I teach a class of first through third graders at Garden Oaks Montessori in Houston, TX. Social studies and science are the center of our curriculum, with math and language arts integrated as tools for learning. We take an anthropological approach to history, examining how each culture met universal human needs such as clothing and shelter, but our materials were embarrassingly Eurocentric.
To increase my knowledge of Asian culture, history, and ecology and enhance this part of our curriculum, I embarked on a three-week expedition in Mongolia and China. My small group visited three different biomes in Mongolia and met six herding families. These families likely represent the last generation to practice a traditional nomadic lifestyle. At each stop, I participated in daily living. I milked a yak, built a ger tented shelter, dressed in a Mongolian deel, and cooked a meal.
To bring the experience to my students, I assembled a mystery trunk of artifacts from my journey, including a wooden spoon for milk offerings, camel hair rope, yak and reindeer fur, wooden puzzles, an ankle bone game, a Buddhist prayer scarf, samples of Kazakh embroidery, a traditional music CD, an ink stick and compressed tea from China, and more. Each student acts as an expert in a discipline: botanist, zoologist, anthropologist, meteorologist, etc. As they examine an artifact, our experts will ask, “What is it made of? How is it used? Which experts would be interested in it?” After reviewing photographs with more clues, the children will draw conclusions about where I traveled, citing evidence for each guess.
Perhaps the most fun application of my fellowship coincides with Halloween. Each year, I “become” Mrs. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Last year, a student pointed to Ms. Frizzle in Imperial China and asked, “Ms. Frizzle, next year could you wear this dress?” He got his wish. This week, we will celebrate Chinese New Year with calligraphy and chopsticks lessons and kite-making with a museum scientist.
After 15 years of teaching, I risk becoming stagnant. This fellowship renewed my adventurous spirit. I worried less and relished challenges. I did laundry in a river. I used a doorless wooden outhouse on the side of a highway. I crawled through a glacial ice cave, spent chilly nights in a ger under the stars, and tasted reindeer milk and silk worm larva. It was freeing to say yes to new experiences. Now, my example spurs students to take adventurous risks in their learning, as well.
Shana documented her entire fellowship with a blog. She regularly presents at state and national Montessori conferences and she professional development courses for the Smithsonian ScienceEducation Center. She also volunteers with the paleontology field team from the Houston Museum of Natural Science.