I am obsessed with shapes, but not the shapes normally presented in traditional euclidian geometry. I am interested in the shapes of ideas, learning, teaching, creativity, stories, etc. It is this focus on narration and shape that has me reflecting on the stories we present in the shape of our units and learning experiences. Last unit, my shape was Kath Murdoch's inquiry cycle (science, forces and motions), and before that my central metaphor (story or shape) was a winding river (social studies, ancient civilizations).
Aside: I see very little distinction between the terms metaphor, story, narrative and shape, and use them interchangebly. End Aside.
Recently, I started a new unit on culture. I am never at ease with myself before I start a new unit. I worry about how much I am projecting my view of a topic onto my students. I worry about how their interpretations will be linked to my interpretations. I want them to create their own meaning, but at the same time, I want to tell them a story. Human beings have been creating narratives to learn and teach for tens of thousands of year. The oral storytelling tradition was in essence a device for teaching future generations. The caves painting at Lascaux were stories and lessons from voices in the past. Now, we have oral and written story-tellers in our pockets. I was reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, and loved the chapter on stories and narratives used in companies and education institutes. It is a refreshing thing to read that doctors are being trained to think of their patients in terms of the stories of their lives rather than as non-living entities that can be broken down to their parts and re-assembled. Being able to see and craft stories and to explain your world is an increasingly important skill in the 21st century, one which requires creative thinking and big picture synthesis. So, I am at odds with myself before I start a unit; do I craft the story and tell it to them, or do I let them make their own stories as we progress through the unit? I never know and have had both sides succeed and fail.
For myself, as a planning tool and methodology, I like the shape to be settled before I begin to plan activities. I need to see what the big picture looks like, and then I let that shape guide the direction we take. The details of what we do on a day to day basis largely emerge out of the students inquiries and questions, but the overall flow of the unit is shaped by the initial shape. One of the great things about non-linear shapes is that they can change and grow, just like a learning environment. It is a flow, not a ruler and a pencil.
So, back to our unit on culture.
Culture is at the same time a very easy concept to get, and an incredibly difficult concept to understand. It is hard for a fish to think about water since it spends all its time surrounded by it. Same is true with humans and culture. We are immersed in it, and we live in it like a fish in water. There are many layers of culture that are at play, and these have different impacts and effects on who we are. Yet, they can not be separated from one another, and there is no distinction between the different layers; they make us and we make them.
The shape of this unit will start large, on the level of the human and what our joint culture is. What makes us human? Over the course of the unit, we will zoom in our lens of culture and look at it from different perspectives; national, local (state/prefecture/province/district), community, classroom, and individual. It will take a nested shape.
How exactly we will get there, I am at this moment not 100% sure, but we have a shape to follow, and a story to discover.