written by Eliza Weiss, Delet ’11
When I was hired to teach fourth grade social studies at the MetroWest Jewish Day School, I inherited an overflowing binder with the words “Colonial America” written in black permanent marker along the binder’s spine. It was filled with primary source texts, worksheets, and readings on Colonial American life. I’d taught the unit the previous year during my internship at JCDSRI and I’d kept a copy of my teaching materials. Equipped with both curricula, I felt prepared to teach the unit. But not so fast, my students seemed to say.
On the first day of class, I had students close their eyes and imagine they were living in Colonial America while I read them an account of what life was like then. Students squirmed in their chairs and blurted out jokes about the text. They were bored.
On day two, I gave my students the reins. Perhaps they wouldn’t be bored if they were reading, themselves. But this wasn’t the answer either. Students weren’t engaged. They were reading to get it done. I was baffled because my students the year prior had eaten up the very same texts. What was I doing wrong?
I thought about the specific students I was teaching. How did they like to learn? What were their interests and strengths? I determined they learned best by doing. They were interested in many things – among them, building with Legos and fashion. Many of the students were artistic. Armed with this information, I set out to design a new custom curriculum.
My students, I decided, would work together to build their own colonial southern plantation. This would give them an opportunity to create an art project, build, and consider design and fashion, but it would be much more than that. Students would need to construct a historically accurate model. This meant researching colonial architecture, building materials, layouts, crops and regional topography. The people in their communities would need to wear clothing reminiscent of colonial days. Students would need to think about things like slave living quarters and climate. Homes would need verandas and detached kitchens.
Within minutes of introducing the assignment, students’ attitude about social studies transformed. Reading about the buildings typically found on a southern plantation, for example, was no longer boring because it had a tangible purpose. It was research necessary to conduct. One month later, as students put the finishing touches on their colonial southern plantation, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll do the project again next year.
They say, learn the rules before you break them. As a new teacher, I create written lesson plans two to three weeks ahead of time. But my experience with the colonial southern plantation project has opened my eyes to the fact that, in addition to planning! planning! planning!, a good teacher must be ready to throw out her plans when – not if – they’re not working. Because at the end of the day, what is my goal? My goal is to reach children. Each child is unique, and so the route I take to teach him or her most effectively must be unique too.