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. 

1 comment:

  1. I love the pictures in this entry, as well as the info about this classroom! This is very inspiring to see such beautiful work from the children. And the activity for learning about blubber sounds brilliant. Thank you for sharing this, Eileen and Lindsay!

    The thematic approach reminded me of the "Create-a-Culture" unit that I once adapted for my fifth graders. Students did reading, writing, and hands-on projects such as building model homes in order to create an fictional culture while learning about the different elements of culture from language to family structure, and so on.