Friday 17 July 2020

Salt of the Earth

"Salt Pans" By Samara Malang, Grade 5
The video bug caught on after our success with the
Hummingbirds and the girl. We wondered, how can we better use videos to inspire children’s curiosity, to provoke them to ask meaningful questions?

I tried another video this week with my new 5th graders. This time it was linked to an experiment they had conducted in the Small Science (Grade 4) class in the previous week.

We had just finished up with mixtures and solutions (in Chapter 5 ‘Water Dissolves Things’). The students were asked to make salt and sugar solutions and dry them at home. They were told to keep a record of what happened to the solutions. And we moved on to the next activity.

About a week later, when we did the experiment on evaporation (‘Liquid water turns into water vapour’), I posted this video on Salt Harvesting in Tuticorin. Yet again, I posted a Google Form for the children to record their questions. Then, we had a follow-up discussion in class.

Children are literal minded, a quality that gives their curiosity an unexpectedly sharp edge. The first question that struck them was, “How can you turn salt into Gold?” Here was a question that, unwittingly perhaps, plumbed the economics of salt production and its numerous technological and commercial possibilities. Later, thinking it over, this question gave me a new perspective on the beautifully shot video.

For now, to continue the conversation with my fifth graders, I steered away from the more intricate aspects of economics, and the fabulous fantasies of alchemy. I asked them whether they thought it was even possible to turn salt into gold. Most simply said, “No”. We went on to discuss some implied meanings and connotations and I related the fact that salt was once paid as remuneration to Roman soldiers, hence the word “salary”. That information fascinated them. Salt which is so cheap for us now, could have been valuable earlier? The next question was again economics based - “Why is salt so cheap when so much hard work is put into making it?”  Interestingly the child who asked this question understood the backbreaking labour involved in making salt and connected it with the low price that salt fetches in the market. Two years ago, our 6th grade students had visited the salt pans at Marakannam and were shocked to find that the salt lying about would fetch only Re.1 per kg in the market.

An interesting set of questions led easily to the heart of my lesson plan on dissolving and evaporation. The students queried the procedure of obtaining salt from sea water: “How do they keep the salt away from the water?” “How can they pull the salt and water apart?” “How can they get salt from water?”  “Why do they keep it under the sun?” And the one that really caught my eye - “Can you make salt at home?”

Hmm! So they still hadn’t connected with the fact that they had “made salt” the previous week. Which is interesting because one would think that a hands-on experiment would help them engage deeper with the concept they were learning. But it took all this discussion for them to make the connection. I reminded them of the experiment and it was an “Aha!” moment. Some ran off to fetch their evaporated solutions.  

Another surprising gap surfaced quickly: “Where did the water come from?” One child hazarded a guess: “Salt water lake?” I asked them to think. “Where would salt water come from in a State like Tamil Nadu?. Another Aha! Moment - “From the sea, Aunty!” they exclaimed.  

One curious child wanted to know how they would separate the mud from the salt once the water had evaporated. Good question. I can only make a guess.

“Why do they keep squares and then put salt, water and mud inside?” While we ran out of time before we could address this question. I want the children to propose answers. Maybe they will link it with what they may have seen of farming. Maybe the word ‘harvest’ in the title of the video will give them a clue.

So the concept worked again - using a video to generate student questions. In this case the video was well integrated into my lesson plan and connected nicely with an activity that they had done already. But there must be more to it from a pedagogical angle - was it the visually striking video? Its natural windy soundtrack with lack of any commentary? No overt teaching? The peace and quiet at home? Did parents have any role?

We keep learning from the students and in the meanwhile add to our proverbial gold mine of questions. Have a peek at the questions the kids came up with on the Sawaliram website

By Aneesa Jamal & Jayashree Ramadas

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