31 December 2007

It's All Relative

The end of another calendar year in the western world seems to bring with it much introspection, reflection, relief, and forms of navel-gazing. I know that teachers are certainly not immune to this, but our calendars are also a bit different. The beginning of a school year is the time for resolutions and the chance to start over with many things. January 1st? Not so much. The last day of school calls for the sound of popping champagne corks and rounds of Auld Lang Syne as everyone departs for summer adventures. December 31st just doesn't feel as appropriate for this in some ways...although it's unlikely I'd turn down the chance to have a nice glass of champagne just the same.

Time is such an elastic concept. I can think of points in my life where it seemed to drag...and others where it raced by all too fast. I've recently watched a couple of "The Universe" programs on The History Channel and found out that time is even more bendable than Einstein's ideas about time dilation. Clocks in space tick more slowly than they do on Earth. Maybe the universe isn't expanding at the rate we think it is---our perceptions may be "slower" because of the gravitational field we live in. And so on. It's the kind of stuff which keeps one's frontal lobes on their toes. The scale of time and space is a lot to even try to comprehend---especially because of the relative nature of things.

Whether you were the watcher or the doer in various situations in 2007, I hope your time was meaningful to you. If January 1 is when you press your own reset button in terms of wishes and plans for the next span of time, then I wish you well as you progress toward those achievements. (Have a wish of your own for 2008? Go here and have it printed on a piece of confetti for release in NY's Times Square.) The upcoming year will no doubt have many happy/sad endings and new beginnings for each of us. I'll see you on the other side of midnight. Have a wonderful new year!

28 December 2007

Making the Leap

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?

27 December 2007

Must one be a Scrooge?

The article below appeared yesterday via the AP wire in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The next generation to enter the work force may be more likely to cheat and lie than their more senior colleagues, according to a recent survey.

Three-quarters of teenagers believe they are fully prepared to make ethical decisions, yet nearly 40 percent also believe that lying, cheating or violence are necessary to succeed, according to the survey conducted by Junior Achievement Worldwide.

More than half of those teens said their personal desire to succeed is the rationale. There were 23 percent who said violence toward another person is acceptable on some level.

The number of teens willing to bend the rules has more than doubled since the survey was conducted in 2003, according to Ainar Aijala, chairman of Junior Achievement Worldwide.

"Kids are seeing evidence of successful politicians, professional athletes, religious leaders, lawyers and business professionals being dishonest -- people they also see as their role models," Aijala said.

The results could be an indication of problems future employers may face.

"I think what this says is that employers will over time need to be more diligent in background checking," Aijala said.

The survey was conducted online with a sample of 725 teens ages 13 to 18.

We don't really get much of an indication about the quality of the sampling or research methods. I'm not one to poo-poo on-line surveys---some of the educational research I've been combing through for my doctoral work suggests that if properly constructed, web surveys are just as valid and reliable and paper ones. The organization (Junior Achievement Worldwide) appears to be legit...so I'll give them a big benefit of a doubt here on their methodology.

What I'm not so sure about is their conclusion that employers may need to be more diligent with background checks. Will this solve a gap in the ethics of potential employees? If nearly one-quarter of potential hires believes that violence toward someone else may be acceptable, how will hiring or not hiring these kids change their beliefs? What do we as educators do knowing that 40% of our students believe that lying and cheating are acceptable ways to "get ahead"?

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about character education programs. Some say that it is not the province of the public schools to take this on---it is something which belongs within a family. Others say that since so many children are not being taught general expectations for societal behavior at home that the schools must step up to the plate. Either way, kids are going to be provided with both good and bad role models. Teachers can't stop celebrities or pro athletes from making some very public and very poor choices anymore than we can keep some of our peers from engaging in some questionable practices. While this doesn't absolve us of a responsibility to help educate and prepare students---what more should we be doing?

26 December 2007

Midway Holiday

Suffering from post-holiday malaise? Is your bank account empty? Why not enjoy some free entertainment over at this week's Carnival of Education? Ably hosted by History Is Elementary, it is a wonderful collection of education-related posts. My hat is off to her for putting this together for the Edusphere while the rest of us were taking time off on Christmas Day. Click on over and get a calorie-free fill-up for your brain!

25 December 2007

Something Old, Something New

You know how popular the synched lights to "Wizards in Winter" was a couple of Christmases ago---and how some beer company used the display for an ad? I think this one is much better. It's on an airstream trailer. :)

Redneck Christmas not your thing? Geek out on a repost of mine from 2005. Interestingly enough, after some hits on this post from the Netherlands in October, there was an article stating how scientific researchers there had recently calculated some interesting facts about Santa's trip on Christmas Eve. Um, no you din't.

I picked up this piece many years ago. I didn't author it, but I wish I could credit the proper person.

  1. No known species of reindeer can fly, BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified. And while most of these are insects and germs, this does not completely rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.
  2. There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. But since Santa doesn’t (appear to) handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total: 378 million. At an average census rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes that there is at least one good child in each.
  3. Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming that he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park (on the roof, of course), hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh, and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth, we are now talking about 0.78 miles per household: a total trip of 75.5. million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding, etc. This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, or 3000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth (the Ulysses space probe) moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second. Conversely, a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.
  4. The payload on the sleigh add another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized Lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa...who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" (see point #1) can pull ten times the normal amount, Santa cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. He needs 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload---not even counting the weight of the sleigh---to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison, this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.
  5. 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance. This will heat up the reindeer in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously---exposing the reindeer behind them---creating deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within .00426 seconds. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion, if Santa did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now. Merry Christmas, all!

24 December 2007

Christmas Here and There

Long time readers know I spent most of my growing-up years in a tiny town in west Texas. "Border culture" is the norm there---not quite Mexican, but not quite American either. Language is a variant of Spanglish...foods and traditions have something for everyone. You'd be hard pressed to find a little old lady who wouldn't tell you about the time she slept with Pancho Villa or a rancher who doesn't have a few "exchange students" helping out. There are certain rhythms and traditions to the year there---whether its the parade of decorated and honking cars roaming the town after a wedding to the smell of roasting green chiles in the fall.

Christmas is no different, mind you. And at this time of year, when I drive around and see the pretty light displays, I secretly ache to see houses decked out in orange and blue---colours meant to ward off evil. They are a reminder that Christmas has always been---and will always be---a fusion of beliefs.

In this area, a version of La Posada was held for the first time. There were angry and ignorant comments in the newspaper here. People were offended by the idea. As for me? I remembered my early teaching years in Carlsbad, where their style of La Posada was to offer shots of tequila with each stop along the way. I laughed, thinking of the journeys we had...and wondered how those insisting that "American" culture be practiced here would have reacted to going along from party to party?

I feel fortunate to have lived in some different places and had the chance to experience this time of year and what it means to other families and cultures. Christmas here may be different from celebrations there, but time with family and friends seems to be constant. Whatever your own traditions are, may they bring you much happiness this year.

23 December 2007

Six Down, One to Go

I recently wrapped up Year Two of my doctoral work. There are seven semesters of coursework and two set aside for dissertation, so I'm entering the home stretch. My last semester of regular reading and assignments begins next week. This last class is all about qualitative research. I'm not planning to use qualitative methods for my own project, but it is unlikely that my doctoral study will be the last work I do in the field of education. The deeper I go with my research, the more questions I have that I would like to try to answer at some point. Qualitative methods may serve me well in the future.

I have four new tomes for this final semester:

I'm looking forward to this final semester of coursework for a variety of reasons. While I doubt that this will be the last class I ever take, I am looking forward to having my Sundays back for pursuits other than scholarly reading and writing papers. Reaching this point makes finishing the whole degree program feel like a reality---by the end of April, there will be one less hoop to manage. I "just" have to refine the pieces of my dissertation and defend my work. I can smell the letters "EdD" after my name. It's a good smell.

But first, there is one more semester of assignments, discussion posts, and Sundays to calendar. One more semester of papers and research to juggle along with the household business and day-to-day efforts at work. I've made it through six. I can do one more.

22 December 2007

Christmas Meme

Someone sent this to me on e-mail---and although the idea is to pass it along in that format, I thought I'd post mine here. If anyone else wants to steal it, go on ahead.

  1. Wrapping paper or gift bags? Both.
  2. Real tree or artificial? Artificial
  3. When do you put up the tree? About once every three years...right after Thanksgiving.
  4. When do you take down the tree? Christmas Day (hey, there's nothing else to do but eat)
  5. Do you like eggnog? I don't know...I've never tried any.
  6. Favourite gift received as a child? Don't remember. LOL
  7. Do you have a nativity scene? Nope.
  8. Hardest person to buy for? My adad, when he was alive. Now, I struggle with bmom's hubby because I don't know him very well.
  9. Easiest person to buy for? Amom
  10. Worst Christmas gift ever received? A metal sculpture of a frog playing the trumpet.
  11. Mail or e-mail Christmas cards? Mail, natch.
  12. Favourite Christmas movie? A Christmas Story
  13. When do you start shopping for Christmas? All year long. I like to pick things up when I see a good gift for someone, then I just store it away.
  14. Have you ever regifted a Christmas present? You bet.
  15. Favourite thing to eat at Christmas? My grandfather's fudge
  16. Clear lights or coloured on the tree? Coloured
  17. Favourite Christmas song? White Christmas by The Drifters
  18. Travel for Christmas or stay at home? Stay at home :)
  19. Can you name all of Santa's reindeer? Absolutely
  20. Angel on the tree top or a star? Angel this year, but all manner of things have occupied the niche.
  21. Open the presents on Christmas Eve or morning? Morning, these days.
  22. Most annoying thing about this time of year? Students on a constant sugar rush.
  23. What I love most about Christmas? Catching up with friends and enjoying some time off to do a few things that make others and myself smile.
Best wishes to you---whatever your traditions!

21 December 2007

Will 2008 Be Different?

As the calendar year wound down this week, various conversations with teachers made me wonder "Will 2008 be any different?"

  • I know a teacher who is just fantastic in the classroom. It's someone who constantly strives to improve instruction, tracks information on students, seeks out professional growth opportunities...and has hit a wall in terms of collaboration. No one wants to talk about what works for kids---only what's convenient for teachers. In order to continue to have some passion for work, this teacher is going to have to find an environment that supports that. This is not the first time someone has "outgrown" that particular school. How many more times will this happen before anyone in a leadership capacity notices that the culture there doesn't allow the best teachers to be retained?
  • Another related discussion centered around "bad" teachers. If it isn't any secret as to who isn't getting it done in the classroom, why don't we get them out of there? Why do we move them around to different grades or schools...put children who have parents who won't complain about poor teaching into seats...and so on?
  • And last of all, if schools and districts which are in the last step of school improvement sanctions are able to have school-wide structures for common formative assessments, targeted instruction toward the standards, and reporting structures which enable high-quality analysis of student progress without union interference, why can't districts which are only at the start of the school improvement process? When will teacher unions wake up and realize that what happens in a classroom is about kids---and that it in the best interests of their membership to support best practices and accountability?
Sadly enough, I don't think 2008 is going to be the year when we will see any of these questions answered other than "Not this year."

20 December 2007

Remember When?

Just before the school year started, I posted this picture along with a reminder to teachers to take care of themselves. As much as I hate to say it, if a teacher doesn't look out for himself or herself, it's not likely anyone else will step up. We need to nurture ourselves as much as we work to do so with children.

from PostSecret

Or maybe you remember this graph about the phases of first year teaching experience---which isn't necessarily limited to beginning teachers?
Image Credit: Unknown

You'll notice that this time of year is characterized by "disillusionment," but is followed thereafter by "rejuvenation." I bring this up only because as I have read various posts by edubloggers in the last couple of weeks, I see lots of people worrying that they're being too negative and whiny...or talking about how frustrated they are...and so on. Hey---don't be so hard on yourselves. You can't always be the life of the party and you can't always escape the need to vent. It's been a long hard fall semester, but you've made it to winter break. Kick back for awhile and congratulate yourself for all of your time and effort. We have a ways to go until summer vacation, I know, but there is so much to look forward to with the spring.

Happy holidays to you---whatever you celebrate or believe. Enjoy the time to think about and do the things you've wanted to, but haven't because you were looking after the kids in your classroom. Remember what it's like to have a bit of "me" time and indulge yourself.

Blogging may be a bit sporadic here over the next two weeks. I plan to take my own advice and just focus on various things. I have a stack of books I want to read...new movies to watch...some things around the house I want to do...and more. I hope that you enjoy your time just as much.

19 December 2007


If you need a break from the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations and festivities, head on over to this week's Carnival of Education over at the Education Wonks. And wish them a happy holiday while you're at it.

In case you are up for more partying, you can join me this afternoon. I'm having a nice fete after school at my home. We have people from 4 school districts, an educational agency, 7 schools, and 2 offices gathering for food and drink. You're welcome to join us!

17 December 2007

Nothing to See Here...Move Along

The AP Wire is reporting old news. Or maybe it's just written by the Department of Redundancies Department: US Students Do Worse in Math and Science.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) was administered last year to students in 30 countries.

The average scores for U.S. students were lower than the average scores for the group as a whole.

U.S. students also had an average science score that was lower than the average score in 16 other OECD countries. In math, U.S. students did even worse — posting an average score that was lower than the average in 23 of the other leading industrialized countries.

The test also was administered to students in about two dozen countries or jurisdictions that are not part of the industrialized group.

When compared with the broader group, the U.S. students fell in the middle of the pack in science and did somewhat worse in math.

There was no change in U.S. math scores since 2003, the last time the test was given. The science scores aren't comparable between 2003 to 2006, because the tests aren't the same.

U.S. girls and boys did about the same on the science and math portions of the test.

Finland's 15-year-olds did the best on the science test, followed by students in Hong Kong and Canada. Students in Finland, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong were the top performers in math.

There's more on the PISA site, if you're so inclined.

I don't know that I foresee any changes to US status in the near future. Math does get a lot of attention, but until science education is taken more seriously by public policymakers, we're not going to be able to make our students competitive in the world marketplace.

16 December 2007

The College Grade Game

I sat in on a staffing this week. The word "staffing" around here refers to a meeting with parents, student, counselor, and all teachers in which the student's progress is dissected in nauseating detail. I find them incredibly unpleasant and uncomfortable...and I can only imagine how hard it must be for the kid. "Not only are you a poor student, but all of us are here to show you exactly what you're doing wrong over and over again." I haven't been to one yet where the kid didn't break down in tears. I really hate that. There has to be a better way of approaching these things...but I digress.

I was the last teacher to say my piece at the last meeting. I listened to five other teachers go on about poor skills and how it was just too late to do anything about parts (or all) of the grade. What I didn't hear was any teacher offering any type of support. If these meetings are truly about bringing all of the parties to the table to help the kid be successful, then why are we focusing so much on the past and not on the future? Why are we pointing fingers at the kid and not working together to find a solution? But I digress...again.

Anyway, when it was my turn to talk, I didn't say a word about the kid's grade. What I did say is that what I was hearing was that the kid was spending a lot of time "studying," but was struggling to learn. I said that it's all good and well for us (teachers and parents) to say "You need to do something different." but if that's what we think she should do, shouldn't we offer her some concrete ways to do that? She's a smart kid who didn't have to develop any study skills until now. Is it reasonable to expect that she will automatically know what to do? We have to teach her these things. I like to think that we ended the meeting positively---with some hope. I gave the gal a variety of different note-taking and study strategies the next day. I told her to look through the stack and find 2 or 3 of interest and give them a try. I'll check in with her again and see what's happening.

One of the other things I said at the meeting is that I am okay with her doing alternative assessments for me. I told her that she will have to learn to "play the game" for college and there isn't anything I can do to change that; however, if she can use opportunities with me to find out how she learns best, she can translate things into ways to prepare for her exam-laden college experience. I also told her not to believe any adult that told her that life doesn't have second chances or "do overs." How many people would not be driving if you could only take your driver's test once, for example. College is its own ball game, but the goal for us should be to prepare her for adult life, with or without college.

Two articles of interest in relation to college and grades were published this past week. First of all, the Roanoke Times is reporting that students will choose easier classes over harder ones. Maybe this doesn't read like breaking news, but there are two things of note here. One is the comparison of median grades---and the implication that these "easy" classes might somehow be noted for employers on the transcript. If a teacher at the college level had the same kind of grading as I do---and allows students to reattempt summative assessments or alternative assessments---their median grades may well be higher than teachers with traditional grading practices. Yet, doesn't the learning matter? The second piece of note from that article for me is that in a performance environment, students always choose easy over challenging. Perhaps if college classrooms emphasized mastery over performance, students would take more difficult classes. In article number two, the AP is reporting that all-nighters may not improve grades. I had a few of these---mainly involving finishing papers---in college. They were dreadful. I quickly learned that I would much prefer to get a few hours of sleep and then get up very early and finish working on things. The findings of at least one of the studies cited in the article supports this idea---sleep deprivation is not good for concentration.

Call me crazy, but I think that learning experiences should be meaningful, whatever the age of the student. I hate to think of getting an education as some sort of game with winners and losers based on who can intuitively figure out the rules. I hope that students start to ask for more than that from their time and efforts.

via today's edition of PostSecret

15 December 2007

The Mastery Plan

I work with teachers who are of a mind that after a unit of study is done...it's done. If the kid understands things later, well that's just too bad. And if a kid never gets it, then that's entirely the kid's fault. Although this is not my current state of mind, I have to admit that it was for many years. I understand where these teachers are coming from, even if I don't agree with it at this point in my career. But what's a Goddess to do when she knows there are various holes in individual student learning...and no support for intervention/remediation other than what she designs herself during her class time?

Well, I have a plan. I think it might be an okay one, but I'm looking for the edusphere at large to "push back" against it.

My bio kids and I have one more unit of study, which we'll do the first two weeks in January...and then the semester wraps up at the end of the month. In the interim, here is what I propose:

Day One: Setting the Stage
  • Preview of Final Grade Determination (some version of my previous post)
  • Have students individually review and reflect on their scores over the semester. What are their strengths? What areas still need to show evidence of learning?
  • Goal setting: What would students like to accomplish in terms of learning between now and the end of the semester? We will have five days of intense review, so each kid can choose up to five topics.
  • Review a timeline of opportunities and important dates.
  • Planning: Have students sign up for scheduled review opportunities (more on this below) and the evidence they will provide (Take a final test? Do an alternative assessment?)
  • Contract: Sign a statement as to their intents.
I haven't developed the paperwork for this yet, but it will include the boldfaced information.

Day Two: Procedures for Review

Some of the sessions will be study groups, and I know that my kids don't know how to operate one. So, we'll talk about the expectations and do some practice on a short topic. I'll show kids the schedule and talk about how the rotations will work. The basic idea is shown below. Each student will be assigned to an A, B, or C group for the day. Each group has a different topic of study. There will be some independent reading, a study group session, and a mini-lesson with me on a study skills topic. Each session will last ~15 minutes.

I know that 15 minutes is not enough time to go in depth with a topic, but keep in mind that we have already spent 16 weeks on the information. As much as I would like to personally work with each and every kid (and I have 120 bio kids) to get them up to standard, I can't. I will, however, put some tools in their hands and get them set up for some independent study. Fifteen minutes is about the maximum amount of time a 15-year old brain can focus on any one idea, as it is. I have to keep them engaged and moving.

Will there be some kids who don't need five different topics because they have achieved mastery in nearly everything? They can work on the few areas they still need and have some independent time to work on alternative assessments, or they can sign up to study things twice. Kids who need more than five areas of intense review will have to take on some more out of class work.

Days 3 - 7: Review

There were 8 major targets this semester. I've chosen three per day for grouping kids (so that I can keep groups to no more than 10 kids...and keep things productive) and rotated things so that kids should be able to have a schedule which meets as many needs for learning as possible:

For each of the eight, I will have a sheet with the target, relevant resources (e.g. pages in text), a series of "I can..." statements in the form of a checklist so students can inventory their needs for the target, a reading activity, and reflection. I will also list one (or perhaps two) acceptable alternative assessments (in place of the final exam). I'm all for kids having varied ways to show what they know, but I'm not going to kill myself in the process. Students will work on this during their "independent" time.

I'm not done with the design of the study group format yet, but I am modeling it off of Jim Burke's Literature Circle idea. I will provide a few guiding questions for their discussion, and perhaps a very, very brief activity for them to do. Whatever this is, it needs to be something they can be fairly independent with, since I will be at the "mini-lesson" station with another group.

As for the mini-lessons, here is what I'm planning: Brainology (learning to learn), Informational Text Strategies, Note-taking Strategies, Vocabulary Strategies, and Test-taking Strategies. Yes, we've modeled and talked about these throughout the semester, but I want to formalize it. I want to give them something to hang onto for their other courses.

Day 8: Whole Class Review/Wrap-Up

Day 9: Final Exam

I know that all of this looks like a huge amount of work---and it will be. But it's all front-loaded. Once I have the review sheets for each target prepared, work out the study group mechanics, and write my 15-minute mini-lessons, I'm good to go for two weeks of class time. In the meantime, there will be no grading for me to do or other "regular" classroom tasks. Kids will take care of the scheduling by signing up for their topics of choice. I worry about only having one day for each topic for a kid to study---I know it's not optimal for recalling whatever knowledge is in there and building on it, but I'm struggling to find away around that. There's only 1 of me, 120 of them, and 4 hours a day for us to accomplish 8 different targets together. If someone has a better way to structure things, please do let me know.

So, that's it. Whaddya think?

14 December 2007

Number Crunching

There is a grail which still needs to be found in standards-based grading. Mind you, O'Connor and others suggest that instead of searching for this grail that we should eliminate the need to look for it. While it is my hope that will one day happen, teachers need an alternative in the meantime. What the heck am I talking about? I'm talking about using standards-based grading practices within a traditional reporting system.

The problem is simply that teachers who use standards-based practices are organizing information by target---their gradebooks have no need to number crunch. Traditional report cards, however, do. I might talk with students about their progress toward the various learning goals, but I still have to put an A, B, C, D, or F on the report card. I would love to have a report card where I could share with parents how kids were progressing toward the individual goals (and thus eliminate the need to hunt for the grail). Right now, it isn't a possibility.

At the Sound Grading Practices conference, there was a session on converting rubric scores to grades. I had high hopes for this session---because I thought it might be the grail. Alas, it was a mirage. The idea was to use "logic" to just assign grades and/or percentages to the rubric scale. (E.g., let a 4 = A/95%, 3 = B/80%...) I didn't like this for two reasons. One, it isn't logical at all. There are no rules applied, but rather the teacher is somewhat arbitrarily assigning symbols. If that's the case, then why bother with the rubric scale at all? If you're going to say a 4 = A, then just put A, B, C, D on the rubric. (Ditto for percentages.) Secondly, I've done a lot of work getting kids to understand that a "3" means that they have met the standard and that is a "good" grade. My kids are excited by 3's. They know that a "3" is not a "B" (or any other letter equivalent). Why would I confuse them now?

One method, however, might have some promise. Here is one version of it:

In other words, as you look at the median scores for content and the most recent info for skills and are trying to report this out as a single letter grade (because you have to), then maybe a table like this would help. Is it possible to write an Excel algorithm for it, I wonder?

Any other ideas about how to engage in the Art of the Impossible and number crunch with standards-based grades?

13 December 2007

Medians on the Mind

I sometimes get comments on posts which aren't on the front page of the blog anymore. A reader may be reading from my archive and choose to add in $.02 on a long ago piece (which is always welcome), but it is more likely that I get someone looking for a specific post that didn't spark an idea for them until later on. I had this happen recently, but feel like it is also worthwhile to pull out the comment and respond here.

I was asked about if/when I would use the median vs. most recent information in determining a grade. Statistically speaking, the median is a better measure of central tendency for grades (vs. using an average)---but so often with standards-based grading, we just talk about examples where most recent information is best.

Here is where I use the median and not the most recent information: content standards.

For example, here is one of the Washington State Grade Level Evidences (GLEs) I am teaching to this semester:

1.2.6 Understand cellular structures, their functions, and how specific genes regulate these functions.
  • Describe cellular structures that allow cells to extract and use energy from food, eliminate wastes, and respond to the environment (e.g., every cell is covered by a membrane that controls what goes into and out of the cell).
  • Describe how DNA molecules are long chains linking four kinds of smaller molecules, whose sequence encodes genetic information.
  • Describe how genes (DNA segments) provide instructions for assembling protein molecules in cells.
  • Describe how proteins control life functions (e.g., the proteins myosin and actin interact to cause muscular contraction; the protein hemoglobin carries oxygen in some organisms).

What's in bold is the target. The bullets underneath are examples, but are not a "to do" list. There is plenty more that could be there.

In this case, it makes no sense for me to look at improvement on this target. It's too freaking big. I have to teach to this standard in chunks. Even just looking at the bullets, we've got cells, DNA, protein synthesis, and protein function. It's going to take me about half of the semester to help kids navigate this...and at the end, I need a gestalt. I need to know if each kid is at the boldfaced standard. This is where the median will come in. I'll have a variety of summative assessments for this GLE collected throughout the semester. I don't need to know specifically how kids did at the end (if they showed improvement), because each chunk is different.

Skills, however, are perfect for use with trend data. One would expect a student to improve over time---whether it's writing a hypothesis, speaking a foreign language, or changing the oil in a car. The first few times may not be so good, but with practice, the kids should be hitting the target (and teachers can throw out those early attempts).

The $100K question is how to "crunch" everything into a single grade...something I'll comment upon tomorrow.

12 December 2007

Memelicious Wednesday

Sandra is a true multi-tasker. She is a self-described "microbiologist and molecular biologist turned tenured biotech faculty turned bioinformatics scientist turned entrepreneur. My passion is developing instructional materials for 21st century biology." She makes me feel downright dull by comparison; however, her blog (Discovering Biology in a Digital World) is a must-read for me. It scratches two of my itches at once: hardcore biology and classroom education.

An aside: If the biology stuff isn't how you roll, then click on over to this week's Carnival of Education, hosted by The Colussus of Rhodey.

Ms. Porter has tagged me with a meme that I think I may have done before, but surely there are seven more things I can think of to reveal...

The rules are:

  1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.

  2. Share 7 random and or weird things about yourself.

  3. Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.

  4. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Without further ado...
  1. I'm a morning person. Yes, one of those people you love to hate. I don't know how it happened. I would much rather be a night owl---there's so many more cool things to do. As it is now, I wake up early and full of energy to get going on the day. It sucks as much as one might imagine.
  2. I don't like to gamble...not even play the nickel slots...not even with other people's money. ("Can I quit now?") I do like card games, but rarely get to play.
  3. I've never changed a baby's diaper nor touched the belly of a Buddha-ish pregnant woman.
  4. I make a damned good margarita. Y'all should come over sometime and I'll knock you nekkid with one. The secret is in the sweet and sour. I boil lots of sugar, water, and fresh squeezed lime juice with a couple of cinnamon sticks. That gets mixed with tequila, grand marnier, and a splash of orange juice. They're sneaky, but ohsosatisfying.
  5. I am a firm believer and supporter of open records for adoptees. I think it's shameful that they are the one class of citizens who are not entitled to their own (original) birth certificates---even moreso that the US won't ratify an international human rights agreement because the agreement specifically describes open records. If you need another place to give charitable contributions, please provide help at Bastard Nation.
  6. Is there a cooler job on the planet than being a Mythbuster? I think not.
  7. I have a polka dot fetish. I don't know why I'm so drawn to the pattern, but I can hardly resist it. When I have my blog template overhauled---it must have dots.
So, there you have it. And now, it's your turn...
If there are others who want to play, join in! The "rules" are a bit squishy as it is---how am I supposed to tag "random" people, fer cryin' out loud. :) Share with us.

11 December 2007

Mordac Strikes Again

You might remember me writing about issues with the district Mordac(s). This has been an ongoing drama over the last couple of years, taking on various forms. In recent days, I was told that the chief Mordac was going to block my classroom wiki from being accessed at school because "wikis are unsafe for kids." (Keep in mind that this is the same man who thinks that blogs have pop-up ads which will cause young male adolescents to get erections...therefore, there should be no blog access for kids at school.) There was no explanation about what it is that is unsafe, nor will any be forthcoming. I told my principal that it was fine if he wanted to block the link. After all, the link is for kids and parents who need information outside the school day. Being able to see things from a school computer isn't necessary.

The chief Mordac has some serious control issues and does not appear to live in the same educational world as anyone else. He singlehandedly banned all games (even educational ones) from being accessed...then decided that some might be all right, but they had to be evaluated by Curriculum staff. Um, teachers have all manner of supplementary printed materials (including games) which do not have to have Curriculum approval. I can go out tomorrow and buy a book of biology crossword puzzles and no one will raise an eyebrow. But I have to document, plead, and get a brazilian signatures if these same puzzles are in a digital format.

Shouldn't the Mordacs of the educational world be promoting features of Classroom 2.0? I remember sitting in a district budget feedback session last year. Mordac and his department were in front of me---and they were shocked (!) that out of all of the comments staff were making about the need for various programs, people, and departments that not a single one addressed technology. They didn't seem to make the connection between their fiefdom and how that is viewed by everyone else...how often they stand in the way of teachers using technology with students rather than supporting it.

I thought about just deleting my classroom wiki. The fact is that I haven't updated it in some time or promoted it much. I thought now that the district uses the Microsoft version of a wiki (known as "SharePoint") that Mordac would be on board. But I see this most recent display of ignorance and arrogance on his part as a wake-up call. It's time to drag him kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

10 December 2007

12/10; 3; 960; 115,550...

Balloons by SRS Photo CC-BY-NC
Numbers and data are a fact of life for nearly everyone---not just teachers...and certainly not just bloggers. December 10 marks the day when this blog was rebirthed with an educational focus. There have been three trips around the sun in the interim and we're about to embark upon the fourth. (Isn't it nice to know that we are all astronauts?)

Over the past three years, there have been 960 posts (including this one). This means that I post on approximately 90% of the calendar days. There are times, like now, when I have some posts sitting in "saved" queue because I have more things on my mind than will coherently fit into a single post...and other times (like the summer or winter break) when there is a dearth of ideas to talk about. Although this blog has an education focus, my personal label makes up the greatest number of posts (132), with assessment (4) and gender (7) the least.

I have no simple means for determining the total number of published comments, but there have been about 115,550 visitors
VOX Blog by AtomicShed CC-BY-NC-ND
to ye olde blog, with readership more than doubling over the last year. It has been wonderful to see this small piece of the edusphere grow over time.

When I started this project, I didn't know how long it would last or how it would progress. At the time, I was just a baby Curriculum Specialist and had no interest in taking more coursework. Now, I continue to have more and more opportunities to have a voice in the educational landscape and am a year away from being able to write the letters EdD after my name. Will I still be blogging next year? In three years? In ten? I haven't a clue. What I do know is that I have come to discover that the edusphere is a vital and necessary community in the landscape of education. I believe to my core that the voices which are found here are among the most important and valuable to me in terms of continuing to refine my professional work. Life is changing for me, but this blog is a constant---and I don't anticipate leaving the edusphere anytime soon.

I tried finding a "Third Blogiversary" graphic to steal add to the post today...but most graphics are for one-year old blogs. Perhaps not that many of us make it to be three. Maybe this one has a certain evolutionary fitness...maybe it is built for endurance. In the meantime, we can celebrate with some flowers.

Bouquet by Muffet CC-BY

To my readers, a heartfelt "Thank you!" for your presence and comments. You are far more than just numbers to me. If you weren't here, I would likely still write, but just feel discouraged about it. :) It's good to be able to share and learn with you. I hope you will continue along with me on this journey as there is so much more to reveal in the coming years. Let us look forward to adding to our numbers...and toasting a fourth anniversary next year on this spot.

09 December 2007

Mastering Intelligence

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.

08 December 2007

I Submit to You

For those of you who read the header of this post and immediately imagined fuzzy handcuffs, you're going to be disappointed with the rest of this. Just click the "Back" button on your browser and move on with your day.

The header is taken from a presentation by Rick Stiggins. He used the phrase no less than 11 times in one hour. I was more of a purist in tracking this than the people at the next table---who also included all of his "I suggest to you..." and similar sentence starters and therefore had a much higher count at the end of the speech. Stiggy has not been a fav of mine for a long time (long story), but his keynote yesterday morning really ticked me off.

His basic call to arms was around report cards. In his mind they are hopeless and outdated because they don't communicate the depth and quality of information all possible stakeholders might need. Grades and report cards are dinosaurs.

Okay---I would agree that a single report card is highly unlikely to tell kids, parents, teachers, admins, community members, etc. everything possible about where a student is in terms of achievement. Ricky-baby, they aren't meant to do so. A report card is one out of a myriad of ways schools communicate with stakeholders about student progress. Every time a teacher provides supportive feedback, every time kids peer edit work, every time a teacher calls home to a parent or writes a letter of recommendation---communication happens. There is no need for a report card to be everything to everyone. (I shiver to picture what it would look like if it did.) Maybe the "communication system" Stiggy was wailing about needing (he really does like to yell into the microphone) is already available. We have way more data at our fingertips than what is found simply in report cards.

My second issue with His Stigginsness was his view of motivation. One of his basic assumptions is that every classroom environment is one of performance---and he provided not a single frame of reference to mastery classrooms. Achievement motivation theory has been the preeminent framework for studying student motivation for more than 20 years. Don't stand up there and claim some expertise in assessment and motivation and then give your listeners only half the picture because the other half undermines the point you want to make. Maybe it isn't a question of what report cards do or don't communicate. Maybe the big picture is really on what happens in the classroom environment on a daily basis that supports student learning. "Assessment for Learning" is all well and good---but you have to give it a context.

So, I submit to you that Stiggins' grasp of standards-based environments is rather flawed. Those of us in those environments are going to have to raise our voices.

06 December 2007

Preaching to the Choir

Some highlights and other points of interest from the first day of the Sound Grading Practices Conference in Portland...

  • Breakfast with The Repairman. Yes, he's just as convivial in person as he is on his blog. I didn't watch him present today (too many good things to choose from on the program...and I knew he'd be preaching to the choir if I were in the audience), but I'm sure that he has even more fans now. There was a lovely contingent of people from his district that let me crash at their table for the keynote. It definitely seems like a district with its collective head on straight.
  • The keynote this morning was delivered by Ken O'Connor, who I've seen/met before. This presentation was on his latest book (Repair Kit: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades). He is the loudest voice in the standards-based wilderness. I certainly agree with the philosophy he promotes---however, two thoughts were provoked in me this morning. One is simply that I wish he would reword his 15 ideas. They are all negatively phrased, e.g. "Don't include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades; include only achievement." Okay, so the end is a little more upbeat; but, I think people generally respond better to things that aren't worded as a "Thou shalt not..." It makes things seem doable because there is a positive course of action. If we're talking about repairs here, then let's talk about how we fix things. I know it's a matter of semantics---like the difference between telling my kids "Be on time." vs. "Don't be late." It just makes things simpler to directly tell people what you want. My second thought is that teachers would likely benefit from clearer information on what to do, rather than examples of what not to do. I realize that a step-by-step guide wouldn't be appropriate because there is no "one size fits all" in education; however, time is our most precious commodity...and we're asking teachers/schools/districts to take this information and individually translate it. There has to be a better scaffold.
  • After making a comment in one of the sessions, teachers from Texas asked where I was in the room at the end of the presentation so they could find out more about how I track marks and handle report card grades. We had a very fun chat.
  • Listening to a group of teachers from Canada talk about their first reactions to standards-based grading---something which was brand new to them as of this morning. They were...typical...in their comments, but it was good to remember how change has to happen. I was asked by them why my district didn't send more people. (For the record, they didn't send me---I'm paying for all of this out of pocket and using personal leave.) I mentioned that Boss Lady 2.0 is the only one here. I didn't mention that she is likely the least useful representative. Before I even got here I had heard some general murmuring that she was not the desired choice of someone to send. I didn't have a good answer for the question at the table. "Money," I said. "Poor choice in priorities" is what the real answer is.
  • Some of my district's materials are being used at the conference. At one session, people at the table noticed that I was from the same place as the source of the handouts and asked me why we only have standards-based grading and reporting for elementary. "Because The Union leadership doesn't feel like supporting it." When I mentioned that the prez and the Little Dictator don't even work in the classroom---and haven't for years (but don't tell the Little Dictator that she's not a teacher or she'll cry...again)---the consensus at the table is that The Union must be totally out of it. Several people there were very happy that they don't have to deal with union weirdness in their districts/states. No kidding. It is also worth noting that BL2.0 won't even support conversations about grading for secondary. (Good thing she was here, eh?) I noticed that both the presenter (who was in our district at one point) and her hubby (who was in charge of Curriculum before my original Boss Lady) mention which district in Washington they worked for. They seem to be much happier away from the culture and union games there.
This evening, I am enjoying a quiet time of things. Portland is a beautiful city and having time to walk and explore has been wonderful. It should be another great day at the conference tomorrow.

We Can Rebuild Him (or Her)

Edutopia is a wonderful (and free!) magazine published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation. I highly recommend signing up for a subscription (or perusing it on-line). This month's issue has a cover story on Building a Better Teacher. It does not include nifty sound effects from the $6M man.

As a teacher leader and someone who has an interest in nurturing those who are new to the profession, the Edutopia article caught my eye:

The crisis confronting teacher education is that, across the country, Fenwick's experience is the exception and Zipper's is the rule. Though there are some leading lights, far too many of America's 1,200-plus schools of education are mired in methods that isolate education from the arts and sciences, segregate the theory and practice of teaching, and provide insufficient time and support for future teachers to learn to work in real classrooms. Far too many universities, for their part, run education programs on the cheap.

The consequences are painfully clear: Half of all new educators abandon the profession within five years, costing schools an estimated $2.6 billion annually and leaving children in the neediest areas with the highest number of inexperienced teachers.

The delinquency in teacher preparation is nothing new, of course -- but it's growing more dire as we ask teachers to perform increasingly challenging tasks: to teach more complex skills to high and measurable standards, and to ensure that every child in an incredibly diverse generation learns these skills equally well. The three R's are not enough anymore.

I have often lamented my own prep program. It was woefully inadequate for the career I have managed to build. For the first few years, I was angry about that. How could the university have promoted their curriculum of study as one that was meaningful? As I've aged in this career, I've come to realize that it was unreasonable for me to assume that any program would have been able to properly prepare all of the students to be teachers in any and every situation; however, I still think that there are ways to do it better.

Edutopia thinks so, too, and highlights 10 teacher prep programs around the country who are helping to find answers to the teacher prep question. This is another article definitely worth your time and headspace.

Any other ideas out there about how to prepare others for the rigors of a career in education?

05 December 2007

It's the Most Wonderful Day of the Week

Wednesday is big stuff here in the edusphere. Go on a bender of reading at this week's Carnival of Education. It is hosted this week by So You Want to Teach. Enjoy!

04 December 2007

Newsflash: Teacher Experience Bolsters Student Success

Ryan, a/k/a "The School Policy Nerd" over at I Thought a Think, recently posted about the Washington School Funding Taskforce. But there's more over at KOMO 4 news in Seattle regarding findings about what influences student success most: teacher experience or teacher degrees?

Combining the results of 15 studies on teacher pay, the researchers found a dramatic improvement in student achievement between one and five years of teacher experience and a more gradual boost in the years following. Student achievement in these studies was mostly tracked through scores on standardized reading or math tests.

A similar analysis of studies concerning teachers getting graduate degrees found the degrees seemed to have little or no impact on student outcomes.

The report makes a preliminary recommendation that any changes in the way teachers are paid should emphasize financial rewards for experience rather than higher pay for teachers with graduate degrees...

The task force has until early 2009 to make its recommendations, in part because that's when a state court plans to hear arguments on an education funding lawsuit brought by school districts and education organizations across the state.

Researchers at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy are still working on their analysis of the effectiveness of other financial incentives for teachers, such as bonuses for completing a national certification program; proposals for extra pay for teaching in high-poverty, low-performing schools; or higher pay for teaching certain subjects like math and science.

The institute also will study the effectiveness of voluntary all-day kindergarten, smaller classes, professional development for all staff, focused instructional support, and extended day and school year options.

My original reaction was "Duh." in terms of more experience in the classroom leads to be better success for kids. Would it not be true for nearly any job that the more time you spend learning it, the better you get at it? But then I also thought about the "dead wood" teachers that litter classrooms---the ones who have quit learning and growing as professionals. Is there a point where the effect experience has maxes out...perhaps even declines? As for degrees, I also agree that more letters after one's name does not make someone a better teacher.

As it stands now, the state salary schedule for teachers is based on both: experience and education. What's the answer, I wonder. Do we continue to pay beginning teachers paltry salaries because they're not effective yet? Do we continue to have a maximum pay rate, regardless of the number of years a teacher has been in the classroom? As it stands now, someone with 30 years experience makes the same as someone with 16 years experience.

I'm glad Ryan is willing to tape and watch these hearings. I might not be as interested in the small pieces of process that he is, but the outcomes are definitely worth watching.

03 December 2007

Home Again, Home Again

You may have heard that there was a metric @$$load of rain here in the Pacific Northwest. We certainly weren't spared in this part of Washington.

Monday was quite a day. I had a physical therapy appointment first thing and had quite a struggle to make it to the clinic. The pic below is not of my car, but one that was stuck across the street from the clinic. It gives you an idea of what we were contending with. I drove through this same area as the car. Twice. But that was just before it got this bad. I did see the tow truck coming to retrieve this vehicle.

Then, I had the pleasure of trying to drive to work. Here is the road I had to travel:

Anyhoo, I made it to school about 10:50. I wasn't wild about being there, considering what conditions were already like and anticipating not being able to get home a few hours later. And wouldn't you know it? We got the announcement dismissing school less than 10 minutes later. I spent my planning period verifying with parents that they did indeed want their snowflakes to leave school, and eventually the buses showed up to take the stragglers home. Staff were then dismissed.

Later this afternoon, there were two kids wakeboarding in the gulley in front of my house. Yes, there's enough water collected in the culvert to surf on...and more is coming down every moment. My basement is a bit damp, but no major damage. I have power and heat (which is more than poor Hedgetoad can claim)...and a day off tomorrow as the county tries to clean up all of the mudslides and figure out other ways to make the roads passable. I hope all you readers are warm and dry, too.


One of the classes for my Master's degree was focused on different ways to organize curriculum for gifted kids. We students were charged with modeling the various kinds of lessons for one another. I don't remember which format was being demoed on one particular day, but I do remember getting the giggles with a classmate. In an effort to demonstrate our flexibility with responses to the question of "How did civil war soldiers feel after the Battle of Gettysburg?", we took a more tactile, rather than emotional, tangent. Our favourite answer was "Sticky."

As I obviously haven't forgotten this moment in time, you can imagine that it was the first thing I thought of when someone passed along information on the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. (You can download the article "Teaching that Sticks" for free; use the access code TEACH31.) The ideas are intriguing. What is it about certain moments in the classroom which make them "stick" with us for a lifetime---and how can we purposefully plan them?

In some ways, it's a bit of a spin on the UbD "Big Idea" for unit/lesson design...except this has a "hook." It's not just about building an enduring understanding, but about connecting it to something that is more readily retrievable and available to students. I'd like to think a bit more about this and how to implement it. I would think that this has a lot of potential for staff development, too.

Maybe Santa will leave something sticky underneath the tree for me this Christmas. :)

02 December 2007

Words, Words, Words

Vocabulary can be the Waterloo for many a biology student. Although I have tried this year to tame the mountain our resource material throws at them, I need to do a better job of clearly identifying the absolute-most-important-gotta-know-'em-cold terms. Some words, like "cell" are more important than others (e.g. "peduncle"). But if you're a kid looking at the list of key terms for a given chapter, there is nothing to help sort them in terms of priority. It's hard to make sense of what a eukaryote is if you don't know about a nucleus. If you don't have the concept of an organelle in mind first, it's nearly impossible to connect to a mitochondrion. And so on.

So, this post is a reminder to me to spend more time on vocabulary skills. I don't ask my kids to write out definitions---I don't think that's a valuable way to go. Science is the one area where kids need concrete experiences first. We do lots of labs and activities, but I need to stop more along the way and give kids consistent practice with organizing the terms in various ways.

Do you have a favourite strategy to share? Leave it in the comments. :)

01 December 2007


During the change of classes this week, a teacher and student were having a very inconvenient conversation. I felt embarrassed for the kid. The teacher was telling him how she didn't see why he even bothered to be in her class, because he didn't do his homework. His side of the story? He does well on all of the tests and participates in class---he doesn't need the homework to understand the material. She continued to make a point of letting the kid know he was a failure in her class.

I stayed out of things, of course, but I did understand where each person was coming from. The teacher has concerns about academic behaviors...the kid's point is that he can show her he's learned what she's asked without the redundancy of homework.

I don't give a lot of homework in my class---I never have. I do expect kids to work during class and review notes/handouts at home. I do think that homework can be a valuable tool for learning, but I'm starting to ponder the "academic behaviour" part of it more. The class where the snippet of conversation occurred was an AP class---most if not all of those kids are college bound. I am hard pressed to think of any classes I had in college where homework was part of my grade. It's not that the profs didn't expect us to read and study on our own---just that tests and essays were what formed the grade. It was our task to formatively assess ourselves. We decided if we needed homework. For a college-bound high school senior, should our view of homework reflect the "self-management" of learning that the kid will experience in a few months?

Okay, so not every kid is college bound...especially not the ones I work with on a regular basis. As a teacher, I have work that I bring home. But I can think of lots of jobs where there is no homework expected. To say that I should use homework to train kids for expectations of the real world would be untrue. And frankly, I want to see evidence of learning as it happens. Homework is great for kids who need to finish up work or prepare for a presentation---but skills and assessment need to happen in the classroom. I am finding myself more focused on this as time goes by. These little snippets of conversations that I catch help move my thinking along this path.

30 November 2007

Way Kewl

Is this not awesome? It's your brain represented as a map.

"The above map's original data was created from a reference photo of a real human brain which was used to build the 3-D terrain. This digital elevation model was then used to create contour line data, relief shading, and to plan where the roads and features should be placed for map compilation. Real New Zealand public domain data was then added for the surrounding islands."

You can get free downloads for wallpaper---or buy paper versions. I think this would be a way kewl poster to have in the classroom. Don't you?

The Apologies That Come With Hindsight

At the end of my first year of teaching, I wanted to seek out all of my junior high teachers and apologize to them. Personally, I think I was a pretty good kid---I never got in trouble for anything---and yet, I was an adolescent. I must have not been all that different from any other 7th or 8th grader. Maybe I never had detention or was sent to the office, but I'm sure I must have asked the teacher to repeat the directions (after she'd already said them three times), or been lazy with an assignment, or rolled my eyes after some comment. Ouch. I can't claim that my goal was to irritate anyone in particular, but that doesn't mean I didn't. I'd seen plenty of instances of that during my first year on the other side of the desk.

And now?

Well, I realize that most people teaching junior high like that age of kid (a stage of life where most of the time the kids don't like themselves...and you don't like them, either). They understand the quirks, joys, and frustrations of working with young adolescents and tend to have a great sense of humor about things. And just as I don't doubt that I was a fairly average junior high kid, I also know that means I didn't give these teachers anything they weren't prepared to handle.

Instead, I sometimes wish these days I could find those first junior high students I had and apologize to them for not being a better teacher. I don't know that I will ever be a master of classroom teaching, but I know I am much more skillful and knowledgeable now. Those poor kids I had 17 years ago. I wonder if I really taught them anything at all. I wish I could tell them that I don't suck quite so much anymore. The classroom is such an odd thing---it is a moment frozen in time. I remember the kids in their 15 year old form, just as they remember me at whatever age I am at the time. We don't age and change within those memories over the years. If I was a bad teacher, then that is how I'm remembered---they don't know the progress I've made over time.

I know my wish won't come true, but perhaps that's okay. Maybe I can make amends to those kids of yore in my career by being the best I can for the kids I have now. I might not be able to change the past, but I am very much in control of shaping the future for a few hundred teens this year. I hope that in another 20 years, I won't be looking back at them with the same kind of hindsight that inspires apologies. I hope we all have a reason to smile and cheer.

29 November 2007

Um...I Don't Think So

I was chatting with a friend the other day, comparing recent experiences with students. I told him about a lab I was debriefing with one of my classes of students. After we talked about what the data meant, their first task was to write a conclusion. Keep in mind, they've written lots of these for me this year, but not in the past couple of weeks. So, we talked about what needed to be included (again). They were eager to volunteer what the three most important pieces were. "Great!" I thought. "They know what to do." I set them loose to do the work...and a few minutes later as kids were bringing me their work, I saw that only two of them had actually written a proper conclusion. WTF? Did we not just review what they needed to write about?! So, I handed the papers back out and told them that these conclusions were most definitely not up to standard. We looked at the board again, where I had captured their thoughts about what constituted a conclusion. "You know what to do. Why didn't you do it?" They looked sheepish, but they made a second (and much improved) effort. (All of this after I handed back a lab earlier in the week which also had a disappointing lack of thinking displayed in their answers. Sigh.)

My friend had a similar tale of laziness amongst his students. Somehow, we both thought it important to tell kids to do it right and immediately make sure they did. We talked about needing to do more of this. I think it's especially important at this time of year, as kids really are starting to slack off in terms of performance. In terms of formative assessment, I'm always okay with kids orally demonstrating learning. It's okay sometimes for summative work, too; however, the writing is a often a better form of evidence because I can track it over time much more easily. Meanwhile, the state test is four months away---and they will definitely have to write on that.

The other part of our conversation was simply around the idea that it is frustrating that at the 10th grade level, we are still having to break down every skill and scaffold it. I had to work with an awful lot of kids this week on how to write a research question. Their hypotheses and conclusions are looking good (when they write them), but there are so many pieces to develop. I can't blame previous teachers---because I know that many of them have taught these concepts. Somehow, the learning either didn't stick, or is currently stored in a place in students' minds where it isn't being retrieved.

In the meantime, I plan to keep calling kids on their "not best" work. They're going to be seeing a lot more assignments coming back and hearing me say "Um...I don't think so. Do it again."

28 November 2007

Noble Carnival

Matt-a-matical Thinking is hosting this week's Carnival of Education. There are awards for every entrant, with no evening gown competition required. Go and cheer on your favourites!

26 November 2007

A Better Mousetrap

Do you ever have one of those "Duh." moments? The ones that are slightly embarrassing to admit? I had one today...and yes, I'm revealing it here for all the world to read---because I want other biology teachers to benefit from my revelation.

There is a lab that I have often done with students. You take three different solutions (water; yeast and water; yeast, sugar, and water) and place them in test tubes. There is a rubber stopper with the glass tube and some rubber tubing that lead from each test tube into a smaller test tube containing bromthymol blue, an indicator for carbon dioxide. The experimental set-up is represented below:The idea is that you're able to look at evidence of cellular respiration because the assembly with the yeast, water, and sugar will turn the bromthymol blue yellow. It's great, except there are always some problems. It's darned hard to get all the tubes to stay connected and upright. If you have more than a couple of classes, you struggle to have enough materials. Keep in mind that the experiment runs overnight, so it isn't as if you can use the same things for each class. Meanwhile, the length of the experiment means that there is ample time for things to get knocked over or otherwise screwed up. The tubing isn't always clean and so results can also be iffy. More than once, I've played the role of the "carbon dioxide fairy," and used a straw to blow in some carbon dioxide before the students arrived.

So, it's that time again. I'm thinking about this lab, and while I want to use it...it's a lot of trouble and the issues with the design get in the way of The Big Idea. There has to be a better mousetrap, right?

At lunch, I mixed up some yeast, water, and honey. I put some in 2 test tubes along with bromthymol blue. I covered one and left the other uncovered (just in case the whole rubber stopper thing was important). In a third tube, I put bromthymol blue and then inserted a pipette that contained the yeast solution (in case separating the yeast from the indicator was important).

Wouldn't you know it? They all worked. And what's more, the two where the solutions were directly mixed only took 15 minutes to show results. The third tube took longer, but the indicator was yellow within 2 hours. No rubber tubing. No glass tubes. No rubber stoppers. No test tube racks overflowing and falling over with stuff.

I could have been doing this for years, saving myself a tremendous amount of headache and heartache...but no. The answer and materials were in front of me all along and I just didn't look for it. I am glad that I have now, and while I feel a bit foolish for not making this discovery before, I hope that others can learn from this.


25 November 2007

The Sad State of Elementary Science

A recent study by UC Berkley has lent some weight to a sad suspicion I've had for some time: science courses at the elementary grades are becoming extinct.

About 80 percent of those teachers said they spent less than an hour each week teaching science, according to researchers from the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley and from WestEd, an education think tank based in San Francisco.

In contrast, a national study seven years ago found elementary school science instruction averaged more than two hours per week, said Rena Dorph, the lead researcher on the new study.

  • About 16 percent of the elementary teachers said they spent no time on science at all. (Most taught at schools that had missed the reading and math benchmarks of No Child Left Behind and were trying to catch up.)
  • Most kindergarten to fifth-grade students typically had science instruction no more than twice a week.
  • Ten times as many teachers said they felt unprepared to teach science (41 percent) than felt unprepared to teach math (4 percent) or reading (4 percent).
  • Fewer than half of Bay Area fifth-graders (47 percent) scored at grade level or above on last spring's California Standards Test in science. (Only fifth-graders are tested in science at the elementary level.)
You can read the full report here, if you're interested.

While I don't doubt that the expectations set forth by NCLB are a driving force behind science getting muscled out, my hunch is that other elements may also be at work. I think this is a bigger issue than just blame the feds. If 41% of elementary teachers feel unprepared to teach science---isn't that an issue the ed schools need to tackle? Is it a sign for greater need for elementary science specialists and coaches?

There are repercussions of this lack of science (or experience with bad science) which I see in my classroom all the time. I feel like I'm continually having to teach some basic scientific knowledge and skills...and fight against all manner of misconceived ideas.

I hope that at some point, this overall trend toward less science reverses and children get the kinds of rich experiences they deserve in the elementary classroom. I admit that I'm not sure what it will take to get us there. Any ideas?

24 November 2007

Getting in the Spirit of Things

I was working on my Christmas cards this morning. I'm not the kind of person who does the newsletter thing; but, I do like reaching out to those who have been part of my life and at least letting them know that I'm thinking of them.

One of the best things about receiving cards during the holidays is that they're tangible. Call me old-fashioned (go on, I dare you), but I love seeing brightly coloured envelopes in the mailbox. I like the surprise of what is hidden inside each---the cards people have chosen and what they want to share this year, if only "Hello!"

So, here's the deal, dear readers: I'm assuming that at least some of you out there enjoy the holiday snail mail experience as much as I do. As you are part of my world, too, I'd like to send you a greeting. If you would like a real, honest-to-goodness card for the holidays from the Science Goddess, e-mail me your postal address (international readers welcome---this includes my UK lurkers). I will be immediately deleting messages after addressing the cards, so don't worry that I'll be selling your info to marketers (or your boss).

Join me in the spirit of things this season, won't you?