The third graders were ready for their holiday “how to” presentations. The teacher had divided the class into groups of four or five, and each child was to show and tell how to make something for the holidays. Children were to make a poster outlining the steps of the project. In addition, each child brought enough supplies so that the other children in the group could make the project too.
There were plenty of adults in the room, mostly mothers who had slipped over to school from work to watch or assist their child with materials. In the group I observed, mothers of three of the four children were present. The teacher announced that those kids would go first so their mothers could get back to work. “I’m not going last!” protested Antoinette, the only child without a parent present, but she had no choice.
Child number one showed her group how to make a reindeer ornament. The others set diligently to work. The project was clear and simple, but there was a problem with the glue and the popsicle sticks refused to stick together. Her mother helped with the glue, but the child managed the rest herself.
Child number two’s mother started by telling her child what to do, but very quickly just took over the project herself. The project was how to put together an instant hot chocolate mix so that it looked like an ice cream cone and required lots of measuring various ingredients. Mom did a good job. Her daughter did nothing.
Child number three’s project was how to braid hair. Mom distributed brand new Barbie dolls to all the children so they could practice on Barbie’s hair.
Antoinette was reluctant to do any of the projects at first but eventually came around. She couldn’t get the ornament to stick together and eventually gave up. She dropped the bag of hot chocolate mix on the floor, leaving a fine grit for the custodian. She was awkward trying to braid Barbie’s hair and basically complained that it was a stupid project and she wished she had a doll dressed in purple rather than pink.
Finally it was time for Antoinette to present her project. Her project was how to make a bird feeder out of pinecones, peanut butter, and birdseed. The poster explained the steps, so Antoinette handed out the supplies, neatly bagged by her mother, and said, “Look at the poster.” That’s all she said. Then she set to work making a bird feeder of her own, ignoring the other kids. The rest of the group had no trouble making this project, and they loved slathering the peanut butter on the pinecones and rolling and rolling and rolling it in the birdseed. There was birdseed on the table, on the chairs, on the floor, and all over the kids. It was glorious. If Antoinette was pleased, she didn’t show it, but she got the job done.
During clean up, I thought about the teacher’s job in this classroom. As I observed some of the other groups, similar scenarios unfolded in each one revealing a huge range of abilities, interests, attitudes, and family support or pressure among this class of 22 students. The teacher’s job was to make progress and find success with each child.
This is what school looks like on the ground, not from 30,000 feet, the fly-over view many politicians have. Before voting on NCLB renewal or revisions, each lawmaker should spend a little time in a real classroom. Maybe slather a pinecone with peanut butter and roll it in birdseed. Tough on the suits though.
Happy holiday, folks!