Stephanie Wasta and Margaret Scott
How does a good teacher create bridges from her travels into the classroom? We asked this question many times as we traveled through the southeast coastal region of China as part of a twelve-member Fulbright-Hays Scholarship team. With each new encounter-the giant stone-carved Buddha, the many-tiered pagoda, the farmer standing ankle-deep in water planting slips of rice, the bicycle traffic jams on city streets, the delight of people everywhere to share their world with us-the meaning of the expression, "you just had to be there," haunted us. Determined to find a way to convey our vivid experience of Chinese culture to our students and fellow teachers, we developed the following theme cycle. Although it focuses specifically on China, we believe it can be adapted to fit the geographical and cultural learning that can grow out of travel experiences elsewhere.
A Theme Cycle that Bridges Cultures
Planning a unit on China for team-teaching to third graders involved several key tasks. We knew that our third graders were already participating in a school-wide theme, "Building Community," which included learning about the history, geography, ecological needs, and community efforts at work in their own town. The students were also engaged in community service activities. We were excited about how exploring China could add a global dimension to the children's present ideas about community.
As we discussed this larger picture, we decided that our over-arching theme should be the commonalities between the lives of children and families in China and the United States. We called the theme cycle "Building Bridges to China," and chose a guiding question for children to think about: How are we all connected as part of a global community?
Analyzing the NCSS Standards as they applied to our study, we saw that the theme cycle we were planning could address all ten themes, but we decided to focus primarily on 1 Culture, 3 People, Places, and Environment, and 9 Global Connections.1 We also found significant opportunities to focus on all six elements of the National Geography Standards.2
We began to search for the actual "learning bridges" that would have the most direct impact on students. We wanted these bridges to lead them in a wide range of individual or small group inquiry. We decided that three aesthetic bridges into the culture of China-realia, children's literature, and Chinese artwork-would provide the experiences of touch, language, and visual imagery that were best suited to stirring a child's curiosity and imagination. We then assembled the sources that we would need, relying heavily on materials we had brought back from China.
Realia. Keeping an eye out for kid-centered objects during our visit to China, we had collected school textbooks, musical instruments, currency, a ceremonial tea set, costumes, kites, fans, tea, rice, newspapers, chopsticks, and ricebowls. To these, we planned to add items that children might bring from home and items brought by any guest speakers we might invite to class.
Literature. The literature collection we assembled-some from our travels and some from local libraries and bookstores-emphasized children and family life in modern China; ancient Chinese culture, especially its folktales; children's Chinese/English dictionaries; and calligraphy.
Art. During our trip, we had collected samples of many kinds of artwork: paper cuts, cloisonné, clay pottery, wood and stone carvings, silk embroidery, and masks. Although we were excited at the thought of using all in our "aesthetic immersion" process, we chose to focus specifically on what the ancient Chinese called "the Three Perfections": watercolor, calligraphy, and poetry.3 A wall hanging from Shanghai, as well as many pictures from books, helped us flesh out this fascinating image of the role of beauty in ancient Chinese life.
The Learning Bridges in Action
In the last phase of planning, we tried to select strategies that would launch children into their own inquiries regarding China, as well as help develop a community of learners working together on a specific core of experiences. The following section describes these strategies as they came to life in the classroom.
When combined into one unit, they accommodate different learning styles, offer opportunities for both introducing and reinforcing knowledge, and encourage creativity.
A "geography suitcase" game set our theme cycle into motion. The children sat in a circle and took turns reaching into a suitcase and selecting surprises collected during our trip. It was their job to try to figure out what they were holding. A series of questions helped them think through their responses:
1. What do you think this is?
2. What might it be used for?
3. What does it tell you about China?
4. Do we have anything similar in America?
Holding "an actual piece of China," as one child put it, and trying to solve its mysteries created instant identification with our new unit.
Early on in the theme cycle, we created a classroom museum to serve as a visual and tactile focal point where students could explore the items from the geography suitcase along with other realia. Complementing the museum, a classroom library provided resources for student to ask questions and explore deeper meanings.
A map of China, a world map, and a globe added yet another dimension to student explorations, as groups of children turned repeatedly to these tools to gain a sense of geographic placement for their investigations. As fingers traced borders and followed mountain ridges, the children's questions and comments provided the opening for a geography mini-lesson: "Look how big China is!" "I wonder how big it is compared to America!" "How do you get to China from America?" "I wonder what countries are China's neighbors." "I wonder where the Great Wall is. Did you know you can see it from the moon?"
The K-W-L Chart
Using a K-W-L chart to record what we knew [K], what we wanted to know [W], and what we learned [L], the students saw that learning grows by building on earlier understandings, often modifying or clarifying earlier thinking in the process.4 For example, our students discovered that they had been confusing Japan with China in important ways. These on-going K-W-L notations provided a record of our learning, a sense of continuity, and a chart of the growth taking place in our learning processes.
The children kept their own discovery journals, using the K-W-L model as an example, but not limiting themselves to its chart format. As a class, we frequently paused to reflect on personal discoveries, insights, and questions, using phrases such as "I used to think...but now I know....," I really enjoyed....because....," and "I want to find out more about...."
Our slides of China provided an ongoing source of visual imagery to help initiate dialogue with students. The children seemed fascinated by the images on the screen, and imagined themselves in each scene. They talked about what they were experiencing-clarifying hazy impressions, making comparisons, asking questions, uncovering connections with prior knowledge, and discovering new directions of thought.
Simulation of House Space
Using Cochrane's model, we conducted a simulation of house space in which we compared our own bedrooms to the average space per person in a Chinese home.5 The students talked first about the size of their own bedrooms and described the furnishings; then we unrolled butcher paper representing the average space per person in a Chinese home (1.9 square meters). The students used the following questions as a basis for discussion:
1. How does your household space compare to that of a person in China?
2. How would you use this space?
3. What would you give up?
4. How does our space influence the way we live?
Traditional Chinese Art
The children encountered the world of ancient China through traditional forms of art. The ancient Chinese used watercolors in combination with poetry written in calligraphy, calling these arts "the Three Perfections" because they echo and enhance the beauty of one another. As the children examined the wall hanging we purchased in Shanghai, they were able to identify all three media, and quickly learned to spot them at work in the paintings they found in books from the classroom library. Imagining themselves as painters, poets, and calligraphers, they studied the artist's toolbox from our classroom museum as we read together in Cotterell's Ancient China about each of the tools employed in these arts. 6
With this foundation in place, the children were ready to try their own hand at practicing traditional art forms. They learned the brushstrokes of calligraphy; practiced watercolor; studied Chinese/English dictionaries for children to find words to put into calligraphy; and wrote, read, and responded to one another's poems. Substituting tempera and starch for Chinese ink, and using simple watercolor pans for our paintings, we used white drawing paper to create our own wallhangings and displayed our poems beside them.
Traditional Chinese Folktales
Throughout the theme cycle, we read aloud over a dozen traditional Chinese folktales. As we read, we talked continually about the personal attributes of the main characters and the life-long messages they were teaching the reader, among them, courage, perseverance, sacrificial love, and kindness in the face of adversity.
As we charted these character traits and the folktales' messages, we also kept track of key elements of ancient Chinese culture we found woven into the stories: landscape, emperors, the protective dragon, the phoenix symbolizing new life, the water buffalo, names, pagodas, and palaces. We also noted common storytelling strategies we found embedded in the tales, such as physical transformations and repeating patterns of events. The children reread these tales on their own, absorbing further information with each reading and comparing each new tale to those that had come before.
In order to give the children practice with storytelling, we provided an opportunity for them to prepare their own flannelboard dramas. Dividing the children into pairs, we gave each pair a legend about the origin of one of the many Chinese festivals. Each pair read the tale, planned a drama, cut out felt characters and scenery, rehearsed before another team, and then presented its flannelboard drama to the class.
The audience's task was to determine the message of each festival. Following the production, the actors and their audience discussed their ideas and their new realizations, providing affirmation to each pair of students. These dramatic presentations helped students internalize all the discoveries they had made when reading the folktales.
Students were now ready to use these insights to write their own stories patterned after Chinese folktales. Drawing on their reservoirs of new knowledge, they referred to the various charts we had created as they planned their stories. In order to visualize characters, story problems, and plot sequences, they drew a series of "quick sketches." Then they jotted down the messages they wanted their stories to convey, along with details about China they wanted to be sure to include. The children were determined to produce folktales that were as "authentic" as possible. They wrote, shared, listened, discussed their tales in response groups, revised, and edited with great intensity.
At our concluding Building Bridges to China Festival, the sharing of these tales became one of the featured events. Small groups of children took turns reading their folktales aloud to each other, identifying the messages, and offering appreciative thoughts about the stories.
As the China unit drew to a close, the children used their discovery journals to assess their learning. Students reflected on how their attitudes and understandings about China had changed over the course of the theme cycle. One student wrote, "I used to think that studying China would be boring because there was nothing fun there. Now I know that China is a cool country with all their celebrations and beliefs." Another student noted, "Now that I know more about China, I feel more connected to the Chinese people."
As we developed and taught this theme cycle, we found many opportunities to reflect and learn from our experiences. Among our discoveries, we count the following as most significant:
1. Travel can provide teachers with a powerful professional development experience. As educators, we need to make a conscious effort to use our travel experiences in diverse cultural and geographical regions to create a bridge of understanding for others. With careful planning, we actually can give our students a sense of "being there."
2. Aesthetic encounters with realia, literature, and art forms can play a crucial role as bridges into previously unknown worlds of knowledge.7 They can span gaps in students' minds where either little prior knowledge or erroneous ideas exist. They can also create visible, tactile realities that children can grasp and hold on to, charming the learners' senses with vibrant images and awakening a passion for learning itself.
3. Opportunities for teaching the NCSS Standards occur naturally when the learning context is authentic and students are deeply engaged. For example, we found that we could easily address geography concepts through the study of culture as our students began to immerse themselves in the learning activities we devised.
4. When students focus on real people-the stuff of their life, their stories, and their artwork-the many dimensions of the human spirit unfold before them. The children in turn respond to this richness and beauty with a need to respect and even cherish the variety of cultures that make up our global community.
1.National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: author, 1994).
2.Geography Education Standards Project, Geography for Life: National Geography Standards 1994 (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1994). The six essential elements are The World in Spatial Terms, Places and Regions, Physical Systems, Human Systems, Environment and Society, and The Uses of Geography.
3.Arthur Cotterell, Eyewitness Books: Ancient China (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994).
4.D. M. Ogle, "K-W-L: A Teaching Model that Develops Active Reading of Expository Text," The Reading Teacher, 39, (1986): 564-570; D. M. Ogle, "K-W-L: The Know, Want to Know, Learn Strategy," Children's Comprehension of Text: Research into Practice, edited by K.D. Muth (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1989).
5.Katherine Cochrane, "Pull-Out Feature-China: A Case Study in Using Geography to Understand Culture," Social Studies and the Young Learner, 4, 3 (1992): 1-4.
6.Arthur Cotterell, Eyewitness Books: Ancient China (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).
7.Montana Office of Public Instruction, Framework for Aesthetic Literacy (Helena, MT: Office of Public Instruction, 1994).
Greene, Ellin. Ling-Li and the Phoenix Fairy: A Chinese Folk Tale. Illustrated by Zong-Zhou Wang. (New York: Clarion Books, 1996). A poor but talented girl weaves a beautiful robe that is the envy of a wealthy girl in the village. A classic tale of courage and creativity, as well as beauty and magic.
Pitkänen, Matti A. The Children of China. (Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 1990). An overview of China's history and geography featuring the daily life of children in a concisely written text with stunning photographs.
Yep, Laurence. TigerWoman. Illustrated by Robert Roth. (Mexico: BridgeWater Books, 1995). A greedy woman learns her lesson in this magical tale of twists and turns that will make any selfish soul think twice about his or her actions.
Yolen, Jane. The Emperor and the Kite. Illustrated by Ed Young. (New York: Philomel Books, 1988). The youngest and smallest daughter of the Emperor uses her ingenuity and intelligence to save him when no one else will. A tale of love, loyalty, and inspiration.
Zhensun, Zheng and Alice Low. A Young Painter: The Life and Paintings of Wang Yani-China's Extraordinary Young Artist. (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1991). A delightful story that highlights the artwork and childhood experiences of one of China's premier artists.
About the Authors
Stephanie Wasta is an assistant professor at The University of Montana in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
Margaret Scott is a third grade classroom teacher at Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Missoula, Montana.