Monthly Archives: February 2011

Teaching Current Events

I did a lesson with my 7th grade today that I built around the revolutions and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The goal was to engage their curiosity and then, through collaborative effort, investigate what is happening. I started the lesson putting my Tweetdeck on the SmartBoard. I had added three columns to it: #Egypt, #Libya, #revolution. I explained to them how I use Twitter to connect with other educators and learn with them, but that it can also be used to learn about events happening around the world. They were really interested. Most of them had heard of Twitter but had never seen it used as a learning tool.

They watched the Twitter stream and started trying to read the posts, but we quickly realized that it was simply going by too quickly. So many people were posting so many ideas and events that there was no way to read it quickly enough. I could have gone to Twitter, but in truth, I didn’t think of it at the moment. Instead we had a conversation about what this amazing stream showed about what was happening. Even without fully reading the tweets, it was apparent to them how important what was happening was to the people connected to it. It peaked their curiosity – mission accomplished.

It was time to build in some background for their investigations. While they had all heard something about things happening in the Middle East, no one really knew what was going on. One girl said, “I asked my parents, but they just said it was really complicated.” I had them go to our class Edmodo account to introduce them to some of the resources available for them in their inquiry. I had posted links to the home pages of the BBC, of CNN and of the English version of Al Jazeera. We talked about the need to multiple sources for news and how that would enhance their understanding of what was happening. Having studied Islam this year, they recognized how important it is to have a source that speaks from a Muslim perspective. We watched a BBC video, “Eighteen Days that Shook the World,” and looked at an interactive map of the Middle East and north Africa that highlights unrest in each country, also by the BBC.

Their task, for the rest of the hour long class and for the coming week, was to learn. I told them that they were going to be evaluating themselves at the end of the process. The task was to investigate and dig deeply into areas that interested them. I told them that I wanted them to ask questions and search for answers. another part of their job is to post to Edmodo, so that they can learn from each other’s work. When they find an interesting article or important facts, they are to post it. They created streams for each country, so that all of the facts about Egypt will end up in one place.

Then they set to work. I never cease to be amazed at what students can and eagerly will do when they are interested and engaged. The minutes flew by, as they shared sometimes aloud and sometimes simply on Edmodo. The interactive map had the poverty level for each country. Immediately two students were researching the US poverty level. “I just want to be able to compare them,” she said. Her search had nothing to do with completing an assignment; it had to do with her own learning and desire for understanding. It wasn’t about “school;” it was about her.

At the end of class, I brought them back together and asked them about the process. What had this work been like? Across the board, they said that they had learned “SO” much. They loved reading each other’s posts, learning from each other. They felt smarter than they had at the beginning of class and couldn’t wait to tell their parents what they now knew. The topic was no longer too complicated for them, because they felt like they knew how to find answers, and they wanted to keep searching and learning.

Truly, I hadn’t known if it would work this way. I had hoped it would, but I really wasn’t sure, so at the end of the class, I was ecstatic. Sometimes a plan just works!

I Don’t Know the Questions to Ask

This morning, I stopped the art teacher to ask if there were some crayons I could borrow. My 7th grade class is working on a project based on the Black Death. They started it by reading the textbook to get an overview of the time period as well as the causes and effects of the Plague. Then they did extensive primary source work, reading accounts from the time and looking at woodblock carvings by Holbein and Durer. Once they had finished that work, which had been done in a combination of independent and small group work, they began two responses. The first is a piece of historical fiction that communicates the changes that the Black Death brought to a person living in Europe. The second was to create a drawing of a woodblock, similar to the ones that they had seen.

In the faculty room this morning, I saw Judy, the art teacher, and asked her if she had any crayons that I could borrow for my 1st period class. They seemed like they might be a good tool to use for the final drawing, rather than the colored pencils and markers that I have in my room. With a smile, she said that she did, and then she asked what the project was about. It immediately became clear why I need to ask these sorts of questions. I am not an artist. I love art, but I do not think like an artist.  As Judy started asking me questions, I realized that while I value art and give my students lots of opportunities to demonstrate what they know using drawing and illustrations, I need such help in how to think about it.

Part of what I realized is how much Judy valued the work of creating the art, not for the end product alone, but for the work itself. It is important that the students see examples and use the right materials. The process of thinking about the work and then creating it had value, not simply as a means to show something else, but for itself. She wanted to students to approach their art work with the same dedication that I have them approach their reading and writing. Judy pulled out illustrations of woodblocks as well as one that she had created herself.

“See how important the grain of the wood is? You always want to carve with the wood.” Who knew? And until then, in truth, I hadn’t even thought about it or why it even mattered. Seeing an actual woodblock and recognizing how difficult it would be to create made such a difference. I know that I have students who care tremendously about details, and they were fascinated when I discussed them later in class.

Then Judy pointed out that woodblocks are starkly black and white, so that the crayons that I thought I wanted probably would not be the best tool to use. She experimented with different markers and paper until she decided which ones she liked the best. Then she found a piece of wood and began to sketch on it. The medium had a value that I had failed to give it, basically because I didn’t even think about it. By not recognizing the value of the process, I diminished my students’ understanding and effort as well as the art itself. As Judy talked through her thinking process and came to decisions about what would work the best, I became so grateful that I did not have to do that work by myself, because truly, I don’t even know the questions to ask.

When teachers work together, we can build on each other’s strengths. We don’t have to do it all or know it all. I can’t begin to think like an artist, but as I ask questions, I can learn and begin to appreciate more of what happens in other disciplines. I think that I need to observe more classes – math, science, art and music. Classes where I really only know how I was taught and not how students are learning today. I need to understand that more, and I need to ask for help more often!

Movement as a 21st Century Skill

The first session that I went to last weekend at Educon was run by a colleague of mine, Betty Ann Fish, @bafish10. She is the head of Physical Education at my school and is deeply committed to including PE in our thinking about 21st century learning. She works mainly with elementary students but has lots of ideas for how movement and activity can enhance curriculum. I got so excited as I listened to her. While I have already been using movement, having my students take short, brisk walks, to get the blood circulating and revive their energy, I had not made the connection to how activities like relay races and scavenger hunts could support the learning goals in my class.

One activity that Betty Ann talked about was a relay race where the students ran down and turned over one of 8 cards. The cards each had one of the stages of butterfly development, which was the topic their class had been studying in homeroom. If the card that they chose was the next one in order, the student got to bring the card with her as she ran back. If it was not the right one, the card was left. The movement and the learning were combined. What struck me, especially for a middle school classroom, is that this sort of task would support one of my primary goals which is to teach collaboration. The entire team is working together to remember the sequence of events as well as the placement of the cards. As they run back and forth, shouting encouragement and advice, they have to work together to reach their goal.

Another activity that Betty Ann discussed was for learning US state names and locations. The first step was to place cards with the states all over a playing field. The students have to run around and pick up  a card. They then need to find the people who have cards with states that adjoin their state. There are all sorts of ways that this could be adapted. All of the states along the Mississippi need to run and touch the goal post. The Thirteen Colonies need to stand together. The list is almost endless, but with each activity, the students are interacting with the curriculum while also running and sharing together. Again, full of collaboration and while reinforcing the learning.

These kinds of activities also support a variety of learners. We all know that most of us are kinesthetic learners to one degree or another. We learn well while using our bodies as we do it. It is not just the “smart” ones who can help their partners. It is the fast ones; it is the ones who have good visual memory; it is the ones who already learned the sequence of events; it is the ones who encourage their classmates. Together they all master the challenge, review the material and learn the curriculum, and most importantly have a sense of achievement. .

One aspect of this that stuck me is that it calls for careful preparation. This is not, like most effective teaching, simply grabbing last year’s worksheet off the shelf. It needs thoughtful consideration about what you want them to learn. This sort of work for the students is going to make an impression; they are going to remember what they learned while running around. It will take time to organize and build it successfully,  making cards or setting up scavenger hunts that don’t disturb the rest of the school, but it so clearly can and should be done. The students will love it, for the exercise and the total shift from what they expect to happen in “class.”

So I am off to do some dreaming! It will be interesting to see where these ideas take me!

Thank you to Educon and to Betty Ann!