Inspiring the Next Generation

I have some interesting news to share.

The Grade 10s in one of the schools where I sub began their poetry unit in English this week. I subbed for them yesterday.

One of their tasks yesterday was to write a poem in one of the forms they had already learned, then share these with the class. There were some very reluctant students; they had a low opinion about this sharing business, particularly their contributive involvement in it.

 

 

I decided to break the ice by sharing one of my poems. And I had access to two: those I published in my writing blog.

The poem I chose to share was Van Gogh and the Moon. It was a hit, particularly when I explained to the kids that the poem was an in promptu (five minute) response to a writing prompt in the local writing club.

So, yes, I got a chance to plug the Write Group as well; I told the kids that students from the school were part of the group, which peeked more interest.

But more importantly, it got each of the students to open up and share some of their poems, not just those they wrote in class yesterday, but those they had access to through their iPhones and other devices.

It was a perfect marriage of teacher and student sharing, technology (I used the Smart board; the students used their devices), and encouragement and modelling by example.

It never ceases to amaze me how well these teachable moments go when the teacher releases control and opens up to her or his students. (Of course, it also never ceases to amaze me how badly such moments go as well at times. There is a definite case for timing and thoughtful and responsive judgement here.)

These students have everything to be proud of. They have incredible imaginations, and a deep and active appreciation for written communication.

Moments like these remind me how much I love teaching, and learning with, these students.

This article is cross-posted in Digital Substitute and Stefras’ Bridge.

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Emulating Evolution by Involving Students

Evolution is one of those topics I really enjoy learning and teaching, particularly with open activities. The War of the Evolutionists Web Scavenger Hunt and Mock Trial, and the Evolution and Adaptation games are just some of my attempts to engage students in ecology and evolution.

Of these The Evolution Game, created by Simon Boswell and Phil Lewis, comes the closest to emulating the process and product of evolution. The rules and gates of the game are the processes of ecology and evolution; it is not a trivia game, a passive one, nor one like charades whose play has little semblance to evolution. As such The Evolution Game exemplifies that rare and powerful quality game that embeds students in their learning by forcing them to deal with and adapt to the “rules” or processes of evolution and ecology. It is however a long-term activity, like Risk, of both strategy and chance.

 

 

Just yesterday, I came across another great activity that comes close to emulating both ecology and evolution. The activity, created by Tyler Rhodes and featured by Scientific American, consists of two parts: a student-centered exercise and a technical exercise. The student exercise takes about an hour, or one period, to conduct. The technical one — creating a video — took Tyler, who claims to be expert enough to work efficiently, three months to complete. So feedback in the form of product is delayed, though formative feedback is immediate and embedded in the students’ own activity.

The idea is simple, if not elegant, and follows the same design premise as The Evolution Game and Bernie Dodge’s formula for game design that “Elegance = congruity between the forms of the game and structures within the content“.

Tyler drew a nondescript salamander-like creature and enlisted five independent groups of students (from five schools) to draw copies of this creature.

 

 

Once the students compared and discussed the new creatures, Tyler “exposed” the creatures to some ecological stress or change. The students had to vote which creatures perished based on the new ecology and the features of the creatures. According to Tyler, ninety-eight percent of the creatures perished (in a class of 30, where each student drew one creature, one creature survived). Tyler gathered the extinct creatures and repeated the exercise five more times with the survivors, each time with a new ecological event wiping out ninety-eight percent of the creatures. The six generations were kept or labelled apart.

The exercise illustrated branching phylogenetic evolution and coevolution — rather than the defunct linear evolution — as shown in the following drawing, where each “arm” of creatures came from a separate class of students, so giving five arms.

 

A Wheel of LifeA Wheel of Life © 2012 Tyler Rhodes | more info (via: Tyler Rhodes)
Click on the image to enlarge it.

 

What is nice about this exercise is that the students actively engage in, and embed themselves in, the process of natural selection by ecological change. They, being the active agents in both the creation and voting off of these creatures, were given the opportunity to experience and learn about the fundamental processes of evolution, much like The Evolution Game.

Tyler designed this process after a “Chinese Whisper” or “Telephone” game, where a message is passed from person to person and changes through mutation as it is delivered. In fact he presented it as a game. The message, however, was visual — the drawing of the creature — and the changing ecology affected the message. Tyler was specifically looking for a way to branch the creature evolution like a phylogenetic tree and his use of the “Chinese Whisper” or “Rumour” game enabled this.

Here is the final video.

 

The creatures in this video are those from the top-left arm of the Wheel of Life tree illustrated above. Tyler promises four more videos, for each of the remaining four groups of students. And he invites teachers to take his initial nondescript salamander-like creature, repeat his method and e-mail him facsimiles of the creatures created. If teachers take him up on the offer, he can bank, analyze and share some really interesting evolutionary results from the project. His conclusions should be interesting.

For more information on Tyler’s project, visit his blog, Evolution!, documenting his progress.

How can we emulate Tyler’s project for outcomes in our classrooms? Or have you done so already?

Our Children’s Gears: Do You Like Dinosaurs?

Do you like dinosaurs?

Or did you when you were a kid?

 

 

Dinosaurs are neat. They are big, ferocious and were, quite frankly, very successful. They were also the dominant animals of the Mesozoic, for 180 million years. That is impressive.

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I never liked dinosaurs when I was a kid. I found them boring.

I was beguiled by the Palaeozoic and early Cenozoic rather than the Mesozoic. The creatures — plants and animals — that lived then were alien, intriguing and awesome.

I could never put my finger on why trilobites and Paraceratherium interested me more than dinosaurs. But there was a pattern in that interest that cropped up elsewhere in my life.

An underlying ecology

When it came time for me to enter university, I knew exactly what I wanted to be — an ecologist. Not a botanist, not a zoologist, not even a geologist, an ecologist. Don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated in zoology, botany and geology, mostly botany, but I did not want to study one thing.

I was interested in it all. I was interested in how it all fit and worked together. I was interested in how life lived on an erratic Earth. Its individual forms fascinate, but mostly as pieces of the intricate whole.

And that, as I later found out, was why I didn’t like dinosaurs. They ate. They fought. They terrorized the land — not to mention other animals. But, until the last ten to twenty years, for me they never belonged — neither fit nor worked — within a bigger system.

They were boring.

In the last decade or two, that changed, or perhaps I became aware of the “bigger” Mesozoic picture. More Mesozoic palaeoecology has been learned and integrated into other disciplines, as illustrated in Harold Levin‘s The Earth Through Time (I have the 2003 seventh edition published by John Wiley and Sons). And now the dinosaurs belong with, influence and are influenced by a bigger lifescape and ecology. Dinosaurs became more and more interesting as they began to fit and work in the puzzle of life and living in a changing, furious Earth.

 

 

It is their place in ecology that fascinates me, not their ferociousness nor their reputation.

The point? Even as a child, I was geared toward ecology.

An overarching Universe

 

 

My enjoyment of astronomy also stems from the same root. I am fascinated by the Earth’s place and development in the Solar System, and of the Solar System’s place and development in the Universe.

I look at a star as I do a handful of sand and I wonder about its past, about its surroundings, its environment, its present and its future. I wonder about what it interacted — or will interact — with, what it influences or what it is influenced by. I similarly wonder (to the same depth) about the Universe that the star represents and the Earth and rock that the sand typifies.

I remember encountering an ant crawling on a moss and seeing its ecology and the ecology of the ecosystem where it lived. I had no words for these concepts, but I distinctly remember seeing the ant interacting with its environment. I barely noticed the ant outside of this frame. I was in grade two. And I still see ants and stars and handfuls of sand this way.

 

 

A far-sweeping magic

Story exists in this way too. With story we build our cultures, societies, histories, skills and technologies. But we also build our spirit and curiosity.

Story exists in a bigger context, constructed of reality and imagination and wonder.

Arthur C. Clarke coined, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I prefer to replace “advanced” with “exotic”, meaning unfamiliar or novel or not (currently) understood.

Ants and sand and stars, ecology and math and story and language are magic. There is always more of them to explore.

Story is a form of species-changing magic. And writing transmits this magic into the minds of generations and far-flung peoples.

In writing fantasy (which I mostly do), one creates the rules of a given world and studies how a story fits and works within that world. It is intriguing to witness story unfold even as one writes it. I am always surprised by what story reveals, about what it says about the world it explores, influences, interacts with and is influenced by.

 

 

Story is a key part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I am geared toward it like I am ecology and astronomy.

The gears of our children

In his essay forward, The Gears of My Childhood, to his 1980 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert eloquently describes how gears shaped how he perceived the world and approached learning when he was a child.

We all have our gears where what we learn ceases to be flat and static and becomes multidimensional and living. Papert describes vividly how gears of different sizes fit together to produce meshing products in a multiplication table. I tried to describe here how interactions are part of my guiding gears. I have students who are ranchers. Others are athletes, artists, scientists, writers. And of course they are each interested in more than one thing and are geared toward truly fundamental world views.

 

 

Imagine viewing multiplication as representation of meshing gears. What most affects us, influences our world view and shapes how we perceive and interpret what we later encounter has a great effect and affect on what we learn and how we do it.

Teaching toward our children’s gears might help them understand and learn what we are teaching. It also might allow them to more easily own what they learn, extend it beyond our teaching and keep it for a lifetime. Teaching the student more than the students and the lesson content facilitates her engagement with and conceptualization of the outcomes we wish him to learn.

Papert recounts his discovery that others do not share his world model of the gears, but have different models instead. We have to teach students we know in multiple ways to help them learn what we want them to learn. We have to know and value our students to help them realize their influence, their potential and their dreams.

We might have a class under our charge, but that class consists of unique individuals geared by unique world models. The function and art of teaching is to change behaviour not people. Our gears are as precious as our names. Sometimes all we own are these two things. We need to be careful to nurture and engage our children’s gears so that they might serve our children well in our multi-layered societies.

 

 

This post was inspired by David Wees’ draft of a keynote he was invited to present at the 2012 University of Alberta Faculty of Education Technology Fair.

Every Idea Begins With a Spark

I came upon a quote yesterday that I wanted to share. It is a message that every student should hear in some form every day.

Be innovative in your thinking and bold in your learning.

– Sabine Lague 2011

(The original quote is in first person.)

I thought it would be great as part of a BigHuge Labs Motivator poster, but then I found more than one photograph that would be perfect for the poster.

It occurred to me quite abruptly that I have not posted a photo essay in a long while. So the genesis of this post — a mix of photos and quotes.

 

IMG_0486IMG_0486 © 2008 Chazz Layne | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Every Idea Begins With a Spark

 

 

 

 

 

 

EUREKA! I Found it!EUREKA! I Found it! © 2008 g d (Gary Dean) t???????d? | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
That Grow With Focus and Imagination into a Dream.

 

 

Humboldt GasworksHumboldt Gasworks © 2005 Cassidy Curtis | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Whatever You Do, or Dream You Can, Begin It,
– W. H. Murray

 

 

Foxy!Foxy! © 2008 Wavy1 | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
For Ideas Rarely

 

 

The Thought Fox

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Webster, Richard. (2002, 1984.) ‘The Thought Fox’ and the poetry of Ted Hughes. The Critical Quarterly vol, 26, no. 4, 1984. http://www.richardwebster.net/tedhughes.html.

 

 

 

Life Offers Many Paths.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

 

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

 

 

 

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

 

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Frost, Robert. (1916.) The Road Not Taken (poem). Mountain Interval. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Road_Not_Taken.

 

Creamsicle SunsetCreamsicle Sunset © 2008 Evan Leeson | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Keep Adventure in Your Heart and Pick the Paths that Excite You Most.

 

 

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

– Howard Thurman

Realize Your Dreams.

 


Success Imagemap

 

 

Everything you want in life is right outside your comfort zone.

– Bob Allen

Be innovative in your thinking and bold in your learning.

– Sabine Lague

When School Breaks and Learning Turns

Tuesday, June 28, is the last day of school for students in Alberta. They get two months off. Some will visit family, some will plunge into adventurous vacations, camps or clubs, some will relax at home.

 

 

At the same time, last Tuesday, June 21 (actually last Monday evening, June 20), was the six-month anniversary of my blog. It turned out differently than I imagined, both following a different route than I envisioned and having fewer entries than I planned.

(I think I will wait for the next Eve before Winter Solstice before I reflect on what I have learned through my blog.)

Today, I wish to address summer break.

 

 

Would I teach the same way during the Summer?

In particular, a question occurred to me as the end of the school year stealthily approached.

If a student came to me and asked for some tutoring this summer, how would I teach her (or him)?

  • Would I teach this student as I would in a classroom full of students, following the curriculum and lessons set for me in the middle of the school year?
  • Would I even follow the curriculum?
  • Or would I do something completely, utterly different (after all I would no longer be restricted to the curriculum or to a schedule or to another teacher’s plan)?

 

 

My ideal class

Which is more important — the content or the engagement?

Lately, in #mathchat we have been discussing student engagement and how to center math learning on the student.

I think the best thing I could do for any kid is enrich his experience of a subject by exciting her about it. The first thing any student needs to learn about any subject is what is fun about it and how it is used in the world.

Everything else follows after that.

So, what is my ideal class? It is a subject-club-style class. And if the "lessons" happen to cover the curriculum the student needs to learn, then the class would be truly empowering.

How would you teach if you were called this Summer?