Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Case for Richness

I've been experimenting with using PowerPoint when I have to introduce a topic and present a lot of information at one time. I find that the visual format keeps the kids focused and allows them to see what we are talking about beyond the pictures in the textbook.

I taught a lesson on non-vascular plants (mosses, liverworts, hornworts) through PowerPoint a couple of weeks ago, and today I taught about seedless vascular plants (ferns, club mosses, and horsetails) the same way. I start out with a few slides that show photographs and ask, "What do you notice?" The kids write down or share out loud their observations. That's my attempt to work a science skill into a lecture.

From there, each slide elaborates on the topic, and I teach in a question-and-answer style. The kids take notes, I add detail and explain each piece of information, and we ask each other questions.

A little secret is that I struggled with the finer points of the lifecycles of ferns and mosses in a botany class that I took two years ago, yet now that I'm teaching it, I find it really easy and kind of cool. The kids don't really need to know about antheridia and archegonia (the male & female structures in ferns and mosses) but in looking at the textbook and standards I realized that these are some of the most important characteristics that differentiate these plants from regular flowering plants, and that if I tried to gloss over the lifecycles, the kids would inevitably ask, and I'd end up teaching it anyway but with less planning. I believe that if you present it right, kids can learn most anything, so why not go for it? And the eighth graders responded really well to the challenge of new words, new ideas, new information. They asked tons of good questions and seemed to understand it.

Now the thing is, I really wanted to bring in samples of these plants to pass around and investigate. I'm not that much of a green thumb, myself (except, apparently, when it comes to algae), so I don't have abundant houseplants or a close relationship with a florist. The weather's been crappy and I've been too busy to hunt around in the parks. And the flower shops I HAVE visited didn't have moss or ferns (well, there was one fern but it was really expensive). Anyway, in order to have two classes of thirty kids really observe a plant specimen, you've got to have a fair amount of it. A little sample of moss off of some rock in Central Park wasn't going to cut it, nor would the two or three ferns my roommate's got growing. So I decided to keep looking and make do with vivid photographs on PowerPoint.

When I got to the slide about ferns today, one boy raised his hand and asked, "What's a fern?" They can still surprise me; I thought my kids knew what ferns were. Sure, they live in the city, but we have parks and gardens, and ferns are relatively common, and many of them have gone to summer camp.... A glance at the other faces in the room told me that this boy was not the only one who didn't really have a mental image to go with the word "fern." I backed up to the pictures and showed them some pictures and drawings from the textbook, and that helped. I heard a few say "Oohhhhhhh" in a tone of recognition.

Now I really want to bring in a fern just to make sure. I found fiddleheads at the gourmet grocery store and got about 15 to let them examine, and I visited several more florists (no luck). I'm going to put one frond from my roommate's plant in a baggie to bring in tomorrow. And we have a field trip to a nearby park set up with Wildman Steve for next Monday. I'm going to ask him to find us some ferns to look at, if there are any in that particular park.

To me, this is just one more example of why teachers need to add rich detail and complexity to the curriculum for all children. Too often, we simplify and stick to the basics, or we try to tailor the curriculum to the children's experience or interests. I think children from disadvantaged backgrounds need MORE richness, if anything, more chances to see new things and learn their names and how to describe them and explain how they work. And while it is always valuable to begin with children's prior knowledge, we have to be careful to keep going from there, to bridge to new knowledge, to give them the opportunity to develop new interests that they didn't have before because they didn't know they COULD be interested in botany or sonnets or....

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