“It’s Not Scientific!”

“It’s not scientific,” yelled one of my students earlier this week when we were discussing whether a shadow of a groundhog in Pennsylvania could predict an early spring. I inquired further and asked what would be more scientific. Some mentioned using weather data would be more scientific. Some questioned whether the weather in Pennsylvania could even do anything in Seattle.

Then one of my students said, “You would have to pull a groundhog out hundreds of times and see if your data was just by chance or if it really matched.” I think she might have a career as a statistician some day.

That made me think about our own biases as teachers. Often we think we know what works. I’ve taught for 18 years, so when I approach a lesson a certain way, how do I know there isn’t a better way to do it? Can I randomly assign half my class to be taught the lesson one way, and the other half a different way? Can I then repeat this? Can a peer try it too? And what about the sample? We all know that each class is unique. So, even if I could do this every year, 18 years where I taught one class each year, wouldn’t yield enough reliable data. I believe experience does help us make wiser choices about how our profession, but as my students told me, “It’s not scientific!”

That’s why it’s important that we have organizations who are committed to being more scientific. I’ve heard many say that they could have told you student test scores aren’t enough to evaluate teachers, and millions didn’t have to be spent. Often our gut feelings are right, but unless it’s tested, reviewed, and analyzed, it’s not science.

Research in education can be tricky as some studies contradict each other, some are poorly executed, and while organizations may be able to take larger sample sizes, I want to emphasize that each child is unique. There may be a ‘best practice’ but a good teacher should know a few alternate practices or try new ones when they encounter a ‘best practice’ that doesn’t seem to be working. Any kind of research in human behavior is complicated.

The context for learning keeps changing (as it always has), perhaps at a much accelerated rate, but if second graders can begin to discuss whether or not Groundhog Day is scientific, then I think I’m doing an ok job.


I’m All for Squishy Hands-On Learning

What should a five-year old know? This month’s Educational Leadership has a great article about trying to strike the balance between academic rigor and play in kindergarten. Many kindergartener teachers are moving to worksheets in order for their students to take something home to parents as evidence of learning. According to the article, there is also a much bigger emphasis on student performance and outcomes and a “rush to promote content achievement.” But what if we could do both? What if  we could integrate the natural curiosity of a child through play, and at the same time, develop important core concepts? The following TED talk is a fine example of how we can do just that. This video is less than five minutes long and shows how, using homemade play dough, you can turn little kids into electrical circuit designers.

If you like the video, you can get the recipes here.

The Importance of Art in Schools

It’s surprising and disappointing how so many schools choose the arts as one of the first department to go either when times are tough or when they are pressured to increase their scores on achievement tests. It doesn’t take one long to find that these cuts are taking place all over the country: Fort Lauderdale, California (and that was in 2006 when things weren’t as grim) (here’s a more recent story from CA), and even as recently as this past week over in the UK. At least according to the Obama’s art-education platform, it states that …”we should encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education.” This article about the exhibit from the Seattle Times talks about the links art has to “math, science, literature, you name it.” I feel extremely fortunate where I work. When they designed the new school building, they had several local artists contribute to a few pieces around our campus.

Yesterday my students and I had a great day of art. One of Seattle’s local artists, Juan Alonso who created 5 pieces of abstract art around our campus came to talk to the students about what inspired him and about some of the process involved. He also started giving workshops to classes on abstract portraits. I can’t wait until it’s our class’ turn. What I love about abstract art especially is that it is open to interpretation unless the artist actually tells you what inspired him. The sculpture on the right sits in front of our school. I always pictured it as the font of knowledge or something to do with passion. Juan Alonso explained that when he thought of an elementary school, he thought of a child with arms reaching upward. Now every time I see it, I can’t help but think of that.

After our assembly, four classes headed to the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. It’s the last week of the exhibit, and I have never seen the place that packed. Rather than battle the crowds and try to see all of it, our wonderful docent selected just a few. She had the kids full attention and began by asking them what they thought they saw. With this kind of open ended question, it was amazing how much effort the children spent looking at the painting, the colors, shapes, etc. and the thoughtful, yet out-of-the-box responses were inspiring. Asking children to inquire about art is no different than what we ask them to do in science. Much of the vocabulary needed to describe Picasso’s work is shared with geometry. Reading about his life and the times, learning about Spain and France, and writing about their experience are natural connections. Our docent was wonderful and asking the right kind of questions forcing the kids to think a little more critically rather than just come up with a one-right-answer response.

Of course, what I loved is that his art is celebrated for breaking the rules, for being a visionary and wanting to push boundaries in art, for leading change rather than following it, and working hard. Some of his paintings were based on hundreds of initial sketches. This exhibit also highlights someone who worked until he was 91. Noticing a couple of my children’s eyes light up when the docent pronounced that Picasso created his art as one would write a diary. You know the kids who want to draw before writing and those who prefer it the other way around. Why not celebrate both kinds of kids and be open to different ways of arriving at the same objective.

The children then took part in a workshop at the museum offered by a teaching artist where they created mixed media collages of portraits using the concept of viewing things from multiple perspectives. The results, though unfinished, were wonderful, unique, and more importantly something they were all proud of. Whether it be the performing or visual arts, schools must make room for it. Visual art promotes multicultural education, critical thinking skills, inquiry, creativity and innovation, math skills, science, literature, and so on.

The exhibit runs for just a few more days until the 17th of January and the museum has extended its opening times until midnight. This was one of those things that wasn’t part of the planned curriculum, but in my opinion, worth doing. It was my third time seeing this exhibit, and I was still awed. I hope some of the children were too. If you don’t mind crowds, you can click on the picture below which will link you to the museum’s website.

The Shadow by Picasso


One of my goals this year is learn more about gardening. My kids have a garden journal and I’ve decided to blog every time they make an entry. Descpite 14 degree weather, the green fertilizer we planted continues to grow. I learned that because it snowed first, the snow acted as an insulator and therefore there was no frost.

In the classroom, we decided to force bulbs. After following a sequence of instructions, I asked the kids, “Where’s the math?” and here are some of the responses I got:

“You had to measure out 1/2 a cup of water and 1/2 a cup of sand, so there was measurement and fractions.”

“You can measure the height as it grows and graph it. I’d use cm because that’s what scientists use, but I suppose you could use inches too.”

“We can estimate how many days until the first bloom.”

“We can find the difference in height between two different groups.”

The list continued.

This might not be math the way text books teach it (which tend to be linearly), but it certainly makes math meaningful to children because it’s tangible and kids can relate to it.

I haven’t told the kids yet, but there’s a literature tie-in too. Later in the year, we do a unit on Greek myths and they will be able to relate to the story of Echo and Narcissus.

A Sustainable Field Trip?

Where do you think this is?

I’ve always lamented the fact that teachers get plenty of time off, but never get to choose when it occurs. I won’t be able to see New England in the fall until I retire. It’s just one of those things. But then again, when we Seattlites are given a day like today, sunny on Halloween, we take advantage of it.

The next couple of pictures were taken from the Japanese Gardens in the Arboretum. The fall colors were magnificent.


Then we discovered a new area called the Pacific Connections Gardens that have gardens from Australia, New Zealand, The Pacific Northwest, China, and Chile.

You can read more about the project here.

It fits in with our garden and sustainability theme this year and is near enough to our school to also fit in with our sub theme of sense of place…

It’s only a 20 minute walk from our school which would add to our other sub theme of sustainable transportation, and I started thinking of the social studies connections, or integrating it with the service learning project at Seward Park, as well as our own school garden that we started this year. The opportunities seemed limitless, but then I thought about safety and walking with 20 children through busy roads to get there. I’ll have to think it through, but I’m glad the sun in shining on this beautiful fall day, and it’s amazing what one can stumble upon in your own neighborhood.


School Garden – A Week After Planting

Knowing that I will have to learn a lot about gardening this year, one of my goals is to reflect on the process with my students. They are keeping a garden journal and for every entry they write, I will post one here. We can learn together.

We went out and took a look at our bed since the last time when we broadcast our ground cover seeds, used our senses, and recorded what we saw.

The rye grass was already growing steadily and the clover was beginning to sprout. The vetch (as our master gardner says) was still shy and we haven’t seen it germinate yet.

The compost is getting started and the kids are very excited about the worms that haven’t been delivered yet, but will be used to keep the soils rich.

One Week After Planting Ground Cover Crops

When we visit our plot again next week, perhaps they can take rulers out and measure the rye grass. Observing change is a wonderful process and I’m so excited that my students get to witness this.

Bulletin Boards

Bulletin boards serve several purposes. Sometimes they can display items, like the work of children. Other times, they can hold information that can teach. And perhaps, sometimes they can do both.

With our theme of sustainability this year, I decided to create a welcome back bulletin board made entirely out of recycled or reused materials (including the information panel on the far right). The photo I’ve included below is a 15 foot bulletin board outside our 2nd grade classroom. On the far left is our school logo Consisting of our initials the E and the S below a setting (rising) sun. The slogan itself isn’t too original. It says, “Set Sail for 2nd Grade.” but if you look closely, the letters in that slogan are all created from shapes from the original E and S in our school logos. It’s an odd typeface, but I think it works.

Welcome Back! (click on image for higher resolution)

There are 10 sailboats, each with two names on them. The student’s first homework assignment is to create torsos of themselves for these sailboats. They of course can only use what’s in their recycle bin at home. Just in case, I printed out some directions on a quarter sheet of paper too – they could use the back of that if needed.

The panel on the far right (made out of recycled cardboard) asks the children to find at least three sources of renewable energy (solar, wind, tidal were the three I was thinking of).

Within the sustainability theme, we have been asked to focus on three areas:

  1. Sense of Place – with our school logo clearly placed on the bulletin board, our sense of stewardship, care, belonging, and respect from ourselves to our universe, should be a fun one to continue integrating into our curriculum.
  2. Transportation – Apart from sailboats on the bulletin board, I’m not sure how we’ll approach this with second graders. Perhaps graphing how they get to school, encouraging more walking, discussing how much energy it takes to move.
  3. Reduction of materials, and the responsible use of materials. Considering everything on that bulletin board (except for staples and  a little glue) either came from the recycling bin or things that were going to be tossed, it’s a good start.

I can’t wait to see what the little ones turn in tomorrow. Onward to day 2!

By the way, if you notice a little book on the ledge of the bulletin board, it’s titled Once I was a Cardboard Box … But now I’m a Book About Polar Bears.