“What are you doing in your classroom?” This was the standard question I got from my principals who passed through my school over the years. They even made sure my classroom was located at the far end of the campus away from the administration building to ensure no noise or disruption from my middle school students could reach their ears. I prided myself on making learning fun, but unfortunately, it could be noisy and boisterous which only I enjoyed.
At the beginning of my career as a junior high English teacher, I stuck to the rigid schedule of textbook reading and lectures using the chalkboard and other audio-visual aids in class. Soon I got bored and so did the students. I decided to have them learn with hands-on experiences. The first theme for class study would be “Pets.” The purpose was to encourage them to voice their opinions and ideas relying on a beloved pet. Little did I know that this lesson would bring excitement to the campus. Cockfighting is a popular illegal sport in Waianae where I teach, and many youngsters felt their winning chickens would be a nice topic for discussion. They proudly brought them in cages with their fighting equipment – gaffs and such. Who worried about knives and razor blades then? Soon the classroom became a storage room of animals and I ran out of space! I was forced to share my dark secrets of animals on campus with the custodial staff that helped me keep them safe until class started.
Chickens were not a problem as they were kept in cages. Trouble started with the pet monkey, dogs, and baby kittens. First, I advised a student to ask her mother to deliver her monkey right before class. That done, I expected no trouble with the campus security or other students’ curiosity while the monkey was in our classroom. Then it started when the monkey had to go outside to take a break and also to relieve itself. We were into the next presentation when the security guards rushed into my room to report that the monkey had climbed up a tree and refused to come down. This caused a widespread disturbance as the students in the rooms near the tree were all standing by the windows, gaping, calling the pet and refusing to do their assignments. Well, with some help from the security and custodians, we managed to retrieve the monkey and call the parent to take it home. We made sure the dogs were properly leashed and kept away from the public eye while on campus as animals and pets were not allowed in school. However, there was one exception – the baby kitten. I regretted that I allowed it to come to school as it was almost loved to death. It had no time to rest all day because it was handed from one student to the next who wished to stroke it, kiss it, or cuddle it. On top of that, the owner forgot to bring proper nourishment and a box to house it while it waited its turn for the class presentation. At the end of the day, I feared the kitten would not survive its trip to school, and I was relieved when the dismissal bell for school rang.
During those days of pet reports, my class smelled like a barnyard, and the teachers were not happy to see their students running to the windows to watch for animals. I continued this lesson plan for several years despite their unhappy faces and the extra cleanup in class, hoping my students gained some confidence and experience in dealing with an audience.
The next theme for class study was to explain and demonstrate making or doing a project – “How to Make Something.” Sounds pretty technical? No, the students were required to rely on notes and use supplies or equipment. If they needed help, a friend was allowed to assist. The fun started when I suggested something easy to do –make paper airplanes and demonstrate how to fly them. There were paper airplanes all over the campus grounds for a week. Of course, they traced the cause to my classroom lesson plan. Another favorite student demonstration was to make a dessert or cook a favorite recipe. The attractive part of it was the opportunity to share the dish with the class or hand out samples at the end of the presentation. I certainly looked forward to those reports, too! We had many spontaneous parties as I recall. Chow fun noodles, brownies, cakes of all kinds, cookies, and even butter mochi! Mothers would drop by with huge pans and trays of food to supplement their children’s reports in hopes of enhancing the demonstration and earning an excellent grade. And so it did.
Those days of happy activities when it was fun to come to class slowly diminished as our schools locked into benchmarks, achievement scores, and learning to take tests without developing skills which make for joyful living. Our arts and crafts, music, and home economics programs have suffered since The Race to the Top competition began in our schools. I believe that students need to balance their education with real-life skills as well as academic ones.