Learning is hard: “Getting to know kids through content”

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I’m participating in Ruth Ayres Celebrate This Week. Check out the link up here.

Today, I’m celebrating that learning is hard, and messy…even when it looks fun and fluffy.


IMG_5916Every year, I almost cancel my puppet project before it even starts. I think about the planning: finding research times, writing times, prep times, sewing times, practicing times, show times… So. Much. Time. I think about finding enough parent volunteers, begging for supplies, trips to the fabric shop, and how much fleece I’m going to have to cut and count just to get it ready for the kids. I think about how hard it is to get everyone started on that first day of sewing. I think about how students will look at me like I have 2 heads when I show them how to thread their needle and how to whip stitch. But, In the back of my mind, I do remember why I do the project.

I see flashes of students gathered in “sewing circles.”

IMG_1414-1I see students faces beam with pride as they right-side-out their puppet’s face for the first time and say, “Look! It’s a real puppet!”

I see students putting their information into creative, entertaining scripts and rehearsing for their puppet show.

I see families coming to watch the show, wondering what all the fuss is about, and families leaving with smiles and pride. IMG_1922

I see emails I’ve received from parents telling me, “Thank you for all you do to teach them in creative ways…my child learned so much, benefitted so much….The newspaper should do a story on this project… ” Those emails are wonderful reminders of how a project can mean something to a student.

My Instructional Coach said something at a meeting the other day – it was a lightbulb moment for me. We were talking about curriculum, responsive teaching, relationships and knowing our students. We were talking about inquiry and literacy and my Instructional Coach said, “Content is one of the ways we can get to know our students.”

Content? I think I’ve always had content and relationships separate in my brain. I teach students…and what I teach them is content. But my coach is right (as usual – don’t tell her I said so…) and I felt the lightbulb turn on. I have been reflecting on this throughout the week, especially as it relates to my Greek research project that culminates in a big puppet show.

This content, along with the process, and the product for that matter, really helps me get to know my students. Often, I see a different side of them. It isn’t just the contagious engagement level: Many students who are used to experiencing failure are often successful; Some students who are used to experiencing only success often hit some roadblocks along the way. I love to watch their mindsets as they work hard to be persistent. It takes rigor to pull out a whole row of stitches and start over. As students take their information and turn it into creative scripts, they are working hard and having fun.

IMG_0095Sometimes I feel defensive when people ask me about this project. It takes a long time, and a lot of effort by students, teachers, and parents. At first glance, people may think it is “fluff.” Sometimes students are worried about the project challenges and tell me “I’m not crafty.” I’ve had parents tell me that when they first looked at my information about it, they rolled their eyes. Even after the first day of sewing, it still looks “messy.” (And I don’t just mean the piles of embroidery floss and small bits of fleece!) Some kids are left with so much sewing to do after that first work time that people don’t believe it’s ever going to work. I still get nervous after that first day.

But then — it works. The kids are amazing. The parents volunteers are amazing. The puppets are amazing. The scripts are informative and fun. At some point after the project has been put away, I know I will stop finding fleece bits on my clothes.

So, when it was once again time to start planning the research and sewing calendar, I took a deep breath.  I sat down to really write out the purpose of this project. I wanted it to be more than an awesome feeling. My list of “Knows” and “Dos” and “Understands” filled up a page and a half of a google doc.

Let me tell you the truth. I actually like “fluff.”  I think “fluff” has its place in our classrooms, because our classrooms are full of children. But, here’s another truth. This project – the one where my kids research and plan, symbolize and represent, write and revise, rehearse and preform? This project is not “fluff.”

After this project, students will know more about ancient Greece, research, script writing and presentation. They will have gathered, evaluated and organized information. They will have symbolized with representations. They will know how to whipstitch, and how to hot glue. They will have performed in front of an audience! My goal is that they will understand that creative expression can be hard work, and that creativity is not the opposite of learning.

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One thought on “Learning is hard: “Getting to know kids through content”

  1. “Creativity is not the opposite of learning.” I love this post that shows all that your students gain from a project like this. It takes me back twenty plus years to the puppet show in my daughter’s 2nd grade classroom during Camp Read-a-Lot, and the hats our 6th graders knitted one year for the homeless, a project that relied on much parental support. I’m with you, fluff belongs in our classrooms!

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