Category Archives: teaching

A Day of Love and Learning

They practically danced in this morning, clutching bags of carefully labeled Valentines for their classmates.  Anticipation of candy, trinkets, and a day of celebration made the energy palpable.

I’ve spent years dreading Valentine’s Day.  Not because the holiday makes me feel sad or because I have any real complaint with the holiday overall, but because it has felt like a wasted learning day.  The high of Valentines and candy overshadowing math and reading and writing.  I tried ignoring Valentines, banning them outright, shoving them off to the side…none resulting in a satisfactory outcome.  I kept coming off as the Ebenezer Scrooge of February, ruining everyone’s fun.

So I decided to try something new this year.  After much thought, I approached my students a few weeks ago to talk about a potential plan for the day.  I started by asking my students if they wanted to bring Valentines for their classmates.  It was unanimous.  Every student wanted to bring them–some had already purchased them or started making and/or planning their hand-crafted gifts.  So I asked if they were interested in using their Valentines as a learning tool and having a Valentine’s themed day of learning.  Again, it was unanimous.

I didn’t want to just add hearts to math problems and read a Valentine picture book.  I wanted whatever we did to fully incorporate the actual Valentines and push our thinking and learning forward.  I decided on graphing and spent some time Monday and Tuesday reviewing the essential elements of a graph.  My students are already adept at interpreting graphs, but not quite as confident building their own.  Yesterday we explored creating a data set and practiced constructing our own graphs as a class.  Today, once the Valentines were all distributed, I asked students to sort their Valentines into 3-5 categories to create a data set for the bar graph they would create.  I loved watching the focus as the Valentines were sorted for a reason, data sets recorded in their math notebooks, and graphs created on “real” graph paper.  They willingly put the Valentines back into their bags and put them deep into their backpacks for the rest of the day.


data set

After recess I pulled out Love by Matt de la Pena.  I love a book that makes me think…and makes kids think.  I loved watching their faces as I read each page and showed the pictures.  Looks of confusion showed as they tried to figure out love defined as adults blocking the view of the TV and love as burnt toast.  Smiles appeared as the story turned to love as a game of horseshoes.  I heard a student gasp as the beautiful brown face appeared in the mirror. The discussion that followed brought up understandings about loss and love, death and memory.  We decided that we will re-read the book tomorrow, there is more that we want to explore.

The day flew by, we didn’t have enough time for all I wanted to accomplish today so we will continue tomorrow.  In my 29th year of teaching I continue to learn from my students.  When I listen to their needs and desires and combine them with my own goals, magic happens.  That crazy holiday energy that can make teachers want to pull our their hair became my friend today, pushing students to think and create…and yes, to learn. I’m already thinking about next year’s Valentine’s Day and how I will include my students in the planning to make the day productive and have fun doing it!  I #loveteaching every day, even on Valentine’s Day.

Valentine's Day




Wordless Books and the Power of Words

Yesterday we embarked on a study of graphic novels in our classroom by reading Owly and Wormy Friends All Aflutter by Andy Runton.

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This picture book is a nice entry into the world of graphic novels for our young students–even though it may not technically fit into the definition of graphic novel.

Our students aren’t new to reading wordless books, last year we delighted in the wordless books of Flashilight and Inside Outside by Lizi Boyd (you can read about these adventures in a post by my teaching partner here).

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So there were no surprises yesterday when we began to read about Owly and Wormy.  Our older students were eager to “read” as we turned pages under the document camera, and it wasn’t long before our young students began to join in, volunteering their own readings.

Wordless books, and particularly those with a graphic format, allow confident readers to emerge–even if they are still struggling with decoding print.  Our students showed off their wealth of symbolic knowledge–recognizing that a four leaf clover in a speech bubble is a message of good luck and that a light bulb represents a new idea.

Imagine my delight when one of our first grade boys raised his hand…with two things to share. He quickly pointed out that this book was filled with verbs.  You might wonder what he was thinking…this is a wordless book.  But I knew that we had been working with vivacious verbs last week, using George Ella Lyon’s All the Water in the World and Thomas Locker’s Water Dance as mentor texts for this year’s first attempt at poetry.  As I asked this student about the verbs in the book, he pointed out that Owly and Wormy were reading, sleeping, planting…  It was obvious that he understands verbs!  (And I wish I had recorded the actual verbs he pointed out…they were better than my memory!)  I don’t remember the second thing he shared–it was relevant–but not as exciting as his noticing of verbs in a wordless book!

We’ll continue our study of graphic novels, focusing on the features as we connect back to Owly and Wormy and also to Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke (a hybrid graphic novel/picture book that we read the first week of school to talk about what we needed to do to get along as a community).

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And we’ll take our study further as we explore Hatke’s latest graphic novel, The Little Robot as a class read aloud.

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The more I read wordless books and graphic novels, the more I am intrigued by the power of images and the resulting power of words that my students bring to our conversations about these rich, complex, and layered books.

What are your favorite wordless books and graphic novels to use with students?  For yourself?

Words Have Power

Words have power.  They can hurt…and they can heal.

Our students have been learning about our local history.  They’ve studied the lives of the first settlers, learned about the homestead act, and are fascinated by the stories of those who lived here before us.  And they’ve taken these stories and invented their own playground game.  They call it history.  Essentially, they role-play the lives of these early settlers–some playing the adults, others the children.  (Our school is a part of that history–one of the early schools of the area)

But at lunch recess today, it all went wrong.  Things got rough, and mean words and hurtful actions happened.  We got a heads-up from one of the playground monitors, and expected to see tears as we headed out to our students.  But things were surprisingly calm…until we started to walk back to the classroom.  As the story unfolded, we got a glimpse at both our students’ creativity and imagination…and the escalation of energy, excitement, with some poor choices sprinkled on top of it all.  It became clear that this was not a scuffle between two students, it was a result of good intention, poor choices, swelling anger, and overreaction.

So instead of the plan we had in mind for the afternoon, we decided to address this incident with the entire class…to help our classroom community grow and hopefully give students more tools to use to resolve their own problems.

After talking through the pain and frustration and hearing a variety of perspectives, my teaching partner Margit pulled out a book she had bought a few weeks ago…one we were saving for a time when it seemed useful…and she began to read.  Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus tells the story of Gandhi’s grandson and his feelings of anger…and of not living up to his grandfather’s reputation and expectations.  The ultimate message is that anger is a normal emotion that we all experience–it’s how we deal with it that matters.  Gandhi explains to his grandson that anger is like electricity.  It can split a living tree in two.  Or, he explains, it can be channeled and transformed.  A switch can be flipped and it can shed light like a lamp.  We can all work to use our anger instead of letting anger use us.


We talked about the difference between being a bystander–one who stands by and sees things escalating and chooses to do nothing.  Or we can be upstanders, people who make a positive difference and think about how they can help.  People who notice when things are escalating and make an effort to change the dynamic.  For our young students, that might mean summoning an adult or using kind, calm language to help their classmates remember to pay attention to the choices they are making.

Our students took some time to breathe out the pain of the negative lunch interaction and breathe in some warm light…and turned to a partner to talk about what they learned from Arun Gandhi’s story of his grandfather.  One student asked me, before heading out for afternoon recess, if they could still play the history game or if it was now off limits.  I responded by reminding that the game itself wasn’t bad…and that I believed they could play the game as long as they remembered what had gone wrong before, and made different choices.

Our students are wonderful.  They are inquisitive, imaginative, and caring.  And they are kids. They get excited, wound up…and sometimes they make choices that get them into trouble. The words we use as adults are powerful too.  We can use them to punish or we can use them teach.

As we sent our students off for spring break today, I could feel the caring and the healing in our community.  We all learned today.  Words hurt…and words healed…and we all learned.

Architecture: The Structure of Learning

We have a beautiful urban park here in San Diego.  Open space, trees, a lily pond, fountains, trails, museums and restaurants…including some ornate and historic architecture that dates back to the Panama-California exhibition in 1915.  In these storied surroundings, I’ve been spending time with a group of formal and informal educators investigating ways to improve school field trips through a project we call Intersections.  (I’ve written before about it here and here.)

As I spent the day at the San Diego Natural History Museum today, observing a group of high school students on a field trip, I found myself thinking about architecture.


As the educator-researchers in our group discussed what we observed watching students during their field trip today, our conversation moved to the carefully planned structures that support students’ independence and dispositions toward learning.  Field trips have traditionally depended on adult-centered structures that keep students “on-task,” ensuring that the trip has documented educational value in the form of completed packets of answered questions rather than trusting students to be interested in what they find in front of them.

Over lunch, our Intersections leadership team chatted with an external evaluator–a part of our larger National Science Foundation grant– about our observations and tentative conclusions. And we found ourselves thinking about and talking about all the learning that happens that we are not able to document.  When we take students outside the classroom, what are we hoping for?  What can they learn that the classroom environment doesn’t offer?  And why then, do we keep trying to make field trips more like school?

As I look at this photo of a young woman using her cell phone to photograph an owl, I wonder how we encourage students to use tools and processes they use outside of school to support their own learning.  How will this student use this photograph?  What was she aiming for as she composed the image?  How can students’ digital lives interact in positive ways with their school lives?


And as my colleague described her understanding of the development of social capacity, a concept important in her binational work, my understanding of the learning that happens on field trips continued to evolve.  A field trip is not a classroom lesson, it is a social event, a shared learning experience outside the school environment.  And while students certainly learn some content, they are also developing social capacity–as representatives of their school and class in a public arena.  They are navigating unfamiliar spaces, coming in contact with people they don’t usually see, interacting with adults–docents, volunteers, vendors, scientists, researchers–and exploring materials not present in their classrooms and schools.


And in the best of situations they are figuring out how to interact with the space, people, and information in meaningful ways.  I loved this informal game I observed today…a chaperone and his group spontaneously started counting the animals they spied in this coastal sage environment.  Someone saw 9…and another saw 12, someone else saw 15.  They started pointing them out to each other, looking closely, naming what they saw.


And another researcher watched a pair of students challenge each other on the native/nonnative quiz in the patio area.  The goal was to win…and the game was calling on prior knowledge and combining it with what they were observing in the exhibit.  And they were having fun…being social, laughing, enjoying themselves…and learning.

So what is the underlying architecture of a successful field trip…that structure that enables students to engage in learning on their own terms?  That takes advantage of the place and the richness of expertise and artifacts that aren’t present in the classroom?  And that honors the beauty and elegance of learning…not for a grade or a test, but because we are inspired and motivated to learn because we are learners–driven to make sense of our world, on our own terms.





Learning in the Intersections

You all probably remember them, those iconic experiences of heading out on a school day with your classmates and teacher to a local museum or art gallery to extend and enhance what was going on the in classroom…a field trip!  And in the best of times, those field trips are memorable, often motivating learning beyond the school curriculum.  Maybe one of those experiences even fueled your passion for a particular field of study.

But often, field trips are fraught with conflict.  Are you heading out of the classroom to “do school” somewhere else?  Is it a free day of fun with friends where the learning is incidental and accidental…if it happens at all?  What role do teachers and museum personnel play in the field trip experience? What about chaperones?  And what about students and their interests and passions?

Through Intersectionsa project funded by the National Science Foundation through the National Writing Project and the Association of Science and Technology Centersthe San Diego Area Writing Project, in partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center,has been exploring the conflicts and tensions surrounding field trips.

In our second year of investigating how to support student learning in the context of a field trip, we have learned a lot.  Most significantly, we’ve learned the power of the interaction and co-learning of formal educators (those who work in school settings) and informal educators (those who work in out-of-school spaces like museums).  We discovered that our goals for student learning are mostly the same, and through our interactions, we have reconsidered how we might achieve those goals.  But first we had to let go of all that we have no control over–including exhibit layout and signage, field trip costs and transportation, and the uneven qualifications of chaperones, especially when it comes to facilitating student learning.

We’ve decided this year to focus on ways to support students as agents of their own learning, depending less on the adults who accompany them and trusting that a rich museum experience will result in meaningful learning–even when students do not complete worksheets that ensure they have learned specific facts or answered a series of questions delineated by grade level standards.

So we have asked teachers to prepare students for their trip by asking them to explore the exhibit, noting what interests them, and taking back interesting tidbits and lingering questions for further investigation through the creation of some kind of project back in the classroom following the trip.  And to better understand how this works in action–with a variety of grade levels and school contexts–we are observing students in action through a series of field trip pilots.

Today we observed sixth graders in action.  They came with a charge–to notice adaptations of plants and animals evident in the Coast to Cactus exhibit so they could create a project displaying their learning back at school next week.


We watched students looking closely, in conversation with each other as they observed live animals in the exhibit.


Students working alone, taking notes from the exhibit signage.  And others in pairs and triads, some taking photos, others sketching, and some simply flipping buttons and spinning dials.


This student seems to be under surveillance by both the researcher and the stuffed deer as he takes notes from the informational placard.


Some students found cozy nooks to meet and write–like inside this Bambi airstream that is a part of the exhibit.  While others took a bit of time away to see how many boys would fit inside the hollow tree trunk while a classmate looked on and snapped their photo!


And the questions linger.  How much like school should a field trip be?  Do students need to “on task” by completing forms, taking notes, answering questions…  Or can they be talking to each other, turning dials, inventing their own competitions and games related to the exhibits, crawling through tunnels and squeezing into tree trunks…and still be learning?  Do they need to “do” the museum, reading each sign, looking at each artifact from start to finish?  Or is it okay to  focus their time and attention on the areas that most pique their interests?

I’m interested in what these students will create when they head back to school.  How will the visit to the museum influence their project?  What will they remember most about this trip?  Will they come back on their own, with their families?  How would they use the museum if left to their own devices?

We are paying attention to the intersections of formal and informal learning, of writing and science…and of student interest driven inquiry and teacher/adult directed learning.  And with each pilot field trip, I have more questions about supporting student learning as we work to help students initiate and shape their own learning using field trips as a tool.

How do you view the iconic field trip?  How do you prepare your students/your own children for out-of-school learning experiences?  What outcomes do you hope for when you think field trip?  We’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!

“Do we get iterations?” : Creating a Culture of Innovation

Over the last few years, my teaching partner Margit Boyesen and I have been working to help our young students develop persistence and grit…and to see themselves as producers in the learning process. We’ve been trying to explode the notion that learning is something that takes place only within the walls of the classroom and is assigned by teachers. We aim to have students learn more by doing than by listening, and as much as we can, we try to have students engage in meaningful projects that extend the learning environment beyond the school and whenever possible connect them to others who are interested in or engaged in similar endeavors.

These are lofty goals—and like other classroom teachers we are faced with state standards, accountability measures, and even the often slow to change expectations of parents, the community, and the educational system. But we also believe that students who are persistent problem solvers, designers, and communicators will have the skills they need to succeed in testing situations and in the world. But mostly, we believe learning should be fun…for our students and for ourselves.

And we’re lucky. Margit and I co-teach a multiage class of first, second, and third graders. Twice as many students, two interconnected classroom spaces, and students we get to teach for three years. Unlike many teachers, Margit and I don’t teach in isolation and our planning involves starting with an idea and building on each other’s thinking, adding to and challenging the whys and hows until we land on the lessons we will facilitate with our students. Two teachers in the classroom give us flexibility in supporting students…and in challenging them.

Thanks to our San Diego Area Writing Project colleague, Abby Robles, we added an advanced vocabulary routine to our instruction a few years ago. We include the target word without defining it (last week’s was precarious) in our morning message and ask students to think of possible synonyms based on the context. Students refine their guesses through the week, continuing to use new context clues from each day’s message until the definition is revealed on Thursday. Students help to generate a gesture to use each time they hear the word…a gesture that also helps with remembering the meaning.  We select words to enhance the learning we have planned–to give authentic context for using the word and for our students to incorporate it into their personal vocabulary through experience.


Because we are interested in design and making, last year we introduced the word iteration to our class…and the practice of iteration as an intentional part of our teaching. (I wrote last year about a project that focused on iteration here.) And not only did our students learn the definition of the word iteration, they also began to recognize the value of iteration in their learning. It was obvious when we started programming using the app Hopscotch, that computer programmers value iteration. And that language of designing: imagining, trying out, testing, and improving as a continual loop began to permeate our classroom. Instead of talking about writing as drafting, revising, and final drafts…we started to talk about iterations, and gave students opportunities to plan, write, try out, improve. Another iteration became a much friendlier and positive way to talk about revision…and better yet, students started to ask for opportunities to iterate, in their writing and in all their projects.

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“Do we get iterations?” became a common question as students began a new project or a new writing piece. And Margit and I found ourselves asking whether we had given students enough opportunity to iterate when we saw the elevated level of work and the increased creativity of products students produced when they could go beyond a single try.

As school began this year, we intentionally built opportunities for iteration into our instruction. And when we forgot, we often revised our lessons to allow for time to iterate. On our first day of school this year we planned a “mini make” out of a piece of aluminum foil and before the end of the lesson, we added time for a second iteration the following day. This practice of iteration has developed a culture in our classroom that supports collaboration, persistence and innovation. I was reminded of this today as students were working on an Alexander Calder-inspired mobile design challenge. Our forty-four students were at different stages of work on two projects: getting their individual blog titled and about me page posted and gathering materials to start on the mobile project. While it was “a lovely mess” in the words of my teaching partner, it was calm, productive, and collaborative. Margit and I each helped individual students…with their blogs, with cutting pipe cleaners and ribbon lengths, threading strings through “doo-dads,” and more. And what’s better, students were helping each other too. They were free to move around, collect materials as needed, be the second set of hands for tying a tricky piece of string or holding the growing mobile from the top as the creator worked on balance elements. And as time flew by, I could feel the flow of learning our students were engaged in.

hands mobile

When I think of cultivating a culture of innovation, I think of the power of iteration and the design process. In order to risk doing something new or different, its important to know that your first effort isn’t your only effort. When students ask about iterations, they are asking if they can try something new, if they can start over again, if they can learn from their attempts—even those that didn’t work the first time around. And they learn to persist and help each other out too, because that’s what we do in this culture of exploration and deep learning.

And even better, this attitude toward learning changes our teaching too. We also find ourselves in a culture of innovation, as teachers and co-learners. We can try that project that involves something new that we aren’t even sure exactly how it will work—especially with a classroom full of students—because we know that our first attempt isn’t the only attempt. Like our students, we get to iterate too, refining our teaching, our expectations, our processes as we innovate and work to provide meaningful learning experiences for this generation of learners.

Considering Scale

Exploring different camera lenses changes my experiences with scale.  With the macro lens, I am able to magnify things that are small and make them appear larger than life.  The blossoms on this flowering tree look much different when you get up close.

cherry tree

cherry blossoms

Yesterday I was playing with my telephoto lens, and exploring the options it gives me when I take photos.  Pelicans up close are huge birds…here’s an old photo I took on the Oceanside pier with my iPhone standing pretty close to the bird.

pelican in flight

Here’s another I took yesterday using my telephoto lens looking out into the distance as I watched the pelican soar over the waves.

peleican in flight

I also noticed these hang gliders in the distance as the fog began to roll in.  They are tiny specks in the distance, framed by the beach cliffs.

hang gliders in the fog

I also had the opportunity to zoom in as the glider came closer and closer to me.

hang glider up close

What I know is I have a lot more exploring to do with determining which kinds of shots lend themselves to which lenses.  I was wishing for my smaller lens at some points during my beach walk yesterday when I had my telephoto with me.  And I definitely have moments when I am wishing for my telephoto when I have my smaller lens.  I’m not all that comfortable changing lenses in the moment…maybe I just need to accept that I will work with the lens I am using at the moment.

And as always, I find myself thinking about how this idea of scale works in the educational area. When do we need to pull back and look at the big picture, dismissing the fine details to see the overall view?  And when do we need to zoom in…with the telephoto to bring things that are in the distance closer or with the macro to magnify the small details and make them visible?  I definitely love the way my camera helps me think about my work…the macro, the telephoto, the big picture, and the individual learner.  Scale definitely matters.