This is a bit of a throw back post to when I was teaching grade 2. It was a time in my teaching, like we have all had, where the class is magnificent. They all worked so well together, they were like a well-oiled machine. Everyone played well together, I never had any behavioural issues, and they loved school. It was a win win for me! When you have the opportunity to have a class like this one, the possibilities are endless.
I read a book a while back called Black Ants and Buddhists. It focuses on social justice issues in society and how we can teach our students about contributing to society in a positive way through questioning the ways of the world. I was truly inspired by this book, and since reading it have always tried to take on some sort of social justice issue within the classroom in an inquiry approach. This project I want to share, did just that.
This project stemmed from the reading of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. The children were enthralled with the story since the beginning of the year and asked me to read it to them regularly. I saw an opportunity to take their enthusiasm for environmental issues farther and set up a beautiful ocean in our classroom. (It was just a water table filled with some toys, but the kids loved it!) I know that “play based learning” isn’t really a focus in education after Kindergarten, but I really think it’s important to give children those opportunities to learn through play as often as we can. I set up the water table in the middle of the classroom, surrounding it with boats and ocean animals such as crab, fish, and shells, inviting the children to play in the water.
Since our most recent reading of the lorax, the children took an approach of wanting to know more about pollution and oil spills in particular. There is a moment in the book where the fish have to leave the water because the plant is pumping something unknown into it. My wonderful librarian found several books that helped to spark their interest in the topic even further. Through the research of these texts, the children’s natural sense of curiosity and wonder came to play as they wanted to know about the impact of an oil spill on the environment.
I wanted to guide the children towards an understanding of how water can become polluted in ways that we as individuals can contribute to protecting and improving the quality of the environment and habitats of marine life. Over the lunch hour, I place a tipped over “oil tanker” in the water and added some “oil” (olive oil and cocoa) Once the “tanker” had spilled the oil, I set out feathers and fur that the children could dip in the water and observe what happened once the items touched the oil. It was exciting to hear the conversations that occurred around the water table between the children, and the guests that came into our classroom.
T: “Eww, the feather is heavy!”
Mrs. W: “Do you think that the birds would be able to fly?”
The children: “Noooo!”
Mrs. P: “How does the bird clean its feathers?”
J: “Well…it can’t.”
Many of the children wanted to immediately wash their hands after dunking fur and feathers into the oily water. Others examined the oil-slicked fur back at their tables. One of my students, who recently moved to Canada from North Korea, tried to clean the fur with paper towel and water. “It didn’t work teacher!”
That day, the students were environmentalists. They had a clear opinion about oil spills and this lesson shocked many of them. I saw real emotion from manh of them as they made an explanation as to why they didn’t want to put the fur in the oily water. I saw determination if their eyes when they tried to clean the fur and saw a look of defeat when they could not get the oil off. This project showed me the importance that each of these children play in the future of our society.
This project was evidence of the importance of exploration and play within the classroom. This project would never have come to be had the children not been allowed to explore their wonderings. This gave me ideas as a teacher of what I could do to prove the children with materials they need to extend this learning even further and allow them to share their learning and stories with others.
I waited until the next day to discuss what we could do with the information that we had learned together about oil spills. I often use chart paper with the children to write down ideas on how we can share our learning with others. The children had many ideas, and took several avenues to share the impact of that day. I had a few students who wrote letters to the government of Canada explaining the importance of “double-hulls” when shipping oil across the ocean and the importance that our marine life has in the world. Other students made posters that they displayed around the school, while others continued to research about the impact of oil on marine life and shared their learning with the class.
This project served as a moment in my teaching career that I will never forget. I had no idea how a water table with some oil in it, would have affected the children so greatly. It really became a jumping off point for many other projects that this class took on throughout the year, and became a time for me to see the philosophies of play-based learning and inquiry at work in the classroom.
I have found that the inquiry approach is messy, it looks chaotic, and it can be a little crazy in my room at times. But it’s learning in it’s most purest form, through discovery, and there isn’t anything greater than that!