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!





Macroinvertebrates as Water Quality Indicators!

How healthy is the creek that runs through our village?  Is the water quality excellent, good, fair or poor?  Can the macroinvertebrates we find in the creek tell us what we want to know?  These are the questions we were determined to answer.  But first we needed to know a few things.

When I first mentioned that instead of chemical testing the water, we would use a biotic index, I got a few blank looks.  Okay, I got a lot of blank looks.  But then I wrote the word <biotic> on the board and asked what the base was.

Since we had previously investigated the following list (words coming up in our science curriculum) , focusing on word structure, modern bases from Greek that take an <o> connecting vowel, the Greek <ph> spelling that represents /f/ and the identification of free and bound bases within a compound word,  the students were able to recognize the now familiar base <bi>.
biosphere             lithosphere           geosphere
atmosphere         troposphere         stratosphere
mesosphere         thermosphere      cosmosphere

An interesting thing happened when I asked what the bound base <bi> meant.  A large number of students said it meant “one’s life”.  I was curious why they were so specific about this wording.  That is, until I went to Etymonline and saw this:

Screen shot 2015-11-01 at 10.05.45 AM

I’ve just found one more way I will broaden their enjoyment of research this year!   Do you see how they stopped reading at the first description of the word?  They missed gathering a broader sense of the word.  I think this comes from “Get out a dictionary and write definitions of this list of words.”  To students who see no reward for all of the upcoming writing they are about to do (no discussion – no connection to a particular topic),  the way to get it done is to look for the shortest definition possible!  This year I will give my students practice at reading an entire entry and mulling over the bigger sense of the word before deciding on a definition.  Why, we might even decide that the definition varies slightly depending on the affixes used with the base!

Back to <biotic>!  When the definition “one’s life” came up, I said that if we are talking about a biography, that certainly makes sense, since a biography is the writing or story of one’s life.  But when talking about a biotic index, we are talking more generally about living things.  In this case, we will be using living things (macroinvertebrates) to tell us about the quality of the water.

As you can probably guess, the word <macroinvertebrates>  was next.  The students already understood what a vertebrate and invertebrate were, but were unfamiliar with the prefix <macro->.  We had a delightful discussion of the prefixes <micro->, <macro->, and <tele->!  The things we see with a microscope are tiny and often not able to be seen with the naked eye.  The macroinvertebrates are longer and larger and we CAN see them with our naked eye.  And using a telescope allows us to see things that are far away.  All three refer to our ability to view things and the relative size of those things!  Delightful.

Next it was time to become familiar with some of the macroinvertebrates we might find in the creek.  We used a scientific key and played bingo.  Here is the key we used and a sample bingo card.















The thing I love about using this scientific key is that over and over the students get the idea that identification of a macroinvertebrate is orderly.  We start with the same question every time – Does it have a shell?  [Definitely reminds me of Structured Word Inquiry.  We start with the same questions every time – What does it mean?  How is it built?]  So here’s how we played.   I gave a scenario each time that went something like this.  “I went to the Koshkonong Creek the other day and saw the coolest macroinvertebrate!  It did not have shells, but it did have legs.  In fact it had three pair of legs.  It had no wings, and I couldn’t really see if it had tails or not because it was in a little stone case!”  The students would follow along on the key until they found the caddisfly in the stone case.  Then they would find it and mark it on their bingo card.  I would continue on and describe having found another macroinvertebrate.  In the end, the students had learned how to use a scientific key and the type of details to pay attention to when identifying the macroinvertebrates in our creek.

We were now ready to head down.  I have three classes, so this “health check” happened three times on the same day.

The students were keeping track of what they saw with a Macroinvertebrate Tally Sheet.  If they were not sure if their identification was completely accurate, they asked our guest, Jeff Steven, who is an aquatic entomologist.  For more than 30 years, he used a biotic index to monitor the water that had been discharged from the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant in Madison, Wisconsin.  Here is an example of the tally sheet used by the students.








The next day in each class we averaged the number of macroinvertebrates found in each of the four categories.  Once we had an average, we filled in the numbers in the lower right hand corner of the page and calculated the number that would represent the quality of the water in our creek.  Here are the totals for the three classes:

First group:  2.46
Second group:  2.35
Third groups:  2.34

All three fall within the “Fair” category, although the first group was only within .04 of the “Good” category.  Did it make a difference that we sampled in the same area all day long?  Perhaps.  Did it make a difference that the air temperature rose throughout the day?  Perhaps.  But all in all, our results are solidly in the “Fair” category, and not close to the “Poor” category which begins at 2.0.

So how do this year’s findings compare to last year’s or the year before that?  Here are a few of the graphs the students completed.  I think a very fascinating story emerges as you look at the data compared all the way back to 1996.

DSCN5860 DSCN5858 DSCN5859 DSCN5861












A few students are still finishing up their graphs.  The discussion we’ll have next will involve identifying the factors that affect this data and score.  It will include things like rainfall, habitat disruption, macroinvertebrate identification error and human activity upstream.  We’ll check sources to determine when the dam was removed downstream, and when the new water treatment plant was built upstream.  Even if we determine those things to have had an effect on the final score for any given year, the graphs show a level of consistency over the last 19 years.  We never determined our creek to be of excellent water quality, and even though we came close in 2006, we never determined our creek to be of poor water quality either.

A fascinating activity that shows us how our hydrosphere, geosphere, atmosphere and biosphere interact to sustain habitats and populations!

The Third Affix … The Connecting Vowel

Onward to our next science topic … the Earth’s Systems.

What a  fabulous opportunity to introduce connecting vowels!  In groups of two, students were given one of the following words to investigate:
-geosphere         -atmosphere        -biosphere          -lithosphere
-hydrosphere     -cosmosphere     -stratosphere

The first step was to look in a standard dictionary to find a definition.  Once each group had an understanding of the word, it was time to look at the structure of the word.  Students came up with one or more hypotheses about their word.  For example, one group thought that the structure of geosphere might be either <geo> + <sphere>, <geo> + <sph> + <ere>, or <geos> + <phe> + <re>.  It was time to research the word to see if we could find the root of the word.  That would likely help us identify the base element.

As a group we looked at the Online Etymology Dictionary.  We read several entries together to get ourselves familiar with the manner in which the information is presented.  We found that the following bound bases had Greek roots:
-<ge> meaning earth
-<atm> from atmos, meaning vapor or steam
-<bi> from bios, meaning life
-<lith> from lithos, meaning stone
-<hydr> from hydros, meaning water
-<cosm> from cosmos, meaning universe
-<strat>  from stratos, meaning spreading out

The students recognized that <sphere> is a familiar word and doesn’t need an affix to be a word.  It is therefore a free base.

In each of these words there is an <o> that is neither part of the base nor is it a suffix.  It is a connecting vowel.  Since all of these words have their roots in Greek, it is not surprising that they all have <o> as a connecting vowel.  Most words of Greek origin that have a connecting vowel use <o>.  (A connecting vowel is an affix.  Since it comes after the base, it cannot be a prefix, and since it cannot be final in a word, it cannot be a suffix.  It is therefore a third type of affix.  For more information I recommend watching this film on Connecting Vowels at Real Spelling.)

Now they were ready to use Word Searcher.  Each group went to work finding relatives of each bound base’s family.   This search often included quick trips to Etymonline or other dictionaries to make sure that the words collected did indeed share meaning with the base.

Once their list of relatives was compiled in their notebooks, the students began writing out word sums and creating a matrix.

Having a list of words to investigate that were so structurally similar was interesting.  Once we talked about the free base <sphere> that was common to all the words on the list, we had the opportunity to practice using online tools like etymonline and word searcher to find out about the other base in each word.  At first it was hard to see these words as compound words because the first base was a bound base and not as recognizable as a free base would be.

We had opportunity to practice spelling out words using word sums.  The students are so used to spelling words letter by letter, that they keep forgetting to group the letters into morphemes as they spell.  This will take some practice.  I know!  It was a habit that I personally had to break not so long ago.  But I also know it will be worth it in the long run.

Students created their own matrices.  This was challenging because the students don’t recognize many suffixes besides <s>, <es>, <ed>, and <ing> yet.  They are definitely becoming comfortable with the idea that a word can have several suffixes.  With so many students presenting, we were able to notice an <ant> and <ic> suffix being used in several of the matrices.  I was also able to begin demonstrating how to collect evidence to prove whether a letter combination was a suffix or not.

There are still several groups ready to present their word investigation.  This will give the students more opportunity to talk about spelling and words in a way that is foreign to them.

I know that these students have never been as mentally engaged with words as they will be this year.  I smile when I think of how much they will learn!