Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Over the River

Over the River

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated,” wrote T.S. Eliot in the second of his Four Quartets, “East Coker.” Although the poem is not a testament to the importance of learning geography, this line provides an insight into the way children develop a sense of place. At Belmont Day, geography begins with the local and the familiar, gradually increasing children’s knowledge of the places, features, and people of the world.

We approach social studies by emphasizing respect for the locations and cultures that comprise our program, starting with locations that the students know best. A wonderful example of this practice is just reaching completion in second grade, where the students have worked carefully to describe their favorite places. This writing exercise encourages the children to provide rich detail about a spot in their world that is most special to them and to explain why. The purpose of the project is not to generate a list of exotic destinations but to develop a deeper understanding of what makes a place special. As we enter the winter holiday season, many of us are looking forward to spending time in places such as these—places that are important because of memories we hold, or people who live there, or celebrations that occur in those spots.

Thinking about special places gives us an opportunity to reflect on the human element of the world. We can know a place in terms of pure geography: where it is, what it looks like, how far away it is (and if you’re driving to Grandma’s, this may lead to the age-old question, "Are we there yet?"). We can also define a place in terms of time: what happened in this spot in our personal memories, family legacies, and traditions, or, as the 3rd graders' trip to Plimoth Plantation illustrates, we can learn about a place in terms of its broader historic significance. We may, in addition, consider a place in terms of anthropology: who lives here, what do they do, and what is the central nature of their culture? Each of these categories of geography receives its due attention in the course of our curriculum, as our students grow and gain a deeper understanding about what it means to locate a place in the world.

Incidentally, T.S. Eliot’s poem, “East Coker,” is named for a village in Somerset, England, near his family’s ancestral home. Near the end of the final poem in the Quartets, “Little Gidding,” the poet returns to the idea of knowing the world:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Life and Times

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was teaching 3rd grade that year, and I remember engaging in long conversations with my colleagues about how to talk with our students about the context and significance of the events taking place in Europe. As I watched images from 1989 on television this week, I was reminded of those discussions, and of the complexities of teaching history to young children.

In his landmark work The Process of Education (1960), noted psychologist Jerome Bruner advanced the idea that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” People are often skeptical about this claim: Any subject? At any stage of development? Bruner went on to explain that a good curriculum introduces children to concepts in small, manageable ways, building upon those concepts each year through a process called spiraling. Our approach to teaching history reflects a great deal of Bruner’s philosophy, beginning with a deep understanding of cognitive development.

What does it mean to teach about the past to primary school students, whose sense of time is not fully developed? Pre-Kindergarteners, for example, have only a vague understanding of elapsed time, or of the precise meaning of time-related words such as weeks, months, or years. When we teach about things that happened long ago, we don’t expect these children to remember dates or sequences. We focus on gradually building their awareness of the passage of time in large and small ways. During a read-aloud, a teacher might pause and ask, “what are some clues that show us this story happened a long time ago?”

When the first graders embarked on their study of inventions and inventors, they were introduced to history through compelling stories about individuals whose contributions improved life or added new ideas to the world. The teachers and students discussed history through small important moments, examining innovations that spanned the past several hundred years. As they learned about Benjamin Franklin, or about how and when blue jeans were invented, the children expanded their knowledge about what the world was like in those times.

Following Bruner’s idea of spiraling, our history curriculum builds each year upon the skills and stories presented earlier, becoming more complex and detailed. As our students get older, they are better able to grasp the idea of time in a historic sense. They gain a greater ability to appreciate the context for people’s actions and the significance of events at particular times in history.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Interdisciplinary Explorations

What is “culture?” How is an understanding of culture related to an understanding of what it means to be human? Is culture a concept reserved exclusively for human communities, or is there a broader definition that might encompass other species? What does it mean to be “modern” in a cultural sense, and what is the place of cultures that exist outside the “modern” world?

These questions and many related others form the core of our 7th grade social studies and humanities program. Mrs. Sher’s approach ensures that the students see “social studies” as a broad term that encompasses many fields, including philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, economics, and ecology. Their studies this year have begun with an intensive exploration of two African environments and the challenges confronted by the inhabitants of those locations.

Last week, the students were introduced to the work of primatologist Dian Fossey and her efforts to gain acceptance for the idea that animals, and in particular, primates, could be studied from a cultural perspective. The class is now immersed in a study of the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park in the Western Rift Valley of Africa, one of only two remaining habitats for this endangered species. The students are considering the possibility that animal cultures might teach us about the roots of human culture. They are learning about the ways in which gorillas form relationships, care for and teach their young, and establish levels of status within their groups. The core concepts of this unit will help the students over the course of the year as they examine the factors that shape societies.

On Friday, a group of visitors joined the 7th and 8th grade classes to raise awareness about a human society at risk in another part of Africa. Philanthropist Teri Gabrielson and filmmakers Joe Dietsch and Kristin Jordan shared their documentary “Maasai at the Crossroads,” about the Maasai people of Kenya. Later this winter the 7th graders will study the Maasai in depth, as the 8th graders did last year, making the presentation especially relevant for both classes. The film’s narrator is Dr. Calestous Juma, father of 6th grader Eric and director of Science, Technology, and Globalization Project.at Harvard. It provides a close-up view of conditions such as drought, lack of education, disease, and the encroachment of modern society that threaten the fragile way of life of this nomadic society.

After the screening, everyone participated in a discussion about the issues raised in the film. Later, the filmmakers praised our students for their sensitivity and attentiveness as well as their respectful, reflective comments and questions. These characteristics are essential for a truly engaged study of culture and society, and they reflect our efforts to teach habits of mind as well as important content.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Clues from the Past

Making History Relevant

Historians of the Mediterranean may be breathing a sigh of relief after the recent announcement that our 4th grade class has joined an investigation that has puzzled experts around the world. The case involves the whereabouts and most recent activities of “Sarah Jane,” an archaeologist whose last known location was in the vicinity of the ancient city of Pompeii. Last week, authorities from Sarah Jane’s university met with our own Mrs. Holman. They shared their concerns about Sarah Jane’s peculiar behavior before she was last seen, as well as the disappearance of several artifacts from the research site. University officials also provided Mrs. Holman with a copy of Sarah Jane’s video diary, which includes notes and images from her discoveries.

Our students have examined the video entries and the photographs and resources included in Sarah Jane’s journals, and they are applying all of their skills-- in careful observation and historical research, as well as their own knowledge about the site that Sarah Jane was studying. The video diary presents countless clues about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79. Since the ruins of the city of Pompeii were first discovered, archaeologists have viewed it as a priceless “moment in time,” capturing details of daily life nearly 2000 years ago. Despite the wealth of information in the diary, Sarah Jane omitted curious details that our students are working to decipher.

It comes as no surprise that our fourth grade would be selected as investigative partners on this endeavor. The fourth grade social studies curriculum emphasizes exactly the skills that are required for such a careful analysis. Students learn to observe an artifact closely, considering all possible aspects of the item such as workmanship, materials and tools that may have been used to form the object, and possible uses it might have served in the culture. They learn to conduct research using multiple sources, and to compare the information presented in these resources. They develop theories and test their own analytical evaluations, looking for evidence to support or contradict their ideas. Finally, they work in teams to collaborate and build knowledge together, sharing what they have found and coming to a deeper understanding of people from long ago.

Sarah Jane’s diary included many images of architectural details and decorative items from the city of Pompeii, Is it possible that she had come upon a new discovery that would expand our understanding of the once-buried Roman city before she disappeared? Our fourth grade may soon be able to provide an exciting update to this mystery.

Do the students know that they are involved in a clever simulation, or do they believe that Sarah Jane is real? Although there were some questions about the truth behind Mrs. Holman's story, this detail didn't really matter. Nine- and ten-year olds are at a wonderful age for such a project, in which they can combine imagination with intellectual skills to devise intricate scenarios, make connections among different categories of information, and enjoy the experience for the sheer fun of the narrative.

Regardless of age, I believe that role-playing experiences build children's confidence and interdisciplinary skills. In later grades, these tasks can become more grounded in reality, in which students tackle engineering challenges, debate social issues, or participate in research and data collection. When students can envision themselves doing the job of an expert in a particular field, the content area becomes more interesting, more useful, more purposeful. It is our job as educators to create situations that are meaningful and appropriate opportunities to apply the skills they need to solve problems and think critically.