Lauren was walking away from the copy machine with a stack of copies from the Spanish workbook. She looked like she had just been abandoned by her deepest hope. It was her first year of teaching, first year Spanish to sixth graders. She had tried to involve them in active projects, but everything she thought would be engaging yielded little more than eye rolls. She thought at least if they did exercises from the Spanish workbook they might learn some vocabulary.
My wife and son had just returned from a mission trip to Guatemala, helping to build houses for women whose husbands had been killed by revolutionary or government forces in a small Ixil village high in the western highlands.
We talked about the children in the village, and how the key for any of them to have an opportunity to live outside the village was to learn Spanish. The teacher had no resources, no books, no materials to teach them.
“Lauren, do you think your students could learn enough Spanish to make first readers for the children in Guatemala?” She was excited by the idea at first, but as she remembered her standards, slumped back into gloom. She simply didn’t have time to take on a project in addition to all the vocabulary and language structure she had to teach.
“A story has characters, doesn’t it? Don’t you have to learn about body parts, facial expressions, personality traits to describe a character? And stories have settings, right? Don’t you have to learn names in the natural world – water, trees, mountains, rivers, etc. to describe the setting? And doesn’t a story have to have action? Won’t you have to learn all kinds of verbs to describe what the characters are doing? And the sentence structure is different in Spanish – don’t we have to learn how they construct sentences in Spanish?”
Lauren saw she could actually teach the content and skills of her discipline in the context of doing meaningful work.
Classroom culture was transformed when the students were invited to make books to send to these children in Guatemala. Some students learned enough to make an ABC book “A is for agua…” Others already knew some Spanish and could write short stories. All appropriate for helping Ixil children learn to read, and to differentiate for the different levels of her children.
Real work for a real audience. Getting smart to do good. Learning through service. That’s inspired learning.
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.