Friday, January 16, 2015

Teaching Children to Love the Earth

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping 
than you can understand.
                                                    -William Butler Yeats

Faced with the realization that our Earth is in trouble ecologically and that most scientists believe we are in the middle of a sixth extinction event, the question of teaching our children to care about our planet is a very timely one. Children today are increasingly "plugged in"to say the least.  If they happen to venture outside they are usually wearing headphones and effectively tuning out the world. Conversely, unplugged children are resilient and natural leaders in the outdoors if given the opportunity.  To teach them to love the earth is simple.  Get them outdoors to experience nature and the love of the earth will come all on its own. Here are some fun ways to do just that.

1.  Plant Something
This can be as easy as a planter full of cherry tomatoes.  Start small with this one, it doesn't take a large garden to reap the benefits of getting dirty hands and watching something grow.  Plants are magical!  My own daughter is so excited to eat something that she has grown in the garden.  We planted this fairy garden of herbs a couple summers ago.  These plants still end up in all sorts of dishes in our home.

2.  Take a Hike
Not all those that wander are lost!  I am lucky that I live in the southwest in beautiful country.  A few hours from Phoenix and you find yourself in the blissful forests of Flagstaff.  Taking a hike is not only good exercise for kids but it surrounds them with earth's grandeur.  When my brother and I were young our parents told us that we could hike anywhere we wanted within site of our camp.  What freedom that was!  We got to know the outdoors on our terms.  This set the stage for our deep love for the earth and probably my geology degree!  Hiking is a must do for children.

3.  Visit a National or State Park
It is always amazing to me how many children in my classroom in Phoenix tell me they have not visited the Grand Canyon when it's a few hours up the road!  These are places that have been set aside for their spectacular scenery and earth history.  Most of my fondest memories of childhood were of time spent in a national park.  The United States boasts some of the most extraordinary natural settings in the world.  Get out there and use them!  Your kids will thank you!

4. Visit an Animal Sanctuary or Nature Center
If you are lucky enough to have one of these in your area definitely visit.  These places usually have wonderful hands on activities and exhibits.  Many teach children about threatened or endangered animals and teach kids to pay attention to animals in their environment.  We have a butterfly sanctuary near our home.  I like to visit because it is a real "zen" moment with butterflies the size of your hand fluttering around.  They have a great film on the monarch  butterfly and why it is decreasing in number as well.

5.  Get Involved in Conservation 
You undoubtedly build a future for our planet if your kids understand that animals are vulnerable because of our activities.  There are probably many groups in your area that work to conserve animals and their habitats.  In the Phoenix metropolitan area we have threatened burrowing owls.  These owls live underground in burrows usually made by a rodent of some kind.  I have also seen them in storm drains and irrigation ditches.  The are threatened by urban sprawl and anything that may cover their burrow.  Working to relocated and build new homes for these birds is something my seventh graders do as a part of our ecology unit.  They work very hard to build something that is very important to this tiny bird.  They look at their roll as stewards of the earth very differently after this project.

Finally, to understand the benefits of getting children into nature please read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.  It is a wonderful book that really describes the difference between today's plugged in child and children of the past and what we can do about it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Teaching Science Through Mastery Learning

Mastery learning is not a new concept.  It has been alive and well since the 1970's.  In a nutshell, it allows students to only move on when they have mastered a concept. How do you know when they are ready?  You test them. If they don't pass the test then they must go back and review until they pass.  Unfortunately, it isn't utilized enough in public education. This may be due to time constraints in the classroom, as well as, the amount of planning it requires at home.  Why would a teacher want to attempt this?

The benefits to teaching using a mastery learning model are many.  If you let your students choose the activities they want to do, your engagement in your class will skyrocket.  This only really works if you have many activities that are exciting and varied.  Science lends itself well to this because teachers can integrate hands on projects into the unit along with written activities. In addition, students actually work harder using this model.  What?  That can't be right!  Amazingly enough, it is.  My students actually had more work to do during our mineral unit this year, but got more accomplished in a shorter amount of time.  I believe it is something to do with control.  If they believe they are in control, they work harder and are more motivated.  That leads us to a wonderful side effect of teaching in this way, higher grades!    If students have to pass a test to move on then guess what, they pass!  My students have higher grades and a deeper understanding of relatively difficult concepts when I teach expecting mastery learning.

Now comes the hard part....planning.  I would start with one unit at a time.  Maybe not all of your units will work using this type of model.  I started with my minerals unit which I am very passionate about.  I used a menu type plan which I called Menu O' Minerals.
Everything in the Appetizer category must be done.  These are mostly teacher directed activities.  In my case it was mostly notes and a reading activity using a thinking map.  The main course has different expectations.  I kept one mandatory activity in this section called mineral ID lab.  After they finished this lab they were required to complete 4 other activities and then take a test.  If they passed the test they earned a grade of a 3, which is "meeting standards" in our district. If they did not pass they did two more activities and retested. Students who had passed the test then had a choice to do two additional projects (dessert) to earn a 4, which is an exceeding score.  The difficultly lies in choosing activities that motivate and move students to a deeper understanding of the topic, and at the same time, managing a myriad of projects at once.

My initial thought was that students would stop when they passed the test, but miraculously this was not the case.  Most students passed the test and went on to complete the final projects.  In fact, when asked what their favorite topic in science was for the first semester, a majority of students chose minerals.  This may be the answer to the "inch deep and mile wide" teaching  that is so prevalent in most science classrooms today.  In any case, the benefits of increased motivation, higher grades, and deeper understanding far outweigh any planning obstacles.  In fact, mastery learning could be modified to fit any grade level or content area.

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