Sunday, January 26, 2014

Deeper Learning....What I learnt from a local village school in Zambia

Last week, I started a new course on moodle. The topic:  "Deeper Learning".
Our first task was to reflect upon an instance in our lives when deeper learning had taken place. I was surprised when my thoughts immediately veered to a time in my past, which, I fervently hoped I would forget.  Due to an unstable political climate, many expatriates where leaving Zambia. At that time, I used to go to an established school in Lusaka. We usually carpooled as the distance was killing. Eventually, the car pooling stopped. And with it, my life came to an abrupt halt.

My parents decided I was to go to the local village school, Chongwe Primary. Many a times I had driven past the run down building. The fresh coat of white paint over the uneven mud walls failed to hide the dilapidated condition of the school. The rusty metal roof seemed to be hurriedly draped over the walls. They banged and rattled in hollow merriment as the strong winds blew. The broken windows added to this abandoned look. It was here where I spent what seemed like two excruciating years of my life. And yet, why did I think of this place when I was asked to think of deeper learning?

The classes were small and dingy. Wooden desks were lined in rows and faced weather-beaten black boards. Within these walls what happened was not good. My maths teacher would occasionally come in drunk. I would often get flogged for getting the answers wrong in my science class. But what happened outside these walls most certainly changed my life.

Of course, what made it fairly bearable for me was the fact that I did not have many white or Asian friends. I was  very much at ease with my Zambian neighbours. While my white friends ate their diner at 5 pm and went to bed at 6 pm and bored me with their many rules, my Asian friends always seemed to be studying. So I found myself spending many fun-filled, carefree hours with the Zambian kids.  They taught me how to light a fire with dry sticks and grass, hunt for winged ants which they would fry and eat with considerable enjoyment;  search for herbs in the forests to make a dish called " Relish";  play for hours with old batteries and coca cola bottle tops. I ate my dinner with them, a huge family of around twelve, from one plate! The Fisher prize toys and the dolls which my parents occasionally bought me (when they suffered from a rare, albeit heartfelt bout of guilt) would lie untouched in their boxes.

At school, we had to work. Manual labour. Every afternoon. We scrubbed the floors of the classroom and waxed them till they shone so brilliantly you could clearly see yourself sweating, grinning back at you .

The toilets had to be cleaned. I remember filling buckets of water and cleansing the filthy washrooms with a broom until they sparkled.

At times, we had to go to the fields to plant cotton. Long strips of land were assigned to every child. We would jostle and quibble over the hoes. The smaller the metal blade, the easier it was to disturb the dry, hard , unyielding ground. I remember digging for what seemed like hours under the hot African sun. At times, my friends would take pity on their little Asian friend, and do my strip along with theirs! When the time came for harvesting, I remember what a miracle it was to feel the soft white cotton within the palms of my callused hands. I always had calluses on my hands!

The worst job was to prepare manure for the school garden. We had to walk for miles till we came to a field full of tall grass, browned and hardened by the relentless sun. The sickles were too big, too sharp for me. But more scary was the grass itself. The sharp blades would slice into your skin if you were not careful. Like a sharp knife into a pot of softened butter. We had to cut as much as we could, bundle them, then throw them over our shoulders and carry them back to school. During these days, my hands were sore and bloody. Mum would quietly put dettol on them, while dad waited by the side, band-aid in hand.

I often complained to my parents about how hard the work was. They listened but did nothing to alleviate my misery. I couldn't understand why they were so heartless. When I called up mum again while writing this post, and asked her why, she said we had no choice. I had to fit into their lives, their culture. I had to understand that labour was part of their lives. Life not easy. By working at such an early age, I learnt not to shy away from hard work. I learnt to scrub, dig, wash, polish, walk for miles, cut grass till my hands bled. I learnt to tolerate the hot sun on the back of my neck and appreciate the cool breeze as it eased my discomfort. I would not have learnt this in my other school.

For this learning, I am grateful. Today, whenever I feel overwhelmed, or bogged down with life's inevitable challenges, I seem to find, most of the time, an inner reserve of strength, along with a stoic attitude which help me ride these moments with equanimity.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Inquiry in the classroom

There is a definite buzz in the air.  The new unit has started. Students are excited and eager to know what we will be inquiring into

Warming up and creating a safe haven.

TUNING-IN  as it rains outside. All we needed was hot chocolate milk :)
Our new unit on Natural Hazards has just completed its first week. I had to pull things down from my boards and so they look fairly bare, but we do a lot reading and reflecting everyday, so it is slowly filling up with students' work.  

Students have started bringing clippings on current natural disasters and are in turn, learn geography skills. I clearly need a title for this board! Hazard Hounders maybe?

I used technology to provoke their thinking. This was a lot of fun specially since we had access to Ipads. The students had to use a QR code reader to find out what the mystery picture was. They then did a Visual thinking activity (10 X 2) to observe the picture carefully.

We began with our pre-assessment task where they had to write about what they knew about disasters. I modeled a KWL chart using Volcanoes as a entry point into the unit.

We worked on the L poster twice. The second time to sort out the information.


 Cooperation, the "Attitude" being the lens though which we peer at the unit.
I will be creating a lot of scenarios where the students will have to work in groups as they need to learn to cooperate and organize themselves. Learning about how cooperation feels like, sounds like and looks likes was a very fruitful learning engagement. It set the tone and mood for the unit. The students keep referring to the board whenever there is a conflict. Most of them, to my great surprise and glee, resolve their conflict without adult intervention. I hear talk such as:

"You were not cooperating. You need to listen more carefully"....or..."Why are you quiet. I am sure you have some great ideas. If you don't share, you're not helping the group. Please cooperate!" I also hear them using the words " adult intervention", though some of them still find it hard to pronounce it! :)

A little bit more on the inquiry cycle and how we are proceeding.

The students are working on their own choice of hazard. They are using all phases of the inquiry cycle to guide them. As they were "finding out" they had to reflect on their findings to see whether they were addressing their guiding questions. Kids do tend to get distracted and deviate from tasks. I do too. At times, they asked questions which caused them to go further and deepen their understanding. For example, how is the sound of a tornado alert different from that of an ambulance? As I walked around, I saw information scattered all over their posters. It was hard to locate information. How could they present it so that I could easily find answers to my questions? They clearly realized they needed to "Sort out" the information. Three days of hard work on posters had to be undone. 

They understood why. 

These students are amazing and a determined lot. They have come up with posters that reflect most areas of the inquiry cycle.

Student Action while inquiry is going on

A student took charge of a 45 minute lesson to demonstrate how some of the disasters occur.( I am glad he chose not to do the volcano experiment because it does not really address any on our learning outcomes.) This child is usually very quiet and reticent. But he changed a lot during this unit. The power of emotional connect with the topic was very evident here.

How cyclones look from a satellite picture using water and tissue paper.

The nature of a tornado

Tsunami: What happens to waves once they hit land. I learnt a lot from this student and will incorporate these experiments in my future lesson plans.

This child keeps thinking of ways to enrich my curriculum. He knocks on my door at 7pm (We stay on school campus) and hands me his intentions on a slip of well-crumpled paper. His dads tells me he has been working on it and the whole house is a disaster zone!

Consolidating, researching, cooperating...

Maths integration. I can see a lesson  ahead showing the student how much more they can extend their thinking using a Venn diagram.

After one week's work into the project, I felt the students were ready to tackle the summative on their own. (Earlier, we had been doing the rubric together.) This was the outcome. Though it has many areas that need clarification/modification, I felt they did a really good job!

You will notice how we start with 1 and lead on to 4 on the continuum. One of the main criticisms about rubrics is that it curtails excellence. Who decides what is the best? Why should we start with the best when the best can always be outdone!

Our inquiry cycle continues. We will be using tools and learning strategies that help the student delve deeper into the content. Let's see where it takes us!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Curiosity killed the cat

If you look up the term "curiosity" on Wikipedia, this is what you'll find:

Curiosity (from Latin curiosus "carefuldiligentcurious," akin to cura "care") is a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in human and many animal species.[1][2] The term can also be used to denote the behavior itself being caused by the emotion of curiosity. As this emotion represents a thirst for knowledge, curiosity is a major driving force behind scientific research and other disciplines of human study.

Interesting how the word is strongly linked with emotions. Armed with the new connotations attached to curiosity (careful, deliberate, emotional),  I went about observing how the students behaved in each science center. When I asked my kids which center they enjoyed the most (emotions), most of the boys pointed to the Break-A-Machine- Apart center. To be honest, I did not think they would learn much here as the machine were mostly electronic devises and had lots of wires and batteries inside them. However, when I sat with them and looked a bit closer, I saw a plethora of simple machines! But most of all, I caught a glimpse of Curiosity! I observed how they caught their breath; the delightful gleam in their eyes as they managed to unscrew a gadget and take a peak inside the mysterious world of machines.

Curiosity Rover on the red planet, Mars

As I sat chatting with the kids at the end of the day, I realized I still needed to explore areas that would peak some of the girls' curiosity. I also realized that not all learning engagements have to directly relate to the understanding of the principles of simple machines. If I was able to make them wonder, while experiencing the feeling of being happy, I had ignited enough neurons to create lifelong learners!  Brain research indicates that students learn best when they are happy.

However, I am still working on how to motivate some of the girls in my class. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Assessment for learning

I enjoy looking at data which I gather after a diagnostic task. It reveals so much about the different ways students think. This data which I am about to show you, reveals the misconceptions that my students still have. Some are baffling, while others indicate various levels of understanding. I am still trying to figure out how the students got certain answers! I am also putting to use what I learnt from a course at Stanford University, where Professor Jo Boaler emphasizes the power of mistakes. The most powerful thing a teacher can do is to teach students how to embrace mistakes and use them as stepping stones for learning rather than cringe when they make one! My next lesson is going to be an exciting one. The students will be analyzing each others mistakes and trying to pinpoint misconception. This will be followed by a metacognitive activity where they will reflect on the whole process of analyzing mistakes. I will post their reflections later on.

The Diagnostic Task

Rubric Problem Solving

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Simple machines Tuning-in

Lever Hunt

Global Read Aloud 2013

So why did I decide to make my class participate in the Global Read Aloud Project, 2013? 

I know it requires effort to set up blogs, edmodo and twitter accounts. It takes patience to locate schools and establish and maintain connections. It also takes a sizable proportion of students' classroom time, learning how to tweet and blog and introduce themselves. Essential agreements for blogging and making comments also need to be addressed. 

So why go through all this trouble  specially when it takes up a huge chunk of our time?

Julie Lindsay and Vicky Davies, authors of Flattening classrooms, Engaging Minds, state that  "Visionary educators realize global collaboration is not an extra but a pedagogy." It is our job as educators to provide engaging, real-life, authentic situations for our students. The fact that this experience extends beyond  geographical borders and ventures across seas, makes it so much more appealing. How can you have a world class education without the world!

We keep talking about the 4C's  for 21st Century learning: Collaboration, Creativity, Communication and Critical thinking. Our students need choices. They need opportunities for success. Web 2.0 tools provide the perfect opportunity for students who grapple with presentation or have trouble creating a final product. The GRA13 provides the sublime opportunity for educators to introduce various web 2.0 tools which scaffold students' learning and allow them to present their ideas about the content to a global audience. 

Creating learning engagements and assessment tasks using the internet, books, and secondary sources are great! They allow us to help students develop the 4 Cs. This experience can be enhanced considerably if we allow our students to reach out and learn from the world around them.It helps them develop a unique perspective about space, people and time! 
This, most certainly, cannot be duplicated in the classroom. As Lindsay and Davies claim, technology breaks down barriers and help students understand cultural differences. It creates global citizenship. 

As an educator, I think we need to start asking ourselves how can we provide global opportunities for our students.

The Global Read Aloud Project allows students the opportunity to collaborate with the world, engage in creative projects, think critically as they answer questions and make predictions for a global audience while communicating, using the latest available technology. All the 4Cs are neatly packaged and presented in a nutshell.

The perfect opportunity for educators. And of course, thank you Pernille Ripp, a teacher in Madison, Wi,  for setting up the platform :)

So dear educators, waste no time. Carpe diem!


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mathematically Inclined

"In the case of mathematics, there is a persistent attempt to erase the subjective and affective in favour of: mathematics that is as dry as dust, as exciting as a telephone book, as remote as the laws of infangthief of 15th century Scotland.."
                                                                                                          David and Hersh

Ask yourself this question: How mathematically curious are my students?
  • Always
  • Often
  • Sometimes
  • Never
In a traditional classroom set up, the answer will almost unequivocally be "Never".  Baring those students who are naturally inclined to learn maths intuitively and where the system fails to bog them down :)
In a maths inquiry classroom, students are :

  • Being curious
  • Making conjectures
  • Not worrying about uncertainty/mistakes
  • Using intuition, and
  • Asking "Why?!"

Curiosity. What kind of questions can we ask students in order to dispel the fear of maths and invoke passion within them?
Think of a great question you asked your class lately. I asked my students how many elephants they think would fit in our classroom. It took at least 30 minutes of our class time and I strongly feel every minute was well spent. What I was looking for, as I watched them discuss the problem, was animation. A spark in their eyes. I saw plenty of that. They were discussing a mathematical concept even without realising it.
Elephants in the classroom
Elephants in the classroom
Making conjectures. Is this an habitual practice in the classroom? After every problem posed, do we encourage students to take a good shot at the answer. Does it seem plausible? Is it practical?  Does it feel right?I shared my problem with conjecture the other day. Why do we need to estimate the weight of things?  I do not have a weighing scale at home and every time I travel abroad, I feel that I have exceeded the  permitted 20 kilograms and will be fined by a nasty person at the airport . Then, because my early maths education never really considered the importance of conjecture in real life, I always depend on others to lift my bag and guess the weight.  Some shake their heads and give me a doomed look; on good days I get a reassuring nod. Bottom line is without a weighing scale, I am lost. My students got so excited listening to my helplessness, they vowed never to suffer like me. The estimation lesson that ensued was, needless to say,  an engaging one.

Mistakes. High up on my board, in bold, are the words : "Mistakes are welcome." And the students should know that you truly mean that. I eagerly seek out mistakes. I make the students highlight or annotate their mistakes and share it with the class. They have realised that addressing mistakes and sharing them helps the learning community of the classroom. It help me address conceptual issues right then and there. Our goal as educators would be to create a fearless  learning environment where students tackle and engage with mistakes. Learning objective?  HOW to tackle mistakes!  Have you ever been stuck on a problem and then approached someone  for help and, as you are articulating it to the person, the answer just pops out from god knows where?  Well, it happens to me a lot. Or, as you are explaining something to someone, another aspect of the issue comes to light? The explosive power that lies behind engaging in dialogue or group work.
Intuition. As I watch Sebastian Thrun , (CEO and cofounder of Udacity) talk about intuition and how he came up with an equation long before proving it mathematically, I realised how important it is to connect to something emotionally for it to make sense to you. Not any one else, but you. So the child who has got it and  is excited about a math problem is definitely emotionally involved with the problem. The intuitive is present and maths ceases to be about boring numbers and becomes a real life issue you want to explore.

Why? At times, I wait with bated breath for students to ask "But why??!" These moments determine how my lessons take their course. A great question can turn your whole lesson plan upside down and when you reflect upon it at the end of the day, you realise that the lesson was a much more relevant and engaging one than the one you had planned.  As educators, let us keep those questions coming!
If you have any great moments that link to these pointers, please do share. I would love to use them in my classroom.

Thank you to Dr. Jo Boaler for inspiring me to write this post.