Orange Band: Math Workshop

This week, I’m writing based on a special request. My dear friend and co-worker and Lower School Assistant here at BWX, Nathan, asked me to write a bit about math workshop.

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Kiddos walk me through a counting back strategy. They tell me how they would solve the problem, and I translate their strategy into a representation on the chart paper during a strategies seminar.

Math workshopis intentional time dedicated to math skills development. Kids at this early elementary age are very literal thinkers. So, it’s important for us to approach math literally first, and then abstract from there. This means we approach topics in math workshop, then apply them to our arc based work. What’s more, it’s important for us to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

Math workshop consists of 3 basic components: skill introduction, skill practice, and strategies seminar.

Skills are introduced at the beginning of math workshop, or sometimes in the morning message. For example for the past few weeks, we have been talking about subtraction and counting. The conceptual jump from addition to subtraction is a big one for kids of this age, and it’s one that we approach using logic. One Tuesday morning, the kiddos arrived to school with the following problem in the morning message: “Last night I went to the library to pick up 17 books I had put on hold. When I got there, the librarian let me know that 8 of the books I had requested were not ready for me to pick up. On a stickie, write an equation to show how many books I was able to check out.” This problem asks kiddos to consider if I checked our more or less than 17 books, and then translate that into a mathematical sentence, or equation; how will you show taking away from 17 in an equation? Sometimes, we’ll warm our brains up by acting out what is happening in the problem–which also guarantees to be fun and silly!

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Emilio and I translate our drawing of balloons being lost into equations. Both strategies solve the problem of how many balloons I have left!

The next component of math workshop is skills practice. First, kiddos do some practice of the skill we’re working on, usually individually, and sometimes with a partner. For addition and subtraction, kiddos have been imagining story problems to match equations. They write or draw their story problem, then show their thinking to solve the problem. This means metacognition of the steps it takes to solve a problem, then synthesizing these steps in such a way that they can be illustrated. This could mean drawing your hands to show how you counted on your fingers, drawing a number line and showing which direction you moved to find your answer, or drawing the items described in your story and showing them being removed (crossed out) or added to. Then, kiddos can move into games choices. Each workshop, I’ll choose a few games for kiddos to play as they finish their individual work. Some of these games give kiddos a chance to practice arithmetic to build fluency, others are more oriented to sequential thinking, logic, and spatial reasoning.

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Ramses works on showing his work to solve an addition problem that we wrote a story for involving a robot and all of its laptops and cell phones.

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After doing some work writing a story problem, Gita and Tesla play 21. They need to accurately add up the cards they can see, and reason whether or not they should take another card from the deck based on the total of the cards they can see, knowing that they have one more card hidden.

I think the metacognition of HOW they solved a problem is the most important part! So often a kiddo will respond that they just knew the answer. As we move toward problems they will not be able to solve quickly with mental math, kiddos must be equipped with strategies to solve problems. Much more than repetitive practice, kids showing their work emphasizes problem solving strategies, and asks kids to think about the relationships between numbers and what is actually happening when they are counting.

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Sadie crosses out the balloons that ‘flew away’ in order to answer the question of how many balloons I gave Nathan for his birthday.

But wait, there’s another most important part: the seminar! Seminar usually happens at the end of math workshop, but sometimes we’ll seminar together at the beginning of workshop to remind kiddos of strategies they can use to solve problems when they are working independently. At strategies seminar, kiddos explain to the group how they solved their problem. To get us started, I translate kiddos strategies and draw what they describe on a piece of chart paper. Moving forward, kiddos will start to illustrate and explain for the group.

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Four different ways to solve the same problem–wowee!

This part is so important because it integrates many skills into one practice: not only are they remembering and sequencing their process for solving a problem, they are presenting it to others. They must find a way to explain it in a way that others can understand, and that can be drawn on a piece of paper. Plus, kiddos practice listening to others, and asking for respect from their peers. More than anything else, I’ve seen that kids learn to show each other respect and attention in these moments when they must practice the give and take back to back: when they can immediately see that their friends will show them respect in exchange for their respect.

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Oscar shows the group how he would count back using a numberline.

That’s all there is to it! The order of the parts can be me moved around, broken up, and we don’t necessarily do all 3 parts at every math workshop. The games we play include some dice and card games that practice arithmetic, to build fluency with some basic math facts, some board games that emphasize spatial reasoning and logic, and even some coding for sequential thinking.

We did so much other awesome stuff this week beside math–check out our Instagram feed to see proof!

Violet: Ski Weekend

This weekend, we’re going skiing.

But for now, we’re in the middle of our projects!

Sayuri posted her petition to extend the Alameda library hours earlier this week. You can read and sign it here: Improve West End Library Branch Hours to Seven Days a Week

Max and Jack got their fundraising page up and running! They’re raising money to buy an Ultralight kit – a starter pack in building their airplane. You can read more about (and donate to!) their project here: Send Two Students into the Sky!

Laurel started working at 826 Valencia this week. Cyrus and Harry are both using Unreal Engine 4 to work on their game platforms – Harry is detailing the movement, steering, and shooting of a ship; Cyrus is creating the land. Josh drafted his first iteration of a clay potter for the redesign of KitTea to make it greener and more balanced. Grace finished her survey of BWX students and staff and their interaction with age, and is creating visible boards for their results. Cassandra finished both of her essays – a persuasive paper on GMOs and a research paper on the evolution of human understanding of the universe – and is drafting out an air filtration system for her space community.

In the middle of this, we started reading Brave New World. Chapter 1 done. We’re so excited.

And this weekend, we’ll be in Tahoe for a ski trip. The band wants to play Dungeons & Dragons, so I am frantically training to be a Dungeon Master. So far, I am in way over my head.

Researchers and Window Farmers

Harry Potter Herbology, catnip, wolves in Yellowstone, lending libraries, and bamboo in the morning. Window farming in the afternoon. The last few weeks have been filled with researching, experimenting and building.

Each morning during our personal project time, our Chartreuse Band research team has been spending its time taking notes while reading up on a variety of topics. Looking to bolster their collections of online resources, we travelled to the library to check out books. We’ve had mini lessons on note taking and organization, considering their audience, and writing outlines. They are beginning to see that taking these steps will help them write a stronger, more organized and thorough research paper.

To support their research, they have been working on various projects. Our bamboo researchers, Selina and Aurora, are looking forward to building small items such as cups and cat bowls out of bamboo they were gifted by the All In Common Community Garden. Luckily for them, they have bamboo (bike) expert Piper in the building who has shown them how to blow torch their bamboo as the first step to heat treating it.

Drying out bamboo. #chartreuseband #seed #bamboo #blowtorches #sfbrightworks

A video posted by Brightworks Chartreuse Band (@bwxmelissa) on

Drying out bamboo. #chartreuseband #seed #bamboo #blowtorches #sfbrightworks

A video posted by Brightworks Chartreuse Band (@bwxmelissa) on


Clementine is focused on designing and building lending libraries for local community gardens. She’s learning Google SketchUp to assist her in the design and planning of her libraries. Her design includes a planter on top to help incorporate the library into the surrounding garden. Her next steps include conducting a book drive to collect books to supply the libraries with.

Cutting boards for community garden lending libraries. #chartreuseband #seed #lendinglibraries #sfbrightworks

A video posted by Brightworks Chartreuse Band (@bwxmelissa) on

This past weekend, Nora sent home bundles of fresh catnip with a number of cat owning students at Brightworks, along with a link to a questionnaire to complete once they have given their cats the catnip. She’s very excited to compare the Brightworks’ cat population results to those of research she’s read about.

catnip questionnaire

Justin and Quinn have been improving their Prezi skills as a way to present their research on the impact the return of the grey wolf to Yellowstone Park had on its native plants. Trudy is looking forward to creating a few models based on her Harry Potter Herbology and magical plant research.

Our afternoons switch to group project time, and my team has been working hard at building a window farm. After researching the necessary supplies and creating a spreadsheet organizing them, we took a trip to Lowe’s to purchase the last remaining items we couldn’t find online. They’ve drank lots of bottled water (thanks Blue Band for helping us out) in order to empty the plastic bottles needed to house the growing plants, before applying a coat of white spray paint needed to protect the plants’ roots. They planted seeds in rock wool growcubes. They carved out and drilled out holes to create openings, for plants to grow and plumbing to go. They strung them up with paracord and learned how to straighten out our curled up vinyl tubing (hot water is a lifesaver). This coming week we must tackle the trickiest part: the plumbing system.

window farming project

window farming project

window farming project

window farming project

window farming project

window farming project

window farming project

Window farming

In the end, the BWX Window Farmers hope to grow enough food to share with their band and hopefully the entire school community.

Young Scientists And A Pair of Authors

Tending to a controlled experiment is no small task.  Every morning during our personal project time our young scientists get to work watering their plants and entering measurements into their spreadsheets.  By the time park rolls around the students are scrambling to clean up and begging to stay in and continue their work.   Last week the students set up their experiments taking care to keep all of the variables constant.  While they waited for their seeds germinated under the soil they created spreadsheets.  When their seeds finally poked their heads above the soil the excitement at seeing results was captivating.  Here is a snapshot of what each student in my personal project group is doing


Going into this project phase Lola was really interested in bugs and how they interact with plants.  She decided to create a controlled experiment to test the effect worms have on plant growth and soil moisture.  In her experimental design she made sure to include redundancy in her test groups.   She carefully measured equal weights of soil for 3 control containers without worms and 3 test groups with worms.  She plans to observe the plant growth over time and measure and compare the weight of the soil at the end of the experiment.  


Amiya, is interested in how plants orient themselves.  He is a planing to grow plants in two experimental groups.  One where the container is upright and one container is on its side.  He is going to document the growth of the plant with pictures, drawings and observations.  He has discovered that so far his hypothesis is being confirmed.


Bruno was interested in creating a controlled experiment from the start.  From his many ideas he chose to investigate the role bacteria plays in plant growth.  He is going to treat one experimental group with antibiotics, another with probiotics and leave the last one untreated as a control.  


Patrick knew what he wanted to do from the start.  He was interested in how plants are affected by different light sources.  He is going to grow one plant under a black light, another under an incandescent light and the last group in sunlight.



Freddie is very interested in organic farming.  She is taking on a whole lot for her personal project phase.  Not only is she setting up a controlled experiment to see how organic fertilizer compares to organic fertilizer she is also doing a research project about the environmental and human impact of conventional farming.  


Huxley and Zev are interested in how plants will grow in a post apocalyptic world.  They researched some of the changes that our water supply might undergo in the future.  They will be subjecting their seeds to salt solution, carbonic acid, detergent solution and a mixture of all of these solutions.  They are interested to see the threshold at which seeds cease to grow.  


Natasha and Lucy love writing and loved the stories they read in Seed Folks.  They are planning on writing two more chapters each in the style of the book.  To prepare their declaration they re-read and analyzed several chapters in order to find similar themes and patterns.  They discovered that every chapter introduces the character and their family in a way that sets up some sort of challenge or area of growth.  The character then does something to contribute to the garden and is in turn transformed by their participation in the garden.  In their outlines for their chapters the girls identified a conflict or challenge that each of their characters has and how they change through the garden.  


Blue: Old School Research


In interest of iteration, last week the Blue Band started a would-be experiment. On Thursday, we spent the day at the San Francisco Public Library’s Main Branch. The kids came up with a list of research questions and also a list of books that they wanted to check out. We made a master list of resources, and I organized it all by library floor. Admittedly, I over-prepped for this adventure and over-structured it out of the nervousness that comes with being in a five floor public facility with eight curious minds who want to explore and experience everything.

So, before departing the school, I wrote my cell phone number on eight pieces of paper and handed them out to Blue Band. The number came with a set of instructions: this is for emergencies. Please don’t group text me. Do not call me if I can make eye contact with you in that moment. No emojis. I will only respond to hard copy emojis, and not digital ones.

And then the next thing that erupted, as we walked from the school to the bus stop, was a flood of hard copy emojis.


And the flood Has. Not. Stopped.

I tell this story not because it’s particularly important or pivotal to the intellectual development of Blue Band’s seed arc projects, but rather, because it has allowed a few interesting (and should-be obvious) patterns to emerge:

  1. I’m teaching a generation has never not known the internet.
  2. Such familiarity with connectiveness invites a gap in other skills.
  3. Capitalizing on that gap has started to open up a new and exciting world for them.


This week, we went back to the SFPL — and this time, we spent the whole day. This is important because at the SFPL, the internet connection is virtually (pun intended) nonexistent. We had to bring notebooks and writing utensils, and had to expect that we were going to be faced the limitations of having to do research in a way that we’re not used to doing research.

But here’s the good news: when we are there, we are surrounded by books on every subject imaginable. And LPs. And microfische. And government documents. And librarians who can help us find anything.

Wait… what’s microfische?


For me, the best part of this week was explaining microfische.


Let’s just pause and think about this for a moment.

How crazy is it that all basically all the newspapers that have ever been printed are not stored on the internet? How inconceivable is it that you have to ask for or locate small boxes of rolled information packets that you manually load into a machine? Think, for just a moment, about the process of skimming through a rolling film reel of tiny words to find a thing that may or may not exist. Think about all the possible tangents and informational rabbit holes you could accidentally stumble upon while sifting through all that eye candy.

For Owen, what began as a quest to read a book stored on microfische ended up as a deep dive into the April 1st, 1984 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle’s comics section.


This fruitful tangent allow us to talk about the process of researching newspaper articles using the film projecting machines. It allowed us to casually chat about the labor and site-specificity of such research, especially if you’re researching something that happened in a particular area of the country and if the only copy of that newspaper’s film was housed in some small town library in the middle of nowhere. We talked about the politics of and problems with digitizing all that information to make it more accessible. We talked about comics. We talked about the sociopolitical undertones of the comics and about what was happening historically when they were created. We looked at old Macy’s ads. We talked about how Craigslist morphed out of the Classified section.

While we did this, Felix and Julian researched classified government documents regarding UFO activity. Clem waded through a really, really, linguistically challenging book on the biology of seed dispersal, taking notes sentence by sentence. Fran and Kaia did the same with their respective research topics. Audrey read about the possibility of terraforming Mars from book that had to be specially requested from another library.

On Thursday, I could have been easily sitting and researching with a grad class — but they were middle school students taking their research just as seriously. Just as inquisitively.

(Although, let’s also be real here — we also had an awesome lunch break outside playing and laughing pretty hard).


But, by making this simple change — from digital to Old School research — Blue’s perspective of the world opened up, and I got to watch it happen again. (I never tire of this!)

Thursdays at SFPL are a thing now — see you next week!

Watch It Grow


It has been a busy time for the Red Band.

We continued our work with collaborating around the school and set up a math workshop with the Orange band. In preparation we discussed what it meant to be a teacher and worked on communicating rules and procedures. We prepared ourselves for Uno, War, and of course Cubetto. We divided ourselves up to teach each of our games to Orange while they taught us to play and score Dominoes and 10-up. Cubetto continues to help us discover process and problem solving as we create challenges for one another.



Our time at The Benches Community Garden have been filled with observation, recording, and weeding. We now have poppy and 3″ pea sprouts. We spent the last week exploring the job of a seed which is often to flower and provide food of sorts. We observed and painted sunflowers and read. Our sunflowers and collard greens are all growing now after few kids replanted in their boxes and after four weeks of growth, we have two kids working on planter boxes to accommodate their plants’ needs. We read our seed packets and did some math to figure out how much space our sprouts would need if they were to be replanted.


We took a trip of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers and learned about climates. In preparation for our trip we did some research based on our Plants book. We chose one climate and searched for plant images before choosing our favorite. Each kid had to find out the name and climate location/origin. We will continue to research these plants and climates.



And we began work on The Red Seed.



Blue: Experience in Surprising Forms

At the end of 2015, Blue hit the ground running with several things. We had a whirlwind of experts, and info, and field trips, and all the typical buzzword jargon that you would expect from any project-centric, experience-based education setting.

We looked at celery under a microscope to learn about the cell structure of plants.


We went to an aquaponics farm in Half Moon Bay to see the cutting edge of food production…
…and then basked in the cold ocean wind for the remaining afternoon.

We visited a community farm deep in the urban landscape of San Francisco, where we learned about eating slow, and also sampled food right off the stem — in December, no less.
Yes, this is experience-based education. Clearly. As we crammed all this experience into only 3 days, it was clear that we were doing and learning at the same time.

With that epic close to the year, 2016 has been a much different narrative for these curious humans.

This week as been a transition from the phase of the arc where I drive the experiences, learning, and projects, to a phase where the Blue Banders declare their interests, propose a project, and write, re-write, re-write, re-write a letter of intention that clearly articulates their next five weeks of inquiry.


That’s all well and good, but consider this. During the time when we articulate and pitch, we’ve largely been in the classroom. Working. Writing. Sharing our ideas, getting feedback, and redoing the things we thought were good only to make them better. Over. And over.

And we’ve been working on one thing. One required thing. A letter. A letter that gets a red light or a green light. It’s admittedly a little formulaic. It’s a little antithetical to the rejection of pedagogical norms that we celebrate here at 1960 Bryant Street. This process feels a lot like a test. And we don’t do tests.

So, what do I (I, the Collaborator and not the teacher, the Peer and not the grader) do with that? How do I set up a situation in which their experience of that very process is driven not by a set of specifically crafted toolbox, cookie-cutter formula, hoop, or checkbox?

What, exactly, does experience-based education look like in a humanities-driven curriculum?

Here’s my first draft stab at articulating an answer to that question…


This week has been a week of deadlines, scheduling, writing, and independence. As someone who has been a freelance/self-employed artist for most of my adult life, I’ve been trying to guide the Blue Band through what it takes to stay self motivated, to meet goals, and to have to answer to a client who may or may not like, understand, or appreciate the hard work you’re doing. (And if that’s the case, how do you stay motivated in the face of sometimes harsh criticism?)

This week has been a true lesson in adulting for Blue.




While they were writing their declarations, the Blue Band had several other side projects to work on. They developed research questions to help fuel their project ideas. They looked up a list of books to check out at the San Francisco Public Library. They made schedules for themselves, and also began researching experts to reach out to and ask for assistance.

They also had meeting after meeting with me to ask questions, to pitch their ideas, and to get writing feedback on draft after draft.


By taking the Blue Band through a process much akin to an graduate student trying to pitch a thesis topic to tough committee of seasoned academics, something surprising emerged.

The experience-based curriculum, during this week, has been a twofold journey of learning about self motivation and etiquette. Determine what you need, and then figure out how to ask for it.

“How do I ask my Collaborator to re-re-re-re-read a document when seven other people are asking the same thing?”
“How do I ask a peer for feedback?”
“How do I provide feedback to a peer?”
“How do I ask a librarian for help?”
“If I want to ask a question of a Professor of Atmospheric Science at Cal, what do I type in the email? Do I use their first name? Mrs.? Dr.?”


Of all the questions we asked and answered this week, frankly, my favorite inquiry surfaced when we spent the morning at the library. Multiple folks, on separate occasions, approached me and asked the same thing: “Can I check out books unrelated to my project?” My response was the same. A blunt, nonemotive, “Is that what you need to do right now?” Their consistent response — always a “yes.” If that’s the case, then my response is also a yes.

This is a lot of pressure, not being told what to do and how to do it. It’s a lot of pressure to have to self-determine wants and needs and admit when you don’t know the how to achieve it. My job right now is to gently guide that process by challenging and supporting these kids. And that’s pretty amazing.


Also, #libraryelevatorselfie