Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Deeper Nature Study: Winogradsky Columns

In the great gold room there were some teenagers

and some gritty sand

and some jars full of sand

and two little boys who didn't use chairs

and some jars and a ghost

and some sprouts, but no toast!

But really, we were winding down from our Winogradsky project.  Yes, you at home can grow lovely pet bacteria in your own jar.  It's easy--so easy that when the teens finished, and the younger kids were totally interested in setting up their own columns.

Winogradsky column (with very watery top) day 1.

We started out at the beach, collecting some samples:  Shells for calcium, water for--well--water, muck for bacteria (we hope!), red sandstone for iron, and some sand for substrate.  Back at the house, Alice had boiled an egg for sulfur...but we were not quite ready to go home yet...

Oh, can't quite see the Storm Trooper.
As we were driving back from the beach, we passed a farm-stand that was closed, and a field that reeked of unharvested Brussel sprouts rotting on the stalk.  Luckily, the ever-stealthy Mr P. had his Storm Trooper Hoodie with him.  He zipped it up so no one would notice him, and stole into the field with his colorfully-dressed friends, plucking a small rotten sprout and a leaf for our nefarious purposes (will it be a better source of sulfur than an egg?).

 Back in Alice's Test Kitchen, we sorted our samples, and added a few ingredients:  Sea salt (coarse), cloves (will they inhibit growth?), fresh water, a magnet to attract magneto-bacteria, and foil for those who want to see samples grown in the dark.

The procedure is simple:

Layer all ingredients in the jar, with an ample supply of cellulose (we used the cardboard from an empty 18-egg box, torn into bits by industrious children).  We started with gravel and sand, added cellulose, egg or Brussel sprout, egg shell or sea shell (crushed), muck from the low tide zone (any black muck or topsoil will do), and odds and ends...a pocket of sea salt, a pocket of pepper, a pocket of ground cloves (anything you can think of!).  And we s-l-o-w-l-y added water, fresh or salt.  Some left lids loose, some tightened their lids.  Some covered the columns with foil for darkness, while some left them in full or dim light.

Since I was busy with the teens doing the project, most of the photos are taken with a younger bacteriologist modeling the process.  Here's Miss C's work:

Note aforementioned ghost.

Isn't it amazing how everything looks delicious in Alice's Test Kitchen, even the muck?

Mr. N and his Winogradsky column--he added a pocket of sea salt in hopes of growing a pink halophile colony.

Youngest boy found the banana a more interesting subject.

 What happens next?  We wait and see what grows.  Check back, and see!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Water the Birds

Silly robins. They love my yard in winter, and now I understand why. I left the outside faucet dripping, and fresh water is as important as food when it comes to attracting birds, especially when the weather is freezing.
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Thursday, January 12, 2012

I Was a 5th Grade Unschooler

Problem was, I went to school.

This past Christmas, my mother brought over a pile of my childhood stuff, and my 5th grade report card was in there.  I was in a gifted program, but you would not know it from my grades:  I got a C in literature.  Is that possible?  It seemed unlikely that I deserved it, because most of what I recall from 5th grade was literature (and that dismal sewing class where I made a garment that my girls refer to as "that dress-thing").  Even French class was literature; our teacher read Les Miserables aloud to us.  In French, bien sûr.

I recall spending hours at my best friend's house reading and talking about books.  We read and reread Narnia and Little House, drawing pictures and maps, and affirming each other in choosing "Peter" or "Laura" for the names of our yet-unborn children.  I walked to school most mornings, uphill in both directions (there was a hill between home and school), as the sun rose on frosty winter mornings, singing Tirian's marching song in my head as I stomped through snow.  Once that year I brought The Last Battle to Symphony Hall and read during Seiji Ozawa's inaugural season, while the Boston Symphony played Flight of the Bumblebee and Bolero.  It was a school trip, and someone ratted me out to the teacher for reading, so I know she knew I was reading.

As a class, we read Animal Farm, and chanted "Four legs good; two legs bad" together, until someone screamed "two legs better" and we all laughed.  Each student was assigned a Newbery Award book, and each gave a presentation to the class.  We cried as Lori described the possessed sister in The Bronze Bow.  We all longed to hear the Heynal with its broken note when Mark told us about The Trumpeter of Krakow.  When Richard reenacted the scene with molten silver spilling over Johnny Tremain's hand, we all stared in amazement at his talent, until we discovered that Richard had actually fainted, and had to be taken away by ambulance (he was fine, and returned to school the next day).  After everyone had given a presentation, we all traded books until everyone had read through the list.

During a unit on pirates, we each put on a puppet show based on the life of a real sea raider.  I chose Captain "Red Legs" Greaves, a pirate with a heart of gold, who was fleeing captivity when he joined a band of bloodthirsty buccaneers.  We watched the 6th graders' performance of The Taming of the Shrew, and sang "Brush up your Shakespeare" in the schoolyard.  And we wrote our own (rather bad, I'm afraid) plays based on classroom shenanigans, like the time the bus broke down on the way to Old Sturbridge Village, and John put a toad down Mary's shirt as we waited by the side of the road for a replacement bus.  Gosh, it should have been a better play, with material like that.

So, why was my grade so mediocre?  We were required to write weekly book reports, and I simply didn't bother to write them.  To this day, I find book reports intrusive, as well as formulaic and dull, and I never require them of my children.   Like many unschoolers, we read and talk about books, sharing quotations, passages and impressions.  When they were younger, my kids made maps and invented their own stories.  They challenged each other with impromptu trivia quizzes.  We took field trips to visit settings (or places very like the settings) of our favorite books.  And we parents stepped back, giving the kids the freedom to be Swallows or Bastables or Hobbits.

Looking back, I now realize that my friends and I did the same in 5th grade. Maybe I deserved a C, but I unschooled an A's worth of memories.