Stories from a Life I Didn't Plan

Month: December 2014

What Makes Elementary Science so Exciting

What Makes Elementary Science so Exciting

Teaching elementary science is one of the rewards of teaching primary grade students. What makes elementary science so exciting is that I have the privilege of introducing students to how to observe their world and how they can learn from their observations.

Year after year, I am surprised and elated to see how excited students become when we begin to study matter and how matter can change from one state to another. We jokingly talk about watching the grass grow as a euphemism for tedium. However for young learners, observations about their world and how to make sense of these observations in scientific ways in spellbinding and highly dramatic, while perhaps bordering on the monotonous for the more experienced observer. In out study of matter, some of our recent observations include watching ice melt, mixing salt with water,  and watching a balloon inflate.

While everyday occurrences for most of us, these simple acts demonstrate the transformation of solid to liquid, the constancy of solid when mixed with liquid, and that the invisible gas we call air will fill whatever container we force it into. One day, we even drew a chalk line around the perimeter of a large puddle on the playground and watched as the water receded from its chalky border and the wind hastened its evaporation. Each recess, students ran to the puddle to see how much smaller it had become. After our extended drought, how wonderful to have some rain filled puddles and then a sunny break to watch Mother Nature work her evaporative miracle.

One of our more dramatic science projects in our study of matter are include dropping baking soda from a balloon placed over the mouth of a water bottle into the pool of vinegar in the bottom of the bottle. The resulting bubbling gas filled first the bottle and then the balloon–beyond the bursting point–accompanied bysqueals of excitement and awe. Truly an exciting and unforgettable moment.

Another scientific favorite was placing an “empty” 1.5 liter bottle with a balloon covered mouth into a container of hot water. While I call the bottle empty, one of the most important concepts my teaching partner and I have tried to demonstrate to students is that gas is all around us and even though we cannot see it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fill cups, bottles, and the space that surrounds us. Students were spellbound to watch the balloon inflate quickly when placed in the hot water and slowly deflate when take out. The process was accelerated by moving the bottle quickly from the container of hot water into a container of cold tap water. Sounds of delight came from all around the classroom as students observed repeatedly the same phenomenon.

What Makes Elementary Science so Exciting

What Makes Elementary Science so Exciting Is the Students’ Joy and Wonder

A joyful experiment was what makes a simple kite fly. Each student made their own kite and attempted to make it take flight. There were varying degrees of success, but the mystery of flight held them spellbound.

Some days when I use my microwave, it is kind of like those simple elementary science experiments. As I was wiping out food cooked to the exploding point, I found myself mulling over the elementary science of why and wishing I had taken some simple steps to contain the explosion more effectively and minimize my unpleasant cleanup task. Still, I suppose my wonder over the “why” and “what would happen if” over my dreary domestic disaster means that along with my young students, I love observing the world around me and trying to figure out what makes it tick. That is what makes elementary science so exciting.

Christmas Lights

Christmas Lights Los Gatos cropAlong with  watching predictably saccharine sweet holiday movies, baking Christmas treats, and wrapping presents, driving around looking at holiday light displays is one of my favorite seasonal pastimes. Each year, I drive out in search of new neighborhoods with creative expressions of seasonal cheer. Although it would be  impressive to say my annual wanderings are researched thoroughly and plotted unfailingly, my navigational weakness means that more often than not I chance upon newfound delights by mere serendipity or the happenstance of taking a wrong turn.

This year, I stumbled across two delightful, though very distinct, displays in my wanderings. My first find featured the mature trees lining a lovely neighborhood lane. Although some of the homes were tastefully decorated, the highlight of the block for me was the light-wrapped tree trunks lining the street. Even houses that opted out of house lights had a wrapped tree near the street, creating a unified theme. The lighted trunks created a simple, but breathtaking effect, transforming the entire street with the magic of the season.

The second find was an individual house on my drive home from the grocery store. Driving along a residential street after an evening stop at a nearby store, I happened to notice lighted windows in a house and upon closer inspection noticed the windows were filled with scenes created using different kinds of holiday dolls.

Doll House 1croppedAlthough the photos I snapped do not do justice to the seasonal whimsy displayed in each tableau, the essence of the holiday cheer captured in these window vignettes inspired me with the childlike wonder I associate with Christmas. Each window features a different theme, but with equally delightful results. I drove away from the house feeling cheery with childlike wonder inspired by the seasonal display.

While  tinsel and colorful displays of lights do not capture the heart of the season, I found they can bring cheer and delight to the harried shopper trying to cross one more thing off of detailed wish lists. In those moments of pausing to listen and look around, I somehow find time and space to celebrate and commemorate Advent.

In these busy, task-filled days, may you find quiet moments of peace, joy and celebration.



Christmas Traditions

Christmas CookiesAlthough my Christmas tree has been up and decorated for over a month, the busyness of the season has kept me preoccupied and in seeming perpetual motion–up until a couple of days ago. This celebratory weekend started off Friday with a favorite of my Christmas Traditions: an evening with a play and sing along of Handel’s Messiah in exquisite Memorial Church at Stanford University. The grandeur of the historic church as melodic voices raised the unequaled notes of Handel’s masterpiece.

Saturday, I finally settled on a recipe for the school potluck get together and went off to the grocery store. The funny thing is that I didn’t realize a parent of a child I have taught checks at the grocery story where I sometimes shop. Much to my consternation, when I got to the checkstand I was greeted by name before I even provided any form of payment with my name on it. At that point I realized who was going to ring up my purchase. Knowing somebody there helps me feel more like I am part of a community and not just an insignificant digit after the decimal point on the population sign of the third most populated city in California.

Once I had the groceries, I just needed a mini muffin tin to make the Spanakopita Bites I had settled on for the potluck. I tried to pop into a couple of overcrowded stores with ridiculously long lines of customers waiting to check out, I decided I would improvise somehow. Since I have lived this long without ever needing mini muffin tins, I realized it would have been a frivolous purchase. Instead, I chose to go with  spanakopita cups made in regular-sized muffin tins and after my experience layering and buttering phyllo dough before adding the filling, I am certainly relieved I hadn’t purchased mini muffin tins. I doubt I would have made it to the get together. It would have taken forever. As it was, I was just a half an hour after start time, but still well before about half of the other attendees. It was a fun evening of chatting and talking about our upcoming break.

After cleaning up the dishes remaining from making my holiday Spanakopita Bites, which seemed like it took forever, I made a midday meal, creating even more dishes.

I geared up to make a holiday dessert for another upcoming get together. As a girl, one of my favorite Christmas traditions was making Christmas cut out cookies. Although she usually mixed up the dough, my mom would marshal my three sisters and me into the kitchen to cut out, bake, and decorate gingerbread and sugar cookies. My warm, happy holiday memory of cookie making is one that has persisted and a tradition that I have duplicated over the years. However, for the past couple of years I have lived in a house with a very small kitchen that was not at all conducive to cooking. Now that I have moved into a home with a spacious, newly remodeled kitchen, my joy in cooking and baking has resurged. I find it satisfying and relaxing, kitchen clean up notwithstanding.

Just as I was getting organizing things for baking cookies, a friend unexpectedly popped over. We had a makeshift dinner and then after a quick run to the store for essential ingredients for gingerbread, began mixing up cookies. Just like when I was little and my sisters and I all worked together in the kitchen, my friend measured out the dry ingredients while I creamed and mixed the rest. We each took a turn mixing the two together and when it was divided and wrapped for the refrigerator, we whipped up some buttercream frosting for decorating our spicy little figures before settling in to watch a Christmas movie while waiting for the dough to chill.

After waiting as long as possible in the face of the enticement of spicy gingerbread, we went back to the kitchen and armed with our own rolling pins and bits of dough, we started rolling and forming our Christmas gingerbread cookies. As I rolled and cut the dough, I thought about how long it had been since I had made Christmas cookies and then suddenly got caught up in the joyful rhythm of rolling, cutting, and placing cookies on my quickly filled baking sheet. Before long the cookies were out of the oven and cooling on a wire rack. In the meantime we mixed color into bowlfuls of frosting and began assembly pastry bags for decorating our gingery shapes. Anxious to begin, the first too-warm cookie caused the frosting to run. So, I slowed down and let the rest cool a little more before deciding how to decorate each one.

In spite of the fact that I ended the day just as it started–with a sink full of dishes to be washed–I have a deep sense of contentment and accomplishment. Although I have few baked cookies left to show for my efforts, I am filled with the joy of sharing a simple holiday tradition, inviting someone to share my kitchen, and devouring decorated gingerbread cookies and icy glasses of milk in wreath-decked glass holiday tumblers.


Turkey Trot of a Different Sort

A Turkey Trot of a different sort. Like everything this year, even the Turkey Trot was a little different. Over the past few years, I have participated in the Turkey Trot with my older sister. Running the Turkey Trot with my sister has become a delightful tradition that I have come to anticipate each year. Unfortunately, for the past two Thanksgivings I have been unable to be with my sister and have missed our festive Thanksgiving morning excursions. Turkey Trot of a Different Sort

This year, on the day after Thanksgiving I had my own little Turkey Trot. While driving down a residential street in a Bay Area city, I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable profile of a female turkey lounging on the grass next to a parked car. Incredulous that the feathered creature had survived our day of giving thanks, I quickly pulled over so my passenger and I could jump out to see this surprising city dweller.

The turkey was still on high alert, so it took off at full speed. I was amazed at how fast a turkey runs. While not exactly a roadrunner, the bird made good time and ultimately escaped our attempt to box it in. In spite of the turkey’s hurried escape, it was quite an enjoyably unexpected escapade.

Ironically, a couple of hours later as I traveled down the same street I spied a beautiful, fluffy black and white-haired creature scurrying across the street and onto the lawn of a well-populated housing complex. With tail held high as it scuttled along, the creature quickly disappeared without me becoming even the slightest bit tempted to pull over to investigate more closely.

Later, I realized my drive down the same street might be somewhat of a metaphor for life. Sometimes a turkey in your path can be easily driven away and other times just staying the course can help avoid a real stink.


Political Phone Bank Cold Calls

Political Phone Bank Cold Calls

Making political phone bank cold calls was never something I envisioned doing. As an introvert, the thought of talking to some unknown person on the other end of the line was a rather daunting prospect. However, recently, I became part of something I normally avoid: political action. In part because of the extreme polarization of the political system in the United States and also due to my experience living overseas for a number of years, I normally avoid discussions about politics and do not really engage with the process except for getting out to cast my vote and proudly wearing my “I Voted” sticker. However, a couple of the races in the recent elections in California had the potential to impact my life in rather significant ways. Consequently, when volunteers were requested for precinct walking and phone banking, I realized I needed to be involved and participate in a phone bank for a local election.

Contrary to my expectation, phone bank calling was virtually painless. I found it was relatively non-threatening. Most people let the unrecognized phone number I was calling from go straight to voicemail, but a few kind souls took a couple of minutes to listen and a few agreed to consider voting for the candidate I supported. Others said they had already voted. Still others said they have moved and not eligible to vote in the school board election or simply were not the person I thought I was calling. Gratefully, not one of these wary voters was rude or slammed down the phone in my ear.

After a while, I found the calls to be more of a challenge and less of a threat. In fact, I was proud of becoming more natural with the script and making it through my entire list of telephone numbers in the two hours I spent calling.

Unfortunately, my effort turned out to be in vain. The candidate I supported lost the election. But, I think I may be hooked on making political phone bank cold calls. And who knows, maybe I will even take a summer job as a telemarketer!


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