A Walk Back In Time

At Brightworks we have certain traditions in the beginning of a new arc.  Gever always gives a presentation that covers the scope of the arc topic and the bands always have some sort of brainstorm where they map out their interests.  Given that the Arc is By Land, I was expecting that my students would want to make some sort of vehicle, but no!  When we sat down to brainstorm the Blue Band expressed an overwhelming interest in studying how early people migrated across continents and how the First Peoples in North America lived.


In the past weeks, the Blue Banders have explored the most basic of by land transportation: Walking!  What circumstances and mutations led to humans’ ability to walk?  We uncovered some answers in the documentary The Origin of Us by Dr. Alice Roberts and in the copious books we brought back from the library.  We learned that walking upright also freed early human hands to create tools.


We were visited by three experts in the evolutionary relevance of flint knapping!  Last year Selina, Huxley and Freddie made a documentary about this very topic.  In the process of making this documentary, they learned how to make stone tools.


After establishing safety guidelines and explaining how obsidian shatters in what is called a Hertzian cone.  Huxley, Selina and Freddie showed the blue banders how to make their own obsidian and chert flakes.


The Blue Band got to use their creations to slice through cordage and cut an apple.  Giving them some insight into what it may have been like to rely on stone tools of their own creation.


The Blue Band has started a new novel study to accompany our study of First Peoples.  Sees Behind Trees, by Michael Dorris, is a coming of age story about a nearly blind boy who learns to use his other senses to find his place in the tribe.


This beautifully written book has been a great resource to us as the band writes their novels.  We’ve been savoring the rich language, noticing how the author builds suspense, and keeping track of all the different ways to say, “said”.


So much about reading a novel is about empathizing with another person’s experience.  To connect with the main character in our story’s experience we’ve been playing games and taking on challenges that put us in our own senses. At Potrero Hill community garden the Blue Band lead each other on blindfolded sense walks.  Ramses gives Ronan sprig of mint to taste and Isaac leads Sadie down the trail.


To delve deeper into what it might be like for our main character we turned to one of my favorite podcasts Invisibilia.  This episode tells a story of a blind man who explains how other people’s expectations of him helped him to see.  Because his mom expected him from a young age to do all the things a person with sight to do he developed a way to navigate the world just like everyone else.


What a wonderful path these kids chose.  I’m excited to continue exploring it with them!



Up, Up and Away

If you are the parent of a Blue Bander you might have heard something about balloons this week.  Yes, we are studying the history of the first human flight, yes, we’ve been looking at balloons through the lens of geometry and yes, our literature study book is Twenty-One Balloons by DuBois, but there is a bigger story here.  To make something truly amazing (like an enormous balloon that can take our stuffed animal aeronauts into the sky) you have to work together with other people.  What this week has really been about is teamwork and collaboration.  You know what? It’s actually incredibly hard!  

Our group has been presented with challenges big and small this week and asked to reflect on how best to collaborate and communicate.  We’ve done all sorts of team building games like the marshmallow challenge where students were given dried spaghetti, tape, string and a limited amount of time, then asked to build a tower strong enough to support a marshmallow.

First week of Blue Band

Sadie, Tamasen and Lily worked on a tripod to support their marshmallow.  Sadie spearheaded several iterations.  When the team got frustrated, Tamasen chimed in with some encouraging words.

First week of Blue Band

Gita, Soleil and Ronan reached for a pencil and paper before they even started building.  They were able to conserve their materials and divide the work by making sketch first.

Here are some of the things that our students discovered about the best approach to working in a group:

  • Make a plan and listen to each other before you get building
  • Ask how you can be helpful
  • Split up responsibilities
  • Snap different ideas together
  • Be positive and give encouragement

Next week we will really put these guidelines to the test as we attempt to make two enormous balloons that will have the lifting power to take a stuffed animal into the air!

First week of Blue Band

Inspired by a documentary about the Mongolfier brothers, the band tried to make balloons from paper.  Sadie looked to the hexagons and pentagons of a soccer ball for inspiration.  The main take away from this challenge was that it is hard to make a balloon from paper.

First week of Blue Band

In Blue Band’s second attempt at building a balloon, the group created polyhedrons.  Lily wore a fashionable polyhedron made of pentagons, squares and triangles on her head!

First week of Blue Band

Gita and Tamasen have loved working together this week.  They created crown-like shapes that fit together.

First week of Blue Band

One of the Blue Band’s favorite moments this week involved testing parachute designs in the wind tunnel.  Transfixed, the group watched their creations swirl in the tunnel.

First week of Blue Band

Ramses cited the wind tunnel as his favorite moment of the week.  He tirelessly tested iteration after iteration.

First week of Blue Band

Soleil also loved the wind tunnel but instead of testing several iterations, she spent her time carefully taping together beautiful balloon-inspired curved pieces.

First week of Blue Band

This week and this year, these intrepid learners will be presented with difficult challenges. They will make mistakes and try hard.  This article that the Blue Band read is about the neuroscience of learning.  The main message is that intelligence is like a muscle: the harder you work the stronger you get.  Ronan was so inspired by the article he wrote down quotes in his journal!  This year we will be flexing our problem-solving muscles everyday!

Blue: Me Staying Outta Their Way

Over the last two weeks, I gotta way, way outta Blue’s way. They’re on a roll and I told them the last thing I want to do is derail it. Projects are intense, and they are hustling!

So, here’s what Blue is up to:


Audrey is testing out group psychology and group dynamics by selecting specific personality types and having them work as a team to solve a problem. (Because she really likes space and Mars, and really wants to see which types of people would work best together in a one-way mission to the red planet).


Owen is going to tan leather from start to finish. He’s been designing/building/welding tools to assist him in the process. (Because he really likes leather and is interested in the ways in which some of the process has been lost or changed in the commercial industry).


Declan is making a life-sized action figure with joints that move in the way that real human joints move. (Because he’s fed up with the inaccuracies of the toy industry!)


Fran is so busy interviewing the womyn (her spelling, a political statement) of Brightworks. She wants to know how stereotypes effect the way folks interact with one another and also precieve themselves. (Because she identities as a feminist and hates the way girls are taught to act by popular culture).


Basically, Felix is designing an alien. He is researching planets that could potentially support life, and then creating a creature that might be able to survive and thrive there. He’s also researching the interconnected organ systems of people and animals for inspiration and a deeper understanding of what a living body needs and does. (Because he’s fascinated by UFO narratives).


Julian is designing a video game. He has been drafting on paper the worlds and the characters and the accessories, and he also downloaded and is learning to use video game design software. (Because he’s interested in video games’ effect on the brain and their potentially addictive qualities!)


Clem is learning about bones and muscles in order to become a better drawer. She’s been drawing hands and arms while learning about the bones and muscles. (Because she loves art and wants to get better at drawing people).


Kaia has been intensely focused on math. She wants to complete the core curriculum generally taught to public school 7th graders. She’s been working for hours each day to go learn the subject matter, and has been hanging out with me most of the day so that I can help her. We’ve had a lot of deep conversations about applied math and also the math that we just learn and practice now so that we can later apply more complicated processes on top of it later. (Because she is really interested in learning skills that might be useful in her adult life).

And here are some more awesome moments —  just because I love these kids! Carry on, Blue.










Blue: Mathing and Memorizing


This week was a strange week for Blue. We ended up doing a few things that, at their core, struck me as antithetical to Brightworks — but we ended up doing them in some pretty Brightworksy ways.

We’ve been doing math in the mornings. All the students are at different levels in math (which admittedly makes it sometimes difficult to teach group lessons), so we’ve mostly been using an online module to assist with lesson instruction. I get them all going at the same time, and they work independently on lessons. I float from student to student and assist. The lessons vary from fractions to inordinate mapping to surface area calculation to logic problems. It’s pretty “real school” like sometimes, and sometimes Blue hates that, and sometimes it’s okay. This week it’s been okay. And then something magical happened.

“Amanda! Can you explain Pythagorean Theorem?” I got asked. “I understand how to figure out the equation, but I don’t really get how it works or why.”

(Yes. Duh. Totally. We’re gonna get off the computer to do this. Meet me in the shop after lunch.)


This simple question turned into an afternoon of math exploration. I set up a series of problems for Clem and Kaia in the shop so they could practice using the Pythagorean Theorem. I cut a length of paracord, used screws as three points on a triangle, and kept moving the points around. For each math problem, I asked them to calculate the length of cord needed to wrap around the triangle. They each solved the problem on paper, and then we tested their answers.


This was all well and good, but why? Why does this work?

“I actually can’t remember,” I told them, and we consulted the internet.

Thank you, Vi Hart, for explaining it so well! We spent the rest of the afternoon testing out triangles and watching more math videos.


In a similar vein, Clem’s project has begun to bloom into a meditation on the intersections of rote memorization and figure drawing. She is testing out the hypothesis that learning about the structures of anatomy will make her a better illustrator of humans. She began by doing a drawing of arms and hands, and is now taking the time to study the bones and muscles that make up the body parts found in her drawing. Then at the end of the study, she will draw the same composition again and compare the two.

We usually don’t explicitly memorize things for the sake of memorizing things, so when Clem came to me one morning this week and asked me to witness her testing herself, it felt a little strange.


Nonetheless, we sat in the dining room and went through the names and correct spelling of the bones that make up the wrist. With this simple activity came a whole discussion about memorization tactics, strategies for spelling words that you don’t have any idea how to pronounce, and also about the structural intricacies of wrist bones. This conversation quickly shifted into a discussion about short-term and long-term memory, and after Clem asked if I would re-test her right then, I then told her to give it a rest and move on to something else.

“I think our brains work the same,” I told her. “Go draw for a bit and come back to this.”

She said no, that she had started making the quiz for the next part of the hand and since earlier in the week I taught her how to use the photocopier, she wanted to prep her testing materials.


(Well, imagine that — excitement about testing!)

Happy Friday, everyone!

Blue: Declare Your Project


During one of our closing circles last week, one of the Blue Banders raised his hand to share an appreciation with the school. “I want to appreciate Amanda for turning our Declaration writing into a game! It’s helped us all make better Declarations!”

Without further adieu, I present: The Declaration Flowchart.


The Declaration Flowchart has been up in the Bandspace for the past two weeks. It accounted for every step of the process from brainstorming to drafting to revision to project starting, and it helped do two things:

  1. The Flowchart both tracked and displayed the student’s progress to me and the rest of the Band.
  2. The Flowchart also helped the students remain independent and self-motivated as they drafted and refined their ideas.


Additionally, the Chart incorporated several opportunities for direct feedback from me and other people in the BWX Community. It allowed an audience to ask questions and challenge the student’s ideas, and thus built INTO the process places for Blue to respond directly to holes in their logic and practice re-explaining and re-pitching their ideas before going to the Administration for approval.


The other really great part about the Declaration Flowchart was the day that we all sat down and created avatars to track our progress. I even drew myself and asked Blue to catch up to me on the Flowchart. Creating a visual that the kids had to look at everyday (as it took up A WHOLE WALL of the Bandspace) generated an external representation of a process that is usually largely done in abstract and nonrepresentational ways.

After all, who really sees how many times you delete a sentence when drafting a letter?
Who knows if you’ve gotten feedback from other people?
Who is really going to know if you’re revising writing?

…especially if we’re editing something in Google Docs. And everyone is independently working on their computer. And everyone in the Band is too anxious and focused on their own work to look up and realize that everyone else is struggling with the same thing they are.


Who really knows what we’re working on if we can’t all see it?

To further cement the awesome progress that everyone made last week, on Friday, Blue did 2 minute / 8 slide pitches of their project to the Band. We got to see some more visuals and got to hear what people were thinking. In a lot of ways, this presentation was also a litmus test for understanding — we all agreed, if you can’t talk about your project to other people, you probably don’t actually know what your project is.

And with that, this week on Friday, we are doing a take two. Everyone can definitely pitch their project better, and we’re gonna try it again.


Declarations aside, we also had some fun this week!




Fake Animal Ears!


Library Elevator Selfies!


Upper School Sex Ed

Last week, the upper school spent the entire week on a comprehensive sex ed curriculum. We made up the curriculum, of course, but it hit the following key points:

– what happens to bodies?

– what is sex?

– what is gender?

– what is consent?

– what goes on in puberty and after? why?

– how to be healthy and safe


The first couple of days, we split the kids into unique groups. Phillip and Simons worked with half of them on understanding sex, gender, sexuality, and components of those things regarding mental and emotional levels. Willow and I took the kids and talked about biological changes and expectations in bodies and health regarding these changes.

On Wednesday and Thursday, we broke up into girls and boys Q&A sessions. On Wednesday, the girls got together with the female collaborators and boys with boys. On Thursday, we switched! So girls went with the male collaborators and boys with the females.

The questions were so thoughtful and helpful. It was a really wonderful week.

If interested, you can check out the sex q&a document for the upper school here. 

It was one of my favorite weeks teaching, to be sure.