By Janet Gray-McKennis, 3rd and 4th Grade Head Teacher
By Janet Gray-McKennis, 3rd and 4th Grade Head Teacher
Lucas said today that our first day had been really long, and now everything is going really fast. Agreed! It’s too fast for this blogger to keep up with it, but on the other hand, we do so much every day, that Sunday seems light years away.
Mexico is the home of chocolate, but as Lucero explained Tuesday evening, Mexicans use chocolate primarily for drinking. It was the Europeans who invented bonbons. For celebrations like Dia de las Muertes or birthdays, Oaxacan families go to a mill to purchase freshly ground chocolate, which they take home to make their family’s special chocolate. We visited a mill to see how the chocolate is ground with cinnamon and nuts and to taste a few samples. Then, with chocolate in hand, we returned to ICO to make our own. Our two chocolate-averse students had a great conversation with Señora Christina while the rest of us literally got our hands dirty.
Following classes on Wednesday, we visited the gorgeous display of pre-Colombian art at the Rufino Tomayo museum and then the Soledad Church where we came upon the curious juxtaposed celebrations of Saint Joseph’s Day and the inauguration of a new garbage truck for the city. This is a city of surprises. The resulting traffic jam meant a shortened lunch and siesta before taking off for the soccer field and, as the temperature soared into the low 90′s, a hot game of soccer with our intercambio friends.
The heat and the exertion could mean only one thing: ice cream! We headed back to the Zocalo to enjoy a relaxing break in the cool of enormous old trees. Sitting in the cafes, we attract many peddlers, and our Ancona students do a tremendous job of remembering Señora Christina’s admonition to see the humanity in everyone. From the very young to the very old, indigenous people from the pueblos spend their days in the zocalo selling crafts and trying to earn a living. It can be tempting to feel annoyed by the constant solicitations, but treating everyone with respect is essential. We’re proud that our students have learned this lesson well.
Fortified by our ice creams, we headed back to ICO, doing a little shopping (and bargaining) along the way.
We take modern air travel for granted, but it still seems like a miracle to leave Chicago in a late night snow storm and arrive a mere eight hours later in tropical Oaxaca, Mexico. Our 22 intrepid Ancona 8th graders flew through the night and then waited a sleepy 90 minutes in the Immigration line as dawn broke over Mexico City.
After the short second flight to Oaxaca, they tumbled out into the bright morning sunshine and walked confidently off with the Oaxacan parents who met us at the airport. Our adventure had begun.
After settling in at their new homes, getting some much needed sleep and having their first meals with their families, the students gathered at a cafe on Oaxaca’s famous zocalo. It was time to become acquainted with the city that will be our home for a week. Our students were gradually making the switch to Espanol. Sarah reported that she had spoken Spanish accidentally, and even in the airport, Julian said it was fun to try to order food in Spanish.
Oaxaca is a riot of color, filled with myriad new sights, sounds, smells and tastes. We learned from Lucero, the owner of Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca, that Oaxaca is a completely colonial city, founded by the Spanish, and filled with beautiful colonial architecture.
Lucero took us to the great Cathedral on the zocalo and then for a long, slow walk on the Alcala, Oaxaca’s pedestrian mall. We paid a visit to the Santo Domingo Church where we’re going to return later this week to tour their botanical gardens. We gradually made our way to El Llana, a wonderful park several blocks long with fountains and plazas where, along with many Oaxacan families out for a Sunday afternoon, we watched children drive small motorized cars, petted puppies and just enjoyed being out in the beautiful weather with each other. Senora Christina remarked that with no money to spend (we hadn’t been to an exchange), everyone was able to be truly present instead of thinking about what to purchase. (Maybe we should never change money too quickly?) And we saw nary a cell phone as we settled into being in Oaxaca.
As if to prove the point, Olive asked if she could buy an elote with her change from an airport snack. For the uninitiated, which included yours truly, elote is roasted sweet corn sprinkled with lime juice, spread with mayonnaise and dipped in parmesan cheese. As Lucero walked us to her favorite elote stand, Senora Christina spontaneously decided on elotes for all. It was a fitting cultural cherry on the top of quite an amazing day. Elotes in hand, we trooped to ICO, the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca, and as the kids went off for evening with their madres y padres, a stunning, deep orange full moon rose in the East .
My office is unusually quiet today, because the 3rd/4th graders who live on the 2nd floor above me are off at Camp Edwards. Listening to the rain on my window, I am wondering if it’s raining in East Troy, but, even if it is, I know they’re having the time of their lives.
Camp is one of Ancona’s oldest and most beloved traditions. Every spring, when I do an exit interview with each graduate, I learn again how much Ancona’s experiential education program means to them. Camps dominate their fondest memories of their Ancona educations, and I myself have numerous powerful memories of being at various camps and outdoor learning programs with kids from third through eighth grades.
In 2008, I accompanied our 7th/8th graders on our first trip to Camp Chingachgook on Lake George in the Adirondacks. We chose Camp Ching (as I like to call it), because we wanted our uber-urban children not to leave Ancona without at least a taste of wilderness in a non-Midwestern environment. The mountains were aflame with the breathtaking brilliance of a perfect New England fall, and every day was beautifully warm and sunny – until the day of the final challenge, making the three-mile hike to the top of Buck Mountain. It was drizzling, and the rocky path was sometimes slippery. Not one of our students had climbed a mountain before. Many lacked the right kind of boots or rain gear. The camp had estimated three hours for the round trip; it took us five or six. There was plenty of complaining as we slogged our way through the woods and climbed hand over foot up the rocks at the end.
But the reward was awesome. Wet, muddy and hungry, with a scrape from a slip here and there, we perched on a rocky outcropping more than 2,400 feet above Lake George. We devoured our sandwiches and took in the 360° bird’s eye view of the lake and its islands and the many peaks of the Adirondacks surrounding us. It can be difficult to impress some of our tuned-in city kids with something as incredible as a mountain range, but even the dubious and the complainers were proud that they had “made it.” Many grads later recounted conquering Buck Mountain as one of the highlights of their years at Ancona.
Every camp offers our students developmentally appropriate learning challenges that are both physical and mental. There’s much talk nowadays about the importance of grit as a capacity we want to cultivate in children. Educational researchers are looking at how and whether grit can be taught. Well, it takes grit to hike up a mountain in the rain or to overcome your fear to get to the top of a climbing wall or to keep going in your canoe when you’ve never done it before and for some reason, you’re going in circles. From these experiences, children learn not only that their bodies can accomplish more than they imagined, but that perseverance, determination, grit – call it what you will – pays off in accomplishments and satisfaction. They learn that one doesn’t have to be completely comfortable or happy while learning something to feel great once it’s achieved, and because these lessons take place in authentic settings away from the comforts of home, they make a particularly powerful, emotional impact on the brain. These are fundamentally crucial lessons our students can apply to their lives, their work in the classrooms and their later educations.
Our kids return from each trip a little prouder, a little more self-confident, a little more mature – and full of great memories.
Not too long ago, I visited with some friends who had just adopted a 20-month old daughter from Korea. We went to the local playground, where the girl squatted down, as only a flexible toddler can, to examine a pile of pebbles on the ground. She picked one up, held it between thumb and forefinger, and, staring intently, she slowly turned it round and round to view it from different angles. She carefully replaced the pebble, scanned the remaining pebbles most deliberately, and then picked up another, which she proceeded to examine with equal scrutiny.
Ever an observer of children, I was fascinated by the child’s sense of wonder and sheer pleasure at the shape, look and feel of the pebbles. Totally engrossed in her observations, this little girl was in that state of intense concentration that Mihaly Cskikszentmihalyi calls flow, that focussed, don’t-know-time-is-passing state when we do our most creative and productive work. Left to her own devices, I believe she might have studied those pebbles for a quite a long time. But her new parents, eager to interact and to show her all the great things in the playground, lacked patience for her explorations. She knew very little English, so Dad took her hand and led her off to the swings.
This story could now go in many directions. I could point out something we all know — that children are fascinated with pebbles and sand and water and sticks and cardboard boxes — and they do not need most of the toys that we purchase for them. Just this week, a group of boys in After Ancona was having a grand imaginative time tucked under the bushes in the playground collaborating on what they could build with the sticks they found there.
Or I could point out that Montessori teachers believe in following the child, letting him choose his activities and giving him the the time to become engrossed. Maria Montessori called that intense focus absorption. Rather than draw a child away from what he’s interested in to pursue an adult agenda, why not help him to embellish or extend his own? When children select the right materials for themselves, they become absorbed in serious exploration for long periods of time. From those experiences grow concentration and problem-solving — critical faculties for learning. And locked in a pebble or a pile of sticks is a world of scientific studies.
Concentration, absorption, fascination with everyday materials – these are not only for preschoolers. Around the country, educators are rediscovering what progressive educators have always known: that authentic, hands-on, child-centered investigations are critical for building creative capacities in our kids. All were at play — along with creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and cooperation – when our 3rd/4th graders began the Global Cardboard Challenge (http://www.imagination.is/cardboard_challenge) last Friday. The projects spilled out of the classrooms and into the corridors as our eight and nine-year-olds worked non-stop for five hours designing, building and decorating arcade games and other constructions. On Flex Days to come, they will critique, refine and field test their products, and this is just the first of many such design challenges to come at Ancona.
There’s nothing wrong with leading a child to the swings, but in our fast-paced and material world, it’s critical that we provide him the time and the places for wonder and flow.
Our annual 8th grade trip to Mexico is a transformative experience for our students. It is an amazing, multifaceted opportunity for language and cultural immersion, and having accompanied the trip several times, I cannot begin to tell you how gratifying it is to see how well our students handle themselves in challenging environs and to literally watch them mature before our eyes. In this final act of our Spanish program, we see our years of cultivating independence and confident risk-taking truly come to fruition.
These trips are rich. Along with Spanish classes, explorations in the Mercado, a tour of pre-Colombian ruins and an outing to unique geological formations, this year’s trip to the city of Oaxaca included a visit to the Fondación en Vía, a microfinancing organization that is affiliated with the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca where our students studied. This beautiful photo shows Joushua, Maria, Amir, Jaylen and Chad with Gloria, a tamale maker in the tiny village of Teotitlán del Valle outside of Oaxaca. She received a $100 grant from the Fondación to finance her tamale business. Gloria invited our students into her home where they witnessed the tamale-making process from start to finish, including, of course, sampling her delicious products.
This trip is the culmination of the experiential, authentic education we offer children for eleven years of their young lives. As they understood the impact microfinancing could have on one woman and her family, Chad suggested that the 7th/8th graders earmark the proceeds from their final Sandwich Shop of the year for the Fondación, and that it what the kids decided to do. I couldn’t be more proud.
Every day, we are teaching our students to translate the wonder of their educations into actions that will move the world. Could there be a more perfect of example of students using the lessons of their Ancona years to impact the lives of others?
Prelude: It turns out that writing a blog, even just one entry, is more fun than I ever imagined. My humble thanks to everyone who has read the blog and/or offered a comment.
Walking through the Ancona Library the other day, I heard Miss Marsha, our Librarian, buzzing like a bee and growling like bear, so I thought I’d stop and see what was going on. She was reading a Big Book — a book big enough for everyone to see easily — to a group of three and four-year-olds in her most animated storyteller voice. She paused and pointed to a picture, asking the children what it was. Several children called out fly; some called out bug; and one young voice said dragonfly, which it was.
The child who knew she was looking at a dragonfly possesses a valuable form of learning capital: background knowledge. Because she already recognizes a dragonfly, she has a head start on understanding the story and on recognizing the word when she comes across it in print. A recent New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/nyregion/specialized-high-school-admissions-test-is-racially-discriminatory-complaint-says.html?_r=1 examined the link between vocabulary development and possible bias in high school admissions testing. The author quoted the education theorist E. D. Hirsch saying there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.
What does it take to give a child a great head start with background knowledge? Things that are both free and precious: time, patience and experience. Real conversations with children build their vocabularies and their understandings of the world. They bring those rich vocabularies to their early reading experiences. Montessori and Progressive schools emphasize experience to create these authentic learning connections for children, but parents play a critical role, too.
Just think about a trip to the gas station. What is a pump? How does it work? Where does the gas come from? What is gas, anyway? Why does the car need it? What is fuel? What’s a gauge? What other things need fuel?
Or think about making pancakes. How do we get eggs and milk? What are the parts of an egg? How is wheat turned into flour? What is maple syrup? Why do we beat the eggs? Why do we measure the ingredients? The possibilities are endless. Such conversations not only develop a child’s vocabulary, they develop her curiosity, her competence and her sense of wonder about the world.
We know from brain science that emotional connections facilitate learning, so learning with one’s parent is powerful. On a hike in a Wisconsin nature reserve a few weeks ago, I saw a mother wade deep into the prairie flowers to carefully examine a bug with her preprimary-aged child. They looked at its markings, talked about its wings and antennae, discussed what it was doing on its leaf and looked around to find more. There is no workbook page or app that can substitute for that kind of experience (although, a mobile device could be very useful for identifying the bug if you don’t know what it is.).
There are no limits to these kinds of conversations, either. I had a high school friend who is now an M.I.T. physicist. His father was also a scientist, and I can remember him telling me as I struggled with physics that he simply grew up understanding the 1st Law of Thermodynamics. Now that’s some background knowledge!