By Louisiana Fellow Heather Howle
Fourteen of my eighteen years in the classroom passed by in nearly the exact same way.
In a typical day, the bell would ring to signal the start of learning, students would begrudgingly file into classrooms usually with teachers begrudgingly filing in behind them. Class would begin and I, the dutiful teacher, would deliver a brilliant lesson that my students were to absorb. Students would demonstrate their understanding of my efforts on tests and quizzes. Students not mastering the content were failed and the class moved on.
Fall, winter, spring and so it went until the end of the year state exams. The big event. This is what we have been preparing for all year kids. The bell would ring to signal the end of learning, students gleefully ran from the building with exuberant teachers hurdling over them to beat the buses out of the parking lot.
Sounds miserable, I know. So why, you ask, did I keep coming back for more?
1. I was a good teacher… or so I thought. I was told I was doing a pretty good job. I liked my students (for the most part) and (for the most part) my students liked me. This was how I was taught to teach.
2. The month of May.
The month of May? Why, yes, the glorious month of May.
I know what you are thinking right about now: “Of course, May! The last month of school. She stuck it out for the summer vacations. I knew it.”
But I loved the month of May because after testing I was allowed to teach science in any way I pleased.
We had messy, noisy investigations. We took field trips out to the school pond in our rubber boots. We sampled pond water for macroinvertebrates and calculated water quality. We dissected fish and learned from experts about otoliths. We built wood duck boxes and watched ducklings hatch. We launched rockets and determined trajectory. Parachutes still hang in the oak trees as reminders of some of our miscalculations. We had FUN and we LEARNED.
I couldn’t wait to get to school each day in May. I looked forward to each new project. I didn’t think from day-to-day lessons, but instead I thought in terms of long-term projects with checkpoints. The students became the drivers and I took a back seat. Well, maybe I was a back seat driver, but I’ve come a long way in that regard.
Fast forward to 2014, a pivotal year, when I was offered the opportunity to start a STEM class. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I did know how I wanted to do it: I wanted the entire year to be the month of May.
So, I designed a robotics and engineering curriculum and wrote grants to fund the program. We have 40 Lego Mindstorm EV3 robots, 8 underwater ROVs, ChromeBooks, programming laptops, iPads, a 3-D printer; the works. Students keep a digital portfolio of their programming successes (and failures) and must adhere to strict deadlines. I now assess students with skill-based performance tasks. We compete and win robotics competitions across the state. It’s a super cool class. However, it’s not the equipment, curriculum or accolades that I am most proud. It’s the enthusiasm for the class.
All year I’m excited to go to robotics class. All year kids meet me at the door to get in first. All year kids beg not to leave the class when bell rings. “Just a few more minutes, I almost have it!” All year kids stay after school to perfect a program. All year is the month of May.
As we challenge ourselves to imagine the classroom of the future, what do you see? For me the picture is clear, I see the month of May.