Bruce Project Field Trips

We are smack in the middle of our work on The Bruce Project and we’ve taken a few field trips recently to help with that research. (For those of you not in the know, Bruce is a small-mouthed bass who lives at SK and we are designed a new, larger tank for him to live in, with a more realistic habitat.)

Each student group is currently working on understanding the natural ecosystems of Michigan and the habitat of a small-mouth bass (like Bruce!) so they can better design a tank for Bruce to live in. They also needed to learn about aquarium set up so they could make sure their plans included a reasonable food source, good filtration, bacteria, and water chemistry, and a home-like habitat for Bruce.

The first field trip we took was to the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center in Detroit, where we explored a variety of Michigan nature and wildlife, including forests, lakes and rivers.

We also got to try out various ways to explore those habitats, like hiking, snowmobiling, fishing, kayaking, hunting, and more!

While there, we practiced identifying native Michigan fish with a dichotomous key and getting to know the fish anatomy.

After exploring all that simulated habitat, it was time to figure out how to simulate the habitats for ourselves. We visited a fish store and spent some time with the aquariums there to learn more about this. Students took notes on ideas they wanted to use in their Bruce proposals, and also took photos to help them remember. Here are just a few of the pictures they took:

There’s more Bruce project to be done, so stay tuned!

International lessons, Life-long learning

The 5-6 class had a wonderful overnight to the Heifer International Village at Howell Nature Center. We started the trip learning about the distribution of the population and resources across the globe–and how the two don’t match up, leading to the issue of poverty around the globe that Heifer International tries to address.

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Kids then toured the Village, seeing examples of homes from people living in poverty around the world, including a southern African round house, a wood house on stilts representative of rural Thailand, scrap homes that might be in any urban slum in theworld, a wooden cabin from rural Appalachia, and others.

After touring the homes, students were divided into family groups for the afternoon and night. Eight of our students were given the urban slums, 3 were to live in Appalchia, and 6 in Thailand. Each group was also given certain challenges–a water balloon baby that had to survive the night and for whom we had to reserve milk (we only held one funeral), as well as various illnesses and other issues that restricted the student’s movement. In order to cure them, the students had to give up some of their resources, which mean less food for dinner that night!

The slums group started with only a small container of rice. Thailand started out with quinoa, cooking oil, and spices, and Appalachia started with eggs, milk, and fresh potatoes and veggies. The kids had to trade with each other and come up with a reasonable dinner–that’s all we were eating that night! I was with the Thailand group, and I will say I’m extremely impressed with what they cooked over our open fire. They made fry bread out of cornmeal, fried potatoes, and stir-fried quinoa with onions, carrots, sugar(!) and a little cumin. They all LOVED it. Several kids said they had never liked quinoa before that night so ask them to cook it next time you try to serve it at home! Of course, being outside always helps with being hungry. The group in the slums was able to do work for the other groups (like collecting firewood) and also received lots of free gifts and made what I’m told was a good fried rice with eggs. And the Appalachian group made an incredible stove-top cornbread and potato-vegetable soup.

One thing that was awesome to hear was how different the SK groups were from other groups who come. Usually kids are competitive and stingy with their trades, as understandably, they are trying to make sure they have enough for themselves to eat. Apparently there is also often stealing from other groups. (But as one of our students said “but you told us there was no stealing!”)

The facilitator saw something with SK kids that she’d never seen before–they were giving away their resources and food to the other groups that needed it, and letting other resources go for easier trades, or allowing groups to borrow items. They were taking care of each other. I’m not surprised, but I am proud. It’s this awesome spirit that makes Summers-Knoll such as wonderful place to be and teach. Our students are amazing, and this exercise just proved even more how much so.

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There were many (many!) kids nervous about a cold night outside away from home, and they all looked after each other and did great. It was so much fun to see how happy they were when they woke up–they were definitely proud of themselves!


Weekly Update September 22


The 5/6s had a big moment this week: the unveiling of our first class project: The Bruce Project. Bruce is a bass who lives at SK and is getting bigger. In teams of 3 or 4, our 5-6ers will devise a plan for a new habitat for Bruce, one that meets his needs, looks attractive in the school, and includes educational information as part of the display about fish and the outdoor industry in Michigan. Students learned who they were working with by the color of balloons we handed out on Monday. In their groups, they’ve started online research using a note-taking rubric they had set up in a spreadsheet.

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Starting a new project is a time to celebrate! Students learned who they were working with for THE BRUCE PROJECT by the color of balloon they received on Monday.
In writing workshop, we’ve started to study parts of speech and how choosing the right nouns and verbs can make our writing extra powerful. Searching for the right word is an important job for a writer (instead of saying the boy runs away, does he sprint or jog)? But in addition to finding a specific word instead of a generic one, there’s also verb tense to consider. The boy sprints? The boy sprinted? Or the boy is sprinting? All sound different when put into the context of a story and all invoke different modes and emotions. Combined with our conversations about 1st and 3rd person, we now have a lot of decisions we can make as an author to tell our stories exactly the way we want to.

In reading, the whole class is hanging onto the edge of their seats (metaphorically–we actually read in a circle on the rug), as we get closer to the plot’s climax in HOOT. Every day, there is a collective groan when we have to book the book down.

In science, we worked on writing up our pill bug experiment and will continue to learn more about the little creatures soon. The Bruce Project is also very much tied to our study of science.
And in history, we talked about the middle ages very briefly, setting the stage for future studies of a changing modern world. Next week will be a busy one with our class overnight to Howell!
Wendy’s math class focused on two lessons this week: factors and multiples and also the multiplication table. As the students do more and more problems multiplying decimals, it helps to have our multiplication facts accessible. We’ve filled out the multiplication table several times as a class, talking about strategies to remember or figure out the answers. Then we’ve left it visible to use as a tool as they solve more in-depth problems. Everyone continues also to work in their Singapore books.

Weekly Update

The 5-6 group had a great week. It was fun to see a lot of the parents at curriculum night and if you couldn’t make it, no worries–you can get all the information in our blog posts.
In writing workshop, we tackled some fun prompts involving alligators in port-a-potties and a school full of lizards. We’ve continuously reminded the kids that their writing in their writing journal is informal, pre-first-draft, idea-generating stuff. We want them to feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes. As a result, some of your children chose not to let you read their journals on curriculum night, or maybe selected a few pages not to have you read. Please don’t take that personally! I’m excited that they are taking ownership over their writing and considering their audiences. There will be plenty of time this year to read what they’ve written.
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The students were so excited and proud to share their writing journals!
I really can’t believe how successful we’ve been with writing workshop in this group! On Thursday of this week, we had a “free night” with no specific prompt. I told them that I had originally not been planning to do this until much later in the fall, but they were all so into their journals, I decided to try it earlier. They loved it. A few asked for a prompt, so I gave them this: “You are sitting in a tree. An owl lands next to you on a branch and says ‘I need your help.'” I was expecting some protests–that’s a pretty unstructured prompt–but all of them who had asked for a prompt said “okay” and went straight to writing a story about this owl. I couldn’t be more excited for this group and to see where their writing will go next!
We also played with point of view in our writing, trying the same story in the 1st and 3rd person. We sampled several books with different POVs and talked about why the author might make that decision. For example, we read the first few pages of HOLD TIGHT, DON’T LET GO about a character experiencing the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that was written in the first person and then the first few pages of STELLA BY STARLIGHT about a character seeing the KKK burn a cross in her town that was written in the 3rd person. Both are historical fiction with young female main characters and both start with a scary scene, so it was interesting to see how the POV affected the tone of the stories. We are also continuing to read HOOT and are getting closer to understanding some of the plot’s mysteries. We’ve settled into a really nice afternoon routine of quiet writing, outside break, and grabbing snacks to eat during reading time. It’s quite awesome.
In science, we continued our pill bug experiment and presented the scientific method to the rest of the school. The students worked hard on their presentations, revising their posters multiple times and not only explaining their step of the scientific method, but explaining how it relates to pill bugs. We were the first morning meeting presentation of the year and the kids set a good example!
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Drafts of our scientific method posters
In our 4A/4B math group, we did some whole-group lessons on factors and multiplies, place value, and manipulating fractions and decimals, worked independently in our workbooks, and tried our hands at one-minute Singapore sprints.

Writing Workshop

Hi all! I’m going to spend some Tuesdays focusing on a different subject and we will start with writing.

Writing workshop is an important part of the 5/6 classroom. The major of writing workshop is spent (wait for it) … writing. Students each have a writing journal they use for this time. Students spent a little bit of time during our first week decorating the covers. On the inside of the front cover of their writing journals is a rubric. The rubric is meant to be a helpful reminder of what they should be doing. For example, each day you write the date and the prompt or a title and then start writing. That sounds trivial, but taking pride in organizing our work is an important step. Sometimes the smallest of details determine our success. Also, it’s just helpful for the teachers and trust me, we need all the help we can get.

Every so often throughout the year, Lisa and Wendy will paste a copy of those rubrics into the writing journals to allow students and teachers to reflect on their progress so far. We’ve done this once already but skipped the student assessment at this point because they are still getting used to it. Using the same rubric for assessment that we used for the assignment means there are no surprises–it’s already in the front cover–students know what the expectations are! These assessments are meant to help students take their writing further and further throughout the year and, if necessary, identify areas they will want to work further on. If students ever have questions about notes on their assessments, please encourage them to come talk to us!

One of the most important expectations of writing working is that students are always writing or drawing. That’s right, drawing is also an important way to get our ideas out on paper and we don’t want to discount it. Of course, if it becomes an art journal only, we will try to redirect back towards writing, but drawing is absolutely a legitimate way to start the writing process, to brainstorm and express ideas. During writing time, we play quiet music–this is our signal that all talking stops and pencils are moving. So far, the kids have adapted really well to this and a lot of great writing has taken place!

There’s time for thinking, of course, but over time, we want to teach students to think on the page–they can make as many mistakes as they like–there’s no such thing as bad writing in a first draft!

But wait–a pencil? Don’t we have computers? Yes, yes we do. I’m a big fan of computers and we will use them a lot, but for the first part of the year, our writing notebooks will be actual paper and pen. Having a concrete item that students can see filling up with work is a tremendous incentive as well as a well-deserved source of pride. If you just open a doc on the computer, there’s no tangible reward when you are done. Also, if you leave it blank, there’s no open page staring back at you, reminding you that you really should have put something on it. Of course, we know that a lot of our students will struggle with the pencil and will need to use the laptop. This is not a problem. We will work with each student individually to make sure they have what they need.

Writing workshop period starts out with a mini-lesson. Sometimes this might be on a piece of writing mechanics, like punctuation or grammar. Sometimes this might be more about the craft of writing, like choosing a point of view or good hook for a story. Sometimes this might be about the writing workshop itself–how to create multiple drafts, turn in things that are ready, and request editing conferences with teachers and peers and final draft conferences with teachers. We are starting the year with lessons on point of view and genre.

Some of our prompts so far have been:

– describe your favorite dessert

– tell someone how to make a peanut butter sandwich

– tell a story about the first day at school for one of our class dogs or stuffed animals

Throughout the year, we will be mining our journals for pieces to turn into published drafts. Stay tuned for an invite to a publishing party!

First week round-up

It has been absolute awesomeness to work with this group of 5th and 6th graders. We have 19 kids, 2 dogs, and 2 teachers and we are already off to a great start for the year. Here’s a little summary of what we’ve done so far, although there’s no way for me to capture the enthusiasm, energy, and synergy of this group of kids, so you’ll have to read all this while imagining that part.

In language arts, we started a class read-aloud of Hoot. The students have easily adapted to an easy style of sitting in a circle, often while eating a snack, and actively listening to the story. We stop often to chat. For example, we might discuss the various characters, what we know about them, and how the author is introducing them to us.

After reading chapter 3 on Thursday, we divided into small groups to illustrate different parts of the book. The results of that were the following:

(1) the pick-up truck with the port-a-potties, (2) another rendering of the same but with the alligator chasing the policeman out, (3) 4 different versions of the mysterious running boy jumping over the dog, (4) a student modeling for his group doing drawing #5, (5) which is the bully pushing the main character’s face against the bus window, and (6) the bully choking the main character over the back seat of the bus.

We are also three days into writing workshop, where our mini-lessons have mostly focused on what writing workshop actually is (spoiler alert: it’s a time to write!) Then we turn on the music and have quiet writing time, which the students have also eagerly embraced. Is it because they get to go to recess afterwards if everyone is focused? Perhaps. Or maybe we just have a class of future authors and communicators. Either way, writing time is a magical time. Our final workshop of the week ended in sharing time where a few students shared a page of their work out loud.


We’ve also been busy scientists. After learning about what science is and what it means to be a scientist, they collected pill bus for further study. We’ve also started to learn about classification so that they have a sense of how all the animals they are about to observe and study are related.

Here are a few photos of the pill bug collection:

Here are a few about learning about science and practicing classification:

And if that doesn’t seem like enough, we also (collectively) lost two teeth! Hopefully our second week will be just as awesome. I’m restocking the lost-tooth necklaces just in case.

Welcome to the 5/6 classroom!

Wendy and Lisa are really excited to start the year. Before we do, indulge us in an exercise we will soon do with our students: look outside your window. If you’re already outside, look up. Find a tree.

Got it? Good.

Now, choose a profession. Are you a poet? A painter? A paleontologist? Pick one.

How would someone from your profession look at that tree? What kinds of questions would they ask? A painter might want to know the pigments he needs to make a certain shade of green. A scientist might want to know how long the tree has been there, or what kind of life the tree supports. A gardener might want to know how much water it needs. A poet might ask herself which words best described that craggy bark or the silky leaves. They are all looking at the same tree but they are looking at it for different reasons and throught different lenses. They are all likely to ask themselves very different questions and arrive at very different conclusions.

So why is that important? Because that’s one of the themes we will keep coming back to this year…how the different subjects you learn in school are really just different ways to study and learn about the world. Each discipline has its own toolbox and these are toolboxes we hope to help you fill up.

Why learn history? Because an historical viewpoint is a really interesting way to see the world and it teaches you things mathematics cannot. Why study math? Because a mathematical viewpoint is a really interesting way to see the world and it teaches you things poetry cannot. An historian might tell us what makes democracy strong or fragile. A poet might communicate that in a way that touches people’s hearts. A mathematician might give us a statistical story about voters.

There’s another way we are going to look at different viewpoints, though, and that’s by studying point of view. Why do the writers of the books we read choose a certain point of view from which to tell the story? What is gained or lost by choosing that lens?

How does history change when it’s told through a different point of view? It can be easy to read a textbook or newspaper account of an event and believe that’s the only truth. We often miss that there was a completely different way to look at something. Studying early American history through the eyes of Thomas Jefferson is much different than studying it through the eyes of his slaves. We will strive to find these different viewpoints in all of our studies, and even more importantly, to understand that we are never likely to find and examine all of them. Knowing what we don’t know, or even just that we don’t know, is a major step in become mature learners.

When your kids come home from class and tell you about something they learned, feel free to ask them whose point of view they are talking about at the time and if there’s another one they considered or think they should consider. We will begin our explorations in science looking at the diversity of life, he ways scientists classify life, and taking a close-up look at a local bass. (A very local bass–he lives at the school.) When we study him, are we looking from the perspective of a biologist interested in preserving native species? An economist interested in promoting Michigan fishing? A politician interested in improving water quality? What about the fish? Does he get a perspective?

We are going to have fun this year. Please never hesitate to ask any questions. Wendy and Lisa are available on email (wlawrence at summers-knoll dot org) or (ljohnson at summers-Knoll dot org) or set a time to catch up at the school.

Feel free to drop us a line on this blog’s contact page.