May 02, 2012

Islanders and Explorers, an encounter of 2 classrooms: How do we form our identity?

My students and I have been on an interesting journey together this year. It all started when I greeted them on the very first day of class in my Hawaiian outfit with passports in hand and an Aloha! I think they knew that something was going to be a little different about our time together compared to what they might have experienced before. 

The island theme that I created was chosen as a way to engage my students with the curriculum topics "on the list" for this year. I teach a combined grade 4 & 5, so I use a 2 year plan for Science and Socials curriculum topics developed for combined grades. This is done so that the teacher can present one topic to both grades rather than trying to teach a separate topic to each individual grade. So there are a mixture of topics from both grades in year 1 and then the other set of topics in year 2. Whenever topics "on my list" hold the possibility of a deep emotional connection and understanding I try to really play that out in my classroom - and that requires a plan, timing, patience and collaboration. As far as the island theme goes, some of the core topics for this year are: Mapping, Habitats, Natural Resources, Immigration & Citizenship. I have organized the teaching of these topics to match the timeline on our experience on our island. 

I should clarify that there are 2 "islands" threading through the year. First is our classroom which is a collective island, and secondly are the individual island projects that each student is working on. Why? Well, being encompassed in a classroom that feels like an island is engaging as a physical experience alone, but it also allows us to form an identity together - we are "Islanders"! And how often do students get to focus on and research about one thing in depth all year long? What can that do to foster the development of thinking and engagement throughout the year? What I am trying to do through the island project is to provide learning opportunities that are meaningful and authentic, ones that are connected and fun!I have tried NOT to force what happens on our island. I have wanted it to grow and build slowly throughout the year with input from my students. Often weeks have passed without a single thought or question about what we are doing either with our collective island or on their own islands. Then I will prompt the students with some questions, and through our discussions we come up with the next part of the plan and take action. But there certainly is something to be said about leaving the "end" a bit of a mystery, and this has been the most exciting part of all.

Something that I hadn't planned this year was a connection with another teacher that I know and a group of students of his that I had never met before. The interaction that has happened between our 2 classrooms has been something quite magical, and something my students have been talking about for some time. A colleague of mine teaches a grade 3/4/5 combined grade at a school close to us. He has been on a voyage of his own with his students. They have been studying about Explorers all year and have built a ship in their class, and play this out in many ways in their experience. As we started to talk and bounce ideas off each other we said, "Wouldn't it be awesome to do something together!" We just didn't know exactly what that would look like or how exactly to make it seem authentic. I had never done anything like this before, so it was really exciting to see this idea take legs. Because we were "Islanders" stranded on our island, we sent messages in a large bottle "out to sea" hoping to be rescued. 

The other group of student "Explorers" received these hand woven papers, written in traditional pen and ink, and they responded back with typed scrolls of their own declaring that they were on their way to our rescue. They also asked us, "Do you have any resources, and do you believe in God?" This struck my "Islanders" a bit odd. I used the word "intrigued" to explain what I thought was going on with them. They didn't quite know what to expect from this, nor did I at the time. The other teacher and I were trying to plant the seed of "the other", and from his end the idea of "Explorers" conquering and claiming land was evident, but not necessarily to my "Islanders". I think the feeling on our end was more of joy and excitement that someone might be coming! (It could also be stated as ignorance and innocence.)

So the day finally arrived when the visitors came! I am calling this the "Culture Clash". The "Explorers" (with their sailor hats on) came to visit us at our island classroom. The other teacher and I had planned what this first encounter would look like, but of course it took on a bit of a life on its own when the 2 groups met. My "Islanders" (dressed in hula skirts, sunglasses and flip flops) had developed traditional greetings, songs and games to share. These were things that started to help us form our identity together on our island. The "Explorers" had their own traditions of language and forms of refined culture such as a ballet dance, that they shared with us as well. A couple of the island games that we played were "limbo" and "coconut bowling". 

Coconut bowling
Coconuts for bowling and pineapples for pins

We shared a tropical drink with them and a final song about our island King - On the island, the mighty island, King Fluffy sleeps tonight (sung to the tune of "The Lion sleeps tonight"). And then they were off, but not before staking claim to our island. They left a British flag and cross which now hangs in our classroom. (Interesting that all my students have respected this and not tried to move them at all!) 

Captain Cook declaring dominion over our territory

Most shocking was when the "Explorers" kidnapped King Fluffy (the frog that has been sleeping in a hammock all year). 

King Fluffy sleeping in his hammock

My students absolutely freaked out when they realized what had happened. Even after I told them that King Fluffy was gone, there was a group of boys searching everywhere, opening cupboard doors trying to find him. I was not prepared for the level of emotion that my students demonstrated. I think you could say they were engaged! Even though this was just a game, it was also very real and personal to them!

And now we "Islanders" are planning how to get our King back! What will happen next? What will we do? What will they do? It's us versus them! This part of our histories is not yet written. I can't wait to see what we will plan together next.

What I am finding more and more through this year is that often ideas can pop up in unexpected ways when working with the students and with other teachers. Personally, I don't feel constrained by the curriculum anymore to have to cover anything and I find that I have more time than ever to think about adventures we can uncover; what I feel more than anything else is a responsibility to make learning meaningful and fun for my students. The way I see it, I am providing an initial structure and vision for them through a theme that can bring out important concepts; but within that structure there are all kinds of pathways and freedoms that the students can take, and that I want desperately for them to take. This is called ownership! It has become part of our island oath and constitution.

Our island identity takes shape through our learning and experiences together in ways that I could never have planned alone. Really it would be impossible to repeat what has happened with this group of students this year ever again, even though I teach the same curriculum year after year. Each year is a new opportunity to discover the wonder of learning, and that is why I believe that teaching is the greatest adventure of all!