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The New ABCs for Young Learners: Ask Questions, Be Resourceful, and Communicate

Editor's Note: Emily Litman, teacher of the Port of Entry Newcomer Program at Franklin L. Williams Middle School #7 in Jersey City and Tyler Sanders, science teacher at Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy II in New York City, traveled to Mexico last year through a Global Teacher Grant from the U.S. Department of State. Here, they share how this experience has impacted their classroom teaching. 

By guest bloggers Tyler Sanders and Emily Litman

Not long ago, elementary teachers were seen as care-giving instructors who taught each subject from reading to math, science to music. They were the early-childhood guides that acquainted students with social norms and imparted non-academic skills that would help students succeed later in life. Now, many elementary teachers are embracing larger roles that entreat a new generation of learners to question everything, to foster a deep, cross-curricular creativity, and to empower students to be their own change agents, even at an early age. It is critical for all elementary teachers to implement a new form of ABCs that reaches our youngest students before it is too late for them. Students must be encouraged to Ask questions and assess understanding, to Be resourceful, and to Collaborate in new and authentic ways to prepare them for success in a global economy.

Ask Questions and Assess Understanding

A teacher's ability to ask the appropriate, targeted questions can offer a trove of data that is both immediate and instructive. This is not new, but as we tap into the 21st century student's curiosities, allowing time for inquiry and answers is at the heart of all of our work. When we started this school year, Tyler's science students had their usual questions about how a clock works and why the moon seems to follow them at night, and Emily's ESL students wondered about irregular spellings of English words and why so many of the words were similar in both English and their native Spanish. But when we set out to plan our units, we knew that encouraging our students to ask more thought-provoking questions would be one of our touchstones. Below is one example of what we were able to implement as a result of our trip to Mexico.

Macario Gomez, Mexico, is a low-income, rural Mayan village in central Quintana Roo. It is situated approximately 25 km northwest of Tulum—a favorite destination for English-speaking tourists. Yet Macario Gomez reaps little benefit from the tourism industry. Like so many low-income places around the world, girls are not encouraged to study beyond middle school and frequently drop out entirely by age 14. Local teachers describe the curriculum as outdated, uninteresting, and thoroughly lacking the requisite skills that will help students be successful, contributing citizens. We told our respective students in New York and New Jersey about this place we had visited a year before, and after sharing stories, pictures, and videos, our students were understandably bursting with questions:

"Is it a jungle or a city there?"

"What is the weather like?"

"Do they have grocery stores?"

We wanted them to probe a little deeper, and with simple guiding questions like, "What do you think their schools are like?" and a short video clip about young girls forced to quit school to help their families, our students quickly changed their line of questions:

"Do they learn the same things in the same way as we do?"

"Why do girls' families need them to quit school?"

"Is there a way that we can help?" 

These questions were a jumping-off point to a unit that met many traditional elementary standards, but more importantly, that led to a broadening of our students' understanding of the world, and it connected them to children in another country in a way they didn't know was possible before. 

Be Resourceful

The Magic School Bus' Ms. Frizzle has always implored students to "take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!" In education, elementary teachers are often viewed as the creative types, willing to do small activities and projects with their students that they can take home. These activities often meet multiple learning modalities and are naturally scaffolded to address different learning needs and levels. But in a 21st century classroom, such projects are enhanced by real-world connections. After our class conversation about students in Macario Gomez, we set out to create a unit that was driven by our students' questions and concerns.

Erika Wittman is a resident of Macario Gomez and is passionate about improving the lives of her neighbors. La Escuelita is a community center she founded for children who asked her to teach them English. Her tireless efforts and resourcefulness established a grassroots organization that provides these children with educational experiences they wouldn't otherwise have. When she told us the challenges facing some teachers she volunteered with, our students proposed numerous solutions. Many students expressed a desire to share their love of learning. Some said they wanted to send materials; others wanted to make and share videos of them doing experiments; and then one particularly imaginative student said, "What if we give them the materials and show them how to do some experiments?" 

Collaborate and Communicate

Students learn teamwork in a variety of ways both in and out of school. Being able to work together effectively requires that members of a group listen to one another and recognize that not all members will think or believe the same thing. Giving students the opportunity to learn from students with a different perspective not only helps develop empathy, it employs 21st century skills that will promote critical thinking and cooperation.

ABCs.pngTyler's students knew that hands-on learning would engage all students, including the girls. They wrote down their favorite science lessons and listed the materials. Emily's students were confident they could help the students with their English skills. They translated the lessons and offered their own favorite lessons as well. Our students shared their lessons and ideas with one another, and with the support of Ms. Wittman, our students in separate classrooms and in separate states worked together to create an engaging, relevant, and age-appropriate set of lessons and materials in both English and Spanish. 

We were able to write a grant and return to Macario Gomez in April, where we provided hands-on demonstrations of the lessons that our students created. We also led volunteer and teacher training to enrich existing curricula and we ultimately proved to our young students back in the US that they could take action about things they learn in meaningful and authentic ways. 

As elementary teachers, it may be easy to see how these ABCs demonstrate cross-curricular learning at its best, but more than that, this type of education is both important and achievable. Design activities that give students time to ask genuine questions and to make mistakes. Allow them to engage in exploration of the materials in ways that show relevance in their world. It might take a bit longer, but the students will have a more thorough and realistic understanding of the tasks they are trying to accomplish.

Be resourceful with your materials and professional connections. Do you have a college roommate that works in finance? Invite her to video conference with your 2nd graders to talk about savings. Perhaps your local restaurant would send a chef in to discuss recipes. Do not be afraid to reach out—people are curious about what happens in schools and want to help!

Lastly, create lessons that foster 21st century skills like collaboration and communication, regardless of subject or the students being taught. This pedagogic shift lends itself to cross-cultural connections that span both ages and languages, and the importance of giving our youngest students exposure to other perspectives will only further galvanize them to take action in the face of injustices they will encounter later in life. Our students are eager to share what they know, and they're always more than happy to help.

Connect with Tyler, Emily, and Heather on Twitter. 

Quote image created on Pablo.

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