Rob Hanson has taught upper elementary school for thirty-five years, the last twenty-five of which have been in Pomfret. After earning a Masters of Science degree, he initiated a variety of outdoor science and writing education programs in California and Vermont. In addition to being Prosper Valley’s sixth grade teacher, Rob currently co-directs Horizons Observatory where amateur astronomers host free stargazing events for the public and assist students in creating astrophotographs of planets, galaxies, and nebulae. He loves roaming the mountains and rivers throughout North America.
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The journey of Pomfret's sixth grade children traverses ancient and modern cultures, from the woods of Pomfret to the depths of space. Our wanderings begin in early September with an exploration of thePomfret School’s beautiful brook and forested hillside. Building on the extensive studies of these ecosystems in the third, fourth, and fifth grades, students regularly visit their “Power Spot” - a place they chose by the brook to engage in writing and science activities ranging from field journaling to plant and animal observations. From the students’ journaling, a SpeakChorus is created, rehearsed, and performed. (For a detailed explanation of Power Spots and Speak Chorus go to: http://www.vermontcommunityworks.org/exemplars/reflretreat04/gvgplcvoice/gvgplcvoice.html).
A year-long study of ancient history begins with the exploration of hominid evolution and Paleolithic hunter/gatherer societies, followed by studies of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Throughout the year historical literature is explored, including the epic poems Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. Other major aspects of the arts curricula include Poetry Alive! - a study of over two hundred “classic” poems - and the writing of student Journeys, a book length illustrated autobiography.
The mathematics program consists primarily of Connected Mathematics, a curriculum emphasizing problem solving and, at this level, focusing on factors and multiples, statistics, and fractions. A computational program, Math Mates, supplements Connected Math. Later in the year, students engage in a hands-on multi-month exploration of the history of science from the time of the ancient Greeks to today. This portion of the program, integrating history, math, physics, and astronomy, is taught in three major sections: Positively Pythagoras (geometry), Archimedes is All Wet! (connecting solid geometry to the principle of buoyancy), and The Galileo Project (a history of modern physics centered around experiments with gravity and rocketry).
Life science is taught through a four month study of amphibians, mammals, and raptors. Students begin the year with a visit to the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, searching for, and inventorying, salamanders in two distinct Park habitats - an undisturbed mixed hardwood habitat and a disturbed Red Pine Plantation habitat. After investigating salamanders, students explore mammal skeletal structure by dissecting owl pellets then comparing the mammal skeletons found within to the human skeleton. Along the way, students identify the prey species using biological keys, then they reconstruct the prey skeleton, usually a small mammal. Aspects of ecology related to food webs are integrated into this study.
A related mini-unit occurs in “the other” National Park just up the road from The Pomfret School: the Appalachian Trail (AT). This week-long study incorporates history, geography, mapping and compass skills, writing, art, and science. In addition, guest speakers, including an Appalachian Trail “thru-hiker” and a trail maintenance leader, introduce America’s most famous trail to students. Finally, the week culminates with two full days hiking the Pomfret section of the trail.
Perhaps the best known part of the sixth grade program is the Expanding Horizons astronomy project. Utilizing the Horizons Observatory located just outside our classroom door,students acquire a first hand understanding of the both the day and night sky. The observatory contains three telescopes (with mirror diameters of fourteen, eight, and six inches), a solar telescope, a camera and computers capable of imaging high resolution astrophotographs, and, most importantly, a volunteer staff of amateur astronomers. As part of their astronomy studies, each student chooses a galaxy, nebula, star cluster, planet, or even the sun to photograph, write an in-depth research paper, and summarize their findings via a Power Point presentation to the community. The Horizons Observatory is open to the public the first Saturday night of each month for a special astronomy presentation and observing the night sky. During these regular “star parties” a Horizons docent is on hand to give night sky tours and help visitors use the observatory’s telescopes. Visit the HorizonsObservatory web site (http://www.horizonsobservatory.org) for more information on the Horizons Observatory, observing conditions, and to view the amazing astrophotographs taken by Pomfret students.
As part of the astronomy program, all sixth graders engage in an intensive robotics unit based on NASA’s Mars rovers. The unit is not simply fun (although it is that!), but provides students with an authentic engineering experience which parallels the scientific method: defining a problem, brainstorming possible programs to solve the problem, changing one variable at a time while running trials, measuring each effect in term, drawing conclusions, then retesting until a solution is found.
The students’ seven year Pomfret School journey ends with a flurry including a week-long field trip on the coast of Maine, rehearsing then reciting classic poems, launching solid fuel rockets, taking a five mile “Step-Up Hike” from The Pomfret School to Woodstock Middle School, and saying an emotional “goodbye” to their Pomfret School at the graduation ceremony.