At the end of my first year teaching life science, I did something different from all the other science teachers. It was an idea I had shared at one of our "learning community"/department meetings. My colleagues listened to my idea, nodding and "uh-hum"-ing as I explained it. I wasn't sure if my enthusiasm and excitement was being received or delivered as I explained it, and by the looks on their faces, I felt as if it was falling on deaf ears.
It was the same every time I had a "new" idea, all year long. Blank stares, an acknowledgement that it sounded interesting, and ultimately the comment, "you're more then welcome to give it a try, but we're just going to stick to what we've done in previous years, it works." Really? I would think, It's working? It is really working? Didn't this school just apply for Title I funds and make a plea to teachers to push test taking skills to avoid another year of low test scores to avoid being put on Program Improvement by the State? I felt defeated in each meeting. It was my first year, I was struggling just to keep up with the management of my classroom and grading, let alone heading on completely new material by myself with no one to bounce ideas off of, and purchasing all the supplies with my own money to support the learning. For most of the year, I backed out of my ideas after being met with opposition and no support, and did whatever the other teachers did. But not at the end of the year.
By March of the school year, I had received a letter from the district, along with all of the first year teachers and two others that had been on temporary contracts for 7 years (there were six of us total). The letter stated that the district greatly appreciated our service as teachers, but that we would not receive new contracts and would be placed on the substitute list for the new school year, unless we notified them otherwise. It was at this point, that my administrator, who was also my evaluator, stopped coming in my classroom. She didn't talk to me, didn't come by to see how I was doing or whether I needed any guidance. Going to her was a lost cause, too. She never had time or any advice to give, much less support for the issues I was having with some of our most difficult students. My guess is that she had written me off long before this letter, not liking how I struggled with discipline and how I was pregnant in my first year of teaching (I think a lot of the faculty felt this way and because I didn't bend over backward to volunteer for everything--I had a long commute and a 3-year old to care for).
All of this, led to my decision to just do whatever I wanted those last 3 weeks. This time, I wouldn't back down or be intimidated by my colleagues. I was not discouraged, I was excited. The very last unit was on the human eye and, as was explained by my colleagues, on light, the visible spectrum and other wavelengths. "They're done with testing and won't be tested on this until next year, so it isn't a big deal if you just skim over it," is what I was told. Great! Then nobody would mind my project. The amazing thing about the project, was that I didn't realize just how much of an impact it had on the students until a year or more later, when I reflected on it.
(I'm not sure how to transition into telling you what the project was, so I am just gonna say it and move on.)
We began with talking about the parts of the human eye and relating them to parts of a pinhole camera and a more traditional film camera. I wanted to keep it simple (although, there is so much potential for a lot of learning, especially if the actual development process were to be discussed, but I digress). I would be happy if my students walked away at the end of the year remembering that the image that is captured by your eye is inverted and had a new found interest in photography as an art, either digital or film.
The actual building of the cameras took about a week. There was painting of the boxes (the students got extra credit for each box they brought in), using black duct tape to seal around the edges and any holes, and one small square cut-out where the aperture would be (a tiny circular hole made with one of my tiniest embroidery needles) and a piece of duct tape to cover the hole so that the film wouldn't get ruined once placed inside. I was lucky enough to have a storage room attached to my classroom, and although it lead to another teachers classroom, she agreed not come in while we using it as a dark room. I blacked it all out. I even blacked out the entire classroom: it was awesome.
Once the pinholes were built and light leaks hopefully fixed, the students took pictures. We decided to take pictures in groups using the camera that had the best construction and no light leaks. The students were thrilled. The Mr. would take them into the "dark room" and help them load their film. He would give them a quick reminder about how long to expose the film and then would walk them outside to set up and "shoot."
Developing of the film proved to have more bumps in it than we had planned, but many of the groups still had great photos. The Mr. took the film home and scanned it, reversing the negative images to a positives (which are the ones seen in this post), and saving it to a disc for me to take to school and share, slideshow-style.
I had never seen my students so excited and engaged. My hope has always been that this project stays with them forever, and I think it will. The 7th-grade student is swimming with emotion, relationships are such a necessary and important part of their development. I believe that this lesson appealed to their emotional side. It gave them a new artistic outlet with which to express themselves. In fact, 2 years later, the Mr. received an offer for one of his very basic film cameras he was selling on craigslist and it happened to be one of my former students (not one who cared for me or that I cared for, truthfully). He never did buy the camera, but I am glad to hear he took a photography class.
What this lesson made me realize, is that we are going about educating our youth all wrong. It's not one entity's fault, it's everything combined. This lesson engaged my students, I had no discipline problems during the entire 3 weeks. Managing the classroom was not a struggle and I just about threw homework out the window. The students were craving interaction, and all we gave them all year was dead, lifeless worksheets, PowerPoint presentations and "labs" (which were just color, cut and paste mindless-shit-work). My first year teaching was a waste of their time, except for those last three weeks. I never had so much participation and questions as I did during that project. I never had so much fun, that excitement and passion which I used to feel during my credential program. And all of the other teachers just looked on, casually asking me how it went and only half listening, again, as I told them the amazing connections that were made during it. I received the same "uh-huhs" I had before, but I knew I wasn't ever going back there and that I would never teach like they did, again.
*All of the above photos were done by my students. The black at the bottom is the tape they used to secure their film to the inside-back of their box. They were all amazed to see their images, despite them not being a perfect "digital" representation.