Saturday, November 5, 2011

It is not about doing what you love the most; it is about loving what you do!

The late Steve Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford has been in the news lately. It's a wonderful speech; go and read it now, if you like - I'll wait.

One of the parts of the speech that has been celebrated is this:

"I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle."

The thing is, that's a lovely idea, but it gets read as meaning something like "do what you love, and the money will follow." That's not what he said, though. Steve Jobs became fabulously wealthy doing what he loved, but Steve Jobs was Steve Jobs: he was one person out of several billion on the planet. His experience was unique. To put it simply, "You are not Steve Jobs".

I wish he had said something in the lines of:

"You might not be as lucky as I was, to be able to do what you love straight away and be successful at it. You may have to choose between things you already love, and things you could come to love, and things you know you will never love. Whatever you choose to do, try to love it because you might spend the next 40 or 50 years of your life at it. It probably won't make you rich, although it might, but you will have spent much of your life in a project you love. There's a lot of reward in that."

Mick Jagger was asked in an interview if he thought that electronic music downloads would destroy the music industry, and make it impossible for musicians to get rich as he did. Jagger said that electronic downloads were making it possible for many, many musicians to get their music out there without needing big record labels. Sure, he said, it probably would be much harder to get rich - but through history there have been very few musicians who got rich. Jagger reflected that he had been lucky to come at a special time, when a lucky few - like himself - got fabulously rich from music. Such a thing had never really been possible for musicians before and maybe, he thought, it would never happen again.

Many people love making music. Few will get rich from it. Many people love making new gadgets, but few will get rich from it. Few people naturally love dentistry, but it may be a better career choice, for some people, than making music. As you decide what to do in your life, you may have to, so to speak, learn to love dentistry. But, in our world, you don't have to - and should not think you have to - do something you could never love. So don't.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gifted - Interested

I was out for lunch with Finbar this weekend. We went to one of our favourites restaurants in NYC, "Osteria Morini" (if you live here or are in town you should try it out). We were talking about food and I was telling him that it amazes me how much I like cooking. When I lived in London I had learnt to cook, and I liked it, but I was never all that ambitious at the time. I thought that cooking was magic, something only the gifted could do. But now, I have started cooking more ambitious dishes, and I'm having a great time.

He asked, what is different now? I said that now I cook because I am interested in cooking, and not because I need to eat. Because I am interested, I have started to try new things. And, I have learned that it's not magic, it's not limited to people with special gifts. With practice, I can cook too!

Sometimes people are gifted in an area, and it comes naturally to them. It's easy to think they're the only people who can be good at what they do. But it's not true! Someone who is interested in something can practice, and become good at it or even master it. There is research that shows that expertise in a skill depends mostly on practice. Talent helps, but practice is far more important. People with talents tend to practice because it's fun to be good at something. But, people who are interested can practice something because it's fun - and that way they become good at it! The key in education is to try to tap into that effect, to help the children discover new interests wherever possible. Wherever we can find the fun, we can practice without it being work. Of course, for each child there may be things that aren't fun; but what a gift  it is when we find new things that are!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Wonder & iTravel

I have been teaching kindergarten for quite a while now. Let's say that when I started teaching, telephones were not cordless, we had televisions where you had to stand up to change the channel, portable music meant a "Walkman," and hi-fi music was on vinyl.

The world is in constant change, and so are the children. Some people believe that if you teach the same year over and over you can simply fall into a routine... and that is so not true. The curriculum may continue to be the same, but the children are not.

The presentation of the curriculum must be adapted from year to year according to the needs and preferences of the children. 

Last year my classroom was mainly populated by firstborn children: this year I have lots of siblings. Last year, "Percy the Park Keeper" was the preferred book; this year they prefer the "Large Family" collection. Last year they wanted to "Wonder" about things, while this year they want to experience them.

So instead of "I Wonder," we will have "iTravel" on Fridays. Every other Friday the children will find the classroom chairs lined up in rows, like seats in an airplane. We will take the children, in their imaginations, to another country. We will have preflight briefings, and suitcases, and passports, to make it more vivid (the suitcases and passports are made out of cornflake boxes). Up on the board they will see where they are going, on a map, and we'll talk about how far away it is.

When landing, they will get their suitcases and passports and line up to go through passport control and get stamps on their passports, and they will be greeted by someone in the language of that country. After that the country guide will be waiting for them, to take them to see something representative of the country. (As you can imagine, I will play multiple roles during all this!) 

The children will mail a postcard from "the country" (actually from the school, of course!) to their parents, telling them where they have been. 

iTravel is based on an awesome book, which has all sorts of great ideas for us to use:
iTravel's launch generated enthusiasm from the children that exceeded anything we had expected. They LOVED being on the airplane, and lining up with their passports, and doing Flamenco dancing and saying "ole!"

During all this fun, we do have some sneaky ulterior motives. You see, we can slip many of the learning objectives for the year into the iTravel theme. For example, one of the things we talk about early in the year is "All About Me," where each child can talk about themselves, including where they are from, where their parents are from, what they eat there, what holidays their families celebrate, and what their country's flag looks like. We talk about "friendship" and "citizenship," and we talk about "processes" (such as getting on the plane, flying, getting off the plane, going through immigration...). 

Toward the end of the year, we will pull it all back in again to ask, "Where Are We?" We will zoom in, from looking at the whole world, to look at the United States, and then New York, and then to our own neighborhoods. We will talk about what makes a neighborhood, how they are similar and different, what all neighborhoods need, and the people in our neighborhoods and what they do.

We must reinvent ourselves every year and make learning interesting and above all FUN!

Happy travels!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Club - for 6-year-olds?

For me reading is a passion. I am completely taken to another world when I read; I feel I am part of the book. I cry, I laugh, I read the best parts over and over again. I can imagine the characters' voices and the scenery.

I am always saddened when I hear that someone does not like to read. We teach reading at our school when the children are 5 and a half, and I have taught reading to even younger kids at other schools. I have always been careful not to make a "task" out of the process of learning to read. From the very beginning, in our classroom the children are encouraged to have fun, to engage the listener by using different voices, showing expression and, as I say, playing with the words.

Because of the concern that I have, that reading becomes more of a task than a pleasure for many kids, I lead a book club as an extracurricular activity. This year I will have two book clubs going: one for 6 year olds (J1) and, next semester, I will also have one for 7 year olds (J2).

Yes, a proper book club - just like an adult one. It's not a "class," there are no evaluations. It's just for fun! We eat and drink something together and we discuss the book, share our opinions, talk about the characters and question their intentions. What will they do next, we wonder. What if...?

When we teach reading in the classroom we follow a reading system. Even though we try to make it fun and interesting, there is an implicit message that the children pick up on. The children can see that as they progress there are different levels of difficulty, and they deduce that the point of reading is to move up the levels of difficulty. Of course, in the classroom I don't move the children to a new level until they can read with expression, but when we have book club there are no levels: all of us are reading the same book, and the level doesn't change as we go. I'll say it again: in book club there are no levels: we focus only on reading with expression, on getting engaged in the story, on seeing reading as a source of fun. I have noticed that there is a shift in the perception of reading - often a sort of "aha!" moment - as the children realize that it's not about achievement or levels, and as they experience the real point of learning to read. Suddenly, the children are more involved, and are not passive readers: they learn to "feel" the book.

"Ms Marra - I have movies in my head!"

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Peace Table

Once, someone told me a story. Maybe it was true, maybe not! According to the story, a woman asked Ghandi to talk to her husband, because he (the husband) had committed to fast for a week, but never seemed to get around to actually doing it. Ghandi agreed to talk to the husband and ask him to fulfill his commitment, but told her he would only do it in a week's time, and to come back with her husband then.
The woman did as Ghandi asked, but of course she began to wonder why he had made her wait a week, so on the return visit she asked him. He answered, "I would never ask someone to do something I wouldn't do myself!"

The story haunts me at times. I teach the children some very basic life skills - but I realize I don't always do the very things I ask them to do!

One of the very important skill sets I try to work on with the children is to deal with conflict - and how not to let differences of opinion become unecessarily emotional or personal. I talk to them about how to recognize their own emotions, and to think about how their friends may be feeling. I talk to them about differences of opinion, and about how their friends may disagree with them for good reasons, and that it doesn't mean they don't like them anymore.  Another important insight, for them, is to realize that sometimes things happen by accident, and sometimes things are done on purpose.

How do we teach the children to deal with these situations? First, they have to learn to recognize their own feelings about what is happening. Second, they have to learn that attacking - whether physically or verbally - is not an appropriate response. Third, they learn that talking always helps: talking about why they feel upset, or about why they are having a difference of opinion, or about why the accident happened.

We have a Peace Table in the classroom, exactly for the talking part of the exercise. Whenever any of the children wants to, (s)he can invite a friend to come to the Peace Table to talk about whatever is on their mind. Early in the year we introduce this concept to the children, and they are amazingly open to it and simply start using it. I hope this will help them to grow up as adults who don't bottle things up inside - and who also don't explode in reaction to things people do (like I sometimes do!).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

synthetic phonics X analytic phonics

At our school we teach reading by teaching the sounds and then teaching the children to build up the words from the sounds.  It may seem like the obvious way to teach reading, but actually there has been some controversy about it. There is another school of thought, that says it's better to teach the children to recognize whole words, right from the beginning. 

There's actually been serious research into which approach is more effective. 

The biggest study of this was done in the UK. Researchers there concluded that synthetic phonics (building up words from their constituent sounds) is more effective than analytic phonics (the “whole word” approach) after finding that: 
After 1 year, students taught with synthetic phonics had reading ability approx. 1 year ahead of their chronological age (i.e., ahead of the reading ability of students taught with analytic phonics), and also had spelling ability that was at least 1 year ahead of the spelling ability of students taught with analytic phonics.
The advantage demonstrated by students taught with synthetic phonics is persistent, rather than temporary. In subsequent years, the synthetic phonics students continue to have a lead of at least 1 year, in both reading and spelling, over students taught with analytic phonics.
Groups of disadvantaged children, who have historically underachieved when taught with analytic phonics, did not underachieve when taught with synthetic phonics. This was consistent with the observation made by some researchers that, although there tends to be a “tail” group of students who significantly underperform with analytic phonics instruction (whether they belong to a “disadvantaged” group or not), the use of synthetic phonics almost entirely eliminates this “tail.”

Researchers believe that the reasons why synthetic phonics is more effective are:
Knowledge of letter sounds (or phonemes), or even just letter names, has been found to be the strongest predictor of reading achievement. Synthetic phonics teaches letter sounds early in the instruction process. 
Blending together individual sounds has been found to be a strong predictor of reading achievement (when measured before the beginning of formal instruction). Synthetic phonics explicitly teaches blending skills.
Segmenting words into sounds has been found to be a strong predictor of spelling ability. Synthetic phonics explicitly teaches word segmentation.
The synthetic phonics approach engages the left brain (as shown by MRI studies), rather than the right brain, which is engaged by the analytic phonics approach. The left brain is more efficient at processing language.
There is a theory for why synthetic phonics should work better: the use of letter sounds, blending and segmenting reduces the cognitive load on the student. Here's what this means, as I understand it. When trying to identify short words, there are relatively few possible solutions to consider, but the number of possible long words is enormous. The number of possible solutions grows exponentially with the length of the word, so that the analytic phonics student, in trying to identify the whole word directly, quickly faces a problem of tremendous complexity. In contrast, identification of the individual sounds in the word, followed by blending them together, presents the student with a problem that grows only in proportion to the length of the word. Beyond short words, this gives a huge advantage to the synthetic phonics student.

Friday, April 8, 2011


There's a question that has always seemed, to me, to lie at the heart of a lot of the disagreements about assessments: who are we assessing - the children, or ourselves?

I myself grew up very much afraid of assessments, and my stress over them has meant that I have not been the best performer on tests. 

I realized, however, that stressing over tests is a learned response, not a natural one. My students don't know that they "should" stress over assessments, and they don't even know they're being assessed, especially as the assessments can take so many different forms at this age and stage in life.

From my point of view, what's useful about assessment is that it allows me to learn what lessons I have taught effectively to each child. The assessments help me to identify what I need to do differently for the remainder of the year, not just in general, but with each individual child. 

So, I see the assessment as being an assessment of what I have done, not an assessment of the children as students. I am the grownup, and it is up to me to communicate to the child - it is not the child's job to figure me out. And, for the child, where is the benefit in having them think of themselves as "not a good student"? 

I'm not Pollyanna: I realize that the children are different, and I realize that as they get older they will have to learn techniques that will allow them to assess well. However, I believe that all the children should - and can - learn all the material I teach; whatever their level of ability and maturity, it is up to me to find a way to make the material accessible to them - and this is why I find differentiation so valuable and important. 

Still, at some point the kids are going to figure out that they're being assessed, and how they react to it will depend on how they think about the answer to that question I asked: am I assessing their performance, or mine?

So, in my classroom, once in a while I tell the children, "today, please don't talk among yourselves (I usually encourage collaboration) as you do this activity, because I want to know if I have been able to teach you properly. If I didn't, I will try to find a better way to teach it to you." No surprise, the children are very eager to help me out! I've even had children tell me things like, "Miss Marra, I am not so sure about the hexagon - I think you will have to teach me about that again!" 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fruit and the Future

Some posts back I wrote that we are educating the children for a future we cannot imagine. That's a difficult concept, because of course it's hard to imagine what we cannot imagine!

Here's a British TV sketch you'll enjoy. On one level it's just a funny sketch; on another it makes us aware of how many words we use in ways that were inconceivable when we were children (that is, those of us who are over 35 now). And of course, there are many more concepts we use daily now, using words that didn't exist at all back then!

We live in a world that no-one could imagine, when we were kids.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I Wonder ...... Earth

When our "I Wonder" session began this week, we all sat down in a circle and the kids did some "wondering," and I reminded them that we had planned to talk about one of the "wonders" from last week: how the Earth came to be the Earth! 

I had my story ready:

A long, long, long, long, long time ago(!) there wasn't any Earth. All there was, was just a lot of dust and rocks, floating in space.

Then, this one fairly big rock came along, and other rocks and dust started to stick to it. As they did, it got bigger and bigger, and the bigger it became, the more the other rocks and dust wanted to stick to it, so it kept getting bigger and bigger until eventually it was HUGE! And that HUGE rock is what we now call Earth.

Now, I said that the other little rocks and dust started to stick to the bigger rock. But how do we know that happened? We know because it still happens! We can even make that happen here in the classroom, RIGHT NOW!

(Have the children pick up small objects - pencils and so forth.)

Okay, now let's pretend that the pencils and the rulers are just like rocks and dust in space. (If anyone is really dubious, you can always get them some rocks.) What happens if you let them go?

(The children let them go. They fall.)

See? Everything wants to stick to the Earth! In fact, WE even want to stick to the Earth! (Jump up, fall back down!) Does anyone know a name for that? It's called Gravity.

Now, does anyone know anything else that things like to stick to? (Discussion - and introduce the magnet.)

Magnets don't have gravity, they have magnetism. It's different because only metal wants to stick to a magnet, but EVERYTHING wants to stick to the Earth. But we can use a little magnet to let you imagine what it looked like when the Earth was just starting to grow.  (Show the magnet. Put it under the paper. Explain that the iron filings are dust, but they're made of metal so that they want to stick to the magnet. Sprinkle filings over the paper, very slowly, explaining that these are the pieces of dust passing by. As you do so, filings landing near the spot where the magnet is below the paper, will start to gather in a clump over the magnet. The area nearby will have very few filings on the paper, although filings landing farther away will stay where they are. The clump of filings represents the rocks gathering to form the early Earth, and the clear space around the clump shows why the Earth isn’t growing much today – all the rocks that could have fallen down have already fallen down.) 

You may want to re-do the "things falling" demonstration. It's pretty cool because they can see for themselves how the rocks stick to the Earth - and to see that they do, too.


Questions you might be asked:

Q: Where did the dust come from?
A: We don't really know! We know that some of it came from stars, like the sun, very far away. And scientists think that, originally, everything began in a giant explosion called the Big Bang, but how that happened is still a mystery. Maybe one of you will eventually figure it out!

Q: Why does everything want to stick to the Earth?
A: Gravity means that when something is really, really big, small things want to stick to it. Things want to stick to the Earth, but things near the Moon want to stick to the Moon. And, in fact, things near the Sun want to stick to the Sun (which is really hot, so I'm glad I'm not standing on it)!

Q: But if the Earth started off as a small rock, why did things want to stick to it then, when it was small?
A: Well, back then only very very tiny things stuck to it. But every time they did, it got a little bigger. And as it got bigger, slightly bigger things stuck to it. It was a bit like making a snowman, when you start off with a snowball and roll it on the ground (not all the children may know this, but some will). At first you roll it and roll it but only a little snow sticks to it, and it stays small for a long time. But then, as it gets bigger, it grows faster and faster, and soon it gets really big.

Q: Is the Earth still getting bigger?
A: Not much anymore, but yes. Almost everything in the area, small enough to fall down onto it, has already fallen down! But sometimes a passing rock, floating past in space on its way from somewhere else, will get pulled down. At night, if it's really dark out (like when you're in the countryside), you sometimes see a falling star. That's a rock, falling down onto the Earth, and making it a little bit bigger!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Schools, Creativity, Sir Ken Robinson and JAM

I first heard of Sir Ken Robison last year when I was doing a Harvard Wide World course online as a team member. Our team was compromised of two JAM teachers, Adriana and I, and we were blown away by how magnificent his lecture was (see "Schools Kill Creativity" link in the Recommended section on the right).

After we saw the video, we felt inspired to try a new experiment in the classroom, and for our Harvard course we wrote about both the video and the experiment. Here's what we wrote:

"Sir Ken Robinson says that education will take us to a future that we can’t grasp, and we need to educate the children so they can be ready for that future.  We believe that this is very true. We are preparing the children for a world we don't yet know about.  Are we giving them the basic tools?
He also says that children are not afraid of being wrong, and that if you are not prepared to be wrong you will never create anything. This was particularly inspiring to us, as we are always aware that the little children in our classroom will be adults in the blink of an eye, and we need to provide not just the information they'll need, but the confidence in themselves to be comfortable with who they are, as well as with their knowledge; to be adaptable, to be listeners, enquirers, and thinkers.
Well, after watching this video lecture we decided to do something completely unorthodox in our classroom. Our students, at times, are afraid of trying things and getting them wrong, so Paula brought a remote control helicopter into the classroom. As it happens, she is not very good at flying it, so there were crashes. As she showed the children that it was quite hard for her to fly it, we asked, what does she need to do to get better at it? They answered: Practice!
In this AHA! moment, we asked then straight after: what do you need to do to get better at writing? - and they answered with huge smiles: Practice! Afterward, we showed them that the controls of the helicopter have two parts: one to go up and down and another for turning and going forward and backward. We then explained that for me it was easier to learn the up and down on its own first, and then start using the other control and for Adriana it was easy to use both at the same time. We then related that to writing…left to right…sounding out….and so on.
We kept the helicopter in the class, so the children could use it (and crash it – no harm done, it's almost indestructible!), and it was a reminder that we need practice to get better at things, and it’s okay if we don’t get it right at first: it's ok to get things wrong – it can even be fun while we’re learning."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Social, Emotional and Behavioural Skills

In teaching kindergarten, we spend most of our time on measurable skills - reading, writing, and counting, primarily - and it's easy to forget that the first few grades are absolutely critical in terms of developing the children's emotional skills. Emotional skills include how to interact with each other, with the teaching staff and the school, and especially how to do so when they are experiencing strong emotions they may not entirely understand themselves – and which can become a barrier to their social and academic success. 

I feel that these issues are most easily addressed early in the child's school career: any issues are still relatively overt, because the child has not yet learned to conceal feelings well; few non-constructive coping mechanisms have developed yet; and the children are open to learning coping strategies and tactics that will serve them in later years. 

The teacher's perspective and goals differ significantly from those of a psychologist: while a psychologist is focused on “problem” behaviors, a teacher must address the problems that can arise when relatively “normal” behaviors are triggered in the classroom. Conversely, a teacher should not be expected to - or try to - address serious behavioral problems.

In an international school, where there is an unusually great amount of diversity, there are in some ways more triggers and opportunities for emotional and behavioral problems - which is a good thing, if we hope to teach constructive coping skills early! In addition, from time to time individual children can turn out to be a greater challenge than we had originally anticipated.

As a teacher, I have found it especially rewarding when I can show a child how to deal with confusion, alienation, frustration or anger in more constructive ways – whether the child is simply an over stimulated “normal” child, or a somewhat “hyperactive” one, or even one with an autistic spectrum disorder such as Asperger's.  

57 flavours?

Last summer I attended two courses* in London. One thing that struck me quite forcibly, while there, was how teachersconfidence seems to reach a low point after a certain number of years on the job: even though they want to, they feel they can no longer grow because they feel the system they work within - no matter what it is - limits them.

On both courses we were told we would be asked to share "nuggets" of knowledge with each other at the end. I quickly identified the "nugget" I wanted to share, but as the course went on and I saw myself and my colleagues as students, I realized I was going to change it!

The original "nugget" came from an experience I had last year, when my good friend Adriana and I took an online course on Differentiation. One of the assignments we had to do was based on a Malcolm Gladwell essay on spaghetti sauce (seriously!).

Gladwell told how, for many years, makers of spaghetti sauce had tried to find the "perfect" sauce. They did surveys, they compared which sauces people preferred, and they gradually arrived at a point where they were all selling almost exactly the same sauce, which they thought of as the "best".

But then a marketer had a new idea. What if, he thought, there was a group of people who would prefer a different type of sauce? Then he could prepare a sauce to suit their taste and, even though most people would prefer the usual sauce, he would have the best sauce for those people! He tried it, and he was right - and successful. With each new sauce he could "pick off" the customers who were "odd" enough to think this new sauce was better than the "best" sauce. As the big sauce companies saw what he was doing, they all did the same. By designing different sauces, they could satisfy their customerstastes even better than they could with one sauce. Even though a relatively small number of people preferred any particular one of the new sauces, for those people it was better than the "best". Today, of course, there are tens of different spaghetti sauces, and each of us can select the one we prefer.

When I got to the course in London and was told I would have to share a "nugget"' I thought I would share that one. Now, most teachers (including Adriana and I), when they read that essay, think of the students as the product, the spaghetti sauces. Each one is different, and thats what is so special about them, and as a teacher you have to be able to cater to all of them. But as I sat in a classroom in London, a student instead of a teacher for the week, I saw the story a little differently, and it changed the way I presented it at the end.

I now proposed this interpretation: the children are the customers, and the school is a brand (like, say, Barilla), and we, the teachers, are the spaghetti sauces, the products. The school wants to add each of us to its collection because each of us has something they cannot find in any product (teacher!) they already have. When they hired us, it was because we were the best complement, among all the teachers they interviewed, to the portfolio of teachers they already had. We were the perfect new product, the missing flavor! Each of us brings something unique, something that no other teacher in the school already has, something that adds a little "zing!" to the brand and rounds it out.
But as soon as this new product arrives, it encounters other products and sees that it is different to them, that it doesn’t really "fit in". We need to remember that the new product is there because it is different. We don’t need to be the same as the other products. We cannot forget that the brand does not need us to be the same as each other; it needs us to be a little different, so that we can satisfy the customers' different needs - whether for content, or teaching style, or personality. And, of course, we must never forget that each of us is an amazing product, one the school has selected for our uniqueness.

* The courses were,Inquiry-Based Learning in the International Classroom,“ and “Classroom Assessment Strategies,“ at the Teacher Training Centre in Each ran for 5 days, from July 1-5 and from July 7-11.

RSA Animate - Changing Education Paradigms

Sir Ken Robinson is one of the five people I would like to sit and have tea with, (Michael Caine, Greg Mortenson, Steve Wozniak, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi are the others, just in case you were wondering) and it would probably be the first time in my life that I would have my mouth shut! ;-)


(non animated version:

President's Day

As of the upcoming President's Day, we decided to explore some basic citizenship ideas, through the process of electing a President in the classroom. The children learned that, in an election, several candidates will present ideas; that all of the candidates do so with good intentions; and that they have the right to choose the candidate whose ideas they prefer - or not to choose any of them.

In our classroom election, all the children were candidates, and I was impressed by the quality of their platforms: almost all of their ideas were relevant and most of them were even practical!

To kick off the lesson, I described the idea of a leadership team. For example, in the classroom, the teacher and the teacher assistant and I are the leadership team, and of course in the school we have Director and the Principal. Most of them are also familiar with President Obama, and many of them knew that he has a Vice President, Joe Biden. Of course, today they are a leadership team, but I explained that at one time they had to run for election, and the other candidate for President was John McCain. If Mr. McCain had become President, his Vice President would have been Sarah Palin.

To illustrate how the election process worked, my TA and I each chose an issue and gave an opinion on how we could improve it. We then held a short debate, and the children voted. I explained that the children had to consider our position on the issue, and that they should think about our idea and not just which person they might like more. It was a tight election!

Now, I asked the children to each write down an idea to improve the classroom, and idea they would try to persuade us to put in practice if they were elected President of the class by the others. The children came up with their ideas and wrote them down. The ideas included "no more homework," and "start at a later time so we can sleep later," on the more practical level, to "build a JAM tennis court (or swimming pool)" at the more imaginative level.

With the ideas all written down, I read out each one and allowed the children to vote. They could vote as often as they liked by raising their hands. We ended up with 5 leading ideas, and we then held a run-off between them, but now they could each vote only once. This narrowed it down to 2. At this point, in the second run-off, we issued ballots and each child could circle their preferred idea. It was interesting that, in the course of the discussions about the ideas, the children realized that they should vote for the more practical ideas, rather than the more wishful/fanciful ones.

Once again, the election results were very tight, with only 2 votes separating the two candidates (and one "spoiled vote" by someone who just couldn't decide between the ideas!). I declared a winner, and because the vote was so close - and because we had talked about leadership teams that included both a President and a Vice President, I declared the winner to be Class President, and the runner-up to be Class Vice President.

If the children have an idea they would like to put in practice in the classroom, we agreed they could bring the idea to the Vice President. Therefore, he will be their liaison, as it were. The Vice President will then advise the President on the children's views, and the team will discuss whether they should make a formal proposal to the teachers. If they decide to move ahead, the President will be the one to present the proposal to us. (Of course, the children are always free to come to us directly - but they thought it very cool to have their own elected representatives!)

Shortly after the election, the President approached me with a proposal, and I am studying it.

as Julia Child would say, you never have enough butter...

One of my favourite lessons - the Crazy Cookies lesson!

I want to introduce the idea of measurement and its importance, and - as always :-)  - I want the lesson to be sufficiently memorable to make the concepts stick.

I start off by having the children try on various coats and shoes, and then identify which ones fit and which ones don't, and we ask questions that lead them to discover the importance of size and measurement (and that the numbers on their clothing tags have a meaning).

I move on to discussing the idea of measurements in cooking recipes. The children already know that recipes contain ingredients and usually have some idea that the quantities of each ingredient may be important.

So, to help make all of this clearer and more memorable, we bake some cookies! In fact, we bake two sets of cookies, with the same ingredients in both - but one set follows the measurements in the recipe, and the other... doesn't!

So, I start off by having a circle with the kids and describing the lesson plan, then I ask the children which group they'd prefer to be in - the one that follows the recipe measurement, or the one that doesn't.

Since we have two groups mixing ingredients, I read out the ingredients and quantities. I then show the measured group how to measure out the ingredients. The other group discusses how much they want to use of each ingredient before measuring it out.

As you can imagine, the kids have a lot of fun mixing the ingredients!

Soon enough, it's time to bake the cookies. One set - the measured set - already looks like normal cookies, while the non-measured ones look more like... something else.

We take the cookie trays to the school cafeteria, where we put the measured tray in the oven for the right amount of time (10 minutes), and of course the non-measured cookies get a little more (we wouldn't want to risk having them be under-done).

And so we have two sets of cookies, with the same ingredients, but with one following the measurements in the recipe and the other... not.

Each child gets one of each, to sample the result. There is always much discussion! Each child also gets a set of cookies to take home, so some of the parents get to see the result of our experiment (not all of them, because the cookies don't always make it home!)

Of course, we write about the cookies, and each child writes about which recipe they prefer, and why.

That's as far as we take the cookery-based lesson. We continue to talk about other aspects of measurement - temperature, furniture sizes and dimensions, height and weight - using the story of Goldilocks. 


I read a book recently that got me thinking and looking at things a bit differently. The book was by Steve Wozniak, who was one of the founders of Apple Computer. When Wozniak (everyone calls him "Woz") was a boy, he would wonder how things worked, and as a teenager he would even take them apart, to find out! In the book he described how he took apart light fixtures, and telephones, to see how they worked. 

And I realized that, as a child, I had never stopped to think about how a light fixture, or a telephone worked. "How odd!" I thought, and I wondered... why not?

Well, as Woz himself points out in his book, his father was an engineer, and talked about how things worked all the time, so the young boy grew up in a world where people thought about those kinds of things. On the other hand, my father was an economist, and he didn't talk about his work at home much. But, our house was full of very interesting books, and my father would read stories to me when I was little, and I grew up loving to read!

So, while Woz and his father were dismantling things, I was reading all kinds of exciting tales of adventure! Woz wondered, "how does that work?" and I wondered, "what will happen next?"

And that got me thinking... To some extent, the things we wonder about as children depend on what we are exposed to. So, perhaps there would be some way to bring those different influences together in the classroom, so that the children could hear what the other children wonder about! Maybe this will spark some new curiosities they hadn't had before.

As you know, we have been in the habit of reading a story to the children, or simply having a chat about our day, at the end of the day before we all go home. So, one day a week (Friday), before we go home, we will make our chat be about things we wonder about!

The children already know about this, because we introduced the idea, and asked the children to start thinking what they wonder about. They already have plenty of things they wonder about! For example,

- what is inside my body?
- who made the first airplane?
- how did George Lucas think of Darth Vader?
- why is it cold in the freezer?
- why do we have velcro if we already had shoelaces?  

Our purpose will not be to get into science (or the creative fiction process), but just to talk about these things enough to introduce the idea of thinking about them, and introduce the idea that it is possible to research the answers. 

Friends, Camera, Action

"Friendly Situations"

This is an activity where the kids are divided into groups, and each group (3 or 4 kids) gets a (still) camera. They have to discuss among themselves what a friend is, how to keep friends, and how can you show you are someone’s friend. They then plan an acting scene around the theme of “A Friendly Situation.” Once that has been planned, one directs and the others act out the situation, while the Director takes pictures of their acting. We rotate the job of Director/photographer so that everyone on each team gets to do it. 

After that, we upload the pictures to an App called SonicPics. Each child, as Director for a set of pictures, selects pictures to show and narrates what the others were doing, to create a short presentation showing a way to be someone’s friend.

The children truly enjoy taking the photographs and narrating their presentations.