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!


  1. Fantastic post Johathan!
    Here is a quote from a blog post back in 2008. I was making notes from a talk by Maureen Dockendorf, now our assistant superintendent who is also seconded to the Ministry of Education:
    "She encouraged us to become ‘intellectual companions’ that enter into ‘learning conversations’. The part I liked most about her talk was the direction of the conversation. She spoke of:
    Not the Knowing, but the Process of Inquiry.
    Not covering the curriculum, but ‘uncovering’ the curriculum.
    A focus in innovation and creativity… how do we model this… every day?

    Maureen also spoke of the 5 needs that we (students/teachers/learners) have:
    The need to feel confident,
    The need to feel like we belong,
    The need to be potent- feel you have made a difference,
    The need to feel useful, and
    The need to have a sense of optimism."

    I think you've figured out a way to do just that. Keep up the great work!

  2. Hi! I have really enjoyed reading your posts! I particularly loved your comment "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." I have found that, when you open yourself up to the possibilities, to learning and inquiring along SIDE your students, the rewards are INVALUABLE! The learning is much deeper and the engagement and personalization is much more authentic! Do you have a Twitter account? If so, I would love to follow you. If not, it is an AMAZING on-line PLN ... and you should give it a try! (@RentonL) Thanks for the awesome posts! :)

  3. Thank you David and Laurie, both of you for your encouraging comments. I feel I am only at the beginning of this journey I am on, now in my 13th year of my teaching career! As far as Twitter, I am sure I will get around to that just as the newest, latest social media comes along to replace it...I am usually a few years behind on these things, and I'm not even sure if I would even have enough ideas to tweet:)

    What I do value is that through collaboration like this with others, my thinking is growing and expanding in new directions I had never anticipated just a year ago. Thanks!