"Houston, I have a problem..."
Space, or that bit that exists beyond the sky, always seems to present a teacher with the unenviable task of answering tricky questions. "What is space?" "Why does it go on and on?" "How do you know that it goes on and on?" "Have you ever seen an alien?" Not easy to get to grips with on a Monday morning with 30 pairs of eyes staring at you, waiting for answers that you know are informative but unconvincing. It was the alien question, however, which really fuelled that morning's discussion. Of course I hadn't met an alien, but with a huge helping of imagination, there was nothing stopping them from "making contact" and providing the catalyst for a topic on space that involved not only the children but also their parents and the community.
"Did you see that?"
A child's perception of what does or doesn't constitute reality is one of the central aspects of learning. From the outset, it was the children who initiated the topic by talking - as a class, and in discussion groups - about their thoughts on aliens and undiscovered planets. This started the process by which the children distinguished between fact and fiction, and developed arguments and opinions that led further into the topic.
First, the children were given the task of "designing" and creating their own alien family, drawing and describing the family members, their home, pets and friends. There were some stereotypes - "little green men" or "the Martians" appeared, as did the typical B-movie "scientist", invariably a balding man in his sixties wearing a white coat. Overall, though, the variety of shapes, colour and form was amazing.
After comparing and contrasting families, the amount of verbal information was so great that it provided lots of ideas for creative writing. At the same time, I provided plenty of opportunities to bolster the work with hard facts, such as the position of real planets, the distances between them and space vocabulary. This was supported by using information gathering sources such as CD-Roms and the Internet.
"Contact has been made"
Next, I gave the children the scenario that very cheeky aliens called Zogs, from the planet Zog, had unfortunately kidnapped - or "alien-napped" - the pupils' "families". The name, Zog, was just one of those alien-sounding names.
Once again, the children discussed the problem in small groups and planned a response. It was decided by a vote that "wanted notices" should be produced and an attempt made to contact planet Zog itself. The notices were placed around the school and some of the reported sightings produced hours of entertainment, providing opportunities to produce work for a variety of audiences.
We had little luck in tracking down the culprits, even though the villains' fingerprints were eagerly supplied by the children, so it was decided that an even more direct approach was required. The children designed an information sheet that included questions to the Zogs about their planet, families and environment. Special space stamps were designed and the envelopes were addressed to Planet Zog, The Universe. This provided plenty of opportunities for layout skills and the collating of information. The children agreed that I should arrange for the envelopes to be passed on to NASA and for a space shuttle to take them into space, where they would be picked up by the Zog Postal Services or ZPS.
We were all getting into it and letting our imaginations run free, so much so that, when I was told by the pupils that a space shuttle had been launched the day after I was supposed to have passed the mail to NASA, we really had to convince ourselves fiction wasn't becoming reality. The lull in communicating with the Zogs allowed us to concentrate on more factual information about the solar system, stars, comets and meteorites. We also paid a visit to a local planetarium that consolidated knowledge and allowed the children a "closer view" of space.
"We must communicate with them..."
At the next parents' evening, I was impressed by the number who were being encouraged by their children to take an interest in their topic work, by discussing, helping collate information and generally becoming involved. This home-school link was used to good effect when the Zogs finally replied to each child in the class. I told the parents to expect an unexpected letter via Zogair. The expressions on the faces of the children the following week, waving their letters from outer space, brought home the value of developing and encouraging imagination in children's topic work. Each letter had to be decoded, allowing for differentiation and the valuable revision of phonics. The reinforcement of letter-writing skills, the application of information technology, drafting, proof-reading and presentation were all integrated aspects of the work.
To conclude the topic, the children chose to reply to the letters, using their own coded messages, self-designed stamps and logos of postal services. The decline in boys' relative standards of achievement at school certainly influenced the approach I took with this topic. The Zogs addressed this very pressing problem without holding back girls.
"To boldly go..."
There's a fine line between reality and fiction for some children but, if used with sensitivity and in a balanced way, this approach can fire the imagination and inspire them to learn.
I still struggle to answer the questions raised on that Monday morning, although I feel tempted to send the letters back to the pupils with each envelope stamped, "Return to Sender (moved address)".
One added bonus - the wider community may soon be experiencing "Zog power" as a university is thinking of using the topic as part of its research into bilingual education initiatives. There's no escape from the Zogs!
DESIGN AN ALIEN
Design, draw, model and write about the creatures that might inhabit the following planets based upon the conditions that exist there, such as gravity, air quality and temperatures. How might these factors affect your design?
Among the planets in our solar system are:
Mercury. A rocky planet, with a temperature that varies from bitterly cold to boiling hot. Less than half the size of the Earth, with less than half the gravity.
Venus. A planet about the same size as Earth, which rotates so slowly that the days are longer than the years. Covered in thick clouds of poisonous gas, it is the hottest planet in the solar system.
Mars. Very cold. All its water is frozen into ice caps.
Jupiter. A huge "gas giant" with an atmosphere of swirling gas and a mysterious "red eye", which is a raging storm. Jupiter is 12 times the size of the Earth, with 12 times the gravity.
Saturn. Surrounded by rings of shining ice crystals and rocks.
Uranus and Neptune. These "twin" planets are made from a mixture of ice, hydrogen and helium. Clouds of gas swirl around them, which give them a blue-green colour.
Pluto. Tiny. A planet with a moon nearly as big as itself, probably pulled into the solar system by the Sun's gravity. Almost as cold as you can get!
"It's beyond your imagination - but then again..."
Now make up some fictional planets and design, draw, model and write about the creatures and wildlife that might inhabit them. Here are some examples: Zaff. A planet close to Zog. There is air, but it has very little oxygen. There are few green plants, but plenty of fungi. Zaff is small, so the pull of gravity is weak, and it is easy to jump huge distances. But mind how you land! Zaff is very rocky.
Zonk. A planet that is entirely covered in water. It's warm and the air is humid. It rains all the time. There are floating islands of green plants that rise to the surface to flower, only to sink again after they have produced their seeds. It is a large planet, and the gravitational pull is strong.
Zowie. A planet that has pockets of air and water in its valleys. It is the same size as Earth, but if you plan to climb the mountains, you need to take your own air and water. Fierce creatures that can survive in the harsh conditions live on the mountain slopes.
"CAPTAIN, THERE ARE ZOGS IN THE CURRICULUM..."
The Zogs can be used across a range of subjects, including:
Writing letters to the Zogs, and reading Zog replies.
Creating stories about the Zogs.
Describing the Zogs in words - spoken and written.
Inventing Zog history and legends.
Writing and editing The Zog Daily Times.
Making a Zog website.
Zog buildings use hexagonal bricks. Show how their homes could be built.
Zogs have their own money and measuring systems. Devise and use them.
It's very cold on Zog. All their temperatures are measured in negative numbers. Design a thermometer they could use.
Zog is the undiscovered "planet x" of our solar system. Zog orbits beyond Pluto. What are conditions going to be like? How long will the Zog year be? How long might its day be?
Peter Graham teaches seven and eight-year-olds at the German and English speaking Charles Dickens primary school in Berlin