Talks from the Launch Party, Part III

Author: Alythea McKinney

Posted by Alythea

I am so happy to see you all here! Welcome, and thank you very much for celebrating this important moment with us.

The over-arching purpose of Critical Explorers is to promote the having of wonderful ideas in public schools. There are, of course, a number of fronts to work on if we are to contribute to what happens in classrooms, and we hope and expect, as this organization expands, to work on more of them. But for now I want to tell you about where we have started. We have started in the realm of curriculum.

As Lisa has suggested, the idea of critical exploration in the classroom took root as Piaget and his collaborators listened closely to children. To make essential problems and conflicts visible and tangible to the children, to capture their attention and reveal their thinking —for example, to find out whether they thought the amount of liquid changed when it took a different shape — Piaget and his collaborators provided carefully constructed collections of tubes and flasks and other assorted objects. The growth of critical exploration was further shaped and informed by the scientists and educators of the Elementary Science Study. Through collaborative experimentation with combinations of objects, like ice cubes or whistles, or bones or balloons, they invited teachers and children into the vastness of science and helped them set courses of their own.

Today, the work of critical exploration preserves, and constantly reinvents, the commitments evident in those beginnings. Practitioners of critical exploration trust in the potential of carefully chosen objects to catch students’ attention and involve them in thinking about significant problems. We believe as firmly in the potential of children and of teachers: in children’s capacities to develop and express increasingly complex understandings, and in teachers’ capacities to listen to their students’ ideas and to select additional materials that will help their students think further.

Conventional curriculum is of little use to teachers trying to work in this way. It is centered on explanatory text more often than on objects and other primary sources, and its scripted structure can obscure students’ ideas and preempt the decisions teachers should make about which materials will best nourish and challenge them. Yet, as Eleanor has said, leaving to classroom teachers all the responsibility for finding materials — and expecting classroom teachers to develop all their curriculum entirely from scratch — is asking too much: “Their days do not have enough hours.”

As we set initial priorities for Critical Explorers, we realized that — if teachers are to do more critical exploration — they need some way to preview materials already proven to capture and hold students’ attention, already known to help students sustain hard thinking and develop questions they can pursue further. So we decided to try out some materials, and combinations of materials, with teachers and students in a few classrooms, and discover and verify their potency. We planned to create a place where other teachers could then access and experiment with these materials, and compare notes on the changes in their own students’ thinking. We thought such a resource could make it possible for more teachers to create and refine more explorations, and for more children to participate in them.

This website is — and is becoming — the place we imagine. It is — and, as it expands, increasingly will be — a place where teachers can consider and come to understand more deeply the teaching and learning possibilities of these materials and of others like them.

The resources for a particular topic are called an “investigation.” Each investigation originates in a classroom residency, a collaborative teaching, learning, and curriculum development project chosen by a Critical Explorers researcher and a teacher, and carried out jointly in the teacher’s classroom. The investigations here now are just a beginning. When we have more, these arrows (on the home page, on either side of the featured investigations) will allow you to scroll through them horizontally. Existing investigations are in history and social studies; as the organization expands, future investigations may be in any school subject.

Because time is short, I’m not going to try to show you the entire website. We hope you will explore the other pages on your own. I’m going to focus

  • on the materials and combinations of materials we offer,
  • on how we allow teachers to envision these objects in different arrangements,
  • on how teachers can access student conversations about the materials,
  • and on how teachers can discuss the materials among themselves.

So we’ll go directly to Slavery and Reconstruction, which is the first investigation available and which, in these early stages of the growth of the organization, we hope will serve not only as a different kind of curriculum for the often misunderstood Reconstruction Era, but also as an example of what an investigation on this website can be, and as a catalyst for further collaborative curriculum development projects.

When you click on Slavery and Reconstruction, two things happen: one, you land on the Slavery and Reconstruction page, which offers narrative and visual overviews of the investigation and all its subtopics, and two, this internal navigation (the blue box on the left) expands. We designed the site so that teachers can browse the subtopics in the order we worked out (the numbers under the images will help you do that) or experiment with a sequence of your own. The internal navigation can always take you from one subtopic to any other subtopic.

There are nine subtopic pages, one for each of these nine images. Let’s go to one. Like the others, it’s anchored by two images we hope will catch your attention and begin to suggest some of the possibilities of the materials and combinations of materials we’ve gathered for this subtopic. You can see the full version of a featured image by clicking here, and you can download a printable version here (these links are visible below the anchor images). Each subtopic page contains several sections: Questions & Activities, Student Responses, Teacher Narrative, Additional Resources, and Teacher Forum.  (Scroll down to see them all.)

Under Questions and Activities, the featured materials are listed, and you can access all the other primary sources for this subtopic. Teachers can download some or all of these and use them in any combination or sequence they like. If you click View More, you’ll also find activities and questions that worked well in the classroom residency, which teachers can use or adapt or completely revise.

Under Student Responses (again, click View More), you’ll find student conversation, student writing, and, eventually, student artwork related to the materials. The students’ observations and questions often suggest relationships among the sources and point out potentially productive combinations. Close attention to the students’ ideas can help teachers consider which materials to introduce together, and when to bring back to the center a primary source students had examined earlier.

You’ll notice that the area under the Teacher Forum tab is not yet filled. Teachers can share ideas about these materials and activities in the forum. We can then copy that conversation into this space, linking it back to the forum so that it’s easy for teachers who visit in the future to continue the discussion. We hope educators will use this feature to contribute thoughts on their own experiences with these and related primary sources, so that the investigations on the website will continue to grow.

In small groups, we are now going to work with some of the historical materials from this investigation on slavery and Reconstruction, in combinations informed by, but different from, those documented on the website. These materials were used in conjunction with other historical materials in an investigation that spanned six weeks, but they are also compelling in themselves. They were selected to help students uncover some of the complexity of the subject matter — to raise questions and get people thinking about aspects of slavery and Reconstruction they might not have considered otherwise.

We hope we’ll all be able to see how materials that proved themselves in our classroom residency, in different combinations, give rise to powerful ideas and questions in our own groups here today. We hope our own conversations about the materials will inform us all about their potential, much as the student responses on the website do. Questions about curriculum and teaching may come up for you, and it’s good to note those, but — as your group leader invites you to participate in a critical exploration of these materials — we hope you’ll allow yourselves to encounter the materials as learners.

Thank you very much for listening and, again, for being here. We hope you’ll enjoy the small group experience we have planned. I’ll let Eleanor explain how the groups will form.

Alythea McKinney is the director of Critical Explorers.

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