“Good morning!” I respond to my cooperating teacher, Mr. Mac , as I walk into the classroom at 8 a.m. on a drizzly Monday. After hanging my jacket on the coat rack and taking down the chairs from the back two tables, my typical morning routine (if you can call it that), I settle down at a table with my laptop and notebook, skimming through my notes to ensure I didn’t forget anything for the day.
“Any questions about your lesson?” Mr. Mac asks as he does one last email check and run through of his own lesson plans before the buses arrive.
I shake my head and say “I don’t think so,” but still keep looking through my notes as if questions would magically appear on the page. I never fail to have few to no questions for him before the students enter the room, and then come up with a plethora of them as the day progresses, and even more during the lesson, which is less than ideal and far too late.
Sure enough, about two hours later, in the middle of a lecture about writing informational essays, I remember that one of the students, who has visual and hearing impairments, may need a worksheet with larger text than the ones I printed out. Since he had always been out of the classroom during my other lessons with his math and reading specialists, it didn’t occur to me until now to do something different for him. I speed through the schedule up to my lesson in my head and know I will not have time to type and print a new worksheet in the time I had left. Shit. Hopefully I am just making it a much bigger deal in my mind than it really is.
As the hours drag on, I think through my lesson, trying to come up with answers for any questions the kids might ask, resolutions to any issues that may arise, retorts for any misbehaviors, and so on. If I don’t think of them now, I will be tongue-tied in front of twenty people, which is really not the best feeling in the world, trust me. One of the college students teaching in the class next to mine visits just before my lesson and informs me that she just taught her lesson on the same topic as mine, and only one of the kids had heard of the term “natural disaster” before. Sweet. Just a little extra challenge, that’s all. At least that’s what I keep repeating in my head. Already, I start altering my lesson timeline, trying to squeeze in an extra few minutes for an in depth explanation to the students about natural disasters, something I was praying they would already know about so I could skip over it and go straight to the group work portion of the lesson.
Starting this semester, I knew that I would need to teach three math and three science lessons. Math was simple enough — it has a pretty linear order of teaching, considering you need to use your prior knowledge when learning something new. I also had to follow the textbook and specific state standards. Science, on the other hand, has a lot more flexibility. And by flexibility, I mean New Hampshire is sort of in between standards right now for science; they are starting to switch over to a set of standards called Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS. Being in this position makes it really hard for teachers to know what to teach because every class is teaching different curricula, which means all of the students enter a classroom at the beginning of the year with different scientific knowledge, and teachers do not know where to find solid footing so students are not relearning what they have already learned, while others are not skipping over major units that they never learned and potentially will never learn.
So when I asked my CT at the beginning of my science unit what he recommended I teach, he told me that I had no curriculum to follow, and he had not taught all that much throughout the year so far, so I could basically choose any topic that I found interesting. Lot of help that was. My first instinct was planets . . . because planets are awesome. I also remember having a lot of fun learning about planets when I was around third grade. However, once I started looking into the planet option, I found that all of my plans were way too elaborate to squeeze into three lessons spread out over potentially two weeks, and there was no easy way to cut the plans down, so that eliminated the solar system. Side note: this is a major problem with teaching science, especially in elementary school settings. There is an extremely fine line between making science lessons boring through lectures to cover more ground versus exciting and engaging through experiments but taking a lot more time. After weeks of deliberation, confusion, and mounting complications, my lessons ended up being about how humans can build houses to withstand natural disasters.
Day 1: Researching
I began the lesson by drawing a web on the whiteboard with “natural disasters” in the middle and names of natural disasters spawning off of it. I came up with simple hints to help the class guess certain disasters that I hoped they would have heard of, but to my, and my CT’s, shock, the whole class came up with a massive web and could describe all of the disasters they named without any help from the adults in the room. Seriously, what 8 year old comes up with “sandstorm”?
Once this web was complete, which really just meant that the students had come up with tsunami, tornado, thunderstorm, and hurricane, I split the class into four groups (pre-made — as in I spent more time figuring out the groups and which natural disaster each group had than planning the actual lessons) to research one of the four natural disasters, using books and articles I found about each of them. What a resource the school library is.
In general, the roughly thirty minutes of group research went well, although one group almost had a complete fall out because one of the girls was copying the work from another teammate and then going around trying to “cheat” by seeing what the other groups were doing, even though they were working on completely different things. We also had a student end up in tears, although it was arguably his fault, since he was upset the group wasn’t taking his ideas into consideration, when the whole rest of the lesson he was refusing to pay attention and playing with Flarp under the table.
Day 2: Building
After researching their given natural disaster, the second lesson was dedicated to the students building a house that they thought would hold up against the natural disasters. I brought in heaps of cardboard (thanks to my recent bout of online shopping) and recyclables for the class to build their houses out of. All in all, the groups worked well together, no tears were found. Team Tornado, the group with the huge fallout during Lesson 1, was missing their problem member, so they ended up powering through their building and was the first team to complete their house. Team Thunderstorm failed to follow the directions of “your house must resemble a house, with four walls and a roof,” instead building a bunker/submarine/shoe box looking house, but their teamwork was inspiring. Team Hurricane, the hurricane with the most aspects to take care of, struggled. Three out of the four members were distracted by the materials, leaving the fourth member to build the house on her own. Finally, Team Tsunami took the gold for teamwork. They worked nonstop the entire lesson, dividing up tasks evenly so they could finish in time. One student came up with an idea to build a kind of pier for their home to keep it well above where the water will be in the tray. The team leader told me “it’s really hard work, but I couldn’t have done it without my team.” I may have teared up.
Day 3: Experimenting
My final lesson was solely devoted to conducting experiments against the houses. This was the day that I was most nervous about because I was in charge of physically flooding the houses and using the hair dryer. This means that I was in charge of whether the kids succeeded or failed, based on how much force I used with the water and wind, which was daunting. If I was too gentle, everyone would be happy that their house didn’t fall apart, but then they would not be able to see the destruction that natural disasters can cause accurately, which could lead to future misconceptions. However, if I actually tried to reenact a category 5 hurricane, not only would the whole class get upset and dejected, but I would also have a massive amount to clean up afterward.
To avoid all of these problems, I decided to let the students conduct the experiments instead of myself. That way, if all things went to hell, it wasn’t on me.
Looking back on the lesson, this decision was the best decision I could have made. All of the students were super pumped to dump water and blast hot air on their houses. On top of that, none of the houses were completely destroyed, so no one ended in tears or made fun of anyone for doing a bad job. Plus, all of the kids were completely enraptured by the rest of the students’ experiments when it was not their team’s turn, which was fabulous and unexpected. My CT even told me afterwards that he thought the lesson went great and he was definitely going to do the same lessons with his future classes.
Now, it’s 3:30. I wave goodbye to students as they hop onto buses and into their parents’ cars to go home. As the yellow buses crackle slowly down the asphalt and part ways from the school grounds, I meander my way back inside the building, up the stairs, and enter the now empty, hollow-feeling classroom to prep for a new day.
For this essay, I wanted to try something a little different from my previous essays. Realizing that I had already written two essays on class subjects in elementary school, I knew that if I wrote this essay about science the same way, it would get redundant and boring to read for anyone who had read my other essays. For those essays, I tended to focus on informational writing with inclusions of personal anecdotes to back up that information. For this essay, I attempted to do the exact opposite — write the essay almost as a story, focusing on my experiences, and then include information to back up these experiences.