Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

Teacher Empowerment: EXPECTO PATRONUS!

It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.  Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.  
                                            ~J.K. Rowling,  Albus Dumbledore

I've been thinking a lot about empowerment lately. This month, as part of the 3E's Blogging Collaborative, I've chosen to write about it. In the last few weeks, I've had two experiences that have contributed to my musings.  The first, an adult who is close to me while the second, a child with whom I work.  The first exchange went something like this:
           "Why do you let yourself get so upset about politics?"
           "Because it is wrong to sit by when I believe people will be hurt."
           "You're operating under the belief that you can change anything. Our voices don't change a thing."

In the second exchange, I asked a child to write a letter to an author of a book we had read that takes place during the Detroit riots of the 1960s.  As a class, we had discussed civil rights.  One of the main characters is consumed with what she can do to change the world.  We talked about this belief throughout the entire book study.  The child wrote to the author, "I loved your book, especially the character of Beverly. But I don't believe there is anything I can do to change the world." 

I have to be honest. These felt like sucker punches to the gut. And since then I've wondered, when did we become so defeated? When did we lose our voices? Can empowerment be cultivated?

So, what does it mean to be empowered?

I have my own ideas about empowerment, but I turned to the internet for some quick research. I found this on, written by Paula M. Short.  It made the most sense to me. 
Empowerment has been defined as a process whereby school participants develop the competence to take charge of their own growth and resolve their own problems. Empowered individuals believe they have the skills and knowledge to act on a situation and improve it. Empowered schools are organizations that create opportunities for competence to be developed and displayed.

So according to this, being empowered means having the confidence to act on a situation to improve it.  The prefix "em" means "cause to." So does this mean that to be empowered, something has to cause that rise of power within us? Is empowerment something that rises up from within us or is it something that can be nurtured?

Was Harry Potter an empowered individual?

When I think about the character of Harry Potter, I see him as an empowered individual.  Nothing in his rearing prior to Hogwarts developed self-confidence in skill or abilities. And yet, he had leadership "thrust" upon him and he rose to the occasion. Who cares, right? 

All educators should care. Seriously.  Harry Potter is a parable we should pay close attention to because it teaches us about activism, about small people making big impacts, it teaches us about hope, about speaking out when something is wrong. This character teaches us about empowerment. For many of our students, our wands conjure a patronus against isolation, poverty and the harsh realities of our world.  

Thinking about my own experiences, my sense of empowerment did not just rise up from within me.  I was nurtured. My accomplishments and skills were recognized and praised, and I was given opportunities to further develop them. Later in my teaching career, my self-confidence pushed me toward more experiences that empowered me. It was a snowball effect. When you think back on your own development as a person and educator, you probably see much of the same. However, one thing most of us have in common with Harry is adversity. When we face adverse situations and conquer them, our self-confidence grows. I believe that adversity has a close relationship with empowerment.

Perhaps empowerment boils down to three things.

We have to be self-reflective to know our skills and abilities.  We have to know what we're capable of in order to engage in greater risk-taking.  Empowerment often requires us to take risks.

We must believe we have influence because of our unique skills and abilities.  If the belief of influence is not there, we won't act. We are hopeless.

If we are reflective and know ourselves, and if we believe we can have influence, then we experience increased agency. We become agents of power. We act on situations and face adversity.  This is a glorious cycle, when you think about it.  Because, in facing more adversity we become more confident in our skills and influence...which empowers us even more. 

So what does this mean for educators and their students?

I have felt, for some time now, that teachers have become victims. We have lost our voices. We have listened to our government, our communities, and even our peers tell us over and over again that we are failing.  We have been forced to abandon best practices to adopt high-stakes testing preparation. Many of us have been given "scripts" from which to teach.  We have had funding yanked from public education, stakes upped, and expectations increased around moving targets. We have been blamed for the morals and characters of our students. We have been criticized at every turn. Our pensions, salaries, and benefits have been attacked, and when we protest, we've been called money-hungry and greedy. And we have listened, my friends. We have listened, and on some level, we have believed what we have been told. 

Let me ask you to reflect on this: CAN YOU EMPOWER YOUR STUDENTS WHEN YOU, YOURSELF, DON'T CLAIM YOUR OWN POWER? Our wands are broken, my friends. It's time to get out the duct tape and patch them up.  I have been complacent for years.  But after recent events in our country, I can not be complacent any longer.  My future depends on it.  And if I lose hope, my students' futures will suffer.  It is time to conjure up a patronus for the health of public education, its educators, and its students. 

Here are some ways...

  1. Become involved in your local and state governments. Whether you like it or not, teaching is political. We are state employees.
  2. Reflect on your strengths and skills. Ask yourself, "Where can I make the most impact?" Don't wait for the empowerment fairy to grace you with her stardust.
  3. Speak up at staff meetings. Share your viewpoints. Ask questions. Don't cower.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your community newspaper.
  5. Invite community members into your classroom community. Let them see and understand the importance and challenges of what we do on a daily basis.
  6. Reclaim your joy. Why did you enter the teaching field? Figure it out, and do more of whatever that is...even if it means closing your door so you can do what is right.  Do you honestly think that the umpteen millionth test prep lesson taught in isolation is going to result in stellar standardized testing data? 
  7. Support your peers. Don't engage in teacher-lounge bashing. Be kind. We are all suffering together.
  8. Celebrate your students, everyday.  Ask yourself, what lesson am I supposed to learn from this student? 
  9. Take care of YOU. You are a human being. You are NOT a victim. You have basic needs like everyone else. Fill those needs.
  10. Walk tall. Seriously. Square your shoulders. Gird your loins. Imagine yourself, wand at the ready for the dementors of our profession. BELIEVE. To be a teacher means that leadership has been thrust upon you. Accept it.
And don't forget this...never forget this:

Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.
                                                             J.K. Rowling, Albus Dumbledore

Now go turn on the light with some other fantastic posts and free resources for teaching empowerment, empathy, and equity in your classroom by clicking the links below.              


When Colors Sing...Art in the Math & Reader's Workshops

I spent my time reading the first two books in the Harry Potter series wishing I could live at Hogwarts. I was an adult reader---don't laugh.  I've read Tuck Everlasting over and over again, each time wishing I could find the ash tree in the wood and imagining myself moving the pebbles that hide the secret. I've listened to Beethoven's fifth symphony and find it impossible not to move, not to feel. Chopin's nocturnes can move me to tears. And when I go to an art museum? There are paintings I wish I could crawl into.  Exploring the arts can be a visceral experience for adults and children.  Music, visual arts, books, movement---these are other ways of KNOWING.  Typically imbedded in "gifted and talented" curriculum, I firmly believe they need to be woven into every child's learning experience, because they are other ways of knowing.  One does not have to be gifted and talented to learn other content through the arts.  

Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings, the artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.
                                                              Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky's art is quite the experience. Wassily Kandinsky had synesthesia. He wrote about using a paint box for the first time and hearing the colors hiss.  For Kandinsky, life was a multi-layered sensory experience.  There are certain Kandinsky paintings that I'd like to live in for a while. One of the ways I do that is to bring it into my classroom.  

The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes, or dark lake with the treble.
                                                                                Wassily Kandinsky

I began by reading The Noisy Paint Box to my class.  This picture book is a great way to explain synesthesia to students. My kids were fascinated, and we spent a long time discussing what that disorder is like and all that it must entail.  Then I shared a biography I had written about Kandinsky. This second text gave more of an overview of his entire life.

Everything starts from a dot.
                                                                                      Wassily Kandinsky

Next we looked at Kandinsky's Color Study: Squares With Concentric Circles.  After reading about how Kandinsky used color and shape to denote emotions and ideas, we viewed each square of this piece as a separate experience.  This gave us the opportunity to talk about mood and symbolism in art and literature! I created a response grid and numbered each square of the piece, and we went from there!

We also looked at Kandinsky's words.  We had been doing a lot of thinking about how the words we say and write reveal things about us as people.  We did this with authors and their books, activists and their speeches...why not artists and their words, too?  I created a quotation biography. There are many fascinating quotations attributed to Kandinsky.  We read these and completed a "Read-Think-Wonder" thinking routine about our favorites.  This was especially interesting as we ended up comparing our thoughts about his words to our thoughts about his artwork.

The Math & Art Connection

Because we had been viewing Color Study: Squares With Concentric Circles, I used this as an opportunity to introduce circumference to my students.  Using a template of concentric circles I had created for our use, we explored the concepts of circumference and the formula associated with it. What I liked about including this concept in our project is that it was an enrichment for my fifth graders.  However, it could be used as a review or main teaching point when done with other grade levels.  
Next, I posed the question: If we had five concentric circles, of five different colors, and the colors could move between the different-sized circles, how many variations could we make if we layered those circles as Kandinksy did in his color study?  I showed my students what I meant by drawing an example of the question on my SmartBoard.  How many combinations could I make if the big circle was many if it was green? How many if it was purple?  

At first, I allowed my students to explore this question in their own ways.  They went to work in their math journals, exploring possible ways of solving the question. As they explored, I moved around the room observing and offering support when needed.  

What I really enjoyed watching was the creative ways my students came up with solving for the question. Some drew circle diagrams and filled them in with color initials. Others worked to come up with equations that would solve it.  Some made organized lists. After they had explored for a while, we discussed their thinking.  All had identified some sort of process they wanted to use, but none had solved it correctly.  This gave us an opportunity to examine our errors in thinking. At this point, I introduced a problem-solving chart they could choose to use...CHOOSE being the important word in that sentence.  

 After students found a correct solution and could explain their process, I required them to solve it a second way to prove their solution. While there were many groans and eye rolls, my students worked collaboratively to come up with their second solutions.  They were forced to interact with each other to examine thinking other than their own.
They recorded both of their solutions in a frame worthy of an art gallery wall, naming the solution as one would a work of art. 

Paintbrushes at the Ready?

For the next part of our Kandinsky exploration, we whipped out our paintbrushes for a little color exploration.  Each student used a piece of white construction paper (11x17) and painted it with watercolor paint, mixing colors and keeping in mind all that we learned about color and emotions.  

After their papers dried overnight, they used the circle templates to cut our four of each circle size from the painted paper.  They chose a colored background, based on the emotion they were trying to communicate and arranged their concentric circles on the paper.  THIS WAS AMAZINGLY FUN! 

 Painting with passion and layering colors!

Our final step included a reflection about their artwork! Check out our results below!

When we were done, my boys (yes, my macho, sports-oriented rough and tumble boys) asked, "What are we gonna do next, Ms. Willis?"  And then,  I overheard one of them say this, "I really like the effect of watercolor, it's so moody."  So you see, colors don't just sing when art is added to  math class...hearts do, too.

If you're interested in trying math, literacy and art applications in your classroom, check out these problem-solving projects by clicking on the pictures below.

P.S. Shhhhhh! Coming soon...Keith Haring & ancient Egypt! Stay tuned!


Illuminated Angles: Using Medieval History to Classify Angles

Go down deep enough into anything and you will find mathematics.
                                                                                       Dean Schlicter

There was a time in my life when this quote would've terrorized my whole existence (insert traumatized laugh). I remember fifth grade like it was yesterday, because that was the beginning of my obsession with history and my loathing of math. That year, I read every book I could find about the medieval time period. My imagination blossomed with tales of knights and the bubonic plague. And at night, I was tormented with nightmares of rogue long division problems. And now as a fifth grade teacher, when I think of math, it conjures up images of King Arthur, Merlin, death and destruction and the sounds of Gregorian chant.  I can't help but wonder what my classroom math experiences might have been had my teacher linked the math to something that I love---like medieval history.

One awesome thing about being a teacher is that you get to right the wrongs you may have experienced yourself as a learner.  That's what I did.  I took my students' angst about classifying and measuring angles and I turned it into a math and art project, as I wished my fifth grade math teacher had done.

We began by reading about illuminated texts.  I brought this part of the project into my reader's workshop and used it as a center.  Students read a three page history about illuminated manuscripts and completed a close read. This worked really well, and I was able to extend it into a lesson on nonfiction text structures. 

After reading about illuminated texts and the history of monograms, I gave my kids copies of medieval lettering.  They cut out their monograms from these letters and glued them onto another page to examine them more closely.  Together, we explored the angles in each of our letters.  Using highlighters, my students began highlighting the angles they found in their letters. Reviewing acute, obtuse, right and straight angels, as well as supplementary and complementary angles, we began to sort our letters according to their "angle traits."  We did this in small groups. At first, we eyeballed the angles and then used protractors to measure them.

The last part of this math project was great fun. We closely examined a close up photo of a real illuminated manuscript.  I was able to blow this up on my SMART board using the pdf I had created of the photo. We completed a visible thinking routine called "See-Think-Wonder."  Students named and noticed the types of pictures painted in around the illuminated letters. 

 I created an illuminated alphabet using some fantastic gold glitter lettering from Paula Kim Studios. After printing it on cardstock paper, my kids selected their first or last initial and began drawing in details around their gold letter. They were required to sketch in details about their lives around their illuminated letters.

After sketch was complete, we used colored pencils to fill in our drawings with vibrant colors.  My students knew the colors had to be bold and vivid after looking at illuminated manuscript examples.

What are we going to do next in math, Ms. Willis?

This literacy, math and art project was fun. I teach fifth graders, so this was a review of fourth grade learning for them.  It enabled us to review measurement concepts and address learning goals in other curriculum areas. After having taught fourth grade for umpteen million years, I would use this project with fourth graders as an end-of-unit alternative assessment. 

Perhaps the BEST part of this learning experience was my students asking, "What are we going to do next in math, Ms. Willis?"  Eyes shining. Faces smiling. No tears. Learning cemented. Not a worksheet in sight. 

To check out this project for yourself, click on the graphic below.  It's all there for you...the literacy, math and art. Enjoy a SURPRISE SALE for the month of March!

You might also be interested in these math, literacy, and art projects, too! 

This month, I've teamed up with some other teacher bloggers. Be sure to check out their posts below!