Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Use of symbols in an inquiry lesson

Every year when school starts, I have observed how quickly some classes put up the learner profile attributes, attitudes and concepts on the classroom walls.  Up they go, pat pat pat, on the wall followed by a relieved tick against their "things to do" list. Then the "real" learning begins. 

As a tuning-in activity for our unit of inquiry on media, I thought of introducing Yang Liu's representations of two cultures.  Liu's use of media to stereotype cultures will naturally generate dichotomy of thought and emotions among many. I felt it was the perfect provocation which would pave the way for deeper, conceptual learning.  The use of symbols would create enough intrigue among the students in order to generate curiosity and hopefully, higher order thinking skills.

The students loved the lesson. Every slide of Yang Liu's "East Meets West" stirred hearts. We spoke of perspective and bias, racism and the unfairness of over-simplifying communities. They realised the power of symbols, (in this case, dots, lines and simple geometric shapes) to convey messages so powerful as to entice exciting discussions about issues related to everyday life.

After immersing ourselves in Liu's work, I wanted to see how far the students could use their learning to construct meaning and create learner profile representations using symbols and simple colours.

Introducing the work of Liu. Mystery element.

Take a look at what the students came up with. 

As I walked around watching them brainstorm and draft their ideas,  it was encouraging to hear them use words such as "stereotype: and "bias" amongst themselves.

Path of person not clearly visible, but a powerful representation of Courage.

Draft visible in this shot

Snipping, measuring

Motivation, engagement

I was quite surprised with this one. Yang Liu's representation of the "Boss" is so similar!!! I had not shown them this slide.

Absolutely great way to show this LP attribute!

The group changed their background after the mess "the black crayon" made. They resolved the problem on their own. A more presentable final work.

I thought the lesson was very transdisciplinary in nature. Students had to think about colour, patterns and symmetry. They used various skills which involved listening, speaking, sharing resources, editing, and collaborating. One of those exciting lessons which inspired me to blog.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Addressing students' emotional needs through picture books

There are days when I trudge to school. I don't feel on top of the world. My interactions with my students on those days lack vitality; thankfully they don't happen too often!

What about our students? Do we know what's going on in their lives? Are they being bullied, abused, neglected, disrespected? Could they be lonely?  Do you have the time to find out? Does the school timetable breath down your neck?

As a teacher, I realize I cannot solve all their problems. But I can most certainly give them hope.
And so when I came across Oliver Jeffers' story the other day, I felt it was the perfect way to address these issues.

I like to think I am aware of what goes on in my students' lives. Every morning when I chat with them, I get a feel of their mood. I can make out which day is not going to be a fruitful day for a particular child.

This beautiful, heart wrenching story is about a little girl who was very, very curious. Her father was always around encouraging her until...

The saddest, saddest moment in the story.

There is poetry in this illustration.

Task 1
I photocopied this page before I read the story out to my students. Earlier in the year, the students had learnt about warm and cool colours and how they reflect our moods. So I asked them to think about the mood in the picture. Why did they think the chair was empty?  Were there any clues in the picture to help them come up with an answer? Thinking back now, I could also have used the 10 X 2 strategy (Reference: Artful Thinking) with this activity and seen if the students could have come up with more ideas.

It took them over 20 minutes to discuss and jot down their predictions. I let it unravel. It didn't matter if one lesson flew into the next. The children were arguing, laughing, engaged and motivated.

So when I started reading the story, I slyly glanced at them as I turned the pages. I couldn't help but grin at their wide-eyed impatience. They were hooked!

As I read on, I came to the page where the little girl puts her heart in the bottle so that she could keep it safe from harm. (Feelings of loss, despair, heart-break). I then asked the students who would like to keep their heart in a bottle.
The reaction I got from them was an affirmation of what I knew all along. Almost half my students had their hands up. A chin-wobbly moment.

My students initially had trouble making this abstract connection.
When the little girl is all grown up and tries to break the bottle but cannot, one of my students exclaims:

"Why won't a glass bottle break if thrown from such a height?!"

"Maybe it's made of plastic!" retorts another.

At this point, I needed to stop and let them try and figure out what was actually happening. As an educator, we may be quick to give them the answers. But sooner or later, if given time, they will figure it out themselves. I am glad I did the right thing at this juncture. Hopefully, they have begun to understand the power of metaphors.

Adults need to find the child in them! 
...a  little child helps her take her heart out from the bottle.

All characters change in great stories. I asked the kids to compared this picture with the previous one.
 Throughout the school year, one of our focus area when reading fiction had been about how characters change. How beautifully the above picture, juxtaposed with the earlier one, brings this to life.

Time heals. The chair is reclaimed.

What an apt picture representing the attitude "Curiosity" or  Being Alive!
And the story ends when the girl reclaims her heart.
An empty bottle, the metaphorical representation of healing and hope.

When I turned the last page, there was laughter at first.
Then silence. The loud kind.

Task 2
In order to engage the students in conversation, I used the PYP Concepts to generate the following questions.

Form             Why do we think of the heart when we talk about our feelings?
Function        What was the purpose of the bottle in the story?
Connection    Have you ever lost someone? Why is it hard to talk about it?
Causation        Why did the protagonist want to take her heart out when she met the little girl?
Change           What kind of changes happened to the character of the protagonist?
Reflection        Why do you think Oliver Jeffers wrote the story?
Responsibility Why do we need to look after and nourish ourselves?
Perspective      What would have happened if the protagonist had not met the little girl on the beach?

Students sat in a circle. We used a string to monitor who was talking. All the students wanted to participate.

It was an emotionally packed time. Many students cried. Many listened.
Everyone was engaged for over 90 minutes!

Today, the students have gone home to reflect on the story. Let's see what transpires.
Tomorrow, they will look at the pictures and use Slow Writing techniques to come up with a rich paragraph to describe one of their favourite illustrations.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


What is grit? When I posed this question during the school assembly one day not a child could answer the question.

And so I was delighted when I was approached the other day by a bunch of grade ones and twos who came up to tell me how much they enjoyed the story Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. While they laughed and giggled as the little boy kept throwing odious things up at the tree to get his kite down, the underlying message was not lost on them.

What was special about this occasion was that the feedback came from the students. One girl approached me and said she understood the meaning of the word grit and that she was a very gritty person indeed! :)

"I will never give up from now on," another child beamed proudly at me.

How wonderful it would be if children were taught to value grit from a very tender age. How easily many adult give up when confronted with adversity.

Watch this interesting video on Grit by Amanda Lee Duckworth:

According to Ms. Duckworth,

"Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance, sustained over time. So the emphasis is on stamina."

Prior to this, Francis Galton (1859) has referred to this term as being one of the qualities prevalent in "eminent individuals in society."(APA, 2014)

In the classroom, I am thinking of introducing a year-long project which the students need to sustain over time. They can choose a topic of their choice and pursue it from all angles possible. There are of course drawbacks such as loosing interesting in the topic itself or pursuing something without a mentor by your side most of the times. However, grit implies something which is sustained over a long time. So what better way to test this?

Let us consider creating situations in our classroom which allow students to develop grit.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas.

© 2014 American Psychological Association 

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.