My Curricular Journey

Once upon a time…  No scrap that; it’s too unoriginal and boring.  What about this?  In a land far, far away there lived…  That’s been done before too.  How can I begin this short little story in an engaging and new way?  How can I start a story that will set up the rest of this entry in a unique way?  I want readers to be inspired by my first sentence so much that they just can’t wait to read the last one too, and all the other ones in between as well, I hope.  I’m searching for the perfect sentence.  It’s like a quest.  Yes, I’m on a quest to find the perfect way to start this story.  But wait a minute, does the perfect sentence really exist?  Can anything really be perfect in every way?  Okay, good point.  So, instead, I’ll go on an adventure to find a really great sentence for my story.  I feel like that is possible.  I can easily find a really great sentence.  But where?  In my closet?  In the ocean?  In my pocket?  Where might I find this amazing sentence?  What if it has yet to be written?  How will I find something that doesn’t yet exist?  Perhaps I should just create it.  That’s it!  I’ll design the right sentence for my story.  I can do that, I think.  Okay, here goes nothing…

Some said he was special, while others said he was just ordinary.  To his tribe, he would become the anointed one.  (OMG, how great is that opening?  I want to run to the precipice of the highest mountain and scream at the top of my lungs, YESSSSSSS!  I feel like my brain just earned a bonus point.  I love it!  It seems unique and engaging.  It’s interesting.  If I was a reader, I’d be clamoring for more right now.  I did it, I did it.  I came up with an epic opening.  Okay, now on with the rest of my short little story.)

This boy was more than just special, you see.  Although he didn’t realize it yet, he had great power buried deep within him.  It was written in the stars that he would grow to become a most powerful man and leader within the tribe.  However, he wasn’t quite there yet.  This boy faced numerous challenges from the earliest years of his life.  The river on which his life traveled meandered more than most during his early years.  Struggles pounded his shores like a great storm ravaging a countryside.  While many a men would have perished under such pressure, this boy persevered.  He was a survivor, but not without scars to mark his journey.

This wavy, white-capped trek left him unable to experience life like many others.  So, as he grew, these challenges shaped him in dangerous ways.  His true self became buried deep within him, as he was afraid of what others would think if they found out who and what he truly was.  Because he lied to himself and others for many years, he became a bit of an outcast in the tribe.  While fate knew what he would become, others saw a wasted, troubled life.  Something had to happen for this boy to transform into the great man the tribe so desperately needed.

Rather than push him away, the chieftains devised a plan to bring him back into the fold of the community.  They decided to send him on a quest to find his true self and uncover the power within.

So, this boy ventured out into the wilderness for several weeks.  While at first he seemed lost and unsure of his goal, he never gave up.  He kept searching, despite the many obstacles in his way.  On one evening, a wild animal, large in stature, approached the boys as he slept.  Startled, he awoke, unable to move at first.  Then, like magic, he knew what to do, and the wild beast seemed to simply disappear.  As the boy ventured further into the unknown wilderness, his mind began to uncover the buried secrets of his past.  As he faced these memories head-on, he found himself becoming more powerful.  Instead of only being able to walk a few miles during the first portion of his quest, by the end, he was walking many miles in a day.  His soul was growing stronger as well.  He began to accept himself for who he truly is.  While life dealt him a tricky hand of cards, he wasn’t going to let that spoil the whole game of life, oh no.  He was going to make the most of his future.

After seven weeks away from the tribe, the boy miraculously found his way back home.  He wasn’t the same boy who had left, the tribe soon realized.  He had grown into his powers and become a leader.  For once he faced his inner demons, he was able to see his true self and accept that he was different.  This trying quest in the wilderness had changed him in many ways; most importantly, however, it afforded him the opportunity to see that he is a kind and capable individual who has the power to change the world.

Much like the boy in the story, I too went through a transformation this summer.  What I thought was once too difficult to tackle, became a challenge I gleefully accepted.  Knowing that I had to prepare the curriculum for my new fifth grade class was a daunting task, and one that I put off for many weeks.  I left this unbearable mission for August, hoping that it would magically get accomplished on its own, without any effort from me.  But alas, I live in Hanover and not Narnia or Hogwarts.  Magic doesn’t exist in the same way here on Earth.  In order for something to get done, I need to do it.  So, like the boy in my story, I faced the wild beast that was my curriculum, and through dedication and hard work, slayed it.

Although I had an inkling of what I wanted my first unit to look like, until I sat down to map it all out, it was just an abstract idea.  The hard work was in putting the puzzle pieces together.

I knew that I wanted my first, integrated fifth grade unit to focus on community.  But how?  What about community did I want to cover?  The class community?  The school community?  The town?  As I was starting at a new school, in a new town, I had not the foggiest notion of Hopkinton’s history or community.  So, I went on my own adventure this summer to learn a bit about the Hopkinton community.  I began by visiting the town’s historical society museum and speaking with the director.  She was especially helpful.  Together, we crafted some amazing field experiences that I believe will tie the unit together.

  • Our first idea was a Walking Tour of Main Street.  The director would lead my students on a tour of Main Street, explaining the different houses that line the very old road.  She would also describe the history of the town to the students during this excursion.  This will be a great way for the students to gain a foundational understanding of the town and its history.
  • Our second field experience for the unit will be a visit to the town museum to learn about the history of the indigenous people who lived in the Hopkinton area.  The students will also learn and practice the art of basket weaving.  This adventure will not only teach the students more about our town’s history but also be a great springboard into our second unit on the indigenous people of New Hampshire.
  • Our third excursion will be a visit to the art museum housed in the historical society building.  I’m hoping that the director can organize a workshop with one of the local artists exhibiting their work.  This will be a great way to help the students understand the current state of our town while also appreciating the talented citizens that live among us.
  • Our final field experience will be a visit to the workshop of a local spoon maker, during which he will show the students how a spoon is made before providing them an opportunity to make a simple spoon of their own.  This hands-on trip will help the students learn a new task while also understanding more about the wonderful people who live in Hopkinton.

I am super excited about these field experiences.  I believe that they will help to bring history alive for my students.  They will also help them become more invested in the town in which the school is located.  Our first trip is scheduled for Thursday, September 13.

As our theme for the year is community, this first formal unit on our community will help lay the foundation for the year ahead.  This unit will tie together the social studies, science, and language arts curricula for the start of the year.

  • The social studies aspect of the unit will focus on the history of the town of Hopkinton.
  • The science portion of the unit will focus more on the school community, as the students will conduct investigations regarding an aspect of the school that they would like to change.  This will involve more of an environmental approach such as energy consumption, food waste, water use, etc.
  • The language arts piece of the unit will have the students craft a historical fiction story based on a piece of Hopkinton’s history that interests them in some way.

Throughout the unit, the students will learn how to appropriately discuss serious issues impacting others, write about facts they learn, analyze information, interpret what they read, question the world around them in meaningful ways, help others, and appropriately share information in a real-world context.  This integrated unit will create the perfect patchwork quilt the students will need as we delve into the more challenging topics during the colder months.

While everything about this unit is sure to be engaging and fun, what I’m most excited about regarding this new unit is the culminating, final project.  For the first phase of the project, the students will choose an aspect of Hopkinton’s history that intrigued them.  They will then create a visual display highlighting what they learned.  For the final phase of the project, the students will present their visual display and prepared speech for all community members to see at a special exhibit at the Historical Society building.  Talk about real-world practice.  Not only will the students be practicing their public speaking skills, but they will also be teaching the town’s citizens all about the unique and diverse history of the town in which they live.  It will be a great way for the students to connect with the Hopkinton community members and for the townsfolk to see what is going on at our small little school nestled in the woods.  This is sure to be a fantastic experience for all involved.  I can’t wait.

So, as you can see, my summer journey was filled with adventure and learning, much like the boy in my story.  Creating a new curriculum and set of units is very challenging and time consuming.  I spent a lot of time this summer just thinking about topics I want to cover.  My goal is to create a unit that will engage and interest my students in such a way that they are curious and want to learn more.  I want to empower them to ask questions, as they think critically about the world around them.  I want them to learn about themselves throughout this wild journey as well.  As the boy in my story learned, we’ve all got great power living within us.  Sometimes, we just need a little prodding to extract it.

Getting the Students Excited About a New Unit

When I was in high school, one of my favorite bands was The Smashing Pumpkins.  I absolutely loved Billy Corgan’s voice.  Their music was and still is amazing.  While Siamese Dream was a phenomenal album, the double-disc Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness changed my life.  That album was awesome from start to finish.  Even the cover art created a mood and an atmosphere that could only be summed up with one word: nostalgic.  I remember when I first heard that the album was being released.  I was so excited.  The week prior to its release, I listened to nothing but the band’s previous music.  I was smitten.  I felt like a kid the night before Christmas.  The band put out a video for the first single off of the album.  I couldn’t wait for it to be released.  The local record store in my town opened at midnight the day it came out.  Unfortunately, my parents wouldn’t let me go out that late.  I was so mad.  I just wanted to hear the new songs the band had created.  The first time I listened to disc one, I almost cried.  The songwriting was brilliant and the music was epic.  The band had created a masterpiece.  The wait and hype created was totally worth it.  That album made my senior year in high school memorable in so many ways, despite my moment of projectile vomiting in the middle of Physics class.

Building excitement within people prior to the release of a new album or product is why marketers get paid so much.  Their job is to make people line up for the release of the newest game system or iPhone.  They create commercials and advertisements, helping to create hype and desire within future owners.  As a teacher, I feel that it is important to employ some of these marketing strategies in the classroom prior to starting a new unit.  I want my students excited to learn something new.  I want them to be curious and engaged.  I usually start talking about a new unit a week or so before it begins so that the students start to ask questions.  They begin to do some research on the topic prior to us starting the unit in class.  They become so excited, that when we do actually begin the new unit, they hang on my every word.  Mission accomplished!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been preparing my students for the start of our new unit in STEM class.  Three weeks ago, I had the students complete a survey on what they wanted to learn regarding the unit topic of Astronomy.  I wanted to find out what they were interested in learning more about as most students have been introduced to space and astronomy concepts in the past.  I wanted to make sure that I didn’t cover things they had already learned.   Just knowing that we were going to be learning about astronomy got my students excited.  They couldn’t wait.  They provided me with such detailed ideas and suggestions about the new unit that I was getting excited for it to begin too.  Then, over the past two weeks, I kept reminding the boys of the new unit and that it was starting soon.  I would put quick plugs in at the end of class like, “Can’t wait for our new unit on Astronomy to start soon,” or “Thanks for all of your great feedback on the new unit, it is going to be amazing because of your ideas.”  I had the students asking me details about the new unit outside of class.  They were so curious and excited.

Finally, after weeks of preparation, we began our new unit on Astronomy in STEM class yesterday.  I started the unit with a video hook based on the survey ideas I received from the students.  It was a cool news segment from a year ago about pictures of a far away star that seemed to periodically be blocked by some strange object that couldn’t be explained.  The scientist they interviewed hypothesized that it could be some sort of alien megastructure.  This got the boys talking about aliens and the possibility of life on other planets.  They were so engaged.  I had to cut the discussion short so that we had time for the math pre-test.  I then went over the whole unit online on Haiku.  I detailed the science and math portions of the unit and quickly introduced the group project.  Sounds of, “Yes” and “Yeah” were heard throughout the classroom.  Smiles covered the faces of my budding astronomers.  It was awesome.  I then showed them the Little Bits kits that they would be using to create the space rover in small groups.  You would have thought that I had just shown them a million dollar bill.  I had them hook, line, and sinker.  They were like kids in a candy store, of awesomeness!

Because they were so engaged and eager to jump into our new unit, they completed the math pre-test with a vigor that I hadn’t seen before.  They took their time and checked their work.  They didn’t even check their work on the chapter assessment they completed in class the other day.  That test was graded and this was merely a placement exam.  They seemed to put more effort into completing this pre-test than they did the chapter assessment.  Crazy.  They did quite well too.  I have a few students that moved into the more advanced math group because of the work displayed on this pre-test.  In years past, students do not take the pre-tests seriously.  They usually rush through it as they know they will be learning the material in the coming weeks anyway.  Not this amazing group of students, oh no.  They took this pre-test as if their lives depended upon it.  Was it really because they were so excited about our new unit?  Did that eagerness and anticipation help motivate them to put forth their best effort in completing this pre-test?  It probably helped that I reminded the boys that they had the ability to move into a higher or lower math track based on their results on this pre-test.  I told them, “We want to place you into the math group that will best support and challenge you based on your prior knowledge and skills.  So, be sure to show us what you know.”  I think that might have helped to trigger the great effort and focus I saw in class yesterday.

Being a teacher, at times, is a lot like being in advertising.  We need to “sell” our students on the content, skills, and curriculum.  We need them to see how it is relevant to them and why they would want to learn it.  Engaging our students can be tricky and challenging at times, but isn’t that one of the fun parts of being a teacher?  It’s like trying to find the one key that opens the lock when you have 7,500 possibilities.  Yeah, being a teacher is a lot like being a puzzle maker.  We show our students the brilliant pieces of the picture, and they put them all together to form their image of learning.