Why Circles - Student Created Routine

We started discussing emotions and where feelings come from in our UOI.  Earlier in the year we had a brain expert come to the school and build playdoh models of brains.  The kids already knew that the "Red Room" where our anger comes from is generated by the Amygdala; but I wanted to take it to a meta-level of understanding, and I wanted them to draw some connections between the physical process, the mental, and the emotional.  I had no idea how, but I have trust in my students to show me the way.

The lesson started with a simple premise and a simple question (as all things complex do).  I showed them a video of a kid who was not in the best of moods.  He was, for wont of a better word, flipping out.  He was playing some kind of video game, and it obviously was not going well, judging from his reactions.  The best thing about this video is that is was in a language that my children could not speak, so they couldn't connect with him and get into his shoes.  Their observations about why he was upset were simply based on what they saw, and inferences.  While they were watching, they were taking sticky notes and writing down notes.  I gave no instructions on what kind of notes to write.  I specifically gave no instructions to increase the complexity of the activity and not limit it to only area of observation, which would then mean that they were watching the video through the lens of my interpretation, not through their interpretation.

Once we had a number of sticky notes on the board, we threw out the ones that were repeated and started to look into how to analyze the rest.  I use this routine often, and I find it a great base that leads to very interesting discussions.  It also takes control of where it goes away from the teacher and gives it to the students.  They interpret the information on their terms, and take the learning in their own direction.

Next, we got to meat and potatoes of the activity, which is the sorting and classifying of the information.  During this stage, I tend to sit back and let it go, only interjecting if they are stuck.  They found that their were different levels of emotions at play here, and that there were also observation about what will happen.  One student then drew a circle and put an observation in the middle (smashing controller), and another student added another circle around it wrote a simple emotion (angry).  They found another emotion that is was little deeper than "angry", and drew a third circle on the outside and put "hates to lose" in that circle.  Here, they got stuck on with their notes because they couldn't find anything deeper than that to continue the circles, so I interjected and asked them to forget out the sticky notes and continue the circles.  Here is the basic progression they came up with:

Smashing Controller --- Angry --- Hates to lose --- Needs to be cool --- Doesn't have many friends --- Shy

They drew these out in nested circles on the board.  One of the students called them Why Circles.  An idea was born.  I quickly created a rough template to use on my computer and printed it off:

We then each applied the Why Circles to ourselves and began the process of self-introspection.  This will be on-going process, though I have no idea where it will go!

This is a strategy that teachers have been using for a long time (I'm talking about the Why Circles) and has many variations.  It is not anything new, innovative or ground-breaking.  The point is, the kids created it themselves, and it has meaning to them and a feeling of ownership.  When we use this strategy in the future for other things (and I certainly will!) they will immediately remember the moment they created it.  They were the teachers, and they taught themselves.

However, the collective was an integral part of the entire process.  This is not the product of one students idea or insight, it was a group effort.  Without the contributions of everybody involved, this idea would not have emerged.


Orders of Magnitude Art

We made some posters for the HS students math classroom.  Talking with the HS math teacher we both agreed that kids have a hard time understanding the orders of magnitude.  I took on the project in my class to give my kids a better understand of the individual units of measurement, and they made a visual poster to share with the older kids.  They did some great work, and I think it helped them understand the idea of why there are different orders of magnitude, and the need to measure different things with different units.  One student commented that measuring the length of an ant and the distance between Pluto and the Earth with the same unit would be, in her words, a waste of time.

Very true.

Self Reflection and Blogging

This blog started as a cumulative project for my B.Ed just two years ago.  It was a repository of information, an online portfolio if you will, for which I received a grade (I forget what it was because I never cared!).  It was a place for me to hash out everything that I had learned over the course of my year at U of Toronto.

Over the last two years, it has turned into so much more.  It is a place to meet people, share ideas, post resources, and to reflect on my own practice.  It has been the reflection that has been the most valuable.  I don't care if anybody reads it.  I do it for myself.  Self reflection is the greatest resource a teacher could ever share.

With that in mind, I have a new look for a new year.  Most of the old resources have been archived on the resource page.  If you need anything specific, do not hesitate to ask.  I will continue to post ideas, lessons, and units; however, I want to focus more of asking questions and reflecting on why I (we) do what I (we) do, rather than how.

For now though, xmas holiday beckons, and I look forward to spending some quality time with my boy, wife, and extended family.

One more week.



A Question About Technology in the Classroom

Trying to hash out some ideas and would like some feedback.

I have this activity I like to use in the class (many teachers do this, it is not my own idea, but I am not sure where I got it from).  We write down a central thought, or theme, and we start exploring it through words, objects, and ideas.  Here are the basic steps we follow in this routine:

  • Students write their ideas on sticky notes stick them to the board (anything that comes to mind)

  • We go through the notes and take out the ones that are repetitive, or have the same meaning (which itself causes a lot of argument and critical thinking!)

  • We categorize the notes into different columns (tables), diagrams (Venn, etc) or patterns (spirals, trees, boxes).

In the last part of the activity I usually let the students decide how to organize the notes.  It is interesting to see what types of thinking emerge from the discussions and often gives the inquiry a new and exciting direction.  I try not to plan the learning engagements past this point, instead, I use this as a jumping off point to where the students want to take the learning, and work my out from here.

My question is this; is something like this even possible to do in a technological environment?  I am sure there are many tools out there where this could be done, but would they be more effective that the old-fashioned sticky-note way?  What would make it more effective?  What aspects of technology would bring out different ideas, thoughts, and ways of thinking?

In my own experience, I think that the bumping together of ideas that comes with working together in a small group with a tangible product you can touch and manipulate is the foundation of good ideas.  One student suggests something, another adapts it slightly, and then another changes it again.  The final product is completely dependent on the group, or the collective.  One student could not have come up with it on their own.  It is, in effect, an idea that belongs not to one person, but which traces its lineage back over several people.  Take one brick out of the tower and it will fall, and cease to exist as it was.

Is this a limitation of technology in the classroom?

Of course, this is possible in an online medium.  Those of us who use Twitter, follow blogs, and are part of large PLN do this everyday.  Yet, there is something different that I can't quite put my finger on and elucidate.  A disconnect, perhaps, between people and ideas and how they grow and evolve.  I get a lot of ideas online, but there is something missing in this feedback loop.  Are my own ideas and interpretations not challenged?  Am I missing on that bumping together of those ideas to make them stronger?

Just thinking.  Any thoughts?


Worlds Coalescing

I had a great time on Friday.  My son came into my classroom for a guest visit.  Grade 5.6 has been studying human growth over the last couple of weeks, and my two year old was the perfect subject to see how far they have grown in only the last 9 years.  They prepared a bunch of experiements and tests for him, got together their data recording devices, and practiced making ancedotal observatoins.

The real hi-light of the day was how mature, responsible, and grown up they acted in front of a small child.  They were heart-warmingly gentle with him, helpful in every way, and made him feel comfortable.  I was very proud of them.  Small children should come into classrooms more often.


Informal Units of Measurement

A former colleague of mine once commented that it is a waste of time to have students develop their own units of measurement with older kids (grades 5-8ish).  I disagreed then, and I disagree now.  Informal units of measurement (especially in the upper Elementary grades) have a number of practical benefits:

  • They make it easier to focus directly in the attribute being measured, and in turn, what is means to measure

  • They give a historical content for mathematics that helps them see how and why mathematical concepts have developed as they have

  • It gives a rational for the importance of standard units, rather than the teacher just telling them they are important, they get to see for themselves why

  • It is fun, and more importantly, when developing your own informal unit, you have to think outside of the box and focus on the concept and big idea of the attribute you are measuring (creative problem solving)

  • We use them everyday in our lives (a pinch of salt, a splash of hot sauce, a handful of counting beads, a bit of tape)

  • There are more, but my brain is not working properly.  Please add more in the comments below!

My students came up with some wonderful ideas to kick of their inquiry into measurable attributes.  To frame it, our four main categories of measurable attributes are Time, Volume, Area, Weight, Length (this includes depth, height, etc).  We are each doing an inquiry into each one and will present our findings to the class at the end of our inquiry (and each group will plan a series of lessons for the rest of the class to help them get their concept).  Here is what they came up with:


What I want to measure: The time it takes to run a lap of the track

How I will measure it: Sing Happy Birthday and count the number of Happy Birthdays it takes

Answer: 20


What I want to measure: The volume of a cup

How I will measure it: How many spoonfuls of water it takes to fill the cup

Answer: 28


What I want to measure: The length of a table

How I will measure it: How many toothpicks I can lay across the table

Answer: 27


What I want to measure: The area of the carpet

How I will measure it: How many pillows will cover the carpet

Answer: 33


What I want to measure: The weight of a dictionary

How I will measure it: How many paperback books equals one dictionary

Answer: 12 (but that will change if the thing in the middle is skinny or fat)