Thursday, June 30, 2011

To Each its Own: Targeting My Professional Development Workshops

In the last couple months I've had whole bunches of fun presenting professional development workshops in a variety of settings, to a variety of people.  Let's see...math teachers from all over the U.S., PE teachers from across Indiana, classroom teachers from Indianapolis, fellow Teaching Artists from a variety of disciplines, and arts education administrators from Young Audiences affiliates from around the country. 

Each session bore the title 'Math in Your Feet' and was a combination of big picture information and hands-on experience, but that is where the similarity ended and my job got really interesting!

For the classroom teachers I started by focusing on the challenges of using movement in a classroom setting.  As they started to move and experiment with foot-based percussive patterns they became more comfortable and sure in their own movement.  This approach usually leads to a greater willingness to embrace, sometimes for the first time, the possibility of leading their own students in movement-based learning.  To some extent I am also encouraging them to have fun with math, many for the first time.  I consider the 'doing and making' of percussive dance patterns in this program the same as the 'doing and making' of math so, in every teacher workshop I do, I walk them step by step through the intersection where math and dance meet.  We're so used to focusing on the symbolic, static realm of mathematics that we don't always recognize when we see math happening in front of our eyes.  It helps to have a guide.

For the self-identified math teachers at the NCTM annual meeting I also started with a message of 'anyone can lead movement in the classroom and here are some tools' but then quickly moved toward 'here is an opportunity for your students to represent their math understanding in a new way within the kinesthetic realm'.  I also drew their attention to the fact that the processes of solving a problem in both math and dance (choreography) are often similar -- question, understand what tools it might take to answer the question, experiment with ideas, use your resources, find an answer that seems to work, evaluate and then ask more questions. 

The group of 80 or so PE teachers was a new one for me simply because there was not one bit of trepidation or reluctance to get up and move!  Not all of them were comfortable with the idea of dance, at least initially, but they were definitely game.  I was only with them for about an hour, and I couldn't go very deep, so I stuck with active modeling of the bridge between my particular brand of movement with an academic content area.  If I had had more time with them, I would have focused on the  process for moving the dance to the page -- speaking the words that describe aspects of our movement as we move, writing those words down, turning these words into symbols, and graphing foot positions on a coordinate grid.  I did the point that Math in Your Feet can be a collaboration between classroom and specials teachers, just like it is when I lead my residency.  The concrete movement and math activities can be done in PE or music class which then build the bridge to the formal, written, symbolic realm of math back in the regular classroom.

At their conference the arts education administrators were focusing on how to add the A in arts to STEM topics (STEM to STEAM).  I gave a general overview of the program and laid out my process for building the program and integrating the dance with the math.  The most important issue for me is that when you are thinking about integrating any art form with another content area you really need to be honest with yourself and ask 'is it a good fit?'  If the answer is no then it is not worth forcing the issue.  If you think 'maybe' then do a little more work to explore the connections.  In the end, though, the connections need to be more than skin deep.  Just because we count our beats in this program doesn't mean I consider that a good example of what math and dance have in common.  I also gave a similar account of how I combined math and dance to my fellow Teaching Artists.

My favorite moments while teaching teachers are when they ask me questions that show me they are imagining how they will do this work with their own students.  It's similar to house hunting, I suppose.  The minute you start imagining where you're going to put your furniture the realtor knows you might really be serious!  I love hearing all the different ways engaged and caring education professionals imagine tailoring my ideas for their own particular learning environments. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Crayola Doesn't Have A Color for Your Eyes

I love this song and this video and I've been wanting to share this for a long time.  I remembered again for the 100th time this morning -- here it is!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

So Many Levels, So Little Time

I've been asked to do an interview about Math in Your Feet for what seems to me to be a big deal blog.  I'm excited!  But in the planning of it, the writer asked to see my program in action.  Not having any video to share at the moment (I know, I know...I'm working on it!) he suggested rounding up some kids and video taping me working with them as a supplement to the written post.  Here's my response:
"With a few kids you would get to see what the dance looks like, but it would be important to keep in mind some other things that can't be observed unless it's a larger group.  This program is multi-layered in its approach to learning, working on social/emotional challenges (collaborating with a partner, independent learning and creating, no one 'right' answer), physical challenges (coordination and beat competency), intellectual challenges (pattern recognition, permutations, combinations, transformations), etc.  The program is also sequential, and the math and dance build on each other as the program progresses; the real mathematical thinking is not as obvious in the beginning stages when the kids are still learning how to create their Jump Patterns.  So, we might need to talk more about the different layers of math within the program after watching the basics."
It's so worth it to go deep, but these days, it's easy for schools to say, "That's nice, but we don't have time for that." or, "We'll let them have some fun, but then it's time to go back to math class." 

I say, if you can go this deep and cover so much ground in just five days (although you know I'd love more time with the kiddos) why not jump in with both feet and a smile? 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Learning Environments: Video Games vs. Making Stuff

It is with very mixed feelings that I have been reading about efforts to create learning environments within the context of video games.  I'm not against using video games as educational tools, necessarily, but I still have this thought in the back of my head:

Why do we need to give kids more screen time then they already have when there are so many more fabulous things they could be doing, like making stuff?

Keith Devlin gave a really worthwhile presentation at the NCTM annual meeting in Indy back in April about the potential of video games in mathematics education and has a new book out on the subject.  He's all for it because gaming is a lifestyle for many kids already -- why not meet kids where they're at with what already motivates them?   His argument (as expressed here) is that well-designed video games "can help develop mathematical thinking, but they are a lot more difficult to design than a simple skills-tester." 

Essentially this means game developers need to think well beyond the basic number skills, factual recall, and symbolic systems that most people think of as 'math' and instead create a game context that engages kids in mathematical thinking and problem solving.  Developing a game like this, Keith says, is unfortunately a huge task with little return on investment and so, until someone comes up with the money, we are relegated to a host of math-fact recall games like this one

So, kids like video games, that much is clear.  But, well designed or not, how much more screen time does a kid need??  I read somewhere that many/most kids spend as much time gaming as they do in school (that may have been from Keith Devlin's NCTM talk, actually). My biggest concern, given my commitment to getting kids away from their desks and physically engaged in a thinking/solving/creating process, is that the 'We' with a capital W continue to ignore evidence (and more evidence and a really good argument presenting evidence) that not only do kids need to move more but that...

...real, true comprehension of subject matter and thinking is something that happens in concert between the learner's body, brain, mind, heart and soul.

I recently found something that speaks to all these parts of us called the Tinkering School:

"The Tinkering School offers an exploratory curriculum designed to help kids – ages 8 to 17 – learn how to build things. By providing a collaborative environment in which to explore basic and advanced building techniques and principles, we strive to create a school where we all learn by fooling around. All activities are hands-on, supervised, and at least partly improvisational. Grand schemes, wild ideas, crazy notions, and intuitive leaps of imagination are, of course, encouraged and fertilized."

Gever Tully, who started the Tinkering School, has just described my ideal learning environment for all kids!  A guide, some materials, a few questions, a lot of play, some answers, and then more questions.  So I was thrilled to find his post which approached the issue of video games from my perspective -- as someone who makes things and thinks all kids can benefit from such activity.  Here's what he wrote:
Video games and kids – it’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, I was inspired by games on the Apple II to learn how to program, arguably a seminal period in my life, on the other hand games can clearly seduce the distractible child away from even their own projects. However, I occasionally find these moments where games inspire us to actions we might not otherwise take. Jane McGonigal makes the point that in games we can do the things and be the people we imagine ourselves to be. It seems true, to some extent, but I wonder if habitually playing games slowly changes our definition of success to match the accomplishments programmed into the games (and I appreciate Jane’s work mapping game mechanics onto real life to combat this).  The moment in question today came from Erik’s blog today. His blog offers a plethora of details about everything from zero-carbon houses to Sudbury schools, but I was charmed by this recent entry where he says:
Minecraft and the Tinkering School (it’s a camp) have me inspired to use power tools and knives more with the kids.
Consider that for a moment. The experience of constructing a virtual world inspired him to introduce his children to real tools. Perhaps Jane is right.
In the end, I have no answers and no final opinion, just the hope that we can all maintain perspective about the rush to use video games in education just because kids 'like' to play them.  For now, at least, kids still have bodies that need to move and are well worth harnessing in the pursuit of learning.  We also need to find many more opportunities to help kids be in charge of their own learning.  Certainly, one feels in charge in a gaming environment but, as Gever says, success comes within the confines of the programmed game structure.  Real life is much more open ended and complicated and for these reasons there's nothing more empowering than mastering the unpredictability of life by learning to make your own stuff.


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