Empty Nest

25 July 2009

Every teacher has at least one drawer or file box of blood, sweat, and tears: the hard copies of articles, activities, and ephemera collected from conferences or constructed over countless summers and Sundays. Sure, we have electronic versions of many things, too, but there is something about the physical representation of the work. Those manila file folders are sometimes the only evidence we have for hours of toil.

But what does a teacher do with these collections at retirement? Or the change of a grade level or subject area? Or other change of job assignment? We're not willing to throw away these files---we know how much thought and care was taken to bring them into the world. And yet, having these items molder away in a basement is hardly a fitting end, either.

My classroom stuff has been in just such a limbo for some time now. I have felt guilty every day as I head into and out of my garage. I thought I could hear those files whimpering to be used again...how unfair it was to keep them cooped up and away from kids. And yet, I wasn't sure about where I might end up jobwise. I had a "just in case" excuse I kept in mind, knowing full well that even if I went back to the classroom, lessons would need remodeling.

This week, it was finally time to let things go. There was a passle of science teachers at an event I attended this week. I took seven boxes of books I had accumulated over the years---only two boxes worth went unclaimed by teachers. I found a teacher who is just about to start teaching AP Bio for the first time---and I gave her my files: lock, stock, and barrel. I gave away bulletin board supplies, posters, and other items. Not only did I regain some nice space in my garage, I also let these items have the opportunity for new life in classrooms all over the state. I feel like part of my teaching life is living on, even as I explore other job opportunities.

The nest is not completely empty. There were a few things I wasn't quite ready to part with and I am sure that there are others hiding in boxes I didn't open last week. But there will be other groups of teachers I see and other opportunities to gift some treasures. Oddly enough, I don't feel a loss as evidence of my classroom life ebbs away---I feel richer for having shared.


Design in Mind

28 April 2009

Some of you may have seen the above picture before. It's been floating around for a bit. It is a shot of some of the offices at Pixar Studios. Below is a shot from the Google Offices.

No doubt all of us have been in buildings that feel creative and energizing---places that inspire. I can think of very few of these which have been schools. No matter what you do to your classroom, there is not much getting away from the fact that we are working in an institutional setting. Ceiling levels are low...hard surfaces abound...and white walls are the order of the day.

I know the dismay I have each morning walking into the cubicle farm---and how differently I'd feel if the rabbit warren walls were developed into something more Pixar-like. It's a drag to have exist in a windowless space with nothing from the natural world to look at.

But what about our young minds? What is the impact to these designs on our students?

A recent article in Scientific American explores the relationship between living and working spaces and the mind. The article details the impact of ceiling height on creativity, the restorative effects of being able to look at a natural setting, the impact of lighting on circadian rhythms, and more. What would happen if we were intentional about using this sort of information when designing schools? Is it more motivating to adults and kids alike to think about coming to learn in a setting built to inspire?

There is something about having a personal connection to a particular place. Maybe that is the problem with most office areas: cubicles are all alike. Same height...same materials...same footprint. Those who work in them can add unique contributions, but there is no sense of individuality or the value of thought. Be the machine. Be on the "team." I would like to think that schools aren't training grounds for this, but until the buildings change, I'm not sure that we aren't closing minds within these concrete boxes.

Labels: ,

What A Concept

11 February 2009

Education Week is reporting on a different approach to professional development for science teachers: the inclusion of a student partner from their classrooms.
When biology teacher Jessica L. McSwain guided students through a recent lab activity on genetic transformation, a colleague worked alongside her who understood exactly what she hoped to accomplish.

Not a fellow teacher, or even a teacher-in-training. A 17-year-old student.

The educator from Hilltop High School, outside San Diego, is one of about 200 teachers who have taken part in an unusual professional-development effort, which trains teachers and students together and has them work side by side in the classroom on science labs. Students in the program, called BioBridge, are expected to serve as leaders after they complete the training and return to class, helping their classmates make sense of the lab activity.

Schools often use students as "peer tutors" in science and other classes. But a number of observers say it is far less common for a professional-development program to have educators work so closely with their young charges in the hope of bringing about classroom improvement.

Yet that cooperation occurs regularly at Hilltop High, where last week Ms. McSwain was assisted in labs in four separate biology classes by Katie Talmadge, a junior with a keen interest in science.

The day before those labs, Ms. Talmadge, the 17-year-old, helped the teacher set up equipment and student kits. The day of the activity on genetics, the student checked those materials again. As the activity began, she moved from lab station to lab station, helping students who were working in small groups.

Some students had difficulty grasping the instructions. Others were confused by the content or the scientific terminology. Ms. Talmadge tried to explain it, one teenager to another.

"Students are grateful," Ms. Talmadge said. "A lot of students like science, but they're hesitant to push forward." Sometimes, she added, "a kid that's more rebellious will give me more respect because I'm their age."...

Teachers who sign up for the BioBridge program attend a full-day workshop at the UC-San Diego campus, in which they discuss and plan lab activities. They also visit the university's research labs.

Participating teachers then recruit three or four of their students to serve as in-class leaders. The teachers and students work together at a Saturday workshop, held at a local high school, to plan the labs. The students also attend sessions at that same site on how to be effective classroom leaders.

Working directly with students in planning and carrying out science lessons is a new experience for most teachers, and for some it can be an awkward one, Ms. McSwain acknowledged.

At first, she said, she wasn't sure which students to choose or how prepared they would be to guide their classmates. Ms. McSwain's own relative youth—she's 30 and been told she looks almost as young as her students—added to her initial unease, she recalled jokingly.

"It's odd" for students at the outset, as well, Ms. McSwain said. "You're recruiting them into a kind of club. You kind of don't know what they're thinking. You've got them there on a Saturday," she added, "and they're doing science....

Students who take part in BioBridge, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to be accomplished in science, Mr. Babendure said. Some want to develop leadership skills; others may participate for extra credit, he said. Teachers are encouraged not to pick only A-plus students, he added, but also those below the top tier with a knack for motivating their peers.

One encouraging result of BioBridge is that it has drawn a fair number of shy students, particularly girls, who emerge from it with confidence and a deeper interest in biology, Mr. Babendure observed.

"We're hoping to show that it's cool being good at science," he said...

One possible benefit of BioBridge, Mr. Bartels said, is that teachers are receiving an impromptu tutorial—from students—on how to translate scientific language and concepts for teenagers.

"You want it to be informing the teacher on how to reach the student," Mr. Bartels said. "You would hope that teachers get a much more finely tuned ear for what the student experiences."
I have to say that I like this idea. I can think of any number of students I've had over the years that might not have been the superstars of the class, but whose passion for science was sorely underused by both their peers and me. I am opposed to using kids as teaching tools; however, in this case, students are not being used to remediate other students or to forego extensions of their own learning. Instead, these peers act as instructional coaches alongside the teacher and are allowed to participate in additional opportunities. What a concept.

Labels: , ,

Time to Learn

20 October 2008

An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer caught my eye last week. Here is its thesis:
At the end of the school year, students at Garfield High School spend about 23 more hours in each academic class, roughly the equivalent of four more weeks of instruction, than students at Nathan Hale High, according to an analysis done by a parents group in West Seattle. The question is: Does that matter?
Interesting question, don't you think? And not one with a simple answer, as administrators were quick to point out:

"If one school district can do in two hours what it takes another six hours to do, and the students achieve equally well, then you have to ask what difference does it make," [Kathe Taylor] said.

Marni Campbell, principal at Nathan Hale, agrees.

"Raw minutes," she said, "is nowhere near the whole story."

I agree, but is there some way to quantify the time needed for learning?

The state has a 150-hour rule in terms of what qualifies as a full-year course, but schools can seek waivers. When I think about it, 150 hours doesn't sound like a lot, given the volume of curriculum. And how much of that did I "lose" as a teacher to student absences, pep assemblies, state mandated testing, and so forth? Did my upper middle-class kiddos need as much time to learn "biology" as those in a Title I school? If we could identify schools where students needed more time, would we support them with more money to help reach every kid?

I understand the state's need to quantify things. They're ponying up the basic ed dollars and are charged with overseeing that access is equitable for students. However, I wonder if things like the 150-hour rule are what reinforce for some families that seat time is all that matters. I have had any number of students over the years tell me that their mom thinks they should pass the class because they showed up every day---it mattered not if anything was learned.

How do we change the focus of our educational system from seat time to "enough" time to learn?

Labels: ,

Big and Little Things

17 June 2008

I've long believed that "Good instruction is good instruction," meaning that regardless of the kind of classroom you're in, the qualities of an engaging lesson are the same. Sure, different age groups have different requirements in terms of what is developmentally appropriate content or classroom management (my 10th graders would laugh if I used 3-2-1 to quiet them), but learning is the same for all of us. The maxim about instruction has been cemented for me this spring as I worked in both high school and elementary school.

Elementary teachers seem startled that I still read stories to my sophomores. I use word walls for vocabulary and sentence starters to scaffold writing tasks. We still used beans as counters for some of our graphing tasks. There are dances to do (for DNA), rites of passage to address, and learning stations. I remind teachers that although the content is likely different, kids know how to use these tools and opportunities because elementary teachers did their jobs so well. I just apply them differently. The kindergarten teachers from our recent field trip noted what I'd been telling them all along---my sophs were different from their students only in that the bodies were bigger.

And what have I learned this year after being around younger students for half my working day? Like the elementary teachers viewing my high school charges, it has been reinforced for me that kids are kids. Talking to second graders is not all that different from talking to 11th graders---other than what we talk about. I can use a Venn Diagram or Frayer Model with an intermediate student just as easily as a high school student. Asking good questions---and teaching children to ask good questions---remains an important task. The ability to build a positive relationship with students...to forge personal connections...is vital for every age and grade and content area.

It has been a year of change for me, but I have been glad for the one constant along the way: Teaching is no small thing.

Labels: , ,

When GoogleDocs Are Outlawed

30 May 2008

...only outlaws will have GoogleDocs.

I did manage a way for kids to try GoogleDocs over the last couple of days (until The Tree-Killer shut us down). I have to say that it has been two of the most fun and rewarding days I've had in the classroom in a long time---maybe all year. It was one of those times where the end definitely justified the means, even if the example of rule-breaking is not one that I typically believe is right.

But to watch 30 kids...all working...all engaged...all collaborating on four documents for a real audience was a powerful and awesome thing. I gave minimal instructions. I really think that most kids have an intuitive sense of programs these days. They don't need me to hold their hands and explain every little button on the menu bar. We did a short (as in one sentence) assignment at first so that they could see how to create a document, embed a link, and invite someone to see or collaborate with them. After that, I shared a bare bones lesson plan with them for the kindergartners and told them to have at it.

And, oh, did they.

Students had a blast. It was not only collaborative---it was competitive. Who could find the best picture of a sand dollar? Who could make the format easier to read? Some did get a bit silly in terms of deleting one another's edits, but it really was in fun. When was the last time you saw your kids laughing while they were writing? There was a lot of exploration and joy. It's well worth any hassle or grief The Tree-Killer attempts to cause. Kids were already talking about all of the ways they want to use the tool...how happy they'd be not to have to carry a thumb drive...the ability to work with anyone, anywhere on projects.

In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky speaks to the kind of "bargain" that comes with collaborations like this (and like Wikipedia). It's true that someone can add bad information to a document just as easily as good information. It would have been simple enough for any of my students to trash the whole project. But it is also true that just one click is all it takes to restore things...that the number of people willing to buy in for the good of the project easily overwhelms the one or two vandalizing apples. As a result, the overall result is one of continuous improvement through small changes.

The number of edits (so far) to the lesson plans range from 266 - 745. That's a lot of kids doing a lot of work to a skeleton document. The results are kid-like, as you might imagine. There is a rainbow of text colours, some stream of consciousness comments, interesting pictures (e.g. comparing a pile worm to a Swiffer duster) and this great sense of collective voice and enthusiasm. I'm really proud of them.

The kids are, of course, very unhappy about having the tool blocked. I explained to them that Mordac said blocking GoogleDocs is not due to fears of exposing them to predators---it's because the school district is afraid of any information that they can't control. Since the documents would not be housed on a district server, they have no ability to monitor what kids are doing. And while I appreciate the need for monitoring student behavior, I also think that they're trying to push back the tide with a broom. None of the information kids are accessing on-line is stored on our servers. It belongs to someone else. I've posted this comic strip here before, but it bears repeating:

Although I shared a document with my students, I did not give them the necessary permissions to invite other collaborators or viewers. What they create is another matter, of course. But within my province---especially because this was our first attempt to use these tools together---I made sure the information stayed within our small circle and kept a continual watch on the computers. I told them that if they're really upset about being shut out, then they should collaborate on a letter. They have the tools and know-how now. Can the power for change be far behind?

Labels: , ,

The Sighs Have It

12 May 2008

I was working with one of my classes a few weeks ago when a student from another class came to see me. He had withdrawal papers with him. This is a student who had been frequently absent (or disengaged), but who I genuinely enjoyed. He was a senior---two months from graduation.

"What's the deal?" I asked.

"I'm quitting. I'm getting my GED and have already enlisted in the army. I show up for basic training mid-May and will be off to Iraq soon after."

"Kevin," I said, "You make me sad."

"I know," he replied. "I make me sad, too."

Don't come home in a box, kid. Sigh.


Lies, Damn Lies, and Posters

07 May 2008

Can I just say right now how much I hate this poster?

This hangs in one of the classrooms of my morning school. It's at the very front of the room, so students have to look at it every period of every day. While the teacher does her thing, this is the message that's in front of them. It makes me feel unwell---I'm not sure what it does to kids.

This poster takes away hope and that's just wrong. It implies that there are no do-overs, second chances, or mulligans in life. That's such a lie. Whether it's retaking your driver's test, fussing with a new recipe to make things "just right," or building relationships with others, life is full of mistakes and opportunities to try, try again.

As I finish up my doctoral work, I know that I am hyper-aware of classroom factors which increase or decrease motivation. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the teacher put the poster up a few years ago and never gives it a second thought...but maybe she should. I wonder what would happen if her classroom reflected the value of learning over a lifetime as opposed to punishment for failure?

Labels: ,

The Mother of All Pep Talks

10 April 2008

Tenth grade Science WASL testing happens next week. Meeting the standards is not required for graduation...and there are no penalties associated with not "passing." In other words, it really doesn't matter if the kids do well, but I still want them to be successful.

I've talked to my students a lot about not closing any doors. They might not need their scores to earn a diploma, but they do need them to access thousands of dollars in scholarships for technical school or college. Even if they aren't thinking they want to go to college now, I am suggesting that they keep the option available. Who knows what they will want in 2 years? Due to military careers or other life choices, they may not even go to college until 10 years from now. Why not ensure that their transcripts are able to support them in the future? I've reminded kids that they have worked hard at learning all year---just go out and kick some tail on the test. I don't really know if any of this is sinking in, but I hope this extra bit of carrot coupled with my expectations for them will be enough to keep them engaged next week.

So far, I've been fortunate in the sense that while other teachers are hearing their students say that they're not going to show up to school on the science test days, my kids have not made those admissions. At least not to my face. :) Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but that already feels like a leg up on things. About 30% of my students met the standards when they took the science test in 8th grade. While I don't think that 100% will make it over the bar as 10th graders, I'd like to think that more than 30% can. I'm not hammering them on the test this week. We are spending some time looking at some of the problems and talking strategies. I feel good about their general understanding of the inquiry process. I just need them to give it the old college try next week.

I asked the principal to come in and give us little pep talk to my students. He declined, of course, and sent the ass't. admin instead. My main goal with that was to reinforce some high expectations and support for their efforts. He did a passable job. We both know that overcoming the undercurrent of "The test doesn't count." would require the Mother of All Pep Talks.

Labels: ,

Vocabulary to Go

29 March 2008

Yeah, I know. It's getting toward the final throes of the school year and the idea of "new strategies" has lost its charm. But perhaps something new will be the smelling salts your students and you need to stay focused on learning awhile longer. If not, just tuck these jewels away until next year. :)

The first one is a game I picked up at an NSTA convention several years ago. I can't remember who to credit, but if you recognize the source, let me know and I'll be happy to add in the information. Anyway, start with a list of vocabulary terms and definitions. Write them (or cut and paste them) onto index cards. On one side of the card will be a term and on the back side of the card will be the definition of the next term (not the term on the front). I know this doesn't make sense right now, but the pix below will help illustrate. It's very important to know the order ahead of time. What I do is create a table in Word with the terms on one column and the definitions in the other. After I print these, I make sure to cut out each column in the same order (e.g. top to bottom). Once the pages have been cut, I take the vocabulary term on the top of the pile and move it to the bottom. Voila!

Okay, so here is the front and back of one card:

I had about 15 cards for this particular review. Two or three students would play the game. Cards are dealt with the term face up. One card is selected for the start of play and is turned over in the middle of the playing space.

Students then search their "hands" of cards to find the matching term. When one thinks s/he has it, the card is placed on top of the first card, with the next definition showing.

Play continues in this manner...

If students have correctly matched terms and definitions, the term on bottom of the completed deck should match the definition at the top of the deck. Kids really do like this game.

Here's another, stolen from the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. As the teacher, you would precut the sheet into 9 cards. Then, students are asked to reassemble the puzzle. The pieces fit together to match a term with a definition or a term with an example. You can use this as a springboard activity to do some Frayer Models with students or other work which will deepen their knowledge.

Have you tried something new this year? If you're willing to share, leave your ideas in the comments.

Labels: ,

Everybody's Doin' It

10 March 2008

I think that one of the biggest classroom tug-of-wars of my career has been around cheating. Over time, I've discovered that one of the major reasons is that kids' operational definition for "cheating" differs from mine. If you ask someone what the answer for #5 is---does that count? What about copying some math homework? If you have biology fifth period and you ask someone in a first period class what was on the test---does that mean you've cheated? Those examples suit cheating for me, but I can think of countless students over the years who were not in agreement. They honestly saw nothing wrong with those kinds of behaviors. Their view of what might be constituted as crossing over ethical boundaries has been confined to the use of crib notes on tests or stealing a copy of the test prior to class. I have found over the years that it is worthwhile to have a discussion with kids at the start of the school year about what I will view as "cheating," and then go back and revisit that definition as instances start to creep into classroom life during the year. I can't say that my classroom is ever cheating-free. It's an ongoing drama.

I started thinking about this again after seeing this ABC News piece about cheating scandals in some of America's top high schools. Examples do include stealing a copy of a test from a classroom and photographing a test with a cameraphone. There are "lesser" examples as well (such as copying homework), if you believe that not all cheating is created equal. The bottom line? "An estimated two-thirds of all high school students admit to 'serious' academic cheating, according to a national survey by Rutgers' Management Education Center in New Jersey. A startling 90 percent say they cheat on homework."

I know some teachers who have completely devalued the points awarded for homework in their classrooms because of the amount of cheating. I'm not sure if this is really the right reason for using homework as formative assessment. As a teacher, one still needs to have a sense of what every student can do...not what one kid can do and the other 29 can copy. While I agree that communicating to students the value of an assignment (and ensuring that the work is meaningful) is part of a teacher's responsibility, a student shouldn't use boredom as an excuse not to do it (or to copy it).

Technology will make things simpler for preparing for assessments. (For more on this idea, check out Bora's recap of a "Facebook scandal" in which students used an on-line meeting space for a study group and were accused of cheating by their professor.) However, poorly applied classroom ethics aren't going away anytime soon. If anything, I expect that advances in technology will make it easier for students to find ways around engaging with the hard work of learning.

Labels: ,

When Worlds Collide

23 February 2008

In the summer months, there can be some amazing low tides here. You can walk way out into the flats---and see all manner of animals that you might not ordinarily get to see. It's a fabulous opportunity to explore. The kindergarten classes at the elementary school I work at are already planning a trip on one of the low tide days before school ends. The teachers have a great project in mind for them. And as for me? I'm going to loan out the 10th graders from my morning school. They will construct and teach some lessons for the kidney-gardeners. It should be quite interesting to watch my two daytime worlds collide at one event. I can hardly wait!


My New Happy Place

21 February 2008

As a lifelong (well, 17 year) veteran of the secondary school environment, it has been a new experience to be housed within an elementary for part of each school day. I have done plenty of modeling and coaching of lessons at that level, but it was always a get-in-and-get-out proposition. At first, I wasn't very comfortable in those buildings. Being "stuck" in a room with 25 small beings day after day sounded like it belonged somewhere in Dante's vision of Hell. Elementary teachers didn't talk about the same things as secondary teachers and it was difficult to connect. What I've learned over the last five years or so is that (a) most elementary teachers have more instructional expertise than secondary and that (b) their professional conversations tend to be far more interesting. I'm still not sold on the "all the same kids all day, every day" concept, but other than that, elementary schools have got it goin' on.

One result of all of these recent experiences is a discovery that greatly surprises me: First Grade is A Happy Place for me. When I visit a first grade classroom, there is just something that completely lifts my teacher soul. This is not to say that these rooms are full of 6-year old angels. They most definitely are not---but the difference is that the kids aren't acting out with the goal of pushing the teacher's buttons. They are just kids in the process of learning what school is all about. Sometimes, they can't help allowing their imaginations to envision pencils as swords and have a small battle with their neighbour across the desks. Some have undesirable behaviors because situations at home are not the best. There are all manner of reasons, but you never get the sense that the kids are misbehaving because they're jerks. First grade is about celebrating the small accomplishments---like reading a book or finishing a test. It's a place where learning is visibly scattered on the floor, across desks, and over walls. When I need a little pick-me-up in my day, a few minutes in first grade is all I need to get me going again---a secret garden to step inside for a bit.

But don't tell the other secondary teachers or they'll all want one. :)


Bringing the Outside In: Recap

16 February 2008

Wendy left a comment on my Bringing the Outside In post from earlier in the week, and I thought it might be simpler to address her questions here. She said:

This sounds awesome. Is there a way you can share the results of the "counseling" meeting with your readers?

During their investigation of their task/problem, were their situations when students' explorations did not lead them in the proper direction? I'm interested in hearing about other teachers' experiences with PBL and granting students the time to experience an initial "failure" or lack of success in order to rethink and direct their own learning rather than being guided or prompted to the solution by the teacher in order to speed up the process.

Also, how has this PBL changed since you first implemented it in the classroom?

Thanks for sharing this experience!

I've been a big fan of Problem-Based Learning for more than a decade. For those who might not have heard of this type of curriculum development, the idea is that at the beginning of a unit of study, you present the students with a problem. The problem should put them into the role of a stakeholder (so they have power to make decisions), have a "hook" to pique their interest, heavily rely upon an issue from the real world outside of the classroom, and be a bit messy in that there is no single right or wrong answer. If you write a good problem, kids will ask a ton of questions---which then drives the learning from there on out. A problem can last for a class period or for days or weeks. Sometimes, I've included bits of follow-up information along the way---twists and turns to poke and prod the thinking of students.

For the problem I've used with students the last two weeks, it is the same as it was ten years ago. I'm not willing to mess with a good thing. :) I will say that kids do not ask exactly the same set of questions each year. Some years, I've had kids who insisted that they needed more medical history on the prospective parents (and I obliged by creating some). Other years---like this one---few kids got hung up on that notion and for those that did, I just said that "Sometimes in life, we don't have all of the information we want before making a decision. We have to do the best we can with what we have." For other PBL units, I have tweaked them over time. It's amazing how the addition or deletion of even a single word can spark more areas of investigation for students.

The "counseling" appointment on Thursday was delightful. I wish I could fully describe the look on kids' faces when I introduce "Mrs. Bentsen" who has arrived for her counseling appointment. There's a range of emotions from disbelief to "Oh s***, what am I going to say?!" But the fact is, they totally buy in. They want to show off. A few questions to prompt their thinking and start the conversation is usually all that is needed. One kid in my first period class looked at me about halfway through the discussion and said, "You are good. You are SO good." LOL Afterwards, they told me (as have previous students) that it is much easier to write the letter than to actually have to talk to someone. I like having the visitor at the end, though, because I want them to reflect on the consequences (and power) that their words can have.

I always debrief the unit with kids. I ask them how this type of learning was different, what they liked better, and what didn't work so well. Typical comments include the ideas that they like having an audience other than me, that the direct application for learning was of interest, but some frustration about not having every piece they thought they wanted in order to reach a decision. There are always a few kids who prefer assignments with definite right/wrong answers---the grey areas associated with PBL are not comfortable for them.

I shared this unit with a colleague of mine last year. He hadn't tried something like this in the classroom, but trusted me and gave things a go. I got a lot of phone calls along the way---it's hard for a teacher to let go in the way that they need to with these units. It's a delicate balance in terms of how much information you provide vs. what they need to seek out. I certainly never expect kids to learn and understand everything by themselves. I still lecture and demonstrate some things. We have lots of classroom discussion to help increase understanding. The teacher just isn't the font of information, per usual. Anyway, I coached him along last year and he was totally blown away with the results. He's about to be off and running with this same unit this year. It makes me happy to have passed along this nugget to someone else---and another generation of biology kids.

Update: I don't have an electronic version on my coaching plan anymore (several computers and schools later...some things have been lost to the sands of time and ether), but here is a copy of the problem to kick things off. I have the scoring guide at school and will post it here next week.


Bringing the Outside In

13 February 2008

Tomorrow will be one of my favourite lesson plans of the year. You see, my sophomores have been working on a Problem Based Learning unit for genetics. I placed them in the role of a genetic counselor, gave them a bit of background about a couple, and asked the students to please advise the prospective parents about their choices and options for having a healthy baby. This particular unit is more student driven than many others. They choose the questions to investigate. They drive my lectures and our classroom work.

What they don't know is that tomorrow, I have someone coming in for a counseling appointment with the students.

I work this out ahead of time---finding a parent volunteer or someone else to fulfill the role of the person the students are writing to. I give the person a bit of background on the case. I've always had women (all of whom are also mothers) come visit with the kids, although I don't see why I couldn't have "the husband" show up. The adult volunteer receives some background from me before her arrival and as someone who is already a parent, she always has other questions for students---things kids don't always think about.

The look on kids' faces is priceless. As much as they buy into this particular problem they are solving, they are not 100% sure it is "real" until our surprise visitor walks in the door. Kids always say afterwards that it is a lot harder to talk to someone in person than it is to write the letter to him/her. Sometimes the discussions are great...and sometimes, it is like pulling teeth. I'm not sure which I will get tomorrow, but we'll give it a try and see.

The most important thing is to just bring the outside in. It is simple enough to teach a set of lessons about genetics, but good for kids to work on applying knowledge within the context. Not every piece of learning lends itself to this, but it is fun when you can make it work. I'm really looking forward to watching my students show what they know tomorrow morning...and hoping they don't get tongue-tied.


Will you be my PAL?

31 January 2008

from Overheard in New York: I used to be a straight-A student until I realized I was just learning how to get A's.

The theory I'm grounding my doctoral work is achievement goal theory. It's one way of looking at how motivation operates in the classroom---and the lens through which there is the greatest amount of research.

Earlier in the week, I piloted my survey tool with my own students. I'm not going to use this data for anything in my doctoral study. The main thing I wanted was some data to practice with in terms of how to manage coding and statistical manipulations before I go out and get the "real" stuff.

The survey was pulled from the Patterns of Adaptive Learning Study (PALS)---a well-validated tool. It has several scales to use, depending on who you wish to survey and what the focus is. I selected items relating to student goals and the goals they perceived my classroom to have. Its existence makes my methodology a lot simpler to defend.

Anyway, I asked my students to answer the questions and also to be sure they provided no identifying information: no name, no class period, don't write gender or ethnicity, etc. Out of the 100 or so kids who responded, all but three appeared to have taken the questions seriously. (Why did I think some hadn't? They had just circled a "3" for every answer.) After they answered, I talked with them about motivation and different ideas behind it. We discussed ideas of intelligence...and ability...and goal theory. There were comments about the connection between the motivational values they had and the academic behaviors it could lead to. I asked them if they would have answered the questions differently if they had taken the survey in another class. Most said that they would have. Why? Ah, because the goals within any given classroom are different---and many students will adapt their personal goals to fit the environment the teacher sets.

So, what does my data show? I'm not done playing with it yet---and really, there isn't much I will be able to surmise. It's a small sample of kids...and one teacher's classroom. There are no generalizations that can be made; however, I can't help but be interested in what my students are after in terms of personal learning goals and how well those match my classroom philosophy. I have worked very hard this year to set up a mastery goal environment: one which values learning and improvement over grades. Research shows that students with mastery goals cheat less, use more learning strategies, take risks with their learning, and show deeper cognitive engagement. (Performance goals are associated with the opposite---kids who procrastinate or skip school, choose the easiest assignments possible, cheat, etc.) Here's the first bit of information I have from what my students said. On a scale of 1 - 5, students averaged a 3.95 in terms of claiming mastery goals, and 2.54 for performance goals. Yea! Kids in my class have a stronger affiliation with learning for the sake of learning: a beautiful thing, if I do say so myself. And how do they perceive my classroom? The average for mastery was 4.13...for performance 2.75.

Are the results statistically significant? I haven't run the tests yet. How do the results compare to a similar group of students who have another science teacher? I'll not be able to tell you that---nor if those results are meaningful. Can I say that the way I've structured my classroom has led to the stronger reporting of mastery goals by students? Nope. The numbers correlate, but there's no way to make an argument for causality.

All of that, for me, doesn't really matter at the moment. My main goal was to learn to use this sort of data and I'm getting to do that. The bonus is seeing that so many kids identify with the mastery environment I've worked to create and nurture with them. I can hardly wait to take the PALS survey out for the real run.

Labels: ,

Bad Neighbors

27 January 2008

As I moved into another classroom this week, I walked in on a young man with his head down on a desk. He had fallen asleep in the previous class, and the teacher was looking at the kid with a look of bemusement.

The kid roused himself and started to explain. He hasn't been getting any/much sleep at night because he has so much work to do for his classes. And, he's stressed out about finals. To top it off, he was now worried about the test he would have the next day in the class he'd fallen asleep in. He asked the teacher if he could come in for tutoring.

The teacher never said "No," but what was worse was that he never said "Yes." Instead, he told the kid just to get some sleep (good advice, for sure) and just do his work for the class. I think the teacher meant well, but the bottom line is that he wasn't hearing what the kid was trying to say. The kid wanted to actually learn the material, not just fill out the worksheets---even though that was enough to satisfy the teacher. The student tried asking a couple of different ways to no avail. I did tell the student that if wanted help to find me after school. I meant it, too. I was angry with the teacher, but just smiled and counted to ten. "If you can't be bothered to help a student," I wanted to say, "then just send him/her to me."

(As an aside to this story, the kid also made a comment about how the teacher who sent this e-mail makes him feel like crap all the time. Gee kid, I thought it was just his co-workers he treated that way.)

I didn't see the student after school that day. I did see him again the morning of the test. He was still working on answering questions when I arrived in the room for my class. His teacher left him with me to finish his work, so I sat him off to the side and did some cheerleading for him to get things completed. What I learned in talking to the kid to prompt his thinking is that he's pretty bright. He had a good handle on concepts and vocabulary---but after yet another night without sleep and stressing about things, answering questions on paper was not going well. I told him to relax...to move onto the remaining items he knew and to go back to the others later. He actually did okay once I got him calmed down. We'll see what his teacher thinks about the test.

As for the kid? He's coming in after school on Monday to get some tutoring before finals. I think I can help him acquire some tools for studying and test-taking that will help him make the most of his smarts. I can't claim to be superteacher---I don't have success with all of my students, much as I might like or how hard I try. But this kid is one I can make a difference with, even if he isn't one of my own students. In the grand scheme of things, I always hope that for those in my own classes that I am unable to reach, that there is another teacher there who does have a strong connection. Obviously, it won't be the teacher next door.

Update: The kid saw me on Monday morning and gave me a big hug. He was very happy with his test score. I'm happy for him, too.

Labels: ,

Reflecting on Reviewing

25 January 2008

I wrapped up the implementation of my ambitious review plan with my biology kids today. You can follow the link if you want the layout of things. My purpose here is to capture what did and didn't work well---and how to tweak for next time around.

Overall, I'm happy with the format. I think it was good to have something different for kids each day. The mini-lessons on study skills were very well received by students. It will be good reinforce some of this learning next semester and help kids develop some new habits.

If I were to make some changes, there would be two. First of all, while five days of review are not too many, five topics for a kid is. So, I would likely add a day and then have students take two days to explore a particular topic, for three total. Secondly, although my kids do fairly well at managing themselves, I need to do much more frontloading of group structures. Yes, my kids do regularly work in groups, but not quite as I'd laid out here. It was difficult for them to adjust to a different format and most of the groups were not successful at completing their tasks. One way to also help solve this would be to physically separate the classroom into three areas, one for each group, but I'm at a loss at the moment as (a) I'm sharing a room and (b) it has many large immovable lab tables and nearly 50 desks (the other teacher has large classes). There's just not a lot of space, but I have some time to ponder this and see what creative solutions I can find before taking this on again.

Most teachers are using their finals as a separate of assessment of student learning---a way to test everything presented during the first 90 days of school. I'm being non-traditional this year in the sense that I'm using a final as a second (or third) opportunity for students to show mastery on those standards they struggled with the first time around. The kids are happier with having the power placed in their hands about what they do and I'm pleased with this dynamic, as well.

Finals are next week. Students who chose to do alternative assessments have them due on Monday. Regular testing starts on Tuesday. I am anxious to see how my students do. I wish them much success.


Tools for Biology Review

19 January 2008

The regs here know that I've been thinking about and working on (and implementing) a plan to do some last-ditch remediation for my biology students. (You can get the full skinny on the plan by reading a previous post.) I have to say that this is one of the most ambitious projects I've ever undertaken as a teacher. There are a ton of pieces to think about. For each of the eight targets, there is
  • an individual review sheet for each student, with the target, a series of "I can..." statements to help kids inventory their learning needs, and a note-taking structure
  • a study group protocol
  • a final assessment (for those who choose to take the final during the allotted period for their class)
  • an alternative assessment option (including holistic rubric)
  • and, a sign-up sheet for students.
I have five of these completed, and will soon finish the other three. I am uploading what I have (and will continue to share) at the bottom of this post. I am also uploading the goal-setting sheet I used with students. We also completed a learning styles inventory, which we are referring back to when I have see the groups for their mini-lesson each day.

We have only had one day of the review sessions and will do the others next week. It's a bit crazy, but I have to say that I have great buy-in from the students. Destiny has been firmly placed in their own hands and they're not afraid to do the driving. I expect that by next Friday, I will have plenty to share with you in terms of my reflections on the whole experience.

Without further ado, here are the tools I'm using (note: you can download samples of student work with annotations from the OSPI website for use with the Investigative Design and Writing Conclusions work):



Mini-Lessons on Study Skills

06 January 2008

My plan for semester review in my biology classes includes having three stations each day: individual review/study time, small group work with those who are working on the same topic, and a mini-lesson on a particular study skill with yours truly. The thinking behind the mini-lesson was two-fold. One reason was simply to break up the materials for kids so that their brains could have some time and space to digest the other information. Secondly, study skills are things that should be learned and applied in context. There is a very good argument for me having done these little lessons throughout the semester, but better late than never. We'll see how this flies for now and then I can make changes in the future.

We have five days set aside for intensive review. I originally wanted to do five mini-lessons, but as you will see, I only planned for four. Why? Because we have a day each week when classes are shortened. This would have made the rotations that day about 10 minutes each---and I already feel like 15 minutes is pushing things. So, I won't do a mini-lesson that day.

I have packed more into each mini-lesson than I probably should have. Each one has a 5E base (engage, explore, explain, extend, evaluate) to support a Big Idea. The day prior to beginning the review, I will have kids take a learning styles inventory. Although every brain benefits from having information presented in multiple formats, my goal with the inventory is to raise student awareness about ways information can be learned.
  • Day One focuses on learning and memory. I kick things off with a great demo from "How to Teach So Students Remember" in which you can "trick" kids into creating a false memory. This will be a great jumping off point to talk about how memories are stored and reinforced.
  • The goal of Day Two is get students to think about the why of using graphic organizers (store learning in both sides of the brain) in order to take notes and learn vocabulary.
  • On Day Three, I'll model my own metacognition as a reader using some of the informational text they are using that day. Beyond that, I have some bookmarks adapted/plagiarized from Jim Burke that I want to hand out to them so that they have a reference for monitoring their own reading.
  • The final day is set aside to talk about test-taking strategies. Some kids have good skills...and others don't. I'm hoping for a good discussion and giving the students a sense of empowerment in terms of managing a test.
If you would like to download my plans and handouts for these mini-lessons, please help yourself!


Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch...

05 January 2008

We're back at school and inching our way toward semester finals (now just 15 school days away). Some of you may remember that I have a plan in mind about working with kids prior to the final in order to help move them toward mastery. I am continuing to work on the items I need for this. There are 8 major targets for kids. For each of those targets, I need a breakdown of vocab and skills...a way for students to be able to have some individual and small group time...and one possible alternative assessment. I am currently in different places with each---some targets are easier to manage than others.

I'm including one example for you today. If you click on the link, you'll be able to take a look at the following plan for remediating information in biochemistry:
  • Pages 1 and 2 would be xeroxed and provided to each student needing remediation on this target. On the first page is the target, relevant vocabulary, and a list of skills using the content which students can check off. I am hoping that this will help them inventory what they already know...and what they need to focus their time on. The second page is a tool for them to use to support their work in these areas.
  • Page 3 contains the directions for the rotation where kids will work in a group with others who are studying the same topic that day. There is a brief Q & A period and then a short activity.
  • The directions for the activity (The Question Game) are on page 4, followed by the master set of questions/answers on pp. 5 - 7. These need to be copied and then pasted onto index cards. Even though the questions and answers are next to each other on the masters, they would need to be on separate cards when prepared for students.
I don't have the alternative assessment written just yet. At this point, I am thinking that I will ask them to do some analysis of 2 or 3 nutrition labels, and will include some guiding questions for them to consider with that. Right now, it feels good to just be this far along.

I have the general plan for my study skills mini-lessons drafted, but not ready to share with you quite yet. Maybe tomorrow?

I am keeping my fingers crossed that all of this will fly in a couple of weeks. It's a lot of work at the moment, but once it's done, I'll have two weeks at school to just teach and not have to worry about anything else (which is when I have a ton of things I will need to focus on for grad school).

As always, any feedback on the work to date is welcome and appreciated. I'll keep uploading documents as I finish them in case anyone else can benefit!


The Mastery Plan

15 December 2007

I work with teachers who are of a mind that after a unit of study is done...it's done. If the kid understands things later, well that's just too bad. And if a kid never gets it, then that's entirely the kid's fault. Although this is not my current state of mind, I have to admit that it was for many years. I understand where these teachers are coming from, even if I don't agree with it at this point in my career. But what's a Goddess to do when she knows there are various holes in individual student learning...and no support for intervention/remediation other than what she designs herself during her class time?

Well, I have a plan. I think it might be an okay one, but I'm looking for the edusphere at large to "push back" against it.

My bio kids and I have one more unit of study, which we'll do the first two weeks in January...and then the semester wraps up at the end of the month. In the interim, here is what I propose:

Day One: Setting the Stage
  • Preview of Final Grade Determination (some version of my previous post)
  • Have students individually review and reflect on their scores over the semester. What are their strengths? What areas still need to show evidence of learning?
  • Goal setting: What would students like to accomplish in terms of learning between now and the end of the semester? We will have five days of intense review, so each kid can choose up to five topics.
  • Review a timeline of opportunities and important dates.
  • Planning: Have students sign up for scheduled review opportunities (more on this below) and the evidence they will provide (Take a final test? Do an alternative assessment?)
  • Contract: Sign a statement as to their intents.
I haven't developed the paperwork for this yet, but it will include the boldfaced information.

Day Two: Procedures for Review

Some of the sessions will be study groups, and I know that my kids don't know how to operate one. So, we'll talk about the expectations and do some practice on a short topic. I'll show kids the schedule and talk about how the rotations will work. The basic idea is shown below. Each student will be assigned to an A, B, or C group for the day. Each group has a different topic of study. There will be some independent reading, a study group session, and a mini-lesson with me on a study skills topic. Each session will last ~15 minutes.

I know that 15 minutes is not enough time to go in depth with a topic, but keep in mind that we have already spent 16 weeks on the information. As much as I would like to personally work with each and every kid (and I have 120 bio kids) to get them up to standard, I can't. I will, however, put some tools in their hands and get them set up for some independent study. Fifteen minutes is about the maximum amount of time a 15-year old brain can focus on any one idea, as it is. I have to keep them engaged and moving.

Will there be some kids who don't need five different topics because they have achieved mastery in nearly everything? They can work on the few areas they still need and have some independent time to work on alternative assessments, or they can sign up to study things twice. Kids who need more than five areas of intense review will have to take on some more out of class work.

Days 3 - 7: Review

There were 8 major targets this semester. I've chosen three per day for grouping kids (so that I can keep groups to no more than 10 kids...and keep things productive) and rotated things so that kids should be able to have a schedule which meets as many needs for learning as possible:

For each of the eight, I will have a sheet with the target, relevant resources (e.g. pages in text), a series of "I can..." statements in the form of a checklist so students can inventory their needs for the target, a reading activity, and reflection. I will also list one (or perhaps two) acceptable alternative assessments (in place of the final exam). I'm all for kids having varied ways to show what they know, but I'm not going to kill myself in the process. Students will work on this during their "independent" time.

I'm not done with the design of the study group format yet, but I am modeling it off of Jim Burke's Literature Circle idea. I will provide a few guiding questions for their discussion, and perhaps a very, very brief activity for them to do. Whatever this is, it needs to be something they can be fairly independent with, since I will be at the "mini-lesson" station with another group.

As for the mini-lessons, here is what I'm planning: Brainology (learning to learn), Informational Text Strategies, Note-taking Strategies, Vocabulary Strategies, and Test-taking Strategies. Yes, we've modeled and talked about these throughout the semester, but I want to formalize it. I want to give them something to hang onto for their other courses.

Day 8: Whole Class Review/Wrap-Up

Day 9: Final Exam

I know that all of this looks like a huge amount of work---and it will be. But it's all front-loaded. Once I have the review sheets for each target prepared, work out the study group mechanics, and write my 15-minute mini-lessons, I'm good to go for two weeks of class time. In the meantime, there will be no grading for me to do or other "regular" classroom tasks. Kids will take care of the scheduling by signing up for their topics of choice. I worry about only having one day for each topic for a kid to study---I know it's not optimal for recalling whatever knowledge is in there and building on it, but I'm struggling to find away around that. There's only 1 of me, 120 of them, and 4 hours a day for us to accomplish 8 different targets together. If someone has a better way to structure things, please do let me know.

So, that's it. Whaddya think?


Words, Words, Words

02 December 2007

Vocabulary can be the Waterloo for many a biology student. Although I have tried this year to tame the mountain our resource material throws at them, I need to do a better job of clearly identifying the absolute-most-important-gotta-know-'em-cold terms. Some words, like "cell" are more important than others (e.g. "peduncle"). But if you're a kid looking at the list of key terms for a given chapter, there is nothing to help sort them in terms of priority. It's hard to make sense of what a eukaryote is if you don't know about a nucleus. If you don't have the concept of an organelle in mind first, it's nearly impossible to connect to a mitochondrion. And so on.

So, this post is a reminder to me to spend more time on vocabulary skills. I don't ask my kids to write out definitions---I don't think that's a valuable way to go. Science is the one area where kids need concrete experiences first. We do lots of labs and activities, but I need to stop more along the way and give kids consistent practice with organizing the terms in various ways.

Do you have a favourite strategy to share? Leave it in the comments. :)



01 December 2007

During the change of classes this week, a teacher and student were having a very inconvenient conversation. I felt embarrassed for the kid. The teacher was telling him how she didn't see why he even bothered to be in her class, because he didn't do his homework. His side of the story? He does well on all of the tests and participates in class---he doesn't need the homework to understand the material. She continued to make a point of letting the kid know he was a failure in her class.

I stayed out of things, of course, but I did understand where each person was coming from. The teacher has concerns about academic behaviors...the kid's point is that he can show her he's learned what she's asked without the redundancy of homework.

I don't give a lot of homework in my class---I never have. I do expect kids to work during class and review notes/handouts at home. I do think that homework can be a valuable tool for learning, but I'm starting to ponder the "academic behaviour" part of it more. The class where the snippet of conversation occurred was an AP class---most if not all of those kids are college bound. I am hard pressed to think of any classes I had in college where homework was part of my grade. It's not that the profs didn't expect us to read and study on our own---just that tests and essays were what formed the grade. It was our task to formatively assess ourselves. We decided if we needed homework. For a college-bound high school senior, should our view of homework reflect the "self-management" of learning that the kid will experience in a few months?

Okay, so not every kid is college bound...especially not the ones I work with on a regular basis. As a teacher, I have work that I bring home. But I can think of lots of jobs where there is no homework expected. To say that I should use homework to train kids for expectations of the real world would be untrue. And frankly, I want to see evidence of learning as it happens. Homework is great for kids who need to finish up work or prepare for a presentation---but skills and assessment need to happen in the classroom. I am finding myself more focused on this as time goes by. These little snippets of conversations that I catch help move my thinking along this path.


The Apologies That Come With Hindsight

30 November 2007

At the end of my first year of teaching, I wanted to seek out all of my junior high teachers and apologize to them. Personally, I think I was a pretty good kid---I never got in trouble for anything---and yet, I was an adolescent. I must have not been all that different from any other 7th or 8th grader. Maybe I never had detention or was sent to the office, but I'm sure I must have asked the teacher to repeat the directions (after she'd already said them three times), or been lazy with an assignment, or rolled my eyes after some comment. Ouch. I can't claim that my goal was to irritate anyone in particular, but that doesn't mean I didn't. I'd seen plenty of instances of that during my first year on the other side of the desk.

And now?

Well, I realize that most people teaching junior high like that age of kid (a stage of life where most of the time the kids don't like themselves...and you don't like them, either). They understand the quirks, joys, and frustrations of working with young adolescents and tend to have a great sense of humor about things. And just as I don't doubt that I was a fairly average junior high kid, I also know that means I didn't give these teachers anything they weren't prepared to handle.

Instead, I sometimes wish these days I could find those first junior high students I had and apologize to them for not being a better teacher. I don't know that I will ever be a master of classroom teaching, but I know I am much more skillful and knowledgeable now. Those poor kids I had 17 years ago. I wonder if I really taught them anything at all. I wish I could tell them that I don't suck quite so much anymore. The classroom is such an odd thing---it is a moment frozen in time. I remember the kids in their 15 year old form, just as they remember me at whatever age I am at the time. We don't age and change within those memories over the years. If I was a bad teacher, then that is how I'm remembered---they don't know the progress I've made over time.

I know my wish won't come true, but perhaps that's okay. Maybe I can make amends to those kids of yore in my career by being the best I can for the kids I have now. I might not be able to change the past, but I am very much in control of shaping the future for a few hundred teens this year. I hope that in another 20 years, I won't be looking back at them with the same kind of hindsight that inspires apologies. I hope we all have a reason to smile and cheer.

Labels: ,

Um...I Don't Think So

29 November 2007

I was chatting with a friend the other day, comparing recent experiences with students. I told him about a lab I was debriefing with one of my classes of students. After we talked about what the data meant, their first task was to write a conclusion. Keep in mind, they've written lots of these for me this year, but not in the past couple of weeks. So, we talked about what needed to be included (again). They were eager to volunteer what the three most important pieces were. "Great!" I thought. "They know what to do." I set them loose to do the work...and a few minutes later as kids were bringing me their work, I saw that only two of them had actually written a proper conclusion. WTF? Did we not just review what they needed to write about?! So, I handed the papers back out and told them that these conclusions were most definitely not up to standard. We looked at the board again, where I had captured their thoughts about what constituted a conclusion. "You know what to do. Why didn't you do it?" They looked sheepish, but they made a second (and much improved) effort. (All of this after I handed back a lab earlier in the week which also had a disappointing lack of thinking displayed in their answers. Sigh.)

My friend had a similar tale of laziness amongst his students. Somehow, we both thought it important to tell kids to do it right and immediately make sure they did. We talked about needing to do more of this. I think it's especially important at this time of year, as kids really are starting to slack off in terms of performance. In terms of formative assessment, I'm always okay with kids orally demonstrating learning. It's okay sometimes for summative work, too; however, the writing is a often a better form of evidence because I can track it over time much more easily. Meanwhile, the state test is four months away---and they will definitely have to write on that.

The other part of our conversation was simply around the idea that it is frustrating that at the 10th grade level, we are still having to break down every skill and scaffold it. I had to work with an awful lot of kids this week on how to write a research question. Their hypotheses and conclusions are looking good (when they write them), but there are so many pieces to develop. I can't blame previous teachers---because I know that many of them have taught these concepts. Somehow, the learning either didn't stick, or is currently stored in a place in students' minds where it isn't being retrieved.

In the meantime, I plan to keep calling kids on their "not best" work. They're going to be seeing a lot more assignments coming back and hearing me say "Um...I don't think so. Do it again."


Is Less More?

20 November 2007

Many many moons ago, my dad and I went to a regional National Science Teachers' Association convention together. I was still very much a newbie at that point and it was fun to pal around with my dad doing grown-up teacher things. Mind you, he was a college prof, so we didn't attend a lot of the same sessions. It was at this convention that he was introduced to the concept of "Less is more." when it comes to teaching. I remember how he scoffed. I remember agreeing with him. There's so much to learn...why would you possibly leave anything out on purpose?

As I've moved into later stages of my career, I've started to find that maybe the whole "Less is more." idea has a lot going for it. I find myself honing in on what The Big Idea is for a unit and sticking with it. I am more willing to let go of the details in terms of what I expect kids to know...and less willing to allow kids to get away without constructing a few simple concepts around The Big Idea.

There are very few worksheets as compared to early in my career. Never do kids write out lists of definitions for each chapter. We do more thinking together as a group and then reflecting on our work in the notes. I am less about cramming as much information as possible into one class period and more about teaching one or two ideas as deeply as I can. I don't need to "baffle them with bullshit," as I often did early in the career---thinking that I was convincing them with my vast array of knowledge (rather than realizing I was just confusing the kids).

Even still, I feel like there is too much to teach. There are over 20 to help kids reach this year---and while previous teachers have definitely laid the groundwork, it is still my responsibility to lead them down the home stretch. Twenty standards in 36 weeks---standards which exclude a lot of what we old folks grew up with in biology (plants, animals, bacteria...). It's understandable that the more you know about your content area, the more you want to share it with others; but we have to remember that kids are just at the beginning of their learning. We don't need to overwhelm them. They have a lifetime to gain in knowledge, just as we have done. I can't help but think that even less would mean a lot more to our kids.

Labels: ,

Future Goals

14 November 2007

When I was a newly minted educator and out for my first interview, the principal asked me a question: What are your goals for your students? My naive answer was something to the effect that kids should be able to do enough math to balance a checkbook and fill out their income tax...know enough English to fill out a job application...and understand how to follow a set of directions.

I still think those are necessary skills, but umpteen years on, my answer to this question would be different.

As I look at my students now, I expect more evidence of thinking. I'm not content to settle for the basics anymore. I need them to synthesize pieces of information into a logical conclusion. I want them to be able to evaluate---compare and contrast in order to make judgments and choices. I hope that students will be able to self-assess their understanding and adjust their learning accordingly. Long after kids leave my classroom, they will still be buying cars, weighing options for medical treatments, becoming parents---and so much more. Can I hone their thinking skills enough to do that?

I was pondering this today as I had an observer in my class. She is on her way to becoming a teacher---at the very beginning of the journey. We didn't have a lot of time to talk, but while my kids tested today, we chatted a bit about why I'd picked the items I had. I told her that I could truly care less if kids know about vacuoles. I can't think of a single adult who needs this knowledge on a daily basis (yes, I know that there are many in the biology field who might). But understanding how to compare and contrast? That, I care about. The context for that was biological on the test, but it was the thinking kids were showing me that was most valuable. She seemed to understand that. Maybe she'll ponder that some more. Maybe in a couple of years when she is sitting in her first interview and is asked about goals for students, she can be a bit more thoughtful than I was.

Labels: ,

You Never Can Tell

07 November 2007

Although the content of this post will contain no surprises for any veteran teacher, it may dishearten a few noobs out there. I was reminded today that you can't always tell which way a lesson will go. Over the last umpteen years, I've seen the most carefully crafted lessons go completely sideways...then kicked myself afterwards for spending so much time and energy in planning them. And there have been other lessons that I spent five minutes (or less!) on went over like gangbusters. (Does the word "gangbusters" show my age?) But there is another kind of lesson---one that you have a feeling is good, but think the kids will hate anyway. It's always a shock when they actually love it as much as you do.

If you're a non-teacher reading this---or a newbie teacher---you may wonder how random this seems. Shouldn't all lessons which are thoughtful be appreciated? Maybe in the Utopic classroom. In the real ones filled with real kids and daily changes in dynamics, outcomes are not always as predictable as a teacher might like.

I have long been a Problem Based Learning enthusiast. I like the idea of giving kids a decision-making role, a purpose for asking more questions and doing some investigations, and having them think about real world applications. Yes, I know that this is the ultimate goal of all learning, but let's face it---sometimes there is material that you just have to dig in and do. I gave one of my classes a problem about red tide today. This is not a particularly with it group, and they actually ate it up. When I walked into class this morning, I was feeling a bit down. I love this particular set-up and haven't done it for a few years. I wasn't looking forward to handing it over and having a bunch of teens tell me how much this sucked. But they liked it! Hey, Mikey!

Meanwhile, I was doing a lab with my bio kids. It's a really cool lab, in my opinion. I modeled off of this lab on using yeast to investigate how different factors affect cell membranes. We boil, we centrifuge, we use different bases to look at pH. The first and only time I did this lab prior to today, kids were ho-hum about things. But I pulled out this old chestnut for one more try, and what do you know? The kids thought it was the coolest lab ever.

I suppose that if everything was predictable about the classroom, it would be dull. Maybe I should be glad that most days, you never can tell what's going to make sparks fly.

Labels: , ,

Teaching Thinking Skills

03 November 2007

I am a firm believer in the power of modeling for students. I'm not talking about getting up on the catwalk in your best outfit and pouting, but rather giving some examples of the type and quality of work you expect them to (eventually) independently produce. As much as I value this tool for teaching, I can't claim that I have used it as often as I should.

One of the skills I'm not seeing my students perform well this year is compare and contrast. I have high school kids, mind you, and my personal opinion is that this is a thinking skill which they should have in place before they hit my classroom. My kids come in knowing that a Venn diagram is a graphic organizer for comparing and contrasting...but they don't really know how to use it. They understand that unique features of two ideas go in the parts of the circles which don't overlap and that something in common should go in the middle; however, there's more to a high-quality compare and contrast than that.

I have been completely disappointed by what I've seen on the first two tests. I've included one short answer item on each which asked students to compare and contrast two concepts from our recent unit. The first issue is simply the lack of organization of ideas. The other one is that most students do not seem to realize that compare and contrast is asking them to do two things, even though the word "and" is included. They just contrast ideas. So, I've decided to back the truck up and start from scratch on teaching kids what they need to do.

We're talking about cells now. The first part we read about was the two types of cells: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. This was a great opportunity to use a chunk of informational text as a basis for a note-taking strategy involving compare and contrast. I drew a t-chart on the board. I told kids that it was okay to use a Venn, but I wanted to give them another tool...and this one was also easier to fill in. (Those circles can be a bear.) The first paragraph we read gave us information on prokaryotes: no membrane-bound structures, unicellular, bacteria as examples. Great. We filled in one side of the t-chart. Then we read the next paragraph about eukaryotes. We used what we had in the chart as a guideline for filling in the other side. Kids didn't realize that they needed to pair their ideas. If prokaryotes have no internal membrane-bound structures, then what do we say about this characteristic for eukaryotes? Number of cells? Examples? We next looked at the diagrams to compare structures. We added "plasma membrane" to both sides of the t-chart. We had compared and contrasted---and had a rather nifty pre-writing piece to boot.

Okay, kiddos, write your summary: A prokaryotic cell has no internal membrane-bound structures, but a eukaryotic cell does. Prokaryotes, like bacteria, are unicellular, but eukaryotes, such as animals and plants, can have one or more cells. Both kinds of cells have a plasma membrane.

Is it worth "losing" science time to teach them to this tool they can use for all of their classes? I certainly think it is. Time will tell about the payoff for this. I recently gave them some independent practice and am hopeful about seeing improvement over the long haul this year. If they're 15 years old and haven't received scaffolded instruction in how to organize their thinking, maybe I need to be the one to demystify these skills for them. It has been another good reminder for me to be sure that my students have a clear picture of what I expect them to know and do.

Labels: ,

The Seedy Underbelly

21 October 2007

Last week was Homecoming Week...an event which causes teachers nationwide to collectively groan. I have to say that it wasn't much of a disruption at this school, but maybe that's because I don't run with the glamourous crowd.

At the assembly on Friday afternoon, I knew none of king/queen candidates. The kids who put on the skits were not part of my classes. Ditto for the multimedia support. I watched with this disconnected sense of things. Who were all of these other kids? Were they really part of the school, too? And if I didn't see my students out in front of their peers---how did they feel about the lack of representation? I knew that I had the kids who don't get attention at that school (and these happen to be the ones I like best), but things seemed a bit ridiculous. It's like we are all part of some other school, happily going about our business while some other more public persona is functioning elsewhere in the building. We are the seedy underbelly.

Personally, I don't mind. I have great kids who are starting to thrive with some attention and support. I'm not missing the pretty people. From a teen perspective, however, I'm not sure if this is true. I worry about my young charges and the need to see positive peer models they can identify with...something to connect them to school, not show them how different they are. How do we do that, I wonder?

Labels: ,

Teachers and Kids Say the Darndest Things

17 October 2007

I asked the other teachers in the department who teach biology if they wanted to team up for some "intervention" (Can't we just use remediation?) work with kids. I know that a school in the area has worked things out such that once kids have been identified as able or unable to meet a particular standard, teachers who have the same prep during the same class period team up. One teacher takes all of the students from the two classes who are at standard and does some enrichment...the other teacher takes the remaining kids and does some things to try to get the kiddos up to standard. Seems like a beautiful plan to me.

My collegial inquiry has been met with the sound of chirping crickets. Sigh.

I did have one teacher mention that she just "fits in the standards" where she can and is not really sure about which kids need help. (Perhaps it is not surprising that she is also the one completely mystified by the disparity between the course grades kids earn in her class and their science WASL scores.)

Okay. I get the message. If I want my kids to be able to be successful, there's not going to be any help. It's a good thing for me, then, that my kids are starting to step up to the plate. For example, I had a young man check with me yesterday about the conclusion he had just written for his lab. He said, "I really want to do better with these." Dude. So, of course, I talked to him about what was working well and what needed beefing up. You should have seen the little cheer and dance he did today when he showed me the new and improved version---and I told him it was darned good. Motivated to learn? Almost too good to be true...and definitely the highlight of my week.

Want to read more about what teachers and students? Head on over to this week's Carnival of Education. The Education Wonks have put together a marvelous array of posts.

Watch this space for a special Halloween edition of the Carnival of Education. Be ready to get your spook on!

Labels: , ,

Not Just the Hokey Pokey

16 October 2007

This is Juan's Graduation Day. Juan got his diploma many many moons ago---just before I headed into the classroom to work with kids just like him. I don't know where he is now...if he's had a happy life since high school...if he has children of his own on their own roads to graduation. But I've kept this picture for nearly two decades as a reminder to me of just how much it means to a kid to finish high school.

I was thinking about this today for a couple of reasons. One is simply that the honeymoon is over for kids this school year. All of their good intentions that walked through the door with them in September are sliding away as the reality of school settles in. So, I'm on them about things and calling parents, trying to reach a happy medium. Kids may groan, but the goal is to have them keep moving toward that diploma. Secondly, I was listening to all of the various uncertainties around graduation requirements. I was frustrated that we have kids in the system who need diplomas and the state is still dancing around what can be used to get one.

That's what it's all about, right?

Labels: ,

Take It and Run With It

15 October 2007

If you've lived and/or worked with teens, you know that compliments are not always forthcoming. This is not to imply that teens are uncouth or ill-mannered, only that their priorities can be a little different from those of adults.

During dinner last week, I was catching up with a friend I hadn't seen in awhile. I mentioned that the outfit I was wearing was the same as the first day of school. At that time, a young lady in one of my classes had caught my attention at the end of the period and said "I like how you match." While this might not be the most blush-inducing comment I've ever received, I made sure to thank her for her gracious words. It was a very nice gesture and it makes me laugh when I think about it. (As an aside, when my friend and I were leaving the restaurant that evening, the hostess looked at me and said, "Your outfit really matches!" I couldn't help but burst out laughing. I'm sure my friend would have never believed a 15-year old had said the same thing if we hadn't just talked about it.)

I had an admin tell me today that kids have been coming in for schedule changes, but any time the counselor mentions that what they want would require them to no longer be in my class, the kid chooses not to make a change. It's a compliment in its own way. Kids might not say anything to me about liking my class, but the fact that they're willing to put up with someone else's so they can hang around in mine makes a nice quiet statement. (Yes, I also know that it also highlights that kids might not have the right motives in going in for a schedule change if they're willing to give it up so easily.)

Teachers know that compliments are few and far between. It can be years before a kid returns to tell you "Thank you." For now, I'll take these two small treasures and run with them.


Everyone's Got a Big But

12 October 2007

I know that many parents find a teen's imploring "But..." to be the thing which gets on their very. last. nerve. Personally, I encourage the use of the word. It introduces a contrasting statement and shows thinking. I need kids to stick out those buts and share their ideas.

As for me? I try to avoid it like the plague. Why the double standard? Because as soon as a kid hears that word leave your lips, they tune out. No matter what good you've said beforehand, a teacher's big but will undo all of that every time.

"What you did with your hypothesis was very good, but your conclusion needs work."

This is not to say that kids don't need to hear constructive criticism and understand where they can improve. It is our responsibility as teachers to keep students moving forward with their learning. We just need to be sneaky with it by asking kids questions instead.

"This hypothesis is good because you state a reason to support the prediction. Another scientist might wonder if you still think the same reason would apply to your conclusion. What would you tell him or her?"

I've been trying to do this more this year and keep my big but out of student work. So far, I'm pleased with student response to the results. Many are using the comments to make positive changes in their work and I think it has helped nurture the classroom environment. We're not looking for what's wrong, but we're taking what's right making the rest of it better.


Oh, the Temptation

09 October 2007

There are classes---and/or sometimes students---who love to try on a teacher's patience for size. I have just such a group this year...and the awful truth is, I actually like them. They make me crazy at times, but their only real issue is that they're 15 years old, not bad seeds.

It is a constant temptation for me to dumb down material for them. I know that I will have to fight them for every inch of attention and each precious moment of time on task. There are times I want to set aside some of the planned activities because I know it is at the limits of their focus. I battle with myself on a daily basis about installing the cruelest form of dictatorship imaginable and just assigning days on end of book work. Just so they'll be quiet. Just so I don't have to play tug of war all period. But how would they learn?

These are not dumb kids. I have to tell you that they ask very good questions---it's just that each word out of someone's mouth is something every kid wants to comment on. Getting through material takes forever.

In our last unit, I bravely led them through some thinking about whether or not a pesticide was feminizing frogs. It's a college level case study (you can access it here, if you're so inclined), but the data itself is comfortably within high school limits. I provided some "during reading" scaffolds and time to talk and reflect. We looked at information in three different days and then I provided a summative prompt for them to respond.

Three classes sailed through the thinking. We had good discussions. The difficult class? It was like pulling teeth just to get them to look at the material. But look they did. And you know what? That class had the highest percentage of students who wrote the essay...and I have to say that the writing isn't all that bad.

It is a temptation not to give challenging kids challenging work. But the simple truth of the matter is that they need it more than anyone else. I can't claim that appealing to their intelligence has made their behavior any more mature during class, but it reinforces for me that I just need to keep pushing them. As tempting as it is to give up on them and assume that their behavior will preclude any deep learning, I can't give in to that particular siren song. We'll have to find some way to keep on sailing.


Learning to Let Go

28 September 2007

Even though I have made some drastic changes to my grading practices this year, I am not immune to stacks of papers. I listened to a teacher complain at length yesterday about grading---and how hated of an activity it is. I understand why a teacher might feel that way (and certainly have myself), but not anymore. I have made a mental shift from the mechanics of grading (marking answers wrong) to thinking about two things as I look at student work: (1) Does the kid get it? and (2) Does the class get it---and what will I do if they don't? To put it another way, I'm more focused on the forest than the trees.

On Tuesday, I played a game with my kids to illustrate how energy flows in an ecosystem. At the end, I asked them some questions. In the past, I would have just marked the papers, totaled up the number of right answers, calculated the percentage, and put a grade at the top. This time, I read through all of the responses on a student's paper. I looked at them within the context of the learning target. If the kid grasped the majority of the concept, I marked a "3" (at standard) on my record sheet for formative data. As I did this, the larger part of the picture started to emerge. I saw two major misconceptions kids consistently had about food webs. I marked a "2" on my record sheet. Being formative, it won't count toward the final report card grade, but it is a signal to me as to which kids I need to pay particular attention to the next time we do something with this concept. More importantly, it gives me some direction in planning for the next few class sessions.

This "gestalt" approach saves me a lot of time and ink as I grade (kids can correct papers in class when we talk about the work---I don't need to spend my evenings and weekends on most of that) and it is good guidance for the next class session. It means, of course, that I have to let go of a lot of the nitpicky stuff I used to do.

Don't get me wrong---there's definitely a time and place for being anal retentive about grading. There are just some concepts that kids have to nail. And as far as extended response items, they are always going to be time consuming. The difference here is that I'm continually forcing myself to consider the goal and ask myself "So what?" about the work. In class, I get to tell kids "Here is what I learned from looking at your papers..." I don't care so much that a particular kid missed item #2---does the rest of the work show that the kid seems to know what s/he's talking about?

All of this also helps me spend my time looking in detail at the papers of kids who weren't able to hit the target the first few times out. I know who to provide even more detailed feedback to---and who just needs a suggestion.

Grading is a subjective process. We are human beings evaluating other human beings. No matter how many "objective" items you use on assessments---there will always be questions as to item quality and match to a target. But I'm gradually learning to set aside some of those worries and embrace the messiness of it all. So far, the kids are okay with the idea that we are all going to take the plunge together and learn.

Labels: ,