Friday, December 27, 2013

Odyssey Moments

I asked the middle school members of the Odyssey cast to write some favorite moments up on one of the whiteboards upstairs. Below is a their jumbled list. I have purposefully dropped them in here out of chronological order--I like the impressionistic nature it gives. It interests me that, without prompting, the kids included virtually every speaking part and scene in the play.

Telemachus, to Penelope: 
And now, Mother, go to your room.

Circe, to Polites et al:
I’m holding out for a hero.

Eurycleia dragging in Odysseus to reunite with Penelope.


Give me back my flower!

Penelope, to the suitors:
Get out. Get out. GET OUT.

Odysseus, to Eurylochus:
Killer of hope.

Antinous, re Odysseus in disguise:
Did someone leave the gates of the graveyard open?

Antinous, Eurymachus, and Amphinomus die.

Eurycleia, to Penelope:

Eurymachus, to Odysseus in disguise:
What--get out--I’m eating!

Antiphus, re Cyclops:
He likes us. He thinks we’re friends. Big dumb animal.

Circe, to Odysseus:
Are you sure it isn’t a WO-man you’re looking for?

The sadness of Land of the Dead: Anticleia walking in circles, Tiresias' still vision.

Telemachus, to Amphinomus:
Never as uncomfortable as now, I’ll bet.

Zeus, to the pantheon:
ZEUS HAS SPOKEN. All the gods shall agree.

Amphinomus, to Antinous:
You’re drunk. We don’t eat horse. Do we?

Halitherses, describing Odysseus in the shipwreck:
Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.

Odysseus, to Elpenos:
You'll do as I say, or you'll join it.

Elpenos, opening the bag of winds:
One last--GOT IT!

Eurybates, re Eurylochus and Helios' cattle:
He’s right. He’s so right.

Polyphemos, to Odysseus:
Gods! Ha! Cyclops toots in gods' faces.

Circe, to Odysseus:
You’ll tear my HEART out if you leave.

Eurylochus, re Circe:
She’s beautiful . . . . . so beautiful . . . . .

One of the kindergarten sheep, having failed to convince Polyphemos to eat one of Antiphus' bones, shrugs and starts gnawing on it herself.

How Math Is Working

The middle school math program at Summers-Knoll invites students to stretch their mathematical muscles with three different groups over the course of a given week, and with a consistent cast of mentors giving instruction and offering one-on-one support.

On Mondays and Thursdays, students in the middle school are divided into three small groups, loosely ability-based. These groups of approximately ten students apiece have a forty-five minute math lesson with Sam Hirschman, who orients each lesson toward the particular needs, goals, and interests of each of the three groups.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, all thirty MS students have math for an hour in the morning, under the supervision of Sam, Jason, and me. Generally speaking, Sam will teach a lesson and work with the students he feels need the most support--or the strongest challenge. Jason takes younger students for interactive work time in his room. Upstairs, I gather about a dozen students--the precise roster can change from week to week, depending on the kids' needs. In the project rooms, I convene and facilitate work with a few small groups of two to four students. Each group takes a few minutes to first articulate strengths and weaknesses in particular areas, and to set explicit goals for the day's work. The common area upstairs is designated a Silent Work Space. Some kids are assigned to this space for individual work; others request it.

Wednesdays find the seventh and eighth graders in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with Jason and Sam, exploring scientific topics, often with a mathematical bent. The featured topic during the Identity theme has been genetics. While that class convenes, I take the fifth and sixth graders for close readings and activities in humanities, all based on the Identity coursepack. In the afternoons, we trade, so the older kids have humanities then, while the younger students have STEM time.

Thus each student has math every day, but with varying orientations, partners, and objectives. The program has enough variety to keep the days from getting stale, but enough consistency--in teacher support, space, and subject matter--to keep progress strong.

January Projects and Exhibitions

Throughout January, we will be working on the next round of projects, these built around the theme of Identity. The Exhibitions, scheduled for the last two weeks of the month, will feature these projects. Here is a sample of what our seventh and eighth graders are presently planning.

  • a totem pole, populated with figures who symbolize key values of Summers-Knoll, carved in consultation with area artists, and secured on SK property
  • a pamphlet targeted to teens explaining online identity theft, researched with assistance from the Ann Arbor Police Department
  • also in collaboration with the AAPD, a unit of lessons on criminal detection, to be taught to Elaine's first and second grade class
  • a new statistical model accounting for regional differences when calculating the poverty line in the United States, developed with support from the U of M Economics department
  • two illustrated children's books: the first, entitled Foggy Lenses, will examine the influence of concepts such as race and class upon our perceptions of people; the other will explore the concept of a fourth dimension, casting the shadows we call the third dimension
  • a mural, to be painted in the stairwell leading up to the seventh and eighth grade space, showing the ways in which identities are manifested at SK and elsewhere
  • a short film of interviews with Holocaust survivors in southeastern Michigan, supported with footage from the Holocaust Museum in Oakland County
While this is not an exhaustive list, and not all topics have yet been transformed into projects, these should give a sense of the degree to which our middle school projects are increasingly oriented toward partnerships with mentors in the community beyond Summers-Knoll. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Identity Coursepack

The second coursepack of the year engages the second SK theme: Identity.

Where the Explorers coursepack was purposefully wide-ranging, this second text is more streamlined. The topic at hand is the definition of American.

The first half of the anthology provides readings on the intentions of this newfangled nation, and the narrative of how the decision was reached to break away from the most liberal-minded and humanitarian kingdom in human history (not to say the British Empire was atrocity-free). In the end we created a document called the Constitution, loyalty to which entitled one to full-fledged citizenship, regardless of background.

Discovery of AmericaPaul La Farge1
New ColossusEmma Lazarus6
What Is an American?Hector St Jean de Crevecoeur7
Gettysburg AddressAbraham Lincoln9
Four FreedomsFranklin Delano Roosevelt10
Wordy ShipmatesSarah Vowell11
Fifty YearsLarry Gonick14
Ohio, 1754Larry Gonick16
Americans & EmpireEdmund Morgan20
Oops!Larry Gonick27
ConstitutionLarry Gonick38

This wasn't actually true, of course. Most Americans weren't citizens in our earliest years, and most suffered deeply from this denial. Changes were required and still are. The greatest characteristic of the Constitution is that changes to it are built right in. This process began even before its ratification, with the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments. Since then, most of the Amendments have the effect of distributing the rights of American citizens more widely.

The second half of the coursepack explores this process.

LiteracyFrederick Douglass44
Douglass Meets LincolnLarry Gonick47
How It FeelsZora Neale Hurston48
Creation StoriesBarbara Kingsolver50
Phoenix, ArizonaSherman Alexie53
House on Mango StreetSandra Cisneros61
American Born ChineseGene Luen Yang68
Undeterred by RealityMolly Ivins87

Explorers Exhibitions

Exhibitions were a little different this fall than they were last year, and the second round, slated for January, will be a further evolution of the concept.

This time around, the kids were required to teach two fifteen-minute lessons, as they were in 2012-2013. Topics were selected from the theme of Explorers. This was a little tricky, since the word 'exploration' and its relatives are so spongy. 'I'm going to explore how much I like to eat Kit Kats' or 'I want to explore how much I love my stuffed unicorn, Andy' proved tempting topics. These and their ilk were vetoed.

Instead, we had the following collection (this is a complete list):

  • Martian rovers
  • minimalist music
  • early French film
  • the evolution of Antarctic transportation
  • Ponce de Leon
  • royalty in London
  • the colonization of Australia
  • photonic matter
  • life on Mars
  • touring Maastricht
  • Annie Edson Taylor and Jessica Watson
  • theatre in London
  • the emergence of New York City
  • Chinese exploration
  • the European Age of Exploration
  • early navigation
  • early cartography
  • traditional African housing
  • comparing Diana Nyad and Michael Phelps
  • Ponce de Leon
  • the Silk Road
  • missions to Mars
  • a history of computers
  • the palace of Knossos
  • Eurycleia, Odysseus' maid

As always, students were expected to engage their attendees and provide activities that would enable us to process the material. The kids did this in a variety of ways befitting their variety of interests. Danny showed an early French film, providing annotations and answering questions throughout. Ryan played samples of minimalist music. Aristea created a game show on Minoan civilization. Mike asked his audience to use Pei Xiu's six principles of cartography to map out one of our project rooms. Lily walked us through an activity-filled six-stop tour of London.

Faculty came out in force, for which we're grateful: Josh, Monica, Joanna, Imogen, Val, Sam, Rachel, Karen, Mary and Fran all attended at least one Exhibition.

For the next round, engaging the theme of Identity, three changes will be implemented.

1. Instead of teaching two fifteen-minute lessons, students will teach one thirty-minute lesson.
2. Each student will have an adult mentor, identified via the topic selected.
3. A full round of rehearsals will be formally scheduled.

Once students have finished reading the Identity coursepack, the preparation and proposal of individual projects will get underway. Topics will be selected and mentors identified before the holiday break. Exhibitions will take place in the third week of January.

Further Adventures of the AAA

Our latest away game was at the Friends School in Detroit, where we toured their school--our kids loved their huge art room--before running a lap around the school and playing two games of their devising: Aerobic Bowling and Sinking Ships. Friends has a little quarter-sized gym space, and we chatted about how such spaces can be maximized. Our kids really hit it off with our Quaker brethren and sistren. Bryan and I made sure that every team had both SK and FSD students on it, and all two dozen of the kids dove right in. We look forward to hosting them in return, hopefully sooner rather than later.

What will we do when they come? Playground Parkour? Calvinball? Multi-Sphere Futbol?

The County Farm Park Mile Run, perhaps?

Northern Odyssey

It was an early trip for us, possibly a bellwether for future years. Before September was out we took off on a Wednesday afternoon, travelling straight up I-75 and over the Mackinac Bridge. We were fourteen in number, the extra seat on the bus crammed with sleeping bags, fishing gear, maps, and contraband snacks.

The first night was all about acclimation, camp set-up, cooking, and chatter. Tents were pitched all over the lakeside lawn of the property, with a view across the Straits of Mackinac, the bridge a soft creamy green to the southeast. We switched off cooking and cleaning, ending up with home-cooked meals of pancakes, bacon, pasties, pizzas, curry, braised fish, sandwiches, and plates piled high with leftovers. The kids frolicked on the rocky northern shore of Lake Michigan well into the late dusk. After dinner Rachel and I introduced the Our Whole Lives curriculum to the kids. Mike tended the fire and we all got to sleep at a decent hour, some indoors, some out.

The next morning we scarfed breakfast, packed lunches, and headed north to Tahquamenon Falls. A short rainy hike off the park entrance brought us to the Lower Falls. We rented three rowboats which traced routes across the river so circuitous they made Odysseus' trip look like the express train. Then we hiked the circumference of the island, wading under the falls on both the east and west branches of the river. Kids are oblivious to cold when they feel like it. This was doubly true at Whitefish Point, where we took off our shoes to walk on the Lake Superior beach, holding collection there amidst the whipping winds of the sweetwater sea.

We drove back to the Straits. We made dinner, held a delightful two-hour OWL session, held another collection under the stars. Then we watched O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers' Depression-era version of Odysseus' story, and hit the sack after midnight.

That wasn't the end. The next morning we spent three hours packing and cleaning, following a master list posted on the wall, writing fourteen thank-you notes. (I understand that both the list and the thank-you notes are still on display in the house.) There was one last trip to the lakeshore, a sandy beach at Michigan Dunes ten minutes west of the house, before we hit the bridge again, traversed the Lower Peninsula like the good Trolls we are*, and made it back to SK at 3:30 on the dot.

* The good people of the Upper Peninsula, also known as Yoopers, sometimes refer to residents of the Lower Peninsula as Trolls, because we live under the bridge.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Alternative Athletic Association

Our AAA is underway.

We opened the program with a visit to Upland Hills School in northern Oakland County. UHS is a small, progressive school, just about our size: they have 17 students in their 7-8 class. They also have a series of Howell-like woods activities, including two zip-wires, a climbing wall, and a low-ropes course.

On Friday, October 4, we travelled to UHS for pizza, gaga ball, and outdoor exercise. Aristea, Ryan, Jianmarco and Saul stole the show by flying through the air on the high zip-wire, but all of the kids toured the campus, tried out one or more of the activities, participated in the Friday afternoon all-school ball game, a sort of amped-up capture the flag in a grassy meadow, and made connections.

It wasn't a conventional away game, which is part of the point. I played a lot of away games in school, but I never wrote a thank-you note afterward. Ours was happily received by the folks at UHS, and we are in the process of scheduling their return visit for a round of playground parkour, a tour of County Farm Park, and some mapping out of where our own equipment might be built, once our students write the project proposal that is the required first step for such an endeavor.

In other news, we are scheduling home-and-away visits with the Friends School of Detroit and a soccer workshop with professional player Kevin Taylor. We have identified two possible Washtenaw County schools to possibly step in for original partner Clonlara. More to come, of course.

Friday's PE Class

Friday I had both the 5-6 class and our 7-8 group for Wake-Up PE first thing in the morning.

The previous day, I had introduced the 5-6 class to the fantastically named fartlek, a Swedish form of exercise in which one alternates aerobic and anaerobic exercise--a fancy way of saying you speed up and slow down. We tried it over at County Farm Park in its simplest form: people walk in a straight line of pairs; the last pair in the line sprints to the front.

Earlier still, I had introduced the 7-8 class to less naughtily named parkour, a French for of exercise in which one creates obstacle courses, using found objects as barriers--a fancy way of saying you jump over things. We concentrated on playground parkour, where the students climbed on monkey bars, balance-walked around the rim of the gaga court, skipped over boulders, and jumped over fallen logs.

Friday's class was a combination of these activities. In nine mixed groups of three, the students created nine parkour events, building a course on the playground. Then each group contributed one member to a fresh group of nine, which learned and then ran the course. Meanwhile, the other eighteen students ran a fartlek around the school building, before forming a high-fiving Gauntlet of Congratulation to welcome the nine parkour runners. Then the groups rotated.

I liked this exercise for its creativity, flexibility, agility--you can do it anywhere--and reliability on the kids' efforts. Also, they were all breathing hard when we were done.

Space Odyssey

I would like to take the kids to see Gravity in Imax during Friday afternoon homeroom time, depending on how prepared they are for next week's round of Exhibitions. Gravity is rated PG-13, so please let me know if you have any questions or concerns about it. I have seen the movie already, so I can speak specifically to what is and isn't scary about it.

Gravity is an odyssey, to be sure. Like Homer's tale, it is an odyssey that originates in a spirit of exploration and adventure, and which, ultimately, is only about trying to get home.

We'd be back to school for pick-up at 3:30.

Monday, October 14, 2013

SK's Odyssey

PenelopeLilyOdysseus' wife
TelemachusJianmarcoOdysseus' son
HalithersesRyanhapless prophet
EumaeusDannyOdysseus' loyal swineherd
EurycleiaAristeaPenelope's loyal maid
Suitors3s & 4s
CirceMikewitchy goddess
PolyphemosTrentone-eyed monster
AeolusMarcellinkindhearted king
OdysseusMayaadventurer extraordinaire
Shades3s & 4s
Sailors3s & 4s
GodsKs, 1s & 2s

Sunday, September 29, 2013

UP Packing List

OCTOBER 2-4, 2013
  • one bag lunch for the bus ride on Wednesday
  • one tent (optional) -- the kids can share tents, or sleep alone in them, or sleep outdoors in the open, or in the house; however, for those who want to share, I will determine who sleeps in which tents (I'd rather take everyone's blame than risk hurt feelings)
  • one sleeping bag & pillow (even those sleeping indoors will need these)
  • toothbrush etc (the house has three showers)
  • plenty of layers (it's Michigan; who knows how cold it'll get?) -- I always suggest extra socks
  • a bathing suit 
  • good shoes for walking; hard-core hiking boots aren't necessary, but we will be walking on woodland trails, clambering over rocks, and running on sandy beaches
  • a water bottle
  • a little backpack
  • electronics are welcome for the bus ride; as with Mammoth Cave and Scattergood, I will tally them up before we leave, and the kids will give them to me every night
  • no giant suitcases (we won't be gone THAT long, and the bus doesn't have unlimited space)
As for food, we will plan meals together and do our grocery-shopping at the local supermarket. When the trip is over, I'll tally up the bill and ask for equal contributions to cover this expense.


At present, we are reading eight Odysseys. One is a conventional translation in free verse. One is a gorgeous children's version, which the third and fourth grades are also reading. One is a theatrical rendition. Two are graphic novels. One is a simplified telling of the tale. One has a Caribbean setting and was written by a Nobel Prize-winning poet. One is a screenplay set in the 1930s American South.

Our play this winter will be adapted from the theatrical version. We will cast the play next week, after our return from the Upper Peninsula and before our trip to Howell. As with last year's production, all seventh and eighth graders will participate; younger students may opt to. We have a few new tricks up our collective classical sleeves.

Odyssey authors and illustrators:
Simon Armitage
Joel and Ethan Coen
Gillian Cross
Robert Fitzgerald
Gareth Hinds
Geraldine McCaughrean
Li Sidong & Fiona Macdonald
Derek Walcott

Friday, September 20, 2013

Themes and Exhibitions

We have four themes on the docket this year: Explorers, Cities, Identity, and Mythology.

For each unit of study, the first month will be spent in some formal excavation of the many definitions and angles of the theme. Thus far, Explorers has seen us looking at missions to Mars (fictional and actual), the Buddha under the Bo Tree, Richard Feynman looking at a flower, Wallace Stevens looking at a blackbird, disastrous treks across the Antarctic, mapmaking, Diana Nyad's swim, Vasco da Gama, Cheng Ho and the usual suspects from the Age of Exploration. We'll also be looking at the amazing tale of Etienne Brule, the first European to explore Michigan. He was sixteen years old when he set out west from Champlain's camp way up the St Lawrence.

Where have we found these (and other) fascinating angles? In the coursepack, entitled Explorers of the World, 140 toothsome pages of writing, from Grace Ogot to Bruce Catton to Homer to Sara Wheeler. When a new theme is introduced, a coursepack like this one will be handed out. All seventh and eighth graders will be expected to read the coursepack, cover to cover, over the course of the first month of the unit. (The Explorers collection should be finished by October 2.) At that point, when the kids have processed the theme from a number of different perspectives, I will meet with each student individually to make plans for Exhibitions.

Exhibitions will take place at the end of the theme unit. Each of the two lessons in the Exhibition will show the student's new knowledge about the theme. We will conduct our Explorers Exhibitions over the last week in October and first week in November.

Flows of the Days

8:45:0045Collection, Q&A, Collection, Q&A, Collection, Q&A, Collection, Q&A, All School
9:00:00HomeroomWake-Up PEWake-Up PEHealthWake-Up PE
5KarlKarlKarl(Our Whole Lives)Karl
10Karl & Rachel
55LatinImogen or ShiyuImogen or ShiyuLatinImogen or Shiyu
10:00:00Josh or ImogenJosh or Imogen
59:40 - 10:259:40 - 10:259:40 - 10:25
109:55 - 10:45
35Sam, Jason & KarlMonicaSam, Jason & Karl
45Math10:30 - 11:2510:30 - 11:25Math10:30 - 11:25
55Sam or ImogenSam or Imogen
510:45 - 11:3010:45 - 11:30
40Science ClubScience ClubScience Club
30MathArt /Work CrewsMathHomeroom
35MusicHomeroom /Nick, Fran, Elaine,MusicFlex
40Sam or JoshFlex time: at least Josh, Rachel,Sam or JoshKarl
45one hour of art, James, George
5012:30 - 1:20potentially split12:30 - 1:20
55into smaller12:30 - 1:25
1:00:00groups as
15Remainder of time
20is homeroom
30Karl & NickSTEM /Workshop /
35Monica & KarlHumanities /Flex
45Karl, Jason & Sam