Value Wars

19 March 2010

It's no secret that state budgets are in trouble---which means school district budgets aren't so healthy. There are many hard choices to be made between now and the start of the next fiscal year---choices based on what is valued the most (which isn't always kids).

An area school district has decided to keep funding its full-day kindergarten program. There are some (including The Union), however, who are against such a proposal because the money which funds those teachers and classrooms means that other district programs go unfunded. Class sizes in other grade levels increase, library and music programs are reduced---and that doesn't even consider the voices of secondary schools who are trying to avoid cuts. Is full day kindergarten more important than funding art specialists for every child in an elementary school? PE? The district views kindergarten as an investment---children who are well-prepared to read and have the best chance at success throughout their K-12 career. Is that better than being able to offer a more diverse curriculum?

I had a similar conversation with a friend last week. Some people are passionate about the arts, some place science first and foremost, others raise their voice for PE/Health. But there are some schools out there whose entire focus is math and literacy. Again, there's been a value judgment about curriculum---that it is more important to have children be able to read at grade level than to learn science (even with a kit). Is it better to have kids who can comprehend a text...or kids who understand a science concept?

I can hear you out there. I know you want it all---that all of those sorts of curricula and opportunities need to be present. You're thinking that they're all pieces of a rich and meaningful public education. For what it's worth, I agree with you. I think there shouldn't have to be these choices. I believe that every child should have access to a full range of opportunities in the classroom. All the same, schools and districts are making decisions based on budgets, which means that we have to take a hard look at what we value most.

If we can't do it all, what should we do?

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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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Taskmaster

14 October 2009

In the beginning, there was Bloom's Taxonomy for categorizing types of thinking. And it was---and continues to be---good. It provides a framework for educators to consider the rigor of the work provided to students. Generally speaking, Bloom's tends to be all about the verbs: identify, describe, explain, state, choose, evaluate, and so on.

But the assignments we provide in classrooms are more than verbs. They are also about objects: either the tasks we assign or the items students produce. And this is where Norman Webb with his Depth of Knowledge framework offers an alternative to Bloom's arrangement. It is a more holistic look at a learning target before determining cognitive demand.

For example, "identify" doesn't have to be part of the slacker Knowledge group of Bloom's. It would be if I ask a kid to identify the location of Ireland on a map of Europe. But, if I ask a student to identify a strategy which might resolve the civil conflict in Ireland, I've asked for something far more involved...something beyond mere Knowledge.

I am thinking about using Webb with the new standards for Educational Technology. Some targets are simple to assign to a classification (Recall, Skill/Concept, Strategic Thinking, Extended Thinking)...but I am struggling with others. For example, "Participate in an online community to understand a local or global issue." Is this a Level One target---because "understand a local or global issue" is the only cognitive piece represented...or is there some amount of demand on the student implied by "Participat[ing] in an online community..."?

How does one classify those targets and tasks involving intangibles like participation? Should these be included? Participation is one of those classroom values which is nearly impossible to standardize. What it looks like from grade to grade, teacher to teacher, and content area to content area can be very different. And while we might come to some sort of consensus about qualities of "good" participation, I still have to ask if there is any cognitive demand involved in the process. Could you write a task for it?

I don't expect any sort of elegant resolution to these questions. I may have to set them aside for now and concentrate on other issues. But if you have some insight to share on how we determine the depth of thinking associated with participating, engaging, and or collaborating, I hope you'll share it in the comments.

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Once and Future Learning

02 October 2009

There's been a lot of rumbling at the state and federal levels about "continuity of learning," should the H1N1 virus (or other disaster) prevent schools from operating normally. Both the ASCD blog and Education Week have recently focused some screen time to these topics.

From ASCD:
ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter emphasizes that in addition to prevention and monitoring efforts, schools must consider how they plan to support continuous learning, both for individual students who are home for extended periods of time with the flu and for the whole student body if the virus spreads widely and forces school closures.

“Some estimates indicate H1N1 could infect half the U.S. population this fall and winter, which translates into considerable classroom disruption and absenteeism,” Carter writes. “Students in the same class could end up in wildly different places in the curriculum. Meanwhile, entire classes could fall behind if their teachers are out sick for several days.”

He suggests educators form professional learning communities to help them work together to assess knowledge and skills when students return to school and develop plans for instructional next steps.

If the swine flu plays out in these numbers, then there is no doubt about the disruption to the educational process. I wonder if it is more disruptive to try to keep schools open than to shut down during the peak of infection. This does not mean that staff and students would conveniently all be ill and well simultaneously, but considering the every student/class in a different place of learning at any given moment...why not slow things down for everyone instead? How is a sick teacher supposed to plan for students who may or may not be there themselves?

This is where the e-learning ramp up could play a role, as Education Week suggests. Suppose a teacher posts assignments to their website/Moodle site or e-mails students with lessons. Will this work?

To a point. We are going to have to assume that every child has internet access at home (all with the same bandwidth) and time to use it. This is not guaranteed in a one-computer household with many members. We also have to assume a "one size fits all" lesson---at this time, I suspect that few teachers are going to offer accommodations for ELL, SPED, etc. We are also going to have to assume that every teacher is equally savvy about the tools available for these kinds of lessons and how to use them.

All in all, I don't think that we're ready to offer an alternative learning environment in case of a pandemic...and we're not going to be ready by winter.

I do think that e-learning will be a typical part of future classrooms...a blended model of brick-and-mortar and virtual learning. At that point, it will be a simpler extension and expectation to go all virtual all the time for short periods. If we are truly going to be prepared for a widespread flu epidemic this winter, we need to look at some realistic discussions about what continuity of learning looks like in 2009-2010.

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Accept No Substitutions

30 September 2009

When I was in the classroom, lab days always had some extra baggage in the form of what to do about absent students. Most materials were not things that could or should be sent home as make-up work...many, especially in the realm of biology, did not keep well. A trail of students, each making up the lab separately was a drain on resources and time. I can't claim that I ever developed a solution I was entirely happy with. There's just nothing like the real thing, baby.

It looks like the College Board might agree with that observation. From Education Week's report on Simulated vs. Hands-on Lab Experiments:

In recent years, the College Board, which authorizes AP classes and offers college-level material to high school students, has been trying to determine whether simulated labs in some science courses can take the place of real-world experiments. It’s a debate that online science providers and hands-on teachers are grappling with as well.

In the coming years, some students taking online Advanced Placement science courses may have to leave their computers and head to an actual classroom as the College Board moves toward a model likely to require more hands-on laboratory experiences for those who take AP courses online.

“Some experiences can be set up online so they can manage and manipulate the data, but some skills we really want them to do in the real world to get college credit,” says Trevor Packer, a vice president of the New York City-based College Board...

Zipporah Miller, the associate executive director of professional programs and conferences for the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, says virtual experiments alone can’t equal real-world labs. “The simulation should be used only as a reinforcement,” she says. “If they go through the simulation, they may get the right answer on an AP exam, but they may not have the experience to apply that knowledge in the real world.”

Some virtual AP providers argue that simulations are being used by everyone from medical students to the military and can suffice...
I suppose that one could reasonably argue that simulations are not student-driven inquiry experiences---they're cookbooky. But then, so are the Dirty Dozen of AP Bio (the 12 labs required by the College Board). What is the role of simulations in the k-12 science classroom, then? What kind of experience is "good enough" to be called a lab? Are we equating seat time with learning---again? Are there attributes of physically manipulating glassware, chemicals, etc. that form the only pathway to conceptual understanding? Should we accept no substitutes?

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It Wasn't Always Like This

19 September 2009

You might not know it, but way back when I was a brand new teacher and working on my Master's, my area of focus was Gifted Ed. I actually did put the degree to some use when I lived in NM as there, gifted children fall under Special Ed rules. They are placed on IEPs and receive special services. In Washington? I can't say that ever used what I'd learned about identifying gifted children and developing program needs. (Here, students only have to score well on an IQ test and a state assessment. Not much "gifted" about that...just smart.)

However, I can't say that the investment in my education was a total loss. The classes I took were very specific about how to construct learning experiences for gifted students---how to challenge them and access higher levels of thinking. Things that were, in fact, good for every student and should not have been reserved for a select few.

It dawned on me the other day that perhaps schools are reaching a point where the "special" instruction for g/t kids is (finally) becoming the norm for everyone. This both saddens me (Why did it take SO long?) and delights me (W00t! It's finally happening!). I think it may well be a result of technology driving that change. Perhaps a lot of what happens inside the classroom is the same-old same-old. But outside? It's a different story in terms of how kids are choosing to connect and learn. We have new "verbs" now for the kind of work students undertake.

I had this little Aha! while I was continuing the hunt for the elusive technology assessment/rubric. (This is truly a snipe hunt, if there ever was one...more on that in another post.) It started with this image from Educational Origami:


I had seen the reimagined Bloom's Taxonomy before...but not with the addition of web 2.0 sorts of skills...which then got me thinking about rubric descriptors for products...and reminded me of all the g/t file folders in my basement all stuffed with skills assessment stuff. It's the Circle of Professional Life, fer cryin' out loud. I'm back where I started, except this time, those musty old g/t folders are going to be put to use for every child. Every child. Maybe that wasn't the case in the past, but from now on, them's the rules.

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Just Practicing

31 August 2009

With school starting up again, the subject of homework has re-emerged in a variety of venues. Some teacher-bloggers are posting about how to weight homework in their grading scale. Time Magazine has an article about how homework is Maybe Not So Onerous After All, while Teacher Magazine refers to homework as The Necessary Evil. When it comes to homework, there is no dearth of opinions to be found. Including mine, natch.

When it comes to whether or not homework should be assigned, I believe it is okay to do so...with the following parameters:
  • The task must be meaningfully connected to the learning target. This is not to say that popsicle stick projects, poems, dances, and other expressions can't be purposeful in terms of student understanding (and differentiation is a great instructional tool). The guidelines just need to be clear. (Along this vein, have a look at some hilarious student projects.)
  • Homework should be used to practice a skill or reinforce content that students have already worked with. If you teach something new and then expect kids to go home and be successful on their own, you're setting yourself up for disappointment (and probably some pissed off parents).
  • If a student already has shown you that they can meet the standard, they don't need the homework. Don't sweat the idea that some kids will have to do the assignment and some will not. You're focusing on what is equal---not is what is fair for each student.
Beyond these things, I believe that homework is a form of formative assessment and should not be scored. Should students get feedback? Absolutely. Should the task be reviewed and discussed in class so that students have the correct information? Definitely. If you assign some homework and a kid doesn't do it, should they be penalized? Yes, but not with a grade. Address the behavior and still require that they do the work.

Perhaps the term "homework" just needs to go away. I prefer to think of it simply as "practice." Just as athletes hit the gym and field before a performance (as do those who play an instrument), kids also can use various amounts of practice before they are expected to have some facility with information. This practice need not happen at home...need not involve a worksheet (or glue, glitter, craft paper, and sticks)...and doesn't have to take hours of time. We don't need a 10-minute/grade level rule. We don't need to think of homework as evil incarnate. We only have to remember that kids are just practicing.

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Working It Out

22 July 2009

In my last post, I suggested that we in education might need to revisit our concept of "seat time." Sitting in a designated spot for a pre-determined number of hours per week does not guarantee quality work (for either students or adults).

But what about homework?

In a serendipitous confluence of events, ASCD sent me a new book (Rethinking Homework, by Cathy Vatterott) at the same time two articles about classroom work showed up in my RSS feeds. Seems like many are thinking about student products this summer.

Personally, I'm kind of a moderate regarding homework. I'm not at this end of the spectrum (as reported by Teacher Magazine's "How Much Homework Is Too Much?"):

"I don't believe that there's any use for it," said Harris, of Federal Way, Wash. "I think that's a complete waste of childhood."

...but I'm not here either:

One standard that many school districts are turning to is the "10-minute rule" created by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper. The rule, endorsed by the National PTA and the National Education Association, says kids should get 10 minutes of homework a night per grade. A first grader would have 10 minutes of homework each night; a fifth grader 50 minutes.

I've long argued for an expanded definition of "homework," because I don't think it has to include student products (such as worksheets) and I don't think there is a magical standardized amount that applies to every student. Rereading notes taken in the classroom should count...so should time talking to parents about what was learned during class. Some students need more practice with ideas---others are ready for different things. Is there some way we can get away from "one size fits all" when it comes to homework?

And then, I'm not sure I want to go quite so far as what the New York Times is terming "credit recovery." Okay, so nearly every school district I know has some sort of similar program, but these particular examples were rather eyecatching:
A year after reports showed that New York City high schools were offering failing students a chance to earn credit simply by completing worksheets or attending weeklong cram sessions, educators say the system of making up schoolwork is still abused, and the state is seeking to crack down on it.

At William H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn, for instance, a nearly illiterate student racked up many of his credits through after-school remediation programs. He was promoted to 12th grade still unable to write full sentences or read a line of text, his teachers said.

At Mathematics, Science Research and Technology Magnet High School in Queens, several students were awarded credit last school year for clicking through questions on a computer screen until they got the right answer, teachers said.
In other words, just the act of doing the work is enough to earn credit---there is no expectation of actual learning. But New York is running into the some issues along the way in terms of regulation. Sure, you can impose several layers of regulations and oversight, but it won't keep some from finding ways to game the system and there are always going to be exceptions to every rule. Those are just issues at the surface. They never really address the real question: What does it mean to learn something?

Can we, as a system, work out a way to get past a reductionist view of learning as a number of hours and worksheets into something more meaningful for each student?

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Then What?

30 April 2009

One of the topics that came up at work recently involved the various flavors of testing that our out there: diagnostic, progress-monitoring, formative, screening, summative, and so forth. For the most part, these are tests for teacher use...and yet, like most things in education, they are getting twisted into various purposes by other stakeholders.

For example, many elementary schools use the the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Learning Skills (DIBELS) test. These assessments are "a set of procedures and measures for assessing the acquisition of early literacy skills from kindergarten through sixth grade. They are designed to be short (one minute) fluency measures used to regularly monitor the development of early literacy and early reading skills." It's not a bad little tool as long as it stays in the hands of the classroom teacher. It's a simple and quick way to monitor progress on a limited set of skills.

But then what?

It's not enough to assess, we teachers need to know what to do with the information. If I know that my first grader is below the benchmark target for oral fluency, what do I do about that?

Beyond that, who else should be using the information from the assessment...and for what purposes? Does the school district have the right to monitor---and, in essence, judge teacher effectiveness---based on this sort of student progress measure? Or would that be a misuse of the data?

The more I think about these ideas, the more I am starting to realize that we as an educational system really need to identify what data is important to whom...and how it should be used. It's not enough to generate the numbers, any more than it is for a classroom teacher to just put grades in the gradebook and move on. But I'm not convinced that we really know what to do with all the data we generate. Who is it for? What does it mean? Why should we care about one measure more than another? Then what?

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Deep and Wide

25 March 2009

I can't think of any educators who aren't overwhelmed by the amount of material they are supposed to "cover" with their students. I hate the term "coverage" (and its variations) as conversation should be more about what kids learn than what teachers cover. But I digress. The question really is, do we as teachers succumb to the volume of content...or do we pick out a few concepts for our students and delve deeply into that subject matter?

A recent article in Education Week renews this debate as it applies to science:

The scientific world is vast. One key to students' developing a strong understanding of it could be having them focus on relatively few topics, in great depth.

That is the main conclusion of a recent study that examines one of the most enduring debates in science instruction—whether "depth" or “breadth” of knowledge is most important. Its authors come down on the side of depth.

High school students who focus more intensely on core topics within their biology, chemistry, and physics classes fared better in beginning college science than those who delved a little bit into a larger list of topics, the study found. Observers say those findings could offer direction to developers of science curricula, tests, and textbooks.

A central finding is that "breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses," the authors conclude, "although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests."

On the surface, the argument of depth-based high school courses leading to college success makes some sense. "Mastery also can help students overcome common false impressions in science...'If you study something in depth, you have the time to deal with some of the misconceptions that impede you when you get to college,' Mr. Sadler said."

But not so fast, says ASCD. ASCD is not against depth in courses, but seems to believe that the research study's conclusions may be incorrect.
He basically said that while it was fair to look at shortcomings in high school science teaching, not enough attention gets paid to how college-level science is taught. College science courses are heavily oriented toward lectures and covering reams of material, he said. The goal often seems to be to weed out people who don't have the skills to pursue college science majors, Eberle told me, rather than attempting to nurture and build the skills and interests they already have.

Eberle's organization, of course, represents the K-12 teacher's perspective. But he's not the only science advocate I've heard make this argument about college science instruction. And he raises an important issue, particularly at a time when policymakers are keenly interested in boosting the number of students who pursue "STEM" careers. What if the "STEM pipeline" as it's sometimes called, is springing leaks at the entry-level undergraduate, rather than high school level? If anyone can point me to any useful data or studies on this point, I'd like to see it.
I kinda like putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Perhaps it isn't the "fault" of k-12 that students aren't performing well in college science courses. Maybe universities shouldn't throw stones at us until they have a look inside their own glass houses.

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Making Time

21 February 2009

As I'm out and and about talking with teachers, one of the common things secondary schools are struggling with is how to deal with interventions. Elementary classrooms have approached interventions with much more finesse for years. The problem at secondary is twofold. First is the issue of what to do. At the secondary level, we're more or less inclined to teach a unit of study, give the test, and if kids flunk, we just move on. We typically don't do so well with going back to revisit things. Now that teachers are becoming more attuned to the concept of remediation, we're looking for curriculum and strategies that will support this. The second part of the problem concerns time. Elementary classrooms have more flexibility with time blocks, while secondary is typically stuck in a 6-period day. A teacher has 50 minutes or so to tackle whatever instructional needs there are and then the kids are gone.

I am starting to hear about creative solutions at secondary to address the issue of time. Some teachers are collaborating and combining classes for regrouping. Others are looking to their elementary peers for ideas about workshop models and grouping within a given block of time. But what if we brought back Study Hall? And instead of the end of the day (when brains and bodies are tired), we built it in as part of the schedule for teachers and students? There will be some that use the system for learning...and others who will use the system to get our for a smoke or snack (as this WaPo article suggests), but could schools adjust this beginning idea to help move all kids forward? Are there pockets of time each day we could better use for student learning and/or teacher collaboration?

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What A Concept

11 February 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Brave New World

26 December 2008

In a standards-based educational system, do grade levels really matter? A school district in Colorado has decided the answer is "No." and beginning next year, there will be no more traditional k-12 system.

A school district in Westminster struggling with declining enrollment and falling test scores will try something revolutionary next year that many say never has been accomplished in the Lower 48.

Adams 50 will eliminate grade levels and instead group students based on what they know, allowing them to advance to the next level after they have proved proficiency.

"If they can pull this off, it will be a lighthouse for America's challenged school districts," said Richard DeLorenzo, the consultant who implemented a standards-based model in Alaska and is working with Adams 50. "It will change the face of American education."

A district of 10,000 students and 21 schools, Adams 50 serves a working-class suburb north of Denver. Seventy-two percent of its students are poor enough for federal meal benefits, two-thirds are Latino, and 38 percent still are learning English.

Two years ago the district was put on academic watch because of achievement troubles; fewer than 60 percent of students graduate on time.

"What we are doing right now is not working," said Superintendent Roberta Selleck, who was hired in 2006 to reform the district. "We think this will be huge."

The new system will have 10 levels instead of the traditional kindergarten through 12th grade model.

Students will be tested this spring to determine their proficiency in reading, writing and math, and will be grouped next year with peers who are learning at the same level.

Next school year, the system starts with students now classified as kindergartners through eighth-graders and will expand into high school one year at a time.

"In a standards-based system, time becomes the variable and learning is the constant," Selleck said. "When a kid can demonstrate proficiency of a standard, they move on. There is nothing magical about a quarter, semester or the end of school. That becomes blurred. Learning becomes much more 24-7."

There's much more to read in the whole article from the Denver Post. I have to admit, I'm rather fascinated with the whole idea. It looks like standards-based grading practices will be used and mastery will be the goal. It's a bit buried in the piece, but Robert Marzano is consulting on this project---and a district could do worse than having him guide things along.

Still, if I may say so, this is one ballsy school district.

I would very much be interested to learn what the district will do with "outlier" students. I'm assuming that just because a 15-year old student is working at a 3rd grade level doesn't mean you put them with 9-year olds---you find the other 15-year olds who are far below their peers and group them that way. What happens to electives? Transcripts for college? Do kids only get the one test a year to determine placement---or is there some way teachers can have kids collect evidence of learning for a broader method of determining level? Would an ELL kid get to "skip" some levels once their language skills allow them to demonstrate the subject matter proficiency they may have had all along? What supports are in place for teachers? Parents?

While I doubt that this sort of model will become the norm in coming years, if it is successful, I wouldn't be surprised to see it adopted by others. I hope we learn a lot along the way.

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Enough is Enough

22 December 2008

I was told yesterday afternoon that someone who made the trip from here to where I work needed 5.5 hours to get there. Considering the added overnight accumulation of snow...opportunity for ice to form...and lack of plowing since yesterday, I'm going to stay put today. Yes, again. If I thought it would do any good, I would shake my tiny fist at the sky and say "Uncle!"

One of my major projects today is to work on some staff development materials for a group I'm working with in early January. Part of the focus that afternoon is to shape some ideas around "How much evidence is enough to convict a student of learning?"

I'm not thinking that there is one answer to this question, but I am still interested in how we make that decision. Even if you're not into using best practices in grading, a teacher is still making a determination about how many quizzes to give...activities to use...tests...and so forth for a particular unit of learning. What sort of "rules" do you apply when planning to assure/fool yourself into thinking you will be able to collect sufficient evidence?

This leads into a follow-up question about "How many students at mastery are enough so that you can move on to the next unit of learning?" In a perfect world, the answer is "all of them." In the real world of the classroom, we have some sort of cutoff point in mind. Is 80% enough (as RtI would suggest) and then we remediate the rest? Is a lower percentage acceptable? I don't know that many secondary teachers have thought about this particular question. For whatever reason, we are conditioned to finishing a unit and then, Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!, even if most of the class can't meet the standards. We are more slaves to our ideas of pacing than student learning. So, in the era of No Child Left Behind---let's get real for a minute---how many is acceptable to leave behind (and hope to pick up later)?

Personally, I enjoy pondering these sorts of open questions; however, most teachers do not the luxury of time and headspace to do so. Therefore, many of the teachers I will see in early January will want some framework for the answers to these questions. I will have to think some more about any guidance I can provide, but perhaps you have some ideas of your own to share?

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AWOL

28 September 2008

I really don't know where the last week has gone. It's a blur of meetings, road warrior activities, and the occasional stab at sleep---some of it interesting, but mostly not. In other words, it doesn't make for very good blog fodder. And while I've never been 100% sure which purpose this blog would serve, I know that I don't want it to simply be a catalog of the days' minutiae. Most of the time I'm not interested in it. I don't think anyone else would be, either. Therefore, I've been AWOL from the blog.

Amongst the hodgepodge of my days, I have been trying to ponder something a bit larger. I'm just grasping at it for now, but perhaps my always astute Readers might have some direction for me.
What is the purpose in teaching science in public schools?
I think that when I was in the classroom, the answer to this question was much clearer to me. But from the level I operate in now, the answer is mushy. It comes from the difference between being someone trying to shape policy vs. my old life where I just had to carry it out; however, I can't help but think that at a state or national agency, there is an even greater need to have a clear vision. The reason I am wrestling with this now more than ever comes down to the issue of accountability. Here are the two driving questions:
Should adults and students in the public schools be held accountable for what students learn in science? If so, what should that accountability look like?
Let's talk about kids for a moment. If we hold students accountable, then what should that look like? Is earning credit for high school courses enough---if so, how many credits? Should we direct what kinds of courses would be eligible or leave it up to school districts? If we increase requirements, what do we do about schools which don't have enough lab space or can't find high qualified teachers? Do we, instead, insist on using standardized tests as a measure for kids? What does this mean if the number of credits required for graduation would be completed after the test? Do we need a second accountability factor? I've been pondering what types of accountability might make sense and how those might be implemented and monitored. I actually like our standardized test for science in this state---but I can't say that I like that it's tied to graduation (or will be in a few years). When I read something like What Does Educational Testing Really Tell Us? over on Eduwonkette's blog, I can't help but nod in agreement...and yet, I'm hard pressed to suggest alternatives.

As for adults, that's a more difficult issue in some ways. At my place of work, we've had a few discussions about the time students (especially in the elementary grades) have to engage with science content. It's no secret that with the increased pressure on schools to raise achievement in math and reading, science and other content areas are being squeezed out. (see previous posts on studies of time spent on elementary science and its push-pull with literacy) But this brings up another question: How much time is "enough" for each content area? I know that the answer really isn't simple---every child's capabilities are different and every school serves a different population. However, can we make some general observations? Education Week seems to think we might be able to draw a few conclusions on the Effects of Extra Time for Learning. Yes, quantity can help, but quality is more important. "More" does not automatically equal "Better."

The heart of this whole problem is that without an accountability measure (e.g. AYP), schools won't teach (very much) science to kids...which gets me back to my original question: What is our purpose? I think that if this was well-defined, it would be easier to determine whether or not accountability should be required and what that looks like. Instead, we're trying to figure out all of these things at once. It seems disrespectful not to give each part of this issue its own bit of attention.

So, if things have been a bit quiet around ye olde blog, just know that I'm trying to find a way to balance the noise and pressure of my day with what I think my job should really be about. What do you think I should be doing?

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After School Science

28 August 2008

I was recently chatting with an elementary school principal who is feeling the pressure to significantly reduce or eliminate science instruction. While it was already a small part of classroom work, increasing demands for better performance in reading and math means that they will get even more of the lion's share of attention. The solution in mind is to bring in more outsiders to showcase science: the science bus from an area museum, science assemblies, etc.

I bit my tongue. I didn't want to, as I don't think this is the right answer; but I also understand the position the principal is in. I don't think this is the first choice that would be made for running the school---but others in the district are in charge of that choice. I wrote about this "Catch-22" for science and literacy back in May. I imagine that I will still be writing about it months from now.

Interestingly enough, the Curriculum Matters group at Education Week recently mentioned a new report on Assessing After School Science:

After-school and informal science education programs have become a fixture in school districts around the country. It's easy to see why. They offer a way to introduce students to the natural world in a fun and pressure-free (free of tests, for example) environment.

But how can educators and parents judge the strengths and shortcomings of those programs? And how can researchers evaluate them in a consistent way?

A new study, prepared for the Noyce Foundation, attempts to provide some answers to those questions. It recommends the development of specific criteria for judging informal science programs, in areas such as student engagement and students' acquisition of science content knowledge and reasoning skills. It recommends the creation of an online database with tools for evaluating programs, which could be used by evaluators and updated continuously. It also suggests the creation of quantitative tools to assess the progress of students taking part in afterschool and informal science.

The authors of the study, which was released by the Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency at Harvard University and McLean Hospital, say they are seeking comments on the document. You can send them to pear@mclean.harvard.edu, with "Science Assessment in Out-of-School Time" in the subject heading.
I applaud this sort of endeavor, but I also have to wonder who at a school or district is going to set up and maintain such a database. In an era of ever-shrinking budgets and continued devaluation of science education, will anybody really care about quantitative outcomes? It is the right thing to do for a wrong approach to science ed (assuming after school programs are the only opportunity for kids to engage). Does your school track enrichment---science oriented or otherwise?

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When are we "ready"?

21 August 2008

While I'm running around hither, thither, and yon today, here is the question I'll be pondering. Perhaps you wouldn't mind thinking about it as well---and offering any ideas you have in the comments?

How do you know if something is developmentally appropriate?

The "something" could be a toy, behavior, or a grade level standard. Games may be labeled as being good for those "8 and up"...all 8th graders might be expected to be successful in algebra. We can look at classroom concepts and break them down into smaller steps and bites, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we just work backwards from there and assign each piece to a different grade level.

I don't really want to get into whether or not the labeling aspect is a hot idea (that's a whole 'nuther post)---what I'm more interested in knowing is how you decide. Are there references or resources available? I'm sure that experience (especially if you've worked with a particular age group for a long time) comes into play.

What goes into the decision making?

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The Elephant in the Room

14 July 2008

I took a class once on Great Books. The premise of the course was really about who decides what makes a book "Great," how we know whether it belongs in the Canon of Literature, and what the inherent messages are that we as a culture are being fed through the selection of these books. I was reminded of this class because of a comment left here not too long ago. Roger said (in response to my post about a Thought Experiment):
Perhaps "standards-based grading" can get them to say "I have to learn to get that diploma" so they will actually learn. But I have my doubts.

Partly because of the elephant in the room. Any time we assess a student's learning, we are partly assessing what the student has actually learned. But we are also assessing what the student has managed to memorize or absorb without thinking, and which will be out of his or her head in a few weeks or months.

My hypothesis, which I keep being unable to reject, is that most of what we assess falls into the second category. And I keep coming back to the same questions, "Why is what a student has memorized at that time especially good? What makes that more important than other things that students do?"
It's a fascinating elephant, isn't it? I've been pondering it a lot for the last week or so. At times, I find myself thinking really broadly about this. Does it revolve around the concept of what is education and the purpose of school? Or, perhaps it's simpler to think about things at the classroom level.

For example, do I care whether or not students remember for the rest of their lives that amylase is a kind of enzyme in saliva that can break down carbohydrates? No. Then why do I teach it? It's a means to an end. What I really want to know is whether or not students understand systems thinking---that there are inputs and outputs...that matter can be transformed and energy changed. Amylase is one example...one peg to hang ideas on. There are a myriad of others throughout the year, with every example meaning something different to each student's understanding of the whole. Maybe a kid struggles with cycles and systems when we talk about photosynthesis, but they "get it" when we work on digestion. For me, taking a more gestalt view of learning and grading in the classroom has freed both students and me. A student who didn't master systems thinking with one piece of content, but did with others is still credited.

As a teacher, I want most to know that every kid has a set of thinking tools and can learn on their own. It's okay if they forget much of the content from their high school biology class as they move through life. It's more important that they have the skill set to find and use the information again, if needed. I haven't retained much of what I've learned over a lifetime. That doesn't mean the information wasn't useful or good to know---it just didn't turn out to be something I regularly need access to. But other people in those classes? Perhaps they are doing jobs where they depend upon that information. It would be nice to think that we could know or anticipate all of the careers and life experiences students would have in the future so that we could tailor their schoolwork for that. Instead, we try to give the best general background set of skills that we can.

The state tells me that there is a Canonical Curriculum in the form of the standards. Like the Great Books, these weren't selected by me and I have to think carefully about whatever underlying message is there. The vast majority of these are skill-based and I tend to view the content ones as the vehicles for getting students to develop and practice the skills.

I also find myself being unable to reject Roger's hypothesis, but I'm hoping that within my own classroom, I'm moving more steadily toward doing so. I do want to do more to assess thinking over memorization. I often tell my students that knowledge isn't theirs until they do something with it. They can't just depend on filling in a worksheet---they need to apply, synthesize, and create. Even then, I'm okay with knowing that they will forget some content over time. The memorization aspect is the basis for the learning, but the real goal is for them to learn how to use it. I think that if I was more UbD'ish in my planning, I could give even more strength to this approach. Maybe that should be my goal for next year. Perhaps that will help finally shoo the elephant from my room.

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It's All in Your Head

10 July 2008

I was reading an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called How Lies Live in Your Head and it reminded me of one of my favourite demos to do with my students. This exercise comes from Marilee Sprenger's book How to Teach So Students Remember.
  • Tell the group that you are going to say a list of terms. They should just listen to the words, not write them down.
  • Slowly read the following list: nap, dream, bed, moon, rest, night, snooze, blanket, slumber, drowsy, lie down, pillow, snore, evening, quiet.
  • After the list has been read, chat with the group for a moment about memory. (Perhaps some will have played "hidden objects" games before.) The goal is to have most of the list you read moved out of working memory.
  • Tell the group that you are now going to "test" them on how well they remember the terms. Ask them to raise their hands if they remember you saying the word dream. What about sleep? Most, if not all, will raise their hands for both. Remind the group that you did not say the word sleep. Why does your brain think it heard the word?
Fortunately or unfortunately, it is surprisingly simple to plant false memories into our brains. The example above deals with associations. The piece in the Times is focused more on presidential campaign "lies" and why both candidates and voters come to believe certain things.
The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true...

Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

One quote that I keep in my workspace at all times is the Thomas Cardinal Wolsey admonition to "Be very very careful what you put into that head, because you will never ever get it back out." This statement was made ~500 years ago, which gives a certain amount of credence to the idea that things happening in Henry VIII's court were likely not all that much less political than our own climate. In the classroom, I am amazed at the number and variety of misconceptions students hold about various science concepts...and the resistance to let those go. Maybe for teachers, it isn't as much about replacing "bad" memories as it is about infusing "good" ones. Can we do more to exploit the brain's abilities to help our students?

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When GoogleDocs Are Outlawed

30 May 2008

...only outlaws will have GoogleDocs.

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

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

And, oh, did they.

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

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

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

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

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

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Wikipedantics

13 May 2008

My school district blocks wikis of all creeds and colours---including wikipedia---because it considers them to be equivalent to blogs. And we can't have kids engaged in meaningful reading/writing through social networking, now can we? The horror of it all.

I admit that I have often looked askance at wikipedia. What I've come to realize over the years, however, is that the quality of information is really not all that different from previous incarnations of the encyclopedia (Who wrote "World Book," fer cryin' out loud?). This means that students just need to remember to treat what's written there as they would any secondary source. After finishing Here Comes Everybody, I have acquired another layer of understanding about wikipedia. It's a kind of social contract (or "bargain" as Clay Shirky calls it) in that while anyone can edit pages in wikipedia, you are more likely to find reliable information than not. This is because it may take a lot of effort to come up with poor entries, but only a moment to delete them and replace with higher quality items.

I had been thinking about how nice it would be to use this in the classroom. What a great tool to be able to use with students---give them an article from wikipedia, have them verify what they can, and perhaps even improve the writing and information. Alas, my district will never see it that way...but other campuses do. From Deborah Jones' recent article for AFP:

Wikipedia the upstart Internet encyclopedia that most universities forbid students to use, has suddenly become a teaching tool for professors. Recently, university teachers have swapped student term papers for assignments to write entries for the free online encyclopedia.

Writing for Wikipedia "seems like a much larger stage, more of a challenge," than a term paper, said professor Jon Beasley-Murray, who teaches Latin American literature at the University of British Columbia.

"The vast majority of Wikipedia entries aren't very good," said Beasley-Murray, but said the site aims to be academically sound.

To reach its goal of academic standards, said Wikipedia's web site, it set up an assessment scale on its English-language site. The best encyclopedia entries are ranked as "Featured Articles," and run each day on the home page at www.wikipedia.com.

To be ranked as a "Featured Article," Wikipedia said an entry must "provide thorough, well-written coverage of their topic, supported by many references to peer-reviewed publications."

Of more than 10 million articles in 253 languages, only about 2,000 have reached "Featured Article" status, it said.

As an experiment, last January Beasley-Murray promised his students a rare A+ grade if they got their projects for his literature course, called "Murder, Madness and Mayhem," accepted as a Wikipedia "Featured Article."

In May, three entries created by nine students in the course became the first student works to reach Wikipedia's top rank.

Beasley-Murray said the projects took the students four months, and one entry was revised 1,000 times.

Typically, thousands or millions of people visit a Wikipedia entry, and each visitor is able to edit entries, or even flag an article considered unworthy to have it removed.

Working online with anyone watching or editing "was really hard to get into," said Eva Shiu, a third-year student who worked on the Marquez entry. "But it was really exciting, and I feel like I've accomplished something," she told AFP.

"I got addicted to it ... I was up nights until three or four a.m. in the morning working on it."

Monica Freudenreich, who worked on the Asturias entry, said she liked the fact her contribution will survive online. Usually term papers "end up in a binder than eventually sits under my bed," she wrote on Wikipedia.

The University of British Columbia entries are among some 70 academic projects now registered at Wikipedia, by institutions from Yale University to the University of Tartu, Estonia.

Wikipedia itself invites professors "to use Wikipedia in your class to demonstrate how an open content website works (or doesn't)."

But the experiment has had controversies, including student work that was instantly deleted as not "notable."

"Sometimes it's a disaster," said Beasley-Murray. "But in some ways it's good news ... this was a great learning experience for students."

Too bad it can't be the same for the kids in my classroom.

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They Must Have All Been on the Honor Roll

04 May 2008


I hope not to burst anyone's bubble here, but the Brady kids might not be a representative sample of child behavior in blended families. In fact, Science Daily is reporting that "on average, adolescents living with half- or stepsiblings have lower grades and more school-related behavior problems, and these problems may not improve over time."

"We cannot assume that over time, children will naturally 'adjust' to the new roles and relationships that arise when families are blended," [Tillman] said. "This research indicates that the effects of new stepsiblings or half siblings may actually become more negative over time or, at the least, remain consistently negative."

Part of what makes stepfamily life difficult for young people is the complexity, ambiguity and stress that come with having nontraditional siblings living in the same home, she said. Stepsiblings who are living together may also engage in, or at least perceive, more competition for parental time, attention and resources than full siblings.

In addition to stressful life changes and ambiguous family roles, stepfamily formation leads to the introduction of a new parent-figure who may be less willing or able to invest in a child's development and academic success, Tillman said. Stepparent-child relationships tend to be more conflict ridden than relationships with biological parents, and stepparents tend to offer children less parental support, closeness and supervision. The presence of a stepparent also generally leads to a decline in the amount of attention and supervision children receive from the biological parent with whom they live. (You can read the whole article here.)

I've been trying to think about whether or not my own classroom experiences would provide anecdotal evidence about this study. I have had an abundance of students over the years who had step- or half-siblings. Maybe that is why it is so difficult to call to mind any specific instances...or be able to differentiate enough between students who have grade and/or behaviour issues. Or maybe (right or wrong) when I look at a kid, their family composition isn't among those things which first come to mind.

In the end, I suppose the idea of such a factor on classroom performance becomes one of those "So what?" sorts of things. It's something to be aware of, but I don't have any influence over it. It's not up to me which parents marry and bring kids under one roof. I suppose I just teach them the best I can...and hope they'll defy the odds.

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What Is a "Science Generation"?

17 April 2008

A recent summit at the American Museum of Natural History made the case for the support of a "science generation" as a national imperative. The idea was noble enough---how can science education be improved and what is needed to make change happen---but after reading the summary in Education Week, I'm not so sure that the discussion moved things in the right direction. Here's a summary of the major ideas that were proposed:

  • a laptop for every child
  • more college science scholarships, new programs to train science teachers, and more research funding
  • national standards for science
First of all, I'm not convinced that America is ever going to be able to compete with China and India in terms of the science, math, and technology workforce we develop. It has nothing to do with smarts, and everything to do with sheer numbers. This doesn't mean that science isn't an important area for children to engage and for citizens to develop an understanding of---but rather that should be the goal in and of itself.

Secondly, all of the ideas listed above will have absolutely no impact on student achievement in science unless classroom instruction changes. Just because every student has a laptop does not mean that teachers will give up their overhead projectors and whiteboards. Ditto for standards. They are the end, not the means. And all of the scholarship and professional development money in the world will make no difference if that doesn't make permanent changes to they way science in the classroom is currently presented.

I certainly support NSF funding (with significant increases), but if Congress and private business really want to make a difference at the public school classroom level, they need to provide money for strategies and practices that support student learning.

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Wee Ones

25 March 2008

According to the Perry Preschool Study, "eight dollars was saved for every dollar invested in early learning, as the costs of remedial education, special education, abuse and neglect, health care, school drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, crime and incarceration were all significantly reduced." As I can think of no school district who isn't constantly fussing about their budgets, the investment in early childhood programs would appear to be a no-brainer (or at least a small brainer). The problem is, of course, that in a money-tight time, we are asking schools to spend money on both ends of the spectrum: invest in pre-K/K to prevent future problems and also attempt to fix the issues in older students that we were unable to address at an earlier time. If you have to toss one of these out in order to make your budget boat float, it is often the wee ones who get the boot. We'll get back to them later.

But let's say that a school district recognizes and supports the need for investing in a strong early childhood program, what qualities should they include? In "Creating the Best Pre-Kindergartens," Lawrence Schweinhart of Education Week identifies five primary (no pun intended) characteristics:
  1. Include children living in low-income families or otherwise at risk of school failure. Long-term effects have seldom been looked for and have yet to be found for children not in these circumstances, although there are arguments for serving them as well. For example, a recent study by William T. Gormley Jr. of Oklahoma’s state prekindergartens, which are open to all children, found short-term effects on participants’ school achievement that were large enough to promise long-term effects. Prekindergartens open to all children also enjoy a wider political base than a targeted program, and still include the children who are most in need.
  2. Have enough qualified teachers and provide them with ongoing support. Qualified teachers are critical to the success of any educational program, a principle now embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In early-childhood settings, being qualified is taken to mean having a teaching certificate based on a bachelor’s degree in education, child development, or a related field. Because research is constantly informing us about how young children learn and can best be taught, it is also important that early-childhood teachers receive curriculum-based supervision and continuing professional development. Systematic in-service training, in which teachers learn research-based, practical classroom strategies, also helps ensure that young children are having the educational experiences that contribute most to their development. So that pupils receive sufficient individual attention, highly effective prekindergarten classes have two qualified adults—a teacher and an assistant teacher—for every 16 to 20 4-year-olds. Although having qualified teachers, a low child-to-teacher ratio, and ongoing professional development may cost more, cutting back on these components would threaten program effectiveness as well as the return on investment.
  3. Use a validated, interactive child-development curriculum. Such a curriculum enables children as well as teachers to have a hand in designing their own learning activities. It focuses not just on reading and mathematics, but on all aspects of children’s development—cognitive, language, social, emotional, motivational, artistic, and physical. And it has evidence of its effectiveness. Implementing such a curriculum requires serious interactive training, study, and practice, particularly for teachers who have little experience with this type of education.
  4. Have teachers spend substantial amounts of time with parents, educating them about their children’s development and how they can extend classroom learning experiences into their homes. All the programs in the long-term studies worked with parents. In fact, in the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, teachers spent half their work time engaged in such activities. As child care beyond part-day prekindergarten has become more widespread, parent-outreach efforts also need to include other caregivers, in centers and homes, who spend time daily with enrolled children.
  5. Confirm results through continuous assessment of program quality and children’s development of school readiness. Good curriculum and good assessment go hand in hand. Prekindergartens striving to be highly effective need to replicate the policies and practices of a program found to be highly effective, including the five ingredients listed here. The proof that this is being done lies in program-implementation assessment, a system for measuring how well a program carries out administrative and teaching standards. A program assessor uses standard protocols to observe classrooms and the school, and to interview teachers and others about the various aspects of program quality. The results can then be used for program improvement. Systematic observation and testing measure prekindergarten children’s development of school readiness. With an interactive child-development curriculum, systematic observation fits better than testing, because it records children’s usual behavior rather than requiring them to respond on cue in a particular time and place. Program administrators and teachers who know how children are doing on such assessments will be able to use this information to monitor the children’s progress and attune their teaching to it.
I have to say that I really like the last point. Kindergartners do not have a very long attention span---testing and/or progress monitoring these children is a ridiculous task if the test is timed. A moment of staring off into space can mean that a child is inappropriately identified as needing assistance because she didn't answer enough questions within the time allotted. Shouldn't we care more that the kid can answer them? But I digress.

What I really want us to take away from all of this is that if we really care about making social change---breaking the cycle of poverty and establishing equity---we need to do this from the very beginning. At the start of 2008, 1 in every 100 Americans was in prison: a record high. While we can't give up on any member of our society, I can't help but wonder what might have happened if we'd given each of these people a better beginning when they were wee ones.

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The New IQ

03 March 2008

via Reuters:

Defects in working memory -- the brain's temporary storage bin -- may explain why one child cannot read her history book and another gets lost in algebra, new research suggests.

As many as 10 percent of school age children may suffer from poor working memory, British researchers said in a report last week, yet the problem remains rarely identified.

"You can think of working memory as a pure measure of your child's potential," Dr. Tracey Alloway of Britain's Durham University said in a telephone interview.

"Some psychologists consider working memory to be the new IQ because we find that working memory is the single most important predictor of learning," Alloway said.

Read more here.

I've talked with my own students about the idea of working memory---along with the importance of being able to store information long-term and the ability to retrieve it when needed. How to learn is an important skill. It's part of the reason many teachers have come to use more thinking tools/graphic organizers as part of their lesson plans. I think there will continue to be people looking at applications of cognitive science for the classroom---not just Alloway's lessons on training one's working memory. There appears to be some grand potential here for student achievement.

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Memories Are Made of This

24 February 2008


I attended a science fair this week. I had a great time and it brought back plenty of memories from my own trials and tribulations involving science projects. I remember doing one where I investigated whether or not crickets would go to a light or dark environment. I used crickets another year...but I don't remember the experiment. The third year, the investigation was "To Clot or not to Clot." (Cut me some slack...I was in 8th grade.) I looked at factors influencing clotting time for cow blood. And for my swan song with science projects, I did a fruit fly eye pigment lab.

If you like the cartoon from Left-Handed Toons (by right-handed people) shown above, you might also enjoy a visit to a virtual fair put together by Photo Basement. There are 41 projects, all with catchy titles like my 8th grade one (Garlic: The Silent Killer, Juicy Beans...), as well as pictures which forever immortalize the adolescent pain. Memories are indeed made of this.

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The Proverbial Feather

09 February 2008

It was only a few minutes before my first period class. I was heading down the hallway toward one of the computer labs to get ready to do some research with my students when I saw one of my former students walking toward me. He's in one of the afternoon classes that I turned over to another teacher---and I know he was a bit worried about the transition.

"I came up here just to see you," he said.

"Oh? What can I do for you?"

"I wondered if I could see my final so that I could see what I missed...so I know what I still need to learn."

"How about we do that tomorrow morning? I don't have the tests with me and I need to go down and meet my first period."

He seemed satisfied with that. As for me? You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. There just aren't a lot of students---especially ones who struggle as much as this young man does---who continue to strive for learning like this. There's no one telling this kid he needs to go back and pick up the pieces of information that he didn't get the first (or second) time around. But for whatever reason, he's motivated to do so. I find this motivating, too. How do we create classroom environments which nurture this in our students?

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Making the Leap

28 December 2007

A colleague and I were recently comparing the various victories and defeats we'd had with our instruction. Both of us have made some changes in our approach to teaching to the standards in biology, although we are not quite on the same track. We are tinkerers, never quite satisfied enough to do anything exactly the same way twice. Although we both feel like we're doing some of the best work we've ever done in the classroom, there is one area which is still not firing on all cylinders: when it comes to application questions on tests, kids aren't making the leap. In some ways, this is not completely alarming. We see other evidence from the classroom that students are thinking about how to take their learning and do something with it. But on the other hand, in a "pressure" situation, students aren't able to apply scientific concepts to solve a problem.

Here's an example. My friend's students recently worked on diffusion and osmosis. In class, they dissolved the shells off of eggs and then exposed the leftover egg to different concentrations of sugar and salt. They used baggies to also observe the movement of molecules across a barrier. There were other activities and demonstrations as well. On the test, nearly every kid could describe and explain aspects of osmosis. Score! But the question on making pickles? Not so much. Mind you, a cucumber has membranes just like an egg. Salt impacts it exactly the same way as the egg (and other examples done in class)...but kids didn't take those experiences and their well-demonstrated knowledge of osmosis to apply to a new situation. Why not?

We're still trying to tease out the answer to this question, as it keeps coming up. It would be an understandable issue if students had not been presented with any opportunities to apply their learning prior to the test. We want kids to have some practice before the final assessment. The larger issue is really about helping kids make connections for themselves between the class and The Real World. Yes, we can talk about examples with them and show them things...but soon enough they will leave our classes. It doesn't matter that they're not all going to make pickles at some time in their life, but they are many other instances they are dealing with on a daily basis which would apply. Is it a matter of finding some other way to foster their curiosity about the world? Is it a function of feeling like taking risks in the classroom is okay because there are no penalties for trying? Do we work on furthering their ability to solve puzzles and problems in the hope that those skills might help them find ways to transfer their learning to new places?

What do you do to help your students make the leap?

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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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You Never Can Tell

07 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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Messin' With Their Heads

06 November 2007

As the regs around here know, I've gone whole hog with standards-based grading in my classes this year. The kids and I are learning how to handle things and I think we're doing pretty darned well...except for one thing.

My sophomores "get it." They are speaking the language of assessments (formative and summative)...they know that they're aiming for 3's on their work...they understand using the median...and so on. They ask me why their other teachers don't grade like me and wonder about how to start these kinds of conversations with their teachers. They appreciate and learn from feedback and like the way we determined progress at the quarter.

My juniors and seniors, however, are totally lost. It appears as if whatever happened during their sophomore year has completely brainwashed them into being point whores. They have no care about whether or not they learned something, just "Did I get credit for turning it in?" Not a single one of those students has come in for tutoring or the opportunity to reattempt a summative assessment. They don't want to engage...and just let the teacher fill their heads without actually being responsible for any learning. As you might imagine, not much seems to be happening

What happened, I wonder, as sophomores? Were they beaten into the ground with zeros? Are they so used to "read the book and answer the questions" that they have forgotten how to think (as I ask them to do as often as possible)? When did school become a competition of "What grade did you get?" for them...and why? Who's been messin' with their heads?

If nothing else this year, I'm going to make sure that my sophs don't fall into that pit.

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