Distance Learning Week 9: Finding Meaningful Ways to Close the Academic Year

Do me a quick, little favor: Go take a look in your junk drawer.  What’s that you, you say, you don’t have junk drawer?  Oh, that can’t possibly be true.  Everyone has a junk drawer, the catch-all for random items that have no other place to go.  It’s like the Island of Misfit Toys, but less cool because we’re adults now.  Even someone like me, who craves order and cleanliness, has a junk drawer because not everything can be so easily categorized.  It’s not as if you could put the meat thermometer with the pots and pans or kitchen utensils because it could get damaged, and it’s not something you use with the pots and pans or utensils.  It’s not a cooking device, it is a cooking aid.  So, where does it live?  In the black hole of the junk drawer.  Some things just can’t be classified.  Luckily though, those things are few and far between, which is why we only need one junk drawer.

If only life was as easy as putting things in their proper places.  Wouldn’t that be swell?  Imagine if nothing unexpected ever happened, and so we could plan for everything.  There would be no emergencies, no accidents, and nothing out of the ordinary would ever happen.  Life would remain constant and normal, like the flat line on a heart monitor.  Wait a minute, doesn’t a flatline signify death?  That can’t be good.  Perhaps we don’t really want life to be so simple and clean.  Maybe a little chaos is a good thing.  I suppose the unexpected event, from time to time, wouldn’t be all bad.  Learning to adapt can be a trusty survival skill.  Okay, so I take it back, life would be boring and dull if it happened like we organize our kitchens.  We need life to be a bit spicy, a bit hectic, a bit different from the norm.  It keeps things fresh and novel, never knowing what’s coming next.  What song will start playing on my radio next?  I have no idea, and I love it.

Then came this whole COVID-19 Pandemic.  Just when we thought we liked the unexpected, the very horrible and unexpected happened, causing us to reassess what we really want life to be like.  I’m all for surprises and accidents, but this health crises is devastating and awful.  It has caused more death and disaster than anything in recent times.  It’s stealing people’s jobs and houses.  It’s breaking up families and forcing us all to get used to a very new normal in which nothing expected may ever happen again.  We are now living in scary times.  This is no longer the fun kind of chaos.

However, even in the darkest of times, there is a silver lining.  We, as the human race, have become more resilient.  We are stronger now than we ever were before.  We are rising above all the ash of this turbulent time and rebuilding some sense of happiness and rainbows.  Like my mom always said, “When God gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  And that’s exactly we are trying to do.

Distance learning has definitely made many teachers stronger, better, and more flexible than ever before.  Teachers have had to get creative about how to teach their students in this uncertain time.  We are trying to find the good in all of this.  It’s incredibly challenging and hard, and certainly not the way we would like to see our school years end.  We would love to hug our students goodbye, give them a high-five, let them know that we are here for them, but we can’t do that like we used to.  So, we transform like Optimus Prime and become a massive truck barreling down the highway carrying possibilities, solutions, and hope.

My plan for the last three weeks of school, prior to the quarantine and stay-at-home order, was to have my students complete their capstone project that I call The Fifth Grade Betterment Project.  They were going to find a way to give back to our school community and make things better for us all.  Last year, my students built a community garden, constructed a free lending library, brainstormed a genius classification system for our class library, and started a school store.  They put much time, energy, sweat, and a little blood into making our BHS community a better place for all who happen upon this little slice of heaven in Hopkinton, NH.  I was so excited thinking about the possible projects this year’s class would try to tackle.  How would they make our school better?  Then March happened, and my plans got sucked into the Pandemic vacuum, or so I thought.

What if I modified the capstone project?  What if I found a way to make it something that the students could do from home?  What if, instead of having them think solely about how to make our school a better place, they thought about how they might make their family, home, town, city, or state better?  So, I went back to the drawing board, metaphorically speaking that is, as I don’t actually own a drawing board, pulled my plans out of the COVID vacuum, and crafted The Virtual Fifth Grade Betterment Project.  I structured it similarly to last year’s on-site project, but with a twist.  They now need to find a way to create a project from home that will allow them to give back to others in different and unique ways.

We started our slightly different, renovated Betterment Project this week via remote learning.  I got the students excited about the project with a hype video I created.  Then, they began brainstorming ideas.  What could they do to put together all of the fifth grade puzzle pieces they’ve been gaining all year and create a special project that would give back to more than just our school community?  Here are some of their ideas:

  • One student, who sought and received permission from the local library in her town, is creating a community garden outside of the library building.  She will plant lots of vegetables, which she will then donate to the local food pantry upon harvesting them.  What a cool and compassionate idea!  She has already started the weeding and cultivating processes.  Amazing!
  • One student is transforming a very large space in her family’s garage into a family room.  She asked each of her sisters and her mom for input on the design for the room.  She is now in the process of cleaning the space and removing all of the trash and recyclables.  What a great way to give back to her family!
  • Another student is going to construct bat houses that she will hang around the forested areas of our school.  She loves animals and did much research on bats to design the houses that she will build next week.
  • One student noticed that birds were building nests in very unsafe places near her house.  So, she decided that she will build bird houses for the birds to use instead.  What a brilliant and thoughtful idea!

As the students completed the planning and designing phases of the project this past week, they will spend all of next week completing their projects.  I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

While I had to get creative about making this final project work in a remote learning environment, I feel as though I’ve been mostly able to effectively do so.  My students are super excited about the Betterment Project and have impressed me with the amount of effort and energy they are putting into their work.  It’s awesome!  They are spending time working on their projects outside of the allotted school time because they are so engaged in how they haven chosen to give back to their local communities.  I love it!

While life is certainly far from being as easy as using a junk drawer, this pandemic is forcing teachers and all people to find new and innovative ways to make things work.  We’ve had to get creative, be flexible, and accept that life is different from how it was a few months ago.  Although my students can’t be at school right now, they are finding ways to give back to their communities in amazing and compassionate ways, reminding me just how lucky I am to be their teacher.

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