LiD at Park Street Elementary – Fredericton, NB, Canada

UPDATE July 2014

“Fossils can sometimes be like great art”

It’s 8:30am in 1 Davidson, and the students are sitting on the carpet, waiting to be asked about their LiD topics. I start by asking them what their topics are, and what they can tell me about them. The students are shy, and many struggle to think of what to say. Grace tells me that the first person to first set foot on the moon, which is her topics, was Neil Armstrong. When I ask her where he was from she says she doesn’t know, but tells me she knows what his flag looks like: “blue and white stripes with stars.” Her classmates’ hands go up as they shout “America!” Bailey shares that the double bass is the biggest musical instrument in the world, but isn’t sure just how big it is. We Google it and find that it’s six feet, which prompts a debate about whether the double bass is taller than I am. We find a meter stick and discover that in fact, it is! I ask if they can tell me a joke about their topic. Every hand shoots up, and they wiggle with anticipation as each student takes a turn sharing their jokes.

What do you call a cow that wants to play in a band? A moo-sician!

Where did the polar bear put his money? In the snow bank!

What’s a pirate’s favourite fish? A gold fish!

“I thought it was a parrot fish!” one student pipes up. Other students nod in agreement. 1 Davidson has 30 minutes of LiD time every Tuesday morning, where Kelly, their teacher and LiD team lead at Park Street, engages them in activities to share about their topics. They’ve drawn cartoon strips, made up jokes, conducted surveys, created I Spys, created Halloween costumes related to their topics, found their topics in fiction and non-fiction books, recorded extremes related to their topics, and watched documentaries about their topics. One student’s family who was planning a trip to Boston took the train because it was their son’s topic; another family who visited New York made a special visit to the theatres so their daughter could experience her topic. One of Kelly’s students, Will, talked for 15 minutes about Grizzly Adams after the class saw the movie Bears – the first time he had shared anything about his topic with the group!

Park Street started the LiD program in the 2012/2013 school year, with only a few classes participating. This fall the whole school participated. During a 6-week leadership block the whole school participated in an hour of LiD time per week, where students with similar topics were grouped together to share instead of in their regular classrooms. At Park Street the teachers also have topics, so group leaders were also paired with students based on their topics. Kelly, whose topic is the Arctic and Antarctica, had students with the same topic as hers, as well as students who had Tundra and Icebergs and Glaciers.

Chris Treadwell, the principal at Park Street, says he had read Kieran Egan’s work and admired the IERG’s approach to teaching and learning. For him, LiD in particular seemed like a good fit for Park Street because it develops leadership, presentation skills, research skills, and students’ cognitive abilities, and aligns with Park Street’s school theme of personalized learning. The way a student approaches their LiD topic will be specific to their learning style, interest and readiness, something that was important for Chris to consider. “Focus on excellence through expertise,” is how he describes the LiD program, which closely aligns with Park Street’s goals for their students.

I returned to 1 Davidson a week later for LiD time. On that day the students were going to do a web activity to help them visulaize how all of their topics are connected. Picture this: They buzz with excitement when Kelly describes the activity to them; they immediately start chatting amongst themselves, sharing the connections they’ve already found between their topics and others’. Kelly shares that this is not unusual for them; they’re learning about others’ topics through their own. When Ella went to Florida, she brought back pictures for all of her classmates related to their topics, and when the class went to see the Bears movie, they were shouting out when they saw a classmate’s topic come up in the film.

They write their topics on Post-its, which turned into a quick literacy activity for the emerging writers who were asking us to help them sound out their topics so they could write them down. They stick these to their chests, and stand in a circle, tossing a ball of yarn to students whose topics connect with theirs. The web gets more and more dense, and students are chatting and sharing.

“My topic connects with fish because birds hunt for fish.”

“And pirates have parrots too.”

“Jupiter has an eye so it can go with eyes.”

It’s nearing the end of LiD time, and there’s just one topic that we haven’t yet made connections with: mine. When I was 8 my granddad gave me a calligraphy set, and ever since, my topic has been manuscript illumination. The last student to play, whose topic is fossils, holds the ball of yarn. She thinks for a moment. “Fossils can sometimes be great art,” she says, and tosses me the yarn.

Today the students have shared with me that there are over 500 kinds of dance, that black holes aren’t really black, that horses can run faster than kangaroos, that koalas aren’t really bears, and that the smallest theatre in the world is in England, and fits only two people. But what strikes me is that they aren’t just memorizing facts, but gaining an appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the world around them. They’re learning to make sense of the world through this particular lens, their topic, finding the wonder in the small things that actually make their worlds bigger and broader. They’re more insightful in the connections they’re making and more purposeful in their learning than most 6- and 7-year olds are given credit for. I wonder, what will they discover next?