeful learning. Some interesting questions were posed during the documentary: if interests and motivation of people are studied the most, are they truly prioritized in our students at schools? Are students getting choices to learn what they want to learn? Are children learning from each other in meaningful ways? Are students provided with relevant, real problems to become engaged in? I firmly believe that most of the answers are no. It’s not that we as teachers don’t WANT to, but we simply don’t have the time with all the mandated requirements. The current standardized assessments have required a standardized education model, thus stifling teacher creativity and causing the learning ecology to suffer. How do we revive learning?
Here are some ideas to revive our learning ecology:
- Get to know your student on a level that goes beyond academics—what do they like to do, what are their goals for the future?? You can use interviews, surveys, or have the students come eat with you during lunch. Write this information down and find ways to incorporate it into lessons to make them more meaningful.
- Familiarize yourself with Project-Based Learning… or again, if it’s been a while. If designed carefully, a purposeful PBL unit can incorporate Common Core standards to excite and empower students. This can nurture their future aspirations in specific careers.
- Create after-school communities through interest-level clubs. The best way to bridge the achievement gap is to provide meaningful real-life experiences to students, showing them they we truly care about their future. Invite guest speakers and plan field trips!
- Support and/or establish community centers or programs which provide students with mentors, activities, and life-lessons to interact and serve their communities.
Educational reformer John Dewey stated, “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” It’s time to ensure that our students have an inspirational education. Let’s revive learning!