How often do students have ideas for something fun they want to do, and we gently push those ideas away, for fear that steering off our planned path would get us behind in the skills we must teach? What would happen if instead we say, "Yes! What a splendid idea! How should we go about doing it?" Would it be such a waste of time to listen to and follow our students' ideas, even if they don't align with what our grade level is supposed to be doing?
Three of my girls came to school excited with such an idea one morning. "Mrs. Pilver, can we do a science fair?" they ask, looking at me with their fresh open faces. "Look at this book that Anna has found! It is all about how to do a science fair! The whole 4th grade could do it! What do you think?"
How would you respond? What goes through your head at a time like this? That science fairs are done at the middle school and not something 4th graders do? We have to do water cycle, ecosystems, electricity, forces and motion units! We have test prep and grammar lessons and so many math skills to cover, how could we possibly fit in a science fair? Or, oh no, this sounds messy and unmanageable, how could I ever do this!
Or do you think, this is an opportunity for my students to engage in something they are interested in and take ownership for the process and the learning. How exciting! Now, how can I align this to my goals?
"Of course we can!" I responded. "Put yourself on the meeting agenda and talk to the class about your ideas."
Our class did the science fair. (The rest of the 4th grade teachers said, "No.") We figured it out together. It was a mini 4th grade version of a science fair. And it was wonderful! I used it as an opportunity to teach the scientific method. Students learned how to ask questions, make hypothesis and draw conclusions. They learned how to find experiments to do and how to ask their parents for help to gather the materials. They learned how to use materials carefully and respect each others experiments. They learned how to make attractive display boards that would teach judges what their science fair project involved and what they learned from doing it. All students were engaged, on task, and successful. And when I asked them how they liked doing the science fair, their response was, "It was the best day ever!"
Teachers complain about students being disengaged or misbehaved. Is that partly because students have figured out that school is about following teachers? What magic could happen if we follow our students instead?