Making Sense of Our World

Social Studies: Mapping Our Place in the World

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“Our love affair with maps is as old as civilization itself. Each map tells its own story and hides its own secret. Maps delight, they unsettle, they reveal deep truths, not just about where we come from, but about who we are.”  Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Cartography, an intriguing science of drawing maps that began as early as the 15th century with Ptolemy and accelerated during the age of exploration as explorers bumped and felt their way around the world recording their discoveries in conjunction with their beliefs. Perusals of maps from long ago are not only works of art but a curation of knowledge, political agendas, and philosophical beliefs. Maps of old revealed more than location; they disclosed a story. Of course with advances in technology, conjectures became more exact, and the stories, well, they became more subtle.

In today’s digital age, maps are indeed more accurate, yet not without bias. Bias is simply more hidden than in previous periods of time, which is why it is important to view such cartographic depictions with a critical eye. To avoid falling into the trap of ‘believing what you see’, viewers need to be encouraged to ask questions such as…

  • What type of map is this?
  • What is its purpose?
  • What distortions are evident?
  • Why has the cartographer chosen to distort the map in this way?
  • What information does the map reveal about the world?
  • From whose point-of-view is the map shown, and what do they have to gain from it?

Although these questions have not been made apparent to my students, they are subsumed in our overarching Essential Question, “What is my place in the world?” Students have been investigating the various ways in which geographers make sense of this question by utilizing the imaginary grid system of latitude and longitude to pinpoint and identify the location of places, exploring the five themes of geography to understand the interaction between human and non-human factors, and uncovering the challenges behind showing Earth’s surface.

As we delved into maps, it didn’t take long for students to notice the challenges in representing a spherical planet on a flat map. While plotting the location of capital cities around the world, one student made the statement, “This map is a disgrace to my country.” Already, the map’s intentions had become suspect in the eyes of a young viewer. This led other students to investigate the shape of their home country on the map to see if it too had been ‘disgraced’. Many agreed the map being used was indeed a disgrace to many countries, and that I should find a more accurate map that was more ‘fair’.

Although this is not where I had planned this particular lesson to go on this day, interest in why shapes of countries are distorted on some maps was piqued, making it a central point to revisit in later lessons on the different types of maps and the information they reveal. I’m curiouser and curiouser as to what questions the variety of maps will stir up in these young minds as we move through this unit on the core concepts of geography.

Students aren’t only learning how to navigate their way around maps, they are also learning additional skills such as how to read and take notes from non-fiction texts and synthesize their understandings in a paragraph centered around main ideas. Cornell notes, mind-mapping and other graphic organizers have been introduced and encouraged to help students identify main ideas and organize their thinking in a well-developed paragraph.

Language Arts: Learning How to Navigate through Life via Literature


We acquiesced to Halloween by embracing the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe on Thursday. No, it wasn’t “The Raven” or even “The Tell-Tale Heart,” instead we went with his lesser known, but nonetheless, beautiful, “Annabel Lee”.  After identifying the narrative behind the poem, students fell into the rhythm of its verse – lulling the audience with the beauty behind its tragic love story. With only one practice, tables of students performed their assigned stanza. Forgive me for the poor quality of video; filmmaking is certainly not a strength.

Novel Study: The Graveyard Book

In The Graveyard Book novel study group, students have been investigating the elements of literature and the techniques authors use to reveal them to the reader. Since the start of the novel, students have been working to understand the protagonist, Bod and his home of the graveyard. Bod’s world has been turned upside down as he is forced to leave behind his home and family and make the graveyard his new home.

Author Neil Gaiman plays with our biases and generalizations regarding graveyards by creating an environment that symbolizes protection and education rather than death as we might expect. Bod has to make sense of his smaller world and how it fits in to the bigger world outside of the graveyard just as we have to make sense of how our smaller communities fit in with the global community.

Setting, mood, characterization and theme have been explored through symbolism, metaphors, similes and personification. To glimpse a view of what your child has been studying, please see the RESOURCE page of our Graveyard Book website. To get an overview of their studies, delve into the presentations and look over the documents students have been working on in class. Below are  a few photos of students in action discussing and collaborating on their understanding of all The Graveyard Book has to offer.

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With Vorpal Sword in Hand – The Hero’s Quest

“What is my place in this world?”

Such a question begets more questions:

    • Am I to consider my physical place or my social niche, or both? 
    • How big is my world? Do I consider the smaller communities within my world? What are the smaller communities in my world? What are the larger communities? How do they differ? How is each one important? Why might I act differently in these communities?
    • How does the idea of place involve responsibility?

Students are required to explore their interpretations and reflections of this essential question throughout the year. As I believe books offer much more than a story, we began this exploration with a novel study in which the protagonist embarks on a quest that forces students to investigate his/her place in the world.

I want students to engage in conversations with the characters and become part of their world. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, author, Blake Morrison, states characters can, “lift you up, toward a sort of light, instead of dragging you down into darkness. And the excitement…carrie[s] on growing, even after the book.” I want students to linger in these ‘other worlds’, to wear the skin of characters, and rehearse what life has to offer. I believe it is these lingering, vicarious experiences that allow children to explore their place in the world.

The Lessons

The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel

Because “Vision trumps all other senses” according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, to pique interest, students were introduced to the idea of the hero’s journey, and a review of literary elements, by investigating and analyzing a visual narrative of the hero’s quest.

Part I: Analyzing a Visual Narrative 

The idea of a hero’s journey was discussed. Points such as quests being arduous, symbolic, reflective and circular were introduced. Following the discussion, each group of students received a copy of JohnTenniel’s Jabberwock illustration on A3 paper. Students were informed that this visual narrative was a mere moment in a hero’s quest and that they would unfold the story behind it.

Prompted to analyze the visual narrative closely, students brainstormed words and phrases they felt were absolutely necessary to describe the journey. As we have been studying the connotations of words and how they create the emotional atmosphere (mood) of a story, students were reminded to choose their words carefully, considering the five senses. Students annotated the illustration with their findings.

To serve as a guide, the following questions were shared:

  1. Where does the story take place? Describe it.
  2. Who is the hero (protagonist) in this narrative? Consider both the physical appearance and personality? How would you characterize him/her?
  3. Who is the antagonist in this narrative?  Consider both the physical appearance and personality? How would you characterize him/her?
  4. What conflict is the protagonist faced with? Describe it.
  5. How do you think the conflict was resolved? Describe.
  6. Where in the story does this ‘moment’ occur (beginning, middle or end)? If at the beginning, what happened during the middle and end of the story? If in the middle, what happened in the beginning and at the end of the story? If at the end, what happened at the beginning and middle of the story?

Annotations were collected to generate a descriptive word bank.

Part II: Creating  a Written Narrative

To create their narrative poem, students chose words and phrases they felt best revealed the narrative behind the illustration. The poem had to show evidence of the hero’s quest and the elements of a story (setting, character, plot and mood).

Part III: A Comparison

Evidence of the hero’s quest was then further explored in Lewis Carroll‘s “Jabberwocky” poem. Students compared Carroll’s narrative to their own, looking for similarities and differences.

The Result

The  video below showcases a smattering of the results.

The word quest comes from the Latin root quaerere meaning ‘to seek mentally; to seek to learn; make inquiry.’ As students continue on their journey to learn of the Hero’s Quest, it is my hope they learn a little about themselves along the way. As G.K.Chesterton states, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

So with their vorpal sword in hand, students learned of the power that resides in resilience and persistence – to stretch their capabilities and to identify their place in the world. The hero has slain the Jabberwock; so too shall they slay their monsters.

Zooming Out

Istvan Banyai’s wordless book, Zoom, reveals its story in small doses. Just as the reader believes they have grasped the story, he zooms out a bit more to offer an alternative point of view. This clever technique leaves readers questioning and hypothesizing with every turn of the page, sweeping them into a world of wonder and delight.

When delving into all things words, it is this world of wonder and delight that I want to create for my students. Traditionally, many of us were taught ‘vocabulary’ by memorizing definitions of lists and lists of words. The more lists, the more rigorous the unit of study. Such an approach reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s wise words,

“A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.”

Simply learning what a word means, kills it. End of story!

Zooming out, Banyai style, allows a word to live and breathe – to possibly become a part of who we are.

Your children have been zooming out over the past few weeks to uncover the bigger pictures of the words from our recent word study. Our story began with an essential question that allowed students to first zoom in:

What does the word mean?

Once the words were presented in context, students tapped into their own experiences and knowledge and delved into a variety of dictionaries in order to best understand the words’ meanings. Once a group consensus was formed, the denotations of the words were paraphrased and recorded. Coming to an agreement on the paraphrases presented some interesting conversations as students compared their notes on their researched understandings and lobbied for their interpretations of the definitions.

Following the discovery of the denotations, students explored the connotations (emotions) of their words. This exploration was linked to word choice and the knowledge that it is a word’s connotations that can help create the emotional atmosphere of a story.

We then zoomed out to get a bigger picture of the words by investigating,

How is the word built?

This part of our story involved the morphology of the words. Students learned that morphemes are a word’s smallest units of meaning; how they work together to reveal a bigger picture of the word.

It was discovered that it is a suffix that begins with a vowel letter that can cause a change in the spelling to the element before it. Ahhhh, that’s why a final silent <e> is dropped off, or the final letter of a base element is doubled, or an <i> is changed to a <y>; it isn’t magic, there are logical reasons for these changes.

Students discovered that base elements are the heart of a word’s meaning and that they can stand on their own as a free base element or remain bound to an affix (prefix or suffix) in order to make sense. Additionally, the roles of prefixes and suffixes were explored. To process all this new information, students engaged in conversations with one another about what was understood and what questions remained in a cooperative learning structure called, “Find Someone Who…”

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Zooming out even further, we discovered that a word is much more than it’s denotation and connotation. A word is more than its morphemes. A word has a history. For this part of the story, we investigated,

What is the word’s history?

Using John Ayto’s Word Origins dictionary and Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology site, students uncovered the etymology of each word. It was discovered when a word came to be used in English, what language the word originated from, and its root and meaning. Time was allowed to explore the root and meaning of each word and compare the meanings to the word’s current definition. There was a flurry of questions during this phase, ranging from, “How do I read this entry?” to “I wonder why this word means something different now?” Instead of concluding the story, students were zooming out with their questions to view the bigger picture.

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Armed with a deeper understanding of each word, we zoomed out a bit further, making connections to Margaret Wild’s picture book, Fox. Students created a literary sociogram that allowed them to explore the relationships between the characters of the story through their newly formed understandings of their vocabulary words.

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Students now had a much bigger picture of each word; they were ready to be assessed on their knowledge. One of the questions on the final assessment asked the students to choose one of their vocabulary terms and share all they learned about the word. Here is one student’s response (as written) to the question:

“The dictionary definition of the word reflective means to engage in deep thought. Though the connotation, the more critical part of it is to always be thinking if you did the right thing, how you can improve in the future and so on. The word’s root language is Latin: L. flectere which means “to bend”. This makes sense as it connects to the denotation, your thoughts are always changing and you can easily “bend” your actions. The word sum of the word is: re + flect + ive –> reflective. The prefix is re-, the bound base element is <flect>, and the suffix is -ive. The connection between this word and the book, Fox, is that Magpie (in the end), ends up having to decide whether to stay and die in the desert or go back to Dog. It is a very huge thing to think about, especially since she has a burnt wing , but then she remembers how Dog had helped her and how she had left him, so she chose to go back home and apologize to him.”

This student understands the layers of the this word’s story.

Students were also asked to reflect on the process of their word study. There was a quite a range of responses as far as what they felt was important, but they all mentioned the process was meaningful (of course I understand this may have been to please the teacher). Enjoy the following snapshots of a few of their responses:

“If you know more about a word then you know its true meaning. It unlocks a new world where you can sort of understand what people were thinking back then.”

“I learned that without morphemes there is no word, connotations are like emotions in the word and the root is like history. Finding the word sum helps you find the base which helps find the root. It is all connected. In all it will help you see the world in a new light.”

“Connotations helps me to figure out if the word is positive or negative. This helps me in writing to know in which state I use the word and it makes the best sense. Morphemes are affixes and bases. If I do not know the word’s denotation, by knowing the affixes and base, I can predict the definition of the word.”

I can’t profess that these students have been swept into a world of delight when investigating words, but I can see that they are wondering. These words will live on in the lives of the students. What more could a teacher want.

Building Bibliophiles

Bibliophile. A compound word stemming from Greek biblion meaning book + philos meaning loving. Literally meaning, a lover of books. But does that denotation capture all bibliophily has to offer? Does ‘love’ carry strong enough connotations to capture what author, Blake Morrison believes books offer us – “a lifeline, a reason to believe, a way to breathe more freely”? Say bibliophile aloud; it bounces off the lips with enthusiasm, yet manages to melt in your mouth leaving behind a taste to savor.

I share Morrison’s belief that books offer much more than a story. I want my students to ‘feel’ the words as they read them, to savor the story by engaging in conversations with characters and becoming part of their world. In Morrison’s essay, “Twelve Thoughts About Reading,” he states characters can, “lift you up, toward a sort of light, instead of dragging you down into darkness. And the excitement…carrie[s] on growing, even after the book.” I want students to linger in these ‘other worlds’, to wear the skin of characters, and rehearse what life has to offer. As author Carmen Callil points out, “Books are shields against a terror of boredom…What they offer does not change, and if the human race was separated from words and thoughts and stories, it would die.”

Why Read?Reading not only provides a rehearsal of life’s events, it also provides a tool to become a proficient reader, writer, and communicator. Research by Nagy and Herman, 1987, offers statistics to support this statement. A child that reads 20 minutes a day is presented with the opportunity to linger in and savor the equivalent of 1, 800, 000 words per year compared to a child that reads only one minute of day cutting that exposure down to 8,000 words per year. Not surprisingly, immersing oneself in words also ripples out to achievement on standardized tests. Children who are able to become lost in books score in the 90th percentile while comparatively, children who have yet to learn to love books, score in the 10th percentile on standardized tests. Quite powerful statistics.

So how do we begin building bibliophiles? How do we shift the attitudes of those who believe, as author, Mark Haddon states, “that a novel is really just inky shapes on paper”? Simple answer; shared reading.  We read to our children. We share our experience that books change lives. We share, as Haddon further states, “the sense of being inside looking out, of seeing a world that belongs to everyone, but is nevertheless yours alone.” Reading aloud invites both the reader and the listener to become lost in an imaginary world.

To further build our bibliophiles, our children need to see us as readers. Make reading part of your everyday life. Set aside a daily, specified time as a family to reinforce the message that reading is important enough to stop what you’re doing and read. If I haven’t yet convinced you of the power of words, I recommend the book, Stop What You’re Doing and Read This. This compilation of ten essays, written by well known authors who speak of their love of reading and its importance in our lives, will cause you to ponder how reading transforms our lives and that it is imperative that it become a part of our everyday rituals.

As your child’s Humanities teacher, my role in building bibliophiles began with gifting students the opportunity to engage in daily sustained silent reading over the past few weeks. It was my goal that during this time, students find books that immerse them in another world, ‘The house was quiet and the world was calm. / The reader became the book’ (Stevens, 1947). The following photos show promise that this goal was achieved.

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In the upcoming weeks, I will share my plans in launching an independent reading program that continues to foster a love of books and explains the roles we each will play in sending the message that no one should live without reading. Here’s to building bibliophiles together, something to savor…

Ode to the Book

by Pablo Neruda

When I close a book

I open life.

I hear

faltering cries

among harbours.

Copper ignots

slide down sand-pits

to Tocopilla.

Night time.

Among the islands

our ocean

throbs with fish,

touches the feet, the thighs,

the chalk ribs

of my country.

The whole of night

clings to its shores, by dawn

it wakes up singing

as if it had excited a guitar.

The ocean’s surge is calling.

The wind

calls me

and Rodriguez calls,

and Jose Antonio–

I got a telegram

from the “Mine” Union

and the one I love

(whose name I won’t let out)

expects me in Bucalemu.

No book has been able

to wrap me in paper,

to fill me up

with typography,

with heavenly imprints

or was ever able

to bind my eyes,

I come out of books to people orchards

with the hoarse family of my song,

to work the burning metals

or to eat smoked beef

by mountain firesides.

I love adventurous


books of forest or snow,

depth or sky

but hate

the spider book

in which thought

has laid poisonous wires

to trap the juvenile

and circling fly.

Book, let me go.

I won’t go clothed

in volumes,

I don’t come out

of collected works,

my poems

have not eaten poems–

they devour

exciting happenings,

feed on rough weather,

and dig their food

out of earth and men.

I’m on my way

with dust in my shoes

free of mythology:

send books back to their shelves,

I’m going down into the streets.

I learned about life

from life itself,

love I learned in a single kiss

and could teach no one anything

except that I have lived

with something in common among men,

when fighting with them,

when saying all their say in my song.

Hidden Support

Master of All Words Our journey into the Wonderland of grade 6 Humanities began with a conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

“What does it mean to be the master of all words?” wondered my grade 6 students. Some students believed that to be master of all words meant you were someone who used ‘big words’. Some thought it meant you were someone who devoured books, and yet others thought it meant you were a ‘good speller’. As they continued to wonder, they asked me if they were right. My response was, “I don’t know, what do you think?” followed by another question, “Is it more important to know the answer to the question or the journey you take to explore your wonderings.”

In a utopian world, students would have chosen the latter choice, but sadly, our young people are programed to believe that ‘smart’ is immediately knowing the right answer. Of course in my quest to dispel the myth that teachers are the keepers of all knowledge,  I leapt at the opportunity to jump on my soapbox and  inform the little darlings that it is indeed about the journey, and that they would learn how to investigate the answers to their questions. I prepared myself to hear exuberant cheering, but was instead met with groanings and mumblings – something akin to learning being too hard.

Teaching is a tricky business, you have to know when to provide support and when to step back; it is a fine balance between challenging students, yet not letting them feel so frustrated that they give up. In a sense, teachers need to provide a form of hidden support – students know they have to go it alone, but also understand you are there to prop them up when necessary. Interestingly enough, I stumbled across a visual metaphor of this hidden support when reading Harper’s August, 2013 edition.

On the page before me were a series of Victorian photographs of infants. As exposure times were longer at this point in time, mothers needed to support their children, but did not want to be viewed in the photograph. As a result, they were often hidden behind furniture or under blankets to create the illusion that the young one was photographed on its own. The children were comforted by their mother’s touch and able to be photographed.

I am like the hidden mothers – there to support, understanding it is about the students, not about me.

Over the past couple of weeks, students have been investigating character traits and determining which traits would make a better citizen. They have delved into dictionaries for denotations, searched for synonyms and connected to a word’s connotations.

Subtle shades of meaning have been explored as they ranked terms from most important to least important when considering citizenship. Enthusiastic discussions could be heard over whether solitary carried positive or negative connotations and whether someone who was solitary would make a good citizen. If my students were older, I would have encouraged them to view Susan Cain’s TED talk, “The Power of Introverts” to help them investigate further.

Just as they felt they had exhausted the words, I introduced them to how words are built – the study of morphology. For some students, terms such as morphemes, affixes, elements, free and bound bases were familiar. For others, they were treading in unfamiliar territory trying to attach meaning to new terms.

Morphemic elements (the smallest units of meaning in a word) such as prefixes, suffixes and free and bound bases were scattered across the tabletops. Students were asked to use the elements to create word sums, labeling elements and noting possible changes to the spelling of an element. They attacked the task with confidence, but soon started to wonder about some of their choices. Immediately, they sought me out to ask me if they were right or what to do.

Hidden support was needed to keep their energy and enthusiasm going. What the students didn’t realize was that it was their questions that provided them with the necessary next steps. All I did was repeat their questions back to them. They would ask, “Is this right – we think that <al> could be a suffix and a prefix but we aren’t sure?” I would respond with, “Can you prove your theory is correct? How so?” They would then rattle off a series of words that use <al> as a prefix and then as a suffix. Another group asked which type of suffix caused a change in spelling. I asked them what their theory was and they left me standing there as they went back to their table to explore possibilities.

I smiled as students walked away from me without waiting for me to acknowledge their responses. They knew they could achieve the task on their own. They just needed a little hidden support. They are becoming masters of all words.

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Building a Community of Collaboration & Curiosity


Many of us know Lewis Carroll’s Alice. As a child, we lay in bed, stealing a peek into her strange world. A world in which white rabbits run about stressing over time, mad hatters host crazy tea parties, cheshire cats grin impishly, and queens threaten to cut off your head. No wonder Alice had trouble making sense of herself in this odd universe. Alice’s resizing and struggle with her identity symbolizes the difficulties associated with growing up. Her identity displaced as she searches for her niche in a strange world.

Middle school students, like Alice, fall down the rabbit hole, and emerge in a strange world, a world in which they struggle to define their autonomy in an increasingly academic world. This is not an easy world for adolescents or their educators. As an educator of twenty plus years, I believe it is important to help students feel efficacious in their efforts to succeed in the wonderland of school. Efficacy requires a set of strategies that encourages students to tap into and make use of internal resources which allow them to develop and implement a plan to succeed. I believe a collaborative classroom that nurtures students to become independent, critical thinkers is integral to student success.

I believe cultivating collaboration empowers students to not only find their own voice but also find the voices of others. When the classroom environment is designed to build a sense of community in which students seek resources within the group and value collective work, it is understood that collective effort is more effective than individual effort. Such an environment fosters flexible thinking; students know when to integrate and when to assert their ideas and opinions thus creating a cohesive community.

Falling down the rabbit hole for most middle schoolers involves their struggle with asserting their individuality in an environment where social conformity seems to be the norm. It is important that students feel independent yet are part of a greater community.

Alice’s curiosity was a catalyst for her many questions. She certainly was not afraid to point out the idiosyncrasies of Wonderland; in fact she was willing to risk beheading to state the absurdities of the Queen’s laws. Like Alice, middle schoolers require a curriculum that sparks curiosity and begs analysis; although without the risk of losing one’s head. I believe it is important to promote critical thinking in the classroom. As educators, it is imperative we create an environment that cultivates qualities such as questioning, gathering and assessing information, interpretation, open-mindedness, and effective communication in solving intricate problems.

Teaching is a challenging profession that requires passion, patience and perseverance. I readily accept the challenge of providing students with a safe, collaborative environment that encourages independence of thought and introduces tools to help them articulate their thinking because I know it will help them thrive in the adolescent wonderland of education.

I am excited to begin another year of wonder and discovery with my students!