Friday, July 11, 2014

Instruction and Delight: Abstract Concepts Made Easy

When I read that the British writer Len Deighton taught his children basic math through baking, I knew that he was a born teacher.
In addition to being a writer of spy stories, Deighton is a chef, worked as a food writer for the Observerand is the author of  several cook books, among themAction Cook Book. Thus, for him spending time in the kitchen with his children must have seemed natural.  He used  their time together for educational purposes measuring the sugar, multiplying recipes, and dividing the batter into baking pans. This is an effective technique to convert complex abstract concepts  into simple, enjoyable and memorable actions.
It is common that teachers try to find a way to reach a child through his/her own interest, but here it is the parent/teacher’s passion which creates an effective educational opportunity.
Another natural teacher was the time and motion study and efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth. He applied his professional knowledge and personal zeal to teach his children theoretical subjects. According to the biographical book Cheaper by the Dozen, the 12 children of Lilian and Frank Gilbreth learnt Geography by staring at the wolrd map while sitting in the restroom. Similarly, they listened to language records when they shaved or took a bath. The French and German which they heard  was recited later at the dinner table.
When I was growing up I was convinced that Gilbreth's teaching  method was the best solution for raising happy and curious children. I was so impressed that as a young mother I got my daughters a world map shower curtain. 
Last week I heard about a young woman from California, a daughter of a friend,  who teaches science in an outdoor classroom. Like Len Deighton and Frank Gilbreth she is a gifted teacher with a passion. Luckily, in contrast to the writer and the industrial engineer who only taught their children at home, she teaches at a school making abstract concepts come to life.  I am pasting below the transcript of the interview with the teacher Melanie Pepper.
I believe that every child deserves  such an inspiring  teacher .
Teaching Comes Naturally
Melanie Pepper uses nature as a classroom to teach almost anything.
By Melanie Pepper
Growing up, I wanted to be exactly like my two older brothers. They were my tree-climbing, river-swimming and garden-tending heroes. Their deep love for the earth quickly made me an ally and student of Mother Nature.
Now, as a recent college graduate, I'm transforming this love into a profession. Every day I work with San Francisco public elementary school students to bring science learning to life in an outdoor classroom. I'll admit it's not always easy. Where I work, some students have lives that make doing well in school a challenge. One bright but struggling 3rd grade student comes to mind. He showed me, in one afternoon, exactly why I do what I do.
For weeks his classroom teacher and I brainstormed ways to manage his behavior, without much success. Then, one day after school I saw him hanging around the yard. I invited him to join me as I worked in the garden and was pleasantly surprised when he enthusiastically ran over.
I taught him how to place a young lettuce plant into the soil. Then he planted another by himself. Before I knew it, he was totally engaged. We worked side by side for a while. The door for deeper connection opened.
I asked how school was going. He brought up having trouble with fractions in math. So we made up some simple fractions using the lettuce plants. How many heads of lettuce did we have here? How many had red leaves? How can we show that as a fraction? Immediately he was drawn into the lesson. I pulled out my white board and soon he was scribbling fractions all on his own. And he didn't stop at the lettuce. He also created fractions to describe the pea plants, the carrots, the kale and even our garden tools. We had taken a simple math concept and found a way to apply it to something tangible that he enjoyed. In the weeks to come, I watched his math skills improve and his leadership in class garden visits grow.
I hope to connect with many more students like him. Whether it's math, science or language arts, the garden provides natural points of entry to educational curriculum for all ages. And, just as my brothers fostered the love for nature within me, I try to inspire the future leaders of tomorrow to be strong students and stewards of our Earth.
With a Perspective, this is Melanie Pepper.
Melanie Pepper is a member of the Education Outside Corps. She teaches at Sanchez Elementary School in San Francisco.

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