Life vs. The Curriculum

01/13/2010

I went off the reservation today.

The Scope & Sequence, the map for mapping the curriculum map, says I should be teaching about Africa right about now and I was planning to introduce the unit today. Then something very unfortunate happened.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Paradoxically, the unfortunate event pointed out to me how professionally fortunate I am.

Calling the Haitian earthquake an unfortunate event is a massive understatement: the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere had what little they had, including life and relative health, disappear in a flash and rumble.

I went to high school with some Haitian students, lived in a neighborhood with a lot of Haitians, and now live in a county with a sizable Haitian population. I’ve never been to Haiti, and never particularly wanted to go, but I could not get the devastation out of my mind.

When my smart, chatty 6th graders came into the classroom I had this picture of the devastation on the SmartBoard.

(REUTERS/Reuters TV)

I asked the students to tell me where they thought the picture was taken. The Middle East was a popular guess.

I told them the picture was of some of the destruction caused by the earthquake in Haiti and then showed them a few more photos.

That’s when things became interesting.

These students are very smart and usually very, very chatty.

They were silent.

Rapt.

Awed by the destruction, the pain, and the death.

Then the questions started.

“Is it better to be inside or outside when an earthquake comes?”

None of us knew.

I pointed out that after the big 2008 earthquake in China, people were afraid to stay inside because the building could collapse on them. I showed a picture of collapsed buildings in Haiti.

“What causes earthquakes?”

Detail of the Cocos and Caribbean plates from:...
Image via Wikipedia

I told the oddly quiet students about plate tectonics, using two sheets of paper and some paperclips to demonstrate what happens when the plates separate or collide. Either way the paperclips ended up on the floor.

Map of Pangaea showing where today's continent...
Image via Wikipedia

I told them that I was going to start our Africa unit today, then mentioned that at one time, millions of years ago, Africa, North America and South America were likely one big continent called Pangaea and popped a world map onto the Smart Board so they could see how today’s continents could fit together.

Then I told them that in a way we were studying Africa as most of the Haitian population is made up of descendants of Africans brought to the island as slaves.

One girl who hardly ever speaks in class raised her hand.

“Is that why Haitian people look so different from my relatives on the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic?”

Another Dominican girl asked, “Could an earthquake separate Haiti and the Dominican Republic?”

I asked her to tell me the difference between a political map and a topographic map.

The light went on.

“Oh! Earthquakes are topological and borders are political. The earth doesn’t care where the border is.”

Suddenly one girl jumped up and said, “WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP THESE PEOPLE!”

The students took over the class to discuss what they could do and how fast they could do it.

When the bell rang and they filed out the door, several students asked me to print some of those pictures so they could put them on the posters they were going to make to help in their fundraising effort.

When the class cleared I took a deep breath.

And that’s when it hit me.

My resume shows a lot of different jobs in different fields: print journalism, radio new and talk shows, restaurants, political action, advertising, and more.

I sometimes tell people all about it when they ask how it came to be that I started teaching when I was 50.
Then I tell them that every bit of knowledge, every experience, every sensation I’ve gained comes into the classroom with me.

And today it all came out.

The lesson my students got today could only have come from me.

I’m very fortunate not to have to prepare my students for a standardized test lurking at the end of the year.

And I’m fortunate not to work in a system or for an administrator requiring me to teach the same lesson that every other 6th grade teacher is scheduled to teach on January 13, 2010.

I know my supervisors would have been very happy had they been sitting in my room today.

Real learning took place. Authentic learning. The kind of learning you don’t need to use a test to see.

The students learned new material, made connections, and acted on their learning.

They realized that history is not a series of encapsulated isolated events, that its an intricate weave of people, places, ideas and situations, .

And I was very fortunate to have the time, the freedom, and the ability to go off the reservation.

Teaching has a much nicer view from there.

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