Building Cars Powered by Hot Air

Sir Isaac Newton.  That’s where this project began. Sir Isaac Newton and his three Laws of Motion.

Law Number One:  An object at rest tends to stay at rest.  An object in motion tends to stay in motion.  These conditions cannot change without being acted on by a force.

Law Number Two:  Force equals mass times acceleration.  The more force, the more acceleration.

Law Number Three:  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

We talked about these laws and were helped with our understanding of them by watching this Youtube video:

The students, in groups of two, were about to build cars.  The body and wheels were cut from a styrofoam meat tray.  The axle, to which the wheels were held steady with clay, was a wooden stir stick.  The axle was positioned in a straw which was taped to the bottom of the car body.  The car was powered by a balloon.  All of the materials came as part of a kit that I purchased from Carolina Biological .  What I liked about having this as a kit is that everyone had the exact same materials and the exact same set of directions.  Each pair of students had to read and follow around 30 directions in order to complete their car.

The engagement and cooperation within the groups was impressive.  I had them read through the directions with their partner before coming to get the materials.  I wanted them to have an idea of where this was going, and what the materials were for.  Once they had the materials, they read aloud the directions carefully and began assembling their car.

On the second day of class, students were fine tuning.  Once the car was ready for testing, the students went into the hall outside our room to make sure the wheels were steady and the car moved straight.  There were quite a few cars that veered to one side or another.  In that case the students took the car back in to make adjustments to the wheels.  When the cars were “competition ready”, we went down to the cafeteria to race them.  Here is video of that for each of my three classes.

Two of the cars from the third class went extraordinary distances.  The winner went 331 inches (27 1/2 feet)!  The second highest distance was 318 inches (26 1/2 feet).  No other car all day went even half that distance!  At this point there was so much to talk about!

Why did some of the cars not move at all?
Why did the wheels keep falling off?
How were the winning cars different from the others?

The first thing we did back in the classroom was interview the builders of the two winning cars.  The four students involved gave a lot of credit to the wheels of their cars.  They spent time making sure they were uniformly round.  They sanded them to help the car roll smoothly.  And they measured to make sure the axle was as close to the center of the wheel as possible.  Then they used the clay to make them snug on the axle.  No wobbling!

Next we were ready to review Newton’s Laws of Motion.

We considered the second law: Force equals Mass times Acceleration.  The balloon was the force that powered the car.  Could we alter that? Would it help?  Would more balloons result in more force?  Will several balloons of different sizes lose all their air at the same rate?   What would happen if the mass was increased?  How would that impact the speed or distance?  What if it was decreased?  What could we make the body and wheels from besides styrofoam?

We considered the first law:  An object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by a force.  What force caused the cars to slow down and stop?  Was it just the lack of air in the balloon?  What about friction?  What would happen if we altered the wheels?  What else could we make them out of?  What if we varied their width?  How important is it to cut them so they are perfectly round?  How important is it to measure to find the exact center of the wheel when attaching it to the axle?

We considered the third law:  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The air from the balloon is being released in one direction, but the car is moving in the opposite direction.  Does the position of the balloon matter?  Does the angle of the balloon and straw matter?  Does the order of the different sized balloons matter?

Equipped with the experience of having already built one car along with the understanding gained from discussing the Laws of Motion, the same groups were asked to build another car.  This time they could use whatever they wanted.  The only thing I discouraged was bringing manufactured wheels off of a toy car.  I put out cardboard, more balloons of different sizes, cardboard tubes and the remaining supplies that came with the initial kit.  The students got started, knowing that they would have the opportunity to bring additional supplies from home.

On day four of this activity, the students had some time to get their cars “competition ready”.  We had a car show (it seemed necessary now that no two cars looked alike).  It was so interesting to see the variations.  During work time, those who sought to use five balloons realized that it was difficult to keep the air in three while trying to blow up the others.  In the end, three balloons was the most that anyone used.  Here are the cars and then races from the three classes:

Even when the cars didn’t leave the starting line, the students laughed and enjoyed this challenge!  In the end, the group whose first car went the furthest, built a second car that also went the furthest!  Their second car was quite different from their first car in that the wheels in the second car were Kerr jar lids!  They struggled during work time in keeping them from wobbling, but by the time the race was run, they had figured that out!

Another group used plastic bottle caps with holes drilled for the axle.  The wheels worked beautifully, but this group struggled with attaching their balloon.  Two other interesting sets of wheels were made out of cardboard tubes.  One group used rubber bands around the tubes to grip the floor!  These two groups struggled with attaching the wheels securely to an axle.

At the beginning of class the next day, I asked the students to share what they had learned while doing this project:

  1.  The cardboard wheels went faster than the styrofoam wheels.
  2.  The wheels on each axle needed to be the same size.
  3.  The wheels needed to be sanded smooth.
  4.  It really helped having a partner to talk with and to help hold parts while taping.
  5.  Having more balloons didn’t always work.  It was difficult to inflate and release several balloons all at once.  Sometimes the first balloon was leaking air as the second was being filled.
  6.  It gets too crowded to have too many balloons.
  7.  The car body needs to be big enough to keep the balloons off the floor.
  8.  Large balloons worked better than small ones.
  9.  Masking tape worked well to tape the wheels to the axle.

When you watch the races of both car 1 and car 2, it is pretty obvious that overall there was more success with car 1.  But in the end that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t the end product that was the most important thing here.  It was the mission and the process.  It was the student input, the focus and the cooperation.  Everyone had moments of frustration, but they worked through those moments.  Students cheered each other on and made this a memorable fun activity.  When asked if I should repeat this activity next year, ALL students said, “YES!”

Photosynthesis … More Amazing Than We Knew!

Our performances are over.  Two weeks of running lines and rehearsing ended with two days of wowing our crowds with our knowledge and our sparkle.  Today Sam called to me from his locker where he was tying his shoe.  “Hey, Mrs. Steven!  I have a new appreciation for a leaf now.  I never realized that the leaf is where the sugar and oxygen is made!  Now I like leaves more than ever!”

And well he should!  One of the amazing facts students read towards the end of our performance is, “One million acres of corn can produce enough oxygen in eleven days to supply ten million people with enough oxygen to breathe for a whole year!”

One of the big things learned here was the fact that we have a pretty amazing relationship with plants.  Think of it.  We’re sitting around exhaling carbon dioxide.  The plants are sitting around “exhaling” oxygen.  We are happy to use their byproduct, and they are happy to use ours!  One might call our relationship symbiotic!  We are two living organisms receiving mutual benefits.


Since we finished our play, I wanted to know what each individual student understood about the photosynthesis process.  First I gave a short answer test.  By short answer I mean full sentences – as many as needed to answer each question.  Out of 58 students, only 10 missed more than 3 questions!  I call that success!  But I am never satisfied with only one assessment type.

Next I asked the students to write out the process as if they were explaining it to someone who had never heard of it before.  The subject matter didn’t require any further research.  The play provided all of the information needed.  All the students had to do was to retell the information in a logical way and develop paragraphs that would enhance the reader’s overall understanding of photosynthesis.

Students began by freewriting.   That means that they retold the story without stopping to check on spellings.  When they felt they had written what they understood about photosynthesis, I asked them to check their paragraphing.  If they had only one paragraph, they were to mark where they might split that one into several.  I suggested they look at their use of the word ‘then’ to begin sentences.  Often it is used as a transition word.  (Often it is overused as a transition word!)


“Chloroplasts are very, very small beings (so small that you need to look at a thin slice of leaf under a high-powered microscope to see them) that live inside cells in a plant.  They make food for the plant and oxygen, which we need, using photosynthesis.”      ~Brynn G.

“This process happens in the chloroplast.  The chloroplast is super duper tiny and it lives in the cell.  First the chloroplast traps some fresh light energy direct from the sun.”      ~Cade

“Water gets pulled out of the roots by a tube called the xylem.  Water normally doesn’t flow up, but in a plant and even in a tree, water is sucked out of the roots.  This process is called transpiration.  The water will mix with the carbon dioxide to make sugar.”      ~Jada

“The next step is the carbon dioxide which comes in the underside of the leaf.  There are little openings on the underside of the leaf called stomata.  A huge amount of air molecules every second (like millions of air molecules) come into the cell.”         ~Carter L.

“The light energy gives energy to the carbon dioxide molecules and the water molecules.  Together they make one molecule of sugar (or food) and six molecules of oxygen. ”        ~Perry

“When the sugar is made, oxygen is made also.  But the plant always makes more than is needed, so all the extra oxygen will have to leave the plant.  The extra oxygen will leave through the stomata.”      ~Mara

“The sugar that is made is used to help the plant grow.  The sugar is sent to different parts of the plant that need it.  Some is sent to the stem, some is sent to the fruit part of the plant, and some is sent down to the roots so they can get bigger.”       ~Alexis

“There is another tube called the phloem.  The two tubes are like elevators.  The xylem takes water up the plant and the phloem takes sugar down to the roots of the plant.”        ~Hailey J.

“Photosynthesis helps everything on planet earth that breathes oxygen.  Without photosynthesis, everything would die out because nothing else can produce oxygen.”            ~Elijah


Having my students write a narrative of the photosynthesis process has been great for two reasons.  First off I can tell how much they really understand about what happens when a plant makes food.  Overall, I was very impressed with the detail they remembered from the script.   Secondly, I can look at their writing skills.  Many of my students do not yet fully understand how to convert a thought into a written sentence.  They either connect sentence after sentence after sentence with conjunctions (will this ever end?), or they isolate a prepositional phrase, capitalizing its first word and putting  ending punctuation after its last word.

This writing was a great opportunity to address the idea of transition words.  As I was able to conference with each student about revising and editing, writing a sentence became a bit clearer of a task as well.  We just need to keep on writing!



A Component of Science – Engineering

The first engineering project this year was building locker shelves.  The students had to identify how many shelves they would need and how those shelves would be used.  Then they were ready to begin researching existing shelving units and collecting building materials.  The project challenge was to use as many recycled materials as possible, and to build shelves that would still be functioning as such in eight months time.  The students made drawings in their notebooks that included measurements.  Then they started building.

Here are some interesting things the students learned:

~Once cardboard is bent, it isn’t stiff like it was before.
~The thicker the cardboard, the stronger the shelf.
~Many layers of thin cardboard work as well as one layer of thick cardboard.
~A piece of cardboard cut to the exact measurements of the locker can be wedged in place and not need supports of any kind.
~Circular supports such as cardboard tubes from paper towels or soda cans make great support columns.
~Shelves can be supported with string/rope/yarn stretched across the width of the locker.
~String is stronger than yarn, and rope is stronger than string.
~One support in the middle makes the shelf a bit wobbly when weight is put on it.

They were given four days to build/rebuild.  Once the due date was past, there were two more days built-in for groups wanting to add finishing touches at their recess time.  Then it was time to take a look and reflect on how well everyone did with this project.  I gave every student a post-it note.  They were to look at all of the locker shelving and write a compliment to the locker they felt was the most functional, fun, and likely to still be standing come May.  Then they were to stick it to the inside of the locker they liked.  It was a nice surprise for students to later open their locker only to see nice comments waiting for them.

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After a month and a half, we noticed that many students had developed a strange habit as they  headed out to recess each day.  Instead of setting their planners and folders in their locker, they were dropping them on the floor in front of their locker!  It prompted me to take a peek at the conditions of the shelving.

Most of the shelves had fallen or partially fallen, making them unfit to hold much of anything.  A few looked like a storage space for cardboard!  As engineers, this gave us the perfect opportunity to rethink these shelves!


In the first picture, only the middle shelf was functional.  The shelf above it was covered in duct tape, but unable to hold anything.  The shelves below were also to weak to be used.


In the second picture, two wooden shelves were held up by rulers.  That worked until something was set on the shelf.  The more that was set on the shelf, the more the shelf slid downwards.


In the third picture, someone had built shelving using PVC pipes.  I think the intention was that the structure would be set in the locker turned 90 degrees from its current position.  Unfortunately it doesn’t fit in that way and as a result very little fits on the shelves (except for the top shelf).

As engineers, this gave us the perfect opportunity to rethink these shelves!We began with a discussion about the purpose of building shelves in the first place.  The personal locker was needed to house outside clothing and backpacks, and the shared locker was to be used to house school supplies.  In this way the school supplies would stay dry during rainy or snowy weather because it would be separated from the wet outer clothing.

I created a rubric and shared it with the students so that they would be able to keep in mind the goals of this project.


The students had a second chance to make it work.  What would they do differently?


This first locker shows shelves that were once supported by rulers that didn’t hold much weight.  Now the shelves are held in place by a network of string, and they are very sturdy!  The rest of these show some designs that have been improved and are now quite functional!  It is interesting that there are as many shelves built up from the bottom as there are suspended from above!  I think some great improvements were made!

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I loved the innovation in the last locker shown.  See the extra shelf suspended on the inside of the door?  This was a fascinating process to observe!



‘Multi-‘ or ‘Poly-‘?

Friday was one of those days when we were all needing to get our hands on some science!  I purchased some supplies from Steve Spangler Science and the students had an introduction to polymers.  Of course the first thing I did was to write the word <polymer> on the board.  No one had ever heard that word before, but right away they wondered if it was related to <polygon>, <polyester>, and <polyhedron> because those were words that they HAD heard before.  I wrote those to the side.  It was obvious that the small collection of words all had <poly> in common, but no one was sure what it meant.


Next I wrote the words <multisyllable> and <polysyllable> on the board.  I said that these two words meant the same thing.  Since we had recently talked about multicellular and unicellular in science, the students knew that <multi-> had a denotation of “many or much”.  They were able to tell me that a word that was multisyllabic was a word with more than one syllable, and that a polysyllabic word would also be a word with more than one syllable.  Then I shared that I am currently taking a LEXinar with Gina Cooke and that during the last session she spoke about these two words.  Even though multisyllable is used quite commonly, Gina said that she preferred to use polysyllable.  And here’s why.

I pointed out the medial <y> in <syllable> and wondered if anyone remembered the probable origin of words with a medial <y>.  No one did.  Then I said, “Remember when we looked at <gymnasium>?”  Almost immediately, there was laughter and several said, “Greek!”  (The laughter had to do with the Etymonline entry of <gymnasium>.  I won’t spoil it for you.  Go find out for yourself!)  Next I pointed out that <poly-> was also of Greek origin.  When we can put two morphemes together that are each from Greek, the whole word has Greek ancestry.  If we use <multi-> with <syllable>, we are using a Latin stem with a Greek stem.  That is called a hybrid.  It still works as a word, and people understand what that is, but it’s like this — once you know the origins of morphemes, you are more likely to want to see them paired with morphemes of the same origin.  That is why Gina prefers <polysyllable> over <multisyllable>.  The students understood and accepted that logic.

Then I wrote the words <multicellular> and <unicellular> on the board.  I underlined <multi-> and <uni-> in each word.  I posed this question:  If the stems <multi-> and <uni-> are from Latin, what language do you suppose <cell> is from?  They guessed Latin.

I asked, “What would happen if we paired <poly-> with <cellular>?
Luke said, “We’d have a hybrid word.”
“Would we all understand what it meant?”

I wrote <monocle> on the board and underlined <mon->.  At least a few students in each class knew that a monocle was a single lens used to see.  I pointed out that <mon-> was the opposite of <poly-> and was also from Greek.

I asked, “What would happen if we paired the stem <mono-> with the stem <cellular>?
Brynn said, “We’d have a hybrid.”
“Would we all understand what it meant?
“Now that we know that the stems <multi-> and <uni-> are from Latin, and the stems <poly-> and <mono-> are from Greek, perhaps we will be more interested in pairing them up with a stem of the same origin.

Then, without prompting, Carter raised his hand and said, “I’m thinking about <universe>.  Is the <verse> part from Latin then?”
“What we now know about the stem <uni-> certainly makes it seem likely.  Is there a way to find out for sure?”
“Carter replied, “Etymonline!  Can I go look now?”

It was time to go back to where we started.  The students could now tell me that a polygon could have many angles (from Greek gonos).  Surprisingly, one student even knew that a polyhedron was a solid shape with many faces (from Greek hedra)!  I explained that polyester is a synthetic textile made from many polymers.  So what was a <polymer>?

They knew that <poly-> had a denotation of “many” and I added that <mer> From Greek meros had a denotation of “parts”.  We were going to look at a thing with many parts.  In this case the parts are called molecules and they link together under certain conditions as a long chain.  The powder we had mixed in the warm water would create such a condition.  When I squirted the blue liquid into the bowl at each table, the molecules in the liquid would instantly form long chains known as polymers.

After the students had a chance to play with their worms and discover that the outside felt more like a balloon skin and the inside was liquid and watery, there was yet another interesting word to talk about.

The worms were a dark blue until I came around and put hot water in the bowls.  When the students dipped the worms into the hot water, they faded to an almost white color.  I directed their attention to the board once more and told them that the worm goo was made with a thermochromic dye.  It felt so good for the students to come across an unfamiliar word, and yet to be able to say without hesitation that its meaning had something to do with heat!  One of the boys enthusiastically remarked, “The hot water triggered a color change!”

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On Monday I intend to revisit the word <thermochromic>.  I’d like to talk more about the stem <chromic> and then do a simple activity with chromatography.  We’ll use markers to draw on coffee filters, and then dip one end in water and watch the marker separate into a range of colors.  The most surprising for me is always the range of colors in black marker (not Sharpie).  We’ve been encountering the base <graph> quite a bit, and this will be just one more opportunity to see it in another word.  I will start by asking for word sum hypotheses for <thermochromic>, <chromatography>, and no doubt <monochromatic>.  I know they will enjoy this!


When A Quick Review Turns Into Something Grand

Yesterday I gave the students a piece of paper that was divided into 10 areas.  In each space I had written one of the following bases:


I had them start in the top left space.  I told them they had 60 seconds to:

  1.  Write the base as a compound word with <sphere> as its second base.
  2.   Quickly draw something that came to mind when thinking of the base’s denotation.
  3.   Write at least one other word that shared the base.

They panicked about the 60 seconds at first, but when the 60 seconds were over, they realized it was plenty of time to do what was asked.  I chose 60 seconds so that they would draw the first thing that popped into their head.  I did not want them to think too hard about the perfect thing to draw.  I had them draw because many students will be able to remember the image of the denotation more quickly than the denotation by itself.

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After we finished the tenth base, it was time to review and share.  Volunteers read aloud each compound word, pausing slightly between morphemes. It was so obvious that they understood that all of these words shared a structure.  Students who would have balked at spelling these words several weeks ago, now confidently spelled them.  Their understanding of morphemes and the meanings they contribute to a finished word has been growing!

When I asked for the words they thought of that shared the first base, things got interesting!  The white board quickly filled up.  I had to start making a list of words that I wasn’t familiar with.  “After all,” I said to my students, “just because I haven’t heard the word doesn’t mean it isn’t in use somewhere!”  The thing is, all of the words they suggested looked and sounded convincing.  In other words, structurally they all worked!

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I am thrilled that these students could put together such an interesting collection so quickly!  I am also thrilled that they are playing with what they understand about the structure of words!  But I also know that structure is only half of it.  A word’s meaning is always echoing, even if faintly, the denotation of the base.  If the word is structurally sound and if the denotation of the base/bases is represented in the definition, then we have to see how the word is used by people.  Ultimately, that will decide how productive the word is.

For example, one of the words suggested by a student was <lithotrope>.  Structurally it is sound.  Its word sum or algorithm is <lith> + <o> + <trope>.  But what does it mean?  The student who offered it quite confidently said it was a turning rock.  “You know, the earth!”

I replied, “I love it!  I have no idea whether that is a word we’ll find anywhere else or not, but I will look for it!”  I put it on my list to verify.  I was pretty sure my student invented it, but I was open to whatever I would find.  Some other words I had on my list were mesographic, mesothermal, geolithic, and geotherapy.

At this point it would be good to mention the TED video I showed my students last week.  Erin McKean is a lexicographer.  She writes dictionaries.  In this video she encourages her viewers to make up new words and she suggests several ways to do just that.  As you might guess, my students were ready to invent new words, and between yesterday and today they did just that without really planning to!  They were delighted!

Today I was prepared to talk about the words on my list plus quite a few of the other words that had been on the board yesterday.

When I first heard it, I wondered if it wasn’t some sort of mud bath for humans.  Well, I did find it used in that way, but I also found that it could refer to humans correcting a situation within an environment.  Geotherapy is the process of remineralizing the soil in an ecosystem that has suffered a loss.  It is definitely an established word.

While this one sounds impressive as a science word, I could find no evidence of it being currently used, and when different groups of students were asked what it might mean, there was only a shrugging of shoulders and the words, “Earth rock?”  We decided it was not currently in use, and we weren’t sure that it had a place in our science conversations.

Mesothermal refers to the climate in temperate zones where it is moderately hot and not cold enough for snow to stick to the ground.  We all smiled as we recognized how the denotation of each base gave us a clue to what this word meant!

Another impressive sounding word with an understandable structure, but without a recognized use according to our dictionaries and Google!  The students couldn’t decide precisely how this word would be used, so we appreciated it, and moved on.

Although we could not find this word in use anywhere, it was one of our favorites.  When I asked students in my other classes if they thought we could refer to the earth as a lithotrope, they paused to think about it, smiled and said, “Sure!  Cool!”

When we googled images of the hydrangea, students recognized this flower.  It can be white, blue, pink, or even purple.  But what is its connection to water?  Why the <hydr> spelling?  At Etymonline we see that the word <hydrangea> means “water vessel” or “water capsule”.  It is so named because the seed pod is cup-shaped!  Such an interesting detail!

We had been talking about this word on and off for a week, but I still wasn’t sure the students understood how it involved water.  We watched the following video which really helped.  We imagined the syringes with the colored water as they would look on a large machine, covered in metal and moving specific parts.

Such is a classroom where learning orthography is a way of learning about the world.  What I thought would be a quick 15 minute review of the Greek bases we have been looking at, turned into something more, something fascinating, something satisfying!










Involve Me and I’ll Understand…


There’s a quote attributed to the Chinese Confucian philosopher, Xun Kuang that goes, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  It’s a quote that I think of often as an educator.  What does it look like “to involve students” so that they understand?  It seems obvious to me that if I want them to understand the steps of experimenting or engineering that they need to actually experiment or engineer something on their own.  That is why I offer a Science Fair in the spring and several engineering projects throughout the year.   But it doesn’t seem so obvious to me when it comes to subjects that are not typically taught as a science.  When we observe the emphemeral pond out back or sample the macroinvertebrates in the creek, the students are physically involved.  They are out of their seats and using all of their senses.  How do you recreate that total involvement for subjects like writing, grammar, and orthography?  Below are a few things we’ve done so far this year.

As an introductory activity to the general topic of writing, I involved my students in an experience that would help them see just how similar writing is to sculpting.  Both demand creative ideas and persistence.  That is where we began.  I gave each student a small can of Play-Doh.  I asked them to just pull, mash, break, and squeeze.  I wanted them to get used to the material they would be using.  I then compared it to the materials of a writer – words, pen, paper, thesaurus, dictionary.  Then I gave them a task.  They were to create a pencil holder.  Having this focus helped them have a goal in mind as they worked.  In writing, this would be the main idea of the piece of writing.  What do you want your reader to know?  How do you want them to feel?

As I looked around and saw a variety of shapes ready to hold pencils, I asked everyone to smoosh their design.  Completely mash it up!  “That was just your first draft,” I told them.  “Maybe you want to try some other way to approach it this time.”  Again they flattened, rolled, and sculpted until they had something that they liked.  Something that would work.  That’s when I told them to smoosh it again!

This time they really moaned.  “It’s fine.  That was your second draft.  Start again.  Show yourself that you have even more ideas in that creator of yours!”  As they worked I continued to talk about how this was similar to writing.  I shared with them my personal writing process.  I write.  Then I reread and change some things.  Then I start all over again with a whole different approach.  I write.  I read.  I change.  I write.  I read. I change.  I do this until I am satisfied my writing says what I want it to say and in the way I want it said!

As I asked them to begin their fourth and final pencil holder, I told them they could choose to create something completely different, go back to a design they loved, or combine one or more of their previous ideas.  The whole point here was that the creative part of us has lots of ideas.  When it comes to writing, it’s no different.  “Let your creator drive you in the beginning writing stages and don’t ask your editor to come out until the final stages of your writing!”

When they were ready for their first edit, I asked them to get feedback from one other person.  Perhaps they would make a change, perhaps they would not.  I asked them to look at the pencil holder from many angles.  I told them this was like revising writing.  Making sure what feels clear to you as the writer is also clear to your reader.  Then we were ready for final editing.  In writing that would mean checking spelling, punctuation use, paragraphing, and other writing conventions.  In the art of pencil holders, it meant adding a small amount of one other color for some finishing touches.

Since then we have played with writing ideas.  We haven’t finished anything, but we are getting familiar with the materials a writer uses.  We have tried some story starters and a few were ignited enough to take home their notebooks to write more.  We are trusting that our creator is indeed full of ideas and we are enjoying being pleasantly surprised at ourselves!

Orthography and Science…..
In my last post I described how I involved the students during orthography by asking them to create posters that illustrated the structure of a specific science word.  There were only two in a group, so in order to keep the project moving forward, each needed to contribute!  The students wrote out the word and then wrote it again as a word sum or algorithm.  They researched the word to find the denotation of each base (all words were compounds).  Next they found words that shared the first base in their words.  So, for instance, the group that investigated <thermosphere> shared a list of words that included:


As you can imagine, looking at these words and discussing their relationship to their shared base <therm> which has a denotation of “heat” is a great way to understand not only <thermosphere> and this specific list of words, but also of words they may encounter in their future that have <therm> as part of their morphological structure!

But as wonderful as that process is, I realized this week that for many of my students brand new to the idea of a bound base, morphemes such as <bi>, <ge>, <atm>, and <hydr> seem foreign and totally unfamiliar.  They are so used to working with lists of words that are unrelated to each other, that they don’t expect words to be related to each other (unless the examples are walk, walks, walked, etc.)    It is extremely difficult for them to see <atm> and not think of the ATM machine near the bank.  So I needed to go back to the idea of involving them in yet another way in order to make <geosphere>, <atmosphere>, <hydrosphere>, and <biosphere> memorable.

This time I thought of using their bodies and their voices paired up with good old fashioned repetition and rhythm.  I worked the denotations of <bi>, <ge>, <atm>, and <hydr> into what they chanted as a class.

As we continue our discussions and discoveries about the bases we are encountering in these science words, we are also noting how often we see the bases <graph>, <meter>, and <loge> used with them.  That in itself has led to connections between the words biology, geology, astrology, zoology, and hydrology, biography, geography, lithography, and thermography, thermometer, atmometer, geometry, and hydrometer.

At least once a week I overhear someone say, “Mind blown!”  The first time I heard it I was delighted.   The fact that it has become frequent gives me even more satisfaction.  They are understanding like never before!  With some patience (you can’t push the river), these students will discover for themselves the fascinating stories that await them when they look closer at words!  They will know for themselves that words have structures that are reliable, and that English spelling makes more sense than the majority of its speakers realize!

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  I know I teach with a combination of all three.  I tell, I show, and I involve.  And I keep trying to get the balance right — which means load heavily on the “involve me” end!





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.

It All Happens in the Chloroplast …

There is something quite wonderful about performing on stage.  And there is something equally wonderful about watching.  Maybe it’s the anticipation of unexpected delight or even suspense.  Maybe it’s the performers revealing something about themselves that none of us saw before.  Maybe it’s the exhilarating “in the moment” experience.  Even if you come back and see it again, you know it won’t be like this time.

A week and a half ago, I handed out scripts and cast parts.  Yesterday we performed our Photosynthesis Follies.  All 62 of us.  I have three classes, and in each class there were 3 separate casts.  So for two days the hallways of our school echoed with “Photo what?”  and “It’s a blast being a chloroplast!”  Last night I created this combobulation of all three classes, all nine casts.  And I threw in a few special effects just for fun!  Enjoy!