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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fleas in Room 212!

It wasn't my idea to infest the school with fleas. But it happened.

Backstory: Dr. Bertie Kingore is a guru in the field of gifted and talented education, but back in the day I am proud to say that she was my reading professor at Hardin-Simmons University. In the 1980's the amazing Bertie ventured out and introduced the avant guard idea of differentiated instruction via learning centers or stations.

I know, you're rolling your eyes, because learning stations are as common as jam on bread, but in the days of Saturday Night fever and shoulder pads, the concept was virtually unknown. But like everything else Bertie set her mind to do, her theories proved true and have shaken the very core of our educational system landing gifted and talented on the map...which brings me back to my flea story.

I landed my first teaching job at Provident Heights Elementary in Waco, Texas. The school was in an aging, low socio-economic part of Waco. We had no air-conditioning and if you've never been to Texas in the heat of summer, it can get so hot you can fry an egg on the sidewalk!

I was assigned to first grade. While the other teachers on my team were cranking out ditto packets  using blue carbon copy sheets, I was at work arranging my room into stations! I was na├»ve and believed that the world needed my genius which was creativity and innovation to meet the individual needs of every learner! Well, this is what Bertie had brainwashed her students to believe!

In my head I can count  no less than ten stations: listening station, puzzle station, painting/art station, reading station, music station, building blocks/Lego station, typewriter station, mystery station, creature station, play dough/clay station, cooking station and yes, a sandbox station.

My sandbox was more like a plastic, oblong rectangular trough that was raised above the ground on wooden stilts. I had a drop cloth underneath to catch grains that inevitably fell in the course of learning. The learning objective was to have a multi-sensory approach to allow my six-year-olds to trace their spelling words into the sand with an occasional prize hidden somewhere in the sand. It was easy to convert the sandbox/tray to a fossil hunt when teaching science about rocks and fossils which was the enrichment piece.

My principal, Mrs. Stapler (not her real name) seemed to like the idea of students moving to learn, just as long as the talking stayed at a minimum and I continued to use the math and reading primer that my team was using.

And then it happened.

The first bites happened in the reading area where my students sat on a throw rug I had picked up at a local Goodwill. I was sitting on a chair reading to my students when the bites started. In case you've never been bitten by a flea...those suckers are quick! You feel an isolated itch but when you scratch there is nothing there. They're not like mosquitoes where you can hear them coming. They are tiny creatures which, I believe, are really aliens sent from the planet Fleazore, which will someday take over our planet.

I didn't report the bites at first, because I didn't know what they were. But within days, my students had spots popping up on their arms and legs and scratched more than they engaged in learning. The situation continued to the next room and it seemed like the entire first grade were scratching scabs on the playground, at lunch and their teachers began complaining. Our principal brought in an exterminator to spray over the weekend. It was determined that the fleas were nesting and hatching in my learning center!

And so it is with life. Implementing new ideas can be messy and full of set backs. If I had let all that I had learned in college leave with the fleas, I would have gone the safe route. My students would have spent the rest of the year sitting in desks, coloring work pages and live in a "one size fits all" classroom.

I confess that while I hate the fleas and the embarrassment it caused, I also gleaned wisdom on how to be a leader who encourages others to take risks and that failure is part of the pathway to success. Life is full of setbacks and we make corrections and move on.

I'm proud to say that my students scored as well (or better) on their first grade tests and the following year my team began to implement learning stations.

Confession Reflection:

What is the value of encouraging students and teachers to take risks? 
How do leaders/educators deal with setbacks?
Describe a learning outcome that resulted from a setback.
Why is it important to model failure? Give an example.
Reunited with Dr. Kingore at a GT workshop 2012!