Orthography Projects

Hello folks at Home:

Before the March Break, we began individual word study projects that ended up taking more time than expected.  Some students did some work on these over the break and others have finished them in class over the last couple of days.  But we need to move on!  For those that are almost done, they may be bringing it home to finish up and make beautiful.  Help them in any way you like, get them to explain their work and take you through the process of investigation.  Each student chose their word based on their own question or curiosity.

The projects can be simple and neat:







Or a little fancier:









…but should have the same basic elements.  Here are the guidelines:

Checklist for Word Project:

Remember, our goal is now to teach everything we can to people who don’t know about your word or who know little of orthography.  You are the expert!

Must have:

Matrix (this may be of your starting word or of the base in that word)

List of word sums

Definition (what does the word mean?)

Root and meaning

Short paragraph about the story of the word or its relatives

Large, beautiful title

May have:

An oval enclosing other relatives with the same root

A list of other relatives that share the same root

A second matrix

A short paragraph describing other interesting things you discovered about the word

Any questions you still have about this word or family

Images, quotes, something to give your project some flash

Any questions you still have about this word or family


Geometric Creativity

Over the last while we’ve been working with geometric tools like compasses and rulers to construct triangles and other shapes.  Mastery of these simple tools can in fact prove quite challenging.  I began to extend this work to the creation of more complex forms, which many students found immediately enjoyable, and several–to be honest–did not. “Why are we doing this?” I was asked at least once.  I had to consider my response, which was, “Because it is hard.”  What I meant was:  perseverance takes practice.  It is my hope that working towards success with these skills will be just another small victory that a student can draw upon when tackling larger, more important challenges, whatever they might be.  I hope they may recall that, oh, yes, that was difficult and took a lot of tries to get decent at, and sometimes I wanted to give up, but then suddenly…it seemed easy (or, easier anyway).  I guess resilience is the goal.

But the other, related thing is this:  there is fundamental value in using our hands for purposeful work.  (I consider Art purposeful, and I believe you will see below that the students do also).  We just don’t do enough!  Whether it is knitting, or carving with wood, or constructing forts (or building dams in the mud as some students have been busily doing at recess this week) there is a deep need met by creating.  (I hope to do some kind of woodworking project in the Spring).

I am glad we’ve taken the time to try these forms over and over.  So often at school we do an art activity and then we have to move on.  By really getting the hang of a few forms, the students were ready to be creative with them.

Anyway, so this week I added watercolour painting, which brings its own set of skills and challenges.  I have never properly done watercolour painting with a class before so teaching it was a good challenge for me.  I was frankly astonished at the universal success of the student work and at how quickly they achieved considerable control over a tricky medium.  In the following video (thanks to all the filming-helpers) you’ll see our works in progress–I hope it conveys the focus and energy behind their work, as well as the tremendous skill and creativity.

Multicultural Math Preview

Here’s a quick preview of a new math game we tested today (and found a couple of little bugs I’ll fix tonight).  O.K., the game isn’t multicultural, but the people playing it are! If you’d like to receive your own copy of this game, play some others around the school, try  some mathematical challenges and eat good food with good people, see you Thursday!




Dinosaur Discoveries!

As I now take a break from writing report cards, here is a chance to take a break from reading them!

You hopefully saw a post from a few weeks back about our exploration of Greek base elements in which we found English words such as astronautchoreography, xylophone and rhinoceros–remember?  This grew into an imaginative writing project that the students really loved.  The assignment:  take that same list of Greek bases and “discover” (ie. “invent”) a dinosaur.  As you will see below, imaginations ran wild.  Most students combined two or three bases into manageable creature-names such as <pneumopyrosaur>–“fire breathing lizard”–<hexacephalosaurus>–“six-headed lizard”–or “lithodermosaur“,  the “rock-skinned lizard”.    Others were, well, somewhat more ambitious.  Good luck pronouncing “titanohexapodorhodopterodynamosoph” or other titanic tongue-twisters!  Like a massive dessert buffet, there were just too many juicy Greek bases to only choose two or three!

Our writers richly demonstrated their understanding of the Greek bases, as well as a deep understanding of the lives of these ancient lizards.  They also revealed their sense of humour and generally pretty weird imaginations.  Many, many amazing physical and behavioural characteristics were described, including upside-down flying, deep kindness and healing powers, gold bodies, hot and cold running water, and of course a wide array of hideous weaponry for repelling or wiping out other dinosaurs.  Here is a sample below, but these are currently on exhibit in our hallway so do come on by to read them up close!  Hey, make your own!!

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The Secret of Love

Alright, it’s Valentine’s Day–a day to think about love and all its mystery.  A perfect day to consider the burning question, “Why don’t we just spell it <luv>?”  Wouldn’t that be simpler?  And what’s with the silent <e>?  What is its purpose?   Go ahead and think about it.  What about <luv> doesn’t seem right to you?  Feel free to ask your Grade Five Valentine if they can explain.

Why, why, why, why?  Nothing makes me happier than a bunch of students (scientists) who ask “Why?”  I was delighted that even the couple of students who knew the rules that dictate the spelling of <love> were furiously asking “Why?!”–“Why can’t we have a word end in <v>?”  “Why can’t we have a <u> next to <v>?”  So great to see them pushing for explanation instead of being content with memorization.  See for yourself what we hit upon:





On being a bonehead and other revelations

In case your child didn’t show you this or explain it, today we continued our look at poetry and Greek by examing the fabulous names associated with dinosaurs.  Students should be able to tell you about the structure and meaning of this dinosaur’s name,  as well as explain the meaning of this poem.

Below that is a list of some base elements from Greek that are used to form a wide variety of English words.  We began the challenge of seeing if we could find some.  Several students were quick to spot <hipp + o + potam + us>–“river horse”; Khaled and Carlos built <tele + scope> (later this week we will get to try out a <steth + o + scope>); Olivia and Presley and others had long lists developing–they figured out that <din + o + saur> means “terrible lizard”; and we discussed the relationship between pterodactyls and helicopters–can you see what they share?  (Thankfully it wasn’t the skies).   My favourite was Addison’s discovery that <astronaut> means “star sailor”–isn’t that beautiful?

I think our neighbours’ president might be a xenophobe!  See if you can find a few more and send them in.  We’ll take them up next day.  A fun little project will follow later this week.


















Click on the sheet to enlarge:Copyright Real Spelling

Design and discovery in mathematics

Quick break from report card writing to post about our math this week.

Remember to click on these to see them better. As I await delivery of my new glasses, I am noticing this more. 🙂

We continue to reinforce the fact that there is often more than one way to a solution, while also discussing the fact that some solutions are more efficient than others.  Efficiency is a goal, but getting an accurate solution is the bigger goal (and understanding the biggest goal of all).  For instance, when we received those order forms for the Kingston Frontenacs, we talked about how much money the school would get if 100 tickets were sold.  I hope a glance at the student thinking I’ve recorded here gives you a glimpse of the different routes that are possible to this solution.  Is there anything inherently superior to seeing that 7 x 5 will get you there as fast as 3.5 x 100?

We’ve been mucking about with fractions for the past few weeks.  This is a perennial challenge for many students (and teachers)–I’m not sure why, but it is.  I had been working on various tasks with groups at different stages of understanding, but felt like we needed a break from this focussed and fairly abstract stuff.  Also, I felt like we needed to return to a task where different math concepts converge.  So this week I gave everybody the same task: to design a schoolyard.  I am delighted with all the learning that flowed from this.

I knew that this was going to present different challenges for different kids, but also that the tasks–and the arithmetic involved–would be solved in various ways.  We hadn’t even talked about the concept of area (though I knew they should have encountered it in Grade 4).  I explained the task and then spent the next two days just letting them work away at it, meeting with different pairs to discuss the concepts they needed to work on.

On the third day, we discussed the first task: calculating the total area of the schoolyard without counting every square.  This is really a discussion about multiplication.  By exploring different understandings and strategies, we touched on the concept of arrays–the repeating rows and columns.  For some students, the important step was identifying that there was a repeated addition of 20 (which could be simplified as 2).  For other students, who grasped the multiplication, the important step was seeing a formula emerge or be confirmed:  that we can multiply length times width to get area.  They then got to test and apply this in subsequent steps.

Other concepts that came up included whether half has to be rectangle, or whether you can in fact have “half” the schoolyard covered in grass without having all in one continuous space.  And one I didn’t anticipate (and at first said “No” to until I thought about the challenge students were giving themselves):  Can our “grass” area also have “woods” on it?  In other words can we overlap our “half” and our “quarter” and still fulfill the task?  Hmmm.  (And, Presley, what will happen to our grass if we fill it with trees?)  Two different groups then had to figure out why one design ended up with a lot more “extra” space than the other.

Our fourth day began with a lesson about the relationship between fractions.   Fascinating things came up.  Students could see that if we divide a shape in half and then half again, we have quarters.  They could see that 1/4 is four equal pieces.  But when I only divided one of the halves, leaving only three pieces, there was a delicious uncertainty and confusion.   Were these pieces they had just called quarters ” still” quarters”?

The absolutely vital concept we had stumbled upon is that the denominator–4–means not just that we have four pieces.  It fundamentally means that we would need four pieces of this size to make the whole.  I pulled a quarter (25 cents) out of my pocket.They knew this didn’t mean I had cut a dollar into four pieces, but rather that four of these pieces had the value of a dollar.  And what happens when we keep dividing our “halves” in half?

This was such a rich conversation. But it reminds me of why fractions can be so challenging:  there is a lot of language wrapped in fractions and this can seem confusing. “One sixteenth is half of one eighth.  You need half as many eighths as sixteenths to make one whole.”  Phew!  These concepts need to be worked and explored again and again.  Seems like it’s probably time for some cooking!

I am hopeless at filming and capturing students discussion and work, and we didn’t have time this week to ask them to record themselves.  But hopefully these pictures give a glimpse of the creative thinking that occurred:

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Note:  What did I leave out of our “Schoolyard Design” assignment?  Well, the school.  Kyle was quick to point this out; others seemed remarkably untroubled by this omission.


Etymology: tracing the journeys of words

One way to “study spelling” is to look at lists of words.  For instance, in any given week, one might get a list of ten or fifteen words that start with <kn> that one was supposed to memorize and then write out in a Friday dictation.  As to whether this would improve all students’ ability to spell these correctly later, well…it might for some, but I know it wouldn’t for others.

We do inquiry.  We ask why words are spelled the way they are, and along the way we analyze and explore these words.  A question had been on our “Wonder Wall” for a while about the <kn> that appears initially in a bunch of words that begin with a /n/ sound.  What’s it doing there?  Then recently someone else asked about the <wr> at the beginning of other words, so I thought we might take some time to investigate these and a couple of other patterns.  In doing so, I trust that we (really) “studied” the words, but also began to grasp some important concepts.

We’d been looking at homophones, a very rich and useful feature of English–uniquely common to English as a result of the unique history of our language.  English is sometimes described as a “stew”–it is made up of a variety of other languages.   Our ability to represent the same phoneme (sounds) with more than one grapheme (letter or group of letters) allows us to represent words like <hear> and <here> differently because they have different meanings.  Far from being troubled by this, students find this utterly logical.  What can be more difficult is knowing which of the pair (or trio) to use in which context.  So last week we discussed how spellings are often grouped by meaning associations.  So, <here> is related to <there> and <where> just as <hear> is related to <ear>.  No kidding.  These are etymological connections–word relatives.

Our spellings often contain etymological markers, traces of their origin and their journey.  These are not there by accident; they help to distinguish words like <know> and <no> but also echo where the words came from.  By looking at the etymology of words with <kn>, <wr>, <igh> and <wh> we were able to discover why these graphemes exist and to see historical connections between groups of words.  (There are no “silent” letters here; these are graphemes just as <sh> and <ow> are).   We could see how these old words, predating modern English, would have been pronounced and led to modern spellings.

Why did the pronunciation change?  Well, it just did.  Doug Harper, the creator of the Online Etymology Dictionary, talks about the “sharp edges” of English words kind of getting rubbed smooth over time, and I like this metaphor.  When I think of saying <hwistilian> or <cnawan> as opposed to <whistle> or <know>, it just seems like our mouths have to work less hard.   I expect it would have been the later introduction of languages like French and Latin that helped to soften that rather satisfying Norse/German throatiness.  But in those root words we hear the distant echoes of Vikings arriving in England in their longboats.  And staying.

The point is that our system of spelling evolved to contain these markers of the word’s origin.  (That <w> in <two> is another example–look it up, then check out related words where the <w> is still pronounced!)  Here is some of the evidence students gathered in this investigation, using various resources including their own knowledge and intuition.  I was very impressed, again, with their level of engagement.

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After this, I thought it a good idea to actually hear some Old English (up to roughly a thousand years ago) as well as Middle English (up to about 600 years ago, following the introduction of Norman French).  Check out a minute or so of each of these–we felt we could hear and see English developing!  (And hey–both in poetic form).

Finally, you’re going to love this, a video produced by my friend and mentor Gina Cooke that the students thought was great learning fun.  Prepare to think differently about onions:

And if I haven’t said it recently:  Parents!  We know you probably never learned this stuff in school–me neither!  (At least not as a student).   For those of you new to English, don’t worry–English is complicated but understandable!  Send us your questions, ask them of your own children, let them guide you through an investigation, share your results.  Learning together is fun!




On Poetry and Digestion

As systems go, the digestive system really is one of my favourites, as it has to do with food and strange sounds.  This doesn’t necessarily make it everyone’s favourite to study, pertaining as it does to, well, digestion.  Anyway, it’s in the curriculum.  So, I thought we should review our learning by making a Class-Size Working Model of The Digestion System (which is a Caldwell Grade Five tradition).   Once it was working smoothly, we invited students from other classes and digested them.  Nobody said digestion was pretty, or quiet.

Some of the students think I am making a special effort to bring disgusting topics to class but I’m really not–it just seems to happen naturally.  Call it a gift.  For instance, we are studying poetry–what is more likely to be beautiful than poetry?  So, because yesterday was Robert Burns Day, in which the national poet of Scotland is celebrated by Scots and their descendants everywhere, I thought I would share the poem that will be recited at these celebrations, accompanied by the uniquely Scottish national dish it celebrates: haggis My reason was to demonstrate that in many places poetry and poets are considered vital parts of the culture.  But once I told students what a haggis is (ask them if you dinna know), they seemed to miss my point.  Anyway, here it is: 

Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand this–it’s mostly in Scottish.


How big are your brain cells?

This might seem like a rather personal question.   But, just in case you were thinking it’s all snails and wheelbarrows in our class (see the previous post) fear not:  also rat brains!

This post appears by special request (Abdul among others) on the heels of our latest visit from Meaghan and Olivia at Queen’s BrainReach.   Today the theme was brain cells, featuring four kinds:  neurons, microglia, astrocytes and–I’m really only telling you this because of this word–oligodendrocytes!   Bonus points to anyone who can point to their longest “axon”!!  And yes, they brought in the aforementioned rodent brains in little vials.  (Feel free to have very mixed feelings about this; I do).  As usual, great, probing questions from many students today!

Below is a link to a cool interactive model of just how small cells are relative to other very small things.  (Brain cells do not appear, but apparently are about the same size as red blood cells).:


And, just because, here’s a review of the astonishing miracle of neurons: