Monday, October 22, 2012

Archaeology and EFL

     I am learning so much as I try EFL principles in my classroom.  Using the “Personal Excellence” qualities translates well into the public school environment.  I continue to use this as my central theme.  As the students explore what it means to be at their highest it can be very exciting.  Just how high can one go?  What is one’s personal best?  To try and be at one’s best and keep one’s heart open is very hard to do in a public middle school but it can be full of rewards. I can see that some students are starting to try as we deal with some deep topics.
Gobekli Tepe/
    For example, in social studies we have been studying archaeology in our textbook and the students watched a couple of short youtube videos about what it means to be an archaeologist.  They pondered how we know what we know and how the different theories of early man continue to be pieced together.  The students wrote about the “Personal Excellence” qualities one needs in order to be a successful archaeologist and why.  They came up with a list that included curiosity, perseverance, cooperation, patience, clear thinking, etc.  We talked about how all these are needed to decipher the past as different artifacts and evidence is constantly being discovered and reinterpreted.  We noted how people try to make sense of places like Catal Huyuk (in our textbook) and Gobekli Tepe (c. 9500 BC see web site which are both in present day Turkey that do not fit the mold of hunter-gatherer theories.
    All month I have been looking for a way for students to experience archaeology by doing some activities that they could enjoy and that would encompass all the Tools of Maturity: physical, feeling, will, and intellect. To me that means not just books, paper, and pencil but going from academic desk work to direct experience.  As we finished our unit on early man and the theories of hunter-gatherer societies that lived  200,000 years ago or more, one of my small Asian girl students surprised me by showing me a small spear she had made at home on her own initiative.  She must have read my mind because I had always secretly wanted to have the students make their own stone age tools and make a “pretend” archaeological site.  I saw this as a sign that indeed I better get a move on before we finished the unit. 
    The students were given a week to come up with a stone age artifact made at home from natural materials or found in nature but used by the early people.  We had made a chart in school of the different parts that make up any given culture and talked about the different tools that the early peoples had needed for their society.  Also, we finished reading the novel based on that society, Maroo of the Winter Caves, (required reading in 6th grade at our school).  Once the whole class had brought in their homemade artifacts and found objects, we borrowed some land from our school garden and I had the morning class bury their artifacts and objects for the afternoon class to dig up and vis a versa. (See photo, unfortunately, I can not show students because of the complications of getting parent permission).   One interesting learning moment came up when a student shared his confusion at not being able to find any materials in his home to make a stone age tool.  The class helped him realize that he had to actually go outside, out in nature to get his materials because the early people only lived in nature.  That was an aha! moment as he was able to perceive a view point outside his own modern world of remote controls, ipods, cell phones - which is his reality. 

    After the dig, as we sat around in a circle surveying our find we discussed the difference between our pretend excavation and real life artifacts that would have still survived after thousands of years.  The students realized that probably only the stone objects would have survived disintegration.  We looked at the abundance of hunting tools.  There were many spears, sharp rocks or choppers, bows and arrows.  But some students had brought in different items.  A smooth rock with picture symbols carved into it, shell necklaces, a decorated rattle.  One student made a woven basket from palm fronds in her yard.  There were also pretty shells with no known purpose.  I had also snuck in and buried a softball size open amethyst rock or geode when they weren’t looking.   One student surmised that the pretty shell might have been used as an offering to the nature gods. As we looked at the objects that were excavated we discussed the natural environment of early man.
    Before we finished the unit and went on to study our next culture, Mesopotamia, I felt I had to go back to that pretty shell and the reverence that early man had for their natural environment.  We discussed how nature was sacred to people who lived so close to the earth, how their idea of gods and goddesses reflected that close relationship.  We gratefully have many good examples of that close attunement in the many Native American stories, myths, and traditions.  I read them the picture book Brother Eagle, Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers, a reinterpretation of Chief Seattle’s message.  I find that the students focus better when they know they will have to write after their activity, even if it’s in their class journal.  They simply answered the question, “What was Chief Seattle’s message?”  It was an easy assignment for them with a typical answer being.  “He said we are all connected and that the Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.”  I explained to them that often I have to go out and seek that connection with nature in order to recharge.  That many times I will go to the beach, the woods, or a park and pick up a small keep sake to remind me of that special experience of our natural world.  (This will provide so many good future writing opportunities.)
    I brought in many of the nature object that I’ve collected and used them for a quiet meditative activity. I turned off the lights, had them close their eyes, and I put one of the nature objects I brought like a shell, rock, driftwood, feather in each of their hands.  In silence, they had to feel the object, and try and picture it in their mind’s eye.  Of course, they had to guess what it was, what color, and where I had found it.   They were thoroughly intrigued by the difference between their perception and the reality of the object.  As an on going activity for the rest of the year, I asked them to bring in something beautiful from our natural world to add to our tray of nature objects that I started. As they go out in nature they will bring something back and share their connection with our natural world.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Manga, Mint Tea, and EFL

student's manga sketch
       This school year definitely feels different and better now that I’m trying some of the EFL ideas.  This is specially true in the personal connections I’m having with the students.  When I’m talking to them individually, in class or outside of class, there is a personal quality to our interactions.  There is a real sense of contact, more of an openness in the students as we talk.  I’ve always enjoyed my students but now I can appreciate who they are more fully.  I see them looking for different ways to shine and I see them wanting to share this with me, whether it’s being on the football team (flag football but very competitive), being in the orchestra, hosting exchange students from China, or working on their manga drawings (see student’s drawing on right.)  I’m constantly looking for ways to bring these interests into the classroom.  Often it’s through their writing, giving them a chance to share in group or class discussions, or just taking the time to talk to them about what is going on.  Since I ended up teaching a period of art I’m scrambling to do a unit on manga, anime drawing since that is so popular this year.

      That being said, in my classroom there are so many students that frequently the interaction feels more like a flowing, rushing river of class energy that somehow I, as the teacher, have to direct.  As we go through whatever lesson we are tackling I have to nudge that energy toward a certain goal.  Sometimes that goal is academic, simply a life lesson we are discussing, or at other times it’s trying to infuse some fun in our day.  Many times I’m just gauging the current and banking up, damming up one shore or the other in an attempt at having the overall class energy flow in the right direction.  Yes, it is I, as the teacher that have to decide what the right direction is for the whole class and most times it’s through decisions made in a split second on sheer intuition.

     In public school, I’m expected to highlight academic activities like a spelling lesson, or reviewing  common and proper nouns.  If anyone has any fun ideas for how to teach spelling or grammar please let me know!   In desperation the other day, as the class was turning into an edie of overly rambunctious energy, I realized I had to get the students out of their seats and using all that energy towards a constructive goal.  I turned half the class into the Proper Nouns Nation (PNN) and the other half into the Common Nouns Nation (CNN;).  Yes, they could get up, mingle, and talk as much as they wanted but if they were the PNN only proper nouns could come out of their mouths and vis a versa if they were CNN they could only communicate in common nouns.  It actually worked!  They were able to get some of their energy out, come back, and focus on a more serious grammar lesson.  This wasn’t quite a “flow lesson”, I could have added a focusing transitional activity but it was as close as I could come to “flow” on the spur of the moment.

     I’m feeling constrained by having to be only in my classroom, when what I want is to go outside with my students.  Considering the fast pace of the curriculum we have to cover and the logistical limitations of being part of a big school, I have not been able to do as many experiential lessons as I want to.  However, I have tried sneaking in an experience even in small measures. For example, as we read a novel, Maroo of the Winter Caves, with a setting based during the last ice age where the main characters are part of a hunter-gathering tribe, they mentioned the women gathering herbs to put into water for making a flavored drink (tea of course).  We decided to make mint sun tea for the whole class.   Students pitched in and brought the needed ingredients, mint from their gardens, glass jars, cups, and honey.  I was surprised how many students had not had mint tea of any kind, let alone from their garden.  Everyone enjoyed this activity thanks to the generosity of their fellow students and their families.  We enjoyed tea while we read our novel.

     I’m still learning how to bring a lighter atmosphere to the classroom.  It’s a shift in focus as I repeatedly have to choose ways to engage the students on not just learning  academics but also learning important values and having fun.  The year continues.