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Cold weather inspires classroom lessons for students

When Christopher Traugott walked into his workshop room at Waterfront Elementary School last week and saw water coming up through the concrete floor, he called the custodian to inform him of a broken water pipe.

But he also couldn’t wait to show his students.

“We have water in the room,” Traugott announced to his eighth grade technology class. “Why do we have water in the room?”

One week later, the kids had learned about plumbing and water properties, had researched pipe repair and were practicing using blow torches to make their own copper pipe fixes in class.

Traugott is one of many teachers who have done more than just endure the freezing cold winter – they’ve embraced it. Across many subject areas and grade levels, some creative teachers and students have used the weather as a source of teaching inspiration.

At Bilingual Center School 33, pre-kindergarten students used a “winter wonderland” theme to explore animals and their habitats and to practice their measuring skills with “snow kids” made of chart paper. With their teacher, Maeva Lopez-Kassem, they brought snow inside as a tool to explore their five senses in English and Spanish, and tested their hypotheses about thermometer readings and how they work.

At Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy School 76, speech pathologist Jane Burgio had her students write cinquains – classic, five-line forms of poetry – all about the snow and posted them on a wall covered with handmade snowflakes. The exercise required students to identify main ideas and provide supporting details using adjectives, progressive verbs and a specific writing structure.

Nicole Marabella, a Lafayette High School chemistry teacher, figured it was a good time to teach her students about freezing points, about how things like salt and antifreeze lower the freezing point of water and can even be used to make ice cream in a classroom at room temperature. The ultra-cold temperatures even gave her an opportunity to explain how salted sidewalks can still freeze over.

At Olmsted School 64, art teacher Tina Mogavero had her first graders draw portraits of themselves bundled up in winter gear, while some fifth-grade art students at Southside Elementary School took it upon themselves to paint winter scenes from memory.

Waterfront teacher Traugott, however, created a whole new lesson plan from scratch after seeing water flood his rear workshop under a row of drill presses. He had his students think about what might have caused the flood and he tossed wood shavings into the water so students could follow its progress to the drain. The next day, he introduced students to plumbing and had them consider the cost of materials for do-it-yourself versus paying for plumbing expertise.

Later, he talked with students about how pipes break in winter: the expansion of water and the impact of prolonged cold temperatures.

Then he had them determine all the materials they would need to repair a broken pipe. Traugott ordered what they asked for – $46 in materials.

“They looked it up,” said Traugott, who offered no information on whether the students had selected all the items they truly needed. “It’s the expectation you can’t fluff your way through this.”

Finally, he took his students down to the school basement, had them examine a repaired pipe, and thenhad them solder their own “broken” pipe, which Traugott had drilled a hole into to mimic the leak.

The students, ages 13 to 15, later demonstrated how they took turns measuring the pipe, sawing off the broken portion, sanding the ends, adding the solder paste, fitting the new pipe, heating it with a torch and soldering the seams at both ends.

In the end, they took away some lessons about the properties of water; researching and problem solving; measuring skills; net-to-gross profit calculation skills; and plumbing career exploration. Several students later told Traugott they were seriously considering plumbing as a future career.

Their homework Tuesday was to find the water shutoff valves in their own homes.

Teachers in Buffalo Public Schools are far from the only ones leveraging the winter weather for academic needs. At Mill Middle School in the Williamsville Central School District, sixth-grade science teacher Kenneth Huff was thrilled to have so much snow to work with this past January and February.

He embarked on his annual snow data project, with more than 100 sixth graders carving out snow trenches in the school courtyard and using a Thermochron to measure and record temperature readings. Students used the lesson to understand the physical properties of snow.

Two years ago, the winter was so mild that Huff’s students couldn’t collect any original snow data at all. They had to rely on data gathered by other students in previous years.

This year, there was no such issue with the field work, though one day was so cold that data collection was postponed for a week.

“This year was a banner year,” Huff said. “It was wonderful.”

For examples of fifth graders’ winter artwork, visit the School Zone blog at email: