Taking Temperatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

heat graph

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

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

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

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

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

microclimate group with Patty

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

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

temp work damp soil

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

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

fall projects Morgan

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

John reaching edited

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

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

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

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

Just for Five

If you’re stumped and blank as a new field of snow, at least try writing, without removing your pencil from the paper or your hands from the keyboard, for five minutes. Just five.

The previous post focused on brainstorming a topic list, but said almost nothing about actually choosing. Although decisions often challenge me, even I can just ‟go with my gut,” as my daughter says, if I’ve brainstormed first. Students seemed to share that.

taking care of ducks recropHere’s part of the writing that came from one of the brainstorms shown in the previous post, about taking care of baby ducks.

(Once in a while, a student would ask, ‟What if I can find a way to put all of my brainstormed ideas together?” This made me think of my friend John Hodgen, a poet who sometimes seems to have done exactly that: to have noticed and listened to and named the different crickets chirping in the dark corners of his mind, and taught them to sing their brightness-against-the-dark songs together. How could I be doctrinaire about any of these instructions, given such models of make-it-your-own?)

One way or another, all of us sitting in the classroom together, almost always, could choose—just like that—and start writing—partly because this exercise only committed us to writing for five minutes.

I sat at the front of the room, at the little old wooden student desk I had rescued from the basement. (My big desk was back in the corner.) For other writing activities I moved around the room, conferencing, but for the fluency exercises I sat with half an eye on the clock and my heart in my throat, inspired by all that energy around me–and I wrote like mad, myself, for most of the five minutes.

As a young adult I attended Quaker Meeting, sitting every week in silent meetings of collective reflection and searching. In addition to meeting for worship, Quakers have specialized meetings, always beginning with silence, for specialized purposes—‟meeting for business,” for example. This intense short writing in my classroom was a silent meeting for writing, and we were all in it together, reinforcing each other.

Unlike ordinary open writing time, we weren’t asking each other questions, or getting up to consult dictionaries or spell-checkers, or losing time over punctuation, if that got in the way. We were just writing, writing, writing. The brevity—five minutes, no more, at the beginning—helped to create an intensity, a suspension of self-conscious critiquing, a focus on the act of inventing and constructing with words—and that led to some amazing beginnings.

test taking amanda croppedSome students at this age (in this case 12) are able to use conventional spelling and paragraph breaks, even in a quick first draft. 

What about paper vs. screen? I wrote in front of my students on paper, by hand, but I do this exercise at home on the computer. On the other hand, I don’t carry my laptop in my backpack when I’m out walking or bicycling, so plenty of writing, including brainstorming, happens in a paper journal. For me, different kinds of writing have emerged in the two different situations. It makes sense to me for students to be comfortable with both, if they can, and to have that additional option of switching, like having another gear on a bicycle.

With more and more computers in the classroom, I could encourage students who had already developed some typing fluency, or for whom writing by hand involved special difficulties, to use typing in this situation. Increasingly, over the past decade, students with writing challenges, throughout the older grades of my school, have been allowed to bring and use their own laptop computers. While some kids found their sheets of paper and pencils, others set up their laptops, or got settled at one of the classroom computers. It worked fine.

As the days and weeks went by, even the most challenged kids would figure it out: you can write about almost anything if you’re only committed to writing for five minutes, and if you focus on the meaning of what you’re exploring, not the mechanics.

I loved that point somewhere in the second week when kids would start looking at me warily, or actually wave their hands, in a universal gesture meaning, ‟No! Don’t you dare call time!” If everyone else seemed okay, I’d just go for it and give us a few minutes more. This could lead to sudden exhilarating jumps in word count. At the rational age of 11 or 12, kids knew they couldn’t make a direct comparison between quick writes of different durations—but they felt the power of their own stamina, and that’s what I wanted them to be able to feel.

about war2 croppedWhen I did call time, students counted words, including any words crossed out. (Those crossed out words got written first, so they represented part of the writer’s output.) Nobody was allowed to marvel publicly about how many or how few words they’d written. They were meant to compare not with each other, but with themselves, day by day, page by page in their notebooks.

I think of a child who wrote just nine words the first day, and was proud to do that, but even prouder to get to 43 after a few repetitions of the exercise format, over the next week. I think, also, of other children whose word count actually started high and went down, as they worked to figure out how to think and write at the same time. That, too, was a good thing.

So: if you need to write and you’re stuck, just write for five minutes. If you want to cast a line into the file cabinets of your mind, and see what comes up, you can make a surprisingly good start in five minutes. If you think you know nothing about a topic, five minutes is long enough to prove yourself wrong—to prove yourself ready to begin.

drawing cartoons croppedFinally, although there’s a special power to this exercise when a whole group does it together, you can do it by yourself, and kids sometimes did, in open writing time. I could see them glancing at the clock—or forgetting to glance at the clock, which is even better.

All in all, another slogan to live by.

On days when we did this exercise, kids typically had a choice for how they used the rest of that day’s writing time. A child could keep going with that piece she had just started within the exercise, and many students chose that. A child could also work on something else entirely, a story in progress, a letter to an editor, a menu, a poem–maybe a poem in the form of a menu? Some kids spontaneously began revising what they’d written in the exercise; many waited until we were all working on revision together, when I did mini-lessons to help support that.

Of course, the writing curriculum as a whole was much more complicated than this one brainstorm-and-free-write exercise. I want to write, in other posts somewhere down the road, about kids sharing their writing, and about revision, and about some specific genres of writing.

This exercise, though, was the fundamental practice, the opening of the heart, the first opening of that packet of seeds each of us carries, ready to germinate. We followed the exercise again whenever we needed to warm up, or to have a new beginning: after vacations, after the long individual research reports were finished in the spring, or after a week of very little writing time due to field trips or community events.

Writing this, I am moved all over again by the remembered hush of a class full of kids whose pens and pencils and keyboards are making the only sound; whose hearts and minds are brave, or surprised, or faithful, patient, excited—one version or another of busy. They could risk that little storm of intense composition; their hands and minds could work together that long; they could be that generous to themselves.

Troubles with Writing

According to family stories, I composed mangled (but apparently highly expressive) Christmas carols, almost as soon as I could talk. I used those little wooden alphabet blocks to build my own typewriter, and then imitated my mom, tap tap tap. I was getting a kick out of writing before I could write.

Year by year, in school, I loved most the teachers who assigned the most writing. Mrs. Duleba, second grade, shared her invaluable confidence that meaning mattered more than spelling. I’m forever grateful to George Batchelder, who thought English class should be fun, and to the State of New York for saying (in 1960) that seventh and eighth grade students should have two periods of English, every day—which gave us room and time to do actual writing, as well as diagramming sentences. Oh, and to the school administrators, for letting Mr. Batchelder be my English teacher for two full years of essays with titles like “When Mother Drives Father’s Car.”

Early attempts at humor aside, all my life I have thought more clearly with a pen in my hand or a keyboard under my fingers. In a rough stretch in college, I kept myself going by writing about why I couldn’t write what I was supposed to be writing. Writing has helped me survive many kinds of hard times, and it has been a source of joy, and a vehicle for joy, a way to let joy travel into other lives, or into my own life, later.

When I started teaching, I thought, “Aha, I finally have full right to read all the papers being passed towards the front of the room,” something I got in trouble for when I was younger. Gradually, though, I realized that the hardest thing to teach can be what comes naturally to you. I struggled to understand why writing was so hard for some of my students.

StefanI didn’t take photographs of kids not writing–too mean. Sometimes, though, when I was supposedly writing along with them, I did quick sketches. So this is Stefan (now a thoroughly successful adult) curled into a pretzel to hold himself still for long enough to get a few words onto paper.

Classes and conferences and reading have helped me understand better. I’ve also extrapolated, sideways, from the many other things that challenge me, and I’ve looked carefully at my own bouts with writer’s block. As teachers, we have to value whatever we know in our own learning selves about our students’ challenges. Above all, fortunately, the circumstances of my teaching let me learn from students.

Talking with kids, all kinds of kids, it came clear to me that written language is both commonplace and tricky in human experience.

Books and a long string of PBS documentaries told me that we haven’t been using written language very long, in the evolution of the human tool set. (By tool set, I mean both our physical equipment and coordination, and our cognitive abilities.) We’ve evolved to shout, to sing, to run, to dance. Also to gossip; to complain; to give praise. (So happy, for me, to visualize young adolescents doing all those things!) What comes naturally for us can overflow usefully into writing, can claim writing as tool. Still, we haven’t evolved to write.

Writing is complicated. I once heard Mel Levine make a powerful case for this. (Like many other teachers and parents and kids who learned from Levine, I’m trying to let his wisdom survive his wrongdoing.) Levine listed things a writer has to think about, all at once: ordering sentences; spelling individual words; forming letters; using the tiny, powerful signals of punctuation; structuring paragraphs; choosing between similar words that mean different things, or different words that mean similar things.

Listening to Levine, I thought: well, that makes bowling seem simple. For me, bowling is a nightmare. I stop looking at the pins to think about my feet, and suddenly my hand is no longer holding the ball reliably, and I’m liable to drop it. I’m easily distracted by the conversation of the people bowling in the next lane. (Are they sisters? Friends? Co-workers? What’s this they keep saying about horses?) I haven’t bowled in years, but I remember clearly the sensation of trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube of my own body, to do everything right at once, with all my limbs—especially while other more interesting things were claiming my attention.

I’ve come to understand that for many kids, that’s how it feels to write, either physically or cognitively.

Bearing in mind the evolutionary novelty of it all, and grateful for the supplement of human culture (including technology), I’ve watched some kids discover that they feel fine writing on a keyboard, which removes the difficulty with forming each letter—just a keystroke does it—and makes it so much easier to control spacing and organization on a page. I’ve watched other kids get a crucial power assist from software that translates a voice into written text.

Those bypass strategies for physical challenge don’t necessarily simplify complex cognitive challenges. Writing demands enormous coordination of attention and memory, enormous stamina for making choices and weaving them together. Pre-writing activities can help to some degree. Still, like me eavesdropping on the people in the next lane at the bowling alley, a kid can very easily be distracted by what’s going on in her head, including the other way she considered phrasing whatever she started to say. Kaboom—the two phrasings have a crash collision, and the reader is left to pick over the pieces.

In one of my favorite examples of the ways kids can advocate for each other, an eleven-year-old born writer once said to me, ‟You really can’t ask R. to worry about punctuation yet. He’s trying hard just to keep the beginning of the sentence in mind while he writes the end.”

sad girlThen there’s the endless circus of early puberty, easy to dismiss as generic, but in fact a different journey, with different rewards and different obstacles for each child. There’s also emotional trouble: for example, the kid who is keeping a scary secret so huge she can barely think, let alone write spontaneously or thoughtfully, since both of those require some inner freedom.

Sometimes I watched the struggles of the child who’d been told too many times that he was a good writer, who became, with the self-consciousness of early puberty, his own impossibly hard act to follow.

That brings me back to my own experience: writing helped heal emotional wounds, helped make sense of confusing changes and challenges, helped hold and channel euphoria. Wisely or foolishly, I wanted the powers of writing to be available to every child with whom I worked–wanted that just as intensely as I wanted the magic wand that could remove all their troubles. (Not a good idea, of course.)

I cared a lot about kids, and I had faith in the power of language—and that meant I had a huge incentive to figure out the strategies I’ll write about next time, for how to help kids just get words on the page.

Chasing the River, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew working with Topo cropped

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

tracing watershed pathway cropped

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

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

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

Topo watershed printouts whole group cropped

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to get started on your own watershed adventure, here’s a good place to begin: http://cfpub.epa.gov/surf/locate/index.cfm 

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