A few years ago, my principal gave me an empty classroom to reverse terraform into a Prototype Martian Colony. I walked into the empty classroom and as excited as I was, my heart sank when I saw the condition of the classroom (the classroom had been empty for a few years – you can picture what it looked like).
The first thing I decided to deal with was covering the bulletin boards with paper. After five minutes of staring at the boards (they didn’t appear to be covering themselves), I decided to get the fifth-graders to help me. School had already started, so I could borrow a few kids from the classroom I co-taught in. I figured five bulletin boards, at an hour per board, we could easily finish this in less than a day. The fifth-grade teacher happily lent me a few of her kids. She actually did a quick authentic math lesson – if there were five boards, and we had twenty-seven kids in the class, how many kids should work on each board? And how should we handle the two extra students as there was a remainder? (It is truly amazing how many opportunities there are in a school day that teachers miss for these quick authentic lessons.) We walked across the hall to the empty classroom and as I started to issue instructions I suddenly realized I also had a golden opportunity here for some authentic teaching and learning. So I pulled up a chair, sat down, and told the kids to cover the first of the five uncovered boards.
After an hour we had finished covering – nothing! The kids had absolutely no idea what to do. Five years of doing hundreds of worksheets on measurement and solving “story problems” and they had no idea how to measure, cut paper, and cover a bulletin board. I began to give some hints, and retaught how to use a ruler (actually measuring something real – authentic – not a line on a piece of paper). The kids had discussions about how to measure, what to use to measure (ruler versus yard stick), what side of the ruler/yardstick to use (U.S standard versus metric) what color to use, where to get the paper from, how to ask the media specialist (politely) for access to the bulletin board paper, getting the paper back to the fifth-grade wing without tearing it – the experience moved way beyond simple measurement.
The kids finally covered half the board, and they realized the paper was not wide enough to cover the entire board. But two pieces were too wide. What should they do? At the end of the day, one board was covered. Yes, they had been out of class for a day, but the phenomenal classroom teacher understood the value of authentic learning, and when I returned the first group of students, she gave me five more to work on the second board. This went faster as there had been some prepping of the second group by the first group on the playground (math language/cooperation/strategy sharing).
What I thought would be a one day task, took a week. We got those boards covered. And the one board that had a slight tear in one section we covered with a picture of Marvin the Martian and no one was the wiser. It turned out this was a strategy the classroom teacher often used when she covered boards and there was a rip, or the paper didn’t line up perfectly. Great problem solving strategy – and this also became a class inside joke the entire year!
So as I reflected on this, it dawned on me that instead of teachers spending their precious time before the kids come back to school in the fall, covering and creating bulletin boards, let the kids do it. This is a golden opportunity for the students to engage in an authentic learning activity. And it also gives them increased ownership of their classroom. (Those fifth-graders had total ownership over the “Martian Colony” classroom, and it started with covering the boards. And when students “own” something the engagement and learning multiplies exponentially) Even kindergarten students can help cover bulletin boards. This does mean that students will return to blank bulletin boards in the fall, but a simple “Under Construction by Students” sign explains the blank boards on opening day. And I can guarantee this one project will result in students understanding, and internalizing, measurement skills far better than completing hundreds of worksheets!