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Big Learning News 10-11-06

Big Learning News
Karen Cole's Guide to Real-World Learning with Kids
Issue 4:34 October 11, 2006

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Table of Contents
Math Moment: Caffeine content of soft drinks
Activity: Pinwheels Plus

Book Review: Hoot
Education news: Must we teach to the test?
Web Site : Let them sing it for you

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Math Moment

Soft Drink Caffeine Content


Caffeine is a drug found in many soft drinks. It can make kids jumpy or keep them awake. It's not a nutrient.

But different drinks have different amounts of caffeine. Caffeine doses are measured by weight, in milligrams (mg). One milligram is 1/1000 of a gram, which is like saying 1/1000 of the weight of a U.S. dollar bill (I just learned that a dollar bill weighs about a gram!). So it's powerful stuff - a very small amount by weight is enough to have an effect.

So, the math:

To teach kids about milligrams (a metric unit of measurement), let them hold a dollar bill, and then imagine cutting it into 1000 pieces. Tear a tiny scrap off of it and let them feel the weight.

For young kids, you can show them the chart on the kidshealth page (near the bottom) or the mayo clinic page (click on the soft drink tab) and ask them to find the the drinks that have the most caffeine and the least - the biggest and smallest numbers. A good way to practice reading and comparing numbers less than 100. You could even let them count out scraps of paper - 35 scraps to represent 35 milligrams.

For older kids, show them the chart at biglearning.org . Ask them to find their favorite drink and estimate how many milligrams of caffeine it contains. That's good practice reading bar graphs.

More Fun Math for Kids

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Make Pinwheels

I have this fear that my kids will get through their entire childhood without me teaching them all the essential kid lore. In addition to all the basic knock-knock jokes and card games, everyone should know how to make all the classic instant toys. The ability to make newspaper hats, paper footballs... that's what they should put on those high-school graduation tests.

So today's subject is pinwheels, a fun instant toy and a great Big Learning opportunity.

How to Make a Pinwheel

1. Cut a square piece of paper.

2. Cut inward from each corner, 1/3 of the way to the center as shown here.

3. Gently bend one side of each corner to touch the center.

4. Stick a pin through all 4 bent corners and the center.

5. Stick the other end of the pin into a dowel, pencil eraser, or straw to make the handle.

Pinwheel Challenges

Here are some challenges for your kids once they get the hang of making pinwheels:

1. Optical illusions. Decorate the pinwheel so it makes cool patterns when it spins.

2. Wind lessons: Hold the pinwheel in front of a spinning fan. Turn the handle side to side, and observe how fast the pinwheel spins. Is it best for the pinwheel to face directly into the "wind" or does it go faster when the wind hits the pinwheel at an angle? Why would that be true? Now change the speed of the fan. Is more wind necessarily better, or does the pinwheel work better at a medium or low wind speed?

3. Engineering lessons. Try making three pinwheels all the same size, but out of different weights of paper or craft foam. How does the material affect the pinwheel's performance? Now make three pinwheels out of a single material, but different sizes. Test how size affects performance.

4. Geometry: Is it possible to make a pinwheel out of another shape besides a square? How could you make one with more petals? What if you use a circle?

More instant toys to make

Whirligigs and Spinning Tops
Paper Doll Chains
Mobius Strips

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Book Review

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf , 2004)

Ages 9 and up

In case your child needs another reason to read this laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly deep Newberry winner, I'll tell you that it has some good wilderness tips - some potentially life saving. In fact, a kid can learn a lot about nature, habitats, and the impact of development. Also some first aid.

In the book, a nature-loving middle-schooler named Roy finds himself living Clearwater, Florida as a result of his dad's transfer. Still mourning the loss of his beloved previous home in Montana, he meets a mysterious boy who gets him involved in the fight to save an owl habitat from being bulldozed.

Roy knows a lot about nature from living in Montana, and a lot about life due to frequent family moves. It all comes through in this very funny, thoughtful, and engaging story. Don't miss it.


Buying Information

Related Reviews

Nature Books for Kids

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Education News for Adults

Must we teach to the test?



We live in a "culture of testing" says the Washington Post, and kids are facing tests as young as preschool. No one with any integrity or knowledge of the subject thinks this is a good idea - tests are notoriously unreliable for kids that young. Think about it - could you get a three-year-old to stop looking at the doggy and take a test?

Teachers who test preschoolers, according to the article, say they have little choice, because kids will be at a disadvantage in kindergarten if they aren't prepped in preschool.

But maybe not. The Seattle Times offers us a ray of hope. Here's a school, Van Asselt Elementary, with a high-poverty population. It's located in southeast Seattle, in a state where schools live and die by the WASL state test.

Amazingly, they've decided to ignore the tests except for a few weeks before the mandatory state exam. Instead, they concentrate on good old fashioned teaching and learning.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat visited Van Asselt to find out how it still managed to place in the top 20 Seattle schools. He found out two really great things:

1. They try to make sure kids have a great day at school. Three recesses, plus plenty of art, music, and PE. Fourth grade teacher Edmund Wong explains that kids learn better that way.

"'Class has got to be engaging and creative or they won't learn,' he said. 'If I teach to the test I won't even get their attention.'"

2. They aim instruction at the most "gifted and talented" kids. It turns out everyone learns more when the school packs instruction with robust content. Contrast this with the more common strategy of teaching to the "middle," or the recently-popular strategy of focusing instruction on the lowest-scoring kids, in hopes of keeping a school out of the low-score dog house. Which kind of school would you rather attend? Which kind of school would you rather your children attend?

I think there are many principles showing the same courage Van Asselt's principal must have, by taking a chance on really exciting teaching and let the test take care of itself. I hope we hear more about them.

Recent Education News Commentaries

Homework again
Free to roam?

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Web Site

Let them sing it for you


I'm all for any site that encourages creativity through writing or music. In this site, you type text into a window and press "Play." You'll hear each word of your message sung - each word extracted from a different popular recording. For example, the word "I" is taken from Chris Isaac singing "I - wanna fall in love." Grownups will enjoy playing Name-That-Tune while kids will enjoy just writing things and playing them back.

Warning: the site is quite willing to sing obscene words if they are typed in the box. But your child would never think of doing that, right?

More creative music activities

Book review: Kids Make Music

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Big Learning News (c) 2006 Karen Cole

Content meant for adults and provided for informational purposes only - readers are responsible for previewing all materials and activities for suitability and safety before sharing them with children.
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