In lieu of the horrible holiday movie and festive party that invariably results in mayhem and leaves a classroom strewn with wrappers, empty drink bottles and general mess in its wake on the last day of school before winter holidays, I opted instead to take my students from Mississauga to Toronto by public transit.
It was true that I'd had them plan the trip themselves, everything from finding the most efficient route, to calculating mileage and average speed per km while in transit, to finding fun and free activities to do while in Toronto. So to say they were invested would be an understatement (one student had even researched helmet laws in Toronto and rental fees at Nathan Phillips Square, so that a few of them could go skating -- it's $5 per helmet, and $5 per 2-hour skate rental, btw).
While some took endless selfies, others pointed out street musicians and urban art as I had requested, and still others noticed and commented on a variety of observations (why the other subway cars on the Yonge line look like they're turning when you're going around a curve in the tracks, while the one you're sitting in always seems to be straight, for example!)
One student -- a child who barely writes two sentences in class without constant redirection -- self-selected to blog as she went along. Screens and screens of text she wrote: Everything from impressions of the bus and subway, to sights, smells and sounds on the streets of Toronto. She wrote and wrote and wrote, until her device ran out of battery.
Another student gave some coins from his pocket to two of the many homeless people we observed while in the city, explaining to me that he was fulfilling his duty under the Muslim pillar of Zakah. (He ran out of money before Toronto's streets ran out of a supply of homeless for him.) A lively conversation ensued, about the religious and secular responsibilities to look after one another as members of society, who was responsible (government vs. people), and what that might entail in different contexts.
When the class dispersed to check out Chinatown or visit another activity they had pre-selected after visting the Christmas windows, my small group hopped back onto the subway and headed down to Union station to catch the shuttle to the Island Airport.
Students were extremely engaged, as we had recently read a debate about this very airport in our literacy textbook at school, and had looked at photos of some of the homes on the island in class. They also had a million questions about the underground tunnel (oh how I wished I'd had this infographic at the time!!), and more generally, about the concept of an island so close to the city.
We'd also just finished our study of flight in Science, so when we arrived at the small flight school next to the Porter terminal and were offered a tour of the hangar by Ms. Kachira, who happened to be working that day, the students were quite excited to participate, marveling at being able to name some of the airplane parts they had memorized from a diagram in real life now. As one student remarked, as he looked at an actual airfoil (wing) up close, "Oh, now I get it!"
Each student also had a chance to sit and be photographed in the cockpit, which they enjoyed a great deal, and which I immediately posted to parent accounts on Edmodo.
"We saw...." followed by a long, descriptive string of paragraphs from a student in a different group.
Questions and responses amongst the groups ensued, focused in ways I have rarely experienced in class!! They were genuinely interested in hearing about one another's adventures, and learning from their divergent experiences of the city.
The blossoming self-confidence I had observed earlier in the day, as this group of loosely-monitored 11-year-olds navigated public transit (many of them riding subways and public buses for the first time in their lives!), was evident in their writing, and I am looking forward to using their self-initiated work when we return to school in January, and building on it to develop and refine their writing and media skills.
The world is a big, exciting place. Bigger and more exciting by far than worksheets and textbooks. Following students' leads, and building on to their existing strengths and interests, can help educators foster a growing understanding of the world for their students and encourage them to demonstrate their understanding of said world in a more inspired, pain-free manner!