Monday, June 15, 2020

What is a System?

As we end this banner year, students have been reflecting on our overarching concept: Systems.
The class spent the year visiting local officials, business owners and non-profit organizations in our community to learn about government and civics and dived deep into the role that the Puget Sound plays in our community, learning about water as a resource, tracing stormwater outlets, thinking about the effects of humans on local water systems, and visiting local science-based organizations to learn about the life that exists in the water right next to us.

Students were asked to reflect on questions like:

  • What is a system?
  • What makes up a system?
  • What kinds of systems are involved in our daily lives?
  • How is a community a system?
  • How is ecology or marine biology part of a system?
Here's what several students had to say. I think they got it!

      A system is a set of things, people or businesses working together to create an interconnected network. A city is a system. It is made up of people that connect with each other. The citizens create a living environment for other citizens by making businesses or organizations. These businesses and organizations rely on citizens in order to sustain themselves. A city, town, or any other place with humans requires a smaller system in order to sustain the bigger one. A currency system is one of the most important systems in a civilization. Without money, nobody can live. Food, water, clothing, shelter, and so much more are bought with money. People make businesses where you can buy those things with money. Systems are an important part of life, and without them, pretty much nothing would exist.

      Now, I am taking the example of a human population for all of this, but this could apply to anything. Like a system of nonprofit organizations to help the environment by connecting with each other. Or the system of life, where there are predators killing prey. Even a Rube Goldberg Machine could be considered as a system. It ends up performing a big operation, like putting a marble in a bin using smaller operations, like a toy car hitting a wooden ball into a button. Looking at recent events, I could explain that COVID-19 is also a system. It spreads, therefore interconnects when someone gives the virus to another. There are systems for everything, even very small things.

       Wherever you are and wherever you go, systems will follow you. In a forest, in a desert, anywhere you are, you will always find systems, even if you don’t notice at the time. Keep looking around you. Life is one of the systems that you will almost always find where you are. If you do not identify life, look for others. Systems are beautiful things. Everything in a system cannot work without the other components. Systems are everything in life. They make up life itself. Systems are everywhere, and will always be with you. Just make sure you appreciate them for what they are.

      When you think of a system, you might think of the life system, or the water system. However, not all systems are as simple and easy to comprehend as these. A quick complex system that comes to mind is the economic system. The economy is an elaborate web of sadness and anguish but also joy and false happiness. The only reason there can be such a difference between the two is the wealth gap, a scary, bad system. Overall, though, a system basically is just some continuous thing that happens that uses multiple people or things to operate.

      A system is not always made of the same components. Some simple systems compile of a few steps that cycle on and on for eternity. For example, the water treatment facility. Human waste comes in, the nasty pulp gets processed into Tagro™, and the water from the pulp obviously gets purified into drinking water. The Tagro™ gets food grown from it, the now cleaned wastewater gets drunk (NOT under the influence of alcohol, digested), the food and water go into the human, and so on. More complex systems can follow different routes. Difficult and complicated systems occur more than you think in your normal life.

      Around us, there are countless systems happening at this instant. Many of them we witness are easy to recognize, like the judicial system or the sewer system. There is also a large amount of them that we do not. For example, the shopping system. You probably have bought something once in your life, but never really noticed how advanced just buying items is. If the item is from a farmer’s market, odds are that the vendor was the original producer of the product. However, if you bought a cabbage from a grocery store, they had to buy it from a farmer before selling it to you. If the store you bought the cabbage from is still in business, you know that they ripped you off. If they bought it from a farmer and sold it to you at the same cost that they bought it for, they would not make a profit.

     Community is a great example of a complex system. The fact that the population is growing at all is deep. In the far past, one person would die for every birth, meaning that the population would stay constant. Eventually, more people were born a year than those who died. This birth-death rate went exponentially up and is still going up today. However, scientists predict that the human population will top out at 10,000,000,000 people. This sounds rather daunting, but it is actually quite a  relief, since any more humans could make the earth unable to sustain us anymore.


      A car whizzes by on the road near your house. Two robins fly from the tip of a tree, one with a worm in its beak. You may not realize it, but you are watching multiple systems at work right where you live. Whether it’s the food chain, ecosystem, transportation system or many more, all systems have one thing in common: they are all composed of many parts working together as a whole. Take, for example, our government. The government is composed of three groups, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. We need all three branches to support our nation. Or the ecosystem, every species matters, some more than others, but if you take to many of them out the whole thing collapses.

      A system is like a tower, built with blocks. By removing one block, not much will happen, but if you start to remove tens and hundreds of blocks, even if you take the ones off of the top, eventually you will be left with nothing. Just look at the ecosystem itself. We are taking out forest after forest, species after species. The system of our earth is starting to fall apart and research shows that if we continue to do this, the earth might no longer be a thing. Just like if you take too many blocks out of a tower. Every system needs its parts, like how a community needs its people. Though is a community a system itself? It has many systems within in, but does that mean anything?  The Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition of a community is "A unified body of individuals." A group of people that are linked together to form a whole, just like a system. A community also works together, just like a system.

      Systems are everywhere and almost everything is part of a system in some way. Systems are the foundations for almost everything, including other systems, and if one system is destroyed many will follow. Systems are all important whether they are big, like the universe, or small, like an animal’s digestive system, and absolutely nothing would exist without them.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Advice from the 5th Graders

The 5th grade students came up with some great ideas for things to do while staying home and staying safe during the pandemic that we wanted to share with everyone out there looking for inventive and inspiring things to do at home.

Advice from a science, art and nature lover:
If you are bored and don't have anything to do, I recommend going outside. If you are an art lover, try making something out of leaves and other things you can find outside. For inspiration, look up nature mandalas. If you like science I recommend finding a plant in your yard and studying it, or reading a book on science outside, or any book.
If the weather is bad, I recommend finding an endangered species you like, here is a website that might help you find one: . From there, you could write an essay, dream up an invention that might help them, do what you can to help them, or whatever you want. This activity does not have to be completely on the computer. You can do the research on the computer, or if you have a book on endangered species, you could read it, the rest can also be done off of the computer.

Advice from some science lovers and a science fiction enthusiast:
Kurzgesagt in a nutshell is a great (YouTube) channel, and is useful for astrophysics and many types of science.

Another science-minded student recommended Minute Earth: 

A refreshing recipe from a mathematician and baker:
I also recommend baking, or cooking. These are surprisingly my favorite thing to do at home. This recipe is for making watermelon slushies. This dessert is not in season, but who cares! (It’s a slushy, made for the summer.) But the instructions are pretty simple.

You will need these ingredients....
6 cups cubed melon
⅓ cup honey
Juice of one lime
Pinch of salt
1. Cube melon into 1” pieces and freeze (at least 4-6 hours).
2. Puree frozen melon with honey, lime juice, and salt until very smooth.
3.Pour into glasses and enjoy!

You can also try...
-honeydew + mint simple syrup + lime juice
- watermelon + honey + orange juice
-cantaloupe + ginger simple syrup + lime

From a scientist, maker, and future mycologist:
When not finishing assignments on Eduflow, Flipgrid, or Khan Academy, one can be bored quite easily. As we all know, boredom is not exhilarating. I always trust mycelium to aid me in situations like this.

Growing food in the following weeks may prove relevant. Mushrooms contain lots of healthy minerals, vitamins, and, a hearty source of protein. Using mycelium to grow mushrooms is not hard at all. I am growing some right now from some dried grass. I also have one sprouting from an empty plain white sauce container. (Yes, this is a DHMIS reference. The jar was used to hold alfredo sauce.) I'm sure you can find some substrate to grow mycelium in.

Probably by now you're wondering where you can get some of this gorgeous, incredible substance. You're not? well, I better tell you anyway, before it's too late. I got my mycelium from Cascadia mushrooms, This link sends you to the Cascadia website. It sends you directly to the easier-to-maintain mushroom kits.

Most of the kits give you mushrooms in 2-3 weeks. Here's a time-lapse of a mushroom kit from Cascadia growing mushrooms: You're harvest can be sautéed, fried, or even put in soup. generally you'll get 2-3 flushes of mushrooms. A flush of mushrooms just means one harvest. The wait is definitely worth it

While the kits are designed to be quite easy, there are a few precautions you should take. One: you should always pick all of the mushrooms at once, even if some of them are still 'premature'. Two: keep the humidity of the kit very high. A way to do this is to put a plastic shopping bag over the kit. Three: if the kit is in a bag, there will be a date on it. If this date is in the past, cut the bag open slightly above the micro-filter, which looks like a white patch. Hopefully you'll get a kit, and if you do, please share the results.

And one more, from a writer, logical thinker and puzzle solver:
I’ve been doing a puzzle thing called finders seekers. I would recommend it to people who like geography and puzzles. You have to order a box. Anyone can do it any time. I’m in Washington DC. You are in a certain place and you get puzzles for that place. There are things in the box but also on the website. It’s challenging and fun.

We hope everyone is staying healthy at home, and still learning something new every day!

Friday, April 3, 2020

Math Struggles During a Pandemic

Start from where things make sense

  • “How could we draw a picture so this made sense?”
  • “This feels confusing. Let’s start with an easier problem.”

Be curious

  • “That’s the right answer, but I don’t see how you got it. How did you do that?”
  • “Let’s try to do it a totally different way. How many ways could we come up with?”

Keep it light and nonjudgmental

  • “It doesn’t matter if we get it wrong. Let’s just mess with it.”
  • “I have no idea what to do. Let’s figure it out together!”
  • -Math For Love
One of the MANY panicked e-mails I received from parents during these first few weeks of school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic had to do with a student who was encountering the concept of fractions for the first time at home. "Help!" the parent wrote, "How do I teach my child fractions?"

I have told this as a funny story to several fellow teachers -- "Sure," I laugh, "Let me just put that in a quick e-mail response for you, NO PROBLEM!" (Several very LONG and involved e-mails later, with a lot of links to examples of how to make fraction manipulatives, we actually had a half-hour plus Zoom meeting, but that's not as funny a story...)

This scenario, though, is something I think is playing out in homes all over the world right now, and it is frustrating for all involved. Teachers STUDY how to teach math. We took college courses to learn the ins and outs of how to elicit mathematical thinking, identify the big ideas, and identify the common misunderstandings of each of the math concepts we cover. Many of us have advanced degrees and have spent countless hours in professional development courses to deal with just this subject. Seabury teachers all attend summer classes at UCDS in Seattle, learning creative ways to develop critical math skills through inquiry-based lessons they call math "vitamins," and we call math "quests" or "adventures." These lessons are designed to develop multiple entry points and multiple strategies and challenge students across many levels of understanding -- it's not easy, and there is a certain amount of art to it -- as well as a whole lot of classroom experience.

So, I have found myself wondering -- how do we boil that down for parents at home?

The bottom line, parents, is -- we don't. Do not expect that you are going to step right into your child's math teacher's shoes and pick right up where they left off, no problem. It's not quite that easy.

Thankfully, there are many fantastic resources out there designed to help - Khan Academy is just one that many people are relying heavily on right now. No matter what online resource your student may be using, however, they are still going to need some support. And although it is not reasonable to expect to replace your child's math teacher outright, it is also not impossible. Give yourself some grace, take a big patient breath, and know that you don't have to be a math teacher, just a math facilitator. And yes, please ask for advice from those of us who have fought for years in these trenches. Don't, however, assume that we can distill it down for you into one e-mail.

As I have been struggling with helping parents and students through this, I have been looking for the silver bullet. The one thing I can share with parents that will capture the essence of the skills, ideas, and questions that you need to be an effective teacher of math.

Short of going back to school for a teaching degree, I think I may have found the answer through a fantastic math resource that we rely on heavily at Seabury. We've had training from these folks and we use these games and lesson ideas regularly in our classrooms.

Spend 5 minutes reading this article from MathForLove:

and then 15 minutes watching creator Dan Finkel's Tedx Talk:

and you, too, can start to be inculcated into the cult of math pedagogy. It may not be a degree in math teaching, but it's the best I can do for you in the equivalent of an e-mail.

Hang in there, everybody! Don't give up on the math!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Incredible Journey of a Drop of Water

Our class had the privilege of working with Chris Towe of the Pierce County Conservation District on a number of lessons about water and water conservation at the beginning of the year. In one lesson, we played a game that tracked the incredible journey of a water droplet.
After Chris departed, we wrote stories based on this idea.
Here are a few of the creative ideas the students came up with:

The Water Story (an excerpt)

I woke up in the river, ice had formed overnight. (This year’s February seemed to be especially cold.) Then I heard murmuring voices. “Look Annie, we have so much snow and ice this year!” “I know, Sally” this seemed to be Annie’s voice though I’m not sure. Then the children left. Soon I could feel the sun warming the river turning solid into liquid, ice into water. Over the next few weeks I could feel the days getting warmer until one fortunate day when I could feel myself turning into vapor once more. I turned into a cloud. Suddenly, I realized it was March.

            The cloud I was in traveled for many days until we hit something. Other water molecules whispered to me that we had hit a mountain. Suddenly, I could feel myself falling off my cloud. I knew it was not raining, I knew what raining felt like, it was like the cloud was shedding me off. Before I knew it I felt myself merging with the river and falling for what it seemed an endless time until I felt myself floating calmly into a pool. For some time I stayed there until I felt myself being sucked up by what it seemed an animal! Then I thought, "It's April."


I will explain my story as best as I can. As far as I can remember, I started out in a lake when earth formed. One day, I felt a nice tingling sensation all over as I was gently broken apart and lifted up into the sky. I couldn’t tell you how awesome I felt at that time. I felt that I was the king of Earth. Suddenly, I started feeling a jerking sensation so strong that my broken form came together into a cloud.
 I felt cold, and I was wondering what would happen once the cloud expanded and got too big. I soon found my answer, and I didn’t like it. I was falling, tens of thousands of feet. I dreaded what would happen once I hit the ground. As I fell, faster than a freight-train, I got a glimpse of where I would land. I was relieved that I would land in the ocean for the first time in my life. I plunked into the water freely with my friends. At this point, I was about half a million years old. I stayed in the ocean for several years before I felt a familiar sensation.
After the process of evaporation happened to me again, I was placed in a large, fluffy cloud that looked a lot like a clump of cotton candy. I knew that the process of precipitation would happen again and I didn’t look forward to it. To pass time, I talked to my friend Nicholas. I was in mid-sentence, when the familiar uncomfortable sensation washed over me, if anything can wash over me as I am water. Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Project Based Learning: Why It's Important Today

A recent letter to parents:

         At Seabury, we often use problem-based, or inquiry-based, learning to hone “20th century skills." Things like teamwork, out-of-the box thinking and creative problem solving allow students to grapple with “real-world” challenges – like those students might face in an actual work environment someday. Our class has just begun a unit of study called Mystery River, designed to challenge students on several levels. This unit will offer your student the opportunity to learn about stream water quality, endangered species, governmental problem solving, social science and systems, public speaking, and much, MUCH more.
Your student will need to learn much of what they need to know on their own or in conjunction with their team members. Many students will want to share their successes or frustrations with you, and some may try to get help from you. Please be willing to listen to your student and to offer help in the form of allowing them internet access, or taking them to the library or providing any other support that THEY SUGGEST. However, please do not offer your own insights, information, or suggestions, even when asked. If your student asks a question about the content/topic of this unit, you may want to consider responding with “What do you think?” If they want your opinion regarding a theory or possible course of action, you may try to draw out their thinking by saying something like “That’s an interesting idea. Why do you say that?”
One of the fundamental concepts of problem-based learning is that students learn to be independent learners – that is, they can learn on their own, without the overriding guidance or decision making of a teacher or parent. Please encourage your student to have fun with this project and not to become overwhelmed with anxiety because of the “fuzzy” nature of the problem. Many students struggle when they do not have clear guidelines of how to proceed. In this unit, the students will have to first determine the parameters of the problem (if indeed, there IS a problem!) to make sure they are headed in the right direction, then ask themselves what knowledge or skills are necessary to solve the problem. They will need to determine what questions are relevant, and some questions they ask may not have the clear, decisive answers they are used to. They will need to avid “fatal” lines of reasoning that oversimplify the issue. In your discussions at home, please ask your student what he or she doesn’t know but needs to know to complete the assignment. This is where the critical learning takes place. Please assist me in helping your student not to become overwhelmed at this critical point! When the students have learned how to identify their own areas of inadequate knowledge, how to acquire that knowledge on their own, and then how to apply that knowledge to the problem at hand, they will have gained an invaluable life skill. Many of them are well on their way in this area, and many are just preparing to launch.
I am looking forward to watching these students rise to meet this challenge! 

Right after sending out this e-mail, I came across a post from one of my favorite teaching resources, The Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzalez:

Apart from the academic and social gains cooperative learning has offered for generations, we now find ourselves in an era where it may be more essential than ever before. 
For one thing, it gives students practice in the kind of skills that are becoming more desirable in the workplace. P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning includes collaboration as one of its essential skills. As manufacturing is automated and information can be obtained with a few clicks, higher-level skills like communication, creativity, and collaboration are more valued—these are skills computers can’t really replicate. The work of human beings is going to involve more and more of those kinds of skills in professional spaces, higher education, and community life.
On a deeper level,  we need cooperative learning because technology is really starting to limit our face-to-face communication. Even when we’re in school together, we are on devices so much of the time. This can be wonderful and efficient, and it offers so many more opportunities to expose ourselves to new ideas, but it is stunting our ability to have regular conversations and robbing us of all the gifts that come with those interactions. Giving students regular opportunities to share physical space and actually talk through complex problems is a gift they may not get anywhere else, so yes, it’s worth it.

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Science of Art at the Museum of Glass

While some schools go on field trips once or twice a year, classes at Seabury go on field trips more like once a month -- and in the Bridges program, it's once a WEEK. We prefer to call them field studies, because these trips are not the traditional end-of-unit celebrations we usually think of when we hear the word "field trip" -- they are opportunities to listen, ask questions, make connections, and open new doors to many new ideas, issues and areas of interest. In Bridges, we often START a unit with a field study, and in this case, the Bridges students got an introduction to some of the ideas we will be covering in a study of electricity later this year through Tacoma'a unique Museum of Glass.

Led by a museum educator, students conducted several experiments in class, learning about how different metals conduct energy and the different ways energy moves. They looked at some different chemical reactions and thought about how artists and scientists use chemically-created colors. Then, in a museum visit, students noted color, texture and patina in artworks on display in the gallery. They created art using copper and steel wire in a wrapped glass piece to represent how energy flows. Finally, they watched energy being transformed and moved as they watched glass artists at work in the museum's hot shop, noting the items the artists use to insulate themselves and block the transfer of heat while making glass artworks.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Visiting the Nourish Food Bank

The Nourish Food Bank in Edgewood provided food for 68,000 people in 2019 - the equivalent of 150 families each day. They accomplish this mission with the help of a huge staff of volunteers - 94 people who worked a combined total of 18,000 hours. As we toured the food bank, we met and talked with one young woman who has been volunteering there with her family once a week since she was about 12. Now in college studying language, she has found a way to practice her Spanish and Russian while helping others. This place and the people who work there are a real inspiration for a class of students starting to think about what they can do to make change in the world as they prepare to start their own service learning projects!

Here's what one student had to say about the visit:

Dear Ms. Kate,

Thank you for letting our class come to visit your food bank. We learned so much. It is amazing how you help people in need of food. Good food especially. It feels like you have a friendship with the donors that support you. We loved the part where you showed us around the freezer room. That was a very special opportunity. Another part we loved was when you showed us around the food bank, and we got to pretend that we were coming to "shop" for food. Thank you for taking the time to teach us about the food bank.                                                            -5th Grade Student