Monday, July 30, 2012

A Gift to Teachers: A Trip to the Arctic

In December 2011 an email arrived in my inbox with the subject heading “Our Gift to Teachers: A Trip to the Arctic”.  It was from National Geographic Education.  I was curious so I read further. 

National Geographic, in collaboration with Lindblad Expeditions and Google, is proud to announce that applications are now being accepted for the 2012 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program. Selected fellows will travel on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to the Arctic, as well as to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., for professional development prior to the trip. The program celebrates excellence in geographic education and is meant to reward teachers committed to National Geographic's goal of inspiring students to care about the planet.

If you are a teacher who has demonstrated a commitment to these values in your work, please apply by January 31, 2012!

I had written about travel for teachers in an April, 2011 posting and knew immediately that this was an experience I had to apply for.  THE ARCTIC!!!  The “top” of the globe, the land of courageous explorers of the 19th century, polar bears, arctic terns, and ice.  The poster child of climate change, and a place I never dreamed I would see with my own eyes. 

Svalbard is just east of Greenland and 500 miles south of the North Pole.

Applying for positions can be daunting, but this one seemed more than worth the risk of rejection. Like most of us, I had no trouble seeing myself as a legitimate candidate. My love of geography as a framework for developing curriculum is genuine.  A world map and a globe are always within sight of my classroom meeting area. The reason I learned about the trip is that I often use the wonderful resources available through the National Geographic Education Website. I care deeply about the planet, and through teaching always hope I might inspire students to care as well. All I had to do was fill out the application by the deadline and then wait.

This spring students where happy to work and wonder
in our school garden at a near by P-patch.
Students are encouraged to ask
questions in their journals
While I was waiting a curious thing began to happen - that thing that occurs when your attention shifts even just a fraction of a compass point away from the usual here and now.  The entire world and everything that we know was suddenly being viewed through the lens of geography, specifically, the geography of the Arctic. In the classroom, caring about the planet is a natural outcome when students learn to understand the world through a strong sense of place.  Why people do what they do, eat what they eat, look the way they do, build houses the way they do, all has to do with where in the world they are located.  The fear and judgment that sometimes come from being different can be defused with a strong understanding of literally where each of us comes from.

A sketch made by a student in my class
about birds' beak shapes.
 In February I got the call!  I was going to the Arctic; I had been named a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow for 2012.  I was thrilled! I teach elementary school, and it isn’t very often that elementary teachers are validated in this way.  We teach children to read, to ask questions, to work together in groups and, yes, to care.  We spend time with these human beings at a point when their brains are growing at a tremendous rate, and every day the children amaze us by taking risks, trying harder, and learning more then even we might think possible. This is the validation we come to expect, and it is truly gratifying. But National Geographic?  Wow!

Under the stars at National Geographic Headquarters n Washington D,C,

Teachers, you aren’t going to go if you don’t apply.  This is a fantastic program, and I encourage you to apply.  If you haven’t explored the National Geographic Education website now is the time to check it out.  Your students will thank you, and maybe someday you will find yourself going to the Arctic.  It is an amazing way for National Geographic to say thank you to teachers.  Please let me know when you go!
(This is the first in a series of posts about the Arctic)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Emergent Curriculum in Action

As I looked to bridge the long summer days spent outside in the Pacific Northwest with our annual return to the classroom in early September, I decided to create a small science corner with a display of seeds and seed pods, along with containers of fall blooming flowers. The idea was to generate conversation and begin the habits of careful observation and inquiry. The display also gave me a chance to get to know the students in the North Room as I listened and watched them interact with the natural materials, tools to assist in observation, and with each other.  It turns out that small seed, planted in late August as we prepared the classroom for students has been watered and fed and is really starting to germinate.

In the weeks that followed families brought in seedpods from their gardens for students to explore.  We opened them and counted and sorted seeds.  We looked at the different shapes and learned about the many ways seeds travel. So far this year we have taken weekly trips to many of the local parks, including the Colman Park P-patch.  In the parks we looked closely at plants and leaves and seedpods and thought about the ways they grow. We considered their variety as we drew the many interesting shapes.

Both inside and out we have been reading books about seeds and plants.  We have generated lists of questions about seeds.  As we practice asking questions, we hold off on finding quick answers so we can grow more comfortable with the process of inquiry.  What at first glance looks like a simple question with a quick answer, given some time, can bloom into a question that scientists have already spent hundreds of years exploring.  It is exciting to join this group and feel the connection with those who have asked these questions before us.  All the while we are learning to listen to each other.  One question leads to the next, a related question that is clearly following a shared path of inquiry.

Our visit to the Colman P-patch led us to wonder about the Lake and Park School having a garden of our own.  Like the City and Country School that inspired Camille to found Lake and Park, we all felt we could learn so much if we were able to add an outdoor “classroom” in the form of a garden we can tend throughout the seasons.  The P-patch has the space available and the students are enthusiastic as we begin to plan and to prepare the beds and paths, and to learn what it takes to make a garden grow.  We hope our whole school community will want to be involved.

Already Walter’s Aunt Stephanie, a Seattle Tilth educator and local gardener, has visited the classroom, bringing scarlet runner bean plants for exploration and dissection.  This was a perfect plant to use to introduce the plant life-cycle because on a single plant we could see both the blossoms and the pods.  Children picked the pods and opened them to reveal the beans/seeds.  Stephanie answered children’s questions and inspired more questions such as, “where does water come from anyway?”

And so our curriculum grows, turning and winding as the children’s skills and understanding develop. The prospect of tending our own garden together now exists like a seed in the good soil our inquiry has created. We all share the anticipation and excitement of helping it thrive.

A garden is a natural focus for building community. With a common purpose, everyone contributes meaningfully. As we nurture the plants in our garden, and eventually provide our own snacks and food, we also support each other as creative thinkers and doers. During the winter months our garden also served as the focal point for researching the origins of common vegetables we planned to grow in the spring.  Our connection to places across the globe is deepened as we till the soil in our own neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reflection on My Year as the World Affairs Council Teacher in Residence

The year I spent as Teacher in Residence at the World Affairs Council was a great gift.  The opportunity to be more closely involved with the World Affairs Council in general, and specifically the Global Classroom taught me that teachers are not working alone and unsupported in our efforts to provide children with accurate information and exciting and relevant experiences to further their learning and knowledge of the world.  The World Affairs Council of Seattle, now celebrating its 60th year, brings our community together to learn about contemporary world issues and practice civic engagement.  The Global Classroom arm of the organization sponsors lectures and workshops designed to help teachers prepare classroom experiences that will engage students. It also reaches out to high school students directly with a Global Summer Institute and many opportunities to attend community programs during the school year at no cost to the students.
Cover of one of the fifty page resource packets
prepared during the 2010/2011 school year.
My year as the teacher in residence also provided me with weekly opportunities to research relevant online curriculum resources for teachers and students, and to create bibliographies of books at all reading levels around a topic or theme.  Now that I have returned to the classroom this year I find myself turning again and again to the online resources available at the World Affairs Council Global Classroom.  The resource packets are arranged by topic and were originally designed to support a specific workshop. The packets are extensive, however, and the articles, websites and book and film lists can be used to support many classroom social studies activities.  Knowing that the resources have been previewed can save teachers valuable time.  We all know that great information is readily available and that teachers are no longer isolated in a classroom with outdated social studies textbooks, but finding the time to search for the perfect site can still be a challenge.   During my year as the teacher in residence I always felt fortunate to have the time to wander from one website to another following a long chain of connected ideas.  

My class at the Columbia City Branch of the Seattle Public
Library to pick up books for our classroom.

Now, as a teacher with a classroom of students during the day and emails to write and lessons to plan in the evening I am happy to turn to what I know is a reliable source of current information.

It was in May 2010, at the International Leadership in Education dinner, that several ideas came together for me, and I understood more fully the need for a person to focus on early childhood and elementary level global education.  For the 2010/2011 school year I was able to do just that.  Here in Washington we have the most diverse school district in the nation located just a few miles south of Seattle.  The global community has truly come to us.  But how are teachers to prepare relevant curriculum to connect to the lives of these students?

Experiencing the city skyline from Elliot Bay.

Young children see and are aware of differences and similarities in their classmates.  Their natural curiosity is the greatest asset available for teachers to provide a forum for learning about and discussing varied cultural perspectives. In a classroom environment where differences are not acknowledged, children naturally assume that their curiosity about their classmates is unwelcome or rude. Empathy is replaced by silence, which creates an elephant in the room.  Young children do not have the learned biases of older students and adults.  By providing accurate information and relevant education in the elementary grades I believe biases can be begin to be replaced with greater compassion and understanding.  The challenge continues to be finding the time in most schools to immerse students in a study of a place far away and the culture and traditions of people who live there.  Teachers are asked to dedicate more and more time to basic skills and what students need to learn for the next required assessment.  But doesn’t it make more sense to make those skills relevant by using them to understand the world?

With Camille on a Puget Sound
beach on a field trip.
This September I joined a remarkable school community just entering its tenth year next fall.  The Lake and Park School is the vision of a truly gifted educator, Camille Hayward. 

Working together to dig a river on the shore of
Lake Washington.
I took over the Primary Classroom at Lake and Park where I am able to create integrated units of study for a mixed-age group of students.  We go out into the field on a regular basis, mapping the neighborhood, and as our name suggests using the shores of Lake Washington and the natural environment of Mt. Baker Park as a starting point for our exploration of the world.  Students learn by doing.  To understand world geography it is important to understand your local geography. 

After a year of reflecting on meaningful global education for young students I am back in the classroom more committed than ever to help create a learning environment where students can begin the journey of becoming world citizens.  What are your favorite resources to use in your classroom?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Democracy in Action

In March, just when we were getting to work on the resource packet for General Hayden’s Global Classroom visit at the World Affairs Council, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days at University Child Development School (UCDS) in Seattle’s University District.  If I hadn’t been working on developing teacher resources I may not have noticed what a great job UCDS was doing to promote the important skills required for a healthy and vibrant democracy within the daily curriculum of a strong elementary school program.

The UCDS Program philosophy includes this statement about responsibility: “Civic responsibility is central to the ethos of our school. Each child is responsible for sharing his/her knowledge and talent in a way that enriches the rest of the community. We teach children to listen carefully to others, to help one another, to share what they have learned, to coach one another, to participate in group discussions, and to develop areas of expertise where a child can assume leadership. We believe that developing tolerance for different points of view and empathy for the needs of others is essential to the moral development of a child. In our school, curriculum is organized around big ideas, interesting problems, interests of the students, and issues in the community. Learning is connected to the real world and children are able to build on what they already know. “  During the two days I spent at UCDS I saw this philosophy in action in the 2/3 classroom.  Throughout the day the students worked in small groups, while the teacher moved throughout the room asking clarifying questions and extending the students thinking. The class was in the middle of a project creating a toy store from conception to production, including developing a mission, branding and advertising. They had visited toy stores, met with graphic designers, and consulted with a toy inventor.  All of the students I observed were actively engaged in the work of creating a successful toy store and they were doing so through a process of group consensus.  

These seven, eight and nine year olds are asked to collaborate and contribute to the class projects on a daily basis.  When I got there they had already decided on the mission of their toy store and had spent a week or so developing ideas for toys in small groups.  I observed the voting process as they made the decision of which toys to develop.  Every group had a chance to share their toy ideas.  Then the class voted on which ones they thought were worth developing.  Students had put a lot of work into their toy ideas.  They then had a few minutes to share their ideas with the group.  Voting followed.  3 toy ideas made the cuts.  Were they the best ideas?  Did they represent the most articulate students?  Did they vote based on popularity?  I didn’t know the students well enough after just two days to know what drove their votes.  What I did observe were young students who had invested a lot of thought and energy in their ideas and only a few faces showed some disappointment when their ideas were not chosen.  Everyone seemed to accept the votes and within moments they had organized themselves into new groups, this time to work on different types of advertising for the selected toys. Billboards, print ads and commercials would be developed over the next week and I imagine the ads would also be shared and voted on, with only a few making the cut.

Meanwhile these students are all practicing on a daily basis the skills they need to be active and responsible citizens in a democracy.  They understand it is important to be engaged, to share their ideas and to contribute to the group.  When the vote comes, their choice may or may not be the winning vote but either way they will continue to participate and trust that each member of the community is voting based on the best information they have available at the time.  For a democracy to work all participants must trust the process.  When the vote does not go your way you still participate, you work, you give and then you vote again.  Most importantly you cooperate and contribute to the greater good.  These students at UCDS are experiencing a functioning democracy on a daily basis.  Watching them at work makes me hopeful for our future.  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Exploring the World Through the Arts

“Books impart knowledge; only travel imparts wisdom.”
Turkish Proverb

If you heard about an opportunity for teachers to travel abroad in the summer, would you follow up on it? When I learned that the Turkish Cultural Foundation and the World Affairs Council were sponsoring a trip, I knew I wanted to go. Applying for a competitive position is daunting, but the chance to visit Turkey, a place I had always wanted to see, to meet people and speak with artists and educators was too great an opportunity to pass up. I was inspired by the realization that in our classrooms we encourage students to try something new and challenging every day. 

As twenty-first century teachers, a critical aspect of our job is to help students form an unbiased understanding of people around the globe. To do this well, we try to bring accurate information and meaningful learning experiences into our classrooms. One great way to make this happen is to spend some time during the summer months traveling and exploring a different region of the world.  First hand experiences and the broader perspective they provide help us interpret what we read in the media. We can pass along the benefits of considering issues from a variety of points of view, giving our students a chance to make up their own minds about complex questions. Topics such as the freedom of women and girls to wear headscarves in schools, or water issues throughout the Middle East become personally meaningful when we can sympathize with the interests of the real people who are affected by them. A better understanding of the history of modern day Turkey, for example, its geography, and the contributions of the Ottoman Empire can all enrich one’s experience of interpreting the headlines and creating classroom activities to encourage students to dig a little deeper into the significance behind the sound bites.

While teaching in a small K-12 school I was always looking for projects with which students at all levels would connect.  Ebru, the Turkish art of paper marbling, has become one of those projects. I had made marbled paper with students of all ages and was fascinated to learn more about the art form on the study tour in Turkey. In Istanbul we had the opportunity to visit Ebristan, the atelier of Hikmet Barutcugil, where we were able to see the tradition at work.  
Garden Courtyard at Ebristan, Istanbul,Turkey
Contemporary Turkey is experiencing a revival of many of the traditional arts, with the help of supportive foundations.  The Iznik Foundation is an organization reviving the tradition of Turkish tile-making.  In Bursa the famous traditional Turkish shadow puppet theater, Karagoz and Hacivat works to preserve the arts of puppetry. Weaving and rug making are practiced throughout Anatolia, primarily by women, who pass the art down from mother to daughter.    As with paper marbling at Ebristan, each of these art forms continues the traditional master- apprentice relationship.  At Master Barutcugil’s atelier it was possible to feel the connection between the art and nature, the physical and spiritual balance that combines skill and             creativity.

A comb is used to make a more complex pattern.
Using an awl to combine the paints with a
"come & go" motion.
Traditional flower design created at a
demonstration at Ebristan.
In Turkey there is a distinction between decorated paper and classical marbling.  There is a pure form which follows rules and makes repetition possible, which gave rise to the classical standards of form, such as the “Marbling of Tide”, which involves combed Marbling, both fine and wide, and the swirling “Nightingale Nest Marbling”. The craft is practiced for years before one can achieve “master” status.

That said, even beginners can experience the magic and joy of paper marbling right from their first encounter with the medium. With just a little effort on the part of the teacher the students will all be eager to build on their successes.  The positive, first hand experience makes knowing more about another culture very appealing. Just as Turkey sits as the bridge between the East and West, the arts can act as the doorway through which students learn about a different culture. 
I purchase paper marbling supplies in the US through Galen Berry's Marble Art.    How do you bring art into your classroom?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Grain of Salt

“The convergence of media and technology in a global culture is changing the way we learn about the world and challenging the very foundations of education.  No longer is it enough to be able to read the printed word; children, youth, and adults, too, need the ability to both critically interpret the powerful images of a multimedia culture and express themselves in multiple media forms.”
Elizabeth Thoman and Tessa Jolls

If our goal is a media literate population, then as teachers we can start our work when students first enter the preschool or kindergarten classroom.  In my classroom our day begins with a morning note.  The note serves multiple purposes.  It may be to share important information about our day.  It may present a provocative idea, asking students for an opinion that will be discussed at our morning meeting.  I might post a photograph or a cartoon from the morning paper and ask students to interpret what is going on.  Each of these encourages students to practice and hone their media literacy skills.

As we absorb information from our surroundings we are each making our own meaning.  I like to give young students lots of opportunities to share their own interpretations and to listen to their classmates’ perspectives.  Asking clarifying questions, seeking additional information, and always considering whose point of view is being shared, are habits of mind that will support media literacy at any age.   Creating a classroom culture that supports students as they learn to respectfully question each other, share information, and collaborate on multi-media projects will support students in becoming media literate.

If you have a daily story time in your classroom, chances are you already are helping your students to become media literate.  Consider the classic story of The Blind Men and the Elephant, or the picture book Foolish Rabbit’s Big Mistake, by Rafe Martin, in which the animals run off, one after another, to tell someone else the horrible news, without considering their source or asking any questions.  We can all smile at the foolish mistake in this traditional tale, but we should remember to stand back and think about how this all too common behavior affects our lives.   For example, when 374 out of 533 members of the United States Congress voted in favor of the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002, without carefully reading all of the available documentation, or questioning the sources of that information, the consequences were far more serious. 

The Center for Media Literacy Core Concepts Matrix
In a world of 24/7-news spin and an estimate of over 200 million blogs worldwide, access to information appears limitless.  Guidelines for reading critically, questioning appropriately and identifying falsehoods are necessary. The Center for Media Literacy provides an inquiry-based approach to teaching the skills which lead to objective awareness.  The five core concepts and five key questions developed by the Center help to guide the process of becoming media literate. 

Our job as teachers is to make sure students have the opportunity to access available information and the skills to make it meaningful.  Share the ways you accomplish this in your classroom.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Questioning the Schedule: Reading about Social Studies in the Elementary Classroom

Taking in the view from Songzanlin Monastery

When you talk to elementary school teachers these days about what they are teaching and how their days with students unfold you may be surprised by the impact of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on every aspect of the average classroom experience.  High standards and accountability make sense in theory and may sound reasonable in federal offices, where there are no teachers, and no children. There the ideas are translated into priorities for the all-important funding of public education. Ironically, their impact on this most recent generation of students comes right at the time when the importance of global awareness as an essential element of education should be increasingly obvious.

Watching the folk dance in Zhongdian.
If you were asked to choose a discipline that would serve as the bridge that connects all aspects of elementary education, something tells me it would not be test taking. For me, in this rapidly shrinking world, it would be Social Studies. I see learning about People as the territory in which reading, math, science and art all come together. And yet, in schools across Washington State, teachers are left with as little as three forty-five minute periods a week to teach art, social studies and science.  This is a choice most schools have made in the hopes of improving test scores and demonstrating increased student learning. Whether preparing for tests is learning has thus far not been demonstrated.

In the present educational environment exemplary teaching can be found in classrooms where the teachers are willing to go against the grain of current trends and school culture.  Richard Allington summarizes the habits of these teachers in his article The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction (2002).  For students to become proficient readers they must spend time reading at a comfortable or “easy” level.  That is different for each student.  The scripted one-size-fits-all model that continues to gain momentum is the exact opposite of what kids need. 

Classrooms should be filled with books at appropriate levels and kids should spend time reading throughout the day.  With a little bit of extra effort a teacher can put together book boxes that change every six weeks or so around the theme of an integrated study (Social Studies!).  The class can all be reading books about the same topic, not the same book. The World Affairs Council Global Classroom is one place teachers can turn to find relevant resources and information, including book lists, organized around topics that support a vibrant social studies curriculum for elementary classrooms.

A study of the Tibetan Plateau, the roof of the world, is a place where social studies and science come together.  Through the use of maps and geography skills young students can begin to think about the significance of a place that holds the most ice of any place besides the Polar Regions.  The fact that this ice is the source of the major rivers of Asia, which provide drinking water for over two billion people makes for very interesting reading, at any level.

I would use a book like A Drop Around the World by Barbara McKinney (1998) along with two beautiful books by Thomas Locker, Mountain Dance (2002) and Water Dance (2002) to stimulate class discussions about water.  Once the group has spent some time looking at the maps and identifying the major rivers I would begin to ask questions about the people who live in this unique environment.  I would share Tibetan Tales from the Top of the World by Naomi Rose (2009) to begin a discussion of Tibetan culture.  Another book that I would be sure to include in my classroom study would be The Chiru of High Tibet by Jacqueline Briggs Martin (2010) that tells the true story of these endangered animals and the people who are trying to protect them.

Effective teachers understand that the best way to improve reading skills is to read more.  Given that the current classroom schedule provides time for reading, it is more a practical than a radical solution to spend some of that time reading about essential topics that are being squeezed out of the curriculum.

The use of picture books to learn about Tibet supports each student’s need to practice reading to become better readers.  It also addresses the need for our students to become global citizens of the 21st century through learning more about the world and its people throughout the school day, everyday.  Not in just 45 minutes a week.