Friday, 30 January 2015

on forward design....

Trying to root plants from twigs and cuttings.

In recent years, I’ve been exposed to the principles of backwards design in teaching — starting from curriculum as the end, and planning a straight line backwards through logical and sequential steps/lessons to the place of beginning. The blank slate.

The problem is: there is no blank slate. Kids do not walk into my classroom as blank slates. They are already fully-formed people, who bring a wide range of experiences and interests and likes and dislikes and behaviour and information with them. Who have questions (and answers) of their own. And not necessarily the ones I want them to ask.


Maybe it’s not the correct opinion in the current teaching climate. But I still believe that the best learning works its way up from the kids, through the teacher to the objective. Curriculum or otherwise. (Because we teach and they learn lots of things that aren’t curriculum.)


Or maybe I’m just rationalizing the fact that my latest rendition of the “Living Things” science unit for my Grade One class developed largely out of a series of serendipitous or even random events. And the central focus of it evolved or coalesced over a few weeks. And may yet evolve still further.

The provocation.

Just before Christmas, my husband broke a few branches off of the “mother-in-law’s tongue” plant in our living room. He yanked what remained out of the soil, complete with roots. I took it to school.

At the outset of the Christmas holidays, I unpacked a few tumbleweeds I had collected in the fall for an art project of my own. They had been in the back of my van for a few months, but I needed to clear out that space for my family’s Christmas road trip, so I moved them into my classroom.

Then early in January, I knocked a full bud off of one of my kitchen orchids.

By mid-month, I had a plant with roots, a dead plant with a few billion seeds, and a bud — three plants in various stages of growth and brokenness, representing various parts of the plant -- in a growing collection of items that might be described as an improvised provocation. I added magnifying glasses, markers and drawing paper, as well as other plant bits I had around my house — a branch of pussy willows from last spring, a hollow stick that might be a branch or might be a root, a length of bamboo stake.

One of the first questions that emerged from one of my students, looking at my tumbleweeds, was: “What are these fuzzies and pokies?” I picked up the branch and shook it, and tiny bits fell all over the floor. The kids decided they were seeds. I asked them if they thought they would grow, and we planted them to find out.

Turns out, tumbleweeds are called “weeds” for a reason. Within 2 1/2 days we had visible sprouts! So then we started to wonder aloud if there was anything else we could plant that would grow. We planted the mother-in-law’s tongue with roots, then took a broken limb from it and put it in water to see if it would grow roots. We put a number of branches that the kids brought to school into water as well. We pulled apart cotton flowers I had bought at a local florist’s to see if there were seeds, and there were. So we planted them. We planted figs we shook down from the fig tree in our school’s foyer, and planted them. We planted the orchid flower and the pussy willows I’d brought in. We planted spruce cones (found locally). And now we are waiting to see what happens with time, because “Will these grow?” has become the central question.

Making predictions: students put their names into either
 the "yes" or the "no" part of the tray.

Along the way, we have learned about the parts of plants and what plants need (curriculum). We are learning about the life cycle of plants and that, by definition, a cycle has no beginning or ending. It can start anywhere. Life can start at any point in the process, but it only moves in one direction. Forward.

What I am loving about this provocation is the way it takes the seed,
the flower, the fruit, the branch, and the leaf all as potential points
for starting new growth.

And we have learned that the defining quality of a living thing is that it grows and changes.

Just like us.

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