Dinosaurs and Martians and Earthquakes

This week, Brightworks High School took all of our varying interests and combined them to facilitate massive amounts of science (which just so happened to be aligned with my interests).

On Tuesday morning, we skyped with the American Museum of Natural History. Paleontologist Zac Calamari connected with us from back in the research catacombs – discussing everything from dinosaurs to prehistoric life to his research on horns and skulls to evolution to energy. It was a question-answer period, and we shared our time with the Indigo band. Questions like, “how real is the science in Jurassic Park?” to “can we clone wooly mammoths?” to “what is your favorite dinosaur?” – Zac was wonderful. We ended up skyping for close to two hours – with the kids leading the discussion and hanging on every word.

On Tuesday night, we went to see The Martian. The BWX upper school met at the theatre for our Mars adventure; about half of the kids have read the book. The other half were equally as blown-away.

We came back to the school for a space night – chatting about the science behind the story and the human ethics in saving a man stranded on Mars while deliberately making and eating freeze-dried astronaut food.

In the morning, the BWX High Schoolers woke up and made breakfast for the school. As the other bands woke up and trickled in, they helped chop the vegetables or make the pancakes. We listened to a space playlist that you can find here.

In the morning, we were all sleepy. We all watched 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here are morning photos of us making breakfast:

Yesterday, we went to UC Berkeley to visit their seismological lab. They talked to us about early-warning earthquake programs they’re designing (a smartphone sensor that can triangulate the epicenter of an earthquake to warn neighboring communities) and demonstrated the different types of shifts and waves in our tectonic movement.

After the seismo lab, we ate lunch and got a private tour of parts of the campus. The kids left with some Berkeley swag, and we ventured through their paleontology museum. We even saw Zac’s favorite dinosaur!

Next week, they’re off to the Mendocino Woodlands.

See you later.

What a (topographic) Relief!

Hard at work

As we near the end of the Rock Arc, I realized we have the time to do one more project if we all help out. One of the ideas that came up was to make a relief map from a topographic map of San Francisco. To do this, we had to find a suitable map, pick the right materials, and take turns with each job.

Yesterday, Ally and Lucie spent a good amount of time making a scale model of our large map. They cut out the layers of small map to estimate how much cardboard/wood/foam board we would need. If we had enough, foam board would be the best because it’s light and easy to cut.

Ally and Lucie prepare the model

Ally and Lucie prepare the model

The end result was really cool and got everyone excited. Even the layers of paper looked great. Imagine what a 48″x48″ version would look like!

San Francisco, looking pretty

San Francisco, looking pretty

After we had the pieces, the kids figured out we would only need four 48″x48″ sheets of material, so we could use the foam board that I have. Lucie and Ally finished the model, so they were the first to start tracing the layers for our larger version. Once they finished, Evan and Amelia traced the next layer (101-200 ft in elevation).

The next day, Ally started cutting out her outline of the city while Amelia and Evan finished drawing. This took a little practice because they are using my hot knives to cut out the map. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s basically an X-acto blade on a soldering iron. The knife cuts the paper and melts the foam which gives you great control and clean cuts. By the end of the say, all the layers have been traced. Hopefully tomorrow we can assemble!

Cassandra and JP cut away

Max Traces

Amelia Cutting

Meanwhile, the rest of the band was working hard adding their research topics to the group timeline. Each student was assigned a topic (sea levels, animals, human ancestors, plants, etc) and had to add 8-10 of these to our timeline. Hopefully we’ll finish this timeline by the end of the arc!

Timeline Progress

Timeline Progress

TEAL band continues to ROCK out!

Greetings from Teal band! So much has happened since the beginning, that it’s hard to believe that we’re only on week 5. As you know, we kicked off the school year getting to know each other and moving into our new bandspace.

Since then, we’ve climbed mountains…

Teal band

read of their value,

Teal band

worked in the shop,

Teal band

developed our number sense,

Teal band

and began to learn that even though we may stumble,

Teal band

there is a way to be graceful about it.


We immediately set off to check out the rocky spots around our school. Teal soon realized that the tall rocky outcroppings of Corona, and Bernal Heights were made out of a type of sedimentary rock called Chert. Chert is a type of rock born on the ocean floor, and is build of the accumulated shells of a type of plankton called radiolaria. We had to look into it, and found out a thing or two. One, was that the radiolarians must have accumulated over a very long amount of time (geologic time), and these ocean odes to geometry have defenses that make a porcupine look tame.

Teal band

In an effort to continue learning about our local community, we headed to the Randall Museum. Local animals, large and small, live at the Randall. We had an opportunity to observe a raccoon from close up, have a tortoise bite at us, check out the beautiful pattern of a Gopher Snake (one of which we later saw in the wild), and noticed the difference between a crow and a raven.

Teal band

Teal band

From the start, we’ve also been on quests to know and understand the ‘things’ that are within the walls of our old mayonnaise factory. We started of with a partnered quest to identify all things at Brightworks that are made of rocks. The most interesting discovery for Teal band was that metals come from rocks! Then we went outside…it was also metal, and concrete…everywhere! Is it true, that if it’s not grown, it’s mined?

In an effort to dig deeper into metal production, we checked out some videos about mining and processing metal ore. Wide eyes and comments like; “Oh…wow, I had no idea” could be found in the theater room. The Sun-bright molten ore and metal is an exceptional site, but interest was drawn because of another reason as well.


Teal band is reading a youth novel that follows a young boy growing up in a copper mining town in Tennessee. We quickly learned of some the social and ecological impacts mining towns experience, and now we had a clue about what was happening in the company factory in the story. The next step was to discover what the copper was being turned into. We explored different copper products that interested us, and illustrated them for display. As we read about the struggles of Jack Hicks’ community in “A Bird on Water Street”, we now knew what their toils were for.


We’ve also been practicing a few other skills that will serve us, regardless of the Arc we’re in. Namely, developing our number sense and proprioception. We’ve been developing our number sense by practicing simple mental math, figuring out what multiplication and division means to us, the different ways we can do it, and we even secretly dabbled in algebra a bit (but of course we didn’t call it that:).

Teal band

Proprioception has taken the form of ball toss and falling practice. Patterned group ball tossing to sharpen our visual awareness and hand-eye coordination, and falling class in order build holistic body control, confidence, and keep us out of the Band-Aid bin.

Teal band

Training our body will not only keep us from knocking over a glass at the dinner table and help grow gray matter, but serve us as we head into the shop and gain experience with the tools and materials of Brightworks. Some days ago, the band received a provocation to build a miniature Zen rock garden. Essentially a shallow wooden box; they measured, cut, clamped, glued and sanded. Simple as it seems, much was learned. Moving on to the miniature rakes meant moving on to trying the band’s decade old hands at fine woodworking. Drilling and setting the minute teeth required focus and intentionality, and it gave the students an opportunity to push their fine motor skills to the limit.

Oh…and it was really fun too:)

Teal band

Teal band

On a ‘meta’ note: with ‘change over time’ as a Meta-Arc, we’ve begun to learn how to visualize just that. We were introduced to graphing, and busied ourselves with building a graph to visualize Amanda Oberski’s knee recovery progress. We are plotting ‘knee bend progress’, and are very happy to “see” that Amanda is rapidly recovering from her surgery:)



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