The Island of Ablai (pt. 6)

Pt. 1 Planning
Pt. 2 Creating the Environment

Pt. 3 Money Matters
Pt. 4 - Negotiating the World

Pt. 5 Natural Resources and Manufacturing

Pt. 6 Profits and Expenses

After a week off and a busy start to the new term, we got a little behind schedule.  We started the week with an art project that just needed to get done.  Our map was looking great, but we were still missing the city of Ablai.  After a brainstorming session, we came up with some ideas and off they went.  The final product is simply gorgeous   It is amazing to have this looking over us everyday, and it has shown me how beautiful artifacts can enhance attention.  Plus, they are so invested in this unit, as they have literally built an entire world.  They are proud of what they have made, and I am proud of them.

They keep noticing that little things are missing (train tracks to the oil refinery) but these will be patched up as we go.  For now, this is not a bad picture to see everyday.

Recursive Review

Since we were away for a whole week, I wanted them to review our discussion on natural resources and manufacturing.  I was away for this day and a supply teacher covered, so I can't really say how it went, other than it jogged their memories.  Each group had a product, and then had to come up with a list of all the natural resources that went into that product.  Then, they brainstormed how much they thought it cost the company to make the product.  It was interesting, every group came up with a list of costs that was directly related to the natural resources, nothing related to design, shipping, manufacturing, etc.  I wonder if this was because of the way the activity was set up, or each group didn't consider it.  Either way, I cannot say because I wasn't there.

Also, to end the day without me, I showed them this picture, and asked them to generate theories about why this was so:

They generated the following list of theories:

Among all these ideas are some pretty big misconceptions, some out there ideas, and some sharp thinking.  We will return to this later and untangle this thread.

Making Money

Once I returned, I sat them down and asked them a simple question; How do companies make money? They came up with the obvious response; they sell products.  I asked them to give me some examples.

S: Nike makes shoes and sells them
S: Apple makes iPods and sells them
S: Nissan makes cars and sells them
T: Alright then, how do they make these products? 
S: Well Nissan will metal and rubber and stuff and make a car out of it.
T: Who puts it together?
S: People in the factory.
T: Where do they get the metal?
S: They mine it.
S: No, Nissan won't mine it.
S: A mining company will do it, and then sell it to Nissan.
T: You're right.  Actually other companies will make a lot of the parts for Nissan, but they will assemble it.  Cars are made up of thousands of pieces, and dozens of companies will make parts for Nissan.  Cars are hard to explain because they are such complicated machines.  Can we switch to something more simple?
S: How about a table?
S: They buy the wood, and maybe the nails and the paint.
S: Yes.  And all of that is then delivered to the factory, where it is put together.
T: This is called manufacturing.
S: After it is built, it is sent to the stores and then it is bought.
T: Is this when the company gets their money?
S: Yes.
T: So before that, where is the money coming from?
S: The company has to pay to make the product.
T: Alright.  Lets call all the money the company has to pay Expenses, and lets call all the money gets Profits.  Can you make a flowchart explaining the whole process?

They went off to their groups and began to flow.  They kind of already knew this since we had studied the production cycle before.  They had the language.  Now, I was asking them to apply that language on top of the language of Expenses and Profits.  Which steps of the process were Expenses, and which steps generated profits?

Each group came back to the carpet after making a simple flow chart, and as a group, we built a class model.  When we build class models, I like for each kid to already have a model to start from.  Whether it be a personal construction or a group construction, we need a starting place.  Then, I sit at the computer with an open document (usually a Google Draw, or Presentation) and they negotiate what the class diagram will look like.  My role during all this is simply to operate the computer.  They tell me what to do, where to move, what color the shapes should be, what font, what size, everything.  It is a group design.  I am simply an operator who is controlling the machine.

They got this.  It made sense.  It fit into their world-view and the previous work we had done.  I had properly scaffolded it to this point so we easily achieved the spot where we wanted to be.  From a planning perspective, it was perfect.  My nice little linear world and model of business and profits was playing itself out perfectly.

Then somebody asked a question and everything went nuts.

How does Google make money?

Like a bomb was dropped in the middle of the class.  Suddenly, our models didn't work.  I had an activity planned, but we needed to address this first.  I have a rough idea of how Google makes its profits, but I wanted them to brainstorm ideas.  They came to a conclusion that they don't have a lot of products for sale.  And people can use their services for free.  So, how are they one of the richest companies in the world?  I resisted the urge to answer this right now.  We WILL come back to it.  It is an important question.  In the meantime, I asked them to think about Mrs H, who is a dentist and a parent.  What is her product?  Do you get anything when you leave her office?

S: You get clean teeth.
S: But you can clean your own teeth, why do we pay her to do it?
S: Because she is a dentist, she knows more about teeth than we do.
S: She went to dentists school.
S: Its like a doctor, they don't give you anything, but you have to listen to them because they know stuff.

They are dancing around the difference between a service and product, but they don't quite have the vocabulary to do it yet.  We banked this on our Wonder Wall.

Just as I was about to move onto the next activity, someone dropped another bomb.

S: What about Disney?
S: They make movies.
S: They also have Disneyland to make money.
S: And toys.
S: Clothing.
S: There is a Disney hotel!

Now, they are dancing around the idea of business conglomerates, large parent corporations that own many small subsidiaries.  I let them go and just listened.  This just keeps getting better and better!  Wonder wall!

Usually, I am the type that will just run with this type of idea and completely switch up the plan.  But I resisted today.  Here is why; these are very complex ideas, and I feel that if they don't have the foundational understanding of where profit comes from, then these ideas will fly over their head.  Once they get the concept profit, we will jump into these idea full steam, because quite honestly, these provocations are a million times better than the ones I had planned, and they came from the kids themselves.

For those of you who have been following this series, you might recall that I posted a plan on the first post.  A rough outline of what we would do over the next six weeks.  

Well, I think all that has changed.  The concepts will be the same, but the provocations will be all different.

Stay Tuned.


8 Read Aloud Strategies

I love to read aloud to kids.  I put out a googledoc (please add more!) on twitter asking for good read aloud books for kids.  Tons of responses came back!  To be honest, I haven't heard of half of them, so I need to get studying.

Modeling visual reading is a worthwhile endeavor for any class.  However, when reading aloud there is always the chance that kids will be left behind, uninterested, unengaged, or lost in the plot.  Particularly with ESL students in the class.  How can we make the read aloud more visual? There are many strategies to help guard against these problems (bearing in mind that a book may not capture 100% of the kids imaginations, no matter what) and to help keep everybody on the same page.

Here are 8 that have helped my group.

1) Slow-down, model, discuss
When reading aloud, it is beneficial to stop, especially after something important has just happened.  This is easier to do if you have read the book that you are reading, but it is also fun to read a book that you have never tried yourself.  Knowing when to stop and when to reflect is important.  I have stopped too much and made them lose interest, and I have stopped enough and they have gotten lost.  A dynamic harmony is needed, and it completely depends on knowing your class.  I find that asking a probing question and then having them a) think about it individually, b) discuss the details with each a partner, and then c) come together and talk as a group, is a great structure.  Eventually, this process becomes automatic, and as you ask a question, they will immediately think, then share, then discuss.

2) Maps and Drawings
When reading Coraline by Neil Gaiman, we were also thinking about ways to make the story visual.  As Susan Zimmerman says, creating the movie in your head.  This is a great book for this, very dark and haunting.  To take it further, we drew pictures of what the setting looked like.  What does the garden look like to you?  How about other mothers apartment?  The mouse circus?  We also drew maps of where everything was in relation to the other.  Each map and each image were different, but they represented what we saw, and how we were visualizing the story.  We collected all of the diagrams into a portfolio that we kept on our lap as we read, flipping to the pages to help the visual grow, adding to it as the story went and we got more details.  The floor plans of the building were helpful to keep us oriented in time and space.  The JHS teacher in my school also did this with City of Ember, creating a 3D model of the city as they read.

3) Personal Connections
During our reading of The Whale Rider, I put up three large pieces of paper above our carpet; text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world.  Anytime that we read, I placed a bunch of sticky notes on the carper and everything that kids made a connection to the events in the story, they wrote them down and stuck them up.  At the end of our reading session, I always tried (not always successfully) to make time to discuss the connections and have the kids explain them.  This was done with a partner, or sometimes as a whole group.  Of course, I would model and stick notes up as well, and talk about my connections.  This usually sparked new connections.

4) Plot Diagrams
When reading the Tale of Despereaux, we plotted the plot on a piece of paper.  Despereaux is a deliciously complex little novel, not the subject or the themes, but in how it moves.  The author takes you back in time, forward in time, multiple stories are overlapping, key events are happening at the same time and then in the end it all comes together.  They loved thinking about the shape of the plot, and I saw some really interesting risk-taking in their own story writing.  They tried to make their own stories more non-linear.  It took a model from a master to help them see how this is sometimes more engaging for the audience.

5) Character Trees
At the moment we are reading Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.  For this book we are trying to make trees that connect all the characters together, and how they are related and interact with each other.  This is first time I have tried this, and it is too early to say if it is effective.  However, during Despereaux we made a table of the different character types; mice, rats, and humans.  I used this table, which was front and center when reading, to orient attention to who the characters were.  After a while, it become unnecessary  as the kids knew who was who.  I am convinced this table helped them to keep the many characters straight.  We also did the same thing during the Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

6) Questioning/Wondering
When I read my class The Giver, we used the sticky notes to ask questions.  We had a question grid to help us get to deeper questions, while at the same time recognizing that your basic yes/no/factual question is incredibly important to understanding the plot.  These questions let us some great conversations about types of questions, or classifications.  It also dovetailed nicely into making inferences.  At the end of every session, we would go through the questions, take down the ones that we could answer, and reclassify the ones that we could not.  It was really interesting to see the questions that remained at the end of the book, and how the potential answers were based on our own perception of the story.

7) Graffiti
When reading the Hunger Games with my class, one boy would jot down little pictures as we read.  One day, I encouraged him to share these pictures with the class and explain them.  He was capturing his favorite scenes in visual form.  Before I knew it, they were all joining in and all jotting down their own doodles and drawing.  At the end of the book, we had about 4-5 huge pieces of paper filled with random little moments captured from the book.  Like a photo book of our favorite memories.

8) New Worlds
I haven't done this, but a teaching mentor in Toronto did this.  While reading ??? (can't remember the book, something by Eric Walters) she had the students create their own side stories that were connected to the main story.  Usually it involved taking minor characters and making them more 3D, or minor occurrences and giving them more depth.  I wasn't around long enough to see the end, but it was fascinating to watch how they engaged with the book and used the context of the book to create something new, but believable.

Any more?  What do you do during read aloud?


Embodied Mathematics Review

Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being is a book by George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez.  I have written before about Lakoff's work around metaphors and what affordances they may bring forward for language instruction.  This book is a continuation of his work on linguistic metaphors, but it situated solely in the domain of mathematical understanding.

They claim:

- Mathematics arises from our bodies and brains, our everyday experiences, and the concerns of human societies and cultures
- Metaphor is both what enabled mathematics to grow out of everyday activities, and what enables mathematics to grow by a continual process of analogy and abstraction
- Mathematics is not transcendent or out in the world waiting to be discovered (Platonic view)
- Math is a human creation, and thus was created uses the cognitive domains of linguistic experience
- It the result of human evolution and culture
- During experiencing of the world a connection to mathematical ideas is going on within the human mind
- Mathematics develops by means of metaphor

Mathematics is connected to how we view the world.  It is a result of our biological and evolutionary history.  We are human beings.  We stand upright on two feet.  We have eyes set into the front of our head giving us 3D vision.  We have four fingers and a thumb that enable to use multiple grips.  We can see a small segment on the color spectrum.  We hear at certain wave length.  And on and on.

Lakoff and Núñez maintain that mathematics is a product of human beings and is shaped by our brains and conceptual systems, as well as the concerns of human societies and culture. We have evolved so that our cognition fits the world as we know it.

For Teachers

For them, mathematics starts in the world around us and is embodied in our physical being.  They suggest four main grounding metaphors.  They claim that all mathematics, no matter how abstract, can be traced back to one of these four metaphors.

For simple arithmetic like addition, it is easy to see how these metaphors apply to our experiences in the world:
Object Construction - items are piled on top of each other and there are more of them (addition)
Object Collection - items are grouped into categories that are similar (patterns)
The Measuring Stick - when physical segments are put in a line, they measure more (addition) when taken away, then measure less (subtraction)
Moving along a path - moving along a path changes my place on the overall path (number lines)

Once we get into more complex mathematics, these grounding metaphors link to more conceptual metaphors.  As mathematical understanding grows, a web of connections and networks form.

When students make errors in their mathematical understanding, often these errors can be traced back to the use of these four grounding metaphors.  Students may be looking at the concept of fractions using the motion along a path metaphor, when they should be using the object construction metaphor.

In conclusion, this is an exciting piece of work.  There is something here that I cannot put my finger on, but just screams to me and says, 'there is something incredibly important here.'  Again, their writing is not populist, and it is not easy to understand.  It is dense.  It is complex.  

It feels like I will need a lifetime to untangle this knot.  I better get started.


Week off

Time to disconnect. Spend time with family. Side projects. Personal inquiries. Read. Write. Recharge the battery. Reorient my mind. Enjoy life. Find time that didn't exist before.

No work.


The Island of Ablai (pt. 5)

Pt. 1 Planning

Pt. 2 Creating the Environment

Pt. 3 Money Matters
Pt. 4 - Negotiating the World

Pt. 5 Natural Resources and Manufacturing

Looking at our list of products and services, what natural resources do we need?

We started by doing an example as a group.  

Police will need uniforms (cotton), badges (metal), handcuffs (metal), lights for their bikes (glass), bricks for the police station (stone or clay), bars for the jail (iron), etc.  We continued this example by looking at things in our classroom.  What is this table made of?  How many natural resources did it take to make it?  What does plastic come from (many of them were very surprised to here it comes from oil)?  

Next, the kids combed through all of the items we had agreed on and made lists on the natural resources we need for each one.  We came up with the following list:

Iron OreStone

PlantsWoodSandRare Earths and Metals

I put this list into a gDoc and we went to the computer lab.

Before we started to brainstorm, we did a little recursive activity just to go back and highlight some of the key words we have learned.  On a different joint gDoc, we group wrote and edited definitions to some of the key words we have studied.  

So, now that we had a list of Natural Resources, I wonder what we can manufacture from this list?  To do this, I had the kids do a brainstorm in gDoc.  It is a very powerful activity, and the kids ove it.  I find it allows everybody to have a voice, and you usually got lost in the moment.  At the end of the brainstorm, we have a document that is far greater than what any of us could do alone.  I screen recorded the whole thing:

The Manufacturing Process

By this point they had a pretty good idea that the items they buy go through a process before they get to their homes.  However, I wanted to make this explicit.  We ZOOMED OUT from our inquiry, and watched the incredible film, The Story of Stuff (electronics).  In this they walk you through how electronics are made, from natural resources to disposal.  The kids had to take pictorial notes (fitting since the whole story is told in animated pictures) and then to re-create the process in a poster.  

They weren't satisfied with this process.  They didn't like the end result being the dump, or disposal.  They wanted to re-invent the process.  So, another group came up with an alternative to the Linear Manufacturing process.  They came up with the Green Manufacturing Cycle.

What was really great about this is that they were using these words.  The word Excavation was new to most of them, but by the end of the class, they were using it perfectly.  Same with Production, Distribution, Consumption, and Disposal.  One group of girls even broke off their poster group and created a dance showing the whole process in action!  

Also, I loved how the group that made the Green Cycle realized, with no help from me, that the cycle cannot go back to Extraction.  Once you take it out of the ground or cut it down, you can't put it back.  Instead of making it a perfect circle, they looped it back around to production.

Finally, I love how they realize the folly of a linear system.  Of course that doesn't make sense, was their response.  I hope they keep this sense of understanding with them into the future, and when they are in positions of power in our society, this learning experience is embodied in them and they enact on it.... the world needs people like that....

Updating our Map

Now that we had a list of natural resources to extract, and goods to manufacture, we needed to start building factories, mines, quarries, lumber mills, geothermal plants, off shore oil rigs, etc.

- We made a list of all the things we needed to "build".
- We debated and chose a place on the map for them.  Interesting to note that they put the heavy industry far away from the city; iron mining, oil rigs, stone quarries, etc, and the relatively benign industries close to the city; cotton farming, glass factory.... even children will adhere to the Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) philosophy without being prompted to....
- We went onto iPads to look at pictures of what these places look like.  This was a powerful step.  Some of these kids had never seen a picture of a stone quarry before, or what an open pit iron mine looks like.  Yet, they never suggested we stop mining for iron....
- Finally, we updated our map.  Our theme for the whole map is Bright Colors, and Cut Paper.  The only pen or marker marks allowed are for labels....

Offshore Oil Rig with nearby Oil Refinery
Iron Mine and Iron Factory
Geothermal Plant

The Island of Ablai (the city will go in the SE corner and run along the ocean up to the top roughly the top of the beach, near the glass factory)

The Island of Ablai (pt. 4)

Pt. 1 Planning

Pt. 2 Creating the Environment

Pt. 3 Money Matters

Pt 4 - Negotiating the World

This section was challenging.  We took our categories from yesterdays activity, and we created a world with them.   To keep our world simple, but not too simple (the complexity is a major part of doing this) we broke our Economy (though I still haven't introduced this word, we keep referring to it as our money system) into the following parts:

Government Services
Goods (needs)
Goods (wants)

We went through each, one by one, and came up with some parameters to define and limit each.


I asked them to name me some major cities that they know.  New York.  Tokyo.  London.  We searched the populations of each of these on the iPads and found that these were huge metropolis.  The group decided that this would be too big, we instead we decided to model our city on our own city (much like they did with the weather and natural surroundings, interesting that when given free reign to create their own world, how much kids will mirror their own), which has about 1 000 000.

To put things in scale, I drew a picture on the board with some rough estimates of populations (I know they are not perfectly accurate, but off the top of my head).

Understanding and conceptualizing very large numbers is a hard thing to do, but I am convinced, incredibly important for math understanding, and ecological intelligence (see a paper by Moshe Renert called Mathematics for Life for more about this topic).


We didn't spend a lot of time on this.  We brainstormed a list of other currency names and their symbols.  I differentiated between those currencies that use a decimal system (most western nations) and those that do not (most Asian nations).  They decided that we would NOT use a decimal based currency, simply because the math would be easier.  I was hoping they WOULD chose a decimal based money system BECAUSE the math would be more difficult, but I was outvoted.  Democracy sucks when you lose.

In he end they called our currency the Bubs, and it is drawn with a B and a vertical line through it.  Bubs comes from Bubbles, which is their favorite word (don't ask, I have no idea).


This was fascinating.  I asked them how the people on the island will get around.  One suggested cars.  Another said cars cause too much pollution and accidents.  Another said they were convenient  then another fought back and said trains are better.  I interrupted and set up a little activity.  The premise was a If/Then brainstorming activity.

If we have CARS, then we will also have.....

This web made them really think outside of their zone of comfort.  Cars become a major part of the landscape of a country.  We took the same activity and applied it to Bikes, Trains, Buses, and Boats.

In the end, the group consensus was that we would have a series of electric trains running all over the city and Island, and that most people would get around with bikes and by foot.  

If only the real world were like that....


So, what powers all those trains?  Where does our electricity come from?
Again, we made a list of all our options.  This is such a huge topic, one that we could spend an entire unit investigating (an entire year!).  Our High school class is doing energy at the moment, so we decided to keep it simple.  Since we said that our Island had an active volcano and onsen (during the first class when we created the natural environment) the kids thought that geothermal would be the best choice.  

To be honest with you, I would like us to focus more on other aspects of economies, and I don't want to get bogged down in Energy policy.  I will orient attention to it, and have them think about how important it is during our next unit on Eco-systems and Sustainability.... for now, we will assume that we have all the energy we need from one Geothermal plant...

If only the real world were like that.....

Government Services

The kids are aware that there are these things called taxes.  They are also aware these taxes help pay for certain things that we all use and need (bridges and roads, for example).  As for the rest of it, this was an area where they relied on me.  We will go into this in much more depth later on, so for now we said the government will take care of Police, Fire, Hospitals, and Schools.  They were a bit confused about the fact that their parents pay for their schooling, but schools are often payed for by governments.  We had a brief discussion about private vs. public, but banked that on our wonder wall to come back to later.

We may spend the rest of this unit just investigating the wonder wall!


Again, to keep our life simple, we decided that we would only produce the necessary foods.  Well, what are the necessary foods?  I had just read them the excellent book Weslandia, in which a boy creates his own civilization in his backyard.  He speaks about a staple food crop.  They connected this to that book and said that our staple food has to be rice.  From there, they insisted on having meat, milk, veggies, and fruits.  We will create different farms for all of these on our maps.

A student asked a great question during this; how big does a rice farm has to be to feed a city of one million?  That is going to be a great math inquiry.

Goods (Needs)

We need to shop.  There are essential items that we need.  Clothing was pretty much agreed on by all.  As was housing, and furniture.  They added food to the list, even though Food had its own list.  I think they are differentiating between what is made, and what is bought.

Goods (Wants)

This one took the longest.  We had already come across the term leisure time.  What do people do in their spare time.  As you can imagine, with a group of 11-12 year olds, this discussion got pretty serious.  Everybody wanted THEIR favorite thing represented.  We had a huge list of potential alternatives.  I told them that they needed to narrow it down to three.  In small groups they argued culled the lists, then I jigsawed the groups up and they continued to cull and argue.  Eventually we were left with about six, so we put it to a vote.  Every got two votes, and the three with the most votes won.  The lucky winners were Books, Bikes, and Computers (because these can be used to many of other things on the list). 

Life in Ablai

We now have an overview of what life will look like.

Next stop, natural resources and manufacturing.

Guest Post: Complexity and Gaming

Amy is a classmate of mine at the University of Calgary. The other day she presented this reflection to the class. I loved the relationships of complexity, collectivity, playing and learning. I post it here with her permission, and a question to think about; what if schools were more like the games we play?

Looking back, I can trace my understandings of complex adaptive systems to starting an activity at age eight.  At eight, I got to become part of a group of people participating in an activity that required me to: read a vast quantity of material at a fine detail level of comprehension, cooperate with up to 7 other people at the same time, learn to support others, learn to value the unique qualities and contributions of others, learn to put the good of the group before the good of myself,  recognize that a group of people all aligned to the same goal accomplish more than they could alone, pull my own weight, ask for help when I needed it  and offer help when it was time to reciprocate, accurately communicate my needs and what I was going to do, create supported arguments to argue both for and against a proposed action, continually integrate new information into an existing understanding, understand tactics and advantage, map accurately using scale factors, convert units, use metal math, understand probability, use my imagination, and slay dragons.

Right up to the slay dragons most people are asking “where can I sign up myself or my kids”?  However, the slaying of dragons seems to be a major controversy.  Dungeons and Dragons has received a lot of bad press because people focused on the killing of monsters instead of the highly complex system of gaming that it is. I know my mother was always challenged when she stood up for our right to play it.  The reasons she would list would be many of the above ending with I know where my children are, what they are doing, and with whom, can you say the same?  I cannot imagine that any parent, grandparent, or teacher would say,” No I don’t think my son/daughter/grandchild/student would benefit from that list of skills”.  So if these are the skills that Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy role playing games help promote, it begs the question how does it enable an environment that allows those skills to be used?

To answer this question, I will relate what happens in a typical Dungeons and Dragons’ game to the identifiers of complexity as defined in the work Engaging Minds (Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2008).  Dungeons and Dragons takes a group of 4 to 6 adventurers (people) and gives them an end goal to accomplish.  In order to accomplish the goal the group has only the equipment they presently carry, the things they find, their skills and abilities, and their ingenuity. Some of the equipment, skills, and abilities are possessed by more than one of the adventures to provide some redundancy in the system.  This not only allows more than one adventurer to work on a task if needed, but also provides flexibility in who is assigned which task to accomplish.  On the other hand, some skills and abilities are unique to a character thus providing diversity to the group.  By drawing on their unique and diverse skills and abilities the group can accomplish more difficult or specific tasks.  The group, over time, develops a taken-as-shared understanding (Cobb, 1990) which allows them to create group tactics that require each member to be aware of not only what they might do but of what the other members might do.  They then need to decide on the best course of action for both themselves and their teammates, all in but a minute or two.  This collective thinking is echoed in the words of Paulo Freire when he said, ‘It is not the “I think” that constitutes the “we think” but rather the “we think” that makes it possible for "me" to think’ (1985, pp. 99-100)

Dungeons and Dragons also provides recursive challenges that allow the characters to learn and adapt at the same time.  While the room may be the same size, with the same type and number of opponents with the same group of adventures neither the outcome nor the path that encounter will take are certain.  The group of adventures now has knowledge of the typical behavior of their opponents to use in their strategizing. They may have new equipment, skills or abilities that will change the tactics of the group.  They may have group members unable to use their regular skills or equipment which also change tactic.  Encounters are always dynamic and the adventures need to be able to adapt and learn from the system or they die (an on-paper death which requires much work and hassle to start a character over again).  Sometimes, the skills, abilities, and equipment are all held constant but the opponent changes.  This requires the group to think on their feet to notice difference and similarities between this and past encounters, as well as to notice what is working and what is not.  There again, the group must again adapt or face an epic character death. 

Role playing games are an imitation of life and, in that regard, reflect the complex system that we live in. 

Cobb, P. (1990). Multiple perspectives. In L. P. Steffe, & T. Wood (Eds.), Transforming children's mathematics education : International perspectives (pp. 200-215). Barcombe, U.K.: Falmer Press.
Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2008). Engaging Mind Changing Teaching in Complex Times second edition. New York: Routledge.
Freire, P. (1985). The Politics of Education. Cambridge, MA: Bergin and Garvey.
Kuhn, L. (2008). Complexity and Educational Research: a critical reflection. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), 177-189.


The Island of Ablai (pt. 3)

Pt. 1 Planning
Pt. 2 Creating the Environment

Pt. 3 Money Matters

With the physical world in place, we were ready to start adding layers of human abstraction.  Before we continued on with that, we needed to develop a common language around money.  I needed to know what they knew, and how they perceived money.  The last thing I would want is to make an assumption about their ideas and then learn later that we were operating on different levels.

Prior to anything, I oriented the kids attention to the fact that we were ZOOMING OUT of our inquiry, and not talking about Ablai, but rather investigating what we know.  It was time for US (the people we are day-to-day) to think about what WE know.  Suspend the drama of the imagination.

We went through the following two provocations, kind of as a tuning in to what they think/know about money (I originally planned three, but after the quality of discussion had in the first two, I decided the last would be unnecessary, and we were ready to move on).

What is money?

For this question, we did one of my favorite activities.  I first learned about it in a Poetry workshop with Larry Swartz at the University of Toronto.  I can't recall what he called it, but I call the routine Growing Definitions.  It reminds me a great deal of the visual thinking routines in Making Thinking Visible.

1) Write a definition of money on your own
2) With a partner, use your definitions and write a new definition
3) With your table, write another new definition
4) As a class, agree on a joint definition

It allows kids to see their ideas grow through interactions with their classmates.  When they see the final definition, they can see a little of their original thought in it.  At the same time, they can be aware of how much the class has added to the collective knowledge.  Finally, we are left with a definition, that was negotiated by all in a safe space, that we can all connect to.  It is truly taken-as-shared (see the work of Paul Cobb for a deeper look at this term).

The main aim here (from the teachers perspective) is to orient the discussion, and not take over and dictate the terms.  The definition has to come from them.  That doesn't mean you can't ask probing questions or push the thinking in other directions.  Being open makes it so much easier.  It is hard though.

This is a pretty good definition.  Some things "I" might change (but it is not my inquiry), but they certainly understand the basic premise.  I think they are missing the bit about value, but that should come out during one of the next couple activities.

It was really interesting to see how their first round of responses was almost completely based on the physical definition of money, and how slowly it evolved into a really solid group write.  They also negotiated things like grammar, spelling, punctuation.  I stood in front of the whiteboard and just pretended I had no idea what was going on.  In hindsight, I should have let them control the whiteboard...

Some great conversations came up; the difference between a want and a need, how buying and trading are very similar, the concept of earning.... these are all parked on our board, waiting to be explored in more detail...

Here is one example of their evolution of thought:

Individual Definition: Money is Paper and metal that you can buy things with
Pair Definition: Money is paper and metal that is important to us and we need it for our lives
Group (4) Definition: Money is paper and metal that is important to buy and trade things that we need everyday
Class Definition: Money is obtained by working and then traded for objects that we need or want for our daily lives

Where do people get money?

This discussion was amazing.  I had an activity planned but they just kept asking questions, so we talked for close to 45 minutes.  It was very much me standing in the front, answering their questions as expert.  There wasn't much interaction from Ss-to-Ss, it was more Ss-teacher-Ss.  Still it was enlightening for me to find out what they know, and amazing for some of them as they learned a great deal about how money works. I'll give a rough outline below;

Ss: People get their money from the place where its made in the factory
T: Where does it go next?
Ss: To the bank.
T: And then how do I get it out?
Ss: Use your card.
T: So, I can go to the bank and take out as much money as I want?
Ss:  No, you can only take out your money.
T: Where do I get my money?
Ss: From working.
T: Where do I work?
Ss: Here at the school.
T: So, who gives me my money?
Ss: Mr. S (the schools headmaster)
T: Would anybody like to challenge that?
Ss: Mr. S owns the school.  He is in charge.
T: He is in charge of the school, yes.  However, he does not own it.
Ss: Who owns it?
T: Does anybody know who owns this school?
Ss: (nobody knew the name of the company, but a couple knew that it was owned by a company)
T: The school is owned by a company called N.  They give me my money.  What do I do for them?
Ss: You work.
T: What does work mean?

We did a collective definition activity, where I asked them to define the word Job, or Work.  At this point, I kind of stepped back and let them take over, writing their ideas on the board, occasionally challenging something, or asking the shyer students to speak up.  Eventually, we ended with this definition.

Ss: Mr D, where does N get the money?
T: What an excellent question?  Can anybody help?
Ss: Our parents.
Ss: Why?  (some kids were shocked at this)
Ss: Because our parents pay for this school.
Ss: Really?  Is that true?
T: Yes, it is.
Ss: So N uses the money from our parents to pay you?
T:  Yes.  What else do you think they do with that money?
Ss: Buy iPads?  Computers?  
Ss:  The buses!
Ss: And tables and chairs.
T: Yes, they have to buy all this stuff.
Ss: So, why can't my parents give the money directly to you instead?
T: Another excellent question!  Why not?  Where would we have class?
Ss: Here.
T: This is not my room.  This room is owned by N.
Ss: At your apartment.
T:  Hahahahaha.  No.  Would you like that, to have no school and just me as a teacher?
Ss:  No, there would be no recess, no assemblies, no other friends.  

Lunch time disrupted us, but I took the main points of our discussion and logged them on our wonder-wall, to return to later.  They basically encapsulated the entire purpose of the unit in a single 45 minute discussion!

When we returned, we did the activity that I had originally planned.  Money comes from jobs.  What types of jobs are out there?

- we brainstormed a massive list of jobs on the boards, trying to cut the redundant ones out
- we transferred those jobs to cue cards, and sorted them into categories that made sense for us
- we made a list of all our categories, and combined and refined it

Brainstorm of Jobs
Sorting the Jobs into Categories
Final list of categories

We will use this list to start building our own economy.

An Ode to the best Tech in my class

The best piece of technology in my class......

is mobile

is always there when an idea sparks

helps make our thinking visible

is beautiful

requires no upgrades

lets us share ideas

in real time

enables us to adapt to the ebb and flow of learning

with real people

is colorful

is a place for creativity to go wild

is a place we all share

that is also a map

that can live anywhere

and never breaks down.


The Island of Ablai (pt 2)

Pt. 1 Planning

Pt. 2 Creating the Environment

I wanted this world to feel as authentic as possible.  Creating an imaginary world is a pretty abstract task, since the world only exists in your imagination.  Everybody would perceive this world differently, that is just human nature.  However, I want there to be much more redundancy than diversity in how we view Ablai (students gave different sounds and then rearranged them into new words, this is what won).  Therefor, this needs to be as VISIBLE as possible.

We brainstormed a list of natural landforms and wrote them on the board.  Then, we decided which one we didn't want.  The class was pretty unanimous in that this would not be desert, and it would not be a tropical island.  A temperate island like our own was what they wanted (like Japan but smaller).  Though one boy pushed very hard to have a chasm, the rest of the class agreed.

We broke off into groups and built this on the wall:

Ablai (AH-BLAH-EE)
Next, we needed to get a grasp of what the local environment was like.  What kind of animals?  Trees? Weather?  Natural Disasters (the kids were very adamant about knowing this beforehand, so close to the two-year anniversary of 3.11)?

We debated on the climate.  Some wanted it to be like a near equator town (but that was impossible because we had no jungles), and others wanted something similar to a warm southern place with no snow in the winters, while others wanted it to be like our own climate (harsh, cold winters, incredibly hot summers).  So, we did what any good group of world creators would do.

We voted.  A climate similar to Sendai was chosen.  We broke off into groups and each made a poster about a different part of the environment.

What about the city?

Well, know we needed to decide where the city will be built.  We broke into four different groups armed with a map, and choose the place.  The, we had to come up with reasons why this was the best spot to prepare for a class debate.  But....

... every group chose the same spot!  Worst debate ever.....

Well, now that we know, we made a list of the pros and cons of that spot.

- lots of resources nearby (water from river or ocean, trees, sand for glass)
- not near volcano
- wide open space
- close to trees so fresher oxygen
- people can use the beach for leisure
- near the forest so we can get food/animals
- near the ocean so we can get fish
- lots of room to grow if city expands
- the city is between forests, rivers, oceans, and beaches
- mountains could be used for leisure
- the lake could be used for leisure
- on a flat plain
- not many dangers on the south east corner
- volcano good for research
- Far from mining in mountains
- close to river for fresh water
- we could use salt from the ocean
- safe from avalanches
- potentially dangerous for Tsunami
- The rivers might overflow in spring
- Wild Animals use this area for their habitat and we will displace them
- the forest is so close so we might cut down all the trees
- brackish water near the ocean?
- we would disrupt the marine life near the city
- No cover from Typhoon/Hurricane (far from mountains)

Finally, to finish off, we all sat around and imagined what it would be like to live here, in this pristine state of nature.  We sat in a circle around the map and told stories about what we would do if we were the only human;

- explore
- make a map
- go find a wild horse and ride it
- climb the volcano
- hunt some animals
- tame a wild dog to be your pet
- make a flag with my name on it and put it on my house
- climb the highest mountain
- find an onsen
- sleep on the beach
- surfing
- find animals and play with them
- make a snowboard and go down the mountain
- I would swim in the rivers
- I would build a castle on the beach in summer

We then went onto the iPads and wrote a short story about the new world.  It had to be from the perspective of a person who was alone on the Island, and it had to be in first person.  No other humans have arrived yet.

I wonder what will change when they do arrive?

Reading their responses was amazing.  I was struck by two things about them;

a) their writing has improved a lot over the last year.  Their stories are better plotted and paced.  At the beginning of the year they used to move like a pinball, bouncing from one thing to the next.  My head would hurt.  Now, they can write an entire story about finding an apple tree.  Much easier to read.

b) a lot of the still struggle to get beyond the point of pure plot, and have difficulty explaining the setting of the story.  I purposefully set up this activity to make them explain their setting.  The main character if this story was the Island.  Tell me about the island through the person.  Describe what it looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like, what it smells like.  Hard for some kids, but a worthy push.  Those that learn to do it will appreciate the books they read on a deeper level, and will be better writers as well.

What I am learning after only one day 

Democracy.  We have had to make so many decisions already, and voting has been their preferred style of solving problems is to vote.  It is, in a sense, very much a joint project.  One students said to another at one point, "you can't do that, you might destroy our island."

Even though it has only been half a day, I hope this sense of ownership continues.  We haven't even put people on this island yet.  I hope they fall in love with the natural state of it, so that when they have to start making hard economic decisions, they won't forget that feeling.  They will remain connected to the natural environment.

I do not intent to dicate the path they take with this world.  If they chose to destroy it in a cloud of economic progress, that is entirely their decision.  I will simply make them aware of what is happening around them.

The decisions will be all theirs.