As a third grade teacher, the coming of spring meant Charlotte’s Web. It was a rite of passage for third graders - to meet Fern Arable, to enter that barn, to experience the ultimate sacrifice that Charlotte, the motherly spider, makes for Wilbur. Despite being a story about talking farm animals, it is a powerful text and, for many students, it is the first time the idea of death is introduced in a class read aloud. The conversations I would have with those third graders, they were heavy. Tears were shed. Suddenly, school got real. Death was a thing. Read about and talked about.
And so, to celebrate the completion of the book and the serious, mature, third grade conversations that we had, we would make large, pink paper maché pigs complete with ridiculous looking googley eyes.
I always got a kick out of the contrast between the seriousness of the end of the book and the silliness of those googley eyes.
The project itself took the better part of a week to complete. It didn’t really have anything to do with the story. It didn’t deepen our understanding of the text or allow us to reflect on the characters. And all of the pigs basically ended up looking the same - a thin layer of shredded newspaper covering a balloon body with four Dixie cup legs.
But let me tell you. Man. Did those paper maché pigs looks great on student desks at Open House. I mean, like, really good.
I am all for making art. I think there is far too little art making in all classrooms. There is nothing better than closing the door, putting on some awesome music, and breaking out the paintbrushes and painting alongside your students. Or the pastels. Or the watercolors.
The problem was I did not enjoy the paper maché Wilbur project. It took longer than I could justify. It was messy. I mean, have you ever seen a line of 28 third grade students waiting to wash half-dried paper maché goo off their fingers, and hands, and arms?
I had the realization that the reason I was doing this project, year in and year out, was not because of what the students were getting out of it, and it sure wasn’t because of anything that I was getting out of it. I was putting myself through the process each year because it was the project that we had always done at the end of Charlottes Web. It was tradition. And it provided me with something to point to at Open House.
"Look - we do awesome stuff in here! Look at that awesome paper maché pig!"
Even though the paper maché pig wasn't really representative of any of the hard work we put into my instruction and lesson design or students' learning or collaborating.
This realization freed me. The following year, we would not make paper maché pigs. No. We would leave the shredded newspaper unshredded. The paper maché goo would remain in its jug. The pink paint would remain as unmixed, as red and white bottles of paint sitting in their paint cupboard.
I did something different. I ordered some fast drying clay. We made Chilean Chanchitos, small, three-legged clay pigs that are thought to bring good luck. It provided my students an opportunity to work with a new artistic medium, to learn about another culture and country, and, perhaps most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to change things up a bit.
This is where you would probably expect me to extol the virtues of the shift that I made. This is where everything is supposed to be incredible. This is where I explain that the three legged Chanchitos were less work for me and more meaningful and interesting for my students. This is where the happy ending goes. Go forth. Make the changes. They will always work out.
The project was worse. Way worse. These clay pigs. It was crazy. The clay dried so fast. The pigs, they were so small. Little third grade fingers had trouble shaping little pig snouts on such a small scale. Pigs? More like lumpy spheres with two toothpick-poked eyes.
When the students would leave each day, I would go to work, inspecting each pig and making small fixes here and there. Making them resemble the general shape of a pig the best I could. As the project wrapped up, I’ll be honest, the pigs did not look great. And, to top it off, these one inch little clay figurines were nowhere near as impressive as their paper maché counterparts. When Open House rolled around, there were no "oohs" or "ahhs" as family members walked into the classroom.
The worry pigs. They were an official flop. I never attempted them again.
I find myself reflecting on this specific project lately. There was something incredibly freeing about stepping away from something that had been traditionally done for something that was totally new. Something that was interesting. Something that actually had my own fingerprints all over it (lesson design-wise, not just from fixing all those terrible pigs). Something that didn’t feel like I was going to through the motions begrudgingly. Even if, in the end, it was more work and the final project wasn't as good.
If I were a third grade teacher today, man, how I would attack this project differently. Each kid would choose a character and a setting. I would have the students comb the text for details related to those characters and settings. I would have them use those details to recreate the barn or the fair, or whatever they chose, in TinkerCAD using the geometric shapes that we learned about in our math lessons. I would have them print out screenshots of their models and paste their favorite passages from the book on top. It would be awesome.
What I would not do is spend time doing a project that did not have my lesson-design fingerprints on it. I wouldn’t spend such a significant block of time doing something that I was not required to that I was also not stoked to be doing. As educators, there are so many things that we are required to do. The things that we choose to do should be things that bring us and our students joy - things that make us all look forward to spending time in our classroom.
Again, I am not against the paper maché pig project. I think it is a cool art lesson and, when I think back to my time teaching third grade, it is the first project that I fondly think of. What I am against was my inability to immediately step away from the project when it stopped working for me. When, instead of looking forward to the mess, I started dreading taking out the materials to make them. I believe that our students read us better than we realize - when we aren't into something, they pick up on it instantly. The only people we are fooling is ourselves.
One of the greatest things about being a teacher is that we hold the power to make choices about how we teach and structure our class periods. It costs nothing to approach something that is not bringing you joy from a different angle. And when you do, sometimes the Chanchitos that you attempt will not be as good as your metaphorical paper mache pigs. But isn’t it worth the shot?
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