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?

23 November 2007

Shopping for Your Fav' Edublogger

Hey, all you Black Friday survivors---are you still looking for the perfect gift for your favourite edublogger? Check out these suggestions:

  • Here's a freebie that's sure to make him/her/it smile: a nomination for the 2007 Edublog Awards. Just click on over and nominate 'til your heart's content.
  • Another great freebie (though they'll think you spent a mint) is the Teacher's Magazine Sourcebook from Education Week. A print version is available and doesn't cost a thing.
  • Have some time and cash to burn? Well, you must not be an educator yourself, but your local edublogger is always glad to call you "friend." Why not show your fandom by having their blog printed as a book?
  • Why not provide a gift certificate to an office supply big box store? You'd be hard pressed to find any teacher who doesn't have a fetish for stationery products. Better yet, how 'bout some money to spend at Levenger or See Jane Work (who also has "Office Ideas for Dick")?
  • Speaking of addictions, what educator doesn't like books? Since some of the big names in education (Corwin, Heinemann, ASCD) don't do gift cards (What's up with that?), why not send along something for amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.
Have some additional ideas to share? Let your fingers do the walking to the comments.

22 November 2007

Giving Thanks

Best wishes to everyone for a safe and enjoyable holiday. I'm headed to the kitchen to begin working on some casseroles and frost the cupcakes we're having for dessert.
Thank you to all of my readers for your time and comments; to my fellow edubloggers---we may not always agree, but I am grateful for how your words enrich the discussion; to my family and friends, as your presence reminds me of just how fortunate I am to have you as a part of my life.
Happy Thanksgiving!

21 November 2007

Hosting the Carnival

Another week, another Carnival of Education. Head on over and have a look! The NYC Educator has served up a heaping helping of Thanksgiving delight.

If you haven't played host, I'd like to encourage you to give it a go. I look at it as a community service for the Edusphere. For me, it takes between three and four hours to put together. I try to spread out the work between Sunday and Tuesday. Links are continuously sent via the blogcarnival submission page. I try to sort through them as they come in, because several are spammish in nature. I copy and paste the URLs into a document along with its title, author, and a brief description about the post. This makes grouping things for the final version a lot simpler. So far, I'm the only host who tries to string things together as a single narrative story, but I have seen so many creative ideas for organizing the information.

Give the Education Wonks a shout if you can take up this gauntlet. I highly recommend it!

20 November 2007

Is Less More?

Many many moons ago, my dad and I went to a regional National Science Teachers' Association convention together. I was still very much a newbie at that point and it was fun to pal around with my dad doing grown-up teacher things. Mind you, he was a college prof, so we didn't attend a lot of the same sessions. It was at this convention that he was introduced to the concept of "Less is more." when it comes to teaching. I remember how he scoffed. I remember agreeing with him. There's so much to learn...why would you possibly leave anything out on purpose?

As I've moved into later stages of my career, I've started to find that maybe the whole "Less is more." idea has a lot going for it. I find myself honing in on what The Big Idea is for a unit and sticking with it. I am more willing to let go of the details in terms of what I expect kids to know...and less willing to allow kids to get away without constructing a few simple concepts around The Big Idea.

There are very few worksheets as compared to early in my career. Never do kids write out lists of definitions for each chapter. We do more thinking together as a group and then reflecting on our work in the notes. I am less about cramming as much information as possible into one class period and more about teaching one or two ideas as deeply as I can. I don't need to "baffle them with bullshit," as I often did early in the career---thinking that I was convincing them with my vast array of knowledge (rather than realizing I was just confusing the kids).

Even still, I feel like there is too much to teach. There are over 20 to help kids reach this year---and while previous teachers have definitely laid the groundwork, it is still my responsibility to lead them down the home stretch. Twenty standards in 36 weeks---standards which exclude a lot of what we old folks grew up with in biology (plants, animals, bacteria...). It's understandable that the more you know about your content area, the more you want to share it with others; but we have to remember that kids are just at the beginning of their learning. We don't need to overwhelm them. They have a lifetime to gain in knowledge, just as we have done. I can't help but think that even less would mean a lot more to our kids.

19 November 2007

Send in the Clones

Dilbert, via Assorted Stuff, (who declined to name the Mordac of his district):

Like most districts, we have our own Mordac. There are actually several people filling the role here. There are the hard-core techs who speak the programming language and are the true gatekeepers of the filter. There is someone (The Face) who responds to teacher inquiries---most often with a "No." and someone who serves as a go-between for the techs and The Face. The overall impression is that their jobs are there to make sure no one has access to technology, much like Dilbert faces in the workplace. Technology is their own private playground. The overall attitude is "How dare teachers and students think they should have access to it, too!"

It makes me sad that so many of our students are ready for the next steps in technology---and are light years ahead of their teachers---but those teachers who are ready to move with them are instead giving up. (HappyChyck is the latest casualty). How do we expect to help prepare kids for the world they will be walking into when it's full of Mordac clones?

18 November 2007

A Mastery Girl in a Performance World

The major theory behind my dissertation work is Achievement Goal Theory. Without boring you to tears, the basic idea here is that students will pursue one of two goals within the classroom: mastery which values learning for the sake of learning or performance which values learning for the sake of external indicators. These students associate success with how their performance appears to outsiders, doing better than other kids, and achieving success with as little effort as possible. Performance goals lead to a greater amount of cheating, less cooperative learning, and students who pick the easiest tasks available (or are the first to give up when faced with difficult tasks). On the other hand, mastery goals have been linked with the development of new skills, an increased confidence in abilities, the preference for challenging work (and greater persistence in the face of difficulty), and a stronger sense of school belonging. Teachers have an enormous influence on the goal structure of a classroom. Even if kids walk in the door with a performance orientation, teachers can cause them to become focused on mastery goals.

I've recently been thinking about this in a bit broader terms. Do schools as entities also put forward a particular goal structure---and what might be the impact to kids? The educational research is replete with studies showing that the greater the performance focus, the greater the student dissatisfaction with school.

Here's a hallway bulletin board from my school:

What does this communicate to you?

Personally, I feel very uncomfortable with the message. "Simple" or "easy" tasks are to be valued. "Good grades" should apparently inspire gratitude---but why? Does this idea reinforce that grades are given via some mystical process, not earned by learning? Are teachers who do these things to be considered "nice"?

I guess I'm just a mastery girl working in a performance school world. It makes me sad to think that messages like the one above are all over the building---and yet the faculty is clueless as to why student dissatisfaction with their experiences at the school increases over time (as indicated by survey data from all three grade levels).

Although my research will be looking at grading practices through the lens of mastery and performance goals, it is certainly not the only area where we as teachers communicate our values and goals to students. What does your classroom and school say about what you value?

17 November 2007

The Next Biology Teacher

You might remember me mentioning that I had an observer a few days ago. A teacher-to-be was out watching some classrooms as part of her very first course in education. She got bounced around among the biology teachers. Because I was busy working with kids, I didn't have a lot of time to chat with her, although I wanted to. There are few things more fun than working with newbies. I did, however, find time to share my syllabus...talk a bit about grading...a few things I've learned about working with teens...and so on.

She sent me a note afterwards:

"I found it a valuable experience and learned a lot about your teaching style and the varying student levels that you work with on a daily basis. All of this is important information I will carry with me as I continue my pursuit for my degree. I am also grateful for the extra time you took to explain to me some of your education philosophy, classroom management, and experiences you've had as a successful and influential teacher. There is an evaluation form that is supposed to be filled out about me that is typically done by an 'assigned' teacher, though none of you in particular were assigned as my lead observation classroom. I did feel I had some of the most valuable and integrated conversations with you, and was wondering if you wouldn't mind taking just a few minutes to fill it out for me."


I told her I'd be delighted. I felt it a compliment that in our short chats that she felt like we made a bit of a connection. My hope is simply that by planting a few ideas about working with teens and standards-based grading, that she can start from a better informed place than I was afforded. It would be interesting to see how she turns out in a couple of years.

16 November 2007

Blaming the Dog

A friend of mine has a saying about the school I work at: "They think their shit don't stink...but their farts give them away." True enough, unfortunately---but it's only outsiders who seem to smell anything. Most people at the school think the odor must be coming from elsewhere---they like to blame the dog.

As we ranged through a long list of standards for school performance, evaluating whether or not these were things we do or need improvement, it was amazing to listen to the excuses. For example, they recognized that they don't collaborate "to discuss and share student work and the results of student assessments for the purposes of revising the curriculum and improving instructional strategies." Why don't they do it? Because the district doesn't give them any time.

Um...this is the same school who brags about how they don't use the 90 minutes of time set aside every week for collaborative planning. How can you complain about not having any time and then feel proud that you never meet? They also mentioned that they don't have anyone with data team training. Gosh, I've had that and know how to do it. When would you like to start? Um...we weren't really serious about wanting to do that.

For every item that was identified as needing improvement, there was an excuse for why it couldn't improve. Not once was there any suggestion of personal responsibility---or ideas about how to put a plan into action to solve the problem. I never heard anyone take a student-centered stance and inquire what we should do to help kids. By the end of the meeting, a large cloud of noxious gas was hanging above their heads, but very few teachers seemed to notice anything. I guess you just get used to the smell after awhile.

15 November 2007

Hot Potato Parents

The term "helicopter parent" appears to be pretty mainstream these days. In case you haven't seen this term before, it refers to the kind of parent who likes to hover over their offspring---well into adolescence and young adulthood. This is a parent who becomes overinvolved, monitoring every moment of the precious snowflake's life, often to the misery of the snowflake's teachers.

I'd like to throw another log on the fire and put forward the concept of a "hot potato parent." This is a parent that no one in the school wants to deal with anymore---a parent the school is forewarned about by the previous school. "Just wait until you meet Mrs. Such-and-So!" It isn't long before the secretaries are tired of the parent calling. Admins don't want to return the phone calls anymore. Teachers hate the sight of a light indicating there's a voicemail waiting (let alone the thought of the 20 minutes it will take for the hot tater to bluster over the phone). Counselors may be stuck with trying to negotiate among all of the parties---but even then, the parent may try a different ear.

And what of the young spuds? Ah, this is what separates the helicopter from the hot potato. The offspring of a helicopter parent are your straight-A, student council, star child type. The hot potato kids are suffering from their own lack of attention from the parents. In order to get some, they tell stories or misrepresent what happens in school because then mom/dad will give them some time.

The kids have learned this game pretty well from their parents---who also have a need from attention---but also for empowerment. There are all kinds of reasons and situations that generate this reaction. It makes these people bitter and angry and there's little they like more than unleashing that upon school staff. These are parents for whom no answer from no person will ever suffice. Every single person involved with the educational system is wrong about their child. They never seem to ask themselves if it's possible that there might be another explanation for things.

I admit that I am not a parent---I don't know the ferocity with which I would protect my child. I would hope that I would also recognize that a parent's role is to guide and support. All of us make mistakes along the way, but isn't the goal to learn from those and become able to make good choices independently? Why would a parent think that by yelling at and alienating other adults that they're setting a good example for their children? Isn't better to model responsibility than excuse-making?

14 November 2007

Future Goals

When I was a newly minted educator and out for my first interview, the principal asked me a question: What are your goals for your students? My naive answer was something to the effect that kids should be able to do enough math to balance a checkbook and fill out their income tax...know enough English to fill out a job application...and understand how to follow a set of directions.

I still think those are necessary skills, but umpteen years on, my answer to this question would be different.

As I look at my students now, I expect more evidence of thinking. I'm not content to settle for the basics anymore. I need them to synthesize pieces of information into a logical conclusion. I want them to be able to evaluate---compare and contrast in order to make judgments and choices. I hope that students will be able to self-assess their understanding and adjust their learning accordingly. Long after kids leave my classroom, they will still be buying cars, weighing options for medical treatments, becoming parents---and so much more. Can I hone their thinking skills enough to do that?

I was pondering this today as I had an observer in my class. She is on her way to becoming a teacher---at the very beginning of the journey. We didn't have a lot of time to talk, but while my kids tested today, we chatted a bit about why I'd picked the items I had. I told her that I could truly care less if kids know about vacuoles. I can't think of a single adult who needs this knowledge on a daily basis (yes, I know that there are many in the biology field who might). But understanding how to compare and contrast? That, I care about. The context for that was biological on the test, but it was the thinking kids were showing me that was most valuable. She seemed to understand that. Maybe she'll ponder that some more. Maybe in a couple of years when she is sitting in her first interview and is asked about goals for students, she can be a bit more thoughtful than I was.

12 November 2007

Gradebook Redux

We have a nasty storm moving in with high winds. I won't be surprised if the power is out later...so I'd better blog while the blogging's good. :)

We're past the quarter mark in the school year. Now that I've had a chance to try out the gradebook I drafted in August, it's time to share some of the growing pains I've had...and show off the new and improved version. The names have been removed to protect the innocent and I've deleted all but a sampling of student marks. Still, you can get the jist of it all

First of all, I moved all of the marks onto one Excel worksheet, instead of two (one for formative and one for summative). I boldfaced the summative items to help them stand out. This also makes it simple to print "progress reports" for kids who need to show their parents. I just hide the rows with other student info and then I can print out just the marks for the one student. Keep in mind when you're reading the data that it is not completely sequential. The marks are in order according to standard...but the standards aren't in chronological order. Also, instead of having a separate record of assessments, I have typed them directly into the worksheet with the marks. Voila! Three worksheets condensed into one---and very friendly to use. I also added a worksheet with the most recent testing data. This makes it easy to keep close at hand. Overall, only 20 - 25% of my students met the standards in 2006. Lots of work for me to do in order to improve upon that.

We'll see how things shake out at the semester. Obviously, there will be a lot more information to consider by then, but perhaps you can start to see how the data is emerging. Looking at the scores by standard really helped the conferences I had with kids about what should go on the report card. I would like to develop some sort of format that has the standards listed, along with the appropriate score. Perhaps there would be some way to merge the Excel data into a Word template...and then just print these out for kiddos (and parents). One hurdle at a time, eh?

Update 5/2012: Please visit my page on the Excel for Educators blog for current examples of using Excel for collecting and reporting classroom data.

11 November 2007

Not That Anyone Asked

Turner Classic Movies is my favourite channel to haunt. I wasn't a classic movie fan my whole life. When we finally got a colour tv in the house, I couldn't figure out why anyone would willingly go back to seeing something in black and white. It wasn't until I went to college---a place where "edgy" films were available---that I started expanding my range of celluloid stories. Eventually, I fell in love with the old stuff.

This month, TCM is having a "guest programmer month" where different celebrities are picking a three or four films to share each evening. I think it's interesting that instead of picking Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind (although "The Donald" did), or other "great films," people are choosing things which are a bit more revealing about their personalities or interests. It's given me some fun to think about what I would choose---not that anyone has asked, mind you.

I love to laugh---so something full of humor would have to be on the list. I thought about a Marx Brothers film, as the early ones are so clever. Or maybe a 1930's screwball comedy in the vain of Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. I think my final choice, however, is The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Preston Sturges not only had this wonderful sense of the absurd, but I like how this movie bends itself around the Hayes Production Code. He couldn't have a story about an unwed mother---let alone a gal who got that way by drinking. So, why not send her out for a night of dancing with troops about to be deployed in WWII? She bonks her head while jitterbugging (although she also drinks plenty of "lemonade" during the evening), gets married, but can't remember the guy's name the next day---and, of course, he's shipped out while she has to face the consequences. Hilarity ensues and the whole film is a wonderful ride for the observer.

A little romance can be good, too; but, I think that if I were to have to hone in on a film from this vein, I couldn't go with a standard tearjerker (e.g. Love Affair) or something epic or strung out (although I do like Random Harvest). It's more interesting to consider the kinds of things love makes people do. I'd have to choose something with a more noirish bent. Mildred Pierce and Laura come to mind...but my final answer is Gilda. Rita Hayworth is smokin' h4wt and the chemistry with Glenn Ford is tangible. We walk into the middle of their obsessive love-hate tango and can't let go of them anymore than they can be free of one another.

There have been any number of interesting films which explore the spaces between life and death. Will John Garfield spend forever on a Purgatorial voyage Between Two Worlds after he attempts to commit suicide? Lionel Barrymore has some hard choices to make after he captures Death in an apple tree and realizes that life On Borrowed Time is not what he thought it would be. A Matter of Life and Death is a wonderful David Niven film. His "escort" misses getting him from a crashing aircraft---and when the escort comes to collect Niven, Niven isn't interested in dying. He's fallen in love and has to go to the Highest Court to make his case why he should be allowed to live. There's great contrast between b/w and colour. All that being said, this time around, I'm choosing Death Takes a Holiday with Frederic March as my film from this vein. Like the Barrymore film, it makes a point about why death is a necessary part of life (and what happens in its absence), but this film serves as a greater reminder about treasuring the joys that we have while we're here.

And for my last pick? Lots of ideas. There are a couple of rich Technicolor films, including The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus that are so beautiful, I can't pull my eyes away from them when they're on. Either is a delight to share. I'm not much of a western or war fan, but Duel in the Sun (which is also a Technicolor marvel), The Searchers, or The Big Country wouldn't be bad. As for the war genre---here again I'm not an enthusiast---but The Mortal Storm or Sergeant York would be good to round out the set. I've thought about Hepburn and Tracy, William Powell and Myrna Lloyd, or Bogart and Bacall---all interesting actors to watch. The Uninvited is about the best ghost story out there. I'm thinking I need to pick something in the suspense genre. Hitchcock may win the overall category, and The Spiral Staircase is always good for some watching through fingers; but I'm going to select Night Must Fall as my final film for this festival. There's plenty of cat-and-mouse; however, it's all done through mind games. Robert Montgomery charms and repels us all at once---we never want to believe that he is a killer, just a naughty boy. It makes you think a bit on where you stand in your humanistic beliefs---are we inherently good?

So, there you have it. Perhaps I haven't picked something for everyone. I certainly enjoy being entertained while I watch, but I like to think about the ideas presented, too. I suppose I have some darker choices here. It's those shades of grey, though, that are most interesting to ponder. They reveal something about ourselves as we watch things unfold on the big screen. They're the pieces which stick with you long after the curtains have come down.

Come on over anytime. I'll pop some corn and pull out the DVDs. Maybe you'd be kind enough to bring along your picks to share, too.

10 November 2007

Spatial Reasoning

I was recently reminded of the following story via The Big Fresh newsletter:

A child was asked to clean up her room before her mother arrived home from a trip. The girl threw dozens of little items in her toy box---Legos, trinkets, Matchbox cars. She then placed larger items on top---dolls, boxed puzzles, games---only to find that the lid of the toy box wouldn't shut. Her father came in to help, and explained, "You need to take everything out. Always put the largest items in first. The small items will fit around the large items."

If we make the story a metaphor for both space and time in our classrooms, how many of us teachers have our classrooms so full of the small things that the larger ones are pushed out?

I've been thinking about this on two different scales. The first is more of a macroscopic interest take on life, as I try to juggle dissertation, grad school classes, teaching, taking care of the house, and maintaining some semblance of a personal life. I wish I could discretely lump each of those into a category of either "big thing" or "small thing," but I just can't. So much is context dependent. Their relative sizes change with my priorities for the day or week. Do I have anything due for my grad school class? If not, that's a small item for the week. Are my lessons plans done for my classes? Oops, not quite...I guess that makes them something big at the moment.

On a very different scale, I've been working on the big and small of grading. The biggest thing to fit into the box is student learning. I think maybe it always has been The Big Idea, but I didn't treat it as such. Like the girl putting away her toys, I didn't always choose the largest item to put in first. Instead, I got distracted by other things that I thought were big: late work, no retakes on tests, using zeros to punish lazy kids. The reality is that those all represent "small stuff," and I'm just not sweating the small stuff anymore. It isn't to say that academic behaviors aren't important, just that they don't receive the lion's share of my attention. I see a lot of my colleagues frothing at the mouth over late work...and I just think "Why?" Why would I want to expend all that energy fussing over late work? Aren't the kids better served if I use that same time and attention to help them improve their learning? If a student has been sick for several days and grades are due---I can assign them an "incomplete" on the report card instead of inserting zeros as placeholders. Kids can show me their learning when they're healthy and ready to focus.

Some of my colleagues marvel that I'm farther ahead in the book than they are. I shake my head. If the big things in the curriculum are the standards, then those get placed in my classroom first. I understand how tempting it is to want to squeeze in all of the small things of biology first---there are so many great ideas to explore. I just can't do that anymore. First things first: Get the kids ready to meet the standards.

I look around my school and think about what other teachers are choosing as their priorities for time and energy. (One of these days, I'm going to remember to take my camera to school and take pictures of the posters and sayings about grades teachers are putting up. It hurts to read them.) While I can't agree with many of the choices I see being made, I can also recognize that I have had different needs over the course of my career. There's been some ebb and flow in terms of the size of the objects we need to manage within our walls. Our spatial reasoning changes---and hopefully improves---with experience, because I can't believe that the enormity of our task has changed.

08 November 2007

Biology Gangstas

Elodea canadensis by Bas Kers CC-BY-NC-SA
Show the picture on the left to any biology teacher worth his/her salt, and it will be quickly identified. "Elodea!" they will exclaim in rapturous delight. It's an aquatic plant, prized for its cell structure and thin leaves. Underneath the microscope, there are lots of big beautiful chloroplasts which are easily visible. There is often evidence of "cytoplasmic streaming," meaning that the skeletal structure inside the cell is circulating the chloroplasts in an effort to maximize exposure for photosynthesis. It's a great plant for many an experiment in biology. The cells readily show reactions to changes in concentration of salts, sugars, and water.

The only problem is that in Washington, it's illegal to sell. That's right, in this state, it's a bit of a contraband organism. It's not native to our area and far too many aquarium hobbyists (and bad bio teachers) have dumped their extra bits and pieces in lakes...where the plant is taking over. It grows rapidly and is squeezing out native species.
Elodea choloroplasts by albertstraub CC-BY

But what's a good bio teacher to do when she needs her some Elodea? It's not illegal to possess the plant---just to sell it. She can't go to a pet store or biological supply company to buy some. She's gotta call the godfather who has a free Elodea hook-up for her. That's what.

In talking about an upcoming lab with students, I mentioned the plant and its dubious distinction in our state. Most of them made the unfortunate association with another sort of weed and assumed that this plant is also controlled because it shouldn't be smoked. Um, no. They were completely disappointed by the real deal on this plant and that there are no pharmaceutical effects; however, the mystique has remained. I had told them that I was getting together with my "supplier" soon and we would have some to play with in the lab.

I couldn't have asked for a better setup for today. In one of my classes, the hand off was made in full view of the students...and they were enthralled. Mind you, it was one of the football coaches who brought it in---this big baggie of green weedy stalks floating around in aquarium water. The kids' eyes got big as they watched the happy delivery. "Look!" I exclaimed, after he left. "We have Elodea for tomorrow's lab!" Personally, I was ecstatic to get some of this delightful teaching tool. For the kids, however, they're sure that they've just been privy to some biology. Gangsta style.

07 November 2007

You Never Can Tell

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

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

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

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

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

06 November 2007

Messin' With Their Heads

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

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

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

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

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

05 November 2007

Giving the Union Their Dues

As an agency fees payer, I'm entitled by law to information about The Union that its own members do not receive. Every year, I get an accounting of expenses and the opportunity to object to how my money was spent. Shall we see what this year's packet has in store?

  • $220,629.46 in dues (paid for on the backs of and out of the paychecks of 688 teachers)
  • $1571.18 interest on checking account
  • $8363.35 in "miscellaneous revenue" (no explanation given, but possibly bullied from teachers in the form of taking their lunch money)
  • $497.00 for the "Spring Function" (they made money on a party that cost them $5635.57)
I won't list all of the outflows---it's a long list, but let's have a look at some of them:
  • $80,755.56 President's salary, benefits, summer stipend, and mileage
  • $8,733.08 for office hospitality and parties (not including the $1700 stipend for the social coordinator)
  • $11,851.59 for going to conferences
  • $32,147.48 for 29 different stipends, including negotiators, scribes, and the overpaid social coordinator
  • $12,882.14 for substitutes for members who wanted a day off
So far, we're up to $146,369. 85---not including the rent for the office, supplies, and other sundries...plus the net assets reported of $71,820 (including carryover from the previous year).

That's right, nearly $72K is sitting in the local Union's bank account. Money that came out of my paycheck and that of every other teacher. Money that could have been used to feed families, buy shoes for children, pay bills, and so on. Thanks, guys, for looking out for us.

The Union is saying that 94% of their expenses are chargeable to me. Would anyone like to have a look at the list above and explain how any of this (let alone 94%) had a direct impact on my working environment? I paid for the Union Prez and the Little Dictator to fly to California. I pay for their copies, but don't get their newsletter. I pay for their meetings, but aren't allowed to attend. I pay for the prez's mileage, but I don't ride in her car. I pay for other teachers to be away from their jobs, but I'm not eligible to use the service. And before anyone jumps on the "but you're just a fees payer" bandwagon, let me say up front that as a non-member, the only stated services I am not eligible for are legal and insurance related, can't be a rep, credit card offers, and other "discount buying."

Do you know how your Union dues are spent? What percentage would you say actually goes toward improving your personal workplace?

04 November 2007

It's Tedious, Thanks

My dissertation goes in fits and starts. I'm not sure if it has prostate issues...or if it's a symptom of juggling all of the various things I need to do. I look at the calendar and know I'll be over the hump by Christmas---three out of five chapters done (and the ones which take the most time and paper, at that). It's all of the pre-planning for the project...building my case for why my question is worthy of investigation.

It's an incredibly tedious process. I went to the dermatologist earlier this week and when asked for my hobbies, all I said was "Writing my dissertation." Seriously, I'm not sure what I will do with my "free time" when this beast is done. It's not the "Who cares?" part of constructing the paper which takes so much time and headspace, it's the "Who says?" issue of tracking down all of the various pieces of published research that have come before mine. After all, I'm just a lowly grad student. Nobody really cares what I have to say on the topic...at least not until my degree is finished.

The funny part is seeing the intersection of the theory with what occurs in my classroom. A lot of my research is about student motivation. The prevailing idea is that kids will adopt one of two orientations: mastery (learning for the sake of learning) or performance (learning for a reward). Within those, kids may either adopt positive behaviors (approach) or negative ones (avoidance). As I talked with students last week about their progress at the quarter, I could almost peg each kid's motivational orientation just by talking to them. Procrastinator? Classic avoidance. Trying to get into Running Start next year? Hey, you're into performance goals. And so on. The classroom environment I've worked to create is one of mastery. How kids are adopting that as time goes on is interesting to watch. Certainly my own students won't be involved in my research---but it is an interesting anecdotal phenomenon for me.

For now, it is back to my paper. The supporting research for chapter two is all organized and ready to write about. I'm about one-quarter of the way done with the writing, but certainly starting the downhill slide. All of the hard work hitting the books is done. I just have to make some sense out of it for other people. In a year, the finishing touches will go on after my committee has ripped it to shreds and asked for a rebuild. And in two years? Who knows. At the moment, I'm more about the little details than the big picture.

03 November 2007

Teaching Thinking Skills

I am a firm believer in the power of modeling for students. I'm not talking about getting up on the catwalk in your best outfit and pouting, but rather giving some examples of the type and quality of work you expect them to (eventually) independently produce. As much as I value this tool for teaching, I can't claim that I have used it as often as I should.

One of the skills I'm not seeing my students perform well this year is compare and contrast. I have high school kids, mind you, and my personal opinion is that this is a thinking skill which they should have in place before they hit my classroom. My kids come in knowing that a Venn diagram is a graphic organizer for comparing and contrasting...but they don't really know how to use it. They understand that unique features of two ideas go in the parts of the circles which don't overlap and that something in common should go in the middle; however, there's more to a high-quality compare and contrast than that.

I have been completely disappointed by what I've seen on the first two tests. I've included one short answer item on each which asked students to compare and contrast two concepts from our recent unit. The first issue is simply the lack of organization of ideas. The other one is that most students do not seem to realize that compare and contrast is asking them to do two things, even though the word "and" is included. They just contrast ideas. So, I've decided to back the truck up and start from scratch on teaching kids what they need to do.

We're talking about cells now. The first part we read about was the two types of cells: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. This was a great opportunity to use a chunk of informational text as a basis for a note-taking strategy involving compare and contrast. I drew a t-chart on the board. I told kids that it was okay to use a Venn, but I wanted to give them another tool...and this one was also easier to fill in. (Those circles can be a bear.) The first paragraph we read gave us information on prokaryotes: no membrane-bound structures, unicellular, bacteria as examples. Great. We filled in one side of the t-chart. Then we read the next paragraph about eukaryotes. We used what we had in the chart as a guideline for filling in the other side. Kids didn't realize that they needed to pair their ideas. If prokaryotes have no internal membrane-bound structures, then what do we say about this characteristic for eukaryotes? Number of cells? Examples? We next looked at the diagrams to compare structures. We added "plasma membrane" to both sides of the t-chart. We had compared and contrasted---and had a rather nifty pre-writing piece to boot.

Okay, kiddos, write your summary: A prokaryotic cell has no internal membrane-bound structures, but a eukaryotic cell does. Prokaryotes, like bacteria, are unicellular, but eukaryotes, such as animals and plants, can have one or more cells. Both kinds of cells have a plasma membrane.

Is it worth "losing" science time to teach them to this tool they can use for all of their classes? I certainly think it is. Time will tell about the payoff for this. I recently gave them some independent practice and am hopeful about seeing improvement over the long haul this year. If they're 15 years old and haven't received scaffolded instruction in how to organize their thinking, maybe I need to be the one to demystify these skills for them. It has been another good reminder for me to be sure that my students have a clear picture of what I expect them to know and do.

02 November 2007

Paradigm Plasticity

I've been thinking a lot about how things are going in the classroom this year, especially in terms of my grading policy. I feel like it much better reflects my values as an educator. As nice as that may be, it's made me also think a bit more deeply about just what it is I really believe as a classroom teacher. If this manner of student evaluation "fits" the paradigm, can I articulate the rest of it? What other things might I be able to do to make my work in the classroom more congruent with these beliefs?

I read somewhere (and on the internet...so you know it has to be true) that teachers firm up their classroom patterns by about 6 months into their career. At that point, we've had a chance to test out our philosophies in the cold real world of the classroom. The pieces that survive are the ones we carry with us the longest. Should this be true, I think it a bit sad. I see so many beginning teachers with great idealism about what they're doing. I remember my own sense of wanting to make a difference in the world. The crushing rite of passage that is the first year of teaching made me focus more on the day-to-day management of things. I lost sight of The Big Picture and that hunger to make real change happen. I would think that this sense of disillusionment is what drives any number of teachers out of the profession before five years have past.

The thing is, I'm a very different teacher now than I was 6 months into my career---as one might hope. I'm wondering if paradigms are more plastic than the 6 month mark. Does that sense of idealism lie in wait for us to return and rediscover it? As we accumulate experience, do we become the teachers we originally wanted and intended to be? While I think that this may well be the true for me, I can also think of any number of teachers do not grow and change. By now, they show up to get their paychecks and seem to have lost complete sight of what moved them to the profession at the beginning. There is no motivation to return to that more idealistic philosophy.

This lack of both self-reflection and examination of any cognitive dissonance frustrates me and some other teachers I know. It's disheartening to hear them talk about looking for other work because of the overbearing inertia they encounter at their buildings. No matter how outstanding you are in the classroom with kids, it isn't enough for them. They need an environment of nurturing peers and professionals. You can't bloom where you're planted when the soil is sterile.

I hope that I continue to be malleable enough in my learning and thoughts about education throughout my career. It seems to be a continual search to find and refine those practices which suit the Platonic ideal of the classroom. It may be folly to think that we will ever find our Utopian ideal of a teaching life, but I also don't think it does our students any good service when we become casualties of a concrete philosophy.

01 November 2007

Anecdotally Speaking

The purpose of my dissertation project is to collect some data around a possible connection between teacher grading practices and student motivation. I'm still a few months away from doing so, but am using my own classroom as a bit of a lab in the meantime. I've changed my grading policy and practices this year. It's been a good quarter and I've learned a lot.

This week, I sat down with each and every biology kid to talk about their quarter grade. We looked at their marks, especially those from summative assessments. As we talked, we wrote down three pieces of information about the student's work:
  • My strengths are...
  • I can improve by...
  • My quarter grade is ____ because...
I want to refine this tool a bit before the end of the semester, but I have to say that the conversations were very productive. Many kids were very reflective about what they had and hadn't accomplished. Not once did I hear a kid blame anyone or anything. "It's your fault because you never told me about..." or "I just don't get it." or "I'm not good at science." or any other such claims ever made an appearance. I think this is because we were focused on the work---not the individual. Without effort, participation, points taken off for late work, zeros, or averages, the conversation was honed in on what learning was there that we could see and talk about.

For those of you wondering how we converted the myriad of 1's, 2's, 3's, and 4's into letter grades, I can't tell you that there was a magic formula involved. There wasn't a straight and completely objective way to do that. Kids and I negotiated for a symbol that we thought meaningfully reflected their understanding of the information thus far. I know this sounds incredibly squishy---and for a lot of teachers out there, I would guess that it seems risky. Did kids take advantage? Did they all ask for A's? Nope. If anything, some felt their grades were inflated, because they could see 1's and 2's from early attempts at learning (although more recent grades were at standard). Some kids who ended up with D's said that it wasn't the grade they wanted, but agreed that it reflected their current understanding of the material. They know that they still have opportunities to show learning between now and the end of the semester and old grades can be tossed away. At the end of the day, though, every kid can explain why they have the grade they have...and I can show parents or administrators evidence from my gradebook to support the choices. What more could I ask for?

I know other teachers out there worry that they will be taken advantage of with an avalanche of "late work" or last minute test retakes. I have to tell you it ain't happening. Do I have some kids who are finally coming in to make up a test or quiz? Sure. Am I snowed under with paperwork? Hardly. And you want to know the best part? It's the kids who really need the one-on-one time for tutoring who are coming in. Those kids who typically should come in to get help, but don't because they're so discouraged about their grades, are making appointments to learn. Come on in, kids.

Finally, I have to say that the change to a standards-based policy has taken away an incredible amount of stress from my teaching life and freed up a lot of my evening and weekend time. I don't count up every tiny point. I don't mark papers with fractions or percentages. I don't fret over weighting assignments. I give as much feedback as a kid needs about their work, make some notes for myself about trends I'm seeing, and move on. My main question in mind as I look at student work is "Does the kid 'get it'?" I actually look forward to grading, believe it or not. I enjoy what I learn as I look at what kids have produced. Oddly enough, elementary teachers in this district are being provided enormous stipends the first year they switch to standards-based grading and reporting. A few hundred grand is being tossed out of the district budget for this---when, quite frankly, it's something that takes less time and effort to accomplish (and the district is going in the hole financially...hey, it's another symptom of the exceptionally poor union leadership...but I digress).

I found that kids this week were grateful to have the kinds of conversations we had, wondered if their other teachers would do this for them, and started to think about their goals as students. All of this makes me excited to think about what I might find when I actually do some "real" research in the spring. Anecdotally speaking, my kids and I are finding standards-based grading practices very motivating. In a few months, I hope that there will be some data to back this up.