Monday, November 29, 2010

Paintings could tell stories

"Paintings could tell stories."

When the teacher librarian at Coventry Hills School in Calgary  (grades K-4) asked young students” where stories are found”, this was one of the responses.  In a display of the students’ answers, the librarian attached this response to a picture of the cover of the book  Capturing Joy : the story of Maud Lewis by Jo Ellen Bogart (759.11 BoC 2002).

Narrative can be found in so many places and this lovely book tells us about the life one of Canada's best known folk artists from Nova Scotia.  Many of us will be familiar with Three Black Cats.  We learn that Maud Lewis came from an artistic family but was disabled early on in life. This prevented her from playing the piano but not from painting.  She eventually married Everett Lewis and though living with few comforts and little money, continued to paint with what ever materials were at hand (with paint left over from fishing boats, cardboard and scrounged bits of scrap wood).  Even the teeny house where she and Everett lived was covered  in her brightly coloured images of birds, butterflies and flowers. The house is now preserved at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

 As well as portraying her own life, she is also known for the many scenes she painted of rural life in Nova Scotia depicting everyday activities such as children going to school, outings in horse-drawn carriages or Model T automobiles, or seaside life with fishing boats, lighthouses and gulls. Her love of nature and animals is often to be found in her paintings.

Eventually, her paintings became so sought after that she had trouble keeping up with the demand. She died in 1970 due to poor health.

Maud Lewis' paintings do indeed tell stories and Jo Ellen Bogart does a great job telling us her story, too.

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UPDATE:  Just had it brought to my attention that  the National Gallery in London has a webpage that allows viewers to learn more about well-known paintings and add sounds to 'enhance' the story. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I repeat…

Last February I wrote about The Rabbits by John Marsden and how one student-teacher thought the book worked really well with his Grade 3/4 students for social studies.

I’ve just had it pointed out that a teacher at the Calgary Science School also used this book in a Grade 7 Humanities class.  It was used as a resource to help the students understand that history is told from a particular point-of-view.  In this case, the students took a page from the book and reinterpreted the story from the Rabbits’ perspective.  The original story is told from the perspective of the indigenous people and the impact the Rabbits have on their environment and culture.

Parallels were made with Canadian history so that students could develop their understanding of alternate perspectives and perhaps see how misunderstandings occur and their consequences.
 See the students' reinterpretation at Grade 7 Remixing Historical Perspective.

I just love how this book offers opportunities to see ourselves, history and world views in new ways, and so creatively, too.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Real world connections with math and science.

While preparing for a workshop that would showcase math and science resources for elementary and middle grades, I became reacquainted with Our Living Earth : a story of people, ecology, and preservation by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (363.7 DeO 2008).  I’m really diggin’ it.

 It’s a slightly oversized book with eight chapters centered around big topics, each broken down to several smaller segments that touch on different aspects of the bigger issue.  Added interest is provided by lots of good photographs, especially of the oversized variety that I’m a big fan of.  In addition to the photos, I really think the small aside bubbles, containing pertinent statistics and facts are very interesting.
Here are a few examples:
-It takes nearly 2000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef.
-Women perform two-thirds of the work in the world, but they only earn a tenth of the revenue.
-75 to 80 percent of ocean pollution comes from sources on land.
-0.66 gallons of water is needed to make 0.264 liters of Coke.
-A cell phone generates 165 pounds of waste.

I particularly love that these statements connect math and science together, making both more relevant to every day life and placing them (especially math) into a context. 

Some of the issues include water (conserving it, accessibility, pollution), use of the oceans (over fishing, sustainable practices for food production including fish farming), urban development (migration of people, community development, poverty), people (population, issues related to women, conflicts and causes of conflicts) and food (production of both meat and plant foods).

Overall, an appealing book to jumpstart some interesting math, science and social studies units.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guest blogger - Ken Dyer

This is part two in Ken's series about teaching English in China to university students.  Check out part 1 if you missed it.  Ken's stories about his teaching experiences are fascinating as they provide a counterpoint to the educational systems found in Canada.  If you have any questions or comments for Ken post them in the comments box and I will forward them on to Ken via email.  Ken cannot access this blog due to internet filtering by the Chinese government.  I will post Ken's replies in the comments section.

Teaching in China

If you recall, my first class was a mixture of apprehension, fear, terror and relief!  But what is it really like to teach in China?

Up until I left for China, I had only taught children in Canada ranging from grades 3 to grade 5, and I openly wondered what differences there would be between teaching children in Canada and English to adults in China.  I did what every good teacher does -- prepare like crazy!

I came up with a range of topics, a variety of lesson plans at a number of levels as well as a host of games and activities.  This process was greatly enhanced by brain-storming ideas with the other teachers who went to Dalian. I must say, it was a stimulating and rewarding process as we built on each others ideas. I highly recommend the process.

You may also recall from the previous blog that the students in my class said nothing when I asked general questions.  Part of the reason the students are quiet in class is based on their experiences growing up in a Chinese school environment.  As a Western student and teacher, I have a very different approach to teaching and learning.  I had never thought to ask about the style of teaching in China and I found that teaching in China, was, and still is, teacher-centered.  The two opposing theories, ‘filling the vessel’ vs. ‘lighting the flame’ are quite apparent when teaching in China. If I were to compare Western teaching philosophy to the Chinese approach – I would say that in the West we use more of the ‘lighting the flame’ theory of teaching with some aspects of ‘filling the vessel’. The Chinese predominately use the ‘filling the vessel’ approach where students repeat what the teachers say and rarely ask questions.  But, in defense of this approach, how does one inspire a class of 50 or more students?  I think it becomes about control when it’s a class of that size.  I am not endorsing this teaching method, but I can see why it is used.

When I started teaching my classes, I stepped back to an approach that I developed from my experiences in my early practicums, known as organics.  Essentially you get a feel for what level your class is, what they are interested in, who needs extra support, and who you can rely on to act in some ways like a student-teacher.

In addition to this, I tried to follow the tenets of Gardner and designed classes with multiple intelligences in mind. I’ve found that a fun and interesting class gets students actively involved and engaged which makes things easier for the teacher, as well.  I tried to mix things up so there was some individual work, pair work, and small group work.  These methods worked well in China as well as in Canada, maybe more so.  Classroom management was a lot like teaching the kids at Banff Elementary, but with a twist.  First, you have to get them talking and the twist is trying to get them to stop!  In China, classroom management is almost nonexistent; I can’t tell you how much of a joy it is to focus solely on teaching, rather than dealing with classroom management issues.

Perhaps a couple of examples from classes that I have taught in China may bring this point home.  I often try to make my classes unique and my Halloween and food classes are prime examples. 

Wanting my students to have a real sense of Halloween, I designed a class around the history, traditions and activities of Halloween.  As the class progressed we discussed the history of the Jack-o-lantern and the process for carving a pumpkin.  Similarly, in the food class we talked about a variety of foods, preferences for food such as hamburgers, and the process for making a sandwich.  These activities did take up a great portion of the class but still left us with about forty minutes.

I then asked them if they thought they could really carve a pumpkin or make a sandwich. Most say that they could, but had no sense of what was coming.  I wish you could have seen their faces in the food class when the PPT told them to go and wash their hands.  Most of them sat there, stunned, unsure if they really needed to wash their hands or what was coming next.  But in both classes, when I held up a pumpkin or bread there was a palpable feeling of excitement, usually accompanied by squeals of joy.

Before they get into the process of making a sandwich or carving a pumpkin, I do spend some time instructing them on safety and care with knives and cleanliness. At that point, they then get into following the instructions/recipes that we have discussed previously.

I often think, with the litigious society we have in the West, I could never teach these classes in Canada.  Also, I honestly think western students are not as na├»ve or childlike, at least not at the university level, as my Chinese students.  As the class progressed and students showed off their pumpkins or munched on their sandwiches, I knew that this lesson would stick with them for a very long time. Many have told me that when they return home, they have made sandwiches for their parents.

Preparing classes like these requires a great deal of planning and preparation, not to mention the expense.  Each food class required six loaves of bread, 2 jars of mayonnaise, 18 hard-boiled eggs, knives, forks, spoons, pepper, chopped green onions, and bowls for mixing the egg salad sandwich in.  Now, imagine going to a market and buying a pumpkin for every pair of students.  It was no small task and I had to rent a small truck to deliver them to the university!  If I had thought about the difficulties, I may have given up the whole idea altogether. But when I recall my students walking out of class with their pumpkins in hand I see the joy on their faces and a swagger in their stride as other students look on in amazement at their Jack-o-lanterns. It is worth while and yeah, I would do it again.

Those moments make teaching a joy for me.

PS – I had said in the last blog, that I would tell you about the English names Chinese students choose for themselves.  You might think there would be a host of Marys, Johns, Janes and Bobs, but you’d be quite wrong!  The names they choose are quite unusual at times.  You meet a lot of names centered on flavors such as Vanilla and Chocolate, which always makes me think of milk shakes.  There are some poetic names such as Morning Bud, White Hill, and my one of my personal favorites – Blue Breeze!  These names are often based on the translation of their Chinese names.  But the one that will always stand out the most for me is … Fetus !  Yes, Fetus !  When I asked the student if he knew what the name meant he said, “Yes.”  I asked him why he chose it, and he said, “It means a new beginning, the start of something.”  Who can argue with that kind of logic, and you can bet that anyone he meets will never forget his name!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gross or Engrossing

I was recently helping one of our undergraduate students pull resources for a unit about the nutrient cycle.  My first thought, “Oh boy! How are we going to make that interesting?”  I knew the library didn’t have anything new about this topic specifically.


 Sometimes, I jump a little too quickly to the wrong conclusion.  As it turns out, the unit was a hit with her grade 6 students.  She taught the cycle showing the interconnectedness of the individual components (water, air, decomposition, plant growth, minerals, etc.), reinforcing the concept with a game that emphasized this never-ending cycle.  To emphasize the importance of decomposition, the unit was wrapped up with the book, What rot! : nature’s mighty recycler by Elizabeth Ring (571.939 RiW 1996), read aloud to the class to spark questions and discussion. This fairly short book, besides describing the process of decomposition, includes lots of great photographs with close-ups of worms, insects, and bacteria breaking down organic matter. A little ‘gross’ (according to a couple of the grade 6 students), but fascinating at the same time. 

I love that the student-teacher used a non-fiction book as a read-aloud to grade 6 kids.  I love that the gross bits of the book worked at succeeded in getting the kids talking.

Next, I’ll keep my eyes open for newer resources about the nutrient cycle.  Any recommendations?
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Super modeling – Artsy inspiration

I don’t think it would be too difficult to persuade many of you just how wonderful many, many picture books are.  Typically they are works of art.

And by focusing on the art, we have a multitude of resources at hand to encourage and inspire kids with their own art.  As a person who can’t really draw very well, I sympathize with those kids who also struggle and often feel inadequate when it comes to art.

Thus, when I find books that show me ways to be creative and expressive without (necessarily) having to draw, these are books I note and pass on.

I just finished reading My best friend is as sharp as a pencil by Hanoch Piven (823 P689M8 PIC BK) where the main character describes for her Grandmother her teachers, friends and even the school librarian. Jack, the best friend, is smart.  He knows lots about geography, is as sharp as a pencil, curious as a magnifying glass and precise as a microscope.  The objects shown in the illustrations (a globe, a pencil, a magnifying glass and microscope) become the pieces that construct Jack’s face in a simple collage (see the picture on the cover).  “Is he a genius, or what?!”

I must admit my favorite depiction is of the librarian who “is as exciting as rubbing a magic lamp…as interesting as a book full of stories…When [reading]…her eyes shine like marbles…can be as funny as a clown or scary as a monster.”
Her smiling mouth is made from an open book and her eyes are two bright green marbles on book pockets and date due cards.  Captures the spirit of the woman, for me, exactly!

Obviously, this would be a great choice if you need to a book that demonstrates simile or metaphor, too.

Another book I’d recommend for its collage style is a very clever retelling of Henny-Penny by Jane Wattenberg (398.245 WaHe 2000 PIC BK).  These collages are constructed with overlapping photos of various birds (mostly of the fowl sort – ewwww, I know, bad pun) on backgrounds of well-known sites from around the world, including Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa , the Taj Mahal and so on.  The language is full of action and frenzy as the panic about the falling sky must be told to the King without delay.  The crazy puns and rolling rhyme are perfect for reading aloud.

Visual feasts to fill the mind and stir the creative spirit.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A kick in the pants by serendipity

November 11 is Canada’s day to remember those who have been in involved in military operations, whether because of war or peacekeeping duties.

I hadn’t planned to post anything about resources for Remembrance Day, but having just read A Bear in War by Stephanie Innes (940.40971 InB 2008 PIC BK) and then visited the website Historica-Dominion Institute  where I found some pictures that were most relevant to this particular story – well, I can take a hint.  Nudge, nudge…

A Bear in War is based on a true story about Lawrence Rogers who enlists to fight for England in World War I. This fictionalized version is told by Teddy, the beloved stuffed bear of Lawrence’s daughter, Aileen.  We come to know this Quebec farming family and the rhythm of daily life and feel the pain that comes when Lawrence leaves.  Eventually, Aileen sends Teddy to Europe to help protect her father while he works with injured soldiers and to that end he carries Teddy in his coat pocket.  Though the stuffed bear does provide comfort, it is unable to prevent Lawrence’s death at the battle of Passchendaele.  About year after the battle, Teddy is returned to Canada with Lawrence’s uniform and medal for bravery.
As I was checking out resources at the Historica-Dominion Institute website (good resources for Remembrance Day including recorded accounts of war experiences from veterans and military personnel currently engaged), I discovered a picture of Teddy .  The cherished bear now resides in the Canadian War Museum and is one of its most popular exhibits - a small stuffed bear that makes an event from, seemingly, long ago and far away, very real. This might be seen as a testament to the real cost of war and a reminder that soldiers and their families pay the highest price. 
I know.  A lot to remember.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Desperately seeking…

I’m often asked for recommendations for math resources and especially for picture books to add interest to the lesson.  But a common problem is that there’s always a run on the same resources at the same time.  And then what?

Which takes me to the problem with the books about patterns.  They’re all out!

As it turns out, I just finished previewing a couple of new picture books that would fall more into the category of ‘game books’.  Within pages of brightly coloured patterns and/or animals we must find hidden creatures or discern similarities and differences between creatures.  Lots of fun.  But, they could be used with children who are working on visual patterns, as well.

So, check out these two books, if you’re desperate like I am, when all the other pattern books are out:

Same & different by Manjula Padmanabhan (793.73 PaS 2010 PIC BK)
Spot it!: find the hidden creatures by Delphine Chedru (793.73 ChS 2009 PIC BK)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Picture this

I’m a big proponent of photographic books (those oversized, glossy-paged coffee table types) as a point of engagement in classrooms for all ages.  A ‘discrepant event’ captured in a photograph can be a way to stimulate questions, critical thinking and discussion.

One of my latest favourites is I dreamed of flying like a bird by Robert B. Haas (779.32 HaI 2010).  It’s written for middle grades students (ages 9 and up) in an easy-to-read style.  This adventurer, specializing in aerial photography (he likes hanging out of helicopters and small planes to get his shots), fills us in on the stories behind his photos.   He travels the world, from Africa to Alaska, Latin America to Greenland, taking photographs of animals from this unique vantage point to “capture from the air exactly what I am looking for – a group of special images to bring back and share with my readers.” (p.58)

My all-time-favourite picture is of a large flock of pink flamingos. The large flock is, walking in shallow water, continually moving so that varying loosely-formed shapes are made.  Just before Haas leaves the site, the flock of flamingos forms a shape that looks like a pink flamingo! Amazing!  You have to love how serendipity plays out sometimes.

When Haas describes the excitement (and trepidation, as the gas begins running low as they wait to see the outcome) of capturing images of lions hunting African buffaloes, we can sense his appreciation of witnessing this rarely seen event from the air.

Throughout the book we come to know his passion for animals, wilderness, diverse landscapes and photography.  As he gets behind a camera, he allows us to get a snapshot of what goes on in the mind of a world-class nature photographer.

Brilliant and totally accessible.

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