Who Chooses What We Teach?

Another good ‘Room for Debate’ page in the NYTimes appeared again this week. This time the question is: Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

My initial response would be that parents should know their child, how they learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and work with the teachers in the development of the curriculum. Whatever it is that kids learn in school, there are basic fundamentals that children should learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers and parents can certainly agree on those. What it is they read, however, may be up for debate. Social/emotional learning is very important too. I wonder, for example, if the social/emotional learning of the Italian captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia had more to with the tragedy than the engineering and ship operational training he received.

I think the most important part in this debate is that all stakeholders start first by agreeing on what fundamentals ought to be taught in schools. For early primary, the academics are obvious, but the delivery and pedagogical methods may not be. Minor philosophies on homework, etc. will always exist, but the overall goals are similar. For example, regardless when people think the correct age may be, they can all agree that kids should be able to read.

Customizing the curriculum has always been how I’ve worked (public, parochial, or private). Every year the range of abilities changes with a new set of students, so why wouldn’t you adapt your curriculum to those different needs. With the new law in New Hampshire (which I haven’t read), it seems like what bothers most is that parents can make any demands on the content. I’ve never had any issues with any parents. Even with ideological or religious differences. I can think of one family years ago, who for their own religious reasons, did not want to participate in Halloween activities at school. While the school respected that family’s ideas and suggested alternatives and modifications, Halloween would still be celebrated at school.

I think it becomes a problem when parents have a different mindset than you about what is age-appropriate content, or if the content seems too ideologically radical for some. In elementary school, it’s possible to see how a simple biography project might go awry if a parent disagreed with the teacher on whether a child’s choice were appropriate. Is a biography about Anne Frank is suitable for an eight-year old? While the biography may be, some of the events surrounding it may be considered too much for a second grader. This actually happened with a student of mine last year. She chose Anne Frank after perusing the biography section in the school library. I was just as tentative as her mother in her choice, but we both agreed that she was a child who was ready to read about those horrific events. Both me and her parents just wanted what was best for her. It would have been different if it were a different child which is why knowing your students (and their families) is so important.  If we are supposed to welcome diversity and embrace its benefits, than we cannot just go with the status quo, and we have to listen to everyone.

Will some abuse a law like New Hampshire’s? I’m sure some will try. Every once in a while, there will be a battle between the over-entitled parent and the extremely inflexible and obdurate teacher, and that is unfortunate. Like so many other things, there is often so much we have in common. A lot that we can come together and work with. If we start where our ideas and values overlap and recognize our differences as strengths to enhance those ideas and values, there is so much we can achieve.

Can an atheist enjoy Christmas carols and Islamic art?

Can someone who’s gay be a Republican?

Can someone working at Microsoft like the iPhone?

Can an epicure eat cereal for dinner one night and love it?

Of course they can, but too often lines are drawn in the sand instead of bridges being built.    Rather than objecting to the curriculum, as one of the writers in the opinion page mentions, parents should use those areas as teachable moments. Teachers should too. I remember a child years ago asking me about the existence of Santa Clause. He just couldn’t see the plausibility of it all. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to break the news to an 8-year old. What I told him was to think critically about it (I’m sure I used different words) and make that decision for himself. I didn’t defer it to his parents nor did I subject him to my thoughts. That was an example where he could make up his own mind. He could grapple with his own dilemma and reach his own conclusions.

Currently, I’m teaching a unit on penguins. What would be objectionable is if a parent insisted that I teach about emus and ostriches instead. There’s no reason why I couldn’t, but there’s no reason why I should either. A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?


Happy President’s Day Y’all

Our school’s mission includes creating confident, courageous, and curious learners and includes the values of respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness. Using the biography of President John F. Kennedy is a great way for kids to try and find these traits in others.

I love David Adler’s biographies for kids, and leading up to President’s Day, we read his biography on JFK. We discussed if he would meet our school’s mission and values, giving examples. Then the children go on to choose their own biographies searching for those same traits. I also add the task of asking them how their famous person changed the world in a positive way.

It’s my first time in Dallas, and being Presidents’ Day, it made perfect sense to visit the Sixth Floor Museum which highlights JFK’s life and sadly, his assassination. While he was president back in the sixties, it’s amazing how much the current state of the country seems to parallel that era: extreme polarization in politics, people demanding justice and equal rights, a president committed to improving education, and the country involved in war. We have come a long way since then, but things remain unfinished.

King’s Speech

Today we celebrate a great man who tirelessly fought for the rights of everyone. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who, through hard work, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and a greater purpose helped to change the world. His “I Have a Dream” speech inspired many to take up that cause. Is his dream fulfilled. Not yet, but thanks to countless individuals who fight for liberty and justice across the world for all people, I hope to see it in my lifetime.

When you add the article ‘the’ to the title of my post, you get the title of a movie I saw this weekend, “The King’s Speech” which I highly recommend. I won’t spoil it here by summarizing plot, but it is also about a man, King Goerge VI of England who, through hard work, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and a greater purpose also had an impact on the world.

Not having gone to elementary school or high school here, American History is viewed somewhat differently. Here we look at this country’s history from within, elsewhere they look at it (if at all) from the outside. While I knew of Dr. King growing up, it wasn’t central to the social studies program at my school. Growing up in Hong Kong (then still a colony of Britain), I attended an elementary school based on the British school system. Had my family stayed, the secondary school I most likely would have attended was named King George V school. Still a colony by the time we left, what I can remember of any social studies classes were those of British History – in England. I learned about Kings and Queens, William the Conqueror, Guy Fawkes, Parliament, the geography of England, and so on. What I never learned in school was the history of Hong Kong, cultural information, nor the geography. Thankfully, things have changed, and looking at the website of my former school, I see that, while instruction is purposefully done in English, they have a second language program in Mandarin which also features history and culture. I think I would have benefited from a class like that.

It’s been 30 years since I’ve returned to Hong Kong, and I can hardly wait until our break in April where I’ve planned a trip to return. In doing so, I started reading about what to do and trying to see if any of it sparked any childhood memories. As I started discovering the history of Hong Kong in the travel books, what struck me was that I had never learned this. Any of it! Any history, I got from my grandparents (one who fought against the Japanese who occupied Hong Kong during WWII and was interred as a prisoner of war until his escape. I only wish I had the curiosity I have now to ask him more questions. Nor was the local language (Cantonese) taught. I acquired it out of necessity. I spoke it, but didn’t read nor write Chinese. In brushing up some of what I do know, I was looking at the vast array of vocabulary that didn’t even exist when I left such as: Email, wireless internet, ATM, or “Text me.”

It is true that there would be too many subjects to cover if we were to teach everything, especially history as events keep getting added. Nonetheless, it’s important for children, even in this flattening world, to learn about their own history (both personal and political), their communities (school, neighborhood and other), and so on. Multicultural/Diversity education is crucial to the dream Dr. King once had. When we see that we have more in common than our differences, and see those differences as strengths rather than fear them, there’s no telling what we can do.

King George VI had to deliver a speech to his nation to rally the people in order to stop Hitler. Dr. King delivered one to rally his nation to work for justice. In today’s youtube age, it’s quite rich to be able and view the video of Dr. Martin Luther King delivering that speech at the Lincoln Memorial. For those reluctant to accept technology in the classroom, just remembered what your teachers had to do to show you his speech. If you were lucky, you received the text and an audio recording. If you were lucky enough to view the speech, your teacher would have had to book the reel-to-reel projector, order the film (at great cost), and set up the film. Now, you can hook your laptop to a projector and get it free in a couple of clicks. One things’ for sure, teachers also have to work toward these universal values: hard work and effort, the ability to fail and persevere, a purpose to unite people. In other words, the 3 R’s – rigor, resilience, and relationships.

This is a clear example where technology can save you time. One can also embed these vidoes into their websites/blogs/wikis, etc. so here it is. Enjoy the rest of this marvelous holiday.



The Importance of Art in Schools

It’s surprising and disappointing how so many schools choose the arts as one of the first department to go either when times are tough or when they are pressured to increase their scores on achievement tests. It doesn’t take one long to find that these cuts are taking place all over the country: Fort Lauderdale, California (and that was in 2006 when things weren’t as grim) (here’s a more recent story from CA), and even as recently as this past week over in the UK. At least according to the Obama’s art-education platform, it states that …”we should encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education.” This article about the exhibit from the Seattle Times talks about the links art has to “math, science, literature, you name it.” I feel extremely fortunate where I work. When they designed the new school building, they had several local artists contribute to a few pieces around our campus.

Yesterday my students and I had a great day of art. One of Seattle’s local artists, Juan Alonso who created 5 pieces of abstract art around our campus came to talk to the students about what inspired him and about some of the process involved. He also started giving workshops to classes on abstract portraits. I can’t wait until it’s our class’ turn. What I love about abstract art especially is that it is open to interpretation unless the artist actually tells you what inspired him. The sculpture on the right sits in front of our school. I always pictured it as the font of knowledge or something to do with passion. Juan Alonso explained that when he thought of an elementary school, he thought of a child with arms reaching upward. Now every time I see it, I can’t help but think of that.

After our assembly, four classes headed to the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. It’s the last week of the exhibit, and I have never seen the place that packed. Rather than battle the crowds and try to see all of it, our wonderful docent selected just a few. She had the kids full attention and began by asking them what they thought they saw. With this kind of open ended question, it was amazing how much effort the children spent looking at the painting, the colors, shapes, etc. and the thoughtful, yet out-of-the-box responses were inspiring. Asking children to inquire about art is no different than what we ask them to do in science. Much of the vocabulary needed to describe Picasso’s work is shared with geometry. Reading about his life and the times, learning about Spain and France, and writing about their experience are natural connections. Our docent was wonderful and asking the right kind of questions forcing the kids to think a little more critically rather than just come up with a one-right-answer response.

Of course, what I loved is that his art is celebrated for breaking the rules, for being a visionary and wanting to push boundaries in art, for leading change rather than following it, and working hard. Some of his paintings were based on hundreds of initial sketches. This exhibit also highlights someone who worked until he was 91. Noticing a couple of my children’s eyes light up when the docent pronounced that Picasso created his art as one would write a diary. You know the kids who want to draw before writing and those who prefer it the other way around. Why not celebrate both kinds of kids and be open to different ways of arriving at the same objective.

The children then took part in a workshop at the museum offered by a teaching artist where they created mixed media collages of portraits using the concept of viewing things from multiple perspectives. The results, though unfinished, were wonderful, unique, and more importantly something they were all proud of. Whether it be the performing or visual arts, schools must make room for it. Visual art promotes multicultural education, critical thinking skills, inquiry, creativity and innovation, math skills, science, literature, and so on.

The exhibit runs for just a few more days until the 17th of January and the museum has extended its opening times until midnight. This was one of those things that wasn’t part of the planned curriculum, but in my opinion, worth doing. It was my third time seeing this exhibit, and I was still awed. I hope some of the children were too. If you don’t mind crowds, you can click on the picture below which will link you to the museum’s website.

The Shadow by Picasso

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.

One Way to Differentiate and Spiral Several Math Concepts

It’s rare Seattle reaches 65 degrees in November, and on this beautiful fall day, the children went and harvested beans from a nearby garden. They worked in teams of 4 and 5, had different jobs and had to agree upon them before we left.

When they returned they did some estimating (how many beans in the pod), and began to measure the length of each bean. And some groups began to graph the length of their beans. Reviewing how to use a ruler, asking what is the difference between cm and inches and how do you know, creating a graph, as well as what a key tells us on a graph were some of the objectives laid out for them.

Tomorrow, they will continue by finishing their graphs and begin to weigh the beans they harvested. Again, they will get an opportunity to graph these beans by their weight. They will also use their graphs to generate word problems. Some will need templates, other children will be able to come up with very sophisticated problems that I probably would have never thought of myself. That’s the fun thing about open ended math activities.

Furthermore, we will tie it in with the story of the bean farmer and how the Pike Place Market started in 1907. We will also take the pods and compost them in our school garden’s compost that we started this year. If time permits, a story about Jack and Beanstalk should be included too, as the 2nd graders work on fractured fairy tales later in the year. Fairy tales are hard to fracture if you’ve never heard the original.

Next week the beans will be cooked and the children will follow a recipe (a little more measurement here too) to make bean dip, learn a little bit about nutrition, trying something delicious, and have a fun time doing it.

These are the kinds of lessons that are so important in elementary school so that math, language arts, social studies, science, etc. is not taught in a vacuum. Yes, they will need foundational skills to measure length and weight, and some may need more direct instruction for some at remembering how to create a bar graph. Whatever the skill, it’s important to assess how the kids are doing by getting right in there and using that assessment to guide your teaching so that, like the beans, the children can grow.

Some people think of spiraling as 10 questions at the bottom of a work page that asks questions that may include items one needs to review. The activity above has that all built in, but there are more places to differentiate in an activity like the one above.

Here are some examples how one can differentiate just through questioning:

How long was your longest bean? Use your graph.

If you put all the beans your team harvested end to end, what would the total length be?

If your team managed to harvest 3 times the amount you did, how many bean pods would you have?

Make up your own question using the words total, weight, and graph.


Aren’t We All Glad Those Political Ads Are Over?

So the elections have come and gone with few surprises. One thing our faculty and staff all agreed upon at lunch was that they were glad the ad campaigns were finally over.

As we try to engage children in better social/emotional learning to prevent bullying-like behaviors, what horrible models most of those ads were. One thing I learned from the elections is that change is difficult and if you don’t deliver on your promises of change quickly, you’ll be ousted by those who obstruct and don’t pose any new ideas. Regardless of the party in control, history seems to show that midterms have this effect on people.

Regardless of what one’s political views are, this country was founded as a democracy. A democracy is only as good as its citizens and that is why (at least for me) I think it’s important to use elections, even when they are not presidential ones, as teachable moments.

Yesterday, when the students arrived in my class, they all received a ballot with three initiatives on it and the instructions to choose one.

  1. To have one afternoon recess on the third Thursday of each month.
  2. To have one additional writing period a week.
  3. To work towards being a more caring person.

Well the recess one won. But not by as much as you would think. Only 2 votes separated the recess option from the writing option. It was also really nice to see that over 20% of the class voted for option 3.

We also had a chance to talk about the suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony, and the voting rights for women.

Today we continued the lesson by learning about what the House and Senate do through reading the book House Mouse, Senate Mouse. Picture books are great ways to teach and launch kids into more questions and further learning.

Let’s hope when our students are of voting age, they fill in the bubbles on a ballot with a full understanding of what they are voting for.