The Great Train-to-Boston Public Transportation Adventure

For two weeks I’ve been trying to write about field trips to Boston during our transportation thematic studies. (This continues a recent post about Projects Time activities connected to transportation.) I keep coming back to two cautionary tales.

#1  I once heard of a class of eleven-year-olds studying metric units of measurement without any access to meter sticks. For that matter, no actual measurement going on, in a unit about measurement systems. Meters and centimeters had become mere abstract notions.

transportation field trip train entering stationAt my school, we were all about real. If we were going to study physics, engineering, history, economics, and public policy, all through the lens of transportation, we would have the visceral, hands-on experience of transportation in all sorts of ways, from silly to sublime.

We would design and draw towns and streets on a white-board-covered table, and then play on them with little cars and trucks, gleefully adding back-up beeping noises.

On individual field trips in our own neighborhoods, we would carry clipboards, stand on busy corners, and tally the passing cars–on the basis of how many people were traveling in each car. All those engines–almost all of them burning fossil fuels–how well or efficiently were they being used?

transportation field trip on subwayChildren who can’t legally drive are denied access to transportation in many rural and suburban areas–along with the elderly, the physically disabled, the poor. So we would spend a day using all the forms of public transportation we could get our feet on: commuter rail, and several different subway lines, and buses–reveling in the power we gained through these forms of access. transportation field trip hubway lineup

We would ride on elevators and escalators, and moving walkways if we could find them–and be thrilled by a line-up of Hubway bicycles.

transportation field trip inner harbor ferryWe would cross Boston Harbor with our faces into the wind, on one of the ferries that is a part of the MBTA. Our happy hearts would agree with Robert Louis Stevenson: For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

.transportation field trip medium rare on escalatorWhat did all this require? The head teacher (me) had to get control of her exaggerated but unfortunately earned fear of accidental injuries. I had to trust that my students would follow instructions, think carefully in these unfamiliar environments, watch out for each other, and have a blast wisely. (Only a small stuffed animal, known as Medium Rare, would tumble down the escalator for the sake of our video script.)

It helped that the conductors and drivers and transportation planners with whom we traveled or met were absolute saints. For example, below, Stephanie Pollack, associate director of the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston, talks with us about the role of public transportation in reducing transportation’s heavy impact on global climate change. transportation field trip orange line map with stephanie pollack croppedBefore our first trip, Maureen Trainor at the MBTA spent a long time with me on the phone, giving me ideas, helping me figure out the best way to buy tickets, and suggesting T-shirts that would carry our message. When we arrived on her sidewalk, she took us in to tour the MBTA dispatching facilities, then whirled us through a Silver Line bus (so we could say we’d been on a bus), and personally conducted us back into the subway, to make sure we wouldn’t get lost. That year we traveled during National Public Transportation Week, and there could not have been more earnest public transportation enthusiasts, or kinder guides, anywhere.

It helped most of all, though, that teams of wonderful parents joined us. Some had extensive experience with Boston’s public transportation system. One was a confirmed Hubway bicycle user, and could tell us about that. Another had a special connection to the person in Mayor Menino’s office in charge of promoting bicycling. Every parent contributed what he or she could, including reassurance at moments of uncertainty. (See below.)

Cautionary Tale #2   From a colleague: Two children are on a field trip. One says, “Ooooh! This is so cool!” The other says, “Don’t act too excited! They’ll make us write about it!”

transportation field trip girls on train-001 Almost all my students liked writing, in fact, but I always hoped that what we did would be textured and various enough to work for everyone. We would all have great fun traveling to and around Boston–I knew that–but rich learning experiences would be less rich if I didn’t ask them to capture their observations in language, one way or another.

So, sometimes the pre-writing, before the trip, took the form of posters, in which a little language goes a long way.

transportation poster transportation projects poster bThe trip book, a booklet I had created and copied for every child and adult, included invitations to sketch rather than write, along with opportunities to write lists rather than paragraphs, and also ways of recording observations by circling things on a pre-made list. (That’s a good solution for kids who get carsick if they try to write in a moving vehicle.)

transportation train tunnel sketch transportation field trip list cropped more

transportation things to seeThe last trip, much of our pre-writing (and research) went into the script for a video to be made with still photographs. You can see the finished product here.

transportation field trip Medium Rare and Hubway mapOn the day itself, we accidentally left our main character, Moosey, in South Station. Oh, no! On the spot, walking down the street, we revised our script to allow for a new main character, Medium Rare (posed to the right.)

transportation field trip moosey lost and foundAt the end of the day, we revised our story yet again, to include an ecstatic reunion with Moosey at the station’s Lost and Found. (Both group bonding and creativity thrive on the unexpected.) Certain student voices, muttering in my ear, remind me that we missed our train back to Grafton that year. But we had a lot of South Station fun while we waited for the next train.

transportation technology systems worksheetWhat did we carry away from all this? No matter how much fun there is in hands-on projects in general, and field trips in particular, it’s important to ask what gets learned, what gets known and understood and used. Facts, yes, many; but also a sense of the interconnected dynamics of large systems, expressed here in an NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Energy Association) worksheet.

That first year, Stephanie Pollack, working at that time with the Conservation Law Foundation–and never a very tall person, no matter how distinguished–stood on a table in order to be heard over the lunchtime bustle at South Station. With fire and passion, grounded in research, she told us about the damage wreaked on the environment by a car-centered transportation system.

As we walked away from South Station in little clusters, all still talking about it, I asked Troy what he thought. “Oh,” he said, holding his head in a familiar gesture, “I don’t ever want to get in a car again.”

Kate and I looked at each other. We knew the field trip had worked, to get us thinking about connections and impacts and large systems. We also knew that our debrief would have to include some discussion of moments when we felt uncomfortable–because none of us could instantly make the changes in our lives to follow what we’d just heard.

transportation field trip uncomfortableBack at school the next day, a student note-taker captured, a little chaotically, a discussion that wound up imagining reasons why a person might have to make change slowly. We were in this together: absorbing new understanding, so important it would change our lives.

We only bought the special t-shirts the first year, but every time we were following their slogan: learning to make good transportation decisions, and learning that together. I wear mine to bed whenever I want to have brave dreams.

transportation tommy and dad on train

Transportation Projects

transportation projects comparing human-powered wheeled edit2When I think about transportation projects, I remember Kate Keller rounding up approximately a million human-powered wheeled vehicles, so we could try them and compare them and consider the relationship between function and design.

transportation projects humanpowered wheeled wagon and office chair

Transportation involves the movement of people or goods, so these small human-powered examples count, even when powered by very small humans. (See below.)

transportation projects design and function notes cropped

Why do wheels help so much, when we need to move things (or ourselves)? What design modifications help a wheel work well? What about handles? What about the way the weight of the goods is balanced?

transportation projects humanpowered wheeled chartmaking cropped

Kids had time to think about all these questions as they were actively trying out several vehicles at each station, comparing wheelbarrows and garden carts, or several kinds of strollers, dollies for working under cars, wheeled suitcases, even wheeled desk chairs. Then they had time to think about what they were noticing, and add to their notes or charts, before rotating to their next station.

In this activity, unlike some projects time set-ups, everybody tried everything. We would not have been forgiven by the people who didn’t get to try the scooter. Also, we wanted to avoid any suggestion of girl stuff and boy stuff.

transportation projects human-powered wheeled b edt

When I think of transportation projects, I’m bound to think of this photograph of Troy, experiencing the enhanced mobility provided by his very first car, in the form of a paper plate.transportation projects village simulation hWe added cars in the third round of a simulation of the relationship between transportation and trade, usually referred to as “the villages.” A Touchstone alum turned transportation planner (my son, Colby Brown) heard that we’d gotten a grant to develop curriculum about transportation. He said, “You have to do this Touchstone style. You have to model the interactions with a simulation on the playground.”

transportation projects village simulation a editSo Kate Keller, resident genius at translating complex concepts into compelling experience, designed a simulation in which students pretended to live and survive the seasons in three villages, widely spaced on our school grounds–under the gazebo out front, at the back of the rear playing field, and at the bottom of the slide. transportation projects village simulation b edit2

Kate put special care into making sure that none of the villages could be seen from the others, so transportation was also the only route for communication, true to most of human history. In order to conduct a trade, the traders had to travel. transportation projects village simulation c edit

We imagined each village having its own geography–mountains, woods, or a lake in the form of the playing field, which students pretended to cross by pulling saucer-sled boats.

Each geography had its own resources to offer in trade, for example cattails from the lakeside, wood from the forests, or cloth woven from the wool of mountain-tolerant sheep. At first, the villagerstransportation projects village simulation d edit had nothing but their own bodies to carry their goods, but in the second round each group had some additional transportation, such as a wheelbarrow.

Here’s one student’s writing, evaluating how that day’s experience had worked:

transportation projects village simulation eI kept the little note at the side, saying that trading was interesting, because that was such an understatement. The students were wildly excited about trading. In one debriefing conversation, a student said, “It’s hard to take part in the simulation and learn as an observer at the same time, because I get so excited about the trading.”

Looking back, I appreciate more than ever the engagement and thoughtfulness, the serious playfulness at its best, that gave rise to such astute observations about what we were asking students to do. I appreciate also the ways students supported each other in being both participants and researchers, reminding each other of our questions: What impact did the transportation have on the trading? What impact did the need for trade have on the need for transportation?

Village culture evolved very quickly, so magic stones and medicinal pieces of bark were also traded, and one student, writing up the day’s events, wrote as the History Keeper

transportation projects village simulation history keeper edit In the third round, after class discussion about where to take our simulation next, we introduced transportation that involved motors–individual private cars, a toll bridge, and a train route in the tunnel through the mountain of the school. As it played out, students were surprised at the expense of private transportation, at least in this simulation. In one of the replays of the curriculum in later years, a student yelled in exasperation, “This car is making me go broke!”

It’s torture to leave out everything I’m having to leave out. I want to describe just one more of our transportation projects. Later in the unit, we split into groups working parallel and reporting to each other–about transportation access issues, or about what it’s like to make a transportation plan. For example, one group designed a bike path from West Upton village to our school.

transportation projects 140 plan editAnother planned several bus routes. No bus could pick up all our students, from the many towns in which they lived. But when we had mapped all our own class member locations, at the beginning of the year, Kate and I had noticed how many families lived near the state highway very close to the school. The bus route planning group spent a lot of time with maps on which they located all the school families involved in the clustering we had noticed. They made two lists, the one I’ve shown, and another of families who lived south and east of the school, in Milford and Hopkinton. Then they designed routes.

transportation projects 140 plan b editOne of the students pointed out that parents might or might not be willing to let their children ride a bus, even a school-sponsored bus. She might have heard about the parent-organized bus to Worcester that ran for a few years, with continual difficulties around poor communication. So she designed the questionnaire to the right.

transportation projects 140 plan cThe bus route planning group had several final products to share, including maps made on Topo software, annotated with the proposed routes, and an article which ran in the school newsletter.

transportation projects 140 plan d

Although the bus routes never did materialize, those Very Young Transportation Demand Forecasters had learned lessons almost impossible with anything less connected to their own experience.

That was true, of course, of the whole deal. In the next post I want to write about the transportation field trips, giant projects time sessions on many kinds of wheels.

Two extra notes:

#1  This post is the third in a series. The first post in this series about Projects Time describes some logistics, considers the social benefits of this format for hands-on inquiry, and takes a flyover of a typical afternoon of outdoor projects. The second compares accountability and responsibility in the context of Projects Time.

#2 Our hands-on explorations of the physics, history, public policy issues and fun of getting from here to there were the Projects Time side of a curriculum called Transportation Choices, which Kate Keller and I developed with the help of funds from the U.S. Dept of Transportation, administered by the University Transportation Center at Assumption College in Worcester.

One of several university transportation centers throughout the country, the Assumption center focused specifically on K-12 learning about transportation and the environment. When the center closed, its website documentation of the various curricula developed by grantees disappeared from public view–but I’ve saved most of what Kate and I produced to record and evaluate our own work, including curriculum plans and maps and a bibliography. I was able to return to that material and use it in subsequent explorations of the transportation theme.

I’ve written elsewhere about Kate Keller’s gift for developing hands-on developmentally-appropriate activities about complicated ideas. You can find more here.

Projects Time

As an incubator for serious playfulness, nothing worked better than Projects Time.

vortex gazersTeaching “big kids”–young adolescents waking up to the world in new ways–I wanted to give them the choices, hands-on experiences, and purposeful collaboration in small groups that would keep them engaged and alert and cooking. Projects Time evolved as a way to frame all that.

It also grew out of adult behavior that can’t ever be taken for granted:

  • Adults made choices about the guidance they offered based on what worked for each particular group of kids, in their individual and group uniqueness–by listening carefully, with a sense of learning targets in our minds, but with the reality of the present always uppermost.
  • projects compost dirt grandmotherAdults dove into hands-on, messy, authentic experience (almost always potentially risky to our dignity.)
  • Adults worked together, as teachers and assistants and committed volunteers, and got a visible kick out of our own collaboration.

Put all together, Projects Time was a bit of a miracle–a twice-weekly, home-grown miracle.

graphing voicesAs we got better and better at running this, we could see the effectiveness of having different small groups working simultaneously on different projects, and then sharing with each other. For example, in the photograph above, a group who’d been investigating sound set up instructions for other students in an end-of-sequence “energy fair”, and two students are trying out the set-up.

Below, in a sharing session at the end of one day’s Projects Time, a group uses their own bodies to demonstrate the arrangement of the states in New England.

bodies as New England states editA little more about logistics

Students and adults came together for Projects Time in two fairly long time blocks—a total of almost three hours every week. Tamara, the teacher who moonlighted as the school’s scheduling wizard, knew that I would accept any other strangeness in my class schedule, in order to preserve those long Tuesday and Thursday afternoon time blocks.

A series of inspired part-time assistants joined us for Projects Time, even when we had no other aide time assigned for the class.  Each year’s volunteer parent coordinator helped me recruit and schedule parents, often well in advance.

Within the nourishing nest of those pre-arranged rich conditions, the students and I could choose our challenges. To begin each sequence, we brainstormed a list of ideas for projects which would make use of various materials and opportunities in and outside of the classroom–and would meet various learning goals.

Some activities, typically, related to our current whole class theme. In the fall and spring, we planned for as many activities as possible to happen outdoors. (For example, in the photograph below, a group discusses a redesign of a water feature in the garden below our deck, taking into account the way water travels downhill.)

projects side gardenA particular week’s list often repeated some of the topics or activities from the previous sequence, because kids wanted to try things they’d seen other students do. “That thing building electric circuits looked like fun–can that be on the list again?”

After we had settled on a menu of possible projects for the next round, each student wrote three or four choices on a sticky note, ranked them, and gave the note to me. (Thinking all this over, it always seems important to me that students were choosing activities, not work partners.) Choosing is hard for some kids, and I let them write down “anything” if they really meant it, but encouraged them to think it through, and predict how different activities would work for them.

Later, I arranged and rearranged the sticky notes to form groups. Usually I started by seeing what would happen if I gave all the students their first choices–and sometimes the groups made themselves immediately, just as easy as that. More often, I needed to give some students their second choices, in order to provide for variety in work-partners and types of activity, both of which felt important to all of us, kids included.

Students’ choices committed them to at least the two blocks of a single week, and sometimes a third block, or even a fourth, in response to popular demand. Longer sequences allowed more time for exploration and follow-through, and students found that rewarding.

projects temperature investigations grinWith very few exceptions, everyone who took part in Projects Time for any length of time felt that it worked, in a unique and exhilarating way.

river group recording some editsStudents experimented and observed and simulated and dramatized, and also had a great time. They took concepts they’d learned from reading and applied them. In the follow-up writing, they speculated about what had happened and why, and what else they might want to try.

There were social benefits, also. Working together in small groups, students got to know each other better. They became deeply involved in inspired arguments. For example, in the photograph below, students conducting a simulation of the effects of transportation argue about a proposed trade.

transportation argument editI’m going to use the next few posts to explore some particularly memorable Projects Time sequences, including the activities Kate Keller designed for our Transportation Choices unit, and some work on A Field Guide to Touchstone.

I also want to share some questions I’m still mulling over. One involves the perennial conflict between coverage of material and effectiveness of student learning experience. Obviously, the Projects Time model isn’t necessarily the best model for covering every detail of content on a long list of state or federal or Common Core standards.

Another persistent and possibly related question involves accountability, a big buzzword in American educational policy right now. Again, it’s obvious that Projects Time wasn’t designed to maximize accountability.

I’ll come back to all that. For now, having given you some snapshots of individual projects, I want to take you on a fantasy helicopter ride, to get a sense of how everything was happening at once.

From our point of view, hovering above the school grounds, we can see a group with a dissecting microscope, at a picnic table behind the main building. (Hooray for extension cords.) The students not currently using the microscope are looking for things in a nearby garden, including creepy crawlers from the compost, to examine when they get a turn. One student sits at the picnic table making a detailed sketch of a flower she found, using a jeweler’s loupe to get a good view of the structure.

Out in front of the school, some kids are measuring the temperatures on top of stones in the wall along the road, comparing with the temperatures they found in the wall spaces underneath those same stones, thinking about the idea of very micro microclimates.

Seth and Ben marble chutes editAnother group, working under the portico to take advantage of a long bench, uses a stopwatch to time their latest marble chute run. They’re trying to maximize the length of the run by maximizing friction, without letting the marble come to a full stop.

Meanwhile, another group is up on the deck outside our classroom, working on a puppet show about water power, in which a dragonfly puppet has become an authority on the differences between overshot and undershot water wheels, and models have been made to demonstrate them.

Somewhere down there, a lucky teacher moves from group to group, carrying her clipboard, with its note-taking sheets about individual students, and its list of stuff to track down for next time. She also carries the camera she wishes she’d used even more.

Although, really, what it needed was video, to capture kids saying, “What if…?” and “Let’s try it again…” and “That is wicked cool…”

Mimi Reports

Mimi Liz quiltOne of my students from way back, Liz Chesebrough, makes quilts. Recently she posted a photograph on Facebook, showing a possible layout for a striking quilt-in-process. The bright colors and hypnotic geometry (inspired by Aztec designs) worked like the magical object in a time travel novel. They took me back–whoosh!–to one of Liz’s Mimi reports, for which she studied Maya hieroglyphs, and made brilliant drawings of some of the glyphs.

One way or another,  I think regularly about specific reports, and about the ways I saw students grow–by leaps and bounds!–as they explored and wrote and revised and illustrated and summarized.

We called them Mimi reports because they sprouted from the inspiration of The Voyage of the Mimi and The Second Voyage of the Mimi.

Mimi was a boat, a two-masted 73 foot sailing vessel. The Wikipedia entry now includes a full history of Mimi herself, full of twists and turns, some lucky breaks, and a sad ending.

Mimi book coverThe video stories–fictional, but realistic–followed the expeditions of scientists who chartered Mimi to conduct research. In the first voyage, an oceanographer and a marine biologist travel on Mimi to follow and study humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine.

Mimi second voyage book cover





In the second voyage, Captain Granville has come to the Yucatan Peninsula, where archaeologists charter Mimi in order to conduct underwater research into offshore trading routes of the ancient Maya. 

In both voyages, the captain’s grandson and other young story characters served as our surrogates, and we learned along with them. The young actors also hosted brief documentaries following each story episode, focused on real-life scientists. Learning games for the computer, along with a computer laboratory with probes for charting real-time data, expanded the experience even further.

Make a web. Put one of the Voyage stories in the middle, with all its fields of science and kinds of scientists radiating out from that. In a third ring you could put the topics of the Mimi reports, jumping out to related or tangent topics–from the ecology of a square yard of pond frontage, or the behavior of river otters, to the recent findings of archaeological investigations at Stonehenge, or the history of humans’ use of fire.

You can read about the way we began our report-writing process, using something called a Skimathon, here and here. You can also read about our version of the writing, revising and sharing of long individual reports, and the role of that process in our class life, here.

Recently I found some photographs, lucky souvenirs from just one typical, wonderful year, and that’s what I want to share in this post. Most were taken at Mimi Night, the special evening celebration for which we invited families and close friends.

Mimi display with sculpted figuresFor this round, in the spring of 2010, we had been following the first Voyage, focused on the bodies and behaviors of humpback whales. Following that inspiration, all the students had chosen animals to study, and visited nearby locations where they could observe first-hand the behaviors about which they were reading. Then they’d written about it all in reports organized and bound as books.

Each student’s Mimi Night display consisted of two copies of the bound report, a 3D object made to illustrate some behavior they’d observed, and a poster using material from the report to provide a quick overview.

Mimi display with sculpted figures bFor their posters, students selected illustrations from those they’d created for their reports. All the illustrations and 3D objects were created by the students themselves. Kids could use the illustrations in published books for inspiration. They could use photographs they or their parents had taken–but not photographs from magazines or online sources. Of course, some found this more difficult than others, and received extra support from teachers and classmates.

Mimi illustration stylesStudents explored a variety of illustration techniques including drawing, watercolor, cut-paper collage, and photographs. The classroom collection of previous years’ reports gave kids ideas and helped them set realistic goals. We weren’t looking for what adult artists could do–we were looking for the real and true and informative illustrations they could make, as kid artists who had spent a lot of time observing and studying their subject animals.

Some students made dioramas, small 3D scenes showing animals engaged in typical behaviors, like the one below showing river otters.

Mimi student with full display

Mimi Nate taking notesAlthough Caroline is standing next to her display in the photo above, at Mimi Night the displays were meant to stand on their own, without live explanations–so that  students could move around the room along with our visitors.  Students, friends, and old-enough siblings, all used a class list page to take notes, writing down something learned from each report.

Mimi grandparent reading reportYear after year, parents and grandparents won my everlasting gratitude by responding to the achievements and contributions of the whole class–not just their own kids. This helped students feel that they were the local experts on these animal species, and that their reports had real purpose.


Mimi parent reading reportMimi Head and othersOf course, some adult schmoozing happened, too. To the right, that year’s Head of School chats with two parents. In the background, another parent talks with one of her son’s classmates.


Mimi senses poster

Some years–including this one–small groups of students thought together about types of behavior  particularly important or interesting for the species they studied, and made group posters. Here, for example, a group focused on behaviors making use of various senses, such as sight or taste.

Another group thought about the tremendous variation in parenting behaviors (or their absence) among the various vertebrate classes.

Mimi parenting posterEach group’s individual displays were clustered together, and the group poster was hung above them.

Mimi sharing with other classes fMimi sound graphingIn the other end of the gym, we set up some samples of our computer data-gathering activities



Mimi skeleton puzzleA few years before, a parent had given us a set of bones found on the school property, which she had boiled and scrubbed to make them safe as a sort of skeleton puzzle. That led to animated arguments about form, function, and just what critter the bones had once supported.

The day after Mimi Night we opened up the Mimi Museum. Other classes came to visit, and parents from other classes were welcome to stroll through.

Mimi sharing with other classesAbove, Anwyn serves as her group’s tour guide for visitors from the Older Student Program. She’s describing Caroline’s report, pointing to the illustration on the cover of the report itself.

Below, Nate has worked his way across his group’s cluster, and he’s about to tell about his own display.

Mimi sharing with other classes d

Mimi student holding up bookI love this photograph of Max holding up one of the copies of his report, with one of his illustrations of snake locomotion also visible, on the poster.



Here’s a paragraph grabbed from something I wrote a while ago:

The magic consists of kids paying attention to both the content–the wonder of the world–and to each other. In portfolio conferences, when a student and her parents and I are all looking at a year’s work together, students often hold up their Mimi reports. Their parents have seen the reports already, of course; kids know that. Still they want to focus our attention on that work again. I’m always delighted as kids point to things they’ve gotten help with from others: “Emily (the arts teacher) helped me make the drum again a different way,” or “When we made the timeline with Kate, I realized how long ago this was,” or “Joe (a partner) helped me figure out a way to draw a harbor seal.” The physical copy of the report has become, itself, an artifact: a vessel that holds the memory of many shared meanings.

Aside from the memories of specific kids and their work, the photos trigger several things for me.

For one thing, I’m grateful for all the ways my own intellectual life has been nourished by the learning I did in order to keep up with my students, and the things they themselves taught me.

Meanwhile, though, they were all giving me an immersion learning experience about what can happen in a classroom when the learning is purposeful and real and unbound from testing or grading. In fact, my convictions about what can happen in a classroom were largely shaped by what happened when we were voyaging on the Mimi, and then taking our own individual voyages into the world and each others’ learning, through the Mimi reports.

A Farm, The Farm School, a Farming Revolution

I’ve come back to the farm in Maine where I started writing this blog last summer. I’m sitting in the open back doorway of the barn, listening to red-winged blackbirds and the sound of wind whistling around giant ancient posts and beams.

And I’m following a trail.

Farm School horses and kidsReturning to the fields that surround this barn, wide green space and wide blue sky, I think of The Farm School, in Athol, Massachusetts, where I spent so much happy time with Touchstone classes. (At The Farm School, the smells of the dairy barn took me to my other grandparents’ farm, across the river from where I sit now. Smell is like that, and memory is like that, circular.)

Jane Farm School with calfThe Farm School’s programs for children are designed to give an experience of farm work (and wide sky, and kindness, and awareness of competence) to all kinds of kids. City kids, suburban kids, country kids. Kids who think with their hands; kids who make more sense in contact with animals; kids who figure anything connected with food is a good idea. Kids looking for adult role models who work outdoors; kids who just like working together with tangible results. All kinds of kids.

There’s so  much to say about the Farm School, but right now I’m thinking especially of kids who became more vividly themselves in that place. True for almost every one of us; especially true for some.

Farm School Dean with camera croppedThat leads me to think about kids focusing a video camera, or a still camera, on hillsides and haylofts and goats and seedling Swiss chard.

Whenever I asked, “Do you want to make a video to share what’s wonderful about Farm School?” kids hollered YES!  So that happened more than once.

The first video we made about The Farm School has never been put online, because of parental concerns about online exposure. Still, the DVD became a wonderful way to preview The Farm School, for kids new to the opportunity–in effect, a gift from the class who made it, to future classes.

Farm School Moosey basketballThe second Farm School video dodged the issue of online exposure for kids by starring a stuffed animal named Moosey, who worked and learned and played on the kids’ behalf. (He even played basketball, very memorably.)

In Moosey Goes to Farm School, the kids show up as a continually changing Moosey voice, which is all their kid voices, speaking lines they had written, over shots they had planned and staged.

Farm School blue jeans and MooseyMaking each of those videos about The Farm School taught us a lot about the place and our experience there. We paid special attention, and thought really carefully about what we wanted to record and communicate. We all lived through the ridiculously long process of editing, watching shots again and again, deciding exactly what we wanted to say and show, exactly how to use tiny pieces of time, fractions of a second.

Farm School 2012 Jane girl and cowWe were like cows re-digesting our meadow (well, sort of), taking what we’d learned and learning how to give it away. (I recommend that you just accept this metaphor loosely.) When you’re editing, you figure out, again and again, what your reader or watcher needs to know, and what he or she can be given to savor and consider. You do that by paying attention to what you need to know yourself, imagining the needs of someone who knows less to start with, and doing your own savoring and considering.

Gradually, you come to own the experience more and more. And In that mutual, slow process of our own savoring and considering–as in other aspects of the Farm School experience–we learned a lot about ourselves and each other.

That phrase, “ourselves and each other,” brings another thought. At The Farm School, I was a student along with my students–to a surprising degree, considering my background.

My mother’s parents bought this farm from which I’m now writing, as part of a mostly-forgotten back-to-the-land movement in the 1930’s, which was partly a reaction to the suffering, insecurity and instability of the Great Depression and partly anticipating the onset of World War II. Through the last of the depression, and through the war, they raised and harvested and canned enough vegetables for four families, every year.

On the other side, my father’s folks have been farmers, right here in this town, for many generations back–eventually leading to the kind of farmer with a PhD in horticulture, and influence on agricultural practice all over the world.

Farm School 2012 with cowsBut I am the black sheep, the non-green thumb, the least capable gardener or grower in sight. I’m a little alarmed by cows, to tell the truth, and terrified of electric fences. Would I let that show? No way. At least I tried not to let it show. One way or another, my students were teaching me, if only by saying, “Come look at this!”  Nothing could do more good for a student-teacher relationship.

world farmingBut that process of learning together wasn’t just at the Farm School. Each year, the pre-Farm-School warm-up reached out into a new and different way of looking at agriculture. For example, an Usborne book about global agriculture helped us take a world view of ways of getting food. One group used the book to learn about rice cultivation, and made a model of a rice paddy.

In the spring of 2012, when Seth Mansur spent some time as an aide in my classroom, we took advantage of what he knew about new approaches to sustainable agriculture. Members of small groups who worked with Seth became knowledgeable about permaculture, about edible forests, about a method of field cultiFarm School farm standvation called chicken tractors. We became a sort of business incubator for new ideas about agriculture, young-adolescent-style, with the prototypes made in sculpey and found materials, for displays to teach the rest of the class.

Finally, in the spring of 2013, we bit off as much as we could possibly chew, possibly more, and we decided to make a video about the whole subject of Humans and Food. As usual, we brainstormed ideas, identified affinities, and separated into small groups to consider different topics:

  •  How did people get food before farming?
  • How did people preserve food before refrigeration?
  • What is intensive agriculture, and what are its consequences?
  • How can small scale farms survive and thrive?
  • How can non-farm families grow some of their own food?

Farm School rooster and duckThe small groups taught each other by way of all the work involved in creating the video. For ground-breaking food philosophy as written by an 11 year old and spoken by a small cloth rooster, this is the video.

Farm School dried tomatoesEach small group chose which of the classroom stuffed animals would be their spokesanimals. We had huge fun doing all this, but we were also pretty serious in our mission. This is all important to think about, we were saying in one way after another.

Sometimes I imagine a Touchstone think tank, where past and present students of every age (including the students who were officially teachers or administrators) get together to solve real problems facing our region, our country and our world. (Pause for a nod to David Sobel, who’s been advocating and encouraging this sort of thing for years, as a part of place-based education.)

We might begin by experimenting with some of the answers to these questions: How can we grow enough food for everyone, without poisoning our land and air and water? How can we reduce agriculture’s share of our fossil fuel gluttony? How can we take back our food supply from the giant corporations that now control it?

Why stop there? How can we all, as citizens, belong to ourselves, in dignity and responsibility and joy, in the way that Touchstone students belong to themselves?

This isn’t entirely imaginary. We aren’t all in the same place, but there’s a sort of virtual think tank gradually forming. I’ve already written about Marian Hazzard, and her efforts on behalf of Touchstone’s gardening program, including the chickens my class cared for. This year, a new batch of chicks matured to chickens at Touchstone, cared for by a new batch of students, with the encouragement of David Canter, the new Environmental Educator.

farming Addie and sheep 2Meanwhile, several past students are enrolled in college level programs focused on sustainable agriculture, and others have gone through the Farm School’s farmer training program for adults. Several others are involved directly, this very moment, in helping small scale farms thrive.  Here’s Addie Candib (whom I taught at Touchstone in about 1994) at Second Spring Farm in Rochester, Washington, where she’s also engaged in networking and advocacy for the farming revolution.

chicken booksOne alum wrote a book about keeping chickens, and at last report runs an organic feed store for people raising chickens in their backyards in Portland, Oregon. An alum parent wrote a widely popular book about keeping chickens in Massachusetts.

An untold number of current families and alums buy from Community Supported Agriculture programs, or from farmers’ markets.

Every one of these actions counts, and involves its own kind of learning.

So here’s the end of my thought trail: This isn’t just about farms or farming, or my own students and colleagues, or The Farm School, or Touchstone Community School. In a world full of ways to be discouraged, I remain hopeful about what can happen when people ask questions together, learn together, and plant seeds–of many kinds, literal and figurative–together.

Even the one with the non-green-thumb can wind up with something good to chew.

Farm School rooster and tool











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.

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?


Supporting Deeper Understanding with a Skimathon Process

Why did I decide to help students find the books they would use as seeds, or starters, for their research reports? Why did the right starter book matter so much?

Here’s why: with rare exceptions, each student would read the whole of the starter book for her chosen-and-received topic. In fact, most students read the whole book through twice, taking thorough notes in the style the student chose, from those I demonstrated. All that happened before a student went on to use other print or video or online sources more selectively.

The Common Core Standards now recommend much more reading of non-fiction books for younger students, and I’m hoping that they intend this same thing, as often as possible: not browsing, but actual reading, beginning to end. A good non-fiction book has its own shape and strategy, its own way to model the truth of the world. Sampling little bits won’t give you that.

I would rather have a student read the whole of a book written and designed for a child or young adult audience, even if it’s pitched a little below the student’s reading level, than see that same student read little bits of a book written for adults.

Instead of just harvesting specific details here and there, my students (average age, 11) could observe and absorb the way the author / illustrator / editor / publisher of the starter book framed the fundamental concepts and ideas. They could connect with their topics not as collections of facts but as ideas supported by facts. From what the Iceman was carrying when he died, we can learn a lot about the skills of his people. Or: Snakes don’t need legs, because different species have evolved very effective ways of moving for their different environments.

It’s an ambitious goal, to perceive a topic in terms of its big ideas. Still, I found that students could do this, given carefully selected books. I found that whole classes of very diverse students could do this, every single one of them, given the right range of books to start from, and enough support.

books Elephants Calling page croppedThe page above is from Elephants Calling, by Katharine Payne (Crown, 1993.) Following a particular elephant family, this book worked well for students who especially liked non-fiction with a story.

In effect, I enlisted all those authors (and illustrators and editors and publishers) as co-teachers–for free, or almost free–and I got to learn from them, too.

After years of beginning a research report writing process using a skimathon, what would I give as advice, to a teacher reading this and wanting to try it? Maybe, instead, you’re a home-schooling parent, or a home-schooled student setting up your own process–or even an adult with a new interest, figuring out how to learn all about it. Aspects of this process could work in any of these situations, but I’m going to address teachers, because I’m so glad to have been one–and I know that the job is gigantic.

First, I’d suggest that you wait until the students know you and each other. You want students to feel confident asking you for suggestions. “So far, I’ve only found two starter books that feel right to me–can you help me find possibilities for another?”  You want them to give recommendations to each other. “Mike, you have got to look at this book; it’s so gross.”

One way or another, you want to give yourself extra time to work with the book collection in the light of what you know about the particular class.

I’ll admit that I did a lot of summer work to get started with each of my various skimathon lists–but it was some of my favorite work, apart from actually being with kids. We didn’t teach from textbooks and teacher manuals, so preparing a new skimathon book collection played an important role in helping me get ready to explore a body of material with students.

Teaching a multi-aged class in which I almost always worked with some kids a second year, I almost never used the same theme two years in a row. Whenever I came back to the theme, though, our January start for this process gave me time, during the holiday break, to reassess.

You’ll probably want to do the same thing. Every time you return to a given theme, you’ll want to search for better books on any topic for which the book at hand has seemed inadequate or out-of-date. You’ll want to find books that appeal to students’ evolving interests, and books that work with your own evolving sense of the theme–which will change, of course, every time you teach it.

Either making the first collection for a Skimathon, or reassessing and revising our list, I spent time online, searching various topics. A local public library’s collection supplemented what we had at my school, and I got help from the children’s librarian there, Lucy Loveridge, an old friend. She understood the kind of teaching I was doing, and could suggest books not just according to their topics but according to their other qualities. Mary Brochu, at Touchstone, had worked with me as an aide, and could take a new topic and run with it, bringing me the results. (It takes a village to teach a theme.)

Beyond what I could get from the libraries, I used part of my supply budget every year to buy new or used books to support the Skimathon and the report writing process. Even if a book was available from a public library, it often made sense to buy a used copy for our classroom library, so a student could keep it over a span of several months.

For one version of this process, for a theme asking who we are, as humans, about half the students would eventually write reports about archaeological investigations, such as Pompeii or Skara Brae or Stonehenge. The other half wrote about the history of technology, defined very broadly to include things like early human use of fire, or the history of money.

books Taming Fire croppedThe book to the left, from Scholastic, challenged many of the readers most attracted to it, but it repaid their attention fully, and helped produce some really thought-provoking reports.

Through the time when I was teaching, children’s publishers were producing a fabulous explosion of new books on these topics. New didn’t always mean better–but sometimes I could see vast improvement. For example, when I started teaching about animal behavior, very few books emphasized behavior as opposed to physiology (the way the animal’s body works), and even fewer viewed all of this from an evolutionary perspective. I found it exhilarating to watch that change, and harness it in the form of better books for my gang.

At the same time, online sources for used books made it easier to find older books that were still the best of their kind.

books Early InventionsLike all the books I’m featuring this time, this one (Chelsea, 1995) is officially out-of-print, but can still be found–and it’s an extraordinary book, truly focused on ideas supported by details. We used it not as a starter book but as a secondary resource for a number of topics: fire, shelter, agriculture, time-keeping.

One way or another, every time I worked with these topics, I could find better books for the skimathon. In addition, if I knew about special interests of particular kids, I stood a good chance of finding the right starter book: a book about the history of musical instruments, for example, or about the Phoenicians.

Surprisingly often, the child I’d targeted for a particular book would fall in love with something else, and the book would go to another student who had never before heard of the Chinese buried warriors, say, but became instantly spellbound. Overall, the kids’ collective interests, intersecting with our topics, constantly lured me in new directions, enriching the whole enterprise.

Whenever you can, choose books that will support hands-on work. For another version of this process, within a thematic study asking what we can learn from animal behavior, students would observe live animals at zoos and aquariums, connecting both formal and informal observations with what they had read in their books. So I tried to find books that would really support that process of connection-making, books with detailed descriptions and illustrations of behaviors kids would be likely to see when they went watching, behaviors such as locomotion, use of senses, feeding, territorial behavior, or dominance behavior.

I also spent time calling our region’s zoos and aquariums to make sure they still had the animals in question, and removed the books for animals kids wouldn’t be able to find anywhere nearby. With a heavy heart I set aside an excellent book about the colony behaviors of naked mole rats, when the zoo in Providence closed their naked mole rat exhibit.

In these same phone calls, I’d ask the curator, “What animal species do you think are especially rewarding for kids to watch?” Then I’d scour the book sources for books that could work for my students.

In any situation in which you’re counting on a combination of print research and direct experience, you want to check both halves of the deal before you offer it on a list.

Students could use the beautiful, information-rich illustrations in the book below, Homemade Houses: Traditional Homes from Many Lands, by John Nicholson (Allen & Unwin, 1993), to help them build models of many types of indigenous architecture.

books Homemade Houses Dogon

Looking at the book collection as a whole, make sure that you have a good range of reading levels and type sizes, and a good variety of styles of nonfiction presentation. Depending on the age level of your students, you may want some of the starter books to be nonfiction picture books, with much more illustration than text, and limited text volume on each page. All the books should have plenty of illustrations. Every student, no matter what her skills or interests might be, needs plenty of room for choice–especially since you’ll be asking all the students to make multiple choices.

In my groups, I knew that some students could handle the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness books, or the Usborne books, which have excellent information, well-organized conceptually, but very dense text and illustration layouts on every page. Still, I tried to save those for back-up resources, not starter books.

One last piece of advice:

Once you’ve worked with the kids’ choices to assign the topics–I could write a whole post just about that, of course–have the kids help you decide which topic you’ll use, from the ones that wind up not being assigned to any student.

You won’t really write a full report on your topic. You’ll be busy helping them. Still, you’ll do just enough to serve as a model: take some notes and share them; make your own table-top book show when it’s time for them to do theirs; make a web to begin thinking about the structure of your report; write and revise a couple of passages; draw some illustrations,

Collectively, your students will know all the books, at that point, and they’ll get a huge kick out of suggesting topics for you. If you have an aide, he or she should get a topic too.

It could change your lives, after all. I’ve never thought of elephants the same way, after reading about them, watching them at the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, and taking detailed notes on one elephant’s every move for half an hour. I still follow the work of Katharine Payne’s Elephant Listening Project.

books who came firstI also seem to be permanently hooked on the earliest settlement of the Americas, a topic full of controversy and even invective between the various experts–with a great book for kids that gives them a sample of competing sources of evidence.

Whatever way you might incorporate some of these ideas, good luck! If you’d like some cheering on, get in touch with me by leaving a comment.

My Place

We’re sitting in the meeting area–not in the circle we use for meetings in which we all talk with each other, but in the arc facing my corner, that works better for read-aloud books with illustrations. For a larger class I would need to make a Power Point. The intimacy of leaning forward, leaning together into the world of the book, can work here.

In this memory, I’My Place Nadia Wheatleym reading My Place, a book created by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, originally published in Australia in time for the bicentennial of their European settlement. One of my early class parents discovered the first U.S. edition, and donated a copy. (Most of the copies I’ve bought over the years have been from the later U.S. edition, from Kane Miller, who bring books from other countries to the States.)

After that first reading, one crop of kids have linked to the next, and students spending a second year in my mixed-age class have said almost every year, “You should read My Place again.”

As I begin to read aloud, puzzled faces remind me that the book can be confusing. Each year, reading My Place refreshes my appreciation for the full, rich range of interests and attention styles represented among my students. I’ve learned to trust them: they’ll get it, together.

My Place 1968 editThere’s the kid who always notices numbers of any kind, including dates. She figures out, already on the second two-page spread, that we’re going backwards in time. “Before it was 1988, now 1978. The next one will be 1968.” It is, and that year’s child narrator, Sofia, has posters of the Beatles on her bedroom wall. She writes about an older brother who’s a soldier in Vietnam.

That step to the side–to a history both different from our own country’s, and similar to it–lets us notice things we may have been programmed not to notice. Kids say, “So they were involved in the Vietnam War, too?” “Both countries were settled by waves of immigrants?” Eventually, “This stuff about how the Aborigines were treated–it makes me think about our own Indians.”

Always, at least one kid is especially interested in maps–visual records of things that stay in one place. He looks at the progression of child narrators’ maps, a new (older) one for each jump back in time, and he begins to imagine a similar map of his own neighborhood: how far from his house he would include in each direction; what scale he would use; what he would put in and what he’d leave out; what he would label, and what colors he would use for different kinds of buildings–all the decisions we’re meant to imagine the book’s child narrators making. (The map below is from 1938, which was a hard time in Australia, too.)

My Place map 1938 edit

Other kids make sure I read all the labeling on each map–partly because they’ve figured out that important clues are often embedded there.

Another kid is crazy about geography as lists and facts. She quickly picks up on the clues that we’re in Australia, something I try not to give away. Some years, we take this further: we use the detailed clues to convince ourselves that we’ve found the bay and canal near Sidney. (The map below is from 1838.)

My Place map 1838 edited

My Place 1898 railings and Miss Miller detail

Some kids are particularly able to pick up on detail in illustrations, and they’re the ones who say, “Wait! This is all the same house! Look at those railings!” Then we go back and compare, page by page: yes, yes, yes, yes.

My Place 1988 railings detail

My Place 1828 hillside cropped And for much of the book it is the same house–each child narrator is the right-aged child living in that place–until the house hasn’t been built yet, and we’re with the sheep and pigs, on that hillside, below the big tree, above the bay and creek.

In every class, some kids will have unerring radar for family relationships, They’re the ones who first point out that Sofia in 1968 is the unwelcome baby sister in 1958; or that the Miss Miller who is almost 90 in 1948 is the zippy aunt with the bicycle in 1898, and also the nine-year-old Minna who makes friends with a Chinese immigrant vegetable farmer in 1868.

My Place Minna and Leck recroppedBy 1798, almost the end of the book, everyone has learned to follow these connections through the book’s strangely inverted time. When 11-year-old Sam, indentured convict laborer, climbs up into the big tree and pretends that he can see all the way to Shoreditch and his mother and sisters and brother, the class grows even quieter. They know that he will become the Sam remembered in 1838 by one of his children, the father who has fallen off the rich landowner’s roof, and died.My Place last map detail

I don’t want to tell about the actual ending of the book; I want you to go find it and read it, and join all of us in the complicated feelings it generates.

My Place and Place Based Education

There’s a new name for something I’ve always tried to do as a teacher: place based education, arising out of the resources of a place, helping students develop a sense of place, helping students feel responsibility to their place and empowered to make a difference there. (If this sounds good to you, you should go find the wonderful books David Sobel has written to explore place based education and document its effectiveness.)

Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins were also doing place-based education before it was named that. Clearly, they created My Place to help Australian kids know more about their country, and to encourage those kids to know their own local and particular places, their personal equivalents of the big tree that is a landmark for every one of the child narrators, or the canal that was once a creek, or the ridge where the main street was once a footpath. Because there are so many narrators, the place itself assumes unusual importance.

I’ve always been fascinated that their book’s strategy works for American kids, too. Immersion in this other place encourages kids to notice their own places, and I’ll write more about that in a future post.

It seems to me that Wheatley and Rawlins must have wanted something else, too: they wanted to show their narrators experiencing the local versions of big picture history: the pros and cons of the immigration experience; the hurt of economic injustice and waves of joblessness; the recurrent mercilessness of war, and the injuries and losses and dislocations left in wars’ wake; the environmental impacts of economic development, as we travel back to a time when it was actually safe to swim in the creek. But also kids’ perennial delight at new technologies: streetlights! personal automobiles! television!

Within all that big picture stuff glimpsed small and made real, Wheatley and Rawlins have shown us each child narrator’s way of assembling and creating his or her own experience out of what is available. We see all the different reasons for perching or hiding in the big tree. We see the comfort children find in animals, and the things that can be learned about each child’s adults from the parties they throw.

Always, in each new older time opened out for us, something has been lost; always, something has been gained. Each child narrator exists within the river of time, which gives and takes away. The book itself, its spirit, becomes that river, revealed to us in a special way by the authors’ device of making it flow backwards.

For just a minute, I want to address directly all those years’ worth of kids sitting in a series of meeting areas together, taking up the book’s back-cover challenge: THIS BOOK IS A TIME MACHINE! Again and again, you showed me details and connections I would have missed by myself. But also, in the deep and brave way you experienced the book and its place and world, you helped me feel what it all meant, and for that especially I thank you.

My Place Sam in the tree detailThere’s more to this story: the book’s wonderful success in Australia, and its transformation into a video series, brilliantly updated to the present; one class’s decision to make a spin-off book called Our Places. For various reasons, I’m saving those things for another time.

Using Picture Books with Big Kids

Lately I’ve been trying to imagine my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Tuthill, reading a picture book in class, or letting any of us read one. Within the school day, I can’t remember being encouraged to read anything but textbooks. (I was lucky, though; I had a much younger sister to read to at home, and my mother was well on her way to becoming a children’s librarian.)

The people who taught my daughter and son in middle school, good and competent teachers, never used picture books, to my knowledge.

Right now, this minute, most teachers face intense pressure to demonstrate rigor and grade-level competence. I would be thrilled to hear about a sixth-grade teacher in my town, using picture books or urging students to include them in their own reading. I know it’s improbable.

On the other hand, the teachers who taught me how to teach, and the colleagues who challenged and nurtured my teaching spirit, all used picture books in inspired ways. I can’t imagine the life of each class community in which I was honored to work and breathe, without picture books.

It’s amazing what is controversial in this world.

Time of Wonder crop aSusan Doty and I were setting up our classrooms, chatting now and then. She said, “I think I’ll start the year with Time of Wonder,” a Robert McCloskey book I didn’t know yet. It seemed like a sweeter book than I would usually choose for my cool and savvy 11 and 12-year-olds.

Still, I liked it, and tried it out on them.  As I read aloud, the room grew quieter and quieter. I could gauge the attention of many of my listeners by their faces; could tell others were with me when they grinned at the book’s very subtle humor.

Like all the best picture books, Time of Wonder is powerful and efficient. Reading Time of Wonder together, my class and I shared summer, and summer adventures, and the inevitable ending of summer. We shared what it’s like to listen to adults talking about possible trouble, a hurricane coming. We shared what it’s like to sit with your grown-ups and sing through the storm, and wake up the next day to explore the branches and roots of a fallen tree.

A good picture book, like a poem, and like so much of our everyday storytelling for each other, means more than one thing by everything it means.

We talked about students’ experiences of a recent hurricane. The book had given us permission to admit to having been frightened–if we were–along with a model of opportunities for discovery everywhere–and we had had those, too.

Recently I appealed to past students on Facebook. What picture books stood out for them? Taylor Davis responded almost immediately, “The one about the red canoe… something about a boy and his aunt…I remember falling in love with it!”

Three DaysTwo kids, two women who are sisters, a wonderful adventure with danger and glory, and a cat named Sixtoes waiting back at home for an offering of fish.

Some years I used “the red canoe book” as read-aloud to start the year, especially if we were going to be studying watersheds (or map reading, since they use maps to plan their trip.)

Some years, though, the canoe book waited with others to be chosen by individual students, out of a crate full of books brought from home, from my family’s picture book collection. That crate supplemented the classroom’s shelf of picture books, and another bin of books borrowed from the school library, and another from the public library. All together, kids could choose from an enriched and enlarged collection, in the two or three weeks at the start of the year when everyone read picture books during silent reading time.

That happened by my decree, a rare state of affairs which always met with some initial resistance. At home, for their official homework reading time (and, of course, in any additional time they spent curled in a tree or a favorite chair, or walking around a safe path in an open room) they could read the big thick fantasy novels in which they were immersed. In school, though, for those first few weeks, I needed to watch them choose, begin, read, finish, and pass along book after book after book.

go dog go p d eastmanIt’s true that I felt grave concern about a real and present danger: without my intervention, students might get to adulthood never having read highlights of English literature such as Go, Dog. Go! by P. D. Eastman–or never having read them with their new-found, big-kid powers of observation, and sense of irony.

We needed picture books to help us take ourselves less seriously. We also needed picture books to help us take ourselves more seriously, to take us on an express trip into important questions about life and the world.

Jessica Unger, responding to my Facebook invitation, remembered Flight, in which the young Charles Lindbergh struggles to stay awake on his trans-Atlantic voyage. (In other words, in which the perils of lost focus or failing attention could be lethal.)

Flightt Robert BurleighSeveral past students remembered Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, in which eating and eating, and growing and growing, result in transformation.

Very Hungry Caterpillar Eric Carle cropped

galileo croppedUltimately, picture book season in September worked out well for everyone in the class, partly because many of the books I had gathered were what is known in the trade as “sophisticated picture books”, books definitely intended for somewhat older audiences.

Here’s one of many wonderful picture book biographies. This one, by Peter Sis, doesn’t dodge the horror of Galileo’s being put on trial for his life, for saying what he could see.

Non-fiction picture books could work well later in the year, too. If a group of students were exploring a topic together, reporting to each other on separate individual readings, the right picture book could enable a strong contribution even from a reader still overwhelmed by long blocks of text.

After the first couple weeks, for their individual reading, and for the read-aloud books we shared, the students and I mostly chose novels. I might suggest time with picture books for a student who had left her book at home, or a kid marking time until the next book in his series came out on Wednesday.

Frog Band and Owlnapper Jim SmitSometimes this detour back into picture books would become extended, as a student tracked down all the available picture books by a particular author, or discovered a wacky series that satisfied a taste for British humor, juvenile grade, like this one. (This is a page from The Frog Band and the Owlnapper, by Jim Smith.)

Often, also, a picture book or two could launch a new thematic study–launch in the sense of full throttle forward.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg D.B. JoFor example, Henry the bear (Henry David Thoreau just barely in disguise) makes a case for his preferred mode of transportation–and a bet with a friend–to prove that hiking to Fitchburg takes no longer than working to pay for train fare.

rows and piles of coins

Henry’s argument with his friend opened a thematic study called Transportation Choices. Other picture books helped us think about people with limited access to choice: people in our own world unable to drive due to disabilities or aging–or youth; people in places where a bicycle can change a family’s possibilities. In My Rows and Piles of Coins, by Tololwa M. Mollel, a young boy wants a bicycle not just to ride, but to serve as a mechanical pack animal, getting farm products to market.

The right picture book could widen–powerfully, effectively, almost magically–our sense of “us.”

Miss Bridie straightenedBefore my school opened an older student program, all my 12-year-olds graduated from our school and became immigrants into the cultures of other schools. Immigration made a particularly strong thematic study topic then, and picture books helped focus on the choices made by immigrants, including what they chose to bring–which could mean how they chose to be prepared. Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel follows Miss Bridie across the sea, and then through her life in her new land, where she uses her shovel to plant, to clean up after a fire, to dig a grave. Here she is, walking away without looking back, setting out into her new life with her shovel in hand.

There are so many other wonderful picture books I’m sad to leave out. My Place, an amazing book from Australia, which I read aloud almost every year, I’m saving for its own special post. The picture books we used to explore ideas about evolution, ditto.

sailor dogFor now, just one more. Almost always, on the last day of school, I read aloud this book. If you were ever in my class, you may remember how we created instant background music for certain pages. Singing the final song, to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man, was a great antidote for any tendency to get weepy, especially my own.

According to my daughter, I’ve given at least three copies of Sailor Dog to her children, Abe and Julia. “That’s okay,” she says. “It’s good to have one on every floor of the house.”

Some notes:

The round shapes visible on many of the books shown aren’t part of the illustrations. They’re just stickers that marked the books belonging to the classroom collection, or my family collection.

I want to give you publisher information here, in gratitude to the people who keep these books in print. Some are in fact out of print, and harder to find, but I’ve discovered that I can often locate used copies of old favorites through web sellers. So here’s the list:

Time of Wonder, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. Puffin.

Three Days on a River with a Red Canoe,  written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams. Greenwillow.

Go, Dog. Go! written and illustrated by P. D. Eastman. Random House.

Flight, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Mike Wimmer. Puffin.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar, written and illustrated by Eric Carle. Philomel.

Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, created and illustrated by Peter Sis. Square Fish.

The Frog Band and the Owlnapper, written and illustrated by Jim Smith. Little Brown.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, written and illustrated by D. B. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

My Rows and PIles of Coins, by Tololwa M. Mollel, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Clarion.

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel, by Leslie Connor, illustrated by Mary Azarian. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sailor Dog, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Garth Williams. Golden Books.