Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Boys & Learning: Build, Design, Create & Experiment

Above: Experimentation & play
In an article in 'The Atlantic' Jessica Lahey called on schools to 'stop penalizing boys for not being able to sit still at school'. The article was motivated by her observations of boys as a teacher and her reading of the findings of research on boys published by the International Boys’ Schools Coalition’s 'Teaching Boys: A global study of effective practices'. Her teaching of boys suggested that while some struggled at school, others thrived. What is the ingredient that leads to inconsistency? Is it simply within the boys, or are there factors external to the boys that are at work?
As a young boy I experienced first hand what it means to move from being a talented and successful boy in the primary school years, to being a struggling student who was often in trouble as a teenager. At secondary school I slipped from A classes to B classes and then found myself struggling with a number of subjects. However, my achievements varied across subject. While in some classes I was rebellious and disengaged, in others I was motivated and successful. This is not an uncommon experience for boys. Some teachers, subject and even specific lessons work for boys, while others don't. Why? Is the answer in the curriculum? The content? The child? Or something else?

The research work by Dr Michael Reichert and Dr Richard Hawley set out to find answers to questions such as these, and concluded that the problem wasn't just within the boys. They interviewed teachers and students and observed effective lessons in eighteen participating schools from North America, UK, South Africa and Australasia. They found that the most effective lessons for boys included a number of common elements:
  • They required students to be active learners (physical activities were a key)
  • The teacher embedded desired learning outcomes in the form of a game or fun activities
  • The lessons required individuals or groups of students to build, design, or create something that was judged competitively by classmates
  • They required students to present the outcome of their work to other students
  • They asked students to assume a role, declare and defend a position, or speak persuasively about something
  • The lessons held student attention by surprising them with some kind of novelty element
  • Lessons addressed something deep and personal in the boys’ lives; they engaged at a deeper personal level.
Getting a sense of scale!

Reichart and Hawley concluded that the learning problem wasn't due to the limitations of the boys, but rather the failure of lessons to actively engage them. What they found when they observed effective lessons in the eighteen participating schools from North America, UK, South Africa and Australasia, was that relatively simple changes in classroom pedagogy made a difference for boys.

The common features in successful lessons for boys were active learning, movement, teamwork, competition, consequential performance, risk taking, and surprise.  They concluded that successful lessons required teachers to engage and energize boys. They also found that boys were deeply relational and that the establishment of a positive relationship between teachers and boys is critical.

This last point is important. Over many years I have often asked students to name a great teacher and then to say why. The reasons given vary, and are typically idiosyncratic. But within each of the responses, invariably the student indicates that the teacher 'took an interest in them', 'understood them', 'saw some potential in them', 'got them interested in learning' and generally excited and engaged them. The general thrust of this work and its findings is that rather than simply blaming boys for their under performance, we need to seek different approaches in our classrooms to help to engage them as learners.

The excitement of chemistry

In my own life I can think of three teachers who made a difference to my life - Mr Campbell (Grade 4), Mr Blaze (Grade 7) and Mr Hoddle (Grade 11). My memories of them are rich but the methods they used to engage me were very simple (and in one case unconventional). All had a deep commitment to their teaching and empathy for their students. They wanted me to learn and saw potential within me that other teachers weren't able to see. Mr Campbell when confronted with a new aquarium in his classroom turned to me one day and said, "I'd like you to find out all that you can about tropic fish". He gave me a book and sent me off to find out about them and how to care for them. Several weeks later he asked me to present a mini-lesson to the class on tropical fish.  I was now the school expert on tropical fish!

My grade 6 maths teacher Mr Blaze (he was also my home room teacher, and cricket coach) overheard a student ridiculing me one day in class because I was overweight. He turned to the boy and said "I'll tell you what Meli, I bet TC will beat you in the cross-country race this week". He proceeded to set a wager, with the winner to receive $10 from his pocket. Now I had no intention prior to this of going in that race. But I did, and ended up $10 richer.

Mr Hoddle simply showed me that geography could be exciting by sharing his love of the subject and something of his life with a small group of senior students. He made it interesting by setting tasks that made us explore, solve problems and work collaboratively with others. And all the while he was interested in our lives and us.

The power of experience
None of these teachers used startling methods, and Mr Blaze used one that was positively dodgy, but all showed an ability to understand me and to try to reach and engage me. They also sought to understand me relationally, treating me with respect, believing in me and somehow, helping me to believe in myself. That's the art of good teaching for boys (and girls as well).

Boys and girls are different and as such at times require us to seek different approaches and forms of engagement. It is easy to dismiss boys who act out in classrooms as simply a pain in the neck for the teacher, but the acting out usually has some source and foundation. Just what is it, and how do we respond? The work of Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley offer us some clues and ways forward.

Jessica Lahey concludes her excellent article with these wise words:

"Educators should strive to teach all children, both girls and boys by acknowledging, rather than dismissing, their particular and distinctive educational needs."

My Previous Posts on Boys

I have written a number of posts on education for boys HERE

Monday, September 12, 2016

Quizzical & Querrelsome Quails: An Integrated Unit for Grades 2-4

Above: Father Quail with his 1 week old son
In this post, I talk a little about quail, introduce some kids' books that focus on them, and then offer a possible integrated unit outline.

1. First, a little about Quail

Readers of this blog may have read some of my posts on 'Key Themes' in children's literature before. As well, some will know that I like birds and you may have seen my post titled 'Birds in Children's Literature: 35 Great Books to Read'. This post shares a thematic unit of work that has a focus on a very particular type of the bird - the quail!

In the last few years I've been keeping some native Australian birds and have loved caring for them and watching them have young and rearing them. Some of my favourite birds are quail. As a young child I had the chance to keep some Australian native King Quail and experience the joy of seeing their eggs hatch to reveal young who from birth could feed, run and act with a degree of independence. The King Quail does well in captivity and breed rather easily and provide hours of interest for adults and children.

Above: Two chicks seek the protection of an aunt.

We always love it when animals take on almost human qualities and even quails do things at times that remind us of special human qualities (Anthropomorphism). Here are some of the characteristics I've observed:
  • They arrange themselves into family groups with typically one male and 2-3 females
  • They defend this nuclear family against outsiders, especially another male quail. Their presence will result in aggressive attacks from all the adults in the family group. 
  • The young are cared for by mother, father, aunts and even some of the older chicks.
  • The male defends the territory by making its beautiful call, puffing its wings out, and ruffling its feathers as it rushes towards you when you get close to the chicks.
  • Once the chicks grow to the adult stage they move on in the wild to form their own family groups. In captivity males need to be separated when nearing an adult stage, but daughters are less keen to leave.
  • Unlike human babies, the chicks are able to eat, drink and scavenge food within minutes of hatching. I watched one of my chicks just 4 days old steal a live meal worm from its father and swallow it whole (probably not so good for it as it was bigger than its head).
  • They can challenge their parents in the first days for their share of the food and like to scurry around in a playful way.
  • They also respond well to the human voice and eventually will take food from known handlers.
What I love most about King Quail is that they tend to rear chicks as a family group. Typically, owners keep one male and 2 to 3 females together. When one hen has chicks, all family members help to raise them. The father protects the young, all sit on them to keep them warm in cold weather and every adult male or female shares duties to protect and help them to find food.

It's hardly surprising that these cute birds would have had a number of children's books written about them, or with quail of one type or another as central characters. Your children might simply enjoy some of the books that follow or they could become part of an integrated unit for a class, or a home project for others. Here are some books that might be part of a unit of study. I follow this with a plan for a unit of work

2. Some Books on Quails

'The Hunter and the Quail', by Nazli Gellek

A hunter captures many birds each day until a wise quail teaches the flock how their cooperation will allow them to escape. By avoiding petty arguments, the wise ones outwit the hunter and live in peace.

'Quail Can't Decide', by Jacquelyn Reinach

This is one of the forty books in the Sweet Pickles series. These are all set in the fictional town of Sweet Pickles and are about anthropomorphic animals with different personalities and behavior. There are 26 animals—one for each letter of the alphabet. Quail has an interesting problem; she can't make up her mind how she will spend a dollar. What will she do?

'How the Quail Earned His Topknot', by Richard Oldenburg & illustrated by Elizabeth Lauder

A young quail loves running so much that he's never even tried to fly. All the other quail tease him and think he's strange. Tired of being made fun of, he decides to learn to fly as well. The quail enters a contest that requires him to run and fly, and he's set to race against a fast road runner bird. Will his running skills come in handy? Has he had enough practice flying so he can win the race? This cute story teaches children to value each other's differences. Richard Oldenburg has included science as an integral component in his teaching career. A graduate of California State University, Long Beach, he has been a teacher and administrator at all levels of education. A member of the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators, as well a graduate of the Institute of Children's Literature, he continues to write on animal themes. In his spare time Oldenburg concentrates on golf, fishing, and spending time with the grandchildren.

'The Quail, Robert', by  Margaret Stranger

This may well be the most popular quail book of all. It is a bestseller and acclaimed classic. It tells of a little bird who preferred human companionship to other quail.

GQ GQ. Where Are You?: Adventures of a Gambel’s Quail, by Sharon I. Ritt & illustrated by Nadia Komorova

'Where Are You? Adventures of a Gambel's Quail' " a lovely introduction for young readers to one of the desert's cutest critters. Her verse is simple, yet eloquent, and lots of fun to read. Artist Nadia Komorova's beautifully rendered illustrations add a dazzling splash of color that makes turning the page to see what comes next a true pleasure. I have a place reserved for this book in my library." (Conrad J. Storad)

'Quails : Amazing Pictures and Facts about Quails', by Breanne Sartori [Non-fiction]

Let's Learn About... Quails - Amazing Pictures and Facts about Quails. Have your children ever wondered EXACTLY what a quail is? There are so many awesome things to learn about quails. Where do they build their nests? Why do they live alone? In this book you'll find answers to these questions and many more in simple, fun language. Each fact is accompanied by incredible pictures to keep even the youngest child fascinated. In school our children aren't taught in a way that makes them curious and want to learn. I want to change that! This book will show your children just how interesting the world is and help excite a passion for learning. Your children will learn how to: Become curious about the world around them, find a motivation to learn, use their free time to discover more about the world - and have fun while doing so! And much more!

'The Quail Club', by Carolyn Marsden [For Older Readers, 10+]

"A compelling sequel to 'The Gold-threaded Dress' . . . . Marsden handles a perennial topic with poignancy and grace." (School Library Journal) 

Oy lives in America now, but she loves learning traditional Thai dances almost as much as being in the Quail Club - five friends who meet after school to hatch and care for baby quail. When their teacher announces a talent show, Oy knows how proud her family would be to see her step onstage in her gold-threaded dress from Thailand. But bossy Liliandra vows to kick Oy out of the club if she won't team up for a very different kind of dance. In this finely crafted novel, Carolyn Marsden explores what it takes to be a true friend and still be true to yourself.

3. What might an integrated unit on quails look like?

Here is a sample unit that children in grades Two to Four would enjoy.

a) Introduction & Observation

There are varied ways you could begin the unit. This includes:

Read one of the books above and discuss and perhaps simply enjoy and discuss it the first time. After this perhaps reconsider it and see what it teaches us about quails, including their habits, characteristics, food, family patterns, enemies, food and so on.

Or, have a friend or contact (perhaps even a local pet shop) bring in a quail (or two) to show the class. This would need to be done carefully and probably with quail used to human handling as they are generally shy creatures. Alternatively, you could show them a video of a group of quail either wild or in captivity. The class could observe them and discuss what they saw. How did they move? What were some of their habits? What was their food? Were there differences between male and females?

b) Learning about their habitat & life

Using varied resources (books, film, observation, talk by a handler etc) consider the habitat of the quail, food, shelter, nesting habits, reproduction, food.

c) Response

There are many ways that students could respond to their reading, viewing or direct observations. This could include:
  • Draw a quail and label its physical characteristics.
  • Have your students create a picture story board of their observations of quail.
  • Attempt some creative writing about quail (e.g. a simple haiku poem, a simple graphic novel or wordless picture book).
  • Offer a series of photographs of quail and ask your students to add a caption to each one.
  • Perhaps several students could do some further research on one aspect of the life of quail