Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sunny Days

Hello, all. We've been on the campus of Scattergood Friends School for about twenty-four hours now. The drive here was just fine, although no one told Illinois that it was a relatively short leg of the trip--somehow it seemed to take us six hours to get across it. The kids invented a game they called Phone Tag (I called it Ceiling Pong). We noshed on snacks donated by the Weiser and Barbeau families. We saw wind farms, smelled Gary, Indiana, did not get lost, crossed the Mississippi River, and played on a teeter-totter at a rest area. The weather has been flawless.

Upon our arrival we immediately toured the farm with Mark Quee, Farm Manager at Scattergood. The kids learned about cover crops, nitrogen, the value of tubers, pig diets, butchering, farm collectives, agricultural experiments, electrified fences (no one got zapped), and why turkey fences are simpler than pig fences. We talked about packaging and transport. We met cows, turkeys, cats and pigs (the sheep were grazing elsewhere). We picked and/or ate raspberries, carrots, eggplants, Swiss chard, and basil. Saul took pictures.

Spirited games of Hay Bale Tag preceded and followed the tour, so we had had some exercise by the time we got our full campus tour from Savannah, a senior from Manistique who is Scattergood's only Michigander. The tour took us right up to dinnertime, when we ate with the rest of the school community and then sent George, Isobel and Saul to work in the kitchen. All Scattergood staff and students serve on work crews on the campus or farm; we are joining in while here. The rest of ran around like maniacs outside, playing tag and poking around in the woods behind the main building. Neither the tree swing nor the hammock will ever be quite the same. We went over to the art building after that to write and sketch out the day's adventures. In addition to journal entries, students made giant butcher-block renditions of (1) the drive from Ann Arbor to West Branch, (2) the research questions, and (3) their impressions of the farm tour.

Last night, after a little free time and final walk around the campus, we retired around ten o'clock. Geogre and I collected iPads, iPods and other tools of the twenty-first century. After lights out, I sat out in the hall, and heard frantically repressed giggling coming from the rooms for about ten minutes. And then I heard absolutely nothing.

The kids slept well (so did the adults) and we woke up pretty refreshed before seven. Everyone got to breakfast on time, and then we cleaned out the SK bus. Special shout-out to Hannah and Saul for sweeping. Saul speculated that some of the debris he was sweeping up came from the Stratford trip in May. After that, we met with Nicole Wolf-Camplin, Scattergood's academic dean, who sat with us by the big oak in the circle of central campus and sketched out the Scattergood program. We reciprocated, explaining how SK works--the project- and theme-based model. Then we met briefly in the Meeting House with Christine Ashley, Scattergood's Head of School, before walking across to the farm for the morning's work.

Under Mark's supervision, we harvested a thick row of carrots, then topped them and crated them up. (Mark told the community at lunchtime that SK had picked the yield of 10,000 carrot seeds.) Then we moved south to a sweet potato patch, where we cleared the vines off three or four experimental rows of planting. Each row was treated with a different anti-weed tactic: plastic mulch, organic mulch, or nothing at all. Tomorrow we will help the ninth grade science class record and analyze data from this experiment.

After that, we had another round of Hay Bale Tag, and took the bus back over to the campus for lunch. Cory, Aristea and I served with the kitchen crew; Mike and Jianmarco worked with Dana Foster, the livestock manager, who is talking with the George and the whole group while I write this; Jonathan, Taylor and Hannah worked with Mike, the facilities crew chief. The rest of the students went with George to take more pictures and video. Following crew time, we went to the Meeting House (seen in the school logo) for worship, which, in the Quaker tradition, means sitting in complete silence for forty-five minutes. I think it's safe to say that this was another novel experience.

This afternoon there will be ultimate frisbee and soccer, then dinner; after that, we'll have some more collective time to talk about our activities here and plan for our return. Tomorrow morning, it's breakfast, pack the bus, ninth grade science over at the farm, a final round of Hay Bale Tag, and then on the road, hopefully around 10:00 Iowa time (an hour earlier than Michigan). Given that we'll stop for lunch en route. we should be arriving at SK around 6:30. We will call when we're somewhere between Battle Creek and Jackson.

I expect we will sleep well again tonight.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


September 26-28, 2012


We will leave on the SK bus immediately after the morning gathering on Wednesday, September 26.
This should place our arrival in West Branch, Iowa, at approximately 3:30 CDT. Students should bring a packed lunch, as per usual. We will stop to stretch en route, but will not be making a fast-food stop en route.

On Wednesday afternoon, our kids will get tours of the campus from Scattergood students, introduce themselves to the community—particularly to staff members whom they will interview on Thursday—and serve on work crews (some in the kitchen, some on the farm). There will be some free time after dinner in the evening as well as some group conversation and preparatory work for Thursday’s research.

Thursday will be an investigative day, comprising some time in class, more work crews, and all interviews. There will be time set aside for recording, processing, and debriefing research. We will meet as an SK class and along with Scattergood students, faculty and staff. There is a possibility that we will also travel off campus on Thursday to see a nearby farm, so that we will have more fodder (so to speak) for agricultural comparison.

Friday we’ll stay long enough to have breakfast and attend the ninth grade science class, which, conveniently enough, is Farm Science. We should be on the road around 10:00 Iowa time, which, if all goes well, should get us back to the SK campus between 6:00 and 6:30 Michigan time.


All students should bring a sturdy pair of boots—something that you can wear to tramp around a farm. Bring another pair of shoes as well.

Bring a bathing suit, just in case we get in the pond, and enough cash for lunch on the way home.

You’ll need clothing for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Your days will be divided between classrooms, farm, and kitchen. You don’t need to bring anything especially nice to wear. Scattergood is about as formal a place as Summers-Knoll.

The usual items for nighttime and morning—toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, shampoo, deoderant, etc.

The weather forecast calls for dry and sunny days, with afternoon highs in the 70s and nighttime lows in the 50s.

S C A T T E R G O O D   C O N T A C T S

Karl Sikkenga’s cell phone number is 734.478.2512. We will have one additional chaperone from SK, in addition to ongoing support from the faculty and staff of Scattergood. We will stay, three or four to a room, on our own in Berquist House, Scattergood’s on-campus guest house.

Scattergood’s number is 319.643.7600. Our key contacts there will be Christine Ashley, Head of School; Mark Quee, Farm Manager and Teacher; and Dana Foster, Livestock Manager, Cook, and Teacher. Some of the students will also be talking with Irving Treadway and David Cohen, who are Cooks as well as Teachers, and Carrie Ann Bowen, Projects Teacher.

A phone is permitted, as is a laptop or tablet computer. My rationale is that there will be little time for electronics at Scattergood, there will be some academic usage for electronica in the course of the stduents’ research and interviews. The drive from Ann Arbor to West Branch is expected to take about seven hours. Gizmos can help pass the time, although we will pass through electronics-free zones at my discretion (i.e., command).

SK students should bring their journals and binders. Both will see considerable action during the trip.

head of school welcome

realationship between farm and school

Weekly Syllabus: September 17-October 1

Every week, I issue a de facto assignment sheet for the week to come. Here are the first two. 

I will post these each week.

mon 17 sept
            approximately two hours of homeroom
            finish reading Gilgamesh
            begin project research: exhibitions
specials: music, french, mandarin

tues 18 sept
approximately one-and-a-half hours of homeroom
            review lesson plans
schedule Gilgamesh
specials: art, science, french, mandarin

wed 19 sept
approximately three hours of homeroom
care & feeding of your binder
a book for us to read together
kindergarten visit
            specials: music

th 20 sept
            JOURNALS DUE
approximately half an hour of homeroom
specials: art, phys ed, latin
4:00 Scattergood meeting (kids not required)

fri 21 sept
            approximately four-and-a-half hours of homeroom
            Scattergood conversation(s)
            off campus plan; project time (farm-to-table, K-play, Gilgamesh)
specials: french, mandarin

mon 24 sept
            JONATHAN’S HISTORY of the WEEK DUE
approximately two hours of homeroom
math groups commence: danny, isobel, trent with karl; evan, denali, mikey, hannah, jianmarco,      jonathan, saul & taylor with jason
            sample lessons conclude
Scattergood prep!
specials: music, french, mandarin                                        

tues 25 sept
approximately one-and-a-half hours of homeroom
specials: art, science, french, mandarin

wed 26 sept
departure for Iowa immediately after the morning gathering
th 27 sept

fri 28 sept
            departure from Iowa immediately after science class
            arrive in Ann Arbor at approximately 6:00 pm

mon 1 oct
            SAUL’S HISTORY of the WEEK DUE
approximately two hours of homeroom
Gilgamesh audition preparation
            exhibitions & portfolios: the next stage of the research project—planning for pay-offs
specials: music, french, mandarin

Vegetarian Kryptonite

Last week, for a class treat, Isobel brought in bacon and scones. There was some irony in the fact that Isobel is a vegetarian; she showed steely resolve in not partaking of the bacon herself (not for nothing do I call bacon vegetarian Kryptonite).

For me, the second treat came when the kids started finishing their snacks. First Jonathan, then Hannah, then Taylor, then others took their plates to the sink and started washing them. No one asked them to. They just did it. Then Saul collected the remaining dirty dishes and washed them himself. Evan took the plates back to the kitchen.

They are middle schoolers, a source of exasperation to be sure. I use my Stern Voice once or twice every day. But they are also kids who wash their dishes without being asked. It was a lovely morning.


One of our major class projects this year will be an original production of Gilgamesh, the tall tale of a Mesopotamian king that is the oldest written story in the world.

We approach Gilgamesh from three important thematic angles: specifically, our first three themes--Farm-to-Table, Ancient Civilizations, and Global Citizenship.

I have emphasized in class that the Neolithic Revolution was probably the most important development in human history. That 'event'--though it lasted centuries, even millenia--comprised the discovery of farming. My kids ought to be able to relate to you a number of the results of the new, settled lifestyle, which first took shape in Mesopotamia about 11,000 years ago: more food, more children, more stability, language, irrigation, social hierarchy, militarism, artistic, technological and cultural development.....and writing.

Originally a tool of business, writing evolved to articulate our deepest questions about life, love, death, and the other great mysteries. These are duly explored in Gilgamesh, which was originally rendered on twelve clay tablets, smashed to smithereens over the centuries and then painfully reconstructed and translated over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, the world's greatest city, runs roughshod over his people. He meets and is matched by Enkidu, the Wild Man. They become bros. Together they slay the monster Huwawa, harvest the sacred cedar, fight the Bull of Heaven, and resist the advances of Ishtar, the Goddess of Love. Greater sadnesses and adventures ensue, but you won't find any more spoilers here.

Auditions for Gilgamesh will be open to all middle schoolers and will happen on Tuesday, October 2. The play will be performed on December 13, 14 and 15. This is an ambitious production, and we'll need all the help we can get--particularly in costuming the kids and preparing technological marvels. Chris Barbeau, sixth grade parent and stage combat expert, has offered to help us with the battle scenes. Tracy Gallup will help produce the artwork we'll use for backdrops; Cara Talaska will coordinate music; and George Albercook is planning some special effects. This will be a true community effort. If you're interested in pitching in, just let me know.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Big Kids' Flow of the Day

Each day has a few annotations and amplifications at the bottom. I like the variety of this schedule: each day differs from the others; some days are heavy on project and homeroom hours; others specialize in specials.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

8:45    gather in our room (just us)
9:00    gather in the commons (the whole school)
9:15    math
10:00  break (usually running around outside)
10:35  music
11:30  lunch & break
12:30  homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
2:45    mandarin & french
3:30    the end of the day
In math, students will remain in middle school-based groups to work at the most useful Singapore Math-based level. Most of this work will take place either in my room or Jason’s. You can see that Mondays are fairly cohesive, with only music and language specials on the schedule.

8:45    gather in our room (just us)
9:00    gather in the commons (the whole school)
9:15    math
10:00  break (usually running around outside)
10:35  art
11:30  lunch & break
12:30  homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
1:25    science
2:20    homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
2:45    mandarin & french
3:30    the end of the day
Tuesdays see less time in the classroom, with three specials. We have approximately an hour-and-a-half together as a group, with time set aside on some days for collaboration with Jason’s students.

8:45    gather in our room (just us)
9:00    gather in the commons (the whole school)
9:15    math
10:00  break (usually running around outside)
10:35  music
11:30  lunch & break
12:30  homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
2:30    kindergarten visit
3:00    homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
3:30    the end of the day
Wednesdays are deeply project-based, with little time set aside for specials. We have the entire afternoon together, though we will normally visit the kindergarteners toward the end of the day. You should have seen my kids leading a discussion with the little ones during this time on the second day of school. They were like eleven junior schoolmarms. It was about the sweetest thing I saw all week.

8:45    gather in our room (just us)
9:00    gather in the commons (the whole school)
9:15    math
10:00  break (usually running around outside)
10:35  art
11:30  lunch & break
12:30  physical education
2:20    homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
2:35    latin
3:30    the end of the day
Thursdays, I hardly see the kids. That’s why I collect journals on Thursday mornings: generally speaking I’ll have time to read them, and write some notes, during the school day. I’ve asked the kids to consider the journals an opportunity for us to write letters to each other.

8:45    gather in our room (just us)
9:00    homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
10:00  break (usually running around outside)
10:30  homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
10:45  mandarin & french
11:30  lunch & break
12:30  homeroom (project work, humanities, etc)
2ish     break
3:30    the end of the day
This is a wonderful day, in that we scarcely have any obligations to anyone else. On Friday the 14th, for example, we made huge progress on two separate projects. 

Iowa Trip: September 26-28

I have communicated with Christine Ashley, Head of Scattergood Friends School, who has confirmed that the Summers-Knoll middle school trip to Scattergood will take place on September 26, 27, and 28. Our students will come to school as usual on Wednesday the 26th, stay for the all-school gathering in the Commons, and then hit the road. We expect to stay through morning classes and lunch at Scattergood on Friday the 28th, and should be back in Ann Arbor by 8:00 that evening.

I would like to have an informational meeting (basically a Q&A session) after school on Thursday, September 20, in my classroom. We will kick off the meeting at 4:00 with some special Iowa treats. This is a meeting for parents; I won't turn any kids away, but the conversation will be oriented toward families. We'll be finished by 5:00.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Westward Ho!

As you know, the first theme for all 88 Summers-Knoll students is Farm-to-Table.

Here is a small boarding school, Scattergood Friends, located in eastern Iowa, whose curriculum engages this theme every year--because the school runs a farm right there on the property.


Joanna Hastings and I were fortunate enough to serve on an evaluative team at this fascinating school this past spring. One of our central points in the assessment of Scattergood was that the food was fantastic. I wrote in the report summary that the school kitchen was probably one of the best restaurants in Iowa.


Well, Summers-Knoll middle schoolers are about to experience that restaurant first-hand. Since our theme of study is about how food gets from the ground to the dinner menu, what better way to explore than to witness, work, enjoy, and assess that process at an institution whose raison d'etre, in part, is to do exactly that, and to explore it with secondary students?


With the enthusiastic support of Scattergood's Head of School, Christine Ashley; Academic Dean, Nicole Wolf-Camplin; and Farm Manager, Dana Foster, SK grades 6, 7 and 8 will hop on the SK bus with me and head out to Scattergood. The trip will take place either on September 26-28 or October 3-5.


Students will stay with me at the school's guest building, Berquist House (1:22 in the video below). It's about a seven-hour drive from Ann Arbor to West Branch. We will be hashing out the details of the schedule and the SK agenda as we hone our project questions over the next week. For example, an SK student who wants to know more about the domestication of animals might work with the livestock manager. A student who wants to explore the preservation of food can review the school's storage facilities. If cooking is the key topic for another student, he or she can serve with the chefs and the rotating kitchen crew.


This promises to be a memorable experience for this group and a vivid opportunity to get deep into these themes in a real hurry. More details are forthcoming this week, and, as always, I am permanently available for questions.


Parents and many students really came through over the past couple of weeks, bushwhacking, chopping, hauling, clearing and otherwise getting filthy and sore to bring us a playground right outside the north side of the new SK building. We got out there on every day of the week.

There's no play equipment yet: a sandbox, as yet incomplete, a couple of boulders, a few logs arranged in a circle, a couple of vines hanging low from trees. When we ran out to the area on Wednesday, the SK middle schoolers immediately jumped on top of the logs and started playing Hot Potato. The next day, others began to pry the boulders with sticks. They're still working on that one, improvising fulcrums and straining their shoulders.

We don't actually need much equipment. I hope we won't add too much. The kids don't need it. They are finding their own games, their own amusements, defining their own areas, making it theirs. What fun.


The pulse of any given week is best taken by looking at our journals. These are tiny notebooks that are essentially sewn to the kids as they move through the SK day. Every Thursday, I'll look over the week's journals, and every Friday or Monday I'll check in with the students about them.

This week's versions included about a half-dozen entries:

1) Books borrowed from the classroom library, with a few annotations. These choices ranged from young adult fiction (Letters to Julia) to educational philosophy (Punished by Rewards) to amazing miscellany (The Cartoon History of the United States).

2) Eight questions, at a minimum, on our first two themes, Farm-to-Table and Ancient Civilizations. These also carried fantastic range, and many were posted up on the whiteboard, including such winners as 'What were the first crops?', 'What is the trade-off between quantity and quality in factory farms' and 'What does organic really mean?'

3) Two questions, at a minimum, for me. Some of these were personal, some professional, some political; I answered most of them. A handful of them were hilarious, of course.

4) A write-up from our work with Dr. George, who helped the students understand the make-up of food by exploring the definition of 'calorie'. This was illustrated by setting fire to a Dorito. Better ask the kids about that one. It won't be forgotten anytime soon.

5) Some reflections on math work, as we take the measure of our students' arithmetical status and plan the year's program accordingly. One activity was to spend some time at www.khanacademy.org and then to reflect upon what that work was like. Another was to determine which state's name would take the longest to text on a numbered keypad; the winners got breakfast on Friday. Another task engaged touring the school, gathering information, and rendering that in various mathematical forms.

6) Why did Roxanne, my three-year-old, stop by class? So that I could illustrate what I consider to be the greatest challenge of human existence: keep tiny children alive. The Neolithic Revolution, in which people began to domesticate animals and to farm, transformed the calculus on that problem.

You may not want to poke around in your child's journal--but it should act as a useful prompt for them to use when you want to know what happened in school today.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The First Day: Tuesday 4 September

The schedule for Tuesday begins with a gathering in the commons. We'll have an hour and a half together, including a break, before going on to an hour of Art; then lunchtime. After lunch, we'll have another hour together, then go on to Science for an hour. The day closes with a session of French with Imogen Giles, or Mandarin with Fan Wu, before we gather again for five minutes to say so long.

8.45     assembly in the commons
9:00     time together
10:30   art with Tracy Gallup
11:30   lunch & recess
12:30   time together
1:30     science with George Albercook
2:30     mandarin or french 
3:25     time together
3:30     end of the day

I will review the weekly Flow of the Day (SK's charming term for the daily schedule) with the students on Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on, well, the actual flow of the actual day.

This Year's Themes

This year, SK's oldest kids will explore the following four themes:

Farm to Table
Ancient Civilizations
Global Citizenship
Circle of Life

I love the natural flow of these topics. We will be smushing together the first two. I'm fascinated by the discovery of farming, also called the Neolithic Revolution, a true act of genius that is probably the most significant discovery in human history. With that in mind, we will take a historical angle on the farm-to-table theme, though there will be plenty of room for other disciplines as well, and for other, unpredictable avenues of inspiration.

My conviction is that each theme emerges organically from the previous. The development of civilization drove the concept of global citizenship, which was an irrelevant idea until the past few centuries (i.e., about an hour-and-a-half ago, relatively speaking). And that notion of citizenship in the twenty-first century is more closely connected to--intertwined with--the biological circle of life than it has ever been.

At the end of the year, we will return to farm-to-table, and we'll plant then--meaning that we will return to the concept, and the fields, at harvest time, as we settle in for the 2013-2014 school year. Stay tuned.

Classroom Library

It was rewarding to hear so many positive comments about my classroom at the end of the summer, when all I had done was dump two dozen boxes of books onto the old Borders shelves. (I wonder if I ever bought any books from those actual shelves? When Borders was still on State Street, I used to make sure I stopped there in my visits to Ann Arbor, because I knew I would run into some friend or other there.)

Anyway, books are books, even in a Kindle age. My classroom shelves are not yet organized. Many of the books will come back home with me--in our move, we brought them all in here for the time being, but we have bookshelves in our house, too. The categories will include African Studies, American Studies, Foundations of Civilization, Soccer, World Literature, Karl's Binders, and others I haven't yet identified.

This is a lending library. Look for a sign-out sheet, which I will probably hang to the right of the shelves lining the north wall of the room. Any visitor is welcome to come in and browse, even borrow, at any time; if the class is deep into something at that moment, I'll say so. But these books are not for decor, even if they look nice. They are meant to be read. A treasured colleague and friend of mine, Nigel Whittington, once said, When you learn to read, then you really join the rest of the world--you really become a person. Stop by our classroom and play in the fields of adventure with the rest of the human race.