My first job after college was as a teaching assistant at summer enrichment program for elementary and middle school kids. Five days a week, I hopped around classrooms to assist different grades in English, Science, and Social Studies. In one of the classes I worked with, the teacher would give me about 20 minutes after lunchtime to teach a Social Studies lesson to her 3rd graders.
Often times this involved a mad dash to eat lunch in the classroom, soaking up the silence while it lasted, then come up with something to teach. The kids’ excited voices bounced along the hallway, and I knew to have myself in position, seated by the flip chart stand, waiting for them to sit bunched up in a semicircle on the rug below.
On one particular day, I was at a loss of what to do. I was going to teach them about tectonic plates. How exactly was I going to engage them with a topic like that? In the empty classroom, light only coming from the window, I paced around my lunch room/meditative space. I was drawn to the movement of tectonic plates along the Earth’s surface, but how could I translate that? Was there a simple, accessible way that they could visualize it for themselves?
My mind moved to objects that could simulate tectonic plates. Nothing at hand in the classroom would do. It was clear that whatever I needed, I would have to buy it. The supermarket seemed like the only viable option. The kids would be coming from lunch, so a light snack would be fine. Food to simulate tectonic plates…graham crackers. Okay, but what about the “water”? Something to simulate movement but not make the graham crackers soggy? Whipped cream. And paper plates to avoid a mess in the classroom. I had a plan, but little time to execute it. I quickly went out to the supermarket across the street to gather my materials.
The kids were pleasantly surprised to arrive and see on each desk a plate with whipped cream topped with two graham crackers spaced apart. I lightly dipped the sides facing each other in water so they could easily collide when moved. I had their attention long enough to briefly explain the connection to the topic, then came the part they were waiting for: collision and eating time. The “tectonic plates” glided across the “water” to create a tasty mess that they enjoyed. I admit it was hard to get them settled after that, but this remains my favorite memory from working with kids.
I teach university students now, so it’s highly unlikely I would do something like this for them (although I have quite the imagination, so who knows?), but I’ve had several “graham crackers and whipped cream” moments in which I form connections between things that seemingly have no connection on the surface. Sometimes the means is subtle and not as big as what I described earlier. However, the purpose is the same: I do this in the pursuit of making the message stick in an engaging and relevant way. I respect curriculums, but I push limits and stretch interpretations. I meet moments with adaptations I can’t fully explain. I don’t always succeed–there are times I don’t get the reaction I’d hoped for. But when a concept becomes clear to a student, when they laugh at something silly I said, or when they produce work that exceeds my expectations, it fuels my desire to stay true to my way of teaching. Regardless of how my students may react, they can be sure I won’t go before them unenthusiastic about what I am presenting to them.