In the movie Ground Hog Day, Bill Murray is a reporter covering the annual event where the ground hog looks for its shadow. Each morning he wakes up to relive that day, stuck in a perpetual cycle that matches his boorish behavior. His journey is what makes the comedy entertaining.
On January 15, 2014, Congress must approve a budget that keeps the government operational. While it’s difficult, perhaps nearly impossible, to set aside the politics, I’d like to take a moment to share one impact of the last government shutdown.
A 3rd grade team for an elementary school in Virginia, including four classes, planned a Project Based Learning Unit that partnered with a national zoo. The zoo asked the students to help them decide what kinds of animals from different biomes that they should create a home so that visitors could see and learn about new species. The students were asked to recommend an animal, recommend how to design a space that would be similar to the biome and habitat of the creature. The skills that would be developed in context of this challenge would be studying animal habitats and food cycle, conducting research, reading fiction and non-fiction on related topics, composing writing pieces, and presenting findings and proposals. These are the type of learning experiences we want our children to have, where significant content is learned in a meaningful and purposeful fashion. The students will remember the skills and concepts long after the project is complete because they will have the memory of making a difference for an authentic public audience.
In early October, as part of the project kick off, the students were going to visit the zoo. They would learn about how the zoo staff care and provide for the animals’ needs based on their original habitat. It was an opportunity for students to ask staff questions that could influence their research and proposals. As a National Zoo, the admission was free, which made the valuable trip possible. Education budget cuts limited where teachers could take students on field trips. Cost of a bus and an entrance fee would have made the trip impossible.
The day of the field trip, the government was shut down, except for essential services. One service considered non-essential was the zoo. The trip was cancelled. The teachers did rally and adjusted the learning experience where students started their research and each class drafted a biome where they placed animals and fauna. It was a good alternative. The students were excited, and when interviewed spoke about the project task—helping the zookeepers come up with the next biome and animals inside to support—and they could already share a basic understanding of biomes and habitats. But the field trip was an opportunity for them to engage in collegial conversation with zoo staff about the needs of the various animals.
Some might think a field trip is not a big deal in the scope of a government shutdown. Now that’s the last one is over, the field trip can be rescheduled. Timing is a powerful consideration. Doing the field trip early would have given students a great experience with making strong connections of content to purpose at the start of the unit. Students get to interview their client for valuable details, which also creates a scaffold for learning the planned content. Moving the field trip to another time while possible decreases its value as a learning tool to becoming just another trip that’s disconnected from curricular value. Timing is everything for teachable moments.
If educating our youth to think critically and make connections to how content and skills are important to know in the world outside of classrooms, than a government shutdown has significant implications. Come January 15, lets hope for a budget deal that keeps the government operational. A repeat performance of this fall’s showdown is not a Ground Hog Day that our children can afford.