Science Fiction

06 November 2009

I was listening to a keynote speaker earlier this week who was telling us just how flat the world would be someday. He had some glitzy pictures of technology gizmos---like a bluetooth headset that you could wear on your finger as a ring when it wasn't been used. He espoused tools and connectivity. He told us all about the impact of this on the classroom, where in some Hegel-ian vision, the sum total of human knowledge would be available to each and every child.

I think this was supposed to be very inspiring to the gathering of educational technology leaders sitting in the room. Me? All I could think about was Forbidden Planet. If you haven't seen this 1956 gem of a movie, it's Shakespeare's Tempest set in outer space. (Aside: The Tempest is my favourite of his works. I like the metaphor of Caliban as student and Prospero as teacher. But that's another post.) I won't summarize the film here, as IMDb can do that much better than I, but if you've seen the film, you may remember the context of the image at the left. Walter Pidgeon (seated) has a machine attached to his head which allows him to increase his IQ. Leslie Nielsen is pointing at the 3D holographic image of Anne Francis that Pidgeon has been able to create using his mind. Cool, right? Maybe not. See, the machine had been built by an extinct civilization (the Krel)---a machine used to train the young of that species. A machine that contained the sum total of Krel knowledge. This allowed the Krel to do some wonderful things, but it also led to their own self-destruction (and eventually the destruction of Pidgeon and the planet itself).

In spite of the story, I'm not fatalistic about putting learning tools and information in the hands of students. However, this connection did give me pause to wonder if we've really thought about all of the possible consequences of a flat world. This train of thought led me to another sci-fi connection:
Jurassic Park is another tale of the negative effects of "too much" knowledge. Within both the movie and the novel (which is far more interesting than the film), the character of Malcolm plays Satan's Little Helper in terms of asking the others to consider the consequences of what is being done. He points out to the developer, John Hammond, that "...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Is it possible that when it comes to creating flat classrooms and embracing the idea of globalization that we are so blinded by possibilities that we aren't taking the time to really think things through? Have we considered the responsibilities that come with the power of knowledge?

Toward the end of the keynote the speaker trotted out a chestnut I've heard elsewhere: We're preparing kids for jobs that don't yet exist, where they'll use technology that hasn't been invented to solve problems we don't even know exist. This isn't a particularly deep observation---it's stating the obvious. I wanted to shout out that this is what education has always done. Don't you think that our own teachers were in the same position when we were in school? We are always going to be in the position of preparing students for an unknown future.

However, the speaker admonished us to be futurist and "begin with the end in mind" where technology is concerned. Other than a science fiction world, this is not possible. The platitude in the above paragraph tells us that we can't know what kind of world our students will inherit. Fiction tales from our past remind us that people don't always understand the consequences of the present on the future. The best we can do is help the next generation separate fact from fiction as they add to our progress.

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What Do You Make of This

01 November 2009

If you're an 80's kind of child, then the header to this post probably engenders a response of "This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl..." as once uttered by the character Johnny in the movie Airplane! What I'm wondering about at the moment, however, is the various ways you might use video clips like the one above in class---and whether or not using one "counts" as technology integration.

I've been pondering this while sifting through the mountain of links I inherited. Most of the links are fine (and are tagged under a list of "integration resources"), but I don't know that we can assume that just handing a link to a teacher is enough to assume that integration of technology is occurring.

When I think about video clips like the one above, I see potential for a lot of things. I see a launch for a unit of study---especially the opportunity for predictions and observations. I see a chance for formative assessment. I spy (with my little eye) a resource for reteaching or an intervention activity. I also smell a model summative assessment---something to prime kids' pumps before they go out and document an inquiry lesson within their own classroom.

Maybe Johnny was wrong in his thinking about the hat/brooch/pterodactyl. Perhaps I need to look at these links in a more Magritte sort of way:

Ceci n'est pas une YouTube video! Ceci est une "instructional material." Mais oui!

But do other teachers look at such resources in this way? Will they if I simply hand them the link---or are supporting documents necessary?

The bigger question for me, however, is whether or not using a video clip as an instructional material means that technology is being integrated into the classroom. I have been wondering if the answer is dependent upon who is using the clip. If, as a teacher, I use the pickle clip at the beginning of this post at the beginning of a unit, then I may be integrating technology (both hardware and software) into my lesson...but has it been integrated into student learning? Is it better than me actually doing the demonstration for students? Why would I choose a video clip over a "live" option?

When does something stop being a vanilla instructional resource and become technology integration? If a teacher goes to a website and downloads a worksheet to print for students---is that teaching with technology? What if s/he projects the same worksheet on an interactive whiteboard and students answer the questions or edit the passages there? Is a classroom with a single computer (and just at the teacher's workstation) able to integrate technology---or does it require x number of student computers? How many sites need to be able to get through the &$#@*! internet filter? I don't expect a single line here that will divide the issue into "this is integration" and "this is not." However, if we can't at least come up with some guidelines, how will be bring along those teachers who are still struggling to add a row to an Excel sheet or change the size of a font in a document? How do we get them to see the same possibilities as Johnny did for a piece of newspaper in Airplane! when someone sends a link to video on YouTube?

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Evolutionary Effort

03 July 2009

From the Education Week article on Effort, Engagement, and Student Learning:

Schools that often emphasize fun, student-centered classroom activities in instruction, and evolutionary processes over many generations have helped shape humans’ interest in those engaging social activities.

Yet for students to tackle new and difficult, or “evolutionarily novel” material in reading, math, and other subjects, schools need to emphasize effort and persistence.

That’s the argument put forward by David C. Geary, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, in a study. It was published in the October edition of the journal Educational Psychologist but publicized this month by the university’s press office. It focuses on the connection between evolution, culture, and the role of schools, which the author describes as “evolutionary educational psychology.”

The process of evolution, Mr. Geary says in the study, has resulted in students being able to acquire certain types of new knowledge and skills, such as language acquisition, in a relatively “effortless” manner through processes that are engaging. Schools have arranged lessons to suit those desires.

Yet evolution has not provided the necessary scaffolding to help students with challenging content, such as algebra and reading, Mr. Geary argues. Only determined effort in classrooms will help students meet that demand, he says.

This makes me wonder about the whole "Why are we learning this?" question from students. For "effortless" activities, perhaps students don't have a need to prompt teachers with this query. When it comes to Newtonian physics, then they do (except, perhaps, for those few students who are gunning to learn it).

I'm not entirely sure what to do with this information---I just find it interesting. For me, it leads to deeper questions about what should be included with a curriculum and the purpose of education. Do students need "evolutionary novel" material? Why? And, if so, what's the best way to teach it---because from what I'm gleaning, constructivist methods aren't going to cut it.

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It's the Instruction, Stupid

13 June 2009

I keep seeing a lot of posts and articles about the drive for national standards for literacy and math (and perhaps science on down the road). Recently, Washington state has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to revise its math and science standards (and recommend "aligned" instructional materials).

I can't help but be a bit mystified by all of this.

I understand the purpose of a standards-based education for every child. What I don't understand is the assumption that better standards (whatever that means) will equal increases in student achievement. It comes from another false conclusion that the reason scores on student achievement measures are low is because there must be something wrong with the current academic standards.

Sorry, but that dog just won't hunt. Standards are all well and good in their place, but they are not some sort of magic bullet for student learning. Even before the days of NCLB, standards, and standardized testing, there was an achievement gap. The presence of those things does not seem to be making much more difference than their absence.

I have to wonder how much greater impact on students we could have if all the money and energy was actually spent on supporting good instruction. Just imagine what could be accomplished if the focus on creating national standards was repurposed into instructional coaching, time/money for teacher collaboration, or other practices that have a direct impact on kids. What if we left the standards and assessments we have in place long enough to get the instructional pieces determined?

At some point, we have to look seriously at classroom instruction. To only focus Legislative attention on the framework (standards, instructional materials) and output (testing), neglects the most important part of the process: what happens in a classroom between a teacher and students.

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Why Didn't I Think of That?

09 May 2009

In my most recent years in the classroom, I became a fan of using a Think Aloud (sometimes called a Read Aloud) to illustrate different reading strategies. Science textbooks are not the easiest things to read and comprehend, so I liked modeling my own metacognition for kids when I could. I even did this for AP Biology students. They were good readers in that they had the mechanics down, but the college level science text would often kick their butts. They struggled to modify their strategies applied to reading novels for English class.

As much as I liked this strategy, it ran the risk of being overused---just as with any other classroom tool. I was kinda sad that there weren't more things like it. It seemed like there were many areas in which students could have used more support in me modeling my own thinking.

And then, Clay Burrell posted this incredible idea on How to Write Timed Essays That Aren't Crap. It is about how he noticed that students were struggling to let go of the almighty Five Paragraph Essay scaffold as well as create something meaningful from the prompt for a timed essay. What did he do? He made a screencast and basically did a Think Aloud for writing. He posted the screencast for students and it was their homework to watch and comment.

It's freaking genius. But beyond that is my personal "D'oh!" moment in which I keep wondering why I never thought about doing something like this. Sure, part of it is that the technological aspects weren't readily available when I needed them...but beyond that, just getting away from seeing Think Alouds as purely a reading strategy stymied me.

Now, I'm thinking about other applications, especially in the realm of PD. What ways can I support classroom teachers through modeling my own thinking about how I organize my gradebook or deal with grading or a host of other things?

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Immaterial Things

26 April 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I asked you what you were generally looking for in a set of instructional materials. It's a conversation I've had with a lot of people recently, especially with regards to science materials.

Generally speaking, the answers about science stuff fall into two categories, depending upon the grade level someone teaches. Elementary teachers want to know that what they pull out of the kit/box is aligned to the standards, doesn't take a lot of time to set up/clean up, and works. They typically don't "plan" science lessons the way that they might for reading or math. They start with Lesson One in the teacher's guide and go along sequentially from there. Secondary teachers, on the other hand, are all about the mixing and matching. They don't start at Point A and go lesson by lesson in the exact format prescribed by the publisher's program to Point B. In the parlance of our Response to Intervention times, elementary teachers will teach a program with fidelity...secondary will not. Again, I am generalizing here---there are certainly exceptions to the rule.

I am still struggling with what we actually need instructional materials to do, especially after reading this Edutopia article on how textbook programs are developed. If they can all claim alignment...a research-base (whatever that means)...and a conceptual development (if taught with fidelity to the program), then what's the point of a big selection process? Do the nuances of what makes one program "better" than another become identified with the ancillary materials? At secondary, we can pretty well guarantee that even if the alignment, research, and concepts are strong, teachers won't follow the plan. I'm not going to claim that this is a bad idea---teachers need flexibility in order to differentiate for the needs of their students. I just think it's a faulty assumption on anyone's part that if they have instructional materials aligned to standards that there will be a positive impact on student achievement. Awesome materials in the hands of an inadequate teacher are no good...and poor materials in the hands of an outstanding instructor can be a thing of beauty.

It's not about the stuff. It's about what actually happens in a classroom. It's about the instruction, not the materials. How do we help those outside of the school understand that?


Material Things

11 April 2009

It was a long long week, and I do have a few posts percolating in my head. While those continue to brew, I was hoping for some of your ideas on instructional materials---any grade, any subject area.

As an educator, when your district or state is in the process of selecting materials for a grade/course that you teach, what do you expect from this curricular support?

Do you, for example, think that high quality assessments of all kinds (formative, diagnostic, progress-monitoring, summative...) should be pre-packaged for you? What about leveled readers, SPED support, intervention, and enrichment items to promote accessibility in your classroom? Do you want materials with lesson plans that are constructivist-style in their design?

Any curriculum materials out there can be "aligned," depending upon how loose you are with your terms. What I'm wondering, however, is whether or not we educators are on the lookout for "SuperMaterial!": something that can do everything for a classroom. We are purchasing just paper, print, and pixels, after all. They are not replacements for teachers. What is it that we need the materials to do?


All Over Creation

04 April 2009

This weekend, I've been watching the 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80's on VH1. Being a product of the 80's, I have enjoyed the nostalgia. But I have also been thinking about the label of being a "one-hit wonder." Is that a positive or negative way to look at things? How amazing to create something that is loved by many people and over years and years in time. Is it a burden to then realize that you "peaked" long before your career was over?

I was reminded of this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. She wrote Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago. It's a book many (including me) adore. But she talks about the pressure that comes with having a hit...and people wondering what you will do next. She's been researching creativity and how it's been viewed in human history. If you have the time, I definitely recommend watching her presentation.

I am loathe to view Creativity as some sort of entity, and yet I can't deny that there does seem to be some sort of confluence of inspiration and being at the right time and in the right place that makes for a masterpiece---whether it's a one-off or one of many. Considering this, how do we best nurture the creative urges of our students?


Separate But Equal

09 March 2009

Someone made an intriguing comment to me last week about curriculum integration. And while I'm sure the comment wasn't intended to elicit as much thinking as I have done about it, I've been grateful for the prompt.

Here was the basic statement: curriculum integration (e.g. science + literacy) can only be effective if the teacher has depth of knowledge/expertise in both areas.

As I think about this, I fear she may be right. I also think that there may never truly be such an animal as integrated curriculum (but that may be due to how I'm defining it in my own mind). When I think about all of the reading and writing skills and strategies I've used with students over the years, I have to say that I taught them as discrete skills first. Science may have provided a context for constructing a graphic organizer or application of 6-trait writing, but the focus really was on the skill itself. The tool itself could be applied in any content area. My goal was to have kids use the tool as a vehicle to understanding the science content. Does this make my lessons "integrated"? Or was I just wearing different hats at different times? I can't say that I knew my Teaching of Reading even half as well as my Teaching of Science. Perhaps this did inhibit integration---I didn't have the ability to see more connections.

Here's another thing I was thinking about. If an elementary teacher uses a non-fiction text following a hands-on science experience...does this count as integration?

What I think many elementary teachers want is to "double-dip." In other words, if I use a non-fiction text on a science topic---can I count that time for both reading and science? Because let's face it: there are only so many instructional minutes in the day and expectations for what should happen in that time are unreal. I don't have time for both reading and science, so if one lesson can count for both, I'm golden. This is not some comment about elementary teachers slacking off or cheating kids of learning---this is the reality of the burden placed upon them to perform curricular miracles in only a few hours a day.

But back to the original thought. Does true curricular integration exist to the point where it is nearly impossible to see where one facet ends and the other begins? Or will it always be separate but maybe equal bits of knowledge with a tenuous connection?


Applications and Innovations

15 February 2009

One of my professional goals this year is to explore information visualization as it applies to educational settings. I tend to think and express myself more with words than with pictures---so this is a stretch for me. I am doing some reading and have added some new blogs to my Reader feed, most notably Digital Roam, The Center for Graphic Facilitation, Full Circle Associates, Slides That Stick, and Neoformix.

I was intrigued to discover that I'm not the only one thinking about how these ideas could be best used for the classroom (both for teachers and students). The 2009 Horizon Report "identifies and ranks key trends affecting the practice of teaching, learning, research, and creative expression...The trends are ranked according to how significant an impact they are likely to have on education in the next five years." The report identifies the following:
  • Increasing globalization continues to affect the way we work, collaborate, and communicate.
  • The notion of collective intelligence is redefining how we think about ambiguity and imprecision.
  • Experience with and affinity for games as learning tools is an increasingly universal characteristic among those entering higher education and the workforce.
  • Visualization tools are making information more meaningful and insights more intuitive.
  • As more than one billion phones are produced each year, mobile phones are benefiting from unprecedented innovation, driven by global competition.
As I push forward with social networking, viewing my cell phone as a tool instead of "toy," and now exploring the realm of visualization, I feel like I'm on the right track. Others are moving in those directions, too. I don't know where things are headed...what the outcome will be. I just like the ideas involved and believe that something powerful will emerge from the murky mess.

The image below is from a paper-based visualization competition. The work is by Charlene Lam, who says this about her piece: "I currently live in Umeå, a city at latitude 63° 50′ N in northern Sweden. Our winter days are short and summer days are long. Using the actual and predicted lengths of daylight for the first of each month in 2009, I created a visualization with 12 "petals". The outer loop of each petal represents the 24 hours in the day; the inner loop is the length of daylight, ranging from 4h 33m on January 1 to 20h 34m on July 1. The simple lines suggest the passing of time, as well as the promise of spring to come."

Such an elegant visual, don't you think? Here again, I'm not sure of the practical applications of these sorts of things. I admire their artistry and in some cases, humor (e.g. a pocket pie chart). Are there reasons why we might want students and/or teachers to have bar graphs as real world manipulatives? Would a three-dimensional representation of war dead be more purposeful than a 2-dimensional one?

In education, we seem to be focused in moving in the one-way direction from pictures to words. We look at data, charts, and graph and write about them. What are you doing in your classroom or with your staff to make the move from words to pictures? What applications and innovations are moving you the other way?


There Is No Spoon

06 December 2008

For those of you who might have missed them, Roger---a frequent and most thoughtful commenter here---left some excellent responses to my post about Taking False Comfort in Numbers. I have found myself thinking about them a lot this week (a 2.5 hour commute time each day provides plenty of opportunity for ponderous measures), especially these ideas:
How long learning should last depends on the purpose of the learning. The only way to decide that is to answer the fundamental question, "What is the purpose of schooling?"

There is much talk that it is to acquire knowledge ("book learning") that will be used in life. But all high school teachers know in their heart of hearts that this is largely false. By graduation, most of what was learned in the previous four years will have been forgotten. Students have a pretty good idea, too. By the time they reach high school, they have stopped asking, "when will I ever use this?" because they know they won't get a straight answer. Most have decided it doesn't matter. High school has its rules. Play by them, and play well, and you will get a good score. Don't, and you won't.

It is this sense in which high school is a game. But then so is much of life. The great economist Frank H. Knight used to argue that Homo sapiens (wise man) was a poor scientific name for humans. He much preferred Homo ludens (game playing man). Humans, he said, are constantly engaging in competitions. They have an amazing ability to understand "the rules of the game" and to abide by them. It is this, he argued, that keeps us out of a Hobbesian "war of all against all." We refrain from stealing not because there is a policeman on every corner, but because we accept the rule that we shouldn't do it (which is, to a significant extent, because we know others have accepted the rule in relation to us).
I have to say that these ideas make me a little sad. I'm not going to disagree or step on Roger's Truth for the simple reason that I don't have to walk in his shoes. I haven't had the same experiences---past, present, or future. I'm not sure that the "social contract" evolves in the way described, but that's what makes it so intriguing to think about. What I do want to say is, in my own Pollyannaish way, that I hope that (high) schools are more than just learning to play the game. It may not be the Truth we have, but it's the picture I'd like to work toward.

I was also thinking about a question that came up during my presentation in Portland a couple of weeks ago. We had been talking about not assigning grade penalties for late or missing work. One of the attendees asked "What do you say to people who claim that we're not preparing kids for college if we don't assign those penalties? Students won't be able to turn things in late in college." My answer is simply that the kids I worked with last year were 15 years old---they were not in college. As such, they made choices that were typical of 15-year olds. A lot of brain growth is happening...lots going in the pre-frontal lobes which impacts decision making. My job is not to treat them as if they were college students. My job is to help them learn to make good choices so that by the time they get to college, they'll be ready for whatever they are asked to do.

I'm also not convinced that No Late Work is true of every college course, but I didn't feel like bringing that up there. There used to be a teacher in one of the junior highs in the area that we high school teachers referred to as the "Pre-AP Nazi." This woman drove her students into the ground, in part because of all these little rules that she claimed were true of high school. For example, she told her kids that they could never use a pencil because that's what high school teachers would expect. She went on and on about this. Was it true? No. Her list of threats was extensive---all in the name of preparing students for high school as she thought it was or perhaps wanted it to be.

So, here we are---educators each with our own Truth...our own motivations and approaches to what the ultimate outcomes of our jobs will be. Whether or not I agree with or like them all isn't terribly important. I actually like the diversity of ideas and models out there. I think it serves students well to see that there is more than one way to view the world---and they can choose from there which version of reality they wish to adopt and shape.



02 May 2008

Washington has (finally) finished its math standards revision---at least for k-8. This is the segment I'm most interested in, and I have to say that I like what I see. (You can learn more here about about the new standards, if you like.) The language has been cleaned up. It is very clear what a child should know and be able to do in terms of meeting the standards. Teachers no longer have to guess whether or not kids "understand" certain things. As an instructional coach working with elementary teachers in the realm of math, I feel much relieved about the new standards. (We'll see where the new curriculum choices lead us.)

In terms of math instruction, the New York Times recently reported a study suggesting that the fewer real-world examples of math used, the better. This might seem counter-intuitive to what we usually think about the relevance of learning, but it may be that students get caught up in remembering the "two trains leaving A and B..." parts and not so much in how speed and direction are important. A severe limitation of this study was that it was conducted with college age students. The authors want to generalize to younger students, but I'm not sure that this would bear out. It would be interesting to see, however, so I hope that more research is done.

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Vocabulary to Go

29 March 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Play continues in this manner...

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

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

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

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Separate, but Fair?

01 March 2008

I love this series of pictures by Michele Asselin:

The first fits our traditional sense of what annual class pictures should be. There are neat rows, still hands, and studious gazes. But the second? Those are real second graders with personality to spare. This is how I like to think of students. When I close my eyes and remember visiting an elementary classroom in the last few years, this second picture best represents the kids I conjure up in my mind. The time on the clock in both pictures is a reminder of just how quickly context and energy can change in a classroom.

You may have noticed something else about these pictures: all of the subjects are male.

The pictures were taken as part of an article in the New York Times Magazine on single-sex classrooms.

Separating schoolboys from schoolgirls has long been a staple of private and parochial education. But the idea is now gaining traction in American public schools, in response to both the desire of parents to have more choice in their children’s public education and the separate education crises girls and boys have been widely reported to experience. The girls’ crisis was cited in the 1990s, when the American Association of University Women published “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” which described how girls’ self-esteem plummets during puberty and how girls are subtly discouraged from careers in math and science. More recently, in what Sara Mead, an education expert at the New America Foundation, calls a “man bites dog” sensation, public and parental concerns have shifted to boys. Boys are currently behind their sisters in high-school and college graduation rates. School, the boy-crisis argument goes, is shaped by females to match the abilities of girls (or, as Sax puts it, is taught “by soft-spoken women who bore” boys). In 2006, Doug Anglin, a 17-year-old in Milton, Mass., filed a civil rights complaint with the United States Department of Education, claiming that his high school — where there are twice as many girls on the honor roll as there are boys — discriminated against males. His case did not prevail in the courts, but his sentiment found support in the Legislature and the press. That same year, as part of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that authorizes programs aimed at improving accountability and test scores in public schools, the Department of Education passed new regulations making it easier for districts to create single-sex classrooms and schools.

I have to admit that I haven't paid a lot of attention to the gender studies as they relate to the classroom---but I do feel like I've been seeing more and more articles in the general media about the move by schools to offer more single-sex education opportunities. I find myself neither for nor against it. Instead, I am simply curious about what the research will show in a few years. What will be the long-term effect on student achievement? For families who opt into single gender classrooms for their children, what happens to these kids when "mixed" classrooms become the only option later in school? Will this type of education turn out to create the kind of magic we need to close the achievement gap? If schools are indeed full of "soft spoken women who bore boys," what changes to teacher education and/or professional development might be helpful?

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Fess Up

25 February 2008

One of you needs to 'fess up. I've read plenty of posts in the edusphere recently written by bedridden bloggers. And now I've got the whopper of the flu bug everyone else has been warning me about (and someone was so kind to pass along...whoever you are). And not only is it that lovely respiratory stuff, I have a bit of norovirus, too, just to make things interesting. I'm at the stage where it even hurts to take a shower, my nerve endings are so sensitized. So, be careful, dear readers, what you touch around here. I've tried to disinfect the place...but you never know.

While I crawl back into bed and curse my immune system, here are some germ free places to go and amuse yourselves...

  • Have you seen the Visual Thesaurus? It's not free (at least for the time being), but what a great tool for the classroom. A screenshot is below. The dots are color coded by part of speech. You can highlight different parts of the lines in order for it to give further detail to the relationship.
  • In the same vein, but with unlimited access, is Visuwords: The On-line Graphical Dictionary. Another screen grab is below, but I highly recommend going and playing with it yourself. It's very dynamic. The key at the bottom also provides information on the symbols and relationships, but better yet, all of the little bubbles can be manipulated, changing the orientation of the graphic. Way kewl!

  • I'm probably the last person in the blogosphere to link to this, but if you're looking for a giggle, head on over to Stuff White People Like. This site reminds of me of an incident from the summer, when I was chatting with someone who was a bit into her cups. There was a discussion going on about diversity training and issues...and how people make assumptions about one's ethnic background solely based on skin colour. Looking white and being white were different things in her mind. And out of nowhere came "And what's with white people and the f***ing pot roast?" A brief diatribe followed on pot roasts and her experience with them---and I have laughed long and hard many times since then. She was right. I haven't looked through the archives on this site to see if the pot roast has been represented. If not, it needs to be.
  • Finally, no educator should be living by edublogs alone. Take a look at Archaeoporn's take on a Carnival for the "Cabinet of Curiosities." It's done in the style of those "Choose Your Adventure" books of yore...well, my junior high days, at least. I may have to copy this idea the next time I host the Carnival.
If you've got an idea for a good distraction for me, leave it in the comments. I hope to be well enough to attend school tomorrow. These bugs are too good not to share. :)

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Mastering Intelligence

09 December 2007

Assorted Stuff has a link to a recent Scientific American article entitled "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids." It's well worth your attention if you have a few minutes to spare. The information interested me because it is an extension of my dissertation work. Instead of applying mastery vs. performance motivational beliefs to student achievement, researchers have been applying these perceptions to intelligence. Kids who believe that intelligence is a fixed commodity (performance orientation) have behaviors that keep them from improving their performance; children who believe that that being smart is something you can learn (mastery orientation) will continue to improve. (There is more on the research over at Edutopia: Tell Students to Feed Their Brains.) The implications for educators are sprinkled throughout the article, but if you're looking for something you can directly apply to the classroom, check out the last two pages talking about "Brainology." Kids who learn how their brain works to learn make marked improvements over those who solely receive tutoring/help with study skills.

After attending the Sound Grading Practices conference this week, I am even more convinced of the need to work with teachers around building classroom environments that emphasize mastery goals. Grading is one piece of the puzzle, to be sure, but there is so much more that can be included. Looks like teaching kids that their brains are plastic in ability and how to harness that quality is one more. The role of feedback and how teachers word it is also a key piece. We can help kids be masters of their intelligence.

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Teaching Thinking Skills

03 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putting It Together...Again

23 July 2007

Any blogger with a library of posts and some stats code begins to notice that some search terms and posts are more popular than others in terms of who they bring to your blog. Two of my recent favourites have been "Why aren't I gifted anymore?" (um...grammar issues, perhaps?) and "HOW TO GET KIDS TO PICK UP TOYS" (I'm assuming the all caps represent a frustrated mother who is wondering when the hell school is starting again). Anyway, one of my "old" posts that is frequently called up to active duty is Putting It Together. This was a post where I distilled information from Robert Marzano, Marcia Tate, and some other cognitive researchers into a generic lesson plan format. The idea was to make as much of the theory as practical as possible. I have presented this a few times---and more importantly, I have used it myself and been very happy with the results.

One of the features I have with publishing my blog is the ability to upload attachments with my posts. So, for the first time, I'm going to try out this feature and place a copy of this "Holy Grail" of a Lesson Plan: Grail_Lesson_Plan.doc

For those of you who try to open it, I hope you'll let me know how the formatting did or didn't stay intact (at least from what you can see). This is a great plan to use with students of all ages (including adult learners in a staff development setting) and can be flexed to suit different time frames. Enjoy!


One Trick Ponies

30 April 2007

I headed over to Olympia today to sit in on a presentation that the supe was interested in, but couldn't lose a whole day to see. I took the scenic route over to the capitol city---it was a beautiful day for a drive and I was in no particular hurry to be anywhere.

I realized about five minutes into the spiel today that I had seen this guy before at a state science teachers' convention. He shills for the FOSS kits and his bent today was to talk about "brain research" and how FOSS takes advantage of that. I have to say that his sales pitch was soft, which I appreciated, but the rest of his presentation needed help. It's probably been 8 years since I've seen it...and nothing has changed. They were exactly the same overheads, same jokes, etc. I suppose that there is something to be said for the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality...but how can you claim to be a science expert and never have anything new to offer?

This is not the first time I've been suckered in. There are any number of One Trick Ponies out there on the consultants' circuit. They retitle things, rearrange a few overheads/powerpoint slides, and try to pass it off as cutting edge. I'm starting to get a bit jaded. Is it so much to ask that they stay current...that they extend their knowledge...that they try to offer schools something different? Public education is being crushed under the weight of a multitude of expectations and these people think that the same old-same old is good enough. Meanwhile, many of the people there were completely buying what he was trying to sell about FOSS...not realizing that good instruction is the most important component. You have to build teachers, not kits. They were happy to take a ride with this guy because they thought it would magically fix all of the science problems in their schools.

The day wasn't a complete loss. I had lunch with a friend who just started her job at OSPI and took my time driving home. I haven't decided what to report to the supe about the presentation. I would hope that he already knows not to ride a one-trick pony.


Kinky Teachers

28 January 2007

The search engines are going to love that post title, but if you've come here looking for pictures or information about the sexy sorts of kinky things teachers do, you're going to be disappointed. I'm sure that there is a blog or site out there somewhere for's just not me. Anyway, I do think most teachers have some masochistic tendencies when it comes to their craft.

During the most recent round of cadre meetings, the math specialist and I helped teachers dip their toes in the waters of Differentiation. You know what they found? They'd already been drinking from that well for a long time. They just didn't label as that. In the meantime, they've spent years feeling guilty about differentiation. They knew it was probably a good thing and something they should have as part of their repertoire, but they were too overwhelmed with daily life in the classroom to investigate. Differentiation was "one more thing," and it just seemed like too much. The math gal and I offered the training in response to teachers' requests for the information. (We weren't playing some sort of sadistic role with them.) The final result was that a lot of the teachers felt better about what they were doing and went back to share with other teachers that the hairshirt of differentiation could come off.

This weekend, I listened to other teachers flagellate themselves over Constructivist teaching methods. Again, as their thinking was prodded, more information came out that they really are using elements of constructivism, but the image in their minds of whatever a constructivist classroom looks like doesn't match what's happening in their own rooms...and they can't figure out how to reconcile it. They like the idea of creating a learning environment where kids are supported in constructing their knowledge, but didn't realize that it didn't look like mass hysteria, with kids all over the room exploring individual ideas. Some of their guilt was eased throughout the course of discussion, but some of them still have a long way to go. They probably just need some more time to think things over...or maybe they just like having Guilt along for the ride.

I think the biggest mistake we make as teachers is our refusal to acknowledge that there are different tools for different jobs in the classroom---and that it's okay not to hammer home each point. You occasionally need to use a wrench. What I'm trying to get at here is that sometimes direct instruction is most appropriate for the information your students are learning. There are some facts and skills that need repetition (a/k/a "drill and kill"). Not everything can be constructivist (nor should). Every lesson and assignment isn't able to be differentiated. But neither can you build a good student with just a saw in your hand. Neither is there a single multi-tool which will do all the jobs you need in the classroom. It takes a variety of most teachers have and use. They just need some help applying the labels and finding a different kink.

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And There Was Much Rejoicing

13 January 2007

It's been a wacky winter in western Washington. Actually, our problems started a month before the official beginning of winter, when we accumulated not only snow, but three days of school to make up. Add on another right before Winter Break due to windstorm...then another this week due to snow and ice. That's five days and our calendar only allows for two.

In several other states, a school year is defined not by actual days, but instructional minutes. Most places do convert this to a typical 180 day school year, but by adding even 5 minutes per day, a district can add nearly a week of instructional time over the course of the year. The upside to this is that if you have to close due to weather, you can still meet the state requirements without actually putting another day on the school calendar. Not so in Washington. They're serious about the 180 day thing, no matter how many minutes you say a day equals.

We can't tack all 5 of our make-up days (and who knows...there may be more yet to come) at the end of the year. Why not? Graduation. Seniors can be out no more than 5 days before everyone else. If we add more than the two already built in, then graduation dates have to be moved...and who is going to do that now that invitations are printed and the space is booked?

All may not be lost, however. As it turns out, we may not have to make up any snow days. "Any school district that canceled classes on the day or days after Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a state of emergency may not have to make up those days." Woot! This won't account for all of our days, mind you, but it may take care of a few. We already get out so late here (end of June), that I'm not looking forward to a school calendar where the July 4th holiday has to be taken into account, although I did hear from an elementary teacher that perhaps this was the year she could finally put up a bulletin board for that holiday.

What will our district do? Will we ask for a waiver from the state? Will we start working on Saturdays? Lose the remaining three-day weekends that we have? I don't know at this point. But there's some joy in Mudville just knowing that we may get a pass.


The Clockwork Classroom

06 January 2007

I do a lot of the work for my grad classes on the weekends, including making my way through the required reading. One of the pieces I've been looking at today (along with one of the talking head video programs sent along for this unit) has gotten me thinking about some parallels between science and teacher education.

When Isaac Newton and others started work on describing some common observations about how the world worked, a theory of a clockwork universe developed. It was an idea that things moved along in a predictable pattern---and if we knew all the rules, we could not only understand something about the present, but could also know the future. Life was not excluded from this framework. One of my favourite outcomes of this sort of thinking was the development of automata, like Vaucanson's Duck. Lots of people thought that you could literally build a living thing. Again, the idea was that if you could just identify the necessary parts to something, you could replicate it and get the same results. Life and the world didn't have to be mystical. There is some truth to that, even if it isn't in the form that the Age of Enlightenment used to frame the idea. Not too much farther along, people realized that just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it doesn't mean that you have a duck. There is something else going on. (I also love it decades later when electricity is thought to be the spark of life---and you get stories like Frankenstein.)

Have we been treating teaching the same way? Have our teacher prep programs tried to look at the classroom...and then build teachers (like ducks) from those observations? In our drive to make good teaching easier---or at least more easily described and defined---have we forgotten the "spark" that makes the classroom come alive? Are we in the lab, mixing up teachers, but perhaps don't have the formula right? Is there such an animal as a clockwork classroom?

I don't think that there is a teacher out there who will tell you that the predictable classroom exists. Teachers do influence a lot of factors within their four walls---everything from the physical layout to the behavioral routines. We can give teachers all of the tools---talk to them about classroom management, grading, instructional models, curriculum materials, and more---and instructions to build the duck---but it will never be a living breathing classroom.

If the ed schools are only slightly farther along than Newton, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the few hundred years of scientific thinking that have occurred in the meantime. Maybe the ed schools don't need to go through all of the same growing pains. Should we look at classrooms within the context of chaos theory? Is it possible that there are patterns within what appears to be random within the classroom?

When you get down to it, all of this is really about what it means to be a good teacher. I don't think that this is as simple to point out as identifying a duck. In my own mind, I look at good teachers as those who not only have their content and pedagogy at hand, but also the "spark" of being knowledgeable about themselves. We are not automata. Teaching is an intensely personal experience and practice. I don't know if or how we make that part of teacher training---how we acknowledge and nurture the spark. I do think it's important that we look closely at what we do in our teacher ed programs and continue to move away from the idea of the clockwork classroom.

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Tell Me How You Want It

04 January 2007

The Curriculum department recently did a survey to get a little input on what staff think they need in terms of professional development, as well as how they would like to receive it. We looked at the results today and there wasn't anything out of the ordinary. What did my heart the most good was that science was the number one area identified by elementary teachers as a need. Perhaps I might actually get more time and resources allotted for that.

Secondary is a bit of a mystery in some ways. They did identify areas of need---but were completely blah about all of the suggested models for delivering in-service. I have a feeling that if we went back to them and said, "We know what you don't want...tell us what you do want." that the reply would be "Leave us alone!" I think this answer would be perfectly acceptable if continuous improvement in the schools is evident...but it isn't. So, according to the survey, they want a lot of information, they just don't want to have to engage with it. I've written before about the inertia of secondary ed. Change away from that continues to be elusive and yet all kids aren't getting what they need. There isn't a culture of lifelong learning in most of the buildings. I don't know how we're going to change that, but I think we need to try.

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Nothing to See Here...Move Along

03 May 2006

I went to another school district yesterday to serve on an accreditation team. Every six years, schools go through a process of renewing their seal of approval. It probably doesn't mean much except for those students who are off to colleges and universities, but it can also be important for schools in the sense that it causes them to engage in some reflection about what's happening.

The team I was assigned to was to evaluate the focus on education/instruction happening in the school. I have to tell you, there wasn't much of that going on.

I checked in on a geometry class. The teacher was at the front of the room, orating directly from the text. The kids? Maybe one or two were paying attention. The rest were chatting, tossing around some hand lotion, or doing other things. But the teacher droned on...every letter, symbol, and nuance of the formulas. I talked with some of the kids---each day was the same: teacher talks, they (supposedly) do homework the remainder of the period. I talked with the teacher, too. He recently retired from another school district where he had taught social studies. He was hired to teach two periods of geometry...and the last time he'd encountered the material was when he was in high school. I asked if he'd received some professional development or support to make the big change to math. "Oh, no---I just stay an hour after class each day and read up on the textbook." And the kicker? He's hoping for a full time contract for next year.

In a science class for special needs students, the teacher was busy doing his own thing with some equipment while two aides assisted the kids with a terrible assignment. They were to find pictures of "diplopoda." One kid asked "Why are we doing this?" which I thought was a fabulous question. The answer was, "So you'll know it later."

During the entire day, I saw only two classes (PE and Carpentry) where kids were actively engaged in doing things. In fact, some of the kids I talked to in other classes observed that they'd really like to "do something" in their classes. Meanwhile, there were no learning targets to be seen anywhere. Everyone was an independent contractor---independent of one another and of a rigorous curriculum and expectations.

The school has had some discipline issues with its current group of freshmen. I really have to wonder how much of that is kids getting into trouble out of sheer boredom.

Is there any hope for the school? Lots. The school climate is very good---kids and staff are pretty happy there and there is a great deal of trust and respect for the administration. If they can harness all of that positive energy and put it into instruction, the school could be a real winner. I really hope they find a way to do that.

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Comrades in Arms

13 March 2006

Mr. McNamar and the Hedgetoad have kiddos who are WASLing this week. The Reading and Writing portions for Grade 10 began today. Math and Science (gulp!) will be in April. This is the first year that the test will count toward graduation requirements.

There was an interesting article about WASL in today's Seattle Times. Regardless of what you think of The Test, there's no denying that it is having a positive impact on instruction. When I am out and about in my district, I do see good things happening in schools. Do I see evidence of "drill and kill"? Rarely to never. Do I see "teaching to the test"? Perhaps. But I think of it more as "teaching to the standards." The "test" part comes in when we used released items with students in order to familiarize them with the format...not the material itself. I see lots of teachers who want to do the best they can. I think that can only help every child, not just those from middle-class anglo families.

To Mr. M and Hedge---best wishes to your kiddos. Keep your fingers crossed for mine.

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Good Teaching Repackaged

03 February 2006

I got to travel a bit today and go to a training on inclusion strategies and standards-based education. I had been looking forward to this workshop for some time as I get a lot of questions about how to modify science for our "speds."

The presenter was dynamic and the handouts wonderful. However, nearly every idea put forward was just that of good teaching: using music, color, movement, memory aids (like mnemonic devices), and so on. I was pleasantly surprised. This makes it so much easier of a "sell" to the staff I work with.

The district focus this year was/is supposed to be on instruction. Like most places, we put on a good show of things in August to get people pumped up, but there hasn't been as much follow through as would be appropriate. It's hard for all of us to overcome our inertia in how we do business...and yet, if we could somehow internalize that there are certain things that help our speds and low SES kids achieve, maybe we could be more purposeful in making these strategies the norm. We just have to repackage ourselves a little differently.

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Accreditation: Take Two

23 January 2006

I got to do something new today. I was part of a visiting team for a school's accreditation. You might remember that in May, I was on the other side of this sort of visit. I was really interested to see how the process worked from a visitor's point of view.

The day was spent interviewing teachers about their views on collaboration. This was the "strand" I was assigned to help evaluate, along with three other people. Running around the school to see different classrooms at work or find teachers on their planning periods really made the day go quickly. We collected lots of information and summarized the strongest points as either "commendations" or "recommendations."

Along the way, I got lots of insight into how and why teachers choose to team. One of the most interesting things was that people tend to group themselves with others who are in the same point of their career. There's not a lot of collaboration among those who could be mentors and new staff. Another view was simply about the operation of the school. Everyone there is strongly opinionated and that they are all correct in their opinions (or so they believe). It's hard to develop trust and respect in a staff where everyone is sure that s/he's the expert. These things are important for me to remember as I continue to work with this school on science implementation. It has been the most difficult spot for me to make inroads.

The rest of my week is just going to be nuts. I'm glad today included a bit of a look into another world and some time to reflect on it. Those moments are all too rare.

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Looking In

07 January 2006

I hope to spend a lot more time in classrooms this spring---not as a presenter, but as an observer. I am not an administrator and have no interest or stake in evaluating teachers. I do want to look at what is or isn't happening in classrooms in terms of curriculum and student engagement.

I sat in on a class this week where the teacher had more or less given up on many of the students. One of these was relegated to the back of the room, next to the door. He could get up and roam the hall or make whatever comments he liked about the class or teacher because he was so far away from the action, the teacher couldn't keep track. Similarly, the one time the kid tried to constructively participate, he was ignored. A review was going on, and it seemed obvious that only three or four of the students had a relative grasp on the material. But no matter, the test was going to happen.

Now, the hard part in all of this is going into a room where I haven't a clue about the history of the class. Perhaps it was just an "off" day for kids. Maybe the teacher had spent significant time providing students with opportunities to learn the material...that there had been lots of guided instruction...and kids just weren't choosing to engage that day. But I didn't really get that sense. It felt more like the teacher had taken one look at the class roster in September and decided that these kids were too "low" to learn much---so why bother?

When I met with this teacher later about other things, we didn't talk about his class. We did talk a bit about doing some different things with the curriculum. This discussion was very well received. He's really loves his subject area, but until he had a chance to talk to someone about how he was approaching it, he really didn't have new ideas to infuse.

I don't know how many conversations I'll have like this as I get out and about more. I do think it will be a key component to getting a larger dialogue going in the district about what "good" science instruction looks like...and how to make it happen. Should make for an exciting spring.

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Paradigm Shift

27 November 2005

Ah, more "education-ese." This time I'm thinking of the change in focus for instruction that comes from being "teacher centered" to "student centered." Or, "what I want to teach" vs. "what should kids know and be able to do," which are not necessarily the same things.

There is a continual rumble about Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Some people love them because of the rigorous curriculum. Some people don't because the syllabus is inflexible. As an AP teacher, I have a bias. But I have to say that one of the things AP does well is that it provides a student focus. When I walk into my classroom tomorrow, I will know from the outset that the class period is not about me. It's about what kids need to know for The Exam in May. I understand that this goal is not the only one---I want my students to develop a love and hunger for knowledge. I hope that they'll always pursue learning. But those are my "teacher" wants for them.

In my Curriculum role, I work by the math person. He's new in his role and in some ways, his task is more difficult than mine. They are trying to do their scope and sequence, choose curriculum materials, and write course descriptions all at once. There is more urgency to do this because students are already going to be held accountable (in terms of earning a diploma) based on their ability to meet the math standards. He has had to spend hours more time pouring over the standards in the last nine weeks vs. the previous years he taught math in the classroom. He talks about the "paradigm shift" he's now undergoing as he looks at things from his new role. He is greatly concerned about being able to help move teachers to a new understanding. I am, too.

It's really not about whether or not we agree with the standards movement. It doesn't matter how much we like NCLB. These things are not going to go away and we can't bury our heads in the sand and ignore that we need to do things differently.

A colleague asked me today to help him think of a way to hook kids into wanting to learn about best to engage kids to make them want to learn about these. This is not so terribly different from what I think I need to do in order to help some teachers with the shift in focus for the classroom. How do you get teachers excited about changing what they do?

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Feelin' Groovy

02 November 2005

I really enjoyed being a teacher today. I feel like things have been going just perfectly the last couple of days.

You see this thing above? It's a graphic representation of what happens during nerve transmission---and in my experience, it's devilishly hard for most kids to wrap their minds around fully. There are lots of things going on: diffusion of ions, embedded proteins, electrical currents, and more. Students have to be able to integrate all of this and the last few years, I haven't felt like I've done very well at helping them.

But this year is different. We started yesterday modeling the membrane and just looking at how the electrical charges were set up and why. Today, I took the papers they created from the models and put them up on the chalkboard. There were four to represent the stages above (we combined "threshhold" and "depolarization." Instead of having the kids use manipulatives, I had them draw in the different items (sodium, potassium, chlorine, large anions) so that we had a big timeline to look at. We then looked at the above diagram in terms of graphing what we had represented in our timeline. So far, so good.

Next, I handed out a case study entitled "Bad Fish." I have adapted it a bit from the ones you will see if you follow the link. It's a good way to get kids to apply their knowledge. We worked through a lot of the case today, using the timeline on the board to reference the learning. It seemed to be extremely successful. Students were very tuned into the discussion and interested in the problem.

It's exciting to me to have found a successful way to teach this. We have more to attach to this skeleton of information tomorrow...but I feel like the kids are ready. I haven't had to force feed the information and hope they keep it down. I'll let you know how the next challenge (above) goes.

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Pop Quiz: What's Wrong with This Picture?

21 October 2005

As if yesterday's meeting wasn't enough, I had a teacher from one of the junior highs call me at work today. Could he come down and talk some more about one of the ideas? Uh, sure. This was not really a conversation that I could get particularly enthusiastic about, but I felt like I should at least hear him out.

This guy was so excited about the idea of developing pre- and post-assessments and then tying them to data tracking and remediation that he had already frothed at the mouth with his principal. As I mentioned yesterday, I'm not against the idea of these sorts of benchmark assessments---I just think it's too danged early to mess with them.

We have three major things to roll out next fall: aligned scope and sequence, standards-based instructional materials, renovated science facilities. Shouldn't we let the horse even move out of the barn before we think about tying a loaded cart to it?

I tried to gently explain this to the teacher. I'm sure he thought that I would be caught up in his enthusiasm and run with it. What I wanted to do was ask him to chill out. Fear of bad scores is making him (and a few others) appear to be grasping at any straw like it's a lifesaver. When he finally unwound his spiel, he left.

I wanted to say, "It's about the instruction, Stupid." If you as a teacher are planning standards-based lessons with various assessments throughout a unit to gauge student progress, why on Earth would you need beginning and end of year assessments? Wouldn't you already have a good idea of what kids do and don't know?


I met with the Boss Lady later in the day. I told her about the meeting---and she was not happy with things. This is reaffirming for me. Maybe I'm not the only one that thinks it's a little nuts to go trotting off with the cart and leave the horse in the barn. And really, without her support for this sort of thing, it isn't going to happen.

Where do I go from here? I have to somehow be better at communicating the vision and plan for science in the district. This is hard when people don't read their e-mail (as I whined about yesterday) and we only have one district-wide science meeting each year. I'll have to go "door to door" with things, I guess and spend more individual time with teachers.

I do have 30 minutes of time allotted on Tuesday morning in order to talk to admins. I hope to lay out things a bit for them. Maybe they can help me knock a few heads.

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How Do They Know If They Know, Part II

14 October 2005

I was wondering last month if there was a way for students to "know if they know" the material. I've been wrestling with this problem ever since. I've been doing some reading, which has helped a bit. (I highly recommend a gander at this book, if you're interested in this kind of thing.)

Today, I actually stumbled on a way to help kids figure out what they did and didn't know. Maybe some of you can use it, too.

My class has been looking at DNA replication for most of the week. I did a "Read Aloud" for part of the chapter to model using our textbook. We looked at the graphics in the text. We modeled the process. But this is an AP class and time is limited. We have to move on---in fact we had already started a new chapter yesterday.

When the period started today, I asked my kids to partner up. I told them that their task was to take a walk together. And for 10 minutes, they were to explain the process of DNA replication to one another. I also provided an index card. If there were things they were unsure about, they were to make a note on the card. When everyone had returned to the classroom, we'd talk about what was on their cards. And with that, they left.

There were all kinds of comments upon return. "I don't think I know very much." "I think I get the process, but I don't know all the right words for it." "Can we make a master list of the important vocabulary?"

They knew what they didn't know. I couldn't have been more excited. How powerful is that for kids?

So, even though it took some extra time to do the activity and debrief it, I really feel like it was well worth it. I know that I haven't tested them on the information (that will happen next week). I just have this hunch that a real breakthrough was made today.

I plan to keep using this kind of activity---in fact, I hope that students will be proactive about it...maybe even asking for it now and then throughout the year when the material is particularly tough.

If I'm lucky, maybe I'll even find a few more strategies like this.

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How do they know if they know?

18 September 2005

The only class I'm teaching this year is an Advanced Placement (AP) Biology class. It's a challenge for both the students and me. The College Board provides us with a syllabus and it is then up to us to figure out how to manage it.

AP is not standards-based, which makes it a vastly different animal than other courses in our department. I am training some biology thoroughbreds to run a race at the end of the year. It is a race in which they are competing against one another---and well over 100,000 other students. Only the top 20% of them can get the most desirable score of "5." Not everyone can "pass" the test and it is designed to make very specific distinctions in what students know. This is a contrast to the WASL---in which every student can pass (although not all of them do).

I've been working on the first exam of the year for my kids. We've had some really good classes so far, spending time working with the information in different ways: reading, using graphic organizers, building models, creating "foldables," etc. These are bright and highly motivated students. But as we wrap up this unit, I am wondering if they know what they do and don't understand about things. How do I help them reflect on the material and figure out what their level of understanding is? A test is really too late---in fact, tomorrow (the day before the test) is likely too late. More often than not, a test says more to me about what a kid knows. I could change this by developing some questions for them to think about as they look at a graded exam. I assume that they do this, but it's likely that most of them don't---they're just too focused on what the "right" answer was as opposed to why they missed it.

Obviously, this sort of reflection and metacognition needs to be built into the daily routine. But we'll start tomorrow with our review (better late than never). I'm trying to create some sort of generic diagnostic tool for them...something to help them pinpoint what concepts they do and don't have. The next part is then helping them identify ways to "fix up" their weak points.

I'm having a hard time with the "diagnostic." What questions should one ask oneself in order to determine a level of understanding? How do you know if you know something? Anyway, I'm starting with that...reflecting on how I do it...and trying to put it on paper. I hope to be able to process this some with students tomorrow, along with some different resources they can use when they need help.

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Busy as a...

13 September 2005

My jobs are keeping me hopping at the moment.

The class seems to be going well. I am using the Holy Grail Lesson Plan which is a bit of a challenge with an AP curriculum. It is good for me, however, to do something different with it. I feel like I'm doing a better with my teaching, but I haven't worked on reading skills with them yet. These early chapters are not particularly challenging.

My Curriculum position has a lot of things headed straight at it. I've gotten sucked into a vortex of revising the elementary report card. I'll be meeting with my counterpart in another district tomorrow. I'm already negotiating for subs so that I can work with different groups. Materials are being ordered for review and meetings with textbook representatives have started. And other things are beginning to be calendared as well.

All of this doesn't make for very interesting blogging, I'll admit.

I did take a few minutes today and peruse the "Powerful Teaching and Learning" binder. Constructivism is being debated over at Jenny D's and the EdWahoo's blogs. PTL is all in favour of constructivism and I'm supposed to be cheering on this effort...and yet, I hadn't seen anything in particular that was convincing. It is not that constructivism is bad teaching---I think that it is a wonderful methodology if teachers are highly trained and have the proper time and support. So, I went on a hunt through the PTL binder today. I happened upon this report. If you follow the link to the summary, it states that there is a "strong relationship between constructivist teaching practices and student achievement." But in the actual report, the Discussion states that "the unique contribution of constructivist teaching to achievement is small," and then goes on to state some of the factors that may have influenced the data. So, I'm still hunting around for why my district is all hot and bothered for PTL. I have meeting with the Boss Lady on Thursday, but I'm not so sure I want to go down this road with her yet. It's too early to start rocking that boat.

Onward through the rest of the week...

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Open House

31 August 2005

My school will hold its annual "Open House" tomorrow evening. This consists of a general assembly for parents followed by a period-by-period meeting with each teacher. Each "period" is ten minutes in length.

Here are my best tips (not that you asked) for a successful meeting with a group of parents in your classroom:

  • Tell them some things about your personal life. You don't have to go into nitty gritty details, but both they and students are curious as to who you are (not just "what" you are in terms of a teacher). These bits of information help them connect with things in their own lives.

  • Talk about what homework "looks like" for your class. Is it reading? Practice problems? Journaling/Blogging? Many parents have the impression that homework means there is a worksheet. Sometimes this is an accurate reflection. Also share how often homework may be assigned and some estimates about the completion time.

  • Give parents some suggestions about how to talk to their kid about your class in order to keep the communication lines open. What should they ask about? Are there topics upon which students could elaborate? Give parents some gentle questions to use in order to gauge kids in conversation and reflection about their learning so that it doesn't have to look like the "third degree."

  • Provide a handout with your contact information---including the best times to reach you and your preferred means of communication (phone? e-mail?). Gather the same things from them.

  • Take a moment to talk about your most important classroom procedures, but don't spend the bulk of your time here. Hand them a syllabus. They can read it later.

  • Share ideas for parental involvement. Are there events where you need chaperones? Can they spare a box of Kleenex? Would you mind if they sat in on a class or lab? (Their child might!)

I'm hoping for another successful introduction to parents this year. Only some will attend the event, I realize, but at least it is a start to knowing these families. We'll have the next ten months to fill in the details.

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Some Good News

16 August 2005

Long-time Readers may remember some of my travails with colleagues within my school over our proposed plan for "bubble kids." These were students who we science teachers felt were in danger of not passing the science portion of the WASL---but probably could if they had a little help. (You can read up on the backstory here and here.)

We developed some different kinds of lessons and invited these kids to come to two tutoring sessions. Many of the identified group came for at least one session and seemed to find the experience worthwhile. But did it really matter when it came time for the WASL?

Apparently, it did. And I couldn't be more pleased.

I got the data this afternoon...matched it up with the names of kids and the amount of tutoring they chose to have. Of the "bubble students" who elected not to participate in any tutoring, only 10% met the standard (passed) the test. But for those kids who came to one or both sessions, 44% passed. This is a better rate of passage than the overall marks for the school.

There are some "unscientific" things about this work. We teachers did have data from which to base our decisions in identifying students, but there was also a degree of subjectivity. It might also be assumed that kids who chose to come for tutoring were more intrinsically motivated and cared about doing well---so naturally, their scores would be better. It's not like this was some sort of matched-group, double-blind, hoity-toity affair.

But we're not making widgets here. We're trying to help kids learn to think and be ready for the world that awaits them. And you'll have a hard time convincing me that our attempt to support these bubble-babes this year wasn't significant in some way.

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Putting It Together

11 August 2005

Is there a Holy Grail when it comes to lesson planning? As teachers, we're expected to now juggle standards, brain-based learning, research based strategies (e.g. Marzano's ideas), authentic assessment, reading/writing strategies, and more. Every time I read a new professional book or go to a (good) professional development meeting, something else is added to what I'm "supposed" to be doing. That is, if I want to be a good teacher.

Things were so much simpler when I was told that if I just followed the Madeline Hunter model of lesson planning, classroom life would be sweet. My, how things have changed since I was in school to be a teacher.

The past few days, I've been on a hunt for the Lesson Plan Holy Grail. Not just for myself, but for my colleagues. In fact, I'm such a darned fool for this idea, that I agreed to do my presentation on it for the Secondary Curriculum Day. (You know---the one I had no clue as to what to do.) At this point, it feels like I'm making sausage. I have Marzano's nine strategies from "Classroom Instruction that Works." I have Marcia Tate's twenty strategies for engaging the brain from "Worksheets Won't Grow Dendrites." I have how to lay out classroom time from "The Brain Compatible Classroom" and when to use certain strategies according to "Key Elements of Classroom Management." There are other sources, too---and everything is going into the sausage maker. I'm cranking away, hoping for some nice links.

Here is what I have so far in terms of laying out the Holy Grail:


What are the content standards or other curriculum requirements? What is their "cognitive demand"?

Block #1 (first 10 - 20 minutes of class time):

Where are we? That is, is this the beginning of a unit—or at least "new to the student" material? Or, has the class already been working on some information with this unit?

Down Time #1 (2 - 4 minute break for the brain):

What is the big idea that you would like students to hold onto the most? What is the best tool for helping them do this?

Block #2 (10 - 20 minutes more of instruction):

What new information (if any) is vital to add at this point? How can you help students make connections to previous learning?

Break/Down Time #2 (remainder of class):

Where are the students in terms of their learning—do they need more practice with the information and/or skills or are they ready to begin applying the learning?


Are we there yet? Do students need feedback at this point or can a simple check of their learning be enough? Do you need to allot Block 1 for remediation tomorrow?

The time frames are based on cognitive science: how long the brain can "pay attention." Blocks 1 and 2 could be lecture, guided reading, discussion, and/or demonstrations. "Down Time" refers to a short change to refresh the brain, but it doesn't mean nothing is happening. Here is where you ask students to summarize, create a mnemonic device, do "think-pair-share," journal entry, etc. The second "down time" might include cooperative learning or individual practice if students are in need of reinforcing knowledge or skills. If they're ready to apply and do something with their learning, you could structure the assignment however you like.

My next problem will be devising a 90-minute inquiry into this for staff members who choose to attend my session in a couple of weeks. I want to keep things as simple as possible, in addition to being useful. But it will be a perfect opportunity to try out my new and improved lesson plan. :)

UPDATE: If you reached this post, hoping to find a copy of the Holy Grail of Lesson Plans...and are disappointed, I can e-mail this document to you. Send your request to the_science_goddess[at]yahoo[dot]com