Making the Holidays a Learning Platform

Exchanging Christmas cards with students around the world – and connecting through Skype

Exchanging Christmas cards with students around the world – and connecting through Skype

There are so many things going on during the holidays that is hard for everyone at school -including teachers- to stay focused. So much of time is devoted to the preparation of the diverse events to take place during the holidays, that sometimes it feels like curriculum has taken a back-row seat. But still, for us, December means our second trimester tests. And for kids in high school, end of semester evaluations.

We teachers are usually perfectionists. We strive to make the very best of everything. We want kids to ace their midterms but also shine on the Christmas recital. If kids are already distracted by the holidays– as we all are- we should take advantage of that interest, instead of trying to work against it (believe me, no teacher is more powerful than Santa). How can we make these holiday events a powerful learning platform? Here are some tips.

Holiday Global Citizens

I teach social studies in a medium-size city in México, where more than 90% of the population is Catholic. There is also a growing number of non-Catholic Christians. Our community lacks diversity in many ways, but maybe faith is the place where we are most alike. I don’t think that, in the almost two decades since our school was founded, we have had a single student that does not celebrate Christmas. Specially for the little ones, it is easy to believe that the whole world is just like us – they have never seen different.

If we pair kids’ endless curiosity with their heightened holiday awareness, we can interest them in the many different ways people live their very own celebrations. The holidays can be a festive soup of cultures. Aside from reading and watching videos about other countries’ traditions, we like to engage in Skype conversations with classrooms from across the globe. Kids learn important lessons on diversity and respect. Even among the countries that share Christmas with us, there is still much to learn and teach. The Mexican tradition of “Pedir Posada” (“Ask for shelter”) for example, has been a hit with kids across the planet.

Giving time

If we listen to the media, it seems like the Holidays are all about the parties and the presents: the ones you give, the ones you get. Yet some high order thinking questions can help our students to reflect and keep learning. Let’s take the SDG (UN Sustainable Development Goals) in mind:

  • What kind of presents are really useful – and gentle to the planet? (SDG #12: Responsible production and consumption)
  • Much waste is created just for gift packaging. How could we be responsible with the Earth and still make our presents look pretty? (SDG #12: Responsible production and consumption)
  • Many families get together to feast over the Holidays -yet, in the world, many more are starving. Is there anything our families and communities could do to ease other’s suffering? (SDG #1: End of poverty, and #2: Zero Hunger)
  • If your family gets together for the holidays, who does most of the cooking and cleaning? Why? Is there a better way to distribute the work? How? What can you do about this? (SDG #5: Gender equality)

Every experience is a learning experience.

Our kids present an open Violin Christmas Concert every year at our local shopping mall -it’s one of our school’s highlights, and it is a big deal. Students prepare for months, and the last weeks before the big day are usually hectic. I love that we put so much into arts and music, but students get so much more beyond learning to play Christmas carols. They learn to collaborate. If you want to produce beautiful, inspiring music, it is not enough to be a good musician yourself. You must work with others to ensure that your voice -or your instrument’s voice- is in harmony with the rest. One single off-key violin can throw off the whole performance. The same could be said of theatre and dance: we must come together to make magic.

Coming together: Isn’t that the whole spirit of the Holidays?

 

As part of CM Rubin’s World Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my contribution for this month’s prompt: What are your best tips for using a holiday event as a learning platform?

Is there a problem?

Everybody hates to be tested – especially in public.

But almost anyone loves to solve a problem. That is why some of us spend so much time over the Sunday crossword puzzle (or the game of choice on your tablet). But when the problems we tackle are relevant, when the solutions we reach actually improve our life or somebody else’s, then the feeling of accomplishment is tenfold.

Schools were first designed as places where learning “for tomorrow” would happen. Tests were needed to make sure that the students had really acquired the knowledge that was being transferred into them. Once teachers could acknowledge, via the evidence of the written test, that students could at least reproduce on paper the concepts that had been drilled on their brains, their work was done.

It didn’t really mattered if just a couple of days later all those “learnings” had been utterly forgotten or disregarded.

In life, we learn by doing. We find out what works and what doesn’t. We need knowledge, of course, but we know that data must be used to be valuable. Unused knowledge is like unspoken words: they might be there but they need to get out to do their work.

If you want to play the violin, it is useful to get a hold on concepts and techniques – but unless you put your hands to the instrument, you will never produce music.

Problem (or project) based learning is much more like learning to play an instrument, only that it contemplates you as a part of an orchestra from the very beginning. You need to do your part but you must also work with others to create magic.

PBL takes its time, and, because it’s centered in the students and their interests, it can many times move away from the curriculum we are required to teach – which is not necessarily a bad thing.  PBL requires careful planning and lots of flexibility.

Recently, at our school, Colegio Valle de Filadelfia in Aguascalientes, México, we began to teach our students about the SDGs – the UN Sustainable Development Goals. When talking about goal #12, “Responsible consumption and production”, we challenged 7thto 9thgrade students to think about the things they use and consume every day and how they could be improved in a way that benefits the planet.  Students worked in groups to identify possible problematic products and to brainstorm for solutions.

Our team at the National Science and Technology week

One group looked closely at something each one of them used everyday, most of the day: a pencil.  They wondered how many trees were cut to produce the pencils they were using (about 82,000 a year, in the US alone). They wondered, could there be a better way? After trial and error, they came up with a pencil made with crushed, fallen tree leaves and other natural components. They submitted their project to a science contest and eventually the team was invited by the government of our state to present their idea at the National Science and Technology week. They spent five days presenting to authorities and visitors alike. Previously, one of the team members, a seventh grader called Natalia, spoke about their project in a TEDx talk – which of course was a new challenge on its own, one that required honing of other set of knowledge and skills, such as writing (for her script) and public speaking.

Our students had a stand where they presented their project to visitors

Not every day is a PBL day, but many are, in some way or another.

Here are the things you should keep in mind when working global project based learning in your classroom or school

  1. Kids should be part of identifying the problem – that way it will be relevant for them and will not feel like a script they must follow. Give the students some context, of course. When we asked our kids to identify things in everyday use that could be improved to benefit the planet, we gave them a very specific context from where to start. We did not just tell them, “Think about any problem you might want to solve”.
  2. Students should work in groups. PBL is mostly a collaborative model – being able to pick from many brains makes it much more engaging and productive. And of course, kids develop social skills as well.
  3. There should always be an outcome –even if it is just an idea that still needs to be implemented. It is OK if the problem is not entirely solved, but we should feel one step closer to finding solutions. Sometimes, just creating awareness about an issue is an improvement.

PBL is an opportunity to use knowledge and skills and put them in action towards a goal. Note that the key word here is “opportunity”, as opposed to obligation. PBL is not a test. It might very well be used to qualitatively evaluate how kids apply and create knowledge, but it is, above all, a new and engaging learning experience.

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: What does a high quality, global PBL program look like in your classroom?

Taking Climate Change Seriously in our Schools

I am one among the couple thousands of teachers sitting in awe as former US Vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore is passionately talking about climate change. We are at the Global Education & Skills Forum (GESF), just last week in Dubai. The theme of the conference is: How are we educating our children and young for 2030?

During the sessions, and lingering in the many hallway conversations, two themes keep standing out among the many issues facing education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One is technology. The other, climate change.

Will the world in 2030 be a better place for young people? This is the hot question at the GESF debate chamber just one day before Al Gore’s appearance. The main concern seems to be whether robots will eat up our jobs… and whether we will still have a planet to live on.

Is there a way to embrace technology to its greatest advantages, and still turn our eyes towards nature, environment and life? How do we make sure we do not deplete our resources before it is too late? These questions belong not only in political arenas or international summits: they must find their way to our classrooms. Here are some ideas on how to make it happen.

  1. Instill inspiration, not fear. One thing I learned from Al Gore is that, while the situation on climate change is serious, there are plenty of opportunities to take action and make a difference. Yes, it is crucial that our children get to know the facts – but only to understand the importance of intervention. Fear creates paralysis. Inspiration provokes change.
  2. Make climate change part of your curriculum. Otherwise it will not just pop in there. We incorporated the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals so they no longer are “special activities”, but a core part of our program. We even created our own textbooks, -just published- on Language and Communication, in which the SDGs –along with climate change- make a prominent appearance. You can always lean in great work already out there. In our case, we took Harvard Professor Fernando Reimers’ book on global citizenship “Empowering students to improve the world in 60 lessons” as a starting point.
  3. Take part in international projects. When kids find out there are many other classrooms and schools working towards the same goals, they will feel compelled to do their part – and gain a sense of belonging at the same time. Two great projects to consider are Koen Timmers’ Climate Action Project, and Aggeliki Pappa’s #SOS4LoveProject. Of course, you can also create your own!
  4. Make it personal, make it real. In other words, practice what you preach. Get your school – or at least your classroom!- to recycle. Explore the many things both adults and children can do (we like the resources from the American Museum of Natural History)
  5. Speak out. Change will only happen if we succeed in bringing along as many people as possible. Children can become the best climate change advocates: after all, they will be the ones inheriting the planet. Our school is preparing a TEDx event where our students will share many ideas about pressing issues – climate change being one of them. Students will get to develop public speaking skills – while defending the earth.

The best way to celebrate Earth Day on April 22nd is to know that we are already doing our share in nurturing the planet – inside and outside our schools.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: Taking Climate Change Seriously in our Schools.  What are your best Tips for Teaching About Climate Change in Your Classroom?