Is Learning Real?
I live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. In Central Virginia, we have the most beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, our land is mostly lush and green rolling hills, we have great weather most of the year, and the skies are simply gorgeous. Our county, Albemarle, is sought out by many of the rich and famous for a home because of the beauty here.
So when I teach Virginia Studies in our upper elementary grades, I take kids on as many field trips as I can, simply because it is worth seeing their faces as they go down into a cavern to experience stalactites and stalagmites, or see amazing views from the Blue Ridge Parkway, or visit a nearby apple or peach orchard and see the bounty we have produced since colonial days or ride down a nearby Interstate and understand, really, what a median in the highway is. (I then use that understanding to teach median in math!)
Part of the History and Social Science curriculum is to teach the five regions of Virginia. (It used to be three, then a couple of years later it became four and now it’s five. When they take Geography in 9th grade, they’ll earn there are lots more than 5.) So, today, I was working with three kids new to our school who “have already learned” the whole VS curriculum and passed the state tests. We’ll need to differentiate for them all year, and I have that task.
I was really just chatting with them today–to get to know them, to find out what they might be interested in learning and to kind of tease out holes or strengths they might have from their learning last year. As part of that conversation, I asked them which region they lived in last year and where they lived now. All of them knew they now live in the Piedmont region of Virginia. All of them knew the region they came from. All of them knew the Blue Ridge region is next to the Piedmont. But not one of them knew the mountains they
- ride beside, in a car or bus, EVERY day going to and from school,
- see from the front of our school,
- watch the sunset over and
- see fog and storms come over
were the Blue Ridge Mountains. They could all tell me the Blue Ridge Mountains were old mountains, rounded on top from years of erosion and weathering. They could all tell me they were part of an old mountain chain, and that they ran the length of our state. All of these facts are part of our state curriculum.
But they did not know those beautiful mountains right outside their houses, and right outside our school were the Blue Ridge Mountains.
So what if our kids can cite factoids?
Do they see beauty and wonder about it?
Are they curious about the world around them? (I was always asking the names of nearby mountains when I was a kid, and now LOVE the app, ARPeak–I can just point with my phone and find out!)
Do they care to learn about the place they now live? (Their homework tonight was to go home and research Crozet–and find out why the town is named that and what railroad tunnels have to do with that.) When I told them to google Claudius Crozet and VMI, one of the kids said, “My Dad went there.”
Really? and the dad didn’t tell the kid about Claudius Crozet when they moved here? Claudius Crozet, who is buried at VMI, who the dining hall is named after, and who designed the cadet uniform as the first President of the Board of Visitors?
Another kid said something about the parents’ favorite restaurant. When I asked the name, the kid responded with “Blue Ridge….” And the kid didn’t think about the region Blue Ridge or see the mountains which surround us and think they might be them??
I absolutely get that these kids are 9 and 10 years old. But come on–shouldn’t we have helped them be better at making connections? Shouldn’t we, as educators, be making the book learning be real?
This post isn’t about the kids really–it’s about what we as adults do to help kids make connections, or what we don’t do. The fact these kids are new to our school and our area gives us an opportunity to help them make some of the things they learned elsewhere real to them. I can’t help but wonder, though, what the kids who have grown up here know about Crozet, the man? Do they understand those mountains are part of the Blue Ridge chain?
I took the VS kids on a “walking field trip” to the front of the school. Stepping outside, I asked them what color the mountains appeared to be. As soon as they said “blue” I saw the light bulbs go off….and I know there are three kids who will be looking at those mountains differently tomorrow morning as they ride the bus or in their car to school. I know they’ll look around in our small town a bit more because of our conversation today.
And I bet after they research good ‘ole Claude and find out he engineered three tunnels through those mountains after the Civil War (without dynamite, through rock), and that he started on both sides of the mountain and the tunnels being dug from both sides almost matched to the inch when they met, that they’ll think about being from Crozet a bit differently. I bet when they look at the railroad mural in the middle of town they might wonder which of the three tunnels it is coming out of. I bet, if they don’t run into this fact online, they’ll wonder if the tunnels are still being used by the railroad today. And I bet when two of them see the road Claudius Court in their neighborhood, they’ll know where the name came from.
And I bet, when they are ever again in a conversation about old, rounded mountains, they’ll see the Blue Ridge Mountains in their mind–cause they experienced that today.
Is most of the learning our kids do real, or are we just spoon feeding them unconnected facts? I want kids to be curious, to ask questions, to wonder….and I want them to make connections, look for similarities and differences, and use what they know to understand themselves and their world more. Is that too much to ask in this world of high stakes testing?