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."