May 11, 2013

Letters, Castles and an Epic battle?

Feeling puzzled? Letters being uncoded by my students
My students received some letters recently. How often does that happen anymore? The letters were from an unknown destination from an unknown people; but we had been expecting them. Let me explain. My students sent out initial letters in the style and around the era of King Charlemagne, all upper case, no spaces, no punctuation (pre-modern English). It was its own kind of code to uncover for the other students who would received them. These letters were sent out to determine "what is out there", "who is out there", the kinds of resources and land that exist beyond our borders, and how we might expand our kingdom (following the kind of conquer and conquest type of thinking we might have if we lived in such a time). 

my design for our classroom door papered and painted 
You see, we have been on a quest this year in "the Kingdom of Imagination", our classroom. A major topic of study to "cover" in the curriculum in my combined grade 4 & 5 classroom this year is the early European Exploration of North America. Often this unit is a study of textbook facts, which starts from the perspective of the Explorers leaving Europe and arriving here to discover parts of the Caribbean, Newfoundland, and the rest of Canada. There are of course lots of juicy details in this historical account as the European Explorers made contact with the original inhabitants of the land, the First Nations Peoples - I will leave all that for another post sometime. But in my teaching in the past many years, I have felt that the bigger context and back story has been missing from this study of Exploration and First Contact . 

So I decided to build my own narrative of life in a Medieval Kingdom, one that precedes this whole history of exploration and contact; which helps to set up the proper context to appreciate where these people came from and what was life like "before". What was society like? What systems existed? (they know a little already about the Feudal System, because they are under my rule as High King). Who came over? Why did they go? To understand and be able to find answers to some of these questions (and others) it is important to first understand our own thoughts and feelings about what happened. And to do this, I believe that students must be engaged with their own emotions and have some authentic experiences from which to base their thoughts and opinions.

student designed stained glass covering our classroom window

student designed Medieval images to decorate our classroom walls

We have been on this Medieval adventure together since the beginning of the school year, waiting to hear a response to our letters. I had talked with another like-minded teacher colleague of mine (@dariodemetlika) from a neighbouring school about doing something like we did last year (see previous post islanders-and-explorers-encounter). We planned a kind of "contact" again, since there are some simple and easy connections that we can make in these types of activities; however we didn't want to trivialize what really happened historically in our pursuit to make a fun "activity". 

On a bigger scale both of us have been playing around over the past few years with the more meaningful, deeper concepts that underlie our curriculum. This is particularly true when studying what happens when two groups of people from different cultures make contact - where much confusion and conflict comes from today in the world. Thus this study is not ancient, rather it is relevant for today and the future for our students. 

As usual there are two timelines I am playing with. Firstly, the actual historical study of the Explorers and First Nations peoples, and secondly for this contact "we" are from a Medieval Age and "they" (the other class) are from a Modern 21st Century Age. Through this we begin to understand and confront the issue of "other" and explore the differences & similarities, misunderstandings, and mistakes that are made along the way. What happens along the way in fact is often the most intriguing aspect of these types of adventures. Only the brave take on these kinds of lessons (Medieval pun intended).

As the letters from the other students were delivered and received, there was a buzz in the room, an anticipation of what was coded on those letters; but first my students had to assemble them because they were sent as puzzle pieces to be put together. Following quite some time of figuring out how the puzzles fit together and then what the letters were saying individually, I brought all the students together and asked them, "Can we collectively figure out who they are? What are the clues that help us to form a sense of their identity?"

A few ideas that came from the letters that gave us a beginning concept:
We are from a bigger Kingdom than you
21st century
We have a system to make you cry
We have an education
We have some stuff in common
You need to learn proper grammar
What's the difference between a kingdom and a school?

My colleague and I put our two groups of students as opposites in many ways; as a result the list above was interpreted somewhat offensively by my class - which was kind of the point, especially the "education" part. My colleague and I wanted to instigate and elicit an emotional response within the students themselves. The study of history becomes more alive when students have a personal, emotional response tied to it.

We are now re-engaged in our Medieval life with purpose. We will continue to build the drama between these two groups, and they will come together in a battle of sorts. It is time for a design challenge, which will breathe life into my Science units on Structures and Forces & Motion. My students are grouped to construct "strong and fortified" castles that will help to defend and protect us from any enemy attack. The other students are working on modern school designs (as part of their curriculum). Following this we will be building trebuchets / catapults to go on the attack, and they will be using modern innovation and technology to try to knock our castles down.

This has taken only a few conversations via e-mail and a few face-to-face meetings to plan this out together. The input has been minimal; but the output is unlimited in potential, and the results are already electric! When we present the world as already discovered, all the facts already tallied, and all our discussions predetermined from a textbook; then students are limited in their own thinking and what they are able to contribute. However when learning is seen as a mystery, full of wonder, yet to be understood; students are engaged emotionally and become an active part of the conversation. 

So I have taken the big topic of the European Exploration of North America from a new perspective through my Medieval life study. This has made it more authentic, real, and exciting to my students. Through this new lens, there is something new to learn, a thought, a feeling that has never been experienced before, it belongs to them, they have become connected to it in a new way, and have been truly, actively a part of it. 

When we engage in these types of adventures, the classroom is re-oriented to become a place where anything is possible and it comes alive, learning becomes an authentic experience and alive, the students come alive...and I come alive too:) 

There is certainly more to follow, in some ways our journey has only started as we embark on our building stage of our castles and then actual contact with the other group to follow. The stage is set, we are at odds to them, the outcomes are unknown, but the lessons will indeed be meaningful regardless of successes or failures!

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