Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Media Literacy and Content Area Instruction

A great many language arts skills are taught and reinforced outside of our reading classes. Comprehension is critical when students are reading texts, locating resources for research, and analyzing the validity of statements they read. Interpreting data, finding cultural references, appreciating the language of other disciplines, and an ability to engage with text in a critical way are all necessary for becoming truly literate.

October 17: Decision 2008: A Matter of Critical Literacy

Although they’re not old enough to vote, our 8th graders are participating in the upcoming election. For the past several weeks, their Literature Study Group classes have been focused on the issues at stake in the campaign. Ms. Gerner has enrolled the class in a wiki (an interactive website whose content is created as a collaborative effort). The site was originally conceived by a teacher at the Noble and Greenough School and involves students from many other schools.

Our students’ involvement in this web community is an excellent example of learning about media literacy. Ms. Gerner described the interdisciplinary activity as a combination of social studies, humanities, critical thinking, and writing. The students are researching a variety of topics (global warming, the privatization of social security, energy policy, and education, are among the ideas being discussed this week). As they read articles about these issues, the students are alert for areas of bias, misleading information, reliability, and accuracy.

As a component of their research, the students completed an on-line survey to find out how their own views compared with those of the presidential candidates. The multiple-choice options prompted questions, reactions, and further investigations about such issues as the mortgage crisis, the death penalty, and ethanol subsidies.

After gathering and reading their source material, the students will prepare their own explanations of the topics to add to the entries on the wiki site. Their challenges are to keep their writing balanced, to avoid inflammatory statements, and to enrich the site for readers. These sophisticated literacy skills involve careful analysis, strong comprehension, and an understanding of the subtleties of language.

Thomas Jefferson believed that a democracy could not exist without an educated populace. "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” he noted in a 1789 letter. In 2008, his words still ring true, and our teachers and students are doing their best to be both well-informed and respectful.

December 12: Reading for Livestock

An exciting community service project has turned our fourth grade students into agricultural experts, avid readers, adept researchers, and committed humanitarians. Guided by Ms. Rochford, Mrs. Holman, and Mrs. Deoras, the class has embarked on an educational and philanthropic mission to help children around the world through Heifer International. The program provides sheep, goats, chickens, cows, and other animals to needy families as a way of increasing their income potential as well as their nutritional resources. The children were introduced to the program through a book about a young girl in Uganda whose family fortunes are improved when they receive a goat from the organization. The class discussed the ways in which a single animal could make such a difference to a struggling family.

Each fourth grader selected one of Heifer’s animals for further research. Ms. Rochford helped them navigate the web site and a collection of books and print materials to gather information. To demonstrate what they have learned, the students will choose among several options for final projects. Some children will create picture books about the animals. Others will write their own informational books, and some will prepare simulated interviews with children who have received animals. They are also building their vocabularies and spelling skills with relevant terminology from their studies; this week’s spelling list included the words agriculture, international, heifer and adaptation.

A final component of the project is the class’ participation in Heifer’s Read to Feed program. Last week, the students brought home pledge forms to raise funds for Heifer International. Donors can choose to pledge a certain dollar amount for every book, chapter, or page that a participating child reads over the winter break. The children keep a log of their reading, and earn money with each book they complete. When we return to school in January, the class will decide how best to allocate the resources raised and will buy a selection of animals from Heifer’s catalog. Ms. Rochford emphasizes that a major goal of this effort is to raise awareness of micro-finance projects such as Heifer, and that the children’s Read to Feed efforts are part of an important lesson in global citizenship.

January 23: The Stories We Tell

“If you tell stories during the daytime, your cattle could die.” This Maasai adage was the subject of a lively conversation in Mrs. Sher’s 7th grade class on Wednesday.

“What does this mean? Why would cattle die if their herders tell stories while they work?” The students suggested a variety of explanations to answer the questions Mrs. Sher posed. It soon became clear that the Maasai prohibition on daytime storytelling was not related to a superstition, but rather as a means of preventing distraction from the vigilance of herding. The conversation then turned toward the inherent value of storytelling, both in the nomadic culture that the class has been studying and as a more universal element of human nature.

The 7th grade has been analyzing both the content and structure of Maasai legends as part of a larger study of animal and human societies. One of the focal points of Wednesday’s lesson focused on the importance of storytelling as a form of cultural transmission—the values, rituals, and customs of a people, and the methods by which these elements are passed on from one generation to the next. The students observed that the Maasai stories are relatively simple in terms of plot and characters, making them easy for a child to comprehend and retell. These qualities are essential in a society that depends on oral tradition and on a set of core images and natural resources.

Four images that are core to Maasai culture are the snake, the river, a stool, and the calabash (a type of gourd). These concepts are central to a set of riddles told among children in the society: “What can move freely without legs?” “What can flow freely without legs?” “What has legs but cannot walk?” and “What holds its milk without drinking it?” Mrs. Sher reminded the students of these riddles, which they had learned in an earlier class, and then returned to the question that had begun the discussion: “If you tell stories during the daytime, your cattle could die.”

Why, Mrs. Sher asked, are Maasai dissuaded from telling stories, but encouraged to share riddles while they work? The students spoke about the intense focus of both the storyteller and the listener in contrast to the quick and humorous exchange of a riddle. The distinction between these two types of oral language and their different social contexts became a rich topic of discussion about the pleasures and benefits of language as a source of entertainment, keeping the mind facile, and participation in society.

January 30: Listen, My Children…

Patriots Day is still nearly three months away, but our fifth graders are immersed in the history, science, and excitement of the first days of the American Revolution. How can a discipline like history, with its emphasis on dates, names, and battles, be presented as a lively and compelling pursuit for middle school students? One answer to this question was demonstrated this week, when Mr. Downing and Mr. Sucich teamed up, using elements of theater, astronomy, live flames, literature, and modern technology to enhance their teaching.

At the heart of the lesson was good storytelling. Although much of the information presented was new to the class, the teachers were impressed with the level of prior knowledge that the students brought. Some of their knowledge came from the award-winning novel Johnny Tremain, written in 1943 by historian Esther Forbes. This work of realistic fiction incorporates countless accurate details about Boston in the 1770s. Real-life events can be just as dramatic, if not more so, than fiction, and the events of those days and nights in April 1775 are an ideal example of high drama, which the teachers maximized throughout their lessons.

An interactive map on Mr. Sucich’s SmartBoard created the backdrop for the presentation, which began with a retelling of the famous story of Paul Revere’s ride. As the narrative progressed, Mr. Sucich used different colors to represent the routes taken by Paul Revere, Billy Dawes, the Minutemen, and the British troops. Along the way, he stopped to share points of trivia and clarify common misconceptions. The students were completely engrossed in the tale, listening and watching intently.

Mr. Downing provided a scientific perspective, illustrating and expanding on the story. To highlight the tense moments while Revere rowed across the harbor, trying to avoid being spotted by the British, Mr. Downing explained that the full moon that night was shining at an angle, keeping Mr. Revere’s boat in the shadows. Later, after Mr. Sucich described the weapons used by the soldiers and Minutemen, Mr. Downing demonstrated the use of flint to start a flame burning.

As the discussion turned to the exact moment of the “Shot Heard Round the World,” Mr. Sucich posed the question, “who do you think fired the first shot?” One of the students responded, “no one knows.” Mr. Sucich agreed, but pressed the point further. Based on the information they had, and their own ideas and interpretations, he encouraged them to consider the question again, “Who do you think did it, and why do you think so?” The students paused, took possession of the story—and history came alive.

March 13: How Big is a Queen Sized Bed?

Rubber bands, colorful footprints, picture books, and lots of words have been at the heart of kindergarten and first grade math classes this week, a sure indication our students are engaged in a study of geometry. Perhaps a bit of explanation is necessary. In the earliest grades, abstract mathematics concepts are introduced through experience, hands-on manipulation, stories, and observation, giving students a meaningful context and a narrative basis for the skills they are learning.

Our kindergarteners are exploring measurements and the tools that we use to measure objects. Last week, they traced their own feet, then cut out and decorated the shapes to use as their own personal measuring units. On Monday, Ms. Chu read Rolf Myller’s book How Big is a Foot? which tells the story of a king who wants a bed made for the queen, and sends his royal orders based on the size of his very large feet. Confusion ensues when the carpenter’s apprentice uses his own tiny feet to construct the bed. The students eagerly followed the events of the story, making predictions and calling out their reactions when a tiny bed is delivered to the queen. They explained the problem and offered solutions for making a “queen-sized” bed. In the course of their discussion, the children demonstrated their understanding of concepts such as relative size, standardized measurements, and the importance of clear language in describing quantities, distances, and lengths.

The first graders have been examining polygons—shapes that have straight sides, corners, and no “crossovers.” The math/language connections in this unit involve labels such as quadrilateral, hexagon, and octagon, as well as conversations that involve different ways of describing these shapes. The children are exploring geometry through a hands-on, individualized experience using geoboards—specially designed pegboards on which the students stretch rubber bands to construct a variety of multi-sided figures. Making and copying shapes on the geoboards is both fun and challenging, as the children have discovered. To reinforce the concepts further, Mrs. Chait read the book The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns, in which a deep-thinking triangle visits a shape-shifter to escape his recurring sense of ennui. When the shape gains an angle and a side, new opportunities present themselves for him, but he soon finds himself bored with his circumstances and returns to the shape-shifter for more. The story presents many examples of polygons in everyday life and encourages the children to search their environments for triangles, squares, and other common shapes.

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