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?