Monday, August 4, 2014

Helping Around the House

Helping Grandpa fix the toy tractor.
While I focus a lot of energy on free play and outdoor play on the Facebook page, the basis of Taiga Teacher has always been place-based education. The idea that teaching is highly effective when local concepts and examples are employed to build understanding of broader, more global concepts. A microcosm/macrocosm type of scaffolding, drawing upon a learner's prior knowledge to make connections to the new information being passed on. In the simplest form - teaching in context and bringing learning back to the real world. Since we are talking about place, what hits home more than HOME!

There is so much being touted about free play. My favorite benefit being that it enables children to be better goal setters and promotes their ability to self actualize. I see a trend, as disturbing as the elimination of play in the academic setting - the elimination of children helping their parents with household chores. One of the most fertile grounds for learning is at home. We live in such a fast paced world, with so many obligations. Parents often barely have enough time to load the dishwasher or mow the lawn between work, soccer games, book clubs etc... Often chores are rushed and parents feel they don't have time to slow down and include the child. It is true that a child might make the task take twice as long, but the benefits are HUGE!

Helping Grandma lead the donkey into the barn.
I've read quite a few parenting books in my 5.5 years on the job and one of the suggestions just about every resource I've come across is to engage children in the household tasks. It may be painful at times, especially when they are little and developing both their fine and gross motor skills, but such activities are exactly for just that purpose... developing their skills, both physical and mental. When kids help with the chores they learn process skills... how to see something through from beginning to end. They feel empowered and engaged. Most negative behavior based on my research and experience is because children are grappling for control - control of their feelings, their physical surroundings, their bodily functions, their thoughts, their belonging... When we invite them to join us and show them we trust them enough to be involved and that everything takes work, practice and patience we are giving them an enormous gift!

Learning in context:
Making pie crust.
Simple chores such as emptying the dishwasher has kids sorting items: forks, spoons, knives, small plates and big. Helping wash the dishes teaches physics, properties and tendencies of water and chemistry- mixtures and chemical reactions. Cooking too introduces many chemistry concepts, as well as measurement, states of matter, and even culture. Helping dad with the car teaches not only mechanics, but physics, and sheds light to the behind the scenes life all manufactured objects have. Every task from harvesting food from the garden to sweeping the deck or shoveling the snow has a lesson if you take the time to appreciate it. This goes for our toddlers to our highschoolers.

Opportunities to build on knowledge are always found embedded in tasks. Cleaning windows is a chance to build rich vocabulary - discuss what transparent means and what the opposite of that is. Discuss why Dawn dish soap cuts through grease and how it is used to help clean animals after an oil spill. If you don't know yourself, research it. Showing your child how you learn is a precious a gift. There's always an opportunity waiting to be harnessed!

Opportunity to connect:
Chores also provide a time to talk with your child while the attention is not on them or you, but on the task at hand. It's a good time to discuss what is going well and to troubleshoot other parts of life that aren't going so hot, for example left over feelings from a big transition such as a move.

Healthy Risk Taking:
The other huge benefit of household chores is learning to take healthy risks in a supportive, safe environment. By risk I don't mean letting my 2 year old put the knives away when unloading the dish washer. I take those out first. My older son often volunteers to do chores I often wonder if he's capable of taking on at his age, for instance one day when he was 4 he wanted to help vacuum the house, despite the stand up machine being taller than him. He attempts these tasks and makes his own decision if he is in over his head, capable of carrying on, or he asks for help, another skill I encourage in my children and hope they take into their adulthood. The humble ability to know when they need help and the ability to feel secure enough with themselves to ask. On this particular occasion he assessed that he couldn't wrangle the contraption on his own and decided he would just use the hose attachment and do the edges and corners like he had observed me doing before.

Risk taking is a monumental and often overlooked part of academic life. A child who is afraid to take healthy risks can be debilitated in the classroom. Risk taking happens almost every moment in life. A simple example would be a child coming across a new word they've never seen before and making the leap to either trust themselves to figure it out using the context clues, sounding it out or throwing up their hands. When a child takes risks, they are trusting themselves to try something new. The crucial component in this is knowing that making a mistake is ok and a valuable part of the learning process. Letting kids make mistakes and learn from them with out intervening is challenging, but so necessary. It tells them you have faith they are smart enough to figure it out. "I told you so" can prohibit anyone from trying further. Celebrating a child's attempt with a phrase like "That was wonderful how you turned off the water and figured out how to keep it in the sink!" Allowing yourself to face the unknown is a finely honed skill that can lead to big life altering events like taking a leap and applying for a dream job, buying a house, sending a book you wrote to the publisher, starting a business or choosing a major in college. You won't do it if you don't trust yourself or do not feel supported, no matter the outcome.

Imagine how much more they can help out when they are older if they learn to help out early. How responsible they will be....

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Foster what people do well, go with your instinct, break the rules for the power of good, let individuals teach themselves. I am at a loss for words to aptly describe how truly monumental this one family's story is. It hits every chord of what needs to happen and change in education today! Parents, teachers, SPED teachers, administrators need to see this. It should be mandatory viewing for everyone! I kept almost turning it off thinking I got the point they were making, and they just kept hitting all the things that need to change about our system!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mush On!

As the Yukon Quest  is winding down, the first few mushers now in, we prepare for the most infamous of dogsled races, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race! Here's some great footage from the vantage point of the sled of Egel Ellis on a sprint (short distance) race.

A great lesson about genetics would be to compare what breeds are used in sprint dogs vs endurance ones. Sled dog lineage is an important part of the process.

Nutrition for sled dogs is also a great topic to explore. I've been at parties with mushers and there's nothing more entertaining and weirdly interesting, than listening to them have a serious discussion around the campfire about.... dog poop and how it relates to how well their dogs are absorbing the nutrients from their specially planned diets.

There's great activities, lesson ideas and plans for teachers, parents and homeschoolers on both webpages:  Yukon Quest and Iditarod. Lots of great lessons integrating math, mapping, history, science, reading and writing!

Some great children's books about mushing:

Great Non-fiction Novels:

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Yes Virginia, You do Use Algebra Everyday... you just don't know it.

***Disclaimer... I'm sure this post needs editing... but I'm going to have an 18 month old wake any moment and I wanted to get it out there while the thought was still hot!

This was posted on a friend's page (a friend, who is rather brilliant in my opinion). It made me sad that so many people think this is true. The reality is they use algebra every day and they are good at it. They just had to learn it in context and didn't realize the technical name for what they are doing. In school they were taught that it happened in a vacuum where math only happened in written equations on a chalkboard or on lined paper. Algebra in its simplest form is finding the missing number. Little kids can do it. 4 + x = 5. I had 5 batteries now I only have 4, one is missing... I better check to see what the toddler is playing with... I just did algebra. I had a $87.45 discrepancy on my bank statement, what check or checks didn't go through... I just did basic algebra again. I had to figure out how many yards of fabric my child's Halloween costume would take based on the measurements of my child... did it again.

Here in Alaska, the Anchorage School District had a brilliant elementary math curriculum for over a decade - Everyday Math by McGraw-Hill Education, they got rid of it this year. Now I'm not one to embrace most canned textbook programs, in fact you'll usually find me railing against them... but this one, this one is different... this one I fully support. Here's why (I've taught the 3rd, 4th, & 6th grade levels of it): It spirals and builds on knowledge from year to year, multiple ways of solving a problem are taught, strategies like partial product and partial quotient teach why the numbers work and aren't just an algorithm learned by rote. With the multiple strategies, students find problem solving skills that fit their way of learning, and also begin to understand that some strategies are more efficient than others. Math games are as much a part of the curriculum as practice pages, in fact they are more important. I know great teachers that took years rounding up the games that automatically come with the program. Through the games students learn how to apply the math in real world, everyday ways. Especially in 6th grade I learned so much more about math through this program. I had many aha moments, where I thought to myself "If only I had been taught this way!" I highly suggest home school parents try to get their hands on this program!

So what was the problem? Why did the district change programs? The first and understandable problem is that the texts and program assume that a student started the program in Kindergarten and have built upon their knowledge each year since. Fine for a town in Massachusetts, where families date back to the Mayflower, but not in a transient place like Alaska. A larger systemic problem in our society today.... FEAR OF CHANGE is the biggest reason this program was canned. Parents and teachers alike balked at it all along. "This isn't the way I learned math." was heard regularly. Well if I'm correct I haven't seen an abacus used lately.... math evolves. Our culture is so self-centered that if we can't relate to it, then we aren't going to allow our kids the opportunity to learn a better way. A deeply rooted fear of math that has been instilled in the last few generations because of bad pedagogy, has created parents who are scared of it and throw up a wall before they even try to understand it.

My biggest beef with letting go of EDM was the middle school and high school teachers who swore it was ruining the students. I'm pretty sure my kids understood why their algorithms worked better than their teachers when they moved on from elementary. This math in a new dialect was not carried over in texts in middle in high schools across the district. They still used the old ways and didn't continue on with the program.

Knowledge evolves! It seems so ironic to me that in a time of so much technological  advancement, we get in our own way, or more importantly our kids' way of learning better! Maybe it's a sign that our society is too fast paced, if we can't take the time to just try to learn a new way of long division.

Another reason for learning in context! Now isn't it nice to know you are smarter than you thought! You use algebra everyday to solve a myriad of regular old problems.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Outdoor Preschool Group

We have been fortunate to join an amazing group of welcoming families involved in an Outdoor Preschool. This group meets weekly at the same location, no matter the weather, throughout the year. The format of every meeting is: begin with a greeting song, hike down the trail to the story knoll (about .25 mile), read a book (the story knoll is under the cover of some large fir trees so it is dry even on rainy days and there are fallen trees that provide seating), a little further hike to beach (another .25 mile) picking huckleberries & blueberries in season, at the beach parents often make a fire and roast hotdogs, snacks are shared. there is an island that at low tide is accessible by a tombolo, trees along the beach provide as great shelter against the wind and precipitation. Tide pools are also accessible at low tide. In the summer salmon can be seen splashing around, with seals bobbing up in down in search of them and curious as to what the kids are doing. We've only been here about 2 months, and haven't seen it ourselves, but whales can be seen in the cove too! Last week the kids spotted and caught a wood frog they only slightly terrified and gently put back after they scrutinized him.

I've participated and even started groups similar to this, but with less structure. The key to picking a good places to regularly meet is choosing one that has options such as protection from the canopy of the forest. Meeting in the same location every time is a a great way to learn about place intimately through the seasons and all the changes it cycles through.

I love how welcoming and accessible this group is. Its future is a little shaky right now. The moms who originally started it a couple of years ago, now have kids that have moved on to elementary school, but the torch has been carried on by a few other parents. The mama who has recently been carrying on has her kiddos moving into the school world this fall and no one has picked up the baton yet. I would, but I'm being good to myself and my family, by not over stretching myself. I will gladly help where I can though.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

We've Moved!

My family and I have relocated to Juneau, Alaska for my husband's work. We are excited to be in the Capital "City" and have already dug in and started to figure out what makes this place tick. As an educator working towards a career in policy, there couldn't be a better place for me to be than the center of government for this great state!

Here are some pictures from our recent hike on the Perseverance Trail. One of the most infamous and important trails in the history of Alaska. It's roots in the Gold Rush that shaped the economy of this state are deep. The landscape stunning and imposing. The ruins intriguing... especially for our curious 4 year old!

Taiga Teacher (Harmony) and her 2 boys (one is on her back) on the Perseverance Trail - Juneau, AK

Friday, April 5, 2013

An Exciting Outdoor Education Opportunity in the Works!

An exciting educational opportunity is in the works for middle school aged students in Anchorage. The Anchorage STrEaM Academy  is a charter school in the making, with " a middle school curriculum infused with outdoor, long-term laboratory investigations." As a former 6th grade teacher, I can tell you, this could not be a more appropriate way to connect and engage students of this age group! What makes me even more excited about this school is that it will be housed on the east side of town, and hopefully provide an option to families of kids currently moving on from Title 1 elementary schools.

They are having an informational meeting on May 2. Here's the text from the email they sent me:

"The folks at Anchorage STrEaM Academy are excited to extend an invitation to you. We are hosting an informational meeting for interested community partners, families, and stakeholders at The BP Energy Center on May 2nd at 7pm.
 We would love to have you join!    
Come learn more about our proposed Charter School for 6th-8th graders, inquire about our timeline, see faces behind the scenes, and share what you would like to offer.
The gathering will be informal and welcoming."