Inquiring with a novel: Kensuke’s Kingdom

No school year should go by without a class spending quality time with a novel. It could be in the form of a read aloud, literature circles, or independent reading and reflection. I like to use a blend of several approaches.
The first challenge is to select a great book. As an inquiry-based classroom, I thought it’s critical that the novel we read together be directly related to our current theme and preferably to our central idea. We had been inquiring into children’s opportunities and challenges. After discussions with colleagues, I thought Kensuke’s Kingdom would be a perfect fit.

Copies for Everyone – Part of reading a novel, for me, is actually holding it, carrying it around. I ordered a copy for each student which will now happily live as a class set in the school library.

Organizing the Chapters – To blend different approaches to the novel, I preread the book to determine which chapters would be best suited to particular approaches. Here’s the schedule we used:
1 – Teacher read aloud p1-16
2 – Popcorn whole group (students take turns) p17-24
3 – Begin w/teacher read aloud; complete indep as HW p25-44
4 – Popcorn in small groups; complete indep as HW p45-68
5 – Independent p69-84
6 – Teacher read aloud p85-98
7 – Popcorn whole group p99-116
8 – Independent p117-130
9 – Popcorn small groups p131-144
10 – Independent p145-162
In general, it progresses from teacher-led to independent reading. Also, longer chapters are begun in class and completed for homework. The shortest chapters and those with less bearing on the story work best for whole group popcorn reading. The final chapter should be read independently and ideally over a weekend. Revisiting, reviewing, rereading, and predicting are the skills I like to work out with this activity.
After each chapter, we collaborated to write an ongoing summary. This was a great way to keep a record of our understanding of the story, refresh memories, and see the development of our ability to recall and explain what we had read.
The best discussions were about the themes of the story (war, loss, loneliness, needs, etc) and how they related to our central idea. I hadn’t expected the connections to be so apparent to the students! In one case, a student compared the main character’s circumstances to child farm workers we had learned about from our collaborative partners in India.
Finally, they enjoyed co-creating a comic-style poster to visually summarize each chapter of the novel. The highlight of this activity was a twenty minute debate on a style guide to ensure that the characters looked similar from one frame to the next!
Style Guide for collaborative poster
Finished Poster
We will present the poster and report about our learning during the School Assembly at the end of this week.

For me, it has been a reminder of the power of literature to illuminate understanding.

Undokai – Demonstrating the Importance of PE

One unique feature the international school in which I teach is our relationship with the Japanese public school whose campus we share. The students regularly engage in exchange activities and we are currently preparing for the annual sports festival, Undokai (運動会).

All things considered, it is a very positive experience for our international students. In addition to challenging themselves physically, they benefit from the emotional and social shock of being dropped into the middle of this Japanese cultural tradition. They test their Japanese language skills and cultural adaptability. Team building, respect, trust, self-control, discipline, perseverance, and honesty are the keys to the Undokai, and, as with anything else, the learning is in the process. There is quite a lot of music and dance involved as well, particularly at younger grade levels.

It’s a challenge for the teachers, as well, as we test our own additional language and cultural sensitivity skills. I even managed to do a handstand yesterday!
Finally, the kids have fun. Certainly, not all  activities appeal to everyone, but I think that is one of the most important lessons:  Enjoy participating together; enjoy the enjoyment of others.
I do have some critiques, however. A little marching never hurt anyone, but Undokai is a bit militaristic for my taste. Consequently, preparation requires entirely too much time, and I think too much emphasis is placed on putting on a perfect show. Of course, perhaps I need to focus on sharing other people’s passion for perfection and not give too much weight to my personal opinions…
The 100-meter race is popular among students and is one of the only competitive events.
When someone asks me the infamous trick question, “what is the most important school subject?” I answer “Physical Education”. As my father, the Biologist, says, “You don’t have a body; you are a body.”
What could be more important than what you are?

Learning Creative Learning – Summative Reflection

At the close of the MIT Media Lab ‘Learning Creative Learning‘ Course, I’ve been enjoying organizing my thoughts to write this summative reflection. I took the course as an elementary school teacher looking to expand my approaches to teaching and learning, so most of what I took from it is what I can apply to my profession, although my experiences were not limited to the classroom-related.

Introduction to MOOCs
This was my first Massive Open Online Course. I was most impressed by the lack of deadlines. I could complete reading and watch class session videos at my own pace, yet the imminence of the live sessions helped me to maintain a reasonable schedule. Despite not being required, I sincerely looked forward to watching each session video each week, diligently read assignments, and felt odd pangs of guilt when I fell behind.

There were many tasks which I didn’t complete, in particular when materials were needed, but through the nature of being ‘massive’ and ‘open’, I still gained insight into the technology presented through other people’s sharing and reflections.

Now I’m very curious about non-structured MOOCs and collaborative inquiry. To me, Internet tools provide endless possibilities for open-learning. Through the LCL, I have even met several people with whom to experiment and many of us are beginning to assemble an open course on the topic of cities. I believe that my experiences living in many of the world’s most diverse cities will contribute to the course quite well.

Primarily, I think that the experience of participating in totally open learning collaboratively will inform my classroom practices as I strive to design learning environments which empower students to design their own learning.

To me, STEM, the ubiquitous acronym for Science + Technology + Engineering + Mathematics, is painfully inadequate. What is the point of that name? I understand that it’s a way to learn those disciplines within the authentic contexts in which they are actually found, but aren’t they also found in the contexts of Design and Sociology? Geography? Philosophy? If we’re aiming for context, let’s get all of the context. End of diatribe.

I don’t consider myself a ‘maker’. When I built a bookshelf for my bedroom when I was sixteen years old, I followed the directions.

However, during the maker- and tinkering-oriented discussions, I related to their ideas in terms of music.

As a composer and arranger, I am a musical tinkerer. In fact, musicians utilize the same pitches and rhythmic language with remarkably little variation when one considers the full possibilities of sound manipulation. They say that Bach already wrote all of the possible melodies and that the rest of us are just adding variations (iterations).

Jazz music in particular, being collaborative, interactive, and improvisational, aligns beautifully with the maker mindset. I’m sure I’m at my best when I apply this mentality in the classroom. The skills we apply to building together should be identical to those we apply to learning together. It’s also important to note the critical role mentors play in these constructions, the best of whom use their expertise to help learners practice the skills to form their own understandings.

Anybody can call a meeting; nobody can oblige others to attend
This concept will stick with me. It’s from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society and represents the essence of what I want to achieve in my teaching and learning. It may also be the very definition of Democracy.

How we learn
The greatest reward of participating in this course has been the development of my teaching philosophy.

Through experience, I have always believed that ‘fun’ and ‘social’ are as important as ‘visual’, ‘auditory’, and ‘kinesthetic’ learning modalities. The LCL readings and discussions have provided a firm pedagogical foundation for me to develop as a Constructionist teacher and learner.

Building on what I’ve learned from Dewey, Vygotsky, and Gardner, the pedagogy behind the LCL course has focused my attention more toward the processes of learning, a reorientation which I have already seen lead to superior learning products.

In my opinion, there is no debate between learning process and product. If we focus on process, the products will avail.

In particular, I enjoyed this excerpt from Design, Make, Play. I look forward to utilizing their criteria, Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation, and Solidarity, for assessment as I attempt to guide students, and myself, along paths of inquiry and collaboration.

You can take the course now
All of the materials are posted on the syllabus!

Super-curricular activity – 日本舞踊 – Traditional Japanese Dance

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I took an excursion to the National Theater of Japan to see one of my fourth grade students participate in a Nihon Buyo recital. I was impressed by the quality of the production and enjoyed it very much.

Not my student. There was no photography allowed in the theater.

I was reminded how much there is to learn and do outside of school and inspired to motivate my students (as well as myself) to get more involved in extra-curricular activities.

Or, instead of ‘extra-curricular’, how about ‘super-curricular’?

Global Collaboration – Friends in Distant Lands

Our current Unit of Inquiry, on the theme of “Sharing the Planet”, focuses on children’s rights, risks, opportunities, and challenges. To make the unit action-oriented, we are taking a project-based approach with the goal of helping children.
To broaden our perspective and practice effective digital communication, we are collaborating with other classes in India, Canada, and Hong Kong. Because we are following our own inquiries, the key to collaboration thus far has been sharing reflections and student work.

Posters about the importance of not wasting food.

I think it’s important for the collaboration to be uncontrived. Each class should be at liberty to pursue their inquiries independently, utilizing each others’ ideas, artifacts, and resources to achieve the service goals determined by the students.

Sharing photos or scans of student work is easy enough, but becoming messy in our email inboxes! I’m sure it would be better to post to class blogs and provide opportunities for everyone to view and comment on each other’s posts. Once the connection is made, it can become a normal part of our inquiry to check on each others’ progress and interact as we go.
For the purpose of teacher sharing, documentation, and reflection, I set up a Friends in Distant Lands wiki. So far, it’s just a skeleton, but I’m hoping that other teachers will utilize the resources and leave their own planning and student artifacts. Each class has their own page which they can use in any way they like. They key is to bring the collaborative spirit to the students and provide them the greatest opportunities possible to become inspired.
If the goal of the project is to help children, the driving learning objective for the inquiry is to empower children with the skills and belief that they can make a difference. There are many ways to motivate, but I’ve never found one more effective than cultivating the understanding that they can help others.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. -Margaret Mead