The Robins have been fortunate to have two visitors this week who have come to help us extend our understanding of photography. The first was a retired St. Olaf professor named Gerry. He looked at some of the photos that the Robins have taken and helped them to think about them and talk about them with a critical eye. He also showed us some of his photos. He was a music professor, but he has a passion for photography, and he has done some professional photography work. He really helped us to extend our vocabulary and our understanding of how to talk about the technical aspects of photography.
Our other visitor was Christopher, Chickadees (K/1) teacher. Christopher brought a set of portraits that his wife, Erin, had taken as part of her senior project as an art major in college. The photographs themselves were stunning to look at: black and white, intimate portraits. The story behind the photos was also amazing. Erin took the photos of people she met in Twin Cities homeless shelters. Christopher shared her artist's statement, in which she explained how she came to know these people, and how that knowing them led to their comfort in being photographed. With Christopher, we got to talk about the technical aspects of the photography, but we also got to learn a bit about homeless people--how they struggle, the systems in place to help them, the terrible cycle of poverty that they must work to overcome. The Robins asked questions and made observations that suggested they were working to make sense of all of this. I suspect that with more time to reflect, they will have more questions. I encourage you to ask your Robin about the photos that Christopher shared, and then see if a conversation develops about homelessness in our state.
Our new theme is photography, and the Robins are loving it! It is really fun. I am using this MCV article as inspiration. We read it together and are taking the author's suggestion to set ourselves a daily challenge. After reading this article, looking at and discussing some professional photographs, and learning to use the iPad camera and move photos to Google Drive, we are now shooting photos. Our first day of shooting was experimenting with the camera, and students set their own challenge. The second day, we voted on "bird's eye view" as our challenge. Each session, students shoot photos, then choose 1-3 to keep. These they move to their Google Drive. Then, students each choose one photo and write a paragraph about it. The limit on the number to keep is intended to help them stay focused on our daily challenge. They can take as many photos as they want, and they are encouraged to try different angles, distances from the subject, etc. But then they are asked to look critically at the photos they took and choose only the best to save. Some students have started experimenting with filters on the camera. The writing asks them to describe what they were trying to do and to reflect on the process and the result. I am challenging them to use more and more photography words in their writing: perspective, composition, subject, focus, light, shadow, lines, texture, rule of thirds, pattern, frame, mood.
Because of the weather, we have only been shooting indoors this week. I intend to get us outside to shoot next week. I am also coordinating with a couple of volunteers who will come in and share their photography expertise (and photos) with us.
As we move along with this theme, I expect that we'll also do some science explorations with light and connect those to our photography work.
Below is a sample of the photographs that the students have been taking. I invited the Robins to choose one photo for me to include in this post.
Our whole school is deep in an opera residency with St. Olaf college. We are working with one of their J-Term classes to create an entirely original opera (story, songs, movement) that includes 180 students from K-5 in about three weeks. When I stop to think about that, I am always in awe of this school, and our collaborators, and our children.
We have done this once before. This time, our story centers on the theme of immigration. We are working in bird buddy class groups, and each group is creating one act. Some of the grades 3-5 students auditioned and have speaking parts and/or solos. We have one act about immigration from China, one about immigration from Mexico, and the Robins are working on the act that is about immigration through Ellis Island by a family from Russia. We will have a boat and a singing Statue of Liberty. We will have a family reunion. It is coming together!
The St. Olaf students have been most impressive. They are creating this opera with words and ideas and music from the students. They are masterfully weaving it all together into a coherent story that honors the students' words and ideas. They are leading groups of students, from 1 to 180 at a time, and they are doing it with joy and patience and fun. They bring a wonderful energy to our school. We are lucky to work with them.
It's becoming an annual event that I blog about sledding. The Robins look forward to it every year, as do all Minnesota children, I'd guess. It's great exercise, and it's great to be outside and active in the winter. But the thing that I love most about watching the Robins sled is the way that they have fun together and build community. There is truly nothing like piling three kids on a sled, then linking that sled up with several other sleds and trying to travel down a hill to bring children together, laughing and sprawling and red-cheeked. Today, I took out my phone so that I could capture photos, videos, and also some quotes that I heard from the children:
Child one: "We can't do it." Child two: "We're doing it!"
"That was awesome!"
"All sleds! We're going to make a train!" followed by a call and response: "All Sleds!" "All Sleds!"
"Class pyramid down the hill!"
I have written often about the power of play. I got my annual sledding-related reminder today.
Today, the Robins took some time to reflect on our latest theme and yesterday's culminating event. We began by meeting again in our working groups, talking about what went well and what we would do differently if we were to do it again. Then, we shared these thoughts in the large group and had a conversation. Finally, I gave the Robins a written reflection that they will add to their blue books and share with parents at January conferences.
Here are some of their reflections:
Things that went well: cooking!, the WWII map, the Navajo stations (people learned about their culture, and they learned more by having separate categories of information presented), kids had fun looking at the posters and art, visitors loved the time machine (this was both a positive and negative, as some younger children ran through it and were distracted by it).
Things that we would improve: the catapult table was unorganized, the snow was messy and distracting at the WWII map station, we could have practiced more, some guests were grabbing at the food, many guests were more interested in the food and activities than in learning information (several Robins complained of this, but I also had one guest complain that the Robins were only trying to give him food and not teach him, so this complaint was represented on both sides), we could have done a better job staying in character, we could have done more research.
It is always instructive for me when we get to the point of reflecting on a theme experience. For the large group discussion, I asked a student to lead so that I could just listen and take notes. Students at fourth and fifth grade are becoming so much more able to step outside of themselves and their experiences and assess with a more critical eye. It is important that we build these opportunities for students to make self-reflection an ongoing habit.
I have also been doing some reflecting on this theme. When I went home after the event yesterday, I had many, many questions rolling around in my mind. What more could I have done to support the Robins' learning? How do I anticipate the challenges that they will face in such a public event so that I can try to prepare them? What should be the role of food in culminating events?
If you have feedback for us on our event, we welcome it! Thanks so much for celebrating our learning with us yesterday.
Today, the Robins had a very successful culminating event. Thank you to all the parents who could come and visit us, and for those who couldn't, we missed you! I did my best to get a lot of photos. I tried a video, but it was too loud to hear any particular conversation.
After the event, the Herons came down to help us with clean up, and then we invited them to share some food with us.
Time just seems to speed up at this point in the year. The class has built a community, we have settled into routines, and we are ready to take on big challenges. Our theme (time travel to different places/times of world history) is rolling along, and the Robins are preparing what looks to be an ambitious and fun culminating event for next week. We are inviting the whole school, plus parents, so it will be busy.
There are many things that go into a successful theme. Some themes don't have big, involved culminating events. Sometimes, we share our learning with our bird buddies, or with each other. We always do some sort of reflection, usually both oral and written. But sometimes, a theme does end in a big event. The Robins have been working really hard to prepare for ours. We have had the help of some truly dedicated parent volunteers, and this helps us take the event to the next level (with costumes, cooking, painting, elaborate plans for a time machine, a program, etc). Thanks so much to Sarah D, Sarah M, Jenn, Christine, and Ali!
Today, we all got into costume, and into character, and practiced acting in the roles that we will take on for our event. This served several purposes: the students got to practice their own characters, they got to teach others and learn from their classmates. They got to pose questions and make connections. They got to put on their costumes (there is never enough dressing up to satisfy them). Here is a preview of what you will see on Thursday:
In other news:
Prairie Creek's ILEO (IBM Lego Education Outreach) teams did very well at the competition in Rochester last week. The Robins are proud of our ILEO participants!
We are studying probability in exploration math. Some students are working with Michelle on multiple-event probability and game design. Others are moving between Gabe and me to learn about probability through explorations with spinners, pulling tiles from a bag, coin drop, and dice.
We have also created and delivered invitations for special persons' day to our neighbors, and we've begun rehearsing for that big day, which is next Tuesday. We continue to read aloud from the terrific book Wonder. I began social skills lessons this week. We are looking ahead to projects. Most Robins have chosen a topic, and I have paired each fourth grader with a fifth grade mentor. We have begun opera preparations, and soon we'll be preparing for January conferences, too. Phew! No wonder things feel so busy!
Our time travel theme got off to an exciting start. Having chosen and planned our first theme without much student input, I knew I wanted to make this new theme one that the students had chosen and guided. One student suggested that we study time travel, and we all took that seed of an idea and connected it to history. We discussed traveling back in time to early America, to connect with our gourd theme, but the Robins agreed that they wanted to study world history, not U.S. history. Through a couple of brainstorming and discussion sessions, we settled on four time periods that the students were excited to study: the first Americans (which has been narrowed down to the Navajo in the 1500s), the Vikings, the Middle Ages, and World War II. Students selected the groups they wanted to join.
When planning and guiding themes, there are many trade-offs that a teacher must consider. A big one for me this time was the trade-off between student choice and keeping things manageable. I erred on the side of student choice this time, and therefore, things are trickier to manage. When there are four groups studying four very different topics, and when the groups were self-selected (not engineered by me to be balanced for the various abilities and skills that groups will need to be independent), things can get challenging. That's what has happened in this theme.
I created a planner for each group to use, and I gathered lots of books for each topic, which I organized into bins. Students set out with enthusiasm, but as they moved along in their work, many students started to experience frustration. They weren't sure what to do. They weren't sure how to make shared decisions. They felt stuck. Meanwhile, I was moving around as quickly as I could to try and help them, but I just wasn't getting to everyone who needed support. One group was feeling pretty good about its work, but the other three were struggling.
I called a class meeting just before Thanksgiving. I took responsibility for the failure of my planning tool to help the groups work independently. I used the opportunity to discuss some of the habits of mind that we were all striving to use (myself included): thinking interdependently, taking responsible risks, metacognition. I talked about how it's easy to feel defensive when you have worked hard at something and you see that you are still failing. I noted that this still happens to adults, and, in fact, an interaction I had had with one group revealed some defensiveness on my part (I apologized to that group). I saw this as a critical opportunity to step back and model what it can look like to be honest, take responsibility, and figure out where to go from here ("here" being a place of feeling stuck and frustrated).
The students took the opportunity to share what was challenging for them. A few could actually name their frustrations, but many just weren't enjoying the theme and were feeling stuck. They weren't sure what to do about it. We brainstormed some possibilities, which included abandoning this theme altogether and going in a different direction, combining into fewer groups, keeping the groups we have and choosing leaders to guide them, etc. I asked students to write down their preferences. When I reviewed their writing, I found that two students wanted to abandon the theme altogether, one wanted to combine into two groups, and the rest wanted to keep going. Those who wanted to keep going suggested that we assign group leaders and that I step in and provide more structure (they were willing to give up some of their freedom of choice in exchange for more structure and guidance).
So, we will persist. I will provide more structure for the three groups who requested it (and I'll continue to keep my eye on that fourth group to ensure they continue to feel successful). We have four parents who have volunteered to come in and work with us, and we will be very grateful for their help. We welcome more help, so if you can come in, or if you can do tasks at home, please let me know. We will share our learning with the school and parents on the afternoon of Thursday, December 15. We hope you can come in and travel back in time with us!