Monday, September 20, 2010

Caterpillars are Making Me Do Observation Push Ups

Our parsley patch has been inundated by Black Swallowtail caterpillars. The other day we brought a few into the house so we could watch them all day. We bought a live parsley plant, put it in a giant glass jar covered with a screen, and further removed the need for TV.

It’s funny what you can see when you train your eyes to look for something new. Each day we’ve learned so much about these caterpillars not from the Internet but from seeing them live their lives on our dining room table. We observe how they eat a leaf in surprisingly fast neat little rows. We watch them change color and shape as they devour entire plants in a matter of days.

One by one we’re watching each caterpillar go through its final molt, climb onto a branch, curl up into a tight apostrophe connected to the branch by a single silk thread, and like magic transform into a papery green chrysalis. It feels like a miracle every minute – so I have to keep reminding myself that what I am seeing is just life.

We are waiting for wings. But it is hard to imagine these caterpillars that have become so much a part of our family will emerge into such different creatures after they complete their change.

Watching this lifecycle so intimately each day has changed the way I see a lot of things. Strengthening the observation muscle, even outside the realm of the classroom, still makes it stronger in that context. With a group of students last week I swear I saw their eyes, their body language, heard their voices, felt their energy, just that much more.

I am seeing the potential for butterfly transformations everywhere. The world is quite a wonderful place when viewed through the lens of wonder.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sillybandz and Motivation

By, Aleta Margolis
(Adapted from a speech at the 2010 Inspired Teaching Alumni Conference.)

In almost every workshop we do over the course of the year conversations come up about on word in particular: Motivation. How do I motivate my students to learn? They’re motivated to play video games but completely unmotivated to learn math. How do I motivate myself to keep doing this hard job every day? How am I supposed to stay motivated when it seems like all the decision makers are going against my approach?

In an attempt to explore these questions, let’s talk about Sillybandz. These shaped rubber bands are all the rage right now. Children are passionate about these things. They wear them like bracelets, trade them like we once traded stickers, and because they have captured so much of students’ imaginations – at the end of last year several schools went on the record publicly banning them from the building.

This got me thinking. There are some things that definitely do not belong in school. But why is it that whenever our students become motivated by something they’re really interested in, like Sillybandz, we’re so quick to label it a distraction? Or seen through another lens entirely - Why is it that whenever we’re motivated by a new strategy that’s really working with our students it seems like someone’s looking in the doorway saying, “What are you doing? This looks like it’s distracting from learning.”

I think it’s time to rethink the term motivation, or rather, to reclaim what it really means. As a society we’re conditioned to think that carrots and sticks motivate us. But in reality – when you’re really passionate about what you’re doing; when you’ve found an endeavor worthy of your focus and attention; when you’re fully engaged in the process of getting really good at something; or simply when you’ve found something you like – like Sillybandz, you don’t need carrots and sticks to hold your attention.

So that’s why I’m going to go against the public education tide, and ask you to suspend your disbelief for a moment and consider the possibilities if instead of banning Sillybandz from our classrooms – we found ways to intertwine them with our instruction.

Imagine this. You’re teaching whatever grade you teach this year, and by some bizarre natural phenomena right at this moment every textbook and curriculum guide in your classroom disappears. And in their place, you find piles and piles of Sillybandz. This is what you have to teach with this year. But, you still have to teach all the subject matter you would normally have to teach – just using this tool instead of the textbook. What could you do?

Could you teach geometry using these shapes and ruler? Could they be used to create storyboards for creative writing? Could their physical properties be explored in science, or their variety be used explore the concept of species classification? Could research into their manufacturing and complex barter and trade systems provide a foundation for social studies? Could their colors and shapes inspire art exploration?

What do you think would happen if we used Silllybandz to teach? Would your students be motivated? What would you have to do to establish the right conditions in your classroom so these things that seem like distractions actually become learning tools instead?

I’m not suggesting by any means that Sillybandz become your sole instructional tool this year. But I am suggesting that we pause and reflect the next time we notice something that is capturing our students’ imaginations. Rather than jumping to the societal conclusion that their newfound interest is a problem – we take the time to wonder how we can make the most of that interest in an academic context.

Can we turn that interest, that passion, into motivation? If so, perhaps our students have been holding the keys to this elusive, but essential, learning tool all along.