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Teaching and Learning with 5th Graders

Kelsey's picture

To be entirely honest, before we arrived and started working with the 5th grade students, I wasn't looking forward to this trip.  Because I was exhausted from the past few weeks and had little experience with teaching, I was very nervous, both about messing up the lesson and about being too tired to connect as much as possible with the students.  When we were told that we'd be working individually with students in the greenhouse, I grew even more anxious, worried that I wouldn't be a good teacher or learning partner to whomever I was paired with.  But, once we started our introduction activity and I saw the students' enthusiam, and their awesome dance moves, my worries dissipated and I felt better than I had for days.  Their energy and enthusiam was infectious, and I found myself increasingly engaged in everything we were doing.  It turned out that my worries about working one-on-one with a student in the greenhouse were unfounded- I really enjoyed working with and talking to the student I was paired with, and I loved hearing about how she likes gardening and math (it always makes me so happy to hear that students like math, since too many educational systems are far too good at teaching students to hate it).  One of the most powerful moments for me was when I was standing with the student I was paired with and another student and, when they asked if I made rubber band bracelets and I said I wasn't sure what they meant, the other student showed me the one she was wearing and said I could have it.  I tried to say it was hers, but she said she had and could make a lot more, so I wore it all day and now it's displayed on my desk.  I don't know what it meant to her, to give a gift to a stranger, but for me it was an overwhelming display of kindness.

I also really enjoyed teaching the math lesson with jo.  The kids were all really enthusiastic and seemed to enjoy the lesson, and I think that we were able to help them think about fractions a bit.  I realized throughout the lesson that I am not very good at explaining concepts in a teaching role because, when I was trying to explain how to figure out the answer to one of the questions we asked, I found myself struggling with how to put a concept I learned when I was close to their age into words that would make sense.  If I do anything more with teaching throughout my life, I will definitely have to work on developing this skill.  I also realized throughout the lesson how complicated it can be to teach when students are at different levels of understanding.  One girl in our group was very fast at fractions, getting the answers to the questions we asked very quickly, while the other three students needed longer to work through the concepts.  The student who was getting the answers very quickly wanted to do everything herself, not giving the other students the opportunity to figure things out themselves or for everyone to work together as a group.  I was definitely unprepared to deal with this situation, and am interested in learning more about how teachers teach a group of students at different levels, since I'm sure this is an issue that comes up in almost every teaching situation.

Now that I've had two days to think about the teaching and learning experience, and what I'm going to take away from all of this, I'm thinking a lot about the danger of romanticizing the story of our visit.  It's easy for me to talk about how kind the students were, how moved I was by their energy and enthusiam, but I don't want to simplify them in my telling into a two-dimensional image.  The students and their lives, their experiences, the city as a whole, are far too multi-faceted and complicated for me to understand as an outsider.  It's also crucial that we don't frame our visit as a white savior complex narrative- not that I think any of us are at this point, but it's far too easy of a trap to fall into when we are constantly taught to "help" people "less fortunate" than ourselves.  As we discuss our experiences and our feelings about our teaching and learning experience, I am going to do my best to question the narrative I am telling, or at least understand that my perception of our experience is not an accurate reflection of the reality of students' lived experiences and their community.