What the Indian Grass Revealed — Some Thoughts on Learning in a Time of Standards

What should the children know and be able to do?

My teaching work is to design lessons around the answers to this question. And I do. But then, like the other day, something happens that reveals the vast chunk of learning that never made it into the standards. Yet, this is the learning that sometimes seems most important to me and causes me to remember that “career and college ready” does not encompass some of the most important learning in our classroom.

The week before Thanksgiving we spent some time writing descriptions. My goal was to help the children be able to organize their own thinking and their writing. They will use these skills as they write informational pieces later this month. From our work, they will be able to describe an object with precision and artfulness.

This seems a worthwhile set of skills to learn. I love elegant, clear thinking. Certainly this kind of precise thinking and writing would be a boon in most careers; colleges might really groove on those, too, though sometimes I wonder if artfulness might be less well appreciated in many careers and colleges.

Big Blue WhaleWe began by studying several of Seymour Simon’s descriptions. You can pick just about any of his books since they are filled with great description. We ended our study with Nicola Davies’ short description of the outside of a blue whale from her book, Big Blue Whale.

The blue whale is big. Bigger than a giraffe. Bigger than an elephant. Bigger than a dinosaur. The blue whale is the biggest creature that has ever lived on Earth!

Reach out and touch the blue whale’s skin. It’s springy and smooth like a hard-boiled egg, and it’s slippery as wet soap. Look into its eye. It’s as big as a teacup and as dark as the deep sea. Just behind the eye is a hole as small as the end of a pencil. The hole is one of the blue whale’s ears — sticking-out ears would get in the way when the whale is swimming.

We noticed the way Simon and Davies started big — to give an overview of the object to be described, to help the reader see the big picture — before diving into the details. We noticed how good description is organized to help the reader assimilate this new information in an organized and logical fashion. We noticed how good description often uses comparisons to help a reader attach the unfamiliar to the familiar.

The more the children looked, the more they saw the art contained in a good description.

Over the next several days, we described various items around the classroom, practicing our craft. Then, just to see what they would do, I brought in some cut stems of Indian grass, a large prairie grass that grows in the prairie  we are trying to grow on the hill near my house. I thought the children might be interested in this very large version of a common plant: grass.

Indian grass from the prairie on the hill above my house.

Indian grass from the prairie on the hill above my house.

They were.

IMG_0845 - Version 2The children each took a piece to study. They measured against the tiles on the floor; each stem was between 5 and 8 feet tall! They marveled at the size. They marveled at how different turf grass is from prairie grass. And how similar, too.

They looked carefully at how the grass was put together. They began to name the parts, because in order to describe well, you have to name the parts. This need to notice and name parts helped the children see why science is so dense with vocabulary. Scientists must look closely at things, name the parts they see, and then describe them clearly.

At first, the children only saw the stem and the seed head. Some saw the leaves, but these thin strips don’t look like what they are used to calling leaves. The more they looked, though, the more parts they saw. They did not know the technical terms for all of the parts, but to describe well, they needed to call them something. So they set out as explorers, naming the new lands they saw. For instance, what are you going to call the little “hairs” that protrude from the flattened end of the seed? I urged them to think of the function these “hairs” might serve, and then give them a name that reflects that purpose. (Seed stickers. Seed grabbers. Seed attachers. These were some of the part-names they came up with.)

As they sketched, as they wrote, they began to see the wonder contained in the supposedly simple things around them.

Some saw how the large structures they noticed first (the long stem, for instance) are actually made from ever smaller structures, and these were made from even smaller structures, and so on. The more you looked, the more you saw. Where do you stop with your noticing? With your naming?

The stem is hollow! What do I call that hollow? Is it used for anything, or is it just hollow?

Did you notice the stem has sections? There are joints that separate those sections! It’s like the stem grows up to a certain point and then decides to stop and then it starts growing all over again!

The stem wall has all of these little strands of fiber in them. I wonder what they do? What are they for?

Some saw the connections between this grass and other plants they knew. (Some are farmers, after all.)

Indian grass looks a lot like corn, except the seeds are not all put together in a cob like corn, but in a spray of seeds. The leaves and the stem look like corn though.

Others began to see the overall symmetry of the basic grass design.

Did you know that Indian grass has the same pattern that repeats itself all the way up the stem? Each segment fits into the segment below it.

If you look at the seed head, even those tiny stalks that hold the seeds look just like the stem. They have all these little joints, but they are not nearly as big around as the stem farther down.

I wonder how the Indian grass knows how to stop growing up and when to start making a seed head?

Some saw patterns in the way the leaves came off the stem. Some, even wondered whether you could even call these leaves, since it looked like they were at one time part of the stem. Is a leaf a leaf? A stem a stem? When does one become the other?

I noticed that the leaves start at these joints and wrap themselves around the stem. Maybe they aren’t even different than the stem? But then they grow for awhile and separate from the stem. Why? How can a stem become a leaf?

When the children got to this stage in our investigation, it seemed to me that something special was happening. I told them that they were noticing things that only people who study plants, who look very closely at them, notice. And they were asking questions that no one knows the answer to, but scientists are very interesting in knowing these answers. “What, exactly, causes a plant to stop growing up and start to grow a seed head? What causes anything to change? What causes you to change? To grow?” These are important questions, important observations. I congratulated them.

For a moment, I stood there amidst the clamor watching the children run from plant to plant as they showed each other the discoveries they made. We’ll get back to the description, I thought to myself. But right then what seemed most important was to honor the curiosity bubbling through the room. And I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder how this kind of endeavor gets turned into an “I can…” statement, then packaged as a “skill” to be mastered.

So this time of learning, of exploration came, and then it went. And it DID take time; these moments don’t come free. If the moments we spent looking at grass, I mean really looking at grass, were “billable” hours in the great race to the top, under what standard would the Grand Accountant code them?

And yet, I know these times are important precisely because they reach so deeply inside.

Dragonfly Research, or, Science That Doesn’t Fly Straight

I’m here to report out about the results from our impromptu research project on dragronflies. It started as simply an interesting observation that I made one day last week, an observation that I thought might offer a good way to practice some question-asking protocols developed by The Right Question Institute. I reported on the early stages in this recent post.

Rather than write out this story, I decided to tell it verbally in the manner we told it to ourselves in science class. Using a flowchart that depicts the scientific process, we logged our pathway through what we soon saw as a maze of connections. The story includes moments of seeming failure when it appeared the project would need to be abandoned, to moments of insight. (It also includes a bee sting to the rear end of a certain researcher…)

In the end (pun intended), I think the project helped the children see how science does not proceed in a linear path from question to data gathering to data analysis to presentation. It is much messier. Several times we had to regroup and learn new information in order to figure out where to go next. Sometimes we even thought we’d reached the end of what we could learn.

Finally, since I’m reading Tom Newkirk’s wonderful book, Minds are Made for Stories, (and, like Newkirk, I have puzzled about the implications of David Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) I’m very happy to present this story as what it was, a story. What caused us to return to this project was the fact that we had developed a “need to know,” to complete the narrative in some way. If not to simply answer our question, at least to arrive at some satisfactory place to rest.

The result is a view of the scientific process that looks a lot like a dragonfly’s flight path, veering purposefully and flexibly from one place to the next.

And here is a short video of the common green darner.

And a video that shows some of the remarkable aerial abilities of dragonflies. I saw some of these stunts in my sit in the prairie.

Questions at the Center

In science class I decided to jump right into the kind of thinking that is central to science inquiry; in particular, I wanted the children to develop questions based on observation.

Here is a re-blog from my classroom website of our first learning activity, which was designed to help children learn to ask questions. I’m indebted to my virtual colleague, Julieanne Harmatz, whose blog post last year helped me see the power of a question-asking protocol like that developed by The Right Question institute.

These are very fun baby steps.

*  *  * Reblogged *  *  *

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

This week I read a fun short picture biography of Albert Einstein to the children.


The book helped me introduce the central place questions have in the study of science and, well, just about everything. (I talked about how scientists are like 2-year olds on steroids: they get to ask “Why?” over and over again.)

I’m afraid that we teachers sometimes ask students to answer way more questions than they get to create. This summer I did some reading about how to help children learn to ask more and better questions to guide their learning. One book I read was this:

More Beautiful Question

Thanks to Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading blog) for helping me find this book.

I used the ideas from that book and some from The Right Question Institute website to design a lesson on how to ask good questions. We’ll practice these as the year goes along. In a nutshell, here is what happened. After we read about Albert Einstein, I gave the students a short list of rules about how to brainstorm questions. Then I gave them a thinking prompt in the form of an observation that I had made after a walk with my dogs around our prairie:

Dragonflies appeared in large numbers near my house yesterday.

Here are the children at work.

We collected the questions. Here is a sampling:

  • Where did the dragonflies come from?
  • How many were there?
  • Is there more than one kind?
  • What are they doing?
  • Are they eating anything?
  • When did the dragonflies come…exactly?
  • Are the dragonflies still there?

Then we talked about how I might be able to answer these questions. Suggestions like these came up:

  • You could sit and watch them for awhile to see what they were doing. Make sure you write down everything they are doing.
  • You could try to catch some and put them in the freezer so you can see what they look like. Maybe you could identify them that way.
  • You could take pictures or videos of them flying so you could see what they were doing.

These were awesome ideas. (In fact, I’m thinking of doing some of these on Sunday afternoon just to see if I can find out some of the answers.) And that is just  the kind of thinking (and activity) scientists get to do for a living.

Finally, here is a cool chart of the “scientific method” (described here) that we will use throughout the school year. I was pleased, though, how well our first attempt to think like a scientist went.

science flowchart

On Seeing Slowly — What the Children’s Poetry Taught Me This Year

The year ended. I packed up my room for a move to fifth grade and am just now back from a trip to Chile (more about that later). Finally, after all of that I have a bit of time to think back on the end of the school year and to celebrate some awesome poetry that the kids wrote this year.

I was impressed with the level of observation that the children brought to their poetry writing. For instance, these poems came from a photo prompt (taken from the National Geographic photo archive) that captured a lightning strike on the prairie.



And J’s:



What impressed me about these poems was not just the way the children tried to capture the dramatic image of the lightning, but the way they tried to work that image into something larger (a mood or feeling) that the image helped to generate. G’s poem became a meditation, using repetition and a really cool comparative device that I don’t have a name for (“Vikings say…”, “Greeks say…”, “But I say…”) I was struck by how contemplative and quiet G’s poem was.

J’s poem, on the other hand, dropped the reader right into the drama of the photograph through superb word choice and the use of personification. (I really do love her imagination. Wow. She’s a good poet already at just ten years old.)

Other poems emerged from a couple of trips we took to the creek that runs behind our school. Sure the creek is controlled and channeled (as is too much of school, frankly), but we practiced watching and waiting and noticing all of the small creatures that seem to disrupt even the most controlled environment — spiders and ants, violets and bladder campion, minnows, scuds, and water striders. Heck, some kids even found the rolling, roiling movement of the sediment carried by the current, and the play of the sun off the water’s surface sufficiently inspiring to write about!

There’s a poem here, even in the darkness of that culvert.

L’s poems lingered, floating on the current…



…to places far beyond our backyard. (Did knowing that the Japanese poet Issa wrote over 250 poems about frogs — and about 150 about dragonflies — help L. write at least two about the creek’s current?)


E.’s imaginary encounter — deer and wolf — happened during a moment of reverie near the creek.


I was interested to see poems come from books we had read. Another of E’s poems, Dark, came at least in part from our read aloud, The Dark, by Lemony Snickett. Snickett’s personification of Darkness captured E’s imagination. But E. did the rest, building tension by varying his line breaks and choosing words to heighten the drama for the encounter between Darkness and Light.


Other poems came from objects the children and I brought in to school. A robin’s egg that I found on the path in the woods behind our house became inspiration for J’s haiku, which nailed the “twist” that haiku poets like to put in their poems.


Still others found in poetry a way to connect with their funny side. A’s dry sense of humor shines through in this pet store poem that uses questions, repetition, and the blank spaces between thoughts to communicate ideas beyond the words on the paper.


Or J, again, with her love of cats. I love that last line (“fierce master of stripes”) and the first image, too. That “needle in a haystack” image came from her knowing that tiger stripes allow for good sneaking in tall grass.


So, what worked this year? I haven’t always gotten such good poems.

First, and mostly, the kids seemed open to the task. Maybe that’s because, at fourth grade, they are a bit older than I’m used to teaching. Surely that extra part of a year helped them experience how language has literal and figurative components.

Second, I resisted giving the children “forms” to write from. In the past as the children begin to bog down in their poetry writing, I would offer them mentor texts that have more of a formula for how to write a poem of that kind (for instance, W.C. William’s “This is just to say…”) or I would send them to some websites that offer a chance to write poems in a certain form for the kids to print them out. However, this year the only form I gave them was haiku (and that wasn’t really much of a form since I didn’t insist they follow a 5-7-5 format) and a lot of poems by authors like Valerie Worth, Joyce Sidman, and Laura Purdie Salas. I chose these poems because they looked at common ordinary things in ways that transformed them into the extraordinary.

Third, I spent the better part of March writing poems of my own using Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks and Tom Hennen’s Darkness Sticks to Everything as mentors. My goal was to pick an image a day, describe it, and see where the image brought me. I like Kooser’s and Hennen’s poetry because they are image based. Yet they use that deceivingly simple image as a window into something deeper, perhaps grander. Of course, I read the children selected poems of mine, including ones that I posted on this teacher blog. Some of my courage to resist giving the children formulaic poetry this year came directly from my experience writing from images myself. I knew they could push through to something interesting because, well, I had done that earlier.

Finally, throughout the year I tried to develop an awareness in the children of what the phrase “seeing slowly” might mean. Early in the year we developed a model for how we learn; noticing and thinking were central to that model. When it came time to write poetry, we already had a good sense of what it might look and feel like to slow down a bit and notice the world around us. We had practiced it in our reading, our writing, our talking and our listening. Maybe that attention to paying attention had something to do with the poetry that emerged at the end of the year.

I am happy that summer is here so I have a bit more time to think and write and just be in this big ol’ world. But when school starts up again, I will try to take what I learned about poetry and seeing and slowing down as I begin a new year in fifth grade next year.

Real Talk

A quick post this morning about a short conversation with a child that helped me see how he was thinking about a text he was reading. A conversation like this tells me so much more about what is going on in the mind of a child than does some norm-referenced number on a standardized test.

A boy, a very capable yet reluctant reader, came up to me and said:

Boy: Hey, I just got Gregor the Overlander from Kadin and I’m liking it.

Teach: Cool. He thought you might like it. I’m reading it now and I’m liking it, too. What do you like about it?

Boy: I’m noticing that it’s a lot like Amulet.

Teach: (I hadn’t thought about that before…) Hmm. What do you mean?

Boy: Well, in both the kids go into a basement and end up following a path into another world. Also, in both there’s a parent that’s missing. In Amulet the kids have to go after their mom that’s been taken away by this creature. They have to go try to save her. In Gregor, the kids fall into this hole into another world. I think they are going to find their father down there. Maybe they’ll have to try to save him, too.

Teach: So, I’m seeing the start of a theme here, are you? There’s something about kids being on their own, about the roles being reversed here. Parents usually take care of kids, right? Maybe these are different kinds of stories?

Boy: Yeah! The kids are the ones who do all of the really good stuff in Amulet. They have to save the parents.

Teach: And they discover they have something inside them that they didn’t know they had.

Boy: Yeah! Emily has the power of the stone. And Navin can drive all kinds of things. I wonder if Gregor and Boots will have some kind of powers?

Teach: That’s a good question. If the books are similar, maybe he will discover some power he didn’t know he had…When you’re reading keep that question in mind. Does Gregor (or Boots) have a power that makes it really important for them to have fallen down that hole? I’m curious now, too.

Also, you got me thinking about something else. In Amulet they arrive in a world that is in real trouble. They don’t really understand how much trouble it’s in right at first, but they eventually figure out that things aren’t really going well down there. I wonder if the world Gregor and Boots have fallen into is in trouble, too? What do you think?

Boy: It sure seems like it, but I haven’t read very far into it yet.

Teach: Well, maybe that’s another question to keep in mind as you are reading? Is there some trouble in the Underworld that Gregor needs to try to figure out? Let me know what you think as you read more, okay? Let’s talk more after we get farther into the book.

*  *  *  *  *

Several things struck me about this conversation. First, this boy is comparing books; that’s Common Core-y as my friend, Sara, says. Second, these books mean something to him, which is probably why he feels the desire to compare them. [He probably had a question like this in his mind: Why does this book feel like that book?] Third, our conversation was initiated by him and I entered it as a fellow explorer, rather than as a teacher-with-the-answers. True, I have more experience with these texts and so I pushed him to think about some stuff that he might not have come to on his own, but the flavor of the conversation was as a real conversation with give and take and discovery. And my push was tinged with the flavor of a fellow explorer.

Finally, as we talked a small group of other kids gathered to listen in and to add in their thoughts. They became fellow explorers, too. This momentary gathering of people helped this boy see that what he was saying about a book could be interesting to others, that ideas can hold attention. For me, it was another example of how important it is, in my interactions with the children, that I be a human being first and a pusher of curriculum second. It’s nice when these roles coincide. But if I have to choose, I’d choose the real talk, trusting that at its core are the elements necessary to build a better reader and thinking person.

On Gravity and the Regular Orbit of Comets

Tracker CoverA small group of guys and I have been reading Gary Paulsen’s book, Tracker, together.

Together? Well, maybe sometimes. Some of these particular boys orbit through group work like celestial objects through a solar system. Their hearts and attention appear to be tethered to some complex system of invisible forces beyond my ken. Now here, now somewhere else, the gravitational pull that orders their lives does not often include talk about ideas with others.

From experience, I know they don’t do well when I arrive with a specific skill for them to learn or practice; they tend to tune me (and other kids) out, wandering off in their thoughts, perhaps dutifully doing the task I’ve assigned, but sometimes not. Dutiful or not, under those circumstance the “learning” does not appear to go very deep inside.

I chose Tracker because I knew the boys might groove on the topic. Most of them are hunters and have been going hunting with families for several years. Also, they hadn’t been exposed to Gary Paulsen’s work and I hoped to connect them to the deep themes that Paulsen explores through his books.

I kept my main goals simple: Like the skimmer construction project we are completing in science class, I planned to give the boys some good materials to use and a problem to solve. Translated into “reading class”, that meant they’d need a good book, and I would ask them to think BIG about what Gary Paulsen might be trying to tell them through the book. In other words, we’d explore not just WHAT the book means, but WHY the book exists? Why the heck did Paulsen write this book anyway? What might he have wanted us to think or feel when we read it? I asked them to mark places that “seemed important” and we would talk about those together.

We read. We gathered. We lay in a circle on the carpet. Chairs don’t work for these guys. They like to roll and rock, feet and bodies moving. Their talk sometimes sounds like machine-gun fire — short pronouncements delivered in bursts — rather than the kind of searching exploration that I seek to create.

Yet, in this merry band of comets, one conversation this week set me back on my heels. And it caused me to think about what I know about learning and teaching, and to wonder about what school is, exactly?

*  *  *  *  *

We’d read nearly half the book. We knew of John’s grandfather’s cancer; and two boys brought the recurring stories of death to the carpet.

These boys argued that the theme was death, and they cited as evidence Clay’s cancer, the deaths of John’s father and mother, the neighbor, three deer, particularly a line: “I was close enough to see the life leave it’s eyes.” They could relate to that sight.

Something interesting happened next. I asked: “What about death do you think Paulsen wants us to think about? What do you think he’s thinking about? Why might he have written this book for us to read?”

The response back was: “I’m not really sure.” To which I said: “Then what does it feel like he’s trying to say, even if you can’t put your finger on it exactly? We can work with what your heart tells you.”

Guy1: It seems like something is draining out of John as his grandfather is dying, that he’s trying to keep it together.

Guys: (Others agreed that it seemed that something was changing, but there was some general dissatisfaction with the “draining out” idea, too.)

Teach: You mean like he’s losing energy? Or something else?

Guy2: No, he seems to be gaining energy from the beginning. Like, he’s doing his chores and that seems to help him. But I see what you mean about something draining out. There is something happening.

Teach: What could be draining out…what could this idea of death, or the near death of his grandfather be doing to him that makes you feel like he’s losing something?

Guy3: It seems like maybe that what is draining out is maybe John’s connection with his grandfather. He’s been really important to John…John doesn’t have a father or mother and there’s no one around for him except his grandparents. Now his grandfather is going to die and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s like John and his grandfather are connected, but that connection is draining away. They used to do chores together. They used to hunt together. Now John does all of that stuff by himself.

Guys: [Others chime in with examples of how the relationship has changed, how John doesn’t get to do stuff with his grandfather anymore. There is general agreement that this “death” theme might be not “just” about death, but about John losing some kind of important connection, and when that’s gone things will change for him, something will be broken.]

Teach: (I thought it might be important to explore not just “broken connection” idea, but also the “nothing he can do about it” idea, too.) So, what I hear you saying is that one thing this story might be about is the question: how do you deal with losing connection with important people or things, especially, like many losses, this loss is out of our control…Could that mean anything in our lives, even if we don’t have a grandfather dying…?

And so the conversation went. Worries welled up. Worries about family, worries about divorces, about many, many things that are out of our control. Yet we still have to deal with them, these things that boys don’t talk much about, especially in school. Which eventually brought us back to the book.

Teach: So…maybe Gary Paulsen wrote this book so he could help people like us learn how to live a good life, a meaningful life even when bad things happen, bad things that are out of our control…?

I told you once before that Paulsen ran away from home when he was young ’cause his family life was so bad. Things were so out of his control that he couldn’t take it anymore. How do you live like that? How do you find something good and important in all of that stuff?

Guy3: Maybe he wrote the book to help us figure that out?

Guy2: Maybe he wrote the book to figure out for himself…?

Teach: So, as we read more, maybe we can look for his answer…How do you live when things are out of your control? What do you do? How do you act? What do you hope for? What do you accept?

Which makes me think…Do you remember that odd bit that he wrote about the Japanese poets that his grandfather loved? The ones who wrote haiku? Do you remember that there was a line of Clay’s that struck us: “How did they find beauty in the midst of such ugliness?” Could it be that’s something this book wants to teach us? Maybe there’s some wisdom in the book that’s important for us?

*  *  *  *

So, what to make of this one moment within a larger moment in the lives of some boys who aren’t sure of their place in school? I’m not sure.

I know that this particular book, coupled with these particular boys’ experiences, hit a nerve. I felt it. I could tell that they felt it, too. This description of John Borne’s life — a life of loss in a world out of his control — is also a struggle to find something to hang on to. This description caused them to connect pretty deeply with their own lives, a connection that allowed them to settle their comet-selves down on a carpet under a bank of fluorescent lights contained by four walls long enough to consider the possibility that some made-up character from the mind of someone they don’t even know might have something profound to say to them. Something shifted inside. Permanently? Assuredly not. Shifts show the temporary nature of things, not their permanence. But inertia is inertia and what is in motion has a greater chance to stay in motion…Who knows…?

I also know that it matters that I’m not a computer, and that the kids aren’t reading for AR points. I know them and what they struggle with. Our conversation naturally deflects toward those centers of gravity.

And, so…what’s this school-thing all about anyway? There are no standards that mention the seismology of the soul. There’s no way I could write that goal on the whiteboard: “A student will…what, exactly?” But without the gravitational pull of something meaningful, how do comet-souls find a force strong enough to claim a part of their mass? And without that pull — without the Japanese haiku poets that John Borne’s grandfather reveres, without the Gary Paulsens (or the librarian who gave him some books when he was a fourteen year-old) — how does one find beauty enough, gravity enough to capture a heart?

Finally, I write about this experience not because it is so uncommon, but because every teacher has had these experiences where lives are touched, including our own. We talk about this amongst ourselves. And yet the official version of school isn’t really about this kind of thing. Is it?

Rich Tasks — Saving Space for Student Thinking

Lots of time has passed since I last posted. I have been up to my eyeballs in new curriculum planning/envisioning (fourth grade is new for me), union negotiations (I’m the chief negotiator for our local), and in creating portfolio entries for my attempt to achieve National Board Certification. While there are many stories to tell about what has happened lately, a recent post about by mentor, ether-friend Vicki Vinton jarred loose a post that has been rattling around in my brain for awhile.

Vinton talks about how she’s benefited from her connection with math colleagues who talk about “rich tasks.” In upcoming posts, she will talk about how to apply the idea of rich tasks to reading, too. According to Vinton, rich tasks are those that “provide multiple entry points”, “invite creative and critical thinking”, “spotlight…both processes and product…(to help) students better see the connection between means and ends”, and “promote student ownership.” In other words, they are the kind of tasks that a teacher loves to create and witness.

Like Vicki, I’ve also benefited from being in touch with math thinkers who seek to understand what students are thinking, what their misconceptions are, where the limits of their knowledge and skill lie, and how they approach/attack a math task. 1 The richer the task, it seems, the greater the opportunity to discover the edges of student thinking. And, truthfully, teaching gets really fun when we are near those edges.

If there is any subject that can create a rich task, science is one! And that’s where we are right now.

Recently we finished taking the IA Assessments 2 To celebrate, we’re learning a lot of science. 3 Our task has been to design and build an air-powered skimmer. 4

First, the students formed design teams. I asked them to create a logo and a slogan. That was an interesting task in itself. We “closely read” some logos and slogans that we found on line, how they tried to transmit those meanings through graphics and short text.

This part of the task helped me see many things, in particular how students tried to manage their own uniqueness as part of a group, but also their awareness of an audience outside themselves. Some were better able to imagine that outside audience than others. These degrees and kinds other-awareness were interesting grist for the teacher thought-mill, and seemed so connected to the crucial skills of listening and questioning that go into learning. A rich task like this helped me see the learners better. Anything that helps me understand them better as people seems to help my teaching.

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Then, the students were given the “task” to create a wind powered skimmer that would go at least 60cm, but as far as possible. They set to work creating their initial sail designs. I observed and asked questions about the rationale for their design work. What do you think will happen? Why did you put that there? Why did you make this shape? Questions of that sort.

The project used a typical engineering design protocol, which we have used over and over again.


The design process we used.

The design process we used.

After the students designed their sails, they tested them, recorded the information from the tests, and re-designed to solve the problems that they discovered in the testing stage. I continued asking questions, helped them solve some of the group process issues that inevitably arose, and pushed them to examine the principles behind their designs. Although the students often “designed” based on principles (they had a gut-level sense of cause and effect as far as their design went), articulating those principles in more general ways is new to them and one of my goals for this project.


Along the way, to help them focus on what we could generalize from our work, we gathered together periodically to talk about what design principles we have discovered about what make sails work well, which the children could use to help them re-designed their sails. I introduced them to vocabulary like these: friction, friction force, sail frontal area, hull, bow, stern, mast, torque…

Finally, we had a competition to see whose sail design would make the skimmer go the farthest. Each design team then evaluated the results of the competition. We created short videos (ostensibly to “send” to the EarthToy company president, IM Green) describing the design as accurately as possible, the outcome of that design as evidenced by the competition, their thoughts on why this outcome happened (using scientific terminology), and what their next design idea would be and why they expect that idea to be an improvement over the one they entered in the contest.

This reflection was an interesting task in itself, and putting it in video form allowed the children a chance to reflect on their presentation for future work.


I realized from this process that I am so much happier, as a teacher, working backwards from student thinking to strategy instruction than I am starting with delivering the strategy without deeply knowing the student thinking first. I really enjoy giving the students a big, unwieldy problem or task whether it be in math, in science, or in reading. Then I like to probe the children’s thinking as they complete the task. This kind of teaching is less efficient and messier, I know. 5

This kind of rich science task could be transferred to other areas by analogy. For example, just this last week, as we were revising drafts of persuasive essays, one of the students mentioned that revising was a lot like what we were doing in science with our skimmers. I asked for elaboration (love that word). His response: It’s where we design something and then change it to make it perform better. If we can internalize that idea, that revision is re-design for the purpose of better performance, then perhaps it will make our writing better, too? Maybe, too, it’s at the heart of growth mindsets and those wonderful “principles” of math practice that the CCSS-Math outlines.

  1. I have learned a lot from the work of Dan Meyer, especially his 3-Act Math, Christopher Danielson, and Joe Schwartz.
  2. This is the test formerly known as ITBS, which I’ve heard some of the wittier middle school students re-name as a statement without a linking verb: it bs.
  3. Teachers understand how testing crowds out the best stuff. The best stuff is often messy and takes time. During testing, time is of the essence and messiness doesn’t fit the schedule.
  4. I wrote and received a grant to purchase a couple A World in Motion kits last year from the Governor’s STEM Start-up funding stream. We are using, and modifying, these materials.
  5. Interestingly, several of the math thinkers I follow are aware of how their focus on rich tasks, uncovering student thinking, and multiple solutions has spawned a counter-movement, one that focuses on explicit instruction of the most efficient algorithms, and “efficient” transmission of new knowledge. In Canada, for instance. Obviously, I’m much more aligned with the “new math” crowd than the efficient transmission camp. Like my math mentors, I feel that good teacher questioning should be designed to help me, and the children, understand the principles behind our thinking, principles we use to build our next level of understanding. I am pessimistic, though, that without strong conceptual understandings even the most efficient of algorithms are all that efficient in the long run.

Growing Ideas Takes Time

Cross section of a trees' roots * Flickr Explore
Photo Credit: Aaron Escobar via Compfight

One of the benefits of teaching many different subjects (as I do in fourth grade) is being able to come back to an idea or a question over and over again. Too often we think of learning happening in neat little packages: I taught this lesson and now I’m moving on to the next one. But learning doesn’t happen in nice, neat packages very often. It occurs in what I think of as seasons, with long periods of fallow and subterranean root development between harvests.

I was reminded of this kind of episodic learning once again this week. We’ve been exploring some questions related to immigration through a wonderful immersion project with a local museum. One of our reading groups recently finished an informational book on Ellis Island, took some notes on its content, and is now working up a video to teach the other kids in the class about what happened there. They’ve written the script and this week they are downloading photos from a marvelous collection offered through a photo stream from the New York Public Library via the Creative Commons.

At any rate, the kids came across many, many photos that looked like these.

Then something interesting happened. The kids stopped and stared at the photos.

It turns out that the kids were looking closely and making connections to the drawings from The Arrival, a wordless graphic novel I had used to introduce our immigration unit. Said they, “These look a lot like the pictures we saw at the beginning of The Arrival!”

“Hmm…” I said. And I trotted over to get the book.

You see what you think.

The Arrival_faces2

So, then the connections came flying.

“Those people in The Arrival are definitely immigrants!”

“They look almost exactly the same as the drawings!”

“I wonder if the author saw these photos and drew the pictures from them.”

“Now we can see where the immigrants are from!” (The country of origin is in the notes on the Flickr account.)

So, maybe this connection between our reading of The Arrival and the New York Public Library’s photo stream isn’t the biggest thing that ever happened. But since our first interpretation of that page of faces from The Arrival was “Those look like terrorists!”, we have come a long way!

I think the struggle we went through to understand the drawings helped set the students up to not just KNOW that many different immigrants came through Ellis Island, this struggle also helped them OWN that difference in a deeper way than if I had told them from the outset, “No, those are not terrorists. They are immigrants.”

Waiting for the Arrival, or, How Jumping to Conclusions May be Important to Understanding

The Arrival_cover

We began our exploration of immigration by beginning a “read aloud” of Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel, The Arrival. I told the kids that we were going to be studying the topic of immigration, which is the word social scientists give to the idea that people move from one place to another. That’s about all I told them, so far.

My goal has been to open up some ideas about immigration in a way that the kids could first feel the disorientation and reorientation of the immigrant, before we got into some more of the nitty-gritty aspects of the topic. I’m thinking, here, of how some experiences (war, famine, persecution, hope) pushed people to leave what they knew in the home country to begin a new life in a strange land, the different experiences that people endured along the way, the disorientation of the arrival, the power structure immigrants landed in, and, using whatever resources they possessed, the way immigrants tried to make a new home for themselves in their new land.

Ultimately, I want the kids to begin to understand how this powerful force in history shaped people and places. But I also hope the students might understand the immigrant’s story metaphorically, as the story of any journey into a new land. The immigrants’ disorientation and reorientation applies to many situations.

Maybe, as we read we might see our own lives, our own learning as a kind of immigration from once familiar territory into a new, barely understood land. At the very least, for rural Iowans whose immigrant identity is tenuous to vanishing, we might gain a better sense of our fellow citizens whose experience with home and belonging is so different than our own. Perhaps. Perhaps.

We gathered on the floor, in chairs, and around nearby tables while I projected the book from my iPad onto the screen.

We began to read and talk.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Almost immediately, I ran into several of those moments that Vicki Vinton talked about in a recent post where the students she read to jumped to conclusions that seemed problematic. After the cover page, Tan presented us with this magnificent two-page spread:

The Arrival_faces1 The Arrival_faces2

I asked the children what they made of these. They thought for a moment, and then several children began to form a conclusion.

Me: What do you think about these pages?

Student A: Hmmm. It looks like these are terrorists. (Others agree.)

Me: (Taken aback.) Terrorists? What makes you think that?

Student A: Well, I’ve seen people look like that on the TV when my mom watches her news.

Me: What is it about them that you recognize?

Student B: I agree with (Student A). They look like terrorists because some of them have those hats that they wear on their heads, the ones that twist up…

Me: (To myself: Oh no! This isn’t going where I expected…or want…or anywhere good.) Ok. We think these people might be terrorists. Why do you think the author wanted us to be thinking about terrorists right now in the book?

Student C: Maybe because something is going to happen that’s really bad and the author wanted to plant a clue for us right now?

Me: (To myself: Hmmm….that’s pretty good thinking about how authors use these early opportunities in books.) Ok. Maybe the author wants to warn us about something. Let’s read more to see if we can connect anything to these pictures and to other parts of the book.

(Before I can start to flip the pages again.)

Student D: Maybe they are slaves?

Me: (To myself: Hmm…this is going to be interesting!) Why do you think that?

Student D: They look like they aren’t very happy and some of them look like the pictures I’ve seen of slaves. Besides, there’s a picture of a little kid on the third row down on the left side and I don’t think this kid is a terrorist, but I know that some kids were slaves.

Me: Ok. So now we have two different ideas about what these pictures mean. 1) They are a warning that terrorists might attack. 2) They are pictures of slaves that…what?

Student D: …might be arriving somewhere. That way we can connect to the title, too.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

We read on. The pictures tell the story of a man leaving his family. We notice they are poor, and the woman and man are very sad to be parting.


The man takes a train from the station and then boards a boat. After many days at sea — delightfully rendered by many small drawings of different kinds of clouds — we see this picture.


Suddenly, the ideas about who those people were at the beginning of the book changed!

Student A: I don’t think those were terrorists or slaves anymore. I think they are the people that got on this boat.

Me: Tell me more.

Student A: I think the author wanted us to think about all of these different people getting on a boat to go somewhere. They are sad because they have left their families, like the father was sad when he left his family.

Others: Yes! There are all of these people that had to leave their families and go on a train, maybe, and now a boat and soon they are going to arrive somewhere else.

Me: (To myself: I’m glad that I just let the early stuff go so we could come to this.) So, we discovered something here, didn’t we? We started out thinking th0se people were terrorists, then slaves, and now we think they might be other people, lots of different people who look very different from each other — all of whom are leaving their own homes for somewhere else. You’ve connected this set of images to other things you’ve noticed in the story and you’ve changed your mind as you got more information. That’s really cool, kids, that you can stick with something like that until it starts to make sense, and until you can connect it to lots of other details in the story. Congratulations.

Let’s see where this new idea takes us, okay?

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

It may be that the struggle the children engaged in as they jumped to conclusions helped them to first notice the differences between the immigrants in the two-page spread of faces (the strange faces, the long beards and mustaches, the wrapped heads.) This is a crucial understanding that I hoped they would get, that all immigrants are not alike, and that not all immigrants would even feel comfortable around the other, though they share the same “name”: immigrant.

Perhaps it was necessary for them to live with the idea of difference, even if it brought them to a place that was pretty uncomfortable for me for awhile. (Watch out for the terrorists!) Only after living with that for awhile were they able to understand that while the difference between the people on that page was significant for the story, the terrorist idea didn’t fit and they could eventually discard it.

Similarly, their conclusion jumping — they are slaves! — emerged from noticing the expression on the faces and putting that together with the differences in the faces. This idea of unhappiness or worry, too, might have been necessary for them to notice and to live with for awhile so they can feel deeply the emotions those who leave must feel.

As we read further in the story, the difference between the people, as well as the worry and sadness they had on their faces, might help us better understand what it must be like to be so different, one from the other, and so alone in a new world.

What Failure Teaches Me (…more thoughts on reading nonfiction)

8-18-12 design scans 006
Photo Credit: Katie Walker via Compfight

Of course, I love it when things work out well. I like to celebrate those moments here.

But I also want to use this space to think about things that don’t work out so well. As I tell the children, learning is often messy, unclear, our ideas emerge partly formed and take some effort to make them clearer. From that vantage point, the beauty that might someday be often takes awhile (and some squinting!) to see. So, writing only about the successes doesn’t seem completely honest, since much of what I experience is that messiness of learning. I wrote earlier this year; I pick my way through the jungle.

So here is a failure of sorts that points toward something interesting.

If you’ve read my posts recently, you’ll notice that I’m thinking (obsessed?) about how to help students linger in the ideas of text that do not have a narrative focus. One thought I had was that I might use a practice common to scientific thinking as a way to help students linger with an idea: the creation of a model that could be probed and revised.

Well, it turns out that on some level I must have already been thinking about this problem because I actually had students generate a model as a way to help me understand their thinking about the way sound is produced and energy is transferred via sound waves.

Why didn’t I see this as a rich source to mine for the question I’ve been asking? I don’t know! It took writing on the blog before I saw what was right there in front of me. Sometimes the parts of my brain are like an old couple, living together side by side, thinking their own silent thoughts.

So here’s what we did.

In a learning unit on sound, we conducted experiments and read in small group some short informational pieces about various aspects of sound production and reception. As a culminating activity, I presented the kids with a simple hand-drawn picture and asked the kids to explain how sound got from them to me. In essence, I was asking the children to create a model. As part of their explanation, I asked that they describe in as great a detail as they could how this happens, but that they also identify their uncertainty, too. I told them that the best scientists are most interested in the parts that they don’t know or still have questions about because these are the next areas to explore.

Here are some examples of what the students drew, and how they identified their uncertainties. Here is Student A’s model:


Student A’s model is sort of sketchy and shows that through our discussions and reading I wasn’t able to help her create a very detailed model of how sound travels. However, she does a terrific job of identifying some of the areas where she is uncertain, and offers some tentative explanations: “Maybe the wind carries the sound.”

One of my failures, here, I think was that I didn’t make creating this model the focus of our learning so it could provide a framework from the beginning, If I would have done that, we could more easily track what we learned and what wasn’t learned, and been able to create richer descriptive language. (Richly descriptive mentor texts could have also helped!)

Here’s another example, Student B:



Student B’s model shows some clear details about the various steps in the process — the necessity of some organ in our throats to produce sound, the way the ear receives sound, the presence of “sound waves” — and a clear sense that he didn’t know how sound was produced in the larynx other than that vibrations were produced. Also, the notion of sound waves was mentioned, but not questioned, which I thought was interesting.

Another of my failures illustrated here was that if Student B and Student A could have talked together about their models, if they could have lingered over them a bit more, but in conversation with each other, then both Student B and Student A would have been able to form a better, more complete model and, crucially, a more complete set of questions.

Here’s another model from Student C:


Student C’s model very clearly identifies steps, and some of the parts that must be needed. I was very pleased with how he admitted large areas of uncertainty ( a willingness to admit NOT knowing) including a concern over the structure of waves (“I don’t know how sections become sections.”) Wow.

This model represents still another layer of failure for me. We hadn’t talked about compression waves, but had I known his concern earlier I could have easily found written text (and video!) that shows how vibrations propagate compression waves. This might have brought us into the conceptual swamp of molecules in gases like air (but, heck, why not, eh?) But even if that wasn’t understood by everyone, at least then everyone would have realized that the metaphor of “waves” needed to be further unpacked to make it sensible, even if they couldn’t quite understand how they worked. (This is only fourth grade, right?)

So, what to do?

One way this points me is toward using models as a repository of our current thinking as we read informational text that doesn’t have a narrative focus. If we had a model to talk about, that we might have lingered on, that we could have used it to hone our description, we could have used it to identify and explore areas of uncertainty. We could have used it as a way to talk to each other so we could all develop an increasingly complex conceptual understanding of some pretty complicated ideas. We might have used this model to reinforce a crucial element of scientific inquiry; that is, we could have mapped the unknown territory, the place where scientists love to explore because that’s where the cool stuff lies.