project-based learning

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New York

Breaking From The Routine: What Happened When I Relaxed

Structure and routine is a refrain that starting-out special education teachers hear incessantly. The right classroom management strategy creates the perfect classroom, we're told. Yes, my second-grade special education students at Brooklyn's PS 12 needed some sort of structure and routine to thrive. Yet so often, it seems as though structure is equated to teacher control. Exact routines. Little freedom. No down time. I knew my students needed something more, something different. There were moments when they excelled and shined, but it wasn't when they were doing desk work, sitting on the rug, or taking part in skill and drill curricula. Our escape from a teacher-dominated structure began with a field trip to the New York Aquarium that coincided with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After our visit, I posted a few links to site and articles about the oil spill on our classroom wiki and invited my students to look around the websites. They were riveted by the images of the dirty water and oil-covered sea creatures. One of my toughest and overage students sat in front of her laptop and said to herself, "This is so sad. I want to help." We brainstormed a few ideas as a class. How could we help? We contemplated sending toothbrushes, collecting pet and human hair for the booms (yes, my second-graders know what booms are!), and sending supplies like paper towels and heavy-duty bags. Ultimately, we decided to put our effort in closer to home, by creating a news broadcast about the spill. The link to our regular classroom activities came from comic books, which my students had been reading. One of my awesome educational assistants, Janice Pierce, suggested that we create superheroes who could help out on the Gulf Coast. Our team of superheros, the Superpsychics — Environmentra, Bubble Girl, Dragon Boy, Diamond Woman, Heart Girl, Rainbow Girl, Green Hulk, and Superboy — was born. The students were at last engaged in writing. I'd never seen them work so intently. By late June, we had completed two major projects — a video and a comic book.