Monday, March 11, 2019

Remembering School

When I think about school work I did that had a lasting impact on me as a learner a few moments come to mind.

In grade four we had poets work in our classes. There was an arts-integration program funded in part by the local university. We fourth graders wrote all sorts of poetry during that time and we published a book of our poems -- the poem I wrote for the book was about a pig that drank iced tea. The "published book" was produced at a copy shop and had a staple-binding. We shared the poems aloud in class to celebrate our writing.  At the time, we thought we were WRITERS.

Legit. Writers.

The newspaper even came and wrote a story about the arts programming. My mom has the news clipping and the poetry book with it's bright yellow cover tucked into the back of a photo album in the family living room. In grade four I seriously entertained the idea of becoming a writer.

At my current school one of our courses, nurtures just such writers. The course, Advanced Topics English: Writing Workshop and Publication, led by Dr. Michael Clark gives students the opportunity to produce a book-length collection of short stories. Writers in the course workshop their pieces throughout the year and serve on production committees which are tasked with each part of the book production process from invention to copy editing and launch. It's as real-world as it gets, this English course.

I wonder how many students will still have the books their class produced five, ten or twenty-five years from now? I bet many if not all.

Not all school work results in some big, book-like thing at the end of learning though. Another moment I remember from my own learning didn't result in an artifact or a product. Instead it was the practice I remember.

In grade seven Mr. Stage, my science teacher at Lakeside Middle School, took a group of students out to some mud flats to gather soil samples for an investigation  being run by a science organization. I don't remember the organization only that I was one of the helpers who got to spend a Saturday with Mr. Stage in the mud.

I remember going out to the mud and sinking into it. Mud oozed around my ankles and swallowed first my shoes, then my shins, then my knees. Manuevering in such deep mud was tricky. I remember the oyster shells we saw and the reedy water plants. I'm not sure where we were outside of Jacksonville-- I don't remember the exact location. I remember that we needed samples from different levels of mud, so we had to do some creative digging. I remember that we gathered mud samples in tubes that Mr. Stage marked and labeled. I remember wondering.  I wondered what was in the mud: creatures, minerals, fossils, shell bits.  I wondered why scientists would study that particular mud. I wondered if they were investigating the water: was it salt water, fresh water or some brackish in between? I wondered what sorts of discoveries they would make. Practicing science in the world suddenly became real to me.  The process of gathering samples ignited my curiosity.

Much like, I imagine, the process of building a robot must or of designing an experiment must, or of growing and studying pea plants or examining traffic patterns or of writing code and running a program or of investigating wait time on Food Panda deliveries.

Investigations are interesting.

Experiences are too.

Sometimes our  most memorable learning experiences happen in the world and sometimes the most memorable experiences happen in school with the teachers we most love.

I will never forget dissecting a  cat in my high school anatomy class. The cats had been killed in a variety of ways, some hit by cars, I 'm sure. They arrived steeped in formaldehyde and shrink wrapped. We worked outside on stools with our lab partners to skin them. Then, over the course of several weeks we examined them system by system.

We were assessed on the muscular system. The assessment was part oral explanation and part successful dissection.  We had to bring our cat into the office and explain what we'd learned through the dissection as well as answer any questions Mrs. McGee posed to us about specific muscless and the movements they controlled.

I can hear still Mrs. McGee asking me to explain the "palmerus longus" muscle. In the echo of my memory my voice describes it as the muscle in the  forearm that enables us to flex at the wrist and just as I answer, Mrs. McGee confirmed my answer  by repeating something she used to say in class. She called the "palmerus longus" the "bye by muscle" because it's the muscle that enables our wrists to wave goodbye.

Can cats even do that?  I don't think so. Still...

What were these things we did in school or in the community? Were they projects? Were they assessments? Were they performances? No doubt some were all three. As a teenager, what did I know about pedagogy and purpose? Not one thing.

What did I know about my own mind or my thinking. Not much.

Now, I know that certainly each was a performance. I was doing, investigating, creating, thinking. I was writing, speaking, explaining.  I was doing the work of writers and scientists. Now, I know the steps writers and scientists' thinking often follows.

Knowing the thinking, knowing the steps learners follow seems key now. Imagine if we could teach leaners that! What worlds and wonders would they unlock then?


  1. Great memories! I started thinking about mine...Ski Day comes to mind as I tried to avoid (=skip) it every year, but my dad would always volunteer to drive me to school on that day:)

  2. It interesting to think about the moments in 13+ years of school that stand out but if we could figure that out, we'd have a recipe for great teaching! You have me thinking!

  3. Yet you didn't remember testing! You were engaged in the real acts of writers and scientists! Nice snippets!

  4. Learning how to learn is the key to it all, isn't it?