Welcome to Park Day School's Making Learning Visible Blog
When you walk on to Park Day's campus you can feel the curiosity, joy, and love of learning. Whether five years old or 14, Park Day students know themselves as builders, mathematicians, artists, historians, change makers, and more. Read on to understand more about our school--a community of amazing students and staff who create an integrated learning environment where strong academics, social emotional learning, and social justice create an exceptional foundation on which students build their ongoing education and their lives.
Climate Change In the ClassroomPosted by Karen Colaric on 10/25/2018
With climate change, like many social justice issues, kids have various information, perspectives, and feelings about what others raise in discussions. As thoughts, concerns, and a desire to take action unfold around us, Amida Cary, Kindergarten teacher, talks about the educator’s approach here at Park Day. “We let kids lead, and keep a hand on the tiller of the discussion,” she says. “This takes reading the kids at the time of the talk.” At all grades we approach climate change through the lense of both scientific inquiry and environmental justice while maintaining a heightened awareness of class communities and the range of awareness and emotional understanding within.
Every Wednesday at Park Day School, educators gather together at lunch to think about how best to support the kids in talking about climate change, and how we as individuals and as a community can make a difference. Our educators use resources like Project Drawdown, an online resources that gathers and facilitates a broad coalition of researchers, scientists, graduate students, PhDs, post-docs, policy makers, business leaders and activists to assemble and present the best available information on climate solutions that could have an impact over the next thirty years.
There are many projects bubbling up in teachers minds/hearts and on various parts of our campus, to help kids learn clean/alternate ways of building, cleaning, growing food, eating, watering. In the classrooms, our curriculum and class meetings may introduce and respond to what is happening in the world as it relates to climate change, in developmentally appropriate ways. This week the Kindergarten class visited East Bay MUD Headquarters to collect acorns for planting, and learn more about the oak woodland habitat that hosts 1300 species. They visited both the tree nursery and the EBMUD Fire Rig, and learned that all EBMUD rangers are trained as firefighters.
Last week as the 5th grade explores watersheds, they spent half the week at Nature Bridge in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Nature Bridge fosters environmental literacy to sustain our planet. After returning from this immersive field work experience, the class is continuing their studies about the environmental benefits of marshes and other wetlands.
Many of us have been following the case of Juliana v United States, 21 youths suing the U.S. government for the right to live in a stable climate. As we think about our role as educators teaching students about their power to make change, educators may be using this case as a way to share how sometimes, operating within a system can be a powerful way to amplify our voices. Whether or not the Supreme Court issues a stay delaying the court case, there will be a rally on Monday, October 29 from 3 - 6 pm in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals at 95 7th Street, San Francisco. Many of our educators will be attending after the school day on Monday.
In our own community, 2nd grade, students have a climate petition in mind- asking that the school use only clean energy. Clean energy has been an ideal for us for years, and parents interested in participating in our Green School Alliance should join the group on ParentSquare. In addition, the Social Justice Initiative is organizing an Environmental Justice Symposium on Saturday, March 16, 2019 featuring break-out workshops and speakers from local organizations. Save the date, and stay tuned.
Karen Colaric, Lower School Director
Maker EducationPosted by Erik Carlson on 10/18/2018
As you already know, this Sunday is one of the biggest events that our community puts on: the East Bay Mini Maker Faire. People from all parts of our school community lend a hand in making this event such a special day that fits so well with our program’s focus on maker-centered learning. We think of Makers as anyone who makes something, and in this spirit we welcome all those who come to our campus on Sunday as Makers! Following is a small snapshot of the ways our program and students have been involved in maker-centered learning, learning that focuses on community and collaboration as well as responsive and flexible teaching practices.
Preparing for the East Bay Mini Maker Faire:
- Students 4th Grade and up have been processing wood for the Nerdy Derby booth using the compound miter saw and drill press. They have prepared 650 blanks for Nerdy Derby cars - that’s 1,200 holes drilled!
- 1st Grade is making signs for the Nerdy Derby and students in a variety of grades are tidying and transforming the Innovation Workshop into the Nerdy Derby car building area!
- The middle school elective has been prototyping automata--simple kinetic sculptures that use cams to create movement. Meanwhile, our students have engineered a supersized special automata for the Nerdy Derby - come see it at EBMMF; the engineering and problem solving featured are spectacular!!
- During the 8th grade science unit studying sound and vibration, students designed their own instrument. First they created a 2D graphic design and then used computer assisted tools to print out their prototypes. Some of our students will also present this work at the Educators Convening at EBMMF. Check out this video description of and reflection on the process by one of our 8th graders!
- Park Day annually hosts an Educator Convening at the Faire. Last year 70 educators attended to discuss maker-centered learning, explore the faire. and reflect on applications in our own teaching practice. This year, Maker Ed is joining Park Day in sponsoring this event.
- For the past three years, two Park Day teachers per year have participated in the Agency by Design Fellowship alongside other educators from Oakland Public Schools and in conjunction with Harvard University’s Project Zero.For more info about Maker-Centered Learning and Agency by Design (AbD) click here.
In other workshop news:
- 2nd grade has just finished building Ancestry Boxes as part of their discussion about the history of immigration.They begin by putting themselves in someone else’s shoes and consider how when you’re leaving one country to live in a new country, you may not be able to bring many things with you. As the students study their own family history and current events in developmentally appropriate ways, they acknowledge the differences between those who have a choice to leave their home and those who don’t.
- 1st Grade is starting their Take Apart project, which is an exploration of design, engineering systems and human needs. The project integrates building, design and math. Students use a Venn diagram to examine the use and properties of various materials used in the machine. The Starlight Kitties have made a robot to help the world solve some of its current problems. It can be programed to ask people what they need and help solve their unique community’s problem. The Golden Foxes will dive in to Take Apart after Maker Faire.
- Our youngest makers in Kindergarten are exploring identity and learning to use tools safely in the Innovation Workshop with their Identity Trains. They have been practicing hammering, sawing, and drilling with the power drill (assisted). Some have been working on some free building where they can design and prototype with some of their new skills with tools!
Coming soon to the Workshop:
- 5th grade will be teaming with Ilya in the Workshop and Joe in Learning Garden to explore solar energy and thermal energy as a way to enhance and deepen their later Science studies on alternative energy.
- In 6th grade, our Average 6th Grader project, which is an integrated project between mathematical and scientific data as well as exploration of identity and social studies, is kicking into gear!
Stay tuned for more exciting projects from the Innovation Workshop. We’ll keep you posted and see you at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire!
Solve Problems Worth SolvingPosted by Erik Carlson on 10/11/2018
Dan Meyer, one of my favorite math educators, introduced me to the phrase “solve problems worth solving.” Park Day School accepts this challenge to pose problems that are relevant to students in Kindergarten through 8th grade, that will sustain their interest and reinforce for them that their math skills are useful. The problems may have real-world applications and they can be attacked with a variety of strategies. This is different than how many of us grown-ups learned math, by looking in a textbook at the sample problem, practicing with a set of similar problems, and then checking the answer in the back. I appreciate now the moment in a math class where a student needs to defend their thinking and share their solution strategy with classmates. Our goal is to develop confident mathematical thinkers, who are ready and eager to explore increasingly complex problems.
Watch a video featuring recent Park Day Graduate, Jesse C, class of 2017, talking about mathematical thinking, and the enduring understandings he and other graduates developed during their time at Park Day.
Get to know members of our Middle School math and science team better by volunteering at the EBMMF on Oct 21! The 8th grade students in Carrie Moy’s science class will be demonstrating the musical instruments that they created using a digital program and the school’s new laser cutter. 7th and 8th grade math teacher, Jeff Allen, runs a stone polishing booth every year-- stop by and see what he does when he is not teaching math! Also, 6th grade volunteers are needed at the Nerdy Derby to make announcements.
With gratitude and optimism,
Interim Head of School
A Warm Park Day Welcome to New Feathered Friends!Posted by Amelea Canaris and Joe Patton on 6/7/2018
Our Learning Garden Program is a beautiful living organism--always evolving, flourishing on change. The seeds we plant, harvest, and taste change with the seasons. The progressive curriculum throughout the Lower School grades is constantly being integrated, helping to shape our garden lessons. And, the school community continually changes: students transition to higher grades as some children arrive for the first time. Among the newest members of our school is a small flock of quail who moved to Park Day School in late April. The five hens were rescued from a house Amelea's friend had moved into, and unable to care for them, their owners passed them onto us. In mid-spring, Amelea installed a small coop near the chickens, and with it, our new friends.
As their name suggests, these Coturnix japonica quail are native to Japan. The species is found throughout East Asia, migrating as far south as Vietnam and Laos during winters and as far north as Russia. The earliest record of their domestication is the 12th century, although you wouldn’t guess it from meeting our quail! The flock at our school is nervous around large groups. They are still very much settling into their new home and appreciate peace and quiet.
As ground-dwelling animals that prefer habitats with dense vegetation for sources of protection, an exposed coop presents a major challenge. We have been working on adapting their little home to accommodate their needs. Afterall, our flock is essentially wild. Branches of cypress, woodchips, and stones now cover the cardboard flooring. A container with sand in a corner of the coop offers a place for dust bathing, a favorite pastime of quail for grooming and removing parasites from their feathers. As with everything, improving the quail’s home on campus is a work in progress.
Because our flock is still acclimating, we have asked the community to give the quail plenty of space. It is important to note that we can NOT let them free range as chickens do (they will not return and may be attacked by predators). Additionally, their coop should only be unlocked and opened by adults who have signed up for chicken and quail care and they should NOT be held or handled by anyone other than the garden teachers. Students have been delighted to visit and observe them this month, joyously feeding them little snacks through the wiring of their coop such as pieces of fruit from the nearby strawberry tree, or Arbutus unedo (an evergreen in the same family as cranberry, blueberry, and azaleas). They also love fresh greens like cabbage, sour sorrel, and lettuce leaves, broken up into tiny pieces for them to taste! We are collecting their small, speckled eggs to cook with students and parents/families that sign up for chicken and quail care are welcome to take home any quail and chicken eggs they find during their volunteer day.
As summer moves along, we are on the lookout for volunteers to care for our chickens and quail, as well as our bountiful gardens. We hope to have some vegetables to harvest in the fall! Do you live near campus? Are you going to be around this summer and looking for a routine family activity like caring for our sweet chickens/quails/gardens in exchange for fresh eggs and summer veggies? We will be offering a training for summer garden and chicken/quail care givers during our garden work party this coming Sunday, June 10th. The work party is from 9am-1pm, and the training is from 10:30am-11:00am.
If you or someone you know is interested, please email Amelea (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Joe (email@example.com). You can find an electronic sign-up sheet for chicken and quail care at https://www.wejoinin.com/sheets/eymlt/edit.
With gratitude from an ever-changing program,
Amelea and Joe
Pause to ponderPosted by Susan Lee and Katy Ailes on 5/24/2018
In a society overwhelmed by instant gratification, quick fixes, and googling, Math, Science and Engineering Night at PDS was a moment to revel in the programing that makes our school special. Progressive. Thought focused. A place that pushes back against modern wave of media that can sometimes make it so challenging for parents to parent and for kids to explore their inner curiosities.
During the Math and Science Night event, and in the weeks leading up to it, we heard children excited to be experts sharing their thinking. We heard kids so versed in the vocabulary of the subject matter they were exploring that they could listen to and respond to questions asked using scientific language and examples. We saw kids fail even as the evening was underway, and we saw kids explore iteration after iteration of a design, learning new things along the way, even if their original plans might not have worked.
For the past two years, we have been immersed in the Agency by Design Oakland fellowship. The opportunities and learning have layered well with Park Day’s progressive philosophy and educational mission.
For a moment, let’s look at two studies happening simultaneously on Math and Science night: An ocean study in first grade and a marble roller coaster project in second grade.
The first graders in Katy’s class studied the ocean. The project was fueled by the children’s curiosities- “I want to know more about how coral ends up in the ocean,” “How do whales float?,” and “How did salt get into ocean water in the first place?” (to name a few). Through the project kids were asked to look closely at the interconnected systems within the ocean (parts, people and animals, and their interactions). We visited several local places (the Marine Mammal Center in Marin, Rodeo Beach in Marin, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and Saildrone in Emeryville) where ocean experts work and they taught us about how they are actively trying to help the ocean and why.
The children were asked to find opportunities in how they might help the ocean and, as scientists and engineers, what they might design that brings more information to light about their important ocean questions. They were asked to communicate these complexities in their sharing with guests throughout the evening. The children’s jobs as people who work with the ocean allowed guests to witness the essence of first grade- PLAY- while also seeing the students interact with one another in a way that showed the depth of their learning. Some phrases overheard included, “Now we are entering the dark zone,” “This is a symbiotic relationship,” and “Watch out for those sea turtle nests!”
In their classroom reflection following the study, the children shared about the amount of choices they had- which ocean animal they were going to research, design choices in making their Saildrones, and whether they were going to be tour guides, park rangers or Marine Mammal Center veterinarians when sharing the ocean with others. One student went so far as to compare the Ocean exhibit to a more traditional “science fair” saying, “It’s not like we just brought our parents up to our work and they said, “Nice work.” This writing by a child articulates how this study will live on in children and shape their thinking as they encounter the deeper complexities and challenges in our world. In response to the question, “Why is the ocean important?” she writes, “Because it is the heart of our world. It is also very delicate. And if the ocean didn’t live, we wouldn’t live. A lot of animals live there too! And earth is mostly made of water! And don’t throw trash please!”
In second grade, we build upon children’s natural curiosities to understand how systems are interconnected and how things work by capitalizing on their growing ability to observe and notice. Using a thinking routine, we looked closely at a picture of a roller coaster and dissected the parts, purposes and complexities in a single roller coaster. What feelings came up? What questions did they have about roller coasters? As the class discussed the roller coaster system, we began to see interrelated connections and questions - the discussion branched out quickly to questions about the forces at play and design elements which allow roller coasters to be “thrilling, yet terrifying!”.
Now a year older and more developed in their fine motor skills, the second graders looked closely at their marble experiments each step of the way and utilized patience as they tested variables against controls.
Throughout this project, students were asked to explore and test how materials worked in partnerships. They looked closely at the impact of materials and found opportunities in improvising ways to use the same materials.
They also explored the complexity of explaining whether or not scientific data supported their initial hypothesis. For many, it was a challenge to learn how to interpret the data that was collected and to learn how to extrapolate a response using scientific terms.
As they became experts in how to make a marble roller coaster, children found opportunity as designers and engineers to resolve problems with creative solutions in real time with instant feedback. Multiple opportunities to iterate and re-iterate forced us to slow down and make careful, miniscule adjustments each time in order to re-calibrate each marble coaster.
Alongside learning physics principles, the children had an enormous amount of exciting fun. We capped off our marble coasters with a virtual ride on a roller coaster, which was a highlight for many of the second graders.
These are just two examples of the dynamic yet grounded ways in which making, thinking and learning are fostered here not just on Math and Science night, but on a daily basis. Making is an extension of our mindful approach to teaching- when you approach something with mindfulness, it helps you to discover things you never knew about how it works, who made it, and even leads to imaginings about how it could be designed differently. We would argue that making and mindfulness go hand in hand, that children learn even more deeply by creating their own meaning and understanding through their made experiences and, that it is through this lens that children at Park begin to see the world as interconnected systems where everything has an impact and anything can be changed.
As you prepare for this summer, we challenge you to find these kinds of moments to make and learn together with your child. How will you consciously build a bridge to tie school, home and community lives together? Slow down the pace of life and examine the ordinary. Dive deep with simple questions. Pause to ponder. How, when, and where will you look closely, explore complexity and find opportunity together?
I "Heart" SciencePosted by Carrie Moy on 5/16/2018 8:00:00 AM
As humans we have important body systems that help us stay alive and healthy. Each system plays an important role, and is made up of several key organs and components. There are tons of tiny little things that happen every single moment of the day that help us survive. Throughout our unit on the human body, we explored several mini moments in our own bodies, and especially the heart and circulatory system, to get an overview of various human body parts and systems and how they work.
Over the course of the unit, students explored big questions in lab work and dissections and reflected on what they learned. Some highlights included, identifying which part of the body is most sensitive and why and determining a person's reaction time by measuring how long it takes to catch a falling ruler during times of concentration and distraction. Then they discovered under which condition (undistracted or distracted) was the average reaction time shorter and why.
In addition, they worked collaboratively and shared knowledge during our pig heart dissection and left the dissection with an appreciation for the complexity of the organ in an hands-on learning environment. They explored the questions, "What does pulse rate tells you about how the heart works?" Then, they determined their heart rates before and after various activities. They also wondered, "Physically speaking, why is it necessary for your pulse rate to change with each activity?"
Here are some of their reflections about the dissection process:
“I got to put my knowledge into a real-life example. Dissections should continue because it gives you an opportunity to apply your knowledge into an example. It is also helpful because you can compare what the heart looks like in person vs. what a real-life example looks like. It is also really cool to actually dissect because you can see different layers and parts and where they are and how you can get to them plus thicknesses and textures.”
“What I got out of the dissection was really learning about how the heart really works. I have always seen pictures and diagrams about the heart but never in real life. I think it was great that we got to see how something inside of our body works and looks like. It was also very interesting to see how blood and oxygen flows through the body.”
An important part of our Middle School science curriculum is having opportunities to share scientific discoveries with the "outside world" just like professional scientists do. Math, Science and Engineering Night provided the perfect way for our middle school scientists to share their newfound knowledge with friends, family and the rest of the school. Below are some of their presentations.
Students shared how chest only compressions help blood move blood and oxygen through the body to mimic the pumping of the heart and preserve intact brain function and blood circulation for a person who is in cardiac arrest.
Students used their knowledge of how the heart pumps blood throughout the body to read individual’s systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
In addition to learning about the heart and circulatory system, students learned about different fingerprint patterns and the distribution of the types throughout a population (e.g. were there more loops, whirls, arches, etc.). On Math, Science and Engineering Night, students helped people determine their unique fingerprint pattern.
PDS Service Learning: Middle School Students in the CommunityPosted by Jeanine Harmon on 5/10/2018
Throughout each school year, our middle school students head out into the community to volunteer as part of our service learning program. In sixth grade, the students begin working together on projects and activities that benefit a specific site. In seventh and eighth grade, our students participate in three Service Days with their advisory groups at six different sites across the East Bay. We ask our students to literally roll up their sleeves and put themselves in the service of others. These service learning experiences encourage our students to stretch beyond their comfort zones. Sometimes this means students will get messy. Sometimes they might feel a bit uncomfortable. Sometimes they will work in places in the community they have never seen before. Throughout each experience, our students work together to help make their site a bit better than it was before they started, and learn more about themselves in the process.
One of the goals of our middle school service learning program is to build strong connections with our service sites and their supporting organizations. This year, we launched a new stewardship project with Frog Park, a neighborhood park located in the Rockridge greenbelt. Our sixth graders partnered with volunteers from the organization Friends of Frog Park to help with ongoing care of this popular playground. Did you know that Frog Park was founded and created by neighborhood and community activists? Our students were able to meet and work with some of these founders as part of their service learning experience this year. Before each volunteer session, a guest speaker came to speak to the class about different aspects of Frog Park history. We learned a lot, including the fact that the park is largely maintained by volunteers, not the by the City of Oakland.
Our seventh and eighth grade students work with their advisory groups and volunteer at the same site three times over the course of the school year. Each advisor creates the framing for each service learning session, and provides opportunities for both individual and group reflection. Our Service Day sites and organizations include St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda, Cleveland Cascade, Merrill Gardens, Lake Merritt Institute, Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve and Piedmont Avenue Elementary School. Our students lend a hand wherever help is needed: prepping food for the soup kitchen at SVDP, playing board games with seniors in the Memory Care unit, scooping up trash and debris from Lake Merritt with giant nets, sweeping walkways and stairways at Cleveland Cascade, removing invasive species at Sibley and assisting first graders with their classwork at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School.
We want our students to have the opportunity to meet every day people doing extraordinary things for their community. Many of these people are doing their work, both paid and unpaid, without any fanfare. They provide inspiration and motivation to help make the world a better place.
We have big dreams for our students. Through their volunteerism and service, through their conversations with their site coordinators and their interactions with the people at these sites, we believe the seeds of empathy, compassion, and activism will take root and grow. Park Day students really can make a difference!
Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma Mosaic!Posted by Ben, Karen, and Kristy on 4/26/2018
Wow… today is our last full day at Mosaic! Today brought all of the week's learning together.Earlier in the week we learned about recognizing, accepting and celebrating the differences that make us unique. Yesterday's theme was “interconnectedness.” We start each day with a quote after breakfast, and the quote today was from John Muir: “When you tug on any one thing, you’ll find it is hitched to everything else in the universe.” Each morning, some mysterious visitors also visit from the future, who lay down a challenge to us as change makers of the future.A lot of game-tivities happen in sharing circles, and yesterday we shared about the difference between being passive (allowing someone to invade you or your space), aggressive (invading someone else’s space) and assertive (standing up for yourself or “being strong without being mean”). We noticed that some of our greatest heroes who were peaceful changemakers like Rosa Parks, Ghandi and Dr. King, practiced being assertive and standing up for what was right without hurting themselves or others in the process. We also talk about how to be allies and stand up for/support one another without taking sides.There is also a lot of magic up here at Mosaic, and today’s interconnectedness theme also connected us with nature. The kids go on hikes in their sharing group, and find mysterious maps and messages from the Redwood Tree Spirit. The hike is also stunning, and afforded us opportunities to touch and smell a wild mint (yerba buena) and hear the call of the mysterious Hermit Thrush.We ended Wednesday with one of our favorite activities—the “Very Unusual Dinner,” which simulates the distribution of wealth and resources in the world (while still getting equal food). In our simulation, all kids have the opportunity to change the world and re-create it as they would ideally envision it. And, indeed they did—building a model for community and connectedness based on equity that we can all learn from and hope to emulate. Our PDS kids always make us proud here at Mosaic—taking their leadership and allyship skills and putting them into practice with the larger community. Wednesday night, we had an extra challenge as the area lost power for a while (wild turkeys!), and we had sandwiches for dinner while our pizzas waited to be cooked (we had them for lunch today). All the kids handled this setback really well, and, as always, we love seeing how they will approach and solve the simulation each year.Overall, we’ve been so impressed with this group’s support of one another and their ability to extend themselves to others, whether sharing their feelings with cabin mates, solving an issue with the whole group, enjoying the magic in the air and the pairing up for deep conversations with kids they don’t know and who may be different from them. The initial homesickness some of our students felt Monday night has definitely turned into “missing Mosaic” feelings as we prepare to head back home.
As April is national poetry month and today is “poem in your pocket day”, we started off the last full day today by having teacher time with Ben leading us in a poetry activity. Students were given different poems to keep in their pocket and read their poem to different partners. Students were then given the opportunity to reflect and write their own poems about their time at Mosaic, a way to reflect on this transformational week.We then attended "Conflict Resolution College" and learned the steps to solving problems. Mosaic even has a new way of looking at conflicts: It's not me against you, it’s you and me, together, against the problem. The students all practiced the steps to conflict resolution. 1) Stop and take a breath, 2) Listen to each other, 3) Talk using "I statements", 4) Empathize and 5) Plan a solution. Students received their diplomas (both paper and cookie) upon successful completion of the rigorous examination of conflict resolution. Students had a special pizza lunch and each person got to practice writing and sharing an "I-statement” on how to share their feelings with others in a constructive and assertive manner.This afternoon brought on the ultimate challenge, a culmination of the Mosaic week: the Peanut Butter Booger Snot Fire River (or something to that effect). Working together and using all of the Mosaic Values as well as tools like assertiveness, listening, empathy and "I" statements, each group successfully navigated the treacherous obstacle. After overeating at the burrito dinner (which ended with a refreshing ice cream dessert), we were treated to our final campfire. This group of kids, now bonded by their shared experience, sang their hearts out, and cheered and laughed together.The night ended with a special ceremony, a candle lit solo walk, signifying their departure from Mosaic. While our children will leave Mosaic as individuals, their path is now lighted by what they've learned in this place, beneath these trees and amongst these friends.
Sixth Graders' Frog Park and Greenbelt Service is Featured in The Rockridge News!Posted by Margaret Piskitel on 4/18/2018 4:00:00 PM
Our sixth graders have been stewarding Frog Park and the Greenbelt through the Community Outreach and Service Learning program. Check out the article which features them and Jeanine, Director of Community Outreach and Service Learning, in The Rockridge News!
Here are some photos of the students working at Frog Park.
Making Thinking Structures Visible: Timelines, Maps, and GridsPosted by Rachel Stone on 4/4/2018
One of my goals in middle school social studies is to give students a framework upon which to place future knowledge and weave it into understanding. In my mind, I think of this like a basket, with points of intersection between space and time. I want students to develop a basic understanding of both the timeline and of physical geography so that they can place new information (history, current events, politics, travel plans, etc.) in an internalized grid of timeline and location. Working with the visual tools of maps, globes and timelines is an important part of our work in humanities.
6th graders have the fun benefit of starting with the very beginning of time, the big bang! We start the year looking at various representations of the timeline of the whole universe. (A favorite short video uses the football field analogy to show the history of planet earth. Spoiler alert: humans are just a blade of grass.) We try our own version: Students are each assigned a key turning point in the history of the universe and figure out a logical chronology along the edge of the field. We discuss where these events would really be spaced if we had a consistent scale, but don’t actually attempt this as it would take us far off campus!
Our classroom has a more human-centered timeline running the length of a wall. It takes us from the bronze age through the near future. When we learn about a civilization, a Pharaoh, or invention, we take the step to locate this event on our classroom timeline. For example, students just learned about the three periods of Egyptian history: often called the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. Even to me, getting to see them visually on our classroom timeline brings home the incredible duration of this civilization. (I can’t wait until we get to China!) A student today pointed out that while we had marked periods when the kingdom of Kush conquered and was conquered by Egypt, we had not marked the important defensive victory against Rome in 24 BCE. She added the post-it note herself, to my delight.
Maps have come up in an interesting way recently as well. The Nile, flowing north into the Mediterranean Sea, gives us a great opportunity to stretch our brains around the fact that the earth is globe-shaped rather than flat, two-dimensional rectangle. As easy as they are to put on a bulletin board or in a binder, sometimes maps actually obscure this. Because Egyptians thought of their life-giving water supply as flowing from the Upper Nile to the Lower Nile, Lower Egypt is actually above Upper Egypt on any typical North-up map. Struggling to wrap our heads around this, a student suggested that we flip the direction of our Nile River map to better match the Egyptian concept. I had an extra copy, so we put the second map upside-down (or South-up) next to the original. In the next class, a student pushed us further to represent our thinking visually. We held the long map of the Nile River between us, and gave it the slight downhill slope that would show how water actually flows into the Mediterranean. (Thinking that the Nile is not actually a waterfall flowing down our classroom walls.) And we put up this third map horizontally. Sixth graders are still quite concrete, but can grasp (and love to puzzle out) new levels of complexity. I loved this moment because students were suggesting how to better use our classroom tools to externalize their thinking.
A third classroom tool we are currently using is more about visualizing a specific way of thinking and categorizing information. Our biggest bulletin board is a grid of ancient river-valley civilizations. Each row identifies an aspect of society or civilization, such as the system of government, religious system, arts and entertainment, or advances in technology. Each column is dedicated to one of the ancient civilizations we study. For example, the first column records our study of ancient Sumer, showcasing images of artifacts we’ve studied in depth, and new facts students found worth pondering. (Carefully paraphrased and with credible sources listed, of course.)
Last week, we looked at Egyptian artifacts (well, replicas) as archaeologists. When putting up images and new information, students had to think through what aspects of civilization each artifact connected to - usually seeing at least two or three options. I love any chance for students to experience that human methods of categorization can be as limiting as they are useful. A complex understanding is much more about the nuances of grey area than binary categories. For example, students wanting to put up an image of The Victory Tablet of Narmer had to make a physical decision of where to place it. The king’s victory is all about the system of government, but it’s also a piece of art showing advances in technology, and it serves as a type of record keeping of the story of Narmer’s conquest. I love that this structure shows the limits of this type of clear categorization while maintaining its usefulness. As with the timeline and the map of the Nile River, students engage actively with these classroom tools. We want our next generations to be empowered to use, critique, and improve methods of representation.