March 24, 2012

Spring cleaning, out with the old, most of it that is!

Recently I posted on my Facebook page "garage is clean", yes it's Spring cleaning time-of-the-year again. This led me to thinking about all the "stuff" we collect over the years. And why do we keep so many useless items? Most of what we have in the corners of our houses and garages has no present or future purpose: old dishes, one of kind items (because there is only one item of a set left), old shoes that can't be worn anymore, clothes waiting to be donated, various containers that you thought were so necessary to save years ago, broken toys that were going to be fixed at some time, spare car parts for a vehicle you no longer own, lots of scrap wood, and many other odds and ends. But for some reason we hang on to most of it. Instead of getting rid of things, we construct new shelving to fit more in and we buy new tubs to put all our junk in. When the garage gets too full (there's rarely a car in there) we buy outdoor sheds for all the extra stuff we accumulate. And finally, the piece de resistance...the storage locker! Boy do we love our stuff! 

A few of my favourites, yes there is one called gasoline!

There are of course the rare finds that are valuable in different ways, and if you're lucky they might actually fetch you a profit because you hung on to it for long enough. Otherwise they are mainly held on to for sentimental value. The latter are the kind of treasures I found on my recent hunt through the garage. I dug in a box of junk and found a photo album that contained hundreds of stickers from when I was 7 or 8 years old and used to collect them and put them in this album. Maybe I'll try putting some of those old scratch n' sniff ones on eBay, what do you think? I will tell you the truth, I spent quite a while looking through that old album and it put a huge smile on my face (priceless - as the ads go).

Another unusual find was an extra large diaper box. Inside were four old shoe boxes. Do you remember those old blue Adidas boxes? I think they started making them again. They were full of old hockey cards from the early '80s. When I opened the large box, the smell was undeniable. (I am talking about the cards, not the diapers.) As I touched the cards it took me right back to my childhood when every Saturday I used to take my allowance and go to the corner store to buy packs of hockey cards with the stick of hard gum inside. Ahh, those were the days! (Some of you right now can smell that gum!)

Something struck me in that moment, my 11 year old son is totally addicted to collecting hockey cards right now. His intensity in collecting has moved through many phases of course, from buttons - to McDonald's toys - to Toy Story figures - to Star Wars action figures - to lego sets - and now to hockey cards. The cards shown above now belong to him! Things have changed mind you. Back in my day, we used to have so much fun playing with our cards - throwing them against walls playing "closies" or "knock-down the last card". As a result all of my early Wayne Gretzky and Ray Bourque cards are totally worthless in a monetary sense. Today the cards that are purchased are not played, they are carefully put into protective sleeves to be viewed but not touched, so that maybe one day they will fetch a high price. I wonder if my son we look back 30 years later with the same nostalgia and memories that I have? What price are we paying for that?

We collect things to make sense of the reality around us. Children (and adults) want to collect the whole set of something so that they can gain some perspective about the world. You might even notice the photo of a group collection of natural items that I was part of, in the heading of my blog above. The world can be organized in different ways which allows us to make sense of it.
Kieran Egan identifies that, 

"By collecting the “whole set”, learners recognize that the world is manageable, has limits, and is understandable. This helps to deal with insecurities about an indeterminately large reality."

This takes on a bit of a ridiculous nature in adults when we go out and buy the new iPad or iPhone even though we have all the previous versions. Why do we do this? Because we gain some pride and sense of accomplishment and ownership about having the newest, latest gadgets. Is it something we really need or something we are being made to believe we need? By the way as I am typing this I am all too aware of the Apple logo staring me in the face from my iMac. Check out these examples of extremely ridiculous collections from the Guinness Book of World's Records:

  • The largest collection of Charlie's Angels memorabilia belongs to Jack Condon (USA), with 5,569 items, which he has been collecting since 1976. 

  • Largest collection of miniature shoes  BANGALORE, India -- Miniature footwear, numbering no less than 170 pairs in various sizes and designs, ranging from pencil heels and floaters to gum boots, now adorn the shelves in the shop of K.B. Shivshankar (47) - setting the world record for the largest collection of miniature shoes.

When it comes to learning, Egan asks, "What parts of the topic can be explored in exhaustive detail?" I used these Guinness collections examples during a Math unit on Place Value to teach about the size of numbers (see my earlier post about lessons in binary oppositions). I have also used collections and sets in Socials and Science lessons. The point I am trying to make is that this idea of collecting things can be brought to the forefront in learning, since this is how children are already interacting with their world. By the way, your students are already collecting sets of everything they possibly can right under your noses: sets of world's smallest possible pencils, pencil shavings, tiny eraser bits, sillybands, lego mini-figures, Pokemon cards, etc... Our philosophy needs to shift a bit towards - "If you can't beat them, join them!" Instead of reprimanding them for collecting things, we should take full advantage of this and transform this energy and interest in collecting into a learning tool by allowing them to collect things and ideas in our classrooms (and outside). Hopefully we can do this in a fun, but also a meaningful way! 

Here is an example from a Science lesson I taught on Habitats this year. I divided the students into 8 groups, each one responsible for a particular habitat. The group then needed to make enough cards of their habitat for each student in the class. Based on the criteria decided on collectively they created images and titles for the front and descriptions for the back (along with their name). I also had each student create an additional card that I would ask for one in the end; but they didn't know which one I would ask for, so all their cards had to be equally "valuable". This allowed me to circulate and do some formative assessment with each student on how well they were meeting the criteria, as well as how well the final product turned out.

a student working on their habitat trading card
a completed set ready to trade
Then students were give a time limit to go around and "collect the set". They had a lot of fun doing this of course, a lot of laughing and intensity. Students who had collected all 8 cards were helpful to others still trying to locate their missing cards. Once they had all 8 they were able to read all the descriptions and study the cards. 

students trading cards

the entire set collected
We shared out as a large group to make sure all the necessary information was there. This became their study resource. Imagine the difference of being involved in making and trading for these cards, versus copying notes off the board. Which activity do you think will aid in remembering the lesson and the information? I hope that my students will start to make the connection independently that by using this new tool throughout their learning journey they will be more engaged as a students and therefore remember what they are learning better. They might begin to see biology, chemistry, history, artists, mathematicians, philosophical theories... as the "stuff" that can be collected and shared, rather than copied and forgotten! There were of course other activities and lessons that took place during the unit, but this is one example of how to engage your students in a fun way with a topic.

There's no denying it, we love to collect things. I have many other examples of how this has been accomplished successfully in my classroom. Figuratively speaking, I hope I have shown you at least one example of how collections can be be organized, so that you don't end up filling those extra storage spaces at your school to the brim!