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.

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Using Slides to Engage

It’s one thing to use technology in a classroom  such as an interactive whiteboard and enhance your lessons with slides (and I don’t mean death by bullet point) – I mean well-thought-out slides that actually enhance and engage by adding the right amount of text and visual content so auditory, visual, and text based learners can all benefit.

It’s the first year we’ve had these tools, which puts us quite behind and the pressure to use them has been a little overwhelming. Only because there’s no point using it if it doesn’t convey the message of the lesson effectively. One thing I’ve learned in creating some of these slides is to keep it simple, have little text (unless of course the objective includes having the kids read the text), and put less on each slide. One simple thing I learned this year was just to get rid of bullet points altogether. At our curriculum open house last week, I decided to start simplifying our slides and giving it more visuals that weren’t just clip art in the corner of a slide. I was happy with the edit. Not great, but overall, better.

Of course, the templates that come with powerpoint are usually the main problem and have a lot to do with why presentations at meetings can often put one to sleep. Usually it’s a title followed by five to a dozen bullet points. Charts should also be visually appealing and designed so the graphs have the maximum impact in conveying its message. Some data make more sense in a pie chart, others make more sense in a bar graph. Colors can make a huge difference too. Whether at a faculty meeting or in a classroom, a presentation is a presentation, and if we are going to use visuals to enhance the presentation, we need to learn how to do it effectively. There are a lot of how-to classes in powerpoint which focus on how to add a shape, or add a transition, but not a lot of tips on how to make those visuals resonate with your audience. Like most kids, at first you want to put every bell and whistle into your slide deck, but actually thoughtfully putting it together requires paring it down quite a bit.

In the end though, we are educators, not designers and haven’t been taught these things in school (in fact much of this didn’t exist when we went to school). Now, some 7 and 8 year olds seem so at home creating slides. I can’t afford to leave what I love doing to go to design school, for the sole purpose of making my lessons peppier. Yet, kids seem to be more and more visual in the way they learn and process information and it would be a shame if we didn’t tap into this media – but only if it enhances the lesson by making it more meaningful or engages kids more.

In his book Brain Rules, Dr. Medina mentions that the brain processes information in a visual way. Rule #8 – Sensory integration (stimulate all the senses) and Rule #9 – Vision Trumps All Other Senses means that we need to also think visually. Graphic organizers are wonderful, when getting kids to organize their thoughts before they begin to write. In order to make slides effective though, one really has to observe others who do this well. Below is a youtube video of a powerpoint slide deck. The first two slides are just credits but do go past it. It’s worth it. After that, watch how artfully the elements are put together. And yes, the entire thing was done in powerpoint 2010. It’s a little ironic that our students are using computers with powerpoint 2010, but many of their teachers are still using 2003. In some ways though, that constraint has helped, as it has forced me to keep things simple. Transitions are only effective if they add to the meaning. Otherwise, they become clutter. Microsoft paid this company to show the potential of using many of the features of powerpoint which may make part of it seem busy, but boy, if I could learn to do half of those things. Of course when you find out how long it took a team of people to do this, you have to wonder, is it realistic for teachers to prepare lessons this visually appealing? Am I going to have to learn how to animate next? Furthermore, educators need to learn more about “fair use” and “creative commons”. Not just for our own use, but to teach children how to use their sources responsibly. It’s really a confusing and difficult thing in this rapidly changing world. Is linking to a url of an image ok (apparently it’s ok to link to an article)? I’ll save that for another post. Anyway, here’s that video. Hopefully it inspires us rather than the opposite.

August is Here …

… which means my back to school panic mode has begun to set in. For those who don’t work in fields where they get their summer’s mostly off, every summer – just when you think that the slow pace of the long days is really the way we should live, the reminder that Labor Day is right around the corner comes as a bit of a jolt. The summer letters written to welcome the new class was due, meetings among faculty (not for social reasons) are starting to happen, my work email inbox is getting a little fuller, and I received my school’s Spring/Summer update. The latter reminded me that I’ll be moving to a brand new classroom in a building that will focus on sustainability. One of the key features will be that each grade will have its own raised garden bed to tend to each year. What do I know about gardening? First of all, I suppose I will have to build in time to the schedule so that the children can plant, water, fertilize (naturally, of course),  create garden signage or art, learn about where food comes from, insects and animals, native and sustainable plants, just to name a few. Then of course, we would make sure to link and integrate math, reading and writing while we’re at it.

I borrowed this great book from the public library (but to be honest, it’s a little overwhelming for someone who only just learned how to prune roses – thanks, Susan!) called How To Grow A School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers. Blogging about it will force me to read and learn.

At least the first few chapters are straightforward.

Ch. 1 Why School Gardens?

  • They enhance academic achievement
  • They promote healthy lifestyles
  • They instill an environmental stewardship ethic
  • They encourage community and social development
  • They instill a sense of space

You can’t really argue with those, can you?

Ch. 2 Laying the Groundwork

Luckily, our lower school math teacher is also a master gardner and many of my co-teachers have the expertise to get us novices started. Those who were most interested, parents and teachers alike were consulted, and with a new school being built, I’m assuming that the garden will magically just appear at some point. And this chapter mentions the issue of funding (many thanks to our generous community who is supporting this and our development admin team).

Ch. 3 Getting the Most from Your Site

  • Who’s going to use it?
  • Who’s going to manage it?
  • Will there be a tool shed?
  • Will that shed contain clipboards, writing materials, gardening supplies, etc.
  • Can that shed double as a teaching area?
  • Are the pathways inviting for little ones?

Well that was also taken care of by the garden committee and architects, so again, my fingers are crossed.

Ch. 4. Groundbreaking, Budgeting, and Fundraising

I have always found fundraising a great “real world” way to involve kids, but since we are an entire school that tries to raise funds each year, fundraising as a class activity has been frowned upon. If you think of the math involved, the publicity and outreach, and the positive social learning, it can be a great learning opportunity.

The next part of the book is where I will be learning a lot. It focuses on curricular activities and ideas, including garden maintenance once you’ve got the garden going. There are some great web resources available too that I’ve stumbled upon:

Don’t Touch!

That’s perhaps words that children hear all too often. But really, children should touch as much as they can. By design, we use all our senses to discover new things and learn. Chapter 6 of The Third Teacher is titled “Realm of the Sensess. It’s ideas are as follows:

Number 58 is a great one. One of my colleagues loves taking off her shoes and I can only imagine with the new building and its radiant heat, there will be plenty of opportunity for that. People may give her a hard time about it, but I think soon many will follow her lead. We sometimes don’t recognize nor explore all of our senses.

I feel fortunate enough that we are going to have a garden of our own and that the kids will get to grow, graph, measure, and of course eat. This type of learning uses every sense.