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.

Things have certainly changed since my day - iPads?

The introduction of the iPads at JAM has allowed us to make a even greater use of Collaboration learning. This is where the kids work as a team, sharing what they know and explaining it to each other. As we all know, the best way to learn something is often to try to explain it to someone else. As we have seen, however, there often needs to be someone to decide which child’s opinion is the right one (in a dispute over whether to spell the word as “and" or "adn", for example). This is where the iPad comes in.

Picture the scene: Two JAM kids were sitting around an iPad, shortly after I had introduced the devices in the classroom in September. They were looking at an activity where a word is shown with a blank space for the first letter. The app speaks the word, and shows a picture of the object in question (the words are all nouns). The app presents several options for what the first letter might be. By tapping on the right letter, the kids get a cheer from the iPad and can move forward in their game.

In this case, the game presented “b” and “d” as options. The exchange was something like this:
  • It’s with a “ba”
  • Yes, it is! You’re right. Like for “boat!”
  • But, is that the one that goes around this way, or that way?
  • Well, there’s “da” too. I remember that... We could get the picture dictionary!
I overheard the conversation, and the problem-solving exercise.  Not long after, the voice of the iPad called out their success.

Spreading JAM

I am a kindergarten teacher currently working at an international school.
My classroom is called  "JAM". I publish a blog called Taste of JAM for the parents so that they can feel more closely connected to what is happening in the classroom. That blog is closed to the general public. This blog, Spreading JAM, is a public version of Taste of JAM, which allows me to share my classroom experiences and thoughts with colleagues.