Thursday, October 25, 2012

How An Emergent Curriculum Works: "That's Why They Have To Be Burglars"

(For the past 4 days, I've been using examples from our classroom by way of trying to define what we mean at Woodland Park when we call what we do an "emergent curriculum." In one case our "project" emerged as if by some sort of wordless magic. In the second post, I described a "project" that emerged from my own agenda. In the third, post I discussed a full day of learning about spiders that the children constructed from their own collective knowledge and experience. Yesterday's post was about a dramatic play project sparked by the driving interest of a single student. Today is a look at how real life events lead to real life solutions.) 

A couple weeks ago, upon arriving at school, I unlocked the storage room to find stuff scattered all over the floor. It took me a few minutes to figure out what had happened, but finally realized that someone had broken a window and apparently knocked things down while climbing in. We lease our space from the Fremont Baptist Church. When I told Pastor Judy, she knew what had likely happened. Neighbors had complained the night before about some guys who had been sleeping in the alleyway behind the church and she'd had to call to police. "They were mad at me." We later found vulgarities written on the alley side of the church as well.

The window faces onto our outdoor classroom, so as our 5's assembled out there, we began to talk of the "burglar." No one seemed particularly worried, but several of them were quite excited, concocting all kinds of ideas about what we ought to do. Finally, one of the kids joked that we should have The Troll come protect our school, which lead someone else to suggest that we ask The Troll what to do. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this idea so we marched ourselves one block to where our street intersects with Troll Way and climbed up on The Troll's hand, where we closed our eyes and silently asked The Troll what to do. I believe it was Duncan who informed us that The Troll told him that we should use "sharp needles," then amazingly we learned that he'd given pretty much the same advice to all of us, in addition to such other ideas as nailing a piece of wood over the broken window, devising a trap, somehow employing "invisible broken glass," and using poison.

Back at school we continued our discussion, making a list of what we ought to do about the "burglar." There was some debate about the poison. "We don't want to kill him!" 

"No, it'll just be sleeping poison. Then when he wakes up we can tell him we don't want him to break the window again."

That settled, we surveyed our list. Cooper raised his hand, "I know! We could just put that list on the door, then when the burglar comes again, he'll just be scared!"

It was a good discussion about a real world event. By the time we returned to the outdoor classroom later in the day, Wally, the church's building maintenance guy, had already knocked off the first thing on our list: nailing wood over the broken window. The kids later checked out his handiwork and found it good. Still, I went home feeling like we'd only looked at the situation from our own point-of-view, a natural thing, but one that only gives us part of the story, limiting our pool of potential solutions to fortifications and traps, even if we didn't want to kill him.

So the following day, I shared what Pastor Judy and the police had said about the likely culprits. After talking about how we all sometimes do things we regret when we're angry, I asked the next logical question, "Why do you suppose those guys had to sleep behind the church?"

These are urban children. They know the answer. "Because they don't have a home."

"They don't have money."

"They don't have jobs."

"They don't even have toilets."

"They don't have food."

"That's why they have to be burglars."

The children knew all the answers. There was no lecturing required by me. I asked, "Do you think that's why the burglar broke our window?"

"He was trying to get food."

"We should give him food!"

"We could build him a house!"

The children already knew all the answers. We've scheduled a visit to a local food bank for our next field trip. We'll get on the bus with food in our hands and put it on the shelves. We'll keep talking about why people don't have enough food and about why they don't have a place to live and about why some feel they have no choice but to turn to a life of crime. We'll think some more about how to solve the problem to which we, as children, already know the answers, but too often forget as we grow up.

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Anonymous said...


The following sentence needs editing:
we could should use "sharp needles,"

Sammy Greer said...

Wow, I'm so impressed with how the children discussed and figured out the problems, and finally empathized with the "burglar" and then to follow up with action (food bank) is much more of a learning experience than reading a book about it, and leaving it at that. These experiences will leave impressions, and hopefully create men and women who change our country for the better and live compassionate lives. Well done (teacher and students!).