Skywatchers and Magicmakers

Sometimes place-based education is about the town or state or watershed where a group of students live. Sometimes it’s about a thing all humans share: our place in the universe, and how it works, and what it’s like to live here.

time Maui people on globe

Finding the book you’ll see below was like stumbling on a time capsule. Suddenly, and so vividly, I had traveled twenty years into the past. People who are now 31 or 32 (some with children of their own) were 11 or 12 then. Shorter, younger kids have grown, some of them, to be the tallest in a new group picture, if we had the chance to take it.

time Maui photos at end 2

We made Slowing Down the Sun as the culmination of work by a school-wide mixed-age group that met for several sessions–three, maybe four. A few members of my regular class stayed with me, but most had gone to other groups, and were replaced by younger kids I knew less well but got to know much better. (I can’t remember the school-wide theme, but maybe a past colleague can help.)

So much of what continued to be important at Touchstone shows here. Storytelling often helped us begin thinking about the questions examined by science. Making models and drawings, and acting out stories together, helped us clarify and express understanding. Working in partners gave students a way to draw on many strengths, especially within a mixed-age group.

In this case, students wrote the sections of the text working in pairs, often older paired with younger. They did the illustrations individually.

Color copying cost a fortune back then, and it would be many years before Touchstone had its own color printer. I’m sure I couldn’t give copies to every participant, and in fact it’s possible that no other copy of this book still exists. But it’s a treasure! So I’ve decided to reproduce almost all of it, thanks to the humble miracles of scanning and internet magic. I’ve hidden full names from the text, but left first names on the drawings.

For me as teacher, holding this book I am carried back into the true miracle of work with students who rise like the sun itself, who are on fire with energy and curiosity, and who take it for granted, day after day, that their student job includes reaching to hold complicated and mysterious things.

Like so many of these posts, this one is an extended thank you note.

 

time Maui cover page

time Maui intro text

 

time Maui beginning drawing

time Maui beginning Liz and Matt 2

 

time Maui had an idea drawing

time Maui had an idea 2

 

time Maui sun-earth-moon
time Maui rope-to-catch Joelle and Jessica

time Maui net-the-sun

time Maui and Hinna

time Hinna and hair

time Maui sun-net-down

time Maui Adin and Patrick

time Maui david-sun

time Maui sun in cave

time Maui slow-sun-hinna-hair Lauren and Heather

time Maui addie-sunset

time Maui photos at end 1

time Maui beginning drawings

 

I’m experimenting with adding a contact form to some posts. The format makes it seem as though a comment is required, which is crazy, of course. If you have a thought that would be good for others to hear, be brave and go public, using the other comment function. But if you want, you can use this to reach just me.

Literacy Daily Tune-ups: a welcome to a feast

The kids sit at their table places (which let all of them face the front of the room without having to twist around too much.) I’m standing near my little desk, where my literacy tune-up binder is open. I ask a question, or give a prompt:

  • Write three compound words and show where the syllables divide. We don’t give prizes, but everyone knows that it’s pretty cool to have four or even five consonants in a row, as in worthwhile.
  • Write words in which o says its own name. That lets us compare ways: with the help of silent e after a consonant, or with the help of an in a vowel blend, or before certain consonant blends, as in cold, or in peculiar short words like O!
  • Write a sentence that uses their, there, and they’re. (“All in the same sentence?” they ask, and I say, “Yes,” knowing they will come up, collectively, with a range of sentences, many funny, a few poignant, and at least one involving pink cake, since that seems to be important lately.
  • Write an interrogative sentence.

literacy tuneups

The students write their responses on individual whiteboards about the size of printer paper, using erasable markers for which I will still be apologizing to the environment long after I’ve stopped teaching. Unfortunately, no other material works as well. Kids can’t resist writing on whiteboards with those vivid and deliciously slippery erasable markers. Of course, the plastic barrels of the markers will last two-thirds of forever in landfills. Please, one of my past students, or a reader of this blog, invent a biodegradable erasable marker, and then the karma will balance out.

When everyone seems ready, I ask students to raise their whiteboards, using “the international raise your whiteboard hand signal,” a swooping wave. Of course I made up the idea that it’s an international signal. It does work, though–it means that everyone sees everyone’s contributions at once. There’s no prize for being first, no incentive to rush.

If I see lots of kids done and waiting, I’ll say, “Write another sentence,” or “Write as many words as you can think of, that fit the prompt.”

If someone is clearly baffled, I say, “Don’t worry–you’ll get it on the next round.” As much as possible, I try to run enough rounds of the same type of prompt to give everyone a chance to catch on; few enough so we have time for other important things; and playful enough so it’s not boring for any kids who already have that skill down pat.

Once all the white boards are raised, we look around the room–not to see who got it right and who got it wrong, but to notice variation and creativity within the direction. I read aloud some of the responses, and try to make sure that every student’s response is read aloud at some point in each lesson. Sometimes, I ask kids to read their own responses. Whenever possible, I ask them to notice and describe the patterns they see.

We’re not about single correct or incorrect answers. We’re language scientists collecting evidence. We’re language artists or gymnasts, sharing our moves.

We’re also language connoisseurs having fun. It really is fun, not just for me, but for the kids, who clamor for a tune-up if I try to leave it out on an unusually compressed day.

Meanwhile, every time we do this–daily is the target–I learn an enormous amount about every kid in the class, and where they are on their learning journeys.

A way to think about language skills lessons

Several thousand years ago, at a workshop about whole language learning, a participant asked, “I can see how good it is to give kids lots of time to read and write in class, but when will I have time to teach grammar and spelling?” Like me, she taught young adolescents, ten to twelve-year-olds. Like me, and every teacher I’ve ever known, she felt tremendous pressure on every minute in her schedule.

Some whole language advocates, back then, said, “Don’t worry; students will just absorb the language skills they need from all that active and pervasive language experience they get in good classrooms.”

That does seem to be partially true–true sometimes and in some ways.

For example, some of the kids I taught had such strong auditory perception, and so much auditory experience, both in school and in well-educated, talkative, mainstream-culture families, that they could just test word order, phrasing and usage against their auditory memories, as they spoke or wrote or took the grammar sections of the standardized tests we administered for practice. For some kids, whatever sounded right was likely to be right.

Other students could remember the spellings of all those words they’d seen, as enthusiastic readers given steady time in which to read in school, and also taking lots of time to read at home, much more than the homework guideline. Some could observe typical spelling patterns on their own, and apply them to new words they’d heard but not seen. If this is a science word, the f sound might be made by ph. Etc.

Regardless of learning styles and preferences, more time to read always did help challenged spellers.

But… Gradually I came to realize that highly motivated, fast and fluent readers might not be really looking at the insides of the words they read. They didn’t necessarily transfer their reading vocabulary into an accurately spelled writing vocabulary.

Similarly, some very expressive speakers weren’t using conventional grammatical patterns in their speech, for a variety of reasons, including being surrounded by the fast and loose speech patterns of popular culture. So they couldn’t rely on what sounded right to tell them what was correct.

Recently I’ve been reading paleoanthropology again, thinking about human evolution, and watching a very young learner as he figures out the connections between language and behavior. All that’s in my mind as I rethink language skills, and consider the idea that nearly all of us are well equipped to analyze patterns in the speech we hear, almost automatically, and then apply them in the speech we utter. We’ve evolved for that, over a very long stretch of time.

But we haven’t been using written language for very long, as a species, and there seems to be huge variation in how well we’re equipped to transfer our speech metacognition to written language.

Individual differences and anthropological observations aside, all the kids I taught were natural, intuitive language scientists, natural linguists of their home language, noticing and formulating and applying patterns, in some of their language experience, but not necessarily in all.

Not as a function of ideology, or adherence to tradition, but as a result of pragmatic observation, I could see that most kids need some explicit teaching to supplement their own language science capabilities. In my experience, though, the best explicit teaching of language skills does exactly that: it supplements, encouraging, empowering and cheering on students’ own capabilities as language scientists–their ability to make systematic sense of the language they use.

So the best language skills teaching will build on kids’ own observations about the spoken and written language of their experience.

Furthermore, speaking to that long-ago question at the workshop: If we’re committed to giving kids plenty of time, every day, for actual reading and writing, then the language skills work has to be quick and efficient.

Finally, everything we now know about learning says that language skills work, conceived of as language scientist training, will “take” best if it’s playful, the way so much real-world science is playful.

How I started using literacy tune-ups

I spent some time one summer mulling over my observations that far, and rereading Ethel Buchanan’s brilliant book Spelling for Whole Language Classrooms, in which she focuses on students’ own theories about spelling, at various stages, and describes helpful ways for teachers to work with kids’ ideas and move them forward.

sample literacy prompt pageI wrote up some organizing ideas, and put a lot of samples into a binder for myself. It was just for me, so I didn’t need to spend much time explaining. Here’s a sample page:

 

I was working off the model of math tune-ups in a favorite math curriculum, MathLand, tragically no longer in print. MathLand tune-ups often used individual write-on-wipe-off white-boards, mostly as a way for the teacher to see responses from the whole class, but sometimes for the class to see each others’ responses and problem-solving methods. I planned to have students use whiteboards for literacy tune-ups, too.

The MathLand tune-ups rotated among a number of skills, for example work with place value, strategies for estimation, and skills for working with time and money. Similarly, I planned to rotate among a number of language skills, including spelling patterns, punctuation, subject and verb agreement, prefixes and suffixes, some basic sentence diagramming, and more.

literacy tune up record sheetPages like this kept on a clipboard, a sheet for each student, helped me keep track of student responses. I didn’t try to write down every student’s response to every lesson, just things that would help me support individual kids or the class as a whole.

As we went along, I learned to make my questions or prompts increasingly open-ended, because that was more fun, and also more productive. Sharing data is really different from getting the one right answer (or not.) The kids’ responses were often hilarious, and I learned to go with that, to let it happen, to let kids have obsessions with fictional characters–or pink cake, or bacon.

One last thought

So often, teaching young adolescents, I felt regret about aspects of the world they were entering, and the history they explored with me. The history of slavery, or the continuing reality of slavery in the world; the consequences of heedless fossil fuel use. I felt sad to have to open up these facts.

Framing language skills work as a feast of variation and nuance, a celebration of our rich and multifaceted, multi-sourced English (American flavor), I felt thrilled to welcome my students into something complex but unquestionably wonderful, a treasure / parade / three-ring circus that’s free.

To think of it that way changed the whole game, for all of us.

 

 

Journeys, again

Last month I wrote about the Journey of Man thematic study, looking at the routes used by our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, as they colonized all the world’s land except Antarctica. Recently I was thrilled to find a cache of student work samples from the first year of that study.

It’s timely. Over the next few weeks, some of the kids from that first Journey of Man class will graduate from college. They’re dancing in their last undergraduate dance concerts; giving senior voice recitals; helping younger students prepare to take over the leadership of campus organizations; getting ready to go off and be teachers themselves.

All of you from that class, wherever you are in your journeys, should have that buzzy feeling that says someone is thinking of you, because my mind has been full of the journeys I watched you make, from question to question, draft to draft, project to project.

Although I’m in touch with some of you, I’m not sure how to find others. So I’m going to hide names and identify you, if at all, only by first initial.  I’m assembling these samples out of the impact of the whole stack, in which I read every word. So in some sense all of you are reflected here.

JOM evidence stack

Over the summer before we started this study, I asked students to find and read a book related to the journeys we would be examining: the evolution of hominin species over millions of years; the travels of modern humans colonizing the globe; and the immigrant journeys that populated New England. Students could choose books relating to any of these topics, and I asked them to copy a passage that had been particularly meaningful for them.

Many students read about relatively recent immigration. Here’s one student’s heartbreaking choice of passage, from Ellis Island: Gateway to the New World by Leonard Everett Fisher:

JOM passage from Ellis Island bk editJOM copied passage geneticsI had offered genetics as a possible book topic, knowing that we’d be doing a side-trip into some learning about genes. We needed that to help us understand the role of Y chromosome genetics in the book by Spencer Wells from which we had borrowed our thematic study’s name, The Journey of Man. One student read Why Are People Different? from Usborne Publishing, and copied a fascinating passage.

 

JOM copied passage evolution

One faJOM copied passage evolution p2mily found a beautiful picture book about evolution, Our Family Tree: an Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters. It’s become one of my favorite nonfiction books for people of any age,

I’ve scanned both the copied passage and the student’s explanation for why she chose that book.

 

Other students jumped right into paleoanthropology. The passage below came from The Origins of Man, by John Napier.

JOM copied passage origins editReading through these, child by child, I am so moved by what grabbed them, when they were just sampling our topics to create an overview for each other. All four of those kids, J, J, S, and J, were drawn to story interpreting evidence–historical evidence, evidence from biological research, evidence from paleoanthropology and archaeology–all of it warmed and made coherent by a little bit of storytelling.

The first part of our exploration, about the evolution of species increasingly like us, focused on the first time clap, which I’ve already described. Here’s one student’s species sign, scanned to show the directions on the back.

JOM Homo erectus directions

I love that two word direction at the bottom, probably written by one of the students who carried copies of the sign. Those two short words take sides in a controversy still not fully settled by the interested scientists. Clearly we decided, for the purpose of the time clap, that Homo erectus really was able to control fire and use it at will–and that the dramatic growth of brain volume in Homo erectus fossil skulls indicates something revolutionary: cooked food. (You can watch this video to hear some of the evidence.)

Once we turned to the voyages of early modern humans, we were all grateful for Spencer Wells’s own effort to give his genetic evidence a human face and a story line:

JOM hunting with San

JOM target practice with SanJOM Spencer learning P editLike some of the other pieces I’ll include, these were quick pieces of writing done overnight for homework, in response to an open-ended invitation to write about something that stood out for each student. They had a word limit–probably no more than 60 words, judging from the ones that show a word count. Sometimes pairs or small groups of students shared what they had written; sometimes volunteers read theirs out loud to the full class, as a preparation for watching the next chunk of video.

Much of The Journey of Man is based on genetic evidence involving the Y chromosome. We did some other work to help us understand this, isolating DNA with help from parent volunteers, making models, reading other books. But all the kids were really taken with Spencer’s own treatment, using monkey oranges to lay out a big graphic on the ground near the San Bushmen camp.

JOM monkey oranges R editThe crosses indicate a second mutation; so R’s diagram would have been even better if he’d shown that second mutation happening in an individual who had already inherited a first one. Overall, though, he showed real understanding, and like so many Touchstone students, he didn’t hesitate to critique and appreciate Spencer’s teaching technique!

How did I handle informational errors in this kind of writing? Case by case. Sometimes I talked with the individual kid, or wrote a comment (which I’m cropping out here, mostly.) Often, I let signs of widespread confusion guide what steps the whole group would take next.

I found one page I’d written when I was disappointed with an activity,  brainstorming and evaluating ways we could approach the material differently. After all, I wasn’t doing this to grade students on their various levels of understanding; I was aiming for the greatest possible understanding by everyone–and all of us were being pioneers, including me.

Sometimes I asked kids to write about what they thought, before we watched the video or explored the evidence:

JOM ice bridge A editClearly this student had heard about ice bridges as a part of human migration from one continent to another. But as a way to get from Africa to Australia, an ice bridge couldn’t really work, and he realized that as we moved forward. Later he wrote again:

JOM to Australia new idea Here, K argues for her version using a terrific sketch map:

JOM Africa to Australia with map

JOM time clap 2  plan sheetI’ve already shared some artifacts from the second time clap, in which we worked intensively with material in the book version of The Journey of Man,  to recreate early modern humans’ routes from continent to continent. For all of us, I think, when we say “time claps” we’re remembering that one, because it was so intense. Finding additional materials from that second time clap, I was thrilled by evidence for what I had remembered, that kids themselves did most of the organizing and preparation. So, to the left here’s a planning sheet that is pretty difficult to decipher if you’re not one of the kids at work on the plan. (I know that the numbers refer to Y-chromosome mutations, and that the colors refer to colors of streamers carried on the routes.)

Here’s one student’s individual sheet, to help her know what to do when:

JOM time clap 2 indiv sheet editThe learning spiraled; it was cumulative. We reviewed in a variety of ways, acted things out in a variety of ways, made obnoxious comments about guest scientists having bad hair days, and reached a point of intimacy with the material that was extraordinary, given its challenges.

No Unit Test. Instead, kids wrote final pieces that we revised to a pretty good polish. Here’s part of one:JOM final essay E first paragraphs

Later, we carried these ideas into the work we did in the spring, thinking about the history of human technology and the evidence of archaeology, in connection with The Second Voyage of the Mimi.

Nothing I’ve ever learned about has fascinated me more than this big picture view of human history, and I couldn’t have had better learning companions. Writing about it, organizing my own artifacts, I’ve started rewatching videos, reading books and blogs. I’m excited by new evidence, and also by new attempts to convey the story as a story.

I’ve also been struggling to understand online blogs and comments written by people who dismiss the Out of Africa evidence, for reasons that often seem transparently racist.

At any moment, on my bicycle, folding laundry, driving to the other end of the state, I’m liable to be thinking:

  • How did we get from Africa to Australia as lickety-split as the genetic and archaeological evidence indicates–not just traveling but colonizing? Just what role did bamboo rafts play? Is there any way I could wrangle myself an opportunity to make a bamboo raft?
  • And what about the evidence that even Homo erectus, much longer ago, used some kind of transport across water?
  • But also: what can be done to heal the increasing polarization between people who are excited by scientific evidence–even when it’s confusing or contradictory–and people who are threatened by it? How will my past students navigate that crossfire?

Ultimately, for me, this is the question: How can we build and share a new evidence-based story of our origins? Part of the answer, of course, as always: together.

New England Change-Makers

So many teachers wind up disillusioned and discouraged by their students. I’ve said before that I was lucky, and this is one way. The longer I taught, the more I was impressed and moved by my students’ willingness to tackle big pictures and complicated topics. They weren’t just willing; they were eager, sometimes hauling their teacher along for the ride.

In particular, I found that wonderful things could happen when I asked students to communicate the significance of lives distant from their own, particularly lives that are over.

Stepping back: so far, this is the third in a series of posts. Two posts ago, I shared some resources for studying African-American history and the challenge of race in American culture. Last time, I focused on learning by writing, role-playing, or acting, particularly about the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

In this post, I want to focus on student presentations about individual change-makers, within a thematic study of New England.

New England is edited

The overall study was almost ridiculously big picture. After an introduction to the geography of New England, we considered plate tectonics and continental drift, along with other geological forces and climatological events that have shaped the New England landscape: mountains raised and ground to their roots, the whole region carved by ice and by abundant rainfall, a process we can watch in the present. In fact, we’re surrounded by souvenirs: unlike people living in Kansas, we can’t walk very far without tripping over rocks (a fact abundantly evident on Touchstone’s own property.)

Then we looked at the routes and ways by which humans have arrived in this landscape, populating and changing it. Eventually, that led us to look at a New England tradition as powerful as the Red Sox: big new ideas about public life.

When I designed this thematic unit, I felt that it made sense to look at the struggle to abolish slavery in the context of other efforts toward the inclusion of groups held apart, out on the periphery of decision making: women, people who don’t own property, Native American Indians, immigrants from beyond northern Europe.

These were our essential questions for this part of the New England study: Who gets to make decisions? Who do we mean by “us”? How does that political reality impact our social and economic lives? How has all this changed over time, and how is it still changing?

Teaching this unit in the fall of 2008, and then 2010 and 2012, I found–as I have so often–that time lines and maps are great tools for big picture thinking. But I also found that looking at individual stories could help kids travel through time and revise their understanding more successfully than anything else.

We focused mostly on biographies of people never famous–or no longer famous. I wanted each student to be the authority in the room when he or she presented to the assembled class community, including parents and grandparents. I wanted them to sense the contributions of people we don’t often thank by name.

New England biographies 2From my work with the Alhambra Banquet curriculum, I had learned the value of asking students to choose from a menu of ideas or occupations, not a list of individual people. (They just didn’t know enough yet about the people.) I asked them to choose several categories, so I would have some flexibility in achieving a good match for every student.

Once the match-ups were made, I had learned (again, from the Alhambra Banquet work) to provide a short, basic biography of just a few paragraphs. In 2008, our first year with this thematic study, Mary Brochu was working with me, and wrote many of the biographies in the initial set. Obviously, these short introductory biographies were particularly important for people about whom no biography had yet been written with a view to young readers.

New England biographies 1For most historical figures, a student who went looking could find more. We provided links to online sources, and talked in class about things to watch out for when using websites.  I was thrilled to discover a gradual expansion of picture book and other accessible biographical resources, as Mary Brochu worked her usual wizardry turning up books I’d thought unlikely to exist.

In any case, we encouraged all the students to research–and then share–not just the person but also the key concepts crucial to understanding the person’s story. What shape did slavery take in New England? How did abolitionists communicate with their allies and adversaries? How did the various movements for greater democracy intersect, in the life of a figure such as Abby Kelley Foster? When Frederick Law Olmsted advocated public parks, who needed them most?

To help students identify with their assigned historical figures, our amazing integrated arts teacher, Emily Miller Mlcak, guided them through the process of painting portraits, using as their sources photographs, drawings or paintings from the time, or portrayals of similar people if we had nothing else. In the photograph below, of students relaxing and eating with their families after the presentations, you can see some of that year’s portraits on the closet doors at the left.

New England potluck edited

One year, I followed a sudden inspiration and asked kids to think and write about their historical figures as animals. One girl, who had struggled with Mum Bett’s conventional unattractiveness in the only available source portrait, wrote a breathtaking piece about Mum Bett as an owl–for wisdom, but also for flying to freedom.

mum bettIn all the ways we supported kids for the challenge of even very brief public speaking, nothing was more important than the support they gave each other. Student partners helped each other write functional note cards that could be glanced at quickly; they rehearsed together; on the night of the potluck, they stood up together, silently reinforcing each other.

The audience of parents also played tremendously important roles, making it a point to chat, after the presentations, with all the children, focusing on the content they had learned, not just the performance. It helped that those parents, and the rest of the class, would typically have only a slight acquaintance with the information being presented. That boosted kids’ confidence, and also gave them a real sense of responsibility and mission.

Some kids wanted to speak as their people, in the first person. Others wanted to speak about their people, in the third person. I couldn’t see any reason not to just give them the choice. Either way, the past of that person became a part of their present, and their audience’s.

My memories of how all this worked are very vivid and personal. I think of one of my youngest students, pretty much terrified to stand up, looking at his partner and moving forward. I think of girls absorbing, for the first time, the idea that their grandmothers or great-grandmothers were blocked from getting the kinds of education they wanted. I think of Josh, explaining to me the reasoning Thaddeus Stephens used to convince fellow congressional representatives, and Lincoln, that continued slavery would cause the north to lose the war.

I think of these people called into the present to be a part of our community in some way.

Ifeanyi Menkiti, Nigerian Ibo poet and Wellesley College philosophy professor, once explained to me how, among some African tribal cultures, the circle of minds invited to the deliberations of the community includes past and departed members of the community, as long as people still sense their presence–a concept of immortality astonishingly pragmatic, true to our almost universal human experience of felt presence.

Thinking this through over the past week, I’ve thought how, at the other end of our timeline, some Native American Indian cultures have committed themselves to considering the needs of generations to come, not just the grandchildren they might hold and know as inspiration, but many generations beyond, unknowable. Again pragmatic; again, a function of the imagination in public life.

One way or another, we live in our highest purposes, and serve them most truly, whenever we reach to broaden what we mean when we say “us.” And that seems to be true at any age.

Learning by Shape-shifting

It’s not just children who organize their lives and experiences, and transcend them, through storytelling. It’s definitely not just for fun. The ability to feel empathy, informed empathy–an understanding of another that begins in earned, respectful knowledge of the other–lies at the heart of our moral understanding. We practice that, in so many ways, through storytelling.

We use storytelling to hold onto memories of people we are heartbroken to have lost, and begin to heal our hearts in the process. We work to cross barriers of time and distance and race and class and gender. We hold our own selves coherent in our minds—all with the help of storytelling.

Storytelling can also go wrong. We can tell a child a story about how he is wrong and bound to be wrong, and that story gathers power with every retelling. We can do that same thing, each of us, to ourselves. We can construct stories that hold an entire group accountable for the acts of a few, or revisions of history that scapegoat the blameless. We can cling tenaciously to old stories about the world around us, rather than let new evidence start us spinning new versions.

Storytelling is like fire. We have to carry it and keep it alive, or we lose something essential–but we also have to carry it, and use it, very carefully.

arthur and C.T. editedStorytelling gave power to our classroom learning at Touchstone in so many ways. For example, after my class had watched each video episode of The Voyage of the Mimi, kids wrote journal entries in the voices of the characters. At first, I asked all the students to write as C.T., the young character who is our surrogate within the video story. The second year, when I broadened the choices, I saw how much it could mean to a kid to write as the chief scientist on the expedition, responsible for both thorough data and respectful treatment of the whales they were tracking and observing. Some chose to write as the captain of Mimi, responsible for everyone’s safety and for the boat itself, but also committed to the success of the scientists who had chartered Mimi for their work. Many chose to write as the young black student intern from New York City, initially clueless about everything nautical, but an expedition-saving whiz at electronics–above all, willing to step out of his city-smarts for a new experience.

Taking on these roles and perspectives gave students broader understanding of the trade-offs and decisions in real work. At the same time, creating that shape-shifting experience for themselves, they could feel their own imaginative power.

Our first storytelling connected directly to black studies built on one of the accounts in Freedom’s Children, one of the resources I mentioned in the preceding post. In 1955, Claudette Colvin was just 15 years old when she refused to give up her seat on an internally segregated Montgomery city bus, nine months before a similar action by Rosa Parks drew national attention. Claudette’s learning, as a high school student in a segregated high school, contributed to her bravery. Years later, when she was interviewed by Newsweek, Colvin said, “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat,”

Using her account in Freedom’s Children, my students improvised and discussed and revised dramatizations of Claudette’s story. Several different classes did this over the years, often sharing that year’s version of the skit as our contribution to the annual community meeting honoring the concerns of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result, I have vivid memories of various completely plausible Claudettes hollering out, “But it’s my right! It’s my constitutional right!”

colvincoverThe day I saw, in a Cambridge bookstore, a whole book devoted to Claudette, I hollered out myself, just thrilled. Seriously, find the book or at least read the Wikipedia entry linked above: you’ll be fascinated by all the reasons she wound up a mostly unsung heroine, and I hope you’ll feel as grateful as I do for the example of her Mighty Girl spirit.

One year we had a little more time for this kind of work. I copied several accounts from Freedom’s Children, which described a variety of situations including a lunch counter confrontation. Then small groups of kids worked with the different stories.

Before we shared with the class as a whole, we took time to have the participants in each group switch roles, and then run through the skit again. How did it feel different to be the white store manager? How did it feel to be the kid who took part but never spoke? How did it feel to be the one who stood up–or sat down and stayed sitting?

A memory of a pivotal point in my own learning: a child started playing an elderly character in a stereotypical old guy way, shaky hand on cane, croaky voice–playing it for laughs. I can’t remember whether I just intervened briefly, and reminded kids of our purposes, or whether I conducted the kind of group discussion that often serves those purposes best. Sometimes quick and light is good; sometimes taking time to go deeper is good.

Either way, over time, I realized that I wanted kids to carry themselves, collectively and consciously, the responsibility for real empathy in our role-playing. Informed empathy, considered empathy. Such a challenging thing, for them and for me: to enlist the playfulness and inventiveness of the imagination, and give it a sense of responsibility, all at the same time.

To carry and use the fire of storytelling carefully.

We do that best when we’re open with kids about the power we’re giving them, and its risks. Can people who’ve grown up in the invisible insulation of white privilege really understand what it’s like to be looked at askance every time you walk into a store, or to be pulled over every time you drive through a white neighborhood? I don’t think so, actually–not fully, although each of us has experiences on which we can draw, to move towards partial understanding of someone else’s story, and we have the power of transmitted language, stories others have told, to guide us.

Still, I’ll stake my soul on the conviction that it’s worth trying; that what we gain from role-playing or from writing in persona is worth the risk–no, in fact the guarantee–that we won’t get it all right.

Welty, Sunday School, Holiness Church, Jackson, 1935-1936Working with high school students as creative writers, I’ve use photographs (like the one to the right by Eudora Welty), other people’s poems, artist’s manikins, all sorts of prompts to encourage writing in persona, writing out of what we’ve learned but not consciously owned about what it’s like to be someone else. Again and again, I’ve been floored by the results–just as with my younger students. It’s never felt anything but risky, or anything but essential.

Ultimately, because it’s right at the heart of human experience, we want students to understand both the power of storytelling and the risks. We want it to be not just the teacher who asks, “Wait, should we be playing this for laughs?” We want a kid voice to be ready to challenge a quick and stereotyped version: “Wait, what evidence do we have for the way we’re representing this?” We want them to grow up to say, “Wait, it just doesn’t make sense to say that all Arabs are terrorists.”

The questions are part of the learning, and the caution is part of the imagination’s voyage–for all of us.

Ancestor Pies

A few weeks ago, Chrissy Danko and I met for lunch. Every time I’ve thought about it since then I’ve started grinning. She is the oldest of four siblings, and I taught them all, sad to say goodbye to the last of them and to their parents. (‟Wouldn’t you like to have more?” I asked Joe and Joan, impertinent as ever.) It was a huge treat to sit and talk with Chrissy, and hear about them all, and hear about who she’s becoming as an adult.

When she came to me, Chrissy was so shy she barely spoke in front of the class. My fierce protection of turn-taking, especially for the turns of the quiet, didn’t work for everyone, but it helped Chrissy. She opened up; she began to appreciate herself more. Now she is writing her dissertation, for a PhD in philosophy, about Hume and Kierkegaard–and about what it means to be an individual, to have a self.

Here’s a photograph of Chrissy, when she was in my class:

Chrissy projects timeChrissy with two heads

Here’s another, at Halloween. I have no idea who’s the alien, and who’s the pumpkinhead, and would love to know. (At a place that really values creativity, Halloween can be pretty amazing.)

I don’t know how it is in your life, oh patient reader, but in mine, right now, there are many mysteries, treasures that lie somewhere unknown in still-pretty-tall stacks of boxes. Some absences I can live with cheerfully for a while more, but some feel like serious deprivations. For example, although I saw it some time in the last year, I can’t find Chrissy’s ancestor pie. Hers was one of the most unique of the circle graphs of background and heritage that I assigned in the early years of the immigration theme.

Here’s Aaron Goodman’s ancestor pie, made that same year, also quite wonderful:

immigration ancestor pie Aaron

Pretty soon in the evolution of the immigration theme, I stopped assigning ancestor pies, realizing that they could be problematic for some kids. While it was an assignment, thoughand later, when it was a choicewe considered fractions as small as sixteenths, one sixteenth for each of a child’s sixteen great-great-grandparents. Two parents; four grandparents; eight great-grandparents; sixteen great-great-grandparents.

(When I heard that a cousin in my father’s Maine hometown had said that his great-grandmother had been two-thirds Indian, I knew that couldn’t be quite the case. Ancestry denominators come in powers of two.)

Aaron didn’t need sixteenths; fourths did it for him. Ben Redden needed eighths, and managed to line up the eighths from two different grandparents, to show that he added up to a fourth English.immigration ancestor pie Ben

For Chrissy’s ancestor pie, unique and memorable, she made one big pink circle, on which she wrote, ‟I’m all Polish.”

On one of those trips back from Ellis Island described in the previous post, Chrissy’s dad’s stories intrigued me. More accurately, I was struck by his lack of stories. ‟They won’t talk about it,” he said. ‟None of them will, or ever would.” The memories of life in Poland too dark? Or still too much sense of rupture from that other life? Maybe both—since those feelings seem able to coexist, in all of us.

Another parent had spent years coming to understand that her mother’s grimness could be traced to her own mother’s very difficult immigration experience. She’d been left behind as a baby, then finally came over to join her family, and was ridiculed for being slow to catch on to America; her bitterness affected her daughter. ‟I’m where it stops,” my student’s mother said. ‟I’m not going to keep living out that hurt, and I won’t pass it on to my daughter.” (I may not have the family history details quite right, but I will never forget the mother’s resolve.)

Even the stories we would definitely call successes seemed often to have a shadow.

Beyond those individual stories, looking at the community story, I began to see the melting pot project as very much unfinished, at least in our area. A friend of mine in Marlborough went to have her children baptized. ‟Wrong church,” they told her. ‟You’re Irish. This is the Italian church.” Several Worcester parents in my class described lingering enmity between Irish Catholic and French-Canadian Catholic colleges.

These and other stories convinced me that we can all be tribal, insular, distrustful. We seem to be nowhere near being able to handle racial differences; we can’t even handle ethnic ones.

(All of these, of course, being cultural constructs, not biological. Inside that designation of Polish there could be many variations, given Poland’s history. And we are all Africans, in very recent time. But that’s for another post, somewhere down the road.)

The ancestor pies told yet another story. Sarah Tonry’s, one of those mysteries hidden in the boxes, had nine colors, as I remember, for nine different flavors of European heritage. Most of the kids in our central Massachusetts population colored in at least three or four different cultural origins, and when we located all our collective countries of origin on maps, the class list ran to nearly twenty, easily.

Willy nilly, we were the melting pot, and the ancestor pies showed us that.

I myself have to go to fractions smaller than sixteenths to show anything other than one big circle. Growing up, surrounded by people with ‟interesting fractions,” I felt the lack severely. At some point, our mother helped my sister and me calculate that we were 1/2048th French. An exhilarating notion. We spent a whole crossing of Long Island Sound gloating.

Family legend in my father’s family said that we were 1/16th Native American, and recent research by family genealogists indicates that my generation probably really is 1/32nd Abenaki. I’ve learned since that brutal treatment of Native American Indians in southern New England led survivors to flee north. So Judith, my great-great-grandmother, could have been any combination of tribes, along with whatever portion she had of what we call white.

I’ve thought about Judith a lot, remembering this again and again: inside our historical selves, the selves we bear through the changes and patterns and stories of history, there are wars. There are hurts unassuaged, that convey hurt forward without ever being named. For all of us, one way or another, things got thrown overboard; loved people were left behind.

Publicly, we may celebrate our emigree identities, whatever they may be, and the melting pot project, the meetings of differences. Privately we still seem to carry a lot of grief, more than we usually let ourselves know.

That’s one of the things the community of a class can do together: we can honor each others’ historical selves, whatever we know and share of them. Honor them with knowledge and wide understanding of the historical context; celebrate them with respect and joy. We can be gentle with the unnamed mysteries inside the tall stacks of unsorted boxes that are each of our identities.

One year, Kate Keller (wearing her aide hat) suggested that all of us take our just-finished immigrant mini-posters outside. (Each mini-poster gave the basic information about one immigrant, relative or friend, for each member of the class; Kate and I each made one, too.) Outside, we all stood together on the wide steps below the classroom windows, holding our posters and making a human timeline, century by century. A fairly boisterous crew, we stood there quietly for a minute or so, honoring all those reasons to have left and reasons to have arrived, all those ways of persisting afterwards. We called all those people, a few still living, most gone, to be present. Neither of the adults had dry eyes.

Living with each other, hearing each other’s stories, we might have looked pretty homogeneous to an outsider, but we were honoring difference, discovering commonality, keeping an old project alive. Nothing else we did mattered more.

Ellis Island Stories

 On one of my first trips to Ellis Island, with my family, we were part of the annual surge of people into the national parks, on the day after Thanksgiving. (‟Highest attendance, nationwide,” the rangers told us.)

ellis island hallMoving from exhibit to exhibit in that throng, I overheard an older woman telling her companions about her own father’s journey to America, alone, at the age of 12. As she stood above the Great Hall, where people were sorted–allowed in or refused and sent away–stories she had heard all her life took on new shape.

On the ferry back to New Jersey, listening to all the languages around us, I leaned over to my husband and asked, ‟How many?” and he listened for a few minutes and said, ‟Maybe twenty?” We were surrounded by another pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of new immigrants, come to honor that shrine of the old immigration.

None of our own close relatives came through Ellis Island—his mother came after the island was closed; my ancestors, like the rest of his, came centuries ago, when nobody was counting or checking or manning the gate in any way; when people just came.

Still, the story we felt around us is universal—all those people, in all their languages, were saying so—and we were deeply moved.

The parents of my students helped me figure out how to get us there, from our distance in Massachusetts. The first time, Gail Epstein and David Tapscott arranged for us to stay with relatives near New York City, taking over their rooms in a giant sleepover. (Thus the comment–in the recording below, that shows part of our debriefing session once we got back–about not stepping on anyone.)

ellis island debrief higher contrast

Another year, Carol Bedrosian, now the editor of Spirit of Change, arranged a bus for a day trip, and helped the class throw a car-wash to defray some of the costs. It was a very long day. We left from Grafton at 5:30 am, and returned about midnight. Still, it worked, and we used that way of getting to Ellis Island many more times.The trip book–a combined guide and workbook, the sort of thing teachers can create and use in the wonderful age of photocopying–included games to play on the bus. We chose a video to watch on the way home, and the few kids who didn’t pass out cold in extremely odd positions watched along with the adults.

The bus had more room than we needed, and cost a fortune, so we invited parents and grandparents to join us and help cover the cost. Making this a multi-generational field trip had all sorts of benefits. Kids got to know each others’ parents; parents got to know their children’s friends. Especially on the way home, as children slept, parents told each other (and me) their own families’ stories, deeply moving, often full of sorrow and darkness along with hopes fulfilled. With all those generations bearing witness, we settled more deeply into some truths of our history.

When I decided to post here that debrief of the very first class trip, I knew I would have to tell the story of the guy reaching over the railing.

We were exploring in our small groups. My group was in the room with what I called immigration math, huge colorful 3D graphs and interactive maps, showing immigration trends across time. I had designed a day that would echo our day at school: math time in the math room; reading and writing time in the galleries full of photographs; sketching time in a gallery full of the actual objects immigrants had brought with them, candlesticks and prayer books, christening dresses and lockets. Recess time we spent outside, looking for our own relatives on the wall of names, watching the seagulls. All of this was meant to help us feel ourselves mid-harbor, mid-history, mid-melting pot.

Lucy Candib, medical doctor and mother of Addie, was with me there in the math room with our group of four or five kids. Suddenly, we heard the terrible sound of someone’s head hitting the stone floor in the entrance room behind us. A young man from another school had leaned out over the stair railing too far, reaching to a friend, and had tumbled down to the floor below. Lucy was the first person at his side. I saw him on a stretcher, apparently unconscious, as rangers waited for a helicopter to fly him off the island.

All of us, every single one, including me, had to tell that story first, before anything else, when we got home late that night. I had to get past the ghost of that story in order to go back to Ellis Island with kids again. That incident made me tighten my organization for the trip, and recruit kids to be mindful of everyone’s safety. It forced me to think through (again) all the risks teachers take when we leave the classroom with kids, and all the reasons why we should, anyway—because the story of the young man who reached too far was not the only story we all had to tell when we got home, just the first.

Inspired by that woman on the balcony of the Great Hall, imagining her father, I had designed the immigration unit around true immigration stories of family members and friends, people still alive and people known only by the stories still told about them. Kids called uncles in California who knew that stuff; they interviewed their babysitters; they often found family artifacts and brought them in to share. In our work at school, students gathered these stories, distilled them into file card versions to put on a huge timeline stretching around the room, and chose one to write in full and revise for publication.

Always, in any particular class, a good portion of the kids, as many as half, had family stories that linked to Ellis Island–but the assignment didn’t specify that.

At Ellis Island Lewis Hine - Italian child gets her first penny, 1926Ellis Island, I asked the kids to make up a fictional story, also. In a room full of giant portraits of immigrants, near the entrance to the Peopling of the Americas exhibit, each student chose a person from one of the photos: boys and girls, women and men, from several continents.

ellis island photos writing croppedThen, as students moved from section to section in the exhibit, the trip book led them through the corresponding stages of the immigrant experience: a section about saying goodbye, when they left their old homes; a section about finding work; a section about communities of immigrants giving each other comfort and reassurance. After reading some of the text on the walls, looking at the photographs, and listening to recorded accounts on phones placed around the exhibit, each student wrote a journal entry in the voice of his or her chosen person, bearing them through the experience, stage by stage. To the right, Ian Wills and IanTapscott have found a comfortable piece of floor. Below, Mike Costa reads what he’s already written.

ellis island mike costa croppedSometimes a kid chose a photograph that could be a stand-in for a great-great-grandmother or grandfather. Sometimes they chose photographs that could be stand-ins for themselves. Stefan Cunha chose a newsboy yelling out across a street–and for all these years since I have remembered the clarity and power of his writing in that situation.

By the time we got back onto the ferry to leave Ellis Island, each of us was like a set of Russian dolls, with other lives nested inside us: the boy who discovered that the immigrants had come to earn their way into this country with unbelievably hard work; the girl who was let through Ellis Island but had to say goodbye to her father; the aunt who could never fully emerge from the trauma, the shadow, of the pogroms; the teenager who became the family’s translator exactly at the age when he wanted independence; the mother with her children held close all around her, hollow-eyed, all of them hungry and hoping to be better fed.

Ellis Island was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy; it’s only gradually being reopened, and I’ve worried that exhibits I treasured, as a teacher, may have been lost. Even before that, security arrangements put in place after the World Trade Center bombings had so lengthened the process of getting onto the island that it no longer worked for us as a day trip. Meanwhile, I had been learning about Blackstone Valley immigration stories, and had discovered the Museum of Work and Culture in Pawtucket, Rhode Island–not at all the same, but fascinating in its own way. The focus of our work in the fall gradually shifted.

It’s fair to say, though, that all my curriculum work afterward was affected by the Ellis Island field trip experiences, and by the thematic study that grew around them. Looking back I can see shifts: in my sense of what is at stake in curriculum choices; in my sense of the huge and complicated realities young adolescent students can stretch to embrace; and in my sense of the importance of combining, carefully and respectfully, both research and imagination.

Below, Adam Curley and I are too excited to sit down, while various parents huddle and talk in the October wind across the harbor.

ellis island photos ferry cropped

You’d have a hard time tracking people down with these photographs, from several of the earliest trips–so I decided to just go with them. Thanks so much, to everyone who helped these wonderful field trips happen!


Supporting Deeper Understanding with a Skimathon Process

Why did I decide to help students find the books they would use as seeds, or starters, for their research reports? Why did the right starter book matter so much?

Here’s why: with rare exceptions, each student would read the whole of the starter book for her chosen-and-received topic. In fact, most students read the whole book through twice, taking thorough notes in the style the student chose, from those I demonstrated. All that happened before a student went on to use other print or video or online sources more selectively.

The Common Core Standards now recommend much more reading of non-fiction books for younger students, and I’m hoping that they intend this same thing, as often as possible: not browsing, but actual reading, beginning to end. A good non-fiction book has its own shape and strategy, its own way to model the truth of the world. Sampling little bits won’t give you that.

I would rather have a student read the whole of a book written and designed for a child or young adult audience, even if it’s pitched a little below the student’s reading level, than see that same student read little bits of a book written for adults.

Instead of just harvesting specific details here and there, my students (average age, 11) could observe and absorb the way the author / illustrator / editor / publisher of the starter book framed the fundamental concepts and ideas. They could connect with their topics not as collections of facts but as ideas supported by facts. From what the Iceman was carrying when he died, we can learn a lot about the skills of his people. Or: Snakes don’t need legs, because different species have evolved very effective ways of moving for their different environments.

It’s an ambitious goal, to perceive a topic in terms of its big ideas. Still, I found that students could do this, given carefully selected books. I found that whole classes of very diverse students could do this, every single one of them, given the right range of books to start from, and enough support.

books Elephants Calling page croppedThe page above is from Elephants Calling, by Katharine Payne (Crown, 1993.) Following a particular elephant family, this book worked well for students who especially liked non-fiction with a story.

In effect, I enlisted all those authors (and illustrators and editors and publishers) as co-teachers–for free, or almost free–and I got to learn from them, too.

After years of beginning a research report writing process using a skimathon, what would I give as advice, to a teacher reading this and wanting to try it? Maybe, instead, you’re a home-schooling parent, or a home-schooled student setting up your own process–or even an adult with a new interest, figuring out how to learn all about it. Aspects of this process could work in any of these situations, but I’m going to address teachers, because I’m so glad to have been one–and I know that the job is gigantic.

First, I’d suggest that you wait until the students know you and each other. You want students to feel confident asking you for suggestions. “So far, I’ve only found two starter books that feel right to me–can you help me find possibilities for another?”  You want them to give recommendations to each other. “Mike, you have got to look at this book; it’s so gross.”

One way or another, you want to give yourself extra time to work with the book collection in the light of what you know about the particular class.

I’ll admit that I did a lot of summer work to get started with each of my various skimathon lists–but it was some of my favorite work, apart from actually being with kids. We didn’t teach from textbooks and teacher manuals, so preparing a new skimathon book collection played an important role in helping me get ready to explore a body of material with students.

Teaching a multi-aged class in which I almost always worked with some kids a second year, I almost never used the same theme two years in a row. Whenever I came back to the theme, though, our January start for this process gave me time, during the holiday break, to reassess.

You’ll probably want to do the same thing. Every time you return to a given theme, you’ll want to search for better books on any topic for which the book at hand has seemed inadequate or out-of-date. You’ll want to find books that appeal to students’ evolving interests, and books that work with your own evolving sense of the theme–which will change, of course, every time you teach it.

Either making the first collection for a Skimathon, or reassessing and revising our list, I spent time online, searching various topics. A local public library’s collection supplemented what we had at my school, and I got help from the children’s librarian there, Lucy Loveridge, an old friend. She understood the kind of teaching I was doing, and could suggest books not just according to their topics but according to their other qualities. Mary Brochu, at Touchstone, had worked with me as an aide, and could take a new topic and run with it, bringing me the results. (It takes a village to teach a theme.)

Beyond what I could get from the libraries, I used part of my supply budget every year to buy new or used books to support the Skimathon and the report writing process. Even if a book was available from a public library, it often made sense to buy a used copy for our classroom library, so a student could keep it over a span of several months.

For one version of this process, for a theme asking who we are, as humans, about half the students would eventually write reports about archaeological investigations, such as Pompeii or Skara Brae or Stonehenge. The other half wrote about the history of technology, defined very broadly to include things like early human use of fire, or the history of money.

books Taming Fire croppedThe book to the left, from Scholastic, challenged many of the readers most attracted to it, but it repaid their attention fully, and helped produce some really thought-provoking reports.

Through the time when I was teaching, children’s publishers were producing a fabulous explosion of new books on these topics. New didn’t always mean better–but sometimes I could see vast improvement. For example, when I started teaching about animal behavior, very few books emphasized behavior as opposed to physiology (the way the animal’s body works), and even fewer viewed all of this from an evolutionary perspective. I found it exhilarating to watch that change, and harness it in the form of better books for my gang.

At the same time, online sources for used books made it easier to find older books that were still the best of their kind.

books Early InventionsLike all the books I’m featuring this time, this one (Chelsea, 1995) is officially out-of-print, but can still be found–and it’s an extraordinary book, truly focused on ideas supported by details. We used it not as a starter book but as a secondary resource for a number of topics: fire, shelter, agriculture, time-keeping.

One way or another, every time I worked with these topics, I could find better books for the skimathon. In addition, if I knew about special interests of particular kids, I stood a good chance of finding the right starter book: a book about the history of musical instruments, for example, or about the Phoenicians.

Surprisingly often, the child I’d targeted for a particular book would fall in love with something else, and the book would go to another student who had never before heard of the Chinese buried warriors, say, but became instantly spellbound. Overall, the kids’ collective interests, intersecting with our topics, constantly lured me in new directions, enriching the whole enterprise.

Whenever you can, choose books that will support hands-on work. For another version of this process, within a thematic study asking what we can learn from animal behavior, students would observe live animals at zoos and aquariums, connecting both formal and informal observations with what they had read in their books. So I tried to find books that would really support that process of connection-making, books with detailed descriptions and illustrations of behaviors kids would be likely to see when they went watching, behaviors such as locomotion, use of senses, feeding, territorial behavior, or dominance behavior.

I also spent time calling our region’s zoos and aquariums to make sure they still had the animals in question, and removed the books for animals kids wouldn’t be able to find anywhere nearby. With a heavy heart I set aside an excellent book about the colony behaviors of naked mole rats, when the zoo in Providence closed their naked mole rat exhibit.

In these same phone calls, I’d ask the curator, “What animal species do you think are especially rewarding for kids to watch?” Then I’d scour the book sources for books that could work for my students.

In any situation in which you’re counting on a combination of print research and direct experience, you want to check both halves of the deal before you offer it on a list.

Students could use the beautiful, information-rich illustrations in the book below, Homemade Houses: Traditional Homes from Many Lands, by John Nicholson (Allen & Unwin, 1993), to help them build models of many types of indigenous architecture.

books Homemade Houses Dogon

Looking at the book collection as a whole, make sure that you have a good range of reading levels and type sizes, and a good variety of styles of nonfiction presentation. Depending on the age level of your students, you may want some of the starter books to be nonfiction picture books, with much more illustration than text, and limited text volume on each page. All the books should have plenty of illustrations. Every student, no matter what her skills or interests might be, needs plenty of room for choice–especially since you’ll be asking all the students to make multiple choices.

In my groups, I knew that some students could handle the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness books, or the Usborne books, which have excellent information, well-organized conceptually, but very dense text and illustration layouts on every page. Still, I tried to save those for back-up resources, not starter books.

One last piece of advice:

Once you’ve worked with the kids’ choices to assign the topics–I could write a whole post just about that, of course–have the kids help you decide which topic you’ll use, from the ones that wind up not being assigned to any student.

You won’t really write a full report on your topic. You’ll be busy helping them. Still, you’ll do just enough to serve as a model: take some notes and share them; make your own table-top book show when it’s time for them to do theirs; make a web to begin thinking about the structure of your report; write and revise a couple of passages; draw some illustrations,

Collectively, your students will know all the books, at that point, and they’ll get a huge kick out of suggesting topics for you. If you have an aide, he or she should get a topic too.

It could change your lives, after all. I’ve never thought of elephants the same way, after reading about them, watching them at the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, and taking detailed notes on one elephant’s every move for half an hour. I still follow the work of Katharine Payne’s Elephant Listening Project.

books who came firstI also seem to be permanently hooked on the earliest settlement of the Americas, a topic full of controversy and even invective between the various experts–with a great book for kids that gives them a sample of competing sources of evidence.

Whatever way you might incorporate some of these ideas, good luck! If you’d like some cheering on, get in touch with me by leaving a comment.

The Seasonal Feast of the Skimathon

It was a moment of high suspense: the moment somewhere in mid-January when I announced the results of the Skimathon.

The Skimathon, lasting from one to two weeks, staged a grand meet-up between all the students in the class, usually about 15, and a collection of books, usually at least 30, all related to our theme for the next several months. These were called starter books, because they would eventually serve as the seeds, the starters, of the students’ individual research reports connected with our theme.

Early in my teaching life, when I first asked 11 and 12-year-old students to write extended research reports, they found their own books–or tried to. Unfortunately, things like this happened: a child who wanted to observe, read and write about the behavior of chickens found only a technical manual written by someone at Tufts Veterinary School. Maybe a good book, but not very effective for that kid.

I invented the Skimathon as a way to give students support and a head start, while still honoring and working with their individual preferences. Over time, as it evolved, the Skimathon became a structure for combining our energies toward their success.

Although the Skimathon temporarily interrupted well-loved ordinary reading activities, it felt like a feast. During the Skimathon, students spent each silent reading time skimming and assessing several books, and then took home several more to look through that night.

Students weren’t required to skim all the books, but I usually set a minimum to ensure that an open-minded student wouldn’t be smitten with the first three books and quit. Within each class, always, a couple of kids tried to read (not just skim) all the books that interested them–or even every single book in the bins! Some parents acknowledged that they had read quite a few of the books that came home.

The students recorded their reactions to the books using codes of their own invention, in a special Skimathon packet. Here’s a sample page:

skimathon mimi2 sample

The next day the skimmed books came back to be swapped for new ones. I heard a lot of “Did you know?” as kids wowed each other with amazing new information. Did you know that the Iceman was found by random hikers? Did you know that some bats really do suck blood? Etc.

The goals of the Skimathon evolved along with the process. At first, I just wanted kids to experience less frustration finding books. Gradually I realized how much this activity could do for us.

Partly it was about getting good at skimming–sampling the informational content and the presentation style of each of many books, fairly quickly, in order to make choices. I supported this with mini-lessons about particular techniques for skimming non-fiction books, and about the use of specialized book parts, like the glossary or table of contents.

(In all work of this sort, I’ve thought often of Karen Kuelthau Allan, my content area reading professor at Lesley University. She modeled, so beautifully, a collection of effective strategies for getting the most from nonfiction reading, and I’ve wished again and again that I had encountered her much earlier in my own student years.)

On Time by Gloria SkurzynskiThe Skimathon process also helped students begin or continue to notice a wide variety of non-fiction approaches–the different ways authors, illustrators, designers and publishers have found to organize information and ideas into the form of a book. (To the left, a fascinating book by Gloria Skurzynski, about the history of time keeping, organized by the length of time being measured or designated.)

At the end of a Skimathon reading time, we showed sample pages, sharing different reactions to the same book, or different books about similar topics. Many kids issued recommendations to the full group, sometimes based on content, sometimes based on book style: especially gripping photographs, or helpful maps, or funny little cartoon characters reappearing, like Waldo, in the illustrations.

Ultimately each student would be matched up with one of those starter books as the seed for individual research, report writing, and display making. So the Skimathon was an exercise, for each student, in learning to judge what would work, what would sustain his or her own engagement.

jellyfish steve parkerThe process of skimming this many books also gave students a really wide-angle overview of our theme.

(Here, to the right, one of a set of books about animal behavior. This one helped students think beyond vertebrates.)

For some students, the overview helped them be more receptive to their classmates’ teaching about individual topics, later on. For some especially omnivorous students, casting such a wide net at the beginning helped them accept the necessity of narrowing down later.

For the opposite kind of kid, the one who started out thinking that she would die if she couldn’t do her report about x, the Skimathon could stretch horizons, build flexibility, open up new connections. The last seven or eight years of this process, I asked students to come up with at least three good strong personally-appropriate choices, no longer ranked in any way visible to me. (No, I explained, it wasn’t fair to write PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE next to a particular topic, or to offer bribes designed to appeal to their teacher’s weakness for chocolate.) Each student had an important job: to come up with multiple choices that could all work. Not just one favorite path, but several highly promising paths.

Every year, at least one or two students found it impossible to choose, and listed the maximum number of choices–five, or six, or whatever I’d set as a max. That was sort of wonderful, of course, but I always felt that I should think particularly carefully about those kids. I know that condition of almost pathological over-enthusiasm. Those of us who are prone to it need help being more discriminating, making distinctions, thinking through our own needs more carefully.

Meanwhile, I had the important job of making sure that every student wound up with one of his or her choices, a really engaging and effective topic for that person, without any overlap within the group as a whole. That way, the full collection of individual topics would offer rich opportunities for peer education. Each student would have unique responsibility for some part of our big picture–a responsibility to which every student could rise, regardless of reading or writing levels or rates.

I knew, though, that the peer teaching would be lively and whole-hearted only if each student got a combination of the right topic and the right style of starter book. I looked at their choices for themselves through my own perspective about their capacities. Would a person who read thoroughly (but slowly) be swamped by too much reading material in this first resource? Would a person who thrived on narrative excitement, even within nonfiction learning, find enough of that? Would the structure of his book help a person who needed lots of help connecting details with larger concepts?

The Skimathon worked remarkably well as a way to launch a research report process. The world is fascinating; kids have an inborn desire to understand it; publishers for children have been producing increasingly engaging, thoughtful, and well-illustrated nonfiction books. Finally, the Skimathon worked because it gave me some room to provide support, but honored the vision and choice of each individual child–thereby strengthening their capacity for both vision and choice.

And here’s how I knew it worked: students in my mixed-age class for a second year asked immediately and impatiently, at the beginning of January, “When are we going to do the Skimathon?” With any luck, the bins were full and nearby, the lists were ready, and I could answer, “Soon!” or even better, “Today!”

In the next post, I’m going to answer the question, “What would I give as advice to a teacher starting out with a skimathon process?”

Five More Thoughts About Grading

The story so far: If the product of a learning experience takes the form of a grade, other possible products and outcomes have less reality and less power for the learner.

Voices speaking out against grades want to shift the focus of learners and teachers, to give priority to those other products and outcomes. I’m going to focus on just a few.

# 1  Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments

Focused effort matters, and thoughtful assessment can support that. Very briefly, here are some of the kinds of feedback individual kids could come to expect in my classroom, in place of grades:

  • one-on-one working conferences to look at pieces of writing, reading comprehension progress, math quiz outcomes, etc.;
  • group mini-lessons based on common confusions or not-quite-there efforts or emerging possibilities or spontaneous break-throughs, acknowledging and moving forward from all those;
  • quick skills checks in the form of miniboard warm-ups;
  • written responses to specific assignments;
  • long narrative progress reports twice a year;
  • conversations in preparation for portfolio sharing, and the portfolio conferences themselves;
  • feedback from classmates, students in the wider school community, parents, and other adult audiences.

The previous post has examples of some of these. The feedback for students in younger classes varied from this in developmentally appropriate ways, but always with the same goals: not judgment, but celebration and support.

Each of these activities provided an opportunity for student and teacher to observe patterns in comprehension and skill, or difficulty, and to set goals both short-term and long-term. At the same time, each of these assessment activities was an opportunity to revisit, share, and reconsider the important questions inherent in our content.

#2  Learners who belong to themselves

I remember a conversation with the high-school-aged daughter of a friend. She told me about her classes for that year by telling me her grades. She couldn’t tell me what was interesting to her; couldn’t say what she wanted to learn next; couldn’t describe anything about her learning process. Her grades were high overall, and she assumed that the subject in which she was getting the highest grades should be her major in college.

This young woman didn’t belong to herself as a learner; she belonged to her grades, and to the people who were giving her those grades–even the people who were celebrating those grades.

Especially once we were able to keep students until they were ready for high school, people observing the graduates of my school have been struck by the way graduating 14-year-old kids belong to themselves–how clearly they know and understand and respect themselves as learners.

fall projects NateInstead of pinning their student identities on their GPA, students in ungraded situations learn how to work with their real identities as learners. They learn how to choose meaningful and sustainable challenges for themselves. They know how to manage their own attention, and what to do to sharpen their memories. There may be passages through which they struggle, but a lot of the time they’re having a blast. Above all, they know, for themselves, why it matters. To the left, checking and graphing temperatures.

#3  Authentic and rewarding group learning

Teamwork flourishes best when grades are out of the picture. When I’ve talked about the amount of group work happening in my class, people have often asked, “Don’t kids get distracted by working together? How can you tell who did what?”

I’d have to be crazy to deny that distraction happens sometimes, or that timid students can become dependent on others. Still, young adolescents are ready and eager to learn how to be teams.

as Tsongas 3At Tsongas Industrial History Center, these girls are constructing a working canal system model. As usual, museum educators  commented on how well students worked together–incorporating everyone’s ideas, sharing the dirty work on the floor.

At any age, effective group work doesn’t happen automatically. In order to get the huge benefits of several minds focused on the same task, complementing and helping and challenging each other, kids have to learn how to be task-focused and team-focused both at once; how to do the social work, the intellectual work, the creative work, and the procedural work all woven together.

Kids exposed to plenty of group projects in an ungraded situation get a terrific head start. Without grading to tell them they’re competing instead of collaborating, they learn how to stay balanced within the group process, and how to help the group stay balanced so it keeps on working for everyone.

If you want an argument against grades, focused on future success, you could start with that.

tracing watershed pathway croppedAbove: Working with a parent volunteer, students help each other figure out which direction the rivers are flowing on topographic maps.

Meanwhile, freed from generating grades, I could put time into helping groups design and choose tasks that would engage them, with topics and audiences that mattered to them. The resulting energy helped their bicycle built for two (or three or four) keep momentum.

Often, when sharing work in a portfolio conference, students mentioned their partners and teammates, and told about what each of them had contributed, as I set off quiet internal fireworks of celebration. Yes!

# 4  Deep meanings held in community

As humans, we seem to have evolved to construct meaning, and experience meaning, collectively.

Stonehenge.arp.croppedMany groups of students have been inspired by the collective power of the communities that built Stonehenge, and archaeologists’ ideas about the community events held there.

Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists have found evidence of the power and importance of community life and community understanding, deep in the past history of our species–and even for the other hominin species before us.

Young adolescents work hard to begin to understand huge things: life and death, economic reality as they observe it, the concept of scale, the notion of one image symbolizing whole realms of experience. Whenever I asked groups of students what they’d like to understand better about the world, I was astonished anew at the ambition of their questions, knowing this at the same time: the really heavy lifting they can’t do alone, any more than adults can.

Lizzie Bright croppedIn my own most emblematic image of this, a group of learners listens to a challenging novel read aloud. As I write, I realize that I’m thinking particularly of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, a novel about racial prejudice in early 20th century New England, beautifully written by Gary Schmidt. Sharing a novel like this, the students build understanding together through their various comments and questions. Sometimes I sense their collective bravery in their silence for a tricky passage, or just after.

If somebody out there knows a way to assign grades to the quality of a shared group silence, let me know.

Now hold that in contrast to this: When individual achievement is the only test of an experience; when shared learning is considered cheating; when it’s constrained by the “level-playing-field” concept that requires teachers to do exactly the same things for every student; when teachers face such large classes that they have no way of knowing who’s doing what without completely isolated graded assessment–the deepest and truest parts of learning are hobbled, compromised, or outright lost.

It’s not impossible to nurture community, and the deep meanings community can hold, in the presence of a grading system–just harder. In fact, in my experience, over-emphasis on individual outcomes in any form–either grades or some supposedly benign substitute–works against the development of community, and the construction of shared meaning.

#5 Powerful connections with content

When grades aren’t the focus, content itself–the world!–gets more attention. The world is alarming to young adolescents–and to all of us–but also fascinating. Grades wind up being a smokescreen in the way of that fascination.

That’s what broke my heart about my friend’s daughter, mentioned earlier. She was experiencing very little actual engagement with the world and how it works and what we make of it. Her grades were like junk food, no fit substitute for actual encounters with the depth of time, or the mysteries of prime numbers, or the relationship between surface area and heat loss, or the way human history offers such contradictory evidence of both altruism and cruelty.

I think of a student long ago who wanted to read novels about the Holocaust. She had no assignment. She just kept coming back to me for more books, and talking about them to her classmates and parents. She was choosing her own path to a deeper understanding of the world.

Or I think of a student, now grown to a man, who used his sketchbook, during morning sketching time (which was completely open, unassigned), to make a very long narrative map, which continued from one two-page spread to the next, and the next, for months. The map as a whole incorporated everything that kid was noticing about the world through which he traveled: about geography, transportation, and the designs of buildings and other systems; about humor; about continuity and discontinuity.

Looking back, I remember now that this student’s family had just gone through an unusually messy divorce. His rehearsal of continuity in the built and natural worlds, page by turned-over page, feels tremendously poignant to me now. At the time, I was focused on his thinking and processing and creativity. But it seems likely, now, that the mapping was working for him on levels I couldn’t even guess. He gave himself the assignment that let him live in his intellectual strengths, and use those strengths to help him live through his family’s troubles.

Although he made me copies of some of the pages, I have no idea where they are. Hooray for memory so vivid and dear that it doesn’t need props. Hooray for learning so rich that no grade could encompass it. Hooray for the safe haven, also a highly effective launching pad, in which such work could happen.

I have a feeling I’m still not done with this topic…