One of the challenges of teaching students with special needs ranging in ages 6-21 is developing lessons which are not only in tune with their individual level of learning but are also relevant in terms of school curricula and are in sync with our garden cycle. The time between January and March (with the exception of maple sugaring) is dedicated to botany via the scientific method. Many of my students have a hard time sitting still, staying focused or deciphering drawn out lectures, so the best way for learning is by doing. And many of us can relate!
Each class I have (20 in total) is so different. They all have their own unique dynamic, strengths and weaknesses. To keep my own sanity, I plan one overarching topic per week. For instance, last week we explored the water cycle and the role plants play in it, which I figured flowed nicely into this week’s subject: roots. We’re working our way from the bottom up, makes sense, right? Younger elementary students are learning about basic plant parts and what all plants need to survive. Slightly older classes are conducting a “root watch” by growing grass seeds in plastic water bottles. Middle school students are doing a range of projects from (fingers crossed) growing root veggies in glass jars to an experiment on erosion. High school groups are working on aspects like geotropism (the natural tendency of roots to grow downward due to gravity) and osmosis.
The class I am featuring this week is a 6th grade class which has recently experienced shifts in their roster due to new students as well as other who returned to their home districts, etc. Their new dynamic has been trying to take shape, and today the kids finally seemed to have found their rhythm. Before class, I had two root lessons planned. The first was a more active, hands-on task similar to a few of the previously mentioned projects. The second, a challenge I was most hopeful they would embrace, was a more interpretive language arts-based activity.
The class, which is the last one at the end of a long day, filtered in and eventually settled down. We quickly began reviewing the water cycle and transpiration, and I was happy to have my questions answered fairly accurately. And then came the real plunge: the Mind Journey challenge.
Back in grad school, I attended a really interesting lecture on the topic of “Brain Gym,” which is a fascinating approach to kinesthetic learning (learning by carrying out a physical activity). For teachers and parents looking for alternative ways of accessing children’s versatile learning styles, this may be of interest to you. At the lecture I learned about the “Mind Journey technique” and have used it quite successfully during my previous tenure teaching in the Bronx.
But I digress. The Mind Journey technique is this: children listen to a detailed story on any given topic (optimally with their eyes closed). They are then given paper and various art mediums and asked to create a picture based on the story they heard. Children can focus on one part of the story or multiple aspects, they can interpret the story as they see fit, and they can express themselves in whatever way seems appropriate. The only hard copy outcome I am looking for with this class is to look at their pictures and be able to understand how it relates to the story (with the occasional explanation as not all of us can be Da Vinci). The more important outcome is seeing students’ clear representations of focus, diligence, self-responsibility and creative self-expression.
I challenged my class to imagine they were earthworms traveling under a carrot bed and later a sidewalk, encountering all a worm would in such places. They were asked to imagine the sights, smells, sounds and textures around them as they wriggled between carrots and other smaller roots. The result: they did great! The class was focused in a way I hadn’t seen from this group in a long time. One student in particular has been having a difficult time self-regulating, but today he was calm, on-task and completed this assignment (dare I say) with a smile.
Who’s to thank for such a great session? Was it the Mind Journey challenge or the phase of the moon? What I do know: it was the right assignment for the right class at the right time. For such a positive outcome, I felt a reward was in order and assigned this group as the primary caretakers of our upcoming worm-composting project. After all, with over forty minutes of imagining themselves worms, I can’t think of a more qualified class for the job!