I've been thinking about big ideas a lot after a teacher development thing we did on backward design (starting from the understanding you want children to come to, and planning backward from that). More specifically, I've been remembering a project from years ago when I taught in the 5 year old classroom.
This project started off when a child told us at circle about how he passed a man on the street who didn't have any place to live. The children started to talk about experiences they'd had with people who didn't have enough to eat or a place to live, and how they'd given some food or money to help. Very quickly the discussion turned toward homeless animals who needed help.
On subsequent days, thinking that homelessness might be a rich topic for further exploration, I tried to bring our circle discussions back to the topic of people who needed help, but the children always went right back to animals. Eventually someone told the circle about the SPCA and how it was a place that helped animals and tried to find families for them.
This was it. The children immediately began planning things they could bring to the SPCA to help the animals. They made lists of things they wanted to collect, including treats, food, collars, newspaper, and blankets. At one circle children talked about how their dogs liked to sit with the family and watch t.v., so a small group took up a project to make a video of a football game for the dogs to watch to feel more at home. A VCR was added to the list of things the children wanted to bring the the SPCA.
The whole group got very passionate about another idea -to make signs that would hang around the school and the city, so people would know that there were animals who needed help. Emma wrote one that said "I want to make a movie for the dogs and cats at the SPCA. Kids can help if they want!" Others made pictures of cars that said "Stop for animals!"
My co-teacher and I had different ways of thinking about the project. She wanted to plan the field trip to the SPCA, knowing that it would be a rich experience. I was most interested in scaffolding the children's activism, and I wanted to keep the project there for as long as possible. I didn't want the project to be over, and we both knew that delivering the items to the SPCA would be the culmination of the project. I think I drove her crazy with dragging the project on, and I did feel bad about that, but something just told me to stay with it longer.
I must have realized that the real learning in the project, the "big idea", was social justice and the interdependence of people and animals, not the experience of the field trip to the SPCA, even though I couldn't put it into words then. So often there is pressure to get to the end, the grand finale...the product, even in schools that talk a lot about being process oriented and inquiry driven. Maybe it's just human nature. Thinking about the big ideas behind inquiry can help us stay away from that goal-oriented mind set, and help us slow down and keep children's intentions and important ideas in the forefront.
"We're making a box for the SPCA. We're decorating it. We want the grown-ups to put stuff in the box -like movies for the dogs, and newspapers."