Sunday, February 28, 2010

Comida et Cafe Culture

February 26, 2010

There has recently been a great deal of discussion about fine dining in our middle school language classes. French students are engaged in conversations and small skits about eating in French cafés, and Spanish students have researched recipes and traditional foods in Spain and Argentina. All of this talk about food has occurred in the language of study, providing the students with authentic topics and building their vocabulary and grammar skills. Madame Friborg described the approach in broad terms, commenting “we are teaching cultural literacy.”

Throughout our language program, students are introduced to the daily lives and environments of people in other parts of the world. Most units of study present scenarios that would occur in France, Spain, Mexico, Sengal, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Argentina, and other places where French and Spanish are spoken. Our students’ sense of themselves as global citizens grows with each lesson. Madame Friborg noted that the point of learning language is to be able to put oneself into the shoes of another person; this emphasis on respect is an essential element in making meaningful connections with people of any culture.

Our curriculum addresses much more than food. In 6th and 7th grade Spanish classes, Señora Marinez begins the study of each new country with short research projects. Students investigate local customs, forms of entertainment, sports, clothing, architecture, and famous landmarks. They present their findings in a sharing session, practicing their new vocabulary and building their knowledge about the location. Last week, they mounted a display of posters in the hallway outside the media lab. Take a look at the recipes for paella, the description of flamenco, and the presentation about Antoni Gaudi’s architecture.

The 7th and 8th grade French classes exchange e-mails with pen pals in French-speaking countries. We have established a strong relationship with the Matenwa School in Haiti, and with a middle school outside Paris. Through their communications, students find many interesting differences as well as points of similarity. They were delighted to discover that the movie Avatar was as popular in France as it is in the United States. In their messages, students describe their school days, their social activities, and their hopes for the future, sharing their own lives and reading about the lives of their peers thousands of miles away. As they discussed the notes they received from the Parisian class, our BDS students wondered which attributes might be similar in middle schools everywhere, and which might be unique to France. Their curiosity and eagerness to use language as a means to connect with others is a critical step toward true cultural literacy.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What Color is History?

February 12, 2010

“I’m ready for you to write my memories,” a pre-K student announced to Ms. Kearney on Tuesday morning. He presented her with a large sheet of white paper that had been divided into quadrants, each labeled with the name of one of the seasons. Ms. Kearney listened carefully, transcribing his words into captions to accompany the colored slips of paper he had glued onto the sections of the page. “Blue is for when I go swimming in the pool,” he said, pointing to a teal rectangle. Around the room, groups of children sat at the work tables, arranging collages of colors to represent their own mental images of the seasons.

This scene provides a glimpse into a remarkable aspect of young children’s cognitive development; specifically, the structure of memory. To begin the activity, Ms. Kearney re-read a book that the children have come to love: Leo Leonni’s classic story Frederick, about a group of mice who work all year to store food and supplies for the winter. The hero of the story is the title character, who does not gather nuts and corn; rather, he collects words and images to share on cold nights. Frederick’s stories are rich in color and detail: “When he told them of the blue periwinkles, the red poppies in the yellow wheat, and the green leaves of the berry bush, they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their own minds,” says Leonni. The mice are cheered by the memories that Frederick calls forth, and his role as the historian is celebrated.

Our children also build memories by combining sensory experiences with language. Their season collages are filled with mental snapshots from their life stories, and the deceptively simple materials belie a complex symbolic process. As they get older, they will develop more and more sophisticated skills to organize their thoughts, but their work this week is an indicator of how much they already know about the formation of narrative. There is a story behind each slip of paper: “The yellow is my Grandpa’s dock,” mused one child. A blue strip on another collage represents “the bright blue sky on the way to New Hampshire.” A splash of purple is a reminder of the short-sleeved shirts of summer, and two gray stripes represent snow falling on a cloudy winter day.

The philosopher John Locke described memory as a power of the mind to revive past perceptions. As our youngest are learning, the ability to recall and retell details from the past is an important element in building the foundations of historical knowledge.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bringing the Ancient World to Life

The 4th grade classroom was briefly renamed the “Cairo Conference Center” on Tuesday afternoon as the students prepared to host the Egyptian Symposium, a highlight of their social studies program. This event marks the culmination of several months’ investigation into the history and influence of ancient Egypt. The room was transformed into a lecture hall, featuring a panelists’ table and plenty of room for a large and well-informed audience.

Throughout the winter, each student has engaged in an independent research effort about a particular aspect of Egyptian culture, consisting of a written paper and a visual project. Model pyramids, trading cards, a Sphinx, a variety of posters, and other displays were in full view during the symposium, and exhibited with great pride by their creators. Many students studied similar topics. During the afternoon, panel groups took their turns in the speakers’ chairs to share their knowledge. A question session followed each panel. If one member of the group was unsure about the answer to a question, the rest of the panelists filled in details from their own research.

The symposium is the 4th graders’ first significant oral presentation, and Mrs. Holman took the opportunity to teach the students about the importance of delivering their information effectively. Voice, eye contact, and confidence in the material are all essential. She challenged them to be creative and to find ways of explaining what they had learned so that they could engage the audience as much as possible. Simply reading their research papers was not sufficient; the children were required to identify key points and speak from memory or from brief notecards.

Topics ranged from religion to arts to home life to architecture and toys and games in ancient Egypt (did you know that children have been playing with marbles as far back as 5000 years?) to a description of modern Cairo. One student, speaking about religion, took on the role of an important goddess and explained how all the other goddesses were related. Another member of her panel pointed out that Egyptian magic was not at all the same as Harry Potter magic. During a discussion of the pyramids, a student spoke from the point of view of Khufu’s pyramid, explaining the various items in his interior. In a presentation on the arts, a student brought a CD of music from Ancient Egypt, providing an audio accompaniment to her research.

Many of the students’ visual projects are on display in the library. Come and tour our own museum of ancient culture and find out how much our 4th graders have learned.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Patriotic Tunes

January 29, 2010

On an Historic Note

Collaboration among colleagues is one of the hallmarks of a strong faculty. This week our third grade team, along with their associate teacher, a colleague from a neighboring town, and our own Mr. Toppa have all combined their knowledge and talents to enhance a teaching and learning experience for themselves and the students.

The third grade teachers have been leading an ongoing unit about the beginnings of the American Revolution. After a recent visit to observe a classroom at a nearby public school, associate teacher Ms. Morris brought back a brief play about the Boston Tea Party, which fit perfectly with our own students’ work. The skit includes many details about the Patriots’ protest against British control, introduces significant individuals, and supports the background reading, field labs, and research that the children conducted throughout the fall and early winter. The children eagerly seized upon the opportunity to incorporate drama into their social studies lessons, and the teachers used the script to reinforce many of the concepts and geographic locations that had been addressed earlier in the unit.

When Ms. Morris described the project to Mr. Toppa, he immediately lent his support by locating a song about the Boston Tea Party. In music class, he taught the children to sing the selection as well as how to play the melody on the recorder. Back in the classroom, the words to the song provided an additional opportunity for examining the context for the colonists’ rebellious act. Was it OK to dump the tea? Many students thought that the protestors had a right to show how angry they were about the British fees on tea. The children discussed the concept of a tax: A teacher asked, “Are there good taxes?” One child thought that yes, some taxes were good because they helped people who were homeless, and they helped raise money for schools and roads. Many children thought it wasn’t fair to have a tax on tea, because people drink it every day.

As they rehearsed the song and the play, the students brought a historic scene to life, accompanied by laughter, serious attention to detail, and camaraderie. They will perform the full production in the classroom on Monday, which will be a fitting tribute to Ms. Morris’ last day as their associate. As for the inimitable Mr. Toppa, his role as an honorary social studies teacher is a joyful demonstration of the value of integrating arts into the core curriculum, and a testament to the benefits of communication and integration across many areas of study.

Social Action Through Legal Protest

January 20, 2010

Legal Eaglets

What happens when a talented teacher has the autonomy and resources to choose his subject matter, organize and plan his lessons, decide how much time to devote to an area of study, provide the most appropriate materials for the students, and focus his passion for the topic into a curriculum unit? What if the topic in question is challenging and complicated?

The answer to these questions is unfolding right now in our 6th grade social studies classroom. Mr. Spencer and the students have embarked on an exploration of ”the ways that people changed segregation,” in Mr. Spencer’s words. This week, they have established a foundation for understanding the judicial process, a critical step in understanding how the people fighting for civil rights challenged laws and forced new interpretations of Constitutional amendments. One of the important concepts in this unit is the idea of legal precedent, and Mr. Spencer balances the lessons by introducing landmark cases as well as day-to-day examples.

Mr. Spencer organized Tuesday’s introductory discussion around technical definitions of legal terms, illustrated by situations that the students could easily imagine. He described arguments that the students might have with teachers or parents, making the idea of precedent approachable and tangible for the students.

“I could teach this all year, easily. And it wouldn’t even be hard to do,” said Mr. Spencer after Wednesday’s lesson, which included a discussion about the ambiguity of the idea of equal protection under the law, a right granted to all Americans through the 14th Amendment. For homework, the students had read a description of the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which established the “separate but equal” practices that defined segregation. In class, they watched a documentary film about the legal strategies that led to the desegregation mandate at the heart of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The film includes moving images from the segregated South, and the students were encouraged to share their responses to scenes that had affected them.

These lessons present significant information about a critical period in American history. More importantly, however, Mr. Spencer wants to make sure that the students think deeply and critically about how legal language can be interpreted in more than one way. In this case, the central question is, “How can you read the 14th amendment and still have segregation?”

Our 6th graders will be continuing their study of the civil rights movement for several weeks. As they build their knowledge about the events of that period, they will apply these higher order thinking skills to more and more questions about law, society, equality, justice, and fairness.

The Legacy of Dr. King

January 15, 2010

Content and Character

My sister was teaching kindergarten in New Hampshire in 1999, when that state first recognized Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. On the Friday before the long weekend, she presented a lesson about Dr. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement. The following Tuesday morning, a mother approached her at the beginning of the school day. “I understand you taught a lesson about Martin Luther King,” she said. “I thought you’d like to know what came home.” The mother then shared her daughter’s description of the lesson my sister had taught: “Mommy! We learned about Martha Luten King. She was a leader who wanted everyone to ride the bus.”

This story shows how a well-intentioned, but overly complicated lesson can be misinterpreted, and raises an interesting educational question about how to teach challenging material to very young children. Often, the challenge revolves around identifying a core theme or concept, and using that topic to build children’s understanding in a gradual way from year to year. During the past two weeks, our primary grades teachers have demonstrated great skill in doing just that.

All of our classes have participated in lessons and activities related to Dr. King’s life and teachings. In the primary grades, teachers have worked with special care to match their lessons with the children’s developmental level and prior knowledge. They have been attentive to possible misconceptions as they teach basic information about Dr. King and his ideas, and have developed creative approaches to help the children appreciate his legacy.

In Pre-K, children wanted to know what Dr. King looked like. The teachers immediately found a photograph to share. One child wanted to know, if he was a king, who was the queen? The teachers explained that King is a name, like Andrick or Zamore. Then they emphasized the message that people can be different from one another but still be friends. The children learned to conduct surveys to find out who shared, or did not share, their interests. In Kindergarten, the class learned a song about building a better world that used American Sign Language, prompting one child to ask if Dr. King wanted to teach everyone to sign. “No,” the teachers explained, “but he did want to make sure that all people could understand each other’s words.”

The first graders have been reading biographies about Martin Luther King for two weeks. They were stunned to learn that a good man could be sent to jail--16 times! Their beautiful mural depicts significant scenes from Dr. King’s life, drawn by children who can envision the world he dreamed.