Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How An Emergent Curriculum Works: Constructing It Ourselves

(For the past couple days I've been trying to illustrate how an emergent curriculum works at our school by providing examples from the classroom. In one instance our project emerged as if by magic. The second example emerged from me, the teacher, having an agenda. In this case, the kids took my attempts to introduce a mathematical concept with Halloween decorations and turned it into a rich, full day of learning about spiders.)

I have a couple boxes in our storage room into which, at the end of each Halloween season, I dump everything orange, black or otherwise related to the holiday. This year when I pulled out the box I found a package of that artificial spider webbing folks use to spooky-fy their homes. On the package it said, "Covers 300 Square Feet!"

I discovered it as our 5's class was assembling outside, so I took it with me. I announced, "I have this fake spider web. It says it covers 300 square feet."

Kids gathered around, telling each other about how they have spider webs decorating their houses and yards. They had all seen this stuff before.

Diego said, "Let's use it to decorate!" And his friends agreed.

I tried again, "I want to see how big 300 square feet is." We opened the package and kids started pulling. Within minutes we had a web that covered what I assume is approximately 300 square feet of our outdoor classroom, going up the concrete slope into the laurels, extending to the windmill, and nearly to the workbench. One long strand made it all the way to the upper level of the sand pit where an adult attached it to the nail protruding from a cedar that we sometimes use to hook up a pulley system.

The kids had left it a couple feet off the ground, which allowed them to crawl under it and into it, where they started by pretending to be caught, then found that they were, in fact, tangled in it and had to wrestle their way out. After about 15 minutes we convened indoors on our blue rug.

Almost instantly, Cooper said, "I have a book about spiders. There's a kind called a Tarantula. It's huge and poisonous."

I'm not a spider expert. I suppose if I were a teacher in a conventional school in which "direct instruction" was the standard, I would have either tried to force the kids back into thinking about 300 square feet or else I would have prepared myself by reading a book of my own, then attempted to convey to the children the parts I thought they ought to know. Instead, I discovered an old Halloween decoration in the storage room and let the kids play with it, so I was forced to rely on my own actual knowledge rather than the stuff I'd crammed into my head the night before (or worse, relied on a video or app to deliver pre-packaged information to the kids via a screen). One thing I did know was that spiders are venomous, not poisonous. I said, "Did you know that all spiders are venomous? That's how they subdue their food. Most of them are so tiny that when they bite you, you don't feel it. Tarantulas are huge so, yeah, you feel the venom when one of those bites you." And with this I had pretty much exhausted my own spider information.

Cooper added, "Tarantulas don't live around here."

Things happened quickly after that, so I can't recall who said what, but after a few minutes of shouting out spider "information," we got ourselves organized to take turns by raising hands.

"We found a big spider in our basement."

"We found one at our house and daddy caught in my cup and let it go outside."

"Spiders have eight legs."

"My mommy is scared of spiders. I'm not scared of spiders."

"I'm a little bit scared of spiders."

"They make webs to catch bugs. Bugs are their prey."

"Daddy long legs are spiders."

As I called on each kid, I said, "Elena has spider information," "William has spider information." This is my technique for trying to keep us on topic: not commanding them to talk about spiders, but rather simply making a verbal assumption. Not everyone stuck strictly to spiders, but most did.

Our "spiders" preyed upon all kinds of meat.

"Spiders eat other bugs."

"They catch them in their web, then inject them with their poison to make them sleep, then wrap them up, then eat them."

"I've seen a spider eat a bug before -- I put a bug in a spider web and watched it!"

"We have Giant House spiders at our house."

"Black Widows are dangerous spiders."

"Good thing we don't have them around here."

"We do have them around here! They live in wood piles."

In this case, there's a green fairy wrapped up in the web.

Some kids seemed to doubt this bit of information, so I added, "It's true. Black widows often live in piles of wood -- you know like fire wood. They like to mostly stay outside, but if you're helping bring in wood for the fireplace, it's a good idea to wear gloves. Their venom is very dangerous -- it could kill a baby, so don't let your babies get the firewood."

"There are also Hobo spiders."

"Those are really dangerous."

The conversation went on like this for a good 10-15 minutes, kids offering up what they know about spiders, constructing a very complete, age-appropriate scientific exploration of the spider, one driven by their own interests and curiosities. At one point Henry asked, "Why don't spiders get stuck in their own webs."

I didn't know, but in an emergent curriculum I don't need to know. Instead, I threw it back to the kids, "Henry wants to know why spiders don't get stuck in their own webs."

Wyatt guessed that it was because spiders have "oil on their legs," a brilliant theory.  Cooper thought it might have to do with their "hairy legs." Wyatt's dad raised his hand (it's rare when adults raise their hands at circle time, so I always call them, knowing we'll be getting on-topic information) "I just learned this: spiders don't get stuck in their own webs because they spin two different kids of webs. One kind is sticky and catches bugs. The other kind isn't sticky and that's what they walk on."

Here we caught a poodle.

As we went around our circle, sharing everything we knew about spiders, sharing everything we needed to know about spiders, making jokes about spiders, telling our personal stories about spiders, expressing our feelings about spiders, I couldn't help but compare this to my experiences in high school and college. There we always had authoritative teachers who "owned" the knowledge which they then conveyed to us. We were then expected to compete against one another (being graded on a curve, you know) to determine which of us remembered the most. By the time I was at the university I would have no more "shared" my information with my classmates than I would have let them cheat off me during a test. Instead of being resources to me, my fellow students were my rivals for grades.

When we went back outside, the kids went immediately to the 300 square foot spider web where they pretended to be Giant House spiders, Black Widows, Hobos, Tarantulas, and Daddy Long Legs, crawling in, out, and around the web. They began to gather up prey from among our "loose parts," injecting them with venom (and yes, many of them were now using the word "venom"), then wrapping them up to eat later.

I thought I was just using up some left over Halloween decoration, but what emerged was a complete lesson on spiders, one constructed on the spot by children and their own interests.

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sybrina said...

Great class, Tom! I have spider trivia to share too: not only do spiders have 8 legs, but they also have 8 eyes as well!

Anonymous said...

Hi Teacher Tom,
I am Alison Stacey, an elementary education major at the University of South Alabama. My EDM 310 class requires me to follow your blog and leave comments. Later, I will be summarizing my visits to your blog with a post on my blog http://staceyalisonedm310.blogspot.com/. Also, you can visit our class blog at http://www.edm310.blogspot.com/.
I really enjoyed reading about your experience with your students, and their information related to spiders. I love how you let the children construct their own learning discussion instead of forcing material on them. Sometimes, I think students do not learn material because they feel it is work to learn, instead of it being fun to learn. I also agree with your opinion on peers becoming competitors instead of contributors. Students think they have to compete for better grades instead of encouraging each other and helping each other learn. You seem like a very thoughtful and dedicated teacher. Thank you for putting all your effort into your teaching and your blog.