Steam Power in the Digital Age

mike_mulligan in holeLast week, Akira and I played a trick on the class that I have to share:  partly because we think we’re really funny; partly because it highlights something wonderful about our school; and, partly because it may help some of you at home to understand why we went on a field trip to see the boiler.


Orestis’s TNT-and-a-passing airplane solution

We were reading a book called Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton, a follow up to another book by her called The Little House.  (You can see three boys enjoying this one in the Gallery–who says boys don’t like to read fiction?)  These are wonderful old stories, and fit nicely with our exploration of community and how communities grow and change.

We had got to the point where Mike and Mary Anne (the steam shovel) had completed their amazing hole for the basement of the new town hall.


Jadis’ elevator solution.

The students had written and drawn some excellent ideas for how they might solve the problem of getting out.  It was now time to find out what idea the author had come up with, through the character of the little boy, whose insights twice save the day.

Why Akira and I think we’re really funny is that Akira arrived at school with a copy of this book translated into Japanese with which he was very familiar.  So, I—with our digital projector that I’d been using so that we could all read the book together—said to the class, “Okay, let’s see what the little boy suggests,” and opened to the Japanese page.  Jaws dropped in surprise, then some children recalled that Akira had said he knew the book in Japanese and correctly surmised this was what they were seeing.  Then… I ran my finger along the Japanese text and read the corresponding English words which were quietly sitting just out of camera view.  Exclamations of “Mr. Caldwell can read Japanese!!” ensued.

Something wonderful about our school is the opportunity to learn from the many children who speak other languages than English.  In our class we have speakers of Arabic, Hindi, French, Mandarin, Spanish, Greek, maybe a little Cree, and Japanese!  I am often struck by how readily these new language learners embrace the structured word inquiry we do.  They are motivated (and reassured, I think) to discover the logic and order of a language so different from their own.  And, they often have things to teach us about our own language.  Our resident Greek speaker, Orestis, has helped us to understand the spelling of several Greek-rooted English words, such as <school> or <alphabet>.    Lately, a number of our students have shared something of their language and country of origin on the daily announcements, which the rest of the class has loved.IMG_3535

After our joke, Akira got up and actually read the Japanese, which was wonderful to hear.  We could see that, like English, the Japanese words are separated by spaces on the page, and that the characters represent phonemes:  we were able to identify the symbol for /m/ by noting which word represented “Mike”.

And so, the reason we went on a field trip to the boiler in the school’s basement is…wait!.  Maybe I shouldn’t tell you, for fear of spoiling the ending of the story for some.  Ask your child.  I’m returning my copy to the library this Friday–go and get it!  Suffice it to say that the children were delighted and fascinated to see that our school is heated with the same technology that drove Mary Anne (in 1939, when the book was written), and that allowed the little boy to save the day.


The Fabulous New Spring Collections

A little brown bulb lay asleep in the ground.
In his little brown nightie he made not a sound.
King Winter, he roared and he raged overhead,
But the little brown bulb never stirred in his bed.
But when Spring came tiptoeing over the lea
With finger to lips, as soft as can be,
The little brown bulb just lifted his head,
Slipped off his nightie, and jumped out of bed!

Spring has really sprung (though King Winter seems to be raging again today).  I’ve been terribly slow to get a new post up, both because there has been a lot going on that has kept me from sitting down to write, and because there has been so much going on that I wasn’t sure what to write.  Now I have a bunch of stuff I want to share!  Here’s a start…  

cropped-img_3522.jpgHere is a picture from a recent activity, reflective of the process of making collections in our word study.  I’ve referred to this process before, but lately I’ve been reflecting upon the practice:  what it does for us as a learning tool; whether it is equally effective for everyone (hardly anything is); and whether I am overly reliant upon this approach.  (In other words, maybe I need some other ideas).  This is investigative learning, and as such open-ended:  though as the teacher I may have a particular learning goal in mind, the route we take and the learning that occurs can often have surprises.  I like to think we are engaging in word science–while learning how to learn in a broader sense also.

Gather the Data:  In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling the need to assess and perhaps reinforce our understanding of some of the phonology we’ve explored this year.  We have covered a lot–including the many graphemes that can represent the vowel phonemes.  But assessment suggested that we needed to solidify our grasp of the “long <e>” phoneme.  So, I asked the students to collect words that had this phoneme.  (I try to let these “collecting” periods simmer for some time, as I generally don’t want the act of collecting to completely take over the central point of reading:  that is, comprehension.  Also, it gives everyone a chance to participate in their own time and capacity.  In this case, though, we had an intense period of collecting from books the children had already read that day or week).

Sort the Data:  Next day, we sorted our words, creating categories according to what graphemes seemed to represent the “long <e>”.  Several surprises:  <ey>, <ie> and <i> were all discovered, though some questions exist.  New categories had to be created

Analyze the Data:  An open question to the students:  what can we observe about our chart (which now also had the appearance of a graph)?   Here is some of what they shared:

  • <ee> and <ea> were by far the most common graphemes.
  • <e> was almost exclusively limited to small function words like <be> and <we>.   The words <behind> and <because> raised questions about whether these were in fact compounds, or whether these words had a <be-> prefix.  Someone noted the word <idea> and wondered about its structure.  (Still thinking about that one).
  • <y> seems to only occur in the final position of words, and is the most likely candidate in this position.  All examples had more than one syllable.  In many but not all cases it is the suffixes <-y> or <-ly>.  The accidental inclusion of the word <why> reminded us that this grapheme can represent another phoneme as well.  This got us thinking about whether one-syllable words ending in <y> always represented the long <i>.
  • <ey> appeared in words like <key> and <hockey>.  (As well as, repeatedly, in Reyad’s name).
  • <ie> appears to be a suffix in the word <nightie> and so we tried to think of others and came up with <movie> and <cookie>.  Still thinking about that one as well, keeping our eyes open.
  • Noting that some of our data came in the form of names—Darcy, Ethan, Oresti, Sophie, and Reyad–we were reminded that names don’t always follow English rules or conventions.  This is especially true when we have children from non-English speaking countries like Greece or Egypt.  So, another open question:  Can <i> represent the long <e> in an English word?  We’re keeping our eyes open for this one also.  Update, May 15th:  Today, Ethan found the word <police>, so there does seem to be evidence that this <i> grapheme can represent the long /e/ sound.  Clearly it isn’t common.  We’ll be watching for more.  And, we just completed our investigation of <c>, allowing us to understand why there needs to be a final silent <e> in <police>. 
  • I note to myself that we did not find a single example of a word with initial or medial <ie> or <ei>.  Weird.

What does this process do for us?  I think it makes the children more attentive to the structures of the words.  I have to believe that this kind of focus will ultimately help them learn these words.  Also, they seem to appreciate the ownership they have over this process:  all of these words are their words; not just some list I handed them.  This process of analysis will hopefully reinforce as well as reveal concepts that will support their reading and their writing:  when attempting to write a word—<dream> or <monkey> for instance—they are now able to consider which grapheme is most likely in that particular position in the word.  Such a process does seem to afford children an opportunity to be engaged at a variety of levels:  for some, this was an opportunity to be re-introduced to some basic graphemes and words;  others were able to stretch into new areas of inquiry.  And what I really like is that these investigations generate new investigations!

The teacher challenge with activities such as this is to ensure that I can assess individual as well as group understanding.  Thus, follow-up is required.

Current collections on the go:

  • We’ve been collecting words with <c> in them, and sorting them according to whether they represent /s/ or /k/.  This week, we will analyze this data, to discover a useful pattern.  (Happily, children have also discovered at least two words that don’t fit:  <special> and <ferocious>).IMG_3855
  • We’re collecting words that end with a <k> or with a <ck>, and will soon analyze these to see if we can find a pattern.  (As usual, there is one).
  • [Note: this is an edit, as I forgot to include this at first]  We’ve been collecting verbs that do not follow the suffixing pattern of adding <-ed> when creating a past tense, and finding this quite a bit more common than expected.  Examples include run/ran, swim/swam, and so on.

Many years ago, I had a spring job at an outdoor education centre for which I considered myself wholly unqualified.  I couldn’t reliably name a bird or a tree.  My friend (who got me the job) helped me to see that our main purpose was to open the children’s eyes:  help them to see, and to wonder.   She was right, and lots of delightful, shared learning followed.  I think this is still what I am trying to do.

Finally, there are a couple of  links below to other class blogs of teachers and classes whose work I admire.  A recent post (and all her others, actually) by Ann Whiting about her Grade 7 class in Kuala Lumpur provides an “inspiring” glimpse of where an attentiveness to the science of words can lead!

To the Top of the Mountain

To the top of the mountain the brave knight rides.
To the valley below, where the dwarf resides.
To the shadows behind where the dragon hides.
To the waves out at sea, to ride on the tides.

Though it is all too easy to fall into the trap of “sit down and sit still” schooling, one of the things I try and embed in our literacy and mathematics learning is movement.  (For me as a Primary teacher, this falls in the category of Ongoing Learning and Striving).   There are lots of reasons for incorporating movement:

  • It’s fun!
  • Children are going to move anyway, so we might as well try and put this energy to good use.
  • Children at this age already learn verse and song almost effortlessly, and adding movement creates a kind of “body memory” that can be helpful with learning things like skip counting or times tables.
  • Specific kind of physical movement can both mirror and nurture important brain development.

This is hardly revolutionary–every nursery rhyme or skipping chant grows from this notion.  But one of the things that I have taken from Waldorf Education and various articles (just head to Google) is that “crossing the midline” is not something very young children can do at all, and is not easy for some children even by ages six, seven or beyond.   This capacity can support ease of reading and writing, and some children who cannot do so can struggle with these tasks.   Midline-crossing movements include touching elbows to opposite knees, or one’s opposite ear by reaching over top of one’s head.  They can also include drawing exercises such as drawing a lemniscate (a horizontal figure eight).  As I said, I am still learning about this.

The video below is an example of the kind of movement we engage in (with some midline crossing–I wish I’d added a line that took us figure eight under our knees).   As the verse became “embodied” it was then one that I wrote on the board for everyone to explore through reading (as in this post).   I made the video a few weeks ago when we were just learning this set of fairly complex movements.  Last week we presented it beautifully and seamlessly to our Pencil Pals when they visited.  We even started with the added trick of going from sitting to standing with the beanbags on our heads!  (Would have been great to film all that!  But no matter:  the point is the doing, not the performing).  Watch the yellow beanbag!

How to start the day: homophoning

IMG_5415A quick post about how my Monday morning started.  Among the usual cheerful greetings, two students arrived bursting with these similar messages:

  • Ethan:  “Mr. Caldwell!  I found homophones!”
  • Sophie:  “Mr. Caldwell!  I found a new ‘question’ word, and it is a homophone!”

This is how you spent your weekend?  (But who am I kidding?  This is how I spend my weekends too!)  The cool thing is the work that follows these discoveries.  Typically the children have “found” these words in their speech, rather than their reading (though this happens too).  It’s a great test of their grasp of spelling conventions when I challenge them, either individually or as a class to “come up with two reasonable spellings.”

Above, you can see that Ethan did just that (love his little illustrations on this tiny sticky note).  The class was quick to pounce on <ay> in the middle of the word.  Azylynn began to propose a rule about this never happening, but lacking evidence, retracted this and suggested instead that it was unlikely.  (This in turn raised the question, “Are there any English bases that have an <ay> digraph anywhere but at the end?”  Folks at home:  you can play along!  Can you think of any?  Send ’em in!).  I was quick to emphasize that Ethan’s proposed spelling was certainly reasonable, and that it would have been quite readable if it had appeared in his writing somewhere.  I stress this with them, because I do not wish to stunt anyone’s written communication with the sense that accurate spelling is the priority:  the priority is always the idea being communicated.

Sophie brought forth an addition to our collection of <wh> “question” words.  Last week, we had discussed the spelling of the word <who> and how its <wh> is a marker of its meaning connection to the other question words.  (They were quick to suggest that <how> should follow this pattern, but agreed that *<whow> was just too confusing).  And so, we worked through the spellings of <which> and <witch>, introducing the trigraph <tch> to some who had not seen it before.

Nothing earth-shattering, but a good example of how the children drive the learning with their questions and discoveries.  I am reflecting upon what it is about homophones that so catches the children’s interest; curious to know anyone else’s thoughts.

To this I will add, finally (to this less-short post than promised), a link to a project by a Grade One class in California who are attempting to compile “all 441” homophones.  I hope we can be in touch with them, but I have already passed along Deanna’s <world> and <whirled>, as I didn’t see it on their database.  I am not driven to duplicate this endeavour–happier to find these in some context–but it is kind of fun!

Guiding Reading

I wanted to share some bits of video of me reading with Abdul and with Azylynn last week.  Right up front, I’ll say these are the first videos I ever made in this way, holding a borrowed iPad that I was just figuring out, so this certainly affected my focus.   Also, it is not some pinnacle of reading instruction–I am still learning and honing my practice.  (And though I won’t film like this very often, it will certainly help me to think about what I might change or improve).   But hopefully it helps give a sense of the process we’re engaged in and the language we’re using.   Thanks to Abdul and Azylynn!  (There’s no particular reason I filmed these two–just who was on my schedule the day I had the tool).

Abdul works hard on this book, which holds some challenges.  But he applies many very effective strategies for making meaning here.  A few things to note, in terms of skills we’re working on:

  • Notice how I prompt Abdul to “find the base” and how easily he does so by identifying and covering the suffix.  This is so useful to reducing intimidating larger words and finding their central meaning.
  • Yes, looking at the pictures is allowed, and a useful strategy at this stage.
  • Notice how after he struggled through a passage, I had him read it again.   This is to allow for increased fluency and understanding and hopefully confidence.
  • Asking him to “spell” a word is not a pop spelling quiz.  What I am asking is for him to spell the word in a way that reveals its structure.  Listen to how he spells <swinging>. clearly enunciating and separating the base from suffix, or how he clearly says “double e” to show he recognizes that digraph.  But I also find out he is not completely solid with the <kn> digraph (though he’s seen it as you can tell!).
  • Making guesses like <knight> are really natural in early readers, but the question “Does it make sense here?” reminds us that sense is what we’re after.
  • What else am I noting as we go?  There is some work to do with consonant clusters such as <sw>, and some common words like <from> or <her> that he is still working too hard at.  We can address these separately.

Does this seem a bit painful?  I don’t think it actually is.  This is not “independent” reading for this student at this time.  This is “instructional” reading:  at the outside of his comfortable range.  And I’ll be honest, watching this I might have helped him along a bit more–maybe told him the sound represented by <kn> or just said <Daddy> to keep us rolling along.  But by the next page, he was rolling anyway and completed the book very comfortably.

A similar process ensues with Azylynn, who works as hard and as cleverly as her classmate.

Each of my little questions is a quick assessment and an opportunity to reinforce concepts.  As with Abdul, I make choices about what I spend time on and what I ignore.  We had just explored patterns in doubling final consonants, so I spend some time there.

What do I learn from listening here?  She knows her <sc> cluster, which helped her to discern the word <scat>; her high-frequency words have grown more solid; and she is applying a range of solid strategies.  I don’t know why I asked her to spell <weeding>, but she clearly revealed her understanding of the structure of this word, distinguishing digraph <ee> as well as the suffix <ing>.   She got stuck on the word <right>:   I might have prompted her with “What makes sense?” instead of asking her to spell it–either can be effective.  Did you hear how she spelled <right>?  She recognizes the trigraph <igh>, but doesn’t remember the phoneme it is representing.   Finally, this is hardly rich literature, but I am also checking in along the way that she is comprehending the story.  (She is).

Thanks again to these students.  Of course I never share anything for comparative purposes–every student is progressing, and at their own pace.  Hopefully this provides a little insight into one piece of our literacy instruction

My Father’s Dragon

my father's dragon

Last week, we finished this sweet, funny little novel, the first in a series of three about the adventures of Elmer Elevator and the dragon he rescues (not to give away the ending).  Like most adventures, it is the journey rather than the arrival that is most delicious.  Before Elmer embarked for Wild Island, we made a list of things we’d want to take on such an adventure.  We then read the surprising list of things that Elmer carried in his backpack.  Part of the fun was checking off the list as they were used in such surprising ways (though he never seemed to use the clean clothes–clearlyhis priorties are solid).  IMG_3388 

Why do I choose such an old book (published in 1948) to read to today?  Like the Thornton Burgess books, it has a gentleness to it–a lack of cynicism, a lightness, that in spite of (because of?) the onslaught of fast-paced media and violence the children are thirsty for.  It is almost like a relief to them to experience a tale so unflashy.  And there is wry humour and not-hit-over-your-head wisdom in these stories, and inspiration:  as the children are asked to take on more and more responsibility for themselves we are mightily impressed with a fellow who can be so self-reliant (and who can largely survive on tangerines).   How can we not imagine ourselves there?  Besides, given all our “knight” metaphors, it’s never a bad idea to see that even a dragon can be a friend.  (Now there’s a metaphor I could extend in some interesting directions).  There’s a reason the book has never been out of print in more than 60 years:  it’s a gem.  I think I may not be able to resist launching into the second book next week, but I doubt many would object to reading the first again at home!  How else are you going to find out how to make a bridge with pink lollipops?

Has Spring Sprung?

Hello folks at home!  It’s been a little while since I posted anything, so here’s a little update on what we’re up to.  I’ve had some nice feedback about the blog from some parents, but am not completely sure how many have seen the thing, or what they are checking out.  Are your reading this stuff?  Checking the Gallery?  Is it helpful?  Are you finding your way around?  I’d welcome any input you have.   I think I have just about figured out how to insert some video, in order to share some of what we are doing with reading as well as other activities.


Well, spring finally felt like it had sprung today.  Apparently there were about a million geese that flew overhead today, but sadly we missed it.  I’m going to start leaving the windows open a crack just so we can hear them if it happens again, and we’ll run outside.  Azylynn reminded me of my seasonal responsibility, and so I cranked out another chalk drawing.  Spring or not, the Root Children, and the sprouts in the ground, are still waiting to wake up, as is the story from which they come.   We had some good questions last week about why Spring is white and cold in Canada, but is green and warm in China, or Greece, or England.  With questions like this, I am very comfortable leaving the wonder as wonder.   Among the many, many things my wife has taught me about young children is that they often don’t want a great big explanation–what they want is the shared experience of wondering.  We have a tendency to over-inform children, denying them the opportunity to consider and explore ideas–sometimes for a long time.  At some point, the children will learn about the tilt of the earth and so on, but they don’t really need to know right now.  If Galileo had lived in The Information Age, I wonder if he would have bothered pondering the stars.

<Spring> and <sprung> are examples of words that don’t follow the suffixing patterns the children have come to expect.   (This is why young children quite reasonably say “runned”).   Words that change form as they change tense are quite common and normal, reflective of the oral language pre-dating the written.   Orestis brought this to our attention last week and so we have begun a collection.  I think we will find some interesting patterns in these words.  Today, we were looking at the spelling relationships between words–their etymological connections.  We were trying to decide how we know whether to use <knew> or <new>, and agreed that the pair of words connected by their <kn> digraph were logically related.  Darcy wisely exclaimed, “They’re cousins!”  These ones are so close I think I’d call them brothers.  We will see others among our homophones that are similar:  <blow> is clearly related to <blew> rather than <blue>.   These patterns are not just cute; they are real and predictable, and should be helpful.  IMG_3389The other pattern we’ve been digging through is when does a suffix cause the final consonant in a word to double?  Through our explorations, we seem to have arrived at a 1-1-v pattern:  in a word where one vowel comes before one final consonant, that consonant doubles when we add a vowel suffix.  Why am I telling you all this?  Because you may be like me and didn’t learn a bunch of it in school, and because it will give you something to chat about as you explore words in reading and writing at home.  It’s good if we speak the same language, n’est ce pas?

Meanwhile, in math…


Hey Nautica and Orestis!  Does that say 3 o’clock? Must be time for some silliness!  (By the way, have you figured out as I just did that you can click on photos and make them big?  Yes, you probably already knew that)

While a six-year-old’s sense of time is appropriately fairly limited (which is why they have no idea how long it takes them to put their coat on, and why rhythm and routine are so vital to their functioning) we have begun to explore clocks.  We’ll focus mainly on time to the hour and half hour, but will touch on minutes in increments of 5 (because it doesn’t make sense to me to teach 9:30 without explaining how we got to 30).  We’ll also read these times in both analog and digital.  We’ll spend a short time on time this week, and then reinforce this skill in practice over the next months.  We’ve been working to solidify our “Friends of Ten” addition facts, toward applying it to the addition of larger numbers.  Practice with any of this stuff can’t hurt, as long is it is kept pretty relaxed.

Our year-long look at seasons will obviously continue, and we will also expand our explorations of relationships into a look at the broader community–all toward helping the children to solidify their sense of place and belonging.  Speaking of which…

I will conclude by sharing that we began today with a visit from an older student at our school who has a condition that leaves her without hair.  This makes her rather conspicuous and socially vulnerable, and so she has chosen to visit–with her teacher–all the classes to speak openly about this condition and make it easier for the children to see beyond her appearance.  I could not have been prouder of our Grade Ones.  They listened in utter and heartfelt respect, and agreed that she was very brave to do this.  We honoured her with a particularly reverent rendition of our Knight’s Verse, and after she left we had a lovely and mature conversation.  Truly, some big thinking to begin the day.