The Screeching Owl

Things That Make You Go Hmmmmm

Posted by David Fisher on 9th December 2010


President Mythbuster.  That was the title used my Mythbusters this past Wednesday for their show which included a visit, albeit very brief, from President Obama.  The myth to be busted involved Archimedes Ray, or using the energy of the sun to potentially create some kind of light beam that could protect the planet and its inhabitants.  That’s the very short, and possibly a bit off base, summary of the show.

As I’m not an expert on how often the President appears on regularly scheduled television shows, save for late night talk shows, I though it very impressive that he appeared here.  I have heard that President Obama is a fan of Mythbusters, and like all of us who are fans of our shows, had the opportunity to meet the stars.  What I think is even more impressive was the reason that he appeared.  Reports indicated that the President’s appearance was meant to spur students to take a hard look at the sciences as potential areas of study or careers.  A very clever move, I might add.

I, too, have to admit that I really love this show!  The myths that are examined on a weekly basis really make me go hmmmm.  After all, where do they come up with this stuff?  Mentos and diet Coke, remote controlled buses and boats, explosives, crashes, robotics, lasers, travel to exotic places, pranks, and many more ‘experiments’ allow the viewing public to engage in scientific discovery.

As a kid, would you ever imagine that a teacher would assign a ‘reality show episode’ as homework?  Yeah, I didn’t think so…but in years’ past, I have.  Why, you may ask?  We truly are a media driven society.  If you’re reading this, you’ve just helped to prove my point.  We know there are lots of programs that just aren’t the time it takes to watch them, not that I’m being critical of any.  But, having an opportunity to watch a program where the introduction of each section starts with the preparation of an experiment through the scientific method really demonstrates that there is something worthwhile on television.  As each segment progresses, so does the the experiment, culminating with whether the myth is busted, confirmed, or plausible.  Sounds like a conclusion to me!

Science is filled with lots of things that make you go hmmm.  If it takes a television show that the President watches to engage our kids in saying hmmm at one thing or another, so what.  It just goes to prove that there’s more than one way to prove to our kids why science is important.

Let’s just hope they don’t try any of this at home.  We’re what you call experts!

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To Be Ten, Again

Posted by David Fisher on 1st December 2010

I have come to realize that I share some common experiences with my students.  For some of them, I am their first male elementary teacher outside of the fine arts areas.  The way that I run my classroom is sometimes very different than the classrooms of my female counterparts.  And, admittedly, I would prefer to use humor as much as possible during my lessons.

These admissions came out this week as I introduced The Great American Mail Race to my students.  I gave the students a copy of a letter that could be used as a model for them to follow at home.  The letter was addressed to the principal of my elementary school in Larchmont, NY.  Chatsworth Avenue School is one of those early 20th century school monstrosities.  It has multiple levels that spread out across an entire block in the middle of Larchmont.  There is no field, just a massive hard top area for all sports.  Their playground, although having been updated to today’s standards, still boasts a huge array of equipment including swings.  Many a Saturday afternoon was spent there in pick-up basketball, football, or street hockey.  Looking back, it’s a wonder that we all survived….

The real common denominator here is that my fifth grade teacher was also my first male teacher: Mr. Kurek.  Mr. Kurek had some odd ways about him.  He loved the windows open at all hours of the day, rain or shine, hot or cold.  He loved making us do things that provided shock and awe to our lives on a regular basis while instilling in us the importance of reading, math, writing, and science.  He didn’t expect perfection, yet he didn’t expect anything less than our very best.

One of my fondest memories of Mr. Kurek came about during the spring semester around our spring break time.  He told us that we were going to conduct an experiment at home during our breaks that would require very little effort on our parts, and promised that the result would be something unforgettable.  The directions were simple: Take slice of newly purchased Wonder Bread (am I dating myself here).  Place that slice of bread in a sandwich bag.  Put the sandwich bag in the very back of the refrigerator with a sign saying ‘Don’t Touch!’  Leave the bread there for the entire break, don’t open the bag, and bring it with you to school the Monday we return.  Simple, right?

The following Monday we returned to school with sandwich bags filled with various shades of green and black.  The Wonder Bread, once white bread, was white no more.  To finish off this experiment Mr. Kurek told us, the entire class at once, to open the bags, stick our noses in as far as we could get them, and to take a really deep breath.

While we rushed for the open windows to clear our lungs of that foul smelling bread, Mr. Kurek sat at his desk enjoying every minute or our pain, shock, and awe.  We did ask if he was trying to kill us, of course, to which he told us not at all.  The point, we asked. Discovery, he told us!  Mr. Kurek proceeded to spend the rest of that week, and some of the weeks after, teaching us about some of the greatest discoveries that were found due to mistakes, errors, miscalculations, and the like.  We loved, or at least I did, the topic.  And, we were thoroughly pleased to never put our noses in places that noses do not belong.

Mr. Kurek would probably be surprised to have learned that I teach fifth grade.  He would probably enjoy doing some of the projects that we’ve done so far.  He would also like the way that my students banter and argue with me in the name of education.  He’d probably want the bread project brought back to life as well.

No need to worry about the bread project.  That was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

Should you find moldy bread at your house, however, I had nothing to do with it!

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Write of Way, or is it Weigh, or is it Whey

Posted by David Fisher on 17th November 2010

Ah, the power of the written word.  The craft of the writer.  The search for the perfect word.

These were common phrases used by my writing, English, and humanities teachers in high school.  To each teacher, these phrases, or just one of them, had a specific, almost magical, meaning.  Day in and day out the phrases were pounded into my head and the heads of my classmates for one specific purpose.  That purpose, simply stated, was to make us writers.

Then I met Mr. Duke Schirmer.  If his last name sounds familiar to any of you musicians out there, his family is the Schirmer music family.  You probably used one of several music education and instrument education score books as a child.  This Mr. Schirmer wasn’t from the music side of the family; rather, he was from the writing side of the family.

Let me paint a picture of Duke, as we were allowed to call him in tenth grade.  He wore chinos, as they were called back then, a white t-shirt, and work boots every day.  Thick black-framed glasses hung on his nose and he was either chugging coffee when we came into the classroom or airing it our from his in between class smoke break.  It was not uncommon to have all the windows open during class, even in the middle of winter.  Eclectic, eccentric, and sometimes downright weird was Duke, but we loved him anyway.

Duke taught one class at Mamaroneck High School, Creative Writing.  Every, and I mean every, student had to pass through his hallowed doorway to graduate.  Jocks next to nerds, cheerleaders next to actors, tough guys next to wimps, it didn’t matter the group you were a part of because for one semester you were part of his group.

Duke was really the one who taught me to write.  Yes, many other teachers taught the methodology, grammar, word selection, formatting, and all of that other mundane boring stuff.  But Duke really stretched us to our limits.  Paired up with someone who would be your polar opposite, Duke had us write free-form poetry on chart paper while sprawled all over the hallway outside of his classroom.  Express yourself, he told us.  Use any word you want, he told us.  Don’t be afraid to open up, he told us.

Then, after eight of the 16 weeks, write an essay that will assign yourself your grade and justify it using examples of your work as support, he told us.  Imagine that as a sophomore in high school, being given the opportunity to grade yourself and all I had to do was write an essay justifying why I deserved an ‘A’.  As I wasn’t the first to finish, I was able to take advantage of the first few students’ experiences with Duke and their justification essays, as they were known.  I wish I could write what was said, or at least paraphrase it, but the four-letter word count was so high that this blog would lose its family friendly status.  This was the lesson that Duke had planned all along.  We never knew it until that fateful day when grades had to be done.

The message, as I’m sure you’re wondering, was this: A writer’s job is to talk to his/her audience and make sure that the intended message is complete, clear, and free of, how shall I say this politely, manure.  The writer must, as Duke told us, create an environment in which the words can come alive.  The words are the actors, the writer their director.  The writer doesn’t make the writer, the words make the writer.  Use them the wrong way and the writer will never be forgiven.  A pretty strong message for a high school sophomore to manage.

I still think about Duke when I write.  I’d like to think that he’s still in that same smoke-filled, coffee smelling classroom, handing out sheets of chart paper to students and having them lie all over the hallway.  I know he’s not, though.

He lives on through all of the students he touched over the many years he taught at Mamaroneck.  He lives through me.

The perfect word, it may never come.  The perfect message through the perfect use of words, done.

Thanks, Duke!

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BITs and Pieces

Posted by David Fisher on 7th November 2010

Right now my students are BITs (Bloggers In Training), and they are working on their pieces.  Their pieces are blog posts written in the ‘old school’ manner of paper and pencil.  These pieces are then turned into me for review.  After I check them over, they are hung up on the walls and bulletin boards of the classroom.  Each student has a space, just as s/he would in cyberspace if the student had his/her own blog.  Attached to the pieces are post-it notes that represent comments, sometime threaded comments in the form of post-its attached to one another.  In a few short weeks, this training will pay off for the class when they receive their own blogs on  I wish that I could take credit for this training exercise, but all the credit for this goes to Mrs. Kolbert.  She told me about it, and like all good teachers, I stole it!

The really neat thing about this process came the other day when I was working with Patrick, my Down syndrome student.  I asked Patrick to write about his Halloween experience just as the rest of the class was working on theirs.  I had difficulty reading Patrick’s handwriting, so I turned to what I thought would help him out: the computer.

After opening Word for Patrick and having him show me that he could find his name on the keyboard, I asked him to write about his Halloween experience using Word.  Well, wouldn’t you know it!  In the span of about eight minutes, Patrick had a string of work done about Halloween.  The smile on his face said it all!  He became a blogger like the rest of the class.

My takeaway: Once again, never underestimate the power of technology.  I believe that Patrick now has a means to really show the world what he is truly capable of doing.

Watch out world; Patrick will be a force to reckon with!

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221b Baker Street

Posted by David Fisher on 31st October 2010

A mysterious address to title a mysterious post written on Halloween.

The first time I learned about 221b Baker Street was in my junior or senior year of high school.  Living at this location was a gentleman investigator who drank far too much coffee and smoked enough tobacco to create a heavy cloud of smoke thick enough to be cut by a knife.  Deduction was his passion and he often employed his best friend in the its pursuit.  An adventurous man this man was, travelling to many places within the city in which he lived as well as the countryside during his deductive quests.

Murder, mayhem, theft, disguises, hounds, and many other items of possible deceit were his constant companions outside of his residence.  Whether alone or with his trusted companion, this gentleman investigator used the tools of his trade and any other tool to his advantage.  His mind worked like no other.  He is none other than………the creation of this gentleman:

The sepia tone, the chair, the clothes, and hair give away a bit as to who this gentleman investigator may be.  But I won’t.

I will say that I return to 221b Baker Street yearly with my students as their final read for the school year, and in it’s original text.  I tell you this because the book that will take us there is one of my all-time favorites.  It never loses its punch and I always look forward to its spring reading.

As today is a day of mystery, I will leave you with this one to solve: Tell me who’s in the picture, the name of the gentleman investigator, and the adventure we will share in the spring.  If you figure this out now, you’ll stand a fighting chance when we really venture from 221b Bakere Street.

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This Sounds Like New Math, Again

Posted by David Fisher on 26th October 2010

I remember sometime in junior high school (that’s middle school now) a math teacher was instructing us in the fine ways of new math.  We wondered what made it new.  It wasn’t the textbooks, the problems, the tesst, or anytisng else we, the students, could determine to be new.  The teacher, when asked, had difficulty telling us what made this math new math.  By the way, the year was 1977.

Fast forward to today.  Math seems to be new once again.  It’s not that we’re teaching any concepts that have just been developed within the last few years. Numbers still obey mathematical properties as they’ve always done.  Fractions are still fractions, graphs are still graphs, etc.  However, something is stil new.

Now that we’ve almost completed the first trimester with our new math series (the series doesn’t constitute the new math), I think I’ve finally figured out what’s new in math once more.  Here it is: students now have to think.

Yes, I know that sounds bizarre.  Let me explain:  When we learned division, for example, we were taught to find out how many times the divisor went into the dividend.  We often refer to this method of division as the ‘goes into’ method of division.  Today students are asked to figure out how many times a divisor can be subtracted from a dividend, what is the partial quotient that is found from that subtraction, and what is the new dividend.  Then, that process of repeated subtraction continues once again.  Algebra is no different now.  New properties are here.  Have you ever used the subtraction property of equality?  I didn’t think so.  Commutative, associative, distributive absolutely; the other, no way.

That’s what I mean by the students now have to think.  Instead of learning a system to solve math problems, students are now being asked to think about how the numbers relate to each other.  Students are being asked to take problems apart and put them back together in ways that they’ve not done before.  Brains are being retrained to think, not just memorize.  There is new terminology to learn, new steps to follow and use, and new ideas to share.

Where does that leave you, the parents, when it comes to helping your child with his/her math homework?  The same place it left our parents when they tried to help us.  Use what you know about math with your child and let him/her decide if your method makes sense.  There will always be more than one way to solve a math problem, and those ways will most likely involve addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.

I guess some things really do stay the same.

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To The Polls We Go

Posted by David Fisher on 17th October 2010

Election day is just around the corner.  As this blog is about the happenings in and around my classroom, it would be inappropriate of me to discuss politics here save for the educational side of politics.  That’s where the polls come in.

Polls are a way to calculate and record the decisions that are made on a daily basis.  For example, our school cafeteria could provide the school with the number of students who select pizza every Friday over the course of a semester.  With that data, a class could determine many statistics: mean, range, and others.  Should the cafeteria provide a list of all selections over the course of that same time frame, a class could then determine trends, median, mode, and many other statistical items.

While these activities can prove to be quite educational, sometimes it’s just fun to ask some silly questions and see what answers you receive back.  Or, you could ask some questions related to favorites, hobbies, dreams, anything.  The bottom line here is that once you’ve asked that question to a group of people, a poll has started.  The one who asks can either enjoy the answers or use them for other things.

I choose to enjoy the answers!

Here are some questions that I would like you to answer.  Be honest with your answers, but have fun with them too.  Ready!

1. If you had all the money that you needed, what would you do?

2. If you weren’t in the career you’re in now, what would you be doing?

3. Who in the world of music would you like to spend a day with?  Why?

4. If you had the power to write a law, what would that law be?

5. What would you invent to make the world a healthier place to live?

I never said that the questions would be easy.  Select the one question that appeals to you the most.  Leave a comment with the answer to that question.  After I get the answers in, I’ll assemble them into some sort of easy to read post and let you know what the answers were.

So, it’s off to the polls we go!

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Read What You Love, Love What You Read

Posted by David Fisher on 10th October 2010

Over the course of the years that I’ve been teaching, students often ask if I read.  Yes, I tell them.  My answer is usually followed by one of a couple of other questions.  The first one is generally why; the second one has most recently been what.  What, as in, what do you read and not the sarcastic what?  What’s your favorite book, genre, author, story, etc?  Inquiring minds…

Let’s start with the why.  Well, why not?  Reading is a skill, and like any other skill that one has acquired over many years of education and training, it too needs to be continually practiced in order for it to stay sharp and fresh.  In addition to all of the reasons that we, teachers, give our students about the importance of being life-long readers, I choose to read instead of doing other things.  Life isn’t always a planned event, so finding a few extra minutes to read, wherever those minutes come from and wherever the reading location (I’m not going to say anymore about that one…) reading is a stress-relieving event for me.  I do have to admit, though, that I really do like to read on the couch knowing that Zorro, our greyhound, will always climb up next to me, drop his head on my leg, and stay there for as long I am reading.  I also read to show Zoe, my daughter, that even adults find time to enjoy the written word.  Family reading time has now become part of our weekend time together, and will shortly be part of our nightly routine.

Why I read is directly connected to the title of this post.  How so?  I read what I love and I love what I read.  The time that I find to read has to be filled with any text that will keep me engaged for whatever time that is.  I’ll catch up on the news by reading the paper online.  I’ll keep up with the world of business with any one of the several business magazines we get at home.  Mindless reading, that is reading that doesn’t require me to have to piece anything together, always goes to something like People; after all, everyone wants to know about the latest celebrity divorce, reality show cast, and new movie releases.

What I really love to read is political thrillers.  Give me a book by David Baldacci or Brad Thor and I’m a happy camper!  Why (here I go again)?  Simple answer: Because I can.  I can get hooked on the plot, get angry at the characters, get excited or nervous depending what is happening in the plot, and I can forget about the rest of the world for as long I have to turn the pages.  This is what I love to read!

Now it’s your turn.  Do you read what you love?  Do you love what you read?

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I Accept Your Challenge and now Challenge You

Posted by David Fisher on 7th October 2010

Recently a friend of mine, and a member of my Professional Learning Network (PLN), Melanie Holtsman, posted a challenge on Twitter.  The challenge, for those who accepted, is to blog once a week from now until the end of the year.  As Melanie put it in her blog post, and I’m paraphrasing here, the challenge is a way for me to keep my blogging organized and keep fresh topics in mind.  Melanie, if you’re reading this and I’ve mispoken, I apologize.  By the way, thanks for the challenge and for letting me borrow your image.  If you’d like to read some of Melanie’s posts, she can be found at Once Upon A Teacher.

After much thought, about a minute after reading Melanie’s blog post on this and her spreadsheet with the topics, I’ve decided that I need another challenge in my life and this seemed like a good one.  After all, I too am a blogger and will need topics to write about.  And, it was ready made.  There is something to be said about that.

Now the challenge is on, the Fall Blog Challenge 2010, that is.  My goal is simple: write at least a blog post a week following the topics included in this challenge and gear them to what is happening in the classroom.  Through these posts I can continue to provide you with insight into what your children are working on, as well as links to interesting projects or sites that we’ve investigated in class.  That is my challenge, but it is not the only challenge being discussed here.

I challenge you, students and parents, as well.  I challenge you to engage with this blog on a regular basis.  Read the posts, make comments, and reply to comments made by others.

I challenge you, parents, to let go of your child just a little bit more this year.  Let your child go and explore his/her interests.  Let your child experience something new and exciting to him/her even if it is something that you would not consider doing yourself.  Let your child take that first bike ride without training wheels, so to speak, with you there ready to catch him/her if needed.  Don’t be surprised if you’re left standing there while your child rolls down the street.

I challenge you, students, to step out on your own.  I challenge you to show the world what you’re really made of, what you’re really capable of doing, and what you can really contribute to your community.  I challenge you to be superstars in your own way that will truly show your true gifts.

I hope you’re all ready.  I challenge you!

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