Tag Archives: complexity

This and That: Consider the Microclimates

I live in a place filled with contrasts.  There is the breezy casual of the beach to the west and less than a thirty minute drive away you can be hiking into dry, hot hillsides, exploring vineyards or admiring the abundance of avocado groves.  Our weather reporters call them microclimates…and we tend to be adapted to the microclimate where we spend most of our time.  But what I love most about this place that I call home is that it is not either/or, it is this and that.

Just this weekend I spent time in two of these contrasting spaces…equally beautiful, equally interesting, but entirely different from each other.  I loved exploring the old oak forest as I walked in the dappled sunshine…and looking up in surprise as I watched a mule deer leap across the path I was walking.  It was hot early as I hiked uphill and I could see evidence of wildfires past and the dry brush that continues to be a threat for future fires.

coast live oak

And the beach is always a source of inspiration.  The holiday weekend prompted us to get up early and walk the beach before the crowds arrived.  It was sunny and warm and the water was unusually clear.  We noticed sand sharks and stingrays swimming a few yards from us as the waves crashed.  The water was warm by our standards…up to 70 degrees, perfect for barefoot walking.

beach castles

I’m so happy that I don’t have to chose to love and visit only one part of my place.  I’m feeling like there is such a push to simplify our choices, to turn every decision and discussion to the binary choice.  Right or wrong, left or right, boxers or briefs, apples or oranges.  In my experience, those binaries just don’t represent the rich complexities of everyday life.  Just this morning a friend sent an article about “balanced literacy” where the author lamented the kind of “conventionally rigorous” instruction he had received as a young English learner.  The article implied that “balanced literacy” was essentially an absence of teaching compared to the experience with the effort-full teaching he had received in his childhood.

I’m reminded of the reading wars in the not too distant past.  The phonics versus whole language debate that implied an either/or approach to teaching.  These arguments miss the subtleties and complexities of teaching and learning.  This “all teacher” or “all student” approach ignores the body of student-centered teaching that effective teachers practice every day.  It dismisses the diversity of the needs and interests of students as irrelevant and assumes that if the teacher simply transmits enough information, students will learn what they need to learn.

Let’s start a new conversation.  One that is about learners: teacher learners and student learners. Let’s bring their microclimates into the conversation.

Systems Thinking

In addition to learning about circuits in the Hacking Your Notebook session, that I described here, at the NWP Annual Meeting in Boston, I also had the opportunity to participate in a three-hour workshop about e-textiles where we made puppets.  This session also involved the basics of circuitry and using a small battery to light up LEDs.

But Melissa and Kylie framed their session in the theory of systems thinking, which has continued to occupy my mind and thoughts ever since I left the session.  They talked about the ways we often simplify explanations in our society by turning to a binary cause and effect model.  Here’s an example of the cause and effect model: if we elect a new president, then the economy will turn around.  Actually, there are many other factors that impact the end result…and in fact, who is president may not even be the most important factor.

Our educational system (and our government) seems to spend a lot of time in the simple cause and effect model, rather than helping our students think more deeply about systems and the ways there are multiple factors, interconnections, and possibilities at work in the outcomes we see.  So the making of puppets in this workshop was about more than learning how circuits work or developing language and writing related to the puppet, it was also a way to think about systems and the problem solving and iteration that it takes to understand and make changes to the overall system.

So…with systems in mind, we proceeded to explore circuits with a watch battery, LED lights, and wired alligator clips.  Because of my work with circuits the day before, this part was super easy!  And then they asked us to explore how a switch would work.  It didn’t take much to figure out how to touch the switches to each to open and close the circuit, lighting the LED, and then separating them to turn off the light.

Our goal was to make a puppet that had a light (or two) that would light when you turn on the switch (or make a connection that closes the circuit and turns on the light).  We had two pieces of felt cut out in a puppet pattern, a battery holder, a LED light, and two switches (small pieces of conductive material) along with a host of buttons, ribbons, fabric, yarn, and other materials to use to decorate the puppet.

We began by making a plan.  Tracing our puppet on paper, we drew a diagram of where we would sew our battery holder, LED light(s), and switches, labeling the +/- poles and drawing in the stitches we would sew in with conductive thread.  Having our model in front of us to plan was a perfect step.  We could test and physically trace how the connections should flow as we drew the diagram.

Like in yesterday’s post, there were trickier plans I could have tried, but I opted for a simple plan that I knew I could complete in the time allotted.  And then I got to work.


As people worked through their plans and settled into sewing their circuit the room hushed and you could see the intensity of engagement.


For some the sewing was the hardest part, for others it was working through the circuitry, and for others it was totally about creating the puppet character they had in mind.  Here’s my end result…his heart lights up when his hands touch.


There are definitely some things I would do differently the next time I make a puppet.  I learned after I had sewn my circuit in that putting the hands together covered the light…you can see a glow, but it isn’t the effect I had in my head.  Other people were working on pirates and butterflies, some with eyes that lit, some with noses that lit.

And my takeaway has much more to do with systems thinking than it has to do with circuits. I find that I have a better grasp of how to explain some of the approaches I use in my classroom.  Like why design is so important to student learning, why mistakes are valuable to learning…if you take the time to work through what you did and figure out a better outcome, and why students need space to create their own plans and work through the spaces where things are not working the way they intend.

It also has me thinking about other learning opportunities.  I learned to sew as a child, and making clothes and other project definitely involves some systems thinking.  You have to think fabric, including weight, texture, stretch…  Even using a pattern, you have to think about how to lay out the pattern to make best use of the fabric, work with the grain, match the design if the fabric has one…

I’m worried when we make things in the classroom too “neat” that we are working harder and learning more than our students.  That’s one of the things I love best (and hate the most) about teaching writing.  When it’s at its best, it’s messy.  I can have an overall plan in mind for the outcome, but my students benefit from getting “just right” instruction along the way.  And not all my students need the same instruction…and some benefit from learning by watching and listening to their classmates.

After all, the classroom is another system.  When you tweak one aspect, there are many working parts that are impacted.  As an educator it’s important to problem solve and iterate.  It is impossible to make a year-long (or even week-long) plan that won’t change if you are really paying attention to the needs of your students.  We can help break things down for our students, but they also need to figure out how to examine the pieces of a system for themselves in order to understand how the parts interact with the whole.  After all, our students today will be the leaders of tomorrow!

What do you do in the classroom to help your students understand and work through the complexities of systems?

10 Picture Books on August 10th

I’ve done a couple of recent posts about mentor texts I use in my classroom and recently I noticed a challenge by some other teachers about a Picture Book 10 for 10 Challenge.  #pb10for10  Their invitation is to share ten picture books you can’t live without on August 10th.  So today is August 10th…and my picture books are all in my classroom.

I had almost abandoned the idea of sharing my picture book favorites since I don’t have easy access to them today.  But then I spent the morning with my SDAWP colleagues at UCSD thinking about complex texts–both reading and writing–which led me to think about the ways I use texts in combination in the classroom.  So I started thinking about some of favorite picture books for the classroom…and how I often layer books to create more complexity and deeper meaning with my students.  These books come from the top of head (with the help of the web to sort out the actual titles and authors)…you don’t get pictures or excerpts…just what I can remember!


I’ll start with a few that I used with my students to examine abstract concepts.  Most of them use the idea of color in different and interesting ways.

1.  The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor:  This book is a gem (like most of the others by this author).  I love the way she describes colors using senses other than sight.  I wish I had my book handy to include an excerpt!  Read it — you won’t be disappointed!

2.  The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin:  This book, all in black in white, is gorgeous!  The use of texture and Braille add a fresh dimension to this book…and reinforces the need to use powerful sensory language in descriptions.

3.  The Sound of Colors by Jimmy Liao:  This book describes the experience of a blind girl as she travels in the New York subway system.  Imagination takes the girl on a powerful journey. What do you experience when you aren’t able to see?

4.  The Colors of Us by Karen Katz:  This books offers way to describe the colors of our skin in beautiful and appreciative ways.

5.  What Does Peace Feel Like? by Vladimir Rudunsky:  This book is a collection of similes and metaphors from students describing peace–helping to bring some concreteness to this big and abstract concept.

6.  If… by Sarah Perry:  This books takes a fanciful journey into the imagination and invites students to imagine if worms had wheels and other fanciful and surrealistic ideas.

And I also love books that are about math and nature.  Two more favorites that I used this past year to support my students’ understanding of the Fibonacci sequence and its appearance in the natural world.

7.  Wild Fibonacci: Nature’s Secret Code Revealed by Joy N. Hulme:  This book explores the appearance of Fibonacci numbers in the natural world–mostly focusing on the spiral.

8.  Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by  Joyce Sidman:  This book is another look at Fibonacci’s sequence and spirals using spectacular illustrations.

And to round out my ten, two other books I purchased this summer and intend to use with students this year.

9.  One Hen by Katie Smith Milway:  A book about micro loans and how small investments can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

And one more math and science focused book

10.  Dave’s Down-to-Earth Rock Shop by Stuart J. Murphy;  This book combines geology and classification as the characters devise new ways to sort and display their rock collection.

I look forward to seeing what picture books other people love.  I’m always looking for new books to inspire my students’ thinking and to help them understand complex concepts.  I’m especially interested in those hidden treasures that somehow don’t get the attention of the large bookstore chains…and yet have wonderful content, language, and illustrations.  What picture books do you love?