Wednesday, September 26, 2012


My friends at Birches have been making keen observations about many of the different trees that surround their school.  They noticed that the trees around campus hold leaves with a considerable variety of identifiable features.  A couple weeks ago, friends selected an assortment of leaves and decided to categorize them based on size and features, such as leaf outline shape.  They also made leaf drawings and wrote highly creative stories about each leaf they chose.  On a nature walk, friends noted that many of the trees' bark have quite different textures, and that some trees keep their thick bark covering while others have thin bark that is peeled away.  Theories about why certain species undergo seasonal shedding is a topic we will likely return to at another time this winter.

We decided to collect leaves from 5-8 of these different tree species and to use a field guide to make tree species identifications.  Since we have been talking about seasons and the weather changes that come with fall, friends were interested in making predictions about the leaf colors that they expect to see and in discussing why some leaves change color during autumn time.  

Our friends wondered what makes certain leaves turn from green to bright warm colors in the fall, and why some tree leaves turn brown, while others turn yellow or red and orange.  We decided to test what color we would find if we closely analyzed the green leaves that we had collected.

Using paper chromatography, we carefully rubbed leaf pigments onto a piece of special filter paper in a thin dark green line.  Then we submerged the paper strip into a small glass flask with a tiny volume of ethanol (solvent).  When our paper began to soak up the liquid, friends noticed that the green pigments began crawling up the strip as it was carried by the solvent. We were pleasantly surprised to see that, on some of our leaf rubbings, we were able to see other colors appear!  Over the autumn, friends plan to observe the trees from which they collected their leaves, and to see if the color predictions we made based on the chromatography experiment come true.

Friday, September 14, 2012


My teaching mentor and most sage advisor, in all things related to inquiry-based science curricula, told me that the first week of teaching science to youngsters would be an almost euphoric experience.  She of course was right.

But after teaching science to young children (from preschoolers to third graders) for over a year, I am happy to report that the experience has not lost it's initial honeymoon glow.  If you have not experienced it yourself, I can tell you, it is the most amazing rush in the world. To be able to play some small role in presenting scientific phenomena to young children, to witness their engagement, exploration, absorption, understanding, and wonderment, it feels like there is nothing else at that moment.

As pop psychology as it may sound, I do believe that in adulthood we seek to fulfill some need of our younger selves that may not have been fully met in development.  I know now that the inadequacies, insecurities, and doubt that I felt about my own educational upbringing is what moves me to bring child-driven science lessons to very young students today.  It is my mission to empower children with their own sense of intellectual curiosity, to engage them to express their own thoughts, to explore deeply what ever subjects they find most intriguing, and to encourage them to trust their own creativity in problem solving.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Critical Explorers

While attending a three-day teaching workshop in August, I felt honored to be able to meet and study with Eleanor Duckworth.  Over the past year I had read several of her publications, and meeting her in person only increased my admiration of and respect for her.

A former student and English translator of Jean Piaget,  Eleanor has developed a teaching approach called Critical Exploration in the Classroom.  Her teaching method is surprisingly straight forward but hardly simple, it is one that explicitly values the learners' experience and insight, and I wonder why it is not yet the standard in our public schools.

Critical Exploration relies first on teachers making careful and deliberate selections of rich source material (for example, historical artifacts) and on allowing children to investigate and make discoveries of these documents for themselves.  It offers a restructuring of the classroom, turning the straight rows and authoritative lecturing at the blackboard, to one where all chairs are placed into an inclusive circle and students are invited to express their own thoughts, to learn from each others ideas, and to, hopefully, think more deeply.

While the initial materials (and take-home objective) are selected by the teacher, the technique requires precise listening skills and careful following of the students thinking; so that the teacher is flexible in figuring out what her/his next step will be in designing the subsequent curriculum for helping students to go deeper into the subject.

I see Critical Exploration in the Classroom as providing a learning partnership or, dare I say, learning community where the teacher is acutely aware of each and every one of their students personal perspective and where learners benefit from listening to each others ideas, allowing for the active exchange of discoveries and revelations.

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