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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Jeannine's article that she submitted to UNBOX is soon to be published!!

A Journey With Venetia Phair, The Girl Who Named Pluto--
And What I Learned Along the Way
--Jeannine West Paull


I was in my fifth year of teaching in a Denver Public School---a school of choice with a “British Primary” label. This meant it essentially followed a model of the project based ‘integrated day,’ (Katz & Chard, 2000)  the term of choice before ‘project-based learning’ was known or well accepted.  In my first and second grade classroom (family groupings where students stayed with me for two years), we studied two units in depth each year, digging deeply into content from every content perspective.  

My students were from a variety backgrounds---some from very affluent families from the surrounding neighborhood and others who ‘choiced’ in from other parts of the city. The school invited parents to make intentional and informed choices about the kind of education their children would be receiving. There were ‘regular’ elementary classrooms as well as those with a ‘British Primary’ tag in my building.

In British Primary, we were encouraged to follow our students’ interests in developing rigorous units that immersed children in inquiry---following their own questions and developing plans to uncover answers (and content) along the way.  As you might expect, the discussions and directions each class took were often very different from their neighbors next door. As a teacher, I had great freedom in the way I delivered content. That is not to say that we didn’t have ‘learning walks’ by the district that didn’t wholeheartedly endorse our practices. I remember, for example,  being told once that my students’ bird journals (documenting and observing birds in and around our schoolyard and at home including questions for research) didn’t follow the district’s literacy plan. Nonetheless, this was a ‘program’ well supported by the community and had revitalized a neighborhood school where students were considered ‘high-achieving.’

In the first semester of the year, my 1st/2nd graders were studying the solar system---specifically, the moon, phases of the moon, and how we perceived the moon from Earth. We learned about Native American legends, lunar calendars, and eclipses. Typical of six and seven-year-olds, my students were  full of questions. Some already had a keen interest in the planets, having memorized the order in the solar system (nine planets) by heart.

One of our classroom rituals was to read something from the New York Times “Science Times” section each Tuesday. The Observatory section was always chock full of articles that tied to something we had either discussed in class or something that interested my students. In the September 12 edition, , the lead article was titled “Pluto’s Exotic Playmates.” This article, by Kenneth Chang, described some of the details surrounding Pluto’s demotion from planethood only the month before. It was now classified as only a ‘dwarf planet’--one of the many icy bodies orbiting in the Kuiper Belt in the farthest reaches of our solar system.  

My students were immediately fascinated by the article. Some, in fact, were distressed about the demotion of the ninth planet. We soon began to discover books and other resources about Pluto, the most notable being The Kid Who Named Pluto by Marc McCutcheon. This book recounted the story of Venetia Burney, who in 1930 suggested the name ‘Pluto’ for the newly discovered planet to her grandfather at the breakfast table. This is the element of the story that most interested my students--the little girl, Venetia Burney, who had named the planet.  They wanted to know---as six and seven-year-olds do---if she was still alive, where she lived, how old she was---and had she become a scientist? This last question was one held in high regard in our classroom.

Although this was 2006, we had but ONE computer in our classroom which we used to search  the internet.  We discovered that Venetia Phair--nee Burney--was still alive and living somewhere in Surrey, U.K.  Immediately, my students wanted to write to her to learn more about her life. They initially thought a letter would be right but then decided that they would like to add their thinking about the big scientific questions in their lives, especially about the universe.

So, a plan was made that we would write a book to send to Mrs. Phair in Surrey--made up of  pages written by my students to share their thinking with her.  

There was only one BIG concern with our plan. We didn’t have an actual address. We found on the internet that Ms. Phair lived in Epsom, Surrey. I asked my husband who grew up in the UK, and he explained that UK mail service wasn’t like the U.S. If we had the correct village, it would probably get delivered---not returned because it was missing the correct post code. This was a relief.  BUT, to be safe, the children and I decided to make TWO copies of our book--just in case the one we were sending got lost or was undeliverable in the big wide world of international mail.

In the days following, we set to work on our plan. The students wrote and illustrated their wonderings on individual pages (twice)---and then, the original book was put together in an ‘origami’ style with folded pages stacked on top of each other to complete the book. The second copy was a more traditional hand-sewn, hand-bound book.  They titled it---Our Big Book of Questions. Every student worked to complete and illustrate his/her page.  We included a class picture in the opening pages and an Albert Einstein quote for the epigraph--



The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

In the Foreword, we wrote:
Scientists have big questions and big ideas.  In our classroom, we are all scientists.  We wonder about things in the sky, on the earth, in the water, and in the history of our earth.  In this book we wanted to share some of our own ‘big questions.’
Ms. Jeannine’s Class
September 20, 2006

On September 20, 2006, we wrapped our book up carefully and tucked it into an envelope addressed to:
     Venetia Burney Phair
            Epsom, Surrey
            United Kingdom

And then, we waited……..

A month passed. And then, on October 24  I looked in my mailbox in the school office and saw a letter neatly addressed to ‘Ms. Jeannine West and all the children she teaches….’

I couldn’t wait to open it and share it with my students. The letter was handwritten, and in it, Mrs. Phair addressed many of the children by name in response to the questions they had posed in “that wonderful little book.”  

“I was intrigued by Mari’s I wonder if space is a ginormous planet?--but if it, what lies outside that planet?”

Mrs. Phair said that she was fascinated by many of the children’s questions and added she would love to know the answer to one written by Anna, “If alligators were alive when dinosaurs were, why didn’t they die too?” In closing she said that she had “been lucky altogether in naming Pluto because so many interesting things have happened to me as a result--hearing from you for one--and at the age of 88 that is very nice.”  and “with love and good wishes to you all.”

In the days that followed our classroom was abuzz with children talking about the letter---parents coming in to see it, and even an email from a grandparent telling me about the excitement it had generated in the household.  

“I just read your email regarding the correspondence with Venetia Burney Phair...I am so grateful that our darling Audrey has you for her teacher! Thank you for what you do every day that lures Audrey to love school so much.”

Thus began a wonderful correspondence between Mrs. Phair and my students that spanned more than two years including numerous exchanges of long letters, Christmas cards, and another volume of a similar book written by a subsequent class of 4th/5th graders in my next school. Her correspondence included details of a visit by Alan Stern, from the New Horizons Project at the Southwest Research Institute at Boulder, Colorado in December of 2006.  His project launched a space probe on January 19, 2006 and did a flyby of Pluto in the summer of 2015.   It yielded many exciting photographs and new facts about the dwarf planet. He also brought news to Mrs. Phair that Asteroid 6235, discovered in 1987 was named, ‘Burney,’ after her.

The last card arrived from Mrs. Phair in January 2009 in response to a Christmas card sent by the class.  

We were deeply saddened when we learned that Venetia Phair died only a few months later on April 30, 2009, at the age of 90.  

This kind of real life, authentic connection made by my students is what engages and drives curiosity and learning in my classroom--even today. I could never have scripted such experiences, and  I couldn’t have anticipated the impact it would make on my students.  

One of my mentors once said to me in a discussion about writer’s workshop that “writing floats on a sea of talk,” the quote by James Britton. I have come to believe that great discussions--the ‘sea of talk”--in classrooms drives the great thinking and learning that goes on there. Without my students’ curiosity, this correspondence would never have happened. The collective thinking of my students far outweighs any plan I might have for ‘where a unit should go…’  Although this was not a planned stop in our study of the solar system, it was one that had a profound impact on us all.

When students are able to put something out in the world, and it is received and responded to, learning is validated and therefore, valued.

In the current iteration of ‘project-based learning,’ I sometimes see teacher colleagues driven--and driving students--toward an ‘expected outcome,’ convergent thinking that pushes toward that big finish at the end--and somehow ALL classes in that grade level will arrive at that place at the same time with a similar ‘product.’ In reflecting on this experience with Pluto and Mrs. Phair, I am reminded how important it is to honor my students’ thinking, questions, and the opportunity to negotiate and design the way they will demonstrate their understanding in any unit.  

The path to learning--and the uncovering of content directed by the students sitting in front of me--is far more important (and relevant) that any plan I might have scripted for them.   There is always an element of ‘risk’ in a student-led approach; every unit doesn’t  have a guaranteed element of ‘magic.’  But, when those risks pay off, it is well worth it all.  


Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C. (2000). Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach (3rd ed.). Praeger.

McCutcheon, M., & Cannell, J. (2004). The kid who named Pluto: And the stories of other extraordinary young people in science. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.



Jeannine West Paull is currently a fifth-grade teacher at Northeast Elementary in Douglas County, Colorado.  Her classroom focuses on actively engaging students in inquiry-based, authentic learning experiences--creating an environment that fosters collaboration and creativity, encouraging curiosity about and empathy with the natural world.    





Our Book of Big Questions.jpg








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Saturday, April 30, 2016

May 1st........my dad's 104th birthday!!


It's a grey and snowy day...............I wish the sun was shining to celebrate Arthur Charles' birthday!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A walk with Bertie

It's a regular morning routine now, a longish walk with Bertie and Fiona. 

This morning, though, only Bertie appeared when I whistled........so off he and I went....


and then, as no one was home, stretched out for a two minute rest.....



Then we made our way home.....




Friday, April 15, 2016

From the NYT Thursday April 14th, 2016 - Science Fair at The Whitehouse

I loved this article in the NYT:

President Obama vowed early in his tenure to make science “cool” and decorated the Oval Office with patent models of groundbreaking American inventions.
But to truly understand Mr. Obama’s zeal for all things scientific and technological, one must take a spin with him around the White House Science Fair, a tradition he began in 2010 and hosted for the final time on Wednesday.
“There are a lot of good things about being president,” Mr. Obama said in the White House’s ornate East Room, surrounded by youngsters who brought their creations — robots, spacecraft, toys made from 3-D printers. “But some of the best moments that I have had as president have involved science and our annual science fair.”
Across the hall in the State Dining Room, the president awarded congratulatory fist-bumps, the closest this particular fair gets to a blue ribbon, to a pair of sisters from Seattle who launched a spacecraft adorned with tracking devices, cameras and a picture of their late cat Loki 78,000 feet into the air.
“That’s crazy,” Mr. Obama told Kimberly Yeung, 9, and her sister Rebecca, 11. “Your gizmo was that high?”
The president pulled the lever of an ocean energy generator built by a ninth-grader from Florida to help a pen-pal in an Ethiopian village get access to electricity.
Mr. Obama marveled at the ingenuity of another ninth-grader who developed a less expensive, faster test for Ebola. “What were you doing in high school?” he said during his remarks to reporters, adding that his only problem with the science fair was “it makes me feel a little inadequate.”
This year’s event was bittersweet for Mr. Obama, who announced programs that will carry his administration’s emphasis on science education into the future, beyond his presidency, and welcomed alumni of science fairs past. “How’s Harvard?” he asked one, Elana Simon, who studied her own cancer to try to develop a cure.
The White House announced Wednesday that Oracle, the computer technology company, would invest $200 million for computer science education for young Americans over the next 18 months, as part of Mr. Obama’s “C.S. for All” initiative. And the Department of Education will issue new guidelines to states and school districts on how they can use federal money to enhance science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — education.
“I’m a big science guy,” Mr. Obama told the Science Channel in a brief videothat aired on Monday, part of a week of roughly minute-long appearances he taped for the network.
For a day each year since Mr. Obama began the tradition, the state floor of the White House is transformed into a veritable geek paradise of projects that resembles countless school and regional science fairs in far less glamorous locales, complete with poster-board displays of findings with graphics and diagrams, colorful models and young people eager to show off their creations.
Mr. Obama has fired a giant marshmallow cannon invented by a 14-year-old and been charmed by 6-year-old Oklahoma Girl Scouts dressed in Superman capes who showed off their prototype for a mechanical page-turner constructed with Legos. (They were all back at the White House on Wednesday.)
Last year, he invited Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim high schooler from Texas who had been arrested after teachers mistook a clock he invented for a bomb. “Cool clock, Ahmed,” Mr. Obama said at the time from his newly minted Twitter account, @POTUS. “Want to bring it to the White House?”
White House officials say the fairs have drawn some 450 students in kindergarten through 12th grade; this year’s was the largest, with 130 attendees.
The event gives Mr. Obama a chance to showcase his commitment to STEM education, a push his advisers say has paid off during his term. There are 25,000 more students graduating in those fields than there were in 2009, when Mr. Obama took office, the White House said.
Through Mr. Obama’s Educate to Innovate program, he has spurred more than $1 billion in private investment for improving STEM education, officials said. The administration is more than halfway to the goal he set of training 100,000 STEM educators by 2020.
Mr. Obama has also incorporated innovation into his policy-making process and the way the White House communicates his message, building an Office of Digital Strategy to manage a suite of social media platforms and naming the first chief technology officer.
He started an initiative in precision medicine to find ways of using Big Data and genomics to cure diseases and he has had money poured into clean energy research to combat climate change.
“I have just been able to see the unbelievable ingenuity and passion and curiosity and brainpower of America’s next generation, and all the cool things that they do,” Mr. Obama told this year’s fair exhibitors, joking that he would one day take credit for future cancer cures or clean energy innovations they pioneered.
“I’ll say, ‘If it hadn’t been for the White House Science Fair, who knows what might have happened?’ ” Mr. Obama said.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

And then there was Teddy.......

Thinking of Shawn (my previous blog) reminds me of Teddy. Quiet, withdrawn, most days sullen, Teddy, like Shawn, would not participate in class either. It took something special to turn him around.


The day came, though, when Teddy’s teacher told me THAT special thing had happened to Teddy in class. 

Teddy, apparently,  was thrilled with the hands-on lesson on electricity. He was beside himself when he and three other boys connected the wires to the small battery, made a circuit,  and lit up the small bulb. 
“Look, Miss, look!" Teddy shouted. "We did it! We DID it! I’m going to do it at home. Hey! It’s dead good!”


The following day, before morning assembly,  Teddy’s mum came to see me. She looked very upset, angry, even,  as I asked her to take a seat in my office.

Refusing to sit, she looked sharply at me. “Our Teddy’s in hospital. Got ‘lectrocuted. Last night. Ambulance came. Took him. He’s there now. Tried to copy what he did in class. Didn’t have no batteries, so he stuck his wire in the ‘lectric plug ‘ole. ’lectricity went through his fumb and finger. Sparks everywhere. Big flippin’ sparks!  Burned them and stuck them, finger and fumb,  together. ‘E’s in intensive care………Ashby hospital. Goin’ there now.”


Oh, my God poor Teddy, I thought. That sounds awful. I looked at Teddy’s mother and said,  “Hang on, I’ll get Mr. Moore to cover assembly. Won’t be a minute. I’ll take you to the hospital. That ok? Then you can tell me more in the car.” 

I told my secretary, Sylvia, what had happened and asked her to go and tell Teddy’s teacher. Mike, my deputy, quickly agreed to take assembly, and wished me the best of luck.


As we drove towards Ashby Hospital, Teddy’s mum talked, talked and talked about what happened. “Didn’t see what he was doing, ‘Eadmaster, just heard our Teddy scream. Ran upstair as quick as I could, saw him. He was rolling on the floor, holding ‘is ‘ands. Amblance came, took him to ‘ospital. Been there all night. Intensive care, you know, the burns thingy room.”


When we arrived at the hospital, we were quickly escorted by a nurse to the Burns Section, and, as we entered the door,  told to put on some head and footgear. Teddy was sitting up in his bed. He looked down at the bed cover when he saw me. “My in trouble?” he asked. “Only doin’ the speriment. Stuck a wire in the plug ‘ole to get some 'lectricity for the big bulb. Got burned and it ‘urts. Sorry, Mr. Paull, sorry.”


I assured Teddy he wasn’t in any trouble. 

Because his flesh was so burned, the doctors decided to take some skin from Teddy’s thigh – and, much to my surprise,  to prevent the blood from clotting, attach a live leech to the wound. 

I stayed talking for about half an hour and then left. Teddy’s mother said she’d catch the bus back to Ibstock when she was ready. Teddy’s dad, she said, was probably coming around lunchtime, as soon as he left work.


That evening, I read as much as I could from my Encyclopedia Britannica about the use of leeches in medicine. 
Medicinal leeches (Hirudo medicinalis), I learned, are blood sucking aquatic animals that live, like common leeches, in fresh water.
The small, slimy creatures were widely used in the 19th century to cure a variety of ailments. Today, they are used in many parts of the world to help heal wounds and restore circulation in blocked blood veins. 

During the 1980's, I learned, the government had approved the commercial marketing of leeches for medical purposes when reports were published that described the successful application of medicinal leeches to rescue surgery cases with complications. During the reattachment of severed fingers and ears, the blood flow needs to be reestablished. This is where the medicinal leech comes to the rescue. The animals are applied to the tissue and they remove blood and secrete numerous compounds that have anticoagulant, and clot-dissolving properties. This prevents the tissue from dying off and allows the body to reestablish good blood flow to the reattached part.

I visited Teddy every day until he left the hospital and returned home. When he eventually returned to school, he sat with me in assembly, holding a jar full of leeches, all bloated with his blood. 

Teddy was quite the talkative star, telling his audience what he knew about leeches, followed by me talking about safety issues, emphasizing that you DON'T stick wires in the electrical outlets at home!


At the end of the week, I checked in with his teacher.
"How's he doing?"

“Teddy’s great,” she said, “writing and drawing leeches. Telling other kids what he had learned about the blood suckers. Seems like a different kid. Really enjoys science............”


And the moral of this story? 

Don’t know quite…….what do you think?


Friday, April 8, 2016

Shawn - a teacher's story


Sipping my Starbucks and reading the NYT early this morning about a desperate refugee family made me think of one of my pupils when I was Head of Ibstock Junior School.....

Here's what I wrote about him in my yet-to-be-finished second memoir:



'In October, when the weather turned wet and cold, Shawn, a quiet, withdrawn, skinny nine-year -old,  was absent every Wednesday morning, getting to school just in time for his school dinner. 

One Wednesday afternoon, right after the dinner break, I saw Shawn in the hall eating his meat, potatoes and gravy, and went over, sat down next to him, and asked him what he did every Wednesday morning when he wasn't at school. 

Wide eyed, he looked up at me. “I gotta tell ‘e, Mr. Paull?”
“Course, Shawn, you’re supposed to be at school every day. " I replied, "You never bring a note from your mum, do you? Why’s that? why aren't you at school?”
“No, Mr. Paull.” he said. “Don't.” 

He then said he was helping his widowed mum. “Help her every week, Mr. Paull. Got to, ‘cos the house is cold, freezin'. She ain’t got much money, you know. She’s trying but she can’t get a job. Don’t do nuffink wrong when I ain't 'ere. 'Onest I don't.”

Intrigued, I asked, “What do you do for your Mum, then? You light the fire or something? Help her with the washing? Tell me – what do you do that prevents you coming to school?”

Shawn looked at me, scratched his head, looked at the floor and mumbled, “Can’t tell you……….Mum says I can’t tell nobody.”
I knew it was time for me to back off. “Ok, ok, won’t ask,” I said with a smile

But, a growing concern for Shawn – and I must admit, my curiosity - got the better of me. I asked, “But you ok if I go home with you and see your mum? Is she there when you get home?”
“Sometimes she is,“ he said. “Think she is this arternoon. You can come wiv me if you want."


So, after school, we waited for the the school to empty and then we walked Shawn to his home which was just off Ibstock’s High Street. He took me down the side of the house to the back door. Hanging just above the old, weathered  door was a large tin bath, typical of many of the old miners’ houses in Ibstock, all without a bathroom.


When I walked into the small kitchen with Shawn, his mum, her hair in curlers, was standing by the kitchen sink, running her hands under the tap, She stared, surprised to see me. “’Ello, ‘Eadmaster. Whatt you doin’ here? What's happened? Shawn in trouble? He’s a good lad, you know. Never does nowt wrong.” She looked at Shawn standing next to me, wide-eyed and nervous.

“Shawn, go on outside and play and lemme talk to Mr. Paull. There’s a good lad. Don’t do nowt wrong, don’t get in no trouble, you hear me? Leave next door's cat alone.” Shawn, relieved, ran out the kitchen door. “No, Mum. Promise. Won’t. Won’t chase that moggie, 'onest.. Promise. See you, Mr. Paull.”


“See you, Shawn. Be safe, ok?” I replied. “And, hey, DON’T chase the cat, please!”
Yes, Sir, Mr. Paull, I won’t,” he answered, and and off he went.


As Shawn closed the back door, I looked at his mum and said, “He’s not in trouble,” trying to sound and look unconcerned so I could, I thought, help Shawn’s mum relax. “He’s a good lad at school. I just need to know why Shawn misses school every Wednesday morning. Does he help you with some of the housework? He says he keeps the house warm. What does that mean? Does he clean the fireplace or something?” 
Shawn’s mum looked down at the white tiled floor. “No,” she said. Then she looked up at me with half a smile. “Do ‘e want a cuppa?” I smiled, touched by her generosity. 

I replied, “No, thank you. But that was kind of you to ask. You want a fag?”

“Oh, yes, please,” she said. I lit up two cigarettes and sat on the kitchen chair. “Ta. Wednesday’s coal day……………” she said, “can't afford a bag full. Gotta put out a bag........You know, Coop delivers around the village…..comes down the main street around 9, straight from Coop yard. Lorry’s full of coal. Well..............Shawn found some coal on the road coming home from school one Wednesday. He stuffed it in his pockets, so we had a bit of a fire. He asked if he could follow the lorry the next Wednesday 'fore he went to school. . So, since, I give Shawn a few brown bags and he follows the lorry. Road’s bad. Got cracks and stuff. When the lorry hits the potholes, coal drops off back of lorry. Shawn picks it up. When it gets heavy, he brings it home. If we’re quick, I can empty the bag and he can catch up the lorry and get more coal. Keeps us warm for a couple of hours. Get scrap wood from the woodyard. T’ain’t pinching, you know, sir. Coal drops off lorry. Coal’s expensive. Saves me a couple of bob.”  


She looked quizzically at me, checking that I was hearing what she was saying. “Isn’t stealing………..is it? Never moans, you know. Our Shawn. He’s a good lad.”

Taken aback and feeling a bit embarrassed and overwhelmed, I bit my tongue and then heard myself say, “OK, thanks for telling me. Now I know. Good for Shawn. He’s a good lad at school, too. Tell you what. He can have every Wednesday morning off. You tell him, ok? I’ll make sure his teacher knows he will be absent.”

I paused. “Is there anything else I can do for you? Anything?”
“No, Headmaster” Shawn’s mum said. “But don’t tell nobody, ok? Please?” Without hesitating, I nodded, smiled and looked her straight in the eyes, assuring her I wouldn’t say a word.


As I hurried back to school, I couldn’t get the implications of the conversation out of my head. 
And, Shawn. What a perfect lad. Shawn was so concerned for his mother's well being and the need for a fire and had come up with a solution, the perfect solution. 

No wonder he never did well at school. He had too much to think about.


This experience reminded me of my childhood, when I knew some of my classmates missed days when they were helping their dads unload fish from the fishing boats. 

All children are greatly impacted by their home life, for better, for worse. I wondered how many boys and girls in my school were like Shawn, facing the consequences of poverty each and every day.


Throughout the winter and early spring months, Shawn was absent every Wednesday morning. Just before dinnertime each Wednesday, he’d return to school, come into my office and say,”I’m here, Mr. Paull, I’m here.
Me ma says thank you..........”


“Good, Shawn,” I’d reply. “Go and wash your hands and go and have your dinner, ok?”
Shawn would look at me and smile.“OK, Mr. Paull, see you.”