Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Two rules and three goals of string learning

After many years of using "Never Around the Neck" as a Rule, my #1, I've changed that to

  • Always play safe with the string

so that the whole range of things not to do, of which around the neck and various horse associations strings always seem to bring up in kids are at the top of my list, becomes open-ended and complex.

Rule #2 has also morphed as a result of my full-time experience with 250 kids a day:

  • Strings are only for String Time, which you mostly only get in my class
One of the teachers asked me to have the students keep their string in my classroom, so they wouldn't have to deal with kids bringing the strings back into their classroom. I've compromised so that on their last day of the week with me they get to take their strings home with them. Their out-of-class practice time is so important, it's where they connect with friends and family and perhaps spark some deeper interest. At first I thought the request somewhat silly and annoying, but it's actually been very helpful. I have envelopes I use in class for the students to keep their strings until the end of the week, so I have them put their strings away early if we're going into activities, like singing, where I want their total attention to something quite different from string. 

When they need to have the string ready for a practice, but I need to make a correction or addition to the instructions, I use "No strings on fingers!" as a way to rein in a lot of very involved children. It's much easier when the students have desks, and I use the command to show me a triangle or a rectangle on top of their desks with the string as a way to get them to stop. 

My Ah-Ha of the evening, which came as I was watering the garden, was what I realized as I said them were the Three Goals of String Learning:

  • Respect the String
  • Inspect the Loom
  • Thank the Source

The idea of respecting the string came to me as I imagined how the students will deal with the new classroom arrangement they'll have next week: instead of the circle of chairs which we've been in for the last three weeks, we'll have four large rectangular tables arranged in the center of the room as one big table, with all the chairs around the table, and art supplies and string and yarn of all kinds in the center. So if I'm going to put out my personal collection of mostly natural fibers of all kinds and types for the students to be able to inspect and use, I'll need to set up guidelines about how to treat these threads and strands with respect--literally, to look again at something you think you saw, and try to go to another level with the same thing.

Inspecting the loom is basically what we are doing all day--using our fingers as a kind of loom, and learning the basics of weaving--how the threads catch each other to form loops and twirls and arcs and knots. We practice a lot with finger games, and it's a marvel to see these first and second graders, many of whom have never imagined themselves as dextrous in any way at all approaching the level of skill they now show with less than three weeks of a few repetitions per week. I can feel the genuine interest in setting a personal challenge and asserting the need for help to achieve it – "I want to learn the Magic Carpet" – which many third graders have expressed now that they have strings long enough to attempt it. The drop spindle I brought it has attracted some interest, and next week I hope to have an example of some weaving in progress. By November I'm hoping that even the first graders will be able to grasp more of the meaning of fiber in their lives.

Which brings me to the third goal: Thank the Source. I hope to have students come away with the knowledge that the things we use for our games, clothes, and often our shelter, are woven materials that come ultimately from our earth, perhaps as petroleum, the source for the synthetic fiber the students mostly use for their string games, almost as much of it from plants, like cotton and flax and sisal, and a preciously small portion from animals, now that wools and furs are almost exclusively high end goods. In each source area, there are processes to acknowledge and appreciate, and workers whose skill and care deserve our thanks.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Rainbow of Circles

Whoopee! Got approval from the principal to do one of my wild and crazy ideas: to give the kids an experience of how to make a circle, each one gets measured with a piece of string, then we go outside and take turns holding one end of the string in the center and having the child trace the circle her height makes with playground chalk. Eventually we'll get almost three hundred concentric circles...


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Three Big Words, Four Little Words: My Seven Word Curriculum Plan

I am now more than half way through the second week of my two-month Residency in String Games, teaching 80 first graders, 80 second graders, and 100 third graders how to do string figures. I have each class (eleven classes!) for three 40 minute periods each week.

As part of a personal exercise in curriculum development, I chose not to write lesson plans for any of the classes. I've had so much experience teaching string games to all the primary grades that I knew I could wing these introductory weeks, and I knew what vocabulary and skills I needed to put into place to sow the seeds for later plans I hadn't really detailed out yet in my mind.

Ambidexterity is a big word that I introduce in all my string classes, and I've developed a clear way to communicate the idea of the brain development facilitated by bilateral activity: I explain to the kids that when I say, "Eyes on me," one of the calls I use when the class has been engaged in a practice session and I need their attention, what they need to do is look at my left eye--I point to it, and explain a bit about how I lost my right eye in an accident. Then I talk about how it's really not a big deal, because the eyes are wired differently from much of the rest of the body--each eye connects directly to the vision centers in the brain, and they can see by just putting a hand over one eye that the world doesn't really look much different with only one eye. I'll often talk a little about depth perception, and how I make mistakes several times a week about how big something is or how far away it is, but it's not that hard to figure out the mistakes--moving your head a little is almost the same as binocular vision.

But think about how different things would be if you had only one hand, or arm, or leg.

Most of the bilateral parts of the body are each wired to the opposite side of the brain, so bilateral activity, and especially manual ambidexterity, creates new pathways across the two hemispheres which can then be used for other connections between the ordered and the intuitive sides of our mental capacity.

That's the first big word I teach the kids. The other two are "Repertoire" and "Portfolio." I start almost immediately talking about how they each need to keep a mental checklist of their personal string repertoire, because they're all going to be helper teachers, and we as a class need to know what they can each teach us. And as we go on learning more and more, I'm going to be asking them to create a Portfolio that shows what they know. I had first thought of manila folders or envelopes for each student, and then I remembered how we used to take large pieces of construction paper and fold them to make student folders.

Our four little words for the two months are:

  1. Circle
  2. Sequence
  3. Cycle
  4. Spiral

I'll write more about what the plans are around those words soon...

Here's a worksheet I developed for seventh graders--there will be quite a different format for the primaries!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Two Month Residency as a Full-Time String Game Teacher!

A friend I visited yesterday, bringing back her table to set up for her birthday party, remarked on how good I looked. Really these days I am glowing like the King's Favorite Jester. A local elementary school where I've substitute-taught many times, and know the staff and administration, called a week ago Friday to ask if I would do a two-month long-term substitute job for them, replacing their music teacher, who had to take a leave of absence. I said I couldn't teach music, but would be happy to teach string games. They said, "Whatever you want to do is fine."

I've just completed my first full week as a an official Teaching Artist, teaching string figures as my art. I am humbled and amazed at how the universe answered me, so clearly and directly: I remember saying to Dan in one of the Connected Learning Drop-In sessions a year or so ago, "What I really want is for someone to pay me to teach string games full-time!"

Since one student did say "I miss doing music," I am pondering how to have each grade level (First, Second, Third) learn a different song, which they will share in our culminating performance. Here are my notes so far:

  • 1st: Make new Friends
We Are All Kin=Family=where we get the word “kind”
  • 2nd: A song about the seasons--any suggestions?
Things change, and then they cycle around again
  • 3rd: This Land Is Your Land
You and me Makes a We: How do we talk to and listen to (and talk about) people who are different from each other?