Make It Rain

Disclaimer

I apologize outright if you are from a drought-striken region desperately searching the electronic ether for a glimmer of hope, only to have arrived at this post courtesy of the title. There are no deluge-inducing instructions here. No chants. Barely a plea. But questions? Yes. This post is about questions.

Family Tree of Droplets

Droplets

While sitting on the deck taking in a beautiful early evening outside, I began my traverse of the daylight/dusk/night barrier when my five year old daughter approached me at the table on the deck, and asked to climb into my lap. While shimmying in for kitten-like comfort, she kicked up a seemingly simple conversation…

Neve: “What are you reading?”

Me: “Oh… just about about ways of thinking. Just something to help me be smart about the work I do.”

Neve: “So, can you read a book to get smarter about anything?”

Me: “Almost. Yep… If you think about something you want to learn about, or know how to do… you can probably find a book to help you. You can pretty much learn about anything you want to today.

So, yeah… if you want to learn something, we’ll find books and things to help you.”

Neve: “Can you get a book if you want to learn how to make it rain?

Me: “(pause) Well… actually yes. Probably. There are people who have been trying to make it rain for a very long time. And sometimes they’re getting pretty OK at it in small spaces. Sort of.”

The conversation from there got a little too lengthy and geeky to relay here, but you get the idea. Learning at age five has so…… so much potential. Infinite, really.

Screenshot 2014-06-16 21.01.27

Showers

I’m really not entirely certain what the segue might have been between these two events, but, fast-forward twenty minutes to when I posted this*:

“Holy cow…… the girls asked what a cardinal sounds like. I pulled up a video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab on my iPhone, and seriously, our backyard is now a cacophony of cardinal music.

Why have I not done this until now?”

The comment stream below the post was rich as well, with several connections from those who had done similar things, as well as some fantastic suggestions for taking this to the next level. I get smarter, kids get smarter, rinse, repeat.

Cloudburst

Once the girls heard the cardinals come to life around us, once they saw two land on the fence directly in front of us, they were in. “What does a goldfinch sound like?” “What about an oriole?” “Does a hummingbird make a sound?” While we Googled every last question in the fading light, I tried to interject a thing of two about the limits of their quick little tests. “Maybe those other species weren’t close by.” “Perhaps this was the wrong time of day for them to respond in that way.” Maybe this, perhaps that…  but at this point they had already crossed over into trying to mimic backyard birdsongs themselves to even hear my prompts. At this point, science was bridging a wee bit into art and I knew this wouldn’t be the last time we attempt such an exploration. 

Here is my question for you: do you realize how close real, honest-to-goodness, publishable scientific inquiry is from this very point? Once you’ve asked a fascinating question (often by accident) and taken the time to muck about and explore the elements of the investigation, you are so close to real sophistication. The sophistication of the process. It is at this point you begin to take those “what ifs” and figure out the scope of what you might be able to find out next. You’re digging into what others have already discovered. You are figuring out feasibility. You are formalizing. Little kids don’t need names for these things to inquire, they just need a guide. A guide who will stay out of the way. A guide willing to intervene minimally and only when needed, but a guide that is curious and kind enough to keep pushing. Gently pushing. Ask questions to get questions. Fewer answers. More possibilities.

Science education begins quite young if you let it. Ask the questions. Keep asking them. Once you get more in return than you give…  you’re winning. Go ahead, make it rain.

Today Weather

Artwork
*”Family Tree of Droplets” by HUSO on Flickr via CC.
*”Neve and The Inchworm” by me.
*”Today Weather” by kristina Alexanderson on Flickr via CC.
 

On Avocados and Presidents

Life moves pretty fast

So, it happens that I was just checking out at the grocery store with my youngest daughter, Neve, by my side. While she danced around behind and beside me (literally), the checkout girl, who I could tell was quite green, asked if the bag of produce were avocados, “just to be sure.” My reply:  “Yep… they sure are.” I smiled warmly in an attempt to soften her subtle, but obvious discomfort in having to ask.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.

 

Meanwhile, my littlest one pulled her 3-4 year old frame (she’s rather tiny for five) up over the edge of the counter by her hands. With her lips barely perched atop the rim and her feet afloat above floor tiles, she said to the girl: “Avocados are a fruit. They’re not really a vegetable.”

The checker replied: “Oh yeah… how do you know that?”

Neve: “Well… see… they have a seed in them and that makes them a fruit. (significant pause) …Even though some people think they are a vegetable. They’re not really though.”

The checker looked up to me for what appeared to me to be a slightly sheepish content check. I’m not sure what exactly I did in response. Did I wink? No, I probably nodded. I think. Maybe. She then said to Neve: “Wow. How do you know that?”

Neve: “I don’t know… it’s just in my head.”

Checker: “How old are you… five? Wow. You’re really smart! Maybe you could be president some day.”

Neve: “Nahhh… I don’t think girls are presidents.”

My "doorman" …or, "doorwoman."

My “doorman” …or, “doorwoman.”

 

I had a bit of consulting to do after that last line. If you either, A) know me personally, or B) have read a bit of this blog, you can likely imagine our conversation in the car on the way home.* All of this has me wondering about the roots of empowerment. Do we really consider how early and deeply ideas become rooted in the brains of our little ones? When is “too early to matter?”

Context

Actually, if you happen to be one of those die hards from the old days on the blog, you might remember a related story here: But Math is Hard. If you have not read it, you now have your assignment. And really, toward the end of the comments on that post, a rather beautiful thing was born. The web of links there will take you to a content area reading/writing strategy that I use to this day every chance I get. Now that I think of it, Miss Neve quite possibly learned that bit of history while observing the purely male string of presidents on Presidents Pro.

*These talks are usually the silver lining in the cloud of a 50 minute commute that is soon to come to an end. Why is this a negative thing? For one, I’ll just plain miss those long car conversations. Well, that and hearing her sing about 90% of the 96.5 The Buzz playlist from memory. (and yes, of course I have to switch to the iPhone playlist at times during The Church of Lazlo, she’s five.  ;)
 

Artwork

-“inside the beast” by Darwin Bell on Flickr via CC
-“door opener” by me. 

 

Lessons Learned in the Gym

“It teaches the strong to know when they are weak and the brave to face themselves when they are afraid. To be proud and unbowed in defeat yet humble and gentle in victory. And to master ourselves before we attempt to master others. And to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep. And to give the predominance of courage over timidity.”

~General Douglas MacArthur, on the virtues of competitive athletics.

Reflections
Yesterday, the 2011 Missouri State Wrestling Championships concluded with the toughest battles of the year for many young men (and a handful of young women). Driving back across the state after the conclusion of a season is always a time of deep reflection and introspection for me. This year might have been a bit more intense. I competed in the sport of wrestling from the time I was ten. Ten years after that I began a coaching career that lasted for another twenty. Though I walked away from coaching two years ago, my younger brother stayed on to finish out these last two years. A first cousin of ours completed his career yesterday. He does not intend to pursue the sport in college. I’ve hardly missed a meet these past two years, but yesterday finally felt like a very real conclusion for me.

Cousin Bryson Dixon and I at the 2008 State Championships

Cousin Bryson Dixon and I at the 2008 State Championships

Win or lose, when one of the boys in my family concludes a wrestling career, it is a curiously emotional thing. It is ingrained into the fabric of my family’s culture. I’m sure you’d have to be in it to get it, but I spent the better part of an evening in silence yesterday taking apart just why my family once again engaged in a festival of teary eyed embraces after Bryson’s last match. I’ve competed in many other sports throughout my life, but none dug into my psyche like that one. None of the others shaped my life quite like it.

Lessons
My involvement in wrestling as a competitor and a coach these past thirty years may have taught me more real lessons about learning and life than anything else I have done. Here are a few of the things I know as a result…

  • There is no substitute for hard work.
  • A man’s strength cannot be seen on the outside.
  • Innovation without preparation is merely self gratification.
  • Rigorous challenges reveal as much character as they build.
  • There is nothing like a truly authentic assessment for milking every last drop of effort from a learner.
  • Even violence breeds respect when concluded with a handshake.
  • There’s nothing as brutal as the grip of someone who works on a farm.
  • Our country’s tendency to think of our brains as separate from our bodies is an unfortunate error.
  • The instructional model I favor today was honed while coaching kids to become powerful individuals.
  • No matter what you do, no matter how good you are, everyone needs a trusted coach to reach their full potential.
  • SMART goals work in the practice room too. Yes, I’m serious.
  • We all have unique strengths and weaknesses. Differentiating development along those lines leads to individual success and self-sufficiency.
  • Even in hand-to-hand combat, technology helps. Too much happens in those six minutes to not learn from video.
  • Reflection works. If you want learning to stick, that single behavior should be supported perhaps more than all others.
  • Success in something breeds a willingness to try other things.
  • All leaders have four basic functions:  They inspire, they empower, they encourage, and they teach. The better you are at the first of these, the less you must micromanage the latter.
  • There are few terms of endearment quite like that of coach.

Two years ago I made the decision to move away from wrestling and toward helping my district wrap our collective heads around the purposeful embrace of technology in the classroom. I’ll probably second guess that decision as long as I breathe.

I was careful to leave that team in better hands than when I found it myself. It was important to me to replace myself well before leaving. I feel like I did that, and now…  now it’s time to focus my energy surplus and continue to apply those lessons learned to every aspect of the future.

A final thought
There’s a reason your community might tend to vote for athletic initiatives in lieu of those of a more academic nature. While it is easy to poo-poo that away as a distaste for “education,” it might indicate something else. It might just indicate a willingness to support those things that are real. To be clear, not everyone’s experience with athletics is a rosy memory. However, if our academic pursuits were allowed to take aim at things beyond artificial exams and grade point averages, we might just move closer to where we’d like to be. If all learning were as real… if our focus were on creating real things and tackling real goals, then the inner struggle of hours upon hours of practice might seem worth it.

Think about those academic programs that are well-supported by your wider community. What might those have in common with extracurriculars? Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just a gym rat in need of a few push-ups.

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She Might Be Jackson Pollock

They might be heroes

Prepare for awesome.  Whatever it is you do for that…  do it.  I have no idea what you may have thought of They Might Be Giants prior to this post.  If you are unfamiliar, prepare for awesome.  You are hereby twice warned.

This band had a few airplay successes prior to becoming an educational boon for children far and wide.  Moreover, if you teach science or math to little ones, you owe yourself a catch-up weekend with these guys.  Delaney, our three year old, is a huge fan.  She’d tell you so, but you’d probably rather hear her sing.  Her all-time favorites:  Cells, The Bloodmobile, Photosynthesis, Science Is Real, Meet The Elements, Electric Car, Number Two, and Roy G. Biv.  There are many more she’s loved in the past couple of years, but really…  wouldn’t it be cool if a group this edgy would have something like  -oh, I dont know-  a wiki to organize all of this awesomeness?  Yep-  you guessed it:  This Might Be a Wiki.  Dig it.

So today I’d like to highlight an amazing band, a slick iPhone application, and a bit of the early-childhood learning fallout resulting from a clash of the two.

Today while Mommy was away, Delaney sat upon my lap for about an hour floating fingers through digital space…  spilling paint ala Jackson Pollock (one of my faves), all in the name of science influenced by TMBG.  As I sat in my chair piddling about with a new app, Delaney quickly came up to sit on my lap.  She’s used to occasionally plunking about with learning apps on Erin’s phone, but rarely gets that chance on mine.  Today, she watched me scribble about for something like 20 seconds before wanting to “…do it Daddy…  can I pwease?”  What do you think I said?

crappie jig I

Can you guess where my mind is in Midwestern March after 1) a very long and precipitous winter, and 2) flailing out the above image?  It is here that I have to warn you: the remainder of this post may contain mushy dadspeak.  If you can’t hang, bail now.

Cells

Delaney quickly said…  can I do it?  After a shake of the phone, and a clear of the screen. I asked her what color she wanted to use.  She promptly chose bwack… and after a circumnavigation of the screen with her sweet little finger, she starter chattering quasi-intelligibly about cells.  “What did you say?  What is that?  “It’s a cell Daddy…  cells are inside of all of us, it’s a blood cell.”  I had heard that much before.  But from there it got a bit more fun…

a cell

From there she whipped out an interior circle of sorts which she called the “nutrients” (smart me quickly realized this to be the nucleus) that “…has DNA in it.”  Now, a biology-teacher dad like me might be completely freaked out at this point if he hadn’t known of his daughter’s exploits with the TMBG songs and videos residing in Mommy’s iTunes closet.

She went on to tell me that, “DNA makes brown hair… and eyes… and boys and girls.”  If I wasn’t already in love with this little lap critter as my own little girl, I would have soon been hooked.

Who says this sort of thing when three?  As an instructional coach, I pay a great a great deal of attention to academic background knowledge.  Setting aside for a moment my deep beliefs in a rather constructivist approach to learning, we all know the benefit of children beginning any new learning with a prior set of relevant experiences…  or at the very least some of the vocabulary that goes with it.  How does Freshman biology change when these basics roll of the tongue like Schoolhouse Rock did for me?

cell number two

This cool little app allowed her to select new colors with the flick of a tiny finger.  I pointed out which buttons did what, and she quickly drank it in like it was the tricky block atop the Lego tower.  She then cranked out a few more cells and ended with, “Daddy, it’s your turn… you do it,” as a plea for modeling some fun.  What did I do?  Not much more than what she had already done.  It’s a bit tough trying to squeeze in a mitochondria with big kid fingertips.  All I did was to ask questions along the way.  I asked if she would tell me what I needed to do next.  I let her run the show.  I tried to roll with what she already thought was important.  She’s three.  Not fourteen.

trees and birds in the rainforest

After tiring of cells, she wanted to make ” a tree.”  She shook the phone to get a blank white slate, and then begged me to “draw too.”  She implored me to begin and I quickly drew in the brown trunk and branches.  After grabbing it away, the rest was all her.  Of course the tree needed “green leaves” and a line of “grass” beneath, and then a flock of “birds” above.  The black scribbles of birds in the image above are the birds in “the rainforest.”  Birds and coyotes… in the rainforest.  Who knew?

Implications?

It all came flooding in to me as I remembered the lyrics regarding cells, the bloodmobile, etc…  I sat in my chair with my girlie atop my lap, piloting my little phone through her rich imagination.  A post with all of her descriptions would fill this page.  I won’t do that to you.  What I will do is ask you to think about the efficacy of a touchscreen in the hands of a toddler.  Full disclosure:  I love paper.  I adore the smell of crayons.  I love sitting down at the table with her and having her pick out colors for me and bossing me around the page, telling me what to color next.  I do not think it is a good idea to passively babysit kids with electronics, or anything else for that matter.  Just because they take to it like a fish to water…  doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a good thing.

For me though, herein lies the difference in today’s experience:  it wasn’t anything close to passive.  The size of this device allowed her to be fully seated within my arms and legs for some serious one on one time.  Close is good.  After all we are humans, not computers.  We were snuggled up.  We were storytelling.  We could get away with whispering.  So I’m reflecting on the synthesis of a touchscreen loosely emulating the style of Jackson Pollock, the musical genius of They Might Be Giants, and playtime that involves close physical touch with Dad.  The fun of all of this spilled out upon my lap this dark, rainy day in March.  When does a silly phone become a handheld learning tool… a creative tool… a play toy?  Think about that.  This was fun.

Artwork credits

*”A crappy crappie jig” ~  me.
*”Cell number one” ~ Delaney
*”Cell number six” ~  Delaney
*”Rainforest with birds and coyotes” ~  Delaney & I.
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The Octopus Gets Due Respect

My last post highlighted a train wreck of a children’s book.  Readers of the post typically had one of three responses:

1)  This is sick, but hilarious. It was easy to get a kick out of something as blatantly incorrect as this book.  In fact, my current marine biology students enjoyed it quite a bit.  Those riled enough suggested file #13.

2)  Don’t sweat it. A minority remarked even though the book has glaring errors, none are worth getting too fired up about.  Kids are resilient, and misconceptions learned that young are easily unlearned.

3)  What an opportunity! Several also remarked that this book is a valuable potential lesson to hold on to.  Keeping the book as a media literacy lesson is the best answer.

What can I do?

Regardless of your take on The Septapus, I have felt the need for a review of a really super piece of children’s literature since publishing that post.  I guess I just feel the need for some positivity to balance out the force.  In reality, I am not a children’s lit expert.  I’m as much of an early childhood expert as a terribly curious father of two youngsters can possibly be, but certainly no more than that.  I know my limitations.  That said, I think I have one really sweet little piece of art to share with all of you.  This is a book that is not only deeply accurate from a scientific perspective, lyrically engaging, and amazingly illustrated…  but also seems to be a nearly 180 degree parallel of “Numbers” in so many ways.  (Please appreciate the tattered scans here which show the tough love of a toddler’s touch.)

over in the ocean - cover

In fact, this was definitely Delaney’s first favorite book.  She still loves to have this one read to her.  I’m not bad, but her mommy reads this one like a champ.  Find a small child.  Any child will do.  No matter how far you have to look, find a kid and buy this book for them:  Over in the Ocean in a Coral Reef. This book was written by Marianne Berkes and illustrated by Jeanette Canyon.  I know little of the history of the creation of this book, but it is a masterpiece.  Not only is it refreshingly accurate, and written in a fun and lyrical way, it is illustrated so beautifully that it makes me want to go buy clay.  Seriously.  Take it from a discerning dad who teaches marine biology- this is a fantastic book to read with a toddler.

Perfection

The book called out to my wife and I from a shelf in the exhibit hall of the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) national convention in St. Louis just before our babe was born.  The book came in two forms and we bought both on the spot.  One is a thick board book that we figured she could have her way with, and the other is a paperback that contains more information at the end on the creation of the polymer-clay art that adorns each page.

If you do nothing else, do a comparison of the treatment of the octopus on page one of this book, with the “septapus” in question from page seven of the previous review:

over in the ocean in a coral reef

When looking at any of the pages here, keep in mind these things…  every illustration:  clay.  Illustrate the riot of color and complexity of a coral reef…  in clay?  Absolutely.  This is a serious work of art in my opinion.  The ocean looks like Vincent’s Starry Night, and the lyrics (which correspond to music in the final pages) are quite fun.  And to think- this book is a “numbers” book as well.  Hard to compare to the previous book.  Over in the Ocean truly builds the counting exercise into the structure of the story in a very organic and engaging way.

In Over in the Ocean, parrotfish “grind,” clownfish “dart,” stingrays “stir,” pufferfish “puff,” dophins “jump,” angelfish “graze,” needlefish “skitter,” grunts “grunt,” and seahorses “flutter.”  The octopus has eight tentacles.  Parrotfish grind coral.  Stingrays stir in sandflats.  Emperor angelfish look exactly like emperor angelfish.  Bluestriped grunts, both mommy and babies look precisely and act exactly like Haemulon sciurus-  just ask my marine biology students.

Connections

Of course before publishing this post, I wanted to ask explicit permission to include a page from the author herself.  In that correspondence, I gained even more insight into the book including her opinion on the Septapus:

“As a former children’s librarian, I can tell you it would never have made it in my library, or my school for that matter (I was also an early childhood educator in NY before moving to Florida).”

Enjoy this book.  Enjoy the proud scientific accuracy.  Enjoy the gorgeous art adorning each page.  But perhaps most importantly, enjoy a book that is an interdisciplinary dive onto a coral reefs for kids.

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