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?