At my school, we’re so hyper-focused on reading, writing and math that science and social studies toooootally get the shaft. Which is unfortunate, because taking a strong interest in a particular area of science and social studies is often the catalyst for progress in reading, writing and math.
One of the things that’s surprised me in my first year as a classroom teacher is how much I really enjoy teaching science. Science was never my thing when I was in school, but as a teacher I get to see the “Eureka!” of discovery on a daily basis, which is pretty cool. We use the FOSS science curriculum, and unlike Teachers College, I can honestly say I love it. (And my students do too.) The kits come packaged with almost every supply we need, which is fabulous because it means I don’t have to run around trying to find plastic cups or clothespins for our experiments. All the lessons are hands-on, and they tend to surprise me even more than my students. There have been many times when I reviewed a lesson ahead of time, rolled my eyes and thought, “My kids will never be able to do that” — but then they can! I usually test out the lessons ahead of time so I’ll be able to demonstrate them for my kids, and half the time my kids can make the experiments work better than I can.
In our current unit, we’re studying rocks. This has been great (albeit slightly messy — the rocks come all dusty and then we have to drop them in water to see what happens, which creates puddles), especially because of all the rich vocabulary we’re getting to use to describe our rocks. Even though I don’t technically have ELLs in my class, many of them speak other languages at home, and I’m noticing that they lack vocabulary for description. So we have a growing “rock words” wall where we’re collecting words like shiny, bumpy, dusty, chalky, sharp, flat, smooth, rough, and so on.
Recently, after a few days of observing different kinds of rocks under a microscope and how they react in water (FOSS came with enough rocks for each kid to get their own bag of rocks and a mini microscope — brilliant!), I got to “reveal” the names of the rocks and their origins. When they found out they’d been handling three different types of rocks that all originated from various stages of a volcanic eruption, they were awed. Then I brought in photos of my visit to Kilauea, the Hawaiian volcano. We could see the types of rocks we were studying in the photos! It was pretty neat to see the progression from talking about “the reddish rock with the holes” to talking about “scoria.”
But of course, volcanoes will hold anyone’s attention; social studies is a little trickier. This week, we took a break from studying map keys (boring) to discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m like 99% sure that they have to have learned something about Martin Luther King in first grade, but none of it seemed to ring a bell when we started our discussion (except for the fact that he was shot and killed — that everyone always seems to remember and wants to talk more about).
I started out by saying that just like we have rules in our classroom, our country has rules called laws. And there was a time before we were born, but not very long ago, that some places in our country had laws that said that people who had black skin couldn’t go to school with people who had white skin, or ride the same buses, or drink from the same water fountains. Their reactions to this ranged from shock to outrage to puzzlement (how could that be the law?). We talked about how laws can be unfair: I asked them whether it would be unfair if I made a rule in our classroom that only children born in February could be allowed to use our bathroom. Then I asked them to think about how they could convince me to change the rule. Because this is where the boys start saying grandiose things like, “If someone told me I couldn’t go to the same store as other people, I would just punch that person in the head and run inside!” I said, “If you thought the new rule was unfair, and you decided to run up to me and kick me really hard so that I would change the rule, do you think I would feel like changing my mind because you kicked me?”
So then I explained how Martin Luther King tried to use words instead of violence to change people’s minds. Jason remained unconvinced, and in fact is probably at home right now plotting how he will achieve whatever he wants in life by brute force. But anyway. We listened to a very brief part of the “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and we talked about what it means to “judge” someone. We read the fantastic Martin’s Big Words, and talked about how the things he said were “big words” because they were words that got people to change. Then they wrote their own little “I have a dream…I can help by…”
Jason’s dream was peace on earth, but he couldn’t think of a way that he personally could help acheive it. I was like, “Hmm, maybe you could start by not calling Felix a crybaby so I won’t have to pull the two of you out of the classroom on my prep to discuss how we respect our classmates by not making them feel sad.”