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:

What is poetry?

Happy National Literacy Week!

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been digging into poetryI proudly admit to loving poetry, reading poetry in my spare time–I even have neighbours who are poets (but are otherwise very responsible).   But I get that not all poetry grabs all people.

We launched in with “The Jabberwocky”, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.  I chose this because, well, I like it, but also because it challenges the students to think:  What is this about??  And:  Is he allowed to just make up words?!  And:  Is all poetry made better by reciting it with a dramatic English accent?  (I think a lot of it is; that’s why Shakespeare talked like that).

The question “What is going on here?” is really about poetry’s demand that we think, that we dig deeper, that we have to infer (we’ve been inferring).  There is a great deal not told in a poem, left to our imaginations.  Robert Frost shares two wintery moments with us in these poems from last week, and in each it is the questions we are left with that make the poems so savoury.

Click on these poems to see them better.


This second poem (“It’s so short!” they exclaimed) is like a little puzzle.  We spent quite a lot of time on <rued>: (rue + ed)!   Awesomely, later that same day, Ryan came to me with his copy of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and said, “Hey Mr. Caldwell, you weren’t kidding about how new words turn up.”  And there was the phrase, “Which, he found ruefully, was easier said than done.”   I love that!  (I’ll let you read this awesome book to find out what the character was trying to do.  He spends a lot of time “ruing” in that book).

Today, I fired out a question:  “What is poetry?”   This is a wide-open question, but their ideas reflected their experience.  Then I gave them the three poems below to consider and discuss:  Are these poems?  What are they about?  How do they fit  with our understanding of poetry and writing?  Tomorrow we’ll spend some time rolling their ideas about.   I encourage you to read these with your kids.  See what you think:  poetry or not?   As always, your comments are welcome (and don’t worry about hurting my feelings–I didn’t write them!).

Before you read on:  This week, I’ll be encouraging students to dig through the many volumes of poetry I’ve brought in and (hopefully) find one or two they like to share.  Do you (yes, you) have a favourite poem you’d like to share, or an experience with poetry (positive or negative) that you’d like to share?  This is the place–or send it in! 


Click to read more clearly.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

We began the day with a great conversation about Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  As usual, there were such brilliant observations and questions, with students bringing in what they knew about Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.  But I wanted to make sure we remember that Canada was not (and is not) immune to the kinds of racist division that are so associated with the U.S. or South Africa.  So we also discussed and watched a short video about Viola Desmond, soon to be recognized on Canada’s 10 dollar note.  Yuma said, “We talk a lot about the treatment of blacks [we had been discussing the history of slavery], but how were other people, Asian people, treated?”  Such a vital question!!  So important to recognize that racial discrimination has affected Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people, Chinese, Japanese and others at various times in our history.

By request, here is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

And here is some more on Viola Desmond, who I was not at all familiar with until recently but whose story–so similar to Rosa Parks, though taking place nine years earlier–deserves more attention:

Who is Viola Desmond? The first Canadian woman to grace front of banknote



Cell! Cell! Cell!

We are beginning to explore Human Organ Systems, probably the unit of study with the greatest gross-out awesomeness potential.  Yesterday and today we discussed cells.  Not an easy topic, and not central to our study (they’ll com back to cells in Grade 8), but it will keep coming up so it seemed a good idea to try and look at some.

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A wee apology and an update

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about orthography and highlighted videos the students had made about twin bases.  I also commented on some of the things that, after watching the videos, I felt were going to need some more emphasis.

In the blur of that week, however, I missed a video!  Never saw it, never posted it, and while I recall wondering about where the work of these students went, just never got back to it.  And the students, Abbu, Ethan and Ryan are the Three Students Most Likely to Never Speak Up About Being Neglected.   Then–yesterday–I found it!  And it’s a really good little summary of what we know about twin bases with exactly the emphasis on meaning that I was looking for!

So, with apologies to Ryan and Ethan and Abbu (and the hope they will be more on my case in the future) I present:

I really appreciate a couple of things about this investigation, including what it show about these scientists’ ability to question their own findings and seek supporting evidence.  But what I most love are the questions I am left with, such as do twin bases only come from Latin roots?  I love it when our learning leads us to new learning.