New Year, New World, New Weird

As part of our unit on Colonial America, we have the kids imagine its the year 2090, and Earth is not in good shape. We ask them to imagine they are given the option to board a spaceship to go to a new, relatively unknown planet. Would you do it? Would you leave your family and friends, the life you know, and risk a dangerous journey to a place you know very little about? Is it worth the risks to have a new, better life? Some really great discussions come out of this, and it’s a lot easier to empathize with and understand the early colonists this way.

We also ask them what they would pack for the journey, emphasizing survival over personal belongings. The results are, unsurprisingly, hilarious and disturbing.

Inevitably, some students insist that yes, they do need their football/iPad/hair straightener/favorite book to survive. Others argue that they could fit an entire generator in a suitcase. They need to make these discussions as a group, so things get heated.

With my last class, they really understood that this was theoretical. This new class has a much more heightened sense of imagination, apparently, because I had to keep reminding them that this was entirely pretend. It didn’t actually matter what color the jacket you packed was, or who was going to get to share the two tents that you brought. None of this was real!

Here are the highlights from this year.

In one group, a small girl walked up to me and casually asked if a colonist could kill the other colonists for food. Her group tried to argue that once she killed one person, the others would stop her. “I’ll kill everyone at once.” She rationed. They pointed out the meat wouldn’t last, and she replied “Why do you think I packed so much salt? I’m going to preserve you.” Through the whole discussion I kept trying to wrest the conversation back to the realm of more school appropriate and less downright horrifying, with limited success. At this point I had to say “Cassie, you may not turn your classmates into jerky.” “Theoretical jerky.” She answered.

In another group, someone was arguing that they should bring purse dogs. Thinking I misheard, I asked him to clarify. “Small dogs that fit in purses.” He answered. After a long pause I could only ask, “Ok… why?” His reasoning was that they could breed them and trade them for other supplies. “People love purse dogs.” He said. Luckily one of his group members started talking about the dangers of invasive species, saving me from having to talk someone out of bringing chihuahuas on a spaceship for trade purposes. (That sentence right there is why I love my job.)

After leaving that group, I overheard a heated discussion about bringing a baby. “A human baby?” I clarified. They nodded, and again I had to ask why. “We’ll need more people.” a very earnest boy explained. “Otherwise when we die our colony is gone.” Knowing I was treading into dangerous territory, I explained “Well, the people in your colony could get married and have babies.” He narrowed his eyes. “You said our colony was only the people in the class.” “Well, it’s imaginary, and you could imagine there are other people-” A girl next to me cut me off. “Kyle, I told you. If we want the colony to continue you have to marry one of us.” He turned beet red and yelled back, “I’m not having children with you, I told you already!”

I guess the moral of the story here is that even when you’re imagining it, thinking about marrying your classmates is weird. And even when you insist it’s imaginary, talking about eating your classmates is weird.

We’re All Gonna Die in the Desert

One of the big themes of fifth grade social studies is “Why do people move?” We study colonization, the American Revolution, growth of the colonies, and Westward Expansion. At this point in the year we have made the transition from kids yelling “No taxation without representation!” whenever they don’t want to do what they’re told, to yelling “Manifest destiny!” and then stealing each other’s seats.

Part of the Westward Expansion unit looks at pioneers, wagon trains, and the journeys west. We have a whole simulation we do where kids are assigned a character with a history and family, grouped together and required to complete tasks and assignments that show what life on the trail was like. It’s a really engaging, informative way for them to learn. It also reminds me to be grateful that 11 year olds are not actually in charge of life or death situations.

One of the first tasks is deciding what to bring. They are given a supply list that includes bulk weight units (bwu). They have a limit of 1,000 bwu to fit in their wagon, so they really have to prioritize and think logically. Which they can’t. Leading to decisions such as…

– Only sugar as a food source- 30 lbs worth of sugar.
– Bringing a grand piano, which took up nearly 1/5 of the total weight, because “entertainment is important!”
– Packing not one, but two bed frames and mattresses. After being explicitly told that they would not fit in the wagon, and would need to be set up and dismantled each day. Because “I need two beds, because I am NOT sharing with my sister.”
– Nearly bringing an entire table and chair dining room set. Nearly because when he was asked if he could think of a reason why he wouldn’t need this (by which I meant, you’re on the damn Oregon trail, just sit on a log!) he said “Yeah, you’re right. My character is single and has no kids, so it would be pretty pathetic to be sitting there at the table all alone!”
– Arming to the teeth with 12 rifles. I was really confused why he had so many on his supply list, and was trying to get him to explain the decision to me. Eventually I realized he was thinking that when he ran out of ammunition, he would need a brand new gun. I blame video games for this sort of thinking.

Then, off we set, riding west towards our new lives, with minimal food, almost no water, and a plethora of unnecessary furniture.

One of the first decisions is deciding which branch of the trail to take. When given the choice between a short trail with known dangers and possibly even more unknown dangers, and a trail that is reliable but longer, the kids unanimously picked danger. The trail is literally called “Burial Grounds trail” in the simulation. The visual on the map has a skull and cross bones.

Unsurprisingly, the simulation several days in had every wagon train hungry, with limited supplies, and in the dangerous wastelands. “Well,” said one little guy drily, “We’re all gonna die in the desert.”

We didn’t all die in the desert, luckily. Each group worked together, realized they needed to change their priorities, and they’re all progressing happily along the trail now. I love this unit because I think situations like this really let kids go beyond the textbooks, and understand that real people had to make real decisions like this- or else die in the desert!

Field Trips: An Analysis

During a recent conversation about field trips with a colleague, we were reviewing the more challenging aspects of bringing groups of small children anywhere. She pointed out that the worst part can be well-meaning people (quite often parents) who say “You must love these days off!” or something along those lines.


This is not a day off. This is not even close. It occurs to me that most people don’t really understand what these forays into the outside world with your small friends can be like. So here is some insight!

All field trips can be divided into certain categories:

Museums, a.k.a. ‘Narrow corridors filled with priceless and fragile things you can’t touch’

Nature a.k.a. ‘Wide expanses of land that are easy to disappear in and full of things you are allergic to or should not touch, but will. Also, it’s going to rain.’

Historical Sites a.k.a. ‘Downtown areas with close proximity to two lanes of traffic and overly friendly strangers’

When you have two dozen impulsive little people in your care, you can’t help but view these trips based on the dangers they pose.

My very first field trip as a classroom teacher was 3 days after I had my wisdom teeth out. It was my first day not on heavy duty painkillers. I was woozy and sore, but luckily the terrifying and near crippling knowledge that I was in charge of other people’s children and that I was the adult kept me on a good adrenaline buzz. As we boarded the bus to go, one student stopped at told me, “I like the color of your face bruises.” I’ve come a long way since then, but field trips are still exhausting!

Last week, we went to a museum attached to a university (narrow corridors filled with priceless and fragile things you can’t touch). Here is a brief run down of that trip.

The kids had a blast, which is great. Usually, about 20% of the fun is due to the purpose of the trip. Those bones were cool! I love dinosaurs! I learned about Native Americans!

30% of field trip fun is the bus ride. Yes, they ride the bus everyday, but not with everyone in the class! And the teacher! And she totally wants to hear you sing every pop song of the past five years off-key and at the top of your lungs!

Kids on a bus are like popcorn. They cannot stay seated. They either pop up to see what the person in front of them is doing, or lean across the aisle, or slide bonelessly under their seat across the grossest floor imaginable to grab the feet of the person in front of them. I’m tall enough so that if I sit up VERY straight and crane my neck, I can see them if they pop up. So the whole ride is me saying various names followed by “In the seat! Sit down! Legs in! Sit up! Turn around.” My neck stays sore for days.

Between the singing, yelling across aisles, and hysterical shrieking hyena laughter, it gets very loud. I have an app on my phone that registers decibal levels and compares them to comparable sounds. On our most recent field trip, we got as loud as a running blender!

Some field trip locations are almost 2 hours away. It’s a magical ride.

Bus rides aren’t the only fun thing! 10% of field trip fun happens en route from point a to point b once in or at the location. Stairs with railings you can lean over, aiming your body from the waist up at the ground 3 floors below (while you’re teacher has a heart attack and hauls you back by your pants)! Escalators that you can dangle your baggy clothing on, and run up while it goes down! Elevators that are older than the combined age of the entire class! Even better if they are tiny, squeaky, and rickety! If you find out your teacher has mild claustrophobia, this is an AWESOME time to have a dance party and sway your hips side to side to crash into her.

Once in the museum, the real fun begins. Now, I pride myself on being very aware of gender bias. I treat all my students equally, and I try to break down stereotypes- just try telling someone they throw like a girl in my classroom. However, when in a museum, most kids will break down along gender lines and play two very distinct games as they tour the exhibits. And therein lies 40% of the field trip fun.

For girls, the game is “Find the Cutest Thing.” I’m sorry, I meant “Oh my goddd, it’s the cutest thing Ev-EERRRRRR.” Paintings with horses in them. Dioramas of tiny people in tiny clothes. Hummingbirds. Tigers. (I don’t think they quite got that the latter two were taxidermied.) “Look at THIS! ohmygod so furry. So colorful. FEATHERS!” They are not normally like this.

For the boys, each visit to a museum becomes an intense game of “Spot the Penis.” On a statue! Naked people in a diorama! Taxidermied animals! Whale skeletons! (They aren’t right 100% of the time.) The game is played like this. See something, point at it while snorting and giggling and huffing. Elbow your friend. Whisper. Stare at your teacher with giant eyes and yell “Nothing!” before she even asks you a question.

Usually I tactfully pretend I haven’t heard them or seen whatever they happen to be looking at. The group I had with me on this trip was particularly good at spotting everything even remotely phallic, and freaking out about it. After a couple hours, I was getting a little tired of it.

So when we stopped in front of a giant Native American carving and they did the ‘hee-hee-look-at-it!’ shuffle for the 78th time, I snapped, “Yes it’s a penis!”

Then turned around to see three alarmed looking undergraduates staring at me.

Luckily, my students had my back. From behind me, one little guy logically pointed out “Well, it is, you know.”