Losing the Mustard Bottle
The mustard bottle was only inches away. It stood on the rolling cart next to the overhead projector.
The nearly blinding light from the projector shone through the transparency and was then reflected up onto the screen behind me, the screen that the students were watching intently. My hand was smeared with blue vis-à-vis ink, but I didn’t notice. I nimbly stepped over the power cord that was running to the wall, while dodging the blinding light, and shifted to the other side of the projector, without knocking over the mustard bottle.
It was 1995, and I was blessed with an overhead projector that had an attached roll of transparent film, so I didn’t need to worry about managing the use of multiple transparent sheets. When I ran out of space on the screen, I simply turned the crank, and rolled more transparent film onto the brightly lit writing surface. That also meant that I simultaneously and safely rolled away whatever I had previously written. It was almost like the pictures of our shared learning experiences were being rolled up into a transparent scroll while I searched for empty space.
The mustard bottle was usually not necessary.
On this particular morning I was in the middle of a lesson, full of energy, full of enthusiasm, full of momentum – but as I tried to turn the crank once more – realized that the film was no longer full of space to write. I had come to the end of the roll. So I stepped over the cord, dodged the blinding light, avoided the mustard bottle, and began cranking furiously. I was looking for empty space on the overhead film so that I could continue writing, and could keep the momentum rolling.
I quickly cranked and watched the writing roll by. I saw pictures we’d drawn during prior learning experiences pop by. Sentences we’d analyzed slid out of sight. I was looking for space – empty space. But the students were seeing something different, and that’s when I heard it.
“42!” 6 × 7 had rolled across the screen.
“Frankfort!” A sketched map of Kentucky with a star rolled by.
“7!” A question asking about the square root of 49 rolled off the screen.
“Less than half!” Another question asking about the value of 12/25.
That would have been a wonderful opportunity to ask, “Why is 12/25 less than half?” Or, “Can you name 3 other fractions that are nearly equal to one half?” Or even, “Is 12/25 closer to one half than 5/11? Why?” But I didn’t ask.
The rolling screen was filled with questions, and they weren’t just any questions. They were questions that we had experienced together. They were ideas that we had wrestled with both as individuals and as a classroom community of learners. They were representations of our learning experiences that had been unintentionally captured because I had rolled them away when I was finished. And now I was rolling back through them looking for a blank piece of real estate on the overhead film.
As I reached for the mustard bottle, I completely missed the significance of the moment. I did not understand that those representations were enormously powerful. I did not see that I could stop and use them to extend thinking and learning to deeper levels, to more powerful places. The clarity of the connection between what we were learning today and the visuals from yesterday did not occur to me. I did not see the opportunity to stretch myself as a learner right in front of the class. What did occur to me was that I was not going to find any empty space – the film was completely filled up.
So I picked up the mustard bottle.
Now, in case you are wondering, there was no mustard in the bottle. It just happened to be the container that I used to hold the water that I would squirt onto the overhead film when I needed to erase. So with my blue vis-à-vis smeared hand I held the mustard bottle full of water over the film that was loaded with amazing connections to prior learning experiences. I held the bottle over representations of what we had done in class. I held it over questions I’d written that students were now re-interacting with and even extending. I held the bottle over opportunities to stretch and grow. I held the bottle over our recorded thinking – my thinking, the students’ thinking, our thinking together.
And I didn’t hesitate. I squirted the water onto the screen and heard the surprisingly rich interaction with images from prior lessons instead turn into oohs and ahhhs as the water met the ink and mingled into a smeary liquid that I wiped away. In seconds, I found the space that I was looking for, the space that I needed to teach.
Sadly, in those same seconds I had also wiped away some amazing opportunities, some very specific representations of learning journeys that we had experienced together in class, the clearest mutual reference points to prior learning. I didn’t even realize it. Instead, I quickly set the mustard bottle down, stepped back over the power cord, ducked under the blinding light, and continued the lesson. My only thought was that I had found some space to teach.
– – – – – – – – – – –
Less than a year later, after some time of reflection and clarity, I looked back on my journey with the mustard bottle and wondered how I had missed such an important truth. Fortunately, I had taken time to reflect upon my practice and to learn from it, and from that point of reflection I began a new leg of my journey as an educator. From that point forward, the mustard bottle had no place in my classroom. Anything that would erase a representation of thinking or a learning experience wasn’t a useful part of our community. Instead, I began asking new questions.
“How can we capture today’s learning experiences, instead of erasing or simply forgetting them?”
“Is there a way we can visually summarize our thinking so that we can refer to it in the future?”
“How can I capture today’s lesson in one simple, powerful animation that we can use tomorrow to extend and deepen our thinking?”
“What happens when students see depictions of today’s thinking at a later time?”
“Can I design learning representations that can be grown and modified to reflect ongoing learning?”
As it turned out, these questions would propel me on a new and very powerful journey – a journey fueled by a simple idea: Intentionally capturing learning experiences, and allowing students to interact with their own thinking over time, leads to very powerful learning.
That single idea opened up a new canvas for me, one that had no need for a mustard bottle.
And so my new journey began…
I enjoyed reading about your experience. It brought back some memories… I had a spray bottle next to my overhead. It is amazing what technology has done for us in such a short time. Thanks for sharing!
You stirred some very poignant moments during my teaching career, Steve. Those teachable moments we a educators sometimes overlook because we are focussed on the blank canvas rather than the art that is clearly visible in the eyes of exuberant students. Overhead projectors may be obsolete now-days but what a wonderful tool for concept building during the 80’s and 90’s. Kind of wish technology was that simple again when the only supplies one needed were laminate, visa vis pens, a high power lightbulb (quite expensive if I recall) and a mustard bottle; only to be used at the end of the year. Next year’s class would begin a new string of learning memories uniquely theirs. Thank you for sharing.
Hi, Bonnie. Thank you for taking the time to read and to comment. I know that I came into your classroom many times in search of advice. I like how you stated “…and a mustard bottle; only to be used at the end of the year” and your words about beginning a new string of learning memories uniquely theirs.
Wow! What an amazing portrait of that moment.
We have so many tools for capturing learning experiences now, we just need to use them.
Thanks for reminding me!
Hi, Jim. Thanks for the comment. Yes, we do have many amazing tools for capturing learning experiences. One of the simplest, most powerful tools is simply a camera. A quick snapshot of student learning that can then be shown to the student can create some powerful reflection opportunities.