Thursday, March 19, 2015

Organic Learning

Trust me, we teachers have daily ups and downs in our teaching careers.  There are moments when I think (or sometimes even say out loud to my students), "This, right now, this thing that is happening in this classroom isn't working for me."  It may be that they're all overly excited and not exhibiting composure, it may be that they're all overly tired and not participating fully in our activity, but it typically means things aren't going according to plan.  And when we have a meeting about it (because right after "this isn't working for me" always follows my declaration of "let's have a meeting!") my students typically agree that no, it's not working for them, either.

But there are moments when things aren't going according to plan and yet it absolutely IS working!  Those are magic moments, and when they happen they affirm your calling to teach.  Maybe I was looking for these moments after a long discussion with a friend about how some major changes at her school just aren't working for her and are killing her spirit, but this week they seem to abound.

My last elective of the day is a 1st and 2nd grade group of 16 beginning tap dancers.  I'll not lie - 16 sets of tap shoes tap tap tapping away at the end of the day can often lead to a "this is not working for me" moment.  Children failing to control their bodies is one thing, but children failing to control their bodies with tap shoes on their feet is another.  My sister assures me that anyone who's spent much time with the percussion section of a marching band has had similar experiences.  But this week something didn't go according to plan and it was magical!  We were getting ready to start our warm-up when one of the 1st graders blurted out, "could you tap dance if you only had one leg?"  A buzz erupted from the class.  I answered with, "Well, actually, there was a very famous tap dancer who only had one leg.  His name was Peg Leg Bates."  The questions started flying:  "Was he born that way?"  "How did he lose his leg?"  "How old was he when it happened?"  "Did he wear a tap shoe on the peg leg?"  "Did he have to use crutches?"  And of course, every student's favorite question anytime we talk about a famous dancer - "How did he die?"  I answered each question with, "That'd be interesting to research.  Maybe someone will find out the answer and report back to us."  Then we started our warm-up.

The following day I'd forgotten about our brief tangent until a student yelled at me from down the hallway, "I LOOKED UP PEG LEG BATES LAST NIGHT!"  I was processing what they'd said when another students rushed up to me and exclaimed, "My mom and I did some research on Peg Leg Bates yesterday - is it ok if I share it with the class?"  Absolutely!  Throughout the day a handful of other students shared that they'd looked into Peg Leg Bates' story.  Then when our elective started they all gathered around while the one student shared the story of how he'd lost his leg (it's actually really intriguing - you should look into it if you get the chance).

I thought that was the end of our Peg Leg Bates discussion, but today the class begged to see video footage of him tapping.  And the class that never wants to take off their tap shoes never wanted to put them on today - they just wanted to learn more about Peg Leg Bates.  This eventually lead to a very organic discussion of intellectual property (they did some problem solving to figure out what that meant) and our responsibilities as digital consumers and producers.  We even debated whether choreography should be protected in the same way as photos, videos and text.  

Again I thought that was the end of it, but tonight two mothers shared on Facebook that their daughters had talked to them about Peg Leg Bates this evening and were continuing to do research.  A mother of another child who isn't even in the class said she was intrigued and wanted to do some research of her own.  One random question - could you tap dance if you only had one leg? - lead to a week of student driven research and learning.  And it lead my very young, very innocent children to ask some very serious questions:  "That's a cool picture, but could I use it in a project?"  "How do people with disabilities find ways to do things everyone else does?"  "Would you be brave enough to cut off your own leg if you had to?"  "How do you find pictures online that you're allowed to use in projects?"  And perhaps the most thoughtful question of all - "Did his race make a difference in what he experienced as a tap dancer?"

It is in these moments of that I know that I am absolutely where I need to be in life, and it is in these moments that I feel privileged to be part of such organic learning with such thoughtful children.  

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