February 28, 2012

Double OMG, I have a plan!

Recently I proposed an idea to my staff - I called it "What's the Big idea!"

I started to wonder if there was an idea, a project that we could collaborate around together? I was inspired by an article I kept reading over and over (to my wife's dismay) by Galina Zuckerman called, "The Learning Activity in the First Years of Schooling: The Developmental Path Toward Reflection" which can be found in Vygotsky's Educational Theory in Cultural Context (2003). Not exactly your typical water cooler conversation stuff, but very enlightening. Zuckerman asks an important question, "How can educators benefit from introducing students to a new field of knowledge through the most general concepts?" I take this to encompass educators and those we teach. And later she says that, "Instruction about any object should revolve around considering general methods for producing it rather than simply listing its essential properties." I like this because then we don't get lost in the details, rather we keep the goal in mind, or what we often call "the big idea".

Later in the article Zuckerman details what big ideas are,

"Big ideas are the core organizing principles...they integrate the themes and interdisciplinary units of learning. A single big idea may often carry through several different grade levels to be explored from multiple viewpoints at varying depths. When big ideas are rephrased as open-ended, guiding questions, they become the fundamental query that navigates the search for understanding. Rountinely articulated, they sustain the underlying purpose of the students' work. Big ideas put the focus on learning, activate the curriculum, and make all students investigators. In this way big ideas facilitate long-lasting meaning after less significant concepts are forgotten."

When I started teaching over a decade ago, I was just happy to see a few lessons go over well and make it through the day. As I gained more experience I started to work on developing units of study one at a time, and slowly building up my repertoire of lessons and units. This has led me to a point where, for a while now, I have been thinking about how I can make the school year more memorable for my students and myself. I have tried to accomplish this by looking for a common thread of an idea that ties many concepts together over the course of the year. Often this takes the form of a year long theme where we decorate the classroom and do some investigation of a topic "off" our prescribed curriculum path but very connected to the core concepts (that's where the most fun happens by the way). I am finding that in the last few years I have had more and more students coming back to visit me asking, "What are you doing this year?" referring to a theme or project that the new crop of students and I might be doing together, and remebering fondly one that we shared together in the past.

This year I chose a theme/project for my students that I knew would enable us to make meaningful connections across the curriculum and look at a topic more in depth. A main reason that I am continuing to think and plan around a central idea, is that I am beginning to see this approach as an important part of the forming of our classroom identity and culture. The students start to care about their project and they start to form an attachment to the space we occupy together and more importantly they start to relate more with each other. As you can tell it is difficult for me to separate these words: idea, topic, project, and theme. Yes, I know they are different, but I don't care so much which one you use since they are many layers to this.

Because of the concepts that are scheduled for me to teach this year, I chose to create an Island theme/project that continues all year long because I knew that I could draw many connections through it. Our classroom is decorated as an island, and the students have their own individual island projects that they work on each month. See my previous post on this at: http://imaginefunlearning.blogspot.com/2011/11/aloha-and-welcome-to-my-blog-since-i-am.html.

My pastel of the River
So from one lesson, to one unit, to a full year...well what about bigger than that! I started to think about the possiblity of doing this on a larger scale. What if we could get the whole school involved in a project study together over many years? With my school staff we have been "floating" the idea of having the River by our school as a focus (pun intended and capitalization intended). I have written before about what I see as the importance of this natural place at: http://imaginefunlearning.blogspot.com/2011/11/river-alternative-context-for-learning.html.

I have been talking with a few people about their experiences with Project Based Learning, and I have been reading about something called a Whole School Project or WSP (see http://www.ierg.net/ for more details). According to the WSP philosophy,

"WSPs deliberately celebrate diversity among students, and recognize the value of many kinds of contribution by seeing how each can bring to a common project abilities and skills that no student would have been able to bring alone."

Focusing on the River is not intended to be a limited study with facts to be memorized and then quickly forgotten. Instead, the River will be a springboard to much larger possbilities. The intent of a WSP is to focus on a topic/project for 3 years. This will allow for the development of understanding that cannot be achieved in only one year. The river is not dry and dead, but vibrant and alive (well okay it is a non-living, renewable resource, but you get the idea).

There will be some obvious connections to parts of the curriculum (habitats, animals, water, resources, etc...). And there are ways to help generate the "flow" of ideas beyond our local community. What are rivers like in other places? What is there to learn about the oldest and longest rivers like the River Nile? The River Ganges for example can hold a very spiritual and cultural importance to many families. What do communities do that have a lack of such necessities like clean running water? There are innumeral local and global possibilities for making this a meaningful topic/project to study about because it will lead to something greater than any individual effort, and it will move us beyond the walls of our own school to reach out. There can be many cultural and personal connections that students will be able to bring in and learn about.

So I have come up with an acronym to help establish a structure for a project of this size. I call it the double OMG plan... like OMG I can't believe we are about to do this!

Orient yourself towards the topic/project. What do we know and not know about it?
Organize the facts and information you find. Delegate tasks amongst your team members.

Make it exciting for all involved. Consider the method of how you teach this content (this will be one of the most important considerations). 
Manage the information in a way that makes sense for you and your group. You can't tackle it all at once.

Gather the people who will help you to achieve your goals. A project of this size will require consultation with many experts. (These are your most important resources.)
Give you what learn about, to the community of learners around you and beyond. How can we reach out beyond our walls? Constant reflection about why you are doing this is critical to its success.

So why would anyone want to take on more work like this? I think we need to evaluate constantly what we are doing. Yes this will stretch us out of our comfort zones...isn't that what we are always wanting to see in our students, that they are willing to take some risks and try something new? We do this because we know that is where the most learning can happen. I am exciting and a little nervous about this adventure with my colleagues, but I know it will be much greater than anything I have ever accomplished in my teaching on my own!

If you have been a part of such a project before, I would love to hear what your successes and failures were. Or if you just want to add your thoughts that's great too! Thanks for reading.

February 06, 2012

What if we had the time? Myths, Maps & Multiplication.

I thought I would share more about what has been happening as we continue with our island theme this year. I say "we" because the ongoing project I planned for my students about islands has started to take on more of visible shape beyond my initial plans. This is not only seen externally through the students' work itself, but also through a tangible internal interest - as the students are now beginning to be co-planners and investigators with me. 

First I will explain a bit of the thinking about why I chose to undertake such an idea, and then I will give you some practical examples of what this is starting to look like in the classroom and its connection across the curriculum.

I realize that many teachers might wonder how there is time to bring in a new concept or idea that is not in the prescribed curriculum; especially when there are so many pressures and demands on us, or what Michael W. Apple calls, "The intensification of teacher work - which is quite visible." I guess there is a difference between teachers who don't make time or don't think they have time to be creative or imaginative and what I am doing, in that I am not being led by objectives. I don't ask what I am going to be able to cover in prescribed learning outcomes (PLOs); rather I wonder about what I might be able to uncover, reveal, and encounter in collaboration with my students. This is a big shift in thinking!

My job becomes different then in the sense that there are so many more ideas I am playing with and the potential for learning goes way up. I don't worry so much about what I am going to teach when one unit ends, I am finding that each lesson and unit is flowing into the next, and my students are also bringing me ideas that fit in nicely with the overall plan. I have to harness those idea, push away less important pieces of knowledge, make revisions as I go along, and at the same time I have to allow my students to develop their own questions and inquiries along the way. Elliot Eisner writes that, "The means through which imaginative curriculums can be built is as open-ended as the means through which scientific and artistic inventions occur. Curriculum theory needs to allow for a variety of processes to be employed in the construction of curriculums." In other words, our plans have to be flexible and they need to include the diversity of thinking and needs that our students bring. Furthermore Nel Noddings says, "It is not the subjects offered that make a curriculum properly a part of education but how those subjects are taught, how they connect to the personal interests and talents of the students who study them, and how skillfully they are laid out against the whole continuum of human experience."

So I ask, what if we gave our students opportunities to go deeper into particular concepts? What if we give them more experiences and more time to reflect on those experiences? (Perhaps you will notice my shift from a hypothetical, past verb tense - to a potential, present/future tense) What if we allow them to make more meaningful connections and bring their own personal interests, stories, and examples? What would happen? What could happen? What would that look like? (I'm sure you're asking that one). Well, I am seeing the benefits of going with this way of thinking, and I will let you peer into my world for a moment. 

Myths and Maps

some examples of students' treasure maps

At the beginning of the year I asked the students to personalize their islands by coming up with a image for it and naming it (generally these are the 2 things we do when we learn almost anything). Part of the Socials curriculum that I am teaching about this year is Mapping. So I decided to have my students make maps of their islands, but as I talked with the students we decided that not just any maps would do - we needed treasure maps! So we spent time talking about what would need to be included in these types of maps, and how that information would need to be communicated. So through our collaboration we ended up with each student making an "aged" treasure map, and writing their own island myth story. Originally I had intended that the students would make maps, but I never envisioned treasure maps or writing myths to explain them. This was not an add-on after unit project; this is how we learned about features of maps! Kieran Egan says, in his 2005 book: An Imaginative Approach to Teaching that,

“Engaging the imagination is not a sugar-coated adjunct to learning; it is the very heart of learning. It is what brings meaning and sense and context and understanding to the knowledge we wish to teach.”

Now that we have created treasure maps and myths of our islands, it seems like such an engaging and authentic thing to have done! This is just one example of having an open-ended plan, and bringing factual, dry information to life in a personal way. It allows for variations and unintended possibilities.

student example of a myth story for their island

student example of an island treasure map

The idea of writing myths is to engage the students emotionally, in this case to the topic of maps. Kieran Egan writes a lot about how stories work so well because they engage our emotions, which enables us to remember the information better. Egan says,

"Its (myth stories) great power lies in its ability to fix affective responses to the messages it contains and to tie what is to be remembered into emotional associations. Our emotions, to put it very crudely, are much better things to remember with than our intellects."

In our study of Habitats in Science the students have been working on their own animal research projects. When we eventually connect this back to the island project, I will be asking them more about what their island is like. What animals inhabit this place? And to understand the geography of their island, I will have them imagining their island in 3-D as opposed to strictly an aerial view which they did for their treasure maps. In another post I might write about how I engaged the students in an understanding of animals and their adaptations to their habitats.

When thinking about the geography of the island, something that came up early on this year for the students were the images of waterfalls and volcanoes. This was more of a discussion about what the physical space of our classroom could take on, and so I added some hanging fabric to give some effect.

our indoor waterfall of fabric

But there was more to come, only I didn't know it at that time. This led to a new perspective and approach to teaching about Multiplication in Math through volcanoes.

Multiplication Volcanoes

The idea of volcanoes lingered in my mind for many months, but I didn't force it. Finally I found a connection that I thought would work. The next topic coming in number operations was Multiplication, and within in that the concept of Factors and Products. When I was thinking about how I would teach this (and always searching for a fun and meaningful way to bring the concept to the students), I stumbled upon an image of a "factor" diagram - funny how all of a sudden it looked like a volcano to me, and out of the top I saw the exploding product. That is how I brought in the idea of volcanoes to the classroom.

student example of a volcano showing factors and products
a variation in design on the same topic

What is even more interesting though is what happened after that. The next day, a student brought me a piece of paper that was folded. When I opened it I saw "World's Smallest Volcano". I read it and thanked her for it and thought this was really cool (or hot if you get what I mean). I realized that all the work I had done teaching my students about how they can use their imagination in their learning was starting to have an impact. When I had asked her more about it, she told me that it was the Taal Volcano in the Phillipines - where she was born. She had just provided me with a personal connection to a topic through an extremes of reality example! Kieran Egan says that,

"The everyday world around them can become more meaningful, and meaningful in a new way, if they orient to it through attention to the limits or context within which it exists." 

Thus started my own research on volcanoes. And wouldn't you know it - all tropical islands are the result of volcanic activity! I guess you could say this was an important revelation for me. So I put together a powerpoint video for my students, to give them some information about volcanoes. (Here comes the teaching part, I can't help it!) Most volcanoes form at plate boundaries, either diverging or converging; but many volcanoes are formed at hot spots, deep under the ocean - and this is how tropical islands are formed. When a plate on the Earth's crust moves, a hot spot continues to burn through, leaving the previous volcano extinct and the new one active. The Hawaiian Islands are a great example of this, where there is a string of volcanoes (or islands) in a row. Did you know that Mauna Loa on Hawaii is the largest and one of the most active volcanoes in the world? In fact it has a larger mass and total height from its base to peak than Mount Everest!

Bringing information to students through the extremes of reality is another way to engage or activate students' imaginations in their learning. (You know, the Guinness Book of World Records kind of stuff) You can also see that the example I shared about my student bringing me information about the world's smallest volcano was a very personal connection. It makes learning more fun and memorable when students are a part of the inquiry into making sense of, and gaining perspective on the world we live in! I also brought in the unusual aspects of myths to connect to the work the students had already done. For example, Pele is known as the fire goddess of Mauna Loa, and when her anger burns against the people she pours out fire and lava. Another example of an island named after a myth is Surtsey in Iceland. This newly formed island in 1963 exploded through the surface of the ocean, blasting ash and steam into the air for over 3 years. Surtsey is named after Surt, the Norse myth of the giant of fire. Learning in this way makes concepts come to life in a fun, current, and relevant way as opposed to being dead, dry historical facts.

I never intended to study about volcanoes with my students this year, and I hope that the grade 7 teachers aren't too mad at me (it's in their PLOs), but I couldn't miss the opportunity to learn about something so fascinating. Having an open-ended study such as this about islands has created opportunities for my students to be more actively involved in their own learning, and it has given more chances for them to show me what they are interested in learning more about. I was able to take this interest and connect it to our study in Math for example - something I had not pre-planned or imagined on my own. Using the metaphor of a volcano for how I see my interaction with the students; I would say that this understanding is forming, building in them until at one point it just explodes through and reveals the thinking that has been brewing for so long under the surface. 

As a result of this work, I have also been more passionately and deeply engaged in what we are learning together. So do I have the time?...certainly! But as many of my colleagues say to me, "Do you ever stop working?" My response - No, I'm having too much fun!