Saturday, April 27, 2013

Teaching the Real World

I teach Social Studies and Science - so the "real world" should come into play in my classroom on a regular basis. However, I think sometimes we get so bogged down in the world around us we forget that sometimes what is occurring in the here-and-now is our best tool and a great link to relevancy. Here are 2 examples from my week:

Teaching Economic Systems - supply and demand without the graphs
  • In 6th grade, my students are supposed to "master" identifying economic systems
  • This week NPR did a series called "Coffee Week"
    • Coffee week talked about 2 types of coffee (products) which are essentially differentiated by cost (and quality)
    • They discussed production methods (industrialized, specialty - which includes a variety of methods to meet various standards for labels like "Fair Trade," "Rainforest Alliance Certified," etc.
    • They included the effect of middle men on the specialty coffee market
    • and there was also a bit of discussion about standard of living of farmhands (another economic standard I teach)
  • So we "read" three audio clips about coffee and had a discussion about the things we discovered
  • I focused discussions using the 3 basic economic questions (gathered from an article, "Economic Systems, by Chris Stallman - students read the article following our discussion activities)
    • 1) What goods are produced with the available resources?, 2) How are these goods produced?, 3) For whom are they produced?
    • From our "reading" we gathered that 2 types of coffee are produced
      • Different economic systems decide what to produce by different means (the kids don't know this yet, but it's important for us to know as teachers where we're going with this)
      • So then I ask..."How did we decide to produce 2 types?" and kids talk about cost and how some people can only afford generic coffee while others can afford to pay for better flavor and are willing to do so and we decide that "buyers" play a role in what is produced
    • We also gathered from a case study in one clip that what's produced depends on producers being able to make enough money to continue (so sellers play a role in what is produced)
    • Moving on to question 2: generic coffee is produced by the cheapest means possible (machines lower labor costs, as an example), and in specialty coffee, the buyers who want certain labels influence production (how are workers treated, environmental sustainability, etc). - so we see again, buyers and sellers playing a role
    • Question 3: goes back to question one - these goods are produced for whoever can and wants to pay for them
    • In the end we have a picture of supply and demand (and we do a little cost analysis where we discuss what would happen if the buyers costs were too high, or the seller made too little money) and now we've had a complicated discussion about supply and demand and kids never had to stare at a graph (so I can bring that in after they get it- and then it is less likely to confuse them.....graphs are tmi for a 6th grader - these steps are great to build them toward that)
    • Then we talk about - using their background knowledge - what is the place called where buyers and sellers meet and haggle over prices....and they say "A Market!"
    • And now kids have developed concepts of a Market Economic System through careful questioning on my part and discovery on their part....
    • Then I move to my political ideologies poster and read them one of the communism examples "You have two cows. You have to take care of them. Then, the government takes all the milk." This is a simplification, but it helps to illustrate some points (and we can argue details later)
      • So again I ask the 3 economic questions (production is a little hard - but we point out they can only use 2 cows and that they are forced to be responsible for them)
      • Then I ask: how did they decide the answers to these: and most kids can say "The government decides"
      • Then I introduce a "Command economic system"
      • The kids have 2 down (I'd like to point out that I introduced traditional earlier in the year with Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas - and it hasn't sunk in or really even made a dent - so we review that - these are great examples of a traditional economic system because the market system has invaded most cultures the kids are familiar with in the modern era so we go back to something pure that they are familiar with; kids can recognize that only royalty gets to eat chocolate for example and that is because of beliefs which are a social custom - tada: one of the characteristics of a traditional economy)
  • It's at this point that I pass out Chris Stallman's article. Kids read it, record definitions of the 4 systems (Mixed gets added, a combo of command and market).
  • My students go into the reading already familiar with the 3 questions, knowing you can't define an economic system without those 3 questions, and so they can focus their reading better.
  • They also go in knowing there is a quiz to follow it up (it's a mastery quiz we do before starting an economic simulation based in the Caribbean....the simulation focuses more on saving and investing and we look at how some people can't invest and frankly, can't even save and how saving becomes a pre-requisite for investing)
Anyways....on to Science. While downloading my audio clips about coffee, I ran across a video posted by the Canadian Space Agency.

How do water molecules behave? - as part of my Weather Unit
  • Warm-up: What would happen if you wring out a wet towel in space?
  • Discuss.
  • Then give kids pipets with water and wax paper - let them explore the behavior of water and talk about surface tension.
  • Ask them - would there be surface tension in space? Let them adjust their predictions and also add "How would being in a space shuttle be different from being in the vacuum of space?" This forces the kids who think their first prediction was "perfect" to add to their thoughts. Point out that both lack gravity, but one has air pressure (this is after we spent several days discussing the behavior of air molecules)
  •  Discuss again.
  • Share the video. Let kids be wowed!
  • Move into a discussion about cloud formation - starting with what types of molecules are in air (water, various gases, dust, etc), then moving to the behavior of air when it is cold versus hot, how would this affect the water vapor in the air, what role to dust particles play....
  • Suddenly we have a complex version of cloud formation - surface tension helped kids imagine condensation up in the atmosphere.
  • The video was a minor part of the lesson - but it is such a great hook and makes weather more exciting than just what the temperature and precipitation is for the day.

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