Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Plague Infects

Tears still well up in my eyes when I remember the moment. The science teacher on my team had been confident that we would be funded. The history teacher had been skeptical, and I was ready for disappointment. My fingers shook just a little when I saw that I had a new email message, and then, when I logged into my email account, I knew. The subject line showed just enough to make me gasp and cry. "Congrat" was all I could see, but it was enough. Our project was funded.

Word spread through the school like -- well, like the plague. By third period, my students vied for the chance to tell me how Mrs. Koonce had jumped up and down and yelled. I could only nod and smile, knowing I had put on the same show for my class. Coach Williams? Well, he was dancing on the inside.

The students had so many questions. Where were we going? The United Kingdom. When? This summer. Will we post selfies? Definitely; we will blow up your phone with selfies. Will we snap chat? Nope, but we will figure out a way to contact you. What are we going to do? Study diseases and how they affect us. Are we going to bring any diseases back? Uh, we promise that is not part of the plan! How were we going to get over there? An airplane. A real airplane? Yes. A real airplane. The questions kept coming.

The excitement was contagious. Every middle school teacher knows that, if you get a hair cut or wear a new pair of shoes, students get excited. When you announce you are crossing an ocean, school just about shuts down. Finally, we caved. The rest of the week's lesson plans were shoved to the side, and we seized the moment. 

We taught about passports. What are they? Why do we need one? How did we get one/or get one renewed (since one of us has to renew a passport)? Do people really have to get shots when they go to another country? Why shots for some countries and not others? The students even filled out mock passport applications.

We taught about slang and idioms. They learned about cookies versus chips versus fries. They learned about Southern slang and how it compares to British slang.

We taught about budgets and maps and foreign currency and exchange rates.

We celebrated Shakespeare's birthday and learned about his brushes with the plague.

Even a few weeks later, just when we think things are back to normal, there will be a new outbreak of questions -- a new opportunity for learning. I hope this plague continues. I hope it builds to the point that our students hunger to travel, to research, to try. If anything, these students now know that learning is not confined to the classroom, the school, or even our state. If just "Congrat" in an email can infect them with so much curiosity, what will happen when we actually share our experiences? I can't wait find out! Thank you, Fund for Teachers and Alabama Public Television!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Way Through the Plague

The Death Panel's journey really started over four years ago. In the fall of 2012, a colleague and I barreled down Interstate 65 to Birmingham for a meeting. This would begin a path to success that would occasionally be littered with potholes of rejection and doubt. Our first destination? A meeting at Alabama Public Television regarding professional development grants provided by Fund For Teachers.

At the meeting we were hopeful. We could do this. We could join the ranks of other teachers in the state who were granted the experience of a lifetime. Just the thought of mapping out our own professional development fueled our desire to be better teachers. We recruited, researched, and revised. Then, we waited. In April, our proposal was rejected. No harm done. The experience alone made us better teachers. 

We tried again.  Nope. It didn't happen. Still, we learned and grew as a team. We backed up and reevaluated what we were doing. We asked ourselves what our students needed to learn. What unit topic would draw us together as school? What topic would include the whole community in our studies?

We plotted a new course. This time we let our proposal design be student-driven. Our first idea, the one that had already been rejected twice, did not fit the personality and needs of our current students. We wanted to teach them something practical and something that tied the past to the present. Our answer? Death.

Death and taxes -- we've all heard the cliche. However, is death not the common end? We are born to die. Death riddles our literature and our history. We continued to brainstorm. This time around, it was important that we connect the proposal to science. Where does the theme of death meet the subject areas of history, literature, art, and science? Hello! The answer was clear. The Black Death. We chose to center our proposal around the bubonic plague.

Even now, I remember the rightness that we felt when we settled on our plan. The Black Death could teach us so much. The disease toppled nobles, inspired art and literature, and even gave rise to the middle class. This disease changed the path of human civilization. We would use this pivotal point in history to drive our entire unit. The topic would also allow us to discuss modern issues. We could talk about how the West Nile and Zika viruses affect medicine, governmental policy, and pop culture. We could even discuss the controversy surrounding vaccinations.  

The Death Panel's way was clear. Now, we invite you to join us on our journey. 

Check out our final project description below!

Brief Description of Proposed Fellowship: We will tour the Center for Disease in Atlanta and research historic sites in the United Kingdom related to the Black Death to guide students' understanding of disease transmission, the role diseases play in governmental policies and social customs, and the effects of a pandemic on literature.