This past Friday fifth grade teacher Jenny Harper overheard a student say something that I wish we heard more often. “This doesn’t even feel like school today,” the girl gushed. “This is the best.” She was responding to a day of theatrical performances and the traditional celebration feast that mark the end of the Ancient Greece unit in 5th grade social studies and language arts.
Jenny Harper and Bette Yeager boldly stepped into the unknown when re-creating the Ancient Greece unit this year. They started with a film, and asked their students to write down every question that came to mind. After dividing the questions into categories driven by student interest, such as daily life and culture, the Olympics, religion, and warfare, students then broke into groups to refine their own questions before launching into research and writing (including a draft and a final copy) that they completed individually. In the end, the groups were re-assembled so that students might present their findings to their classmates. One group re-enacted the Peloponnesian War, and another presented a game show to highlight the daily life and culture of ancient Greece.
The idea for this project came from colleagues Nichole Liese and Shelly Harriman. Last year they attended a conference on “inquiry circles,” and then led a conversation this summer with language arts teachers in grades 4-9 about ways to integrate these ideas into their curricula. Teachers who practice this craft show great respect for the inquisitiveness that is natural in every child. They work hard to structure a range of opportunities for students first to dig deeper into content than they otherwise would, and then to take responsibility for sharing their research with their classmates.
This is a curricular example of Randolph at its best. Students who take charge of their learning are empowered to seek truth, and they grow and develop in ways that impress and inspire us. We can structure these opportunities for children in large part because we have small classes, creative teachers committed to their own professional development, and take ultimate responsibility for our own curriculum. Because we are not compelled to “teach to the test,” we can do more to make learning fun and at the same time challenge students to push harder into the world of the unknown as they build a skill set for the 21st century.