Trying something new in science class

I have been trying out some new tools in my science class this year, and trying to push the boundaries of my comfort level. This post is an example of my attempt to use a pencast to put up some notes for my students during our genetics unit.

Below are links to two audio files I made to post to the class blog. They were made using a LiveScribe Smartpen. When you open the files you should hear my voice as the notes are highlighted in sync with the audio. You can also skip around on the notes by pointing and clicking the red dot that appears on the screen on any section of the notes.

You will need Adobe Reader 10 on your computer to see the notes and hear the audio. Earlier versions of Adobe Reader will only be able to view the text. There are definitely some things about these particular pencasts I am still trying to figure out, but what do you think?

monohybrid cross – the second half of this page was a mistake, so ignore them after the line half way down the page.

dihybrid cross

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Rethinking lesson planning

Click on the image for a pdf version.

Over the last year I have been using the document shown on the right to help with my lesson planning. It is a document created by Research for Better Teaching (RBT in Acton, MA) which helps focus where lesson planning should begin. For many of us lesson planning begins with the activities and content we want to present in class. This document, an example of backwards planning, suggests that we should instead begin by determining our Master Objectives:

What do we want students to know or be able to do when the lesson is over? How will we know if students know it or can do it?

Every other element of the lesson (content, activities, differentiation considerations, and skills) is built around our answers to these questions. The language we use to describe our lessons is another way of thinking about the difference in the starting point. For example:

Instead of:     “Students will learn about subatomic particles and the periodic table.”
Try:     “Students will be able to use the periodic table to determine the number of protons, electrons, and neutrons for an atom of any element.”

Assessing whether a student has met the lesson objectives should be clearer with the second version. I have found the approach helpful in setting up rubrics for my classes and ultimately communicating student progress. Hope it is helpful to you as well.

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Putting the ‘public’ back into public school

Today was the first day back for teachers at my school, and the beginning of eight days of faculty collaborative work and curriculum preparation before the students return.  At the beginning of the day the main activity at the first full faculty meeting was meant to reflect on the school’s essential question for the year, “What is our impact?”,  in relationship to our work as a school. The activity asked us to work in small groups and to come up with a statement for the following two prompts:

What is my impact?
What is the school’s impact?

The most striking part of the discussion that followed was how much sharing of best practices there is in our school. In addition to weekly collaborative meetings, and a focus on sharing our work with each other, we have an active teacher’s center that invites educators from outside the school, as well as other community members, to come into our school and classrooms to observe our practice. We, as a faculty, see our impact as carrying on an ongoing conversation about what good teaching and learning might look like.

Our practice is public.

At the faculty meeting I sat next to a kindergarten teacher who had been invited to attend the meeting by one of my colleagues. This past summer my colleague and her guest began the same principal training program I have been part of for the last year. This was an opportunity for this teacher to observe a principal, at a different school, start the year with his faculty. During the small group activity she commented on the public nature of the culture in our school. She described how before the meeting she had been introduced to two different department heads and each of them had right away invited her to attend their department meetings later in the morning. Each of them had asked her to stop by to observe and give feedback on how they ran the meetings.

She then shared how she had been a teacher at her school for 20+ years, and in that time had observed one of her colleagues teach only on one occasion.

As the new school year begins I encourage all educators to open their doors and make it a priority to schedule time to share best practices with each other. Invite community members into your classrooms and hallways to see the good work that you do with students everyday. Do not let your critics in the wider community wonder what you do with students. Show them.

Seek feedback, ask questions, begin conversations. Put the ‘public’ back into your public school this year and make an impact on the national discourse of what good schooling looks like.

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Empowering our youngsters to trust themselves

Over the last few days I have been planning a multi-day trip to hike Mt. Washington in New Hampshire with my three children. The mountain is one of the tougher, if not toughest, hikes in the Northeast, primarily because of weather that can change at a moments notice. Two years ago I hiked the same trail (Tuckerman’s Ravine) with my oldest son who was ten years old, and the trip was his greatest physical challenge to date. Unlike the upcoming trip which I am splitting up into multiple days, the hike two years ago was a full day event. It was also one of the proudest moments I have had as a father, and is one example of how sometimes we just need to stop trying to control everything and empower our youngsters to trust themselves.

We had driven up from Massachusetts that morning and were on the trail by 7:30 am. Steadily we made our way up the Ravine trail and we were on the summit by about 1:30 pm. Overall the weather was very good on the ascent. We ate lunch at the summit restaurant and began our descent at about 2:30 pm. Of course, in perfect Mt. Washington style, the weather had turned during the time we were resting for the trip down. A wind that had hovered around 20 mph above the treeline on our ascent, had picked up to 50 mph with gusts up to about 60 mph. Clouds had descended around the summit and the visibility was only about 10 feet. As every experienced mountain climber will tell you, it isn’t the trip up, but the trip down that makes or breaks your experience.

My son, who minutes earlier was feeling great about making it to the top, was now beginning to feel the post-rest tightness in his legs that had yet to work itself out. The wind and visibility tested his nerves, and he began to move more slowly. His worry and physical discomfort began to turn to complaints. My first instincts led me to encourage him to keep going:

“You can do it!”
“Don’t think about the pain.”
“One step at a time.”

Being the cheerleader did not work, and I began to worry that my son was going to just stop walking, and that our hike was going to turn into an epic descent (not much different to the descent in the dark that I had as a 10 year old down Mt. Washington, when the leader of my group took the wrong trail down).

With the wind blowing I turned to my son and in my best serious, but not worried, voice I said something to the effect of, “I need you to listen to me. We will be ok, but I can’t carry you down this mountain. Only you can get yourself down. You need to put all of your effort into thinking about what you need to do.” What blew me away was that from that moment on something clicked in my son’s thinking, and he stopped complaining. His pace didn’t pick up, but I could see the focus he had on making it down the summit talus. It took us a couple of hours of slow touch and go, but when we made it back into the Ravine the wind died down and my son’s spirit brightened as our trek down became much easier.

That near two hours on the talus are very memorable and proud moments for me. In the face of fear and frustration my son found an internal strength to make his way down. Although I didn’t know it at the time (I was starting to panic myself and was trying anything I could think of), through my short little talk I had empowered my son to trust in himself and his own abilities.

It is exactly this type of empowerment that skillful teachers can turn to when all hell breaks loose in the classroom or when students’ fear and frustration prevents them from being successful at school. Empower your students to trust in themselves. Trust that your students have the internal resolve to do their best. What are some ways that we can empower students to trust themselves towards doing their best?

  1. Tell a student how proud you are of something they did, even if it is a small thing.
  2. Let an unruly class know that things are not working and entrust them with finding solutions so that their best selves can show through.
  3. Recognize when a student is frustrated or worried about school, or a situation at home, and let them know that you empathize.
  4. Help students make their own choices within the curriculum.
  5. Make sure students have opportunities to express their opinions within the classroom and the wider school community.

These are just a few examples. What are your experiences with empowering students to trust themselves?

To finish I want to share a metaphor that a colleague of mine has used in the past about students and their progress through school. It follows along with the mountain motif of this post. At school our goal is that all students will make it to the top of the mountain, but how they get there will vary. Some will walk up. Some will run. Others we will need to drive up the mountain, while others we may need to drag into the car. Some will get lost along the way, while others will take a rest in a tree for a while to ponder the landscape. As long as they are on the mountain and have not fallen off, they will all make it up.

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They shoot teachers, don’t they? – A reflection on cheating in the Atlanta schools


Sometimes only a word from another language has the ability to capture the real essence of a feeling or idea. These words often don’t have direct translations. I am using the Polish word, dobijać, to describe what I imagine many teachers are feeling these days when faced with the relentless assault on their profession, and in many instances, their character.

Czyz nie dobija sie koni?
(They shoot horses, don't they?)

The word dobijać is an interesting word. It roughly translates to completely finishing off, physically, morally, spiritually. It is commonly used to describe animals that have been badly abused or worked to death. When used with people I think of it as describing a person whose spirit has been completely broken. The poster to the right, by Polish poster  artist Wieslaw Walkuski, is a very good visual depiction of what the word means.

The recent reports of Atlanta School district’s rampant cheating (178 educators, including 38 principals in 44 of 56 Atlanta contributed to cheating on the Georgia state exams, Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 5, 2011) are just one example of what I would describe as a group of dobitych educators. This is truly a sad story, but this is neither the first nor the last time that we will see educators pushed into debased actions by a punitive educational environment, hyper-focused on high-stakes testing.

The saddest part of all of this is that the districts that struggle the most, for all of the reasons that we discuss every day in the educational community, are the ones that are in a no-win cycle. Lack of resources in socially overtaxed communities, lead to lower performance on state exams. Low performance leads to school sanctions which further erode resources. Many educators, facing similar conditions, just give up and leave the profession, or are moved out (From 1 struggling school to another, Boston Globe, July 5, 2011) leading to further erosion of stability in the schools. Instead of giving up, 178 of Atlanta’s educators decided to respond to this cycle of resource erosion by cheating. And the cycle continues.

I am no expert on Atlanta politics or their schools, but I am sure that “the failure of leadership” that Mayor Kasim Reed  and Governor Nathan Deal are attacking, starts with their own failure to take a deeper look at addressing a struggling school system.

An animal that has been completely beaten down will behave erratically as a result of the beating.

What the 178 educators in Atlanta did is inexcusable, but the conditions that created the behavior need to be addressed from the top. Unless the direction US education policy has taken with NCLB and Race to the Top changes through a completely new paradigm, there will be many more Atlantas in our future.

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Aesthetic experiences in learning: revisiting Sir Ken Robinson

Recently I have been revisiting Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Paradigms – How we implement sustainable change in education” lecture for the RSA organization in June 16, 2008. If you have never listened to this lecture, then I strongly urge you to do so. It is a wonderful overview of the issues that we face as educators in today’s world, why we are facing them, and ways we should be thinking about addressing them.

In this post there is one small part of the lecture that I want to more fully develop and explore. Just to be clear about what I am referring to, here are versions of the talk, differentiated for your benefit, with time references for the section I am looking at in this post.

More specifically, this is the section I want to discuss:

I was saying earlier, I have a big interest in the Arts and, if you think of it, the Arts, and I don’t say this exclusively to the Arts, I think it is also true of Science and of Maths. I say it about Arts particularly because they are the victims of this mentality currently, particularly. The Arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience and aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you are present in the current moment, when you are resonating in the excitement of this thing you are experiencing, when you are fully alive.

My thought process: All disciplines, not just the Arts, can address an aesthetic experience, as Sir Robinson defines it. In our larger society, but in education in particular, the aesthetic experience has either been ignored or not communicated well enough to others. This is the reason why so many people hate science, or ignore the conclusions and suggestions that the scientific community put forward. It is this same reason why years of lessons garnered from social, historical, and political experience fall victim to false conclusions and thus repetition. It is the same reason why the trades are looked down upon by the larger society, with technical education being the victim. We could continue adding to this list.

Bringing this issue back to education and putting it more succinctly, there is an aesthetic quality to every educational endeavor we introduce our students to. We have to ask, “Are we molding learning experiences for our students that resonate with excitement and help their senses operate at their peak?”

A successful science lesson for me is one where students participate with excitement. However, maybe equally important, it is a lesson where even if students do not have the same aesthetic experience as me, they are a least able to understand what it is about the material that has an aesthetic quality for others. It is this latter part that is missing from much of education these days. We should not just tell students that “science is beautiful”, we should show them why we believe it is. This holds true for all learning. Let me share just a few examples.

  1. DNA Everything we are comes back to this one type of molecule in our cells. For some of us the aesthetics of the structure itself is enough. But also consider that we are now able to manipulate and change DNA for human benefit. How beautiful is it that we are helping people live better lives through our understanding of the way this collection of atoms works? How beautiful is it that this molecule might actually change (a very cutting edge area of research) based on our experiences, passing down new traits to our offspring? I showed “The Ghost in your Genes” documentary to my students to show them that scientific processes have the ability to turn old theories (the theory of evolution, and genes being unalterable in our lifetimes) on their head. How wonderful!
  1. Social movements People in groups are amazing creatures! We seek out others to grow, to learn (shout-out to my Twitter PLN), to make meaning of ourselves. Consider these photos that I took in 1989 in Warsaw, Poland, of a Solidarity march by doctors. As a teenager I accidentally walked into what then was the tail-end of a long struggle for freedom. Changes were happening around me. The aesthetic beauty of a group of people organized for a single belief, a single purpose, is undeniable.

  1. The Trades Folks who work with their hands to fix and build the objects that we interact with in our lives present some of the most amazing aesthetic experiences I know. Consider the engine to the right. What an astounding mind that can see each individual part, understand its function, and how it interacts with every other part of the system.
  1. Returning to the Arts for a moment. Take a look at this photo of one of the rooms in the royal castle in Warsaw (seen above on the right in the second picture).Take a look at the floor. The actual visual quality aside, what aesthetics there are in the skill it took to build that all-wood floor. Carpenters from all over Europe were called to Warsaw after the Second World War to re-build the castle from photos, after the city had been almost completely destroyed in 1944. There is beauty in the care and detail of human work.

As Sir Ken Robinson states in his lecture, our goal as educators is to make sure that our students are not anesthetized. We must share the wonder that is our world, not just get them ready for an exam. As we go into the summer term, have you considered how to build aesthetic experiences into the learning your students will be doing when they return to school?

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Involving parents in learning, or else

I thought I was doing the right thing. Yet, my efforts led to a full frontal assault by mom. I ducked. She weaved. I ran.

Of course I am talking about a mother starling that had taken exception to my teaching her flightless child. I’m not sure how the adolescent bird made it to the middle of the large lawn, but I was trying to lead it towards the woods. My approach was to slowly walk behind it as it hopped its way across the lawn. I was sure that if I left it be, then the two roving puppies at the party we were all attending would eventually find him and use him as a chew toy. Wrapped up in my thoughts I hadn’t noticed mother starling jumping and screeching on the stone wall at the edge of the trees.

Then she had enough. She came after me with all of the fury a mother protecting her baby can muster. Despite my best efforts with her child, I had made the mistake of not paying attention and I was in for it. I ran.

And isn’t my mistake with the starling family the same mistake we often make with our students and their families at school? We often think we know what is best for our students, and ignore the expertise families have about their own children.

Drop your child off at school and then we’ll do the rest. The higher up in grade you go, the more prominent this attitude tends to be. We fail to invite our families into the learning process, and we fail to listen when concerns and questions are raised about the strategies we take with students. Finally when parents have had enough of schools taking the wrong approach with their children, we are surprised that we are attacked. To protect our egos we ask, “What do they know about education?”

The fact is that most parents are experts on the topic of their own children. Knowing our students well means that we seek out parent input when making decisions about school programs and pedagogical approaches for particular students. Likewise we teachers need to offer our suggestions on how parents might support their child’s learning at home, based on our observations of the student at school and our understanding of the student’s specific developmental needs. Communication between school and home needs to be regular and respectful, and not just reactive when mother starling is jumping in the hallway outside our classrooms and offices.

The attack on me this afternoon came at an opportune time to make this connection to families and schooling. Recently I have been reading Caution Ahead – Parent Guide to Navigating the Pitfalls of Parent Involvement, a four-part post by Delvin Vick (@Delvin_Vick) on his blog New Principal’s Post. Involving families in student learning is a topic I have worked on for many years, but Mr. Vick’s treatment of the subject has been interesting and I have appreciated the discussion with him via Twitter. I recommend the read.

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