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…”

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.

Mapping the community

One of my grandfathers died when I was not quite two years old. Photographs show me sober-faced and blonde on his lap—but I can’t consciously remember him. As I was growing up, though, I treasured stories about him, souvenirs, evidence of any kind.

I remember a wall covered with maps which my grandfather had joined together, to show a wide area of many towns centered around the Maine farm he and my grandmother bought in the late 30s, when the world seemed to be falling apart. To make this map collage, he had used USGS topographic maps, first bought (pre-farm) for fishing trips, for knowing the ways of brooks and ponds. Tiled together, the maps gave both a huge view, and detailed views–the paths of the largest rivers, and the wiggles of the tiniest brooks, all on the same wall.

Fast forward many years, during which I grew up in a house with more maps on the walls than pictures, and then married a man whose idea of unpacking, after a move across several states, was to open a box labeled MAPS in the middle of the night, and put up a good selection. The Pisgah National Forest on the bathroom door; a map of the known universe on the wall of the dining alcove. Etc. (Some other wife might have been less pleased.)

milford quad smallerFast forward again through several other kinds of work, and find me, eventually, teaching classes of kids from towns all over central Massachusetts and the northern corners of Connecticut and Rhode Island. I wanted to help them know where they were all coming from, and use that as a start for thinking about the worlds we didn’t share and the worlds we did.

It was my husband who said, ‟You could get a whole lot of USGS topo maps.” And it was my memory of my grandfather that said: in a classroom, there are really large walls.

For years, then, a new school year officially began for me when we put the maps back up.

map array smallerI arranged the array of maps, still folded, on a table, and then handed them one by one up to my husband where he stood, somewhat precariously, on a counter below the largest bulletin board space. I folded back the margins to the edge of the map itself; he worked to make the edges of the maps match up as well as possible, so that roads, in red, or brooks, in blue, or town lines, in black, wouldn’t stagger from one map to the next. We marveled again—him from two inches away, perched high; me from the middle of the room—at how much of our relatively urban state was still woods (in green) or swamp (stippled with those funny little swamp symbols.)

Enter students. I usually began, the first week of school, by encouraging kids to compare the map array with the satellite photographs hung nearby. Those big purplish splotches on the maps matched up with cities easily visible from space. The major highways, 9 and 90 and 495 and 290, showed as arteries on the satellite photos also.

But then we zeroed in. If their houses or apartments or condos weren’t too new, and if they didn’t live in downtown Worcester, kids could find on this public document a piece of their private lives: their homes, in the form of tiny black squares. We marked each student’s place with a flag pin specially augmented with page markers, to hold their names.

Here’s most of one year’s map flags:

map array with pins

The kids who lived at the top of the array, up near the ceiling, had to call instructions to a grown-up climber, but the kids down in the nether regions of the Blackstone Valley could stand on a low stool and place their own map flag, sometimes finding the pinprick left by an older brother or sister in a previous year.

Students who lived in city neighborhoods or new houses—or, oftener and oftener, as the years went by, on brand new streets—had to look carefully at nearby streets and intersections, tiny ponds back in the woods, the shapes of hills given away by topographic lines, in order to see and mark where their houses would be. Sometimes it helped to replay the trip home from school: and here we turn left, and that’s where the old drive-in theater is.

Kids whose parents lived in different houses generally chose to mark both. Parents came in during morning sketching, to clarify confusing locations. Other grown-ups wandered by, and pointed out their own landmarks.

As we traced routes between each others’ houses; as we figured out who lived furthest from school, and who closest; as we crossed bridges and followed off-ramps—all of us developed increasing fluency going back and forth between our knowledge of the three dimensional world, and the abstraction of a two dimensional map.

Like a story, a map shows relationships that we didn’t realize before; it also leaves out things we know better than it does. We need the map and the map needs us.

Next post, I think, we use maps to chase rivers. My grandfather would have approved. Andrew working with Topo cropped

Building Average

I’m here to confess: I’ve spent a good portion of my teaching career guiding students in freaking out the cleaning staff.

Each year, in Level 6 math, we built a model of the Average Student, statistically accurate, earnestly assembled, vaguely lifelike. We set it up in a chair toward the back of the room. Usually the students chose a book to balance on its lap. I myself sometimes entered the room, at the end of a long meeting after school, and did a double take.

Traditionally, we took a group photo of the assembled class, with the dummy. Here, for example, is an unusually small class, from the fall of 2010. (Clockwise from the top, Kelly, Ben, Seth, Anna, Lydia, and Gianna,)

average 2010 better

A few weeks post-portrait, when stray arms or eyebrows began to fall off and litter the classroom floor, we held a funeral, usually with dual caskets–since one cardboard box couldn’t hold it all. We paraded more-or-less solemnly to the dumpster, and gave heartfelt testimonials about everything Average had helped us learn–

–which was a lot. If you ask a typical adult what an average is, chances are you’ll get the series of steps followed to find the mean of a set of numbers: add up all the numbers; then divide by the number of numbers.

That’s not wrong, as directions. But what does an average really mean? What can it tell you about a situation or a set of data? What can it not tell?

MathLand­—a wonderful math curriculum no longer in print—gave Level 6 students a chance to explore the idea of ‟average” from the inside. Many years after we had shifted to another curriculum, I kept starting the year with this unit, because it was perfect from so many points of view.

Setting a goal

You could build an average kitten, or an average bookbag–but it worked really well to build an average math class student. Kids took it all more personally, and paid more attention to interesting questions: Is Average identical to any individual in the group? How does the model represent each person’s data?

MathLand provided a data sheet which included a variety of measurable attributes—such as the girth of the neck, or the length of the upper leg from the hip to the knee. The sheet also asked about attributes that had to be described in other ways—such as the color of eyes or hair.

Some questions were yes or no: Do you wear a watch most days? Some questions had been wisely left out. Average was always just Average, neither he nor she. We weren’t asked to measure around the waist, or chest, just shoulder to shoulder.

Some questions deliberately provoked discussion. How do you measure the length of the neck? From the bottom of the ear? From the hairline? The whole class had to stop and decide, together, or the data would be meaningless.

Gathering and recording data

Before we could begin collecting data, we had to choose an appropriate unit of measurement, and an appropriate degree of precision. I did specify metric units, partly because I wanted students to get some practice with decimal numbers. The kids agreed that the measurements had to be at least as precise as the nearest centimeter. Even that could result in very unrealistic hands, though; so we almost always wound up agreeing it should be to the nearest millimeter, which we recorded as a tenth of a centimeter. (Fertile fields, of course, all of this.)

Boys helped boys measure, and girls helped girls. All the data was kept anonymous—and we said that the study subjects were unreachable for clarification of messy handwriting, so the recorded data had to be both readable and reliable.

Working with data

On the other hand, the occasional inscrutable handwriting also offered a relevant opportunity, once we reached the computation stage: If you can only read the data for 11 of the 12 members of the group, what should you use to divide the total? What would happen to the mean if you divided by 12 instead of 11?

Also, once you got your mean, would it tell you anything about the huge variation in sizes of kids this age? No–only if you added information about the range, which wouldn’t actually get built into our model.

Could a very long-legged class member and a very short-legged class member cancel each other out? Yes, in effect. But in a class with several unusually long-legged people, would the mean probably be affected? Yes, again.

Meanwhile, what about the attributes described by words? For those, we found the mode, the most common answer or value, with interesting results. A math class with only 4 out of 13 blue-eyed students could wind up building a blue-eyed Average, if the rest of the kids were divided evenly among brown, green, and hazel. ‟So my brown eyes have disappeared from our Average representation?” a certain kind of kid would ask, even without being paid or prompted.

Representing data:

Ed's arm blueprint croppedAlthough they were working together, every child measured, and recorded measurements. Every child took part in finding the mean or mode for the attributes of his or her team’s assigned body part. Finally, every child drew a “blueprint.” Here’s Ed Pascoe’s blueprint for the arm and fingers.

Julia's face blueprintEach person on the team assigned to manufacture the head and facial features, for example, started out by making a basic sketch of a face, and then labeled the mouth with the mean width of the mouth, the eyes with the color of the mode for eyes, and so on. Here’s Julia Bertolet’s blueprint for the head.

Then, following the suggestion of the curriculum, but apparently against common practice in most places using MathLand, we actually built our model. We were armed:

  • with blueprints, measuring tapes and invaluable partners, for quality control;
  • with brown grocery bags for skin, crumpled newspaper for insides, Sculpey for ears and nose, and miles of masking tape to hold it all together;
  • with paper fasteners for knee and elbow joints and a meter stick taped to the back of the chair to make this character a vertebrate, able to sit up proudly;
  • with the almost invariable blue jeans and t-shirt that fulfilled those modal mandates;
  • and with endless jokes. “Where did you put our torso now?” Etc.

Being mathematicians

All this took time, it’s true. Gobs of time, all of it worthwhile. As teacher, I could observe difficulties with measuring technique, awkwardness with calculators, challenges maintaining focus even with the physical reminder of the unfinished body part. I could identify unusual ability to ask the salient questions, or to solve construction problems, or unusual gracefulness in helping a partner stay on task. The kids could figure out what to expect from, and give to, each other. I could cheer on strengths, provide the necessary re-teaching or skill-building support, and encourage insight—and kids could do all that for each other—within an atmosphere of fun.

We were having fun. We were also thinking about questions central to so many math applications: questions about reliability of data; questions about precision; and questions about whether a calculated answer fits an intuited estimate, given the range of the data. We were doing what many adult users of mathematics do: using that language to explore the world.

And of course, we were united, and found truly memorable group satisfaction, in making life more interesting for the cleaning staff. Or anyone else who wandered by.

average 2010 goofy

Hummanacrafts and the spirit of invention

It’s not some fictitious contraption. The drawing below, made by Justin McCarthy sometime in the fall of 1990, advertises something real. It represents a retooling, a chopping and channeling, of a small paperboard tray, the kind in which take-out french fries used to be served. It’s a design for a hummanacraft, a vehicle that could hover gracefully, thrillingly, along the updraft  from our classroom air vent.


That classroom’s air intake occupied a shallow metal box under the windows along the outer wall, like an over-sized radiator. The grated vent on the top, about 6 inches wide and 6 feet long, worked perfectly for hummanacrafts.

What gave the hummanacrafts direction along the vent? What kept them from just getting blown off?

Justin now lives in California and works as an engineer, a developer of ideas. If you knew him in his hummanacraft phase, you are not surprised. Colby Brown, another hummanacrafter, grew up to be a transportation planning technologist—obviously as a result of this early influence. Recently, Colby heard the word “hummanacrafts” and had a lot to say.

We’d cut one of the short flaps of the little tray, and bend it up or remove it. The air flowing out that end, the back, propelled the craft forward. The front end just barely touched the top surface of the vent, and that provided stability.

Colby went on to remind me that this particular class had operated as a design workshop for years. For example, several years before the hummanacraft phase (and before organized paper recycling) members of the class had engineered long cardboard chutes to carry crumpled waste paper to the wastebasket.

That group of students were entrepreneurs, also, with a thriving economy on the playground, buying and selling real estate, using all sorts of natural objects as currency. (Kate and I had to ban the indoor stockpiling of pine cone currency in paper bags under desks, because they got buggy.)


Not everything these kids made involved a cash exchange. Colby made and gave as gifts a whole series of ducks carrying marbles. (Nobody remembers why.)

The hummanacrafts fit into a proud tradition.

I’m pretty sure the kids first invented hummanacrafts with Kate, in the mornings. She would have been the one to ask, ‟What if you make the vent flap smaller?” Or ‟What if you add some weight?”

Justin and Colby were both talkers. Some of their classmates weren’t, at least not in the same way. Watching the evolution of the hummanacrafts in all their hands, listening to their explanations, triggered my first deep awareness that some kids make a lot more sense in motion. I’d read Howard Gardner. I knew, from the experience of my own family, that there are many kinds of intelligence. But hummanacrafts, crazy little paperboard crafts for imaginary drivers the size of mice, convinced me, to the soles of my feet and the outer margins of my plan book, that kids could be smart in ways that had nothing to do with my own.

In fact, some of my students, I saw, would do their best work only if I arranged (or permitted) the sort of learning experience that might have terrified me, or at least intimidated me, when I was a student myself.

And that was the beginning of many stories.

Hooray for hummanacrafts! Hooray for their engineers and operators! Hooray for many things slightly illegal, happening off on the edges of classrooms; things that can teach the teacher, if she’s lucky. (And I was.)

I’m going to try again to get other people to commit themselves in writing. (It’s free, after all, and it can be really short.) (Or long, too.) Did you ever invent or create something on the edges of  classroom culture? What was it? And–I always want to know this: then what happened?