Making Curriculum Pop

Over three years ago, on a day during my student teaching when I was feeling particularly brave—my cooperating teacher also happened to be absent for the day—I decided to ask my group of Grade 5 students, "So, how am I doing?"

While I did brace myself for the worst, I was very surprised to hear, "Science should be more fun!" How could this be? I had been expending extra effort so that my lessons on wetlands would be engaging, or so I thought. I had gathered wetlands "props," colorful books from the library, and used elements of mystery and suspense to dramatize and highlight the subject matter during my presentations of the material. How much more fun could it get?

I was baffled. Then I remembered back to one of my teacher training courses: could it be that I had gotten myself into a teacher-centered rut? I had hardly allowed the students to "DO" much at all, so busy was I in "SHOWING" and "TELLING" all about wetlands. I decided to re-insert into my unit plan a lesson that I originally had considered to be supplementary and unnecessary. It asked to students to take on the role of something living or non-living in the salt marsh (examples: the sun, the moon, the wind, the water, a ribbed mussel, great blue heron, cordgrass, fiddler crab, clapper rail). After learning about their "characters," the students introduced themselves to the rest of the class and took their positions so that we might create a "silent movie" showing the effects of the changing tide.

I did consider the lesson to be a success, but it was not until the end of my twelve weeks with the class, when many students cited in their notes to me this one particular lesson as their favorite during my entire time with them, that I was able to realize the lesson's impact more fully. One student even remembered the date of the lesson, drew a picture of his character, and wrote, "To remind you, I was the salt marsh snail."

This experience came to mind after experiencing a workshop in April with Dr. Belinha De Abreu, assistant professor at Drexel University, middle school educator, and author of Teaching Media Literacy: A How-To-Do-It Manual. The workshop was part of "Teach, Think, Play: The Moving Image in the Classroom" at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. De Abreu helped us to better understand the concept of "persistence of vision" by allowing us to create our own flipbooks (small books you can "flip" through quickly using your thumb; each successive page shows an image that is slightly different from the one on the page before) and thaumatropes (a disk with an image on each side; strings allow you to twirl the disk quickly).




Getting to engage in the creative process really made this experience stand out. Besides enjoying the chance to "make" and "do," I was better able to internalize an enduring understanding (to use the language of the Understanding by Design model), that in essence the "moving" image is really an illusion!

I would recommend the making of flipbooks or thaumatropes to a wide range of educators; I think its usefulness can apply from the elementary level up through high school. In the upper grades teachers can push students to focus on the story they can tell with what they create. A question I had in creating the flipbook was, must you create it to flip from back to front, as we were told to do? This meant starting with our first image on the last page and working toward the front with each successive image. This was a bit counter-intuitive considering most books we read have the opposite arrangement. I tried making my flipbook to flip from front to back, and it seemed to work just fine! I would probably use this method with students unless I discovered a reason why back to front is advantageous. Another recommendation I have concerns the thaumatropes: take care to use a string that won't fray! This may require a few trial runs by the teacher ahead of time. The string we used was too "silky" and came apart when we twisted it between our fingers.

I saw possibilities to connect the flipbooks and thaumatropes to the study of history (when were these used and why?) and science (what principle does it illustrate?). Dr. De Abreu also mentioned animating subjects being studied in any discipline. Of course when studying film the flipbooks and thaumatropes are a fine lead-in to considering the various ways movies "trick" us into experiencing a three-dimensional reality on a flat screen.

Dr. De Abreu also mentioned the possibility of students constructing a zoetrope in groups. Other interesting springboards for lessons are the Thomas Edison shorts (e.g. "The Kiss"), George Melies' "Trip to the Moon" (considered the first science fiction film; referenced in The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" music video), Edwin Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" (considered the first western film), Edison's "Enchanted Drawing" (the first animation), vaudeville and Chaplin films. Two books that I got to see at the workshop that I thought were particularly mesmerizing were "Swing" and "Gallop," both by Rufus Butler Seder and which use "scanimation."

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Hi Virginia,
I love the story about the salt marsh silent dramatic play! Even in museums I find it important for kids to learn more how they can communicate without using sound (through posing, movement or still images). As your salt marsh snail revealed, it can be very memorable for kids when they can actively participate in demonstrating these concepts at hand. Unfortunately, I have seen the opposite! When I was student teaching I witnesses an art teacher complete an entire unit on Muybridge through only discussion. The kids seemed pretty checked out and only seemed to remember the fact that the man in the pictures had no pants.
It could have been useful if this teacher had been exposed to the presentation of Dr. De Abreu to get some ideas for some quick, hands on activities. In my research I also found a great lesson on the PBS site where you can create your own zoetrope using an oatmeal canister!
Megan, you're the best!
You got me thinking--maybe what's key is to include variety? For example, if all your art teacher had done were hands-on activities, then perhaps no one activity in particular would have been memorable or stood out among the rest (although the students may have better internalized an overall enduring understanding). Balancing discussion, direct instruction, student-centered activities, and the rest allows students to connect with whatever may work best for them.
Hi Virginia,

You know I loved how you tried to get the children more involved and connect more with the silent movie on salt marsh. This reminds me of the William Kist presentation in which he showed us the key to any instructional activity is to have the students; collaberate, Move, and Communicate. It's not about the document camera, or the latest laptop, it's about remembering that we are living in a global community and thereby preparing our students to be a part of it. The simple act of having the children move around and become active in the understanding of this lesson helped for this moment to be memorable and signifcant. Great idea!
Virginia: I have been meaning to send you a post. You made some wonderful connections to your own lessons as part of my presentation. I am so pleased that you found it useful. What really stood out is your comment that stated you enjoyed "the chance to make and do," which to me is fundamental to learning. Anytime you can make a lesson real for students, where they can truly experience what is being taught, that is a successful lesson. Moreover, it is essential to students' growth as they will be learning by doing in many aspects of their lives from work, career and social life. Lastly, you had a question about flipbooks in terms of going backwards to forwards. You can do it either way, but the reason to do it in reverse is that you have a completed picture of what you ultimately want to see. All the other pages will lead you to that final design. For some students, especially the younger ones, they need to picture what they are working towards. I hope that makes sense. Thank you for your kind words and a truly flattering post.
-Belinha

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