Why I Love Teaching “Unusual” Things

I have a bit of a reputation for being a quirky teacher. My students can often be found in the hallways at school, engaged in some strange new whim that I have managed to tie into the curriculum in some way. There just isn’t enough room in a traditional classroom for my students to really get into their work without feeling cramped or overwhelmed by the proximity of other sutdents.

Up until this year, my classroom was located on the second floor of the school, surrounded by other hard-working classes with students who were much quieter and more studious than my boisterous, exuberant class. I think I know why I was moved to the bottom floor this year, and I can sum it up in one word: ukulele. I’ve talked about teaching ukulele before – about how it benefited me tremendously, because I never have to teach dance any more.

What I didn’t really talk about was how the ukuleles – and other unusual undertakings like them – benefit my students.

First, let me tell you a little bit about some of the more unusual or exciting projects my students have worked on over the last few years:

- Melted crayon art: Using hair dryers, hot glue guns, bristol board, and a lot of patience, my Grade 5s explored physical changes of matter by using wax crayons to create works of art for our annual art show.

- Original musical compositions: Using online musical notation software, my Grade 5s composed original pieces of music to accompany short stories they wrote for French Writing. The following year, I had my Grade 5s use the same software to create pieces of music that represented different fractions. One activity, multiple curriculum connections!

- Board games: In Mathematics, my Grade 4s and 5s created their own versions of the popular board game “Carcassonne” to explore fractions and probability.

- Quilts: For our art show last year, my Grade 4s and 5s designed and created small quilts using sewing machines and donated fabric. The quilts were auctioned off and the proceeds were donated to charity. This project was a part of both our Mathematics and Visual Arts programs.

- Dream homes: I have had Grade 4s and 5s design their “dream home” using a set of parameters (specific area and perimeter, specific rooms they must include, etc.).

- Weblogs: As part of my Language Arts curriculum, I have had my Grade 4s and 5s create personal weblogs (password protected) where they responded to writing prompts, wrote about their lives, and read and responded to peers’ posts.

It has been a phenomenal experience teaching my students to do these things. Some of them are REALLY fun, some of them are REALLY hard, but they have all been beneficial. These projects have allowed my students to explore the curriculum in ways that they wouldn’t have imagined on their own.

You’ll notice that a lot of them have to do with Mathematics – and that’s been a conscious focus on my part. When I ask my students at the beginning of the year what their favourite and least favourite subjects are, the majority of my students list Math as one of their least favourite subject. I try to change that by having them look at Math in a different way. A lot of my students don’t realize, at the beginning of the year, that Math is an integral part of music and graphic design. It’s exciting to watch them discover fractions and patterns in a musical composition, or figure out ratios to make different colours in visual art, or carefully and painstakingly measure out quilt squares to ensure that they will fit within the design they have envisioned. These activities help my students see that Mathematics has more to do with everyday life than just adding up numbers or memorizing multiplication facts. They see why Math is important to learn and how they might actually use it in the future. It is made less abstract by being placed in a real world context.

The blogs, on the other hand, give my students a purpose for their writing that goes beyond “writing in a notebook that only my teacher will see.” Their voices as writers change when they are writing for their peers instead of their teacher. It’s exciting to watch them interact in their second (or third, or fourth…) language through the comments on their weblogs. It’s also a way for them to make connections with other students that they might never have spoken to or sought out before. I have watched new friendships form in our protected online sphere, then watched as those students brought that friendship into the real life classroom. By having them write for one another instead of me, I find that my students are more willing to take risks with their writing and worry less about getting it “perfect.” They have fun. They talk about things they wouldn’t have talked about before. They enjoy writing.

These projects take a lot of forethought and preparation. They are not small undertakings by any means, nor are they particularly easy. There is a learning curve with these kinds of things, and not all students will enjoy all of these activities. It’s worth doing things a little outside the traditional realm of teaching, though. I’ve never seen some of my students laugh as much as they do when they’re making up a ridiculous song on the ukulele about smelly feet. I also never imagined that a group of very athletic, very boyish boys would take quilt design and sewing quite as seriously as some of my students did last year.

The best part, though, is seeing every student in my class find something to be proud of. Sometimes it’s the fact that they got up and performed a song in front of the class, other times it’s the new skill they learned, other times it’s that they actually knew HTML before I taught students how to make weblogs and they were able to jump in and help other students learn. It is really exciting and rewarding to see my students engaged in these activities and taking charge of their learning.

Even if I’m a giant disruption to my colleagues when I take over the foyer of the school with six sewing machines (and 50 students) every Monday morning for two months straight… or when my 25+ students are scattered through the halls of the schools plucking away at the strings of their (mostly out of tune) ukuleles… or when we blow a breaker on one side of the school with all our hair dryers so none of the hallway outlets work.

I am that teacher. My students are those students.

We have a LOT of fun learning.

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The Author

Shawna Rothgeb-Bird

Grade 4 Middle French Immersion teacher from Ottawa. Passionate about teaching (naturally!), board games, video games, music, and roller derby. Instilling a sense of wonder, curiosity, and critical thought in students since 2011 (or 2008 if we want to include Teacher's College).

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