Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bird Approach or Flock Approach?

The Eagles
A few Februaries ago, students at my school became infatuated with the Decorah Eagles.  If this is unfamiliar to you, the Raptor Resource Project hosts a web cam from early to late spring each year.  Anyone can log on and watch these beautiful birds at any time of the day or night.  Our learners became so obsessed with them, that one kindergartner was overheard asking her teacher, "Do we have to go to recess? Can't we just stay in and watch the eagles?"
Aspiring Young Activists
Watching the eagles indirectly spawned a service learning project in our 2nd graders this year. (See Chimney Swift Project, below) It started a month before the eagle cam went live.  Concurrently, the building principal who, is a strong proponent of service learning, along with the second grade teachers created a hands on social justice lesson with their young learners.   As part of a study of Martin Luther King Jr. the teachers and principal decided to incite some social unrest among the students. After reading about 'sit ins' and 'peaceful protests', the principal announced that there would be less recess time for second grade because they weren't as deserving as the students in other grade levels. Not without encouragement from their teachers, the 7 & 8 year olds decided to hold a sit in of their own in the principal's office.  They orchestrated it beautifully with a march, chants, and banners.  With this overwhelming show of solidarity, the principal had no other choice but to rescind her earlier proclamation and allow full recess to all second graders. 
This was the first in a series of social justice lessons to which these young learners would become exposed (thanks to the skill and competency of their teachers and principal).  They had the opportunity to ask questions about injustice.  They also explored the root causes of the injustice.  They began to understand that it was the responsibility of everyone to change things that were not right.  In essence, these little folks were becoming 'fired up' knowing that they had the power to change things that needed to be changed, and they needed a cause to expend their newfound "citizenship energy".  
Back to the Eagles  
In late February, the students read an article about one of the previous year's offspring of the eagle pair.  The young eagle had flown into a high power line and was electrocuted.  The letter writing campaign began.  
After visits and letters from the local electric utility company, the students learned what was being done by utilities to protect wildlife around high wires.  However, their thirst for active citizenship had still not been quenched.  Then they invited a speaker from the local chapter of the Audubon society to school.   During this visit, another issue arose: They learned of the decline of a bird in our region called the chimney swift.  
The Chimney Swift Project Began
One of the standards for 2nd grade has to do with persuasive writing.   The standard in second grade actually asks kids to state their opinion and back it up. These kids went a few steps further. Our kids had the opportunity to practice persuasive writing and every aspect written conventions, when asking for money and materials donations.   A home improvement center answered the materials call and some firefighters from our local station helped the principal, and PTO president with labor.  By the time school was out for the summer, we had a chimney swift tower anxiously awaiting birds.  

 The Bird or the Flock?
The required learning standard that was the focus throughout this experience was opinion writing. As I reflect on this experience, I think about 2 different approaches that could have been taken to teach this standard.  Of course a 'bee and hive' analogy would have been more fitting, but we were saving birds this time.

Bird Approach  - Teach so that each bird understands the standard, concept and/or skill and can pass a test over it.  

Flock Approach - Teach so that the birds work for the good of the flock while learning the standard, concept and/or skill. 

If our teachers had decided take the bird approach they could have accomplished it like this:  Pull a subject out of a hat and have students start writing about it.  Then in typical 'writer's workshop' fashion, there would be mini lessons, edits, revisions, re-writes and finally the (pseudo)publication of the persuasive argument.   Writing would be limited to a 45 minute block of time each day, disjointed from the rest of the day.  During the month long unit on persuasive writing, they may even have time to write on 2 or 3 subjects.

Instead, our teachers decided to make this a rich learning environment. They took the flock approach. 

In lower elementary grades it is easy to get caught up in the idea of teaching the individual child a certain set of standards, skills or concepts.  That way, we can report to the parents "Your child is capable of X,Y, and Z".  The primary grades are the most logical place to do that,  kids need to learn the basics in order to function as human beings in our society. However, we should begin to introduce the concept of 'we'.  And when I say 'we' - I don't mean traditional "good citizen" concepts like: share, be nice, follow the rules, be honest, be kind, take turns, keep quiet, be obedient.  While these concepts help the individual to function, we can't stop at teaching just them. We must move forward and provide richer experiences for our kids. Experiences like this one, that shows learners that they are the ones who will make a difference in the world.  Then we can report to the parents with words like; "Together, we are capable of .  .  ."  That list will be much more impressive than the Xs, Ys and Zs on a report card.   

Our teachers did just that, they provided meaningful experiences.  They made the experiences not only relevant, but they triggered their kids to think about and learn about society and the roles and responsibilities that compose a functioning vibrant one.  These students learned a much more significant meaning of the concept of citizenship.  They learned that they had power to change things that they decided (through their own critical thinking) needed changing. While I'm certain that there were aspects of direct writing instruction involved in their experience, that was not the focus of the unit.  That instruction was a needed tool in order to accomplish the goal that they had set in saving those birds. The focus was solving problems using their creative and critical thinking.  

Why do you teach?  To better the bird, or to better the flock?

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