Having been an educator for thirty-five years, I have learned that students will give their best and be their best if you actually let them learn. Sounds easy doesn't it?
EVERYONE knows that a teacher is supposed to provide a learning experience for their students, but this is not always the case. And I know this because I did not always allow the kids to learn. Oh, don't get me wrong, I had the best intentions. I planned beautiful lessons complete with all the parts required and learned in my college classes. I tried to be engaging, interesting, and I always had good classroom control. I used to joke that I could give the best darn "pony show" for an evaluation that would convince an administrator that I could perform miracles of knowledge. But I knew the truth. I spent a lot of time standing in front of classes, talking/lecturing, and praying they would gain something from it all. Then, after a whole lot of years and a whole lot of lessons, I really learned about teaching.
During ESL summer school, my administrator talked to me about my lesson plans. She very nicely talked to me about the levels I was attempting to teach my students. She showed me my "verbs" and talked to me about the expectations she had for her students. She was right. This discussion pushed me to examine how I taught and to amp it up. A few summers later, I attended a workshop where things really got down and dirty. This opened my eyes and my mind that kids learned only 20% at the most from lecture and even less from worksheets or book work. The higher levels of thinking involve using skills, analyzing the skills, creating, and evaluating. DUH!!!! I heard this in college but I started to live it.
FAST FORWARD TO THE FUTURE...
Teaching the Gifted and Talented Education Program for my district means allowing students to figure out a lot of things for themselves. Lessons are project-based and hands-on. Thematic units rule! This does not just happen in the classroom, but it applies to our field trips as well. I just cringe when I hear students tell me they are going on a field trip to play in the water at the park. I gag when I hear the first graders went to the Bisbee Mine and didn't know anything about mining, geology, or minerals. Yes, I realize I am probably the killer of all free-time, but that's for sissies. My idea of a field trip is to 1) Learn 2) Learn 3) Learn. Repeat as often as necessary.
I have a large group of 8th graders who have been a challenge since day one. Overall, they never let me down, but it can be a struggle. If the project and the lesson do not meet their interest levels, I can expect thirteen year old mutiny. I haven't been told to "walk the plank" but don't think it didn't cross their minds. They are extremely social and one actually told me he felt our class was best spent connecting and hanging out with his friends he doesn't see everyday. (Hello behavior plan!) When they were in the fifth grade, one student's parents told me I might be too old to teach the program as I was strict and had rules for the students to follow. Are you getting the picture? I actually returned three students to school from our field trip when they were in seventh grade due to their horrible behavior. When we studied philanthropy, a few actually questioned why they should care about helping others. Sigh... Needless to say, they didn't get to go visit the patients at the local skilled nursing facility. And yet, I haven't given up hope for them.
This year, when I was thinking of a field trip, I knew I couldn't take them to the Chiricahua Mountains to work with scientists at the research center. Self control was a concern. Someone could get hurt, lost, or even die. No one is dying on my watch, if I can avoid it. So, finding a "learning experience" that met their needs and interests was truly a challenge. Until my son told me about "Feed My Starving Children."
Feed My Starving Children sounds really dramatic, doesn't it? Jordan (aka Mr. Selchow of the Mesquite High School Ag Dept. in Gilbert, AZ) told me he takes kids to volunteer at their sites a couple of times a year. He described the experience to me, assured me his students enjoyed doing it and had to earn the privilege to participate. He encouraged me to check out the website. Okay, I was a little hesitant at the idea but Jordan is no bleeding heart. If he said it was worth his time, then it was worth mine to research.
I barely made it through the online video. FMSC is a Christian organization, but anyone is welcome to help. Their mission is to provide food for people in under-developed countries, especially children. I knew where we were going and I knew just how to teach it. It came easily.
GTE students are generally good researchers by the 8th grade. I allowed them to choose a partner, I told them to choose 10 under-developed countries, and they had to find statistics on hunger and death rates to compare. They would give a short presentation and they had to have charts representing their data. Poof! Off they scurried to their computers and boy did they meet my expectations. One student spoke to me privately about his concern that the majority of deaths in Mexican men was a result of alcohol. Learning? You betcha!
After the presentations, I handed the students their permission slips and we talked about what was to come. On Monday, May 9, at 10:30, we would travel four hours to Phoenix, in vans to work at FMSC. My husband (GOD BLESS HIM!), my instructional assistant (HEART OF GOLD), and I would chaperone. Since we don't have many funds, we would pack lunches and at the end of the day, we would eat at McDonalds. Our appointment was from 3:30 to 5:30 PM and we would be back in Douglas by 10:30 PM.
Yes, I knew it would be a very long day. Yes, I knew my self-control challenged mob could go crazy. Yes, I was worried about the "what ifs." Yes, I prayed for help. Yes, I stressed and lost sleep about the whole idea and thought about calling in sick on the 9th. But at no time did I ever hear or encounter the word, "NO." My program director was very encouraging and told me she believed in my idea. So, off we went.
Bosco drove one van and Ms. ChaCha (Yes, that is her awesome name) had seven in one van and I had seven in the other. I WAAAAAASSSSS tempted to give them the wild ones, but they all can hold that moniker with pride at any given moment. The ride went well. We even had time to drive five miles an hour for road construction and still made it without landing in the parking lot going MACH5 with our hair on fire.
Once in the building, the atmosphere is very "chill and hip." No frills, but it had a World Market feel to it. Sean, the dude in charge gave us a rundown of what we would be doing, showing slides for visual instructive support, and we all donned a hairnet. NO ONE looked good. NO ONE. It was the greatest equalizer in life. No jewelry and wear a glove if your wedding band won't come off. We would be a team, loading ingredients into small plastic bags, sealing them, packing them in boxes, and the result would go to Cambodia. Each day, food goes to different countries. There is no particular favorite.
Our hairnet covered group secured a station and prepared for the experience. Four boys volunteered to work with the warehouse crew moving filled boxes. (The strongest never works out and the rest could be described as scrawny.) ChaCha worked in labeling. My kids would mix rice, soy, vitamins, and flavoring into the bags, Bosco and I would work the sealers and pack the boxes. We were table 5 and we were FEARLESS!!!
And work we did. Listening and singing to loud upbeat pop tunes, we packed about fourteen bags of food. Thirty-six bags fills a box. We were a filling machine! Occasionally, I saw my warehouse boys zoom by with boxes, muscles or pre-muscles bulging. And the time flew! Before I could yell, "Pick-up on table five," it was over and we were cheering our success. We cleaned up the area and returned to the first room with the World Market atmosphere.
Sean talked about our efforts and what it would mean. Children, adults, and old people would live another year for each box we packed. One bag would feed a little child for more than one day. We packed 504 bags of food. We watched a video where we saw poor, starving children who were grossly underweight before being brought to the distribution centers in their countries. Then, they showed us their progress over a year. It was amazing, thrilling, and devastating. I was a mess at this point. I had to grip my poor sore knees to keep from crying. I looked at my kids and they looked so proud and they were so good!
We ate dinner at McD's and hauled it home to Douglas. My van was noisy, but it was good noise. Bosco said his van was a lot quieter, but one kid talked the whole time. The time went fast. My van-kids asked about class on Thursday and I told them there would be no more classes for the year. The field trip was the final. In two weeks they would finish their middle school GTE experience and be high school freshman. There were some surprised comments and it appeared they would maybe miss our classes. I asked them to tell me what they had learned from the experience. No student was at a loss for words. Several told me it was the best field trip ever. Mission accomplished. We arrived at the schools, hugged goodbye, and went home. I am still tired.
A teacher should always have high hopes and high expectations for their students. This I know to be true. A teacher's first responsibility is to teach lessons that will carry students through school and through life. I strongly feel this was accomplished. And their behavior? They didn't let me down but most of all, they didn't let themselves down. And they learned something very important.
Hope sometimes begins with a hairnet.