I learned about the power that REAL learning can have on motivating students during my Master’s Degree training and later experiences with my own students.
I started my Master’s Degree in Special Education after I had been teaching elementary school for three years. I enjoyed working with children who had trouble learning as well as those with “attitudes” because as a student I had been bored out of my mind from second grade on. The problem was I didn’t really know what to do with them. My teacher training classes had given me lots of strategies to use with those who will learn anyway, but many of those techniques didn’t work with the students I was concerned about. I decided to study Learning Disabilities because it would give me the broadest look at a variety of factors inhibiting learning. I had no intention of teaching special education—I just needed more strategies for the classroom.
I went back to school with a list of things I needed to learn, all of which were centered around reading and writing instruction, and how to teach math to those who weren’t getting it. Language development quickly became the focus of my studies. Although most of the courses I took were required classes, I was relatively free to focus my time on the areas I was most interested in. I was in school for a specific reason and I was learning for a specific audience of students. I had been teaching long enough to know what I needed to know. I became a voracious learner, another new experience for me. The only difference between this educational experience and the boring ones I was much more familiar with was that now I was learning for a REAL purpose and I was given some choice in what I studied.
In the mid-eighties I was working with a class of third and fourth graders for the first time. We were studying the native people of California and I was having a difficult time finding material about any of the nations and tribes that lived here before the 1700s (or after for that matter). The current textbook only had about 5 pages and it was so general it didn’t really say anything. I was able to find a huge scholarly work that had been written in the 1930s, but it was out of print and I wasn’t able to locate a copy either through the library, museums, or book stores. The only book I found was a 1952 social studies textbook on a shelf at a thrift store. It had fifty pages on native Californians. I duplicated those pages to have enough for each student and explained the problem to them. The children understood my difficulty right away (we had completed several other thematic units prior to this one, so they understood my need for trade books.) They responded like the great people they were: “Let’s find out all we can about the people from our area and then we’ll write our own books. Somebody has to!” The power of REAL had struck for the first time in my classroom. Their efforts instigated ever-increasing efforts in succeeding classes.
That first class put together one class book made up of a lot of 1-3 paragraph reports on the native people of the local area. We found the information in the “ancient” textbook, and by visiting local historical sites. We invited knowledgeable people to come speak to our class and answer questions.
The next class (another 3/4 combination), using the book from the first class, made their own book composed of 5-11 paragraph reports, stories, myths, legends, and poems about the native people of the local area. They also made a classroom museum display of artifacts that they researched and created, photographing them for book illustrations.
The last class, using the materials and artifacts made by the first two classes, researched, wrote, directed, and produced a historical fiction movie about the native people of Southern California who were visited by a time-traveling relative and a native person from Northern California.
All because there really weren’t any materials available for children to study native people of California.
Since then a lot of materials have been developed and are easy to find; one of my favorites is Whispers from the First Californians: A Story of California’s First People (Student’s ed).
But I’m really glad I couldn’t find what I was looking for at the time. I learned the power of REAL.
Originally posted on another website on 11/20/2010.