One October, some teachers and I took several classes on a field trip to a pumpkin patch. After my group and I went on a hayride, we followed one another into a corn maze. Somehow, we got lost and kept going in circles. Not willing to admit defeat; I eyed a line of trees that I knew were next to the route that the hay wagon had taken. Since I didn’t want to keep repeating the same mistakes, over and over, I shouted, “Come on kids! We’re going to make our own path!” One of the kids said, “We have to keep on the path and watch for signs.” However; life experiences had taught me that, if something isn’t working, you have to try to find what will. So … long story, short; we just tromped right through the corn stalks, jumped a small irrigation ditch and found our own way out!
Teaching in K-3 classrooms can be just as tricky as those mazes! To make things even more complicated; the path for one, might not be the right path for others. Before you start making lesson plans, think about how you’re going to lay the groundwork for meeting the needs of individual students. What kind of learning environment do you need to establish? What is the curriculum you must teach and how will you get and keep students engaged?
Build a sense of community that includes every single child. Even the most disengaged or misbehaving child cannot help but be pulled into an environment where they know that the group is committed to making the best place for learning to happen.
• Call it “our” classroom.
• Openly discuss how “we” can make a better place to learn.
• Take and honor suggestions from the students. (Reserve executive privilege for yourself.)
• Have a weekly classroom meeting to air grievances and express gratitude.
• Take suggestions on seating but when possible, allow movement around the room. A young child might find working on the floor, more comfortable than working at a table.
• Encourage self-control. Don’t let “I couldn’t help it,” or “I can’t” be a way to explain their way out of a confrontation.
• Give children options for finding a quiet place, if they feel they can’t concentrate.
• Don’t let children laugh at, or make fun of, anyone who makes a mistake.
• Encourage risk-taking.
• Vary groupings: throughout the day, mix it up. Work with students in small heterogeneous and homogeneous groups, as well as in whole group settings.
• Encourage kids to select the books that they might like to read. Introduce them to book series and authors that they might like.
• Give many opportunities to write about their personal experiences. Allow time to share.
• Build charts, with your students, instead of buying ready-made ones. (i.e. rules and informational)
• Decorate the room with their cooperative and individual art pieces.
• Be strict, when you must, but remember to have a sense of humor!
Curriculum and Engagement: Finding the Path for Each Child
The learning environment is the foundation that everything else is built on. When students know that you are all in this together and they see you engaged in the curriculum, they are more apt to buy into the learning process. Classroom environment, curriculum and engagement all go hand-in-hand. Even though I’m taking the process apart, picture all of these ideas layered, one on top of another.
- Get familiar with your social studies and science standards.
- Choose a topic that will incorporate one or more of the standards. (Read: Building an Ocean on a Classroom Wall.)
- Meet with the whole group to invite them into the process of exploring and learning about the topic.
- Use a guided drawing activity to help interest them in the topic. (Read: Drawing to Understand.)
- Have all of the children draw with you, as you draw.
- Build a process grid that will help organize information that you want them to learn, during the course of the study.
- Have your students participate and write on their own grid, as you put the larger one together.
- Whole group activities will help give the children common things to talk about, when they later work on individual and group projects.
- Teach writing lessons which encompass some of the science or social studies you’re teaching.
- When possible, teach grammar and sentence structure and math combined with the science or social studies topic.
- Provide reading materials (different levels) so all of the kids can read about the topic.
- Explore career possibilities, related to the topic.
- Watch videos that take you to places that are not feasible to take a field trip to. (i.e. South Pole)
- Research, with the children, when they ask questions that you don’t know the answers to.
- Allow them time to explore the topics on computers. (i.e. National Geographic)
- Tell them, and show your excitement, when you learn something new!
- Get engaged in the topic and it can be contagious.
- Paint pictures, create using natural objects and explore how things are related. (Read Science in the Elementary Classroom.)
When your classroom is full of children and adults who are exploring a social studies or science topic, it is easier to stretch the curriculum to meet the individual needs of students. When each child feels that they are a part of what’s going on; then is the time to meet the lowest reader’s interest with something he or she can read. Those who need more, can be set on a path of research that will challenge and stretch thinking.
At the end of the day . . . each and every child feels included and able to discuss (through speaking and in writing) aspects of the information that is being studied. Use the curriculum to work up engagement in an environment that is conducive to learning. There might be more than one path that leads to success. Within the larger setting, your job is to find the way for each child. They’re counting on you!