Saturday, August 29, 2015

Purpose, Perspective & Mummifying Chickens

The issues raised in this blog are not specifically motivated by the policies within my own school or within my district. I write about many topics that are often related to discussions with educators who do not work in my school district. This blog in no way is intended to reflect solely on any specific leaders or my place of employment. 

Like most teachers, I am fired up to get back in my classroom. I keep seeing stories about going back to school (Funny back to school pep talks , Simple tips for a great start) and it makes me think about when I was a fearless teacher willing to try anything to engage my students in meaningful learning.

Looking back, mummifying those chickens in 2001 might be the best thing that happened for me as a classroom teacher. I discovered I had some unique "teaching tools" that I was unaware of at the time. 

Rolling my red cooler to the front of the classroom, I proclaimed to my underclassmen that it was time to really learn about the ancient Egyptian process of mummification. I decided that my world history class would benefit from a "hands-on" learning experience.

"There are enough chickens in this cooler for everyone to get involved in mummifying them over the next couple months," I said with a smile as I held a chicken above my head in my clenched right hand. "That nine-step mummification process you took notes on last class - well, we're going to do it and see how that whole thing works."

Now, picture one of those frozen chickens in the grocery store aisle being held up to the heavens by a baby-faced rookie teacher and you will understand the bewildered expression of my 14 and 15-year old students. Teachers know that that look when students are somewhere in the gray area of curious and extremely confused - that, "Has Mr. Gregory lost his mind?" look.

Yes, I had lost my mind. 

It was October of my second year teaching and I was still finding my way. My stubborn refusal to give in to to student boredom by watering down lessons or assigning menial tasks led me to the deli at my local grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. I strolled up to the counter and asked for a manager. The rest just sort of fell into place.

"Can you donate some expired chickens or turkeys for a classroom project?"

Turkeys were not an option with Thanksgiving coming up so a dozen expired chickens from the freezer were loaded into my car and we had enough so that each group of four students had a bird on the mummification table. Over the course of 7-8 weeks, we took time to oil, spice and wrap the birds. They hung from the ceiling of our classroom in between our rituals. (We adapted a process similar to this link) At the end of "our process" we buried them outside with caskets made in our high school wood shop. Inevitably, I run into some of my former students from those early years of my career and their memories are always the best among my former students. (Rumor is that a few kids tried to find the chicken mummies on the school grounds on the eve of their ten year class reunion)

My answer to their lack of engagement in world history class - and my own quite frankly - was to take away the option of boredom. This marked one of those turning points in my career when I decided it is up to me to take risks and trust my gut despite what might go wrong. In fact, once I got an idea in my head I did not waste time worrying about the potential fallout.

"Mr. Gregory, I am not touching a raw chicken," one girl claimed to the class. "There is no way!"

Some students agreed with her and made sure we all knew, claiming my idea was gross and ridiculous. "You want us to do what?" Others laughed and some probably feigned interest in order to avoid "academic" work.  I found out later many students thought I was joking or that I would turn away from my idea.

"You're serious - we are actually doing this?"

"We are, but Brittany raises a good point," I replied. "We need some gloves. Anyone's parents work in the food or medical industry?"

And with that, we began to plan together. Thank God those chickens were wrapped and frozen on the first day so we were able to ease into the idea and get that initial student buy-in before they thawed.

We spent a small part of most days invested in the ancient ritual of mummification. Quite honestly, it was a shared journey together and I clearly had not thought through all of the logistics beforehand. Students joined me in mapping out a plan that lasted a couple months and I think the whole "weirdness" of it all intrigued them. For me, it was energizing and refreshing to be so damn inexperienced and okay with being unsure of what I was doing. Unlike other challenges to that point, I embraced not knowing.

At this point in my career, I had the confidence teachers gain after surviving their first year of teaching. I had a middle school heart and a high school student roster. I was a rookie teacher trying desperately to make the most of teaching a subject that did not hold much interest for me personally. I broke out of the mold and followed my gut without much fear and without worrying about how it could be done. Bending some health code expectations and getting kids to believe this was a worthy idea made sense at the time. 

Each student group researched a part of the mummification process, the history of mummification and how the process fit into Egyptian culture. Each group taught the class about Egyptian royalty or some person that was mummified. We had to learn how the salt, spices and oils worked in the process so it turned into a quasi-science lesson and humanities all wrapped into our class (get the pun - wrapped). Sure, we listened to the Bangles, Walk Like an Egyptian  and we did the chicken dance a few days after the project ended. Most importantly, through the experience WE BUILT A LEARNING COMMUNITY. We got out of the book and as you would expect, students were mingling and sharing ideas as they hovered over their chicken carcasses. They asked great questions and brought in great information that we applied to our class. It was pretty magnificent to witness. The experience exceeded my expectations and was cited by students as their favorite class experience, barely beating out our one-act plays from Aesop's fables.  

So, this was all a masterfully designed plan that fit nicely into a predetermined unit of study, right?

No, not even close. And that is the point.

As a new teacher, there weren't really plans as much as there were ideas and what if's. I was consumed with the possibilities and trying to see what might work. I have to continually remind myself that sometimes the best classroom experiences happen by accident when there is a foundation for learning already in place. The part that was not an accident was my recognition that we were bored for far too long and that I had the ability to shake things up and make it better. And at the very least, I was committed to laughing my way through it. The chicken mummification experiment took on a life of its own and I squeezed every ounce of life out of my sense of humor in those first few years of teaching. My energy was welcomed by the staff and my genuine enthusiasm was valued by students. 

There were challenges that only an inexperienced and quirky teacher might miss though. After all, the classroom kind of smelled musty, but not offensive. The odor of chickens kept at room temperature was masked by the the smell of cinnamon, salt and all the other spices we had in class. At least that's what I kept telling myself so I remember it that way. We pulled together dealing with our new classroom environment and those hanging chickens were the source of a lot of conversations in and around Room 3-154. 

About three weeks into our mummification process the head of our Science Department peeked into my classroom, something that had never happened to that point. He heard what was going on I guess. When he opened the door, he saw an imperfect row of chickens hanging from fishline above the furnace register, dangling innocently with drip pans beneath. With the stern look he had mastered as an AP Physics teacher he said, "Ya know, there are airborne bacteria from those chickens all over this classroom."


Too late to do much at that point I remember thinking as I nodded back at him acknowledging I learned something new that day. I conjured up one of those purposefully unfinished responses like, "Oh, man" and then I carried on with my day without much care or concern. 

By then the mummy experiment had a re-defined purpose. It was uniting our class and bringing us  a little closer to our study of world history with some teamwork. One student brought in about 30 pounds of cinnamon and sugar that was swept up off the floor from a bakery. Other kids brought in vegetable and olive oil (important in the preservation process) and parents pitched in latex gloves, plastic table liners and cleaning supplies. We gained some needed momentum and it set us up for a successful school year. 

Learning could be fun, unpredictable and memorable it turned out.

The chicken mummy experiment comes to mind when I start a new school year. I try to recapture that exuberance that was so natural early on in my career. Recently when I read the Mind/Shift blog headlined, When Educators Make Space For Play and Passion, Students Develop Purpose I revisited a handful of other classroom experiences that also make me proud. There was the time we took a detour in class and worked on short films to enter in a statewide competition (we won first place!) or inviting my summer school students to bring their pets to class one day as part of a class activity. The summer school classes were the best for trying new ideas. I taught a class that was geared toward reconnecting students to their school experience and dealing with some tough personal issues. I had more than a few classes that used to visit a local assisted living home where we spent time singing, playing cards and walking to the park with residents.   

The Mind/Shift blog features Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner. He and I agree that unless the US education system helps students gain the skills listed below then we will struggle to graduate innovative thinkers who ultimately grow jobs. The skills he lists for our students to be successful lifelong learners turn out to be some of the same ones that organically happened in our classroom all those years back. Students (and teachers I would argue) need to learn how to:
  1. Formulate good questions
  2. Communicate in groups and lead by influence
  3. Be agile and adaptable
  4. Take initiative and be entrepreneurial
  5. Develop effective written and oral communication skills
  6. Access and analyze information
  7. Be creative and imaginative
Perspective based on a career spent learning

Every year when we report back to school, I am reminded that the classroom experiences and the way kids feel become the meaningful impressions in a life spent learning. 

As a teacher, I feel fortunate to have a clear beginning and end every year. I get to hit the reset button every August. I get time to reflect and I make it a priority to get my energy and attitude in balance to kick off each school year. Some of the best colleagues and school leaders have helped me see the big picture more clearly and for that I am grateful. 

Most teachers are enthused about starting a new school year and we should be excited. While things change within and outside our schools buildings in regard to policy shifts and new expectations, the common denominator that remains most important continues to be students. This doesn't make the challenges go away, but it does shift my perspective back into place when I get off my game. While I obviously believe that we ought to advocate for what is in the best interest of students, I continue to believe that being focused on students has to be where my advocacy begins. 

Teachers are experts and we do our best to plug our individual strengths into the classroom experience. My expertise in teaching has been my ability to lead a positive classroom, encourage supportive relationships, gain trust and set high expectations. The chicken mummy lesson was one of my first in recognizing my unique "teaching tools" that can be used to help students learn. Anyone who knew me a decade ago would also say that I had a lot of growing and improving ahead of me, but it was that growth early on that shaped my purpose. 

I try to remain mindful of my purpose. 

My purpose. 

Not the purpose that others define for me, but mine. The purpose that I nourish, keeping my students front and center. This constant has helped me cope with unexpected teaching assignments and teacher evaluations that I felt were incomplete. This purpose I have continues to evolve and it probably took five years of teaching for my professed ideals and my on-the-job-training to align. 

My confidence as a teacher grew as one by one students followed in line with chickens in caskets hoisted above their heads and walking through our school's main hallway and out the back doors for the burial. Even today, I know when I manage to get a group of junior students to sing The Bill of Rights Song to our office staff and classes full of their peers, we have succeeded in making student engagement a priority. I am at my best when I make it a point to smile more often and appreciate student laughter.

On the flip side, having some wonderful experiences to draw from and some remarkable young people in my classroom has helped me become more aware when I fail to use my strengths to help our class. Down days and being off are part of the game and navigating those times takes patience and honest self-evaluation. It is a bit easier to cope with when I sometimes begrudgingly shift my attitude to the possibilities, something that was so natural to me back when I was desperate. 

Occasionally I miss that unbridled enthusiasm and naivety that came with my youth, but then I remind myself that since my rookie days I have amassed so many more "teaching tools" and experiences that can help students. There have been times in my career where I have had to re-learn how to laugh more easily because the newness kind of wore off. 

Now, I have a firm stance and purpose that I understand better and I try to keep learning from from the 2001 version of myself. I would not change a thing from my teaching career that has included seven different classrooms, eight different preps (classes) and a handful of wacky experiments because my experience has been deeply fulfilling.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher at Fenton High School since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. He has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011 and he loves to travel. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning.

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