Last Call for Nostalgia

23 March 2008

I'm sure that there must be some of you readers who remember one or more science related products Ma Bell used to have available for the classroom. Whether it was a film like Hemo the Magnificent or a kit exploring sound, Bell Laboratories were an integral part of American science classrooms.

Believe it or not, someone has a stash of the old kits. These kits were never distributed---they are "brand new," in a sense. They've been waiting for 40 years for you to want them.

The bad news is that the distributor is going out of business. Now is your last chance to own a bit of science education history---and perhaps use these tools to inspire a new generation of scientists. If you're interested in learning more about the kits, pricing, and ordering, visit the Bell System Memorial page.

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Generally Satisfied

12 April 2007

Years ago, when my Sweetie and I were still getting to know one another, I saw an on-line article reporting on sex lives across the globe. The part we joked about was the percentage reflecting the number of people who were "generally satisfied" in this area, as the study made it out to be a wonderful thing. We were left wondering why that would be good enough for anyone. We tried imagining some pillow talk. "How was it for you?" "Oh, you know, I'm generally satisfied." Being generally satisfied seemed like only a slight improvement over "un-," but certainly not as desirable as "very." Shouldn't that be the goal? Since then, we've used the phrase to apply to most anything: meals, movies, museums, and other things which don't start with an "m." I was thinking about this phrase today because when a meeting with admins was finished and the Boss Lady asked how I thought things went, the first thing that came to mind was that I was generally satisfied.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about romancing the admins (the secondary school ones) in terms of finding a way for Curriculum to be more integrated with their staffs and goals. I have to say that the late March meeting was unsatisfactory in some ways. I don't know that the principals really took us seriously. We asked for some genuine dialogue and tried very hard to engage them, but things didn't gel. In spite of that, we took what little they offered and worked to create some support models to share with them on Thursday afternoon. Surprisingly enough, they started to buy in and give us some good feedback. The junior high admins are more clear about what they want (support in the form of instructional coaches) while high schools are closer to identifying some things. For once, being generally satisfied felt good.

This conversation is a step in the right direction, but we have further to go. Their needs for coaches can only be fulfilled by cutting other positions in order to redirect funds. We (Curriculum) would not only have to work out the financial details, but support with human resources and other take care of other issues. I don't know that we can make it all work for next fall. Perhaps we can start with some schools and find ways to move things along the continuum to everyone being "very satisfied."

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Auntie Em! Auntie Em! It's a Twister!

31 March 2007

One of the conference sessions I attended on Thursday was presented by a school district which is just a little bit farther into the throes of standards-based grading and reporting than ours is. Their biggest lesson learned (so far) is something that we are just starting to find out for ourselves: teachers are hungry for "stuff." This is what that district termed all of the different tools teachers want: alignment documents, assessments, rubrics, and so on.

Here's where my thinking diverges from the other district. They look at the development of stuff as being cyclical, moving between a need expressed by teachers and a document created to fill that need. I think it's more of an ever-increasing death spiral: a real twister. A Curriculum department isn't just scratching a teacher's itch. It's feeding a hunger that can't be filled. It begins with something like identifying aligned curriculum materials and creating guides for using them. But then there's a question about accompanying assessments for each reporting period...and rubrics. Then intervention/remediation materials are needed...but having things by reporting period isn't quite enough. It's too long of a time frame. Now teachers see the need to have these same tools unit by unit or even questions about common rubrics for the assignments contained within. When I think about this across all grade levels and content areas, my head hurts.

For those of you thinking that this looks like I have perpetual job security, I admit that it looks that way on the surface. But at the same time most teachers are saying that The District should provide these, they're also wanting the Curriculum department to be disbanded. Go figure.

But more importantly, what's so wrong with teachers asking for this "stuff"? If it frees up teacher time so that they can focus on instruction, isn't that a good thing? Absolutely. I agree that teachers should have these tools---there isn't anything wrong with this motivation...this need to grasp something solid while educational reform whirls around them. My concern is that some of our teachers have a different source of desire for these materials---and for them, nothing can satisfy it. These teachers want to be able to remove elements of subjectivity from their practices. What could be better than knowing without a doubt the performance level of every kid in the class and being able to justify and communicate this to outsiders without agony. I understand that want. I know I've had many restless nights pondering the evaluation of my students. At some point, however, we just have to realize that we're humans making judgements about the achievement of other humans. No matter how many tools we have or hours of training in using them are we ever going to be able to be completely objective about things. I'm hoping that teachers who act with the best of intentions on the part of their students (which is nearly every one) will learn to accept their humanness in this process and forgive themselves of any faults along the way. Perhaps they can find the eye of the storm around them and have some peace of mind in the classroom.

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24 March 2007

I don't have a lot of experience with PowerPoint. I'm too old to have seen it in action during my school days and I didn't have access to a projector in my teaching classroom to have shown slideshows to my students. I understand the basics of how to create a presentation, but my skills are very low level. Intensive interventions would likely be necessary in order to get me up to standard. On the flipside, however, I think I'm an average recipient. I've seen some really strong presentations using this software...and some that were downright painful.

There is a district-wide presentation to elementaries coming up on Monday and I will be helping to facilitate things at one of the schools. Another specialist was helping get me up to speed on things and we decided to look at the PowerPoint from the staff training which occurred in December. The information contained within it was really good and very helpful, however, the slideshow presentation itself induced a fit of giggles.

There was an awful lot of information packed into the presentation:
I started to pretend to yawn after awhile. I really did wonder how teachers must have felt sitting through this. Things then devolved into student-like questions when boredom arises: "Can I have a hall pass?" But hey, to keep things lively, someone had chosen to make this a presentation with some animations on the slides.

I know that the graphic above is static, but the little key/keyhole thing in the upper righthand corner cycled through three different graphics. All I could think of was "Eat at Joe's...Eat at Joe's..." The other specialist wondered if it might not be meant to induce a hypnotic effect. Fortunately, it was too slow to be strobe-like and thus seizure inducing.

But the icing on the cake was all of the fancy-dancy transitions. You know what I'm talking about right? Some lines fade in...some slides dissolve into a lot of tiny pieces...other aspects are revealed by a 360 degree wipe? It got to be a bit much about halfway through viewing the presentation and this was where we really got into trouble. The other specialist made the comment of "We can rebuild it..." a la the $6M man and did some of the relevant slow-mo sound effects. By this time, we were laughing so hard that the screen was a blur through our tears.

The lone male in our office was sitting a few feet away through all of this. He is continually bemused, being a stranger in a strange land of women. Listening to the two of us "work" yesterday gave him another reason to shake his head. He said, "I'm going to bring a tape recorder to work and record you two that whenever I'm feeling down I can listen to it and smile." Maybe a deathly PowerPoint presentation isn't so bad.

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Inside Information

18 March 2007

My Curriculum peeps and I have been working with teams of elementary grade level teachers in order to develop "Grades in a Box." With school closures, decreasing enrollment at primary grades, and miscellaneous program cuts, we have many teachers who may well be changing grade levels next year. Our goal is to support this transition by providing some support materials that give a framework for the new-to-teacher grade level.

Will the finished product actually be in a box? Things are still a bit uncertain at this point. Right now, the recommendation is to have a spiral-bound set of information for a grade, plus something similar for each building, and then a welcome note from grade level teaching partners. All of this could be bundled in something akin to a magazine storage box---something easy to put on a shelf and access as needed. Our hope is to have these available in June for teachers who are making changes for next year. This would give them the summer to look over things before a more formal day of inservice in August. In terms of materials, those of us in Curriculum can pull that information together. But the real scoop? That can only come from teachers currently working at grade level.

For example, when a kindergartner raises his hand and says he has to go to the bathroom, do you send the kid immediately? Wait until circle time is over? Send him with a buddy (or in a small group)? By himself? Let's say that you find yourself assigned to fifth grade next year. Should you be surprised when the boys are standoffish?

The teachers who are helping with this project have all the inside information and they aren't being afraid to dish the dirt. I have to say that the first grade comments are my favourite so far (e.g. "They poke you. They poke you. They poke you."), but every grade has had some wonderful insights to share with their peers. It's been more of a "Everything you wanted to know about grade x but were afraid to ask" sort of project. Second and third grade teachers will be arriving in the morning to work on their pieces and I can hardly wait to find out what they have to share.

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Juggler at Large

15 March 2007

I'm a fairly organized person, but there are times that the universe appears to be working against me in that regard. Yesterday, I had three meetings at the same time...two of which I was slated to facilitate.

I didn't intend for yesterday to be a 3-ring circus with me as the Mistress of Ceremonies. I did schedule my seventh grade group for Wednesday. I set this up in December...and then "Grade in a Box" came along and subs were limited. There were two available for yesterday, so we used them to release two first grade teachers to help. And then, our Curriculum Department meeting got moved from last week to this week. Oy.

Things did work out in their own odd way. I started my seventh grade group at 7:30, hoping to get them focused and working away on their tasks by the time 8:30 rolled around and the first grade teachers arrived. Fortunately, the secondary gifted ed specialist volunteered to facilitate this group at the last moment. I floated back to seventh grade for a few minutes until the 9 o'clock department meeting. I stayed in that one most of the time. I was afraid of leaving as there are so many things going on and the nearly invisible Boss Lady 2.0 was there with quite the agenda in hand. By 12:30, every single group was finished and seemingly happy with the products.

This juggling act is only going to get more complicated. An integral member of our department resigned yesterday...Boss Lady 2.0's mother passed away this afternoon (so BL2 will be out for awhile)...and there are all sorts of other things afoot. Instead of balls in the air, the rest of this year is going to be balls to the wall.


The 700 Club

05 March 2007

And so begins my 700th post to this blog...and nary a Pat Robertson in sight. :)

A few of us snuck away on Friday afternoon to visit with our previous Boss Lady, now a mucky-muck at OSPI. OSPI has the responsibility of implementing federal and state requirements for education, monitoring teacher certification, and all other duties as assigned. As a classroom teacher---and even as a district level support teacher---it is easy to scoff at OSPI in some ways. From our more humble perspective, it doesn't look like they have their poop in a pile. Information changes frequently, as does their support model. But having some time to actually listen to the Boss Lady, someone I have such respect for, lay out things for us helped make a lot of sense and cast them in a different light for me.

Really, I should know better. Curriculum/"The District" is routinely villified by classroom teachers without taking the time or energy to really learn about what is happening. As for me, I try to start from the premise that people have good intentions. I am occasionally wrong in doing so as there are all too many people out there who take their joy in working to make others unhappy, but I am not sorry for starting from that point. I understand the frustrations and realities of our teachers---just not their need to be ugly about them. I have to remember that things are not any different at the state level. If I haven't walked in their shoes, I can't very well try to blast them for how they do things.

It's hard to say whether or not the Boss Lady will cross paths with any of us again---at least in a professional capacity. She is in a position to help us further our work on behalf of students in our district and state. Her enthusiasm and revitalized nature as a result of her new job is an inspiration to keep growing...and blogging about it, of course.

P.S. There's only a few more hours to get your posts in for this week's Carnival of Education. You can submit your posts via the Blog Carnival form or just drop me a line at the_science_goddess[at]yahoo[dot]com. Entries are due by 6 p.m. Pacific Time tomorrow.


That Old Schizophrenic Feeling

03 March 2007

It's the nature of my job to be involved with different groups of teachers and to wear multiple hats. In any given week, I have my beginning teachers to monitor, ten grade levels of new science curriculum to support, and various other Curriculum tasks/meetings to work with. But I think Thursday brought those together in a new way.

I went to an inservice with Jay McTighe on Understanding by Design (UbD) with Differentiated Instruction. Three of my Curriculum colleagues were there...I had most of my 7th grade differentiated curriculum group...a beginning teacher and two mentors...two other science folks...and some elementary representation from the district. The conversations at each break felt a little surreal as I interacted with different groups. Ninth grade teachers wanted to talk about their new Curriculum. Elementary wanted to talk about some training I'd delivered. Seventh grade wanted to talk about the work to do over our next four meetings. And so on. I was aware that some of the groups would be there, but for me, it was like being at the center of some Venn diagram from Wonderland. I found it distracting, in some ways, not to be entirely representative of one group...not to have a single lens for filtering the information.

The best thing from the day was simply some time to process with someone from Curriculum about how UbD might (should?) apply to our staff development and also the school improvement process. Our department has lacked focus this year---we've had to be more reactive to all of the upheaval in the district as opposed to being proactive about working with staff and students. I think that part of the power in UbD is that it helps articulate vision in a purposeful and realistic way. I am wondering how to test this out a bit further.

Admins in our district have been provided tools this year for planning meetings. As the instructional leaders in their buildings, they really need to do more than make announcements to staff. As of yet, there appears to be no evidence of buy-in for this. I don't know if it's the tools themselves or the source of them which is off-putting. I do know that the principalship is almost too behemoth for one person to be expected to manage; but in not using some kind of framework for instructional leadership in the buildings, I feel like it sends a message to staff that it is unimportant. Should improving the learning environment and creating opportunities for students be so far down on the priority list that admins can't take the time and care to craft a purposeful message for the small windows of time staff have together?

If we are truly about doing things that are good for kids, then there has to be a way to filter out all of the other noise. We have to walk the talk. We cannot expect teachers to engage their students in rich learning environments if we as staff developers and administrators are not willing to do the same for teachers. I have to think that clearly identifying one or two purposeful "understandings" (to use the UbD term) would make us all feel a little less schizophrenic in our jobs.


Heavy Breathing

06 February 2007

There's just too much happening this week.

I spent the morning with a sweet 5th grade class...and a good part of the afternoon with 50 (count 'em) fourth graders. I had thought that my model lesson was just for one teacher, but no. When I was working with the fifth grade class, I learned that the other fourth grade teacher wanted her class to participate, too. At the same time as the other class. Oy. It was a challenge for all of us, but we made it work.

The poor math guy in our office has gotten hammered (not as in drunk, but as in verbally beat upon) by parents and teachers over the last few days. On Friday, a parent told him that math should only be taught to kids who get it...and those who don't should just be relegated to picking up garbage or menial labor. Things went downhill from there. What do you say to a parent like that? I heard that a parent from another school wants to sue the district over the new math curriculum. Oh, and a few teachers from our snooty high school dressed him down in a public meeting yesterday over some data he was reporting to them.

Meanwhile, after all of the drama my district experienced last year when we decided to leave the consortium for elementary science and start up our own kit center, other districts are following suit. Today, we learned of two more and smiled. They are friendly places and the opportunities to work with them on developing science stuff for teachers will be rich. Our students and teachers stand to gain a lot from this, but I do feel sorry for all the tiny districts who are stuck with the consortium.

Pant, pant. And it's only Tuesday.

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Consensus and Coffee

01 February 2007

Four of us in the office were planning to meet this morning and talk about standards-based grading and its possible role for secondary schools. I know it sounds like a serious topic, but our planning was anything but. Here's how the organization went via e-mail this morning:

Specialist A:
In light of
  • the brain trust occupying the conference room
  • I'm hungry and need caffeine
  • it's cold in here
I recommend we hold our meeting at Starbucks. Any objections? Remember, it's all about me, no matter what Boss Lady 2.0 tells you.

Specialist B:
I have been quiet on this issue---but actually, I think it is all about me.

Where is Starbucks, anyway? I normally don't patronize mega corporations if there are alternatives, but I am willing to be flexible in this case.

Specialist A:
All I care about is food and caffeine. We can go to the bakery if the group prefers.

(For future reference in case you have a moment of weakness, Starbucks is by Albertson's.)

Science Goddess:
And here, I thought the hokey pokey was what it was all about.

It's Washington. If we drive around for a few minutes, we're bound to run into a Starbucks; but, I could be happy at the bakery, too.

Specialist A:
I think it would be fun to take a picture of B at Starbucks.

Specialist C:
I'm open to any and all of the above, just haul me out of here when it is time and lead me to the sugar.

Specialist B:
Well, I have my Chaco's on today. As long as you get my feet in the picture.

And so off we went to Starbucks, which was overrun with people who apparently had the same idea this morning for their meetings. We didn't even get a picture of B, chacos or no chacos. We ended up at a smaller coffee place and had a great discussion...perhaps even a good plan in mind for introducing the concept of standards-based grading to secondary staff. It was good to have a bit of levity to start our morning and caffeine to get us through the afternoon.

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Snipe Hunting

08 December 2006

There's a proposal in the district that would pay teachers $100 for "good" units. I don't want to go into great deal about the "good" part here, but rest assured that it is being described and a template is being generated.

What I do wonder is whether or not good lessons and units are transferrable from one teacher and classroom to another. Can we really distill everything that goes into good instruction---engaging activities, differentiation, authentic assessment---into a document that can be interpreted the same way in every classroom with the same results? I do believe that a basic scaffold can be adapted by most any teacher to the needs at hand. But a magic lesson that needs no tailoring is akin to snipe hunting in my mind.

So, what communications do we need from good teachers about what works? How do we capture on paper what happens in effective classrooms in order to support other teachers? Can we develop a system to share wheels instead of everyone making their own...or does each one have to be different because every classroom is different?

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Standard Deviants

01 December 2006

For the record, we've had 1.5 days of work this week due to weather related issues. Never in my career have I had so much "free" time due to snow and ice. It's been a little odd and by the time people got to work today, we were a bit punchy. Cabin fever had taken over.

We are scrambling in Curriculum to work through the issues the delays have caused. Some trainings didn't occur this week---and good luck finding any teacher willing to leave their classroom before winter break now that they've lost 3.5 days of instruction. We were supposed to have done a lot of work on our own program review earlier this week, and now we're squeezing in a few moments here and there.

One meeting we are desperately trying to reschedule needs to have the presence of a particular person, who was unfortunately referred to as the "deviant" today. This person is so incredibly distant from what makes good sense in the classroom that it nearly appears hopeless that reform will happen. But, we found a date and time and will stage our intervention. In the meantime, we all got the giggles over the term "deviant." It may become our mascot.


Doomed to Repeat

28 October 2006

We have no "social studies" specialist in the district, although there is a teacher pulling in a $3K stipend for very little effort toward that program. Instead, the elementary math specialist has decided to put her two cents in because she loves history.

With the new standards coming out for social studies, there is interest in having a deeply aligned program. Someone will have to helm this, and secondary teachers can be tricky to work with. I listened to her have a conversation with the another specialist yesterday, and it raised some concerns for me. The main focus of the visit was to find out how to get a group of teachers to set a scope and sequence that was already preconceived by a curriculum specialist before the first meeting takes place.

When I helmed a group nearly two years ago for the science scope and sequence, I didn't go in with any preformed notions of what we should come out with, other than some agreement around the standards for each grade level. If teachers had questions (Should we go with an "integrated" curriculum vs. the traditional "life, earth, physical" sequence?), we researched the answers together. I didn't find a bunch of articles first that fit my ideas and have them read only those. As a result, we seemed to have ended up with good agreement---and buy in---from all of the secondary schools and things are going well.

There was a suggestion made to cull articles for the steering group to read so that if you want a group to move in a particular direction (e.g. a more "thematic" curriculum vs. different aspects at different grades, such as US History, civics, geography, etc.). I had such a hard time biting my tongue. The impetus for change has to be with those who will be tasked to make it happen. You can't stack the deck in your favour and think all will be rosy. I'm not saying that certain ideas don't have merit, just that it's important to go about things the right way.

I feel like I should find a way to say something. I know, it's not my business. I wasn't part of the conversation (although being seated at the next desk made me privy to every word). Nobody asked me for my opinion...and likely don't want it. Maybe I can find some way to at least put in my two cents.


Going Gray

07 September 2006

Working in Curriculum is a bit of gray area. We are teachers working under the same contractual obligations as other certificated staff, but we are often not viewed that way by peers. We are more likely to be seen as administrators...or worse yet, one of the nameless "them" so often blamed for whatever is perceived as wrong with the district.

I'm thinking about being in this nebulous zone because of a conversation I had with a principal this morning. She wants some professional development around science instruction. She hopes to learn what she's looking at when she watches what's going on in a science classroom. She'd like to have the same confidence that she has when trying to help math, English, and social studies teachers---and I admire her for trying to seek out some support. In one sense, good instruction is good instruction, regardless of grade or content---but on the other hand, there are a few science specific strategies she could learn to recognize. I agreed to do a few "walkthroughs" with her.

Walkthroughs are a recent trend in education. They're not specifically meant to be evaluative, but rather tools that give administrators a chance to do short visits and then share with teachers what they saw and guide some reflection about the event. The walkthrough provides a 5 - 10 minute snapshot of a classroom over several different days during the year, rather than one or two extended sessions.

When I got back to my desk, I realized that doing the walkthroughs together to help the principal get started is a great idea. What's not a great idea is doing it with her least not together. I am not their evaluator and I really don't want to be viewed that way. Since the principal and I can't help but talk about what we see in the classrooms, then I'm not sure teachers will clearly separate that we would be doing this to help the principal learn about science...and not that we're making judgments together about things. I think it's too big of an opportunity to set up some real mistrust---and this is a science staff it looks like I'll be spending a lot of time with this year.

I sent a note to the principal and asked that we go to another school together to do a few walkthroughs. I think this might be the best way to get her the help she wants without putting a strain on her staff. I haven't heard back yet as to whether or not she'll go for that. This is one of those times where I'd prefer to stay in the gray.

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The Dark Side

02 August 2006

It always interests me as to how many teacher-bloggers out there are always ready to bash Central Office. The place is an evil entity, viewed as being antithetical---or at minimum, a hindrance or obstacle---to the work of a classroom teacher. I suppose that before I moved over to the Dark Side, I harboured some similar views. Now I just think they're misplaced.

For starters, the vast majority of people who work at the Head Shed are classified personnel. Do you like your paycheck? Benefits? Teaching supplies, copy machines, computers? These people make it all happen for you. I'm not saying that they don't make mistakes or that some of them aren't awkward to work with, but if you're blaming them because you don't like what you're supposed to be doing in the classroom, you might want to look elsewhere when you're pointing your finger.

Some of us (like me) are teachers just like you. We get paid the same but have different responsibilities. It's true---I don't have to grade many papers or deal with daily classroom issues. But you know what? Your kids are my kids, too. I don't cart around 150 of them in my head as I did when I taught. Now I get to think about what's happening with 12,000 of them. You know all of those mandates being handed to us from the feds and state lawmakers? We do what we can to help translate them for classroom use. Instead of every single teacher having to make this happen, we're there so that you have more time to focus on your kids and your instruction---not the alignments.

Perhaps the finger should be aimed at the admins in Central Office? There are some inept ones around---and others who have completely lost touch with what happens in a real classroom. Bad decisions are made. And then, I think that more teachers should cut the district admins some slack. The admins can't be as myopic as we are in our own classrooms---they have so much more information to consider, weigh, and respond. I don't always like what happens with the admins with whom I work, but I always start from the belief that they are doing the best that they can for everyone under current conditions and expectations.

If teachers are unhappy with the way things are going in their schools, Central Office quickly becomes an easy target. But I hope that at least some will stop to think about who it is they're really irritated with---do you really want to blame the secretary in HR because you have to teach to the standards? Is the tech guy at fault because there's a state test? Did the supe come up with the graduation requirements? I understand teachers' frustrations, but directing all of them onto the people viewed as on the Dark Side is likely misplaced. Everyone has to do what they can and are expected to do in order to make sure that kids get what they need...even those of us working alongside teachers in the trenches.

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Gearing Up for Next Year (Already)

26 June 2006

Sure, the 2005 - 2006 school year came to a close just a few days ago, but today we forged ahead with planning for 2006 - 2007. After all, it's less than 2 months away.

An official publisher's rep headed up here to provide a day of in-service for our grade 6 - 9 teachers on the new curriculum. Although there was a lot of excitement about the new materials, the presentation was horrible. The rep was a retired teacher---and one who had obviously burned out on the classroom before she left. Nothing says enthusiasm like a person who doesn't enjoy kids. Anyway, we survived the morning and my sixth grade teachers had a very productive afternoon without the trainer. My 7 - 9 teachers didn't fare so well. Most of them bailed early in the afternoon---and I couldn't blame them. The poor things.

Meanwhile, I ran down during my lunch break (not that I got lunch---the rep ate mine...and hers) to drop the elementary science bomb on principals. I expected a rather nasty reception. I'd already been warned that five of them were on the warpath. But as I sat there, I realized that I just wasn't going to give them the option of being ugly...and amazingly enough, they weren't. Mind you, I didn't provide any time for them to ask questions or think too deeply. It may be that there are some interesting e-mails in the next few days.

Things are off on the right foot for next year. Yes, already.


Physics When?

23 June 2006

Over the last several years, many districts across the U.S. have adopted a "Physics First" sequence for their high school science. More traditional scope and sequence adoptions suggest physics to be an 11th or 12th grade science course, if taken at all. The sequence of biology, chemistry, and physics originally grew from an idea in the late 19th century. At that time, biology was about the organism---no DNA, genetics, viruses, and so on---a very naturalist approach. It made sense to have the "simpler" science first. But over the last 100 years, the field of biology has grown significantly. Students need a good foundation in basic chemistry to get the most from biology.

In a Physics First world, the idea is for kids to get a basic understanding of that they can make better sense of atomic bonding when they take chemistry...and then DNA when they reach biology. Many schools have spent a lot of time and money to retrain teachers and reverse the sequence. The San Diego School District had been one of these, but their school board recently voted to change the policy, even though the numbers of students in their science program has risen dramatically since adopting a "Physics First" program. The district continues to perform poorly on state tests in science and many students are struggling with the math component of a physics first world.

It is a difficult line for districts to walk: you have to get kids to standards but somehow consider the aptitude and personal interests of students in course development. I am wondering how many districts are going to follow San Diego's example. I'm sure that the "Physics First" curriculum has taught them all about pendulums...and it looks like this one is starting to swing the other way.

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Short-timers' Syndrome

18 May 2006

I admit that I had been dreading today for some time. This was my day to work with eighth grade teachers on their curriculum maps. During the last few years, eighth grade teachers have been the group I've struggled to engage with any of our district initiatives. I did have one along for the ride today---he brought a bit of grading to do while we started our meeting and had precious little insight to share along the way. But then, why should he buy in? He only has one more year and will then retire.

How do we get more teachers at the end of their careers to make a significant effort? It's not that I don't understand the temptation of staying in one's comfort zone...if there's a bunch of changes about to start happening around you and you only have one more year, why not just do what you've always done?

I (foolishly) hope that they'll take a long-range view from the standpoint of the kids. Not only are they held accountable for the information, but they deserve to have a rich experience.

Whose class would you rather be in: Mr. Nearly-Retired's who provides you with a report to write about a volcano or Mr. Other-Teacher's, who asks you to write a real estate ad "spinning" the info on an area with volcanic activity in order to get people to move there? Would you rather whip out the clay and make a representation of Mt. St. Helens---or would you prefer to use materials to model lava flow and make predictions?

We have a saying in Curriculum: "Students can do no better than the assignment they're given." I have a distinct feeling that kids in Mr. N-R's class are not only bored out of their minds, but haven't any high expectations to meet. Will I figure out how to change this next year? I hope so. Gotta try, anyway.

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The Thin Pencil Line

23 April 2006

The issue of "Academic Freedom" is a big one in my district right now. I think part of it stems from the pushback against teaching to standards. The other part is that this district has a history of letting everyone do their own thing, and now that we're trying to establish some commonalities, people are confused.

State law here in Washington basically says that a teacher has to teach what they are directed to teach. The teachers in our district who are claiming that they won't use the adopted curriculum materials and/or will define their course however they see fit have no protection in case law. Our jobs are about student learning---not teacher entertainment. The "academic freedom" part really comes in terms of how you approach the course: teaching methods, engagement strategies, etc.

I get to walk this fine line tomorrow with a group of seventh grade science teachers. Standards for that grade level and curriculum materials have been identified and adopted by the school board. Our next goal is to map out the year for students: what standards are addressed when and which activities will best allow students to demonstrate their learning. This will be an ongoing process throughout next year, but I hope we'll end up with a useful document for teachers: a reference to the key areas of the curriculum and assessment. Instruction? That makes the line fuzzy, but we'll probably list a few tips and leave it.

The secondary math specialist in Curriculum is really struggling to get most teachers on board with the new curriculum that has been adopted. I think that I haven't because the new materials aren't a drastic departure and also because this mapping work is something teachers have asked to do. It didn't come from me nor the administration. They are the ones who most want to have some common language about what we do with students. I have buy-in from every school: one teacher per grade level has committed to making the work happen. I think that's amazing. I'm glad to have their help as we trip that fine line fantastic.

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Form and Function

16 April 2006

There are some benefits to being being just out of scrutiny for awhile. Math and Language Arts have always had to deal with the spotlight. Science? We got to sit back and watch for a long time. But now we have some additional expectations in terms of student achievement. Most of the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments is over now. People are ready to get to work and interested in doing well.

We're at the stage of developing some documents for teachers to use as a resource in planning. This is not some sort of prescription, where everyone teaching seventh grade science will do the exact same lesson on the same day. We aren't making widgets here. We're working with young people, all of whom have slightly different needs. However, regardless of the variation, all kids are now held to the same high expectations and standards. The documents we make based on our new curriculum and information from the state should be things that easily identify for teachers which pages in the text and activities are best aligned. Instead of every teacher having to sift through everything in order to figure out whether or not s/he's teaching to the standards, they'll have a reference at hand.

The Reading and Math specialists have developed similar tools for elementary teachers. Neither format suits the needs of science, although each has some good pieces. Anyway, this leaves me needing to make a template...and I'm having a difficult time doing so. If the form isn't just right---maybe a single page, specific sections about the alignment, etc.---then it won't be functional for kids. It's too important not to be in an easily accessible and useful form.

I have four groups of teachers (one for each grade level: 6 - 9) coming in to work on these documents in the next few weeks. I was hoping to have at least a start on the form so that we didn't have to completely start from scratch. But it's being quite the bear to wrestle.

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Full Steam Ahead

27 March 2006

My sixth grade materials' adoption group met today. I really like those people. Today was our last meeting and I was actually a little sad that I won't have them together again.

There are a lot of details to finalize, but basically, they're ready to roll for next year. In some ways, we feel like we have to get this in place by the fall because there are so many district initiatives that are slated to start the following year. We need to be ahead of the curve if we can.

The teachers like knowing that the curriculum will be the same program as what the junior highs are using for grades 7 and 8. They feel like this will help kids be able to better make the transition from elementary. There will be some grand needs for professional development and support in the coming year. It's all doable---we just need to keep it in mind.

The next step is to work with the publisher to get some details in writing---prices, dates for the delivery of materials, and so on. And then it'll be time to talk with principals, schedule trainings, and so on. Forward march.

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That's One Way of Looking at It

06 March 2006

I'm doing a bit of research for an upcoming assignment in my grad class. I'm specifically looking for information on doing curriculum alignment as it applies to elementary science, but in the meantime, I ran across this general book on Deep Curriculum Alignment by Fenwick English and Betty Steffy. Reading the blurb about it made me think that it could have some applications to my situation and I was able to round up a copy from someone in the office this morning.

Here is the opening sentence: Across the landscape of America, high-stakes testing continues to leave in its cyclonic path defeated hopes and broken lives.

This was obviously not going to be the regular dry how-to book. This was going to be a book with voice.

Indeed, farther down on the page was...This temptation to engage in drill and kill exercises is nearly overwhelming and drowns out even common sense. (so far, so good) When that impulse becomes dominant, we have the lobotomization of instruction. (the authors liked the lobotomy idea...they used it again later in the book)

Things calmed down until the end of the following page. And then...Although we recognize that school systems have been and continue to exercise forms of domination that are culturally oppressive, alignment demonstrates that all children can learn and be successful. Alignment plants doubts in the minds of those who have believed the racist and sexist explanations for poor test scores. It does it right inside the system itself so that it can't be explained away as some utopian scheme advanced by fuzzy-headed liberals working in the ivory towers of academe.

Oh, my.

I will say that the book certainly had my rapt attention. I entertained the other specialists in the office with these and other items from the book. After this beginning, the authors did settle down into a more traditional "voice" for their writing. I did find some useful information for my research...that is, after I got over the imagery of cyclones, lobotomies, and fuzzy-headed liberals.

I can hardly wait to see what other resources have to offer.

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Bursting Bubbles

24 February 2006

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that one of the junior highs in the area had pie in the sky expectations regarding their upcoming science area remodel. A sum like $455K sounds like a lot, no doubt, but it really isn't when you have to create five classrooms (including infrastructure needs). The science group did end up lowering their expectations a bit (no ice-maker), but the total was still around $1 million.

Further discussions were had about reusing more of the HVAC and electrical systems, along with some other possible cuts. Even so, we've only gotten the price tag down to $700K. You should have seen the forlorn looks on the faces of the teachers when it was explained that for their $455K, they could gain one more classroom and deal with a few issues in the remaining four. It's almost not worth it in such a case, but something really does have to be done.

We told them not to lose hope. Their building has $610K set aside for various projects over the summer, and it may be that all of that gets budgeted for science. It is still not enough, but the facilities' manager is going to see what he can do. Schools and money always seem to be at odds.

At least the teachers are being a bit more down to earth about the renovations. It was a hard fall from them, and they looked a little bruised. It's not easy when someone bursts the bubble you're riding with a sharp dose of reality.

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You Can't Please Everybody...and Shouldn't

17 February 2006

The header for today's post was supplied by a teacher at a meeting I attended yesterday. She is disappointed that the publisher who wined and dined her last year (and paid her $200 to attend a session on their products) isn't the one chosen for our upcoming materials' adoption. I left further explanation of the choice we made in the hands of the teachers who had examined all of the available materials. Hopefully, they made some inroads. It didn't look like the "graft" teacher could believe that there was anything better out there than what she'd seen last spring.

Meanwhile, there was a continuing discussion about offering an "advanced" option for our grades 7 and 8 kids. I was supposed to have an answer for this back in early January...and we're still not any closer. There seems to be consensus that we should offer it and that the curriculum should be different from "regular," but there is no agreement about what that would look like. I'm not sure what the next step will be here. It will certainly be another case where not everyone is happy with the outcome.


Shopping for Elementary Science

01 February 2006

We are starting to make some further progress in making plans to run our own kit center for the district. Right now, we're shopping for consumables.

FOSS comes with two kinds of consumables: things that they package and things that they expect the teacher to provide. As you might guess, anything that is listed as "provided by teacher" really needs to be in the kit, too, as teachers don't have time to gather all of the bits and pieces.

This is making for some interesting research. For example, one kit is sent out with eight boxes of paperclips. Are we to assume that no usable clips are returned? These are simple enough to replace, of course, but it seems a little odd that a single kit would require 33,600 paperclips (8 per kit, each kit goes out three times, and there are 14 kits).

We have a lot more to learn this spring. I will be anxious to begin meeting with our elementary "steering committee" in order to sort a lot of this information out. Are we really going to require 250,000 copies next year---or are there some pages that aren't necessary? We will budget for the maximum and hope for less. Whatever happens, it's still going to be a long shopping list.

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Full Steam Ahead

24 January 2006

I (and some others) had a big meeting with the Supe yesterday to talk about the elementary science plans. His reaction was basically, "Why wouldn't we do this?" in terms of running our own kit center, media center, and creating our own alignment. Our district will save over $200,000 within four years. No small change, even without the budget crunch we're in.

Tomorrow begins the retooling process for one of the kits. I am really excited about the plan that's laid out and the opportunity to work through it with a small group of teachers on a single kit before we try to apply things on a grand scale.

Thursday will be more work on the kit...but after I make an appearance at the "retreat" for junior high administrators to talk about secondary science. Everyone's worried about their teachers---and they should be. But I'll do the best I can to talk about what's around the corner and how they can be helpful. In the afternoon, it's off to another elementary to talk about inquiry...and unveil the district plan for their science program.

And Friday? So far, I have five meetings on the calendar at four different locations. I'll get to see a lot of the county as I race around to work with teachers and other staff members.

It is also the last week of the semester. I'm trying to finish up my grading for my class, get their final exam prepared, and all of the other considerations that come with still being in the classroom part-time. My students have not been getting all of the attention that they need. "Full steam ahead" in other areas means that they're getting steamrolled for now. Hopefully, February will be different.

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A Sandbox of My Own

22 January 2006

Wednesday and Thursday this week will be the first two out of five days allotted to restructuring one of the kits in our elementary rotation. It is the only kit that is not from FOSS: it is homegrown. This "realignment" was set up early this year, long before any of us knew the direction my district would choose to take. I think this turns out to be a rather fortunate set of circumstances.

Working with these teachers will be an experience in miniature for me. Not because the grades they teach are small, but because we will work through realigning all of the kits next year. Being able to focus on one this spring gives us a bit of a laboratory experience...a little sandbox to play in regarding how to best structure this kind of professional development for teachers. This will also be a big piece of my doctoral research.

I have spent a lot of this weekend looking at resources and trying to get my vision out on paper. I have started with A Private Universe. If you haven't seen it, follow the link and you can watch the video on demand. It opens with a Harvard graduation and many graduates being asked to explain what causes the change in seasons. Nearly all are unable to do so. It illustrates the need for helping students grasp concepts in science. From our discussions there, we'll move into an examination of the 5E cycle for lessons in science. Beyond that, I'll need to guide teachers into an examination of the appropriate content standards and then we'll start looking at restructuring the kit.

There are other considerations in all of this. I expect that by the end of Day Two, we will have little to show in terms of the physical product, but the teachers' should have a far richer background for our work. The final outcomes in March should be incredible.

Here's hoping that this sandbox turns out to be as nice as a day at the beach.

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Fish...or Get Off the Pot

12 January 2006

Our elementary science program (or lack thereof) is at a crossroads. Five years ago---before there were state standards---it seemed good enough to just have some science happening prior to grade seven. There is a new ball game now. We have rules to follow. The "some science is better than no science" philosophy just ain't gonna cut it.

The kits our elementaries use for their science are delivered through an area consortium. The amount we pay to the consortium each year is the same as if we just bought a set of kits. In other words, we've bought these kits five times. We are not getting our money's worth. The consortium has also not delivered on its promise of staff development. It also wants to move forward with an alignment process with the kits---something teachers on my 6th grade materials' adoption group said was akin to "putting round pegs in square holes."

Tomorrow is the decision time. What will we do...and how much will it cost?

To tell the consortium that we will no longer take part in the alignment is no difference cost-wise. We would have to supply the subs either way. They have no plan for dealing with the alignment and how to handle problems that crop up. We do. And other districts are more likely to help us than work with the consortium.

If we buy the kits, that is a huge capital outlay---especially considering the idea that they won't likely deeply align with our state standards. Meanwhile, we would have to store, distribute, and restock these over the years. This requires manpower (salaries and benefits), among other costs. Some of this might be defrayed by an area military base outreach program. They, too, are unhappy with the consortium. Their $80K would go a long way toward fulfilling our goals.

Another science specialist and I will sit down tomorrow and draw up some budgets and make our recommendations. The superintendent is waiting to hear what the next moves will be. I think we're going to tell him that it's time to cut bait.

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Building a Better Monster

10 January 2006

I had an amazingly good meeting today. I had sweated this one a bit, because I don't feel like I have a good grasp on elementary...let alone elementary science. This group I am working with is trying to select some materials to go with the standards assigned to sixth grade.

Conversations were rich today. People want to make connections between the materials, standards, assessments, and the way these are reported to parents and students. The teachers see how the possibilities in using the science materials to set up their reading and writing goals for the day. We have much more work to do, but there was some fabulous groundwork laid. I actually left work today with far more energy than I had when I went in this morning. I wish that happened more often.

If you've been lurking around this blog, you know that my district has several other significant concerns about the elementary science program we are using (FOSS). Teachers today described doing an alignment with it as "putting round pegs in square holes." Our regional science consortium is wanting us to send teachers again this spring to continue this process. I wasn't so sure this was in our best interests even before today's comments. This group's recommendation? Go through the process we are using now for grades 3 - 5.

This is a monstrous suggestion. Brilliant, but very problematic.

You see, we have to be ready to make a decision by next week as to whether or not to leave the consortium. If we do, then we have to completely outfit our district for elementary science. If we stay with FOSS, it would be doable. If we don't, well...what is the plan, then? Can we get it outlined in a week?

The truth is that I want to open this can of worms, as ugly as it is. The teachers today were right (in my opinion) to raise this issue. I think we can build a better monster than FOSS to help students reach the standards in science. I just wish we had more time to think through the options.

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Stranger in a Strange Land

08 January 2006

I've been spending part of today trying to finish my planning for a meeting on Tuesday. With all the hoopla last week, I really didn't have time to focus on future events, such as seeing my grade 6 materials' adoption group this week.

In some ways, this group really doesn't need me. They are the "gifted" version of teacher groups. They possess an intuitive grasp of how science works, they love it, they understand what it means to "teach to a standard," and they enjoy what they do. They are artists in the classroom. I think that if I just put them in the meeting room with the task of getting the sixth grade curriculum organized...and then left them alone...they could likely do a better job then with my interference.

This is because elementary is such an odd animal to me. I am learning, per the Boss Lady's suggestion. But when I meet with elementary teachers, I feel a bit like a foreigner. I have a strong background in the content. They are the pedagogical experts. Why should someone who's spent 20 years teaching third grade listen to me? I suppose that answer is a post for another time.

Back to my meeting.

The challenge this time is that there are many pieces to synthesize. There's a brand new elementary report. It's completely standards-based (no more letter grades, either) and will be at all elementaries next year. The math and reading alignments are already done---can we factor those into the science expectations? I haven't the heart to tell them that it doesn't look like there will be any money to buy the materials for next year...but how much will it cost to outfit 14 schools?! Should we attempt a pilot test of the curriculum? What should we do about staff development to help teachers deliver content in more of an inquiry mode?

It is odd to have teachers looking to me for guidance on these and other issues...especially when it's elementary teachers gazing my way. The kinds of knowledge and thinking required for my job are still pretty new to me. When it comes to taking it down to the lower grades, I really am a stranger in a strange land.

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Better Never Than Late

03 January 2006

Long time readers of this blog will no doubt remember that during the late winter/early spring of 2005, I led some district work around scope and sequence for secondary science. We had the state standards in hand (finally) and set out to get our district program in order so that students would have opportunity to meet them. Since then, I've worked with district facilities' staff to get plans in place to remodel buildings, we're in the middle of choosing new curriculum materials, presentations have been made to the school board, and so on.

Someone in the district just showed up today to (try to) add a wrinkle to the plan. He is our Vo-Tech director.

He wants to offer our "Principles of Technology (PoT)" course---which is currently offered for science credit at the high schools---to grade 9 and make it an alternative to the course we placed there through our scope and sequence work.

The hidden agenda here is one of program preservation. Vo-Tech is getting a smaller chunk of the pie because of both the standards-based moment and less support from the feds. Meanwhile, one of the two PoT teachers in the district is not well-liked by students. Current enrollment is such that it won't sustain his teaching position.

I admit to not knowing a whole lot about the PoT curriculum. It is an introduction to applied physics. This is not such a bad thing. But ninth grade also requires chemistry. And all grades need inquiry---not just application. I'll investigate a little further, but it's not looking like PoT is going to be a good fit for ninth grade.

The Vo-Tech director has not consulted teachers about this. The PoT teacher at my school is hopping mad over the whole deal. He has no desire to teach junior high and sees a variety of problems in following this plan (even if he doesn't teach the course). The director has never looked at the science standards and today seemed to have no clue about what it means to have deep alignment. In his mind, as long as some of the topics fit, it's good enough.

The thing is, I'm not sure why the director has chosen this particular time to jump in with his ideas. The PoT teachers were kept in the loop last spring when the scope and sequence was done. I even have e-mails from the director from last spring about the process. There have been no secrets anywhere along the way.

I have a bit more of this game to play. I'll visit the PoT classes and see what's happening. I'll spend Friday morning with the teachers (and director) really looking at the curriculum. And hopefully, by Friday afternoon, this problem will be resolved...and PoT will stay where it is.

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Sanity Prevails...For Now

14 December 2005

I had the second meeting with my grades 7 - 9 materials' adoption group today. I was a little uncertain about things going into this meeting. This is a good group, but it's hard for any teacher (myself included) to get away from the "sexy" things the publishers send and focus on what we really need to look for.

Using some tools I found on our state education website and something that our district math god developed, I created a "deep alignment" tool. The alignment was specific to student tasks (worksheets, end of chapter questions, labs, activities, etc.). The "deep" part refers to...
  • Content--What knowledge, skills, processes, or concepts does the task address?
  • Context---How is this information presented, practiced, and then tied to other skills/learning?
  • Cognitive Demand---Does the task require ask students to demonstrate the same level of thinking as required by the standard?

The grade level groups of teachers picked two of their GLEs and then set out with the three curricula they'd selected for further review to do some deep alignment. The outcome was quite magical. It made it painfully obvious just which materials would support students to meet the standards. The conversations that teachers had were really interesting for me. And several of them actually thanked me for using this approach to things today and mentioned how meaningful it had been.

That's the good news. We have some wonderful materials to pilot later this winter and we feel confident about the quality of the curricula.

The bad news is that we will be seriously over budget if we get these. The student books alone will be $30,000 more than we have been allotted...never mind the support materials for teachers. And this doesn't take into account the needs for grade 6. Teachers were a bit depressed to discover this at the end of our day today, but we'll just see what happens.

For now, I'm just going to be happy that the work was productive and meaningful and that we're on track for making an enormous impact on what happens in science classrooms. I'll worry about getting the extra $100,000 tomorrow.

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Round One

15 November 2005

Today was the first day of science materials' adoption meetings. We looked at curricula for grades 7 - 9. It was a long day.

The morning started off all right. We talked about some general issues and then started looking at the standards. One group was way off task right away---already pulling texts out of boxes. I tried explaining (again) that we were going to establish criteria first so that we knew what we were looking for...but I had to go back once more after that and take books out of their hands.

It not that I don't understand their excitement. It's cool to have new stuff. But we have certain responsibilities in this process and I didn't want the teachers making decisions based solely on the layout of the text or a review they'd read.

Anyway, everyone managed to finish looking at the standards and we moved on to other criteria. These included things like the types of assessments provided, the kinds of work students would do, etc. It is hard for people to take a global view. I include myself in that observation. Teachers today were really more focused on how they as individuals would use the materials, when really they're just representatives for a wide range of current and future staff.

The late morning and most of the afternoon were devoted to doing a quick paper screen of the available materials. There was a lot to look at---maybe eight programs per grade level. Teachers had a terrible time staying on the primary task, which was to identify standards-based resources.

There wasn't as much diversity of materials as you might guess. Most were traditional text-based programs. This doesn't mean that they're bad, but it's what we have now and it's not developing things as we would like. What interested me is that publishers have put a lot of effort into the resources teachers have (e.g. PowerPoint presentations at the ready), but very little into changing how the student interacts with the material. There were a couple of programs that were at the other end of the spectrum---completely inquiry based. As nice as that idea sounds, there isn't enough "meat" there to dig into. I don't know if we'll be able to find a happy medium or not.

At the end of the day, each grade level team had whittled things down to three choices. We will look at these more in depth next time. I am not sure how it all will pan out. My guess is that we will end up with something more traditional---a text based program. But if it supports student investigation into inquiry, along with helping teachers craft this, then I think that's okay.

We'll meet again in another month. In the meantime, I have a lot of thoughts to organize about (re)directing things.

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When Is Group Process Better Than Just Me?

08 November 2005

I made an executive decision recently regarding the upcoming materials adoption process. I've decided not to have the group set the criteria. Time will tell as to whether or not this was a wise choice on my part.

Most of the time these adoption cycles start up, a committee meets, hashes out what the philosophy of things should be and develops associated criteria. Then they go look for programs to match the criteria. I do feel as if this would be a valuable process. Why am I throwing it out? Because we have standards now. We are told what to look for in terms of curriculum and what students whould be able to demonstrate with their work. We are not provided with whatever the best instructional approach is, but this needn't be a lengthy discussion point.

I have adapted a process used by BSCS. We'll have five categories: content, work students do, work teachers do, assessment, and other (cost, material/technology needs, etc.). I have described indicators for each (which reviewers will rate on a scale from 0 - 5 in terms of their presence/quality in the materials) and weighted the categories. I'm hoping that the group will swallow all this without a fuss.

What I haven't done is limit the materials they are allowed to look at. I have nearly 8 different programs for each grade level. There are "traditional" textbook programs...newer unit-based versions...and still other programs that are more concept and inquiry-based. I'm hoping that the group will pick the "concept/inquiry" stuff. You may be thinking that I rigged the rubric in order to make those rise to the top, but I really haven't. Even if I'm directing the criteria, I want teachers to be able to go back to their buildings and tell their cohorts that they had a chance to look at as many different options as we could find---and why we rejected the ones we did. I don't want any "Central Office wouldn't let us..." comments floating around for the next umpty-squat years.

Still, I wonder if I should make the process more open concerning the establishment of the criteria. One of the biggest factors in my decision is really just that of time. Being able to schedule and pay for subs is not easy or cheap. Would I rather have us focus on making the criteria or selecting good materials? Materials wins out in my mind.

We will meet one week from today. I have a bit more time to stew and adjust plans as necessary. I think I've made the right choice.

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What's the Big Idea?

06 November 2005

One of the things on my "to do" list is to identify the "big ideas" contained within the standards and put them into friendly language (while maintaining the integrity of the concepts). I have some sort of chart pictured, so that teachers can see not only what they are responsible for, but how it fits with the overall K - 10 flow. I would also like to put together some sort of quick reference for teachers so that they know when kids (are supposed to) learn different things. If you've always taught atoms, but can see that it is assigned to another grade, perhaps it might be easier to focus on what your objectives are.

The second task is much simpler than the first. I'm really struggling with the whole graphic organizer thing for the big ideas. I know that it sounds like it should really be simple to do. But there are just so many standards---and I'm wanting to make things fit nicely on a page. It may be that these two things are just so much at odds that I will have to let go of the "one page" goal. My other problem is that things don't spiral nearly as nicely in science as they do in math, for example. I've seen a chart another state produced for calculus---and underneath are all the math standards that lead to up to a student's ability to be successful with calculus. It's a thing of beauty. This may well be a possibility for the process skills in science, but dealing with the three Life/Physical/Earth science strands makes it very messy for content.

What I do visualize down the road is a nice sheet to go with each science kit used at elementary. The sheet would provide alignment with relevant standards, point out the most vital concepts contained within, and other resources for teaching and assessment. Of course, the Big Idea would be right at the top. This sort of approach has been well-received in terms of the math expectations. It might be quite palatable for teachers to also have it in science.

In the meantime, if anyone has any great ideas for how to squeeze eleven years of content onto one page, I'd love to hear them!

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Earth Moving, Courtesy NCLB

22 October 2005

You might love, hate, or tolerate NLCB. In my case, it doesn't really matter. I just need to know how to deal with the various impacts it has on the district.

NCLB requires a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom, although the definition of what that means can vary a bit from state to state.

I'm minding other business on Tuesday when I get a call from our Human Resources department. School X is offering an "Environmental Earth Science" course, but the teacher only has a Biology endorsement. In order to teach anything with the word "earth" in it, a teacher would need an Earth Science endorsement on their certificate. (Interestingly enough, an Earth Science endorsement is enough to make you "highly qualified" to teach an Environmental Science class.) Did HR need to put this teacher on a plan of some sort since there was a question about the "highly qualified" status?

So, I'm sent off on quite the hunt to find out the answer. It turns out that each of the three high schools is offering a slightly different take on things. Theoretically, School X has a full-year "Environmental Science" class ("Earth" shouldn't be in the course title...hmm...). School Y has a one semester "Ecology" class and School Z has a one semester "Environmental Earth Science" course. It looked like the course title from one school ended up at another. Why all these classes are different and what is taught in them is something I'll eventually have to figure out.

In the meantime, principals, HR, science staff, and registrars at all three schools are awaiting an answer to a question that really wouldn't matter...except NCLB asked us to pay attention. To the word "Earth."

I think things are straightened out now. Each school knows what it's correct course title and number should be. Hopefully the computer system will keep things straight. HR is happy.

I didn't have the heart to tell the HR people the next day that the registrar of School X e-mailed me the next day to say that she hadn't seen the word "Earth" anywhere.

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Two Down...One to Go

30 August 2005

Today I wore my "Curriculum Specialist" hat all day long. Everything went very well, but I admit that I will be glad to take it off at the end of tomorrow and put my "Teacher" one back on for Thursday's events.

I gave two workshops this morning on my Holy Grail Lesson Plan. I had been provided a room for 30...and ended up with closer to 50 participants for the first session and 35 for the second one. The first time, things seemed to go more smoothly. I think because of the crowd, there was a good positive vibe and the energy was contagious. I had a good time with them and received a lot of great feedback in return. They were constructive with their comments at the end of our time together and if I ever do this presentation again, I will definitely use their ideas.

The second presentation also went very well. The interesting thing that happened was that we took a detour and spent time talking about blogs. We had been talking about ways to get students involved with discussion and I mentioned how I wanted to use a blog with my class this year in order to do this. (Please note that a school board member was attending this session.) No one in the room claimed to have ever seen a blog. A couple of people had heard of them, but more in reference to personal blogs students have---especially when someone posted nasty comments about another student. The idea of having a blog (once I explained what it was) as a classroom forum or even as a way to promote some reflection about their teaching was completely uncharted territory. (Warning to the Education Wonks: I gave them your site to check out as a sterling example and also find links to other edublogs. Warning to self: I could be "outed" if they follow them.) With their comment sheets, almost every one mentioned blogs and blogging as something they thought was interesting and would like to try. The school board member thought it a marvelous idea and asked me to keep him updated on my quest to allow blogging from school. Perhaps in the future, I could do a presentation about blogs.

The afternoon was devoted to meeting with secondary science teachers---all of whom I enjoy as individuals...but they can be a bit unwieldy as a group. This, too, seemed to go well in spite of some wailing and gnashing of teeth about certain topics. I really hope to spend more time in the various buildings this year getting to know a few more people better. I also need to make some inroads with the few who are still reluctant to even acknowledge me---let alone district initiatives. It's going to be a very big year for wearing my Curriculum Specialist hat.

Tomorrow morning, I am working with elementary school teachers (grades 3 - 6) to talk about doing inquiry with their kiddos. I have a plan, but I admit that I have spent the least amount of time thinking about this one as compared to the two things I had to do today. I think it will be all right. I have a buddy helping me tomorrow and I am looking forward to not shouldering everything.

I do have a reward waiting for me. My desk at Curriculum has finally been built and I can now move and have a home base for my work. So after lunch tomorrow, I can check things out and then start taking my belongings and getting them organized. I'm very happy about this. I've been "homeless" for a few months now. I'll also feel like I belong in that office and I'm very much looking forward to that. Hat and all.

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Same Difference

07 August 2005

Theoretically, we offer the same standard classes at each secondary school in my district. The junior highs each have Life Science, Earth Science, and Physical Science for grades 7, 8, and 9 respectively. The high schools offer biology and chemistry (along with other courses). If biology is taught at each place, and students receive the same credit at each school, then shouldn't the description of the class as well as the curriculum be standard, too?

My district worked a bit on identifying some standard curriculum last spring. This will represent the "musts" for teachers. They may individually choose to add onto the list, but nothing may be omitted. So this will take care of one problem.

The second (course descriptions) gets a little bit more interesting. Teachers are very territorial about what gets published in a course catalog---even if the class is supposed to be the same at each school. In a few weeks, when all of the secondary science teachers are together again, we're going to have to come to some sort of consensus about the course descriptions. I plan to wear a raincoat in case of pissing contests.

Here is a sampling for just the biology course descriptions:

School A:
This course covers basic concepts of biology in a classroom and laboratory setting. Students will study cells, genetics, ecology, evolutionary prinicples, and human body systems. Nothing will be blown up. Please do not ask. Students should expect to have regular homework assignments, including lab reports, class projects, and individual assignments.

School B:
This is a laboratory oriented general biology course. Successful students will be able to organize and maintain a comprehensive notebook of work in this class. Students will apply concepts to lab situations by creating and completing experiments of their own design. Topics will include cell studies, a survey of living organisms, anatomy, physiology, genetics, and ecology.

School C:
This course is lab-oriented with emphasis on high-interest topics relevant to future citizens. Topics included are developmental biology, anatomy and physiology, cell studies, genetics, and ecology.

Okay, so we have some similarities across the district in terms of how we advertise biology. We more or less agree on the topics. I'm wrestling with what it is that makes a good course description. My hunch is that it doesn't include comments about homework, notebooks, or citizenry. Those are individual teacher options---how one chooses to organize the prescribed curriculum.

I did sneak a look at the descriptions for math classes. They have already been standardized around the district. They have the following format:
  • Who should take the course and why.
  • The topics covered in the course.
  • What class can be taken following this course.

I wonder if I can convince the science teachers to buy into this. Perhaps if I provide a template to work from, they will be able to manage things.

Why the rush to do Course Descriptions for a school year that is still more than a year away? Well, this may be the one time all of the teachers are together. The Recommendations we made in terms of curriculum last spring will be adopted this fall---and course catalog information is due in December. Plus, we will be doing materals adoption this year. Shouldn't teachers have a clear idea of what their course is supposed to be before they pick out textbooks and other supplementary classroom tools?

I'm hoping that there won't be blood spilled over writing common course descriptions. But I know what happened when this topic was broached a couple of years ago: there was panic in the streets. Perhaps the allure of new curriculum materials and all of the other support the district is providing will be enough of a carrot to play nice.


Science in (Con)Text

08 May 2005

I received a link to this article earlier in the week. It points out some of the very unscientific things that can be found in current science textbooks. Some of the information is rather frightening:
  • A chapter on climate in a fifth-grade science textbook in the Discovery Works series, published by Houghton Mifflin (2000), opens with a Native American explanation for the changing seasons: "Crow moon is the name given to spring because that is when the crows return. April is the month of Sprouting Grass Moon." Students meander through three pages of Algonquin lore before they learn that climate is affected by the rotation and tilt of Earth--not by the return of the crows.
  • Al Roker, the affable black NBC weatherman, is hailed as a great scientist in one book in the Discovery Works series. It is common to find Marie Curie given a picture and half a page of text, but her husband, Pierre, who shared a Nobel Prize with her, relegated to the role of supportive spouse.
  • Jews have been awarded 22 percent of all Nobel Prizes in science, but readers of Houghton Mifflin's fifth-grade textbooks won't get wind of that. Navajo physicist Fred Begay, however, merits half a page for his study of Navajo medicine. Albert Einstein isn't mentioned. Biologist Clifton Poodry has made no noteworthy scientific discoveries, but he was born on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian reservation, so his picture is shown in Glenco/McGraw-Hill's Life Science (2002), a middle-school biology textbook. The head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, and Nobel Laureates James Watson, Maurice H.F. Wilkins, and Francis Crick aren't named.

Now, I'm not frightened by the idea of diversity in textbooks. I believe that it's way past time that we included more than just dead white guys in the pantheon of science. I want my students of colour, students from various religious backgrounds, and students with disabilities to know that those attributes do not limit their choices in life. The role of being a scientist is not relegated to those with pale skin, tonsorial challenges, and a penis. However, those who might fit that description and who made significant contributions shouldn't be ignored in the name of multiculturalism. How does that help a student become scientifically literate? It seems to me that there are plenty of women/minorities who might be better suited for fabulous examples in textbooks instead of Al Roker.

As if the previous information weren't depressing enough, consider the following:

A study commissioned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in 2001 found 500 pages of scientific error in 12 middle-school textbooks used by 85 percent of the students in the country. One misstates Newton's first law of motion. Another says humans can't hear elephants. Another confuses "gravity" with "gravitational acceleration." Another shows the equator running through the United States.

In my district, we have several issues like this with textbooks. The current Earth Science tome shows the Earth orbiting the sun in the opposite direction. (I know, just tell the kids to turn their books upside down.) Our biology book is pathetic---we've been keeping a running list of all its failings. We will be looking at adopting new materials for Life Science, Earth Science, and Physical Science next year. I'm not too hopeful that we will find much better than we have now, especially if this report by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science is correct.

What's a Science Goddess to do? Well, I'm not quite ready to write a textbook. And, more and more teachers are moving away from a text based science course, which will also help. I suppose that as teachers in my district look at materials next year, we will just have to be as judicious as possible in choosing materials that are factual. We can't count on the publishers to have done their homework on that front. We will also need to be on the lookout for a program that represents diversity not for the sake of trying to include people of colour and faith---but people of colour and faith who should be recognized for their scientific work (not their work on a morning show). And, finally, we will need to find a program that is more inquiry based, so that students can learn on their own what constitutes "good science." If anyone has some good suggestions, please send them my way.

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Looking Ahead

05 May 2005

I am fortunate to work in a department with people who not only have a passion for science, but take pride in their craft. Four of us sat down yesterday afternoon for the first of two marathon planning sessions. Now that the state has provided a set of standards for us to teach, what will we do with them in our biology classes?

In the fall, we spent some time determining which standards would be targeted each quarter. This will help coordinate things a bit between teachers, although we don't plan on being "lockstep:" each teacher doing the same lesson at the same time. However, teachers could work on building common lessons/labs (if they chose), doing them with students, and then talking about the results and improving them.

There was some very good discussion last night. Where are we all philosophically in terms of curriculum and what "biology" means? What would we like to add to the document we started in the fall?

I was a little disappointed that we didn't end up doing more. Not because the discussion wasn't valuable or necessary, but rather that time is so precious. It's so difficult to get everyone's schedules to coordinate enough to have a block of time to work. Let's work. Also, some of the things that were discussed/chosen to try next year aren't ideas I'm entirely sold on. This doesn't make them bad ideas, it just means that they don't suit my particular style of doing things. I worked to remind myself that I'm not having to teach this curriculum in coming years. As long as the teachers who do have to carry out the plan are excited about it, that's what matters. They will have to be the department leaders next year. Whatever makes it doable for them is most important.

Today, I had a meeting with the Boss Lady and the Gent in Charge of Facilities regarding what we can scope out for the two junior high schools needing upgrades before the Science Recommendations are implemented. I'm feeling very positive about things. Support throughout this process has been positive and significant.

I am continuing to look ahead to next year. In a few days, I will meet with the Boss Lady again to talk about my role next year. I have some small clue about what I'm supposed to do, but I need to hear her vision, too. She mentioned today that she doesn't know where they'll put me...which I assume means that she wants me to work out of the Curriculum office rather than out of a cubbyhole in my building. This makes sense in a lot of ways, but I will miss my stronger ties to the "home" building.

Tomorrow is my last class day before The Test. Twenty out of my twenty-one test takers are coming out to my neck of the woods on Saturday to do some more review. But we really have reached the end of our preparations. Our time of "looking ahead" to The Test is almost finished.

For now, I think I'll just look ahead to a quiet Thursday evening. :)

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16 April 2005

Very soon, the Scope and Sequence committee will be presenting our Recommendations to the principals in the district. Even though these are specific to "secondary science," 6th grade is housed at the various elementary schools. So, we really do need to talk with all of the principals.

We don't have any concerns about the Recommendations---that they can't stand on their own merits or will be trashed by the various admins. But we do know that there will be questions about impact on individual buildings. These are the questions we are trying to anticipate.

How many more science teachers will a building need? How many teaching positions in other areas will be cut? Does this take into account the decline in enrollment we currently have at the elementary level (because those kids will be in our secondary schools very soon)? Will we need more science labs/classrooms---how are we supposed to get them? Those other schools in the state with full-year science, do they have a 7 period day so that their elective offerings aren't impacted?


This weekend, I am trying to think of the various questions we may have thrown at us and then do a little research on the answers. I'm sure I won't be able to cover all the bases. Learning to predict the right sorts of questions each audience may ask is a skill I'm just learning to use. Shepherding these Recommendations through to the school board's approval will certainly give me lots of practice in anticipating.

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12 April 2005

The scope and sequence team didn't end up getting to present today. Many principals were away recruiting for job openings...but only 1 had told the Boss Lady that they would be away today. So, the group wordsmithed our recommendations, added a significant amount of data and research, dealt with a few other "clean-up" details, and called it a day around 11:30. I can't even begin to describe how positive everyone is about the work.

The Boss Lady did stop by toward the end in order to debrief the group about their work. I enjoyed hearing their enthusiasm as they talked about the plan we've created and their support for it. Considering the variety of strong personalities (few of whom knew each other when we started), it is amazing to me to have sailed through this process.

Since principals were unavailable today, we'll find an after school time within the next month to talk to them. They'll need some time to think about the impact the recommendations will have on their buildings and give us some feedback. I'm hoping that we can get these to the school board in the early fall. In order to get new course proposals in the catalog, things have to be ready by December. I will have many people helping me shepherd these items through the hoops. I feel very grateful for that.

It is doubtful that we will meet much resistance along our path. I truly don't think that principals, the superintendent, or school board will not support us. Resistance will come at a few buildings from other teachers. Why? Because if science increases its needs for student time, someone else's program---and job---will decrease. I'm sure that if I was the one on the fuzzy end of the lollipop in this scenario that I'd make some noise. Sometimes parents can also be less than enthused. More requirements means fewer elective opportunities. What happens when you've spent several grand for a cello and now there's no room in the kid's schedule for orchestra? That being said, we are only asking that 2 out of 4 junior highs increase their science classes by a semester at both the 8th and 9th grade levels. If the other 2 schools have figured out a way to offer full-year science for those grades, then there must be a generally satisfying answer.

Change never happens on a dime, does it?

My position as (almost) full-time science goddess was confirmed today. The Boss Lady has funding for .8 of it. She believes that she can come up with the last 20% somehow...but one of my building admins is pushing to have me teach 1 period: AP Biology. I really wouldn't mind this. I like the curriculum and love the kids. It does make things slightly more complicated (vs. teaching no classes) in terms of subs and other demands. I told the Boss Lady that I'm very excited about this opportunity---and I am. Doing this work for the district is quite challenging and I appreciate being asked to stretch myself in new directions.

I went to lunch with three of the Scope and Sequence members. I really enjoyed being out and getting to know them better. We talked some about our work. How do we get "reluctant" teachers on board? What about teachers who won't follow the sequence? Can we get all of this in place for 2006 - 2007? How do we navigate building level politics?

I don't know all of the answers to these questions. Heck, I'm making up this job as I go along. But I do have a very good sense that it is going to work out...somehow. (What's my evidence for that?!)

I came home early...had a lovely nap...and now it is time to get back to work for the evening. Cheers.

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The Grand Finale

11 April 2005

District Scope and Sequence planning ends tomorrow. We'll polish up our recommendations and bring out the data. I've heard that the one of the Superintendent's favourite phrases is "What's your evidence for that?" Fair enough. If he throws down the gauntlet, we'll be ready to show why full year science is needed at each grade level and each school.

We've been told that tomorrow's presentation is simply "informal," but even so, I'd like to make as many friends as possible for our cause.

I talked to some of my students today about this work. One kid had asked if biology was going to be required of incoming students---because he hadn't had it and had struggled on the state science test a couple of years ago. So, I gave him (and the others) a rather long-winded explanation of our current scope and sequence process. They seemed to appreciate it.

It was really good to be back at school with the kids again. They are so good at boosting my energy and enthusiasm---even though I felt physically exhausted by the end of the day. Speaking of, other thoughts in my head will just have to wait until tomorrow.

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A Little History Lesson

08 April 2005

Recently, I posted on my district's scope and sequence recommendations. There were two wonderful comments on the post---both pointing out that our current decision is not so different from when the writers attended school. In fact, it's the same sequence I had (long ago and far away). What's the deal?

The "traditional" high school science curriculum sequence was established in 1897. Ten east coast college deans formed an advisory group in order to help create the American high school. At the time, they recommended that students take science in the following order: biology, chemistry, physics. The "urban legend" that goes along with this is that the classes were simply ordered alphabetically. However, this was not the deans' mode of reasoning. In 1897, biology was still a rather young branch of science. It was still full of "naturalism": looking at plants and animals. Biology was placed first in the sequence because it was the most simple science and it did not require a lot of equipment (or training) to teach.

Since 1897, lots has changed in biology---but the sequence has not. Biology has a much more cellular and molecular focus to it. There is a lot of talk about reversing the sequence and putting physics first. (conceptual physics, not calculus based) The idea is that a student who understands something about forces will have a better concept of atoms, bonding, reactions, etc. when they take chemistry...and a student who is well-grounded in chemistry will have a much richer understanding of biology. This really makes a lot of sense given current scientific knowledge.

My district didn't choose to keep the three-year sequence in any form for high school. Why not? One reason is simply that students are only required to have 2 credits of science for graduation. Which class should we cut out? What we did instead was to ask that 9th graders take one semester of physics and one semester of chemistry and then have 10th graders take biology. This also ensures that all students have an opportunity to gain experience with the standards and a high-quality curriculum. High schools will still offer all the traditional courses: chemistry, physics, AP courses, etc.

One of the commenters to my original post mentioned that many students taking biology in his school fail. You know, so do ours. Biology is the most frequently failed class in our school. And in looking at test scores, biology has the fewest students able to meet the standards (vs. 10th graders taking other science courses). We have talked about this a lot at my school, but have not determined any hard and fast answers. Is it because their knowledge of basic chemistry isn't developed enough to handle DNA and other organic bases in biology? Is it because more new terms are used in a high school science text than a student is exposed to in a year of a foreign language class? Does it have anything to do with the brain's "readiness" in terms of pre-frontal lobe development---maybe the kids just are not physically able to process the knowledge? Is it bad teaching? Poor study habits? We don't have a ready answer. Why, oh why are we keeping biology as an introductory high school class? Well, we think we can change most of these items and are making efforts to do so.

Junior high/middle school is a whole different animal. I don't know when such an idea was established, and really, most districts seem to be struggling with how to handle the 6 - 8 grade band. Again, the "traditional" sequence has been General Science, Life Science, Earth/Space Science. Many schools are now choosing a more "integrated" model, where students have some exposure to each topic throughout the year. Our district did consider this---but there were a number of reasons why it didn't make sense for us to choose this option.

Since we were in high school, gentle readers, a lot has happened with the school day. One of you wondered if classes were shorter or perhaps the teaching day longer. I'll see if I can find any info on that idea. What I can tell you is that there are all sorts of permutations to the daily schedule: traditional 6 or 7 periods a day, block schedules, modified blocks, and more. A state may choose to set a number of "contact minutes" a student must have or the number of days a class must be in session. Again, there's a lot of discussion here. If a kid can meet standards, do they really need to be in class as long as a kid who doesn't? Does a one-size-fit-all-school-year make sense? Right now, legislatures are saying "yes."

A final note, as there was also a comment about the math sequence: algebra is now a 7th and 8th grade class...and the sequence follows from there. A kid who takes algebra in high school (as you and I did) is considered to be significantly behind his or her peers. It is the lowest math class available for credit. Since math also has a two credit requirement for graduation, we have many kids who finish that requirement in grade 8 and then opt out of math throughout high school. It's beginning to be a real problem, but it, too, is being tackled.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled Spring Break. :)

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