Monday, December 14, 2009

Word Webs

We are finishing up our geology unit, and getting ready to do a final project and a final assessment. To review, I made sets of cards with all kinds of rock- and soil-related vocabulary on it. Working in small, teacher-led groups, we went through the cards and talked about what they meant. For some things, we taped examples of the material right onto the card (like gravel, or sand.) For others, students drew quick pictures of something to remind them of what it means. For example, Alex drew a window on the card that said "transparent," and Yolanda drew a wooden block on the card that said "opaque."

Then we put the cards down all over the table, and I asked who could find some that went together. The rules were:
  • You can move the cards around wherever you want on the table.
  • You can put together 2 or more cards.
  • Even if someone already moved a card, you can move it again to put it with another word or words.
  • For any move you make, you have to explain why you put those words together.
(I learned this activity at an Expeditionary Learning Schools institute about 3 years ago but had never tried it before.)

They had a blast, and did a mind-boggling job of connecting words. Here are some examples:
  • Keisha put "clay" next to "rock" because "when rocks get very, very, very, very tiny, they turn into clay."
  • Alex put "roots" next to "humus" because "trees and plants grow in humus."
  • They made this tower of materials that come from rocks, from biggest to smallest:

  • Najah immediately put "water" next to "rock." Curious, I looked at her. "Why did you put those together?" I asked. "Because water is one of the things that makes rocks smaller and smoother!" she announced proudly.
  • Keisha (who has some considerable learning challenges), put 3 cards in order like this:

"Because if you put rocks in a volcano, they turn into lava!"
  • Shawn put "glassy" next to "ice" because ice is glassy. Then someone else put "iceberg" next to "ice" because icebergs are made of ice, and they are both glassy.
  • Alex put "dull" next to "tree." "Because wood is dull," he announced.
  • To my surprise, Yolanda put "dull" next to "opaque." "A lot of things that are dull are opaque," she told me. "And wood is dull, and it is opaque." I thought about it and agreed. Not everything that is opaque is dull, but everything that is dull is opaque (I think).
It was another great moment of teaching, of intellectual excitement and spark. Having the words in front of them really helped them remember what they have learned, and how it all connects. They put things together that I never would have thought of. And all of the connecting and reasoning works to spark their synapses, helping these ideas stick in their brains.

And, once again, it came from geology... Don't tell my dad that I found out, after years of complaining about geology, that rocks could be so fun!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Spark

Yesterday, in the first days of December, it finally happened in my class. After three months of learning together every day, we finally had an intellectually exciting conversation that had my students enthralled.

This class was not overjoyed about performing mineral tests or looking for rocks outside. Finding patterns in lists of equations does not excite them. Reading many stories by Ezra Jack Keats and learning all about him didn't do it for them. Books that in other years have sparked conversations about race and identity seemed not to register. Thinking about maps and the ways people use them passed unnoticed. Many of the lessons and projects that have, in the past, led to waving, wiggling hands and excited bursts of conversation had little impact on this class.

Don't get me wrong: they have had fun in my class. They do enjoy filling their pockets with rocks, but more in a collector's style than that of a geologist. They love to cook (and I think we should cook more). When we went roller skating, they demonstrated incredible persistence and cheer, despite repeated bruising falls. They have worked hard on a huge mural of a local neighborhood we visited that accompanies graphs of data they collected on that visit. They love to hear a good story.

But they have enjoyed many of these things as children, not as learners. Of course they have learned from them, and of course they are children, and should enjoy things as children. It's just that this group is not particularly intellectually engaged (yet). They are very, very wiggly. They are quite concerned with what each other are doing at every moment, and love to tell each other what to do. They always have urgent needs, whether for the bathroom or a glass of water or to see the nurse. There is, in fact, an incredible, often overwhelming amount of activity and conversation going on in my classroom. It's just that most of it does not center around learning.

So, great authors didn't do it. Exploring rocks didn't do it. Maps of unknown places had no effect. What is the subject that, this week, has made my students watch and listen with wide eyes, wave their hands in the air, and beg to share their ideas? Ladies and gentlemen, we have been thinking about what makes rocks get smaller and smoother.

When we did these lessons last year, they passed virtually unnoticed. Although my students had fun brainstorming where rocks come from, and they enjoyed the exploration of sand, silt, clay, pebbles, gravel, and humus, it wasn't a topic that particularly grabbed them. This year, though, the second graders are fascinated.

For two days we brainstormed what might make rocks smaller and smoother: water falling on them, or when they bounce around in a river. Tree roots pushing them. People walking on them, or cars driving on them. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and volcanoes came up. Meteorites were a subject of great debate. We went outside and looked around to see what evidence we could find of changing rocks. We made lists. We talked a lot about where sand comes from. How come you can't lie down on a bunch of pebbles and be comfortable, but sand, which is just pebbles made much smaller, is soft to lie on?

Teo was quite sure that people make sand. "How do you think they do that?" I asked. "They rub rocks," he answered confidently. "Whose job do you think that is?" I wondered, grinning. "Geologists!" he replied. Silly teacher. He described groups of geologists whose only job all day was rubbing rocks, in order to make all the sand on all the beaches. Lovely.

Yesterday, we read a book that talked about rocks, soil, and sand. They were entranced. I drew pictures of mountains, boulders, rivers, and oceans on the board. They asked why sand sticks together when it's wet. They wondered how rocks melt in fire (like in a volcano). They frowned when I talked about the earth moving, as in an earthquake. (How can the earth move?)

It was fun. It was so fun. As I sat there listening, and as they sat there listening to each other with a minimum of redirection, I had a flash of what I love about being a teacher. The fact that I didn't feel it until December this year does not make me too optimistic about the rest of the year. But at least the spark came this once.