Breaking My Silo with a Piece of Chalk

My seventh grade social studies class is diverse.  It’s a clustered combination of students, some identified as gifted, some as not, and it gives me an opportunity to see relationships, interactions and common misconceptions in a way much different from my previous experience in teaching science.

After coming back to the classroom eight weeks ago, I am reminded that 
I am a different teacher now after working in education policy for 20 months.
I have rebooted my assumptions, my ideas about the way things are done,
and who really has the power for changing education. (
Hint:  Ultimately,
it’s the teacher leader in the middle who shifts the paradigm).  

 

I had given my students a prompt about the Flint, Michigan, water problems, including a video clip, and a time for reflection. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the students repeatedly talking in their reflection assignment about ‘aggressive water.’  The video clip referenced acidic water, the diagram discussed corrosive water, and the background knowledge of the students included a study of pH and water quality the year before.  My mental model was of a water molecule bully threatening other molecules, but it was a good reminder of students and misconceptions.

This is where going beyond a silo can be helpful.  I grabbed six plastic cups and filled them each with 3 cm of water or vinegar.   I left them on a counter, and when the students walked in, they all commented about the ‘stinkiness’ of the classroom. Vinegar is just 3.5% acetic acid and the remainder water. It got right to one of the main points of the previous day’s learning–sometimes water that has an odor is not good to drink.  V

I placed coins in one set of cups, plastic-covered paperclips in a second, and in the third, a half-piece of chalk (calcium carbonate).  I asked the students to predict what would happen to each set of beakers, and to come and see sometime during class, and, not surprisingly, it only took 30 cents worth of materials to totally change the conversation to one that mattered.and one that connected to a big idea in my classroom.  By ignoring that basic thought,  “But it’s not science class,” I started thinking.

Three BIG Takeaways

  • I’m perhaps wise enough (or old enough  😉 )to see the interconnectedness of things, but why were my students so siloed in their approach?  They had this background knowledge about water. I had made a point of trying to activate their thinking previously  by talking about pH and past work, but they just didn’t transfer the relevancy.  How many of those kids have that approach to school in general as something they do, not something that empowers them?
  • Emotions are complex things that are activated by sights, sounds, smells and empathy.  This current event activity on Flint, Michigan, tied into the bigger concept in my classroom of globalization concepts such as enviroment, econonomic concerns, and human rights.  That’s not just social studies, but a concept that includes science, reading, math social studies and physical education as part of the journey.  How can I break out of my classroom to involve my peers in big ideas?  What new opportunities can I share with my leadership team to help us rethink student learning in a teacherpowered way?
  • Not all teachers have a wide spectrum of learning across the curriculum that I do as a STEM/middle school/gifted teacher, but we must, must imagine new ways of doing things that meet the needs of this students.  Learning menus might be one way for a teacher to start, but we need to look at the role of the teacher leader and deeper learning.  Barnett Berry wrote about this very concept that is worth reading, and builds on this dream of mine. Take some time to look and think about how this is going.

For now, I think I’ll keep looking for the student ideas that don’t fit the pattern.  Built into those misconceptions is a takeaway that can inspire reflection and perhaps reenergize your teaching.  Mine started with a piece of chalk.

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