Monday, June 28, 2010

All You Need Is a Story (and Some Skill)

"I hate social studies!" a certain anonymous person recently said. I answered, "It is impossible to hate all of social studies! Do you even know what social studies is - history, economics, geography, culture, psychology, sociology, religion. Do you really hate all of that?"

I really do believe that it is impossible to hate everything that fits under the category of "social studies." But, it is not impossible to be unable to make connections to current events, to have a difficult time with a reading assignment, or to be bored out your mind by an assignment or lecture. If I took the "big books" that are part of our social studies program at used them to teach social studies to my second graders, I don't doubt they would think they hated social studies too. But I wouldn't do that!

I set off this year to find social studies in the world - the interesting kind - wherever I could, just to prove that it is interesting. For example, one day, anonymous and I were stuck in a long line of traffic. The train barriers were down and obviously broken, so what do you do when the barriers are down and you know for sure there is no train? Ahh...human behavior. Some cars that could, turned around and left, but not us social scientists! We watched and observed...What would happen? How long would people wait? Then, the first person decided to go through the barriers...what makes a person decide to do that? Then, the next car and the next went through...we waited...who would be the person to stop and let the other side of traffic have a turn, etc. Was this interesting to watch. "Umm...I don't know (that means yes by the way)." Imagine that this is your career - to observe people and how they behave and find out why people do what they do. Did you know that's a career?

Another "test" came in what might be considered an unusual place to find an interesting history lesson. As anonymous and I scurried to church, running late as always, it was obvious that anonymous was again thoroughly put out by having to spend an hour at a Sunday Mass. But, as we sat in our pews and the priest began his homily, I was feeling thankful that we have good speakers at our church. This week the priest became storyteller. Without notes or fumbling, he told the story, as if he was there, about Sir Thomas More (a powerful story if you have never heard or read it). I could tell by looking at anonymous that she was trying not to be interested but couldn't help herself. Later, I asked her if she had ever heard of Thomas More before. She hadn't. I asked if she thought the story was interesting. "A little (that means yes)," she replied. That is part of history, you know!

A good story, an interesting situation, some meaningful connections...these are the things that make learning "unhated." We in the classroom spend a lot of time talking, but we could use our time more wisely if we converted our talking to storytelling. How can we fit our message into something people want to hear - or, how can others be the storytellers guided by us? We need the knowledge, of course, a bit of skill in telling our story (plain old speaking works, but we have so many other resources for storytelling now, such as the written word, images, video, etc.)

One final observation - even reading a story (a book) can be converted to an adventure. During the last week of school, my second graders were "listening" to a good story. They seemed somewhat interested but not all the way involved. Until...I changed to a storyteller! In the middle of a book about animals playing music and taking rides on riverboats (the main purpose being to enjoy a story and to read a book with a setting in Louisiana), as I noticed some fading focus, I inserted, "Oh, by the way, this is a true story. I know, I was there." Everyone sat up - what did she say, this is true, this isn't true, you were there? So, for the rest of the book, I told the story of what I saw. Of course, they didn't believe me, but they played along. So, which of those trees were you in? How did you get in the house? What was the name of THAT alligator? Same book, different story. Way different experience, for the children and for me!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Butterflies - From Science to Social Skills, History to Art

It seemed to be all about the butterflies this year.  Second graders usually have a heavy dose of insects because they study the live version of several in the classroom and research and report on insects as part of an end-of-year presentation, "The Goodnoe Garden Association Presents...Insects of North America." Along with their spring project, the children really enjoy watching the life cycle changes of the painted lady butterfly, one of the insects they study.  At this time we were able to use the butterfly for some great math lessons, such as to help reinforce the idea of symmetry. This part of their science program has been a great way for them to learn about how insects grow, change, and behave and to work on some great observation skills.

As you might know, butterflies have significance aside from that of an interesting and beautiful insect.  To some, butterflies symbolize rebirth, change, and transformation.  There are so many ways to incorporate this into the school year. For us this year, we began the year by using the butterfly to discuss the differences among those in our learning community.  By reading the book, The Wings of Epoh by Gerda Weissmann Klein (and a related video I'm Here by Peter H. Reynolds/Fablevision), we were able to reference the butterfly and the caterpillar to connect to what children might be feeling, how to appreciate and understand differences (the obvious and unnoticed), how wonderful each of us is in a unique way, and how we can help others feel like they belong.  We used the activities in the accompanying Wings of Epoh/I'm Here teaching guide to help the children talk to one another, get to know one another, and to have a chance to explore what it means to feel different.

Then, somewhere in my online exploring, I happened to find another butterfly reference that added not only to our idea of the butterfly but also to two other themes that ran through our classroom this year.  The first theme was that of recycling and using up "trash" for other projects. The second was to learn about those who have made a difference in the world and to think about how we can make a difference in our school, community, families, and in the world.  The butterfly this time came in the form of another book, entitled, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of poetry and artwork of children from the Terezin Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia.  One artist/teacher in particular, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, helped the children learn to draw and express their feelings, and many of their work was saved after the war.  Years later, the work was discovered and exhibited.  It creates a story of young children who were taken away from their homes, their families, and everything they loved during the time of WWII and the Holocaust. Because of the background the children had in learning about those who had made a difference, we could reference some qualities of those who helped others, those who were cruel to others, and how it feels to be treated unjustly as well as with kindness.  The children spent many months this year learning about such people as George Washington, Jackie Robinson, and Milton Hershey.  They even read a book, as part of an author study, about Queen Esther, and I remember how shocked they were to discovered that in our history (a while after learning about the time in history of Jackie Robinson) there was yet another entire group of people who were treated unjustly.  This was a great time to return to some of the lessons that took place with Wings of Epoh and I'm Here to discuss with the children how those who are different can become the target of teasing, exclusion, or unfairness, even in school. We talked about how they can be the ones who help make a difference, even for one person.

So now, I carefully thought about the words to use to explain the history linked to our new butterfly project, but, fortunately, I was able to call on one of my students to help share this story.  Coincidentally, her dance school had used this story as the theme for their dance production, which was performed just a week or so before I was presenting it to the class.  She was eager to explain the story and did so in a way that was perfect for this age group. Other children shared connections they had, such as information they had learned about the Holocaust or of family members who fought in WWII.

After some discussion, the children each received a poem from the book (carefully chosen for this age).  They read it silently and then some of the children volunteered to share their poem and their thoughts about it.  It was astonishing to hear their readings and to listen to their thoughts on these emotional poems - they seemed so grown up!  Although I am sure they were not coming from the same place that an older child or adult with more knowledge of history, they were definitely touched by and connected to the children and their words.

What came next was their chance to connect to a project being created by the Holocaust Museum Houston, which has created The Butterfly Project. The web site says,
"1,500,000 innocent children perished in the Holocaust. In an effort to remember them, Holocaust Museum Houston is collecting 1.5 million handmade butterflies.
The butterflies will eventually comprise a breath-taking exhibition, currently scheduled for Spring 2013, for all to remember. The Museum has already collected an estimated 400,000 butterflies."
I asked the children to create a butterfly that represented the child who wrote the poem and the feelings they could connect to the poem.  As it was the very end of the school year, we would use "leftover" materials to create the butterflies.  These butterflies would be sent to the museum to become part of their display.  One thing that was certain was that the children took great care in planning and creating their butterflies.

As this was our last week of school, I had lots of work to get finished and cleaning up to do.  But, I found myself enjoying being an observer in this special moment.  I had a group of young children who, for the most part, worked as a team to create these butterflies. And then there were a few who truly enjoyed finding a quiet corner to work alone - and that was great too!  They didn't ask me for much help, but they helped each other.  I put a huge pile of materials on the floor, and they sat with the materials and shared, gave suggestions, and commented on the good work of their peers.  At one point there was a silence that I don't think I will ever hear again with a craft project during the last week of school - just children cutting, gluing, passing things around.  Amazing!  It wasn't so much about the theme of the holocaust or the power of the poetry as it was about a group of children who had spent a year learning to respect one another, to enjoy learning, to appreciate the value in cooperation, and who really did seem to understand they were part of something outside their classroom.  It was a perfect butterfly symbol  - a group of children who had transformed into an amazing learning team!

(If you would like to be a part of The Butterfly Project, the deadline is not until June 2012, so you actually can do this for two years.  There are guidelines and lesson plans on the web site. You will have to use your judgment as to the appropriateness of the lessons for your age group - to me, they are quite powerful and emotional.  I struggled all year as to how I would make this work, but it somehow came together, albeit at the last minute, in a way that was perfect for young children.  Another interesting connection is that the author of The Wings of Epoh is herself a Holocaust survivor.)