Monday, November 26, 2012

Beautiful Learning

I am still on a learning curve when it comes to using iPads effectively with my students; the biggest challenge I have is creating learning situations so compelling that students are not tempted to wander off to readily available more satisfying activities (games). Today, I met with success.

Part of the grade 6 Social Studies curriculum involves learning about Canada's links to the world.  One of the articles we read during this unit tells the tale of Ryan's Wells. Ryan was a young Canadian boy who raised enough money so that a village in Uganda that had no access to clean drinking water could build a well. It is an inspiring tale that students enjoy reading.  It is also, now that we have the iPads, a problematic tale, the reasons for which will have to wait until the end of this post.

I organized 9 student desks into a u-shape with my chair at the top of the U.  This is a larger groups size than recommended for guided reading, but oh well.  We began with a discussion of Uganda. Who had heard of it? What did they know about it?  All had heard of it. None knew where it was located. Some thought it was small and poor, somewhat like Haiti.

I then distributed the iPads with a "Let's find out about more." And then the magic happened. For 40 minutes students were fully engaged, even those with severe learning challenges. Each child went in a different direction. One landed on the story of Uganda's Little League baseball team, another on wild animals, another on flag and facts. One hit a tourism site and saw, "Uganda, the Pearl of Africa". It detailed the many exciting things one could do in Uganda. The Kony connection was discovered, as was the current Anti-Gay laws that are being passed which prompted one learner to seek more information on Ugandan laws. Two boys found pictures of guns being destroyed which led them to learn more about wars that had taken place in Uganda. Another learner saw a picture of children locked behind a gate which led to "Why?" and the discovery that 40 000 children work in the tea fields of Uganda. The children discovered beautiful homes, grass huts, scenic views, areas of poverty and areas of immense wealth. We listened to a You Tube video where a teacher explained Speech Pathology programs, but what captivated the students was her accent. The music of Uganda was found by another and we all enjoyed listening. At certain points some students moved away from the group so they could hear better what was coming from their iPads.

Eventually I had to draw the session to a close, but none of the students wanted to stop. "I LOVE THIS," said one girl. "This was so interesting."  As we shared our discoveries, the children recognized that Uganda is a complex country with many problems, but much to offer. Every child but one (who hates airplanes) wanted to visit Uganda. All had more questions about Uganda that they wanted answered. I promised we would return to the iPads tomorrow to continue our exploration.

Which brings me back to Ryan's Wells.  In the past when I introduced this article, we also had discussions about Uganda. Then, as now, most students had heard of it but couldn't locate it.  The large map would come down; the students would say, "Oh, it's in Africa".  We'd share our brief knowledge and then begin to read.  What were the children left with at the end of the article? A picture of Uganda as a poor country with dirty drinking water that needs our help. Did any want to visit Uganda? Not really.

I realized today that in our desire to use Social Justice as our lens for instructing students about empathy and helping others, we are misguided. So many people see Africa as a place that needs help, rather than the place that my students saw in Uganda:  a country of complexities, just like our own. A country of beauty and ugly. Just like our own. A place with people, people we'd like to get to know.

It was beautiful learning, but I think the person who learned the most today was me.


  1. What an amazing experience! And with all those kids learning about different aspects of the country and then communicating and sharing what they found with others-now, that is truly exciting. If they can follow up and actually connect with students in Uganda, probably a little harder to arrange, how wonderful would that be! We have talked "individualization of instruction" for years. Now, however, it is actually a concept that can be realized. Good luck with your explorations and with those kids who see themselves as "learners" and know it is good.

  2. Hi Mrs Stanley,
    It was an amazing experience. I have had so much new technology come into my classroom this past year, that much trial and error is taking place as we figure out how to the most effective use of them.


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