28 February 2006

Role Reversal

I have a situation in my AP class that is completely new to me: a kid wants to stay in the class...and his parents want him to drop. I'm used to the other situation---where a kid wants to get out of a class and his/her parents think they should keep at it. I don't know quite what to do this time, because the student is in a very awkward position: to stay in the class means defying his parents.

I talked with his mother. I explained that I had offered for her son to take the class "Pass/Fail." That way, he would still have credit, it would show up on his transcript, but it wouldn't impact his GPA. This would relieve some pressure on the kid and yet allow him to stay in the class. Her stance is that if he isn't earning a grade, what's the point in taking a class?

The kid would be happy to stay in and take the class Pass/Fail. With only two months to go until The Test (not that he's planning on taking it), we are very nearly done with our curriculum. Why "quit" now?

We'll see what happens. I talked to his counselor so that she would know the situation the kid is in and I guess we'll go from there. I'm hoping that this will be the first and last time I run across this sort of dilemma.

27 February 2006

New and Improved Science Fairs

Ah, the dreaded science fair project. Mind you, students, parents, and teachers all fear them for different reasons, but they are still a staple of the school landscape.

A recent article in the Indiana Star Press claims that science fair projects are becoming more sophisticated and relevant: out with the baking soda volcanos and in with the investigations into broccoli. Maybe it is a matter of more focused science instruction. Or perhaps it is just a matter of helping students ask good questions.

26 February 2006

Put a Cork in It

My district used to pride itself on the fact that schools could do their own things. Want a different bell schedule? No problem. A day each week where you could start late or end early in order to give teachers some common planning time? Done deal. Develop a special program? Go for it.

In some ways, this sounds positively Utopic. There was so much freedom. The problem was that there was no accountability---either for explaining why implementing something new would support student learning nor any evidence supplied to show whether or not a particular program was effective. Meanwhile, there developed a bit of sibling rivalry between the various buildings. "How come they get to do that? Why is the district giving them money?" Throw in the standards-based reform movement and you've got a mess on your hands.

Slowly, but surely, district programs are being implemented. The weird thing about all of this is simply that teachers have to be sold on certain ideas...there's a lot of talk about "buy-in." I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but in what other profession or career area does this have to happen? If I was working in a office environment and my boss said that we were going to start a new program for our customers, what would happen if I said, "No"? Could I flip burgers at Mickey D's and have any system for doing my job that I wanted? Why do educators have to be cajoled and get to do as they please, especially if they don't agree with their bosses?

This is also happening at a school level. One of our junior high schools made a decision to offer an "advanced" class to 7th graders this year---and use the 10th grade book. The other schools want to know if they can do that next year. Of course, they can't, and it's going to be darned hard to make the first school understand that they have to stop.

Anyway, the genie of teacher choice is out of the bottle here...and it's darned difficult to get put back in.

25 February 2006

Goddess Confessor

It is a wonderful thing to be quiet and just let others talk. Have you noticed that in the classroom? There's been a lot of published research on the power of "wait time" during discussions...the idea that those few extra moments provide the time to retrieve information and respond appropriately. I think there's more to it than that. I think that silence makes most people uncomfortable and they will have a need to fill it.

In my district role, I am finding that speaking last continues to have advantages. This week, I had a principal whisper some concerns about her science staff. And while I thought about what she was saying, two of her teachers presented some further information for me to chew on. I next had two teachers at another school paint very different pictures of some events in their science department...and later the department chair filled in some details while I just listened.

Sometimes it's hard to not say much. I suppose this blog is my form of gossip as I think about all of the things that pass along my way each day. Just because I don't immediately react in front of colleagues doesn't mean that I'm not thinking about what I'd like to say and do. It just seems like I more quiet I am, the more I learn about my job.

I am also having to deal with someone who is an alcoholic and spins some amazing stories. I hadn't really made the connections, even with all the James Frey hoopla. But a piece I read recently helped some things come into focus:

Substance abusers lie about everythings, and usually do an awesome job of it. I once knew a cokehead who convinced his girlfriend the smell of freebase was mold in the plastic shower curtain of their apartment's bathroom. She believed him, he said, for five years (although he was probably lying about that, it was probably only three). A recovering alcoholic friennd of mine reminisces about how he convinced his first wife that raccoons were stealing their home brew. When she discovered the truth, she divorced him.

Go to one of those church-basement meetings where they drink coffee and talk about the Twelve Steps and you can hear similar stories on any night, and that's why the founders of this group emphasized complete honesty---not just in "420 of 432 pages," as James Frey claimed during his Larry King interview, but in all of it: what happened, what changed, what it's like now. Yeah, stewbums and stoners lie about the big stuff, like how much and how often, but they also lie about the small things. Mostly just to stay in practice. Ask an active alcoholic what time it is, and 9 times out of 10 he'll lie to you. And if his girlfriend killed herself by slashing her wrists (always assuming there was a girlfirend), he may say she hung herself instead. Why? Basically, to stay in training. It's the Liar's Disease.

I'm not sure what the answer will be here in terms of dealing with this sort of thing. For now, I think it's good to be quiet, and give the person enough rope to hang himself with.

24 February 2006

Bursting Bubbles

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

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

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

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

22 February 2006

Testing Isn't Always Dull

A passle of primary students were recently at central office for some voluntary testing as an entry point into the district gifted program. It wasn't boring this year. For example, two boys managed to get into a fistfight during one session and had to be physically dragged out of the room. But here are my two favourite stories...

In the middle of one of the sessions, a young girl pulled up her dress, whipped out a syringe, and stuck it in her stomach. If you're a diabetic and used to monitoring your blood sugar and giving yourself injections, this is not a big deal. If, however, you are a child sitting in a room and seeing someone do this for the first time, it's a bit traumatizing. Especially the hiking-up-the-dress part. You can just imagine the room full of faces for that one.

At the end of that same session, a mother arrived out in the hallway. She looked ashen and weak...one of her arms held a baby. The other arm was pressed against her chest. "Please, I need my daughter immediately," she told the testing administrator. The admin looked at this woman and agreed to get the girl, but was very concerned about this woman. "Are you all right?" It turned out the woman was on the way to the hospital. The admin was worried about how grave the woman looked and asked if they should call an ambulance. The mother reassured her that she just needed her daughter. "My implant broke and the hospital is readying an operating room for me." Ah, now we know why she was clutching her chest. The daughter was retrieved, asked to go to the bathroom, but was instead hurried out the door.

Nope. Never a dull moment.

21 February 2006

I Want This on My Evaluation

"I was impressed with your skill in stopping discussion and moving to the next item on the list when you saw discussion going south."

---Junior High Principal Who Attended the District Science Meeting on Thursday

20 February 2006

Okay...But Who's Gonna Teach It?

Sophomores in Washington state this year are the first lucky bunch to have to meet the standard on the state tests in reading, writing, and 'rithematic in order to get their diplomas. No one is exactly sure how many will manage to do this the first time around. In previous years, less than 40% of sophs were able to "pass" all three tests...but then, there was no stakes associated with the tests. Will students take things more seriously now that there are?

Other states have seen significant gains in these sorts of cases. However, even if we do, the numbers are not going to be 100%. There are going to be some students who will still need to retake the tests they don't do well on. This means a free trip to summer school.

The state is rolling out "modules" for teaching summer school. (Not all of the modules are yet available on-line, but you can sneak a peek at the reading ones here.) These modules are specifically for helping those kids who are "high twos" (meaning just short of passing). No plans are currently being made for the "low twos" and all of the "ones."

Great. The state has curriculum. They have set aside money for summer school support. But I'm left wondering...Who's going to teach all these thousands of students? Most districts---including ours---had a hard enough time in previous years convincing teachers to work through the summer. Considering that many teachers have to take coursework to maintain their certificates, how many will be available to teach during the summer? And how many will want to?

19 February 2006

Another Day, Another Science Kit Center

We have a four-day weekend this weekend, but I still worked on Friday. The other science person and I headed over to another school district to talk to them about how they run their science kit center. Budget posturing in my district will be done by the end of this month and we'll know for sure if we have the funds to move forward with a little center of our own.

I spent last Friday with another specialist in yet another district talking about their program. And after each of these meetings---and similar ones I've had since December---I'm left wondering, why would a district not have its own center?

I suppose that it all comes down to one thing: money.

Originally, the idea of joining the group we're with now was to pool resources. Doesn't it make sense that if you combine the buying power of fourteen districts, that you might be able to get a break vs. doing everything yourself? Except that isn't what has happened...and now we're seeing that it's cheaper to deal with things ourselves. We also gain some flexibility in the curriculum we deliver and can "personalize" the kits to suit what's happening in our district.

The most interesting thing that came out of the meeting on Friday was the idea that this district would also be willing to partner with us to deliver some professional development to teachers in terms of science content. We're all noticing the same thing: teachers can follow the script in the kit, but that's a whole different animal than understanding the science behind things.

This week, I hope to finalize some budget estimations for our possible kit center. Things are looking pretty favourable so far. And who knows? Maybe this week will bring news from yet another center to help us get on the bandwagon.

18 February 2006

The Grass is Always Greener

There are several curriculum specialists in my office. Some are unique to a particular content area (like me). A few are "general." This is the time of year when budgets for next year are decided and no one is ever truly sure if their position is secure. But this is the first time I've heard people indicate that they might not mind getting chopped from the budget.

When I was in the classroom, I often thought things would be just fine if I could shut my door and teach. If I didn't have to deal with all the bureaucratic nonsense generated by the office...the interruptions caused by field trips and assemblies...the seemingly endless meetings---if I could just be with the kids and focus on that, life would be sweet.

Several people in Curriculum are starting to feel the same way about their jobs. There are so many imposed variables---state mandates, expectations handed down by the Boss Lady, miscellaneous crises to manage---that doing what you really want to do in your job is rarely possible. Or fun. I'm still finding a lot of room to do what I see best, but I wonder how long that will last. Will the classroom look as appealing as it now does for several of my co-workers?

The bottom line is that we all have hard jobs. And although I thought classroom life would be better if I could close the door to the outside, I think I was wrong. It's only by opening my classroom in the last couple of years that I've been able to enrich my teaching. I've liked having visitors. It's been energizing to develop and implement some common plans. Some things---like interruptions---will never change. But there are ways to make other parts of the classroom load lighter.

I don't know that the same thing will happen in Curriculum. We do share our work and talk about different projects, but the ideas are always so big: they impact a district, not just the students in a classroom. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the grass looks greener outside of Curriculum. It's just a smaller patch to manage.

17 February 2006

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

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

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

15 February 2006

Trick Question

From Yahoo!: Test Helps You Predict Chances of Dying.

Um...isn't the answer 100%? I didn't realize that death was optional.

For more enlightening observations, check out this week's Education Carnival hosted by the EdWahoo.

14 February 2006

Wants and Cans

Two of our four junior high schools are slated for a bit of remodeling over the summer in order to accommodate full-year science for three grades. Today was the "kickoff" meeting for the planning.

One school has a $455K budget, which sounds like a lot...but won't be. I work in a building where the science area was overhauled last summer. Over $180K was spent to take out four walls, build two, move some demonstration tables and cabinetry---and make sure all the infrastructure was to code. The building with the big budget needs an entire new classroom plus some rather extreme retrofitting of the existing ones. This works out to ~$55/square foot...when the norm for this sort of thing is $180/square foot.

The other building just needs an existing room retrofitted. They have $155K to play with and should be fine.

The teachers who were present today didn't seem to understand the costs associated with all of this...nevermind that both of their buildings will be replaced in the next decade. It's easy to dream. It's fun to think of all the "wants" you have in designing a space, but we have to be realistic. Do you really need a sink for each and every lab group? Could you do fine with one for every two lab groups? Is it necessary to have hot and cold running water in the fume hoods? Does 7th grade Life Science require plumbed gas outlets at every lab station? An ideal job would cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2 million dollars.

We will continue these discussions tomorrow. Hopefully, I can bring the teachers back to Earth. What a bummer to have to face all of the "cans."

11 February 2006

Teacher Leadership

One of my ongoing projects at the moment is the work toward my EdD in Teacher Leadership. My area of focus will be revamping our district elementary science program. This is a great way to apply my studies, but it is making writing an upcoming paper rather difficult. If I hadn't chosen some action research for my work, this paper would be a lot easier to create.

Here's the prompt:
Within the context of a professional learning community, in what ways does a leader take a proactive stance to articulate and promote a vision that addresses current issues while balancing the legitimate concerns of a constituency?

We're supposed to address this by relating it to our area of focus "through the lens of history as well as the lens of contemporary theories." Um, okay. If I just had to deal with the prompt, I think the direction to take would be much more clear. There's plenty of good stuff out there on "PLCs" and teacher leadership. Historical context as it relates to revamping an elementary science program? Not so much.

I think I'm going to have to throw in some additional education-ese and explore the idea of "transformational leadership." Maybe my saving grace here will be to look at things from a "World is Flat" sort of viewpoint: information is not a barrier between parties in education anymore. Expertise can be shared.

Anyone have other ideas?

10 February 2006

Company Manners

Why is it that teachers get apologetic when their students behave like...students? Is there some reason why we should expect that a class would act better with a guest teacher or speaker than on a regular day?

I went out to a new-to-me elementary school this afternoon in order to work with a group of fifth graders. They had lots of energy, all focused in a good way. I could never complain about some youthful enthusiasm---especially when it comes to science. But their teacher seemed to be embarrassed from time to time. I tried to reassure her that kids were just fine.

I suppose it all stems from wanting to show off our students at their best. We'd like guests in the classroom to think that we have "raised" our kids right. And we have. Kids are just kids. I'd like to think that visitors understand that company manners don't necessarily mean that kids will be seen and not heard.

09 February 2006

No Joy in Mudville

In the last eight weeks of school, I've visited six different elementaries. Each one has been by invitation. Teachers and principals are starting to get a little nervous about what's happening in terms of science education in their schools. They're looking for help and right now, I'm the go to gal. So, I'm getting to see quite a bit of the county as I travel around on Thursdays. Today was the last scheduled visit.

I was second billing on the staff meeting today. The first act was a discussion about what the staff will do if one of the support positions in their building gets cut in the upcoming district budget work. As you might imagine, the thoughts weren't very pretty.

By the time it was my turn at bat, there wasn't a smile in the place. I was a little worried about turning things around. Could I take their minds off their problems for a bit and perhaps offer some solutions in other areas? Would I be perceived as adding other things on their plates? But I hit another home run, if I do say so myself. We shared some laughter and they had some generous applause for me at the end of things.

One of my resolutions this year was to "make the load manageable." I'm still trying to work on this for colleagues around the district. People actually looked a little less stressed when we finished talking today. Maybe I'm on the right track to make the resolution a reality. There may be some joy in Mudville after all.

08 February 2006

Uphill Through the Snow Both Ways

A recent AP-AOL poll suggests that parents and kids disagree about what the "right" amount of homework looks like.

"Parents polled said their children spend an average of 90 minutes a night on homework. The workload grows as the students do — 78 minutes of homework a night in elementary school, 99 minutes in middle school and 105 in high school." However, "most children aged 9, 13 and 17 years say they spend less than an hour a night on homework, according to a long-term federal study. That load has held steady, if not dropped, over the past 20 years. Plenty of students say they are not assigned any homework at all."

I wonder sometimes if parents, students, and teachers are in agreement about what homework "looks like." Does it have to involve a paper and pencil task? Could it be reviewing notes or reading in the text? Is homework something that is completed alone by the student or might it involve a study group or some parental help?

Several studies have aimed to find a relationship between homework and student achievement. Some of these point to the amount assigned. Others have been focused on the quality of the assignments. I do think that practice is important for any of us faced with learning new information. Different kinds of assignments can help make new neural connections and strengthen old ones.

I admit that I don't assign a lot of homework to my students. However, I do expect them to read and revise notes on an ongoing basis. I didn't have an opportunity to take an AP class in high school, so I really don't know how my expectations compare with the real experience. I remember spending about 45 minutes a day (on average) on homework in high school. I don't think 90 minutes is such a terrible expectation---that's about 15 minutes per class per day for a student. I'd bet that many students out there would disagree.

07 February 2006

Pleasant Surprises

I have to admit that I didn't have a lot of enthusiasm for today's meeting. But Life is full of all kinds of surprises---some of them are actually quite good.

Things went very well today. I know that two of the people weren't wild about participating, but they showed up and had a lot to contribute. We were more or less able to stick to the agenda throughout the day. Any birdwalking that was done had a good purpose behind it as people had a variety of questions they needed to ask. By the end of the day, we'd dissected a standard, identified some aligned activities, and agreed on a couple of formative questions (as well as the "big idea" for the summative) to use with all students. I walked away with a very positive mindframe.

I then discovered that tomorrow is not the day that I am scheduled to be in three different meetings at ten a.m. It turns out to be next Wednesday. Tomorrow is available to take care of several small tasks that have been hanging over me---like getting out the information to teachers about the curriculum materials pilot. We'll see what other pleasant surprises lie in store.

06 February 2006

Blogger is going to have a "scheduled outage" in a few minutes, so I can only do a quick blog for now. A shame, really, since after spending a whole day dealing with an Excel spreadsheet. I was ready for something a bit different.

The week ahead should bring a variety of tales to this space. The bio meeting is tomorrow and there are already rumblings. I have four meetings scheduled (simultaneously) for 10 a.m. Wednesday. It only gets busier from there.

So, for those of you who log in here often, hang in there. I'll be back soon.

03 February 2006

Good Teaching Repackaged

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

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

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

02 February 2006


No matter where you roam among the blogs these days, you're going to run across a meme. What the heck is that? Well, it comes from an idea that pieces of culture can be passed---similar to how genes are passed---but without all the biochemistry. Maybe more like a cold? :)

Doc Porter over in Seattle "tagged" me with a recent meme. The instructions are
  1. Go into your archives.
  2. Find your 23rd post.
  3. Post the fifth sentence (or closest to it).
  4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.
  5. Tag five other people to do the same thing.

My 23rd post was on the 9th of February, 2005...just five short days after having my gallbladder removed and acquiring a nasty infection in the incision that was made at my navel. On the 9th, I had been in to see the surgeon, who lanced my bellybutton and started a drain that would last for weeks. (TMI yet?) So my fifth sentence was "Save that particular curse for only the worst of your enemies."

Trust me, a year later and I'm still thinking that having someone de-pus your navel is a bad thing.

I'm supposed to tag five others. I'm going to tag two who are new(er) edubloggers. Perhaps this might get you to stop by their place and encourage them. Who knows what they'll be blogging about in a year. If anyone else would like to be tagged, just let me know. Queen of the Cottage and Not Quite Grown Up, you're It!

01 February 2006

Shopping for Elementary Science

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

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

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

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