While I have a deep love and appreciation for the Medieval period of literature (and much of the source material it draws upon), most of my study of English and History in college focused on the Modern period, and specifically on sub-Saharan Africa's colonial and post-colonial period.
So being thrown into a curriculum that starts with early human civilisation is well outside my fields of study or even interest.
That's a position most teachers find themselves at some point: having to teach something you don't know much about, and perhaps don't find super compelling. However, I've always been good at finding SOME foothold into a subject...some area in which I can find interest and meaning.
For early humans, that foothold was puppet plays.
Instead of reading straight from the textbook about the lives of Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus and Homo Neanderthalensis, I asked students to read several websites that have actual artefacts and fossils, as well as some general conclusions based on that evidence. They learned about what the hominids ate, what sort of shelter they preferred, how community functioned, and of course what they looked like.
From there, I asked students to write a short play to be performed by puppets about the life of their hominid. The plays were to be 2-5 minutes long, and contain as much about their hominid as possible while still having a narrative arc (which is the English skill we're focusing on right now as well).
I also told them that it would be a competition: the best play for each hominid would get to be featured on the Puppets Through the Ages website Andrew's Desktop class is building.
Students took to it immediately, and wrote plays that were inventive and largely accurate to the research they did. There were a few issues, both of the collaborative variety and the factual variety, but on the whole, they were proud of their finished product.
It was also interesting to me to have them watch back their edited video (I did the greenscreen and basic editing for them this time, in order to speed up the process) because one reaction came up over and over:
"Can we do this again? I think we can do better than that."
Most teachers of writing know that getting students to want to revise their work is a struggle, so that question, asked over and over, was a complete triumph. And when I questioned them a bit further, I was surprised to learn that their desire to revise wasn't because of the competition: they legitimately wanted to put forward their best effort.
Not only was the assignment meaningful and useful in getting them to imagine life in a different time and place, but it helped solidify the desire to revise work to make it the best it can be.
But now, the real fun starts. As a joke, I asked a few of my teacher friends if they wanted to watch puppets reenacting life as a hominid. To my surprise, three of them were super excited about that.
First, Andrew's class agreed to watch them and give us some scores based on our puppetting and narratives.
Then, Tracy Walker, a 6th grade teacher from just a few miles north on the 101, and whom I've worked with many times over the past 18 months, said that her kids were writing short stories about Neanderthal life and asked if we could switch and have our kids give feedback to the other group.
And lastly, Lindsay Cole, my good friend and flipped class colleague, said that her AP Biology class had just finished a unit on the origins of Earth, and would LOVE to look at the science in the videos. And that perhaps, our kids could team up on puppet-making, as her students will be starting puppets depicting organelles fairly soon.
On top of that, Brian Bennett, one of the first people in the flipped class community to welcome and help me, already gave many of my students feedback from a scientific perspective on their scripts.
So the web of people connected to this project just keeps growing. Here is what I showed my kids yesterday to help them understand the reach their puppet plays had:
THAT is what education is about. Making connections, being creative, collaboration, bringing in outside audiences to give authentic feedback, and learning the role revision plays in doing your best work.
And frankly, the amount I know about early humans could fit inside a thimble. But bringing in experts and students and teachers to help on this project made it far more than I ever could if it was a traditional project in a traditional classroom. They made it meaningful in ways I could only imagine.
That's what a good community does too - makes up for the ways in which you are insufficient, and bring more awesome into your life. I am far more interested in early humans as a result of this project, and I'm pretty sure my students learned more than they would have without it.
For all of those things, and to all of the people involved, I am incredibly thankful.
If you want to participate in the project, watch a few of the videos and leave them some feedback in comments. We'd love to add you to our map.