Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Outer Space, Fires, and the Violent Past

Literature circles continue to provide intriguing subplots. Some of them are in the books and some in the groups, as students take on different roles and push work and conversations in new directions. The books are certainly a hit. We had a student visit SK last week and read through two of the books over the course of the day, using our homeroom time to bury his nose in Red Scarf Girl and Life As We Knew It.

The students have begun to branch out from the collective work of the common Google Doc, with its growing aggregation of questions, answers, predictions and artwork. Last week saw the first purely individual assignment. The kids were asked to assign themselves a piece of writing related to their books. Most chose creative work, like diary entries from characters, or newspaper articles; some chose brief reviews or theatrical adaptations of scenes. Each student will produce two more such assignments before the final projects are produced in late February.

Each group has been assigned a faculty consultant for the final project. Those advisors are:
George Albercook: Life As We Knew It
Tracy Gallup: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Imogen Giles: Island of the Blue Dolphins
Joanna Hastings: My Brother Sam Is Dead
Fan Wu: Red Scarf Girl
Val Tibbs-Wynne: Fahrenheit 451

More to come on the nature of the final projects, including times and dates for these presentations--likely to come after Exhibitions for the sixth, seventh and eighth graders, and the February mid-winter break.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Et Tu, Brute?

Our themes are in transition--as is permanently the case, really, if you're thoughtful about it. We did 'Gilgamesh' in part because it echoed the transition between Farm-to-Table and Ancient Civilizations, given that the Neolithic Revolution--the advent of farming--made civilization possible in the first place.

Now, we're moving on from Ancient Civilizations to Global Citizenship. Amongst our group of students, the oldest and, in a way, most visible in the school, we are pursuing citizenship through service projects. Our visibility means it's also more than worthwhile to talk about the nature of leadership.

With that in mind, we're reading Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar', which engages some of the same themes as 'Gilgamesh', only without all the laughs. The kids have noted that Caesar himself hardly even appears in the first two acts, really only long enough to hear, and ignore, the soothsayer declaring 'Beware the Ides of March!'

Like 'Gilgamesh', this play is about a man who gets too big for his own good. The line we've spent the most time chewing on so far is The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.

We'll put a little bit of the play on its feet in February or March, since it is, after all, a play.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Lit Circle Questions

Each group has written twenty questions or so about the first section of their book. I asked them for a couple of highlights. Here were the nominations.

Island of the Blue Dolphins.
What happened to Karana’s mother?
Will Karana stay on the island? If she leaves, will she arrive at her destination?

Fahrenheit 451.
Why did the girl disappear?
What is the mechanical hound trying to kill?

Red Scarf Girl.
Why do you think Ji-Li wants to be a Red Successor?
Do you think she’ll tell her classmates about her class status? Why?

My Brother Sam Is Dead.
What did Sam’s father say about his brother’s wind? Why did he say that?
What side will Timmy be on?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Why do you think Junior’s sister wants to write romance novels?
Will the kids in the white school like Junior?

Life As We Knew It.
How was the world outside the US affected by the meteor that struck the moon?
Why couldn’t scientists predict the effects of the meteor?

Round II of Exhibitions

Greetings, All--

We have created a tentative schedule for the next round of half-hour Exhibitions. 

Parents and families, please let me know, as soon as possible, of any conflicts with the times below. When we return from the long weekend, the kids will be issuing invitations. 


Monday, February 11
12:45   Denali
2:15     Danny
4:00     Lily

Tuesday, February 12
10:00   Isobel
4:00     Saul

Wednesday, February 13
1:15     Jonathan
2:15     Evan
4:00     Mike

Thursday, February 14
10:00   Taylor
12:00   Trent
4:00     Jianmarco

Monday, January 14, 2013

Giant Problem

Our math group composed a monster problem.

Each student had one problem posted on the whiteboard to solve, covering the range of operations we've undertaken in math thus far this year. What percentage of American states border the Great Lakes? Word problems on sales and taxes. Straightforward long division. That kind of thing.

Once each completed his or her work, the figure was written up on the board.

Then we had fifteen numbers with blank circles between each pair. We played Math Mad Lib then, filling in each circle with either +, -, x or /.

Here's our problem:

.8 x 128 =
/ 360 =
- 44 =
x 96 =
+ .16 =
+ 35 =
/ 1.65 =
- 18 =
/ 8.5 =
+ 139.5 =
x .8 =
- 1.64 =
x 30 =
+ 2 =
+ .18 =

Literature Circles

Jason's class has joined ours in reading a half-dozen terrific books.

The middle schoolers are divided into groups of four. Each of these is called a Literature Circle. We spent a little time in the first week back passing around seven books, giving a little background, the kids taking some time to get familiar with the options. Then, we asked each student to rank their favorites, one through four.

I'm happy to report that everyone got at least their third choice. Most students got their first or second. These are the groups.

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie: Alexandra, Danny, Jianmarco, Jonathan.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: Henry, Laurea, Lee, Trent.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O'Dell: Aristea, Denali, Isobel, Margaret.
Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer: Cory, Matthew, Melissa, Taylor.
My Brother Sam Is Dead, Collier & Collier: Evan, Henry, Mike.
Red Scarf Girl, Ji-Li Jiang: Kaeli, Lily, Noah, Saul.

When the circles gather, each member takes on a different role. The Questioner makes sure that the group composes and answers thick questions about what has taken place in the book and what might happen next. The Artist creates a visual accompaniment to the day's excerpts. The Scribe gets both words and images into the circle's Google Doc. The Facilitator keeps the trains running on time. The circles have convened twice so far; generally, they will meet three times a week

We expect a final hoo-rah of some kind. Each group will create a final project with help from another SK faculty member. More on these stories as they develop.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Quarter to Nine

Just a reminder, as we drag ourselves out of bed in the still-dark mornings of a Michigan winter. . . . .

The school day at Summers-Knoll begins at 8:45. We have a scant fifteen minutes before math begins. In that time, we are either reading together (Gilgamesh, The Red Pony, Matilda, Julius Caesar) or we are working through service project planning. The time is scheduled for a specific use every morning.

The exception is Friday, the only day of the week that the entire student body gathers. On Fridays, please plan to have your delightful children here by 8:40, so that belongings can be stashed before the assembly commences in the Atrium.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Not the Hunger Games

We had an Olympiad on the last day of school in December, a climactic run-around activity that dipped into equal parts Ancient Civilizations knowledge, collaboration, strategic thinking, and silliness.

Students were assigned to one of four Greek city-states, three of them inventions of my class: Rhazon, Barthonia and Choros were creations of our group; Zisteaunia, named by Noah Amezcua, comprised the fourth competitor.

Events included . . . . . .

(a Roman board game)


(Ancient Civ Pictionary)

(a word game)

(a foot race around SK)

(one word per team)

(placing Ancient Civs on a map)

(imported from Math)

(again using a map of the world)

(rendering Arabic numerals thus)

(shouting from Gilgamesh)

(another Math import)

(just styrofoam, 
but eminently satisfying) 

I had the most fun watching Kaeli swinging that axe, but there was great passion at the thumb-wrestling arena, the Lexico Graphica sprints were shrewd, swift, and hilarious, and the shouted Gilgamesh lines got the entire atrium riled up. 

Exhibitions Happened, and Will Happen

You can do two things well in an exhibition. You can (a) know your stuff and you can (b) teach well. 

A competent exhibitor does one of these effectively; a terrific exhibitor does both.

For our very first round, back in November, we did well. All twenty lessons, two per student, featured at least one of these--a good activity or some valuable knowledge. The best--Saul's chocolate lesson, Jianmarco's transportation debate, and others--did both.

Here were the key evaluative questions: 

How well did the student know the material? 
Was everything ready?
How comfortable was the student?
How focused was the audience through the exhibition?
How well did the members of the audience learn the material?

Our next round of Exhibitions, the second of three, will occur in February. This time around, Jason's fifth and sixth graders next door will be participating as well, so there will be a more complex schedule. 

Students in my class will conduct one mathematics lesson and one wild-card lesson (ancient Greece? science? Gilgamesh? Mandarin?).

More details as we suss out the process schedule. 

Friday, January 4, 2013


Gilgamesh is the oldest story I know, and the oldest one you know, too, with one caveat: it’s the oldest written story we know. Of course others predate it. We were telling stories before we had words. Then again, there probably isn’t much in those earlier tales that didn’t show up in this one: friendship, death, romance, natural disasters, battle, family, giant monsters with four heads and sixteen feet, mortals spurning the advances of goddesses . . . . . okay, some of this is pretty original, after all.

What strikes me about Gilgamesh is that it is ultimately a story of humility on the part of an arrogant man. That is a bold message for a time when rulers were considered divine. Gilgamesh himself claimed to be two-thirds god. (If you can figure out the ancestral map of that, let me know.)

Gilgamesh at Summers-Knoll has been a village-wide effort. Every sixth, seventh and eighth grader was in it; most of the fifth grade; half of the third and fourth grade. Every staff member pitched in, wasdisrupted, stepped up when asked to and kindly stepped aside when it was time to monopolize the kids’ time. Their support of the production was unwavering.

Our first theme of the year was Farm-to-Table; our second, Ancient Civilizations. We chose Gilgamesh in that spirit. Farming first occurred in Mesopotamia; therefore, the world’s most ancient civilization was created there. Thematic work on display to see how our SK students and staff have explored these topics.