Let Them Explore: The Fish Story

I’m of the opinion that if provided with the right support, setting, and resources, students can be amazing self-guided learners. Miss. Frizzle is a personal hero of mine and her advice to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy” summarizes a lot of my beliefs about embracing mess and chaos in the classroom, or in your homeschool practice. Learning cannot happen unless we allow ourselves and our students to be open to wholehearted exploration, and true exploration can’t occur without a certain degree of chaos and mess. So where does the fish come in? Let me tell you…

One of the best lessons I ever had was highly unconventional, but self-guided by a small group of students and supported by my amazing third grade teacher. We had been studying ancient Egypt when one of our classroom fish died. Instead of flushing it, we decided that we were going to mummify this fish and give it a proper ancient Egyptian burial. When we asked our teacher his response was simply “of course”. And so began the process of wrapping this goldfish in layers of salt and toilet paper, decorating an inner and outer sarcophagus, and making a cardboard box tomb with appropriate antechambers, a cartouche, and enough fish food for the afterlife. It took us most of the day as we went back and forth between the fish and our classroom library of resource books, trying to get it just right as our teacher looked on from afar. The burial later that day was a solemn affair, but as we gave the goldfish a procession down the hallway we all carried with us a new detailed understanding of ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife, their tomb construction, mummification, and burial practices.

So why is the fish important? Had my teacher stopped us because of a narrative surrounding potential mess, hassle, or the perception of wasted time, we would never have learned what we did with such passion. When faced with a gaggle of probably-too-eager 8 year olds he looked at the potential for chaos, and valued the potential learning more than his resistance to mess.

There are amazing educators out there who stare the potential for mess in the face and say “come at me” every day. The proof is in the inspired learning of their students, the awesome learning experiences they create, and the dirt and glitter piles in the corner of their classrooms. But with the pressure of performance as we compare ourselves to bloggers and Instagram users with seemingly spotless classrooms, it can be good to have a reminder that mess is ok.

Who knows what the next dead fish opportunity to come your way will be 🙂

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