Monday, May 19, 2014

Learning With Meaning

Drawing a bluebird smack in the middle of an empty page leaves questions in need of answers, as Genoa came to realize. The bluebird needs a place in which to breathe, to eat, to see and hear and sing, to fly. "I'll give it a branch to sit on!" "I'll give him blue skies and a rainbow to fly under. . . . what are the colors of a rainbow?" Soon the bird has a world in which to be and do and live, making a meaningful little drawing to give Dad for his birthday.
Something similar went on with Helen's hummingbird (and yes, the kids love to be wrapped in the mist of the art room windows). 

The fantasy birds that have been flying out of the art room in recent weeks have served a different purpose. The children have surprised me with their seriousness and joy over these funny creations. When they put them on, they become something other than their usual first and second grade selves - real flying birds! When they slip on their masks and wings, they pause watchfully and take off flying, their feet seeming really to lift off the ground. They know they are flying, an important part of a day at school.

Studying birds has meant seeing a great variety of songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, poultry. One day we got to looking at a few feathers I'd brought in, and drawing a single feather on a page. The kids were very interested (more than they had been in the beginning of Ms. Melody's unit) in the functions of different types of feathers. They looked under magnifying glasses to see the barbs and hooks - well, these photos explain what they saw:

The kids have gained an understanding that the rules and order of feathers and wings are the same for every type of bird, regardless of size, color, or family. Which they found amazing and marvelous.

These guys are expanding their village for the birds. Note their expressions:
For them, working cooperatively is still sometimes a bit like this:
Maybe a lot like this.

Students from third to sixth grade have been looking into the cultures of Native Americans. I was excited to give Megan's third and fourth graders this puzzle to do, but at first it had little significance for them, and I was surprised they knew nothing of the
Great Lakes, desert country, plains and different regions and states. Melody explained to me traditional education used to start within the scope of the egocentric little child - local geography, expanding outwards as children grow. So I watched the kids and thought about all of it. Even when my son Jesse was their age - that's twenty-six years ago - education was more about facts presented in a linear way. If you picked up on textbook information and found your own ways to make it matter - well and good. Frustrating if not. But Phoenix curriculum tends not to be based on a body of factual knowledge. Rather, children are encouraged in the ability to do things hands-on. Teachers pay attention to the learning styles of individual kids, their personal ways of relating to the world and all its experiences. Students are taught to stay present and to listen to the quiet, still voice inside themselves. There is respect and understanding that every person is a universe unto herself, with the innate ability to ask questions, resolve conflicts and difficulties, deal with challenges, research knowledge and information on an as-needed basis.

Back to the map, they were stymied. For one, hands-on puzzles are not very much their thing, but mostly they had no clue as to what was where in our great country. A few weeks later - they stared at and studied the map with all sorts of questions, their own questions. I could see that the wonderful, exciting reason was they had seen a bit of Native American cultures. They had reached a point of truly caring and wondering what types of developments might occur depending on local geography, weather, and environment. Hooray for them, and hooray for Ms. Megan, their teacher! They understood that if you lived on the Northwest coast you had access to endless good foods from the ocean, rivers, and forests. Native people lived with ancient cedar trees which they honored, loved and respected, and used to make into their magnificent longhouses and dugout canoes, furniture, baskets, and clothing. Work with what is in the immediate environment and see what unfolds - this made sense to the kids.

Students learned when Megan brought them to nearby prairies rich with camus lilies that native people had a nourishing food to harvest and store.

Move east to the inland plains and there were wild horses, herds of giant buffalo, Native Americans who really did live in teepees, and their lovely haunting flutes which were played when a young brave wanted to make friends with a girl.

Soon the kids will learn about the Hopis of the Southwest.
I ordered these hot-climate gourds for them. It's not the same as if they planted the seeds, tended to their growth, harvested and dried them. But they closed their eyes and became pretty contemplative about what they would paint on them. 

After that they will go to the Cherokees of the eastern woodlands, and learn about  the one tribe with a written language, a newspaper and constitution. The story is that Sequoyah, the man who first contemplated the "talking leaves" of his white neighbors, sacrificed a great deal before he finally settled on his syllabary of eighty or so characters. But he had the enthusiasm and help of his little daughter in the process - an elementary age girl. How cool is that?!

Much of children's culture today is about technology, being driven in cars from one place to another, looking cool for the camera. So it is great for Phoenix Rising kids to have experiences that directly connect them to nature, geography, cultural histories. All the kids who come to the art room are more and more loving any chance they are given to make something useful related to what they know.

Copyright on photos and artwork - I haven't properly credited the work of others in this post, my apologies. Often I find pics to share with my students; this is one time I've posted them for all to see. I know that artists and photographers work hard in their professions and deserve to be acknowledged. If by chance you see something here that is yours, please contact me 
and I will take the picture off or give proper credit.


Megan said...

Jeannie, I LOVE your blog. I'm totally going to share it on my facebook page if you don't mind. What a brilliant explanation of what we are teaching and why we teach the way we do.

Melody said...

This is outstanding! I especially love the picture of the 2 sparring true!