Saturday, September 24, 2016

Classifying: A Core Skill in Learning About Cultures

I've written a handful of blog posts about culture. I've looked to define culture and how to help students think about culture. Still, I notice that all of this work is grounded in gathering information about culture from a variety of primary and secondary sources. This post is going to focus on the core thinking skill that teachers must elevate when students engage with sources about culture. That skill is CLASSIFYING,... or associating something with a particular group.

First, let's think of some situations where students apply the skill of CLASSIFYING.

  1. In math, students might be given a set of geometric shapes. Using traits of the shapes, students will organize the geometric shapes into different groups.
  2. In science, students might be given a set of rocks. Using traits of the rocks, students organize the rocks into different groups (such as as sedimentary, metamorphic,  and igneous).
  3. In reading, students might describe characters within a story. Using the traits, students might organize the characters into those with positive social traits and those who have negative social traits.
What sources will students use to learn about culture?
The sources that students engage with will be traditional (secondary sources written as sentences) or nontraditional (artifacts, primary sources, images, media, infographics, ...). With traditional sources, students are transferring and reapplying reading skills to make sense of the content. With nontraditional sources, students are applying analytical processes the "look and think." (For more information on this idea, view my blog post on traditional literacy and visual literacy.) When students engage with sources about a culture, the first thing we must understand is that there is no source that will tell you everything about a culture. Every source only reveals a limited amount of information. Sometimes a source reveals a significant amount of information about culture, and sometimes a source reveals much less...but no source will tell you everything about a culture

How do I support students in classifying the information within sources?
As students engage with sources, we have to give students a purpose. There are teachers who might call this looking at the details within a source through a lens, and it may sound like this: "When you read this source, look for details that help you to understand _____________." This is where precision with instruction is critical. Social scientists identify elements of culture. Culture is the BIG IDEA, and the elements of culture are the DETAILS. Elements of culture, the categories that students will pay attention to when classifying the information they learn, might include:
  1. Belief Systems - Details that help a student understand the belief systems of a culture include information about religion, government, social/gender roles, class systems, and holidays/celebrations.
  2. Daily Life - Details that help a student understand the daily life of a culture include information about food, clothing, houses/shelter, language, and activities for recreation or sport.
  3. Economic Activities - Details that help a student understand the economic activities of a culture include products/goods, services, trading partners, occupations, and forms of transportation.
  4. Forms of Artistic Expression - Details that help a student understand unique forms of artistic expression include information about theater, dance, music, literature, stories, or legends.
  5. Technology - Details that help a student understand aspects of technology within this culture's particular time or place include information about anything that has been created to make their life easier. 

What are concrete examples of students using sources to classify the information?
First, consider how you want students to organize their information.
Option: They might have a tree map where each branch is related to an element of culture.
Option: Students might have five pieces of paper where they capture information about each element of culture.
Option: Students might be working on a collaborative Google presentation where the presentation has five unique sections based on elements of culture.
The method students use to capture this classified information is entirely up to you, but the goal will still be the same...engage with sources and classify information found within the sources within their appropriate element of culture.

  1. If students are exploring the Aztec culture, they might use this lesson called Aztecs Find a Home. This lesson allows students to understand why Aztecs (and modern day Mexico) have the symbols of an eagle, a cactus, and a snake. These symbols are connected to stories and legends. Learning about these symbols helps students to understand how the Aztecs express themselves artistically and how these legends share something about them as people. These symbols also express ideas about Aztec belief systems. In looking at this lesson, students are able to classify their learning to explain different elements of Aztec culture. Students might also analyze Aztec codices and this will allow students to make inferences about their belief systems and daily life. Students might analyze this primary source, How the Aztecs Raised Sons as Warriors, and they'll find out more about belief systems and daily life. Remember, one source may reveal insights about different elements of culture, but it will not tell students about every element of culture. 
  2. If students are exploring the Inca culture, they might access this video on the Inca Creation Story. This will provide details that inform students about the Inca belief systems. Students might experience this lesson on Inca Communication and they can extract details about daily life. Teachers might also gather a set of primary source images, analyze one image at a time, and ask, "After analyzing this image, what details might we infer related to the elements of culture?" 
In the end, we are helping students to look extract details from different sources and classify those details based on the unique element of culture. We are helping students to to make connections between the content they read (or infer) from sources and we are helping them to classify their ideas in ways that help them to further understand the nuances of culture.

The next step...comparing one culture to another culture, or comparing one culture to an individual's culture. Here's my blog post on comparing cultures (look to the bottom and start at Step 2). 


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