Journeys, again

Last month I wrote about the Journey of Man thematic study, looking at the routes used by our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, as they colonized all the world’s land except Antarctica. Recently I was thrilled to find a cache of student work samples from the first year of that study.

It’s timely. Over the next few weeks, some of the kids from that first Journey of Man class will graduate from college. They’re dancing in their last undergraduate dance concerts; giving senior voice recitals; helping younger students prepare to take over the leadership of campus organizations; getting ready to go off and be teachers themselves.

All of you from that class, wherever you are in your journeys, should have that buzzy feeling that says someone is thinking of you, because my mind has been full of the journeys I watched you make, from question to question, draft to draft, project to project.

Although I’m in touch with some of you, I’m not sure how to find others. So I’m going to hide names and identify you, if at all, only by first initial.  I’m assembling these samples out of the impact of the whole stack, in which I read every word. So in some sense all of you are reflected here.

JOM evidence stack

Over the summer before we started this study, I asked students to find and read a book related to the journeys we would be examining: the evolution of hominin species over millions of years; the travels of modern humans colonizing the globe; and the immigrant journeys that populated New England. Students could choose books relating to any of these topics, and I asked them to copy a passage that had been particularly meaningful for them.

Many students read about relatively recent immigration. Here’s one student’s heartbreaking choice of passage, from Ellis Island: Gateway to the New World by Leonard Everett Fisher:

JOM passage from Ellis Island bk editJOM copied passage geneticsI had offered genetics as a possible book topic, knowing that we’d be doing a side-trip into some learning about genes. We needed that to help us understand the role of Y chromosome genetics in the book by Spencer Wells from which we had borrowed our thematic study’s name, The Journey of Man. One student read Why Are People Different? from Usborne Publishing, and copied a fascinating passage.


JOM copied passage evolution

One faJOM copied passage evolution p2mily found a beautiful picture book about evolution, Our Family Tree: an Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters. It’s become one of my favorite nonfiction books for people of any age,

I’ve scanned both the copied passage and the student’s explanation for why she chose that book.


Other students jumped right into paleoanthropology. The passage below came from The Origins of Man, by John Napier.

JOM copied passage origins editReading through these, child by child, I am so moved by what grabbed them, when they were just sampling our topics to create an overview for each other. All four of those kids, J, J, S, and J, were drawn to story interpreting evidence–historical evidence, evidence from biological research, evidence from paleoanthropology and archaeology–all of it warmed and made coherent by a little bit of storytelling.

The first part of our exploration, about the evolution of species increasingly like us, focused on the first time clap, which I’ve already described. Here’s one student’s species sign, scanned to show the directions on the back.

JOM Homo erectus directions

I love that two word direction at the bottom, probably written by one of the students who carried copies of the sign. Those two short words take sides in a controversy still not fully settled by the interested scientists. Clearly we decided, for the purpose of the time clap, that Homo erectus really was able to control fire and use it at will–and that the dramatic growth of brain volume in Homo erectus fossil skulls indicates something revolutionary: cooked food. (You can watch this video to hear some of the evidence.)

Once we turned to the voyages of early modern humans, we were all grateful for Spencer Wells’s own effort to give his genetic evidence a human face and a story line:

JOM hunting with San

JOM target practice with SanJOM Spencer learning P editLike some of the other pieces I’ll include, these were quick pieces of writing done overnight for homework, in response to an open-ended invitation to write about something that stood out for each student. They had a word limit–probably no more than 60 words, judging from the ones that show a word count. Sometimes pairs or small groups of students shared what they had written; sometimes volunteers read theirs out loud to the full class, as a preparation for watching the next chunk of video.

Much of The Journey of Man is based on genetic evidence involving the Y chromosome. We did some other work to help us understand this, isolating DNA with help from parent volunteers, making models, reading other books. But all the kids were really taken with Spencer’s own treatment, using monkey oranges to lay out a big graphic on the ground near the San Bushmen camp.

JOM monkey oranges R editThe crosses indicate a second mutation; so R’s diagram would have been even better if he’d shown that second mutation happening in an individual who had already inherited a first one. Overall, though, he showed real understanding, and like so many Touchstone students, he didn’t hesitate to critique and appreciate Spencer’s teaching technique!

How did I handle informational errors in this kind of writing? Case by case. Sometimes I talked with the individual kid, or wrote a comment (which I’m cropping out here, mostly.) Often, I let signs of widespread confusion guide what steps the whole group would take next.

I found one page I’d written when I was disappointed with an activity,  brainstorming and evaluating ways we could approach the material differently. After all, I wasn’t doing this to grade students on their various levels of understanding; I was aiming for the greatest possible understanding by everyone–and all of us were being pioneers, including me.

Sometimes I asked kids to write about what they thought, before we watched the video or explored the evidence:

JOM ice bridge A editClearly this student had heard about ice bridges as a part of human migration from one continent to another. But as a way to get from Africa to Australia, an ice bridge couldn’t really work, and he realized that as we moved forward. Later he wrote again:

JOM to Australia new idea Here, K argues for her version using a terrific sketch map:

JOM Africa to Australia with map

JOM time clap 2  plan sheetI’ve already shared some artifacts from the second time clap, in which we worked intensively with material in the book version of The Journey of Man,  to recreate early modern humans’ routes from continent to continent. For all of us, I think, when we say “time claps” we’re remembering that one, because it was so intense. Finding additional materials from that second time clap, I was thrilled by evidence for what I had remembered, that kids themselves did most of the organizing and preparation. So, to the left here’s a planning sheet that is pretty difficult to decipher if you’re not one of the kids at work on the plan. (I know that the numbers refer to Y-chromosome mutations, and that the colors refer to colors of streamers carried on the routes.)

Here’s one student’s individual sheet, to help her know what to do when:

JOM time clap 2 indiv sheet editThe learning spiraled; it was cumulative. We reviewed in a variety of ways, acted things out in a variety of ways, made obnoxious comments about guest scientists having bad hair days, and reached a point of intimacy with the material that was extraordinary, given its challenges.

No Unit Test. Instead, kids wrote final pieces that we revised to a pretty good polish. Here’s part of one:JOM final essay E first paragraphs

Later, we carried these ideas into the work we did in the spring, thinking about the history of human technology and the evidence of archaeology, in connection with The Second Voyage of the Mimi.

Nothing I’ve ever learned about has fascinated me more than this big picture view of human history, and I couldn’t have had better learning companions. Writing about it, organizing my own artifacts, I’ve started rewatching videos, reading books and blogs. I’m excited by new evidence, and also by new attempts to convey the story as a story.

I’ve also been struggling to understand online blogs and comments written by people who dismiss the Out of Africa evidence, for reasons that often seem transparently racist.

At any moment, on my bicycle, folding laundry, driving to the other end of the state, I’m liable to be thinking:

  • How did we get from Africa to Australia as lickety-split as the genetic and archaeological evidence indicates–not just traveling but colonizing? Just what role did bamboo rafts play? Is there any way I could wrangle myself an opportunity to make a bamboo raft?
  • And what about the evidence that even Homo erectus, much longer ago, used some kind of transport across water?
  • But also: what can be done to heal the increasing polarization between people who are excited by scientific evidence–even when it’s confusing or contradictory–and people who are threatened by it? How will my past students navigate that crossfire?

Ultimately, for me, this is the question: How can we build and share a new evidence-based story of our origins? Part of the answer, of course, as always: together.

Time Claps, Part II

The paragraphs go by much faster than the learning did. If you let each paragraph equal a day, or a week, or maybe even five years of our own process, alternately scrambling like mad and sitting back soaking it all in–then you might have just about the right scale.

Kate Keller’s genius invention of the time claps was partly about time, but also about scale: using the small as a window on the huge. Of course, sometimes we make scale models in which something made large is used as a window on the small–much larger models of the DNA helix, for example. But here, we were definitely trying to grasp huge, and the time clap model was a way to compress very long periods of time into periods of time we could experience.

The time claps were also about changing the scale. The 5,000,000 years of hominid evolution we considered for the first time clap (and the previous post) are a drop in the bucket compared to the history of life, or an infinitesimal speck compared to the history of our universe, which we only waved at. Hello, history of universe, we are breaking off a tiny chunk of you, which seems enormous to us.

Five million years is one hundred times as long as the 50,000 years of our own species’ wanderings across the continents. When our class went from the first time clap to the second, we were thinking about one-hundredth as long a stretch of time all together, and each clap was worth one-hundredth as much time as before.

Our species had been around for a while before some of us took the chance of leaving Africa, almost certainly unaware that we were switching continents, but meeting considerable challenges to expand our territory. Following Spencer Wells’s account, based on research with Y chromosome mutations, we tracked our way from continent to continent.

At each stage, through weeks of learning, we investigated some of the remaining indigenous peoples, again following Wells’s lead and using his video, The Journey of Man, in which he visits Aboriginal Australians, people from remote villages on the Indian subcontinent, central Asians, Chukchi people from eastern Siberia, and Navajo in North America.

The time clap itself was a way to summarize what we’d learned: about genetics, about the challenges of human expansion into new environments, about ways the human body had evolved to handle those new places.

Clapping and counting together–clap, two, three, four–we let each four-second interval, each clap, be worth 500 years. Each student, or a pair, was responsible for moving onto the map at the right time, and placing one of our crepe paper streamer lengths. He or she placed one end in the area where that y-chromosome mutation is thought to have arisen, then carried the streamer following a simplified, summarized version of that mutation’s spread.

across the continents time clap croppedWe worked hard to figure out all the logistical problems in showing these things. Here’s a detail from the photo I used in an earlier post, so you can see that Russell is poised to do his job as the time line person, responsible for showing at each clap where we were on the time line. The pieces of brown paper on the floor are continents.

I folded the first section of this time line, so I could show two labels almost in focus.

folded timeclap section

Here’s a detail from a map in The Journey of Man. which we used as our way of timing the spread of groups of Homo sapiens across our own paper continents. Each arrow is a schematic representation of the spread of the  y-chromosome mutations that have let scientists reconstruct this sequence of expansions.

JOM map detail

Here’s the map key that helped us connect mutation numbers with times in our time clap and on our time line:

JOM map key cropped

Because I’m a nearly total failure at throwing things away, I still have some of the crepe paper streamer lengths we cut and used to represent the paths. The photo below shows two rolled-up streamer lengths for M130. These were placed beginning at the northern end of the short length for M168 (the Y chromosome shared by all men not indigenous to Africa.)

One student carried one of the M130 streamers by the coastal route around the Indian subcontinent, and then through southeast Asia to Australia. There was much less water to cross, in the time this happened, because the sea level was so much lower, with lots of water locked up in ice. Much more of southeast Asia and the nearby islands stretched in one long continuous land mass. But still, there were many miles of open ocean to cross, to get to Australia. Somehow people did it, spreading around the perimeter of the Indian Ocean astonishingly quickly.

Another student carried the second M130 streamer northeast to Siberia and then to North America–a very long expansion into harsh conditions, that took a much longer time.

JOM M130 croppedThis whole field of human population genetics is moving fast. M130 is now designated as C-M130, and on Wikipedia you can find an excellent, very technical article about the C-M130 lineage, or haplogroup. I love the labels on these streamers, made by students, full of pride in their own technical knowledge at that point.

JOM multicolored mutation streamerI’m not sure about this streamer with its many colors, mutation group leading to subgroup, leading to further subgroup, but I think it has the earliest journey on the outside: out of Africa leading to the Middle East, to south central Asia, to central Asia, to Siberia.

If you want to start a fight at a meeting of the folks who pay attention to such things, just ask about how we arrived in the Americas. Increasing numbers of  scientists now say that boats must have been involved, small boats made probably out of walrus or other large marine mammal skins stretched over frames, like the ones coastal Chukchi people still make and use. Spreading across the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean west to east, we probably kept fairly close to the coastline or ice pack, and in each new venture moved only far enough to come to an ice-free coastal area that had what we needed. Alice Roberts describes her own take on this in her video called The Incredible Human Journey.

Because of lower sea levels at the time, that ancient coastline is far out to sea now. Boats wouldn’t last to be found, and coastal settlements would currently be under many feet of water–so there’s not much archaeological trail of any kind, so far. The evidence is all circumstantial: somehow we arrived in places that involved crossing wide stretches of water, no matter how low the sea level had dropped.

However they did it, some very small percentage of my own ancestors made that ancient journey into North America. Still, that’s not why I say “we.” I’ve come to feel that all of this story belongs to all of us.

The rest of the ancestors of our class (including most of mine, and Kate’s) came to North America more recently. We wanted to end this thematic study of who we are and how we got here by learning about our recent immigrant ancestors, and the patterns of goodbye and hello that shaped their lives.

So we changed the scale again. In our preparations for the third time clap, we looked at just the last 500 years of immigration to North America, and focused on stories we had gathered, about people related to us and about family friends. Those included Pilgrims who traveled on the Mayflower, representatives of the huge influx from eastern and southern Europe in the early 20th century, and more recent immigrants from Latin America, some with mixed African heritage.

For this time clap we made a very simplified geographical representation that could fit in our classroom. Simpler props–but we were moved and focused by representing individual real people whose stories we knew. Clapping and counting, holding signs, we showed their individual arrivals decade by decade.

What do Kate and I think about, looking back at all this?

I often recall a memory that is uneasy. A girl who had been adopted from China represented herself in our third time clap, and “traveled” east to North America. She joined us from another class, and we were proud and excited to have her take part. Only afterwards, and with regret, I realized that she was embarrassed, unhappy to have been identified as a recent immigrant.

Kate remembers worrying that we were all focused so intensely on our parts in each time clap’s execution, struggling to move and do the right things at the right moment, that it was hard to pay attention to the whole as it happened around us. At least for us, for Kate and me and the invaluable parent volunteers who helped us pull it off, each of those not-quite-seven-minute stretches went by in a blur. So we might be tempted, doing it again, to change the scale and make each time clap last longer, not in what it represents but in how long it takes in the present. Of course, then we might lose people in the long stretches with not much happening. Trade-offs. Probably we’d let the kids decide.

For sure, the value was not so much in the observed performance, but in the experience from the inside–all the preparation, and that immediate sense of taking part in something huge.

Lucky-and-a-half, both grown-ups and students, we felt like explorers ourselves, opening up new knowledge, sharing that with our families and with each other, imagining eyes focused on new horizons.


Time Claps: the first 5 million years

The enigma of time

In a new novel by Kirkpatrick Hill, Bo at Ballard Creek, a gold miner who loves rocks, shiny or not, tries to tell Bo how old they are.

“They’ve been here since the beginning. Before plants or animals. Before the oceans. They’re billions of years old.”

Bo…looked hard at Peter’s kind face to see how old that was. Billions must be terribly old, but she couldn’t even imagine being twelve or fifteen, so how could she think of billions?

Bo is just five, but kids twice her age, or more–adults, even–have the same trouble. Trying to grasp the idea of deep time, billions of years of time, is like thinking of the depth of the universe—something always there, but mostly invisible to us, unreal even when we try hard to get our minds around it.

We need to grasp the depth of time in order to understand the role of evolution in biology, the impact of the speed of light in astronomy, any explanation of rock origins in geology, and the long span of cultural evolution in anthropology–just for starters. How can young adolescents begin to grasp this essential ground for so much learning?

Kate Keller, curriculum genius, on the case

Having grown up with multiple brothers and multiple sisters, Kate is interested in everything. (Even football, I think to myself as I write this.) The daughter of two architects, she is always alert to purpose and design wound together. Planning curriculum, reading everything she can find, Kate becomes a sort of settling pan (notice the gold-mining image) for the most powerful, most fertile, heaviest ideas in a thematic study–from some points of view, the most adult understandings. Then she comes up with active, playful, open-ended, deeply kid-centered ways for students to connect with these ideas.

All of us who work with Kate–colleagues, students, parents–feel smarter when we’re working with her. We try harder things, and try harder while we’re doing them. Not all geniuses have that effect.

We called our thematic study The Journey of Man but wanted it to encompass more than Spencer Wells’s book by the same title. We’d begin with a relatively brief overview of the past 5 million years of hominid evolution in Africa. Then we’d look at the past 50,000 years, focusing on the spread of modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, across the continents, using that as a chance to do a lot of geography work. Finally we’d look at the most recent 500 years of immigration into North America.

In other words, to think about all this, Kate and I wanted our students to imagine millions of years, thousands of years, and hundreds of years. How?

Modeling time and space

Harvey Weiss map of Australia croppedIn order to make maps or scaled blueprints, we model large quantities of space by using smaller quantities of space. We let an inch equal a mile, or a centimeter equal a kilometer, or three, or a thousand. Here’s a very basic example from a favorite book about maps, by Harvey Weiss.

When we’re making time lines, we use small amounts of space to model large amounts of time. If a meter is a century, for example, then each centimeter is a year, and 10 meters can be a thousand years, a millennium. Need more than a thousand years? No room for a timeline 10 meters long? Change your scale. Let every millimeter represent a year, say, so that a whole meter stands for 1000 years. On the sample below, students made each 4 inches equal 100,000 years.

hominid time line detail 2

One way or another, a time line lets space stand for time.

Time lines can be very powerful. Here’s a memory I treasure, from another study. We’d been working on a time line of transportation innovations, and it had gotten so long that the students working on it had to lay it out down the school’s longest hallway. As I helped them carrying it back to our classroom at the end of projects time, some younger students walked by. “What’s that?” one asked. Without missing a beat, one of my students answered, “Ten thousand years of human history.”

On beyond time lines: letting time stand for time

Still, time lines aren’t made of time. Kate asked, “What if we let small quantities of time stand for longer quantities of time?”

Science videos sometimes present this in words. For example, at the beginning of the video The Journey of Man, Spencer Wells represents the evolutionary history of apes as one year, with the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, on December 28. This compression, in which we leave Africa on New Year’s Eve, can give kids some sense of the comparative brevity of human experience. But what could help them really feel it?

Suddenly, Kate came up with an idea so brilliant that the students who were involved still say it with an exclamation point: the time claps!

We would all clap hands, as a group, to represent time ticking away. The interval between claps, a few seconds, would stand for a much longer amount of time–a different amount of time in the time clap for each section of our study. Meanwhile, individual students would stand and move around and hold signs or other props, to represent what was happening within that time. We would all be participants, and all be watchers.

Some overall nuts and bolts

We did three separate time claps, each with a different scale and its own companion paper timeline, for the three parts of our study.

We worked in many ways to prepare for each of the time clap “performances.” We created paper continents and paper timelines and other props. At one point we arranged our desk groups into a very rough representation of the continents and their relation to each other, to help with that part. We made plays about the indigenous people of some of the continents, and investigated some of the requisite technologies for leaving the tropics. (In another post I need to write about the incredible contributions of parent volunteers, in all this hands-on work.)

Although we gave students the responsibility, as usual, for figuring out workable scales for the paper time lines, Kate and I figured out the scales for the time claps behind the scenes.

Here’s a chart I made as we were talking and considering:

time clap notes 4The first time we tried it, we realized that counting 5 seconds again and again was much too awkward. (Try it–you’ll see.) The rhythm of “clap, two, three, four” worked much better, so we refigured:

time clap notesFive million years

For the first time clap, we looked at the past 5 million years of evolution of various hominin species. With everyone clapping together, we clapped and counted four seconds–clap, two, three, four, and repeat. Every eight seconds, or every two claps, counted as one tenth of a million years, 100,000 years. So we represented 5,000,000 years in 8 X 50 or 400 seconds, or 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

Meanwhile, different kids represented different hominin species. When the fossil record indicates the beginning of a species’ time, a student would stand up, holding a sign with that species’ name. He or she would stay standing for as long as that species is thought to have been around, and act out some of the behavior scientists agree we had evolved at that point: creation of stone tools, use of fire, ritual burial of the dead.

So, for example, the student representing Homo erectus stood up around 1.8 million years ago (represented on the time line as 1.8 MYA, and in the clapping as 65 claps in, since we began with a clap.) Then he or she sat back down at roughly 27,000 years ago, two seconds before the end.

On the time line, the kids put the label for Homo erectus about halfway through that species’ time, and used a yellow line to represent the whole Homo genus.

JOM timeclap 1 timeline detail edit

In that first time clap, long stretches went by, during the first few million years,  between the emergence of known hominin species. A lot happened pretty quickly in the last 200,000 years, represented by the last 16 seconds.

Kate wanted students to feel the way a simple list of events doesn’t give a true sense of their relation in time. It takes some way of making the intervals proportional to the actual intervals, to get a real sense of the depth of time we’re talking about when we look back that far.

It takes the passage of time to help us imagine the passage of time.

Speaking of which…

Writing a blog resembles teaching in some ways: everything takes so much longer than you think it will, and personal excitement can make it take even longer. We all loved this work; we felt proud to be doing something we’d never heard of students this age doing. I saved lots of notes and lots of artifacts. I want to share some of them, but I also want room for some thoughts Kate and I had when we talked about all this recently. In other words, this post has become, itself, a time line for which I have no adequate hallway.

So, I’m throwing my hands in the air, and stopping here. Next post: 50,000 years, and 500 years, and what we think, looking back.

I also want to mention that when I searched through those artifacts I found a copy of our picture book about the Chukchi, and added some wonderful samples of that to the previous post. The benefits of boxpile archaeology.



A Reunion of Cousins: Out of Africa

We came to New England from many places, by many routes, for many reasons.

No humans lived in this part of North America until after the late glacial maximum, what we call the Ice Age. Anthropologists think that as soon as tundra developed in isolated spots, replacing ice and bare rock, small bands of humans moved in, roughly 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.

That’s an eyeblink in geological time. No matter what famous names we might cite as forefathers or foremothers, we’re all newcomers.

We’re also all cousins.

The first hunters who entered New England’s gradually recovering ecosystem descended from Native American Indian tribes to the south and west. They walked here, spreading into newly available territories. Compressing the story of thousands of years before that, we can say that their ancestors had come from Africa, by way of Asia.

The Pilgrims and Puritans of early colonial Massachusetts, and all the other groups who came from various parts of Europe, are also not-so-distant descendants of people–in fact, one specific man about 60,000 years ago–in Africa. They arrived in Europe by way of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, or more often by way of Asia. They came to North America much later, by boat, and later by airplane.

African slaves came from Africa more directly, and earlier than most European Americans, transported by boats and brutal force.

Still more recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America and Asia and Africa came to North America and New England by choice, although often out of desperation, as political or economic refugees.

All of us, reunited cousins from all over the world, belong to a very young species that emerged only 200,000 years or so ago. Furthermore, those of us who call ourselves European Americans, Asian Americans, Native American Indians, or Latin Americans all descend from a tiny handful of people who left the African continent about 50,000 years ago, whose descendants spread across the world.

Most modern Africans are descended from the ones who stayed in Africa. They show much greater genetic diversity, not having passed through that tiny genetic gauntlet of the small group who left Africa and survived. But all of us, everywhere in the world, descend from that one man long ago. We’re cousins.

How do scientists know all this? How did I learn it, and how did my classes come to learn it?

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive and interested in our species and how it came to be. Like toddlers who’ve just learned to walk (or talk), full of the enthusiasm of new powers of inquiry, scientists are busily synthesizing the discoveries of multiple fields, including physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and genetics. In the process they’re coming up with new answers to the questions, ‟How did we get here?” and ‟Who are we?”

Journey of Man videoSpencer Wells, an American geneticist, helped some of this knowledge reach ordinary people like me, by writing a book meant for us, and at the same time working with a British filmmaker to create a video. There’s some pretty complex science in the video, particularly the sections about genetics. I read and reread the book, and some other books, in order to understand it more fully. Still, when I watched the video (and rewatched, and rewatched again) I thought, ‟What else could matter more than this, for 11 and 12 year old students who are trying to understand themselves and the world?”

Knowing the ambition and eagerness of my students, I predicted accurately that they would become deeply engaged in the video, and be able to understand large parts of it–so long as I prepared adequately. I got to know the video very well myself, and thought carefully about how to divide it into digestible portions of no more than 20 minutes or so.

Some bits we watched more than once. We talked about it all a lot, asking questions and helping each other understand, never rushing. The book’s photographic portraits of people from all over the world helped us have a sense of real people behind the science.

Journey of Man portraits 2 edited

From the portraits section of The Journey of Man, these are people from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, north central Mexico, Poland, New Mexico, Tanzania, Kenya, and Japan

We also did a lot in class, hands-on, to make it as real as possible for all of us.

For example, one year we made big brown paper continents to spread out on the Common Room floor. With the help of maps in the book, we modeled the migrations of modern humans, complete with colorful party streamers labeled with the designations for the Y chromosome mutations that let geneticists do all this tracking. I will never forget hearing 12-year-olds talk knowledgeably and confidently about those mutation numbers, having mastered them more thoroughly than I had myself.

across the continents time clapWhen Spencer Wells visited rock paintings in Australia, we turned one of our whiteboards into the wall of a cave, covered with symbols of our own identities.

class photos archaeology0001Another year, the class was particularly interested in a section of the video based on Spencer Wells’s visit with the reindeer-herding Chukchi, a people in far northeastern Asia. In the video, Wells sits by a fire, chews on reindeer meat, sleeps in a yaranga through a night when the temperature dips far below zero—all in an effort to help us imagine what it took, or still takes, to live in the tundra.

chukchi family edited

Here, as throughout the video, Wells expresses his respect for the resourcefulness, resilience, and skill humans have shown in the course of settling the globe. We decided to enter that more deeply by doing additional research about the Chukchi, and writing and illustrating our own picture book about them.

VOM chukchi cover crop  VOM chukchi picture book yaranga without textVOM chukchi picture book yaranga text onlyVOM chukchi shamanism

Incredible Human JourneyIn more recent years, we’ve used a BBC video series, The Incredible Human Journey, which follows Alice Roberts, a British medical doctor, anatomist, and anthropologist, as she travels from continent to continent searching for evidence and meeting with scientists from many disciplines, to understand the history of our own species, modern humans.

human journey trackersShe goes stalking with highly skilled San trackers in Namibia, and measures their body temperature as they run for hours in pursuit. She watches Lapp women use sinew to sew clothing from furs, an ancient skill essential for life outside the tropics. She works with Chinese experimental archaeoligists trying out possible early methods for making clay pots.

human journey bamboo raftShe crosses from one Indonesian island to another on a bamboo raft built entirely with technology that would have been available to ancient people.  She considers the evidence of ancient human occupation on an island off California that could only have been reached by boat, providing support for the theory that many of the earliest North Americans paddled here, around the coastline.

It’s a five hour series. Each time I used it with a class I could only show parts. Mostly I used it to support our work on the history of technology–and if you read back through that list I think you’ll see why. Once I’d shown one section, the kids would watch me setting up to show a video and ask hopefully, ‟Is it Alice?”

Alice Roberts now holds a very special appointment at the University of Birmingham, in England, as a professor of Public Engagement in Science. In a recent video interview, she talked about the importance of science to our modern survival as a species, and the importance of scientists reaching out to the general public—as she herself has done. She also writes unusually readable pieces about human evolution for the Guardian, including a fascinating piece about recent evidence that modern Europeans carry traces of Neanderthal DNA.

In The Incredible Human Journey, Alice Roberts talks about ‟bones, stones, and genes”—her way of summarizing the diverse sources of evidence on which she most focuses. Throughout the video, she shares her own point of view as an anatomist and physical anthropologist, speculating, reflecting, celebrating.

At the end of the series, though, Roberts speaks as an ordinary human heart, sharing the sorrow I feel myself, about the terrible calamity of what happened when European Americans traveled to Africa and North and South America. ‟We didn’t recognize each other,” she says, in poignant understatement.

Europeans saw dark skin as a sign of savagery, not as a functional natural sunscreen that pale Europeans suffer without. (But the ancestors of northern Europeans had to lose that melanin protection in order to get enough sunlight for the manufacture of vitamin D, in places where it’s rarely okay to be mostly bare.)

All unaware, we were cousins, which makes the devastating cruelty and loss of life that attended our reunion even more heartbreaking.

Like Alice Roberts, Spencer Wells also hoped that his video would change us, modern humans, by showing us how closely we are all connected. He hoped that it would be illuminating for us to know that we are all Africans, and to know how close we may have come, as a species, to dying out, as other hominid species did.

For both Wells and Roberts, our species’ past is sobering but also inspiring. Exploring their story with kids, I’ve known both emotions.

So I’d like to know: For past students who explored the history of our species with me and with other teachers, how has that touched you? Were we right in thinking that few ways of looking at the world could be more important to share?

And for other adults who’ve been like me, spellbound amateur riders on this pretty amazing scientific train, how has it changed you?


Marian and the Gardens

garden marian and cecily plantingMarian Hazzard thinks that every school should fit a garden into its landscape somehow, even if it’s just in a couple of buckets. Every child should have the enlightening and empowering experience of producing food.

As one of Touchstone’s founding parents, teachers, and guardian angels, Marian always put her heart and soul into nurturing the school. She taught reading and writing and math, along with interdisciplinary approaches to science and social studies, in classes of her own. She gave special effort to helping groups of students become communities of learners.

Then, after many years, she decided to focus on a part of children’s learning that mattered especially for her, and she put the same energy and spirit–the same combination of fierceness and tenderness–into helping kids learn to garden. She did that on a wider scale than most folks in the community realized, through organizations devoted to helping young people understand the production of food. (She’s been most active in Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom, serving on the board, chairing a Mini-Grant Committee, mentoring novice gardners, and presenting  workshops at conferences.)

Meanwhile, Marian also spent many hours of every week back at Touchstone, and could be seen at any hour of the day, often grubby and muddy and wearing a trademark straw hat, gardening herself, working with groups of students, and helping other adults learn how to work with gardens and kids, in the fullest and richest ways possible.

A garden gives so much to a school.

violet and anjali planting Growing beings, every one of us, we nonetheless don’t necessarily expect to be interested in the growth of plants from stage to stage—but almost every student is captured by the actual phenomena.

Here, older and younger kids work together to plant seeds that will germinate and sprout under grow lights in the classrooms. Translate that into: right under the kids’ noses; cheered on by kids’ voices; handy to be measured or sketched.

garden sam plantingHere, a student transplants a seedling into  a larger container, to sell at the school’s very own Farmer’s Market, which did a land-office business on a table off to the side at dismissal.

garden seedling sale

Below, another student writes a careful label for her tray of plants. The labels were cut-up strips of plastic yogurt containers. Marian encouraged not just a school garden, but a sustainable, green school.

garden mia planting croppedIt’s interesting and fun to help a garden grow. This class took part in several giant transplant-athons, joking as they went. (Many thanks to Whit Andrews for contributing his photographs of the fun.)

Of course, group work on garden tasks builds more than the garden. It nurtures social and emotional connection, building community.

garden Ben and Emma planting cropped

Engaging science investigations can be centered on the garden. In one project, students examined compost samples at different stages of decomposition, to see what small invertebrates they would find there. (The school greenhouse can be seen in the distance, and a helpful book, Compost Critters, can be glimpsed in the foreground.)

garden studying compost greenhouse

garden change leavesA garden teaches kids about life cycles, and that counts, always, as both science and emotional education. In this photo, taken in the greenhouse by students combing the campus for evidence of change, some plants are flowering while others are dying. Many years, some of the garden’s plants were grown from seeds produced by plants allowed to go to seed the previous year.

garden strawberriesThrough all this, kids and adults both, we observe food webs and nutrient cycles, both like and unlike the ones the adults memorized in high school biology. Sunshine helps strawberries ripen. Teachers and older kids help younger kids figure out how to share the strawberries. Strawberries too squoogey for human eating become wonderful treats for the chickens, who produce fresh eggs, which are a revelation for anyone who’s only known store-bought eggs.

chicken eating plant scrapIn another example, it’s easy to observe how much living things need water, a lesson likely to have life-and-death importance in the times in which these students will live. Here, you can see a watering can for the strawberries in the background, and a water dispenser for the chickens. This chicken feasts on plant scraps pushed through the chicken wire by kids at recess.

garden slugThe garden is a great place to sit and sketch, and sketching can be a wonderful way to notice what’s happening. Here, a small slug explores the squash leaves in a garden planted near the school’s parking lot–well-placed for sun, and thus good for squashes. But the leaves in shadow, or early in the morning, are also good places to find slugs. (One year, we had a bumper crop of butternut squash, and Tamara’s class did an official census.)

I loved also the plants nobody would ever eat, and spent many recesses standing by the morning glories along the fence, sneaking peeks into the universe of each flower.

garden sketch morning glory

I wish I had more photographs of what we harvested, which often disappeared quickly: salads, potatoes, cherry tomatoes. Real food. I hope that someone who reads this will have (and post, in a comment) a photograph of Marian’s amazing car, embellished by colorful graphics of carrots and beets and garden invertebrates, a rolling advertisement for vegetable glory.

Marian has a wonderful laugh and smiles often, but she is deeply serious when she says, “The world is changing, and these kids may well need to know how to grow their own food.” We all need to know how to take care in these ways; how to harness various kinds of natural magic in real and practical strategies that could mean survival.

For everything she gave to the garden, Marian had a small supply budget, some years, and several gifts from particular grateful parents, to do things like build new beds and erect a greenhouse. Her own work she donated, as a volunteer. I’m putting that in the past tense, because Marian has stepped back, after recruiting a garden teacher–and raising the money to pay his stipend.

I know you’re still there, Marian, in the background, offering advice and support. Here, in November, as the days suddenly shorten, I want to send you my thanks in the form of flowers, wisteria climbing on the school gazebo. May the Touchstone garden, and you, Marian, and everyone whose sense of the world you’ve greened, continue to thrive and grow.

garden wisteria

Taking Temperatures

insulation mittsSomeone, in a long proud parade of projects time parent volunteers, knew she would be doing temperature experiments with her small group, and arrived carrying these perfectly designed mitts.

(If you know where the credit should be assigned, please comment!)

using temperature mitts editThe mitts are made of plastic baggies, filled with puffy stuff for insulation. For the plastic peanuts and the fleece, there are two bags, one inside another, flipped edge to edge so they could zip together and contain, between them, a consistent depth of insulation.

Into the baggies, kids inserted a Vernier temperature probe, a specially designed thermometer with a line to attach it to a computer interface. Measuring the temperatures of small buckets of ice or heated water, they examined the data on real-time graphs, which were created by Vernier software on the computer. Students could see the curve as the temperature rose or fell. The mitts let them compare the effectiveness of various kinds of insulation.

Without a live demonstration of the use of real-time graphing using probes of this sort, I find it difficult to convey the dramatic POW! of the experience. The whole activity of graphing suddenly makes more sense. Kids see clearly the relationship between the x axis (usually time) and the y axis (measurements of temperature, light, force, gas pressure, sound, proximity…or any of a number of attributes for which probes have been designed.)

Here’s a graph of a very simple trial, in which a student held the temperature probe directly in her hand. The graph rises gradually to a peak, then falls off quickly—but not instantly—when the person’s hand is removed.

heat graph

Sometimes we compared: which hand was warmer, right or left? Did that correlate with the person’s handedness in any way? Could we be sure of the correlation, or were there too many other variables, not controlled?

(In many programs, it’s possible to graph several trials on the same screen, using different colors. For example, we could graph the data from the right hand in red and the data from the left hand in green, or graph multiple trials for each hand in assigned colors. The software also provides a full table of the data, and instant statistics including the range and the mean.)

We did experiments of this sort before we had computer probes, of course, just using regular thermometers. In the very earliest years of using The Voyage of the Mimi, thinking about whales and the insulating effect of blubber, we found ways to test the effectiveness of insulation, and these mitts would have been perfect.

More recently, working with the occasional use of a small classroom set of iPads, we used a Vernier temperature probe along with a interface called a LabQuest2, to let us gather and graph temperatures outside, streaming the graphs, as they were drawn, on multiple iPads.

Here’s a group who’ve come inside to debrief. (You can see the temperature probe in Abi’s hand.) They were playing a game called Microclimate Tic-tac-toe, and looking at the tic-tac-toe grid on the small whiteboard in Patty’s hand, to review what they’d found. For now, it’s enough to say that they were searching for microclimates: localized, specialized conditions of temperature, light, and moisture.

microclimate group with Patty

ipad temp workThis group has found very hot temperatures on a large black tire on the playground. They can feel the high temps even with their fingers.

Another student uses a second iPad to watch the graph  as it’s drawn from the probe data.

temp work damp soil

Meanwhile, there’s a much cooler place nearby, in the shadowed, moist soil next to the tire.

The very compact LabQuest2 device is just visible in the lower left corner of the photo. It communicates with the iPads using one of the school’s WiFi networks.

fall projects Morgan

Here are members of another group working inside, finding the coolest and warmest temperatures they could locate in the classroom.

John reaching edited

What did we want the kids to get from all this data collection? We wanted students to join the admirable horde of humans who’ve started out understanding the world by figuring out how to measure it. We wanted students to feel comfortable describing the world in quantitative terms, in numbers with a unit of measurement attached.

In this case, measuring temperature, we wanted students to become flexible about using either Fahrenheit or Celsius, and we wanted them to operate at an intersection between data collected with appropriate measurement tools, and the testimony of their own senses, so that the numbers acquired sensory meaning.

I’m working on this post on a perfect day for searching for microclimates outside: a chilly wind, bright sun. In conditions like these, kids could easily find temperatures varying by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, often within a few feet of each other.

And if students were hungry for something really dramatic, we’d send them off to check the hood of a black car in the parking lot. They might never look at a black car on a sunny day in quite the same way again.

Chasing the River, Part 2

In a previous post, I described a student named David who decided to “chase the river”–more accurately the series of brooks and ponds and rivers–that carried his backyard runoff to the sea.

Many students after David found their own watershed pathways, working with the classroom set of topographic maps and other resources. Our distribution varied, from year to year, but we always had a fair number of students who lived in the school’s own watershed, the Blackstone River watershed, along with many from the Sudbury, Assabet, Concord and Nashua sections of the Merrimack watershed to the north, a few from the Charles River watershed, to the east, and a few from the Quinnebaug, to the southwest.

Kids had all sorts of adventures following their watershed pathways, naming nameless brooklets and ponds, asking helpful neighbors what they knew, and playing in the mud.

Once, when we were stumped, I made a house call. Marissa lived on the very top of a hill, typically a watershed boundary. According to the map, her front yard would drain into the Sudbury, and her backyard into the Charles. In actual fact, it all went into the street drains, whose outflow ran into a holding pond, whose outflow ran into the Charles. Not for anything would I have missed that rainy afternoon slogging around in rubber boots, peering down through street drains to be sure which way the water was flowing.

Eventually, with the help of other map freaks, I discovered National Geographic’s Topo software, which let a student use a mouse to trace a pathway on a seamless electronic topographic map, then printed for us the annotated map that resulted. So a student could start with the little trickle that ran across the back of her yard, and keep going, without even needing hip waders or bug repellent. (It’s a shame to miss that entirely, though, and most kids got both experiences: on the map and on the ground.)

Andrew working with Topo cropped

Once a student had done his electronic tracing, he could ask the software for an elevation profile, and see how his pathway was all going downhill, except for a lake or a pond–a long flat stretch–or a place where a hand twitched and the path climbed out of the river briefly. To trace a pathway from brook to pond to river, then flip that path and see it from the side, sliding down the edge of the continent—that was pretty cool.

tracing watershed pathway cropped

If a small group of kids did this together, squeals and screams might erupt from their corner of the classroom, applauding the kid who just kept “sailing” down Narragansett Bay all the way to the open Atlantic. The group above, working with Terry Lunt, parent volunteer extraordinaire, is following the unfamiliar path of a classmate who lives way out in Charlton.

Kids who shared the lower part of their pathways, what they called “the big river,” could meet together and see, for example, how much area was drained, by all their different routes, to become the power of the Blackstone, harnessed for the mills and re-channeled for the canal that gave the Blackstone Valley so much of its identity.

Then what? The maps and their pathways could be put up in the hall for the rest of the school to see.

Topo watershed printouts whole group cropped

Like a dare to everyone passing by: wherever you live, some story like this belongs to you. You can go find out, and you can get started with a map.

Some years, students created posters to share with each other and parents at a special watershed night. Some years, we were even more ambitious, ridiculously ambitious. At the outset of Touchstone’s Older Student Program–supported by a state arts grant and with the help of a wonderful video consultant, Veda Reilly–Katy Aborn and I worked together to create a multi-part video called Voyage to the Sea. Voyage included documentary sections about topics such as the water cycle and water power, as well as story sections about two teams engaged in a regional competition called The Blackstone Watershed Relay.

In the final chapter of the video story, Bill McHenry, then director of Touchstone’s Extended Day Program, posed as the director of the Watershed Protection Association, the fictitious nonprofit that sponsored the equally fictitious relay. Speaking to students who had become fired-up environmentalists as a result of learning about their watersheds, Bill repeated a quote from Bernie McGurl of the Lackawanna River Association, one of thousands of real-life organizations of people who have gathered together to learn about their watersheds and to protect the quality of the water flowing through them.

Water has a voice. It carries a message that tells those downstream who you are and how you care for the land.

Within those words, and within all these connected river-chasing experiences, there are lessons within lessons, like watersheds within watersheds: lessons about the ways learning is grounded and deepened and enriched by attention to place; lessons about everything that flows to us and everything that flows from us, and the responsibilities we share with others and to others; lessons about what we can learn from each others’ small views, flowing together to become a wide view; lessons about the power of the learning community.

If you want to get started on your own watershed adventure, here’s a good place to begin: 

Or you can just put on your boots and head out the door. Don’t forget the map!

Chasing the River

As a teacher learning along with my students, I met Donna Williams, watershed wizard at the Massachusetts Audubon Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary. She told us that the word watershed means the area from which rainwater or snowmelt drains into a particular body of water. You’re always standing in a watershed, even if your feet are dry.

Watersheds are often split by town or state boundaries, complicating efforts to protect them. Before the Blackstone River could be cleaned up in any significant way, the watershed of the river, draining large areas of both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, had to get over those political identities, and some economic rivalries, too, and start thinking like a watershed, an area with a lot to gain by working together. Knowing about watersheds can help us understand both the organization of ecosystems, and the impact of environmental damage–and environmental improvement.

To make it even more interesting, we live in watersheds within watersheds.

When my hillside gets a heavy rainfall, whatever doesn’t soak into the ground runs downhill into one of several small brooks which braid together to be called Indian Brook. So I live in the Indian Brook watershed.

A couple miles downstream, Indian Brook runs up against a dam and forms the Hopkinton Reservoir, in Hopkinton State Park, which looked like this on September 18, 2013, at a time of low water and not much color yet in the leaves.

Hopkinton Reservoir cropped

After it emerges from the reservoir, Indian Brook twists and turns some before it runs into the Sudbury River, near the tracks for the MBTA train to Boston. Meandering through Ashland and Framingham, the Sudbury runs beside the Massachusetts Turnpike briefly, then heads north, through the marshes of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. In Concord, the Sudbury joins up with the Assabet River at a place called Egg Rock, to become—presto change-o—the Concord River.

This photo of Egg Rock was taken in 1904 by Alfred Sereno Hudson [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons] from the very beginning of the Concord River, with the Assabet to the right, and the Sudbury out of sight to the left.


By the time it gets to the Concord River, my backyard runoff is traveling with that of many of my past students, from Hopkinton and Southborugh and also from Westborough, Marlborough, Northborough, Sudbury, and Wayland. The story isn’t over, though, until we get to the ocean.

In Lowell, the Concord joins the Merrimack River, saying hello to a tremendous share of the runoff water from New Hampshire and central Massachusetts. Go check on Wikipedia:, and you’ll see what I mean, unless someone takes the map down. Hundreds of thousands of people live with me in the Merrimack watershed. Of course, for a humbling comparison, you could check out how much of North America is drained by the Mississippi.

Anyway, back to New England, all these waters head for Newburyport and the Atlantic, shouting for glory as they go, especially in flood season.

Many explorations opened up this story for me: walking parts of my watershed pathway, canoeing other parts—swimming in some places!—and tracing all of it on maps.

Like so many explorations in my life, this one started with something a student wanted to do. For a big individual report, David Gelman wanted to ‟chase” his own watershed pathway. Here’s something interesting: although David and his family lived only a couple of miles from me, his pathway was completely different, and led to the Atlantic via Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

While everyone else was reading books, David and I sprawled on the floor to read topographic maps. Step by step we figured out which body of water led to which, using the topographic contour lines to make sure we were headed steadily downhill, the way water does. At the same time, we figured out all the places where roads followed, or where bridges crossed, the succession of brooks and ponds that led David’s backyard runoff to the Mill River and then the Blackstone River.

Armed with that information, David and yet another amazing Touchstone parent, his mother Rosemary, went adventuring, ‟chasing the river.” They managed to find almost every road crossing of their watershed pathway. At each stop they did simple visual tests for water quality, and took photographs. Their thoroughness was inspiring to everyone else, and deeply satisfying for them.

David wound up knowing something about his place in the world that I wanted more kids to have a chance to know–and more grown-ups, for that matter, beginning with myself.

This stream of thought (I couldn’t resist) could go on for quite a while–It would take much more than one blogpost to tell about everywhere that led. Think of your power, David, wherever you are!

Next time, finally, I’ll jump forward to the 2012-2013 year, when we were studying New England, and did some work with watersheds using Topo software. Down by the virtual riverside.