Monday, May 13, 2013

Wait, This Can't be Science: The Power of Poetry & Enchantment

We had come to an impasse during our life science project. A few of the students didn't know where to go next, and we were butting heads a little. I couldn't find a way out. Fortunately it was Thursday and Marty Gravett was due to come work with us during investigative research. The beauty of working in such a collaborative environment is that there's always another brain to pick. 

Marty suggested the children reflect on all the work we had done and find some way to communicate their reflections -- that is to say express the reflections using one or more of the hundred languages.  At first, RAS, LM, SS, JF, and TE were resistant to this idea. And then RAS asked, "Can we do a reflection using poetry?" 

I was silent, thinking, poetry and science? Can one reflect on science using poetry? Being a poet myself, it was hard to see any problem with that. But doubt gnawed at a corner of my brain. My thought process: Poetry is poetry and science is well, science. Perhaps poetry wasn't the best form for reflection. But it is one of the hundred languages and we do want to encourage all forms of expression. 

Thankfully, before I could say anything, SS broke into my thoughts, asking, "What is poetry?" 

And without thinking, I said, "Listen."

I took that moment to do a dramatic recitation of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky". I know the poem by heart, it is one of my all time favorites. 

When I started, the children fell silent and listened with eyes wide. The hush made me feel like we had stepped into another dimension. 

Me: "Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun/The frumious Bandersnatch!"

RAS: "Jubjub bird? What's a Jubjub bird?" 

I didn't stop. The children loved the strange sound of the unfamiliar words. I heard them echoing the words as I spoke them.

When I was done, I waited for the children to absorb what they'd heard. They looked enchanted. I wished I could see that expression every day.  And then I realised, I do, but usually on only one face at a time. This was powerful because it was five of them and me -- we were all enchanted! 

The children asked me, "But how can we write a poem?" I said, "By writing."

We then set about writing a poem together on the whiteboard. A poem about the animals we had been studying. Each of them contributed some lines. At the end of it we had two lovely poems, reflections that came from collaborative learning and collaborative expression. Poetry, it turns out, is an excellent tool for reflection on science learning.

Here are the poems (look below photographs for proper text sequence): 


Horses have 4 legs
They can run fast
They come in many colours
Dapple gray, strawberry roan
Although they can't have ice cream cones.
Light types, riding types, carriage types,
Oh there are a lot of types! 
The first horse was 14 inches tall.
Oh I wish I could hug them all!
Horses, horses, I love them so
Although they don't wear pantyhose.
I wish you would love them too
But they ain't no unicorns for you.


Turtles are so
slow but to own 
one you can't 
say no!

Have you ever heard a rocky talky turtle?
they're very swell.
A rocky talky turtle, they might
Nibble a bit but they're sweet
and nice to eat! 

Snappy, snappy, snap!
Have you heard of the snappy turtle?
It's my favourite!

With turtle tummies in the belly
All tucked up
Too bad sea turtles 
can't grow into their shells
The leatherback turtle has 
a unicorn on its back.

Have you ever heard of the rocky talky turtle?
They are extinct now
because all the dinosaurs 
ate them and then burped 
them back up.

With tummies tucked up in 
their shell, box turtles are
so fat and swell! 


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Grandparents' and Special Friends' Day

The hustle and bustle of Grandparents' & Special Friends' Day was upon us. It was Friday, forest day, and the children's excitement about the forest and about their grandparents was palpable. We went down to the forest as usual and the children seemed to forget about everything but their surroundings.

On the way back from the forest the children asked, "When will they [the grandparents] be here? what will we do?" 

What will we do? Indeed. I had been thinking about that for some time, wondering what the grandparents would most like to see. I came to the conclusion, as I usually do, that the children would figure it out. 

After lunch, we cleaned up the classroom for the fifth time. We arranged chairs in a circle and waited for the grandparents and special friends to arrive. When the first ones came in, I expected the children to leap up and run to them but they remained seated, rooted to the spot, their faces frozen in suddenly shy smiles. 

I don't think I have ever seen TE at a loss for words before. I even said as much to her grandparents. And she still only smiled. LM was another surprise. She sat very quietly waiting for her grandparents to come in. It dawned on me that this experience was both exciting and daunting for the children. I hadn't really thought about that before. SB and SS also waited quietly. I thought about how to break the ice and decided to make some suggestions.

I suggested that the children show their grandparents whatever they wanted to share. I also suggested that they do portraits of each other. And, finally, I asked the grandparents to write down their names and birth years for our time line. Then I left them to it, trying to keep as much out of the way as I could.

As I walked around I saw SB reading to her grandmother from her writing; I saw SS doing the same; RAS showed her grandfather around the classroom, leading him to the "inside of a cat" that she had made with SD. I saw the now vocal again TE, showing her three grandparents the classroom and explaining what the displays were all about. TE is particularly proud of the turtles she has studied and created with her group. LM led her grandparents around and pointed out the museum and the other things she has worked on. MP showed her grandmother around the classroom, leading her through the different 'exhibits' we have up. 

All the children shared their portfolios -- they've been making covers for each section inside the portfolio and they've also created covers and spines for the portfolios themselves. It was wonderful to see the children take ownership of the classroom as their collaborative learning space. They did not ask for my permission, or really seek me out after that initial hesitance. As a teacher in a social constructivist setting, this is what I call success.


The children were so happy and proud of all their work. We'll talk about it on Monday as a class. I look forward to hearing what they have to say. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Part 1: What makes living creatures function?

This spring we began our Life Science investigation centering around the question, "how do living creatures function?"

Our investigation has been full of hurdles and stopping places. There have been, and continue to be, lots of struggles. Each time we arrive at such a stopping place, the frustration in the classroom is palpable; it's almost like having a 11th person in the room. We have learned a lot but one of the biggest lessons for me has been how to deal with disequilibrium without giving up.

We began by talking about animals, the 2nd grade loves animals and knows a lot about them. This made the investigation a littler trickier than the fall's history project. Trickier, because the children already knew so much that they claimed to know everything.

The children chose animals they wanted to work on: horses, butterflies, turtles, and cats. They then built habitats for their animals. This soon turned to play, the project began to stagnate. I didn't want to stop the play but I did want it to be infused with science learning. I talked constantly with my fellow teacher-researchers, winding through the possibilities, trying to figure out how to help the project move forward.

The questions I reflected on at this time: How could we move forward from what the children knew to what they did not? How could we guide them without telling them?

Eventually, we had a discussion as a class, we talked about what made animals work. How do they move, live, eat, breathe?

The children chose to answer the questions by creating depictions of what the insides of animals look like. We had a group working on horses, one on butterflies, one on cats and one on turtles.

They started out with clay. They spent a few days figuring out how to work the clay into the shapes they wanted and then realised that the clay was too heavy. Another conundrum.

The horse group branched off and decided to work in plasticine. SB, SS, and DH used cardboard as a base and then built flat model of the anatomy of a horse. The model was complex and involved a lot of discussion.

SB: "Light yellow for the nerves. You have to take yellow clay and mix it with white. We want all the parts to be different colours so we know what part is what."
SS: "Let's make the veins blue. You can see veins under our skin and they look blue."
DH: "I'll make the heart. I want it to be a special colour. It has to look different. I'll make it."

They agreed the bones would be white. The bladder is yellow. Here is the model. The horse is peeing and pooping at the same time. The children pointed out that after the horse eats the food goes into it's digestive system called the "big system", and then it poops.

The children worked together, arguing quite vociferously about colours, shapes, position (of the organs and other viscera) and who got to make which part.

"The bladder has to go here because it's near the vagina and that's where the pee has to come from."

"The eye has to be connected to the brain. We have to make it connected. We can connect it with pink. Pink is the main tube that connects the brain."

"No, we should make it red because that's the colour of the big system."

"No, the tube has to be a different colour because it does different things."

In the end the three of them were able to meld their differing viewpoints.

Here is the wonderfully complex realisation of their vision:


More on the other animals and on the process in my next post. Enjoy.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Stories Part 2

Our investigation of the writing process has continued. In my last post on this topic I wrote about the process of character creation that the children went through.

My aim is to be as Lucy Calkins-esque as possible to draw and explore connections between reading and writing workshop so that the children can really see why they are writing.  

I have asked them to explore many things in their reading: character traits; situations and events that are funny; word usage; devices that make the story interesting; if they have found the story boring, what is boring about it? Reading is a conscious, active engagement with a text and I have pushed these children towards that understanding. For the most part, they have found the explorations difficult, interesting, informative, annoying, and useful.

I try to link their weekly reading with their weekly writing. It doesn't always gel perfectly, they are fledgling authors, after all, but they are beginning to see the connections. It's fascinating how much their reading has begun to inform their writing. When I started this enterprise way back in September, I had no idea where it would take us. I have, for the most part, gone where the children go; pushing them to take risks when necessary, holding them to task as required and scaffolding whenever they need it. I've learned a lot about how children write and how far they can be pushed. 

The children have come to love writing. They love sharing their work with each other. They are even beginning to get the hang of editing each other's work respectfully and constructively. They don't particularly like the editing process but they see its usefulness. 

I think the most profound thing to come out of this long writing process is their growing understanding and appreciation of the power of the written word.  

Some of the children have paired up with each other to carry on their stories. I have interviewed them about this collaboration and will post the videos as soon as I can figure out how to edit them.


SD and MP have decided to collaborate on their stories. SD's character is Swerls, a turtle. MP's character is Mr. Catter, an undead cat who is NOT a zombie. Swerls has become Mr. Catter's pet turtle.Mr. Catter appears in SD's stories and Swerls appears in MP's.  SD and MP discuss how their stories will advance, they hash out disagreements, come to compromises and write, write, write. I've sat in on their discussions and they are inspiring. They are amazing in the way they respect each other and work through their ideas.

SS and SB are working together as well. They are writing a series, including books that they had each written separately. SB's character is Misty with her foal Stormy as a side character. SS's character is Talkey, the talking TV. Misty becomes Talkey's horse. SS and SB have some trouble working out the discrepancies in the stories but they work at it. I've scaffolded a couple of discussions with them on collaborating as authors. They are beginning to understand the differences between writing alone and collaborating. It's quite incredible to see how deeply they understand what a story is and how a discrepancy can disrupt narrative and make it not a story any more.

TE, RAS, LM, and DH are working by themselves. Here's a little about their work.

TE is writing a novel about her character Mr. Scwishels. Mr. Scwishels has gone through a lot of changes. TE is continually working on his various traits. She has created a short story, a pop-up book and is currently working on chapters for her novel. Her descriptions are evocative and wonderfully done.TE is learning how to edit and rethink work she has already done.

DH's character is Will Gates, an intrepid adventurer with a mysterious way about him . DH draws marvelous creatures and constructs stories around them. He's learning how to stretch a narrative out to go deep into the story. DH's stories encompass a fantasy world that is detailed and multi-layered

RAS's character has been renamed Daisy. RAS has written a number of stories involving Daisy and a couple written by Daisy. Her stories are grounded in reality and include minute details. She uses humor a lot. 

LM's character, Squooshols has rescued a queen from a volcano and gone on sundry other adventures. Squooshols is a sleepy gerbil who leaps up at intervals and sets out to save the world. Or destroy it. 

JF's character, a turtle named Stubby, is a warrior through and through. He has been through wars with creatures whose arms are made of weaponry, he's had to overcome beings much larger than himself. In the end he was done in by his gluttony. His legacy will live on in the person of his "turtlettes".

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Gift of Rain

What I love most about my work is that all the small moments matter; like raindrops on a window pane: each with its own path, its own particular way; and I with the wondrous privilege of watching each journey and learning about the infinitesimal, simple joy of being. The destination is, to a large degree, irrelevant, especially since it is never fixed. As if that were not enough, I am surrounded by people similarly entranced and engaged. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Traveling through time: It begins

The point of our investigative research, Who Was Here Before Us? is to learn to think like a historian, that is the meta-narrative of the whole enterprise. 

Throughout the term as interest waxed and waned I wondered: could we all work together using our differing and multilingual selves and create something that showed us thinking like historians? How many ways could we invent, how far could we go?  

This entry and the others concerning time travel are reflections of our journey through this learning process. 

In October, our investigative research was beginning to wane for some of the students, they were getting a bit antsy. One day, when I was out sick, they suggested the concept of time travel (they were working with our atelierista, Anna Golden). Perhaps they could build a time machine, they said, and visit different times in it. They had a discussion about it, centering around whether or not it was possible to build a real time machine. 

In the end they decided they would check in with me and probably work on a game, a play version of time travel that involved research and thinking like a historian. 

LM, RAS, and JF are convinced that a real time machine can be built using the right tinkering tools. "There are tinkering tools in the studio, clock stuff, we can use those to build a time machine," all three of them say.

I ask, "Do you know if anyone's actually ever made one before?"

"No, they haven't, because they didn't have the right stuff. And you need a little magic," says RAS.

"Scientists don't believe in magic," says JF. 

"Is that why they haven't been able to make one?" I ask. 

"Yes," they say.

"Well, how would you go about making a real one?" I ask.

"Well, you need a box," LM says. 

"Yeah, and the clock stuff," RAS and JF say. And then there is silence.

I was at a bit of a loss here, a sort of battle raged between my firm belief that time travel was not (yet) possible and an equally strong conviction that the children ought to be allowed to discover whatever they could about time machine building. 

In the end, I suggested that they research the historical epochs they wanted to visit before building an actual time machine. I reminded them that they had already agreed to do this. They agreed without much argument. The second grade is pretty good at making deals and sticking by them. This is something I don't remember being able to do when I was their age. I admire their integrity.

I asked the rest of the class what period in history they would be researching. SB and SS chose Ancient Rome; RAS, JF, and LM chose Ancient Egypt; MP and TE chose Victorian Times; and SD and DH chose the time of Mr. Lewis Larus. 

As they set about going to the library and looking for books on their topic, I wondered how it would go. Where would this journey take us? What did research mean to the children? How would I be able to help them figure it out without telling them how to do it? I was excited, they were excited, Anna was excited. And the questions remained. 

The photographs show the children in various stages of research and prop creation. It was agreed that each group could make two props that went with their chosen period. 

Little did I know just how far they could go. I believe in them in ways more profound than I had thought possible and still they manage to astonish me.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


In September the children made modeling clay models of characters that they would use to create stories. Due to time constraints this writing time has become a combination of story workshop and Lucy Calkins' style writing workshop. I was initially a little wary about doing this but it's turned out very well. The children are using different languages to tell their stories in the writing workshop format. 

The children weren't sure at first about what constituted a story, or a character. We've had several discussions about this throughout the process. Here is what we came up with as a class: "A character is a person, mouse, or gerbil in a book or a movie; or anything as long as it has personality. Most stories have characters."

"A story has to have at least one sentence." 

Originally, we said that all stories have characters but then RAS told a story that had no characters to demonstrate that not all stories had characters. So we changed all to most.

We read stories together, mostly short picture book stories, like Ginger Bear and Crafty Chloe. 
When we started we each created a character. The original idea was to write about our own characters and then further down the road to bring each other's characters into our stories. This class is particularly eager to collaborate and the work they do together is truly extraordinary. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

We started with clay models and thought up traits our characters had -- I wrote these down. The picture shows the initial incarnation of these characters.

Here are the characters in no particular order. The descriptions you see below are just the first version of the characters. Some characters have since changed. A lot. In the beginning, the children were just getting a feel of character shaping. They weren't sure what to do and so said the first thing they could think of. As they've been writing they've become more familiar with the process and have changed things to make their stories work better. Their characters have evolved as they've grown as writers. 

Version 1.0
JF's character. A turtle named Speaker. He lives in a giant speaker in the woods. He farts music notes. He likes dancing, electropop, and swimming. He eats musical instruments and drinks electricity. He's funny, cute and bites when he's mad.  

LMs character. Mrs Fluffy, a gerbil. She lives way out on a tiny deserted island called Illitididimeteeshee. She eats middle of the earth molten magma, frozen grapes, and lava cakes. She drinks hot lava and poops volcanic rocks. She likes music, dancing, farting in people's faces, jumping and annoying people.  

RAS's character.  Goldie, a female cat. Lives in the deep, thick part of a forest. She likes hunting, swimming, and climbing trees. She eats prey: mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits, and gerbils. She drinks water.

DH's character. Red Mario, a round, red man. He lives in walls, attics, underground, under floors, in microwaves and in train stations. He is fireproof and has flying power. He eats only candy and drinks Gatorade and Powerade. He likes to roll and do acrobatics. He plays guitar and drums. 

SS's character. Talkey, a talking TV. Lives in a cardboard box in a classroom. He eats people on the news and drinks toilet water when they show it on TV. He likes to let people watch TV on him. 

SB's character. Misty, a horse. She lives on Chincoteague Island. She eats grass, oats, apples, and carrots. She drinks water. She likes to buck people off of her. Note: SB said that Misty is modeled on the character in the well-known Misty of Chincoteague series but her stories are different. 

MP's character. Mr. Catter, an undead cat. He was President but they killed him. His head falls off and his leg does as well. He has no tail. He lives in a mud house by a swamp. He has no job but works at a train station. He eats flies and coal and drinks mud. He poops coal. He likes driving trains especially toy trains up Cat Mountain.

SD's character. Swerls a baby turtle. She lives on the shore of the ocean. She is an orphan. She eats seaweed and sand, and drinks sea water. She farts rainbows. She likes Lady Gaga, has no friends and was born November 14, 2000.

TE's character. Mr. Ickee. He is from Hedgehog Land. He is very untidy, wears special glasses. Lives in 3rd street in Pepper Pot Building. He collects yarn. He eats porridge and drinks hot chocolate. He likes being a detective. In his first mystery he found the thief was a yellow cat. 

My character is a blue person named Venkata Kithipathi Ananda Gajapathi Rao. This person is sometimes a boy and sometimes a girl. S/he eats snails and drinks water, sap, and blood.  

Some of the characters were based on existing characters by other authors. As we moved through the writing, this began to change. 

Stay tuned for more on the story business.