Causal Modelling

I’ve been lately trying to use more Integrative Thinking in class.  It bring about really deep discussions, and I like to see the students make visual models of their thoughts.  In the past few weeks, I have been working on “Causal Modelling” with my 3rd-5th graders with varying degrees of success.

You can see a short video of Causal Modelling in action here.  Basically, students try to consider all of the possible reasons for a particular situation or problem.  In the video, the topic is, “People Struggling to Afford Food.”  With student input, the teacher makes a web with this topic in the center and several nodes that name possible causes.  It quickly develops in complexity as the students volunteer causes for the causes and begin to see connections among causes.

This blog post by Heidi Siwak shows several examples of causal models diagrammed by her 7th graders for issues varying from gun violence (very topical!) to unfinished homework.

To start causal modelling with my own students, we worked on creating a class causal model about why Nemo gets lost in Finding Nemo.  Then I put students in groups to generate causal models about the fiction we were reading in each grade.  For my 5th graders, this meant they explained an event from The Giver.

After doing group causal modelling about fiction, I asked each grade level to apply it to “real life.”  My 3rd graders brainstormed recurring problems, such as a sibling interrupting them when they are playing with friends, and came up with multiple causes.  After breaking it down this way, they could see potential ways to avoid some of the precipitating events (sibling needing attention, for example), and potential solutions.

With my 5th graders, I had a different idea.  After reading this post from Heidi, I realized that the personal manifesto activity they were working on was the perfect opportunity for them to get a picture of why they believe what they believe.  Since we were about to have a 3-day weekend when many would be visiting with extended family, I sent them home with a rare homework assignment: pick one of your belief statements and do a causal model for why you believe it.  Think about your own experiences, what your parents believe, and even ask your grandparents and parents why they believe it (if that’s where it came from).

One student said to me, “What if it’s not from your parent?  What if it’s from you?”  I asked, “What’s the belief?”  She said, “Taking risks.”  So I explained how, when I was young, I had volunteered to do a monkey bar race at an amusement park.  Sneakily, the proprietors had greased the bars, so I fell off when I reached for the 2nd bar, landing in a pool of water.  I was humiliated.  Afterward, my mother bought me a coveted stuffed animal in the souvenir shop – not to make up for the embarrassment, but to reward me for trying.  That’s when I learned that it’s more important to try and fail than to do nothing at all.

The students came back from their weekend, nearly all having done the assignment in one form or another.  Some wanted to share it publicly, and some wanted to have a private audience with me to speak about the personal reasons for their beliefs.  I would definitely say that I learned a lot about each of them, and I hope that they learned more about themselves.

Overall, causal modelling helps students to grasp that “wicked problems” (as Heidi calls them) cannot be solved with sweeping generalizations.  “Why don’t they just…” rarely addresses all of the causes, or all of the deeply held beliefs that led to those causes.  It might help a few of our current leaders to keep this in mind. 😉

War

One of the sessions I attended at TCEA 2018 was presented by a group from Richardson ISD.  #4CoresonFire focused on some cross-curricular activities using tools that I’ve used before.  However, I got some great integration ideas I hadn’t thought of – which makes the session a success in my book.

One of the teachers described how she had used StoryCorps and Newsela to start a unit about the Civil War.  (Here are my previous posts on StoryCorps and Newsela.)  I starred my notes wildly as she spoke; this is my secret code for, “USE THIS AS SOON AS YOU GET BACK TO SCHOOL!”  My 5th graders were about to read the chapter in The Giver that describes Jonas’ first introduction to the concept of war, and I knew these would be great connections.

In the lesson described at TCEA, the teachers posed the question, “When do the costs of war outweigh the benefits?”  Their students discussed this, and then watched, “The Nature of War” on StoryCorps.  After a post-video discussion, the students read an article about the Civil War in Newsela (you do need to register for free to read the articles).  Then they launched into a study of the Civil War in their history class.

I tweaked the lesson to use with The Giver.  I used Pear Deck to give an interactive, student-paced lesson.  Here is the link.  If you want to use the presentation as intended, you will need to register for Pear Deck.  You can find out more about Pear Deck, as well as a link to get a premium code that lasts the rest of this school year, here.  Also, the StoryCorps video link is embedded.  Do to our district filters, students had to log in to YouTube on a separate tab before they were able to watch the video on their own devices.

I chose to use an article from Newsela about, “Just War Theory.”  Student responses at the end of the presentation varied widely from their initial ideas about whether or not war is ever justified.  Many of them agreed with the quote I posted at the end about war being banished from the earth – until I brought up The Giver.  There is no war anymore in this dystopian world, but there is also no freedom.

Is it possible to banish war without giving up most of our freedom?

That was a discussion that definitely engaged the class!

3-2-1 Bridge

In my post about C.S.I. last November, I talked about the Visible Thinking routines that are outlined in Harvard’s Project Zero.  Another one of these routines is called, “3-2-1 Bridge.”  This is kind of a deeper version of a KWL chart. For “3-2-1” Bridge, students write their initial ideas about a topic, then learn more, write their new ideas about the topic, and then find a connection (the bridge) between the initial and new ideas.

I’ve used this routine a couple of times with different grade levels.  Today, my 5th graders used it to discuss the topic of “Choices” in The Giver.  I was fortunate to find this Google Doc created by Heather Marshall that enriched the discussion by linking to various other resources addressing the topic.  The activity launched an incredible conversation in my class regarding choices.  We went from, “It’s terrible that they don’t have any choices in The Giver community,” to deep and thoughtful considerations about why people might prefer to not have choices, who should determine choices, how pressure can instigate poor choices, and whether or not safety is more important than choice.

Here is a link to a simple 3-2-1 Bridge Template that you can use.  This can be done together as a class, on Post-It notes on large chart paper, or individually.  Younger students may have difficulty with the concept of using analogies, but they can still compare the topic to something else.  This is one of those activities that I like to call, “self-differentiated,” because all students can participate while taking it to different levels of understanding.

Formative Assessment with Music Lyrics

Even though I really enjoy hearing the conversations that go on when my students do a Hexagonal Learning activity, my students will tell you that the playlist assessment is actually their favorite when it comes to demonstrating their understanding of a novel.  According to them, they enjoy being able to work independently on this assignment, and to really “dig deep” (their words) into the meaning of lyrics as well as the novels we are analyzing.

Here’s how our playlist assignments work:  I give the students 5 songs to listen to, in addition to the lyrics from each of the songs.  The students are told to choose one song that they think represents the book the best – in other words, if the book were turned into a movie, this song would be a great theme song.  Then they must justify their answers using at least three different lyrics with at least three different examples from the book.

A couple of notes: 1.) I like to give students choice, so the first couple of years I did this activity, I asked them to bring in their own ideas for songs.  They never did.  I still offer the option to request a song be added, but the students rarely suggest one.  They seem happier with the ones I recommend.  2.) If you choose to do this activity, you will need to “vet” the best way for the students to access the songs.  Podsnack is a nice site for creating playlists, but won’t play when my students log in.  YouTube lyrics videos work for us, using SafeShare, as long as I have approved the videos beforehand.  Another option is to create a station where students can listen to the songs downloaded on an iPad or iPod.

I’ve done this activity with groups of different sizes, and the silence is eerie when everyone puts  on their headphones and get started.  The students are intensely focused on the assignment.  Some take notes on scratch paper before choosing a song.  Others page through their novels as they listen.  I almost feel useless as the students work because they are so incredibly engaged that there is no need for redirection.  Instead, I periodically give them feedback in Google Classroom to encourage them or remark on their interesting ideas.

My 4th graders do this activity with Tuck Everlasting.  My 5th graders do it with The Giver.  I asked my 5th graders this time if I could share a couple of their responses with you, and they agreed.

If you are interested in using The Giver Playlist Assignment, here is a link to make a copy.  Within that document is a link to the Exemplars that I used with my students to show them the different levels of responses.

I should probably warn you that, once the students do this assignment, they may request to listen to the music while doing other assignments as well.  Some of them get very attached to the songs!

What Exactly Do We Mean by Safe?

9/11/01 was a Tuesday.  That year, I met with my 5th grade class of gifted students every Tuesday.  We had just begun reading the The Giver, by Lois Lowry, when another teacher beckoned me to the door and whispered to me about a plane that had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Even then, as sadness overwhelmed me, I had no inclination of the far-reaching consequences of that day’s events.

At the beginning of The Giver, the fictional community is surprised by the sound of an unexpected plane flying overhead.  The inhabitants, unused to surprises, are fearful – until they are assured by a disembodied voice over the village loudspeakers that the matter has been dealt with and, “Needless to say, the pilot has been released.”

Readers do not find out until later that “released” is a euphemism for extermination.

As I walked our dog through our neighborhood the evening of 9/11, the eerie silence of the skies overhead in my own community near the airport chilled me to the bone.  Many people had been “released” that day in a way most of us could never have imagined.  Everyone I knew felt bereft, confused, and deeply frightened. I thought about the dystopian world of The Giver, where everything was safe but there was no freedom or emotion.

“This is how it begins,” I thought.  Fear.

When I ask my students how such a community as the one in The Giver, where people cannot even choose their own spouses, could ever come to be acceptable, they are often surprised by this question.  Because this is a fictional story, a fictional world.  It came to be because an author imagined it, and for no other reason.  It is incomprehensible to them that anyone could accept such an existence without rebellion in the real world.

We have a lot of discussions about freedom and safety and the barely perceptible line that separates the two.  I explain to my students some of the events of World War II – how hate and fear caused so much suffering around the world.  Those who haven’t heard of concentration camps are stunned – and many of the students are even more surprised to hear that we had Japanese internment camps in our own country.  In hindsight, it seems so unbelievable that the United States, defender of human rights, could also be guilty of stripping away those rights.

In Lois Lowry’s Newbery award speech for The Giver, she describes one of the many events that contributed to her story.  She was with her daughter, and had just heard a news story about a mass killing, and asks her to be quiet so she can hear the details.

“Then I relax. I say to her, in a relieved voice, ‘It’s all right. It was in Oklahoma.’ ( Or perhaps it was Alabama. Or Indiana.) She stares at me in amazement that I have said such a hideous thing. How comfortable I made myself feel for a moment, by reducing my own realm of caring to my own familiar neighborhood. How safe I deluded myself into feeling.”

I have not felt safe since 9/11.  It is not the terrorists who make my stomach knot. It has been the slow erosion of freedom that has become our new normal as we desperately attempt to avoid ever experiencing that horror again.  Every year, as I read The Giver with a new class of 5th graders, I consider how much closer we are to becoming the willing inhabitants of a community like the one in The Giver – safe from terrorists and natural disasters, safe from starvation, and safe from uncomfortable emotions.

No, the people who live in that community have no need to fear any of those things.  Their only threat is the one they don’t see – the people who lead them.  Those leaders – who protect them so rigorously from the menaces that lurk within a free society – will not hesitate to eliminate within their community anyone who might disturb this environment of safe predictability.  By ruthlessly removing anyone weak or different, they are able to maintain equilibrium.

In The Giver, the protagonist, Jonas, has to make the decision to leave the community in order to save it.  His best friend must remain behind to help the community to help it deal with the consequences of Jonas leaving.  But Jonas wants his friend to leave with him, and blurts out that he shouldn’t care about the community.  He immediately regrets his outburst.

“Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.”

And so, in this post I want to say that I care.  I care deeply about all humans and their rights, not just the ones who look like me or think like me or live near me.  There are evil people in this world who I fear, but I refuse to believe we must combat them by hurting millions of innocent people ourselves.  I care about the refugees fleeing desperate situations, the men and women whose live are in danger because they allied with our government in foreign countries, and the people who come here for an education so they can return to their countries and make them a better place.  It is wrong and cowardly of our country to turn them away because of fear.  I refuse to remain silent about policies based on prejudice and bigotry.

I am an educator.  In my classroom, it is my duty to remain neutral about politics.  But I refuse to be neutral about human rights. I spend much of the time teaching my students about our global community and the importance of embracing different cultures, and I decline to be a hypocrite.

If you believe that policies that discriminate and punish people of certain races or religious beliefs will keep our country safer, you are wrong.  Instead, we will lose allies and generate more hatred  – endangering us even further.

“I liked the feeling of love,” Jonas confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. “I wish we still had that,” he whispered. “Of course,” he added quickly, “I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.”

Personally, I think it’s far more dangerous to live without it.

The Giver

If you visit my Pinterest Board of Books for Gifted Students, you will see The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is prominently featured.  I read this dystopian novel along with my 5th grade Gifted and Talented students every year, and those of you who know me are aware that I don’t often do the same thing more than once.  However, this book seems brand new with every group of students.  The discussions are rich and we are always able to find many connections to current events and their own lives.

The Giver is coming to theaters this August.  It will be interesting to see how the book transfers to the big screen.  You can see how Lois Lowry feels about the movie in this recent Twitter chat in which she participated that is posted on Walden Media.  More resources from Walden Media, including educational materials, are available here.  I highly recommend Lois Lowry’s Newbery acceptance speech – which gives incredible insight into the formation of the book.

In the interest of full disclosure, I recently participated in Walden Media’s “Teachers are Givers” contest, and was one of the 4 winners.  They chose a teacher each week for four weeks, based on technology lesson plans we submitted.  I didn’t expect to win, as my amazing colleague, LeAnne Hernandez, won the first week.  However, I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the second winner.  I recommend you take a look at the winning entries, as there are some fabulous ideas for integrating this amazing novel with technology in the classroom.  I was truly impressed with the other 3 teachers’ submissions, and can’t wait to try them!  If you feel so inclined, you may want to vote for your favorite lesson plan.  The overall winner will receive a hometown screening of The Giver.

If you are looking for some other resources to support The Giver, you should definitely take a look at Teachers Pay Teachers.  I have a “Depth and Complexity with The Giver” product available for \$1.00, but there are tons of other related products on the site – many of them free.

Also, here is a post I did awhile ago on Book Trailers for The Giver.

Read Write Think has a lesson called, “Memories Matter: The Giver and Descriptive Writing Memoirs.”

For older students, you can find some interesting resources on Schmoop (“We Speak Student”).

Whatever you do, if you choose to use this book with your class, be sure to leave lots of time for discussion.  This is a book that demands conversation.  Thoughtful dialogues will help your students to become much more reflective about its themes and implications.  You could probably spend a year on this book, and never fully explore some of the topics it suggests.  It will definitely make an impact, and will be a piece of literature that your students will never forget.