Friday, November 30, 2012

The Game of Life

While studying Native American cultures, we focused on four geographic regions and one culture for each. As a culminating assignment, I decided to have the kids create a board game, based on the "Game of Life" showing real-life situations and events in the everyday life of the Iroquois, Cheyenne, Hopi and Kwakiutl.

Most of the kids in class were already familiar with the basic workings of the classic Milton Bradley board game, so adapting it to simplified rules worked well for our class. I provided the students with a game board template and we devoted the first day to labeling the spaces on the board with realistic events. Students also created types of currency specific to their culture and region to replace the fake money used in the game.

You can find several great game board templates here.

As far as a grading rubric, I required that students fill the spaces with accurate and appropriate facts and life events and that they decorate the background with authentic scenery and objects, create a directions sheet, and make currency bills based on traded objects.

Even though each group was working with the same template, each game was unique. The students created different rules, different currencies and different situations. One of primary goals in teaching Native American cultures was to ensure that the students understood the diversity of environments and cultures. Many people assign various stereotypes to American Indian cultures or combine aspects from different cultures into one inaccurate perception. With these games, however, there was no question that the experience of being Hopi, Iroquois, Kwakiutl or Cheyenne were very distinct and that their environments and ways of life were tremendously different.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


We have all heard the story of Columbus's voyage from the European perspective, but what would it have looked like to the Taino? There are countless written records of the Spanish experience from journals and other accounts, but little remains of the Taino. They were virtually wiped out within 50 years of Columbus's arrival and many of their crafts and artifacts were either lost, destroyed, or in the case of gold objects, melted down to add to the royal Spanish coffers.

As a result, it is impossible to know exactly what their experience was like. Jane Yolen, however, the famous  author of young adult novels like The Devil's Arithmetic and several picture books, has researched the Taino and created her interpretation of what this first encounter must have been like. In the picture book Encounter, Yolen describes Columbus's arrival in the perspective of a young Taino boy.

Just as the Spanish described the strange customs, attire and appearance of the "Indians," Yolen's narrator makes the same observations of the "parrot-like" appearance, "pale moon" skin and bushy beards of the soon-to-be conquerors.

While most discussions of Columbus's discovery/exploration/devastation of the so-called West Indies are now more nuanced and include conversations about slavery, illness, greed and racism, few yet consider the viewpoint of the Taino. I have found that this book strikes a chord with students of all ages and I often use it to begin our discussion of Columbus and New Spain.

Many students used to wonder why American Indians behaved in the ways that they did in welcoming the strangers and making unwise trades and treaties for seemingly useless objects. This book, however, captures the wonder, custom, religion and even some greedy desire on the side of the Taino and represents them not as naive and child-like as so many accounts do, but as victims with their own beliefs and agendas.

The story is short and relatively simple and makes for a good introductory read-aloud for students of all ages. The discussions that arise from the text and the widened perspective that results are much more complex and valuable. The kids really enjoy reading literature, particularly outside the usual material, so I highly recommend using books like this to expand the conversations in your classroom.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Teaching Thanksgiving (with Meaning)

So it's almost Thanksgiving and you have one of those shortened weeks burdened with play practice and pressure to keep the homework load to a minimum. Several kids will miss class due to family travel and so you are looking for a low-stakes but meaningful activity to discuss Thanksgiving. The kids have been making paper pilgrim hats since they were in kindergarten, so what is there to do?

Here are a few ideas, some of which I will be trying with my students over the coming days:

Thanksgiving Placemats
The reality is that Thanksgiving day pretty much entirely revolves around the food. Why not bring the facts and meaningful conversation to the food?

Students can use either Microsoft Word or Publisher to design a placemat on 11" x 17" paper. They can include authentic pictures and facts, as well as thought-provoking discussion questions for conversation at the dinner table. Most  larger color laser printers will accommodate this size paper, so you can print a set of four placemats for each student. Finally, they can be made even more durable with a quick run through the laminator.

Two Thanksgivings
It just so happens that our study of Native American cultures perfectly aligned with the Thanksgiving holiday this year. I wanted to make sure we addressed the historical and cultural aspects of the holiday before launching into the five-day weekend.

In the past, I have written about using text-rendered poems as a tool for summarizing and capturing main ideas. I decided to have the students read two different perspectives of the Thanksgiving story and create a text-rendered poem of each. The catch was that each of the two groups were unknowingly reading two different stories. At the end of class, they presented their poems and discussed the differences between the stories. Both were a little extreme, one from a very positive, traditional perspective and the other from a very negative, more controversial perspective.

So what's the truth? Perhaps it's not possible to really know. There are certainly tragic elements to the story, but there is also that original unity of different cultures. We cannot know which message was truly in the hearts of those figures in history who promoted and promulgated the holiday, so I left it to the students. What will you celebrate when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner? What should you remember? How should you recognize the tragedy while also celebrating the message of thanks and unity?

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For our positive interpretation, I used's Thanksgiving at Plymouth article from their website. For the less cheery perspective, I used Susan Bates's The Real Story of Thanksgiving. There are plenty of sources out there, however, so it is easy to find two stories that suit the ability levels and readiness of your group. Bates's story does include some violent descriptions, so teachers of younger readers may want to look for something more age appropriate.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Ancient Ulama

Inspired by my reading of The Ball by John Fox, I decided that playing a round of the ancient Aztec game, ulama, would be a great way to start talking about Aztec society and culture. As Fox asserts in his book, ball games not only unify people in cultures all over the world, but their rules and play provide great insight into the cultures that created them.

Note: To read my previous post on John Fox's The Ball, click here.

Though the game has changed significantly over the centuries, ulama is a traditional ballgame that started with the ancient Aztecs and is still played in some regions of Mexico. The original rules are complex and the scoring system is difficult to master, but in our modified game, we played with rules similar to volleyball or tennis. The ulama court is generally a long, thin corridor marked with paint or chalk or, more traditionally, walled in with slanted stone walls.

The object of the game is to volley the ball back and forth, hopefully causing the other team to make an error. In our modified game, points were awarded for causing the other team to miss the ball in bounds. Traditionally, the game is played with a heavy nine-pound natural rubber ball, but we just used a soccer ball.

The real challenge in ulama, however, is hitting the ball. It is illegal in ulama to use one's hands or feet. Because the traditional ball is so heavy and dense, the Aztecs used their hips and upper thigh to hit the ball as it could have caused serious injury to arms and feet.

To prepare for our round of ulama, we read a brief handout in class and watched the minute-long video from ESPN embedded below. I then explained our modified rules, grabbed my whistle and headed out to the playing fields.

It was really difficult to get used to using only hips to hit the ball, but once they got the hang of it, the kids had a blast! Make the rules work for you and your group, grab a soccer ball and immediately grab the kids attention to start learning about Mesoamerican cultures!

Be Part of the Techie Movement!

As a small, independent school, we are members of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, or PAIS. This year, a few colleagues and I decided to launch an online web 2.0 tools boot camp in conjunction with the PAIS. We are certainly not the first to think of this boot camp idea, but I absolutely love the fact that anyone can start their own!

The basic idea is to share free, simple web 2.0 tools with others, then for all members to share their experiences via a wiki or a website. For our boot camp, we decided to create a free Google site that allowed users to comment on the individual pages. We also wanted the tools to be approachable for all levels of comfort with technology and the pacing to fit a busy teacher's schedule.

Our site features one web tool or idea per month and teachers may take the entire month to experiment with the tool. We then ask that they comment and leave advice, feedback and experiences about how the tool worked in their classrooms. Each month, we send out an email blast reminding users of the new tool and guiding them to the website for further instructions.

Below is a partial screenshot of the site. Each month has a page dedicated to a particular web tool or method for teachers to explore.

The specific site for each tool provides directions and links. Participants range from K-12, so their feedback is valuable for using tools for various age levels, subjects and abilities. At the bottom of each page is a field for leaving comments with questions and feedback.

There are a few things that I find really exciting about these boot camp type programs. First of all, my colleagues and I have been able to actively communicate and collaborate with teachers all over the state. There are over 130 members in our program and it sounds like members are even sharing their findings with other non-members at their respective schools. Second, it was relatively easy for us to set up a free Google site and share it with dozens of people. Lastly, because of the self-paced, yet guided nature of the site, teachers are finding that it fits into their schedules as busy professionals.

For security reasons, our site is secured to members only. So why am I sharing this on my blog? Because anyone can do it and share their nifty tips and tricks with the world and get a whole lot back in return. Our monthly boot camp originally started as a collaborative site just within our school, but it has expanded to include the entire PAIS. You can begin your own boot camp for sharing tech ideas in your own school, community or district, too! Start a free site, invite some people to share (long distance works just great, too) and start collaborating with other enthusiastic teachers on the web. It doesn't even have to be about tech tools - it can be science ideas, literacy websites, or math games. The possibilities are endless!