Room to Grow

When teaching becomes routine, Christine Whiting seeks new professional challenges. Currently a competent ESOL teacher, she wants to incorporate new content and try new methods to reinvigorate her teaching. While her principal supports these goals, she also urges Christine to push herself in different ways. Christine feels stymied and confused by her administrator's suggestions.

Christine Whiting seeks her niche in the teaching profession.

See, I grew up in the suburbs of Spokane where nature was contained in neat rectangular flower beds bordered by cement sidewalks on one side and a tenth of an acre of close-cropped grass on the other. The most experience I had with the natural world consisted of the straight rows of pansies my mother and I set out early each spring and the desultory weeding she forced me to do on Saturday mornings.

Maybe that’s why I was drawn to the natural sciences, to counteract my childhood deprivation. I spent my summers working for the park service and even contemplated taking a ranger job before deciding to follow my boyfriend (now long gone!) to Seattle. It didn’t even feel like much of a sacrifice when I saw Seattle’s abundance of parks and easy access to major national preservations. The school where I got my first teaching job was located adjacent to a public natural area, complete with wetlands, walking trails, and a picnic shelter. It was an extravagant resource, and I imagined nature walks and an outdoor science classroom.

But as a new teacher, my management skills were tested daily and my vision of the outdoor science class crashed into the reality of David Burkness and Meredith Howard, third graders who despite their small size managed to disrupt each and every lesson I attempted to teach. When we were studying the life cycle of frogs, Meredith contaminated the aquarium I had carefully set up with pond water and frog eggs by dumping in hand sanitizer, effectively terminating not just their life cycle but the lesson as well. And when we were supposed to be collecting soil samples, David responded to a dare by eating a slug, an entire banana slug! It was only four inches long, but there was no getting my students on-task after that.

Click here to see a banana slug.

My administrator at the time, Mr. Barkoff, “suggested” rather strongly that I cease and desist the outdoor classroom, citing mysterious – and – anonymous parent complaints and concerns about standards. Instead, he wanted me to remain inside school, “just until you get these discipline problems ironed out.” So inside I stayed. And while my management skills steadily improved as the years went by, I still encountered resistance to the idea of spending too much time engaged in hands-on science activities, as opposed to zeroing in on the standards-based textbook.

People thought I was foolish when I decided to transfer to Hamilton Elementary, but I hoped the shift would allow me more instructional freedom. And it was a big change. With its predominantly Hispanic population, it really felt like a different world. There wasn’t much to tempt me to take my students outside for class – the steady hum of traffic was constantly audible when I opened my windows – so I shifted my focus to meeting the challenge of working with so many ESOL children.

See demographic information about Hamilton Elementary School below:

I had eleven ESOL students in my regular education classroom that first year, most of whom appeared fairly well-integrated into the system, although errors in their speech and writing came out regularly. Initially, I was nervous about state test scores and NCLB requirements. These kids were really far behind a typical class from my old school. Luckily, I was soon partnered with a fulltime ESOL specialist, Lindsey Traub, who became my mentor and friend. She was – and is – the most imaginative teacher I know, and it was Lindsey who encouraged me to get my ESOL endorsement. After my first year at Hamilton, I went ahead and enrolled in a program here, and within two years I was fully endorsed as an ESOL teacher.

From my courses and from Lindsey I learned much about how to teach ESOL students. I began really to enjoy working with ESOL students. I was inspired by the emphasis on Language Enrichment Activities to build vocabulary. Lindsay suggested I expand some of my favorite science curricula to emphasize multiple learning styles. I began gearing up to appeal to my visual and kinesthetic learners.

Challenged by her colleague and her principal, Christine branches out.

The idea of creating worm habitats wasn’t exactly my own. I was in the process of establishing an organic garden at home when I came across some information put out by the city about composting with worms. From that I stumbled on a program to create classroom worm recycling bins, which I knew would be a hit with my students.

Click here to read EEK! Environmental Education for Kids! Composting With Worms

I tried it one year, but to tell the truth, having worms permanently installed in the classroom was a mixed blessing, even if I was able to supply myself with great soil from their castings. I had to cart that tub of worms – and a tub of worms is heavy – home for winter and spring break, and of course I had to keep them over the summer, by the end of which I had enough worms to set up three more bins. In the end they stayed home, and while I regularly gave away my worm “crop” to members of my organic gardening club, I didn’t use them at school any more.

It was disappointing, and I pretty much gave up the idea of using worms as a teaching tool. But I started wondering if it would be possible to make individual worm habitats, on a smaller scale. I was noticing terrariums for plants growing in popularity, and I thought: Why not put a worm in there? So I did some research and found out worm terrariums are definitely possible – and can be a great teaching tool! Setting up individual worm terrariums for a short period of time would be much easier to manage than the huge – and very permanent – composting bins while allowing for a broader variety of experiments.

I found another series of lesson plans about worm habitats. Perhaps if I combined the two ideas . . . ? My brain was buzzing. I wanted to make this work with my students.

Click here to see the Worm Terrarium lesson plan that sparked Christine’s interest.

Click here for more Worm Lesson Plans that inspired Christine.

Click here to read the lesson plans on Mighty Earth Movers.

When I next saw Lindsey at lunch in the workroom, I mentioned rekindling my worm idea.

She made a face and shuddered exaggeratedly. “Ugh! You and your worms. Why on earth do you want to do that again?”

I laughed, having anticipated her response. “Hey! Worms have got it all; they’re producers, consumers and decomposers. They’re the perfect teaching aide. Hands-on and vocabulary-building!” Still laughing, I added, “And not in the least critical, either!”

I thought more deeply about her question as I went back to my room, and a broad answer came to mind. I needed to do something to spark my teaching. Sure, I was a competent teacher these days, but I felt like I was going through a routine. I had to grow as much as my students to remain vital, and I still felt like I’d failed to achieve my youthful idea of a real-world science classroom.

As I approached my year-end conference with the principal, Vivian Wolfe, I considered my goals for next year. Usually, I just fabricated the required goals to align with the school improvement plan and didn’t think much about it after that. Sure, Vivian would revisit them briefly with me the following year, but I could usually describe something – anything – I’d done to demonstrate that I’d met my standards so she could “document” these items. Vivian had a reputation for making to-do lists and checking them off. She liked things orderly and by the book. In any case, she was usually behind, had more than 40 teachers to process before checkout and so scheduled conferences in twenty-minute increments, which didn’t leave a lot of time for in-depth scrutiny.

When I handed Vivian my typed list of goals right at the start of our conference, I could see her do a double take. It made me realize how interminable these year-end conferences must seem to her as she struggled to complete a multitude of tasks I wasn’t even aware of while focusing on rather dull, routine reviews. She looked up at me.

“So, Christine, this isn’t what I usually get. Tell me about this list.”

See Christine’s goals below:

“Well, Vivian, I’m putting my ESOL training into action by emphasizing multiples intelligences and doing more hands-on science.”

“I see. But worms? What will you do with them?”

I wondered why she wanted details, since each goal had to fit into a tiny half-inch by three inch box, but I needed a sounding board and was happy to comply.

“Oh, the worms, of course. They fit into the EALRs, nicely. We can use them to learn about producers, consumers and decomposers, habitats, the cycle of life, the scientific method, all kinds of content.”

Click here to review Washington State’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR), Science K–10 Grade Level Expectations: A New Level of Specificity.

“Well, I’m sure the kids will be excited by that.” Her praise seemed a bit perfunctory. “May I make a suggestion?”

I nodded, but I felt a bit apprehensive as I awaited her ideas.

“You know the State Superintendent is really pushing for accountability, so I am challenging classroom teachers to design their standards-based lessons with ongoing, measurable assessment. I think it would be valuable for you to collect some data to see how the time spent on the worm unit meets standards and translates into student gain.”

And before I could reply, she added that to the box on the form, right below where she’d recorded my other goals.

In an effort to meet her new goals, Christine struggles with the idea that all learning should be measurable.

So I had my challenges set out for me and formally committed to paper. As I packed up my classroom for the summer, I worried about taking my students, who were largely from backgrounds of poverty, and scrutinizing them with never ending assessment tools. After my last trip to the car to load the boxes of materials I would need over the summer, I stopped by Lindsey’s room. She’s usually the last teacher to leave, because she organizes everything for the start of the following year before beginning her vacation.

“Lindsey! Have you gone home?” I asked half-jokingly as I surveyed her empty classroom.

She crawled out of her closet, where she’d been working on hands and knees. “Of course not!” She was dusty and bedraggled, but seemed happy as she looked at her brand new “Bienvenidos” and “Welcome” bulletin board with its September calendar displayed. “You know me; I just can’t relax and really enjoy the break if I’ve got work hanging over my head. You heading home?”

“You bet. My garden is calling to me. But I’m going to have to work this summer. I met with Vivian and I’ve got goals now.” She raised her eyebrows. “It appears I’ll be measuring worms by more than centimeters.” I sighed. “Developing assessment tools is just not my thing.”

“Well, worms are not my thing, but I’ll email you a few good articles that might help!” she smiled sympathetically.

As I drove home, I wondered whether a balance between instilling the love of learning and assessment really existed. I unloaded the car, dumping boxes into my already crowded office and hobby room. It was here that I planned lessons during the school year, emailed my children when they were away at college, and worked on my scrapbooks, which took most of my spare time in the winter, once the gardens were put to bed under their six inches of shredded leaves.

After dinner, I decided to take a page from Lindsey’s book and get right to work, rather than putting this project off until the middle of August. As the computer booted up I brewed a cup of coffee and considered that list of goals. I knew most of them weren’t “measurable,” the big word of the day, but I also knew they were important and would make a difference in the lives of the children I taught. I opened my email account to write my habitual evening note to my “girls” (although now that they were 22 and 19 they rejected that term). But I was immediately sidetracked when I saw that Lindsey had written me. Hearing from her was always a treat. I never knew if she had a great entertainment tip, a joke, or an educational pearl to share. Having Lindsey as a mentor and friend had helped to clarify my areas of strength, as well as pointing out where I had room to grow.

I could hear Lindsey’s animated voice as I read, “Hey, Christine! Are you up for Thai on Friday night? Let me know. Also, since I don’t have quite enough work to fill my time, I went ahead and found a site that might help you meet your goal regarding assessment and graphic organizers. Aren’t I wonderful?!!! But you’re on your own for the worms!”

Click here to review scientifically based research on graphic organizers.

I felt a lot of pressure. My experience and intuition led me to believe time spent in hands-on science would build vocabulary and reinforce key concepts. I wondered about Vivian’s intentions when she wrote down “my” assessment goal. Why was she challenging me to quantify what I was seeing in the classroom? Are all aspects of student learning meant to be measured? I was confident that my students were learning but less confident about being able to create assessment tools that would prove it.

Changing my plans for the evening, I rolled my chair over to my scrap-booking table and pulled out my most recent album. I was in the process of documenting last summer’s camping trip on the San Juan Islands and began cutting brown cardstock to form a large tent to frame the next two-page spread. As I cut and pasted, my mind mulled over what Vivian had said, what I admired about Lindsey, and the sense I needed to find a way to prove that what I was teaching was of value. Finished with the photo layouts, I began writing the story of those days of kayaking and hiking. As I looked at the photos, the experience of that week came back to me so clearly that I could smell the aromatic scent of the pine-filled woods and taste the ocean in the briny oysters we’d sampled at a seaside restaurant.

And that’s when inspiration hit. Why not have students create their own scrapbooks? I’d always used a lot of visuals in the classroom, of course, but this would be more organized and intentional, a bridge between their learning and home. I felt suddenly rejuvenated as I considered my plans for the upcoming year. I wouldn’t quite say I was counting the days till school began, but I felt more excitement about the coming year than I had in a long time. And I still had almost two months left to garden, scrapbook, and plan!

Christine feels successful as her students build homes for their worms as part of the habitat unit.

I reached into my compost bin under the kitchen sink and gently scooped out a generous portion of red wigglers, the worms I use to transform my kitchen scraps into garden fertilizer. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them as they scrambled about the Rubbermaid tub drilled with holes I was using to transport them. They were desperately searching for someplace to hide, but I had no mercy. Today was the day I’d planned for all summer and that we’d been working towards for over two months at school. These worms were headed to new homes, hopefully safe and healthy environments for them, and they should be just fine.

See a brief overview of the worm habitat unit below:

Christine is thrilled to incorporate worms into her curriculum.

Once at school, I struggled to balance the tub and a bucket of my finest soil for the long walk inside. My breath grew short as I carted them down the hall and set these supplies just inside my classroom door. I couldn’t wait for my students to help shred paper from the recycling bin for bedding and to bring scraps from the cafeteria for worm food. It’s such a joy to see kids change their minds about “slimy worms” and see an appreciation grow for the good work worms do to the earth.

Christine’s students developed concept maps to frame their understanding of habitats.

I opened my closet, where I’d stashed a supply of 2-liter soda bottles after cutting off their tops, and set up a station at the back table for creating new homes for my worms.

As my students arrived, they took note of the new supplies in the back of the room and seemed particularly excited as we began our day. Last week, they completed their “cartoon books,” which is how I referred to their visual organizers. I had them read through theirs now and explain the drawings to their partners, before I reviewed the concepts of a habitat. I like doing the combination of partner work and then a teacher-led discussion; it helps me keep in touch with each student’s understanding.

See habitat cartoon book examples below:

See the habitat cartoon book rubric below:

But nothing beat watching students put their habitats together. Almost all of them used their new vocabulary correctly, and I could tell that they all understand the concepts we’d been working on.

By the end of the lesson we had twenty-two new “worm condos,” twenty-two dirty kids, and a very messy classroom.

Vivian Wolfe, school principal, and Christine review her lesson. Christine is surprised to hear Vivian’s assessment.

Worm terrarium.

Vivian stopped by after school as I was busily trying to recreate my normally well-organized classroom. My stomach clenched when I saw she actually had my goals form in her hand.

She helped herself to the dustpan and small broom I kept in my closet for the everyday spills of a fifth grade classroom and cleared a spot on the debris-strewn table. “I’ve only got fifteen minutes, but I wanted to hear how it went.”

“For me – or for my students?”

“Both!”

“Well, I am exhausted but satisfied. I really think they learned a lot and will continue to learn as we observe the worms in their new homes.”

Vivian nodded her head and continued. “You set a few goals for this year, and I wanted to hear how you think you’re doing on them. Why don’t we start with the assessment? Have you come up with a unit pre- and post-assessment?”

I grabbed a file folder titled “Everything I Know About the Work a Worm Does.” I handed Vivian a copy of the rubric I’d be using as part of my end of unit evaluation.

See Christine’s Earthworm Mindmaps Rubric below:

“Mind if I keep this copy?” she asked.

“Not at all.”

Vivian, her brow slightly wrinkled, gave the sheet a cursory once-over, and then continued. “I can see some of your mind maps posted, and obviously you’re doing the worm project. How did you accommodate for different language levels and learning styles?”

“Well, I had students in pairs, and you know I’ve been matching stronger English speakers with weaker ones to act as translators, and the unit is designed to touch on many different learning styles, kinesthetic, auditory, and obviously visual.” I realized I was going on and on, but I was unsure how to interpret Vivian’s deadpan response, and it was making me nervous.

As I finished talking, Vivian finally smiled, and I felt the knot in my stomach release a bit. “Looks like you’re doing good work here.”

While that was hardly glowing praise, I still felt that with a little help from Lindsey, I was winning her over. I was actually looking forward to using my unit post-assessment rubric, so I could show off a bit.

I looked over at the long row of soda bottles lining the shelves. Even though I couldn’t see any worms, I knew they were there, burrowing blindly beneath the surface, exploring the limits of their new habitats. They would find everything they needed to survive there, and I hoped we’d provided enough for them to thrive.