We are sailing and tumbling along

The last couple weeks have been quite the adventure: age of the earth math provocations, rock tumblers and sailing on the bay.

Week Four:

While joining forces with the Green Band, we worked to calculate the age of the Earth using two different strategies proposed over time. The first calculation was based on Lord Kelvin’s cooling of the Earth technique, and provided us the chance to learn about scientific notation. We learned more about Lord Kelvin from the documentary Men of Rock. Our second calculation looked at the salinity of the oceans, through Sir Edmond Halley’s work. To support our work, we learned more about metric conversion of units. This work set a foundation for our upcoming project: Timeline of the Earth.



We spent our afternoons in the shop with Sean, working on partnerships and building rock tumblers. Sean had initially told the band that they would be disassembling their rock tumblers at the end of the week, but when asked, “What if they are really good?” he said that if they built rock tumblers that could pass a one hour test, they would be able to keep them. Challenge accepted.





It was amazing how very different each of the three designs were. Justin and Quinn went straight to the Legos, Huxley and Nora got their tumbling container to spin directly connected to a drill, and Lucy, Aurora, and Patrick created a system of PVC pipes to spin their container on. While working in partners and groups wasn’t always the easiest, everyone found ways to compromise and make their voices heard in such a way that each group was able to design and build a rock tumbler that successfully passed a one hour test!!!


We broke up our week inside the building with a Wednesday field trip out onto the Bay with the Green Band. Sailing with the crew from The San Francisco Sailing Company, we had the chance to observe the rocks that make up the Marin Headlands, Angel Island, and Alactraz, as well as learn about sailing and how to tie knots. Once back on land, we made our way over to an outcropping of Alcatraz sandstone, the same type that makes up the island, over at Union and Sansome. While a group walked up the stairs to scout out more rocks, the rest stayed back to observe the sandstone, breaking it apart into smaller sandy chunks.






Week Five:

We spent much of last week working alongside the Green Band once again. This time we joined forces in the afternoons to advance the work on our rock tumblers. Our new motto became, “When the rocks are tumbling, we are winning.” By Monday afternoon we had five rock tumblers in various states of completion and by Tuesday we had one ready to run full time. Students from both bands worked to support one another on their projects and created an open source board of ideas to pull from. By the end of the week, we had two tumblers going all day! Next week we will be looking into how to power them while we are away in Mendocino and cannot change drill batteries.




The timeline of the Earth was the focus of our mornings with the Green Band. In small groups and partnerships, we found metaphorical ways to represent the timeline in smaller, more understandable chunks. We compared the timeline to everything from rings on a tree, to steps to Starbucks, to pages of the dictionary, to feet of a mountain to the minutes on a clock. The group that compared the Earth’s history to the minutes on the clock calculated that each minute represented 75 million years and that humans only came into existence in the last two seconds.







We took some time to continue our rock research. Working through three stations, we researched our rocks, sketched and painted them, and measured them in multiple ways. Next week, we will continue to research our rocks, as well as work on our creative writing piece about them.





Orange Band: Rock, Week 5

Friends, we are really really doing it. What do I mean by this? We are working hard, pursuing our interests guided by the idea of rock, and getting to have loads of fun along the way.

This week, we got deeper into our study of labyrinths and Greek mythology, implemented the Literacy Workshop Menu, made some huge progress on our timeline, and learned a new Math Workshop game. Oh! And almost everybody’s family got to come see our classroom at Back to School Night!

I noticed some serious interest in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur when we visited the Lands End labyrinth last week. So, I checked out a bunch of books at different reading levels from the public library and crafted our first Literacy Workshop Menu. The Menu includes must-do activities (the ‘Main Course’) and choice activities (the ‘Dessert’). Kiddos can choose the order in which they complete the must-do activities, and once they have, they can move on to the choices. This week, our Main Courses are to read one of of the Theseus and the Minotaur storybooks, and read one-on-one twice with me, play Bananagrams, play Quiddler, and write an entry in their reflection journal. After completing these activities, kiddos can have choice reading time, return to one of the word study games, or add to an entry in their reflection journal.

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Emilio working on adding details to his reflection journal entry.

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Building words out of letters is challenging! And fun! Isaac, Tesla, Sadie and Gita play Bananagrams.

I find that kids engage best with activities that are at their level. From this point, we build in challenges, spiraling up and out to incorporate a range of skills, interests and intelligences. Providing both choices and expectations builds in a balance of level-appropriate work, along with work that stretches each one of us a bit. What’s more, Nathan’s presence at at least one Literacy and Math workshop each week doubles our capacity for one-on-one work, which is the best chance to differentiate work–both for students that are ready to extend, and students that need a bit more support. Yay!

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Nathan helps Gita extend her work playing the dice game, 10-up by thinking about how far away her roll is from 20, and how much farther this total is from 10.

We got out of the classroom this week to go to Scrap and look for hook-like doo-dads for our storage unit. We’re behaviorists when it comes to hooks: choose something you like and can hang your stuff from! Even if that turns out to be the wing of an Imperial jet!

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Isaac, Gita, Tesla, Sadie and Ramses wait to here if the total for our hooks is within our budget of $10!


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Oscar and Emilio work together to illustrate two different theories for the K-T extinction event.

The group’s interest in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur has been an excellent opportunity to incorporate both play and guided reading. As the students read different versions of the story, I have an opportunity to read one-on-one with each student. We are also reading aloud a version of the story as a group. AND, the idea of the labyrinth, the monster, the hero and the helper have been popping up all over the kiddos’ play. Ask your child to show you their Minotaur face!

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Nathan reading aloud Theseus from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.


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Tesla and Gita practicing research skills AND flexibility as we research historical designs of labyrinths around the world. Did you know that labyrinths appear in South America, the American Southwest, North Africa, the Mediterranean, India and Indonesia?

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Ramses shares what he’s learned–about the movie Labyrinth!–as Isaac learns to draw a Cretan labyrinth.

And, a week in the Orange Band wouldn’t be complete without some time on the swing. See everybody on Monday!

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Gita and Isaac take a spin on Josh and Laurel’s swing to dot the exclamation point at the end of this week–yay!

Blue: The Power of “Again” and “Still”

Two of the most powerful things a student can say to an educator are the words “again” and “still.”


AGAIN / adverb / returning to a previous position or condition. See: “Are we doing this again next week?”


STILL / adverb / up to and including the present or the time mentioned; even now (or then) as formerly. See: “Are we still going to get to work on this after lunch?”

The use of either of these words in relation to any learning experience means that something has clicked. Something in the learning experience has snagged the attention, curiosity, and passion of the person doing the learning. This snag has embedded so deep that the learner wants to continue with the learning experience in that moment or wants return to the learning experience at another time to capture that same feeling, or to learn even more.

Yes. What I’ve said so far is all pretty self-explanatory — pretty unrevolutionary. “Again” and “still” describe the moments that teachers seek out all the time. These are common place, everyday moments. Our job, as teachers, is that we curate opportunities where students are so inspired by a situation, interaction, or lesson that they carry their learning outside of the classroom and out onto the streets — again and still.

What is less self-explanatory and actually pretty revolutionary is when those words are used in a sentence for the first time this school year by students who have only been with one another for 20 days.


What is really revolutionary and actually not at all explainable is when those moments emerge from simple, off-the-cuff situations. These opportunities are not necessarily in even the best of lesson plans, and they are certainly not something that can be predicted or even recreated. So far, Blue Band’s still and again moments have been simple, and honest things: an opportunity to do a new thing like printmake, or to participate in a simulated learning situation, like a fake Mission to Mars. 


This week was filled with these moments, and it’s so very exciting to witness it.

Geologic Time

For the past couple of weeks, kids in Indigo band have been working on a massive timeline of Earth’s history, to scale. There are no real of examples of this for us to follow as the amount of time we need to show is simply too massive. Most geologic timelines compress the actual length of eons, eras, periods, and epochs into legible lengths, but this doesn’t give students a sense of just how old the earth is. Other more complicated models show a zoomed view of the latter parts of the timeline, which, while accurate, can be confusing.

After introducing the idea and polling the kids about how long they think it should be, responses ranged from “uh, a sheet of paper” to “maybe the length of the board?” and so on. After doing some calculations, the kids quickly realized that a timeline of this scale would be mostly unreadable. After some more discussion, I proposed that the shortest chunk of time, the Holocene Epoch, should be no shorter than a centimeter. Once we had that, we could work backwards to determine the length our timeline needed to be.


Our calculations

After some careful calculations, we determined our timeline should be a whopping 192 pages long. That’s 2,112 inches or 176 feet. Where do you put something that big? After discussing some options, we settled on the walls around the office. If we snaked the timeline around, we could make it fit.


Picking a design, identifying our needs

Since we know our length and our base unit (1cm = about 850 thousand years) we could then start the task of figuring out how long each eon, era, period, and epoch could be in centimeters. We created a massive spreadsheet that held all the information we would need for the project. By filling in the time period start and end dates, the kids found the duration of the period. Once we had that, we could divide it by our unit rate (850 thousand years) and figure out how long it would be, but that was also only partially helpful. Since we were using sheets of paper to build our timeline, we had to convert the duration of each time period into pages. To do that, we needed to know how many millions of years could fit on the length of one sheet (about 23 million years), which left us with a number of pages and an awkward decimal. Since it’s impossible to accurately cut 0.2634 of a sheet of paper, we then had to convert the decimal to centimeters so we could measure out the last bit. Whew.

Amelia and Cassandra made a poster explaining how we got our measurements


To the delight of the kids, we only did this a few times to make sure they got the concept, then I showed them how to make Google Sheets do the magic for us by repeating the same calculations down our chart of data. Next came the tedium of actually building this thing, which I admit was a bigger behemoth than I anticipated. The kids rotated through jobs like a factory. One student would count the number of sheets needed and hand them to the next person, who would label the sheets with the name, type, and length of that time chunk. Next, the stack would go to the cutter, who sliced the sheets down to size, finally, it would go to the tapers who attached the sheets into strips. While this was happening, a group of kids worked on assembling the timeline on the wall.

Lucie counting sheets

Cassandra cuts down the last bits of the eons to the right length

Ally consults the spreadsheet

JP and Lindsay space out the timeline on the cork floor

After a few work sessions, the bulk of the earlier work was done. All that was left was to hang the pieces and creating a display board to explain the timeline. Today, the kids worked in 40 minute shifts in teams of three, hanging or labeling the time chunks on the wall. While they were working on the timeline, the other kids were researching timeline events to put on the wall. The kids are researching landform changes, tracking the drift of the continents, following the evolution of life (plants and animals), tracking sea level changes, and events happening in California throughout geologic time. As I write, we have a COMPLETE timeline on the wall and only need to finish the labels and add the research. I’m so proud of the perseverance my band had shown even though this project has only gotten bigger and bigger throughout the Arc.


Completed timeline! The sticky notes are places we still need to label


Our cute display


Rocking Out

Oops! This is a late post (that I didn’t see was saved as a draft!)

After being out for over a week, Indigo Band was very happy to have me back. I’m happy to be back! I’ve been itching to get into the Earth Science topics I’ve been researching and see what the kids latch onto. There are also some larger-picture goals we still need to set. This week, we’ve been establishing a protocol for how we approach math. Since kids in Indigo are all over the place in skill level, whole-group instruction just won’t work. We can’t all do the same thing at the same time. Yesterday, I showed students the list of prioritized standards for each grade level in math. We broke down how to use this guide as a reference to aid our math exploration and set individual goals. The class requested we work on math for an hour each day, less during Expression, and set a group goal of learning 3 new skills a week, to learn around 100 new skills by the end of the year. From the list of standards, I showed the kids how to find the corresponding skills on Khan Academy so they could be sure they were weren’t wasting time on skills that aren’t as necessary to learn. We’ve only been working for a few days, but everyone is extremely focused and on task. It always amazes me that by framing options and allowing kids to choose, you create internal engagement. The kids are working for themselves, not to please me. A highlight for me came from Max, who after our first day of math, told me that he learned more that day than he did in all of last year. While that’s probably not completely true, it showed me that he’s again excited to learn, and happy to have ownership of that process.

Aside from math, we’ve been learning about the formation of Earth. Using a documentary from National Geographic as a reference, we’ve spent the afternoons watching, taking notes, pausing to discuss, then repeating that process. At the end of the day, the kids take their notes from the film and our discussions home and do some further research on an aspect from they day they found particularly interesting. Last night, everyone researched an animal from the Cambrian Explosion and wrote a blog post about what we believe that animal lived like, when, and why. I love the curiosity of these kids!

Upper School 2 Mars

Today, we went to Mars.

Did some basic astronaut training, first.

Debriefed at Mission Control: there’s a station on Mars and a replacement team coming to swap them out, the Mars Control team and the Spacecraft team.

Got into position, and took off.

Our mission was successful!


Yea, space!


Blue: A Printmaking Tangent

This week, the Blue Band took a bit of a detour in our study of earth science (though this detour isn’t really that far off course).

On Tuesday, we went on a field trip to Gruenwald Press, an art studio and gallery space owned printmaker John Gruenwald. While at his studio, John taught the Blue Band how to replicate a drawing using the process of stone lithography. (For all the non-printmakers out there, lithography uses the repelling relationship of oil and water to transfer an image from a slab of limestone to a piece of paper — over and over again.)

Blue got to see and experience the process from beginning to end.


We used grit, time, and erosion to prepare the surface of the stone.

We collectively created a design on a prepared stone using oil pencils (as well as some of the natural oil already on our hands and skin).


We got to roll out the ink, and use the press to transfer the image to rag paper.


After the visit, everyone became pretty interested in printmaking, and in the idea that a unique image could be replicated over and over using a totally unfamiliar process.


As a result of our tangent, we spent most of Friday making our own prints.


This was a pretty special moment for Blue.

After using the whole morning to get to know the tools and process we would be using, everyone begged to skip pre-lunch park time, so that they could have more printmaking time. So, that’s what we did. We used our break to continue working on designs, on helping on another understand the printmaking process, and on talking about how to edition and price their finished artworks.

We’ll continue this conversation on Monday, for sure!