An Opportunity to Find Out What Works and What Doesn’t

“Your mission, ladies and gentlemen, is to make a balloon travel along a string.  Once you are satisfied that you have successfully accomplished that, you are to adjust your design to make the balloon travel faster.  In the end I would like you to see just how fast you can get the balloon to travel to its destination at the end of the string.”

Those were the instructions.  The materials each team of two started with were a balloon, a straw, and whatever length of string they wanted.  If they wanted to use additional materials, they had to ask.  I said yes to all requests that did not present safety concerns.  And they were off!

This was such a fascinating process to watch.  Most immediately began blowing up the balloons and tying them off – but then what?  Why were they given a straw?  “Do we have to use the straw?  How long should the string be?”

“Yes, use the straw.  Cut the string where you think it should be cut.”

There was that slight hesitation.  Those moments of letting the idea sink in that I wasn’t going to give them step by step directions.  But quickly that hesitation turned to excitement and concentration on the task.  I stepped back at this point and became the observer and recorder of the event.  I did not blow up balloons, and I did not get drawn into any group’s brainstorm.  I was eager to watch how each group would work this out.

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At least two groups tried to use what they knew about balloons.  They rubbed the balloon in their hair to create static electricity.  They were disappointed to see that it wasn’t enough to keep the balloon sticking to the straw.



They tried seeing if the static electricity they were creating could be strong enough to pull the balloon along the string.  At this point the balloon was taped to a straw through which the string was threaded.   Then the balloon was rubbed in hair.  The girl followed the balloon as it was released on the string,  hoping her charged hair would pull the balloon.  This worked, but it was not speedy.  They abandoned the idea of using static electricity in this process, although other groups were curious by what this group was doing, and I saw them trying things with it as well.

Most everyone knew that by having one end of the string higher than the other, gravity would help that balloon move along the string.  There was one group, however, that created a two person game.  They rigged the strings in such a way that each person held the end of two strings.  As the first person pulled one string back, the balloon moved toward the other person.  Then the second person pulled one string back, and the balloon traveled back to the first person!  They added to the fun of their new game by drawing a face on their balloon.  What an unexpected invention!

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Those who were taping one end of their string to the wall quickly learned that masking tape sticks better than scotch tape!  I did not let anyone attach their string to the ceiling, so they reached up along the wall as high as they could reach.  It was interesting to see the groups experiment with the angle of descent.  They learned that it indeed made a difference!

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While some were learning that the angle of descent was important, others were learning that the tautness of the string was important.  A few trials in which the balloon slowed and stopped along the way down, made the members of those groups tighten up the string.  One group even rubbed the string with closed markers, hoping to make the straw move more smoothly.

The next interesting thing I saw happening was weights being added.  This came in different ways.  Some added the weight by taping it directly to the balloon.  Others taped it to the straw.  Sometimes the weights were added in random places on the balloon and sometimes the weights were equal on either side of the balloon.  There was so much experimentation going on!  And as I had hoped, trying out each great idea always seemed to inspire another!

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It was interesting to note that some models had the balloon traveling above the string and some had it hanging below the string.  It appeared that the faster model had the balloon above the string and the weights attached to the straw.  One group used the cardboard tube from gift wrap and taped baggies full of Jenga blocks to it.  That balloon went really fast, but the baggies which were taped to the tube with duct tape kept falling off upon impact.

Another innovative idea was to tie two strings side by side.  The straw was cut in half and the strings were threaded through each piece.  The balloon was then taped to the two straws and set on its descent.  I loved that they thought of it and tried it.  In the end they learned that using two strings slowed the balloon down rather than to speed it up.


Now if you are like me, you’ve been wondering when someone would think to blow up a balloon but NOT tie it off.  Instead, hold it shut while it gets taped to the straw.  Then let go and watch the balloon power itself!  Funny, but only five out of the thirty groups that experimented throughout the day played around with this idea.  One of the groups that used the untied balloon as an “engine” combined it with other great ideas.  They had a tied off balloon taped to the bottom of the straw with weights (markers and glue sticks) taped to the straw.  They blew up a second balloon and taped it to the top of the straw just before launching.  After a few successful descents, they dressed up their model with airplane-type wings and called it the U.S.S. Static Electricity!

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I think I enjoyed this 45 minute activity as much as the students.  They were never done trying out different ideas.  There was that one group that in the first five minutes said, “We can’t get it to go.  We can’t do this.”  But given five more minutes, they were busy, busy, busy.

After clean up, I gathered everyone together and asked what they had learned.  You see, the point of this was never to have the fastest balloon in the class.  The point was to keep modifying or trying different ideas and to improve the original design several times.  To that end, everyone achieved success!


Encourage Questions and You’ll Encourage Curiosity

Recently, at a teacher website I frequent, a question was thrown out about encouraging curiosity in students.  The teacher asking the question recognized that the time constraints we are given and the way we are asked to teach can sometimes squash the students’ tendencies to be inquisitive or curious.

The statement that immediately came to my mind is one I have heard many times, but only recently come to fully  appreciate.

The question is more important than the answer.

Add to that the following statement that Michel Rameau uses frequently in his Spellinars.

The question is eternal; the answer is only temporary. 

When these statements become integral to the daily structure of my day, I am then encouraging curiosity in my students. 

The way I see it, putting more importance on asking questions than on giving answers benefits the students (all of us, really) in two respects.   First, the answer is no longer the end-all be-all.  It becomes okay to have partial understanding of something.  Secondly, all minds become focused on making sense and understanding of whatever is being talked about.  The questions come quite naturally, and everyone in the room knows these questions will not be discouraged or rated on some kind of disheartening scale.

Stating that the answer is less important than the question does not imply that the answer is not important.  Usually it is our way of checking what we understand about something.  But thinking of our answers as temporary helps us think of our understanding as part of the bigger picture in time.  If I begin my answers, “As I understand it at this point in time, ….”, I am admitting that the answer is temporary.  I am open to having an even deeper understanding of the question at some later point in time.  I am open to the idea that there is, no doubt, more to learn about the specific topic, and that as I learn more, my answer to that question will alter also.  It also helps us think of an answer, not as an end point, but as a checkpoint.   With an answer that is thought of as temporary, the question remains open, whereas answers that are thought of as final, end our further contemplation of the question.

The best kinds of questions asked in a classroom are those asked by students.  A teacher can learn a lot about where a student’s understanding is by the question the student is asking.  A question can also reveal how engaged the student is in the learning.  I especially love when students ask big questions that can’t necessarily be answered just then.  It tells me they are extending what they understand and trying to apply that understanding to the so-much-out-there that they don’t understand!  Sometimes we just sit for a second and appreciate the largeness of the question and the fact that none of us can even attempt to answer it, yet we can all appreciate it!  Recently a student was presenting a slide show about sink holes.  The students in the audience had a lot of questions, at least six of which neither the presenter nor I could answer.  What a wonderful end to a presentation.  Those questions were all curiosity driven, and I couldn’t have been happier!

I’ve never been one of those teachers who is uncomfortable leaving a question unanswered.  I have known some who are.  Those teachers drive themselves crazy trying to prepare for any question about an activity or topic that might arise.   But the sad part is that they also box themselves in a bit.  They end up needing to keep the activity or discussion within the boundaries of what they know and can answer.  To my way of thinking, that puts boundaries on the students’ curiosities as well.

I definitely want my students to know I have a level of education and am qualified to teach them the subjects that I am assigned, but I also want them to know that I don’t know it all.  I continually take academic classes and read topic specific books, sharing my passion and excitement for learning with my students.  I want them to know that when I send them off on an investigation of prefixes for instance, that I have not personally conducted such an investigation and am looking forward to seeing what they find!  I use the knowledge I have gathered to guide and steer their inquiry, but I don’t allow preconceived ideas to close me off to what we might all notice that we have not noticed before.  The very first year I began teaching orthography, I jumped in without having a complete understanding of many facets of our language.  The students were thrilled!  They loved that I didn’t have all the answers.  We were truly all learning something valuable from each other.

So are students the only ones who get to ask questions?  Of course not.  Here are my favorite questions to ask:  “What are you wondering now?  What questions does that stir in you?  What does this new information cause you to think about?  What evidence do you have to support that?  Can you prove that?”

Questions happen when our curiosity bubbles up and erupts into words.  It is at that point when we begin our quest for information and ideas with which we will construct an understanding.  Temporary answers allow us to check that understanding, while keeping the question alive.  In the meantime our minds are open, and our curiosity aroused.  We don’t know when evidence will come along, or how long our minds will juggle with an idea before we reach that deeper understanding that develops in response to a question once asked.

Reviewing a Word’s Structure While Getting Better Acquainted with its Family

Almost all of the students have presented the Latin verb poster they put together.  We have had wonderful and rich discussions with each one.  And as we talked we noticed that not all Latin etymons became productive modern English bases.  Some of the bases we identified are found in a remarkable number of words while others are found in only a few.

For example, the twin bases <mote> and <move> are two that have become very productive in English.  My students can easily name words like remote, demote, promote, motion, emotion, motor, motel, movement, remove, moving, removal, movable and immovable.  That is certainly not a complete list, but it does demonstrate how common these two bases are.

Some of the Latin etymons became modern English bases that have not become very productive.  Take the Latin verb frango, frangere, frego, and fractus for example.  By removing the Latin suffixes on the infinitive and supine forms of this verb, we get the Latin etymons <frang> and <fract>.  The modern English bases that are derived from those etymons are spelled exactly the same!  You will no doubt recognize the following group of words with <fract> as the base: fraction, fracture, fractal, refractive, diffraction, and infraction.  But the only words my students found that share the <frang> base are frangible and refrangible.  See what I mean?  In English <frang> has not become a very productive base.

Since we have lined our hallway with Latin Verb posters, all we had to do was take a walk in order to identify those very productive modern bases!  We chose ten.  Some are twin bases and some are unitary.  We have decided to spend time looking at the words in these ten families and seeing what else we can notice.

We began with the bases <lege> and <lect>.  The denotation of these twin bases is “to gather, select, read”.  I asked the students to get out a piece of lined paper.  I read some words from this family and asked them to do two things. They were to write the word and they they were to write the word sum, keeping in mind that the base would either be <lege> or <lect>.  Some of the words they wrote down were lecture, select, lectern, collection, election, legion, legible and legibly.  The next step was for the students to come to the board and write the word and word sum up there so we could look at it and talk about it.

One of the first things I noticed was that someone wrote the word sum for <lectern> as <lect> + <urn>.  I wonder if that is a result of misguided practice in which students have been asked to search for a word within a word.  If this word was split into syllables, it might just be seen as ‘lec – turn’.  Anyway, I adjusted the suffix to read <ern>.  Then the students helped me list words with that suffix.  I got them started with lantern and cavern.  They added eastern, western, govern and modern.  Even though most knew that the suffix in <lecture> was <-ure>, we still brainstormed other words that use that suffix like treasure, pleasure, measure, nature and capture.

A third interesting thing to discuss was the way most students used an <-able> suffix in <legible> instead of an <-ible> suffix.  One certainly can’t choose which to use based on pronunciation!  I asked for  <-able>/<-ible> to be written on the Wonder Wall.  I have more information in a Smartboard presentation and will show it next week.

The most important thing of all, though, was how the students felt when they saw that they could spell these words when they concentrated on the morphemes.  They didn’t have to struggle with thinking about all the letters at once!  Instead they focused on each morpheme as it came and the spelling fell into place!


Yesterday when the students walked in the door, I had <scribe / script> on the board with its denotation “to write”.  I didn’t even have to ask them to get out paper.  They sat down and quickly pulled out paper and pencil.  I read words like describe, subscription, prescriptive, scribble, scripture, subscribe, and scriptorium.  More students volunteered to write their word sums on the board than had volunteered yesterday!  They were enjoying seeing what they could figure out.

With this collection, we had the opportunity to talk about the way the <t> (final in the base <script>) represented a different sound in <prescriptive>, <subscription>, and <scripture>.  I’m sure that in their minds (until yesterday) the letter <t> represented only one sound – /t/.   When I saw that a boy in the front row had spelled <subscription> as ‘subscripshen’, I said out loud, “Wouldn’t it make sense for someone who has been told to sound out words when spelling to use an <sh> in <subscription>?  But look what is really happening.  The pronunciation of the letter <t> can be altered by the first letter of the suffix.”  We all said the three words so that we could feel the difference in pronunciation.  We talked about how some people pronounce <scripture> as if there is a <ch> following the <p> and some people pronounce it as if there is a <sh> following the <p>.  Another great opportunity to prove to the students that spelling is not about pronunciation.  It is about meaning!

An additional highlight with these particular twin bases (besides the students smiling at their increased level of successful today!) was the word sum for <scriptorium> that someone had written on the board.  It was written as <scriptorium> –> <script> + <or> + <i> + <um>.  I wasn’t so sure about there being a connecting vowel between two suffixes, and when I mentioned that, the students thought that made sense.  But instead of leaving it at that, we scheduled a Zoom session with our favorite French friend, Old Grouch!


He helped us understand the Latin stem suffix <-i>, the Latin suffix <-um> and the present day English suffix <-ium>!  He showed us his own scriptorium and the students decided that a person who does the writing would be called a scriptor.  This recognition also lead to a discussion of agent suffixes (those that indicate the noun is a person).  That discussion led to a review of using the agent suffix <-or> instead of <-er> if the base can take an <-ion> suffix.  The examples Old Grouch used was profession/professor and action/actor.  Later, the students added animation/animator, instruction/instructor, and division/divisor!  My personal favorite is one that I noticed at an airport I visited in November.  The pair is recombulation/recombobulator!  If I was in the recombobulation area after going through security, and I was getting all of my things back in order, then I was a recombobulator!


We are so grateful to be able to ask Old Grouch questions.  We always walk away smiling, and with a head full of interesting information to ponder!  Knowing that we began our Zoom session at 8:20 a.m. and knowing that it was 3:20p.m. where Old Grouch lives, one of the students asked if he had a nice siesta.  When he was remarking that he had, he also asked if we knew the word <siesta>.  We did not.  He explained that it is from Spanish for six.  Siesta is held six hours after daybreak!  Like I said, we always walk away smiling, and with something interesting to ponder!