Casting Off

Cardboard Boats

Today saw the fruition of an ambitious project! The blue band went to Stow Lake to test the boats they built from cardboard and plastic.  The beauty of this project is that even though both boats ended up as piles of card board slush, everyone came out of the experience feeling like they had done something great.

Cardboard Boats

My goal as an educator isn’t to prepare the next generation of boat builders but rather to foster the skills that will help these kids turn their aspirations into reality.  In this project we were breaking down and reflecting on the qualities of good teamwork and leadership.


Cardboard Boats

We started this project with a couple of team building challenges.  The blue band had to work together to crack the code of this matrix.  They discovered that the missteps they made were important information.  They had to work together to track and convey the proper order of steps to unlock the puzzle. In another team building challenge the students had to stand in a tight circle and pick up pieces of paper far out of their reach.  They discovered that to be successful they had to physically counter balance each other and use their words to communicate.


Referencing these challenges the group built a rubric of qualities that makes up good team work.  Here is the list they came up with:

  • Communicate in a clear and kind way.
  • Listen and snap ideas together.
  • Care for each other when we make mistakes because they are important parts of learning.
  • Appreciate other people’s strengths instead of focusing on what they aren’t doing.
  • Be helpful and focused.


Because we were working in a new medium with a dangerous tool, we sat down with a cardboard master, our very own Willow.  He gave the students techniques to cut cardboard safely and effectively with a box cutter.  Thus prepared, the blue band was split into teams and got started sketching and modeling their ideas.

Cardboard Boats

After a day of creating models the teams came together snap together their separate ideas.  First they looked for similarities in their designs and then they figured out what other features they should include.  This process of turning individual ideas into a collective vision is really difficult and requires a high level of communication, flexibility and good will.  I was impressed by the way both teams built upon each other’s ideas

Cardboard Boats

When the teams had settled on designs they got to work cutting and taping together their boats!  A mantra for those easily distracted was, “How can I help?”  For those who were trying on leadership roles, they practiced seeing people’s strengths and passions and finding jobs that leveraged those strengths.

Cardboard Boats

Ronan and Isaac applied the laws of buoyancy that we’d been discovering in order to calculate how much weight their boats could safely carry.  They calculated the volume of their boats and figured out the weight of the water it would displace.  They predicted that both of the boats would be able to carry over a thousand pounds of weight.  Theoretically, these boats could carry a couple of 9 and 10 year olds with no problem.

Cardboard Boats

Their final step was to wrap their boats in plastic to protect the cardboard from turning to slush.

Cardboard Boats

Despite the mathematical modeling that predicted the boats could carry thousands of pounds, everyone was dubious of these boat’s ability to actually float.  Before leaving for Stow Lake almost everyone predicted disaster.  The boat will flip over, the walls will cave in, they will sink!

Cardboard Boats

Because the kids had envisioned all the ways that these boats would fail, the moment when Soleil and Sadie stepped into their boat for the first time was met with shrieks of delighted disbelief.  As they pushed off into the lush green waters of Stow Lake the crowd of on lookers accumulating on the banks cheered.

The second boat was just as much a success.

Cardboard Boats

As Gita and Lily glided out onto the lake passerby’s stopped to ask the kids left on the bank what the heck was going on.  What kind of strange and amazing school is this that sends students out in homemade cardboard boats!

It was a beautiful day to paddle on the lake.

Cardboard Boats

After 15 minutes or so of leisurely paddling both boats started to take on water from tears in the plastic.  Sadie and Soleil were able to paddle back to the bank before they had taken on too much water.

Cardboard Boats

Lily and Gita, however, got stuck in some trees and weren’t able to paddle back to shore.  I had to make a rescue on my surfboard!

Cardboard Boats

Whether they felt upset or exhilarated by their experiences in the sinking boats, the sailors and their teams met the challenge with bravery and compassion.  Later, having changed into dry clothes, the band gathered over hot cocoa to appreciate each other for the contributions they made to this ambitious project.  They reflected on the part they played in their group and ways they would like to grow as a team member.  A toast to the blue band who met with challenges and didn’t lose sight of the most important thing: each other!

Cardboard Boats




Bouyancy and Row Boats

Week 1 and 2

As one of our first field trips the Blue Band went to the aquatic park to learn how to both row and build a boat.  It was a beautiful day to be out on the water.

Week 1 and 2

Excited by the experience of rowing in the bay the band was a buzz with aspirations of  building their own boat. Before diving into that ambitious project we had to better understand why things float.

Week 1 and 2

“What are the qualities of something that floats?”  This is the question that launched the Blue Band into an exploration of buoyancy.  To answer this question our intrepid young scientists have rolled up their sleeves, formed hypothesis, tested those hypothesis and of course gotten wet in the process.

Week 1 and 2

The first experiment: Will it float?  The Blue Band found objects around the school to drop into water.  First they made their predictions about whether the object would float and why then they tested their objects.  There were some surprising findings.  Despite predictions, a heavy paintbrush, whose bristles were cased in metal, actually floated.  My heavy thermos that is made of metal also floated.  These surprises helped the young scientists revise their definition of what floats.  They had discovered that there were three important variables:  size, weight and shape.

Week 1 and 2

In our next experiment we endeavored to find out if there is a relationship between size and weight.  We had been using graphs to find patterns in data so we decided to collect and graph some measurements.  In four teams of two the students weighed bags of wood, ceramic, PVC and steel. Then, using the Archimedes principal of displacement, they figured out the volume of each material.

Week 1 and 2

They graphed these points and discovered that their data points formed a rough line.  Upon discovering this relationship we put a name to it: Density.  Things that are small and heavy are more dense than things that are big and light.

Week 1 and 2

Interpreting the graph the students discovered that the wood was less dense than the water, where as the PVC, steel and ceramic were more dense.  The wood was the only material that floated!  One of the qualities of something that floats is that it is less dense than water.

“If steel sinks, why can a ship made from steel float?” Next the young scientists looked at how shape effects an object’s ability to float.  They were given a lump of clay that sunk and were asked to create a shape that could float.

Week 1 and 2

Next they were given tin foil and challenged to make a vessel that could float the most pennies.  They made two iterations and graphed their findings.

To bring together all of our explorations, the Blue Band watched everyone’s favorite mad scientist, Bill Nye, explain buoyancy to us.  Bill’s message: Things float when the water they displace is greater than or equal to the weight of the thing.  This time the blue band designed their own experiment to test this claim.  They decided to fill beakers to the brim with water, drop objects in to the water and compare the weight of the water that splashes out with the object.  They discovered that the things that sunk weighed more than the water that was displaced and the things that floated weighed equal to or less than the water displaced.


Equipped with a better understanding of buoyancy, the blue band has a new challenge in front of them!  They are building boats from cardboard and plastic that will float at least one person.



“Dear Ma and Pa

The ship has set sail for Oregon to rebuild the city. I hope Nana, Nona and Papa are doing great and I have a few stories…” Deckhand Crew Member Phoebe

“1906, April 22

Dear Mother and Father,

As you have heard, I have been taken on a ship…the Captain calls it “being shanghaied.” The people seem nice, except Mr. Llyod, he is the first mate and is in charge of discipline. You may be wondering, ‘how did I get tricked?’…Well…we (notice I said WE) followed this “Mr. Hawkins.” He told us that there was a ship we should see. So we followed him and he gave a sheet. Now at the time I had no idea what this sheet was and really did not care, but now I realize that I was signing a very important document.

I miss you soooo much,

Rigger Crew Mate Charlotte”

“Mr. Hawkins told us of the Joyful life onboard, and the fine pay.  Yet, the second we set foot on the ship I knew we had been shanghaied.  We were forced to work on the ship with the strict first mate, Mr. Llyod and the not completely sane cook/doctor Onion. (Who became Princess Onion under circumstances I will get to later).  The only thing that stopped this voyage from being a complete nightmare was The Captain.  He was firm but kind.” Ronan Rigger Crew.

“Then on the poop deck a man look and said in a stern voice, ‘Whats this!’ Hawkins walked up at the front of the line.

‘Sir, you said you needed a crew,’  said Hawkins.

‘Not little childern!’ said Mr. Lloyd, ‘You are all green but we are going to turn you into sailors.'” Deck Hand Mate Sadie

“My first day of work on a ship was hard. We even swabbed the decks, which I, personally, think is the coolest job on this ship.” Quartermaster Crew Member Jonah


My group was with Onion our first task was to swab the deck.  Swabbing was fun but getting the water was hard because the buckets full of water where super heavy and they splashed all over us.” Gita Quartermaster Crew

“Today was fun but tiring! I loved all of the acting and the characters! My favorite character was Dr. Onion! My favorite thing I did today was raising and lowering the dory, eating dinner, and washing dishes. I liked my day!” Boat Crew Member Soleil


“I got the job of the boat crew and had to lower and raise the dory and did the dishes every meal.” Roman Boat Crew

“My experience here was challenging but also fun.  The sky and the breeze are so calm.  I can hear the ship saying stuff to me. It sings me lullabies in my ear.  I hear the seals singing shanties. I love this a lot.  I love the Balcutha.” Deckhand Mate Sadie

“We had to raise and lower the ensign and kept bell time.” Pheobe Deckhand Crew.

“We just got fired from a boat. I’m so glad it was awful. The oatmeal  was soggy. The bed’s were hard as a rock. And the blanket’s thin as paper.” Lily Deck Hand Crew 

“The job of the rigger crew is to raise the bosun’s chair and assemble the block and tackle.” Charlotte

“The sea gulls are crying. The boat is groaning. The sea lions are yowling. The water is flowing, a cool night it is.” Rigger Crew Mate Charlotte.

“The Balclutha will dock in Oregon soon.  I am going to escape then and come home.  I have to go now because my break is over, so goodbye for now.  I am looking forward to seeing you after I escape.” Boat Crew Amiya

“Then we needed to raise Lisa on the bosun’s chair and tell her what to buy us and give us. This was the fun part.” Boat Crew Member Roman

“We put Lisa on a swing high in the air and demanded lots of things in the end we got most of what we wanted.” Quartermaster Crew Member Gita

When the voyage was done, we sang and said Farewell.” Boat Crew Member Soleil

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.