Teaching Out of a Bag: The World of Informal Educators

For the first time ever, I got to teach a class during a summer school session today. It sounds kind of crazy but I have always wanted to teach summer school. For many years, I asked. For many years, nothing came of it. But, being at a different school this year, in a different district, brought a different set of circumstances. It actually all started back in May when I successfully got 460 students out into our school garden to plant annuals. The pre-school teacher, who is a mom of two of my garden club students at my former school, asked if I would be interested in doing some kind of garden presentation during summer school. She would be teaching the pre-k section and seemed interested in utilizing my skills. Of course, I agreed. But, nothing was formally arranged, so as it has been in the past, I thought another year would pass without being able to participate in a summer school program.

I was wrong. Shortly into June, I was contacted by the lead teacher for summer school who asked if I could do one or more presentations during this year’s session. I was thrilled and agreed, as we broke down the groups into pre-k – K, 2nd grade, and 3rd – 5th grade for three separate presentations. I was going to get to teach summer school! How exciting!

Part of my interest over the years in teaching summer school was that Monarchs, a topic on which I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert, are in full view naturally at this relaxed time of year, with their life cycle being played out in virtually any garden that has milkweed. And, boy, do we have a lot of milkweed at this school!

Common Milkweed, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2018

So last night, I was busy doing what I’ve done for the last 15 years prior to getting ready to teach a lesson; I packed my bags! You know, my mom taught elementary school for nearly 35 years. I fully realize that virtually every teacher, brings loads of “stuff” back and forth from home to school on a daily basis. But, it is a little different being a non-formal educator. Without a home base, such as a classroom, my entire lesson from worksheets, to props, posters, pencils/markers, tape, scissors, paper, and in today’s case – food and insects need to be brought in. I have no storage closet, no filing cabinet, no desk drawers, no stacks of available paper………just my bags and what I put in them.

My lesson schedule looked like this today:

8:45 – 9:25  3rd 5th grade students (23)                            Lesson on Butterfly Habitat & review of the Monarch Life Cycle.

For this lesson, I packed three separate containers – one with monarch eggs, one with caterpillars, and one with 9 chrysalises. There were two monarch posters on form board, my “lecture” notes, and markers.  Since there was more “set up” needed for the subsequent presentations, I covered over three large Post-It notes where Plant Part information would go with Habitat information & Hooks to think about.

Monarch Life Cycle Stage Containers, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2018

In addition, this group of students go on a walk outside to the garden itself to “apply” what aspects of butterfly habitat we had talked about in the classroom.  When the session ended, each student received an individual packet of milkweed seeds to take home, and a monarch bookmark to remind them to read over the summer. Of course, those two “take home” props had to be distributed into individual baggies, and packed last night – in my bag!

My other passion in education would have to be language arts – which you could probably guess from a my being the author of a blog.  So, this group got my spiel on my love for words – the correct plural usages of the word  Chrysalis, and the need to keep reading over the summer. Hence, the monarch bookmarks from Monarch Joint Venture.

9:30 – 10:15 2nd grade students (16), Plant Parts We Eat!

The next group of students were all second graders. This is another caveat of being a non-formal educator. Besides, carrying your classroom with you in a bag, it will be rare to have a group of all similarly aged students. Over the years, I’ve become accustomed, and accomplished, at providing interdisciplinary, multi-aged (leveled) lessons. It was a rare treat to have a group of students all from the same grade level, believe me!

Their lesson consisted of talking about plant parts and the function (job) each of these parts had to benefit the plant as a whole. (Of course, I did not state it that way for the students.) A large part of my success in teaching I attribute to my nursing background and the HUGE amount of information I had to consume on child (birth – 21) growth and development. This is knowledge I rely upon daily when I teach, or actually, whenever I am with children – my own or others.

The second graders respectfully contributed their thoughts on the job(s)  that each plant part performed. Then, I asked them to fill out a worksheet listing one example of a food we eat that is either the root, stem, leaf, flower, seed, or fruit of the plant. This was difficult but inventive spelling was encouraged and so were drawn pictures, as long as they could identify what they were trying to convey as an example. For 16 students, there were three adults in the room (a great ratio) and eventually every student had at least one example for one of the six plant parts on their paper.  Next, I had brought – in my bag – a box full of fruit and vegetable examples.  This included lettuce, radish, tomatoes, onion, asparagus, carrots, pumpkin seeds, lemon , apple, pea pods, celery, corn, peppers, and a few more picked up from the grocery store last night and put into “my bag” this morning. The lesson was thoroughly enjoyable and enjoyed by all. They got an explanation of the word roots in “photosynthesis” – as my literary plug.

Table of Plant Parts We Eat, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2018

10:15 – 10:45 Pre-K and K, (40 students),                        Plant Parts We Eat Interactive Sorting Lesson

When I first started teaching, I thought I wanted to be a Kindergarten Teacher! There is no way I could do this job now! It takes so much patience! And, I think I like information too much!  Some kindergartener’s can handle a lot of information, but many cannot.  I often find myself consciously thinking I need to slow down or say less when I teach a group this age!

My bag also had some special instructional aids added to it last night for this group, as well. I printed some fruit and vegetable photos I found from a lesson plan online and then I cut up some pages from one of my plant catalogs, putting the photos on 3 x 5 inch index cards.  I had purchased a large post-it poster pack early into this school year and now was the time to use it….consider it – and the immense largeness of it – part of my “bag” – it just didn’t fit inside.  Last night,  I pre-labelled three sheets with the plant parts so that the lesson would be ready to go and the students could stick their food onto the plant part section on which they thought it fit. While some students were very reticent and asked for guidance in this task, most ended up being abe to complete their part of the sorting in short order. Blue painter’s tape (all pre – cut and stuck to the white board marker tray) made the task easy and moveable, if a plant, like the lettuce that was put in the roots, needed re-sorting. So, blue painter’s tape, scissors, and the index cards were also pulled from my “bag” upon arrival at school this morning.

So, what’s the big deal here? Well, there really is none. Teaching out of a “bag” is something to which I’ve become accustomed. My classroom travels with me. And, although it might be nice to “put down roots” somewhere…..I’m sure I would still be carrying “stuff” in from my car when I got to where-ever it was I was teaching on a regular basis. The only difference might be that I make it into school in one or two trips, instead of the three I made this morning!  Roots anchor a plant in place, but the nourishment comes from what is absorbed. Over the years, I’ve learned that as long as you put in your bag what is needed for the nourishment, the growth still occurs – for students, as well as plants!

And, that is what I learned in summer school, today! 



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