Friday, May 21, 2010

Care and Feeding

Where does your food come from? How is it made, and how does it get to your house?

The sixth graders have discovered that these seemingly simple questions can lead to complex and sometimes challenging answers, ranging from industrial processing of artificial ingredients to the work conditions of farm workers. Their studies about food have also uncovered connections to other topics and curriculum units from earlier in the year.

As part of a research project, the students are investigating the manufacturing of foods like Spam, Twinkies, and other snack products. In class, they are engaged in an exploration of the way food is made, distributed, and consumed in our country. Earlier this week, Ms. Kurlowecz introduced a book about migrant farm workers, Growing Season: The Life of A Migrant Community, by Gary Harwood and David Hassler. The book is a photo essay documenting the lives and experiences of a group of seasonal farm workers and the local residents of an agricultural community in northeastern Ohio.

In small groups, students read selections from the book, highlighting specific individuals, families, and services in the community. Ms. Kurlowecz and Mr. Spencer encouraged them to identify themes or situations that they had encountered in previous units of study. Conversations ranged from comparisons to the conditions experienced by farm laborers in California during the depression to the sharecroppers of the southern United States to the workers’ needs for medical care and social services. Many of the workers featured in the book are of Mexican descent, and they travel regularly between Texas and Ohio, following the agricultural harvest seasons. Mr. Spencer referred to a map of the United States, indicating the route and the distance traveled by the migrant workers each year. The students discussed the relatively low pay earned by these laborers, prompting a question from Mr. Spencer about our assumptions about income and quality of work.

Ms. Kurlowecz had written a question on the board: “How does this reading connect to your group’s food project?” For a few minutes, no one had an answer, until one student said, “This is like our project because it’s another way that our food gets to us.” The difference between potatoes being dug from the ground and potato chips in shiny packages on a supermarket shelf was dramatic in the context of this conversation.
The personal stories and vignettes about individuals and families generated thoughtful responses and questions as the students considered a hidden, and profoundly human aspect of food production.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Truth and Consequences

What is the role of an international court? Should any nation feel obligated to submit to the laws of another country? In what ways should the perpetrators of genocide be held accountable for their actions? What does it mean to commit a crime against humanity? Is it ever possible for justice to be served in such extreme situations?

These are not questions posed to the latest Supreme Court nominee; rather, they were the focus of a series of discussions in Mr. Sigward’s humanities classes this week. As they near the end of a comprehensive study of the Holocaust, the students are beginning an exploration of the significance of the Nuremberg trials, which were convened after the atrocities of World War II were revealed. In the course of the class conversations, recurring themes emerged: the role of bystanders, the importance of truth, and the challenges of confronting unjust people or institutions.

In their literature study class, the students are reading Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451. They were asked if they could identify any common themes between the book and the events of the Holocaust. Immediately, hands went up. “Definitely the theme of being a bystander, and feeling regret for not standing up when you should,” said one student. Her comment sparked many others, related to the self-protective tendency of people in Nazi-controlled Europe to report suspected Jews or to turn in their neighbors in order to remain safe themselves. The students considered each of the main characters in the book and found parallels between the behavior of those fictional individuals and the actual events in the 1930’s. They talked about the enormous courage required to take a stand against injustice.

The next morning in humanities class, the subject turned to the Nuremberg trials. Mr. Sigward aked, “Is there a greater good for society from holding a trial in these circumstances?” The class felt strongly that a trial provided an opportunity to defuse the need for vengeance by providing a more rational and reasoned approach to holding people accountable for their actions. Examples from history and literature abounded, including the present-day tragedy in Darfur, the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the role of the UN in protecting human rights. As the students considered various situations, events, and points of view, the importance of a trial for establishing a historical record arose as a central idea. What also emerged from the students’ articulate and sensitive responses was their ability to draw connections among a broad range of events, topics, and sources of information. This critical thinking skill of synthesis is an essential tool for our young adults as they build their own understanding of the world.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Passing the Torch

Mrs. Orchard doesn’t remember when the tradition of the Greek Lunch began at Belmont Day School, but she knows that she “inherited” the event from her predecessor when she began teaching 4th grade in the 1980s. Mr. Houghton has a vivid memory of the day (more than 15 years ago) when the 5th grade field lab to the Freedom Trail was transformed from a National Park Service tour to a student-led experience. Both the Greek lunch and the Freedom Trail trip allow the students to take on the role of teachers and guides. The endurance of these well-established highlights of the spring season is a testament to their strength in the curriculum. The evolution of these units over the years is a demonstration of the power of a strong curriculum to meet the interests and skills of the teachers and students and to reflect developments in technology and curriculum design.

The Greek lunch next Wednesday marks the culmination of the 4th graders’ intensive study of the ancient Mediterranean. Mrs. Orchard used to host the lunch in an alcove of her classroom, always hoping for a sunny day so that a portion of the festivities could take place outdoors. She credits former reading teacher Anne Smith with the idea of linking content from literature and social studies to enrich the unit. When Mrs. Holman took the reins of 4th grade 8 years ago, she added new elements, focusing on dramatic presentations and opportunities for the students to showcase their work in museum-style displays, video, songs, and handcrafts. She also worked closely with Mrs. Randall to produce “Hera’s Dinner Theater,” bringing the class play into the classroom in dramatic fashion. Six years ago, when the classroom was first transformed into a stage, the students worked with their art teachers to create permanent scenery in the form of the mural that we still enjoy today.

When the 5th graders visited the sites of the Freedom Trail this week, they took the stage in a very public way. At each landmark, a pair of students acted as the expert tour guides, presenting the results of their research projects about those locations. A full-color guidebook, written entirely by the students, accompanied the tour. The idea for this approach to the field lab arose out of necessity on that day in the 1990s when Mr. Houghton and 5th grade teacher Kevin Jordan arrived at Boston Common to find that there was no guide for their tour. In a moment of inspiration, they realized that the students knew all the necessary information to lead the trip. Ever since then, the field lab has proceeded in a similar manner. Mr. Jordan handed the project on to Ms. van der Hiel, who passed it along to Mr. Sucich. Each teacher has made adaptations, but has preserved the core idea of student ownership and empowerment.