Putting Learning into the Right Context for Children

How do you make learning about art, different cultures and even math relevant and engaging for kids?

Recently, one of my readers left a comment about a visit with her stepdaughter to the Rubin Museum of Art, which is dedicated to art of the Himalayas and surrounding regions.  It turned out to be a great experience for them both, because her stepdaughter had recently studied India in school and took pride in sharing what she had learned with her parents during the museum visit.

Another parent and photographer Darryl Nitke recently told me that he considers himself very educated, especially in the realm of art.  He said, however, that the one place where his middle and high school education had fallen short was teaching art, literature, science, music and philosophy independently and not putting context between them.  He does things differently with his son, who has been accompanying him to museums and galleries since he could walk.  He always tries to tie in visits with his child’s interests, current school topics or by putting the art they view into a historical context.  For example, due to the current tragedy in Japan, he is taking his son to the Met to see The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

Darryl explained how this process of exploring art with his son came together during their trip to Rome last summer: “We took a bunch of photos at the major sites and of specific works in the museums. When my son started fifth grade this year, his history book had at least 10 photos of the same sites and museum pieces that we had seen—taken from exactly the same place! That really thrilled my son!”

I also recently met parent and sculptor Skye Ferrante while waiting in line with our kids for the MoMA’s Material Lab.  We struck up a conversation about why we teach our kids about art.  He subscribes to Ray Bradbury’s philosophy that “life is a search of metaphors for life” and believes art is a great metaphor for teaching his daughter about the world.

“I learned more about French History from Victor Hugo than I did from a text book,” he said.  “But I’m biased: I’m an artist.”

Nonetheless, I’m seeing the idea of “context” being carried over into subjects other than social studies and art.  My first-grader recently proclaimed that she “hates” math but couldn’t really explain why.  Hoping to glean some insight, my husband and I both attended “Math Day” at her school.  We learned that the school’s math program is based on a problem-solving approach rooted in everyday situations.  “By making connections between their own knowledge and experiences, children learn basic skills in meaningful contexts, so that mathematics becomes ‘real,’” said the principal.  Again, it’s all about the context.

After being stumped by a fourth-grade math problem, we wondered how long we could continue helping her with her homework, let alone encourage her to like math.  We learned math in more of a rote fashion.  And, I’ll be honest, I never liked math either.

A visit to her classroom was more promising.  We saw the concepts that the principal spoke about in action.  The children were writing numbers, reading word problems, building towers with blocks that represented different numbers and calculating the tall totals, solving math puzzles on the class Smart Board and using a giant number line that stretched half of the room, while collaborating with each other through addition and subtraction to reveal a mystery number.  And my daughter seemed very into it.  Was she just having a bad day when she made that proclamation?

I’ve since tried to casually incorporate more math into everyday activities, such as cooking, playing games like Mancala and Monopoly or figuring out the 25 percent savings off a doll that she wanted.  The head of the school’s Computer Lab suggests students can stay on top of their math skills during spring and summer breaks by playing games on age-appropriate educational websites.  He recommends:



and http://resources.oswego.org/games/.

I also read good reviews of the following iPad/iTouch apps and will be giving them a try with my daughter: Math BingoMath Board and Tic Tac Math.

Internet and Technology in Schools: Why We Shouldn’t Pull the Plug

CultureChild: Technology and School

Most parents of school-aged kids are aware of a current debate taking place on- and off-line, regarding the use of computer technology and the Internet at school.  During the past week, there has been a lot of heated comments on theThe Huffington Post as a result of Laurie David and Susan Stiffelman’s recent post, “Technology and Schools: Should We Add More or Pull the Plug?

I believe in teaching children in school and at home the importance of balancing technology in their lives and how to use the Internet responsibly, in tandem with a lot of teacher and parent supervision.  I’ve seen technology offer my daughter educational experiences that wouldn’t have been as dynamic for her otherwise.

Internet games accessed in school libraries—such as Free Rice, which donates 10 grains of rice for each question kids get right through the World Food Program, international pen pal programs run by Students of the World and cultural exchanges like the Thorn Tree project—exemplify how the Internet can be used as tool to enhance learning, broaden children’s knowledge of the world and further their understanding of different cultures.

Packer Collegiate, a pre-K through grade 12 private school in Brooklyn, NY, has established an ongoing cultural exchange and fundraising program with the Ndonyo Wasin Primary School in Kenya, which is also part of the Thorn Tree project.  Named for the thorn trees under which the preschool children meet, the Thorn Tree project is an exchange between educators in the north Kenyan region of Sereolipi and Jane Newman, a retired New York City advertising executive.  The venture has raised funds to build classrooms and dormitories to house students and has boosted the number of children attending primary school in the region from 132 in 2001 to 651 in 2008.  No doubt, the learning exchanges between the U.S. and Kenyan schools would not have been as successful without the use of technology and the Internet.

At Packer, students in the second grade begin a pen pal exchange via e-mail with the second graders at Ndonyo Wasin.  One year, fourth graders at each school collaborated to write and produce short videos about their schools and share them with one another.

In an article on the school’s website, Andrea Kelly, Lower School Head at Packer Collegiate said   “Our goal has always been to provide both schools with an exciting window on another world.  We want them to know that there are many different ways to live a life.  And with all the differences, we want them to identify the commonalities between their cultures.”

The fourth-graders’ videos described on Packer’s website showcase these ideas beautifully.  In the Packer video, the children proudly display a large garden in which they play, the infra-red controlled sinks and soap dispensers in the restrooms and the wide selection of books in the library.  In the Kenyan piece, the students lead a virtual tour of Ndonyo Wasin—through the dormitories equipped with mosquito netting, into the solar-powered library where the children can watch Sesame Street, and by the athletic fields where children play “football” (soccer) and netball (a game like basketball).  With pride they introduce viewers to two of the 40 camels on Ndonyo Wasin’s campus that provide milk for the school, as well as the solar-powered well that gives clean water to the whole school.  Previously, the students had to fetch water from a well that was two miles away.

While these are just a few initiatives, countless schools are using technology wisely.  Sadly, Laurie David and Susan Stiffelman, who claim to be “in the trenches” as a mother and psychologist, seem far removed from the innovation that educators, who are also deep “in the trenches,” are making on this front.

Google Art Project: Touring the Tate between Science and Recess


Thanks to Google’s new website, Google Art Project, students (and anyone with Internet access) can visit some of the world’s greatest art museums without leaving the classroom—a brilliant example of using technology to connect and engage millions with art. The site uses Google Street View to offer virtual tours of 17 museums, including the Tate Britain in London, Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA in New York and Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Visitors can view 360-degree images of the galleries, zoom into a painting using high-resolution technology to see the minutest of details, click on an icon to learn more about the artist, find more works by that artist and watch related YouTube videos.

A “Create an Artwork Collection” feature allows guests to save specific views of any of the artworks, build their own personalized collections, add comments and share their collections with friends on the web.