In a sleepy little town outside the bustling metropolis of Philadelphia, PA resides a blue ribbon school with extraordinary teachers and lucky students. Enter into the 3rd grade class of Mrs. Lindsey Whalon and you will be swept up in the engaging activities and contagious enthusiasm!
When I first stepped into Mrs. Whalon’s class, I took in what her students are welcomed with every day. The room is filled with growing plants, an extensive library, colorful walls, student projects, and even laptop computers. Her students were working on PowerPoint presentations, researching animals and outlining their presentations. Students were actively incorporating the grammar, spelling
and comprehension skills that they learned earlier in the week.
The transition to the current lesson was seamless except for a few disappointed students who did not want to stop working on their presentations…
“Class, Class.” Mrs. Whalon sing-songs a quick attention grabber.
“Yes, Yes,” her students automatically respond and look at her with their full attention, waiting to see what’s going to happen next.
“Find a wiggle spot in 10, 9, 8…”
Her students scatter around the room, quietly but with big smiles in anticipation of the opening activity. Just in time, her students have found places near friends, about an arms distance away from each other; plenty of room for what was to come.
A “Chillax” video from GoNoodle.com is projected through her computer on the front board. Her students imitate the goofy dance movements with their arms and legs, quietly giggling and having fun as they work out a little extra energy. GoNoodle is a website Mrs. Whalon uses to find free brain and sensory activities for her students. (She is all about frequent “brain breaks” and free stuff for teachers!)
After the “Chillax” activity, Mrs. Whalon directs her students to find a seated spot on the carpet for a quick review of the “Body Parts” unit the students have been learning. As everyone gets settled, up pops another video clip. This time she uses the popular Brain Pop characters Tim & Moby to explain different functions of body parts with emphasis on the skeletal frame. She stops after each important point in the video to highlight exactly what her students need to know. Sometimes she asks her students to repeat the information and other times she presents questions for her students to think about, and then respond.
Mrs. Whalon is a tech-savvy teacher but only uses technology when it can enhance the lesson. When she weaves age-appropriate educational videos into her instruction, her students have a better chance of understanding complex concepts. Deeper thinking skills are the result when the videos are supplemented by her thought-provoking questions. Not allowing technology to overwhelm students or take the place of teaching can be a difficult balancing act. Mrs. Whalon uses technology like a tool. She takes advantage of it only when she knows it will benefit her students.
Only a few minutes have gone by and already the students had a brain-break, review of former concepts and an introduction to new facts they will apply during the hands-on activity forthcoming. Things are moving right along!
“Today we are going to be putting together a skeleton in an activity called, Mr. Bones.” She uses her own set of materials to demonstrate the activity, highlighting a few actions to avoid (like, attaching the bones with a fastener before she has a chance to check). She shows them how they can move the “bones” around to recreate the skeleton. Her students are mesmerized by the demonstration.
“You will be using only a few tools for this activity, your brain, your partner’s brain and your hands and mouths so you can share ideas. I have one more thing to tell you about this activity…” She hesitates and watches for all eyes. Her students are once again captivated. “I know how fast the quickest 3rd grader got this skeleton assembled.” Guesses from her students begin…
Mrs. Whalon just smiles and says, “I’m not going to tell you until you are all done. I do want to see how fast you can concentrate on doing it correctly. If it is not correct, you will need to continue to arrange the bones until they are assembled correctly and that will take time.”
For 6 years, Mrs. Whalon worked in different schools, different grades levels and of course with a variety of different students. She developed a classroom and time management style that incorporates positive reinforcement and high expectations. She uses subtle corrections and guided questions to keep even her most active students focused. She redirects off-task behavior and channels hers students’ energy into a productive, engaged learning with ease. She likes to offer a challenge to her students to keep them engaged in the activities but can gauge when a little extra support is needed. She is quick to celebrate appropriate behavior and enjoys watching her students learn difficult concepts.
Mrs. Whalon finally found a home and settled comfortably into a 3rd grade inclusion classroom. As difficult as those years were, Mrs. Whalon used them to build a strong foundation of teaching experiences, and her students are the beneficiaries of those efforts.
As we walk around her classroom together we observe the intensity of her students’ concentration. Obviously, these kids have had a lot of experience learning how to collaborate on projects. They listen to each other’s recommendations and agree or disagree. Sometimes they try and fail. Sometimes they try, succeed and then high-five each other. The atmosphere is comfortable enough for a friendly competition to ensue between students as the pairs are excited to share their successes with each other. Mrs. Whalon’s total focus is on project-based learning. She makes a quick comment to me in between checking the assemblage of several Mr. Bones, “This hands-on Science stuff is so cool. These kids are learning things I didn’t even get to learn until high school.”
Mrs. Whalon uses the new Foss Science program and admits to trying the activities herself so she has a better understanding of the process.
“I need to know exactly what they will be going through when I give them an activity. I also want to have an idea of how much time it will take and what problems the kids might encounter. Last week my husband came home from work and I had body parts spread all over the family room floor. He just laughed; he is used to my classroom prep projects all over the house.”
Mrs. Whalon circles the room, which is filled with quiet chatter. Her students are arranging and rearranging bones and using resources to check their own work, before calling on her to check.
“The hands-on stuff is the best. I think they learn so much more when they are working with their hands on important activities that have purpose and meaning. I don’t think they would learn as much if they had to read about the bones in a book.”
Again, time was drawing close to recess and Mrs. Whalon gave a signal for the impending transition. Students were feeling the pressure now! Raising their hands with all of their might and staring at Mrs. Whalon with such intent, they needed her to see their hard work before it was time to leave, and that’s when it happened. Mrs. Whalon has high-fived the first pair of students to assemble Mr. Bones correctly. Now, everyone was double-checking their work, raising their hands and trying so hard to be patient. She checked the next properly completed Mr. Bones and another high-five is given. I’m just as curious as the students because I started thinking, did they beat the fastest time? What was the fastest time? Ugh! I had to know! I had to resist the urge to raise my hand, and just like that, it was time to go.
“Class, Class.” Mrs. Whalon sing-songs the attention grabber.
“Yes, Yes” the students respond.
“It’s time for recess and lunch. We can continue when we get back.”
Her students rebel…
“Can we skip recess? Pleeeeease?”
“I’m so excited that you loved doing this! But nope, sorry, leave everything where it is and we will continue as soon as we get back.”
Her students line up and walk solemnly past a poor, unfinished Mr. Bones.
While her students were at lunch I spoke candidly with Mrs. Whalon about her teaching career and life outside of school. “My favorite part of teaching is getting to be creative. I love to take a complex concept and make it relatable to 3rd graders. It can be quite a challenge but I love doing that for my students. I love my students.” She adds, warmly.
Mrs. Whalon graduated from St. Joseph’s University and, until recently, was an avid tennis player. Lately she and her husband have been having fun with their new home repairs, gardening and taking their dog, Reese, hiking.
She loves to spend any extra time she has volunteering to help out her school. She is on the Writing Committee, the Reading Olympics Coach and has been nominated for school council. She researches quality, useful resources like Planbook.com, Common Sense Media.org, and her latest find is Symbaloo.com. (An interactive billboard for students to attach cool stuff they learn from places like National Geographic or Discovery Kids.)
When I asked her about the “school culture” she lit up! “The collaboration between teachers here is amazing. We love to bounce ideas off of each other and discuss best practices. Administration is incredibly supportive. They are this amazingly positive force that offers solutions, guidance and I know they always have my back. This is such a great school, I am so lucky!” I know a lot of teachers that feel this way. In the end, it is their students who are the lucky ones!
Time just flies when you are with Mrs. Whalon. Before I knew it, my observation day was over. I was in my car and on my way home. As I was driving, it occurred to me that I never did get a chance to ask her how long it took that fastest kid to assemble Mr. Bones!