Chances are, you are not going to put soldering irons in the hands of 30 third graders. So why are we doing this stained glass business? The lesson here is not stained glass specifically but rather the importance of doing real things in the classroom.

As technology takes more of a center stage to teaching and learning, teachers need to be concerned about providing students with "realia"--real stuff that they can work with using their hands.

Traditionally, in a classroom, making a stained glass window involved using construction paper as a representation of glass because real glass is expensive and dangerous. And way too many things from life were represented that way. Since there are so many rich simulations on the web (you can do open heart surgery if you like or mummify a dead person), then it stands to reason to use technology to simulate and represent things that cannot be actually brought into the classroom (imagine third graders actually performing open heart surgery....) and to use real things as a foundation for children's language and concept development.

A little about representation:
Think about your real hand in relation to the photocopy above. Think about the differences in all dimensions--shape, color, depth, size, etc.

There are so many things in schools that have to be abstract--representations of something real--that we stand the chance of losing a sense of working with concrete things in the real world. This is why it is a good idea to do projects that involve real wood and non-power tools, or glass, or making real stringed instruments, or working with real clay that actually gets fired in a kiln (and not just play do, as good as that stuff can be).

This is actually a semiotic issue--the difference between the word, which is abstract, and that for which it stands, which is often (but not always) concrete. Because we use language so much, we don't really think of how words represent things and how there can be some problems between what a word is representing and the characteristics of the actual thing. For example, we have a word, "hot," which represents a feeling and we have another word, "cold" which represents a different feeling. But what is hot or cold?

It's a hot day when the temperature is close to 100 degrees, but that is not hot when you are wanting to boil water or melt metal or even melt glass. It's cold when the temperature outside is below zero, but that is not really cold in relation to efforts of scientists to get to absolute zero where all atomic activity ceases.

So, in the classroom, when you are not doing the cool things you can do on the web, use real things--math manipulatives, actual art materials (water colors and brushes with blank paper rather than tired old coloring pages). You can teach kids how to use these materials in ways that do not create excessive mess and in turn, they will think a lot more about things as they create their own representations of classroom ideas. And once you have gotten comfortable with teaching kids how to clean up water colors and clay and how to use hammers and handsaws without hurting themselves, you can get to the point of teaching kids to use more dangerous things with success--sewing machines, and even soldering guns.

Along with the semiotic issues of realia versus representations, there is an important language-learning point to be made. People learn language beginning with the real and moving to the abstract. Piaget's cognitive development theory points to this fact--kids don't really begin being able to learn through the abstract until early adolescence. They need plenty of concrete experiences to support the development of abstract thinking. Of course kids play make believe and when they play race car games on the computer, they feel like they are really racing. So not everything has to be real--but make a real effort to have as many real experiences as possible.

Finally, language (such as the vocabulary associated with stained glass--running pliers, patina, solder, etc.) is learned in meaningful contexts that are shared by advanced language users with more beginning language users. So realia helps kids to learn new concepts and words because it is an occasion for which this kind of vocabulary is required.