Were You Assigned A Class You Have No Background or Preparation to Teach?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
ne year, I worked with a middle-school mathematics teacher who decided to engage his class in some work on a wetland and lake bordering a large river. He did this partly as a diversion from classroom struggles – his background and training weren’t in middle school mathematics; there was no one else available to do the work. And, he was interested in the concept of engaging his students in their community – project-based learning.
So, we went down to the site and took a tour. As we walked and talked, he suddenly stopped, took a few steps back, and stood looking down a shallow slope to the lake, then up the slope toward a wooded copse. I waited a few moments, then he remarked in an excited voice that everything changed as you looked from the water to the slope, and on up to the trees. He said something made that change, and it had to do with the slope. Then, he described what students would explore on a transect along the slope, and how. Wow! His class did the project, and, within two years, he developed into a very effective teacher.
What happened here? He knew he wanted to do something. He knew where he was in his mathematics teaching. And he was interested in his students. But he didn’t get any further until he took a walk, talked about what was there and what students had done, and noticed a slope – geological and mathematical – and, in terms of subsequent progress as a teacher, clarivoyant. The pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together.
How do we move from teaching our curricula one piece at a time, a disconnected clutter of disparate parts? Parts, learned long enough to refer to in a test; then, lost in a long trail of discarded artifacts. We need clear, strong trails if we are to lead effective, self-actualized lives. Learning has the potential to help us organize our selves so that our lives produce clear, permanent trails. In his teaching the middle school mathematics teacher began to build these clear trails, both for himself, and for his students. Part of the secret is learning about the curriculum in the real world, and its connection to the disparate clutter of artifacts we teach. In the classroom and on environmental education sites. I suggest we need to integrate them.
One thing this teacher did was to let the class in on the plan. Doing this at the start involved and invested them in the work, and began to empower them to take responsibility for its parts. Early on, he began to notice that students were doing good work, and that they brought different sets of skills and abilities to the work. This was a pleasant surprise for him, and he began to see the class as a group of individuals who could make the classroom work environment an interesting one to be part of.
Soon enough, he reorganized the class into work crews, each one responsible for part of the job of assessing a transect up the slope from water’s edge to wooded copse. Accomplishing this was an utterly new experience for him, but he took to it as if he’d done it for years. Within a few weeks, he was beginning to coordinate his curriculum to the work on the slope. Aware of the mathematics curricula he was charged with, he organized the school week into days dedicated to mathematics and to the project. Students didn’t divide their new sense of personal investment in school. They became reliable students each day. Why? I think, because they were learning as humans evolved to learn. How their brain is best organized to do that job. Go into the real world, find real work to do, then focus all resources on this.
I think there were several vehicles which enabled this classroom to navigate from struggling to self-powered learning place. Specifics varied among teacher and students, but each vehicle carried them through its part of the course. The teacher was charged with teaching mathematics, for which he wasn’t well-prepared to do. He was both interested in improving his teaching, and in engaging his students in learning projects in the community in which they lived. Then he saw something, a slope in a landform, that brought these two seemingly disparate entities into a dynamic construct, a conceptual foundation for real learning, learning for understanding.
His students also boarded their first vehicles: crews, embedded curricula, brain work. At first, their commitment varied, but nearly all became interested in the project when they heard about it from the teacher. At the beginning, they were randomly assigned to their groups; but, as the teacher became more aware of them as individuals, he began to reorganize them into effective working groups, crews organized to execute particular parts of the plan.
So, the relationships among the people in the class began to morph. The teacher became the project manager, and the crews became technicians and staff working with a crew leader. Project manager and crews learned to reach out to local experts for advice. The teacher, because he was managing the project, and feeling responsible for teaching mathematics, began to use the mathematics embedded in the work site and the work itself to deliver part of his curriculum.
Locating embedded curricula seems difficult at first thought, but once you try, it becomes relatively easy. For instance, students can measure the maximum width and length of a leaf, and calculate the width to length ratio. They repeat this with other leaves from the same tree to see if that ratio holds true. Then they can see if there is a ratio for the maximum width of a fir or pine cone and its length that is consistent among a sample from the same species. As they do, ratio and proportion becomes sensible, a conceptual tool to use, rather than something to memorize for a test.
This doesn’t apply just to mathematics and science. Look for examples of alliteration in a natural area or in the school’s neighborhood. I’m looking at an example just now – a small tree whose leaves are attached to thin branches in an alternating sequence. When I see a set silhouetted against the sky, their leaves tripping along the branch, I see alliteration. Looking out the same window, I see many metaphors. Metaphors which can activate the same parts of my brain that are activated when I am engaged in close pursuit of the answer to an inquiry question. A very useful brain tool.
Looking past the leaves and metaphors, I see examples of social studies, music, art, drama, history. It’s all out there, the curricula we teach, in a form our brain is organized to use. Once it is engaged, we can then move into the prepared curricula which lives in classrooms. With one difference – this curricula will come to life because it will be engaged by a need-to-know generated by the world we live in. And learned in a way that ensures it will be used. In time, you will find that you can milk the prizes found on one excursion from the classroom to the schoolground, neighborhood, or riparian area for more than the embedded curricula you find. What you find and use generally has links to other curricula, and you can extend these threads quite far before you’ve either used them up, or have become tired of them.
These are things the teacher I worked with learned during the time we explored learning for understanding. By moving into the world we live in and discovering the curricula embedded there, and the involvement and investment the experience invoked in his students, he began to reorganize his teaching. The mathematics he discovered on site clarified what he was trying to teach in the classroom. The energy and growing expertise his students brought to the work helped him learn them as persons, to know when they engaged what I call the moment of learning, and to use their individual strengths to overcome their weaknesses. And they all grew. Because, in my opinion, they engaged their brains in the way brains evolved to learn and cope. Once engaged, they were ready to enter the more formal, abstract curricula which lived in their classroom. To learn it, not to pass a test, but to build their lives.
This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”