This week’s Teacher Feature highlights a four-year-old class’ exploration of treasure and pirates at the National Museum of African Art. Over the past few months, the class, led by Jessie Miller and Will Kuehnle, has been creating a film written and starred in by the children. The teachers created lessons to learn about the aspects of the story that the children wrote. Without spoiling the film too much, pirates who steal treasure was a plot development, so they spent a week exploring pirates and treasure. This particular lesson explored what treasure actually is and how pirates steal it. The lesson included objects, play, literature, and even their puppet friend, Pirate Pete, and challenged their beliefs about treasure and pirates. Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from the teachers.
On their way to the museum, the class remembered the parts of a ship that they had learned about the previous day. The sail seemed to be of particular interest to the children, and one child even “flew his flag” the whole way to the museum. Before entering the National Museum of African Art, the children noticed Wind Sculpture VII by Yinka Shonibare and commented that it looked like a sail blowing in the wind.
During our walks to and from visits, we like to observe and discuss the environment we are in. It is exciting to see the topics that arise just from looking around! This is also a great time to build upon concepts we have already learned about. For example, when we were crossing the National Mall, some children remembered the time we made and flew our own kites, after learning about the letter “K”. This topic came up moments later when the children spotted Wind Sculpture VII and described how it looked as if it was blowing in the wind like a kite. This helped reinforce previous knowledge and can sometimes bring up new questions we didn’t have before. It is important to address these inquiries when they arise so the child feels his or her thoughts and opinions are valued. Asking questions and knowing how to find the answers is a crucial skill to build at this age and it can guide our lessons and curriculum in new and exciting ways.
When using museum spaces with young children, there are many obstacles that can arise. The objects we decided to visit on this day were small and placed high up from the ground, making it difficult for the children to see. For this reason, I encouraged the class to get close and observe the objects for a few minutes before we sat down for circle time. This gave them a chance to casually chat and ask questions before we began the formal lesson.
Modeling how to do things is an important tool when helping children develop problem-solving skills. When they hear me asking questions and sharing my ideas about the objects, they get a sense of what observation and reflection are. Even basic descriptions such as “that looks like a shell” and “I wonder what that is made of?” give the children a chance to chime in with their ideas and creates a space for them to feel comfortable sharing.
I chose to use the Akan weights for this lesson for a few reasons. When the class decided to make a movie, we brainstormed all of the places we wanted to go and characters we wanted to include. Boats, pirates, and treasure were all topics of interest to the class. I felt it was important to explore these subjects in a realistic way through books, objects, and definitions that the children could understand and relate to. It is common for a child to think a pirate is a person who sails around and steals treasure. One of the big goals of this lesson was to challenge the students’ ideas about who pirates are and have been throughout history. The Akan weights allowed us to have a discussion about what treasure is and the other lesson materials we brought gave us an opportunity to ask the big question “do pirates only steal treasure?”
After making a seated circle in front of the weights, Jessie asked, “What do you think these objects are?” Responses included, “they’re treasure from a chest” and “it’s animals that are now dead and someone painted them.” Jessie thanked the children for sharing their predictions and observations, and said they would talk more deeply about the weights in a few minutes.
Although it is important to address questions that arise organically in the moment, it is also beneficial to let children have time to think about and reflect on things they are curious about before handing them an answer. After we shared some of our questions, we dove into the lesson with a variety of other materials. This left the kids curious about the unfamiliar objects we had observed and challenged them to try to figure out what they were as we navigated through the lesson. Throughout our circle time, you could see them start to make connections and by the time we brought our attention back to the museum objects, they had even more ideas and questions.
Jessie brought out a world map, and the class reviewed the directions and continents through the “7 Continents” song. Next, Jessie asked the children to tell her what they knew about pirates. Many children focused on physical characteristics that a pirate might have including an eye patch, a hook or peg leg. One child pointed out that pirates are people who take treasure. Jessie said that pirates don’t have to have a hook, peg leg or eye patch, but they do all steal things. She read the definition of piracy and then read from the book Treasure by Philip Steele to learn about real pirates in the Spanish Main.
Songs are a great way to recall information and the “7 Continents” song is one we like to use every year. Throughout the movie the class was making, we “traveled” to many places throughout the world and consistently used maps and songs to reinforce their understanding of geography and the world around them. A song is also a great way to get the children involved during a lesson and spark their attention.
Definitions are a valuable tool for the students, as well as the teachers. It gives us a topic (sometimes complex) that we then need to break down and try to figure out what it really is. For example, when we read the definition of piracy, it said nothing about eye patches or peg legs like the children had mentioned. This challenged us to look closely at the words used in the definition so we could begin to unpack the true meaning of the word pirate. The definitions also give the class a chance to match the words we are talking about with the written words. We can sound out and point to letters to figure out the words as well. All of this strengthens literacy skills and engages the children in learning new concepts. We also often bring other materials such as books and large printed words we use frequently such directional words, North, South, East, and West. Bringing a white board and sounding out a word as we write it down is another way to get them engaged in the lesson with a literacy activity.
To illustrate what they read in the book about pirates in the Spanish Main, Jessie brought out a toy ship with a Spanish flag, and sailed it across the map in search of gold. She then brought out a pirate ship and asked how pirates could get to the Spanish ship to steal. The children talked about the use of guns, swords, and cannon balls. Jessie explained that the Spanish wouldn’t want their ships attacked, so they would bring lots of smaller boats to protect them called a fleet or convoy.
Using visual aids during lessons helps young children make sense of concepts that might normally be difficult for them to understand. I could describe a boat sailing to Spain and running into pirates, but this information becomes more concrete and accessible to children when they are able to see it. We used our pirate book to enhance their understanding of piracy, but giving them objects they can manipulate and play with gives them a deeper understanding. Many of the objects we use in lessons are from our school and the children have used them before. This creates opportunities for reflection and scaffolding later when they use the same materials during play back in the classroom.
Although it was not the main goal of the lesson, weapons are a part of piracy, so when the subject came up I felt it was important to address it. A weapon is an object. It is only until a person uses this object that it becomes dangerous. By ignoring sensitive topics such as guns and weapons, we leave a child feeling confused and curious about the unknown. In order to navigate safely and efficiently through their world, it is important that children have the tools to keep themselves and those around them safe. Once the children thought more carefully about the idea that the person with the weapon is the one that caused the harm, they began to think about their own opinions on the topic. I expressed to the children that I would never want to hurt anyone so I would not use a weapon in a way that might cause harm to someone. The children responded enthusiastically about feeling the same way. A sensitive subject turned into a teachable moment that left the children feeling empowered rather than confused and fearful.
I think it is important for children to experience every emotion, even if it may feel scary or uncomfortable at times. Feeling these emotions at school allows them to grow and understand themselves in a safe environment. Ignoring sensitive or frightening topics sends a message to the children that you don’t want to talk about something and just perpetuates their fears. We as teachers must educate the children, give them validation that it is ok to feel these emotions, and remind them that they are safe and loved.
The discussion about pirates stealing a ship led to the children talking about treasure, so Jessie asked, “What is treasure?” Responses included gold coins, chocolate coins, jewels, crystals, and anything special. Jessie read the definition of treasure, “something of great value or worth”. At this point, Jessie refocused the class back to the weights. She explained that they were created by Akan artists from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and pointed these places out on the map. She said that the weights are not actually gold, but copper and were used to weigh gold to decide how much items cost. Jessie shared some objects she brought that were similar to the weights, and showed how gold can be measured against the weights to determine worth.
The children have had some experience with weighing objects, but a scale has not been available to them on a regular basis. Concepts such as weight and value can be difficult for young children to grasp. Using scales is a great way to help make sense of these topics. It is also a tool for math and counting. Although the Akan people would use the weights to measure gold dust, we decided to use coins so the materials were more familiar to the children. Understanding one weight was equal to a certain amount of coins helped them understand what value is, which was part of the definition for treasure. Pirates wanted the treasure because it was considered valuable. This created the question, “can different things be valuable to different people?”, which lead to our discussion about pirates stealing more than just treasure.
Next, Jessie brought out their puppet friend, Pirate Pete. One of the children asked Pirate Pete what treasure he steals. Pirate Pete brought out some objects including food, clothes, and blankets. Jessie asked the class if these objects look like treasure, and they all gave a resounding, “no!” Jessie explained that pirates love when they find treasure like gold, but often they would steal other things that they needed to live like food and clothing.
If I were to do this lesson again I would split it into two different lessons. There was a lot of material to review, new concepts to learn, and questions to discuss. I liked the idea of asking questions about an object and then coming back to learn about it later in the lesson. However, because there were a lot of concepts and material to cover I would prefer to have two separate lessons on piracy and treasure/value.
Before leaving the museum, Jessie provided the opportunity for children to share their comments and questions. The first question asked was, “Do pirates kill?” Jessie responded “yes, pirates have killed”, which then prompted Jessie to ask, “Is it a good thing to be a pirate or steal?” The children emphatically said no. Some children shared some connections they made to the lesson, including, “pirates going to another ship is like in the third movie of Star Wars when Luke jumped off his ship to another”, and “cannons are kind of like fur balls in PJ Mask!” One child even said she sees pirates in boats in Old Town Alexandria. Jessie assured her that sometimes people dress up and pretend to be pirates, just like we do sometimes, but they aren’t real pirates.
Lessons can sometimes create more questions than they answer, and I consider this a good thing! It is important for the children to walk away with information they may not have known before but it is also important for them to be curious and want to learn more. During my circles, I like to offer time for comments and questions at the beginning and the end. I use a sign with a picture of a person raising their hand on one side and a line crossed through the same picture on the other side. This indicates to the children when it is time for questions and when it is time for me to talk with no interruptions. This helps us stay on topic during the lesson but still gives the children time to express their thoughts and feelings when the time is appropriate. Allowing questions at the end also allows me to gauge which areas of the lesson they were interested in and what topics they may want to explore more.
To conclude their lesson, Jessie played a movement pirate game with the children. She called two children at a time and showed them a card that showed a pirate movement to perform. The pair of children acted these out as they got back in line to leave the museum.
The teachers in our school community are always willing to share ideas and materials with one another. A different class had been learning about pirates earlier in the year and was gracious enough to let our class borrow some of their materials, including these pirate movement cards.
To transition back to our line, I wanted to incorporate something related to the topic that would get them up and moving their bodies. Because there was so much content during the lesson, using the game as a way of lining up allowed it to be a transition activity rather than lengthening the time the students had to sit and wait.
On the way back to school, Jessie pretended to be a pirate and looked through the spyglass to see if the class was using safe walking feet to cross the street.
We incorporate lots of play throughout our entire day. Any topic can be interesting to a child if you present it in a playful way. It is important for children to have a routine to follow but adding playful moments that they can engage with and connect to helps enhance their learning experience. My students have crossed streets a million times but when you add an exciting new twist like a spyglass watching them and making sure they are ready, it sparks their attention and reinforces their knowledge about a new object we learned about that week.
Back on the playground, the children used the spyglass in their play. That afternoon the class painted their own “gold nuggets” that will be used as props in their film.
After all of my lessons, I like to have the materials I used out for the children to explore back in the classroom. I gave them the opportunity to create their own spyglass out of paper towel rolls and we collected rocks on the playground to paint gold, silver, and bronze. Later that afternoon, we filmed the pirate scene for our movie. To create our “script” I asked the students what things they wanted to say about boats, pirates, and treasure. Many of the things we had discussed that morning and throughout the week came up. This reinforced all the material we had learned about and then gave them a chance to actually act it out. Now that our movie is finished, the children will have it forever and can always reflect back on the learning experiences they had here at school.
After their week on pirates, the class continued to learn about the other concepts included in their movie such as oceans, rain forests, and Antarctica. They premiered their movie last month to overwhelming acclaim from fellow SEEC children and families.