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.

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.

Managing Texts

For the last seven weeks, I have been sitting in on and occasionally assisting with a sixth-grade science class at a public middle school here in Madison. The class is based on the FOSS Weather and Water Course, and during my time teaching we covered an introduction and the first two units. For the entirety of the course, all students read the same textbook, found here. It is an easy-to-use and well-organized textbook, and appropriate for the age and level of understanding that it targets. However, it is the only book available to the students throughout the entire course. In his essay, “Effective Teachers, Effective Instruction” in the book Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice, Richard L. Allington writes that in order to maximize student engagement with academic work, multiple texts should be available for the students to use. According to Allington, this will 1) increase the opportunity for students to find books that they can read accurately, fluently, and with comprehension, and 2) increase motivation and engagement by giving students a choice in their reading selection. So instead of just the one textbook in the classroom, it would have been ideal for the teacher to also provide a variety of magazines covering the topics of weather and water, as well as an additional textbook, and maybe even a thrilling picture book!

That said, something I did like very much was the way in which the teacher helped students make personal connections with the texts, even before a single word was read. Before reading the chapter, the teacher addressed the opening page— a large, brilliantly detailed picture of the Earth:

 

He then had students raise their hands and tell him what they saw. What did this photo mean to them? What was happening in the world in when this photo was taken? What did they think a “thin blue veil” was in reference to? This initial, casual discussion allowed students to identify with the text and make predictions about its contents before they had even read a word. Allington praises the use of making connections with the text, as it allows for stronger engagement by the students, and more effective teaching by the instructor. After seeing this introduction to weather and water, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree.