Monday, December 26, 2011

Without Leaving the Classroom

You don't need to be an environmental educator, you don't have to stray from traditional norms, or be on the cutting edge to incorporate place-based education into your daily practice as a teacher. The goal is to create connections, connections to what the learners already know about the world around them. Activate their prior knowledge.

One of my most effective teachers was in college. In fact for most of the courses we never left the dark art history classroom, where a huge screen usually displayed two slides at a time. All of his lectures and courses were about art created during the Baroque period or before. What Professor Grillo did do was make correlations to what was happening in the world during the time the art work was created with what was going on in the world as we sat in our chairs and took notes. He compared and contrasted the socioeconomics of the times, the technology, the relationships between the artists and the commissioners. We, the students, had a deeper understanding of history because we could use ourselves and our place in history as a reference point.

Using the creek that runs behind the school yard is a wonderful opportunity to teach so many things, but a teacher does not need to start there. Simply comparing your latitude on a map in relationship to the country you are studying is a way to make a simple connection and a reference point from which you can compare and contrast.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lessons from Professor Snowman

Inquiry learning focuses on the idea that the learner generates their own questions about the world and the teacher guides them in the search to find the answers. Being keen to listening for these questions (a.k.a. learning opportunities) is part of a teacher, mentor or parents' job.

My son has really wanted to build a snowman ever since the first snowfall in early November. The problem was it was too cold. Not too cold for us to be outside, but too cold for the snow to stick together. He wanted to know why.

Now my son is just shy of 3 years old. We aren't going to go really deep with this, but there are some ways we can work to develop an understanding of the concepts which answer this question. Inquiry is about the learner discovering, not about the teacher telling. The solution to this problem won't be found in a day, in fact, for this particular inquiry he won't know the real root of the answer for years. Knowledge builds and spirals on itself.

We start off by simply applying a very basic scientific method approach. Each day we look at the thermometer and I read the temperature to him. I ask him how cold it feels outside. Warm, chilly, cold, really cold or freezing? Then we try to make a snowball and discuss the texture and weight of the snow. Is it light and fluffy or heavy and clumpy. Does it stick together or fall apart? I wait to see if he draws any conclusions... it is a pretty sophisticated concept for a toddler to correlate temperature with snow conditions, but we're building the blocks for better understanding later.

With my 6th grade students we would start at a very different place. They will be able to read the thermometer themselves, for starters, but they quickly, if they haven't already in their lives, correlated temperature with snow conditions, especially if they are into skiing which many kids in this region are. Though with my particular group skiing is a luxury their families can't afford. They do however have prior knowledge to draw from, having years of snowball fighting and snowman building experience. They should also have some understanding of states of matter. Now we can start to deepen their comprehension of the concepts at play here. Having really worked with my students on how to use references they can start research in the library and the internet. They can also start to conduct experiments: recording data and observations. Date, time, temperature, snow quality. Eventually between research, experimentation, and a little guidance they are able to conclude that there exist subtleties between states of matter. You don't just go directly from ice to water. There are shades of grey in between. Some of the kids have discovered through their research how the molecular structure of water changes. This is when I see if I could get a local expert in. The University of Alaska, Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University are right here - a wealth of resources for any educator. I seek out a glaciologist and bring her in to help us put all the pieces together.

There are many extensions and culminating ways you can use to put this new found understanding to use and allow the students to apply their knowledge and for teachers and parents to assess the accuracy of the information gained:
  • Have students keep a journal recording their daily investigations, research or experiments. Journals are a great way to tap into many different intelligences, as Howard Gardner would say. Students who are visual can draw and map out their findings while students who are very literal can do more writing. 
  • A great cumulative way to prove their understanding of their path to discovery is to create a flow chart, mapping their way from their starting point - the question to their conclusion.
  • The best test of what a student has learned is if they are able to explain the concept acquired in their own words - a wonderful way to do this is to explain the process to a younger audience. I often have my 6th grade students write stories or lead experiments for their 2nd grade reading buddies.
As we all know everyone learns differently, not everyone of my students is going to understand the true molecular differnces between snow at -20 degrees and snow at 31 degrees, but their understanding will be deeper and broader than it was before. Their understanding will stick with them and translate into many other realms because they led the inquiry and were not told the answer. They will have the tools to seek answers and solutions when teachers or parents are no longer in constant eye sight.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Reading about Place

I've always been drawn to reading books set in or about places I've been or lived. I like being able to imagine the landscape, buildings or people. I suppose they also helped me develop from being a struggling reader to a prolific one. I was able to tackle harder to read words by having a context in which to put them.

Here are some of my favorite books about Alaska, my home for the last decade. Some are children's books and some are novels meant for a more mature audience (though they are not graphic or lude in anyway).
  • Arctic Lights, Arctic Nights by Debbie Miller, and illustrated by Jon Van Zyle
  • My Lead Dog Was A Lesbian: Mushing Across Alaska in the Iditarod--the World's Most Grueling Race by Brian Patrick O'Donoghue
  • Recess at 20 Below by Cindy Aillaud
  • The Accidental Adventurer by Barbara Washburn, the first woman to Climb Denali
  • Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska Wilderness by Anne Purdy & Robert Specht
  • Two in the Far North by Margaret E. Murie
  • Up on Denali by Shelly Gill, illustrated by Shannon Cartwright
  • Winterdance by Gary Paulsen
  • All books written by Debbie Miller
  • All books illustrated by Shannon Cartwright

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Love Story about Place

This is a grown up novel, not a story book, but I thought I would still share. I love all of Vreeland's books as they are mostly about the lives of artists, and with my background in art history, well they are just perfect light reading, but the The Forest Lover is an absolute favorite. Having such a strong passion for place and creating connections, this piece of historical fiction plays at everyone of my heartstrings!

I happened to stumble upon this book in the bargain section of a book store looking for something to read on the plane as I went to fly to Victoria, British Columbia, where my mom was living at the time, to visit for Christmas. I honestly just liked the cover and quickly glanced at the blurb on the back. As luck would have it it was about the artist, Emily Car, who lived in Victoria, her deep passion for the place and her love of the native culture.  At the time I was single and living in a dry cabin with no running water in Fairbanks, finishing grad school and in my third year of teaching full time. I myself had fallen in love with Alaska Native culture and how place means something very different in Alaska than anywhere else I had lived. Talk about making connections!

While in Victoria my mother and I were able to go to the Emily Carr house and many of the places mentioned in the book, that I hadn't been to on previous trips, but now was curious about. At her house, now a historical landmark and museum we were greeted by an docent who explained typical Christmas traditions in Victoria at the time when Carr lived. It was so special and so poignant to make such immediate connections to a book I picked up by happenstance.

I have read all but two of Vreeland's novels. Currently I am devouring Clara and Mr. Tiffany.