Breathing Life into History

Walking in downtown Charlottetown is like being part of those Murder Mystery board game where everyone dresses up and assumes a role.  Actors dressed in period costumes assume the roles of the a Fathers of Confederation and Victorian women and wander around The Province House area where the notion of a Canadian Dominion was conceived in 1864.  The Historic Queen Square walking tour was well worth the $5.00 and the young actress playing the daughter of George Coles, the 1st Premier of P.E.I., gave a good sense of the politics of the day.  She also took us into the Confederation House Art Gallery to see the historic 1765 map of P.E.I. on loan from England.

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The surveyor-general of North America at the time,  Samuel Holland, made the map from his base camp at Observation Cove and a boat travelling around the island which matches the satellite images today.  So very difficult to fathom.

I also loved the follow up film in the Confederation a House.  The dramatization credits the inspiration and vision of Sir John A. Macdonald in Upper Canada and Sir Etienne Cartier in Lower Canada  in being able to broker a deal for a unified Canada in what started as a conversation about a union of Maritime provinces.  It also acknowledges the problematic absence of the voice of Aboriginal people and woman.  Overall a great model of how we can tell the stories of our past in a way which fuels the imagination.  Last year we celebrated Sir John A Macdonald’s 150th birthday at our school.  This year I have several ideas bubbling!

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Lit Circles Meet iPad Revisited

My grade 3/4 students were given a new assignment posted on Showbie.  I love being able to post the text and then add the voice note.  The assignment was inspired by the article “Literature Circles Go Digital” by Karen Bromley , and her several grad students at Binghamton University in New York, ” in the November 2014 edition of The Reading Teacher (Vol.68 Issue 3).

I’ve have usually framed four roles for Literature Circles: Discussion Director to encourage global understanding of the text; Word Wizard to focus the reader on vocabulary; Friend of a Character to encourage a focus on characterization in the novel; and Connector to activate background knowledge and relate to the text. Each reader would prepare for one role for the literature circle. The next time, he/she prepared a different roles until all roles have been experienced.

Karen Bromley et al, offered a greater range of roles to their students:  Discussion Director (3 thinking questions); Illustrator (picture, diagram or graphic organizer with at least 5 words as labels to show something that happened); Investigator (Find information about the story, setting, author, illustrator or something important); Literary Luminary (funny, favorite, powerful, or special parts to read aloud); Mapmaker (create an action map or diagram that shows plot or describes setting); Connector (connections between the book and the outside world); Vocabulary Enricher (find interesting or unfamiliar words and find the meanings in a dictionary); and Summarizer (Write a paragraph or make a list that is a brief summary or overview of the main ideas and events in the story).

Leila Khodarahmi, my teaching partner (Wednesday to Friday) has worked extensively with our Grade 3/4 students using R5 strategies to respond to text.  I have worked with students (Monday, Tuesday) on developing their ability to express themselves in the writing process.  My expectation was that with the motivation of the technology, they would be excited about generating a response that was thoughtful and perhaps even “better” than what I would generally receive in a typical response log.  My goal was to prepare students for small group discussion by completing tasks to deepen their comprehension.   The technology allowed them to quickly generate a response that took a small piece of the text and generate a response, that may or may not have involved critical thinking skills.  For example,

Response 1:  Literary Luminator

Text is cut and pasted into BookCreator.  The student reads the text aloud and downloads pictures.  Their is no rationale for why the piece was selected  or why it is important to the global understanding of the text.

Response 2:  Illustrator

The student draws a picture on Draw and Tell.  The audio is used to briefly describe the picture.

Response 3:  Discussion Director

The student uses WORD to write three questions about the text.

Response 4:  Connector

There is one phrase written on BookCreator loosely referencing a personal connection with the book.

Response 5:  Vocabulary Enricher

Several unfamiliar words are listed with dictionary definitions and downloaded pictures.

During the literature circles, the responses on the iPad were presented to the group and students were impressed with the features of the technology but the responses did not generate discussion.  The response was generally “easy, peasy, done”.   I prompted students to share their thinking and make connections to the text.  It wasn’t clear whether all of the students had read all of the text or understood it.

My intention was to utilize technology to achieve a greater amount of engagement in the task which I hoped would result in a higher level of critical thinking and understanding of the text.  This was not the case.  Students took the path of least resistance to do the minimal amount of work to fulfill the assignment.  They reported they liked doing responses this way because “It was really easy” and “It was SO fast.”  It did not reflect an understanding of the text or an engagement in the task.  They were proud of their responses because the technology included audio or pictures that they could use the technology to get the work done and they thought were pretty impressive.  The focus was using the technology rather than understanding the text.

Dr. Ruben Puentedura and Dr. James Paul Gee have both given me a good starting point for reflection.  I have heard Dr. Puentedura speak on the SAMR model twice.  Although the academic description was interesting, it was having Dr. Puentedura working through the possibilities of applying the SAMR ladder to a series of lessons that I had completed, that was most thought provoking.  Essentially I had not redesigned the literature circles with the technology in mind.  Although students were familiar with the APPS and with responding to text, their focus was on completing the assignment.  I had simply substituted written response with APPS.

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Dr. James Paul Gee has done a lot of writing and presenting about creating smarter students through digital literacy.  Gee discusses the importance of “talk, text, and knowledge (TTK) mentoring” required to use digital tools effectively.   Obviously I need to provide more scaffolding for students to learn about creating meaning in the digital world.  The question is how?

What are the applications that will require my students to use technology to create meaning in complex and thoughtful ways?

What will allow them to create connections with others to help them in finding the answers to their questions or ask new questions?

Are my expectations of digital technology based on the best responses that I was able to cox out of my most responsive students during Lit Circle?

The process of learning continues…

Canada Reads The Orenda

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden was a perfect pick for the 2014 Canada Reads selection.   It appeals to me both as a reader and a history major. It brings a greater depth to the inter-relationship between the Huron, the Iroquois, the French explorers/traders, and the Jesuit missionaries during the 17th century. You come face to face with people of engaged in power dynamics. The characterization is so strong, that you are able to identify with individuals trying to live their lives with their conception of integrity, cope with their demons or sometimes with the belief that the end justifies the means. I was able to empathize or gain a better understanding of people who have been characterized as good or evil, depending on the historical representation you choose to adopt. Stunning examples of helplessness, cruelty, resilience and tenacity stay with you long after the book is finished.

 

One of the things that I always find startling is the intensity of the cruelty that human beings inflict upon each other: The Huron and Iroquois Nations and the tradition of “caressing” or torturing has been used to characterize the First Nations peoples as savages in history books. Yet it is something that is commonplace in human interaction when faced with whoever is perceived as “the enemy” of the day. Romans throwing people to be devoured by hungry lions, the Early Christian crucifying, the brutality during the Crusader, the genocide in WWII, Rwanda and Bosnia, capital punishment existing in the 21st century, debating the merits of torture in Guantanamo Bay – all examples of human beings making a conscious decision to treat other human beings as less than human. It is very difficult to characterize any one group as “savage” when the savagery has been embraced so readily throughout history.

 

At one point, Fox, one of the main characters makes the observation “..now he knows the pain I have suffered and from watching me for so long that this pain never really goes away, just wanes and rises like the moon…”(p.313)   Is the pain of the human experience the reason for the savagery? Is the orenda or human soul the reason for the moments of greatness when a person is able to sacrifice themselves to save someone else, to find their voice to defend basic human rights, to show kindness because she can or emerge beyond loss without malice?

 

I met a teacher at Camp Elphinstone that chose this book for all of the secondary students in her school to read. Not all students would be able to read the text independently, however if ever there is a great text to make accessible and provoke discussion of our shared roots as Canadians, it is this one.