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Expeditionary Learning Through 17-Year Cicadas

If you live on the East Coast, chances are you’ve heard about this summer’s emergence of Brood II cicadas.  Cicadas are winged insects that live underground most of their lives, sucking on the xylem (sap) from roots of trees.  When the ground temperature 8″ below the surface reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit, they will emerge and transform into their final adult form.  They ascend into nearby trees, shed their skin one last time, grow wings, and set off to mate.  Some species are annual cicadas and emerge every year.  However, Brood II cicadas only emerge every 17 years and do so by the millions.

I teach at an Expeditionary Learning school, and teachers are encouraged to design curriculum through expeditions.  Expeditions are rich units that engage students by investigating some compelling question(s).  When I first read about the 17-year cicadas that would swarm North Carolina to Connecticut, it seemed like the perfect topic for my sixth grade math students.

We began the unit by Building Background Knowledge.  First we listened to audio of the male cicada mating call.  Students wondered what it could be, and then we showed them the associated video.  We watched another video and discussed some cicada facts.  Then students created a KWL chart of what they Knew and Wondered.  (Later, we would add the other things the class Learned).  Our guiding question was, “Where can we find mathematics in nature?”

The guiding question led us to explore why periodical cicadas only emerge every 13 or 17 years.  We looked at the Sieve of Erastosthenes, prime numbers, factors and multiples.  Then we practiced converting between fractions, decimals, and percents by creating surveys and representing the results in various ways.  Students wanted to know if they could outrun a swarm of cicadas flying towards them, so we went outside and measured how fast different sixth graders could run.  We explored measures of central tendency to see how fast an “average” sixth grader was.  Finally, we looked at a cicada cookbook and practiced scaling recipes.  Here is a link to many of the resources I used for this unit.

Students were disgusted and enthralled by the idea of eating cicadas!  It was unfortunate that they made such a minimal appearance in New York City, especially after all of my build up. Fortunately, they did emerge in large numbers in Staten Island, so I took a trip to harvest enough Brood II cicadas to sate my students and colleagues!  Here are some pictures of the preparation.

Collecting them one by one convinced me I'm not quite ready for Fear Factor.

Collecting them one by one convinced me I’m not quite ready for Fear Factor.

Boil cicadas 4-5 minutes to help solidify the insides (like poaching an egg).

Boil cicadas 4-5 minutes to help solidify the insides (like poaching an egg).

 

Roast cicadas 10-15 minutes till they have a dry, nutty consistency.

Roast cicadas 10-15 minutes till they have a dry, nutty consistency.

If you can't find nymphs as they emerge from the ground, trim the wings and legs off adult cicadas before eating.

If you can’t find nymphs as they emerge from the ground, trim the wings and legs off adult cicadas before eating.

Cicada wings are actually quite pretty.  Maybe someone should make an Etsy site to sell cicada jewelry?

Cicada wings are actually quite pretty. Maybe someone should make an Etsy site to sell cicada jewelry?

Anyone brave enough to eat one earned a button that became a badge of honor.  (Thanks to Maurice Principe for designing them!)

Modern society doesn't have enough rites of passage.  Let's eat bugs!

Modern society doesn’t have enough rites of passage. Let’s eat bugs!

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Students without Supplies – Pencil Problems

One of my favorite math bloggers, Sarah, had a great post recently about pencils.  It was serendipitous, since I’d just had a conversation with a first year teacher about school supplies.  Her lesson came to a halt because students didn’t have loose leaf paper!

I, too, am always baffled when students don’t come to school with what I consider basic supplies.  For me, the battle this year has been with pencils.  At the beginning of the year I had a bin of maybe 50 golf pencils.  They’re distinctive, don’t have erasers, and students really don’t like them.  My supply lasted several months, disappearing little by little, until one day I was out for Professional Development.  Upon my return, the whole supply was gone, along with my stock of erasers.

I had a discussion with each class, reminding them that I had paid for those supplies so that students could borrow them during class.  I wasn’t going to go out and pick up more, so now everyone would need to be prepared for class.  The unfortunate consequence was students going around trying to borrow a writing implement from classmates 10 or 15 minutes into the period!

So I tried collecting the pencils students left behind: a sort of “take-one, leave-one” system.  The obvious flaw here is that a student who doesn’t have anything to write with in math is going to have the same problem next class as well.  It ended up being more of a “take-one” system.  The whole thing would’ve collapsed within days if not for one valiant student who brought me several pens and pencils a day!  Alas, I needed a better solution.

Finally I bought a hundred pack of Ticonderoga pencils from Amazon.  The next time a student needed a pencil, I told him that I’d sell him one for 25 cents.  At first, a few students were outraged that I was selling them pencils.  So I reminded them that I’d already bought a class set of pencils and erasers that had all gone missing.  I wanted to make sure they were prepared for class, but I can’t afford to buy school supplies for over one hundred students.

It’s been almost two months now, and students have requested that I add erasers and sharpeners to my store!  I sell them basically at cost, which doesn’t seem to trouble kids who already spend several dollars a day on candy and bottles of Arizona.  Last week I had to make another order to restock my store, but I no longer feel angry or frustrated when students don’t have pencils–I just sell them one.

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