Thursday, March 25, 2010

Working Definition

What Does it Mean?

Have you ever wondered about the title of this column? How would you characterize a “best practice” in the classroom? Every now and again, someone will ask for an explanation of the phrase. While there are many possible definitions, the examples that are highlighted in this space usually incorporate three essential elements: content, critical thinking, and essential skills. Typically when teachers prepare lessons, they begin from one of these three vantage points. Students need to learn important information, they need to learn strategies and analytical approaches to thinking about that information, and they need to have basic skills in order to work with the information.

All of these components are necessary to good teaching, but any one of them is not usually sufficient to form a strong learning experience. A lesson focused entirely on content would most likely involve the teacher telling the students a list of facts. A lesson aimed only at teaching critical thinking skills might be too abstract to be relevant for the students, and a lesson grounded solely in fundamental skills would run the risk of being an exercise in rote memorization or repetition. While there are certainly situations in which students need basic practice or they need to learn terminology or thinking strategies, a good lesson usually combines at least two elements, and the most powerful lessons include aspects of all of these goals. In January, we highlighted a 6th grade lesson in which Mr. Spencer introduced the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, a significant event in American history (content). The lesson included a list of important legal vocabulary words that the students needed to know (basic skills). The students also engaged in a spirited interpretation of these terms in the context of the case (critical thinking). Lessons like this are examples of “best practices.”

Often, our teachers integrate the layers intuitively. They notice that the students need practice in a certain skill, and they find multiple ways of blending that skill into the curriculum, or they begin a new unit of study and discover that a particular analytical approach will raise the students’ understanding of the topic. Sometimes a “best practice” lesson emerges from a cross-disciplinary effort, such as the recent state reports in third grade, in which a project that had traditionally been grounded in social studies was enhanced when the teachers added an environmental science component to the students’ research.

The lessons described in this column do not achieve the label “best” due to the use of specialized equipment, flashy demonstrations, or large displays in the hallways and classrooms. Their superlative status is the result of deep thought, attention to the needs and interests of the students, and a consistent focus on excellence.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reading Freedom

March 19, 2010

There is a lot of serious reading going on in 5th grade. Earlier this week, Mr. Sucich’s windowsill was covered with books about the history of slavery and the African-American experience in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Students were given free choice to select one of the more than 30 titles on display. Some books are works of historical fiction; others are non-fiction. Topics include the underground railroad, buffalo soldiers, captured slaves, freed slaves, biographies, stories of escape, the efforts of abolitionists, and the roots of the civil rights movement. Over the next two weeks, the children will read at least one of these books as a way of expanding their knowledge about a challenging time in American history.

During their social studies classes, Mr. Sucich’s lessons focus on the historical details of slavery in the early United States. The slavery unit follows a comprehensive exploration of the colonial and revolutionary war periods and a unit about the Constitution. Mr. Sucich commented that the children have just learned the powerful phrase “all men are created equal;” now they are learning that the writers of that statement did not, in fact, count every person equally. “Who wasn’t created equal in the Constitution?” he asked the students.

Mr. Sucich began the unit by reading aloud from the first chapter of one of the books, Amos Fortune, Free Man, which tells the story of an African prince, At-Mun, who is captured along with many of the members of his village and transported to America to become a slave. The message that the prince whispers to his sister as he is dragged away is, “hold your head high, and remember who you are.” The dignity and sense of self displayed by At-Mun, who is re-named Amos, are important attributes for the students to consider as they embark on this study. Although many of our students bring some prior knowledge about slavery, this depiction of a boy, not much older than they are, makes the history more personal.

Details and perspectives from this and the other literature selections carry over into class discussions seamlessly. Spontaneous hallway conversations and quick exchanges about favorite passages add to the overall sense of learning through enjoyable reading. Mr. Sucich encourages the students to be alert to connections between the themes and events in the books they are reading and the topics raised in class. He finds that the students are eager to share their own knowledge and responses to the books, and that their comments broaden everyone’s understanding of the complex issues raised during this time period.

Friday, March 12, 2010

USA on Display

The Olympics has its Parade of Nations, New Year’s Day has the Parade of Roses, and now our own third grade announces… The Parade of States!

Many of our upper grades students have fond memories of their third grade “state reports,” which have been a perennial highlight of the year. This year, that longstanding tradition has assumed a broader significance due to the extensive study of Massachusetts that comprised much of the curriculum during the fall and winter. Mrs. Moriarty and Ms. Twarog blended geography, history, earth science, environmental and cultural studies to give students deep knowledge about our home state. In the process, they also emphasized research skills necessary for learning about other locations.

After February vacation, each student selected a state for an individual project. The criteria for their choices varied: “I love visiting my aunt and cousins there,” “My dad was born there,” “I love going to the beach there,” and “I’ve never been there, and I really wanted to learn about it” were some of the explanations given. Regardless of their reasoning, the students plunged eagerly into their investigations. They searched Internet sites in the computer lab, pored over reference books, and consulted atlases to gather information about famous people, significant locations and attractions, important facts, landforms, ecosystems, border states, natural resources, and unique details.

The culmination and celebration of the state project has been the production of a set of “floats,” which will form a grand display of knowledge about the United States. The students have built elaborate topographical maps of their states using molding dough. Each map, which has been painted to show waterways, mountains, deserts, forests, and shoreline, forms the top of a complex presentation box. Children referred frequently to images in their atlases, making sure to create the most accurate representations possible. Ms. Twarog commented that this was the first time many of the students had used visual reference guides in this way, and she was delighted with the care and attention to detail demonstrated during the map-making sessions. With similar focus, the students completed their floats by illustrating the rest of the boxes. The sides of the floats feature images and captions noting key facts. Inside, the children have included artifacts that represent important features about the states.

As they worked on their floats, the children shared their knowledge and discoveries with one another in informal, but informative ways. They talked about similar features among their states, described notable locations, and inspected their classmates’ maps with curiosity. This community spirit is a hallmark of our approach to learning, combining excellence with joy.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Truth or Consequences

March 5, 2010

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

This statement, written on Mr. Sigward’s white board, greeted the 8th grade humanities class earlier this week. As the class began a discussion about the insidiousness of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s, Mr. Sigward instructed the students to copy the quote into their notebooks and to take some time to decide whether or not they agreed with it. On another part of the board, he wrote a definition of the term propaganda: “ideas that are spread for the purpose of influencing opinion or behavior.” For the next hour, responses poured out, addressing issues of ethics, psychology, history, and the responsibilities of citizens when the truth is contradicted by the state.

Many students raised questions about the conditions under which a lie might be believable if repeated enough. It would need to be something difficult to disprove. It would be more plausible if delivered by an authority figure. It would need to be something that started small, so as not to appear outrageous at first. In response to these suggestions, Mr. Sigward wrote a name on the board: Josef Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and author of the Nazi campaign to eliminate “undesirable” people from the German state. It was Goebbels who made the claim that the students wrote in their notebooks. The statement ends, “It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

A recurring theme in the class discussion was that of “going along with the crowd.” Someone noted, “People just go with what the majority says because they don’t want to be troublemakers.” Another student added that there is a difference between accepting a lie and actually believing it. This comment brought nods of agreement from several classmates, along with a follow-up remark: “There’s always someone who can stop the lie, but it’s easier to go along.” In response to this thought, Mr. Sigward posed a question: How many people does it take to believe something before you go along with it yourself?

In an age when gossip mixes with news, when social media competes with traditional journalism, and when information flows from sources that are not always easy to identify, our students could point to clear examples of propaganda and of alternative interpretations of facts. As digital citizens, they easily found the contemporary connections that were woven into this history class.