Monday, October 26, 2009

Religion and Social History

Theologians All

When the 6th graders began their investigations of world religions last week, Mr. Spencer did not tell them what they would be learning. Instead, he challenged the students to generate their own research assignment by thinking about the concept of religion in a broad sense, and then identifying categories of information that would expand their knowledge about the topic. The list of questions that emerged from the students’ response to this challenge is remarkable for its insightfulness, sensitivity, detail, and breadth.

In the days following their introductory conversation, the students worked in small groups, each team focusing on the specifics of one of the major religions of the world. They delved into metaphysical questions such as ideas about life after death, the value of tradition and ritual in life-cycle celebrations, the nature of people’s relationships with deities, and the meaning of sacred texts. They investigated the lives of individuals who had shaped or popularized religious practices, considered the influence of arts and decorative objects, and looked for common themes that transcended a single faith.

As they gathered their data, students found that they were balancing abstract concepts alongside seemingly basic aspects of daily life such as dietary practices, clothing, and the responsibilities of people within families. These more practical elements were viewed in the context of gender roles, definitions of sin and virtue, and the place of religious belief in a secular world. Larger questions also loomed--one category of questions involves points of contact between and among the religions of the world: “how has this tradition interacted with others? Have there been wars or persecution? Has there been cooperation?”

Students pored over descriptions and looked carefully at illustrations. Everyone found information that was new, even in religions that were widely practiced within the class. One student commented that she had not really understood the significance of some holidays of her own religion, but that they made more sense to her now that she had read about them carefully. Another student eagerly described how the placement of Buddha’s limbs in statues and drawings can have different meanings, and explained that the lotus flower, which blooms for such a short period, represents the idea that all good things must come to an end.

Inherent in each discussion was a deep sense of respect, and an understanding that religion is a central aspect of many of the world’s cultures. Through their research and their ongoing discussions, our 6th graders are well-poised to consider a question not on their original list: How have people’s beliefs shaped history?

What is "Schooling?"

“Schooling “ and Learning

If you could create an “ideal” school, what would it look like? Imagine having no constraints in terms of money, space, or program. Where would you build your school? Who would lead it? How many students would be enrolled? What types of learning moments would you want to incorporate? What skills would be at the core of your curriculum?

These questions were posed by Dr. Stephen Brand, an entrepreneurial consultant, as part of a seminar hosted by our Institute for Excellence in Teaching on October 13. The event, which is part of a core course for the associate teachers, was also attended by several administrators and faculty members. The topic for the day was “Schooling in America: Theoretical and Social Context.” Dr. Brand’s questions came toward the end of the day, after we had examined the contributions of many thinkers who have shaped the format and structure of schools in the United States.

We began our seminar with a compelling keynote presentation by Professor William Stokes, interim Dean of the Lesley Graduate School of Education. Dr. Stokes framed his remarks about the nature of educational theory as an ongoing series of debates between “traditional” and “progressive” ideas. He traced several of these debates back more than 500 years, noting that throughout history, schools have been seen as social institutions from which political, philosophical, and even moral principles have emerged. He pointed out the similarities in arguments that have been raised for centuries about the role of schools to train citizens and to shape the thinking of future generations.

Both of our speakers addressed aspects of schooling that are central to the mission of Belmont Day School: the nature of community, the importance of values, and the necessity of presenting curriculum in multiple forms to serve the needs of all learners. Dr. Brand showed a brief video clip, which used dramatic statistics about the almost incomprehensible growth of information in our society. At its core was the message that we are training children for jobs that don’t exist yet. “How do we prepare children for these jobs?” Dr. Brand asked. In our discussion about these challenges, we focused on the critical need for educators to guide students in the process of learning; teaching them how to learn, and how to develop skills to respond to the changing needs of our world. The curricular stories that we present in this column each week are our responses to some of Dr. Brand’s questions. They are examples of teaching methods that address advanced thinking skills, and which provide opportunities for our students to engage in the type of learning that will serve them well in the future.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Of Local Interest

“Long ago and far away” might be the opening line in a fairy tale, but it might also be the beginning of a story of real people in a time in the distant past. Closer to home, “long ago and right down the street” could open a history lesson in (and out of ) Mrs. Moriarty’s classroom this year. As they began their social studies curriculum, the third graders considered examples of incidents and people from the past, and shared their thoughts about what it means to study events that happened long ago. After awhile, Mrs. Moriarty raised an interesting question: What is the difference between studying general history and local history? Her question was prompted by an exciting development in the 3rd grade social studies program, which entails a detailed study of the history of Massachusetts. A new textbook, new field labs, and new activities will be featured this year, providing our students with a wide range of learning opportunities.

Mrs. Moriarty introduced a list of terms related to the study of local history. Given the proximity of many historic sites, the children can look forward to visits to nearby locations where important events occurred. They will also investigate the biographies of individuals who made significant contributions to our state. One interesting heroine was Deborah Samson, a woman who fought in the Revolutionary War (disguised as a man!). After the war, her friend Paul Revere made sure that Ms. Samson received an army pension to pay her for her service to the country.

A few weeks ago, when the 5th graders visited the Minuteman Trail and the Battle Road, I wrote about the access we have here in Massachusetts to so many locations where the children can be told “something important happened right here.” The immediacy of such an experience is, of course, quite powerful, but I don’t think it’s limited to just those of us who live in the northeast. The bigger idea that emerges from Mrs. Moriarty’s lesson is really about defining history in a way that children can begin to think about their own neighborhoods and communities as places in constant flux. Wherever you are, something happened many years ago. Finding ways of bringing local history alive is the challenge and the fun for us as teachers.

Museums are additional sources of information in a study of local history, and they house vast collections of artifacts—items left behind from years ago. By investigating these objects, we can learn about jobs, customs, interests, skills, and the details of everyday life. To demonstrate the kind of thinking and analysis required to examine a historic artifact, Mrs. Moriarty supplied one of her own. From a beautifully polished box, she brought out a wooden tool that resembled a pair of tongs. What could it be? The children suggested many possibilities: it could be used for picking up small items, as a pair of chopsticks, or a clip to hold objects together. Next, Mrs. Moriarty removed several pairs of elegant kid-leather gloves from the box. These, she explained, would have been worn by ladies of a previous generation. She then described the careful way that these gloves needed to be cleaned, and explained how the leather would shrink and wrinkle as it dried. The wooden tool is a finger stretcher, a necessary item for re-shaping the gloves and smoothing them to be worn again. Back in the time that it was used regularly, it was not seen as a treasured relic; it was a daily tool like a fork or a knitting needle.

Could a knitting needle become a tool for teaching history? In 50 years, I wonder if people will still knit by hand. This summer we rented a vacation house that had a rotary phone. My 11-year-old had never seen one “in person,” and he was stymied when it came time for him to place a call. In our lifetimes, commonplace objects become so outmoded as to seem quaint. Mrs. Moriarty’s glove stretcher made me think about the items from my childhood that would seem strange to my child—my “close-and-play” record player that spun 45 rpm records, my pogo stick, and even my brother’s LEGO™ bricks, which I recently heard my son describing as “old-fashioned.”

Much of history is really about the daily life of people in the past, not about battles and famous people. The third graders’ foray into local history is a great reminder of this approach to the subject…No doubt our students will encounter many other curious and useful items as they learn about what happened long ago and quite nearby.

Monday, October 5, 2009

We the People

There is always so much to teach. How do we decide what to teach, and how much of it to teach, and how to present the material?

I'm not talking about the content requirements of the state curriculum, although those standards certainly give us a checklist of topics to "cover." What I'm talking about is deciding what's truly important for our students to know and be able to do.

I always come back to Jerome Bruner, who said that you can teach anything, in an age-appropriate way, to students of any age. The emphasis, of course, is on the "age-appropriateness" of the lesson.

Finding the entry point is always my favorite part of a lesson--what story will hook the kids? What question will prompt their curiosity enough to dive into a new area of content? What do they already know that will create a knowledge bridge for their shared interest in the topic?

The most recent example of this challenge is a school-wide exploration of social contracts. Although every grade had been working on their classroom rules, it was the 8th grade lesson that provided the focus:

We all know the story: in 1620, a small group of individuals set sail from England and landed on the rocky coast of North America. Before they stepped off their ship, the colonists signed a pact, agreeing to “combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.” The Mayflower Compact, as the document came to be known, established a foundation for laws and a government, to which all the signatories pledged their submission.

Why would these people, who had left behind everything familiar and staked their futures on the hope of beginning a new life in a new land, find it necessary to bind themselves together in this way? What value did they see in obeying laws that would be established “for the general Good of the Colony?” How did those early colonists, and the thinkers who came before and after them, shape the way we think of government and citizenship today?

Mr. Sigward’s 8th grade humanities class has been discussing the nature of government and the role of citizens in a governed society. The questions at the core of the lessons this week aim at the essence of human nature: How do people get their natural rights? Where does government get the right to govern? The writings of philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau prompted students to consider the concepts of natural rights, the ‘state of nature,’ and the underlying ideas of the social contract. Some students argued that without laws, people would only look out for themselves. Others believed that people need each other to survive, and therefore would give up some of their own liberties for the common good. As the year progresses, our 8th graders will reflect on these complex issues from many perspectives and points in history.

Although the younger students in our school might not be familiar with the term ‘social contract,’ they all have recent experience participating in such agreements. Every classroom in our school features a set of agreed-upon rules or “ways we want our class to be.” Each of these documents is the result of a group conversation in which the children and teachers identified important behaviors and personal responsibilities for themselves. They are written in crayon and marker, but the classroom contracts bear a striking similarity to the Mayflower Compact: they acknowledge the need for shared responsibility to help the whole class function well, and they feature the signatures of all the citizens of the community.