Friday, June 6, 2014

Primo math game

Today I backed Primo: the beautiful, colorful, mathematical board game on Kickstarter. It looks cool. We'll try it out at the school when it ships.

In the meantime, see if you can follow who owes who what in this scene from All in the Family:

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Park Pen-Pals

A friend of mine is the creator of the SF Postcard Project, now the Neighborhood Postcard Project. The project encourages individuals from lesser known and marginalized neighborhoods to share their favorite parts of their neighborhood or what changes they would like to see. These are written on a postcard and sent throughout the city to spread awareness, and illuminate the beauty that exists in these neighborhoods. For the children, I thought about what would be a local and representative adaptation of this project. Alamo Square Park came to mind for it's diverse visitors and the familiarity the children have with it. What else could we learn? Who are the people that spend time in this park?

We crafted messages to post in the park, inquiring about individuals spending time there. We ended our message prompting them to send us an email that answered our questions.

Our messages read: 
Hello! We are a small school of first graders in San Francisco, and we are curious about who is around us! If you find this, send us a short message to tell us who you are!

Where did you find this note?
Where are you from?
Are you visiting?
Living here?
What do you like to do?
What do you love about San Francisco?

We then took the the park and began scoping out ideal places to leave our notes. Simotaneouly talking about what kind of people might respond and if we thought anyone would respond at all. 

The children place the first message in a popular bus stop at the edge of the park. 

A closer look. The children brainstormed and decided that an illustration accompanying the message would draw people in and make it more likely that they would want to participate. 

Puppy makes an appearance! The children thought about places that people spend time in the park and where they would most likely come across our messages. The placement of these messages included a picnic table, a park bench, the entrance to the playground, a garbage can, and the garden fountain (above). A child mentioned the environmental impact that leaving paper in public might create, and we decided that we would go back in a few days and remove the papers to make sure they did not become litter. 

Two of the children look on to see if the people sitting on the bench have found the message we left there. They decide that once they have left, we should come back and move the sign to the top of the bench so people don't sit on it. 

We received many wonderful messages, that the participants have kindly agreed to let us post here. The children gathered in circle time to read the responses and share their thoughts about what our next step should be. Some of the children's favorites are below. 

1. We are Victoria and Kadar and we found your message by the painted Ladies in Alamo square. I (Victoria) am from St Albans (very near London) and Kadar is from Paris. I live here and Kadar is visiting. I volunteer while I await my visa and Kadar works in PR for Levis. I like to hike, watch and play football (soccer), brew beer and listen to music. Kadar likes to play soccer, spend time with his son and take photos. I love the architecture, food and feeling of this city. Kadar loves the architecture, embarcadero and the weather!

2. I found your note today in Alamo Square. I live in the neighborhood, and was visiting the park with my friend because the day was so beautiful and we wanted to be outside. I like to do yoga.  Sometimes I like to do headstands!  I took a picture to show you.  I'm not always good at them, and I fall over a lot, but it's fun so I keep trying. I love that San Francisco has so many hills.  It means that there's always a great view at the top, and it makes my body strong by walking up so many hills. If you ever want to learn more about yoga or meditation, I'd be happy to share.

3. My name is Griffin and I'm a first grader at Clarendon.  I live near this park, and I came here with my little brother, Rocket.

4. Hello, I'm Sara, I'm 3 and a half and I come from Ancona, on the east coast of Italy, in the centre.I saw your note at the entrance of Alamo Square playground. I live in Ancona, but I came to San Francisco with my parents to visit my uncle (mummy's brother) and auntie, who live here and work for Twitter. I love this city, it's full of fun things and there are lots of playgrounds, which I enjoyed very much! I love traveling, seeing new parts of the world. I love eating spaghetti and pizza. I love going on the swing, cycling and swimming. While in San Francisco I had so much fun at the Academy of Science which I thought was AMAZING. I enjoyed a ride on the cable car and visiting its museum. I absolutely adore the Golden Gate park, where we spent 2 whole days just cycling and walking around. I had lots of fun going up and down the piano steps at the fisherman's wharf and saying hello to the sea lions. Alcatraz was a bit scary, but I loved the boat ride. I think you live in a fantastic and vibrant city and you are very lucky! I wish I could come and visit your school, but we are going back to Italy tomorrow, so maybe I'll see you on that part of the world in the future.

After reading the notes, two of the children decided to write to the woman that offered to come and teach us yoga. We eagerly await a reply!

Architects and Engineers For The Day

Dreaming big and overcoming obstacles are the consistent themes that weave themselves through David Robert's, Iggy Peck Architect and Rosie Revere Engineer. Both of these books remind the reader that building taller and brainstorming without limitation can create beautiful and inventive projects.

For Iggy Peck, his affinity for building came at a young age. When he was only in diapers, he built towers from diapers (dirty ones, to his mother’s total dismay). He piled pancakes, and made castles from chalk. His parents were proud, but upon entering second grade, his teacher, Miss Lila Greer, had other ideas. At the age of eight, she was lost on a field trip in a skyscraper, and found herself stuck in an elevator with a circus troupe. Since that day, she made sure that there would be no building, and definitely not in her classroom. Iggy, saddened by this news, gives up his passion.

That is, until the day that the class heads over a bridge for a field trip. At the last moment, the bridge collapses, and Miss Lila Greer, too, collapses to the ground. While unconscious, Iggy orchestrates a plan to build a bridge from shoestrings, a pair of underpants, and fruit roll ups. When the teacher finally wakes up, she is delighted to see what Iggy has done, and it changes her perspective. From then on, Iggy is welcome to build in her classroom and goes on to become a successful and innovative architect.

Miss Lila Greer travels the bridge that Iggy designed. She imagines it to be the Golden
 Gate Bridge. The children were particularly excited to see a local landmark!

Rosie Revere is also in Miss Lila Greet and Iggy’s classroom, and has a knack for building elaborate and quirky inventions. She engineers them by night in her attic, making sure that they are hidden away by the time morning comes.

Rosie builds by night. 

When her great-great-aunt comes to visit, and Rosie hears that her dream is to fly, Rosie gets busy. She brilliantly engineers a flying device for her aunt. When the day comes to fly it, it falls after a short bit in the air. Rosie is devastated, but her Aunt laughs with excitement. She then assures Rosie that you only fail when you give up. That this attempt is just the beginning of something great!

We decided to be engineers and architects for the day, with an open-ended goal to create. I intentionally left this project open to interpretation to create space for any kind of structure.

 A final creation.

A girl elaborates on her structure. Their is a town at one end that leads to a body of water that is filled with sharks. There is a device that you can climb into that attaches to a rope that brings you to safety. After crossing a bridge made of straws, there is a playground with a sandbox, climbing tube, and a resting space. The resting space will fix any ailment in "just two minutes and then you have to rest on the feather bed," There is also a trampoline that will take you to a tall yellow feathers where you can learn about all of the "magic from Asia," which is where the fairies live and keep their magic. 

A boy works to maneuver a piece of thread into a straw.

His invention aims to move feathers at the end of a straw when it is blown into. The angling of the straw had to be just right to move all of the feathers, and required many attempts and adjustments.

A girl explains that when you are stuck on the rock (button) there is a component that opens up with a voice that says, “You are okay and safe. It will be okay,” and then moves you to safety. She specifically noted that if you are not yet married, the voice will be of the person that you will fall in love with and marry after you are safe. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Dam Keeper

A local homeschooling family invited our school to the San Francisco International Film Festival as they were hosting a day of children's short films. The children were captivated by one film in particular called The Dam Keeper

The dam keeper is a young pig who lives in a windmill above town. His sole responsibility is to wind the windmill every eight hours to keep "the darkness" away, otherwise it will hurt the residents. He does this religiously, and wears a mask (depicted in the first storyboard slide below). 

He comes down into town and is made fun of by his peers while waiting for the bus to school. Many of the children taunt him and make fun of his pig nose. One day, a new student boards the bus and walks back to sit with the pig. She is a fox that has an affinity for drawing, and the pig is smitten with her. 

He goes to school and notices that she is drawing satirical portraits of people at school, and in a forgetful moment she leaves her notebook in their classroom. The pig looks through it and begins to feel that he has a friend, and that he is not alone. 

The next day, the fox boards the bus and looks worried and sad, but is relieved to see that the pig has kept her notebook safe. In the afternoon at school, an alligator and hippo take the pig into the bathroom and put all of his things in the toilet. The fox walks by the bathroom, and goes inside, finding an embarrassed pig. She helps him to his feet and dries his things. She then teaches him to draw the animals that were unkind to him, which seems to be calming and helpful to the pig. Both of them look into the mirror and giggle, realizing that they have charcoal from their drawings all over their faces. 

After school, the pig, with a new dose of confidence, walks over to a bench where the fox and many other animals are laughing. He looks over their shoulders and sees a paper that is half blown over in the wind. The visible letters say "dirty p-" and it has a drawing of the pig below it. The pig is saddened and snatches the paper away. 

In his sadness, he misses his eight hour alarm and "the darkness" rolls over the hill, covering the town. Young animals are afraid and everyone begins to cough. When he finds a seat on a tree swing, surrounded by "the darkness", the pig removes the picture from his pocket and fully unfolds it to find that it says, "dirty pals" and has a drawing of both the pig and fox below with charcoal on their faces. 

In a panic, he starts running towards the windmill to push the darkness away. He is successful, and the fox soon arrives at his door to give him a hug. 

The eighteen minutes of film are made of more than 8,000 individual paintings!

During circle time, we began by looking at stills from three movies from the festival and placing them in chronological order. We discussed animated films and live action films, as well as fiction and non-fiction. All three children chose The Dam Keeper for their storyboard.

We then discussed the moral of the story. One child mentioned how helpful the pig was, and how mean all of his peers were. The children seemed unsettled about this fact, so we talked about peer pressure and being unkind. A girl said it made her feel sad to see the pig feeling sad. Another girl felt that as well and said it was very nice of the pig to protect the town, even when the town was mean. 

The peer pressure component began when we broke down why people made fun of the pig. A boy thought it was because he lived so far away and had a dirty face sometimes. One girl believed that maybe one person was mean to the pig, and everyone else thought it was funny, so they were mean too. 

I asked the children if it was okay to be mean, if someone else was doing so. They all said no. We talked about what you can do when someone else is being mean. A girl said, you can say that you are not going to be mean too. A boy said to tell them that it doesn't feel good, so they should stop. 

We then talked about times that we feel nice and not nice and how that feels. One girl said that when she feels mean, she feels sad. Another girl agreed. A boy said that he feels scared when he feels mean. 

We then discussed what we could tell the pig when he was feeling sad. It was agreed that being his friend and listening was a way to make him feel happier. Also, going to his house to visit and see his windmill and special mask.

The children begin to sort the frames into piles pertaining to each of the three movies. 

Working on placing the frames of The Dam Keeper in chronological order. 

Drawing the frame depicting the arrival of "the darkness"

Discussing the pig snatching up the fox's drawing, but being confused about her intention. Ella emphasis that the fox was trying to be funny, not mean. 

Storyboard. This student challenged himself to draw each frame upside-down. 

Storyboard. This child paid extra attention to making sure the 
pig was the right size to turn the windmill. 

Storyboard. This child emphasized telling the whole story and 
diligently worked through each frame. 

Time Capsules

Time capsules came to mind when thinking of ways to get to know the children at Sesat School, and also practice some imaginative writing. I have such fond memories of making time capsules with my family and at school when I was younger. The excitement and anticipation that comes with opening one and seeing what is inside is exhilarating, but even more engaging and fun is figuring out what to write. 

During circle time, we spent time talking about what time capsules are. One boy shared that he didn't know what the word capsule meant, so we worked on contextualizing it. When I shared the idea of the project, that we would be sealing and burying them, he added that he thought it was a special kind of jar. This led to a conversation about what exactly was so special about this jar. A girl decided that if it was going to be in the ground, that it would need to be protected from things like dirt and rain. A girl added that bugs needed to stay out as well. We then talked about the time component, that we would't see these jars for some time. That they would represent who we are, but just right now. That we might open them and think that we were much older and bigger than we were then. 

After figuring out that the lid would need to be on tight and that we would put strong tape around the lid, we moved to the table to begin working on what would go inside the jar. The children began by writing their names, the date, and the date that they would open it. As a group, it was decided that a year would be an ideal amount of time, specifically because they would have forgotten what they had written by then. That way they would be surprised!

The prompts asked questions about interests, dreams and wishes. The drawing prompts asked what the classroom looked like, and to trace their hands. A girl asked why we were tracing our hands, and another child quickly answered that they would be bigger when we opened the jar, and that way we could see how much they grew. I added that their classroom might change as well, and so drawing an aerial map would help us remember how things used to be. 

As tempting as it is to share the lovely and inventive responses and drawing that made their way into the jars, it will have to wait until they are opened! One that caught my attention was one child's dreams and wishes page, on which he drew himself flying. 

 Working on filling out our favorite things to do. 

Girl finishing up a trace of her hand. 

A boy writes down his love for building things. 

 Satirically, a girl demonstrates how much she thinks she 
will grow by the time the jars are opened. 

Another girl shares too. 

Marking their jars with permanent marker. 

We gather tools for burying the jar, and choose a spot in the front garden.  

Putting the final pieces of duct tape on the jar. 

Working to dig a whole that is deep enough. 

See you next year jars!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Maker Faire finds

This weekend was Maker Faire, the annual Mecca for inventors, tinkerers, crafters, and other propeller-heads from around the world. Our friend Tim O'Reilly, whose company runs the Faire, affectionately calls members of this community the "alpha-geeks."

While we've attended (and exhibited!) at the Faire before, the past couple of years my focus has been on educational technologies – this year, biology and robotics in particular.

These were my top finds:

3D cells from molding clay
My absolute favorite were these simple, beautiful cell models children could mold in minutes using standard Crayola ModelMagic molding clay. We invited the folks at GalaxyGoo come run a lesson at Sesat School!

Photo source: GalaxyGoo / Flickr
iPad microscope
Folks at the Fletcher Lab at UC Berkeley demonstrated CellScope, a cool iPad stand that turns the iPad into a graphically enticing, easy-to-use microscope capable of recording images and video. One of the few educational uses of tablets I've seen so far, that really make sense. The CellScope stands are not available commercially yet, but hopefully will soon.

Photo source: CellScope
Robot starter kit
Out of several robot construction kits, Vex and Makeblock looked best. Their robots are robust (we tested chucking one of the Vexes around a bit and managed to make no irreparable damage) and can be controlled both manually and programmatically. Vex also runs competitions for schools. We're going to start with Makeblock, but I'm thinking to get a Vex kit as well, for comparison.

Submarine drone
We've promised the children that our annual treasure hunt will eventually lead to real treasure. The problem is most undiscovered treasure is located at the bottom of the ocean in hard-to-access shipwrecks. One of the ways to get to them is by way of remote-controlled submarine. My dream was to build one when I was a child! The OpenRov underwater robot is a candidate solution. We met the founders of this Berkeley startup at last year's Maker Faire, and they are great. This year we stopped by their exhibit to discuss launching one of their submarines to explore the Big Sur coastal waters by way of a flying drone – an experiment that could lead us closer to the eventual dream of finding submerged treasure.

Here's a video of the OpenRov team sending their rover to explore a small shipwreck at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, CA:

Record-setting paper plane
E learned to fold standard paper airplanes around age four, perfected his folding skills with hours of origami, and has by now graduated to his own paper plane designs. One of his engineer-heroes is "Paper airplane guy" John Collins, who designed the Guinness Book of Records' furthest-flying paper airplane (it flew 226 feet 10 inches, or 69.13 meters - over half a football field!) John's exhibit at Maker Faire was so packed we could barely squeeze in, but when his colorful planes took flight they were visible far and wide. His New World Champion Paper Airplane Book has excellent illustrations, and also contains one of the clearest explanations of the physics of flight – a topic we've been learning about recently. Here's a video of the record-breaking flight:

P.S. While I was writing this post E drew a portrait of me:

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Light, mirrors, and the secret of Renaissance artists

Over the past three weeks the children have been learning about human phenomena: how we get information (and sometimes misinformation!) about the world through our senses. The second semester of the Exploratorium homeschool science program, this class is a follow-up to Tinkering from earlier in the spring. The program is run by Ken, teacher extraordinaire and Exploratorium staff member.

Today the focus was on vision, light, and mirrors. We started by exploring how mirrors reflect light, and learning to draw reflections with the help of a handheld mirror:

Then we looked at some very clever mirrors, where we could see everyone else except ourselves:

Ken's artist friend had created a mirror out of thousands of tiny pinheads:

Standing in front of a very large mirror, the children traced the rays of light that came together to create a reflection:

How come some things appear so huge and others so tiny on this big convex mirror?

The study of light, and tricks that can be played with it, dovetailed nicely with our work on drawing from life.

Also, the Renaissance artists were no strangers to the power of mirrors. In his interesting (and controversial) book Secret Knowledge, David Hockney argues the manipulation of light and reflections brought about the disruption in medieval art during the period we now call the Renaissance.

Techniques such as the camera obscura, which were used to produce life-like art, were a carefully guarded secret, thinks Hockney. The BBC made a TV series about it:

In the evening, E and C decided to try their hands - literally! - and practice drawing them from life:

Leonardo Da Vinci: Study of Hands (circa 1474). Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, May 11, 2014

More gardening!

It's springtime and our edible garden is growing! The children have been hard at work planting, weeding, building trellises, and composting with their gardening teacher Shauna. I asked Shauna to write a little bit about the things they have focused on this past two weeks. Here's what she wrote:

Observation Skills: Farmers and Gardeners use their sharp observational skills to watch their plants and land and learn from them.  

To practice this we first played a game called Sharp Eyes.  In this game we try to memorize how someone looks, or how they are standing, and then turn around while they change three subtle things about their appearance (cross their arms, roll up a sleeve, untie a shoe etc.) 

We then turn back around and see if we can spot all three differences.  Next, we transfer this skill to the garden and search for at least three things that have recently changed.  We then share out our changes and try to determine why it changed and predict how things might change for next week.

Another game we played is called Everyone Needs a Rock.  We each found a rock and explored it with four senses (look, feel, smell, and sound) and then imagined we were teeny tiny people living on this rock as our planet.  We found places to put a lookout tower, valleys to collect rainwater, places with dirt to grow food, and finally discussed where we would build a home (thinking about resources and habitats).  We then closed our eyes and tried to identify our own rocks using only the sense of touch.

6 Plant Part Review:  We practiced our 6 Plant Part Song and motions we learned in our first lesson to review Roots, Stem, Leaves, Flowers, Fruits and Seeds.

Seeds/Pea Pods: Last week we focused on seeds.  We looked closer at pea pods today.  We dissected, tasted, compared and contrasted 3 different kinds of peas: Snow, Sugar Snap and English Shelling Peas.  

Worm Bin: We fed our uneaten pea pod shells and briefly discussed how worms decompose food and what worm castings are.

Tendrils: We then directed our attention to the growing peas in the garden.  We talked about tendrils and their purpose and then took some quiet time to draw the garden including the peas.  Finally, there are new (brown) pieces of twine on the pea trellises that we will watch to see if any pea tendrils wrap around by next week.

Friday, May 9, 2014


We read an adaptation of The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy and I was very impressed at how well the children were able to grasp the themes about values and priorities. The three questions are:

1. When is the best time to do each thing?
2. Who are the most important people to work with?
3. What is the most important thing to do at all times?

We talked about why the little boy went back into the forest to rescue the baby panda without the mother panda asking him to rescue her child. These were some big themes that can be revisited for the rest of the semester.

Next I asked the children to explain to me what happened in their storyboards from the film they saw earlier this week at the SF film festival, The Dam Keeper. I practiced interviewing them about the storyline of the film, and then I filmed our interview.

After talking about the storyline of The Dam Keeper, we talked about characters in The Three Questions and characters in The Dam Keeper. The children each chose a favorite character from the film and made a clay figure of that character. One of the kids chose a horse (or possibly a pegasus unicorn) from the film, and one chose a pig. They both practiced writing the date on which they saw the film. We talked about what some of the character traits were for these characters and how the other characters related to them. According to one of the children the pig was nice and almost all of the other animals were mean to him.

I look forward to developing more story recalling skills with the children and learning to use money, addition and subtraction for selling cookies at Zack’s CafĂ© next week!