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. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Arctic: A Focus For Thematic Based Learning

Student easel painting above map of the Arctic

In many school districts throughout the country children of younger and younger ages are being asked to sit quietly at desks and begin the incredibly complex task of learning to read. Frustrated adults in positions of power make these demands in an effort to improve test scores, but the child is the one who must perform, and the approach seems to be bringing the scores in the wrong direction. Many early childhood advocates would argue that developmental readiness is key to success in reading, and that this development cannot be rushed.  At the same time, throughout the country there are scores of well-trained early childhood teachers who understand the importance of readiness.  Their classrooms are havens for young learners whose cognitive abilities are growing by leaps and bounds as they learn to work cooperatively, as part of a group, to listen to one another, to organize, sort and classify, to recognize and create their own patterns, to understand the meaning of numbers, and yes, in their own time, give meaning to the lines and squiggles that represent letters and sounds and join them together to form words.  Reading is not a separate discipline, and at its best is taught as part of an integrated program.   Most importantly these students are receiving the nurturing everyone needs to grow and thrive and learn, without the anxiety and stress of the adult world.

The creation of the "Northern Lights" was a
class project at the Valley School.

Recently Dr. Richard H. Solomon, the president of the United States Institute for Peace, spoke in Seattle, hosted by the World Affairs Council.  Dr. Solomon outlined the major challenges for the United States in the coming decades.  He has defined just two of the issues as unmanageable.   One is nuclear arms proliferation and the other is climate change.  Despite this news, I remain somewhat optimistic because the changes in the Arctic are being watched and studied by scientists worldwide.   A single country cannot solve these problems alone; creativity, cooperation, and collaboration are required. Governments and businesses are preparing to use new shipping routes and establishing claims to the oil and mineral wealth soon to be accessible, while environmentalists call for protection of this fragile ecosystem.  These issues are in the news, and it is important for teachers to understand their complexities, and to encourage students to look beyond the sound bites. In order to more fully examine the issues in middle school and high school classrooms and for elementary teachers to understand and clarify the comments made by young students, you will need to see the course of events from several different points of view as you undertake a study of the Arctic in your classrooms.

While building model snow houses there
were many design components for students 
to consider such as how wide and how tall
to make it and the best way to build a roof. 
I recently had the privilege to visit Lindsay Eicher’s kindergarten at The Valley School in Seattle. Lindsay’s classroom is currently transformed into an arctic environment complete with northern lights, an icehouse, and “dress-up” clothes necessary for survival in the colder climate, where the students experience the arctic through a thematic approach to learning.  In Lindsay’s class academics are introduced through thoughtful games, group reading and discussions, art activities, and science and math projects.  Students work in journals which are sketchbooks, a major tool of not just artists, but also naturalists, geographers, and engineers as a way to process their thinking on a daily basis.  Lindsay’s class study of the Arctic began with her own love of polar bears and expanded to the whole Arctic.  Lindsay talked about her students’ enthusiasm as they learn about the anatomy of the polar bear, and experiment with the insulating properties of blubber, actually feeling the difference by submerging their own hands in a bucket of ice water, with and without a glove filled with vegetable shortening.  Working together, they also construct models of snow houses.   

When asked about her approach to complex issues around global warming, Lindsay didn’t hesitate:  “I want them to know about the environment and to care about it without politicizing it.”  The action of a concerned adult can be to inspire a love and respect for the world and all living things.  As these young people grow up they will have these resources to draw on.   And for now they are gaining a strong foundation in geography, science, language arts, and mathematics as they learn in this child-centered, supportive community.
The "snow house" in the Valley School kindergarten classroom.
Please share a thematic approach that you use. I would love to hear from you. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Global Classroom: The Arctic: Who Owns it and How Long Will it be There?

Join the World Affairs Council and Northwest Educators on February 16th at the Pacific Science Center. 

In September 2010 an international summit was held in Moscow to address increased interest in the region and, according to BBC, to “try to prevent the Arctic becoming the next battleground over mineral wealth.” The potential conflict is due to the fact that the world’s largest undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie north of the Arctic Circle. Climate change is melting the polar ice cap and causing a “cold rush” for Arctic resources. The Northwest and Northeast passages are opening to shipping, cutting thousands of miles off the traditional routes through the Panama and Suez canals. The practicality of this new route was illustrated by the shipping of natural gas from Russia to China via the Northeast Passage in the summer of 2010—“the largest vessel ever to navigate the once-impossible route.”

Effective governance of the Arctic is becoming increasingly critical to global peace and environmental stewardship. However, international relations in the region are complicated. There are eight Arctic nations engaging in traditional bi- and multi-lateral negotiations; the Arctic Council, which was established to foster cooperation in the region among those nations; six Aboriginal groups that sit on the Council; and a host of non-Arctic nations with interest in the region. In addition to discussing the traditional negotiations taking place today between and among Arctic nations, we will also discuss the exciting developments in the greater role indigenous people will play in determining the future of the Arctic. The World Affairs Council, Pacific Science Center, and the Canadian Studies Department invite you to join us as we tackle this question: The Arctic: Who Owns it and How Long Will it be There? We are proud to welcome Nadine Fabbi, Associate Director, Canadian Studies Program (UW Jackson School of International Studies) who will first introduce us to this complex topic.

Next, we will be joined by Zeta Strickland, education manager from Pacific Science Center, who has recently returned from a two-month trip through the Arctic. Zeta will share her Arctic experiences with us and show us how Science On a Sphere can be used to bring to life these complicated environmental changes happening in the Arctic and beyond. Science On a Sphere is a room-sized, global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data onto a six foot diameter sphere, analogous to a giant animated globe. Researchers at NOAA developed Science On a Sphere as an educational tool to illustrate climate change, ocean temperatures, and other environmental and topographical information. Finally, we will share lesson plan ideas and articles from our 40-page resource packet published in conjunction with this program. The program also includes a light buffet and three free clock hours. Join us for a private gathering around the Sphere after hours at Pacific Science Center!

Pacific Science Center

Canadian Studies Department, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Linking the Classroom to the World through Film

We all know students who struggle in academic classes. Their reputations can precede them, and as they pass through the grades teachers already know their names. They are the ones who are kept inside during recess to finish up some work.  Their shoulders stoop a little more as they long to feel the fresh air, to let out a whoop, and to allow their bodies to wake up through spontaneous and unplanned movements. They are so ready to bounce from monkey bars to slide, back up the ladder and down the pole on the playground, where they know themselves. They are gifted and talented students - just not in the ways our system of education currently values young learners.  They are the square pegs being forced through round holes. 

Our country is nominally based on the personal freedoms and liberties of the individual, but too often our educational system lacks the flexibility to nurture these very same individuals.  By providing a rich curriculum and multifaceted approaches to learning our schools can successfully support and educate a wide range of learners.  As educators, our challenge is to find the right way to reach each student. Once motivated, a child is more open to taking difficult risks.  When his community views a child as successful, he will feel supported, and ready to take on the harder work in areas that do not come so easily.

For some students, physical coordination is the place they excel. For others, it may be in the arts.  If you are lucky enough to work in a school that offers art as a core subject to all students, the art teacher can be a great resource, offering a different and illuminating perspective. A student who struggles in reading or math may be a problem solver in the art studio - confident, cooperative, a leader and an inspiration to other students.  For the classroom teacher the challenge is to find a way to allow those talents to surface, or even to shine in the classroom, and to help the student use those skills to unlock the curriculum they find difficult.  A well-planned, integrated curriculum that takes into account various learning styles and multiple intelligences can do just that.

Elementary teachers across the country are learning to organize curriculum and inspire students through integrated social studies and science-based curriculum.  State standards and district lessons are woven into the fabric of the day, but do not overwhelm the student-driven work in these learning communities. There tends to be a common thread seen throughout these classrooms; a high level of student engagement, a guiding principal of mutual respect, project based learning, choice, creativity, and collaboration.

A well chosen film paints a picture of a another part of
the world and video keeps pace with the rapid 21st C.
changes in China. 
The technology available in classrooms today makes it easier to bring the world into the classroom.  The ability to view a short film clip is just a click away.  For students struggling with fluency in their reading, or second language learners working on comprehension, an activity based on something other than written language can provide the necessary bridge to a feeling of competence and inclusion. A well-chosen film used as an introduction to a new place or culture engages the entire group of students, and motivates the creation of projects that make follow-up activities rewarding for all. Learning about another culture’s point of view through further reading, writing, analysis of graphs, or map making is more meaningful when students can see that all of their classmates are involved.

Sometimes we can find ourselves struggling to find the right words to describe a place we can’t visit on a field trip.  With the fast pace of development in China in the 21st century the illustrations in books can quickly become dated making them unattractive to students.  Film can be the answer to those problems.  Penny Rode wrote in her introduction to Using Art and Film to Teach Japan (Education About Asia, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2004) “As educators, one of our primary goals is to address the perception of Asia as strangely exotic and unfathomable, to take students beyond their comfortable Eurocentrism, and spark an interest and curiosity in the unfamiliar that will continue throughout their lives.  Combining art with film effectively advances these efforts”.  The combining of art and film also effectively addresses the diversity of student needs.

Do you have a favorite film you use in your classroom?  What strategies do you use to engage all the students in your class?

Don't forget to access the World Affairs Council Global Classroom Resource Packet.