Saturday, January 9, 2010

Heroes Large and Small

With Power Comes Responsibility

Early in September, everyone in 2nd grade wrote “hopes and dreams” for the year. The children decorated their wish cards and posted them outside the classroom, where they served as a visual and linguistic representation of the excitement surrounding the school year ahead. Now, several months later, the class members are thinking about the beginning of the calendar year and the tradition of making resolutions. During their class meetings this week, Mrs. Fell and the students discussed the difference between hopes and resolutions. They decided that the biggest distinction is that a hope is a thought, while a resolution involves a plan of action.

With this idea in mind, Mrs. Fell gestured around the room to point out a number of books on display. There is a biography of Ruby Bridges, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt, one about Mahatma Gandhi, and another about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Since the beginning of the year, we have been talking about the power we have, and the responsibility to use it. We can use it to have a good day, or we can use it in a negative way,” Mrs. Fell commented. She explained that the biographies in the room are about some very powerful people who chose to use their power to make changes in the world, and then she shared a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Mrs. Roosevelt’s statement generated a flurry of responses from the children. “It means no one can change your mood,” said one boy. “And you can always say ‘no.’ People can’t make you do things,” added one of his classmates. Mrs. Fell agreed. The children continued talking about the power they had to influence others’ feelings, or to control their own thoughts and feelings. They also discussed how it is sometimes difficult to do the right thing. Again, Mrs. Fell referred to the people in the books. They were heroes, she pointed out, because they made the choice to do the right thing even when it was difficult. They had the power and they used it.

What are the qualities of a hero? The children know that a hero is not a character with super-powers, but rather, a human who chooses to do something difficult in the face of risk, or even a person who makes less dangerous everyday decisions that can influence others. One child brought the message home when she said, “I think our parents are heroes, too. They give us encouragement. They give us words to use, and they say you can do it.”

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Maps, Globes, and Stories

December 18, 2009

The Whole World in Their Hands

Our first grade students have recently been delighting in the exploits of Sam Krupnik, the main character in Lois Lowry’s book See You Around, Sam. After his mother bans his plastic vampire fangs from the house, Sam decides to run away to Alaska, where he can hang around with walruses, whose tusks seem very fang-like. Last week, after Mrs. Scholes had read a particularly Alaska-focused passage, some of the children asked where Alaska is. Mrs. Scholes immediately turned on the digital white board and opened a web-based atlas of North America to give the students a sense of the distance between Massachusetts (where Sam lives) and Alaska.

This teachable moment emphasizes a component of cultural literacy that is critical for children’s knowledge and familiarity with the world. In the same way that we expose children to written language and text to build their word recognition and reading abilities (known as “environmental print,”) we also present them with multiple opportunities to look at maps, globes, and atlases so that they can develop the visual and orientation skills to identify locations, understand the spatial relations between places, and build a sense of our global community.

Many of our classrooms feature maps of different areas of the world, some of which are displayed for specific lessons or units, while others remain as permanent elements of the visual array. A recent survey of the faculty produced a wonderful range of uses and types of maps: in one corner of fourth grade, a series of maps from Heifer International present information about the regions of the world where the charitable organization provides animals for families in need. In the world language classroom and in the hallway just outside that room, world maps highlight language centers. Mr. Sucich’s fifth grade classroom is full of maps, including a map of historic Boston, a direct connection to the geography and history lessons that punctuate the social studies curriculum. In 8th grade, Ms. Gerner’s room includes a satellite photo-mosaic of “the earth at night,” with lighted areas showing the regions of the world that are the most electrified.

After Mrs. Scholes showed the children where Alaska is, she left the image on the white board. Later in the morning, a small group of children became engrossed in the map, counting the number of hand spans between Boston and Alaska, and exclaiming over the places they touched along the way. Just as environmental print surrounds children and provides them with constant experience with the forms of written language, maps and geographic images give them the same basic vocabulary for visual representations of locations. Although they may not pore over the rivers and political boundaries of the maps every day, the shapes and positions of these places become familiar over time, and they can be quite engaging.

Building a Colony

December 11, 2009

Our Town

As part of their study of life in colonial North America, the 5th grade class is in the process of assembling a model village complete with houses, a town green, and public buildings. Each edifice in the three-dimensional display conforms to an accurate scale model, has been colored to match the hues that would have been used at the time, and includes details such as chimneys, porches, and sheds. Even more engaging than the technical and visual appeal of the village is the elaborate story that ties all the elements together. The paper houses were built by students to represent the homes of fictional colonists, and every colonist has a full biography. Earlier in the unit, Mr. Sucich presented a list of occupations that would have been practiced by the citzens of an 18th century New England town. Following the lesson, each student chose one of the professions as the basis for an alter-ego. The children investigated their jobs, learned about the possible daily activities of their characters, and began creating identities.

The town includes booksellers, blacksmiths, glassworkers, tavern owners, wigmakers, and other artisans and tradespeople. The housing styles vary to show the relative income of the inhabitants as well as the variation in architecture that would have existed at the time. Many of the homes include trade signs to indicate the work of their residents. Mr. Sucich noted that as the children expanded their biographies, they established connections with others. Neighborhoods and affinity groups have emerged as the town has grown. One student approached Mr. Sucich with a question about whether or not there would have been Jewish members in communities such as this one; upon finding out was that there were indeed Jews and people of other religions in the colonies, a few children decided to build their homes near one another and create their own congregation. This spontaneous choice ties in directly with the lessons the children have learned about why people chose to leave England and pursue religious freedom in North America.

Other housing locations were determined based on geography or natural resources: the blacksmith’s house is near the water, for example. The meeting house and other communal buildings will be centrally located along the town green and will be made by students whose houses are finished. As the town comes together and as the stories are completed, the students are literally building their knowledge of the details of colonial life as well as the ways in which a community grows and develops.