A Gateway To Conversation

Inspiration strikes in unexpected places and a simple beginning can lead us down an unpredictable path. Being able to appreciate the journey down that path involves letting go of expectations, a little nudging in the right places, and a willingness to diverge from one road and merge with another. This is true in life and it is true in a classroom. Inspiration struck this week at the Farmers’ Market, where buckets of giant dahlias tempted me into a bright yellow blossom the size of my outstretched hand. Inspiration grew at the super market when I heaved a gigantic pumpkin into our cart and my husband dryly asked, “Didn’t they have a bigger one?” Inspiration became concrete when I combined these two things with an impressive sugar pine cone that was brought back to me when relatives visited California last year.

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We started this week with some objects on a table and the theme, “Things That are Big.” I had the vague intention that I wanted to begin an exploration of trees as part of our “New Plants” science unit. I’ve learned though, that a circuitous path can be a gateway to conversation, and that a broad idea, like “Things That Are Big,” can take us on a journey with more chances for mystery and collaboration, more stops along the way, and a chance to create connections between seemingly unconnected aspects of our world.

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In the beginning we brainstormed things that are big and things that are little. We had a surprise visit from a preying mantis, and we came up with more colorful words for “big.” We read a tall tale about Paul Bunyan, and collected variations of this story from our school library.

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One person and one block at a time, we created a habitat for the largest creatures to ever walk our planet. We imagined that a powerful potion was created that brought dinosaurs back to life, and we needed a place for them to live. Then we added dinosaurs!

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We quickly realized that we needed a watering hole and a spot for food and sturdier walls. So, we rebuilt, but this time, 23 kids rearranged and redistributed and rose to my challenge to “make it work” all together and all at the same time.

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Controlled chaos ensued, but a better habitat resulted, complete with a nursery for the baby dinosaurs.

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These kids know a lot about dinosaurs, and were completely engaged in read alouds and discussions devoted to these creatures of long ago.

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We went for a walk around our school grounds, on the hunt for “things that are big.” A few boys cracked themselves up pointing out, “big fat squirrels,” but other than a huge moving truck driving by and the sun in the sky, the trees (most notably the pines) around our school were by far the biggest thing around. Inspiration and intention converge!

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A second nature walk helped us determine, to our expert eyes, the biggest tree on our school grounds.

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We could have just begun by talking about trees. But then we would have missed Paul Bunyan and Ankylosaurus, Bernard Most and that giant dahlia. Now we can continue our tree exploration, with our own Biggest Tree leading us down the path.

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We Are All Alike, We Are All Different

Different does not mean bad…just different. 

My students will hear me say this a lot this year. Some kids are able to inherently accept and understand this idea…they just don’t notice differences, or if they do, they don’t register as bad or scary or weird. This is a beautiful thing, and my wish is that they carry this with them along the whole journey of their lives. For others though, anything or anyone different makes them giggle, or squirm, or worst of all, look down their noses in disdain. Different does not mean bad is something they need to hear. The truth is, we all need the freedom and confidence to be who we are, and we are all from different families, different backgrounds, different parts of the state, the country, the world. That is what we began to celebrate this week.

We checked out this video. It’s catchy and the kids loved it. Will.i.am played over and over, and the fact that my seven and eight year olds were watching Sesame Street was a good step towards being strong and confident in who we are and what we liked, and not worrying that it was a “baby” show (Yes, we had this conversation!).

Any good message has books that inspire and bring that message to life.

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We Are All Alike and We Are All Different was written by a group of kindergarten students from Cheltanham Elementary School. It spurred a discussion on ways that we are alike and ways we are different.

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A few highlights: We all are knowledgeable. We all have skin but it is all a different color. Some of us have homes, and families, and books and some don’t. We all walk a different way (This last one is a favorite because this year we have a boy in our class who is in a wheelchair. He does indeed walk a different way from the rest of us!).

The Colors of Us, by Karen Katz, and the collected works of Lois Ehlert, both inspired a week long art project that proved that although we are all different, we are also alike in so many ways. We used tempera paint in the colors red, yellow, blue, black, and white to color match our skin. The results were incredible!

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We then spent time investigating the collage techniques of Lois Ehlert, and continued to be inspired to create ourselves out of paper.

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Seeing our class line the hallway makes it clear that we are all alike in so many ways, but we are different in so many others.

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We are each a unique piece of the puzzle that makes up our class and our school, our city and our country, and ultimately, our world. I’ve written before that a big part of what I do as a teacher is lay foundations. Foundations of understanding and awareness that students can build upon now and through their lives. If I can lay the foundation for the idea that different does not mean bad… just different, then we are one step closer to embracing this simple yet profoundly important part of being citizens of our world.

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Arrgh You Ready For Adventure?

Fostering a spirit of adventure and discovery can lead kids out the front door and into the world around them. For some, the natural world is a foreign land, an unknown and intimidating place. This week a friend of mine stumbled upon a nest of snapping turtles emerging from their underground nest for the first time.

A newly hatched snapping turtle emerging from the ground for the first time.

A newly hatched snapping turtle emerging from the ground.

Out of the dark and into the tall grass and bright sun. A place where everybody should spend more time. So, we nurture curiosity and encourage discovery, and for many, we begin at the beginning. We try new things, we shake things up, and we start to develop that spirit of adventure.

For some kids, an adventure is trying a new food. This week’s mystery vegetable was described as “smelling like dirt” and “weird.”

This week's mystery vegetable.

This week’s mystery vegetable.

Guesses included turnips and radishes, and indeed they were a type of radish: watermelon radishes.

Pretty slices of watermelon radish.

Pretty slices of watermelon radish.

These little slices looked sweet but they were hot stuff. About half the class was brave enough to try them. The races for water bottles and exaggerated cries of spicy discomfort were a fun diversion for a Friday afternoon, and in fact encouraged a few more classmates to take the risk and see what the fuss was all about.

September 19th was International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and while pirates may have been opportunistic scoundrels, there’s no denying that for them every day at sea was an adventure. Our new principal was excited to celebrate this day, so our school was festooned with Jolly Rogers and filled with teachers and students dressed in pirate garb and telling pirate jokes (What did the pirate pay for his peg leg and shiny hook? An arm and a leg.). My team  decided to make the most of the day. We planned and set up a Treasure Hunt around our school and school grounds.

Walking the plank to find the next clue on our treasure hunt.

Walking the plank to find the next clue on our treasure hunt.

Our kids learned interesting facts about pirates, solved riddles that led students into parts of our building they had not ventured to (or paid attention to!) before, and ended up in our outdoor learning space eating popsicles and reading How I Became a Pirate, by Melinda Long and illustrated by David Shannon.

How I Became a Pirate Format: Trade Cloth: Melinda Long Illustrated by David Shannon

We ended the day designing pirate ships out of aluminum foil, with the goal of finding how much treasure our ships could hold. In the spirit of scientific discovery we learned from our mistakes and our successes by creating and testing multiple designs!

An adventure doesn’t have to be an extreme journey or activity. It can be as simple as trying a new food, going on a treasure hunt, or emerging into the tall grass and bright sun for the first time. Discovery happens and curiosity is born when we are presented with new ideas and experiences. Let’s get out and explore!

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Air is There

“On average, one tree produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year. Two mature trees can provide enough oxygen for a family of four.”
– Environment Canada, Canada’s national environmental agency

Kids love the idea that trees breathe in what we breathe out, and even more that we breathe in what they breathe out. It is an elegantly simple yet extremely complex fact of nature, and one that gives many kids a tangible reason to care about trees and the state of our earth’s health.

Sometimes though, before activism can take root, we have to create a basic awareness of what is all around us every minute of every day. We have to create the understanding that air is even there. So. This week we talked about it.

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Words that describe air.

We experimented with it. This was our second week as part of our Yoga 4 Classrooms residency. Miss Sharon presented us with a nice analogy for what happens in our bodies when we forget to breathe deep and become low on fresh oxygen. Our flame goes out!

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A candle covered by a glass jar shows what happens to a flame when oxygen is depleted.

We observed air in action (a windy day also works well to illustrate this point). Can you make a ping-pong ball float? Air can!

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The kids had fun trying this one out!

Now a foundation has been laid. We are ready to connect the idea that air is all around us to other learning. We can explore how trees breathe in the world outside our classroom. We can grasp what a deep breath actually does for our brain and body, and therefore our learning. Sometimes the first steps of that learning begins with an idea as basic as, “Air is there.”

“One acre of trees annually consumes the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that produced by driving an average car for 26,000 miles. That same acre of trees also produces enough oxygen for 18 people to breathe for a year.” – New York Times

 

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It’s All In the Name

My classroom is not really in the woods. It is in a brick and concrete school that is surrounded on three sides by neighborhoods and one side by a New England deciduous forest that leads, ultimately to a tidal river. The water from this river makes its way to the Great Bay estuary and from there out to the Atlantic. We are within short driving distance to mountains, state parks, oceans, and lakes. Out of our classroom window we see lots of pine, maple, and oak trees, and the school is surrounded by people who care about their yards. There are beautiful examples of flowering shrubs and trees, perennials, and annuals. I am fortunate to have a classroom that, while located in a place that technically has a population large enough to be categorized as a city (about 30,000), we are surrounded by nature in many different forms.

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So, while my classroom is not really in the woods, I try to bring the woods into my classroom, and I use the term “woods” broadly, to encompass many different experiences and things that exist outside the walls of a school.

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I believe that once a person understands how something works, or recognizes its importance, or can attach a name to it, then that something truly starts to exist for them. Through experiments and investigations, books and discussions, inquisitive minds grow and curiosity is born. Where once a person might have noticed only grass and trees, after gaining knowledge and understanding they start to point out birds and insects, plants and lichen, evidence of wildlife and our always changing environment. Children oftentimes show me an appreciation and a thoughtful understanding of the natural world that is innate and intuitive and profound. Yes, I teach reading and math, writing and word study, science and social studies. What I am really trying to teach, though, is how to be a productive and positive citizen of this world we all live in. What I share with kids is not earth-shattering. It’s not ground-breaking or innovative or extreme. I’m just helping them put a name to what they see. I’m bringing them into the woods.

Student guesses for the mystery fruit or vegetable included: mini-apricots, peach tomatoes, pineapple seeds, and baby tomatoes. They are ground cherries, and they do indeed smell like pineapple. Of course, we sampled them as well!

 

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Good Intentions

I have always had an interest in the natural world, and throughout my life, time outside has always been important. As a child I have fond memories of camping, walking in the woods, fishing and canoeing, and visiting the ocean.

Beautiful Trip to Alaska

Beautiful Family Trip to Alaska

 

We swam in rivers, lakes and salty sea water, and often stayed outside until after dark, mosquitos biting our ankles while we squeezed in one more round of Hide and Go Seek. Fast forward to just a couple of  years ago. I took a class called, “Leadership and Learning.”  My professor advised that when pursuing our own personal learning and studies, one should choose a topic that we truly love, something that we will be excited about  and want to put time and effort into, because there will be times when that learning will be overwhelming and challenging and difficult. Passion for the subject might be what makes the difference between success and failure. On my ride home that day I thought of the things I truly love to do. I tried to mesh this list with topics that might be pertinent to my work with children, like the middle of a Venn Diagram, I searched for the overlapping ideas. Nature studies and time outdoors figured prominently in the middle of my mind’s diagram. I have always shared the natural world in my work with children, but since that day I have begun to do it in a more formal, concerted way.

Favorite Field Trip Spot: Vaughn Woods State Park

Favorite Field Trip Spot: Vaughn Woods State Park

In my work with young children, I have found an enthusiasm and engagement in any topic related to science and the natural world. I have observed kids become more calm and focused after a walk in the woods, and more interested in learning when they have time outdoors or contact with nature. This is a topic we can all delve into. Exploring the impact of nature on children, particularly the way it may or may not effect learning, focus, attitude, and emotions, is a  topic that I can be passionate about. Sharing my own love for the natural world with the students I work with can help foster an appreciation and stewardship for our Earth the future health of our planet could certainly benefit from!

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