The world has turned upside down and the roles of parents, teachers and students have shifted.
Teachers are practicing their lifelong learning skills in order to learn and manage different online programs and using these online learning and presentation skills to continue authentic instruction to their classes. Parents are not only being asked to learn new technology, but to also give substantial support to their children in their learning activities while balancing jobs and other family duties.
I think the students themselves were the most prepared when things shifted so suddenly because they have been honing their skills as independent learners all year. They are already used to tackling big challenges with a strong growth mindset and courageous attitude, all the while keeping their humor and engaging personalities intact. This is where we see the importance of our school's mission and how it relates to everyday life, long after the school day has ended.
One thing our mission doesn't specifically address is the strength of our community. After my first day of online teaching with my second graders, I wrote that I had learned two things.
1. I really, really miss "my" kids.
2. Our classroom is a wonderful physical space to hold our learning...but it's apparent our class community is still going strong!
It is incredible the way the entire school community pulled together to create a sense of structure and stability for our students and families played a huge part in that. School might look a little different right now but learning is still taking place and our connections with our students are as strong as ever.
Students were able to explore the idea of community through a variety of lenses in the past two weeks. The opportunity to be exposed to a topic in diverse ways enables students to think more deeply about what they are learning and provides background knowledge to build connections to as they take in new information.
Students have been working on a project in which they are mayor of a paper city. They have a budget in which to build their city, and make choices about what types of establishments they want to include while working with a few constraints. There has been some interesting conversations in which students explore what a community really is - a group of people who share something in common or are connected in some way. They've reflected on what they know about the community of Anchorage and what causes a community to be successful. For example, where do the members of the community get their food from? What happens if there is a sickness?
Once the cities are set up, we play a simulation in which "life" cards are drawn randomly and we see how it affects their community. For example, they might pull a card in which they have to pay taxes on their land or they might pull a card that gives them an award for having the best neighborhood. Natural events can also occur, including floods and earthquakes. Another card might have a fire at the grocery store, but if they chose to build a fire department in their town, they can put the fire out. They are really seeing the connection between community members and places and how certain choices can have a ripple effect.
They also reflected on community in a different context by helping out as "vets" for the kindergarteners as they raced in the Iditarod. They then made sure to cheer at the finish line, giving the mushers encouragement and support in the form of handmade signs and kind, positive words.
They also participated in the annual Science Party event where they were able to interact with a diverse group of community members and science organizations from around Anchorage.
The variety of activities around the topic of community are part of an ongoing effort to not only teach content to students, but to also provide opportunities to see ideas and thoughts in action.
This past week students had the opportunity to invite their families into the classroom to share about some of their experiences as a second grader. PNA does these student led conferences every year in order to have an official check-in with families about how the year is going and allow the students the opportunity to have a voice in how their school experience is progressing.
In the past, these conferences consisted of the students sharing their self-reflections about how they feel they are doing, as well as a portfolio of sorts with 1-2 examples of work they have chosen to share.
This year, the Lower School has expanded on these student-led conferences into a combination Open House, Parent Lunch and Conference experience. Each classroom from K-5 had a variety of stations set up, each showing a different facet of the school day. Students became the teachers as they took their families around to different stations and explained the work they had been doing there. The second grade stations included teaching and playing a math game with their families, discussing our bat wrap PBL project, and teaching them the steps needed to write an opinion essay. The last station had families, students and teacher sitting together to discuss the student's self reflection as well as the "glows & grows" the teacher had for the student for the remainder of the year.
This type of student led conference puts the student in the spotlight of their own learning. They need to be able to understand the content in order to explain or teach it to their families. They are continuing to develop public speaking skills, even if they are speaking only to their families. Students are also responsible for really reflecting about their learning experiences and where they want to improve on. This process is invaluable since students are not only aware of the things they still need to work on, but that they set actual goals in order to improve their school experience. This is the type of learning that we encourage through our school's mission everyday.
We educate students to be
exceptional learners and independent thinkers
of vision, courage, and integrity.
Even as second graders, students at PNA know that they are encouraged and expected to be creative. When we were writing our classroom guidelines at the beginning of the year, one student proposed "Be Creative" as one of our guidelines for the class to work towards this year.
During our early conversations on growth mindset and how to stretch your brain, students read "Beautiful Oops." This great book shows that not only is it okay to make mistakes, but that it's an opportunity to be creative.
"Creativity is inventing, experimenting,
growing, taking risks, breaking rules,
making mistakes, and having fun."
-- Mary Lou Cook
While it's easier to be creative in certain subjects, such as in art or writing, there are still opportunities for individual creativity in other areas as well.
Take math for example. Most of the time, math can be seen as a strict sequential subject with little room for deviation into the creative realm. However, some recent activities the second graders worked on show that there is a bit of room for fun and creativity.
Studies have shown that visuals help with comprehension, retention of content in long term memory, and transmit information to the brain faster than text. They can also be very motivating to learners, such as these math activities were.
The first activity involved students creating snowman cards in order to create a class chart in which they explored repeated addition, patterning and multiplication.
The creation of the snowman cards is a creative endeavor in and of itself; however, some students showcased their natural creativity even more so and still managed to stay within the constraints of the project - having a snow person with three snowballs on each card.
"Creativity involves breaking out of expected patterns in order to look at things in a different way."
-- Edward de Bono
Another example shows a different way of looking at units of measurement. Using visual representations of inchworms, "footworms" and "yardworms" students were converting the typical units of measurement - inches, feet and yards - by visualizing them as worms. These "worms" were helpful to each other as the bigger "worms" gave the little "worms" rides on their backs.
Students were able to measure and create their own individual worms to work with and collaborated with each other to figure out problems such as "If 100 inchworms were waiting for a ride, how many yardworms would be needed?" or "Could 3 footworms fit on one yardworm's back?" Not only is this another way for students to visualize the relationship between units of measurement, it also gave them another change to exercise their creativity.
"Creativity doesn't wait for that perfect moment. It fashions its own perfect moments
out of ordinary ones."
-- Bruce Garrabrandt
Everyday in 2nd grade brings about opportunities for every student to exercise their creativity and individualism in each and every subject area. They are comfortable in being themselves and each student is respected as the unique individual they are.
According to William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, “Handwriting (cursive writing) dynamically engages widespread areas of both cerebral hemispheres.” These studies lead to the idea that the brain is growing and stretching more during cursive instruction, as more parts of the brain are being stimulated.
Results of a study by the University of Washington show that while learning to print and type also contribute to brain growth, instruction in cursive appears to produce the greatest neurological benefit.
Handwriting in general requires focused attention on not only the structure of each letter, but how to transfer that knowledge into a physical representation on paper. As with most things, students learn and retain information better as they physically re-create it.
Fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination are required as students write in cursive, building important muscle memory. These honed skills transfer over to other areas of a child's life, such as sports or playing music. Visual and tactile processing skills are also being strengthened with students write in cursive.
Benefits for students with learning disabilities
A 2012 review suggests that cursive may be particularly effective for individuals with certain neurological disorders. Cursive helps students with dyslexia by stimulating both sides of the brain. Students with dysgraphia. may find the connected letters and fluid writing motions of cursive writing help in aiding their motor control challenges during writing.
At PNA we utilize the handwriting curriculum Handwriting Without Tears, beginning with print in preschool and beginning cursive in 2nd grade. Every year, without fail, the second graders are eager and excited to learn cursive. They take it very seriously, intently working with grit and overcoming frustration as they practice. While they see it as a rite of passage in "being the big kids", we recognize the benefits of cursive instruction and take the time to carve out a spot for it in our busy academic days.
You've probably heard of the devastating fires wreaking havoc in Australia recently. So many people and animals have been affected by these deadly fires and it's easy to feel helpless and hopeless. However, PNA's 2nd and 5th graders learned this week that they can actually make a difference. They were empowered to put forth their knowledge, time and commitment and sewed bat wraps for rescue organizations helping to care for injured and organized animals.
This PBL project with our 5th grade buddies is what PBL is all about. Students took a real world problem - the needs of injured and orphaned bats - and posed questions to contribute to a solution. What can we do? Is there really a way to help? What do the bats need? Who is saving them?
After learning more about the situation, and having some information from professional agencies about what was needed, students decided that they could sew bat wraps to send. However, during the course of this project, a wonderful problem emerged. So many people from all corners of the globe rallied to create and send items for the animals and carers in Australia, that they put a hold on accepting items from overseas.
As we were full into the swing of the project, we went looking for other places to donate our bat wraps. We found just the place in CARA (Crafters and Artisans for Rescued Animals). This group offers listing of a great many rescue facilities in the United States that are in need of items.
Despite the fact that many academic skills were taught, practiced and learned throughout this project, students learned some arguably more valuable lessons. They learned that empathy is a very strong trait, when people work together amazing things can happen, that helping others provides an intrinsic reward and that they can make a difference in this world.
If you look at the picture above, you might notice some kids deeply engrossed in playing with legos. While this would be true, there are also a multitude of other things occurring that aren't as apparent at first glance.
Renowned psychologist Jean Piaget notes, “Play is the work of childhood.” and Mr. Rogers elaborates on this statement by saying “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”
In a school setting, there needs to be a balance of both play and serious learning, across all grade levels. When we structure our teaching to include an element of play, even in higher grades, children are learning as well as having fun. They are working with materials that are familiar and intuitive for them which helps them to concentrate on the new information being taught. Different types of play also incorporates multiple learning modes (auditory, visual, kinesthetic) which can also help children retain concepts.
This specific activity was actually a science lesson on the very basics of matter, intended to visually show kids how a group of small objects can be assembled and then re-assembled into a completely different object. This is the basis to begin to understand the somewhat abstract concept of how and why matter changes.
Were students having fun "playing" with the legos? Of course they were! They were also using problem solving, critical thinking, reasoning and reading skills, as well as exercising fine motor skills. When they combined into groups to create their new objects, they had to collaborate and communicate with their group members.
The second graders finished up their latest PBL project with a community event right before break. The annual 2nd Grade Store was a great success and the store opened just in time for holiday shopping.
This yearly project has many different facets. Students are first tasked with coming up with a product idea that they will be able to create. These range from magnets, to ornaments, to toys amongst a variety of other things. They need to take things into consideration such as time and efficiency in creating their projects, as well as the material needs. Once they have a good idea, they begin production of their product, often gaining new skills as they learn how to use different types of tools.
Students then turn their attention to advertising. They come up with a name for their business and create signs for their booths. They also utilize their knowledge of persuasive writing to write and records commercials, which are then sent out the prospective shoppers before the store opens. The viewers are then given an interest survey designed to help the producers set their prices based on the anticipated demand for their products.
Thought is needed to set up each booth, with students considering space available, efficiency and aesthetics for their booth. This includes the best way to display their product as well. Once everyone is set up and ready to go, they eagerly await the shoppers!
Their work isn't finished yet as the second graders are now expected to make change, sell their product and offer great customer service. Their customer base consists of first graders, third graders, middle schoolers and a spattering of teachers and parents. The shoppers fill out a customer satisfaction survey to give the second graders some feedback. This ranges from the ultra positive - "This was so amazing! I wouldn't change a thing!" to constructive comments "Maybe next time make sure you have enough product so you don't sell out or maybe make your prices a little higher if you don't have a lot of product."
Once the store closes, it is time for cleanup and reflection. The second graders reflect on what went well: selling and making the product, what was challenging: making enough product, and what their favorite part of the project was; selling to all the people.
They also offer advice to the first graders who are already brainstorming ideas for next year's store.
"Do not sell the product to classmates before the store."
"Make people interested in your store."
"Make creative products."
"Make a lot of things."
"Think about the prices."
While this project hits grade level standards in different areas, the real benefit is the authenticity and real world experience that the kids gain. While technically they were in a competition with their classmates, that didn't stop them from offering each other help and ideas throughout the process. They used their critical thinking skills to solve problems, creativity in designing product, booth, and commercials and their communication skills got a workout as well. Students were able to see the economic terms and concepts that they had been studying firsthand and apply their knowledge in order to have a favorable outcome...authentic learning at its best.
What does it really mean to be a collaborative community? Our newest PBL project combined with our recent Parent Lunch gave some insight of what a collaborative community can look like at PNA.
Students are deeply involved in the current Class Store project, in which they are brainstorming and creating their own business, designing and manufacturing product to sell and working through what it truly means to play a role in the economy.
This itself offers multiple opportunity for community - from feedback on anything from product ideas to business names from their peers. Students are well-versed in giving and receiving feedback with others and have been working on these skills all year.
Part of being in a community is also the support that comes when unexpected challenges occur, as well as having that growth mindset to move on from frustrations and problems. At PNA, we believe in having the courage to make mistakes and then taking that knowledge and learning from it, all while feeling supported and valued, no matter our age.
What made this Parent Lunch so special was watching the second graders work through these ideas of being part of a collaborative community with their parents. Typically, one would look to the oldest in the group (in this case, their parent), to lead and guide them on the project. However, the second graders had no problem taking charge when needed, offering feedback on ideas and helping to problem solve when things went awry.
These are the kinds of skills that are becoming increasingly more important in today's work force, and these are the skills that PNA students learn and hone on a daily basis.
"Courage is not the absence of fear but action in spite of it."
The word courage is an integral part of our school's mission, forming a triad with vision and integrity, that helps to guide us everyday. Courage can mean a lot of things to different people but Webster's definition is "mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty."
The public performances that PNA puts on each year, from the Winter Concert, to Martin Luther King Day activities, to the Spring Shows offer an authentic opportunity for students of all ages (3 year olds to 8th graders) to practice having courage.
In the recent Winter Concert for example, students found the strength within themselves to stand up in front of a huge audience and perform. Whether it was singing a song, playing an instrument, reciting poetry, or doing sign language, there was the chance for mistakes and very public ones at that. Nerves were running high, but by the way the students performed, it was hard to pick up on. For some, performing in front of an audience is easy and happily anticipated; for others, it is a worrisome and dreadful experience. However, our students continually step up and do the hard things, maybe not without fear, but definitely with courage.
Second grade teacher, mom of two, avid reader, lifelong learner and seeker of sunshine!