Monday, November 30, 2009

A Passion For Volcanoes

On Saturday I wrote about Thomas and how we tapped into his abiding interest in tools to get the whole class excited about a project. I mentioned then that there is no greater teaching aid than one child’s driving passion. Calvin is the kid who taught me this lesson during my first year as a teacher.

Calvin was the oldest child in class by almost 6 months, but the fact that he had a 17-year-old brother living at home was what really gave him the edge in terms of maturity and sophistication. He had simply been exposed to more, and more exciting, things than his classmates, experiences he brought into the classroom every day.

One of those experiences was having once taken part in a baking soda and vinegar “volcano” experiment. At least once a day he would raise his hand to regale the rest of us with the magnificence of the volcano he had seen and to suggest that we erupt one of our own. Now I had nothing against the baking soda-vinegar scientific phenomenon, but I considered it such a short-lived, one-trick pony that it didn’t seem it would be worth the effort to create an entire volcano for a 5 second eruption. However, my alternative, which was to demonstrate the chemical reaction in a bottle, did not satisfy Calvin.

It had to be a volcano and by this time he had several other kids on his bandwagon, so I decided this would have to be a job for our Pre-K class. We started with an empty 2-litre pop bottle, put it on the center of a piece of thin pressboard, and made a framework of masking tape sloping away from the aperture and down to the edges of the board. We then mixed a batch of paper mache paste, tore strips of newspaper, and over the course of the next two weeks built our volcano.

I was pretty proud of us. The plan was for the maiden eruption to take place on the following Tuesday afternoon, but as we prepared for the big event, Calvin stopped us. “That doesn’t really look like a volcano. Volcanoes are brown.”

The result of the subsequent group discussion was that we would, indeed paint our volcano, but that it would be a “rainbow” volcano, in spite of Calvin’s repeated grumbling that volcanoes are brown or “maybe gray.” We broke out the primary and secondary tempera paints, created our rainbow volcano, decided it needed to dry before we erupted it and moved on to other things. At least, the rest of us moved on. Calvin remained behind, brush in hand, and hurriedly proceeded to blend our rainbow colors into wonderfully marbled brownish-gray that still contained naturalistic stripes of yellow, green and red.

I was prepared to go through a big I’m-disappointed-your-friends-agreed-on-rainbow episode, but none of Calvin’s classmates complained when they saw it. In fact, several of them marveled at how it looked like a real volcano, so I skipped the lecture and let it go, putting it aside to dry.

Our art project that day involved using salt (although I can’t recall the specific project). Several of the children carried fistfuls of salt to the still-wet volcano and gave it a pretty good dusting with the stuff. This was one of those miraculous accidents. It caused our volcano to look like it was made from granite.

The new plan was to erupt our creation on the following Tuesday. Since we had talked so much about what volcanoes looked like, I brought in dozens of photos of real volcanoes for us to look at, including several of the volcanoes among which we live here in the Great Northwest. Most of the children gave the photos no more than a cursory look – after all, they just look like the mountains we see every day – but Calvin collected the photos on his lap and got lost in examining them. As the rest of us contemplated the eruption, he studied those photos. Finally, he said, “Our volcano doesn’t have any trees.”

“Trees! Trees!” everyone wanted trees. “And snow,” Calvin pointed out. “See? There’s snow on a lot of them.”

Not having come prepared with anything more creative, we settled on cotton balls, which we painted green to serve as trees and mixed a batch of white paint and glue to stand-in for snow. Calvin more or less managed this process, with his classmates accepting his direction without question. He’d earned our respect by getting us this far.

The one thing we really hadn’t spent much time talking about up to this point was lava. For our next class session I brought in photos of eruptions and a diagram that showed the interior of a volcano. I also, for the fourth week running, had the baking soda and vinegar available. Calvin observed, “Baking soda is white. Vinegar is clear. Lava is orange. We’ll have to add paint to it.” By now his classmates were prepared to agree with anything Calvin suggested when it came to volcanoes, and this idea was readily accepted.

With a great deal of fanfare we finally prepared our volcano for its eruption. We used a funnel to introduce the baking soda. We then gave it a healthy squirt of orange liquid watercolor. We then added some liquid dishwashing detergent (a trick I’d come across in doing some of the copious reading inspired by Calvin’s passion). And then we added the vinegar.

We waited. For those of you familiar with the usual violence of the baking soda-vinegar chemical reaction, waiting is typically a sign that you need to add more ingredients, but the function of the dish soap is to retard explosiveness and replace it with a frothy lava that flows rather than explodes. Soon the bright orange lava began to push its way out of the opening and rush down the mountainside, winding its way through channels created by our “trees.”

The eruption lasted a good 10 minutes and we cheered the entire time.

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Eternal Lizdom said...

I love it!!!! This is totally the kind of thing my husband would love to do with our kids!

Domestic CEO said...

Gotta love when one kid's obsession can carry the whole class along. I have to remember the trick about adding dish soap next time I try it.

Michelle said...

That is so SO cool. I wish I had been there. I love stuff like that... can I come play in your classroom and make my own?

We actually have a little Dixie cup in a Ziploc with the ingredients for a volcano that I keep meaning to pull out... and now I might have to at the very least add the dishwashing liquid.

I'm just bummed there were no pictures. Or video ;)

MOM #1 said...

I was hoping for photos too. That sounds like a great project and I think Calvin just may be a natural born leader.

Anonymous said...

What is it with little boys and explosions? That was always a big hit at science fairs when I was in school.

Launa Hall said...

Awesome. I wish I had been there, though your description made me feel I was. Loved hearing about Calvin--made me think of Reeny, the student-leader in Vivian Gussin Paley's The Girl with the Brown Crayon.

Deborah Stewart said...

I love how you continually adapted your project based on what you had in the classroom and the wishes of the children. I kept waiting for you to say the volcano didn't erupt:) I am glad to hear that it was a big bang!

Unknown said...

I couldn't wait to read the conclusion! So exciting. Love that you even added orange paint. I think Kaish and Shoshi and I will do that one day!

Monkey's Mama said...

Logan would dig on this. Very cool!