We're rolling back into school for Term 2. It’s the day before the children come back to our small primary school tucked away in Sydney's northern suburbs. I'm feeling fresh and invigorated after a week at IDEC in New Zealand. The weather is less than inviting, torrential rain and a bitter chill. A winter welcome to the term of snuffles and over flowing lost property baskets. And tea, lots of cups of tea.
And then came the storm.
We arrive to find trees down. Many, many trees, trees we climbed in, sheltered from the sun under, drew and painted. Trees that were our cubby houses and the habitat of the many animals we share our land with.
As a child, I always wished for a 'snow day' as a child. Or the slightly more likely (though still mythical) 'over forty degrees means you go home day'. Now as a teacher I was experiencing a 'storm day' as we called around each household and told them the start of term had been postponed.
When my troupe of seven, eight and nine year-olds did eventually turn up we wandered the grounds. We studied the damage, ooh'ed and ahh’ed over the devastation.
The children began to process the event, taking in the environment we were surrounded by and the tidbits they heard on the news or from their parents. There were many questions.
Which places had a lot of damage?
Was that global warming?
Can we explore what happened to Newcastle?
Why do sharks love stormy weather?
How has the sand been washed away at the beach?
How do people know it is going to be wet?
Why did my house have a blackout when no one else’s house did?
Why was my big gum tree wobbling?
However, the burning question that kept rattling around as the children discussed the storm was a simple one.
Why did some big trees fall down when some little ones didn’t?
And so, for those first few weeks of term, that's what we investigated.
My well-laid plans for a unit of work on magazines were shoved to the back of the desk. As we had done at times in the past, we let the student's curiosity and interest shape their learning experience. There's no one-size-fits-all rulebook for planning inquiry based emergent curriculum in classroom. In each case it's unique, wonderful and challenging in its own particular ways.
Here’s how we did it, after the storm.
- We wrote 'stormries' – a term coined by the children to describe a story about a personal experience with the storm.
- We visited local bushland to see how it had been affected by the storm.
- Children brought in photos of storm damage at their homes or in their local area and news articles of storm damage across Sydney.
- Based on our observations we came up with our own theories as to why some big trees fell down and some little ones didn’t.
- We shared our memories of these trees and talked about new uses for the timber. The children measured the logs left behind by the SES and determined how many stools of a particular height could be made from each. They wrote a letter to some parents, asking them to chop the logs into stools for us.
- We studied a 'storm refugee' – a big Huntsman spider that took shelter on our lunch table. We learnt about millimetres and how scientists measure the size of spiders.
- We brainstormed all the words and expressions we know to describe rainfall and organised them on a cline from lightest to heaviest rainfall.
- We examined rainfall maps from the Bureau of Meteorology for the week of the storm, as well as the weeks before and after to understand just how much rain had fallen in our part of the country. How did that compared to other parts of the country? Could we find any patterns that could help us predict rainfall data?
- We then did a further survey of the school grounds and created “tree fall maps” using the same format as the rainfall maps and created a colour coded system to indicate how many trees had fallen in each area of the school.
- We thought about what sources of information we could consult to help us with our investigation of why some big trees fell down when some little ones didn’t. At this point we broke into teams with each team investigating one information source. Some used books and the internet. Others asked experts, contacting the Bureau of Meteorology and discovering that one of student's father was actually a 'tree expert' . Finally, some students focused on first hand investigation, spending more time outside examining the trees up close to see if there were further clues to lend to their theories of why the big trees had fallen down.
- It was important to check back in with the group regularly to update each other on our progress, continually build on our understanding and connect back to our initial question.
- The 'ask an expert' team emailed our 'expert dad', who came into the school one morning. He listened closely to the children’s theories and then corrected misconceptions or validated and extended on their ideas, using simple props like a lamp and fallen branches to aid in his demonstrations.
- Finally, we had a chance to digest this information, reflect and share about what we had learnt. Just as importantly, we explicitly reflected as a class on the process we had gone through – starting with our initial question and following the course of our investigation through to a satisfactory end point.
Now I realise, it’s not every term you discover your children's cherished playground has literally been turned upside down. It’s not every term that you have the flexibility in your program to drop everything and jump on board whole-heartedly with the questions your children pose. And it’s not every term that you happen to have a legitimate expert who can pop in on a Thursday morning to deliver an engaging, scientifically accurate presentation.
But when you do, and when you can, and when you find the right people to help you... the learning is contextual, cross-curricular and has a real application and meaning to the lives of your class.
And you know what? You'd be surprised how often these opportunities do actually present themselves, if we are open to them.
Looking back over the list of activities above, you can see that our work touched on areas of the Mathematics, Science and Technology, HSIE and English syllabi. On top of that, this type of learning has the benefit that students are genuinely curious and engaged. So much so that they don’t necessarily see this as 'work'. They are eager to be involved and often carry on throughout lunch or morning tea, mulling over ideas or working on projects.
As teachers, we have to recognise that this type of learning is very much 'in the moment'. Planning and organising has to be done 'on the run'. It can't be neatly fixed up in the holidays with a cup of tea and time to spare, like my magazine unit that was put on the back burner. Working with emergent and inquiry based themes, it can take time to put together relevant activities that also tie in with the curriculum.
Sometimes you find the children don’t have the necessary 'toolbox skills' to deal with a contextual task - for example, using a ruler or reading a graph. It's important to supplement your investigative and contextual activities with further 'toolbox tasks' to help students generalise the learning. This way you can be sure the learning is not just 'one off' and is consolidated for the future.
When the children first asked, 'Why did some big trees fall down and some little ones didn’t?', I didn’t have the answer. Once upon a time, that would have scared me. Now I’m comfortable enough to know that while I might not have the answer, I know how to help them work it out. We will learn together.
Just for the record, we still did the unit of work on magazines, just a little later than planned. And one child made the topic of her magazine 'the weather', so that she could continue to explore the ideas from our investigations, after the storm.