Our All-School Service Learning Day

One of my favorite days of the school year is our all-school service learning day. For the past four years, our school has gone back to the same section of a park in Seattle (Seward Park) as stewards and spent the day pulling weeds, planting trees, learning about nature, and having fun.

Let me begin by saying: being in the cold unrelenting rain for four hours is not my idea of fun (some kids, though, had a blast!). Our service learning day is one of my favorite days because all the students work together with faculty, staff, and parents to make a small positive impact in our community. It requires hard work and team work. You only have to watch a second grade student trying to dig a hole with an adult-sized shovel to know whether or not effort was involved. Service learning is about connecting the learning that occurs in the classroom with real-world issues in the community.

My students define a community as a place where people live, work, play, and solve problems. In my class, we’ve explored a neighborhood community, colonial communities, scientific communities, and currently we’re looking at ancient Egyptian communities. Regardless of the structure or time period, that simple definition of a community holds true and what a great way to participate both as a school community and as members of our wonderful city.

There are a works of children’s fiction that are great for this day. The Lorax by Dr. Suess is an obvious one. Miss. Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is another. My favorite, though, and the one I chose today is called The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Inspired by those who advocated for the High Line in Manhattan to be reused as a park instead of demolition, the story tells of a little boy whose curiosity leads him to a little patch of garden on an elevated railroad track. He carefully tends to his garden realizing that his efforts inspire others to join him.

It’s always hard to know what kinds of learning spark passions in certain kids. If this school-wide project helps to ignite only one student to become a leader and make a positive impact on their community later in life, what’s a little cold rain? We live in Seattle after all.

Best PD for Teaching IS Teaching

It’s been a while since I’ve taught during the summer, but this one particular program I started at yesterday intrigued me. First, the objectives of the classes were not written the way  State Standards or Core Curricula are written. For example, one of the objectives in one of the classes I’m teaching is for the student to ‘explore the different ways to employ creativity techniques in the development of a new invention.’ Second the classes are 90 minutes long which really allow for project/problem-based learning activities. Third, these are all multi-aged classes, so I’m seeing kids from ages 5 to 12 throughout the day. Not having committees, faculty meetings, regular email communication with parents, homework to assign, and unbelievable amounts of autonomy to reach or adapt these objectives to the actual kids I’m teaching, I have had time to play with, use, and have kids use technology in the class already. Finally, the program is only three weeks long, so there’s a lot of interesting thought that goes into planning out the courses. There are a lot of books about regular classrooms and how important it is to set the tone and expectations for kids in the first 6 weeks. I’ve only got three!

One can read and see examples of project/problem-based learning, but until you have a solid 90 minute block and figure out how to utilize that time best to suit the needs of the kids, it’s just a theory. By nature of the schools I’ve worked in, I haven’t taught a multi-aged class in over a decade. It’s been a lot of fun (and it’s only been my second day on the job). I am also loving the objectives being so open-ended and relevant to kids’ lives. While objectives for basic skills can be and are appropriate, it is evident that these kids are getting basic skills instruction and practice as part of their project/problem-based objective. Just thinking about the ‘real-world’ product that kids will create as a final assessment has been fun for me. Making the material relevant to them now, not someday in the future increases their motivation incredibly.

Professional Development can happen in so many ways. We can have workshops, attend conferences, teach other teachers, or coach, but in my mind, I think the best way to become a better teacher is to keep trying new ways to teach and adapt to your students.

In our own schools, it is possible for us to develop professional development like this. According to Douglas B. Reeves in his book Transfroming Professional Development into Student Results, he notes that not only does a school have to have vision for this kind of PD, but also implementation. Without implementation, the vision “not only fails to achieve the intended objectives but also engenders cynicism and distrust.”

Reeves also criticizes most schools for what he calls “Institutional Multitasking,” and that we need to FOCUS: Focus on teaching, curriculum, assessment, and leadership. Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009) stated that the largest effects in teacher improvement were found for programs offering between 30 and 100 hours over 6 to 12 months. We’d have to use all our faculty meetings and in-service days throughout the year just on one topic to reach that goal. So what is one of the biggest factors in supporting this kind of PD? The schedule. Marzano (2009) notes that school “leaders must be the architects of systems and schedules.”

Finally, Reeves talks about recognizing our biases and being willing to fail. “School leaders have a particular responsibility to respect research integrity, particularly when a teacher-researhcer expresses disappointment that a planned intervention was ineffective.” Teachers have to get over their fear of being wrong or making mistakes. It’s how we learn.

This summer job that I’ve got is a great one. Including the work I’m doing prepping for each class, I’m spending about 105 hours. That definitely puts me in Darling-Hammond’s range. Unfortunately, it’s not over 6 to 12 months. The systems and schedules for the next school year, may determine how effective our school’s PD is. I will have to build in my own to maintain what I’m currently learning.

We had a guest speaker talk about the campus's Green initiatives. These kids are examining native and invasive species on the campus's wetlands.

Learning WITH Your Students

We were very fortunate with our new school building to have a garden bed built for every grade. Integrating gardening into the curriculum would be one strand through which children would learn about sustainability. There was one small problem though: I didn’t know very much about gardening. So, when the year began, I promised my students that I would write a reflection on my blog for every journal entry they wrote. Seattle’s winter has been pretty miserable, so it’s been a while since we observed or wrote anything.

We learned about growing plants and food in many ways. We read non-fiction and fiction (I have a new appreciation for The Secret Garden), did some actual gardening, planted trees in a local park for our all-school service day, and most importantly learned from others. (One of our teachers is a master gardener, and we are lucky enough that she is also a school neighbor allowing us, not only the opportunity to learn from someone passionate about gardening, but also having  classes visit her own personal garden many times a year.) Just last week, we were in her garden measuring the perimeter of various beds with non-standard units of the children’s own feet. This led to a great discussion about standard and non-standard units for measurement.

We learned about the worm bins and compost bins (our fifth graders collect the compost from the classes once a week and add them to the bins). We also learned how to fertilize the soil using cover crops such as vetch and clover. Then, just before spring break, the two second grade classes planted some flowers, radishes, and a host of lettuce greens. This week, we took some time to observe our garden bed, think about all the garden related activities we did, and then write a journal entry. Next week, we should be ready to taste a few things.

I keep telling my students that learning never ends. I always learn from them as they have so much to teach, but to also have the opportunity to learn with them, is pretty special.

What Can One Little Person Do?

A couple of days before our spring break, our whole school went to Seward Park (a large Seattle park) as we had done for the past three years to steward a portion that we had committed to. Many teachers and I agree that it is one of our favorite days (even though this year it was very cold, muddy, and wet), as it brings the school together as a community to take responsibility in our civic duties. In the past, we had been charged of a few duties including the removal of invasive species, but this year there were no more to remove. I would definitely call that measurable progress. Our sole job was to plant and mulch trees for the future of the park. The kids enjoyed nature walks, outdoor games, and of course tree planting. Although, my favorite part of that day comes at the end, when the entire school forms a bucket brigade to deliver mulch from the main park road to the region of the park where trucks simply can’t get to. If you want a scene of a whole school working together with a common goal – the image of kindergarteners to fifth graders continuously handing each other buckets of mulch with teachers, administrators, and parents interspersed throughout that chain, is a very good example of one.

What I love about service learning is the ability for kids to see that one little person can indeed make an impact in the world (we had a coin drive for solar cookers in Chad earlier in the year – an idea from our fifth graders), or even in their own city. We also go to a local organization to help package food for those in need, not to mention the various ways kids help around their classroom and campus.

The planting of trees struck a chord with me as our Kinder and 2nd grade classes attended the Seattle Children’s Theatre’s production of The Man Who Planted Trees today. It’s a great story (albeit fabricated) about how one person can make a positive impact in the world. The Seattle Times was enchanted in their review. So was a parent in her parent review from Seattle’s Child magazine.

When we got back to class today, some children asked if were a true story, I read them the afterword to the book, which admits that its protagonist was in fact a work of fiction. I’m sure Oprah would have fun with this story. I also mentioned, however, that there are still plenty of examples of people who make a difference with the small but powerfully positive things they do. Jane Goodall, is one living example. Harriet Tubman another example from history. Then I then tried to link the play they attended to their own experience of planting trees a few weeks ago in the park as well as the recent planting they did in their school garden plot. I could physically see the bodies of many of the kids change taking pride in what they had done a few weeks ago.

Sometimes these coincidences just happen. This field trip was booked almost a year ago, with no idea what date we would get, whether the show would be any good, or how well it would tie in with our school’s theme of sustainability. While the story is magnificent, the book is a little dry for second graders. The Puppet State Theatre Company from Edinburgh that brought this production to Seattle, had the children hanging on every word. Aside being a wonderful piece of theater, being able to connect this story with the work the kids did a just before break was a really nice serendipitous teaching moment..

There’s a nice  service learning article  that appeared in the connected principals blog a couple of weeks ago that echo some of what I’ve said here.

Kids can have such a positive impact with the little things they do, I feel very lucky to be part of a school that gives them many opportunities to do so.

Looking at Biomimicry and Nature to Become More Sustainable

Anyone looking at today’s headlines may think the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Yet, one of the main reasons I teach is the optimism kids have about their future, the potential kids see in creating a more just world, and the endless possibilities of things they believe they can accomplish.

Over the past few years, our school has run an annual coin drive to benefit a particular global organization. This year, our fifth graders chose World Concern as the organization, but more specifically, that the money collected would go to purchase solar cookers for families in Chad. With the recent population boom in eastern Chad mostly coming from war-torn Sudan, many children are sent miles, through often dangerous terrain, to fetch wood so their families can cook their meals. Aside from protecting children, it also protects the deforestation that has happened in that region. For an area that is often hot and receives a lot of sun, these inexpensive and innovative cookers make a lot of sense.

How innovative can we be with our own sustainable practices? I watched the TED talk below last week and was awed by what people are thinking about and coming up with. Not only that, I also realize how much I have to learn in order to actually teach it. I don’t want the idea sustainable practices to feel like lip service in order to gain whatever points one needs to have a building LEED certified or some other sustainable stamp of approval. I simply want the process to be genuine. One of my frustrations this year has been trying to learn about sustainability because the topic is so complex, full of paradoxes, and for me, something new. I don’t know what starting small means. I’m also not sure how to bring it down to a level that makes sense for second graders (besides reusing, recycling, and composting materials). Our school’s symbol is the sun. Having children understand that it gives us energy that we can harness and store, and that it’s a renewable source is something I can work with and so can my students. Unfortunately, in Seattle, with hydro power being inexpensive, and sunlight being scarce in the winter, I’m curious how long it takes for a solar panel to pay for itself, if at all.

Anyway, take a listen to this amazing talk and you’ll see what I mean by how complex sustainability can be. My favorite line from the video, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products, and all of those have benefitted from a 3.8 billion-year research and development period.” Let’s inspire our kids to develop the tools needed to think this way and “set their souls ablaze” with optimism and hope.

Stumped by Sustainability

It’s so nice to have a break, and I will try my hardest to read fiction. I can’t promise that I won’t make a connection to education with the other things I read. Like this weekend, when this article: How Green is Your Real (or Fake) Christmas Tree? appeared in the New York Times. It reminded me how complicated the topic of sustainability really is. And then Thomas Friedman’s piece yesterday: The U.S.S. Prius.

When we return to school in January, our school ‘officially’ starts off with their theme on sustainability. Firstly, I think any all-school-theme should be year-long and organically integrate with the curriculum that is already there. The connections to the theme seem more authentic that way, and with a theme like sustainability, isn’t it more a way of thinking critically about our world and resources that we want our children to be engaged in?

Despite being a difficult topic for adults to understand, kids can understand that we consume resources and the earth has a limited supply of some kinds, where other kinds, are renewable (or more renewable than others if we are responsible about the way we use them).

But even take the current trend in producing electric cars: They aren’t cheap, and I don’t believe their batteries that they run on are all that green?

My approach has been to ignore the January to March idea and make it a year long theme anyway, from using recycled materials to build my back to school bulletin board, to teaching the kids where and how items get disposed of when they go into our garbage, recycling, or compost containers. We’ve also used recycled materials for art projects ourselves and hopefully, we can promote the idea of walking over driving when we explore our neighborhood a little further. I work in what will most likely be a LEED certified building and there are many areas of the building that can be used as teaching tools too. The solar panels on the roof and their corresponding meters are a good way to see how much energy we are actually generating ourselves vs. the electricity we use up. In Seattle, where hydro power is cheap (for now) and the sun is a rare sight this time of year, it will be interesting to see those differences. I also want to take the approach we have with our upper grades at our school about bullying. That is – to not be bystanders. If they see me or another student being less responsible (for example putting paper in the garbage instead of the recycle bin), they should say something.

Finally, the actual calculations regarding the topic of sustainability are complex. The best thing I think I can do for my students is to try and make sure they are aware, think critically, act responsibly if they know how and why, act if they choose, and continue to share the optimism that this planet will be here, a much better place, for their great grandchildren too.

Multiple Perspectives 2

Teaching most kinds of historical events, it’s important to ask the kids the following:

  1. Who wrote it?
  2. Why did they write it?
  3. Who was the audience?

There’s a great picture book (yes, it’s a picture book)  on the revolutionary war titled George Vs. George and it attempts to describe the events from two perspectives: that of the British, and that of the Colonists.

Last Friday, after the children read two different accounts of the event and viewed a 4 minute online video, they were asked to examine Paul Revere’s illustration below.

During our discussion the following questions were asked: Who looks innocent in this picture? One of the men killed, Crispus Attucks, was an African American, yet he is not portrayed here – why do you think that is? The British soldiers are all standing in a straight line with their weapons all aimed the same way. Did the illustration match the descriptions you read? Why or why not?

With todays image rich world, it’s important for kids (yes, even 2nd graders) to be able to analyze, think critically, and discern for themselves what’s going on beyond the story. The children looked up the words ‘massacre’ and ‘riot’ and they had to decide for themselves if one word fit the situation better based on the multiple sources they were exposed to.

Another project the kids did with their first grade buddies this week was to look at a Picasso work from the exhibit here at the Seattle Art Museum which we will visit in January. The Picasso piece was this one here:

Before giving the children the title of the piece, we asked them what they thought they saw. Some mentioned color. Other’s mentioned shape (we threw in some math terms where we could). A few mentioned texture. I told them that this hangs on a wall and we may see it on our visit. We then discussed whether they thought this was a painting or a sculpture – or both.

We then told them the title of the piece was Violin and asked them if they saw any elements of a violin. We then showed them an image of our new school and asked them to deconstruct it and build shapes that reminded them of our school building.

This is what they came up with:

When we first thought of taking a field trip to the exhibit, we thought it would be an excellent opportunity, but didn’t really see how it fit into the curriculum or our schoolwide theme of sustainability.  Nonetheless, we discovered that using recycled magazines and using the school as the subject, we fulfilled two of the three subtopics of that theme: sense of place, and reduction of paper. Our objectives also included collaboration and the sharing of ideas. If you look closely, you might see elements of a solar panel, native plants, a green roof, and a sundial.

Whether it be a history lesson, or an art lesson, seeing things from multiple perspectives often leads to new insights both for the kids and the teachers.