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