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Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Biome Project--My Trophy (Dear Katie, v1 #14)

Dear Katie,

Where will you find your contentment as a teacher?

May is a time filled with multiple large events in the life of our school.  The biggest of these is the NJ ASK testing that will fill up two weeks in the school schedule.  Both the band and choir concerts take place in May as well as a competition at Dorney Park (lets be honest, its really a boondoggle; a money making weekday in the middle of May for an amusement park that would be empty so they create the illusion of a competition, why not have the competition without the park? Wouldn't kids still be motivated to go?).  

For me as a baseball coach, the season is at its height leading toward the county tournament.  All these events allow the leaders to obtain recognition.  The state testing will have our school's scores posted in the newspaper, the band and choir have their performances and accolades, and the baseball team their quest for a banner to be placed in the gym. And the teachers involved in all these pursue these rewards with great passion because in general people desire to be recognized for their achievements.

It is rare for the classroom teacher to gain such awards.  There will not be bonuses handed out for great lessons or trophies because 90% of your students scored a 100 on your vocab quiz.  

For me, my trophy is another event that takes place every May in the 7th grade at our school for the past 9 years, the Biome Zoo project.

Your aunt and I went to Walt Disney World for a week back in 2004 and I returned with an idea of students creating theme parks (much like Animal Kingdom and EPCOT).  Recognizing that our 7th grade science curriculum (biology) and geography work so well together, I asked the science teacher if she would get onboard.  The collaboration has been great.  My strength is in creativity, hers in organization, and I couldn't have had a better partner in planning and implementing this project.

The project entails 5-6 members of a group selecting one biology project and one social studies project form a list.  Each group is assigned a culture and biome that exists nearby (for example Russian Taiga or Mongolian Steppes).  They spend 3 weeks researching, writing, and creating their project.  After their individual projects are complete, they come together every afternoon after state testing and spend a total of 12 class periods creating a presentation where they create a zoo that seeks to convince the judges that their zoo should be the one built.

Although the instruction packet the students are given is about 8 pages long, it is ambiguous enough to allow the students flexibility to display their creativity.  It can be difficult for a concrete thinking 7th grader who asks, "How do I do I create the architecture for my zoo?".  

I tell them, "If I tell you, then I will see a project that shows me your ability to replicate my creativity.  I want to see YOUR creativity."

As the individual projects come in, I see models of houses, cleverly designed menus, employee uniforms sewn together, and I am amazed to see what they created.

Then I watch the group work and see kids laughing, planning, dreaming, building.  Some of these kids have never interacted in any way with each other all year, and here they are coming together to compete a common goal. Yes sometimes kids slack and don't do work, but honestly most work together well.

And next week, I see the completion of the group projects.  Well structured skits, props, songs, dances, foods, all will be part of the presentations.  And I will sit back to score the projects with pride in the students I have had the pleasure to work with all year.

Katie, as a teacher you may never get your name in the paper, or  adjudicated "excellent" for a lesson plan, or a banner that says "Champions", so let your pride be in with this...

....spending hours developing a project based lesson that is student centered, that allows them to "show-off" their expertise, creativity, organizational skills, allowing them time to put it all together, then watching them perform in their presentations...

THAT will be your trophy.

THAT is why we teach.

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin