The Making of a Classroom Community
Last week, we released our newest collection of Fishman Prize essays, Lift Every Voice. The essays, written by our 2016 Fishman Prize winners, take readers inside classrooms where teachers and students are bound by a fierce belief that, if empowered, anyone can succeed. If you haven’t read them, you really should. You should also share your thoughts with us.
Over the next four weeks, we’ll be sharing excerpts from each essay on our blog. Here, we kick things off with Heather Howle, who reflects on how she learned to build a tight-knit community in her classroom in rural St. Francisville, Louisiana—a community that helped push her students to achieve in the challenging field of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
I was once queen of my own kingdom. From my high tower, I gave directives that were immediately followed by my loyal students or off to the office they would go!
The best ideas in my kingdom were my own because they were the only ideas allowed. From the outside, my kingdom was lovely, peaceful, and orderly. To my students, though, it was a prison. Each day they followed my decrees and watched the clock, often asking the only question on their minds: “What time do we get out of here?”
As queen, it was a lonely existence.
I can’t recall the exact day or hour that my kingdom was changed forever, but I do remember the moment. Our community had just approved a 1-to-1 technology tax that put a MacBook in the hands of every student. To use this new technology, I designed a lesson where students used iMovie to deliver a weather report on a biome of their choice.
A student called me over and asked, “Mrs. Howle, would it be OK if I green-screened myself into the biome using PhotoBooth?”
“What?” I said. “You can do that?”
“Sure, Mrs. Howle. It’s easy. Let me show you.”
“That’s amazing! Can you show the class?”
With that, the biome project went from good to great, becoming more than I could have imagined. Inspired, students green-screened themselves reporting from a news anchor desk, in front of a weather map, stumbling through the desert, and shivering in the arctic tundra. The bar was raised, and even those who chose not to use a green screen responded.
Abby, for example, transformed her parents’ shower into a steamy tropical rainforest and delivered her report from under an umbrella with a rubber snake draped around her neck.
I still vividly recall those reports and the projects that followed. The gains in our state science scores indicated that students remembered as well. Long-term retention of science content greatly increased when my students were more engaged. And that increased engagement came when students were given a voice in the direction and outcomes of our lessons.
My walls crumbled as I ceded some control over to the students. My kingdom fell when I admitted to myself and my students that I was not the supreme holder of all knowledge and ideas. In my kingdom’s ruins, we began to build a village: the Village of Room 248.
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