My Journey to Embrace My Inner Constructivist

It all began one day about two years ago. I was marking a Science test and thinking to myself how they really gave me no indication of who really understood what I had so carefully told. What it did give me an indication of was who quickly studied enough the night before and had a really good memory. I thought back to how I always flopped on tests (now, I know it was because I never really understood the material and despite my studying, my anxiety would wipe my brain clear of any remnants of knowledge I had managed to ingest). I thought about what I liked to do in school, what I remembered, what I was enjoying about that new Math Makes Sense program they had just given me and I decided that I needed to change. You know what I remember most from high school? Calling psychic hotlines in Psyc. 30. I remember thinking it was weird that the school was letting us (and paying for) call psychic but we were gathering and analysing data and criticizing what we saw on TV and in magazines. And I remember that and realize what I learned from it. So, I talked about my frustrations to my principal. She introduced me to the Constructivist Theory which I promptly Googled and found that yes, yes!, that was what I wanted my classroom to look like, feel like and sound like! I began to look for activities, experiments and these things called sim-u-la-tions(?) I had heard whisperings of at the board office. Then, I went to the Middle Years Conference and met my destiny.

One of the sessions at the Middle Years Conference that year was presented by two Regina teachers and was a profile of their Inquiry based classroom. They demonstrated a unit that they had undertaken. It was the Power Unit from the grade 7 curriculum but it was done in a whole new way. There were YouTube videos, simulations, debates, choices of projects and topics, integrated subjects, all the things I had always (for the last month or so) dreamed of. I decided that I needed to see these classrooms close up.

During my afternoon in the two classrooms (well, really one big classroom with two rooms and two teachers) I saw videos being watched and debated, groups working on projects, some direct teaching and student discussion, groups reading and studying together and it was happening *gasp* all at the same time! It was truly awesome.

So I went back to my class prepared to turn a new leaf. I got back the next day and realized…I had no flipping idea where to begin. Where did they get all this stuff, these ideas, these activities and I realized that I would need to make them ALL UP MYSELF! Yippee! That was one of the reasons I became a teacher, because I love to make stuff up but until then I had been held down by all those pesky worksheets and curriculum activities. So I set to work.

I began with an Ecology unit complete with field trips and videos and experiments, looking back, it wasn’t great but it was a start. I started the next day telling my class all about the new decisions I had made, the cool stuff I had learned and all the changes we were going to make. I was met with 24 blank stares and one boy sliding off his chair, under his desk and groaning out “can’t you just tell us stuff”. When we were engaged in inquiry activities, I felt lost, I did not know what to do with myself, almost down right lazy. Well, this was off to a good start. We all knew this was going to be a lot of work. And it was but I saw enough good results to keep me going.

Next year, new school, new start. This time I was in front of some pretty enthusiastic students (except for the constant resistance to Math Makes Sense. Example: “can’t I just tell you the answer. NO! You will explain your thinking and you will like it.”) Our bright and shining moment was the Structure unit. I had just returned from my honeymoon in New Orléans (our second visit, the first was pre-Karina) and no romantic get away to the Big Easy is complete without the abandoned poverty-stricken neighbourhood tour. I was still trying to wrap my head around how both government and engineering had both so horribly failed at the same time and I decided who better to fix the problem than twenty-five 12 and 13 year olds. So we began the Levee Project. I “front loaded” my kids with New Orléans culture, food (I cooked them lunch!) and music, a virtual tour of the French Quarter, videos of the aftermath of Katrina, my personal photos from both pre and post Katrina visits. I made them care about the city. Now to fix it. We learned about hurricanes, we simulated storm serges, we talked about the levees failures. Now, not only did they care, they were appalled. It was time to fix the problem. We learned about force, tension, building materials through online simulations not textbooks and notes. They redesigned the levees on Google SketchUp and fixed New Orléans and did a darn good job if I do say so myself. The New Orléans mayor’s office had no comment. Yes, I sent them there. The presented their designs to our principal. These kids knew their stuff. It was awesome.

New school year and the school board and the Ministry have decided that all classrooms should be constructivist and inquiry based and suddenly I am thrown into the role of school “expert”. I invite the teacher that inspired me to talk to us. I discuss what my classroom has been like for the past year and a half and what my challenges and successes have been. I am met with twenty blanks stares and “can’t we just tell them stuff?” *sigh* Luckily, I have three like-minded teachers and a very supportive principal and we forge ahead with our new plan.

So, two years in, what does my classroom look like? Well, it’s noisy, it’s messy and it’s spread out into the library and the hall. There are kids on computers, sitting at tables having discussions, building things, reading information, watching YouTube videos etc. There are some worksheets, there is some direct teaching but mostly it’s me floating around, leading my students to answers for their questions. I can be seen helping them find resources and guiding them to construct meaning. Sometimes, we stop to watch a PowerPoint that one boy put together on his own, for no reason other than he did not feel that we was able to express his thoughts on homelessness eloquently enough the day before (Note: This is a boy who was and still sometimes is, notorious for not working. Ever.) Sometimes, they totally are not doing what they are supposed to be doing (comm’on, they are kids and my classroom is by no means perfect) It can be chaotic, it can be disorganized and it can be awesome. Just when I want to tell them all to shut up and sit down, I stop and actually listen to the noise. You know what I heard yesterday? I heard: “No, the ribosomes are where proteins are made. Here, use these beads and stick them on the endoplasmic reticulum” and “Cool! the inside of this ball will make the best nucleolus.” The results I have seen have made it worth it.
This year thus far, we have focused on issues of social justice; homelessness, poverty, racism, genocide, pretty heavy stuff.

Challenges? Oh yes, there are challenges. Remember the “can’t you just tell us stuff” boy? I have one every year. And guess what, they have parents. Angry parents that want tests and book reports and spelling lists. These students and parents have caused me to question my methods, left me discouraged and sometimes in tears. But thanks to the encouragement and support of my colleagues, administration and board office support, I just keep on trucking. Re-reading the Constructivist theory information tonight has reinforced my belief. Writing this has been cathartic and inspiring. It is awesome to get all the thoughts and reflections that have been floating in my head for two and a half years down even if you all do lose interest after the first paragraph.

So how do theory, practice and technology connect for me? Theory supports the passion that I have for watching children learn and discover. It provides evidence for me to defend myself against those who doth protest too much. Technology is the vessel from which I can draw ideas and the tool that allows me to provide endless opportunities for student connection and creativity.
Is it working? Well, here is one example. It is Saturday night and this just landed in my inbox, it’s a reply to an email that I replied to requesting some homework help.

“Okay thankyou, i will try my best. Even though it does all fit into like one “thing”. it makes sense. Like a circle of racism. that sucks.”

She gets it!

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1 Comment »

  1. sm45rt Said:

    Wow, I think that is such a great story! It makes me want to go to school tomorrow and start badgering my principal again to put me back in the classroom. It is so fun to see our students be in charge of their own learning and making their own discoveries. How nice the new curriculum is set up for teachers just like you.
    Since I moved to Saskatchewan, I have been a learning support teacher and vice-principal. Don’t get me wrong-there are many fantastic things about my position but I often get frustrated trying to find ways to encourage other teachers to embrace technology and be as excited as I am. I am trying to work my learning support students into my project for this course. Any ideas for teaching social skills using technology? Keep doing what you are doing-you know it is the right thing!
    Michelle


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