Posts filed under 'Content Areas'

A Roundtable of Reformers

How would historical figures solve today’s conflicts and problems around the world? Sarah Cooper is back with a blog post about how her students researched reformers and wrote about how their chosen figures would change the world today. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and she teaches English and history at Flintridge Preparatory School in California.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionA Roundtable of Reformers
By Sarah Cooper

How would labor agitator Florence Kelley, author Barbara Ehrenreich and reformer Helen Keller solve the Syrian refugee crisis?

How would Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court plaintiff Fred Korematsu and environmentalist David Brower address gun laws?

My eighth graders asked themselves these questions in groups after each of them researched an American reformer.

In previous years, students had simply presented a few facts about their reformers to the class and also played part of a song that echoed the reformer’s ideals (Katy Perry’s “Roar” for Carry Nation or “We Shall Overcome” for Pete Seeger, for example).

The songs were fun to hear, but even these short presentations seemed to drag out over several days of class time.

This year I wanted students to spend these days being more hands-on: learning about other students’ reformers and then applying this knowledge to modern-day problems, many of them similar to ones their reformers had tackled.

So I created student groups, roughly categorized by the kind of reform their person did.

For instance, Bob Dylan, Sojourner Truth, Marian Wright Edelman and Rachel Carson came together as people who used their words for change.

Here are the directions I gave one Tuesday in class, after students had read through each others’ short research papers.

  1. Now, make a list (as long as you want!) of 3+ current issues you think your reformers would like to explore together. Feel free to flip through your current events notes and articles to help you brainstorm. Write down everyone’s ideas without judging or commenting.
  2. Once everyone has shared ideas, go back through the list you’ve generated and talk about which issue might be the most interesting for your reformers (you!) to research tonight and talk about solving tomorrow. By the end of class, decide on one issue on which everyone will find a different article tonight.

That night, students texted or created a Google Doc to make sure they found different articles on their group’s topic.

In class on Wednesday, they first wrote individually for 5-7 minutes on why they chose this particular article and what their reformer would think about it, and then they shared the articles with their group.

After that, students brainstormed at least six solutions or approaches that their reformers might use to tackle the issue. They honed in on one approach they liked best and developed a plan with at least several steps.

The plans ran the gamut on the spectrum of intricacy, radicalism and violence.

One example came from students who thought that, if alive today, their reformers – Eleanor Roosevelt, Carry Nation and Jane Jacobs – would have fought for “women’s right to an abortion.” Their steps read:

  • Have strong debates all over America – in the government and in cities, through town hall meetings.
  • Use intimidation tactics – psych out your opponents.
  • Be the voice of larger grass-roots organizations.
  • Hold protests in front of opponents to gain awareness.
  • Have fundraising events.
  • Build upon Roosevelt’s government connections and Jacobs’ grassroots movement connections.

A group of radical reformers – John Brown, Margaret Sanger, Dolores Huerta and Carry Nation – attempted to solve the Syrian refugee crisis with persuasion and intimidation:

  1. Start by hosting rallies and sending letters to non-conforming countries (countries that aren’t letting in refugees).
  2. Gather a small army of protesters.
  3. Go on a boat with an army to Syrian refugees and take the refugees to countries like Britain. Also use other forms of transportation.
  4. Smuggle in refugees while fighting security.

Obviously these solutions are only skim the surface of how one would tackle an issue. What I liked about them was that the students really had to ponder different methods of change and figure out which historical tactics would work equally well now.

The Greensboro Four’s nonviolent sit-ins? Still a promising tactic. John Brown’s violent attempt to seize a federal arsenal? Maybe not as effective.

Next time I hope to ask students to create a longer action plan and then have their classmates vote on which one they thought would be most realistic and effective.

Such a a mini-negotiation session would imitate the process their reformers went through, creating a grass-roots feel in our own classroom.

Add comment October 10th, 2016

Moving from Lightning-Speed to Glacial

Sarah Cooper, author of Making History Mine, is back this week with this thoughtful post about how to slow down and engage with texts and ideas in a world that’s racing past us and our students.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionMoving From Lightning-Speed to Glacial

By Sarah Cooper

It is so hard for me to slow down as a teacher.

I want to expose students to everything possible over the course of a year.

I want to communicate the excitement of in-the-moment links between then and now – to see these connections flicker like lightning in the air.

And I really don’t want students to be bored. Once they lose the glint in their eyes, the straightness in their spines, I’m mentally out of there, thinking about how to move to the next thing.

We’re working in a world primed for speed, a world in which the pace of the classroom can sometimes seem painfully slow.

At the same time, I’m fighting for that glacial pace, especially when it comes to reading and writing.

Taking slow time to think deeply about a topic. Returning to the same concepts and skills in different ways over several days. Revisiting concepts over many weeks, giving “spaced practice” and “interleaving” concepts, as the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning suggest.

As a student myself over the past year, taking history classes for a master’s program, I’ve been reminded of the power of sustained engagement with texts.

Here is what I do for each 1,000-word response paper:

  1. Read, with pen in hand, slowly, stopping frequently to cement information in longer-term memory. Without such annotations and pauses, a great book might as well be a sieve for me.
  1. Go through the annotations and type out key quotations.
  1. Print out the quotations and drop them into possible paragraphs. Then write a thesis statement for a weekly response paper. This always takes longer than I think because there are so many possibilities.
  1. Write a draft of the paper, starting sometimes with the introduction and sometimes in the middle.
  1. Go to NoodleTools to compile a Works Cited list. This is a relief because I don’t have to think. It’s also satisfying because there’s a right answer.
  1. Let the draft sit for several days, and then return to it in hard copy to see problems and edits.
  1. Revise, read over one more time and submit online.

After engaging with the text this deeply, what do I remember? Not every annotation I wrote in the margins. Not anything I didn’t annotate.

Instead, I remember what I wrote about and took notes on. The material I worked over in my brain.

This is what’s in long-term memory, what can be applied and used. This is the information I can play with, stare at, pull out to make an odd or unexpected connection with a poem or a current event.

How often do we ask our students to do this kind of sustained engagement with a text or a film or an image? At least for my students, the answer is not nearly enough.

What are we afraid of? Standards. Tests. Boredom. Not “covering” everything. I wish we could coin a new word for “covering.” How about “papering over” or “dashing through”?

We can easily forget the power of time. Of sitting down with a book on your lap, a gripping novel or powerful history narrative. Of wrestling a one-page primary source to the ground. Of knowing and understanding.

Last week, I tried more of this. We spent an entire day on the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. With partners, the eighth graders paraphrased line by line, and then we discussed their “translations.”

Beforehand I worried about boredom, and I worried about saturating students with text.

They may have been saturated. But they also really understood, for instance, why humans are “disposed to suffer when evils are sufferable,” and they related this idea to moments in their lives, such as trying to break bad habits or ignore family conflict.

There’s such a satisfaction in this personal connection to difficult words, and I’d like to give students more of it. More repeated interactions with a text, through notes and discussion and writing. More re-exposures to a text or an idea long after we first introduce it. A layering of knowledge that builds and revisits and rethinks, throughout the year.

Like ice accumulating on a glacier.

Add comment October 14th, 2015

In the Schoolyard: Where Do I Sit?

The weather might be getting cooler, but it’s still a great time to take your class outdoors! Here are some tips from Herb Broda on finding the best seat in the house — or out of the house. Herb is the author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors.

When is the best time for outdoor learning? Any month will work, but the start of the school year is ideal!

“But, what should I do first?” I strongly encourage folks to begin by locating a suitable staging area near the school. I like to call it the “Teaching/Meeting Area.”

The teaching/ meeting area is more than just a location—it’s a powerful classroom management tool. Rather than just running out the door and scattering on the lawn, students know that they are to move directly to the meeting area where they will sit, hear directions for the activity or receive materials—actually experience an introduction to a lesson just as they would indoors.

As you plan the outdoor meeting area, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Keep it close to the building. The less walking time the better. The longer the walk to the teaching/meeting area, the longer it will take to bring everyone back on task.
  2. Be aware of distractions and student traffic patterns. Avoid nearby playground equipment and walking routes that students and adults typically use.
  3. Be aware of sun and shade. If you know there will be a certain time of day when the space will get heavy usage, try to find a spot that may be a bit sheltered from the sun

The best news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on an outdoor meeting area! Here are a few basic ideas:

Logs
Logs provide ideal seating material! They are inexpensive or free, very easily obtained, and readily moved. Logs placed vertically will accommodate varying student heights and, by including several log diameters, most any size posterior can also be accommodated!
Probably the major downside to using logs is that they are destined to disappear! Especially in damp areas, logs will rot in a few years and will need to be replaced. Contact a local nature center to learn what types of trees are most rot resistant in your area. Some teachers have also noted that logs may attract nests of insects, so inspect and replace is a good policy.

Pix7

Although replacement will be necessary, a rotting log beautifully turns into a teaching tool when its useful life as a seat is over. Just lay the log on its side near your outdoor learning area and let students watch how the log becomes a habitat for tiny critters, and eventually enriches the soil.

Rocks and Boulders
Rocks and stones are certainly durable, but also heavy! Before installing a rock or boulder seating area you need to be very sure that your location will not need to be changed.

Pix3
Another potential down side of rock seating is the difficulty of trimming around the rocks if they are in a grassy area. Logs can be easily rolled aside for mowing, but rocks require manual trimming or things can look overgrown by mid-summer.
Benches

No need to spend a lot of money on benches. Just make sure that they are sturdy and safe. One Wisconsin school just used one long sturdy bench as its teaching meeting area. You can also position logs horizontally, or as supports for boards to create a bench.

Flexible and Cheap!
It’s best to use the same location for your meeting area, but you don’t have to have fixed seating in place. Students can carry old stadium cushions to the outdoor teaching/meeting area. Put out a general call for cushions and you may receive more than you need! Another option is to take gallon freezer bags and stuff them with rags or paper– a throwback to the sit-upons made popular by Girl Scouts. Some companies make bags larger than one gallon, which makes it easier to accommodate bigger students.

A school in Michigan contacted a local home improvement store and received a classroom set of plastic pails. The buckets can be inverted to create seating, and also provide a handy way to carry materials outside.

Pix6

A word about commercial seating products
An internet search for “outdoor seating” will yield thousands of options! The only limit is your budget! If you decide to invest in commercial seating, I would encourage the use of tables that also provide seating. Many schools have utilized sturdy picnic tables, some of which are convertible from bench to picnic table. A sturdy table/seat that is weather resistant and tough enough to last for many years will be expensive. I encourage schools to use inexpensive items like logs or simple benches until you are certain where you want to permanently place the meeting area.

For further information: Chapter Two, “Enhancing the Schoolyard for Outdoor Learning”, from Moving the Classroom Outdoors (Stenhouse Publishers) has additional information and pictures relating to setting up an outdoor teaching/meeting space.

Add comment September 21st, 2015

In History Class, Writing Means Thinking

Sarah Cooper is back this week with a post that examines how writing can help students clarify their thinking and bring them closer to the historical event they are writing about. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and has been a regular contributor to the Stenhouse Blog.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionIn History Class, Writing Means Thinking

By Sarah Cooper

This summer I’ve written ten response papers for two history graduate classes, a process that has sometimes felt like walking through molasses.

Here are some questions that ran through my head:

  • Do I care about the topic?
  • Is my thesis clear?
  • Am I supporting the thesis with evidence?
  • Am I paraphrasing enough not to plagiarize?
  • Do the topic sentences support the thesis?
  • Is this paragraph too long?
  • Is my writing any good?

Needless to say, I’ve become newly empathetic toward my students as writers.

I’ve remembered how difficult it can be to synthesize information, especially in anticipation of someone else reading and evaluating my writing. Is this argument original enough? Am I incorporating the information accurately, giving enough weight to each source?

I’ve realized that assignment length can dictate depth of thought. A paper with a maximum of 1,200 words required more sustained analysis than one of 800 words. The longer length also meant I could take byways that seemed less plausible in the shorter papers.

Writing these essays has also helped clarify my thinking. Reading through margin annotations to refresh my memory of a text is one thing, but pulling together these annotations into a cohesive argument is another.

What surprised me most, though, was something I knew long ago but had somehow forgotten:

The act of writing made the readings more interesting.

Here’s an example: In reading about John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy, I initially found the suspense of the Cuban Missile Crisis much more interesting than the disastrous missteps of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

But then I started creating a thesis about what the Bay of Pigs showed about the Kennedy presidency – and realized that the debacle could be considered a case study for how presidents learn on the job. For the importance of surrounding oneself with advisors who offer conflicting opinions. And for what strength can look like: admitting we are wrong and fixing our mistakes the next time.

Writing about the readings forced me to connect personally with them, to find a place where my interest in psychology and leadership coincided with historical events. And suddenly the history became more memorable.

Implications for Teaching

Especially for middle schoolers, engaging with history can mean an acrostic, pair-and-share presentation or diagram just as easily as it can mean a serious written piece.

In my desire to make history exciting for students, sometimes I think I’ve given short shrift to the power of writing to ignite such excitement. I certainly ask students to write – but I had forgotten that writing can be an example of Seymour Papert’s “hard fun.”

There’s an alchemy to putting words on the page, as UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt says in an excellent piece about writing and radishes: “Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought. You think something you did not know you could or would think and it leads you to another thought almost unbidden.”

This is the magic I’ve felt this summer, much as it made my brain hurt. And this is the magic I’d like my students to feel when writing about history.

How do you encourage your students to find the personal connection in their own analytical writing?

Add comment August 13th, 2015

Blogstitute: What Yoda can Teach You About Engagement and Motivation

Well, it’s not really Yoda who is doing the teaching in today’s post, but the lesson remains the same: to keep your students motivated, you have to keep them engaged. Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins, authors of Reading Wellness, bring you a lesson in physics, Star Wars, and the art of making small adjustments to your teaching, that will have a big impact.

X-Wing Fighters, Superheroes, and the Difference Between Engagement and Motivation
By Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

Always with you what cannot be done. . . . You must unlearn what you have learned.–Yoda

Randall Munroe—author, former NASA roboticist, and creator of a science and mathematics webcomic that has a cult following—volunteered to teach a weekend class at MIT on the physics of energy, which he talked about on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. The class was for interested high school students—students obviously motivated to learn science and math, since they were signing up for a weekend physics class. Midway through the lecture on the first day, as he was staring at students’ bored expressions during his explanation of how to calculate the joules of energy (x) required to move a five-kilogram weight, Munroe noticed that these highly interested students had checked out. Suddenly he realized that, even though these students were interested in physics, his explanation of the content had made it abstract and seemingly irrelevant to them.

In such a situation, with students leaning away and looking uninterested, it would have been easy for Munroe to default to blaming them for their lack of motivation. As we work in classrooms alongside teachers, literacy leaders, and administrators, it is not uncommon to hear educators talk about the low motivation levels of students. Inevitably, however, “unmotivated” students are being asked to sit through lessons that are heavy with teacher talk and light on engaging texts and reading experiences.

So what did Munroe do about his seemingly disengaged students in the weekend physics class? He asked a better question. Rather than talking about how to solve for x, which is completely abstract, Munroe told students that, using the formula for potential energy, they could figure out how much potential energy it took for Yoda to lift the X-wing fighter in a scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

Once Munroe told students that this X-wing problem was a relatively straightforward calculation—all you have to know is the mass of the X-wing, the distance Yoda lifted it, and the gravitational strength on Dagobah—the students were suddenly running ahead of him, figuring things out before he could even get to them. They immediately went to a Wikipedia article to find out the mass of the X-wing, and they used YouTube to estimate the distance it was lifted. Once Munroe asked a more engaging question, the seemingly unmotivated students were suddenly leaning into the math and science work, drawing from their energy, not the teacher’s. Munroe was able to watch them problem-solve as he gathered formative assessment data and scaffolded in ways that supported rather than supplanted their efforts.

In the end, of course, they learned a lot of science, because they were actively engaged in applying it in ways that were relevant to them. Since then, Munroe has made it his full-time job to draw comics that ask and answer interesting questions, making abstract mathematics and science relevant enough for people to engage themselves. Ask yourself, which text would you more likely engage with to learn about physics: this one:

physics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or this one?

physics2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This connection between student engagement and learning holds true beyond physics, of course. In fact, research from Gallup indicates that a 1 percent increase in student engagement is positively correlated with substantial increases in achievement scores.

Students are naturally curious and enthusiastic learners. If your students appear unmotivated, assume the best of them and look for ways to affect their motivation by making changes to the learning experience. For us, the bulk of the engagement work during a reading experience happens before the lesson, when we select a text. Text selection is to student engagement during reading instruction as interesting questions are to physics students.

Here are a few questions that may prove helpful as you explore ways to engage (vs. motivate) students:

  • Are the texts you are using too difficult for students, requiring extensive teacher talk to scaffold them?
  • Are you spending weeks and weeks on books that should take only a day or two to read and understand?
  • How can you show more than you tell? Can you use visual art, video clips, or other images to engage students?
  • How much actual reading do students do? Is extensive time spent on teacher explanations and/or student documentation?
  • How much of the reading instruction is about aspects of the text—genre, structure, form, theme—rather than about responses to and connections with the text?
  • How much say do students have in what they read? Where can you give students more choice?
  • How relevant are the texts for students? If the marginally relevant texts are required, how can you make them more relevant?
  • How much are students moving? Do they sit for one long period after another, with little or no opportunity to get their blood circulating?
  • Do students know that you think of them as motivated, smart, and capable?

Just as Randall Munroe discovered that a simple shift in questioning could make a profound difference in the tenor of his learning environment, shifting your focus from motivation to engagement can lead to similar responses from your students. Even minor adjustments can have a powerful effect on learning.

May the force be with you!

8 comments July 8th, 2015

The Power of the Memorized Line

Sarah Cooper is back this week with this thoughtful post about the importance and power of memorizing lines — from history, from poetry, from speeches. She argues that having a thorough knowledge of a subject helps students dive further into analysis and understanding and that these memorized lines can become companions for life.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionThe Power of the Memorized Line
By Sarah Cooper

My mother, an English teacher, was master of the literary one-liner.

“There’s a certain Slant of light,/Winter Afternoons,” she’d muse while visiting Boston in December, the sun setting just after 4:00 p.m. Emily Dickinson’s poetry became a way for my mom, a longtime Californian, to manage the gloom.

Well into my adulthood, whenever I said anything remotely snide, my mom would whip out King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child.” Sometimes she meant it more than others.

And, faced with any situation in which despair threatened to overwhelm hope, she would quote William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” I’ve pulled out that one myself when discussing historical catastrophes with students.

At their worst, such displays of erudition can remind us of Monica in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, who “knows one line from every poet.” At any remotely apropos conversational moment, Monica inserts an allusion to make herself look smart.

At their best, however, the right quotations, plucked from long ago—in the middle of a classroom or the middle of the night—can ignite memory and make us feel we’re not alone.

Memorization might seem old-fashioned, a straggler behind the excitement of inquiry learning and design thinking. Yet mastering a substantial body of knowledge can lead to playful analysis.

“The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem,” assert the authors of the recent book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which applies cognitive science research to memory techniques.

When I taught English, my students often memorized a poem as part of a larger poetry project. Now that I teach U.S. history, each year I choose a couple of quotations that students must memorize verbatim, keeping in mind poet Robert Pinsky’s observation that “a people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory.”

Last semester, the eighth graders memorized the opening to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ideally these tenets will echo in their ears any time they see rights being taken away.

Next year, I hope to ask students to internalize a more subversive section of the same paragraph, which declares that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” We live in inertia until something propels us otherwise, an idea I would like them to seize upon as they become adult citizens.

This semester, students are memorizing the final sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Why this particular sentence, laden with prepositional phrases?

The students told me a bit of “why” themselves after they circled resonant language in class: charity, strive, bind, cherish, just and lasting peace. These words aspire to create community in the face of deep conflict.

Lincoln’s grand ending also invites us into a national discussion of peace and war that has persisted for 150 years.

President Gerald Ford held Lincoln’s speech in mind when he said in April 1975 that “the time has come to look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the Nation’s wounds, and to restore its health and its optimistic self-confidence.” Ford hoped that an appeal to Lincoln’s graciousness would help heal the rancor of Vietnam.

So too did Barack Obama hail toward Lincoln in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009, when he spoke of “three ways that we can build a just and lasting peace.” Echoing the words of others does not simply show a familiarity with history but also gives strength to persevere through difficult work.

As with Lincoln’s speeches, the best documents of American history contain a great deal of poetry. Memorizing such rich language gives us what poet Billy Collins calls “the pleasure of companionship” from something we have set to heart. “When you internalize a poem,” Collins says, “it becomes something inside of you. You’re able to walk around with it. It becomes a companion.”

My mother’s quotations—Faulkner, Shakespeare, Dickinson, all—have walked around with me for a lifetime.

Similarly, I think all of us hope that the documents, speeches, and novels we teach might in some way become “companions” for our students in future years—when they feel beleaguered, when they feel emboldened, or when they simply need to remember that someone else has faced their struggles before.

Add comment May 18th, 2015

In The Schoolyard: Spring is the Perfect Time to Encourage Observation

We continue our series on outdoor education with another post from Herb Broda. Now that true spring weather is surely just around the corner, he gives us some ideas on how to encourage students to be more observant of nature around them.

IMG_4215Although change always occurs in nature, the shift from winter to spring is for me one of the greatest shows on earth! From a curricular standpoint, this amazing spectacle of renewal provides a great backdrop for teaching the critical skill of careful observation. The process skill of observation is integral to most content areas, including literacy, science, mathematics, the social sciences and the arts.

Now is a great time to think about how the dramatic change of seasons can be woven into your literacy curriculum. For example, observing the shift from winter to spring can be incorporated into many writing genres. Descriptive and expository writing are the most obvious, but journals and poetry are easily fueled by the changes seen in nature. Even narrative and persuasive writing can be sparked by close observation of changes outside.

Teachers repeatedly mention that a primary goal of outdoor learning is to make children more observant. Improved observation skills transfer outside of the classroom also. One teacher shared how a student burst into his classroom and said, “I saw tracks on my way to school today!” Although the child had probably passed tracks dozens of times before, a lesson about tracks on the schoolyard had made this child more alert even when he wasn’t in school.

Careful observation of seasonal changes is a great introduction to the study of phenology, which Webster defines as “periodic biological phenomena that are correlated with climatic conditions.” Observing changes and the conditions that surround transitions fosters strong observation skills, and also emphasizes the interconnectedness of the natural world. The USA National Phenology Network has an excellent website that includes resources and activities for fostering observation skills through the lens of phenology. I encourage you to take a look at their material.

With the low cost of digital cameras, students can use their observations to create scrapbooks, posters and phenology wheels with pictures that they have taken. By observing a small area closely over time students become amazingly adept at detecting even slight changes. Excitement erupted at one Pennsylvania school when students saw a tiny patch of grass emerge as the winter snow began to melt. In a world dominated by computer imagery and electronic beeps, how refreshing to have students thrilled to see a few blades of grass emerging from under the snow!

In Wisconsin, Georgia Gόmez-Ibáñez helps her students become better observers of nature by creating a “phenology wheel” with her students. Each year she has the students pick a spot where they stand and take a picture each month and arrange the pictures in a circle. She also has another wheel that is divided by month and students keep track of what they notice as seasons change. To guide the observations, she has a checklist that identifies characteristic changes that can be easily spotted in each season, such as certain plants and animals that are evident at various times.

If it’s still snowy in your area, go outside to look for “track stories” after a fresh snowfall. It’s great fun and encourages careful observation, attention to detail and speculation. Tracks after a snowfall can show evidence of animal homes, feeding patterns, and even signs of predator-prey interaction. Wisconsin teacher Matt Tiller takes advantage of the “thaw” that usually occurs in snowy areas, and has students look for the mazes of little tunnels that are uncovered when snow melts in an open field. Matt calls it looking for mouse condominiums. This great sign-of-life activity is based upon a description found in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.

Take advantage of the enthusiasm that is sure to erupt as we emerge from a long winter and begin to see the reassuring signs of spring. Getting students to observe nature closely will never be easier or more rewarding!

Add comment March 27th, 2015

In the Schoolyard: Exploring Books

We continue our outdoor learning series with Herbert Broda with a new post that includes some helpful book recommendations and activities for outdoor learning in the winter.

Using Books as a Springboard

moving-the-classroom-outdoorsWinter is a great time to explore books that could be incorporated into outdoor teaching. A few years ago I met Florence Milutinovic of Park Forest Elementary in State College, Pennsylvania who shared with me a wonderful way to incorporate outdoor learning into a unit about prehistoric life. Here is the activity she shared with me for Moving the Classroom Outdoors.

Florence takes her students outside and reads the book If the Dinosaurs Came Back by Bernard Most to her second grade class. This whimsical children’s book entertains kids by showing dinosaurs in a modern day setting, catching lost kites and pushing away rain clouds. She then poses the question, “What if dinosaurs came to our schoolyard?” Students then draw pictures of what that might look like and also write about what they think might happen. Creativity as well as a sense of scale come out as kids write things like, “They would eat all the leaves” or “They would give children rides.”

As students continue to learn more about dinosaurs, Florence poses the question, “Could dinosaurs fit in our schoolyard?” She then cuts yarn to the lengths of various types of dinosaurs—the longest was 180 feet, while the smallest was three feet in length. The class took the yarn outside and held the various lengths to see for themselves where the various “dinosaurs” might be able to go on the school grounds. As a culminating activity, dinosaur “eggs” were hidden on the schoolyard and the class trooped outside for a new twist on the traditional egg hunt!

The dinosaur in the schoolyard activity is a great example of using the outdoors as a venue for learning. Although Florence could have read the book to students seated in a classroom, the concept of “dinosaur” and the scenarios portrayed in the book are enhanced by an outdoor setting. Simply talking indoors about the size of dinosaurs just doesn’t make the same dramatic impression that is created when twenty-five kids hold 180 feet of yarn and try to imagine the body that occupied such a large space.

schoolyard-enhanced-learningPark Forest teachers also suggested two books by Lois Ehlert as great springboards for outdoor activity and discussion. One is Leaf Man, a delightful picture book that tells a story with leaf collages that take the form of different shapes and animals. The book can inspire wonderful art projects using fall leaves, and most certainly makes children more aware of the variety, beauty and complexity of the autumn landscape. What a great precursor to a walk!

Planting a Rainbow is another Ehlert book designed for primary level children. The book is a perfect way to build excitement for planting on the school grounds. It begins in the fall and introduces children to several types of familiar bulbs that can be planted on most school sites. Beautiful pictures then show the springtime flowers that emerge from the bulbs. The book progresses to familiar annual flowers that can be planted as the weather warms. I love the last third of the book that shows the spectacular colors found in common flowers around the schoolyard and in home gardens. The color section would be a perfect segue into an outdoor color matching activity. I like to use paint chip samples (usually readily available from paint or home improvement stores if you explain that you are a teacher) and have children try to match the paint sample with something in the outdoors.

At the primary grades, there are hundreds of picture books that can create enthusiasm for outdoor exploration. Like the books described above, many books written for very young readers immediately and almost instinctively lead to outdoor activities.

If you are looking for a good source of current outdoor related books, the National Outdoor Book Awards (NOBA) website is good place to begin. NOBA is “a non-profit, educational program, sponsored by the National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation, Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, and Idaho State University.” The program was founded in 1997 and includes a children’s books category. You can look at lists of book winners for every year since the program began. You can search only for children’s books and get a good listing of books that have been selected since the beginning of the program. At a time when traditional outdoor-themed books are being eclipsed by social issues and dystopian topics, the NOBA site provides a helpful compilation of books that emphasizes the outdoors.

Add comment January 21st, 2015

In the Schoolyard: Taking Math Outdoors

We are excited to have another great post from Herb Broda, author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors. In this post he offers some ideas for taking math outdoors to re-energize your classroom and to provide some important math visuals for your students. Check out Herb’s earlier blog post about the Tale of the Tape.

Taking Math Outdoors

It was a strange sight—twenty three fifth graders forming several head-to-toe lines as they stretched out on the playground. Although it looked like a game, these students were actually taking an abstract concept and translating it into concrete (pardon the pun!) terms.

Teacher Laura Grimm had been teaching the concept of data representation through graphing. A variety of examples had been provided indoors through books and other media. But just looking at examples and doing an occasional worksheet was only part of the instructional design. Laura wanted her students to also experience the concept. The playground provided a perfect venue for using the outdoors as a teaching tool.

bar graph

The human bar graph.

Students grouped themselves according to birth month. Signs had been placed on the ground for the twelve months so students found the correct month and stretched out to form their head-to-toe lines on the pavement. The activity visually verified that most students in this year’s class were born in August.

As an extension activity, Laura has kids line up according to birth dates. The long line is closed to form a circle on the blacktop. She then draws lines on the ground to show where the four seasons would fall and an instant circle graph/pie chart is created.

Although students had fun with the activities, there also was a subtle learning process taking place. Abstract concepts like “data representation”, “bar graph” and “circle graph” suddenly take on new meanings as students experience these ideas rather than only read about them. After you have been a part of a living bar graph you definitely have a stronger perception of the concept!

Students line up by birth month.

Students line up by birth month.

Chalk lines show the four seasons in a year.

Chalk lines show the four seasons in a year.

I want to emphasize that the indoor instruction that took place prior to going outside was just as important as the outdoor experience. It was very helpful for students to hear about the abstract concepts first, and then have the clarifying activity outside. Another variation could have been to do the outdoor activity first as an advanced organizer or motivator, and then do the indoor instruction. My preference with this content, though, would be to frontload the abstractions and then use the outdoors to provide clarity.

This activity is a great example of how the outdoors can be used as a venue for instruction, not just as a source of content. We often think that going outside has to mean doing some type of analysis or investigation of nature. Although that’s certainly a valid use of the schoolyard, often going outside can provide a motivating change of pace and place just because we are in a different venue. The change of place can revitalize and refocus activities that have become overly routine indoors. Reading a story, having a class discussion or even practicing spelling words (with sidewalk chalk) are often approached with renewed energy and focus simply because of the outdoor venue.

Outdoor activities do not have to be lengthy. In the human bar graph example described above, Laura’s class was outside for only about 15-20 minutes. I feel strongly that the best use of the school grounds for instruction is to take students outside briefly to re-focus on a specific concept that is currently being developed indoors. The brief outdoor activity gives a change of pace and place and provides an opportunity to approach the concept from an experiential perspective.

1 comment December 3rd, 2014

How Expert is Expert When You are In Eighth Grade?

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionWe continue our series of blog posts about teaching social studies by author and teacher Sarah Cooper with this thoughtful piece where Sarah wonders about teaching depth and breadth, helping students become experts on a topic, and helping them make arguments that will stand up outside of the classroom.

How Expert is Expert When You are in Eighth Grade?
By Sarah Cooper

What obligation do we have to make our students experts on a topic before they give opinions about it?

Or, said a different way: are we being irresponsible if we encourage our students to tackle big questions before they have enough information to address them? What constitutes “enough information,” anyway?

Recently I’ve been wondering about the balance between exposure and depth, between familiarity and expertise. The questions above filled my head at the end of our recent unit on the American Revolution in eighth-grade history. In addition to the 1760s and 1770s, we also discussed current events: a United Nations summit, the fight against Islamic State, the spread of Ebola, the California drought, and other articles students brought in.

The unit’s culminating assignment was a debate on Wednesday, which students knew would also be their essay prompt for a test on Thursday. The question for both the debate and the essay was this:

Given what you have learned in the Revolution unit (about freedoms, rebellions, etc.), how much do you think the United States should be involved in world problems, and why?

I hoped students would see connections between the freedoms the colonists fought for and the opportunities that people in countries around the world are fighting for today.

Students were assigned to groups of interventionists, isolationists, and moderates. Every idea they brought into the debate had to be supported by a fact, either a historical one or a current event. The goal was for the debate—and the two days of preparation for it—to serve as brainstorming and prewriting for the test essay.

Debating did allow them to practice their thoughts before writing them down, as well as borrow ideas from their classmates to help their case. In their essays, students cited evidence they had heard in the debate, from France’s becoming an ally after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 to the need for the United States to address its nearly $18 billion national debt before helping out other countries.

Yet I realized as I read the essays that the excitement and intensity of the debate may have oversimplified things. Here’s an example of a strong argument from one of the essays:

If you don’t have the steady base it will be imbalanced and fall. The United States is that base that starts a new creation. . . . Like in 1775 we met again for the Second Continental Congress for discussing war against Britain. We also continued to fight, and created a Declaration of Independence for what we wanted: freedom. Taking these actions and fighting for what we wanted led to a victory. From then on we have had the obligation to intervene and help solve world conflicts. I believe this is right, because it is the moral choice.

I liked the building logic of this essay’s argument, and the vocabulary is excellent. The student is thinking. This excerpt contains a specific and accurate fact from 1775, and it gives commentary on the Revolution that links history to today.

On the other hand, there’s a big part of me that feels negligent because this writer has leaped over 200-plus years of history—with almost zero knowledge of 1783 to 2014—and ended with a grand, sweeping statement about the United States’ “obligation to intervene.”

Many other essays took a similar leap, with some attempting to land on World War II in the process. We had studied that time period only through FDR’s “Freedom from Fear” speech from January 1941, in an attempt to relate his freedoms to the Revolution’s ideals, but many know about World War II from their parents or popular culture.

One writer put it this way in another essay:

Even though we did not want to get involved we soon learned our lesson, and learned that we have to [get involved] after the Pearl Harbor attack. This attack shows the idea of us just being an open target for attack if we are trying to stay out of conflict and not defending ourselves. . . . The example with World War II is similar with our involvement in Ebola. This is because Ebola is a deadly disease that Africa does not have enough money or supplies to cure and if the US does not help stop it the disease will eventually spread to the US and kill several American people just like World War II would have if we did not jump in and help.

Again, the cause-and-effect is good. The analogy, as far as it goes, is a decent one. Yet there’s a part of me that thinks I’m encouraging students to oversimplify, to believe they have something to say even when their analysis would not stand up in the world beyond our classroom.

Maybe the key lies in welcoming the imperfect. As I often tell my students, the answers to the questions we’re asking could fill books. Maybe I need to accept that they’re going to take a reasonably informed stab at the idea and, ideally, get excited while doing so.

David N. Perkins, founding member and senior codirector of Harvard’s innovative Project Zero, suggests that “ways of knowing can come in junior versions,” as meaningful entry points to historical or mathematical thinking.

In Perkins’s book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014), he describes a teacher in Australia who tackled number theory with her third graders: “The conjectures were not very sophisticated and the ideas about proof and evidence not very fancy, but the point is that these students were making a start, and doing so with some enthusiasm” (160).

Despite my reservations, the middle schoolers last week were definitely “making a start” at solving the world’s problems. Now I think I’ll make a start, during the rest of the year, at filling in some highlights between the end of the Revolutionary War and the second term of the Obama administration!

Add comment November 25th, 2014

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