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Big Learning News 6-15-04

Big Learning News
Karen Cole's Guide to Real-World Learning with Kids
Issue 2:23 June 15, 2004

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Table of Contents

Commentary: Connecting School and Home
Book Review: A Kid's Guide to Building Forts
Web Site: Endangered Species ARKive


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Commentary: Connecting School and Home

A great school project can bridge the gap between home and school by inspiring kids to explore further at home and teaching them the skills they need to do it independently. My son's third grade class recently completed a project that did that for us. At school, each child wrote a book on an animal of their choice. After researching their animal, they typed their information on the computer, chapter by chapter. They printed their writing, and glued the pages into hardcover blank books. They also glued in photos and other illustrations. On the back, their classmates wrote comments in praise of the book, just like you see on published books.

At home, my son decided he wanted to write more books. He made blank books by stapling several sheets of paper together, and then duplicated the process he had learned in school, researching other animals and also non-animal subjects, writing chapters, and gluing text and photos into his blank books. Naturally I was in heaven watching all this, and I wrote to his teacher to find out more about the school project.

His teacher, Amita Mongia, says the project does seem to engage a lot of students. "Many students are wonderful artists, and can convey their message through drawings, computer graphics, or pictures from magazines. It opens them up to the world of text features [such as using boldface, italics, fonts and color], and some alternative ways of conveying meaning. Some of my most reluctant writers become completely dedicated to writing. I also love celebrating them as authors by using the blank books. It's such a great confidence builder."

A few years ago I worked on a research project that looked for elements of successful school multimedia projects. Mrs. Mongia's book project has many of the same elements we identified: a strong connection to the real world, sustained effort over time, integration of several different parts of the curriculum, student design choices, and use of more than one kind media (text, photos, and drawings) to communicate a message. You can read more about this research at http://pblmm.k12.ca.us .

School projects with these features have become an endangered species in many places, with teachers being pressured to give them up to make room for activities with a clear relationship to increased standardized test scores. At the same time, schools are being pressed to strengthen the connection between home and school. By eliminating engaging projects from the school curriculum, schools miss out on the most natural home-school connection possible: children so enthralled with school learning that they initiate it at home with their families.

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Book Review

A Kids' Guide to Building Forts by Tom Birdseye, Illustrated by Bill Klein (Harbinger House, 1993). Ages 9 and up.


I love the way this book captures the imagination, empowering kids to build their own unique and sturdy space. It includes instructions for building forts in the back yard, at the beach, in the snow, and even indoors. The author, Tom Birdseye, explains generally useful techniques - for example, how to lash two poles together. But rather than provide detailed plans, most of his ideas leave plenty of room for kids to design their own fort.

This book is a little out of its time - I thought it was an old book before I saw the 1993 copyright. Birdseye assumes that everyone lives near a ready source of sturdy branches and discarded house materials. He is casual about safety despite a vague "safety first!" warning at the beginning of the book, harkening back to a time when no one worried much about kids handling large heavy junk items. For these reasons the book needs to be taken with a grain of salt and more than a dash of parental supervision. But the book's spirit is contagious and should inspire hours of summer fun.

Buying information

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Web Site

Endangered Species ARKive

Any kid who likes animals will love this site. "It is the Noah's Ark for the Internet era," says their "About" page. You'll find photographs, video, and information about hundreds of endangered species from around the world. There is also a companion site for teachers, at http://www.arkiveeducation.org , with lesson plans and project ideas. A site just for kids is in the works, but right now it's not nearly as interesting as the main site. You can check it out at http://www.planetarkive.org .

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