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The Toy Unit: Problem-Based Learning Puts Students in Charge

EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts in collaboration with Stenhouse Publishers. The following excerpt comes from Yes, But...If They Like It, They'll Learn It! by Susan Church, Jane Baskwill and Margaret Swain (Pembroke Publishers, 2007; distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse Publishers). The book retails for $20 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.


This innovative book explores best practices for meeting the literacy learning needs of a diverse range of students. The article below shows how a simple categorization exercise expanded into an entirely new level of literacy and social studies exploration. For an additional excerpt from Yes, But...If They Like It, They'll Learn It! see The Bed Project: Authentic, Social Justice-Focused Learning.
 

As part of a class activity on categorizing, Olivia Reid’s Grade 4 students brainstormed lists of different toys and then grouped them into categories. During the process, students made comments like “Oh, I had one of those when I was four,” or “In daycare, I always rode on the red truck.” Responding to the children’s comments, Olivia asked her students to think about their favorite toy at each age. With their parents’ help, each child listed a special toy they had at each age and wrote about why it had been their favorite. They used this information to create a personal Toy Timeline.

The class then compiled their lists and developed class graphs for each age, with toys represented in categories. They discussed the results, considering the various stages of early childhood development and how different toys might interest a child at different stages. For example, they concluded that the favorite toy category at age two was stuffed toys because “Two-year-olds like to squeeze and chew and sleep with them. It makes them feel better to hug something.” The compiled class data went into a class Toy Book.

With the students’ interest in toys piqued, they went on to research the toys their parents had loved. They began to research the history of toys, using the library and online resources. They checked out the local historical museums. They collected photos and examples, set up a class display, wrote about the toys, and even played with them.

Students discovered that many toys—like the yo-yo, which started out as a weapon—have long and interesting histories. Throughout the unit, a favorite activity was making some of the toys. One student discovered that a popular young child’s toy, the Weeble® (a small roly-poly doll with no appendages that can be pushed over and rocks back up) was actually a modern version of an ancient Japanese Daruma doll, which in turn represented the story of a holy man who meditated so long his legs shriveled up.

They discovered that traditional Daruma dolls were made by hand and that, as Japanese girls and boys would paint their own dolls, they would paint one eye, make a wish, then paint the other when the wish came true. In addition to making their own Daruma dolls, some students became interested in learning more about Buddhism, and others researched the toy company that had used the idea of the Daruma to develop and sell Weebles®.

About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

In researching the company that made Weebles®, they discovered many familiar toys made by the same company. Students started making lists of toys and the companies that made them. A group of students were interested in toy ads on television—especially those shown during Saturday-morning cartoons or after-school kids’ specials.

They developed a Saturday-morning toy ad survey: they asked their classmates to watch TV on a Saturday morning and list what toy ads were shown, what toy companies sponsored the ads, the number of times an ad was shown, and a brief description of the ad. The following Monday, the teacher and students had a discussion about the ads, their frequency, and the messages they were giving to the children.

At the same time, one student discovered newspaper articles about a workers’ strike at a national toy company—one in support of the toy company and one outlining the workers’ perspective. Several students investigated the company in more depth, discovering that it was a parent company for five large, seemingly independent toy companies. Looking back at their Saturday-morning toy ad data, they realized that all the ads, while appearing to be representing different companies, were controlled by the same parent company. Further, they discovered that the workers—mostly immigrants making minimum wage with no benefits—were striking for safer and healthier working conditions. They also found out that the company had been cited in the past with numerous health and safety violations. During the daily meeting time, a number of students expressed their growing sense of upset with the behavior of the toy company. They wanted to be able to express their opinions and feelings.

As a whole-class group, the teacher and students talked about different ways that people (citizens) can express their concerns and feelings. They decided to write letters of complaint to the company and letters of support for the workers, and to develop a videotaped news report about the toy industry for the school video system. In addition to information and analysis from the toy ad surveys and some interesting toy histories, the report would include a section on the labor dispute, the issues of the workers, and the profit margins of the company. The teacher and students explored ways to express a concern both in writing and in speaking, and the effects that different ways of wording a concern can have on the audience.

Another group of students started comparing toys—their quality, durability, and price—as well as examining the kinds of problems they personally had encountered with certain toys. They made comparisons, decided which toys were the best value, and presented their information to the whole group. These findings were also included in the Toy Report for the newscast. Still others wrote up their complaints and concerns about specific toys, made suggestions for improvements, and sent the letters to the toy manufacturers, often receiving responses from the companies.

Since the central topic of this unit—toys—is not a part of any specific curriculum guide, it was important that parents and school administrators could see how the work was addressing the learning outcomes. Uninformed visitors to the class would see many students making and playing with toys as well as engaged in writing, reading, talking, and even arguing with each other. Therefore, the teacher was careful to articulate clearly the learning expectations for the students.

Aspects of the Toy project can be seen to address most of the NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts (see page 21), but the standard that the project most exemplified was

7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

The topic, although not prescribed by any curriculum guide for a Grade 4 class, allowed the students to become passionately involved in all aspects of this standard.

In this project, students were involved in researching topics of personal interest. They used many sources of information, including their own experiences. Students were excited to uncover unexpected connections between toys and history, the world of television, business, psychology, and other fields of adult endeavors. In addition, students, in discussions with the teacher, became more aware of how different people use language for different purposes.

 

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