Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Okra Exercise

One of the activities that I like to do early on with teacher trainees is one that I've come to call, "The Okra Exercise".  It's simple.

First I ask someone to buy a kilo of fruits or vegetables from the market: okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples ... anything that is frequently used and commonly purchased.  Once I've got my produce I place it on a table for trainees to touch and consider, then I give them their first task: to sort the okra into two categories - best and worst - with half placed on one side of the table and half on the other.   Everyone has to agree with the final groupings.  Much lively discussion always ensues at this point, but it doesn't take long (less than a minute usually) for the group to finish.  Then I make things a little harder, asking the group to narrow down their "best okra" group to only twelve, the ones they would choose if their market budget allowed for only a dozen pods.  Again, there must be consensus on the final selection.  Once the "best of the best" have been decided on, I pose my first questions to the group:

- How did you make your choices?  What do you look for when you're buying okra?

Answers usually involve factors like color, shape, size or firmness.  Then comes the next query:

- How do you know what you do about okra?  Where did you learn these things?

Inevitably (in Nepal at least) trainees have learned from their mothers or grandmothers, from helping in the kitchen as a child, from having to learn to cook on their own after marriage or from accompanying older family members to the market.  No one has ever told me that she learned to choose okra from a school textbook; no one has ever been instructed in this skill by a teacher; no one has ever had to study okra selection in preparation for an exam.  And so I ask,

- What things do your students know that they didn't learn in school?

Most children learn to walk and talk before they come to school.  They learn the rules of games (sometimes quite elaborate).  They learn to perform household chores; to help with agricultural work; to navigate their neighborhoods; to babysit younger siblings; to help in the kitchen; to operate radios, TV's and other sophisticated electronic devices ... in other words there is a world of skills and knowledge that children learn via experience and informal instruction, an array of knowledge that traditionally has nothing to do with formal schooling.  And that leads to the most important set of questions of all, the culmination of "The Okra Exercise":

- How can we use what we've just considered about learning to improve classroom teaching?  How can we use experience to help children learn what they need to know from school?

I would urge all educators to revisit this question often.  What do you know about okra or tomatoes or squash or apples, how did you learn it, and what might that mean for effective teaching practice.

(My thanks to Stan Chu for first showing me "The Okra Exercise".) 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Support Our Work

EAW is running its first-ever online fundraising campaign.  If you're interested in supporting real change at the grassroots level in schools around the world, please consider a donation.  We really need the funds!

Thank you.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Beyond Kathmandu: Work With the Archini Foundation in Hetauda, Nepal

In my last post I wrote about leading a literacy workshop with Room to Read Nepal.   That experience was gratifying in itself, but what I didn’t know at the time was that it would lead me to further work and relationships, outside of Kathmandu this time. 

One of the participants in the Room to Read workshop was an educator from the city of Hetauda, in south central Nepal.  When we met, Pratibha Dangol was working in Room to Read’s regional office in Makwanpur District, but she had plans to leverage the experience she had gained as a classroom teacher and a literacy worker to create an organization of her own that would promote change in her local area.  I promised to do what I could to help her, and when I returned to Nepal in April of 2013, Pratibha invited me to be a part of the first-ever workshop organized by the newly minted Archini Foundation, titled “Progressive Leadership in Schools”.   The participants were school leaders from both government and private schools in the area who came together for three days of workshops, talks and team-building exercises.   For my part, I tackled three challenging topics:

- How Do Children Learn: Using Observation and Research to Rethink Teaching Practice
- Helping Teachers Be Their Best: Creating A Professional Development Plan That Works
- Considering the Culture of Classroom Management: From Punishment to Encouragement

In my next posts I will consider each of these workshops, but first … a bit about the city of Hetauda.  I was excited about my trip there because, despite many journeys to Nepal, I had somehow never managed to travel outside of the Kathmandu metropolitan area.   Hetauda is in Makwanpur District, about 140 kilometers south of Kathmandu and to get there Pratibha had booked me a seat in a Sumo, a small multi-passenger van.  There is a good highway linking the two cities and Sumos make back and forth runs continually, carrying 8-10 passengers per trip.  The drive took four hours, with a stop along the way for lunch, and wound through lovely mountainous countryside and villages … a pleasure to watch from my front seat window.  Hetauda is at a much lower elevation than Kathmandu (roughly 500 m v. 1300 m) and in April it was quite a bit hotter there than in the capital.  It’s a bustling small city with a population of about 80,000, an important intersection/stop along two of Nepal’s main highways.  The city has been growing in recent years and I saw quite a bit of construction (mostly new homes) while I was there.  With Pratibha and her wonderful assistant Bindu as my tour guides I visited local schools, colleges, shopping districts and even a regional fair with carnival rides and a midway.  I spent a week in Hetauda and I can’t wait to return … the sooner the better.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Creating Children's Literature With Room To Read

Last month I had the opportunity to work with a team of educators to lead a conference with the Nepali faculty of Room To Read, a wonderful international NGO with the motto, "World change starts with educated children".   Quoting from the organization's web page (

We envision a world in which all children can pursue a quality education, reach their full potential and contribute to their community and the world. To achieve this goal, we focus on two areas where we believe we can have the greatest impact: literacy and gender equality in education.  We work in collaboration with communities and local governments across Asia and Africa to develop literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and support girls to complete secondary school with the life skills they’ll need to succeed in school and beyond.

Our workshop, held in Kathmandu, was titled, "Child Centered Pedagogy for Language and Literacy Skills", and consisted of six sessions over the course of three days.  I led three of these sessions and used the time to create a children's writing workshop for the participants.  Since promotion of quality children's literature is one of the cornerstones of Room to Read's mission, I worked with a Nepali colleague to include read-aloud sessions in English and Nepali at the beginning, end and midway through each day's session.  For the rest of the time we worked on creating original books of our own: first a group book based on the participants' experiences observing children in the nearby neighborhood and then individual books composed, bound and illustrated by each educator.

For the rest of this post I'll focus on the read-aloud portion of the workshop.  Then I'll discuss our writing experience.  But first a note on language.

I do not speak Nepali, so obviously all of my teaching was conducted in English and the Room to Read faculty are all English speakers.  For obvious reasons, however, it was important that Nepali writing and language be an important component of our work.  Room to Read is an advocate for creating and promoting children's literature in the local languages of the regions where they work and I wanted to build skills and tools to enrich the workshop participants' contributions to that mission.   For this reason I worked alongside my colleague Ms. Bandana Aryal, a Nepali teacher at the Rato Bangala School.  Bandana conducted some of our read-aloud sessions, selecting Nepali children's literature to share with the group.  Participants were encouraged to compose their books in either English or Nepali and Bandana was consultant on language and composition for those who chose Nepali (our group book was in Nepali as were most of the individual titles).

For more on Nepali children's literature, see my blog post from 2009 on Rato Bangala Kitab (Rato Bangala Books)

The English read-aloud books I chose included the following titles:

The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse, by Eric Carle.

Hairs, by Sandra Cisneros, illustrated by Terry Ybanez.
The Eric Carle book is a simple, beautiful story of one artist's commitment to resisting conventionality.  It's suitable for young children, but if using it with adults be sure and include the tribute in the back to the German expressionist painter Franz Marc.  Sandra Cisneros' Hairs is in both English and Spanish and, as advertised, is all about hair - its varied textures, colors and styles.  

As I stated earlier, Bandana and I tried to include at least three read-aloud experiences per session.  There is no better way to teach the techniques we hope educators will use with children than to model those very techniques, using the best tools at our disposal.   Both of the books I've cited are wonderful examples of quality literature and there is so much more available.  What titles would you choose?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Recognition for Rato Bangala

It's been an exciting week for the Rato Bangala School and Foundation, who have just been awarded the UNESCO- Hamdan Bin Al-Maktoum Prize!  Website states that the award,

... set up in 2009 and funded by his Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, aims to support, encourage and benefit those working to enhance the performance and effectiveness of teachers towards Education for all.  It attaches particular importance to outstanding practices in developing country contexts or those aimed at marginalized and disadvantaged communities. It also aims to facilitate the global sharing and dissemination of outstanding practices regarding teachers.

I have written a lot about the work of Rato Bangala in this blog and I hope you'll read some of my older posts to learn more about them.  I'm proud to be associated with this wonderful organization.   If you'd like to make a tax-deductible contribution to support their work, please use the link on this page or contact me directly.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Block Work Begins at Rato Bangala

Once we had created block areas in the first grade classrooms at Rato Bangala it was time to let the students explore.  We gave them no particular assignment as small groups of ten began their interaction with the blocks; they were simply instructed to work with a partner and to build.  They tackled the task without hesitation and immediately we began to see rudimentary structures come to life.  Some of the children focused on exploration of shapes. 

For some, the first task was to create an enclosure bounded by the blocks.

Others worked to create tall structures.

In their work with blocks, as with all curriculum areas, children tend to conform to certain developmental stages and patterns.  Three year old block builders often simply carry materials from place to place or place them end to end horizontally.  As they grow, they tend to move on to creating enclosures, bridging spaces, focusing on decorative elements, adding height, naming and labeling their buildings and engaging in dramatic play.  It was fascinating to watch our Rato Bangala six-year olds explore each of these phases and progress quickly through them as they encountered the materials for the first time.  The first-graders proved to be sophisticated builders, collaborators and problem-solvers.   One adventurous pair constructed a "bike ramp", stretching from a height even with the top of the shelves to the floor.  When I asked them how bikes would get to the top of the ramp to begin their downward journey their first response was to say, "They'll fly".  After a bit more questioning and encouragement, the boys came up with the idea of building an elevator and ran eagerly to their teacher to request string and cardboard for the task.  Their creativity was so infectious that soon all of the groups at work in the block area were planning elevators for their structures and comparing ideas for the best ways to build them.

The reintroduction of blocks at Rato Bangala can certainly be counted as a success thus far and when I left the school in September the second grade teachers were eagerly awaiting their own sets.  There is no doubt, however, that with time questions will emerge, problems will arise, and adjustments will have to be made.  I look forward to learning how the groundbreaking Nepali teachers at Rato Bangala will meet these challenges. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Why Blocks?

Once we’d made space in their classrooms the first grade students at Rato Bangala couldn’t wait to get started working with blocks.  In fact one group, returning from PE class to find new, still unpacked blocks stacked in the room began to dance and sing and to jostle one another for the chance to touch the new materials.  I’ll talk about their initial explorations in my next post, but before I describe in detail the work the kids did when they got the chance to really engage with the blocks, I’d like to revisit some of the reasons these materials are so highly valued in progressive education classrooms.   

Progressive educators seek to create rich experience as the basis for learning and believe that children need opportunities to process and recreate these experiences in multiple ways.  With blocks, learners can do just that, exploring and building in hands-on, multi-faceted, open-ended ways both individually and in groups.  Blocks enhance mathematical thinking and spatial reasoning and provide wonderful opportunities for dramatic play.  They lend themselves to complex problem solving, allow for artistic exploration and are important tools for fostering language development.   To quote the visionary educator (and Bank Street founder) Lucy Sprague Mitchell:  

The wonder of blocks is the many-sided constructive experiences they yield to the many-sided constructive child – and every child is such if guided by a many-sided constructive parent or teacher.

If you’d like to learn more about using blocks in the classroom, I recommend The Block Book (Elizabeth S. Hirsch, ed; Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1996.).  The quote above is from page 10.   

Also, see this recent article from the New York Times about the “rediscovery” of unit blocks: