Welcome to our Inside Education Series!
Inside Education is a four-part series where we have students (present & past) talk about teachers that made a profound impact in their lives.
A Memorable Experience
We were a Navy family and in the 1970’s and 80’s. As was common for most Navy families, we moved about once every year. By the time I arrived at Glorietta Elementary in Coronado, California as a fifth grader I had attended five schools in five different communities, from San Francisco to the suburbs of Washington D.C. That year at Glorietta stands out easily as the best school-based education experience I had from Kindergarten through tenth grade. We left Coronado after my fifth grade year and moved to New Orleans, where I had a very different educational experience. The contrast between the two schools and teachers was stunning. The experience added to my already developing understanding of the diversity of school cultures and the inequities in public education, much of which remains true today.
So it is with the perspective of a child who experienced an array of school cultures and teaching styles, – that I remember Mrs. Brewer. Mrs. Brewer was my fifth grade teacher and my absolute favorite teacher from my childhood years. I remember many things about Mrs. Brewer, but mostly I recall the experience I had as a result of her efforts. Ms. Brewer used a cross-curriculum approach to instruction in a center-based classroom structure. She valued experiential, project-based learning and blended a constructivist approach to individualized, child-centered instruction with one that drew on a socio-cultural perspective for collaborative learning. Mrs. Brewer respected and enjoyed children, enjoyed teaching, and gave her teaching and her students a great deal of time and thought.
A child’s perspective and adventure in learning
I remember Mrs. Brewer as a teacher who was mostly very nice. Of course she sometimes annoyed me as well, particularly when she pestered me about my project deadlines. However, what I remember most is what how enabled her students the freedom to learn and explore in fun and creative ways, as well as the responsibilities with which she entrusted us and the rewards we received. Here are a few examples of what we got to do:
- Make pinhole cameras and use them to track the cycle of the moon at night over time (homework). In so doing we learned about the properties of light and the night sky.
- Go to the beach and log our observations of the rocky shore and the little crabs and other creatures that lived there. We saw these things with our own eyes.
- Write screen plays, work in teams to make them into short films, and edit them ourselves (pre-computers, splicing of film strips, etc.).
- Use our earned free time to climb into the little reading cubby to read a book of our choice or to have quiet time.
- Crack an unhatched egg from our chicken embryology project to see what it looked like and identify what stage of development it was during the twenty-day cycle. (This was a specific request of mine. The answer was day 14, and while what I saw was a little sad and rather gross, it was also fascinating.)
- Listen to our teacher read to us (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – hooray!)
- Write silly stories and share and swap them with others in our writing group (“The Mystery of the Woman with a Lily Pad on Her Head” was one of my favorites. I kept it for years.)
- Use the monopoly money we received for completing our weekly assignments to buy things such as pencils at the store we ran as a class.
A lasting impression and impact
My class of fifth graders from that time and place was empowered to explore, discover, struggle with little matters (why is it so hard to spell business?) and bigger ones (Why are boys so mean one minute and nice the next?) and grow into sixth graders. While we had textbooks, they didn’t dominate our daily instructional experiences. There was structure and discipline. Without it all that experiential learning would have resulted in chaos and confusion. Perhaps, most importantly though, there was a caring, engaged teacher at the helm.
At the conclusion of fifth grade, I felt as though curiosity was rewarded more times than not and that learning was about exploring the world around you and finding ways to effectively communicate what you learned about the world.
Supporting the Mrs. Brewers of the world
The quality and availability of instructional resources matter – from incubators to software and print materials. They matter as components of a curriculum that includes project-based, experiential learning. Unfortunately, many public schools still do not have access to the sorts of instructional resources, technical or otherwise, needed for experiential learning. The school I attended for sixth grade, in New Orleans, Louisiana, for example, had none of the things I describe from Mrs. Brewer’s class and likely didn’t have the human resources to support the use of them either. However, as we well know by now, what we think of as high-quality instructional resources are not much use without teachers who understand what their students need to grow as learners and who know how to use the resources at their disposal to the greatest effect.
Supporting the Mrs. Brewers of the world means supporting teachers as experiential learners themselves and providing them will all the resources, human and material, we can muster. How to facilitate such support is clearly a broad, involved topic. So, to keep it simple I’ll close with two links, one of which draws on research to provide a means for collaborative learning among teachers, and another that offers a teacher’s perspective on the value of experiential learning.
Margaret Riel’s work on learning circles is informed by a pedagogical approach that values collaborative, experiential learning. Learning circles provide an approach to collaborative learning that teachers may use to support their ongoing professional development.
A recent post in EdWeek outlines a master teacher’s thoughts on the value of experiential learning.
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