China is regarded by many as a land of mystery. Between its rich culture, unique geography and fascinating history, you could spend a lifetime studying China. We scheduled our unit on China to coincide with the Chinese New Year.
One of the first areas we delved into was China’s writing system. It was fun to study the various kanji, or Chinese symbols, to learn their meanings. With brushes and bamboo pens we practiced making these symbols, combining them to depict various meanings.
We studied several books of Chinese art and crafts and made our own cherry blossom pictures, fans and lanterns. We also began the process of making our own paper.
Each day we have been working on our map of China to include its geographic features, ecological regions and major landmarks.
The waters around China are as significant as the land. We learned about a type of boat, the Chinese junk, and made a model to sail in the creek next to our school. This coincided with a series of experiments and demonstrations we had been conducting on sinking/floating and density.
There are many ways we can talk about how long the Great Wall is. We decided to use our Mortensen rods to help us envision it. We compared the distance to more familiar distances and then calculated how long it would take to walk and drive the length of the wall.
Of course, you cannot study China without encountering one of its most fascinating animals, the giant panda. Known for its reclusive behavior and striking coloration, this cuddly-looking creature spends most of its time foraging for and eating bamboo in the misty mountains of China. We made paper bag pandas while researching this animal and made a chart of its characteristics. The red panda is one of my favorite animals (which I regularly pretend to be when we play imaginary games) and also lives in parts of China. It was the first of the pandas to be discovered, and while it is not related to the giant panda, it also includes bamboo in its diet. We read about how scientists study animals in the wild by tracking them, studying their droppings, and sometimes tagging the animals.
Learning about pandas led us to bamboo. There are a few outcroppings of bamboo growing near our school, so we regularly harvest it for various projects: teepee frames, walking sticks, crutches, utensils. It was interesting to the students to learn that there are several different species of bamboo in China, that humans eat bamboo shoots, and that bamboo is actually a type of grass rather than a tree. One of the students was skeptical of this latter fact, so we spent some time comparing bamboo with different grasses and trees around our school.
We read several books that brought some of China’s history, culture and legends alive.
We celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Dragon over several days. We ate rice with chopsticks, sampled green tea, made dragon masks and burned incense.
Throughout the year we study indigenous cultures around the world. The fall presents a good time for studying Native Americans since we are already spending more time outside connecting with the natural world. Since our school is located on a large property on a section of Waller Creek, we regularly take short hikes in and around the creek bed. During our study of the native peoples of North America, these hikes took place in the context of foraging, hunting and gathering. We did not actually hunt any wild animals, but we did find and collect many interesting feathers from birds that spend time in the area. As regular birdwatchers, we were able to identify the birds to whom these feathers once belonged.
We have been studying the many types of dwellings erected throughout North America. We decided to erect a teepee from a readily available material that grows on the property, bamboo. We regularly harvest the bamboo for various projects.
We also made plans for a model of a pueblo from sticks and clay, which we will make in the next few days. Our books and posters described various dwellings, from cabins to huts. We discussed the advantages of different types of dwellings depending on location and lifestyle.
We studied many of the crafts made by people in North America and then made our own versions. The students always enjoy working with beads. We talked about the different materials early peoples used for beads, how they made the beads and used them. We contrasted these materials with the types of materials used for beadwork in our society. While the beadwork of most Native American artisans is too complex to produce without years of practice, we were able to make some necklaces and bracelets. Some of the students chose to incorporate patterns into their work. We also made pouches and gods eyes (ojos de dios).
Working with clay is always a good experience for the students. We made platters and engraved designs into the clay while it was soft. While the students worked with the clay, we discussed the many forms of pottery made by different groups and how important it was to their daily activities. In looking at pictures of pottery, we came across many pictures of baskets. A friend of the school donated several boxes of reeds and basket-weaving designs, so we will be learning about basket weaving in the near future.
We studied various pictograms and symbols used by some groups of native peoples. We also made some of our own. We talked about the advantages of communicating ideas through pictures instead of written words, as well as the limitations. We put up large pieces of paper on a wall outside so that we could have lots of room to paint the symbols and pictures.
Between our library and the public library, we amassed quite a collection of books retelling Native American folk tales. These stories have been the best avenue for discussing different native groups, their beliefs, and how they lived prior to European contact. The idea of “animal people”, present in most of the stories, resonated with the students. Coyote, a central character in the stories of the Southwest tribes, was probably our favorite.
Tomorrow we will be taking a trip out to McKinney Falls State Park to spend the day hiking. It will be a wonderful opportunity to spend even more time outside, connecting with the natural world. And next week, before leaving for our Thanksgiving break, we will be cooking a soup with ingredients native to this continent: beans, squash, corn (known to some groups of Native Americans as the three sisters) and tomatoes.
When asked which country they would like to study next, the students selected Germany. Since some of the teachers have traveled to Germany and studied it’s language and culture, we were excited to delve into this wonderful place, rich with fascinating geography, history and of course, the food!
The students regularly open restaurants during their play, often 2 or more times a week. We make money, menus and seating areas to accommodate each restaurant and take turns being the customer, wait person and cook (I like to be the health inspector). Studying Germany inspired us to open a German restaurant, complete with sauerkraut and black forest cake. We discussed different currencies, including the US dollar, the euro, and the former German money, the mark.
Knowing already that Germany is home to many of the world’s greatest castles, the students decided they wanted to construct a model of a castle, complete with towers, a castle wall, and even a moat. Our books contained pictures, diagrams and facts about castles. As fans of the Magic School Bus books, we really enjoyed reading about Ms. Frizzle’s adventures in a medieval castle.
This tourism site proved to be a great resource for studying German castles. One of our favorites was Neuschwanstein Castle, famous for its fairy tale spires and inspiration for the Disney castles.
We learned about all the features we wanted our castle to have: towers, turrets, portcullis, moat, well, etc. Our castle project will be an ongoing project, but here is what we have so far:
We spent time reading and acting out German fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood. We enjoyed making puppets. Then we moved on to making our own little stories and plays. Steve and the students composed and performed several short plays, some of which tapped into the old tales.
We will certainly revisit Germany in our future studies.