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Back to the Top Teaching Blog
October 15, 2010 Break Through and Live Outside the Box! By Angela Bunyi
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    Tennessee was one of two states that was awarded phase 1 money allocations (of $500 million) through President Obama's Race to the Top initiative. With this process has come swift changes and mandates, including a legal requirement to weight report card grades with our state TCAP scores. This, added to many district and school changes, leads to a common plea for help! After some reflection, I dedicate this post to staying in the struggle, remembering why you entered the profession, and committing yourself to thinking, living, and breathing outside the box. Our roles reach far beyond a test score. 

    In this post, I have included several out-of-the-box photos and ideas. A class video is included as well.

    Photo: Students act out and demonstrate various amendments in a class video.




    A School Visit From David Catrow



    Perhaps you've heard of him? I thought so. Our fantastic librarian, staff, and school family won the Scholastic Book Fairs National Contest last year and Scholastic was kind enough to send David Catrow our way for a day. Of course he was amazing and was a wonderful addition to our small school. One story he shared really stuck with me, and I think it has significance for you this week.

    How to Draw a Bird

    Catrow met with the 4–6 grade classes and shared his story of growing up. He shared how he always knew he was an artist, even at a very young age. He shared an important event that happened during kindergarten art time. The teacher drew a bird like the one pictured below on the board. She instructed the students on how to draw a bird and went over the steps with the class. After this, the students went off to draw birds of their own.


    Catrow eloquently talked about his process of drawing a bird, one that didn't have sticks for legs and toes, and how he couldn't connect to this concept of a bird looking like the drawing being modeled in class. He shared his thoughts of how delighted his teacher would be to see him, an artist, show this fantastically beautiful bird that he had created. And he remembered her shoes moving toward his desk as he looked down at his drawing with pride. To his surprise, she picked it up, crumbled it in her hands, and pointed to her drawing on the board. She repeated her directions,"This is how you draw a bird."


    My heart sank for him and for all the children who have had teachers like this in their lives.

    And then my heart sank for teachers.

    I couldn't help but make a connection with this story on a larger scale. Sometimes I feel like Catrow, but my "teacher" is not a teacher at all. My "teacher" may not have a face, but can be commanding: “Teach like THIS. Think like THIS. Use this scientifically proven program and log every word you say for that intervention log.” Maybe you can relate? This is how I feel sometimes. I don't think I am going too far saying (again) that I sometimes feel as though we were trained at college to think like doctors and are turned into pharmacists when we enter the profession. We are being handed the prescription and being asked to move forward without question — by Friday afternoon with reports, to be exact.

    I came into the teaching profession to play a different role. Didn't you? For those who have been teaching for awhile, think about all of the students who have kept in contact with you throughout the years. If they are like my prior students, some graduating college now, they have the same message as my students do when they contact me. They share stories of how they are going into the teaching profession or journalism because of you. They share memories of their favorite spot in your classroom where they learned to soar in new, creative ways as they never had before. They share things you might not have remembered doing, but that mattered significantly to them. And you realize what really matters overall.

    And then I think about what they don't share.

    They don't share their enthusiasm for my helping them earn fantastic test scores that year. In fact, I'm pretty sure they don't remember how they did under my guidance. I'm certain of it. I doubt their parents remember these scores, either. I'm just as confident.

    I beg you, don't forget why you came into this profession.

    I had visions of hands-on projects, reading time, working with students, writing stories, making a difference . . . all of my best teacher experiences as a student rolled into one person. Me. That's what I wanted to be. So, with that said, regardless of whatever pressure you feel or whatever mandate you are required to enforce, don't lose your core beliefs. And realize that it doesn't have to be a fight for you. In my state, due to the Race to the Top regulations, the tenure and contract renewals will be tied to test scores. I don't care. I'll go out in a blaze of glory, if need be. I'm not even going to worry about it because I have a vision, a plan, and I continually work hard. (And because I already know that I will be asked this: Yes, my scores have been strong.) I believe it is because when you are doing something that is right, remembering that there are no shortcuts, other forces will support you and will not allow you to fail. I am confident of that.

    What Kind of Teacher Are You Choosing to Be?

    Photo: When a student asks me, "Can I do this instead?" for an assignment, I simply point to the posters without a word. My students understand what that means. I've already shared the significance they have for me, and my vow to remember them always.

    You have a choice. Yes, there are mandates. For example, we currently have math standards in our system that are prescribed for the year. Luckily, they are minimum standards and are being created by teachers, not Central Office, but one can't help but feel the squeeze. Really, it's not the end of the world. I do see a benefit of collaborating on common core goals, but you still have a choice about how you teach and the option of allowing time for what your students need.

    Teaching the Amendments Outside the Box

    So, here's what you can do in your classroom: Allow your students to live outside the box. Recently, in my room, we rushed through the Bill of Rights and important (and by important, I mean tested) amendments. And it didn't feel right, but I felt the pressure to move on, knowing the subject had been addressed in 3rd and 4th grades. What was one to do?


    First, we spent some time looking through Scholastic's amazing links on women's suffrage around the world. This included researching dates, asking questions for Effie Hobby, who voted in 1920, and reading through the many primary documents found online. We listened to an NPR piece about the first woman gondolier allowed in Italy. (Of course, she is only permitted this position if all other males are not available.) I realized I couldn't do this with each amendment, but you make an impression when you can.

    Next, my students created a green screen video on the amendments. Students selected an amendment, dug around in my bin of wigs, robes, and tools, and created a quick skit to demonstrate one amendment. With a parent's help, filming was done quickly and with few interruptions. Here is that video:

    And for a grade, I simply asked students to view their video and show what they learned. I started simple and said it could be a Dinah Zike foldable book. Three made various foldable books. I noticed they didn't pull out a textbook or refer back to the video after watching it.


    Then I was asked by one student, "How about a poster?" Six others followed.


    "I'd like to create a slide show," one student told me. "I'll post it online when you are finished," I replied.


    Download amendment  slide show.

    "How about a video of my own? I might have to work on it at home, though. Would that be okay?"

    And suddenly I felt a little better. The quality of work was ten-fold superior than any worksheet  (disclaimer — we do have those in the mix, too). I've made my impact, and I didn't even do the work. It all goes back to Catrow's story. If you allow your students to think, breathe, and eat outside of the box, they will soar. But maybe, more importantly, you should allow yourself to stay outside of that box as well.

    With this being said, I have included a quick slide show of my own.

    Best to you,




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Susan Cheyney