More Than Meets The Eye

I’ve come to realize that in every Wildwood classroom I visit, there’s always more to what I see than I’m able to observe. For every lesson, project, and student conversation I watch, there’s context—those deep, invisible factors inform how our teachers instruct and what our students learn. At every grade level the curriculum is infused with progressive philosophical foundations.  Prior student work matters, too, but I can’t always see that either. All of this colors what I do see when I spend time in Wildwood’s classrooms.

My visit to Monique Marshall and Jessica Collins’s 2nd grade class this week reminded me to think about what I’m seeing, and what I can’t see in a single visit.

In today’s social studies lesson, Monique’s students are thinking about the concepts of food “deserts” and “oases” – urban places where healthy food sources are either scarce, or plentiful. Their task: design and construct 3D models depicting each. Monique tells me that the vast majority of her students live in areas of relative abundance—the food oases—and for them the alternative is hard to conceive.

2nd graders mix colors to paint tree trunks for their 3D models

2nd graders mix colors to paint tree trunks for their 3D models

“But their reality was really challenged,” Monique tells me, “when we did an activity a few months ago with our Central High buddies.” For the past several years, Monique’s classes have had a unique friendship with students from Central High School, a public continuation high school in Culver City. These older students, along with their teacher, spend time with Monique’s students both at Wildwood and on joint field trips. “During one of our Central High visits,” Monique continues, “we did an activity called ‘Agree or Disagree.’”

2nd graders build cars for their models out of recycled materials (l. to r., Toby M., Nnenne B., Truman L., Gibson P., and Will M.)

2nd graders build cars for their models out of recycled materials (l. to r., Toby M., Nnenne B., Truman L., Gibson P., and Will M.)

She asked everyone to respond to this prompt: ‘Agree or Disagree: In my neighborhood, I have access to plenty of fresh, organic produce.’  “All of the Wildwood kids agreed with the statement, while all of their Central High buddies, who live in food deserts, disagreed.”  That disconnect, Monique says, naturally led her students to wonder why, and added to today’s lesson’s deeper context.

Throughout the classroom I see Monique’s students working at five different stations busily creating vehicles, trees, signs, people, and gates for their models. Monique and I ask the students in the latter group to discuss their work. One boy says, “We learned that there are a lot of gates in front of the small stores they have in food deserts because the owners think that people are going to steal.” Monique asks how this might make the people in food deserts feel. “Really bad,” says a girl in the group, “like no one trusts them.” I ask them whether any of them feel that way at the stores in their neighborhoods. “No!” the students loudly exclaim in unison.

When social studies time ends, students put away their projects knowing that they’ll finish their 3D models next week; but their multi-layered work doesn’t end even then. “Our ultimate goal isn’t just to learn about food deserts and feel bad that they exist,” Monique says. “We want kids to know how they can take action.”

Students showing off their "gates" for the 3D models (l. to r., Vincent S., Ruby B., Louisa R., and Henry J.)

Students showing off their “gates” for the 3D models (l. to r., Vincent S., Ruby B., Louisa R., and Henry J.)

As a class, Monique’s students have agreed that they want to help inform people—in both their neighborhood, as well as the food deserts—what they can do to ensure equal access to healthy nutritious foods. “We’ve looked at who the community heroes are working to green Los Angeles, and alleviate the impact of food deserts—people like Ron Finley and his organization, LA Green Grounds.”

Next for Monique’s students? They plan to produce informational cards for the community around the elementary campus, informing neighbors about how people can seek out fresh, nutritious foods, and organizations dedicated to eradicating food deserts.  Then with the help of some parent volunteers, they may produce a public service video on how individuals and groups can work to alleviate the effects of food deserts in Los Angeles.

The opportunity to visit classrooms and report back to you on what goes on here is my privilege. But it’s good to remember that context and community drive this kind of learning. We bring the world in, to stimulate thinking—and re-thinking—in Wildwood classrooms.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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