tortoise vet visit

The Hummingbirds have continued to use their tortoise as fodder for explorations during the Clocks arc, from trying to determine its birthday based on the seasons, to timing the speed it takes to walk from point A to point B. But the tortoise is also an excellent way for the kids to learn responsibility and empathy for another living being in feeding, watering, and caring for a dependent creature . Earlier this week, the Hummingbirds decided on the name for their pet in preparation for the vet visit, which happened on Tuesday. Shawna describes the process of naming and the vet visit:

“So – it turns out that our tortoise is a “He,” not a “She”! When we purchased the tortoise from Petco, Cassie (the store employee who helped us) said she thought it was a girl from looking at the area near the tail. But we took our tortoise to the vet this week and Dr. Alex Herman confirmed that our tortoise is actually a boy!

Luckily, we had chosen a name that can go either way: Asrll, pronounced AZZRUL, is the final name of our tortoise. It was a fun process of narrowing down our options. Since at the time the kids and I thought she was a girl, they had a long list of girl names. They then decided to pick their top four and cross off the others that didn’t make any of their lists.

Aurora collects the name choices in her purse.

I used “veto power” over any name that already belonged to a community member (so Sadie, Largo and Ramses were crossed off the list). From there, we talked about what to do next. The children talked about further narrowing it down, or voting. Largo suggested, “How about we make up a new name using the letters from our names?” Lucy and Aurora loved this idea and I quickly gave them their first letters written on little squares of paper so they could move them around on the table to try different combos. You can see the joy and excitement when they sounded out Asrll.

The children all wrote down their first, second and third choices for a name. It was clear from looking at the data that Asrll was the logical choice; all five Hummingbirds had chosen Asrll as one of their top choices, whereas the other name choices had only received one or two votes.

Our vet visit at All Pets Hospital was so amazing. Dr. Alex Herman’s bedside manner was impressive, with not only Asrll, but all of us as well. She told us that she is a doctor of many reptiles including a 150-year-old tortoise; he’s been around since the Gold Rush. Largo responded, “That was before the earthquake!” She said yes, it was a very long time ago, which is why owning a tortoise is a big responsibility.

I felt really proud of our children because they knew many answers to her questions, confidently telling her the difference between turtles and tortoises, hand washing after touching the tortoise due to salmonella, etc. And they had a lot of questions for her as well. Also, I was proud because Dr. Herman said from what she noticed, Asrll is well taken care of: a strong, hard shell and clear eyes are two things she looks for in tortoises. She explained that it was a good thing that Asrll had pooped too (during the long wait for the doctor to show up after the nurse had weighed Asrll) because she wanted to take a fecal sample to test for parasites (side note: his pooping and anxious movements inside the small bin spurred empathetic talks of times we’ve had to wait uncomfortably on the exam table at the doctor’s office, and times of embarrassment to give samples for testing).”

The Hummingbirds wrote thank-you notes to Dr. Herman following their visit.

poem and photos

We are not here

to fail


we are not here

to succeed


we are here

to discover.


Words by Josh G. after a lesson on cloning woolly mammoths and writing poetry. Photos by Shawna of the Hummingbirds.

sets of five

Last week, Shawna wrote a beautifully detailed account of her Hummingbirds’ experiences with fifteen second timers and exploring sets of five in counting and different representations. Here are some of the highlights:

“Approaching the provocation, I wondered what the children already knew about the object, and what strategies they would use to figure out how to measure the duration of the sand’s pour. I wondered about the ideas they’d have regarding what the sand timer can measure.

I set the timers out – two per child – and deliberately did not tell them anything about the object. Instead, I let them tell me what they were noticing as I tried my hardest to catch on camera and notepad all the cool stuff they were doing. It was so fun to watch them begin to play with their timers and explore them with the genuine interest and curiosity of an inquirer. From the photos you can see that in addition to flipping them over, they were stacking them, comparing them as their sand ran out, and turning them on their sides.”

Shawna has a great gift for documenting student conversations as they go along and always includes wonderful gems of their discoveries in her blog posts. The following is part of the conversation the kids had when the timers first came out:

Shawna asked, “How can you tell by watching the object that it’s not an hourglass and it’s a something-second-glass instead?”

“They drop faster,” Largo says. “And it’s smaller.”

“Yeah, they drop so fast. And it runs out so fast,” Lucy added.

“How can we figure out the time it takes the sand to drop?” said Shawna.

Largo said, while playing with his timers, “It’s a race between three timers. The one that runs out is the winner! I’m guessing it’s a 100 seconds.”

While watching his two timers run out, Ramses said, “They won.” In a different voice, he said, “Yay!  We won!”

Sadie counted to herself as she watched her timer, “30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35,” and announced loudly, “This one took 35 seconds!”

Ramses said, “It looks like a machine making milkshakes!”

Largo said, in a deep powerful voice, “I have the power to stop time, mua ha ha ha!” He turned the timers on their sides to stop the sand from dropping.

After allowing the kids to explore and wonder for a while, the conversation turned to wondering how they could determine how long the sand in the timers fell for. Under Shawna’s guiding hand, they used the timer on her iphone to keep track of the seconds. They did several rounds to make sure they were being accurate, and found that each timer lasts 15 seconds. They then talked about what experiences could be measured in 15 seconds: songs, walking around the bandspace, running in place.

They revisited the concept of 15 seconds a few days later. Shawna writes, “I brought the timers, cubes, number line strips, marbles, paper and pens to the table and explained to the children that the wonderful thing about numbers is how many different ways they can be represented. I encouraged the children to choose their own preferred tools – including their hands – to represent 15 in different ways. This is a big goal I have for the children in their approach to mathematics problems is that they confidently access many different tools and ways of figuring it out and they access different methods for different problems, and based on what makes sense to them. It is all about meaning-making.”

Everyone went in a direction appropriate to their age and understanding of math. Lucy focused on representing 10+5=15 in as many ways as possible.

Ramses noticed what Lucy was doing and also chose to represent 10 and 5, but started with 5 black cubes and 10 brown cubes to count carefully which cube to draw next.

Sadie and Largo used their hands to represent 5. They counted fingers on both of Shawna’s hands, and then on Sadie’s hand to make 15. They drew three hands with five fingers each to show what they discovered.


The Hawks returned a final time to water timers last week to test their understanding of what variables affect water pressure in creating water clocks that can track regular intervals of time.

Ben and Bruno worked on an over-flowing hour glass design, wherein the the overflowing water ensures constant water pressure and therefore constant flow. Mackenzie says, “They had difficulty figuring out how to make the hole between the bottles. They made three different versions of this design, with varying success.”



She says, “Quinn and Natasha where able to snap together their ideas. Natasha wanted to make an overflowing feeder tank so that they would have constant water pressure and Quinn wanted to create some sort of container that would tip over when it was full indicating that the right amount of time had passed. They figured out how much water would move through their timer in one minute then experimented with how sensitive their balance would have to be to tip with that amount of water in it. They found that a lot of their water overflow would make it’s way into the tipping alarm and set it off early!”




They watched this video about the development of water clock technology in Ancient Egypt and Greece to add to their understanding of their experiments. They took notes so they would have a launching off point if they choose to return to these ideas during Expression. This concept of writing in your own words what you’ve learned is a very important one in the Brightworks experience because it allows young learners to reflect on what they’ve done and potentially come back to it with new ideas once they’ve learned more.

gears and projects

As the Clocks arc moves right along, we see different rhythms emerge in each band – some continue exploration of gears and timers while others move into project phase with experts and declarations. A quick overview on this Friday evening:

The Megaband has started to write declarations for Clocks projects and get them approved by Gever, who has a brand new stamp for the official ‘OK!’. Sean helps Jack with a piece of his declaration.


Josh hosted baker Jasmine as an expert for his baking project.


A glimpse of Alexander of the Long Now Foundation during his presentation last week:


Mackenzie started exploring gear ratios with the Hawks this week and was able to incorporate learning about least common factors and multiplication families through a provocation that asked how many revolutions that gears with different numbers of teeth would need to make to return to the starting position.




The Hawks and the Elephants also continued their explorations of water clocks. The Hawks returned to the previous week’s discoveries to make new iterations of their water clocks. (More information on their results soon!)





Isaac, Max, and Madison created a gear chain under Sean’s tutelage that reduces every 3600 revolutions of the input gear to one revolution of the output gear. It’s same ratio of seconds to hours, which is the same relationship as a second hand to the hour hand. They had to plan out how to combine the different gears and assemble the whole thing themselves.



The Hummingbirds have been working with 15-second timers this week – Shawna wrote an amazing piece about their process, which I will write about next week – and used 15 as a provocation for exploring sets of five.



And bonus: we had a visit from Santa and his crew today. It was unfortunate that Clementine, Lola, Aurora, and Natasha had to miss it.




toy drive

Earlier this week, all the bands went down to Fire Station 9 to help sort toys and make cards for the San Francisco Fire Department Holiday Toy Drive. This moment of service provides the kids with an opportunity to see outside themselves and seek ways to help their community. Thanks to Bryan for helping set this up!








november novels

National Novel Writing Month at Brightworks was a major success! About 75% of our writers completed their word count goals, which varied from 800 words to 20,000 words, and changed often depending on the writer’s pace – mostly to writing more words! The writers found more inspiration and perseverance in themselves and their work than I was anticipating, and it was thrilling to see so much progress and dedication to their stories, even despite writer’s block, Thanksgiving holidays, distracting other commitments, and scary inner editors that needed to be fought off with sharpened pencils.

Last week during morning circle I acknowledged the hard work that the kids had done and announced that as a group we had written almost 145,000 words during the month of November. The writers responded with some wonderful feedback about the process. Clementine said, “I really loved hearing other people’s stories. I got my ideas that way.” Josh said what helped him was finding inspiration from his real life. Quinn said, “For me it helped not to stagger it, but take some time to get into a flow.” Tab, who did not write, said that he appreciated the people who had the guts to do it, and Rhone closed by saying, “I hope for the whole school that everybody try it, because it’s really fun. At first I didn’t think I could do it, but when I started it was fun and easy.”

2013 Winner Facebook Cover

Among the novels written this November are titles like Oscar’s The Iron Wolf, Norabelle’s Harry the Hamburger, Quinn’s Kindernauts, Josh’s The End of Nothing, Lukas’s Against Me, Audrey’s The Siren Test, Harry’s The Wanderer and Frances’s Adele’s Ice Castle.

But the writing adventure isn’t over for these new authors – we’re headed into the next step in the writing process: editing and revision. NaNoWriMo calls it:


As I expressed to the everyone this week, writing a novel is just like doing an Expression project at school with all its various iterations. The Hawks compared it to building their chairs – though they joked that they would have to start all over, since they had to start from scratch with each chair iteration – in that they have a first draft that could use improvements. Editing and revision are an essential step of any piece of creative work, and one of the parts of writing that I both love and dread each time it comes around. How many plot holes do I have to fill? Where are the lost subplots that I left in the dust that need to be cleaned up? How can I add more detail to this somewhat flat character? How can I rethink the ending so it has more pizazz?

Revision an extremely rewarding process that lets the story shine in a way that it may not in the first draft. Starting after the holiday break, we will be working together on the editing process, treating each other’s work with care and love with the intent of making it the best piece of work it can be. We’re also planning an evening reading night, hard copies of the kids’ novels with illustrated covers and maybe illustrations inside, and an anthology of their work.