Be Aware Of: An Opus to an Octopus

Hello, everyone.

So, we all know octopi (or, more correctly, octopuses) are cool. But did you know that they are also AMAZING? In October 2011, a press release was published by the Geological Society of America that detailed the discovery of a mass gravesite of Ichthyosaurs (Triassic relatives of sperm whales) in Nevada. This is weird already: Icthyosaurs are massive, so what could be so easily killing them all in one place? But then it got weirder. The Icthyosaur vertebrae were arranged in an unnatural fashion. Mount Holyoke College paleontologist Mark McMenamin believes that this sort of arrangement is oddly similar to a tentacle of a squid. A very big squid. Perhaps, even, a Kraken.

Here’s what we know.Octopuses are crazy. They have weird brains and an innate sense of self. So is this Ichtyosaur burial in reality a self-portrait of very massive, very lonely prehistoric squid monster? Maybe. Maybe not. What it is is absolutely astounding. And it’s something to be aware of.

Thank you.

Literacy Lessons: Comprehension and Interaction

Every day, my practicum teacher begins his sixth-grade class with a warm up. This warm up has taken the form of a short written reflection or observation, but recently it has been in the form of a Class Weather Chart:

For five minutes at the start of each period, students study the daily weather report (projected onto screen from the teacher’s laptop) and fill out this chart with the corresponding information. It is a straightforward, easy, and somewhat mindless exercise, and in this way it makes a great warm up for the class. The best part about it, though, and why it is notable for this bloggestry, is that after the five minutes are up, my practicum teacher goes to the projector and fills the chart out with the help of the class. He turns off the weather report, sits down with the chart, and fills it out using exclusively the knowledge that they give him. It is like some sort of advanced modeling. He is demonstrating exactly how to perform the task, and at the same time showing his students that the skills they have are worthwhile and reliable. After seeing the effects this simple technique has on the class, I do not think I am overstating my praise of it. The teacher uses another form of modeling in this warm up exercise by answering honestly about what he knows about the weather. For example, one day a letter G appeared in front of wind speed on the weather report. Hands shot up, and everyone wanted to know what it meant. The teacher didn’t know, and he told them exactly that. Then he asked, “Where do you think we could go to find out about that?” Students suggested the dictionary, the internet, and to look if there was a key elsewhere on the weather report. So the teacher checked the internet and found the answer. G meant “gusts,” and the number that followed G meant that gusts could pick up to that speed throughout the day. The class had learned something together thanks in large part to the teachers modeling of asking the right questions and brainstorming the right places to look for the answers.

When it comes to experiment and assessment, I believe my practicum teacher really shines. During experiments, students are encouraged to collaborate and make discoveries together. One exercise in particular required that students worked together in order to fully realize the aspects and capabilities of air, but the instructions to do so were never expressly given. The experiment involved using giant syringes to trap and play with the volume and dimensions of air, and when two students combined their syringes with a provided rubber tube, they could observe that the air would travel from syringe to syringe, pushing and pulling the plungers as it went. Air could do more than move, it could do work, and this vital discovery of air would only be possible when students decided, on their own, to work together.

Assessments are a tricky thing, but my practicum teacher does them well. Assessments in his class take the form of four short-answer questions—three which are fairly straightforward and one extension question which goes into application and is more thought-provoking. In order to make sure that every student can at least hit the ground running when the assessment is handed out, the first question is rephrased and given to the class as warm up. Students are given five minutes to think about and answer the question, and then the class discusses the answer together, stress-free and openly. They are informed and fully aware ahead of time that the warm up question will be on the assessment, and they take this preparation time very seriously. I love this idea of giving students a head start and a fighting chance, so that they can learn on their terms how exactly to take a test, not merely what to point on one. It allows them deeper understanding of assessments and how they learn, and in that simple warm up I believe my practicum teacher accomplishes more for his students than any assessment could.

Semiotic Play

Semiotic Play simply means to put something into a different context in order to make it more accessible, better integrated with other themes or ideas, and more fun. Every time that we approach a piece of writing, we view it through a series of predetermined, often unconsciously applied, contexts. These contexts are put into place by the form of the piece (is it a trusty news article or a questionable blog post), the author (scientist or middle school student), the time period (yesterday’s Facebook status or an ancient script from 500 years ago), and any number of elements that create prejudice and opinion in the reader. By breaking a piece of writing out of these predetermined contexts, we can better access the exact purpose of the author, or, in the very least have fun while playing around with what the author is trying to say. For example, let’s start with the dry old Krebs Cycle. It’s a vital part of cellular metabolism and a cornerstone of every AP Biology course. And it is boring. So boring, in fact, that RadioLab’s Robert Krulwich did an entire rant about it, ending in one of the finest examples of Semiotic Play I have ever seen:

Because why not make cellular respiration a rap song? Why not make everything into a rap song? That is the logic and genius behind Semiotic Play. Any topic can be reinvented into a modern and accessible context with just a little patience and creativity.

But Semiotic Play can go far beyond the creative unpacking of a dry piece of writing. It can work backwards. Given the right set of contexts, complete works of fiction (or even real works of mystery) can become beautiful and enchanting pieces of reality. Given the right tone, author, and backstory, a piece of writing—or a piece of anything for that matter—can take on its own history and reality, making it fun to imagine, and permanent in the mind. My favorite example of this is the video found below. Please enjoy Internet Story:

Silent Conversing

Silent Conversing is a useful method for creating debate and discussion in the classroom without also creating argument and chaos. Unlike many of the other techniques discussed in the Resource Index, Silent Conversing works best after the reading assignment or research project has been completed. This is because Silent Conversing relies on students to make an informed opinion about a given prompt that is either from or closely related to the reading the students have just completed. The given prompts in this method take the form of solitary quotes on the top of a piece of paper. These quotes should express a clear and concise opinion on a subject or topic, and not merely state a basic, unarguable fact. For an example, I have used a quote from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond:

“It seems logical to suppose that history’s pattern reflects innate differences among people themselves. Of course, we’re taught that it’s not polite to say so in public. We read of technical studies claiming to demonstrate inborn differences, and we also read rebuttals claiming that those studies suffer from technical flaws. We see in our daily lives that some of the conquered peoples continue to form an underclass, centuries after the conquests or slave imports took place. We’re told that this too is to be attributed not to any biological shortcomings but to social disadvantages and limited opportunities” (Diamond 25).

This quote works well as a prompt for Silent Conversing because it discusses some controversial issues and touches at some deeper themes from the reading. An instructor can give each student a different prompt or an identical one, but each student starts the exercise holding a piece of paper with only one quote printed on it. Each student then writes a brief response to the prompt they are given, right below the prompt on that same sheet of paper. Students can agree, disagree, or simply summarize the points that they think the author of the prompt is trying to make. Then they pass that paper to the left. The student to the left then has the choice to either also respond to the prompt or to reply to the response of the original student, indicating their decision with a directive arrow. After the second student is done, they pass that paper to the left, and the cycle repeats until the given time limit is reached (anywhere from five to 20 minutes). At no time is the student required to sign his or her response, as anonymity of reflection is a large part of what makes this exercise work. After the time limit is reached, the prompts are returned to the students that they start with, and now the seeds of an informed, energized, and grounded discussion have been planted. As an instructor, be sure to monitor emotional safety in this exercise, for while anonymity is freeing when it comes to thought and reflection, it can also be seen as authorization to write harshly and critically. For an example of this, please see The Internet.

Literacy Lessons: Content and Structure

Before presenting his students with a textbook on Weather and Water (see Managing Texts), my cooperating teacher oriented his seventh-grade students to the subject matter by having them take seven minutes and write down two to three sentences on what they knew about weather. After the seven minutes was up, the teacher went around the room asking students to share their understandings and reflections. In addition to highlighting his class’ previous knowledge on the subject of weather, this exercise allows students to see the purpose of the unit, and it also provides a reference point for all other knowledge-building exercises to come.

On the following day, students were instructed to describe the weather outside as a part of their daily warm up. When the students finished writing, the teacher told them that the work they had been doing for the past few minutes was called “making observations,” and that they, without even realizing it, had been acting like scientists. Now this large, seemingly unimportant word, “observations,” was a major part of their daily learning, and their practiced scientific behavior. This introduction a new word coupled with a new way of viewing the world and themselves was a beautiful example of creating captivation between students and subject matter.

All the reading that is done in class is done aloud. This serves many purposes, not the least of which is creating an environment of dialogicality that allows students to freely ask questions about the material as they occur. Students volunteer to take turns reading one or two paragraphs of the assigned reading aloud, and after each reader there is a brief pause for the purpose of asking questions or making comments. These questions and comments will often trail slightly off topic, but in large part they will still orbit around the topics outlined in the reading. By encouraging students to constantly make observations, reflections, and questions about the reading, the teacher allows his class to make personal connections with the material and create a spirit of inquiry powered by what matters most to them.

I think that what I admired most about how my cooperating teacher structured the content and structure of his lesson is that he made sure to include time for his students to reflect. Before and after every reading, students are given time to reflect on what they know and what they learned. These reflections take the form of simple Think Write prompts, or of more complex worksheets. Even more remarkable, before and after every exercise—be it worksheet, discussion, or writing and reflecting—the class would come together and reflect as a whole on what they felt about the exercise, if it was useful, and how well they performed it as a class. Reflection formed the backbone of this classroom’s content and structure, and it made a perfect point for branching off into approaching literacy.

Anticipation Guide

Anticipation Guides are useful for getting students to think openly and critically about a topic or reading at the very beginning of a lesson, before any material has been handed out. The form of an Anticipation Guide is merely a list of statements relating to the topic or the material to be covered. These statements can be true or false. Students are given this list of statements and write down whether they agree or disagree with each of them, and why. For an example, I have compiled a list of statements on the Nature of Science, using information from the National Science Teachers Association’s Official Position Statement on the Nature of Science, found here.

On the Nature of Science: 

  1. A primary goal of science is the formation of theories and laws.
  2. A theory can become a law, once it has enough evidence supporting it.
  3. Contributions to science can be made by people all over the world.
  4. With new evidence and interpretation, old ideas are replaced or supplemented by newer ones.
  5. Basic scientific research is not directly concerned with practical outcomes.
  6. Creativity is a vital, yet personal, ingredient in the production of scientific knowledge.
  7. Science depends on testable elements.
  8. Scientific knowledge is simultaneously reliable and tentative.
  9. Science is prohibited from using supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge.

Many of the statements above are true, and identical to the statements made by the NSTA. Some of the statements are false. The point of the Anticipation Guide is not to get students thinking about what is right and what is wrong about a topic or piece of writing, the point is to get students thinking about what they know and what they want to know. By using Anticipation Guides, teachers can access students’ prior knowledge on a subject before diving into it, and students can identify their feelings, personal interests, and misconceptions on a specific topic before a single word has been read or assignment has been given. Best of all, the Anticipation Guide can also be referred back to as the unit progresses, so teachers and students can reflect back on what they thought at the beginning of the unit, and what the know and understand now.