Big and Little Things

17 June 2008

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

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

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

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

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Tyranny of the Urgent

20 January 2007

The other day, a colleague and I were having a beer and trying to solve the problems of the education world. I don't know that we really got much sorted out, but he did have one good point for me: don't give up on the high schools. He was referencing science departments in particular, and he was very right. This year, I have given up on their faculty. Part of the reason (though not a good one) is simply that when schools don't even list anyone curriculum as a resource or as part of their professional development on their required school improvement plans, then there isn't much of an "in."

Most of the reason I have put high schools on the back burner this year is simply that I'm a slave to the "tyranny of the urgent," as the supe likes to say. Right now, the elementaries have good reasons for their attention seeking behaviors. They have brand new curriculum, science scores are in the toilet, and the kit center has been a bear to get up and running. This week alone, I taught five different fifth grade classes...and more are scheduled in the coming weeks.

Teachers at all grade levels are overwhelmed with responsibilities. These vary, of course. Third grade teachers don't have to sweat the details of the culminating project for seniors, but teachers with juniors and seniors don't have the WASL on their backs. I understand the temptation to just shut the classroom door and hope that keeps all the noise out. The Urgent does tend to howl at the door.

I don't know that I'm going to make the effort to change course this year. Tyranny will continue to reign supreme as we work through the details of closing schools, redrawing boundaries, and reassigning elementary teachers. Their cries will only get louder...and those quiet ones (the ones you usually have to keep your good eye on in the classroom)---the high schools---are going to slide underneath my radar for awhile longer. I hope not forever. I hope that I can mount some sort of insurgency of my own and get out from underneath the tyranny of the urgent.

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Dreaming on the Job

18 January 2007

In Washington, the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) oversees certification, assessment, and other public school related programs. From what I hear, working there is the ultimate grind. It is not unusual for the state supe to call you at 11:30 at night with a project to do. You are expected to be available 24/7. This doesn't keep most of us in Curriculum from watching the job postings.

This one has captured the interest of a lot of folks: Director of Education Reinvention (Secondary). What the heck is that? The person in this role will...
  • Provide collaborative, visionary leadership for programs that provide assistance to schools. The director supervises school improvement initiatives as well as providing oversight to programs related to high school education reform, e.g. Student Learning Plans, graduation requirements, and advanced placement issues.
  • Provide direct leadership responsibility for evaluating program staff, developing program budgets, preparing, overseeing, and issuing requests for proposals and grants to schools and districts. The director will work closely and collaboratively and report directly to the Assistant Superintendent of District and School Improvement and Accountability.
  • Develop expertise in high school reform research and initiates and works collaboratively with multiple stakeholders to develop high school models for "The High Schools We Need."
(There's another job for someone to do project management.) The most attractive aspect of these jobs is that last bullet---the idea of creating new high school models is really intriguing and exciting. Here is a chance to reinvent (hence the job title), the high school concept. It gets your juices flowing. Another attractive aspect is that it would mean working with the former Boss Lady: an environment we know we can thrive in. Will anyone in my office apply for these jobs? I doubt it. It's not the right time for these particular opportunities, but it is fun to dream about them.

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Evolve or Die

28 December 2006

Washington, like many states, has a high school exit exam that is part of the graduation requirements. Students who aren't proficient with a 10th grade level of readin', 'ritin', and 'rithematic (and soon to be science) can't get their diplomas. In some ways, it doesn't seem like that great of a demand. Shouldn't 12th grade students be able to do 10th grade work? The bottom line right now is that many of our 11th graders can't, at least in the area of math. The threat that they might not graduate is enough for many schools (including ones in our district) to offer extended math courses for support.

The rub with all of that is twofold. One is for the kid. A colleague of mine likens all of this to going to PE everyday and only getting to do situps because your abs are in bad shape. You don't get to play team sports or run or do circuit training and so on. Gotta fix those abs.

The other major piece of fallout has to do with programs and teachers. Every student who takes an extra period of math is one less student who can sign up for an elective---and areas like Career and Technical Education (CTE) are starting to suffer.

According to an article in the Seattle PI, "...Educators [say] that fewer students are studying wood shop, accounting, drafting and other traditional vocational courses as districts strive to bolster basic skills. In Tacoma, the state's third-largest district, enrollment in career and technical education courses is down 5 percent this year from last year. That's about 500 fewer students taking a CTE course."

We offer some great CTE options in this district. A kid can graduate with a Windows NT or Cicsco certification, among other areas. Some of the teachers in these classes are very purposeful about reading and writing support. But others which could have a far stronger math and science connection aren't making the shift. Imagine how they could sell their programs to students by integrating the math support into shop class...or science remediation with materials science. The standards movement isn't going to go away---and these areas are going to have to adapt or they will become extinct from the schools. They have a great role in the educational ecosystem and I don't want them to disappear. Some school districts, such as Bethel, are figuring this out. "...Enrollment in CTE courses is rising, fueled by its increasing student population and offering of more 'applied math' and other classes that can meet both academic and career and technical credit requirements."

As for the kids who are enrolled in more math, working on their abs, as it were? I wonder how many of them are like this one: "Green, who said he plans to join the Army after high school, is not pleased to be in 'Math Ramp Up.' 'All I do is work on stuff that I already know and then fall asleep,' he said." If you know it, kid, how come you can't show it? Or perhaps you snoozed through your previous math courses, too?

The legislature convenes in a few weeks. One of the items to be considered is whether or not the requirement for students in the class of 2008 and beyond meet the standard in math should be continued...or put off until 2010 or 2011. Most math teachers think that delaying the requirement is a mistake and that we will be no better off in a few years. My guess is that most CTE teachers are keeping their fingers crossed for a reprieve. If that happens, I hope they find some way in the interim to evolve.

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Hostile Witnesses

13 November 2006

Classroom teachers know that every class has a particular dynamic. Like families, there are roles to play. If you've seen The Breakfast Club, you know the drill. No doubt, if you're a teacher, you can add to that pantheon of student archetypes. You can also delineate all of the roles different staff members play. All you have to do is observe a staff meeting like an anthropologist and watch the dynamics. In all likelihood, such a stance will be far more entertaining than the meeting itself.

Now, take a step back and imagine things at the school level. View the district at a distance. Are there "princess" schools and "outcasts"? How does your department or school fit in the grand scheme of things? As a classroom teacher, I never thought very much about it. In my role with the district, I have this perspective quite a bit.

The junior high schools tabled a discussion last spring. Parents, students, (most) teachers, and administrators reached consensus that we should have an honors option for seventh and eighth grade science...but nobody could agree as to what it should look like. We just didn't have the time and headspace last year to deal with this issue. But, I picked open that scab last week and did I get an earful (or perhaps I should say "eyeful" as responses were via e-mail) from science staff at one school.

Science teachers at the rabble rouser junior high are an interesting lot. A few are elementary teachers who were moved up at one point in their careers (they have no/little science background, but are learning and are good instructors) is a good general purpose science teacher...and the other is biding time until he retirement. If they were playing a particular family role, I would say that they are the classic middle child...and they have serious attention seeking behaviours and passive-aggressive tendencies.

So, when I sent out a reminder to science teachers that there was consensus from stakeholders that honors be an option, three of the staff at the rabble rouser jh e-mailed me rather contentious messages because their opinions differed from the consensus. A difference of opinion doesn't bother me...and I knew from discussions last spring that they weren't interested in honors science. It's the "what" of their messages that made me shake my head. One said "I teach all my classes as advanced and the kids who don't get it flunk, just like WASL." Um, okay. So much for being student centered. Another claimed that it was good for the kids who might otherwise be in honors to be mixed in so that they could help the lower kids. Again, how is that student centered? How does spending class periods tutoring help you advance your own content knowledge and skills? Kids are not teaching tools...and they should not be scheduled so that you have a nice class period.


I sent a nice, but firm, reply to the three. I mentioned that I respected their views but that it was not representative of the vast majority of stakeholders. In addition, we have a responsibility to help every child reach his or her potential...not just get low kids to standard. All was quiet on the rabble rouser front. I had surmised that they had just decided to be quiet and pretend that things wouldn't happen.

This morning, I had some nice inquiries from them. They've decided to come to the meetings to plan out the honors option. They have a representative for grade 7 and one for grade 8. I am wondering if they will be "hostile witnesses," there to be vigorous in stopping the process, or if they can set aside their personal opinions enough to work with the other schools to come up with something that's good for kids. Even so, I would much rather have them involved as we move along. Their presence---no matter how negative---is needed. I am hoping that some peer pressure and the fact that only one teacher per school will be present for each session will help. Should make for an interesting blog entry in three weeks, eh?

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Picking Up the Tab

16 October 2006

I have rarely run across a college bound high school student who had a solid plan for paying for his or her post-secondary education. Most of them believed that scholarship money would carry them through. Even if high school was a bit late in the game to be thinking about funding things, there was still no shift in thinking. Good grades = money, right? Sometimes it does. Most of the time, it isn't enough.

A recent article by Eileen Powell confirms what I've noticed over the years: Parents low ball college costs. A study referenced in the article found that "87 percent of parents believe scholarships and grants will cover at least part of their children's undergraduate expenses, and nearly three-quarters think their children are 'special or unique' enough to win a scholarship. Financial aid administrators said 92 percent of parents overestimate the amount of scholarship money their children will receive. Meanwhile, parents are not saving much on their own for their kids' educations."

So, if scholarship money is few and far between in terms of abundance and families aren't saving or doing much financial planning---how are expenses covered? Loans. Both parents and students are taking out loans, burdening the student when s/he graduates and sapping future plans for parents.

We seem to be doing a good job in helping families see the value in attaining higher education. We emphasize that the foundations are placed all along the k-12 path. We tell kids that good grades are a ticket to success. How do we help families understand the financial aspects to all of this?

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Trying Times

30 September 2006

"It's merely a continuous and mostly vain attempt to keep several groups of people with opposing needs and agendas happy, and knowing in your heart of hearts that you cannot, and being lambasted for your hard work in the bargain."
---Jasper Fforde

One of my Curriculum homies sent me the above quote. In her mind (and now mine), it is the perfect way to sum up what it is like to work there. From a classroom teacher's perspective, "The District," including Curriculum, is often viewed as meddlesome. I should know. Up until this year, I was in the classroom---and for 15 years, I often had a similar mindset. However, I have been walking in other shoes part-time (and now full-time), which results in a more broadened opinion of things.

We had our first district-wide content area meetings on Thursday. You might remember me talking about the Pretty High School and their not so pretty attitude. The final outcome in terms of the meetings? Not a single teacher showed up to talk about science. Only one had e-mailed to say he might not attend. Whatever respect the other schools had for them---which wasn't much considering how they've ingratiated themselves in the past---is gone. People were angry. And me? I'm caught in the middle. I have the responsibility to run the meeting, but no authority to have people attend. The one who had the authority (their principal) felt it was easier not to have to tell his staff he made a mistake about things and blamed us instead. Once again, The District has to be the scapegoat so teachers have an excuse to be selfish.

Other content area meetings were similarly sabotaged. One showed up for Language Arts. Three showed up for Math and acted unprofessionally. Social Studies apparently had a decent turnout. We all looked like the walking dead when we returned to the office, ready to curl up in balls under our desks.

These district meeting days were set aside by principals---not us. I was at the meeting last year. I saw each and every one of them vote with a "thumbs up" to doing this. But now, all of this is moot---because late on Wednesday, The Union made them negotiate away those times. The reason? Because Special Ed teachers can't attend the content area meetings due to having to go to their own meeting. Never mind that I have never seen a SPED teacher at a science meeting in my 16 years in the district. I smell a rat in all of this. It smells a lot like the Not-So-Pretty High School. Meanwhile, my junior teachers---who were excited about finally getting time to meet---are pissed off.

So, what do we have? Two high schools mad that the other doesn't make any effort. All junior highs mad that they no longer have the opportunity to collaborate. Boss Lady 2.0 has the same look on her face at this point in the year that her predecessor had by late spring (not a good sign). And me, caught in the middle of all of the agendas. Everytime I think "Why bother?" to myself, I only have one answer: it's about kids...every kid every day. And until every teacher is ready to set aside his or her selfish agenda, until every administrator is ready to to be accountable for their own decisions and staff, until all of us at The Head Shed get out into classrooms as often as possible---then students will continue to lose out. Can't we all just get along?

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The Not-So-Pretty School

19 September 2006

Mike was recently talking about his school being the "red-headed stepchild" of his district. I have certainly been in that position---and it ain't fun---but it almost seems worse to be have a school within the district which firmly believes that one of its purposes is to crap on everyone else. And better yet, we should like it and agree with them that said crap doesn't stink, because hey, they're the Pretty High School.

The pretty school has been on Newsweek's Top 500 high school list. It has had fairly good WASL scores at 10th grade, but currently, the other high school in the district matches PHS in Reading and outpaces them in Writing. Their science data are below. Notice a trend? Hmmm...PHS is the one school in the district which consistently refuses to engage in any professional development with me and will interfere with district initiatives whenever possible. Their science scores are better than the other school, but the gap is definitely closing and the other school is stronger in some of the strands of testing.

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Last spring, secondary principals in the district (at the request of many on their staves) agreed to set aside four dates of common planning time for teachers to have district-wide subject area meetings. When I met with science folks in August, I handed them a list of the dates and a plan for the year.

Pretty High School is unhappy. Why, the first meeting is the same date as their Open House and they always get to have that time to prepare. Their principal screwed up and as a result, the entire district is being held hostage because they don't want to participate. Other principals don't want to move the date because agreements are agreements. The fact is, Boss Lady 2.0 could mandate teachers attend the meetings---it is contract time and it was determined to specifically be used for subject-are meetings. The Union has even said that she can do this. I'm not convinced that she should have to clean up the mess on this one. Seems to me the principal needs to tell his staff what the expectations are. Currently, this nonsense has taken up four days of time to sort out...and it still isn't settled. My guess is that some departments from PHS just won't show up for the meetings. If so, they won't be provided with any resources. Too bad.

The entire district was treated today to PHS's opinion about this inocuous e-mail: "Flex Plan Open Enrollment Meeting Reminder; Tuesday, September 19; Board Room 4:00 - 5:00; A representative of Flex-Plan Services, the District's administrator for our Health Care and Dependent Card Flexible Spending Accounts, will be available to answer your questions about the plan, the extended grace period, and the new Benny Card option."

Here is the response a member of PHS sent to the entire district as a reply to the e-mail: "We did not have this kind of disconnect with Central Administration in the past, at least to my knowledge. Perhaps more training on staff communications needs might be warranted. I received the notice too late for me to change my schedule." Hello? Do 1700 people need to read this?

Perhaps I'm not the only one tired of PHS. Even though it clogged the inboxes of everyone, two people in the district were kind enough to reply. "In our building, we received substantial packets (via our personal mail boxes) with all pertinent information. I don't recall the exact date, but we have had notice for some time now" and "I have known about it via a letter sent home and an e-mail for about a month now."

Pretty High School needs to understand that it is, indeed, part of this district. If they don't choose to participate, then they certainly don't need to make the rest of us suffer in the process.

Whew. Rant over. :)

Tomorrow, I'll talk about my glorious day with the kindergarten teachers...and my celebration with a fifth grade teacher.


The Inertia of Secondary Education

10 September 2006

In another week or so, I will be working with a whole group of kindergarten teachers all day. What the heck do I know about teaching kindergarten? Nothing. Will the kindergarten teachers care about that? It's highly unlikely. This is one of the odd, but pleasant, things that I've discovered in my district role of Science Goddess. Elementary teachers are very welcoming of those who don't have the same pedagogical knowledge. I think it's because they're expected to have expertise in all content areas, so anyone who can provide them with guidance and support is encouraged to do so. The teachers will fill in the developmentally appropriate information.

This reverse of all of this is not true. Secondary teachers are content specialists already and most of them snub their noses at the idea that there are things to learn from those teaching the younger grades. And in the meantime, secondary education remains quite stubbornly stuck in its ways.

Our elementaries have, for the most part, embraced constructivist principles, instructional coaching, and standards-based planning, assessment, and grade reporting. As much as I complain about their lack of focus in science, I have to give them props for being quite progressive in their work with students. This doesn't mean every single teacher is on board and/or excited about all of these items, but there is enough of a critical mass of enthusiasm to keep carrying things along.

The Union here has stated that standards-based grading will never be a part of secondary, because those teachers "won't stand for it." The same is true for other initiatives and it makes me wonder why elementary teachers are more adaptable...and what it will take to shake up our secondary teachers and get them to really think about what they're doing in the classroom and why. How do we get away from the "same-old, same-old," and move to a more learner-centered practice? How do we respect the content knowledge of our secondary teachers while encouraging them to improve their pedagogy so that kids love the content as much as teachers do? What do we do to help teachers understand that standards are not a threat and that equity in what we do for students is imperative?

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Does Size Matter?

31 August 2006

Education is a trendy sort of profession. Just as fashion hemlines rise and fall, there is an ebb and flow to the latest style for schools and classrooms. Teachers who stay in the profession for awhile get to see the return to favour of various strategies---only repackaged and renamed for a younger audience. The problem with being trendy is that schools never try anything long enough to really get a good handle on whether or not it works. It's automatically assumed that results should be visible within a year or two.

The "small high school" (or "school within a school") idea is one which reminds me of the open concept ideas of the 1970's. Bill Gates' Foundation has been a strong supporter in recent years of the small high school. That concept is now experiencing a backlash. Students may not buy into the concept because although they have a focused track, it also can limit the kinds of classes they can take. Some parents aren't sure that 14-year olds are ready to commit to a career track. Business and community members might not understand the goals and be ready to support a dramatic shift in the way schools educate youngsters. To make a radical change without getting all of stakeholders on board is a swift and certain path to failure.

The intent with the small school idea is to group kids and teachers with similar interests and strengths into a multi-year community. It is a way to take a high school with thousands of students and provide a way for kids and staff to better connect. Fewer students for teachers to manage means more opportunity to deepen classroom relationships and help kids learn to better communicate. There's nothing wrong with this desire---it's quite admirable to want to build a sense of purpose and unity. I'm just not sure that the small school package is the best way to achieve this.

The Gates' Foundation seems a bit quick on the trigger in terms of pulling their support if gains in student achievement aren't forthcoming or if there is even a whiff of controversy within the community. They seem to fall prey to the trendy thinking too often seen in education, although I admit that if I had provided several hundred thousand dollars to a school district that I'd like to see something positive in return...and there's no sense in throwing good money after bad. But if size does matter when it comes to the number of students in a school...and the Gates' Foundation believes this...then I'd hope that find ways to support the implementation over time. Resources don't have to be just financial.

My opinion is that the size of the school doesn't matter. What matters in the education of teens is the connection among all members of the community: parents, business owners, teachers, students, retirees, and so on. Developing and building those relationships provides everyone a stake in the educational process and models for students what the expectations are and how things can work. Everyone has to be responsible and accountable. If you live in a small town, it's a given that everyone knows everyone else's business (like it or not). The small school concept might hope to reap these benefits within a larger framework, but they will be unable to as long as they exist as islands in the community. It's about the size (number) of connections---not the size of classes.

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Financing the Future

19 August 2006

About this time 19 years ago, I was trundled off to college. My family hadn't done a lot of financial planning for this event and I didn't have much in the way of scholarships to the university I chose. We did end up with some college loans (I believe we topped out at $10K). I definitely remember the "sticker shock" of going shopping for books each semester. How could a few textbooks eat up over $100?

Obviously times change and costs rise. According to a recent article in USA Today, the cost of books each semester is now nearly $1000. It has reached a point where many students either find ways to share books or go completely without. Continued increases in tuition and other fees means an ever larger need for student loans and debt after graduation. Will students who need to pay back $20K in loans choose a lower-paying job, even if they are interested in a public-service area (or teaching)?

The author of the article wonders what impacts all of this will have on the future of America. As college becomes more difficult to afford, a much slimmer slice of the student population will continue their education. Meanwhile, India and China are pouring money into their higher ed programs. Will we have to continue to either outsource or import people in order to work in many industries?

What I'm left thinking about after reading the article is one of the stated purposes behind the standards-based education movement: to prepare every student to be college ready. Not every kid continues their education after high school, but the idea is to give everyone an equal opportunity in terms of their background. I have seen far too many kids with college dreams stopped because of financial concerns---even though they had the educational tools to be successful. Some of these were sure they'd get scholarships. They didn't. Maybe educating students and parents about the realities of college costs at a much earlier time in the educational timeline would be prudent. If we are saying that every child will be college ready based on their trip through the public education system, then we need to have a stronger partnership with families in order to make higher education a reality for the students who want it.

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Stand Back, I Don't Know How Big This Thing's Gonna Get

09 December 2005

This is a snapshot from my day. I returned to an area elementary school to work with 5th graders on their inquiry skills.

The teacher would like very much for her kids to be more successful with planning and conducting scientific investigations...which is where I come in. I don't know much about teaching 5th grade, but I'm really okay with the science stuff.

I told the kids that I had a terrible problem. Someone had given me a recipe for making bubble solution so that I could make some for my nieces and nephews for Christmas---but all I had were the ingredients. Could they help me out and do some testing?

Needless to say, I had some very enthusiastic help. Their teacher and I led them through the design process and then took them to the school cafeteria for the testing. Science can be noisy (even if it's a good kind of buzz) and there is no wall between this teacher's classroom and the next room. I had also promised the cafeteria workers that their tables would be really clean when we were done.

Students had three soap solutions to test. There were to blow three bubbles with each solution. When each bubble popped, they used a meter stick to measure the soap ring that marked the diameter of the bubble.

Eventually, we got their straws away from them and headed back to the classroom to take a look at their results. Kids were very excited about the size of the bubbles they were able to create and anxious to share their information.

This really worked as a great introduction to the scientific process. But more importantly, the teacher started to see all the different places she could infuse this sort of thinking. What if they were playing four-square on the playground---and she had them predict what would happen if everybody could only stand on one leg? She had quite the spark of several ideas. Current and future students will really benefit from the expertise she's developing.

I'm going back to work with her class at the end of January. I need another attention-grabber. Oobleck, anyone?

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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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It's done. I think.

29 March 2005

Today, the Scope and Sequence committee managed to hash out our decisions and write the recommendations. I felt really good about our work. We had good data and other research to base our work upon and I believe that it will be implemented.

One of the biggest items was recommending full-year science for grades 7, 8, and 9. Maybe this doesn't sound like such a big thing, but it means that (a) increasing our program means someone else's will decrease...and a teacher or two may lose their jobs and (b) we need more rooms and teachers. Those aren't cheap.

The other high priced decision was that related to materials. We will need new textbooks and/or modules for grades 6 - 9. The Director has already committed to budgeting for these next year, but it's still a big requirement.

I have e'd the minutes and our recommendations to The Director. I'm hoping to have some feedback very soon, because we're anxious to present these to the School Board for approval.

A goddess' work is never done.

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Down to the Nut Cuttin' Time

28 March 2005

Having grown up in West Texas, I often heard the phrase, "It's gettin' down to the nut cuttin' time." This came from the cattle industry. And at particular times of the year when the calves were starting to grow up, decisions had to be made about which were to become steers, and which would be left a bull. The euphemism referred to any situation where it was time to make some hard decisions.

Tomorrow will be full of those sorts of things. It is our third---and perhaps final---Scope and Sequence meeting. (See Parts I and II for more details.) We will be making some hard and fast decisions tomorrow about what sort of standards-based science courses we'll be offering in the future. Will we increase our courses to two semesters---even though it means teachers in other areas will lose jobs due to the decreased enrollment in their programs? Will we ask the district to spend money to bring in and set up portable buildings for those schools that don't have space for more science classes? Will we choose an "integrated" format for delivering content or stick with a more traditional and discipline-based program? I have my hunches as to what the answers to the questions (and others) will be, but they're not my decision. They belong to the whole committee.

I have been working on guiding this process since October, and it is nice to contemplate that tomorrow, it will be finished. Mind you, it's just a stepping off point to the next phase in building our science program. I feel, however, that I have been able to develop a lot of skills to use in the future. I have also strengthened my ties with the various schools in our district---I may even have a fan or two in each school. This would make future endeavours so much simpler.

So, tomorrow, it's nut-cuttin' time. For awhile, I worried that mine (in terms of credibility) would the ones lost. Now I think that whatever happens, the kids will definitely win.

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Nature vs. Nurture

29 January 2005

Before I start along my next topic, I wanted to share a link for a great article by Olivia Judson. She is an evolutionary biologist who spends a lot of time with sex: everything from gender differences to mating strategies to sperm size and number. She had an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times regarding the Harvard president's statements about women in math and science. Have a look at the article when you get a chance.

Today, though, the Goddess is thinking about this piece of news from the University of Chicago: "In the first-ever study combing the entire human genome for genetic determinants of male sexual orientation, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher has identified several areas that appear to influence whether a man is heterosexual or gay."

These sorts of studies continue to pick at our common beliefs about what is "natural." Some of this is likely going to be good. Like most people, I have friends and family members who are homosexual---and perhaps having genetic markers to point to (just like sex determination or eye colour) would help stop a good deal of discrimination against these people. I do think that it would be years before this would happen. On the other hand, I remember reading an article in the last year which described a man who was suing a casino for not keeping him out. Apparently, the man had an addiction to gambling and his family and he had set it up with the casino to keep him away. But they didn't. The lawsuit claimed that since the man had a genetic predisposition to addictive behaviour, that he couldn't control himself, and therefore the casino should have. This one makes me raise my eyebrow (the left one). I am sure that as time marches on, we will see even more suits like this.

My own experiences with "nature vs. nurture" have been interesting because I'm an adoptee. I was raised with "nurture" comments about how my nose looked like my dad's or how grandma had the same mannerisms. Nature never mattered while I was growing up. But when I met my birthparents, I was surprised at just how strong Nature can be. Bmom and I both cross-stitch---but we even did the same pattern at the same time during the summer before we met. It is not unusual for us to show up wearing similar outfits or select similar items while shopping. Is there a gene for cross-stitch? Certainly not. For choosing certain clothing on any given day? Nope. But our genes do encode how our brains are laid out, even if our environment influences some of the connections. And half of the information contained in my neurons is hers.

I have had several gay students in my classes over the years. High school is not especially kind to them, but things do seem to be getting a bit better. I am always hopeful that the nurture our society provides them will be more tolerant and welcoming. Maybe if it understands that nature made them as they are, it will be.