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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It . . . .

Santa Barbara mission model

Continuing the “thinking outside the box” theme I began with in last week’s blog about Cheating in the Digital Age, I thought I would share another fun thing that happened where I work recently.

If you live in California, you may know about the California Mission Project. Every year, billions of miniature red clay roof tiles are made (from lasagna noodles painted red and other creative substitutes). Michael’s craft stores sell out of all the pre-made mission kits (and their myriad overpriced accessories), and every library in the state temporarily loses its stock of books about missions. For some reason, building a model of a mission is supposed to make nine year-olds understand how the real missions impacted California history and began a process of decimating the California Indians through disease and a devastating change of lifeways such as has never been seen before or since. Okay, since the Gold Rush. That was devastating for the Native Americans as well.

But I’m not buying it. My school, in recent years, has required that all the mission-building activities take place AT school, in the classrooms. This is to remove the overly helpful (“here, just let me do it”) parents from the equation and have the kids really do all the work. There is cooperation (the kids work in groups). There is problem solving (they have to figure out how to make a scale model from just pictures and written descriptions). There is mess: the kind of mess that completely takes over the classrooms for over a week, rendering all other academic activity therein completely impossible.

I like to see fourth graders with plaster in their hair as much as the next teacher whose classroom does not have to be sacrificed to the mission projects, but I still wasn’t feelin’ it. They don’t get it.

I thought I was helping by creating a Google Earth alternative. Kids, working in groups, use PBworks (a wiki) to gather information about an assigned mission, and then they transfer that data into placemarks they create in Google Earth. Part of what they have to find out is the name of the indigenous people who inhabited the mission’s area and how the mission’s presence impacted their lives.

But it wasn’t enough. My friend Joe Wood and I talked briefly over the summer about a way to add 3-D buildings to the Google Earth project to make it really come to life. I got excited. There’s only one problem with that: Google SketchUp is one of those things I had given myself permission to place on the back burner until after my son got older and I finished graduate school. Here I am, halfway through my Masters degree with a son in kindergarten. No way was I introducing something as enticing and time-devouring as 3-D drawing into my life at this point. (And I say that in the most admiring and forlorn-that-I-can’t-play-with-SketchUp way possible.)

Along comes a new fourth grade teacher at my school. She’s young. She’s enthusiastic. Most important, she’s single and childless and NOT in grad school. I threw her a bone a couple of weeks ago. “Hey,” I says . . . “you should look at this Google SketchUp thing . . . .”

And into my web she flew. Oh yes. All I had to do was point out the complete lack of plaster involved and she was hooked. Not only are her kids creating one third of the Google Earth placemarks for our missions project . . . they are going to create the 3-D buildings to populate our little virtual state.

I can’t take credit for this. I’d seen mention of it as an idea in passing. Joe Wood brought it up to me this past summer. But I needed to pass the baton on this one to the fleeter generation. Grad school has eaten my brain through a systematic process of excess work and lack of sleep. The new generation shall abolish the plaster and red-painted noodle roofs. No more carpets shall die for the cause! And kids can place their little creations right on the map and say, “oh, cool!” at each other.

My work here is done.

Image from Flickr user newchaos, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

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