Sunday, October 3, 2010

What makes a neighborhood a good place to be?

This week we started thinking about this question, which is the guiding question for our neighborhoods curriculum all year.  It is a really good question, I think, one we haven't used (with that wording) before.  It took me two years of teaching this curriculum to feel like I really knew the "big picture" of what we were trying to teach.  Once I had that understanding, I could step back and think, "Okay, so what is the guiding question?"  I am very happy about it. 

[Later we'll work on this question, too: "What do people do to make their neighborhoods a better, fairer place to live?"  That's when we learn about activism and community involvement.  It's good stuff.]

We started thinking about what makes a neighborhood a good place to be by asking what makes our school a good place to be.  This wasn't my idea -- it came from our Expeditionary Learning coach.  But it was a stroke of genius, really, to start this way.  Our school is familiar, and is smaller than a neighborhood (although not by much, anymore).  Starting with the school meant that we could practice the skills they will need to investigate this question on field trips -- skills like understanding what we were looking for, ignoring distractions, listening carefully, and observing .  

We set off to do our "fieldwork."  Twenty second graders with their clipboard and pencils tiptoed around the building looking for evidence of what makes the school a good place.  They were as intent as a cat stalking its prey.  [It was exactly what it means to have classroom management driven by engaging curriculum -- no one needed redirection because everyone was interested in the work.]  They scrawled ideas earnestly, practicing the art of holding a clipboard with one hand and writing with the other (no easy task for a second grader). 

Every time I do a lesson like this, I learn how to change the wording of my question.  I had started with "What makes our school a good place to be?"  Then the next column said, "What need does this meet?"  That one was hard.  We did some examples before we set off.  The cafeteria makes our school a good place to be because it serves us food.  That meets our need to eat.  A bench makes our school a good place to be because it meets our need to sit and rest.

It was a little abstract.

By the middle of our walk, I knew it should have been, "What makes our school a good place to be?" and then, "How does it make our school a good place to be?"  Every time I think I made a good organizer or handout, I have to edit it.  This is why documenting the curriculum is such a pain -- it never stops changing.

According to the second graders, our school is a very good place to be for many reasons.  It has chairs!  (So we can sit down.)  It has lockers, so we have a place to put our things.  There are signs, which help us know where we are and where to go.  It has teachers, so we can learn.  There are murals, which help us "think about the whole earth" (that's a direct quote) and meet our need for beauty.  It has a playground, so we can play, and a garden, so we can grow food.  They even listed the piano as something that makes it a good place to be.  They were thinking more deeply than I had anticipated, but it was just where I wanted their minds to go.

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