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.
Having supported emerging readers for well over a decade, I can say that one of the very best ways to help young people read is to read to and with them.
At Progress School, we do not force students to read or pressure them to attain specific levels of fluency at set points. Instead we focus on fostering a love of reading, supported by fun activities designed to develop all the skills people need to be able to read independently.
Most schools have a story time or some sort of reading time on most days. At Progress School we read books throughout the day, every day. Occasionally we develop something of an obsession with a particular book. For a couple of weeks it was The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.
Scieszka’s witty humor entertains children and adults alike. His collection of revised fairy tales include wacky versions of Chicken Little, The Gingerbread Man and Little Red Riding Hood. The students LOVED them, the sillier the better. They asked the teachers to read and reread the stories. They read parts of the stories to each other. Then they took turns checking out the book so that they could read the stories to their families and friends outside of school.
We compared Scieszka’s versions with the traditional stories. Then we explored other traditional fairy tales and discussed how we could make our own versions. This tied in wonderfully to the students’ interest in writing and performing plays. Using familiar fairy tales as starting points, we worked in our own twists to create new pieces. Through the process of writing and rehearsing, the students are presented with a fun opportunity to practice reading and develop fluency.