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March 3, 2010

Back to First Grade

I'm a sucker. Of course I'm a sucker. So when my friend Bridget asks me if I can give a presentation on volcanoes to a group of first graders, I say yes. Of course I say yes. I mean, why wouldn't I? Aside from the fact that I've never taught first graders, have no lesson plan, and don't know what either the teachers or students expect from me. It's never stopped me before.

What would first graders like to learn about? What would I like to teach them? I decide to give an idea of how a volcano forms, something that evaded me until probably grad school or so. (Well, and still--who are we kidding.) They've already learned about the layers of the Earth (yes--these FIRST GRADERS have already LEARNED ABOUT THE LAYERS OF THE EARTH) so I have something to build on.

I start by drawing the mantle, and then the crust over it, and then talk (in my head yesterday, and out loud today) about how in some places, where conditions are right, some mantle mush forms. I call it melty mantle. The melty mantle, being lighter than the solid rock around it, rises for the same reason a helium balloon rises through the air. It rises in blobs up into the crust, where it pools for a while. What is this melty material inside the Earth called? Magma. (The kids know this one.) I write it down. So what is this pooled magma called? A magma chamber. And what happens when more and more magma comes into this magma chamber, creating more and more pressure? It breaks the rock above it and makes its way to the surface. What's the melty rock at the surface called? Lava. ‘And it's hot,’ one kid adds. Yes, and it's hot. Until it cools and solidifies into rock. I write lava on the paper.

But a drawing alone won't do for first graders. I realize, at around 4:15 yesterday, that the only tactile thing I can think to bring in is rocks, and I don't actually know where any of mine are. So I send out a plea to everyone in our building, asking if anyone has any volcanic rocks I can borrow. Thank goodness I work with geo nerds. I think before my own message even appears in my inbox, our web guy shows up at my cube with a rock for me. And, shortly after that, my old boss shows up with another. Others send e-mails saying they'll bring some in for me the next day, and still others send me stories of volcanoes they have known (or imagined--my coworker Laurie sends me a great story about how as a child she was terrified of volcanoes she had heard about but had no fear of the Russians dropping the bomb. She was very good, she says, at duck and cover).

I also feel obligated to say at this point that I had a couple moles removed last Friday. Both benign, but both in somewhat conspicuous places--one on my nose and one on my neck. Both spots are covered in the smallest bandages I could find, but they're still noticeable. I thought about this last night, and decided I would take the bandage on my nose off and count on the kids either not noticing the one on my neck or not caring, since it was just my neck and not my face, after all. Perhaps I was underestimating the tact of first graders? But probably not. This morning Eric, the closest thing at work to a first grader, asks 'How'd your thing go? Did they ask you what happened to your face?' Ha ha, very funny. Besides, I haven't gone yet. And I'm planning to take the bandage on my face off. Which is apparently the right thing to do…

The kids put my nerves at ease not just about the bandage (on my neck only) but about being in front of them in general as soon as they begin getting seated in the library, while I’m finishing up arranging the UNAVCO rock collection on the table up front. 'What's your name?' 'My parents have volcanic rocks in their backyard. They don't live in that house anymore, but they still have it.' 'My grandmother has one of those [a basin carved out of volcanic rock for grinding]. She uses it for chiles.' Not, thank goodness, ‘What’s that thing on your neck?’ Mrs. Sanseverino (a.k.a. Kelly) gives me the go ahead and I ask who’s ready to learn how to make a volcano.

Which is kind of unfair, since I don't have, like, a cool model or anything.

And time after time this lava erupts at the surface. And sometimes, the lava gets stuck on the way up, and the lava backed up behind it can't get out, and then what happens? (Body language and hand motions help.) It erupts! the kids call out. Yes, it erupts! And something else comes out of the volcano when it erupts. I draw the cloud coming out of our volcano. Smoke! they say. Nope, not smoke. Ashes! says a girl in the front. Right! Ash. I write it on the board. And over time more lava erupts, so we have lava, and lava, and lava, and then maybe another layer of ash, and more lava, and more ash, until ...

I couldn’t believe my luck with the rock samples people brought in for me today. Fran brought a huge chuck of a pohoehoe flow top that she uses for a doorstop. Perfect! I exclaim. Totally first-grader-proof. Heavy and solid and touchable. Steve has some obsidian and Kyle has a big block of pumice and a beautiful, somewhat delicate piece of fresh glassy lava. Brian lets me borrow a sample with olivine crystals that he bought at a meeting. I’m a little worried about the latter two, but I’ll make it work.

Until the volcano looks like the one I drew above. There's one other very important component to volcanoes, I say. Have you ever been to hot springs? I ask. Or to Yellowstone? What does it smell like? I have to just tell them this one. Stinky, right? Like rotten eggs. I add gas to my list.

I’m in a bit of a rush when I leave work, realizing that I might actually end up arriving a little late. Push the speed limit all the way there, don’t miss any turns, find parking immediately, jump out of the car and around the other side to open the passenger door and--

So what are the ingredients for a volcano? We say them out loud together: Magma! Lava! Ash! Gas! (I don't work bombs in, as I had in my sketch above, although they do look cool...)

Thunk. A bag falls to the pavement. It’s Fran’s huge flow top rock. The first-grader-proof one. Oh, please no, but when I open the bag and peer inside it’s broken into two. I just broke the rock.

Now what if—what’s your name?—Helen is living right next to the volcano (I draw the house). How will she know if it’s about to erupt? There will be shaking and stuff! someone says. And we talk about earthquakes and seismometers and shape changes and GPS, and about gas emissions (but we don’t call them that). And then we talk about where volcanoes are located and if there are any in Colorado (no active ones). And THEN we talk about the rocks, and how different they look from each other. There are brown rocks and black rocks and white rocks, heavy rocks and light rocks. How are these rocks so different if they all came from volcanoes? 'Different volcanoes! Different eruptions!' I’m feeling great. I’m optimistic. These kids are all right.

At the end, after Kelly asks what I studied to get this kind of a job, I make my last point. I want to talk to you guys about this rock, I say, and pick up a nondescript black one. This rock came from Table Mountain, down just east of Golden. Now we already know that there are no active volcanoes in Colorado. So how is it possible that this rock came from Golden? About 10 kids raise their hands and Kelly calls on a girl near the front. 'Maybe it's from a really really old volcano from when you were little and it's not there anymore.'

We have time for three questions from the classes. A quarter of the hands in the room shoot up. *Not* stories, Kelly clarifies. Questions only. Only people who have questions about volcanoes for Beth. Who has a question? Not a story.

She calls on a girl on the far right. 'One time my parents--'

'Nope, that's a story. Who's got a *question*? Finn, do you have a question?'

'Are there any volcanoes in Australia?'

'Nope, no active volcanoes in Australia. Maybe old ones, but no new ones.'

'Who else has a question? Tom?'

'Um.... I forgot.'

'Okay. Who else has a question for Beth? Maria?'

'What happened to your neck?'

Posted by beth at March 3, 2010 2:59 AM

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that has to be way up there as one of your best stories experienced and written! too funny!

Posted by: wilma - mother of beth at March 3, 2010 11:10 PM

The correct answer when a child asks about a bandage on your neck is always VAMPIRE.

Posted by: Beth's Brother at March 4, 2010 12:05 AM

OK Beth. Since you are a pro at teaching 1st graders now. I expect you to teach Molly's class next time you are in Cinci.

Posted by: Linda at March 4, 2010 1:36 AM

Hi, Beth--

So, once & for all, will you tell us (or direct us to a website so we can read about it) what has been happening with all the data gathered from the monuments you have placed around the globe?

Is the earth surrounding the volcanoes wiggling a bit?


BTW, I have been perusing some 1938 Compton's Encyclopedias, and under "Earth" they posit a theory called isostasy holding that under big mountains like the Himalayas, there is less dense matter, and under vast ocean depths there is more dense matter, because the planet is always trying to be a perfect sphere. I'm thinking that they were only partly right because they didn't know about plate tectonics. (In the section on atoms, they pack about half the electrons into the nucleus and they say that the sun may be powered by a force involving "the destruction of matter itself!")

Posted by: Tom Horn at March 12, 2010 2:04 AM

Ah Beth, what a wonderful story - thanks for the sharing!

Posted by: Michael at March 12, 2010 4:35 PM

LOVE your blog. So happy to have re-discovered it. You are also an amazing photographer!! Awesome!

Posted by: Bridget at March 22, 2010 4:24 AM

Awesome story Beth! Very exciting school visit. Maybe you can teach some 1st graders in Ecuador while you are there.

Posted by: Shelley at March 25, 2010 4:07 AM

Hi.....How nice to find your blog again. i was just thinking of you and wondering what part of the word you might be in. Love your adventure into the world of first graders. :-) Always like your photos...they are truly amazing! Keep those entries coming!!

Posted by: Muriel Haupt at April 1, 2010 7:58 AM

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