I always scheduled a parent evening about 3 ½ weeks into the school year. Two things were happening by then. One, parents were thrilled that when they asked their children, “How was school today?” they didn’t get the usual, “Fine.” “OK.” The kids had all kinds of interesting stories to tell. Parents liked that. The second thing was that the children said, “We don’t do any work.” They didn’t like that.
3 ½ weeks is just about the time the tension between those reports changes from wonder to concern. It’s also enough time for the students to have produced some amazing work.
At the parent evening I display the student work. They had produced an exceptional amount of writing, created scale maps of their classroom, read several novels, planted winter wheat, learned calligraphy, and planned the beginning of a project that would last the entire term. When parents see the work their children have done they are amazed at the amount, and the quality. What did the students mean, “We don’t do any work?”
One parent said, “I asked Noah what they did in math. He said, ‘We don’t do math.’ How about science? ‘We don’t have science.’ Social studies? ‘No, we just do projects.’ “ Aha! Work, to the students meant textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, none of which we used. As Toby explained, “We do work, but it’s fun. And you don’t usually associate work with fun.”
Of course we were doing math and science and social studies, but it was all in the context of a meaningful project that had a purpose beyond turning in an assignment to the teacher. Our day wasn’t divided into 45 minute periods of discrete subjects, but rather flowed in and out of different disciplines as we studied a bike path and its effect on our town, or how Lexington got its name, or where a loaf of bread comes from.
I thought it was cute that the students didn’t think we did “subjects,” but at the same time I felt I owed them an explanation of where the disciplines came from. It was important to note that they were not handed down by God, but rather were human constructs to comprehend the world God made.
At the center of meaning-making is our experience. We don’t have mathematical or historical experiences. We just have experiences, whole in thought, feeling and deed. The disciplines arise as we reflect on our experience from different points of view. I tried to imagine the initial question that might appear over the doorway that led into the vast depths and breadths of each subject (see figure below).
For example, say I put a beaker of water on the windowsill. The children would observe the water line gradually lower. The experience is the wonder of where the water goes.
- What is there to count and measure? The volume of the water, the time, the temperature, maybe the humidity. I can determine the rate of disappearance. Math describes one facet of my experience.
- What are the variables? When I explore the variables, I enter the domain of science. What variables might affect the rate at which the water disappears? What if I put the beaker in the closet? On the radiator? How about we put it in a different shaped container? What if we used apple juice instead of water? The science lens leads me to make hypotheses and design experiments to test them.
- Who else has had this experience? What do they have to say? Now the door is open to reading. I’m not the first one to have witnessed the water disappearing. I wonder what others who have had this experience say? Even if I can never meet them, people have written down their observations and understanding so I can read to see what they learned. Aha! Scientists call it ‘evaporation.’
- How will I share my experience with others? I’ve had my own experience. I might write about it so others can know what I discovered. Maybe a lab report to share the results of my experiments. Or I may create a watercolor painting to express my wonder.
- What have I learned about myself and my community? This is what we call social studies. I don’t think we have ever studied a topic deeply enough if we haven’t learned something about ourselves and our society. Even on the physical level, I explore how my body uses evaporation to stay cool. Or how water cycles from the earth to the clouds and back again.
- What does this experience remind me of? How does it reveal God and His creation? It reminded one student of his frustration trying to watch the minute hand move on the clock. He wrote an amazing poem comparing evaporation to the passing of time. And we are all overwhelmed with wonder that there is the same amount of water on the earth now as there was when God separated the waters from the waters. We use the word ‘awesome’ way too much these days, but that is truly AWESOME!
I think it is important to remember that the way we often divide our day into discrete subject-centered periods may be useful for textbook publishers and school schedule-makers, but it doesn’t reflect the incredible interdependence of God’s creation and the way we experience it.
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.