23 April 2012

Learning about Biomes

One of the interesting parts of moving to a new grade level, is getting to know the new curriculum requirements. This year, I've had some fun, developing material to help my students learn about various topics. We've just finished a unit on Biomes. Now when I first heard that we were to study "biomes", I'll admit that I didn't really know what a biome was. I think I know a bit more now, and hopefully my students know a lot more.

Rather than try and direct teach a topic that I wasn't really familiar with, I decided to set up some project-based learning, using a variety of multiple intelligence tasks, where each small group of students would study one biome in depth, and then at the end of the unit they would teach the rest of the class about their biome.

Generally the students were enthusiastic, although they weren't all thrilled about the groups I'd put them in. Sometimes I let students choose their own groups, but for this project I assigned the groups. They then had to choose 8 tasks to complete out of 27, one from each group. They also had 8 key questions that they needed to answer. Finally they had to present their biome to the rest of the class.

Some groups did really well, and one group actually completed 10 tasks. Other groups didn't do so well, and their progress (or lack thereof) taught me a valuable lesson. When you are managing small groups it is really important to factor in regular briefings with each group.

On Friday, it was presentation day, and after 3 days of planning, preparing, and practising it was all systems go. Ooops, didn't get the computer and projector working together properly before I started. Should know better than that! Never mind, we eventually solved that problem. Oh no, now the electricity is out! Life's like that, we'd better keep going as best we can. Hooray, recess time. Let's have a break and play Math games after recess until the power comes back on. Fun, and good practise of our division strategies too. Power's on! Let's get these presentations finished in time for swimming. Way to go, Grade 4.

Yes, they all did a good job. Some did better than others, but that's to be expected. Overall, the class showed that they had learned a lot about biomes, and also reminded us of some of the things we need to do to care for our environment.

The teacher learned some valuable lessons too. The main lessons were about managing group work better, and about planning project based learning so that all students cover all the essential points. Will I do it again next year? Yes, but with a major rewrite of the activities, and also a little more direct teaching at the start of the unit.

The ultimate question remains. Did the children learn? Yes! They learned content, and they also learned about working together. Several students also discovered that the presentations weren't that hard when they were prepared and practiced, and I know they will be more confident next time they need to do a presentation.

And now it's time for our next adventure in learning together! Inventions and Inventors. This is going to be lots of fun.

18 April 2012

Creative writing in 4th grade

Creative writing is something that I find challenging to teach, and even more challenging to grade, but I discovered something this year that has really worked with my students.

Most Friday mornings, we have a 40 minute time slot allocated to Journal Writing. At the start of the year, I use some questions to get the children thinking about their learning, and what's going well, and what's not, and have them write about that. I do that for a few weeks, using different questions each week, and then I change the approach. I start giving the children a creative response starter, or topic, and ask them to write me a story based on that topic. At the start of the year, many of the children struggle to write a single paragraph. Now, towards the end of the year, I have children writing three and four page stories!

The Friday before our Khmer New Year holidays I asked the children to imagine the weirdest animal they could and write a description of it. I gave some hints in the form of questions like:
  • What does it look like?
  • Where does it live?
  • What does it eat?
  • What does it do?
Then I left them to write. Once they finished writing, they were allowed to draw a picture of their imaginary animal.

This evening, in an effort to avoid the funeral outside my house for as long as possible, and since my computer had to install some updates before it would shut down, I settled down to read their descriptions. It was so much fun! What I found particularly interesting was seeing how a number of the children incorporated features of animals from the biome they are currently studying in science into their imaginary animal. Some of my students have amazing imaginations, and they are learning to use a variety of words to make their writing interesting for the reader.

I do keep a grade on the writing, but it's a fairly simple process, with four headings, each of which receives a grade on a scale of 1 to 4. I look at the ideas they present, I look at the effort they have put in, I look at the mechanics (grammar/spelling/punctuation/etc.), and I look at presentation (neat hand-writing as well as illustrations).

Thanks Grade 4K for a pleasant hour of reading.

Where do I get my topics? There are a wealth of books out there with writing prompts, but this week I'm going to try a different approach. I've got a heap of old calendar pictures (mostly photographic ones from Australia), and I'm going to give each child their own picture and ask them to describe what they see, and then write a story based on what they see in the picture. It will be interesting to see how this goes. I hope they will enjoy it.

08 April 2012

Dawn Comes Early by Margaret Brownley

Dawn Comes Early by Margaret Brownley.

This book is the first book in The Brides of Last Chance Ranch series, and I’m already looking forward to reading the next one when it comes out in January 2013.

Kate Tenney, a dime novelist whose most recent book was banned by The Watch and Ward Society in Boston, decides that a total change of scene is necessary. Answering an advertisement by Eleanor Walker, a divorced, widowed ranch owner, Kate heads into the desert of the Arizona Territory. With just four months to prove she can become a dedicated ranch owner, Kate is thrown into a life of physical labour beyond her wildest dream. Will Kate last the distance? Will she be able to sign the contract that requires her to promise never to marry? Or will the local smithy Luke Adams capture her heart? And just who is Cactus Joe?

This well written novel kept me turning the pages until I finished that last one. The characters were well developed and realistic. The plot had a depth which showed a thorough understanding of life in the late 19th Century, and has enough twists and turns to keep the reader engrossed. If you are looking for a book with deep spiritual insights and challenges, then this book is not for you, but if you enjoy seeing God working in everyday life, and quietly changing the lives of those involved, then you will enjoy it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com <http://BookSneeze.com> book review bloggers program.

06 April 2012

Good Friday with a difference

Today has definitely been a good Friday, but certainly not what I remember Good Friday being before I came to Cambodia.

For most of my life in Australia, Good Friday was a day when we took time to remember Jesus' sacrifice for us when He died on the cross. It was a Public Holiday, and there was always a church service (usually somewhat earlier than the usual Sunday service). There was a definite focus on the crucifixion, and usually a communion service. After that it was a quiet day, with no school or work.

My first Easter in Cambodia it came as a shock to realise that I would actually be teaching on Good Friday, and Easter Monday, and there would be no special service, at least not that I recall (and certainly not that I could attend). It actually turned out that I was on staff devotions that morning, and so I was able to take 20 minutes or so at the start of the day, with my colleagues, to think about Christ's death, and to share communion. Afterwards some of my colleagues thanked me for it, mentioning that they too were missing Good Friday services. I haven't been able to do that since.

This year Good Friday ended up being the last day of school before our Khmer New Year holidays, so there was definitely little time for contemplation. I'll do a little more of that soon, before I head to bed. Instead, we started the day with Khmer New Year games. I wrote about these here last year. It was a very noisy, very active, fun hour and a half to start the day off. We divided all the children from Kindergarten to 5th grade into 10 teams (about 16-20 students from all different classes in each group), and then rotated through five games. The games were all ones the children really enjoyed, so it was a great morning.

After Khmer New Year games were over and we had all wished each other Soursdey Chnam Thmei (Happy Khmer New Year), we headed back to our classrooms. We had about 45 minutes before grades 3 to 5 were due to go to recess, so just enough time for a quick GO Check, and today's Write Rights. Most of the children did very well on their GO Check, although a few had forgotten one of the last division strategies we learned.

After recess it was time for Journal Writing. I've been increasingly impressed by the creative writing of some of my students so I'm looking forward to reading today's efforts. This time they were asked the imagine the weirdest creature that could, and then to write a description of it, including what it looks like, what it eats, where it lives, etc.  It should make for some fun reading. I also asked them each to choose their favourite piece of writing to share with the principal for our WASC self-study.

After that we finished off our mathematics unit for the week, and then it was off to swimming (for the girls) and Khmer (for the boys). Finally, after lunch, we did the big box and folder clean out, and took some time to check that I had all the necessary bits of Biome's tasks. The clean out and tidy up part went well. The Biome's tasks? Alas, I learned a lesson. I need to check with individual groups much earlier in the process. I had done some checking and had been monitoring materials etc, but while 6 groups had completed (or almost completed) their 8 tasks, but the other 2 groups have quite a bit still to do. I sent them off to finish them over the holidays. We will see! Meanwhile I've got some photographing and scanning to do so we can make PowerPoint presentations that allow the whole class to see the content of posters and models. I'm so glad I've got two extra days of "holidays".

Finally the day was done and the children all sent on their way to holidays. I picked up some photocopying I'd requested (so impressed to have it back before the holidays), and then headed home to pay the rent. That ended up taking much longer than I should, for reasons I won't share here, but suffice to say they involved a 4 year old and were messy. Next it was off to the post office where, just in time for holiday reading, I picked up my latest BookSneeze book, Dawn Comes Early by Margaret Brownley. It is historical fiction set on a cattle ranch in the Arizona Territory in 1895. I'm looking forward to it. Hope it's good.

From there I headed north in the peak hour traffic in search of the Hotel Juliana where an acquaintance of my mother was waiting, with her husband, to join me for dinner. It was a fun evening, even though I didn't know these people before, and it was interesting to hear their impressions of Cambodia.

So now, it's time for a shower (got to wash that chlorine off and out properly), some quiet reading and reflection on the real reason for Good Friday, and hopefully a peaceful night's sleep. Hooray! I get to sleep in tomorrow.

05 April 2012

Connecting with kids' families

Back in October 2011, I wrote a post about our first round of Parent-Teacher conferences for this school year. This afternoon we finished off the second round. Of my 20 students, 17 had someone attend the conferences. Sometimes the mother came, sometimes, the father came, sometimes both parents came, and sometimes an aunt or uncle came. Once again, it was a pleasure to be able to meet these people, and to hear about their dreams for their children, as well as the things that challenge them.

I think one of the reasons we get such a good response is that the parents truly care about what their child is learning, and I think the other reason is because we simply allocate appointment times over two days (from 2.30pm to 5.15pm) and tell the parents when their appointment is. The alternative is for parents to sign up through a central booking point, and that can be a nightmare for those who have to handle that process, especially if someone cannot get the time that they wanted. Occasionally we have parents turn up late or at the wrong time, but generally it works really well.

This time the children had written about their goals for the remaining months of 4th grade, things they had learned that they were excited about, and things that they were proud of. It is so great to share the children's thoughts with their parents.

It is also a good thing to be able to talk with the parents about the strengths I see in the children, and some things that I would like us to work on together, so the children can learn even better. It was also an opportunity to raise the usual "homework" issues! Yep, there's got to be one or two in the class that struggle to do their homework appropriately. It was so good get some parental support on this.

Once I used to fear Parent-Teacher conferences. Now I really enjoy them. Now it's time I headed off to finish off the report on the conferences for the principal! Oh, and no, we had no floods this time, just a power outage for last hour or so.