“At it’s highest level, the purpose of teaching is not to teach—it is to inspire the desire for learning. Once a student’s mind is set on fire, it will find a way to provide its own fuel.” ― Sydney J. Harris

My 5th grade teacher was really pretty amazing. I don’t think I really appreciated it at the time, but looking back on that year, she definitely went above and beyond to make learning come alive for us. I didn’t exactly make it easy for her either. I arrived to the class a few days after the school year had started as “the new kid.” My family had just moved back to Texas from Connecticut, and though I had technically only been a Yankee for 2 years, I had adopted an attitude about it. I spent the first few weeks of school trying to show my teacher and everyone else in the class that I was smarter than them or had already learned everything we were learning (neither of these things were actually true). Every teacher’s dream, right?

Iguanas from Flickr via Wylio

© 2005 zOz, Flickr | CC-BY-SA  | via Wylio

Eventually, I got past this stage and became another willing participant in the classroom. This class was different than any I had ever been in. My teacher taught us all the subjects, but you could tell that science was her favorite. She had 2 pet iguanas that she kept in a glass aquarium against a wall. They were called Elvis & Anaugi (iguana spelled backwards). She let us hold, pet, and feed them and warned us about pulling on their tails, while also teaching us about reptiles. She showed us how one of her iguanas had a brown tail, because it was growing back from falling off, a defense that some lizards have to help escape from predators (in this lizard’s case, the predator was a careless 5th grade student from the year before). She also explained that the iguanas needed a heat lamp, because they are cold-blooded animals.

Clownfisch/ Anemonenfisch (cc) from Flickr via Wylio

© 2007 Martin Fisch, Flickr | CC-BY-SA  | via Wylio

The classroom also had a saltwater aquarium with clownfish and sea anemones, because our teacher wanted us to be able to witness a symbiotic relationship (way before “Finding Nemo”). Do you have any idea how hard a saltwater aquarium is to maintain? As a 2nd grade teacher, I struggled to keep the tiny guppy-like fish we used for one of our science units, alive in a freshwater tank for more than a few days. But my 5th grade teacher was very into marine biology and had us doing all kinds of neat experiments and research related to ocean life. I was convinced for most of that year that I wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist. I credit her and “Free Willy.”

One of the most significant things she taught us about in 5th grade was this new thing she called “email.” She tried to explain how exciting and important it was and how we could use it to communicate with people all over the world. She wrote a long line of words and letters on the board that had no spaces and included a weird looking “a” with a circle around it and told us to copy it down. I figured I was just having trouble reading her handwriting and that surely she hadn’t meant to write the “a” that way. She arranged for us to write emails to a friend of hers, who was traveling in Australia. She collected our notes and questions and compiled them into emails to send from us. Now my experience with computers at my previous schools was playing games like “Oregon Trail” and “Math Number Crunchers,” so I didn’t really understand what she was doing. But within a day of sending our letters emails, we had received one back from her friend. Our teacher shared the email with us, reading aloud to us his descriptions of his travels around Australia and all the strange animals he had come across.

Looking back, I am very impressed with the way my 5th grade teacher incorporated new technology and hands-on experiences into our classroom. I’m sure she had to do a lot of extra work to make that happen, when she could have much more easily assigned us pages to read in a textbook.

I appreciate my 5th grade teacher more now, because I am about to enter my first year of teaching 5th grade. I hope I can create as stimulating and engaging an environment for my own students. I hope they can enter into the subjects I’m teaching, with as much curiosity and enthusiasm as my teacher was able to instill in us. And I hope they understand the technology I introduce a little better than I did when I was their age. 😉


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