Friday, May 27, 2016

The Making of Green Acres: a game inspired by the mathematical needs of children

Math is my thing. In our co-teacher partnerships, we have found it useful to take the reins in different areas so that we can really dive in. We become the visionary for that area of work in third grade. Math is mine. So naturally I’m always trying to think about how to reach everyone. Some children love math and know they love math. It is almost like they are born calculating. Others, for whatever reason, can be harder to convince. Unfortunately math is a drudgery for them and they would rather be doing just about anything else. Bummer. As an educator, it is hard to sit with. I’m not really ready to accept that their current opinion has to be the final say on the matter. I’m certainly not going to go down without a fight because I think math should matter to everyone. (As a side note, if I hear one more adult say something like, “I’m not really a math person!” especially in front of young impressionable minds, I just might explode.) The desire to bring math to everyone is something I’ve pondered for years, but this year the quest was extra poignant and swirled in my head for months. A few seeds came along the way to help.

The first seed was a strategy one family had to help their child buy into doing math. They talked frequently about how much she was going to need math to run the horse stable she dreams of owning someday. She often came in talking about how she was going to need to calculate prices of horses, or how much feed they would need. There is going to be a lot of math involved in running a horse stable, so she was willing to settle in and work on something she did not have a passion for (yet!) because of her dream. This is a strategy I have seen used to various degrees over the years but in this case it was connected so directly to something that is the key to her third grade heart.

It’s true! Math is so much a part of any other dreams one might have in life. Numbers can take you where ever else you might want to go, open doors, provide opportunities to do anything else you can possibly dream up. I mean this quite literally. If you want to travel, numbers make it happen. If you want to start a bakery or an organic farm, numbers make it happen. If you want to buy a house or even build a tree house, numbers get the job done. So what if there were a way to help math bring children things they want IN CLASS?

The second seed came from watching children play. We have been thinking a lot in the past few years about play in the classroom. We’ve been students of the culture of childhood looking to what they could teach us about how they learn.Children have an inborn way of processing and making sense of the world around them called play. How can we harness that power and work WITH it?

Many of the third graders this year loved to build little imaginary villages for fairies or dragons. Simple materials became an entire new world. Sticks became houses, rocks became dragon eggs, clovers and wild strawberries filled the market place. With a bit of nature at their fingertips they had whatever they wanted. I know of nothing as compelling to children as play. How could we bring elements of that play into the room and use them to also move us forward in math?
The type of beautiful fairy creations we typically see on the playground. 

I’ll spare you the details about what happened after that. I’m actually not sure if I know how it all happened aside from some fun brainstorming with my co-teacher, Mauren, and our lovely math specialist, Cat Henney. But however we got there, the result was (insert trumpets announcing) ...bum buh buh… Green Acres!! The most exciting, fast moving, all inclusive economy-based game to ever grace our classroom.

While the game is still quite young, here are some reasons I love Green Acres so far:

The buy-in was instant. The conversations the children have as they plot and plan their next moves in the game go on during any spare second of the day. They elect to work on planning committees during snack. They talk as we walk over to lunch. They gather support for their newest plan during carpool. They groan and pitch a fit on the morning we have shorter math time. Someone even complained to me today how disappointed they were that tomorrow is field day because they won’t get to play the game.
People were glued from the moment we started.

Something for Everyone
Because there are so many varied tasks, people can find their edge. Every child is working, but they are (sometimes with a little help from us) finding areas that are exciting enough to be engaging, but not so overwhelming that they quit. When we see a snag we can add a piece of structure or accountability, or simplify a process to help keep things on track all within the context of the game.

math… Math … MATH!!!!
The children are doing so… much… MATH! They calculate and calculate and calculate and calculate some more. They do hundreds of math problems but are so happy to because it gets them to their goal. Today you should have seen the hairy problems people were sitting through because they knew it was going to get the class to their long term goal.
These are one farm worker's calculations for a round of the game.
The work would have otherwise been so monotonous,
but because of the context he stuck with it so that they
 could get closer to the class's goal. 

And what’s more is that many of the tasks are set up to promote work on really foundational skills-- things I’ve been wanting to find way to reinforce all year and now the children are willingly doing those tasks thousands of times and growing more efficient with each round.

Continuous Challenge
Naturally over time the children master parts of the game. Pieces that were once challenging could become more menial. However, a curious thing happens in this game. As you earn money and upgrade your farm, it produces more. Suddenly you are doing the same task but with bigger numbers. It seems that the game has a way of naturally stepping up the challenge all on its own. 

Power of Context
Giving these math tasks a context breathes life into them. With a story, pom pom become chickens and ping pong balls become eggs. A red box becomes a barn and marbles become apples. The other day in the middle of the game Ian said something like, “I never knew that counting some stuff and then walking over there and counting some more stuff could be so fun!” It really is all just simple, ordinary stuff, but the context makes it so much more.

* * *

Moving forward, many questions remain. Will other groups of children find this game as compelling or is there something about this group of children that makes the connection to the game so strong? Will the children continue to choose challenges to put out in front of themselves that will keep them engaged? How long will this game be able to keep them interested?

Time will tell, but for now hats off to Green Acres and the kids who make it sparkle.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Our beloved studio teacher, Lauren, shared this beautiful blog about the process of transfer in helping us with our history investigation.

Friday, March 25, 2016


In Reggio they often say that beauty is a way of knowing. I always think of that idea when I see things like this.

And isn't it fascinating to watch some brains that are good at calculations really struggle with something like symmetry and those that struggle with calculations make intricate symmetrical designs in a moment with hardly any effort at all. 

One that explains their thinking finds it hard to tie shoes. One that builds easily has trouble putting their ideas into words. One that works hard to read can make friends with anyone. One that reads speedily isn't sure how to keep a friend. One who works to contain emotions writes like a poet.

Oh, all the types of brains in this world! Are we... am I making enough room for them all?

Printing History in my Heart

Every other Thursday we have a lunch meeting between my, my co-teacher, one of our atelierista, Lauren, and our pedigogista, Susan. We coordinate our work with the children, which at the moment is focused on using their family histories to learn about the past. They have been printing with our atelierista in her studio, so we decided that this week's meeting should be a time for her to teach us the printing techniques the children were learning to use. Best. Meeting. EVER.

While I was working to print pictures that told of my own family history, I began to wonder what impact working with these images would have on the children's minds. I fantasized about them as adults trying to access some bit of historical knowledge and pulling up these striking images. In my opinion images are like smells-- they have more power in the memory than just words do. At least I think they do.

I also felt so light and relaxed after my time in the studio. There was a new bounce in my step on the way back to class. My hand tracing over the pictures had been like a great meditation. I'm almost certain my blood pressure was lowered as I sat there. But it had been a social meditation because we were each so proud of our prints. As we peeled them off we would gasp and squeal and share it all around stopping to notice each other's color choice or compositional decisions. We felt happy for each other when someone made a part they really liked. And then, by the end, I also felt differently about the pictures I had printed, like they had filtered through me. I owned them now in my heart. I loved them a thousand times more because I had gotten to make them.

I had watched the children make the prints for weeks, but until I made one myself I had no idea what it did to one's insides and one's mind.

This one represents the story of my great-great-great-great grandmother who was a blue-eyed Cherokee who could not marry her lover because it was an inter-racial relationship. As a single mother she went off to work and left their child with a family to babysit him. One day, without warning, that family decided to move out west and took the child with them. My grandmother returned from work to find her son and the family gone. She never saw him again but he is my grandfather. 

I got partway through making this whole picture very colorful. (I've really enjoyed seeing this old pictures that are always in black and white or sepia tone in bright , wild and surprising colors as the children brought them back to class). Then I had an idea. I erased what I had and retraced it being more selective about my color choices because over the years as we have studied immigration in third grade I've often wondered if it wasn't harder for the parents that it had been back home but that they did it because they dreamed of  the colors of the future.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Power of Children

This year for our school-wide Martin Luther King Day celebration we had “a day on” in which each class found ways to contribute in the spirit of Dr. King’s generous ways. After all of our initial hopes of this opportunity or that, we realized that most of our ideas wouldn’t work because it was a holiday and most people weren’t at work. Inspired by this realization we decided to thank those community helpers who WERE at work that day. The children wrote letters to doctors and nurses, firefighters, sanitation workers and police officers.

This is the point where I admit my own doubt. Would these pieces of paper with simple messages jotted on them really matter? I was a little apprehensive about delivering them and wondered if anyone would really care.

Well I was really wrong. People loved the notes… LOVED. As the children approached them and expressed their thanks and handed over the cards, the recipients were aglow with smiles from ear to ear. Many of them stopped what they were doing to give the children tours and engaged with them for over an hour.
With a turn of luck, we met the Chief of Police to deliver our notes.

The firefighters appreciated the recognition and thanks. 

They gave a tour of the station complete with trying on some gear.
The medical staff appreciated their notes
and took the children on a tour of the hospital.

Maybe it is my skepticism coming back into play, but I have a feeling that if I as an adult showed up with a card I had written, that I would NOT get the same response. In fact, Mauren just told me that she went with her mother once to deliver a deluxe gift basket to the firefighters full for delicious food and chocolate and were not shown the entire fire house and didn’t get to try on any gear. They got a quick and much less enthusiastic response. Why is that? It’s like a superpower that children have.

What can children do that adults can’t? What work can they (and only they) accomplish? I’ve started to take note and the more I look for it, the more I see it.

  • How about last year on MLK Day in Monroe park when the preschoolers handed out crowns that said things like “You are the king of the park!” or “I love you!” or “Have a nice day, friend!” to the residents there. Pure joy for those who got paper crowns. I’m thinking those messages written on a crown from me might not have had the same magical impact.
  • Remember last year when the third grade went out to give surveys about the Bus Rapid Transit and the children were able to talk to everyone and anyone. The coordinator who helped us mentioned how much more willing people were to talk to the children. They were able to get people to interact with them who otherwise wouldn’t have taken the survey.
  • Then there was the time a few years ago when the Kindergartners got on the bus and rode to City Hall. Everyone on the bus, riders and driver, were so kind and patient as every single Kindergartner put their quarters of fare in the machine one… by…. one…. The Kindergarteners  got the driver to slow down and honk and wave to their friend who was at home sick as they drove past her house. People enjoyed the children so much. It's been that way every time the Kindergarten has gone out on public transportation. They went just the other day on the train and all came home with bags of Amtrak posters and buttons from the workers there. That’s never happened to me on the bus or the train. It’s kid magic.
  • What about the children's drawings? They are so fresh. The little comics that the third graders make every year are so compelling in their own silly ways. And if adults try to copy children’s drawing styles it feels like a forgery, so unauthentic and posed.
  • We find the same power as children explain their thinking about topics like science. Each time they write a book about their investigation, we marvel over the way they say things. The fresh but completely true ideas they can say in a way we’d never see in anywhere else on earth. “Shadows are only darkness. Grass pokes through a shadow because it is only darkness.”

The list goes on and on. I’m sure I’ll keep adding to it as I’m watching for these moments.

Then just last week we went to see a play about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The whole play was really well done and had Mauren and myself in tears more than a few times. And the part that stood out most to us and many of the children was the part about the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. Adults were hesitant to march because their lives and their jobs were at stake, so instead children and teens turned up to march for their rights. I’m sure you’re familiar with the stories of the children turning out to march in peaceful protest only to be met with water blasting from fire hoses and police dogs. Most were put in jail. They showed up again and again until finally the fire hoses that were ordered to spray remained stopped and the police dogs remained locked up. The children marched through.

We talked about it back in class.

Tanner: Yeah, the kids finally had the power.

Roman:That’s when most people changed their mind because they weren’t going to let the bunch of children be bit by dogs and slammed against buildings because of one person who didn’t like them and also everybody else was starting to believe that it wasn’t good to segregate people. They saw it. They put up a pretty good tantrum about it so then the police stopped and everybody stopped.

Andrea: I kept thinking about my own little kids and I kept thinking, “I don’t know if I could take them to a protest to march if I KNEW that there was a chance that they were going to get hurt while they were there…

Roman: Or arrested!

Andrea: But then each time more and more children were showing up! Why were these kids going? Why were the parents letting their kids go to something they knew might be so dangerous and hard?

Gardner: Yeah- I was thinking about that too.

Andrea: So did they make the wrong choice? Should they have stayed home?

Gardner: They were trying to just help and if they did nothing then they would just keep on living the way they were already living.

Roman: They are not safe later on.

Tanner: Not for the rest of their life! Right then they are safe, but for the rest of their life they will never be safe.

Peyton: It is sort of like to the parents, "Do you want your kids to feel like they had an impact on basically changing the world[?]"

Andrea: In a way that I don’t think adults could have.

Peyton: Right! or on the other hand, "Do you want them to feel like they helped out!?!"
Cause mostly like kids they were hurt at the same time in [segregation] too. So the adults also want them to feel like “We made a stand and said this isn’t right!” and to do it peacefully.

What amazing heroes those kids were!!
I don’t mean to suggest that any of our experiences compare to those of the children of Birmingham  during those marches, but it was an incredible illustration of the power of children to do work that adults simply cannot do.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

Bridge Building Epilogue

Project work is so different from individual work. The collaboration is at the heart of it all. We value it so much in part because of the group thinking together-- the negotiating, the disagreeing, the explaining as clearly as possible in hopes to convince the group of your idea, the willingness to change one's mind because of the ideas of the group.

At the end of the bridge project we knew that each GROUP succeeded and that each child had benefited from that process, but just how much were they really taking with them? A recent experience made a big impact on me.

As part of our reflections on the project, some children got the K'nex back out to demonstrate some of their ideas. Since I was working mostly with another group, I wasn't present for most of the building, but when walked by later on, my jaw dropped (maybe even completely to the floor).

Within minutes all of the children were completing intricate, sturdy,  streamlined structures. Some children who had held back a bit within the collaborative setting were now working on their own creations with so much facility. There were also teams of children who worked efficiently and coordinated easily about their new structure. The vocabulary flowed easily as they shared their ideas along the way, coming to consensus about how they wanted to accomplish their goals. Every single child was moving forward as a master builder.

I thought back to the first day we got out the K'nex and how labored it was to make anything. In fact I don't even know if we DID make anything. This new moment was such a contrast. It was such a manifestation of what they had acquired through the earlier work and struggle. The K'nex made it all so much more visible. The K'nex were like picture of the type of learning and connecting I know went on in other less tangible ways. If I could see a picture of their flexible thinking or their ability to communicate their ideas, I'm confident that they would impress me just as much. They would be stronger, sturdier and more complex. The children would use them with more fluency and ease. The K'nex just made it all so visible.

These types of moments help to cement my confidence in "the process".

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Story of Revision

It has been a mantra for years at Sabot that “The story of one child is the story of all children” meaning that by focusing in on one learning experience helps us understand more about learners in general. I think it could also be said that the story of one bridge building group is the story of all bridge building groups. By telling the story of one group, we hope to highlight the type of thinking and work we see going on in all. While all groups’ experiences  are not identical, we see common threads of planning, building, testing, communicating, learning to let go and revising. We see each group needing to come to the question of what is best for their bridge. Below is a story of revision.

One group was given the assignment to build a bridge that went from the bottom of a cliff up to the top. After working for a while, the group had finished their first version.  As they tested it, they noticed that it wasn’t really working very well.  It wasn’t very stable and it collapsed easily. The car also had to drive almost vertically to the top of the cliff.

Eventually the group decided to scrap that idea and began to build bridge number two. It was really solid, but also REALLY heavy. There were several other design features that the group wondered about. It wasn’t a very smooth ride and there was the potential for the road to flip over off to one side.

While waiting for group members to finish a critical part of bridge number two, one group member designed a new tile inspired from things he had seen in other groups' designs. The new tile incorporated the X shape the children had noticed so frequently on our field trip. The new tile was sturdy but also light, much lighter than a similar sized section of their current design.

We got curious and measured the new tile and a section of design number 2.
There was a 21 gram difference.

Many of the team members seemed to instinctively understand that this new tile design was going to be useful but without even a conversation about changing or without a concrete plan of any kind, three members of the team sat down and started making one tile after another. It was interesting that even during their work they mentioned how they were NOT going to use these tiles. Eventually, when they had made as many as they could, they showed their work to the rest of their team. There was instantly a unanimous decision to switch to a third plan…. well almost. There was one child who had been very invested in the making bridge number two.  It was four against one. They reminded the one teammate that if put to a vote they would easily win, but the team also seemed to really want consensus so they continued discussing rather than voting.

 It was interesting to see how much of the negotiation skills that had emerged during The Game resurfaced during this work. After finding the group in deadlock, I was able to bring them back to times in the game where explaining the thinking behind the changes they wanted to make had actually helped to change the people’s minds. Back in the bridge group, each side started to explain what they thought was best and why. As soon as they put less attention on who had made which pieces and more attention on what was best for the bridge, the group quickly came to an agreement to start completely over again with a third design. They commented several times about how they couldn’t believe they were starting over AGAIN!!

As a side note here I stop to applaud bold decision to start again. It is not easy to let go of things they had labored over for days. What a courageous move. I admire the tenacity.

As they thought about how to connect the tiles,  the design changed AGAIN. They went from separate square tiles to  pieces all connected into a long road.

Within fifteen minutes they had a single span large enough to reach floor to cliff. Light. Strong. Stable.

They put the finishing touches of railings and an anchor at the top. In a fraction of the time they had created a bridge far superior to either of their previous designs. But would they have been able to do it without the experience of the previous two models? Their new found skill had emerged from the work that had gone before. It was actually their failures that had created  this new design.  

We talked about the journey of this group together as a class, reflecting on the process of revision and how it links to our guiding question “What do good engineers do?”

Noah: When we were first doing our bridge, one of the reasons we decided to make a new one cause … if you touched it barely it would all fall. You didn’t even have to put your car on it, it would just fall anyway.

Nora: One time I touched their old bridge and it literally just went voom [ shows collapsing hands]

Ella: You need to try over a ton of times to actually get it right.

Teacher: What if they were on their first version of their bridge that wasn’t really working very well?

Will: We would not have a lot of progress.

Lydia: Now like everybody is working on it. Last time some people were working on it but some people weren’t. Then the next time nobody was working on it but the third bridge is everybody working on it.

Ian: I think they made a smart decision to rebuild because if they stuck with one bridge and you just tapped that bridge it would go pshhhhh  [hands show a bridge collapsing].

Teacher: It was more work…

Jesse: But it paid off in the end!

Will: Like the writing… the editing your story.

Ian: Like the writing and revising…. you did so much work and it is really… you don’t like it, but it is better in the end.

Teacher: I see a connection. With the more bridges they were building, the faster they were getting at trying new things. I think that is what is going to happen with your revising in writing  too.

Will: We kept on getting faster at building.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Our Richmond Round 2

We took our first Our Richmond field trip today. It was THE most perfect beautiful fall day. We rode the city bus downtown to the river to investigate bridges in preparation for some engineering challenges. Days like these make me just fall in love-- in love with my class, with my co-teacher, with my job and with my Richmond. I found that after last year I kept wanting to take my own babies to the same places I had taken my class so that they could have the same magical experiences. It seems to work. 
On our bus ride we saw a whole school of children out walking somewhere.
We were SO curious about where they might be going. It was great to see another school out and about. 

Crossing the river. I love the bridges in the background.
This is right when these girls spotted Hollywood Cemetery across the rive on the hill.
They were SO excited to spot it. It was fun to be with children who were thinking about
"Our Richmond" for a second year. We took a trip to pretty much the same spot in town but for
 different reasons. It was so beautiful to see how they reacted to those places
and those memories. It was clear that through those common experiences those
spots in Richmond had found a way deep into their hearts and that they were falling in love with the city.
Sketching the bridge with the railroad. Luckily a train came just as we got there and it
 stopped on the bridge for at least an hour. The cars were FULL of coal so it really helped
 put into perspective how sturdy the bridge really needed to be.

Some of the children made their way out on the "Bridge to Nowhere"
 (does anyone know the official name of the bridge?') to sketch.
We counted eight bridges that we could see all at once and the remains of several more.

Sketching the Manchester Bridge. Noticing the arches.

We tried to get together to talk but realized that the rushing water of the river
was too loud to hear each other, so we sang instead. 

Trying out this pedestrian bridge from on top.

"The bridge isn't straight across. It is bent."

Suspended pedestrian bridge on our way to Belle Isle.
along the way we wondered how sturdy it was.
We tried swaying all together to see if we could get it to move. No luck.
We were impressed that we couldn't get it to move. 

Eating lunch on Belle Isle.
Who would ever know we were smack in the middle of a giant city?

We were feeling like little ants compared to the massive pillars of the Lee Bridge.

We noticed lots of Xs in the structures we saw.
 "They are supporting the supports," one child said. 
What a good playground the bike course makes!!

Playing on the bike course beneath the Lee Bridge.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Our Richmond-- GRTC Style


This year for our school-wide umbrella project, we are all thinking about "Our Richmond'.

This topic has inspired us to get the third graders out into the city via that city bus system (GRTC). We are part of the way through a series of bus trips designed to help the children get into the city to connect with both the people of Richmond and the city itself. We have a dual purpose with these trips. We see the opportunity to go to interesting places where we can meet new people and have new experiences. We also see the bus ride itself as a big part of the experience. It is partly about the destination, but also partly about the journey itself.

As Mauren and I were planning trips, we wanted to connect to our history topic of immigration. We had planned to go up to the giant Asian market on Broad street to experience what it is like to be in a place where things feel really new and completely foreign. We imagined the children trying to read food packages in different languages, seeing fruits and vegetables they had never seen and plenty of potent smells coming from the tanks of sea food. We were so excited! As we were planning the trip we discovered that the bus trip, which would only be about 15 minutes by car, was going to take 2 hours and 15 minutes plus a walk one way. While the trip would only require a quick jot north of the river, the bus trip required us to drive all the way downtown, to catch another bus and then to ride all the way back out of the city to the market. We debated taking the children anyway, to get the experience of just how difficult it was to get there. Wouldn't that be an important experience to have? We debated back and forth for a while. Finally, after one of our other much shorter bus trips, we decided that the four and a half hours on a bus was way too much for one day. It wasn't going to work well for anyone involved-- not for the children, not for the teachers, not for the other bus passengers. We abandoned the plan.

We decided that instead we would stay on the south side of the river and head over to a little Mexican market/restaurant down here, hoping for a similar experience with new sights, sounds and smells. Again, it would only take about 10 minutes in a car. When we looked closer the trip would take 2 hours and 30 minutes!! We would still have to go clear over the river, into the city and downtown, get on a new bus, cross back over the river and then ride all the way back out to the market. No way!! Instead, we went to Tregegar, the historic Iron-works and Civil War museum downtown instead (45 minutes was all we could handle on the bus) because our trips downtown had led the children to notice all of the construction and changes that were going on. They had wanted to know what Richmond used to be like and to hear stories of its people.

In the end, we decided not to shield the children from the truth of the trips we were not going to be taking. The morning of the trip to Tredeger we sat down and let the children know about the plans we initially had and explained nature of their cancellation. We directed the children's attention to the actual bus ride with questions like, "What would it be like to get everywhere you went by riding the bus? How is riding the bus working for the people you see? What works for them? What might not be working so well?" The children, now familiar with the bus route and the routine of riding the bus, turned their attention to the people on the bus. What did they notice or wonder about these people and their experiences from day to day?

Our next plans involve taking the bus into the city to find people willing to answer our bus survey.

Hearing stories about Rihmond

Observing on the bus

Interviewing our middle school teacher, Myles, about his bus riding experience 
The project was made possible by an award from Partners in the Arts.