28 February 2011

On the Road

I expect to have lots to blog about this week, and precious little time to blog, while I'm doing my best impression of a headless chicken. So, I offer you a selection of posts by other bloggers:
  • Dina, over at The Line, is sharing My Own Private Wisconsin. It's a beautiful little post about seeing the extremes in education at the moment and looking for the middle. There are a lot of angry educators out there---lots of people screaming into the void. Me? I don't think we solve anything that way. You have to get involved with the machine...and you have to learn that none of us have "the" answer---we each just have a small piece. What I like about Dina's post is her willingness to explore the grey areas.
  • And then there is Bora, someone I have admired for years. A lot of us talk about online community. Bora lives it, promotes it, and supports everyone who wants to be part of it. Please read his post on how the Web breaks echo-chambers, or, 'Echo-chamber' is just a derogatory term for 'community.' This post gets its awesome in a variety of ways. First of all, I like the stream of consciousness reflection about the context. You get a feel for what it was like to be Bora in that situation. But most importantly, the exploration of the role of the Web in building community (both online and in meatspace) and understanding of different viewpoints. It isn't a short post, but make the time to read and think about this one.
  • The Common Core blog has a guest post by "Emma Bryant," the pseudonym of a teacher working in a New Tech high school. She exposes my worst fears about tech integration into schools---an all hat and no cattle effect where kids are supposed to think, but given nothing to think about. Need Content? Just Google It! has comments worth a look, too. 
  Go read...leave a note for these bloggers or add them to your RSS. I'll join you soon.

    25 February 2011

    I Want to Believe

    The Elusive Jackalope by Jerry W. Lewis CC-BY-NC-SA
    A friend of mine, who is a biology teacher, manages to convince his students each and every year that jackalopes exist in the wild. There are always a few skeptics at the beginning, but his mounted proof, like the one shown on the left, starts to wear down their resistance. Heavily embellished stories of the habits and habitats of these beasts heighten the sense of reality, as does peer pressure. Hey, 29 other teenagers in the room are buying it, why shouldn't I? The coup de grace is delivered by the Internet. A simple Google search returns hundreds of images and stories about the jackalope.Therefore, it must be true.

    I was thinking about this whole madcap adventure recently when a few of us were talking about the need for everyone to develop a good "bullshit detector." (Or, if you prefer, to develop "information literacy" skills.) I can remember lots of examples over the years of my career where I was a bit stunned by what students (and adults) of all ages believed---and how many of them refused to adjust these inaccuracies. Do you have any idea how many people out there think the blood in your veins is actually blue? Because that's how every anatomy drawing depicts things. Or, hey, the veins you can see through your skin are blue, so what's inside must be blue, too. Or my personal favourite, "My third grade teacher said it was."

    I Want to Believe by mat- CC-BY-NC-ND
    I used to do an activity called Checking Your Facts at the beginning of the year. I gave students ten urban legends to examine. They could pick any four that they wanted---and the goal was not so much to accept or reject the truths presented, but rather to consider sources. I was surprised each year by how many kids would find sources that fit the pre-conceived notions in their heads (e.g. that George Washington really did have a false set of teeth made from wood).

    It is simple enough to point to a lack of critical thinking...the lack of the bs detector...that enables such beliefs to persist. But I'm not so sure it's due to ignorance or utter gullibility. I think that if you like the idea of a jackalope, then you're going to want to find one. Beyond that, however, is that most kids trust adults. They expect us to tell the truth. If we say jackalopes exist...or that the blood in your veins is blue...then believing that is a lot more comfortable than thinking that grown-ups have been lying all along.

    In science circles, there is lots of talk about identifying and addressing student misconceptions. I don't know how many success stories there are...how many kids actually change how they think the world works because we give them new experiences. And although my view is a bit more broad now---looking at developing a bullshit detector that applies in all areas---the challenge is the same. It has to be safe to ask certain questions of yourself and challenge those of others. How do we create learning environments that move students from wanting to believe...to wanting to believe the evidence?

    21 February 2011

    Mad As A March Hare

    There is still a week of February, but March is weighing upon me. It has for several months. It is, once again, Conference Season. This is not to say that I am dreading the month ahead---quite the contrary as it presents several opportunities for professional learning. But I also have several roles to fulfill and I am not one of those people who believes that doing something half-assed is good enough.

    In a week, I'll be spending the day with 100 educators from around the state. They represent all grade levels, a wide variety of district sizes and backgrounds, and are depending upon me to deliver 8 (!) hours of high-intensity (and differentiated) professional development. Planning has been ongoing, with some pieces having to wait until rangefinding was completed. Things are firmed up and I'm looking at this opportunity as another grand adventure. Big groups are great---but they can also be challenging. You can't turn them on a dime when you need to change activities. Opportunities to get people up and moving are reduced and need to be highly orchestrated. It will be wonderful. Lots of very enthusiastic teachers on the way.

    Two days following the big extravaganza, I'm giving my first-ever 3-hour data visualization workshop. We will play with Sparklines, MapAList, Google Fusion, Motion Charts, and more. I have some databases built and ready to play with...others not so much. I have a basic plan for things, but I need to nail down some details. I haven't taught tools before. I have no idea how many people will be in my session (though it will be no more than 30), what their ability levels are with data, or how much support I should front load. This is one of those occasions where being overprepared can only do me good. Will I have time to do that much work? I'll try.

    The next day, I have two different presentations about the assessments. These should be simple enough to pull together---we've done similar ones before and will have things we can use from the big extravaganza from Monday. But it still means looking for ways to engage a large group of people for a short group of time and get them what they need.

    The following week is the last round of Bias & Sensitivity reviews for the assessments. Other than getting the invitations out, I haven't done much planning for this one. I have a feeling this one will sneak up on me fast if I'm not careful.

    And the week after that? Two more presentations for the science conference. My cell phones in learning will get a third round of airing and then a specialized STEM + EdTech session.

    A few days after that I am off to ASCD. I have been scrimping and saving (and begging family for money) for this one for months. I am taking Amtrak's Coast Starlight down to San Francisco and back. I am very much looking forward to slowing down and traveling this way. I have a room reserved on the train and am already fantasizing about stretching out beside the floor to ceiling windows and watching the world go by. My presentation? Data Viz, natch. It isn't completely built yet---as you can see, I'm a little busy before this point---but I'll be ready. This is the one part of March I'm least worried about.

    Are you heading into the full gale force of conference season, too? Will March enter like a lion and leave like a lamb for you? If you see me rushing around, mad as a March hare, I hope you'll stop me and chat. Might even be a shiny new beer in it for you.

    14 February 2011

    What Is Rangefinding?

    A commenter on a recent post asked, "What the heck is Rangefinding?" What the heck, indeed. Instead of responding in the comments, I thought the answer deserves its own post. But before I get into this hot mess, you might also be interested in previous posts about how large-scale assessments are birthed:
    • In Part I, we looked at how standards get selected for item development.
    • Then, in Part II, we watched with bated breath while items were born.
    • In the enthralling final chapter, also known as Part III, we examined the ways items get poked and prodded before they are placed into a test bank for use.
    • But wait! There's more. A bonus post on how a test gets put together, including all the statistical goodies.
    And now, without further ado...Rangefinding!

    Imagine, if you will, a continuum of performance:

    This could be any size scale that you like. I seem to remember Rick Stiggins saying that research had shown that we lose the ability to discriminate amongst anything more than 7 different categories. Most rubrics tend to have 3 or 4 levels, so we'll choose a 4-point scale for our discussion here:

    Now, imagine a set of student work---perhaps they are explanations of how to solve a math problem or detail an experimental design or maybe it's even an essay about Shakespeare. Whatever. Unless there's been some looky-looing, no two student performances will be identical. Sure, all of the kids could write answers that score well, but that doesn't mean that they use the exact same words, organization, or other features you are looking for. They will be spread out across the "range" of the scale. Your job as a rangefinder is to determine two things.

    First, you want to look at the work and decide what is acceptable within each score point. I know, I know. From 1 to 2 looks like an easy jump. But it's not.

    There's a lot of space between points. What is the least best "1" a student could earn...so barely a "1" that it's killing you that a piece of work even gets that much attention---what would it look like? What about a "middle" and a "high" 1? It is astounding how a one word change in your scoring tool (or even a one word swap in an answer) makes all the difference in how an artifact of student learning performs against the standards.

    And then, there are these questions to answer:

    What is the difference between a "high 1" and a "low 2"? How do you officially draw the line between score points?

    Sometimes, sets of papers illustrating each point are put together prior to rangefinding. Other times---especially if it is a brand-new type of item or assessment---a rangefinding committee might look at groups of papers, order them from best to not-so-best, then determine the score points and refine the scoring tool. My group? I pulled a few samples I thought were interesting. We used those to calibrate amongst one another and tweak the scoring guide---then we applied it to every single sample that was turned in, sifting out exemplars and finalizing the scoring guide. 

    There can be a variety of outcomes of these conversations. Sometimes, you develop some additional scoring rules to clarify how the rubric is applied. You will want to find samples to use as exemplars. These are sets of papers which clearly illustrate how to apply the rubric (or in some cases, represent "tricky" papers that get people into the nuances of scoring).

    I can hear some of you. You're saying, "Who the heck cares about this crap?" Most of us educators don't---unless the test is big enough. We just don't have the resources to deal with this for every item that will cross a student's desk. At a state level, where you might be scoring tens of thousands of student responses (or a national level, like the SAT or AP), rangefinding becomes important for validity reasons. And, in fact, the legislation which required the development of the assessments I'm working on also mandates that they be able to be "consistently scored" by educators. We must be able to have a water-tight scoring tool that a fourth-grade teacher (for example) in any classroom in the state can pick up and use---and get the same scores as any other teacher looking at the same work. But to do that, we first have to see what kids do with a prompt. We have to set them loose upon an assessment, then reel in the products and see how they look along the scoring tool we developed. It is inspiring to see all the creative things kids do...all the unanticipated ways they interpreted directions...or how many papers you end up shaking a fist at (or cheering for).

    Get thee to a rangefinding event. You'll never look at classroom work the same way again---and for all sorts of wonderful reasons.

    No...not exactly

    The sad---and unfortunately, very accurate---state of high school testing in Washington.

    13 February 2011

    Home on the Range

    The past week has been dedicated to rangefinding activities. If you haven't been to a rangefinding event, I highly recommend you apply for one in your state. It is my absolute favourite part of the assessment process, because it is where you spend time with actual student work. Rangefinding discussions are tedious, as every part of the scoring tool is picked apart and held up against how students responded to a task; but, in 20 years of education, I have never had as meaningful discussions with peers.

    The discussions are always difficult to facilitate. There is a rhythm you have to find as you allow ideas to bubble up before you rein things in and nail down the perfect word or phrase. You have to learn to recognize when a group is overthinking a point and bring them back to the beginning and ask a more simple question. And while time is a precious commodity (in three days, we finalized only one scoring tool), you have to be able to read the group to know when they are too mentally spent to be productive.

    The end result is always a mixed bag of emotions. There are always pieces of student work that score higher than you think is "deserved," and others you love that score far lower. It is always hard to believe that consistent scoring can be so fair and unfair at the same time. And as much value as there is in observing students and having conversations with them---with applying professional judgment to grades, rangefinding is not about grading. It is only about scoring a single piece of evidence. This vacuum has a different purpose. One that is incredibly rich all on its own.

    I look forward to sharing the results of the upheaval, discussion, and resolution next month. We have picked our exemplars to share statewide, but the next two weeks will be full of work annotating them and preparing to communicate about them with a wider audience. We have learned to score the unscoreable. We have gone snipe hunting and captured the snipe. We have learned to measure what we value about students' thinking skills. I feel good about that...and am looking forward to our next round of rangefinding in May.

    12 February 2011


    There is constant sense of push and pull with my job when it comes to talking about "stuff." And by that, I mean things like computers, document cameras, smartpens, and other hardware; as well as particular software tools, such as PowerPoint, blogging, or YouTube. You can't talk about integrating tech into the curriculum without the stuff---and yet, the stuff is not the goal...just a means to a aligned learning end. At least it should be.

    The techevangelists think the stuff is enough. (Just put an iPad into the hands of every child and we'll revolutionize schools!) And while this stance hasn't changed over the years, what has happened is that as more "stuff" made its way into schools, educators have viewed the technology in a different way than hardcore enthusiasts wanted. Technology was an answer to a problem they didn't have: connecting kids with learning goals. Instead, the tech stuff has just become one of my kinds of instructional strategies a teacher might choose from.

    Recently, I've begun to sense a real tension between the Integrators and the Aligners---the Integrators being focused on tech for the sake of tech and the Aligners being focused on helping students learn (no matter the instructional strategy). After all the years of being experts, the Integrators have found themselves in the interesting position of being challenged by the Aligners. They now know enough about tech that they are no longer willing to blindly swallow what the Integrators spout. The Integrators are unhappy. They proposed a revolution...and nobody came.

    This is going to be an interesting little fight to watch, because it is happening at the classroom level. It's not a policy issue. It gets at our most basic philosophy about learning as educators. If you had to choose, would you want kids to hold 3 unifix cubes in one hand and 5 in the other hand so that they can feel differences in numbers...or would you want students to swipe a finger across a screen? Do you want students to grow plants from seed and understand the time and conditions involved through experience...or do you want them to watch a timelapse video on YouTube? Integrators will tell you that a touchscreen and projector is best. Aligners will tell you that you choose whichever one best suits the needs of the student.

    Me? I'm an Aligner immersed in a world of Integrators. I've been doing a lot of thinking about what this means---and whether or not I can stay with such a disconnect. I don't feel like I have the energy it will take to fight them off---or at least bring them closer to the middle. And yet, every time I make an Integrator think twice about doing something for the student instead of the stuff, I feel like it's worth the effort.

    09 February 2011

    All Things Great and Small

    This will be the last of the shared resources...for now. I'm still working through a variety of folders and I'm sure that there will be more to post in the future. Today, I am including a big file and a little one. They have no particular relationship to one another, other than being things I used with students.
    • The little one is Travel with Columbus (1MB; pdf); author unknown. This was an activity I picked up in my MEd program as a way to have kids consider what goes into a decision making process. My copy isn't clean, but if you like the activity, you can easily polish it up. In the activity, students are provided with bios of 10 potential crew members to travel with Columbus...but they can only choose five for the journey. Complete the activity as a modified Think-Pair-Share, with students individually making selections, then coming to consensus with a small group, and then as a class.
    • The big one is Establishing a School-Based Seed Bank (70MB; pdf). It's an 87-page document crafted by Joseph Sanders and Julie Laufmann for the 1993 NSTA conference. There are dozens of seed-related activities for all ages in the packet---all with the goal of building interest in preserving genetic diversity for plants. Definitely a presentation ahead of its time. I can't claim to have done every activity that is included, but the first one using spices was always an awesome bit of fun to have with students.
     I'll be back with a big PBL extravaganza later in the month and we'll see what else I find to pass along. I hope you've enjoyed this week of resources!

    07 February 2011

    Natural Resources

    Up next in my sharefest of old resources, are two taxonomy and natural selection items---one tried and true, the other has been on my "always wanted to try it" list.

    Computer Punch Card by Focht CC-BY-NC-ND

    • I have long loved Punch Card Classification (3.5MB; pdf). If you aren't an old fart like me, you probably don't know what a punch card is. (Now get off my lawn!!) These cards---like the one pictured above---were how digital information used to be stored. And when I was a little girl, back in the Dark Ages, I used to play with these when my dad brought the spares home from work. The activities described in the attachment use index cards, so you don't need to worry about finding fossil punch cards to work with. The handout comes from Dr. John B. Beaver and Dr. Don Powers and was presented at the 1994 NSTA conference. It is a great hands-on way to teach dichotomous keys to all ages of students.
    • Cranial Conjectures (4MB; pdf) was presented by Joyce Gleason also at the 1994 NSTA conference. In this unit, students are provided with an animal skull. Using the skull, they make predictions about the kind of animal it belongs to, as well as the environment it would live in. It's a great inquiry into natural selection and I would have loved to have done it---I just never had access to enough skulls.

    06 February 2011

    Still Standing But Not Standing Still

    This photo landed in my RSS feed last week. It came through a scraper site, so I'm not sure of the origins of this image---either location or photographer. I did try to find out by using Tin Eye, to no avail. All I can tell you is that when I saw the picture, it seemed to neatly sum up the status of one of the major projects I've been working on for the last few months. It's been beaten up...lost a lot of structural integrity...and it's best days are well into the past. But you know, it's still standing. Somehow, it made it to shore.

    The upcoming week presents an opportunity for some rather unique salvage work. I admit that this was not quite what I had in mind when my shiny new project was launched. I trusted that it would be safely steered across the stormy sea. However, a lot of people didn't keep their end of the agreement to take care with the cargo. This resulted in a very different state of affairs at the end of the journey than I had expected and it will make for some intriguing conversations this week. But there are always opportunities if you're willing to look for them...if you can find the beauty in an ugly situation...if you can keep moving forward instead of standing still.

    05 February 2011


    When I was a teen growing up in the wilds of west Texas, one of my friends had a five-year old sister. (If you're an old-timer at this site, you may remember my story of this very same child telling me that if I wasn't good, I would go to h-a-i-l.) It was the 80's and jelly shoes were all the rage. This little girl had a pair of jellies that were a shade of neon orange that caused blindness if you looked at them too long. My friend would make fun of her little sister's "nuclear orange" footwear...but the child kept insisting, "They're not buhnookular."

    I tell you this random note from my childhood as a set up to two resources I collected that have nuclear connections. This is a continuation of my spirit of sharing posts as I pass along old resources made new to me by the miracle of modern scanning.
    • I bring you the Wonders of the Chihuahuan Desert Coloring Book (29MB; pdf), courtesy of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, NM. WIPP is where alpha-irradiated waste items go for permanent storage. It's a big ole salt mine with miles of underground tunnels. I took a group of kids there once so they could participate in a job shadow program. While they were off doing their thing, I got a tour of the place. It's one of the most claustrophobic experiences I've ever had. There's no way I could be a miner. Anyway, where else are you going to get a coloring book with tarantulas and prairie dogs. No author or copyright date on the material. It's your tax dollars at work, kids.
    • But, even better, I have the Tuna Can Cloud Chamber and Radioactive Food handout (17MB; pdf). This was put together by Jay Shelton for the 1995 NSTA conference. Oh, how I love this stuff. The "tuna can cloud chamber" is just awesome. You need dry ice, empty cans spray painted black, styrofoam containers, plastic wrap, rubber bands, a chunk of something radioactive (uranium ore, old Fiestaware...), and a flashlight---and boom, your kids can watch the vapour trails left by the ejection of radioactive particles. There's a lot more to be had in the handout, including a quiz about radioactivity---great for addressing misconceptions.
    These old resources might find new life in your classroom...but let's hope that buhnookular-coloured jelly shoes never do.

    03 February 2011

    Game On

    Some of you know that I've recently completed a project to take my paper archive of conference handouts and other paper ephemera and convert them to a digital format. Today, I will start sharing some of that wealth. The work I post belongs to others---and while I do not have their permission to document it here, I am starting from an assumption that they won't mind that their work is living on (sometimes nearly 17 years after the end of a conference). However, if you are the owner of any of these items and would like me to remove them, I will certainly do so.

    I'll start by sharing three different packets of games for the classroom.
    • The Einstein Game (2MB; PDF) by Leon Spreyer was picked up at an NSTA conference in 1996. I have to say that it was my favourite game I ever played with students. It is a trivia game---one where any and every kid can show that they are an "Einstein" with something. It's a great time filler when you are left with an unexpected gap in a class period (e.g. snow day schedule) or just after a test when everyone needs a bit of fun.
    • Games in the Middle School Classroom (35MB; PDF) is a packet of options by Kathie Owens, Sylvia Murray, and Richard Sanders. This is also from the 1996 NSTA conference. This handout has about 15 different games (some of them science specific) that you can use as learning tools for students. I didn't use all of them, but I remember having kids play some of these. We did have some rousing review sessions of "football."
    • I also have an author-less collection of Games for the Classroom (16MB; PDF). Wish I could tell you more about where these came from. Some of the fonts suggest that they're contemporary with the other mid-90's stuff...but I just don't know. 
    I hope that these resources continue to find life with some of your classrooms. Perhaps you have ideas to improve and add to them.

    01 February 2011

    Give 'em a Hand

    I've been involved in a few discussions this year about "scaffolding." What I find interesting is that the older the student, the less positive the reaction. There seems to be an assumption that students should just know what to do.

    I understand the view---really, I do. I used to have 10th graders come to class who struggled to put a basic hypothesis today. Geez. How many science classes had they had by then? How many times had they been taught investigative design? How many models of a hypothesis had they seen or read over the years? What was wrong with these children?! But you know, it really didn't matter why they didn't develop the skill. The bottom line was that they didn't have it and I needed to help them do something about it.

    Enter the Sentence Starter. It is a commonly used tool in elementary classrooms and reviled by high school. Yes, friends, I gave my students the (oft dreaded) "If ____, then ____ because ____." format. Don't be hatin' on me for that. I never required kids use it. I always had students who were able to make predictions supported by reason in a variety of ways---and that was just fine by me. But for those kids who looked like a deer in the headlights when anyone said "Hypothesis!"?  For those kids, an elementary style sentence starter was a lifesaver. They still had to learn how to fill in the blanks, but at least they weren't starting from ground zero in trying to construct a coherent thought.

    A lot of what is being included during the assessment development process is modeling, and we have been kicking around the idea of adding some additional formative assessment scaffolds for teachers---both in terms of how to look at student work and think about next steps, as well as how to construct useful comments for students. I will be interested to hear how this is received in future months. As with any proper scaffold, we have no "musts." If you're comfy with what you're doing, then you go, girl/guy. If you're a n00b and want a hand up, we'll reach out to you.

    Scaffolds become troubling when they are promoted as The Magic Formula. When they are used as a requirement, then there can be some stifling of creativity and ownership in developing a skill. But as an option? Why wouldn't you use them to help backfill some basics or provide a sample until there is readiness to move forward?