Reading, Observation, & Funky Times


books, reading, girl

When we read, we are doing far more than interpreting symbols on a page.  We are privileged.  We are invited guests.  We are peeking through windows, listening through keyholes, using context clues to figure out what’s going on in both familiar and unfamiliar environments.  Our ability to put things in order, in our minds, as we read and observe a writer’s thoughts about math, history, Victorian England, Hogwarts, Narnia, cooking, movies, music, parenting, government, politics, religion, nursery rhymes, nonsense, facts, fiction. . . . anything, really, corresponds with our ability to put things in order when things are standing before us in real life.  In many ways, books ARE real life, and any time we are privileged to share another person’s thoughts and opinions, we should also be analyzing environment, facts, opinions, books, reading, boyand actions, for all of these things, and many more, are what make up life.  And life, of course, can be lived in many different ways, according to the context of the moment.

Readers are observers, of lives other than their own.  Readers are observers, and will often see what non-readers overlook.

Did I mention that readers are observers?  Let’s have a little fun with that philosophy.

Well, that was pretty cool.  Let’s think about it.  Okay, now let’s do it, too!

Something happened in class a few minutes ago.  What was it all about?  Your powers of observation are connected to your ability to understand context, and to make connections.

  1. What liquid did the professor pour into that cup?
  2. Are you sure that’s what it was? Are you SURE?
  3. What is the name of the student on whose head the cup was overturned?
  4. What is the first thing the professor said, after turning the cup upside-down on the student’s head?
  5. Did the overturned cup contain water?
  6. What else was in the overturned cup?
  7. If the overturned cup contained plain water, what should have happened when the pencil pierced it and was then removed?
  8. What does the substance in the overturned cup have to do with anything else you have learned in this class?
  9. Will the substance in the cup remain like that forever?  How do you know?
  10. What did this science experiment have to do with an exercise in reading?

Now, take your sample home and see how observant your family might be.  Those who are readers will usually do better than those who don’t read as much.

Science and reading and connections, oh my. . . . .


My Time as a Teacher

I have a newfound respect for teachers and educators. Wow. On May 12th, I had my first solo experience in a classroom.

As a member of the Steve Spangler Science family for almost 5 years, I have helped perform science demonstrations on a few separate occasions. All of these were done with training and practice with Steve at the office. This time was different… I was on my own.

I’m recently married and blessed with two amazing step sons, the youngest in kindergarten. His teacher recently asked me if I’d like to help with their kindergarten & fourth grade science day, as she had purchased a substantial number of Steve Spangler Science kits. As if I could turn down an opportunity to play with science gear alongside six- and ten-year-olds.

Excitement filled me over the weekend. Quality time with my son coupled with awesome science and an opportunity to teach? Count me in, one hundred times. Monday morning, however, I felt like my kindergartner. Anxiety had coupled with excitement to create a concoction of nerves like I had never felt. Oh man… I was going to be teaching.

Arriving in the classroom saw my nerves spike to their zenith. All those tiny, little eyes fixated on me and my bag of science goodies. My face definitely flushed a bit, but it was broken by my son’s, “Hi, Dad!” I could do this. It’s just like coaching soccer!

The line-up of demonstrations the teacher and I had planned ranged from Insta-Snow (a HUGE hit) to Dancing Spaghetti, using both household items and Spangler-created kits, but we started with the Energy Stick. An eager volunteer hopped up in front of the classroom to help demonstrate the concept of an open or closed circuit. Eyes lit up and ears perked as the lights and sounds of the Energy Stick filled the classroom. I could TOTALLY do this.

(SIDE NOTE: A good friend’s son was in the 4th grade class. That night, she sent a text to tell me that her son wouldn’t stop talking about and designing open and closed circuits. Science success, I do declare.)

The Energy Stick led into polymer science: Insta-Worms, Insta-Snow, and Vanishing Jelly Marbles. The teacher read Diary of a Worm aloud to the class to help tie literature into the Insta-Worms demonstration. We discussed the ties between Insta-Snow and baby diapers, and we laughed at the squishy texture of Jelly Marbles. I didn’t have to worry about the occasional stutter or awkward pause. This group of kids stared and waited on my words like I was Neil deGrasse Tyson and they were a astrophysicist-filled lecture hall. Oh yeah… I was doing this.

We capped off the hands-on demos with candy science involving Gobstoppers and M&Ms, and the grand finale of Film Canister Explosions. I’ve seen and performed the Film Canister Explosion demo a bunch of times, for teachers and students. Never have I witnessed a reaction like this before. There were screams from some of the girls, “Awesome!” from a lot of the boys, and a massive gasp from the teacher. It was absolutely brilliant. Naturally, we did it twice more in the classroom, before finishing with a rocket launch in the rain. I did it!

Teachers! I get it. I understand exactly why you work for substantially less pay than you should. I know the feeling you get when a complex subject (i.e. carbon dioxide gas from vinegar and baking soda) clicks in a young mind. I can feel what makes you want to work extra hours on your evenings and weekends, just to make sure you can cover all you want to this year. I GET IT! You put so much out there, because you get so much back. It might not always be material, immediate, or it might not even be noticeable. It is, however, so worth it.

Water Jelly Crystals Give Lesson in Transformation and Potential

water jelly crystals, potential Sometimes, our students need a little reminder that if they just wait, if they just have a little patience, wonderful things can happen. Many students don’t understand this concept unless they see a tangible example of it, and Steve Spangler’s Water Jelly Crystals are the perfect way to show them.

There is science in every subject area, and this simple experiment demonstrates to any history, English, math, health, home ec, shop, computer, yes, and science, student the very simple concept of amazing transformation, the blossoming of potential, with the addition of just one thing.

At the beginning of class, I show the students the tiny, unimpressive-looking little beads that resemble the rock salt used in winter or with homemade ice cream. What could possibly come of adding just one more thing to these hard, unattractive things?

So I put them in a clear glass bowl and add one ingredient – water. Just water.  I send a student to fill the pitcher so they’ll know it’s no trick – it really is just water.  I ask the students to let us all know if they see anything change.

Class begins as usual.

It only takes about 20 minutes for someone to stand up and say something, and that something is usually, “WOW! Look at it! Look at it, you guys!”

Because with the addition of just one simple thing, a few mundane pieces (of what looks like nothing much) have become a treasure trove of glittering jewels.

This is what education does, you see. Add one simple thing to one other simple thing and the end result is something unutterably beautiful.

It’s also a lesson in polymers, but on this particular day, it’s the transformation from blah to pirate booty that is emphasized.

It’s so simple. It’s so beautiful. And it’s a lesson that is easily understood and remembered.

I bring baggies so the students can help themselves to a handful of “gems” to take home and nourish. With education, we need to keep feeding our knowledge – that’s how things grow.

I have students who are still nurturing 6-year-old water jelly crystals on their windowsills. This makes me really, really happy.

In Her Own Words – One Teacher’s Support for Full Day Kindergarten Funding

Education remains a huge part of the national debate – how do we fund it, maintain competitive teacher salaries, encourage thoughtful learning, teach to the test and fairly equalize learning opportunities for all American children?

Should Full Day Kindergarten Be Fully Funded - A Teacher's Own Words & Thoughts | Steve Spangler Science

In Colorado, two of our state’s largest school districts have “reformer” school board majorities. These Board of Education members lack the expertise and experience needed to make decisions for thousands of Colorado students. They promised to reform and clean up the districts but instead are pulling funding from lower income children, teacher salaries and overall education improvement. All of this to support their personal beliefs, rather than the needs of thousands of students and their teachers.

Instead of taking our schools forward, these inexperienced extremists  are dismantling the core of some of the strongest school districts not only in Colorado but across the nation.

Do you really know who you are voting onto your Board of Education?

A recent debate in the Jefferson County School District continues over the funding for lower income students and full day kindergarten. The JeffCo BOE wants to cut $600,000 from the budget that would go towards providing hundreds of students with free full day kindergarten.

Despite a popular majority for the funding, the BOE will not approve it. At a recent BOE meeting, I met a teacher via Twitter who was one of hundreds of parents, teachers and students who spoke up in favor of full day kindergarten after one out of touch board member called it ‘playtime’.

I was so inspired by her bravery and speech for the BOE that I asked permission to share what she told the board. In the spirit of Teacher Appreciation Week, this is a teacher who is the foundation of teaching, a love of learning…


Are YOU really doing what is best for these kids?
by Robin McKinnon, Jefferson County Kindergarten Teacher

As our School Board, exactly who are you representing?

You might list some statistics – our best TCAP score.
You might mention “we build bright futures” – that little purple star.
You might rattle off some celebrities – Major League pitcher Roy Halliday. Or Associate Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court Brian Boatright  or U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team forward Lindsey Horan.  Or Chevron Corporation Executive Vice President Michael Wirth. Or maybe you’ve heard of ’em – The Fray.

You might say we’re the largest school district in Colorado. That we serve 84,000 students and we have 148 schools…but we’re more than 148 schools.

These things DON’T DEFINE us.

Many of us have grown up in this district and can stand here today with an ounce of hope. Because WE ARE JEFFCO and we will rise above as the world has watched us do before.

I walked through a JeffCo door in 1985.  I held hands with Kelly Shin, pushed out my quivering chin, gripped my California Raisin lunchbox and marched forward. It was the gentle care of Mrs. Eichman who made me want to come back the next day.

You have ALL walked through the doors of kindergarten. MORE IMPORTANTLY your CHILDREN have walked through OUR doors.

The graduating class of 2027 will walk into MY door in three and a half months.

Is Kindergarten even academic?

I am teaching my students to dream big. They are more than a purple star and a slogan. They are more than a TCAP score.

I do more than raise achievement.
And teach to the core.

I am more than a sweet bulletin board.

Or a well polished SMART Board.

Because I care.

I will not compromise their future.

I want to be a part of this district reaching its goals. 

I am more than a lesson planner and a classroom manager. 

Because I’ve walked through those doors.

I am a lifelong learner, and a TEACHER who will not be bullied into silence. 

I am the safe space when things get scary.

The lock-down assurance.

Their human shield.

AND the undisputed understanding that things will be okay.

I am a gingerbread hunt creating life from the words on pages.

I am the best Mother’s day tea you have ever had.

I am a song that puts knowledge into your heart.

I am the painting that makes creativity come to life.

I am a clay project, math cubes, morning hugs, a new pencil and a journal with huge handwriting, working at a tiny chair at the tiniest tables, counting on fingers, a puzzle done in a team with no missing pieces, a globe showing just how close we really are.

Do Not Say “been there, done that” unless you’ve walked through my doors.

Unless you’ve

  • helped write a research paper
  • pen-pal’d with teachers all over the world
  • helped give the words to STAND UP to a BULLY
  • taught that life is valuable and precious and that WE belong together no matter our religion, size, ethnicity OR class.

I am the foundation of teaching, the love of learning.

Looking for YOU ALL to believe in me.

For these kids.


Ms. McKinnon – we believe in you and all the kids you and the thousands of teachers across our state and nation who are truly the foundation of teaching, the love of learning.

Ron Wright was the Right Teacher – Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week

Up until my sophomore year of high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Most people can probably say that, in one way or another. “I don’t know what I want to do after high school/college/this job.” I’ve heard hundreds of people say something similar to that phrase, and I have probably said it hundreds of times. My sophomore year of high school altered that, drastically.

In Celebration of Teacher Appreciation - Mr. Wright was the Right Teacher

I was great at math. I was on the fast track to knocking out college trigonometry, statistics, and calculus before I wrapped-up high school, but I didn’t enjoy math. I didn’t like that answers were definite; no interpretation was allowed, only extrapolation. I did enjoy science, though. I loved the uncertainties of chemical combinations, water-bottle rockets, and testing and retesting our local river’s acidity. In the end, guidelines and processes turned me off to practicing science (and the math that coincides), long term. Enter: creative writing.

I had always been an avid reader. I loved the Boxcar Children, Wishbone, and Everworld books. In middle school, I had started writing for me. Poetry, mostly, but I also wound up writing sports and special events articles for our local newspaper. People told me that I had a gift for writing, but it was just an outlet and a way for a bit of cash to wander into my pocket. Mr. Ron Wright changed all of that.

Until Mr. Wright, my English teachers had been comprised of proverbial grammar sticklers and the like. But that very well might have been misperception on my part. I didn’t particularly enjoy writing because of the time it consumed. Writing took thought and concentration. I didn’t want to make the necessary effort to write things that were worth while. I wrote to get emotions out of the way so that I could focus on sports.

Then Mr. Wright introduced me to the type of writing that I now love. Mr. Wright showed me how much power a string of words is capable of producing. I learned the time and energy dedicated to constructing a flowing, full-bodied paragraph of text is worth it. Well worth it. The emotions, persuasion, debate, and story-telling became something that I strived for, and continue to do.

I was gifted such a passion to continue writing instilled in me that my list of prospective professions began to include writing for Rolling Stone and editing for The New York Times, in addition to the professional basketball and football dreams I maintained. I began to submit creative nonfiction pieces to magazines and journals, continued to write poetry, and actually cared about what I was writing for the local newspaper.

In my mind, at the very least, I owe much of this to Mr. Wright. His passion had rubbed off of his usual grey cardigan onto my stupid, wrinkled t-shirt. His methods of teaching, from the way he offered criticism to the weeks we would spend reading each other’s original pieces, gave me what I needed to understand what it would take to write for a living. Then he quit.

My unknowing mentor called it quits at our school before my senior year of high school. I was devastated. Mr. Wright was being replaced by a recent graduate that I didn’t connect with, on any level. I didn’t respect them. I know that as a student (especially one in high school), I never learned a thing from the new teacher because of this immediate distaste. I probably owe the teacher an apology for that (Does this count?), but it wasn’t something that either of us had real control over.

It has been 10 years since Mr. Wright moved on. I don’t remember ever properly thanking him for what he did for me. There were rumors floating around my graduation in 2005 that he was somewhere in our gymnasium, but I never saw him. I owe much more to him then I ever realized at the time.

So, if you see Ron Wright, his salt-and-pepper (or… all salt, at this point) beard, laughter-filled eyes, or caring smile, let him know that DJ says thank you. Thank you for helping me realize my potential as a writer. Thank you for letting me in on the secrets of enjoying what you do. And thank you for showing my how much life comes through a pen.