Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Class Inca Projects

My fifth grade class finished up their Inca projects. You can see the wonderful results in this Animoto video.

For inspiration  we used this book, The Inca: Activities and Crafts from a Mysterious Land (Secrets of Ancient Cultures) by Arlette N. Braman. The projects were a lot of fun and captured my student's interest and enthusiasm. The book was a perfect resource full of interesting projects and background information. I wanted to try other theme related projects like the ones my fourth grade class created last year based on Benjamin Franklin. We had a rewarding experiece making those projects that was even further enhanced when the author of the Benjamin Frankin book we used, Carmella Van Vleet,  found our video and blog online and sent the class a wonderful email about how she enjoyed seeing their final projects. When I read the class the email, they were so excited that they all stood up and gave themselves a standing ovation. I think it was the recognition that their work went beyond just something for the teacher, parents, and school. The fact that the actual author of the book would write to them thrilled them to no end.

I enjoyed this book so much and found it useful for my class that I also ordered the companion book The Maya: Activities and Crafts from a Mysterious Land (Secrets of Ancient Cultures) from When ordering I noticed that for $1.29 more you can upgrade the book to "online access." According to Amazon this means you can:

Start reading the book online while you wait for your physical copy to arrive
Add highlights, bookmarks, notes, or tags to any page or section of text
Print pages, and even copy and paste text from the book
Read your book from any Internet-connected computer, meaning your book is always with you
I did this with the Mayan book and I was instantly able to read it while I wait for my order to arrive. I think this feature is pretty neat, especially for teachers. I did note that you can't copy and paste pictures, but if you need a copy of a page you can print it right out rather than hunt down a photocopier. I also liked the projects in the Mayan book as well as the similar presentation to the Inca book. My class will be working on Mayan projects and I will use both this book and Amazing Maya Inventions You Can Build Yourself (Build It Yourself series) which I bought last month. This book does not have the online access feature.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Body Movements Can Help Influence Problem Solving

I enjoy moving around and learning about how the body moves. If I was going back to college, I would be interested in the field of Kinesiology and I probably would not be interested in the field of education (one lifetime spent teaching is enough!). I like to run and exercise and find the times I am running or working out are the times when I do my best thinking. Sitting still is not something I enjoy doing at all. However, I am a teacher and sometimes I feel that my job is finding ways to get my students to sit still. After all, they are "supposed" to be thinking and working and when do we ever equate movement with either of those in the classroom?

Now comes a study out of the University of Illinois that shows for the first time that how a person solves a problem can be "influenced" by how that person moves. Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who conducted the study with Vanderbilt University postdoctoral researcher Laura Thomas, observed that participants who swung their arms were more able to solve a problem whose solution involved swinging strings. This demonstrates that the brain can use bodily cues to help understand and solve complex problems. This experiment shows a link between the body and the mind, something called "embodied cognition." Lleras said:
“People tend to think that their mind lives in their brain, dealing in conceptual abstractions, very much disconnected from the body. This emerging research is fascinating because it is demonstrating how your body is a part of your mind in a powerful way. The way you think is affected by your body and, in fact, we can use our bodies to help us think.”
The experiment was fascinating as described here.
The researchers asked study subjects to tie the ends of two strings together. The strings dangled from ceiling rafters and were so far apart that a person grasping one could not reach the other. A few tools were also available: a paperback book, a wrench, two small dumbbells, and a plate. Subjects were given eight, two-minute sessions to solve the problem, with 100 seconds devoted to finding a solution, interrupted by 20 seconds of exercise.
Some subjects were told to swing their arms forward and backward during the exercise sessions, while others were directed to alternately stretch one arm, and then the other, to the side. To prevent them from consciously connecting these activities to the problem of the strings, the researchers had them count backwards by threes while exercising.

You can see short videos of the subjects here:

Participant during a swinging exercise break
Participant during a stretching exercise break
Swing group participant attempting to solve the problem
Stretch group participant attempting to solve the problem

The subjects in the arm-swinging group were more likely than those in the stretch group to solve the problem, which required attaching an object to one of the strings and swinging it so that it could be grasped while also holding the other string. By the end of the 16-minute deadline, participants in the arm-swinging group were 40 percent more likely than those in the stretch group to solve the problem.

"By making you swing your arms in a particular way, we're activating a part of your brain that deals with swinging motions," Lleras said. "That sort of activity in your brain then unconsciously leads you to think about that type of motion when you're trying to solve the problem."

Now I am not sure how this all applies directly to the classroom. As you may have noticed, it was not just any movement that helped the subjects solve the problem. It was a more directed movement that "played into" the solution. The study is fascinating and I was also intrigued by the hint of a previous study by Lleras and his colleagues that has shown that directing a person’s eye movements or attention in specific patterns can also aid in solving complex problems.
However you take the study Lleraa offers some practical thoughts:
“We view this as a really important new window into understanding the complexity of human thought,” he said. “I guess another take-home message is this: If you are stuck trying to solve a problem, take a break. Go do something else. This will ensure that the next time you think about that problem you will literally approach it with a different mind. And that may help!”
Read about the study here.
One of the practices I have been applying to my own athletic endeavors is called Z-Health. Z-Health is a joint mobility program that strives to re-educate the nervous system to improve poor movement patterns. I think that this study parallels some of the concepts of Z-Health through its use of precise movement patterns to rewire the nervous system for better performance. I should also note that some Z-Health drills also target eye-movements.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Simple Way to Make 3-D Graphic Presentations

I am always looking for new ways to add a spark to my teaching and  I found a really great resource to enable student creativity and excitement. Scholastic has published a wonderful and extremely useful book called  3-D Graphic Organizers: 20 Innovative, Easy-to-Make Learning Tools That Reinforce Key Concepts and Motivate All Students! by Daniel Barnekow. The book is filled with 20 organizers and many ideas for using each one. The organizers come with printable templates and directions. The templates are cut and folded into all sorts of interesting graphic displays. There are many ways to use each template and the uses are open-ended as it is easy to think of different ways to use them. I have used templates with math, social studies, and science lessons. The templates certainly capture my student's imaginations and they show more enthusiasm for learning as they get to create something along with learning information. There is a simple rubric for grading the student's creations and there is also an included cd which has pdf files of all of the templates. This is really handy if someone needs a new printout. I don't have to wait to go to the copy room to pring a copy. I can print it out on the computer. Some of the templates on the cd allow you to type in information. This can be helpful for some students or for the teacher who would like to modify the templates. So far we have made a slide chart of math terms related to angles and triangles, a flip table of astronomy terms, and a tri-fold table related to the sun. It is a great way to get students to learn and study facts and to present information that they have learned in a very visual way. I can't wait to try such projects as the twist-tubes, pop-up books, and the spinning wheel. I love to give work that goes beyond basic worksheets and this book is just a great resource for teachers to make lessons creative and fun.

You can view sample pages here.