“EDUCATION IS NOT FILLING A PAIL; IT’S LIGHTING A FIRE.”
The origin of this quote is in question, but there’s no doubt about the meanings. This was the foundation of my teaching over 44 years of working in kindergarten, first, and second grades in three different New York City Public Schools. Our inquiry was certainly intended to light those fires. Letting children choose the topics and then helping them find a variety of tools for doing the inquiry empowered them as researchers, not just in our classroom but for their whole lives.
For decades, my kindergarten and first grade students did inquiry – about their school, their community, and our other social studies and current events topics. Typically, we would start our research by my telling the children that we would be learning about our school, for example. Then the children would get to choose the topics related to our school. Oh my – almost anything was fine: the windows, the carpet at story circle, our clothes, the metal on the chairs and tables, the Legos, how we got water for the drinking fountains, the food in the lunchroom. For first graders, the topic was our community, so they had an amazing range of topic choices – cars and trucks, sidewalks, the 2nd Avenue subway, which was under construction around the corner, stuffed animals, chocolate, stores, restaurants, and even cupcakes! That’s so different from the days of my youth when we were taught tidbits of the same old information or misinformation passed on in schools through the decades.
INTERVIEWS – AN AWESOME TOOL FOR TEACHING DURING AND BEYOND THE PANDEMIC
Before teachers or student teachers get discouraged because you are teaching remotely or a combination of REMOTE and in-person, let me say that I am writing this with YOU in mind. I know that what I am saying about inquiry and about interviews can be adapted for your situation, which I know is in flux during the pandemic.
What I am sharing in this article is not a script meant to be followed step-by-step. Please feel free to adapt any of these suggestions as you wish. If the administration at your school doesn’t welcome inquiry, find ways to stretch the curriculum or just sneak inquiry in! It’s for students of any age. Family members and caregivers, please consider using interviews to supplement your children’s education.
Be on the lookout for the words REMOTE or zoom.
INTERVIEWS AS A RESEARCH TOOL
In this article, I’ll briefly outline what inquiry was in our classes. But then, I want to focus on one very important aspect of our search for answers to our questions – interviews. I went into depth about research and interviews in Classroom Interviews, a World of Learning (Heinemann, 1998) and The Research Workshop, Bringing the World into Your Classroom (Heinemann, 2001) The interviews in those books were in-person. Subsequent interviews we did were either in-person in the classroom or during trips, or they were virtual, on Skype. Skype worked, but there were often technical complications.
REMOTE: Now, during the pandemic, we have zoom and other platforms which make it really easy to interview people nearly anywhere on earth!
GETTING STARTED WITH OUR INQUIRY, OUR RESEARCH
As we gathered on the carpet at story circle, I explained to the students that we would be learning about our school, anything about our school. Then, children told what topics they wanted to learn about, and I hastily wrote down those topics in my journal. Even seeing me write down their topic choices was important. It was part of them understanding that I really wanted to know their interests. Student teachers, the assistant teacher, any family volunteers, and I sat down later with the list of topics and narrowed it down to 1 (or 2 if we had a student teacher).
At what we called RESEARCH WORKSHOP the next morning, I announced the first research topic(s), but promised that we would get to some of the other topics later in the year (and I kept that promise). Children raised their hands to indicate which research group they wanted to be in.
REMOTE: This can be done in a zoom gathering. Call on each child. Or children who can type can put their topic choices in the zoom chat. If there is an older sibling or adult present, they can type in the chat for your student.
FINDING TIME FOR RESEARCH WORKSHOP
The only way we had enough time to actually do research was to search for time. Here are just a few of the ways we created time for RESEARCH WORKSHOP:
- We eliminated morning meetings, which in many classrooms involved naming the day, the date, the weather (which might even change during the day), the number of days of school, and so on. We would deal with those topics as the day went on, or not.
- We worked on classroom management, getting supplies quickly, getting in and out of the coat closet and then in line more efficiently, and so on.
- Most importantly, we looked at inquiry as interdisciplinary – involving reading, writing, literature, math, science, social studies, art, music, and drama. If the research workshop got too exciting and lasted “too” long, that was ok because the research involved more than one curriculum area.
REMOTE: Seeing inquiry as interdisciplinary is the key to inquiry, especially with the need (and requirement) to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills.
Family involvement was so important in our classes. We made every effort to communicate with family members – at drop-off, pickup, on the phone, and by email. They were invited to help in the classroom at any time. In addition, every weekend I prepared a Family Homework bulletin which we printed at school for each family. Besides notices about upcoming happenings, I explained briefly about our work from the previous week in each subject area. (When my three sons were in school, they rarely would tell me what they did in school. Family Homework enabled family members to know and participate in the teaching and learning.) In the social studies section, I told families about our research groups, the questions, and the ways children proposed to find answers, and I told them about some of the actual research. If there had been an interview, I shared the main points from the interview and asked families to discuss them with their child. (See examples below.) I asked families to share resources with us (books, articles, pictures, videos, etc.). I asked them to suggest any trips that would help us learn about the topic. Also, I asked them if they or anyone they knew could come for an interview (in-person, at their work or home, or on Skype).
REMOTE: With all the complications of remote and in-person, depending on the local guidelines, a digital Family Homework bulletin would be helpful, and it would save paper. Allowing family members to look in on remote sessions should be allowed. Family members can be invaluable resources and can provide tremendous support if they are available, even for a short time.
In our classes, once the research group(s) about specific topics were established, children gathered in a circle so they could see one another. Usually, we met the first thing in the morning. These groups did research about their topic two-four times/week for weeks or even months. One of the days, the whole class gathered for an interview related to a research topic. Fridays were reserved for a trip to a local construction site where children drew pictures and/or wrote in their trip journal and talked with workers. An adult facilitated each group if there was more than one. For one or two days, the adult facilitated the following process:
- Tell what you already know about the topic. As children told what they already knew, an adult jotted that down in a journal so we could get an understanding of what various students already knew, who were the “experts,” who knew nothing about the topic, who may have had misinformation, and who may have known someone who taught them about the topic, etc. Perhaps that person could be invited for an interview.
- Ask questions. An adult jotted down the questions but later typed or printed them on a chart that is posted at child’s eye-level in the classroom. We shared the list of questions with the families in the Family Homework bulletin. Periodically, we worked with the children to review the list to see which questions were answered and which questions required more time and work. This enabled students to monitor the process and to see again that the class really was doing the research on a particular topic.
- Think of ways to find answers. This was critically important so that students would come to understand that there are many, many ways to find answers. The adult wrote down the suggestions and then put them on an eye-level chart that had room to add additional research tools. It could and should include standard and non-standard ways to find answers: books, videos, internet, phone, photographs, artwork, labels on clothing or other materials, lists of ingredients on food containers, cookbooks, experiments, family members, school staff, or friends, experts, maps, signs, etc. Children often listed things such as: think in your brain, ask a scientist or expert, go on a trip. Expanding the list of sources of answers enabled them to see the world as a resource. Learning to use more than one source was also important for helping even young students verify information. We shared that list with families.
- Do the research. The teacher and student teacher worked together to review the list of questions from their group and to decide which question their group would start with. That was based on assessing how to build a foundation of information about the topic before moving on to answer some of the other related but more complex questions. Or it was based on what kinds of resources we had available for finding answers. If we needed more time to gather resources to answer some of the questions, we started with the question where we did have immediate resources (books, videos, magazine articles, things, people to interview, and so on).
RESEARCH WORKSHOP was interactive and hands-on. It may have involved using some of the resources, role-playing to deepen understanding, doing experiments, inventing, and more. It often went “too” long because it was so much fun!
- Gather for Share Time. Right after RESEARCH WORKSHOP, we gathered again at story circle for Share Time. Children sat with members of their research group. They briefly talked about what they had done and what they had learned, so the content of the research “belonged” to the entire class.
REMOTE: Of course, it is not as easy to have RESEARCH WORKSHOP remotely. If groups are in breakout rooms, it would be easy to come back together for Share Time. RESEARCH WORKSHOP is possible, but that is the topic of another article. Teachers on Ethical Schools podcasts have done that. Perhaps you will share your experiences.
NOW TO THE MAIN FOCUS OF THIS ARTICLE: INTERVIEWS, IN-PERSON AND REMOTE
There are so many possibilities for doing inquiry remotely during the pandemic. One of the tools for inquiry that would be especially useful at this time is INTERVIEWS.
REMOTE: Back when Classroom Interviews was published, and decades before that, we conducted our interviews in the classroom or during a trip. Interviews might have been with construction workers at their work site, family members at home or at their job, workers at their jobs, or elsewhere. At one point, I realized that we could use Skype on our Smartboard or computer to interview people around the world. Skype was a bit clumsy back then. Zoom is so much easier. I’m sure other tools available, too.
THE INTERVIEW, in-person or REMOTE
- PREPARING FOR THE INTERVIEW. Our interviews evolved from the research. Families were notified about the interviews, so they could attend or just so they are aware of it. When we interviewed Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter, so many family members took off from work to attend. The same happened when Julie Chavez Rodriquez came directly from the White House where she worked at the Office of Public Engagement under President Obama for an interview about her grandfather’s efforts with farmworkers to stop the use of pesticides. Often, family members came to class when a parent, grandparent, or friend of another student came for the interview. They came for some of our Skyped interviews, too.
It’s really easy for family participation on zoom. Sometimes people prepared PowerPoint presentations. That became really messy when we interviewed on Skype, so sometimes we showed the PowerPoint a day or two in advance. With zoom, you can easily slip the PowerPoint, pictures, videos, and music into the share. Children and the teacher can ask questions during a PowerPoint. LOCATING THE PERSON YOU WILL INTERVIEW: If the person to be interviewed was in another city, town, state, or country, we showed that on a map or on Google Earth. BEWARE of using programs such as Google Earth on zoom without first testing them out without students present! Long delays in getting programs to work just aren’t good. Practice in advance.
2. USING WEBSITES: BEWARE of putting up websites that you haven’t checked out in advance of an interview! Sometimes a slight error, such as using .com instead of .org can cause a serious problem (including exposing children to a porn site instead of a legitimate website). You can always show a website someone recommends at an interview the next day.
3. AT THE INTERVIEW. I introduced the person who we would interview. Students said hello or good morning. We welcomed the guest to our class. On zoom have everyone unmute briefly to say hello.
A. ASKING QUESTIONS. Then I provided the context for the interview. For example: We’re doing research about how carpets are made. Jahan’s father, Talal, used to make carpets when he lived in Pakistan. So, let’s start by asking him one of the questions from our carpet research – the question about how he made carpets when he lived in Pakistan. Then I had a child ask that question. Framing the initial questions made it easier for the students to get started asking questions. We also avoided spending time on extraneous questions like, what is your favorite color, how many sisters and brothers do you have, and so on. Children got better at asking the questions. Of course, unexpected issues and topics often came up during interviews. I had to make judgement calls about whether to allow the interview to pursue those topics. I will never forget the interview of Dora Cruz, the grandmother of Kathy, one of the students. Dora was supposed to tell us about Puerto Rico, but the interview strayed to the topic of Dora’s mother. Dora had been caring for her mother who was in a wheelchair because of an amputation related to diabetes. The children and I were so moved by Dora’s love and dedication to her mother that I was perfectly happy to stray from the established topic. I invited Dora to come to our class every day/all day. She did that for the next three years until the principal, Shelley Harwayne, hired Dora to work fulltime as a paid school aid! That was 27 years ago, and we are still close friends!
Children can raise their hand, either in the zoom screen or with the zoom raised hand sign if they want to ask a question. (At an earlier date, show the children or families how to adjust the skin color of the raised hand on zoom.)
I called on children to ask questions, making sure to call on different children so that many children would have an opportunity to participate. In many classes, teachers tend to call on the same few children over and over. After a while, other children just stop participating.
Sometimes I didn’t wait for children to raise their hand, but rather, I just called on one child or more. When we call on only one child, it makes children assume there is one correct answer (unless there is). I often called on two or three children. Some children are scared to speak in-person and/or on zoom. I worked extremely hard to support children who were uncomfortable speaking up or didn’t know how to formulate a question or make a comment. I explained to the class that it was important to wait and allow everyone to speak. Absolutely NO ONE was allowed to interrupt another child or finish a child’s thought for them!
B. CLARIFYING THROUGH DISCUSSION. Sometimes the interviewee said something that only a few children understood. Or the person spoke with an accent that was unfamiliar to some children. Or they said something that I thought was important to understand and/or to remember. We stopped for a moment to have a discussion. I asked something like this, “What did Alexander’s mother mean when she said that milk chocolate doesn’t have much cacao?” We asked a few additional questions and had a discussion.
C. DEEPENING UNDERSTANDING THROUGH ROLE-PLAYS. During our inquiry about how tomatoes were grown, we learned about pesticides. When Jesse’s grandparents, Iris and Jerry, told us about their work to get a law to ban pesticides in their town, we stopped for a role-play. A child asked, “What did you do to get the law?” Answer: “First we wrote to members of the Town Council.” We created a role-play with children pretending to write letters and a few children who were the lawmakers. We asked if that worked, and Iris and Jerry said, “No.” Another child asked, “What did you do next? Answer: “We called the lawmakers.” Role-play: A child pretended to call a lawmaker. Answer: “I’m not interested.” Question, “What did you do next?” Answer: “We marched!” The whole class, including the parents who had come for the interview got up and marched around the classroom chanting, “Ban toxic pesticides, pass a law!” Those became the words in a class play we wrote together. Also, they became the words children chanted to New York City Councilman Ben Kallos, who, the next year, 2015, introduced a bill on behalf of our kindergarten class. That bill would ban Round-up and other toxic pesticides in New York City parks and public spaces. The bill (INTRO 1524) is still active and is up for a vote in 2021!
D. TAKING NOTES. Each child has an interview journal. Our interviews were usually the first thing in the morning, when they were most alert or whenever the person was available. The children gather at story circle or on zoom. Print the date and the name of the person we were going to interview on the smartboard or on the white board in zoom. During the interview, the teacher stops so children can take notes (by any means necessary).
At different points during the interview, I would stop so children could take notes about things I thought were important. In the beginning of the year when skills were sometimes limited, we might do a role-play about what Talal said. Then, I would ask, for example – How can you show in your journal that Talal worked at a machine where he had to tie knots really quickly while he was making carpets? You can draw pictures, write a letter, or write whole words or sentences. Every way you do it is fine. I would call on children to show their drawings, first letter of words, or words. I praised each of those ways of telling what Talal had said. Little by little, the writing got more sophisticated, but there were no judgement calls about one being better than the other.
On zoom it’s easy for the children to show their notes by just holding them up to the camera. After a while, some children were able to take running notes without any support while others still needed a few moments of quiet time to draw or write.
E. SAYING THANK YOU. I called on several children to say thank you, each in their own way. Sometimes the interview, whether in-person or long distance, went so well that the children formed a bond with the person they interviewed. The children loved Edward’s Uncle Matt, a farmer in Eastern Australia. They loved interviewing my friend Theodora Lacey, who taught for many years in Teaneck, NJ, organized for social justice in Bergen County, NJ, and was a friend of Rosa Parks and a leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Zoom makes it possible to interview people anywhere on earth that has internet! I thanked the person in our Family Homework.
4. AFTER THE INTERVIEW. Every interview was so different. We will remember some interviews forever. Sometimes we invited people to come back for a second or third interview! Here are some of the things that evolved from various interviews.
A. PAINTING A MURAL. When I thought it was important for children to remember certain interviews, we painted 10-foot murals about them. Painting murals was one of the choices at our Center Time. We created a space against the wall where children and an adult designed and painted murals together. Children wrote labels. Then we posted the murals in the classroom or in the hallway. During our inquiry about people who worked at our school, we interviewed the two cooks in the cafeteria, then we painted a mural about them.
B. WRITING A HOMEMADE BOOK. Either immediately after an interview or the next day, every child wrote one page about something from the interview that was important to them. Children chose paper from the writing center. We had printed paper with a blank space for a picture and 3, 4, 5, or more lines at the bottom. The children wrote in pencil and made pictures with colored pencils or crayons. At the beginning of the school year, when the children’s writing and handwriting skills were usually limited, I used a black Sharpie to print in “standard English” in a blank part of the picture what the children had written in “invented” or “approximated” spelling. I did that so we could then turn the children’s pages into a homemade book with a copy for each child. Printing a copy at school for each child was too expensive, but family members often were able to do that at work.
C. HOLDING READING WORKSHOP. We used the homemade books to develop reading and comprehension skills and to help children remember details about the interview. Children felt such pride in seeing their page in the book. Little by little, as writing (and reading) skills developed, the children’s writing got closer and closer to “standard English” spellings and their handwriting became more legible, thus eliminating the need for me to write with the Sharpie.
At the Reading Workshop we used the books for reading for a few days. Children predicted what we would see in that book, and each of these predictions became a “lesson.” For example, if someone predicted we would see the word grow, because Uncle Matt would grow wheat at his farm, we might look at the ow sound in grow and think of lots of other words that had the ow with that same ow sound – show, slow, glow, snow. We’d write them on the board. Someone might say that no, go, ago had that sound. We’d write them on the board. We saw that sometimes ow said ow as in cow or how. Someone may have predicted the word farm would be in the book about Uncle Matt. I would say a funny story about the ar sound that was in the word farm. We’d come up with lots of words that had that sound: car, park, jar, dark.
In addition, we added some of these words children predicted to our classroom word wall because it might be a word they would want to use in future writing. This way we developed our word wall with our own sight words. If someone predicted we would see the word hole, I would write hole but then write whole so we could learn about homophones with the same sound, different meanings, and different spellings. The children often went wild with excitement about homonyms, homophones, and synonyms – none of which were actually part of the official curriculum but are a fascinating aspect of language and reading.
This non-traditional word study, teaching phonics, vocabulary, learning about elements of the English language, and whole language skills proved to be so much fun, the children hardly knew they were working so hard! We worked and laughed and learned.
Children took the book home, read it to their families. Family members already knew about each interview because that was discussed in the weekly Family Homework bulletin. So often, the content of the homemade books sparked conversations about that topic – someone in their family who had been a farmer, someone in their family who had been a coal miner or a carpenter, and so on. Decades later, families are still telling me that they saved a copy of every homemade book from their year in our class.
After zoom interviews, children can draw a picture and write. Teachers can email paper to families or even mail a supply of the special lined paper when necessary. There are times during remote learning day when teachers or other staff can provide support for writers – one-on-one or in small groups in breakout rooms. Teachers or assistant teachers can also use FaceTime for individual support. In early childhood grades, there is no need for extensive editing of this writing. Children should have access to a growing list of basic site words on a word wall (typed on a paper or posted on cardboard on a wall at home).
Completed pages for the homemade book can be e-mailed to the teachers who can then compiled into a book. Then, the full book can be sent to each family. There’s a lot of extra work involved whether in-person or remote, but the pride children experience from seeing their page in the homemade book means so much. And the learning coming out of these interviews can last a lifetime.
INTERVIEWS AND THE FIGHT FOR DECENCY AND FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
So often, people we interviewed raised issues or even talked about their work for social justice. Often, they were kind, thoughtful, and caring people who served as role-models. I’ll never forget when Yatziri’s father, a carpenter, came to his interview with about 50 pieces of wood, each with a small hole. With his help, we assembled the wood into an evergreen tree, which I still have years after that interview. Francisco was so kind and thoughtful, and the students felt that and surely remember him to this day. While we had a number of “celebrity” interviews with people like Cesar Chavez’ granddaughter, Julie Chavez Rodriquez, and Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, most of our interviews were of parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighborhood storekeepers, construction workers, and staff at our school.
What was always amazing to me is that there is so much we don’t know about people but that we can find out if we take time to ask questions.
SOME EXAMPLES OF SKYPED and IN-PERSON INTERVIEWS
Cupcake research: Cupcakes was one of the topics requested during a first grade community inquiry. During our research about restaurants in the neighborhood, children in our student teacher, Megan’s group decided to focus on the wheat in cupcakes. I’ll skip the very exciting in-school research and the PowerPoint Megan made from a trip to a flour mill in a town in Clifton, NJ, and I’ll move right to the interviews that were part of this inquiry. By the way, we learned that producing flour is dangerous. The factory Megan and I visited in New Jersey had blown up a few decades ago. Absolutely NO children were allowed in the factory.
In the Family Homework, I asked the families if they knew anyone connected in any way to our list of questions about wheat: growing wheat, making flour, or explaining whether wheat it is good for us. What luck! Based on the family responses, we did these amazing interviews in 2012 -2013.
Of course, Megan helped us bake cupcakes!
Edward’s Uncle Matt is a wheat farmer in Western Australia – east of Perth. (I taught all three Hebiton-Barnett boys, so we “went back” to Australia a few times over the years. Uncle Matt also raises sheep, so we were able to go back to him for another interview when we were doing research about wool for making carpets.) In advance of the Skyped interview, we saw Uncle Matt’s huge wheat farm on Google Earth. That was truly amazing!
Matt made a PowerPoint for us so we could see his wheat fields. He even put a head of the wheat right up to the camera during the interview. (He made a video of the workers shearing the sheep for the interview about wool.) During our interview at 9 am in New York City, Matt told us that his daughters were sleeping because it was 9 pm in Australia. One of the children thanked him for staying up so late so we could interview him! That was so sweet.
Matt told us that if you could drill a hole through the earth from our classroom and keep on going straight down, we would get to his farm! That led to some additional research about the earth’s rotation around the sun, day and night, time zones, and other related topics. Some children already knew about the molten rock inside the earth and shared that information with us. (The side topics and personal stories that come up during interviews can be fascinating.) What is so special about interviews is that they tend to be multi-disciplinary in essence. This interview involved geography, earth science and geology, agriculture, time-zones, family, weather, kindness, and more.
Ava’s third cousin, Larry, and his wife, Lynn, are wheat farmers in Nebraska. Their young grandchildren sat on their Larry and Lynn’s laps during the Skype interview. They had prepared a PowerPoint that we saw in advance of the interview. We saw their wheat fields, the farm equipment, the barn, and their house. Also, in advance, we found their small town on Google Earth. That interview meant so much to Ava and her family as Ava hadn’t even known about these relatives who proved to be such an important resource to our class.
Amelia’s Aunt, Tita Pils, lives in the Philippines! You might wonder why go to the Philippines to learn about wheat? Amelia pleaded with me to interview her Aunt for our research about wheat. So, I thought about it and asked her family to contact Tita Pils. Tita Pils told Amelia that very little wheat was grown in the Philippines but that there was lots of rice. She said she is not a farmer but promised that she and her family would do research about growing rice in the Philippines and would prepare a PowerPoint slideshow for us.
This was a predicament for me and our student teacher. We were learning about wheat, not rice. But, for millions of people around the world, rice is the wheat. Why not make this research multicultural and global in essence? While we continued our research about wheat, we also made this detour. We asked Amelia’s aunt and her family to come for an interview on Skype. They took a few weeks to prepare an amazing slideshow about growing rice in the Philippines. They showed us photos of ancient terraces where rice has been grown for centuries. They showed water buffalo that are used to plow the rice paddies (in 2012). What an awesome interview! Amelia’s family sang happy birthday to my student, Andrew, in Tagalog!
|Excerpt from Family Homework, Nov. 26, 2020:
Interview – Last Wednesday we interviewed Amelia’s Aunt, Tita Pils, who lives with her family in the Philippines. We thought we could interview her about wheat, but she said that there is almost no wheat grown in her country. The important grain they grow is rice. So, we sent her many questions about how rice is grown and how rice is served, etc. Tita Pils made a great PowerPoint slideshow of pictures to answer our questions. How wonderful.
We Skyped the interview! The rice in the Philippines is mostly planted by hand. The muddy rice paddies are plowed by buffaloes which pull small plows. The rice is picked by hand. It is put into huge bags by hand. It is loaded onto trucks and is used in the Philippines. Or it is loaded onto ships and is exported to countries around the world!
Tita Pils told us that her family eats rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She showed us photos of her family as well as the rice dishes.
She said that even McDonalds sells special rice dishes such as rice burgers with buns made from rice and chicken with rice. (In the US people eat wheat products 3 meals a day – cereals, breads, rolls, pasta, etc.)
Tita Pils’ daughters and husband were there during the interview. We got to meet them. Her daughter played guitar while they all sang happy birthday to Andrew (from our class) in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. Wow!
What a great interview. You will get to read about it in our homemade book in a few weeks. Thanks so much to Amelia’s mother, Maria, who helped arrange the interview. We really appreciate all the work she did to make this happen. A special thanks to Tita Pils.
Midori taught us how to make rice balls during the interview. She said that water from Mt. Fuji flowed into the rice
paddies (see the slide from her PowerPoint).
Seeing the water buffalo in the Philippines was such a surprise to Midori, Kotaro’s mom. Midori is from Japan and was volunteering every day in our classroom as she was learning to speak English, something she really wanted to do. Midori said that they don’t use water buffaloes to plow in Japan, that the whole rice industry is mechanized. She and her children had gone to a program in Japan for six months where they learned about growing rice. Midori volunteered to work with her family to teach us about growing rice in Japan. Her family taught her to speak English in the process, so her PowerPoint presentation in class was a huge accomplishment and a huge success! She cried with joy when she finished. It was a marvelous in-classroom experience.
|Excerpt from Family Homework, week of January 2, 2012:
Reading – When our class did word study with our homemade book about our interview of Kotaro’s mother, Midori, someone predicted that we would see the words rice balls. That’s because after Midori and Kotaro told us about growing rice in Japan, Midori taught us how to make rice balls. Each of us got to make one. Yummy! When we took a closer look at the word balls, we saw the word all. We found so many other words with the same sound as all: call, tall, small. Also, we found some words with that same sound but a different spelling: Paul, Paula, crawl. By, the way, please stop by to see the magnificent mural Kotaro and Midori made about the interview! It is in the hallway across from our classroom. It has wonderful labels made by several of the children. You will love it.
Valentina’s father, Mark, was about to show us photos of the rice paddies and sugar cane fields in Trinidad. We saw the photos on the computer because the Smartboard wasn’t working that day.
Again, in the Family Homework, I described the interviews, and families read the homemade books about each interview. Again, I asked if there was anyone whose family did rice farming. Sure enough, Valentina’s father, Mark, grew up on a farm in Trinidad where his family grew rice and sugarcane. It was amazing to the children when they got to eat real sugar cane a few days after that interview in our classroom. Mark’s family used water buffaloes! Here we were travelling around the world learning about rice as well as the plows pulled by water buffaloes vs modern mechanized plows!
Eva’s mother, Ana, was a medical worker. She came for an interview about whether wheat was healthy for us. She explained about the different parts of the grain of rice, each with different health impacts: the germ, the endosperm, the sperm, and the bran. A student teacher created a clever model of that for us to hold and take apart.
During the summer of 2005, I went for 1 week to Thailand to stay with the grandmother of two of my students, Lisa and James. Nisakorn, the mother took me to the rice paddy where her mother was working. We saw farmers using small plows and, when we went past large farms, we saw large tractors. Each paddy was surrounded by a trench for irrigation. Nisa came to our class in 2007 when James was in our class. The interview was part of our research about water and irrigation. Because I had a good working relationship with so many of the families, I often invited them back two, three, four and more times during different school years about the same topic or even about different topics.
This is Petrana singing the brick making song at her interview. The children were stunned by this and other photos we saw of young children making bricks.
Brick Research: More than once during first grade research about how bricks were made for our school, we interviewed Petrana Koucheva, a paraprofessional at our school, PS 290. We had worked together for several years when Petrana was assigned to work with special needs children who were in my classes. When Petrana was a child in Bulgaria, she and the other children gathered around the elders and made bricks from the very special clay that washed down from the mountain to the river. That was done only on special occasions to help provide bricks for neighbors.
During the interview, we role-played the various steps in making bricks by hand. When the children followed Petrana to our (pretend) river to get water for making the bricks. (Actually, Petrana said that the girls went to the river and the boys did a different part of the job.) As the children followed her, Petrana sang a special brickmaking song in Bulgarian!
The special thing about interviews is that they can take you far, far beyond your original topic. The children learned that Petrana is a world-famous singer of Balkan folk music!
We interviewed Viviana’s mother, Pia, who was an expert on artwork in ancient India. We had an in-person interview of Pia about clay sculptures and about bricks. We ended up learning from Pia about child labor in brick making. We role-played the brick making process, as Petrana sang the children’s brick making song. She is a world-famous singer of Balkan folk music, something we learned because we asked lots of questions.
We interviewed Jahan’s grandfather, who owns a large brickmaking factory in Pakistan. Jahan’s mother, Amna, arranged for her father’s friends to create a video for us about the brickmaking complex. We saw that video before the Skyped interview. If only we had had zoom, it would have been so much easier. Jahan’s mother, Amna, had volunteered so much in our classroom that I recommended she be hired as a teaching assistant the next year. Amna taught us a lot about child labor in brick making in Pakistan.
Social activism. During that inquiry we contrasted Petrana’s experience which was not child labor with child labor during the production of bricks in various parts of the world. We went on to learn a lot more about child labor in brick making and other products such as soccer balls, coffee, and even chocolate. Because the children were so upset about the child labor issue, we learned about FAIRTRADE. We ate fair trade chocolates with varying amounts of cacao. We interviewed our principal at the time, Sharon Hill, about picking cacao in Jamaica when she was a child (not child labor), and we interviewed a number of other people.
It’s so important for teachers and parents to discuss these issues in an age-appropriate way. I believe we should never allow a situation where children remain upset or even depressed about an issue. The only way to prevent that is for us to find ways to be proactive in helping solve the problem. We often gathered to make a list of what we could do about the problem. And the list could range from small actions to large actions: make phone calls, write letters, emails, and news articles, write songs, poems, and plays, teach other people, get laws passed, march, raise money, and more. It was my hope that children would remember this for the rest of their lives. I know that many of them have.
The children became such strong advocates of FAIRTRADE, that we worked with a team of family members and organized a hugely successful FAIRTRADE sake that raised $2000 which we donated to an organization that was doing work on sweat shops and child labor! Also, the children wrote articles for a newsletter. They wrote a play which they produced for their families at a Family Celebration in the evening and for the whole school during the day!
About our student teacher Megan, who worked in our class from September to early November 2012. She was outstanding! Her Restaurant research group decided to focus on cupcakes! These are two excerpts from our Family Homework.
|September 19, 2012 Restaurants – Megan’s group is focusing first on their questions about how restaurants get flour for cupcakes. If you have any information about flour – where it is grown, how the grains are turned into flour…. please let us know. This might include actual grains, places in the city where we can learn about this, DVD’s, photos, art, people we can interview, etc. If you have any relatives who were grain farmers in the US or in any other country, let us know. We can have interviews in the classroom, by telephone, and even by Skype (if they are far away).
September 24, 2012 Restaurants – Megan’s group thought about ways to make flour faster. They drew some inventions. Then, they used a grinder which Megan brought to class. It’s similar to a coffee grinder. That worked so much faster. This week Megan will take all of the children on a tour of the Bay State Mill, a flour mill in Clifton, NJ. Megan took photos and videos during her tour. I went there also, but on a different day. It was an amazing factory. They produce tons of flour. Their wheat is from North Dakota and other states in the mid-west. It arrives by train. By the way, when I was in Pennsylvania recently, I saw the state flag. It has pictures of wheat on it! So, I looked at the flags of other states to see if I could find wheat. I found wheat on the flags of Nebraska and Idaho!!! How interesting. I Googled: state flags. Then I read about the details of each flag.
Vehicles – My group began our research about windows in cars, trucks, construction vehicles, and other vehicles. If you have any resources about windows or about glass, please let us know. If you know anyone we can interview, please tell us.
*The photos were taken by Paula Rogovin or by family or staff members at PS 290, except the photo of children carrying bricks, which was on a poster.
About Paula Rogovin
Paula retired in July 2018, after 44 years of teaching kindergarten, first, and second grades in New York City Public Schools. She taught at PS 132 and PS 173 in Washington Heights, and at PS 290 (the Manhattan New School) on the Upper East Side. She is a mother of three adult sons and three grandchildren. Paula has been a lifelong peace and environmental justice activist. She wrote the following books: Classroom Interviews: A World of Learning (Heinemann); The Research Workshop: Bringing the World into Your Classroom (Heinemann); Why Can’t You Behave: Creative Classroom Management; Apartheid is Wrong: A Curriculum for Young People (UN Center Against Apartheid).
Click here to listen to our podcast episode “Creating a social justice early childhood classroom” with Paula.