Post-its and Ponderings
A middle school teacher's thoughts on science, technology and learning

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Search Strategies - More than "Just Google It"

Every year, I ask my 6th grade students to respond to the following prompt in their Tech journals: "Describe your strategies for researching using the Internet." Without fail, at least 80% of them will respond with something like, "I type a word into Google and then click on the first website listed" or "I go straight to Wikipedia."

So, I think it time to teach Internet search strategies a little more explicitly. (Even the New York Times recently posted a lesson plan for dealing with Internet searching skills.)

These are the search strategies I start with for my students when they begin their projects:
  1. Take note of the domain names types (.gov & .edu tend to have most "reliable" info)
  2. Check the "About Us" to see if the site is reliable.
  3. Try searching or (ex: Twitter
  4. Try putting your search item in quotes. (ex: "history of Mt. Vesuvius" instead of just history of Mt. Vesuvius)
  5. Try subtracting or add words (for example type 'Tiger -Woods' to search for info on the animal.)
  6. Try clicking on the little superscript numbers in Wikipedia to find out the source that is used.
  7. Try searching popular news places - (Newsweek, Time, New York Times, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Crunchbase (wiki)) (ex: "Yelp +Chicago Tribune")
  8. Use other media, such as videos (TED talks, YouTube interviews)or podcasts (KQED, NPR)
Still need more help? Try these links: Using Search Engines, Develping a Search Strategy, and 10 Simple Google Search Tricks (NY Times)

And, don't forget when you are searching to cite the websites you use!

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Friday, March 05, 2010

Using Images in the Classroom: Copyright, Fair Use and Creative Commons

As a Technology teacher, I feel obligated to model good intellectual property habits for my students. The problem is, I am not completely clear on the rules myself! I am very thankful for the nonprofit Creative Commons site for helping me start to make sense of it all.

As teachers, we often claim "fair use." The Fair Use doctrine generally allows for the copying of protected material (texts, sounds, images, etc.) for a limited and “transformative” purpose, like criticizing, commenting, parodying, news reporting, teaching the copyrighted work. Under the US copyright laws, fair use “is not an infringement of copyright.” When determining Fair Use, judges typically consider four factors. Read more....

However, I am trying to teach my students to forego their typical Google Image search or pop song soundtrack and really start to think about intellectual property rights. I am no longer hiding behind the approaches: "well, we're not publishing it, so no one will notice" or "it's only a problem if you get caught."

Here is what I know so far:

Copyright - Creative work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and "fixed in a tangible form." All sorts of creative work is protected including images, songs, and written work. People do not need to register with the Copyright Office to benefit from copyright protection, but the will need to if they ever plan on bringing suit against someone for copyright infringement. If a student wants to use copyrighted material in their presentation or website, they really need to contact the creator for permission. (My students do NOT like this rule.)

Public Domain - "When a work is in the public domain, it is free for use by anyone for any purpose without restriction under copyright law. Public domain is the purest form of open/free, since no one owns owns or controls the material in any way." Mostly, this includes resources that are government work or very old. Cornell University has an updated table of copyright term and public domain rules.

Creative Commons - This is a way to modify your copyright to allow for sharing, remixing or distribution of your work. There are many "levels" of creative commons licensing. On this page, lists them starting with the most accommodating license type through the most restrictive license type. Generally, the licenses address different requirements for attribution (giving the author credit), share-alike (how you will license any work you create from it), commercial use
, and allowing derivative works (can you modify it).

I encourage my students to start at the following sites to find CC or public domain images:

To learn more, read these great resources for teachers and older students. (I have starred a few resources that may be more appropriate for elementary students.)

I know I have a lot left to learn, but at least I am encouraging my students to become aware of intellectual property rights and make it less likely that they will become "uninformed and unintentional plagiarists."

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Brainpop Animations

I love Brainpop. I have used these videos in classrooms from 1st grade through 7th grade. Even though Brainpop is animated, the information is complex but presented in a clear and entertaining way. Each video is 2 - 4 minutes long, and my students especially enjoy Tim's themed T-shirts! The quiz is a great way to get whole class feedback. With a school subscription, you could use it in a computer lab, but I find it perhaps more useful to use an LCD projector and a screen, so that we can pause, replay and discuss portions of the videos.

Even though it is subscription-based (see below), there are a number of free videos you can check out.

I use these videos in three main ways:

  • INTRODUCTION: I might show a video first (ex: Black Holes) to spark kids' interest and help them generate questions about an upcoming lesson. Also, I can use the quiz as a pre-assessment of the class' collective knowledge.
  • REVIEW: After an activity (ex: kids acted out the life cycle of stars of varying masses), I play the video and hearing the vocabulary in the video helps them solidify their previous learning experience. (ex: "Hey - That's me! I was the nebula!")
  • EXTENSION: If students finish an activity early, or need more challenging content, I will have then watch other videos extending the current curriculum (ex: Big Bang, or often in Technology class, I will have advanced students watch information about binary code or the internet)
However I use it, the kids love it. Check out Brainpop or Brainpop Jr. for more information.

You can sign up for a 1 week free trial with an email address, and one year subscriptions range from Family ($99) to Teacher ($175) to School ($975) to customizable District options.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Worthwhile Workshops

I am sitting here in beautiful Palm Springs at one of my favorite conferences of the year - CSTA. This got me thinking about the best workshops I have attended. Here are my favorite the three that I felt were most organized, inspirational and worth the money!

Steve Spangler's Boot Camp
(K - 8, multiple locations): I have pined after Steve Spangler's Science in the Rockies for years, but had the opportunity to attend the more economical Boot Camp this fall in Chicago. It was wonderful. He is a businessman and comedian, but a teacher at heart. His presentations were concise, engaging and taught solid science concepts. Plus, you get a whole box of fun stuff to take home! The workshops should head west in the spring.

Project WET (CA) - There are various workshops offered throughout California. Upon completion of the workshop, participants get the Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide. (The ONLY way you can get the book is through the workshop.) It covers chemistry and conservation topics around water and is truly outstanding. I was fortunate to take the workshop with Kathy Machado at the Santa Clara Valley Water District. She was an excellent facilitator, takes pride in the extensive work she has done at the Water District, and is able to offer the books for free. Her next workshop is March 5, 2010 and I can highly recommend her presentation. (All Project WET workshops are free, but some districts charge for the book.)

4-H Embryology
(Northern CA) - This was quite a drive up from San Francisco, but it was well worth it. June Stewart teaches a two-hour (free) Embryology class in Auburn, CA. I have never met anyone as passionate about and dedicated to teaching embryology as this woman. The workshop is generally in mid-February, and at that time you can order or pick up rented incubators, fertile eggs, and curriculum materials. These are not materials you will shove in a file cabinet somewhere. I used everything and my students enjoyed the experience immensely. I was terrified to hatch birds for the first time, but the program alleviated all of my fears. June is available by phone for any questions and the Extension office will take any un-adopted birds back for up to one year and place them in homes with local 4-H kids.

These are my top three. What's your favorite national or local gem?

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Did You Know?

As I was completing my video entry for the 2009 Google Teacher Academy, I kept coming back to a phrase I heard somewhere, "We are currently preparing students for jobs and technologies that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't been invented, in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet." That line has stuck with me since I first heard it.

I meet so many teachers that think we are instilling knowledge into children. The best teachers think that we are teaching students how to think and learn, for most of the knowledge itself will become obsolete.

For my project, I was determined to find the source of this great quote.

My search led me to The Fischbowl blog and a post about the original PowerPoint presentation, entitled "Did You Know?," created by Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod. Apparently, XPLANE has reworked the information into this thought provoking video (2007).

UPDATE (7.6.09): Here is an even more recent version (2008).

This particular version has an expanded focus on the idea that "we are living in exponential times." This is truly incredible and no doubt has significant implications for education. This only strengthens my theory that, as a teacher, I don't know everything... I CAN'T know everything. I may be more educated and have more experience, but I am learning right along with my students every day.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Bill Nye & Buoyancy

OK, I'll admit it. I love Bill Nye. Well, I am not exactly in love with William S. Nye himself, but I am smitten with his videos. Back in the midwest, I would often rent the videos to watch his "Try this at home" and "Consider the following" segments in order to supplement my own lessons.

However, now that I moved, my public library Bill Nye supply has been cut off. And the videos are quite expensive to purchase. Luckily, someone has been posting episodes on YouTube. I know, I know, I should feel bad about viewing copyrighted material for free. But, as you know, many teachers depend on the CASE* method. {UPDATE FEB 2010: Apparently, the videos have been removed due to copyright violation, and the user's account suspended.}

One recent example of how Bill Nye enhanced my teaching involves a 2nd grade unit on floating and sinking. I did all the traditional hands-on activites. We made clay boats and saw how many pennies they would hold. We measured the mass and volume of various objects using over-sized plastic graduated cylinders and looked for the pattern in the data. However, when I showed the class short clips from Buoyancy 1, Buoyancy 2, and Buoyancy 3, the students really solidified their learning.

In the "Buoyancy 1" clip, 0:58 to 4:34 is possibly the clearest displacement demonstration I have ever seen. I showed this 4 minute clip to my group of 2nd graders. They were more clearly able to understand the concept of the displaced water weighing the same as the submerged part of the boat, and they literally squealed in delight when they found out the water filled up the exact print of the boat. (Well, at least until they have the magic broken when they find out that only works for liquids with a density of 1 g/ml.)

I am now inspired to set up a similar contraption next year so that the kids can mass the displaced water, rather than indirectly figuring it out by measuring the mass of the object and the volume of the displaced liquid. I'll add that to the list of things Bill Nye (or at least his writers) has taught me.

* Copy And Steal Everything

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

How do We Teach the to Future?

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach has a lot to say about 21st century collaborative learning. I ran across a keynote she delivered as part of the Tuanz Educational Conference 2007 in New Zealand and was struck by some of the following questions:

  • Have you used the new WWW? The new WWW: Whatever, Wherever, Whenever.
  • What do you need to know, when most of recorded knowledge is a mouse click away?
  • In light of this, what do students still need to memorize?
  • How do we prepare our students for jobs that don't exist yet, using technologies that haven't yet been invented in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet?
It's sort of daunting to think that we are preparing students for a world that we cannot predict, or begin to understand. As a science teacher and technology teacher, I know that the "cutting edge" will be ancient history when these kids are grown.

This reminds me of a podcast I recently ran across. (You can find them on Twitter or check out the podcast on iTunes) The description states that "Teachers 2.0 is a loose group of educators who want to share ideas about using technology to help prepare students for the 21st century. We're tired of preparing them for the Industrial Age." They have a good point. I look forward to hearing what they have to say.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Content Cake and Technology Frosting

My last post reminded me of one of my favorite teaching "rules." I love introducing technology to my classes. However, it is inevitable that the "bells and whistles" will draw kids' attention away from the content.

So, a few years ago, we came up with the "cake and frosting" analogy. The content is the "cake." Obviously, if the cake is terrible, I don't care how good the frosting is, people aren't going to eat it. And, if you are planning on handing me a plateful of frosting without any cake, I am going to be rather offended.

We go on to discuss that you can make some frosting ahead of time, but it needs to stay in the fridge until the cake is ready to be frosted. If you focus too much on making the frosting and don't pay attention to the cake, it can burn or collapse and you'll have to start over.

Once they have a good cake, they can decorate with "frosting" (the effects, comedic interludes, or (shudder) "bloopers".) However, we discuss how the best cakes have simple, well chosen frosting for dramatic effect. (In fact, when the class and I create a rubric together after viewing previous student work, they almost always add a requirement to "limit random distractions." However, once they actually begin a project, they see how tempting it is....)

With every technology project I have implemented, I have had open lab time and often I am shooing kids out of the room at 5 pm, 6 pm and even later. They put even more effort into their content, so that they can add the "fun stuff" later. In fact, my kids have (on average) put more creative effort into digital projects than anything they've turned in on paper.

Of course, the kids take the analogy as far as they can. For instance, one kid tells me, "my sister likes to scrape the frosting off the cake and eat it by itself." I tell them that after they finish the cake for me, they are welcome to scrape off the frosting and post it on YouTube...

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Teaching with Tech: Does it Work?

A recent article on asks, "Are students in the digital age getting dumber?" Tom Oppenheimer, author of The Flickering Mind: Saving Education From the False Promise of Technology, is quoted throughout the text and he believes technology is wasting our kids' time and energy. I agree that the article brings up some valid points, but I believe teachers have been dealing with similar issues in different formats for years. The article claims:

  • Technology, such as Powerpoint, results in kids creating weak and inaccurate content, while spending an inordinate amount of time on graphics that don't matter.
  • IM lingo is a problem in today's schools.
  • Laptops in the classroom actually interfere with student learning.
Weak, inaccurate and time-wasting? It certainly is easier to copy and paste information from the web, rather than laboriously copy text from an encyclopedia by hand, however, I can argue that my own classmates and I produced reports in which they "didn't absorb" the material either. Kids' learning is dependent on their investment, whether by hand or machine. If they don't care about the learning, they often won't care about the accuracy either. (The "let's just get this over with" mentality.) And, one only has to look as far as the file cabinets of saved class materials in college frats to realize that cheating existed well before the existence of term paper sites. These problems have been here for a while. Now that it is even more convenient for students to be lazy, educators need to be even more aware of student involvement and ownership.

Think back to all the reports you wrote as a kid. I was a good student, and I remember writing reports on the sun, medieval entertainment, leaves, and the state of Arizona (or was it Arkansas?). What do I remember from these reports? The posters I made, the pictures I colored, the poster I created. I don't remember a thing about Arizona or Arkansas. I don't believe it is only technology that tempts kids to "spent nearly twice the time working on the graphics than ... researching the report." I refer to this as the cake and the frosting. My kids know what I mean.

But, what I DO like about technology is that is levels the presentation playing field. I remember back to one of the first iMovie projects I incorporated into my science class in 2002. The day before the students were to share their work, one of my special education students said to me, "This is the first time I am proud to show off my work because it looks as good as everyone else's." Here was a kid with a written expression disability who spent years seeing his written work hung up next to all the rest. He volunteered to share his iMovie first.

IM is a problem? Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Clean Up Your Writing, believes that when kids text habitually, they in effect train themselves in writing a form of shorthand. "They'd be tempted to use it on their homework and exams. They might even slip into using abbreviations unconsciously." Again, I think it is up to educators (and kids) to know the difference between formal and informal writing. It's all about communication.

A student recently emailed to me, ""...prolly you would yell at my grammer but then again u dont teach LA." This email was informal. He clearly communicated his point to me in his message. He has never "unconsciously slipped" in his formal writing (homework, lab reports) for me. Why? Because he is conscientious enough to differentiate between formal and informal language. He cares enough consider his audience and the situation for his writing. I have no problem with IM. I do struggle with student apathy. As adults, we know the difference between writing a grocery list and a legal document. We talk differently socializing with our peers than talking with our grandmother. Kids can be taught an appropriate audience and situation for their IM-speak. Oppenheimer says, "There’s no job in the real world that allows writing in IM lingo." Sure there's not... yet.

Laptops are distracting? The article quotes a study in which laptop-equipped students, "On average, the students spent 17 minutes out of a 75-minute class doing activities not related to class work." Umm... that's not a problem limited to laptops. Un-engaged students are distracted by passed notes, open windows, shiny objects, and their own thoughts.

None of these problems are new. I think it is easy to "blame" technology. Students will learn when they are engaged and invested. In my opinion, technology is a tool to increase student engagement. Educators and students must use it effectively. Just as I would never put in a 50 minute video and sit at my desk during a class period, neither would I set up situations in my classrooms where technology will be a crutch to facilitate sub-par learning. Technology isn't the enemy here. Apathy, on the part of students and teachers, is. C'mon ppl, old skool doesnt cut it if we want r kidz 2 learn in 2day's world. :)

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Students Recognize Global Warming - Team Project

Our school has run a successful paper recycling program for years, however that environmental spirit never quite made it to aluminum cans. Sure, we had a separate can recycling container in the cafeteria, but you know how it is with middle school kids.... Aluminum ended up in the trash, and trash ended up in the recycling containers. Ultimately and simply, the cans ended up in the dumpster along with the rest of the trash. In an effort to authenticate our environmental science unit, our team took on the challenge of recycling the school's aluminum.

STEP 1: Research & pitch - We researched about the ecological benefits of recycling. I think the kids' favorite statistic was that "when you recycle an aluminum can, you save enough energy to power your television or computer for three hours." (Our sources included, the Utah State University recycling site , and Novelis.)

The kids developed their pitch and met with the school principal and head custodian. I was proud of my group. They took this meeting very seriously. Our "committee" asked great questions, and gave thoughtful responses to the administrations' concerns. Finally, we were approved for a one month trial.

STEP 2 - Promotion - The students then made posters (made from paper we took from the paper recycling bin, of course) and hung them around the school. Small groups of kids from our team rotated through the lunch periods for a week, acting as "recycling cheerleaders" - encouraging and applauding for their peers who chose to recycle their cans in the appropriate canister, rather than in the trash. The students recognized that, in order for this to work, the other 700 kids in the school would have to develop habits that helped our cause.

STEP 3: Recycle! - This was the "fun part." (Well, unless you asked the kids in January when we were crushing cans in boots and gloves in sub-zero Chicagoland weather!) Twice a week, I unleashed the crew. In 15 minutes, we were usually able to process 200-300 cans, going from stinky cafeteria bags of aluminum mixed with various foodstuffs to bags of somewhat clean, crushed cans ready for the scrap metal facility. (We also pulled tabs to donate to the Ronald McDonald House.)

STEP 4: Manage profits - While the kids knew the environmental benefits of energy and resource conservation, there was an added bonus of generated funds from turning in the aluminum. In fact, we made over $200 during the year. In one of our many brainstorming sessions, after voting down reclining chairs and a team vending machine (sigh), one student piped up, "wouldn't it be cool if we planted a tree to help fight global warming?" Now, I recognize there is some debate as to the carbon sequestering benefits of planting trees, but I thought it was a great idea. We had learned about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. We had learned about photosynthesis. And, we had learned about our soon-to- emerge periodical cicadas and their effect on newly planted trees. Great, let's plant a tree! We opted to plant a ginkgo tree.

STEP 4A: The "plaque" - The kids weren't done yet. They wanted to install a plaque, to commemorate our ordeal. Since we had discussed Chicago's "Cool Globes: Hot Ideas for a Cooler Planet" program this summer, a student suggested we make our own globe. Now, I can seldom resist an artistic challenge, however, we were out of funds. (The PTO had already graciously kicked in funds to pay for the planting of the tree.)

But, we were determined and a bit lucky. A generous eBay seller (with a little encouragement) donated an antique finial. (And I drove 6.5 hours to pick it up... unfortunately, in my CO2 emitting vehicle.) A moment of serendipity introduced us to a local artist who suggested pique assiette, rather than paint, for our final project. Plus, she was willing to work with the kids to teach them the technique.

This began a flurry of plate gathering - which the kids thoroughly enjoyed breaking into pieces.... The entire project was completed by the students themselves, from design submissions, to voting on the final design, to sketching, breaking and reassembling the pieces, and finally the grouting and polishing. My favorite part is the cicada the kids included at the base, near the "2007," to commemorate our 17-year visitors.

When it was all finished, we had a stupendous final product. I hope the kids are proud, keep recycling, and come back to visit our tree for many years to come.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Skype Makes the Class Whole

While surfing the web, I came across the most amazing story. Brian Crosby was teaching his fourth grade class at Agnes Risley Elementary School near Reno, NV, when he learned he was getting a new student.

Now this is now unusual at his school, as he explains that mobility rate is high in his classes. But, what made this new student unusual is that she was not actually going to attend school at all. Celest McCaskey was had leukemia and, as a consequence, an immune system too weak to attend school.

Mr. Crosby decided to use Skype, a free voice- and video-conferencing software that was launched in 2003, to virtually bring Celest to class. This is even more impressive when you consider that Celeste does not even own a computer. Mr. Crosby and a school counselor found donors for a computer, the DSL line and monthly Internet service.

Crosby's school is designated as "at risk" by the Washoe County School District, with more than 80 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. This isn't a district where kids generally have computers at home. Yet, Crosby is doing amazing things with technology in his class. Through funds approved by the 2005 legislature, each student in Crosby's class has their own wireless laptop computer.

They aren't the latest models. The machines are seven years old. But they work.

This makes me think of my own suburban school where we have resources this school may never have. I can only imagine what we would be able to do if our teachers were similarly creative with technology. Clearly the innovation is paramount over the actual equipment.

You might want to watch the newscast of the story, but even better - Mr. Crosby's class created a movie describing their experience.

You can read more about what this teacher is doing on his blog, Learning is Messy. I am very, very impressed.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Monotillation of Traxoline

As I turn in my final trimester grades, I think about my students and can't help but think about traxoline. This bit of educational humor/realism is often attributed to Judy Lanier.

It is very important that you learn about traxoline. Traxoline is a new form of zionter. It is monotilled in Ceristanna. The Ceristannians gristerlate large amounts of fevon and then bracter it to quasel traxoline. Traxoline may well be one of our most lukised snezlaus in the future because of our zionter lescelidge.

1. What is traxoline?
2. Where is traxoline monotilled?
3. How is traxoline quaselled?
4. Why is traxoline important?

Every adult and student I have talked with scores 100% on the post-test. However, not one of them knows a thing about traxoline, or for that matter, cares. But had this been a real quiz, each person would have received an "A."

Now, this might seem like just a silly exercise, but one blogger illustrates this point using an example from his own specialty of paleoecology:

It is very important that you learn about arcellacean taphonomy. Arcellaceans are a major group of testaceous rhizopods. During preservation in any depositional environment, taphonomy produces different thanatocoenoses from extant biocoenoses. Thenatocoenoses are the result of differental preservation during burial, but differ between environments of deposition due to differences in original biocoenoses and soil biogeochemistry. Arcellaceans are one of our most useful paleoindicators for lacustrine environments.

1. What are arcellaceans?
2. How do thanatocoenoses form?
3. Why do thanatocoenoses differ?
4. Why are arcellaceans important?

I could write many similar examples from my own curriculum. This is one reason I never use the multiple-choice and vocabulary tests in the back of the science test supplementary resources. Public school is a game in many ways, and many kids have learned to play it without actually absorbing any knowledge.

Science isn't about memorization. Science is about being curious, asking questions, exploring data, asking more questions, researching, and making connections between what you learn and what you already know. These are hard things to measure on a 90 - 80 -70 - 60 grading scale.

I am not really even a fan of "hands-on" learning for "hands-on" sake. Kids can go through the motions without ever engaging in any real learning. That's why I think it is so important to work with predictions and make those connections between kids and their learning. This is more "hand-on, minds-on" learning. Such activities focus more on predicting, asking questions and thinking scientifically and actively rather than training passive learners to earn "A's" through the successful completion of tasks. Science shouldn't be about memorization.

Brad Hoge disscusses questioning in his post about "well-meaning examples of constructivism go[ne] awry,"
It's okay to say, "I don't know" to a student's question, if fact it is important to do so, so long as that response is followed by "let's find out". Science is about the finding out. The knowledge accumulated by centuries of science in practice is needed to solve new problems. No one has all of the answers, but everyone can learn to think scientifically. This includes the skills of knowledge acquisition and problem solving.

As written in a previous post, I couldn't agree more.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Inspiration: New Blog Title

My blog used to be called "Mytko Miscellany in Education." Then, when I wrote a previous post, something about its title stuck with me over the next few days. I realized that those two words, "Post-its" and "ponderings," pretty much summed up my teaching experiences! (OK, OK, to be truly comprehensive, I should add the words "adolescent angst" and "chaos" too, but they just don't offer the same type of alliteration....)

One day, I decided to document my inspiration. On any given day (in this case, April 20th) my desktop computer looks like this:

This image represents one week's worth of post-its. Each post-it note is handcrafted by a student needing something from me or, more likely, having a question we were not able to answer in class. I treat student questions very seriously, as I believe curiosity is essential for science.

If I don't know the answer to a question, it ends up on a post-it note.

From there, we use a variety of resources to unearth the answer (our favorites being HowStuffWorks and Ask a Scientist). All of the answers end up taped to my classroom door, and some make it to my other blog. Not only do I enjoy seeing students learn more about a subject, but I also think it is powerful to show that their questions are valued and worth pursuing.

This week's door features an article on Chicago's proposed 150-story twisted tower, questions about the hand boilers on my desk, a description of banana slug's odd mating rituals (slug link is PG13 for mild language and invertebrate sexual content), and lots of answers to questions about cnidarians (my favorite: Can jellyfish sting each other?).

Now, I realize "ponderings" is not a word that you will find in the dictionary. But since improvisation is a middle school survival skill, an invented word like "ponderings" should raise few brows. The definition of ponder (verb) is "to reflect or consider with thoroughness and care." I'd like to think that my teaching is full of thoroughness and care. By adding -ing to the end of the verb, one forms the present participle of a verb, concerned with actually doing the action in the present. A second definition of pondering (adjective) is "deeply or seriously thoughtful." So, it would not be unreasonable to assume the pondering (noun) would refer to "an act of thorough, deep, and careful reflection." And I know adding an "s" makes nouns plural. So, there it is. Teaching is all about being thorough and careful, reflecting and being thoughtful on your feet. And a bit of improv.

It appears the term is catching on, as evidenced by the 4378 blog posts tagged "Ponderings" on Technorati.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Post-Its and Ponderings

Today, a student asked me if invertebrates sleep. This is the type of question that reminds me how much I enjoy teaching and learning. I have sat through many university lectures, read hundreds of pages of science texts, and taken volumes of notes, but every so often a child makes me look at things from a fresh perspective. I know a lot about invertebrates, but never once wondered if they sleep.

I have gone through hundreds of post-its in my career, many with questions scribbled in a childish hand and then stuck to my computer screen for later investigation. After almost ten years of teaching, I am always impressed by the fresh questions they think to ask. I've learned some interesting things through investigating those post-its.

As you imagine, sometimes we cannot find an answer. In such a case, my favorite resource is the UCSB ScienceLine where "research scientists from UC Santa Barbara answer science questions from teachers and students in K-12 schools."

Some of my favorites asked by my students and answered by UCSB scientists over the years:

1. If a person in a machine travelling faster than the speed of sound cannot hear the noise of a sonic boom, what might a person "see" or not see if they could (hypothetically) pass the "light speed" barrier? What would we, on the ground, see?

2. We've learned that all arthropods have a tough outer covering called an exoskeleton. However, we have also learned that some arthropods, such as "honey-pot" ants and ticks actually expand as they collect honey or blood in their body. Is the exoskeleton able to expand? Do these organisms have a different type of exoskeleton that other arthropods?

PS - In case you too are wondering, it is unclear if invertebrates sleep. (source: Neuroscience for Kids)


Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Higher Standard

I just read an article (another article, blogpost) about a Florida teacher who was given an ultimatum by his school district: either cover up his brief nudity in his performance of the Full Monty, quit the community production, or resign from his job as a teacher of high school music and chorus.

He was told that "Because teachers are held to a higher standard than most people, you have to look at how that affects the community and his role as a classroom teacher," said Barbara Melanson, the school district's director of human resources.

This standard has recently been an issue at my school. What would be perceived as sarcastic humor with any other adult, is construed as inappropriate in a classroom setting. In a similar situation, if an educator so much as slips out a "shut up" in frustration, you'd better believe we will have to explain our actions to our administrators.

It's strange to be a constant pillar in today's society of crumbling morals. However, the more I think about it, the more important I think it is for kids to have at least a few adult role models in their lives. Unfortunately, parents do not always fulfill this role. And clearly, the media runs amok with inappropriate models. Teachers may well be the only ones left.

However, in the case of this Florida teacher, I think we run into dangerous territory when teachers have their right to be human stripped away. (OK, pun intended.) Context is important. This teacher is not on a street corner mooning cars. He is a sanctioned community production. I think the school district is being ridiculous. There are bigger battles to fight.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Character Does Count

I read an article recently about a Wisconsin Police Chief, Richard Knoebel, who wrote himself a ticket for accidently passing a school bus with its lights flashing. As he believed he should not be treated any differently than any other resident, he wrote himself a $235 ticket last September and paid the fine the next day. No one really knew about it, until a newspaper wrote about it after stumbling across the fine in public court records. Asked about the recent press coverage, Knoebel responds,
If it brings notice to people that they should be stopping for school buses, I don't mind the notoriety

Now this is a story that impresses me.

So often, I feel as though I am fighting a losing moral battle with my middle school students. While I strive to model emotional intelligence and remain a pillar of good character in my classroom, the kids are constantly bombarded with mixed messages outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, there are posters telling them that a measure of character is how they act when no one is watching. However, outside the classroom, it is often expressed (even by parents) that "it's OK as long as you don't get caught."

We've been talking a lot about commitment in my classroom lately. In the beginning of the year, we decided to recycle the aluminum cans at our school. After much research and negotiation with the principal, I stood in front of my kids and took a "heads-down, hands-up" vote of whether we should take on this responsibility. I strongly reinforced that this commitment would require going outside twice a week for about 20 minutes to sort through the garbage and crush the cans, for the entire year. This would include the midwest winter months, which are brutal at best. All but one of my students made a promise that they would commit to our goal.

Now, in February, the whining is at its peak. "Do we have to?" "But it's cold!" "This is stupid." I remind them that they made a commitment. I tell them to bring a hat and gloves. (Which, in middle school, is decidedly 'uncool.') We agreed that this was important, and that this mattered to the environment. And I will not let them back out of their agreement, as they are allowed to do so often in their lives. Some kids are starting to get it. When it is below freezing outside, I do give the kids a choice. (I'm not that crazy.) Lately, some kids have been saying "We made a commitment - I'm in!"

I read about pillars of character, and believe kids should be encouraged to embrace these ideals. But, there's part of me that wonders... how many adults do I know who embrace these characteristics? Sometimes, I get discouraged with society. But, once in a while, I am reminded by people such as Richard Knoebel that good character still exists. Nice work!

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Failure in School: Whose Fault Is It?

I've got to admit, I really enjoy reading Dennis Fermoyle's blog, From the Trenches of Public Ed.. I find myself nodding in agreement to much of what he writes about. In one post, he pulls an except from his own book.
I think it's reasonable to say that when teachers are making a real effort to engage their students, the responsibility for trying to learn should lie with the students. But we have been brainwashed. We have been taught to blame ourselves when students refuse to try. It sounds so noble for a teacher to say, "If any of my students fail, then I have failed," but I'm convinced that this is actually harmful. An example I used in the book I wrote illustrates just where this "nobility" is getting us.

I attended a workshop in which the presenter, a teacher-turned- college-professor, told the story of a sixth grade girl with whom he had worked. The girl had refused to do a required assignment. The presenter said he tried everything he could to encourage her, but she wouldn't do it. Finally, he asked her why she wouldn't just give it a try. She told him, "Because if I try, it won't be very good,and I'll be a failure; but if I don't try, then you're the failure."

I think is is important to stress Fermoyle's first line, "I think it's reasonable to say that when teachers are making a real effort to engage their students, the responsibility for trying to learn should lie with the students." I agree that teachers have a responsibility to engage and inspire learners. I am in no way excusing bad teaching. But I recognize that, even when good teachers are trying their best, they all too often can relate to the selection above.

Why is it that good teachers beat themselves up over their student's shortcomings? Students spend roughly 45 minutes a day with a single teacher, which is a little over 3% of their entire day. In fact, kids only spend 6.5 hours (or 27%) of their day in school, and 73% at home. So why are individual teachers expected to be so responsible for students' academic motivation, social health, emotional well-being and character development?

I talk to my students about responsibility for their actions. In response to "Who is ultimately responsible for your own learning?" most will respond, "I am." However, do they really believe that? If they don't turn in an assignment, I am expected to keep track, make a list, recopy the sheets, and schedule a time for them to redo a lab or use the supplies. If they don't pay attention in class, I am expected to stay after school to re-teach the concepts missed. If a student misbehaves, I need to have them serve a detention with me after school. If they receive a failing grade, I am the one who has to go to the principal to explain myself to the administration and to the parent. What message does this send to the student? I agree with the sixth grader above. The message is: if students do not try, then it is the teacher who is labeled the failure and is responsible for fixing the situation.

I love my job, and I work far beyond my 6.5 "contract hours" per day. However, I want to give my time to creating engaging lessons, making meaningful assessments, giving thoughtful feedback, and helping those students who make an effort, but truly struggle. Most afternoons, I give my time to various extracurricular activities to help develop the "whole child." Every hour I spend on a single student, is an hour taken away from the other 99% of my team. I know that is all part of the deal of teaching, but less than 5% of my students take up over 90% of my efforts. I do believe all students can learn, and I want to make a difference, but I am struggling with finding the time to make it happen.

I'm saddened that report cards are no longer considered feedback on student progress. They have become some sort of permanent record of monumental importance, that teachers must remain in virtually constant contact with parents, as to carefully craft the single letter that will remain etched in ink. It is no longer enough to send a progress report every six weeks. Teachers are expected to immediately contact the parent with any drop in percentage and initiate interventions to reverse low performance, in the form of behavior contracts, modified assignments, alternate assessments, and additional help. I am to happy to oblige, but it all of this takes time away from meaningful pedagogical contributions to the rest of the class. As I watch some of my apathetic students, I wonder - what happened to the students' role in all of this?


Sunday, January 14, 2007

School is Boring

Dennis Fermoyle's blog post describes how Marc Prensky's article, Engage Me or Enrage Me (2005), was placed in teacher's mailboxes, presumably to inspire and motivate the educators. However, it ended up enraging some of the teachers instead. Of course, I had to check it out myself, and had a similar reaction. From the article...
The big difference from today is this: the kids back then didn’t expect to be engaged by everything they did. There were no video games, no CDs, no MP3s—none of today’s special effects. Those kids’ lives were a lot less rich—and not just in money: less rich in media, less rich in communication, much less rich in creative opportunities for students outside of school. Many if not most of them never even knew what real engagement feels like.

I've heard this from veteran teachers. They talk about the frustration of "competing" with students' multimedia outside world.
Life for today’s kids may be a lot of things—including stressful—but it’s certainly not unengaging.

Except in school.

And there it is so boring that the kids, used to this other life, just can’t stand it.

In fact, kids often seem over-engaged. The only time they get to relax is in school, and many kids take this mental vacation to new heights during school hours.

Yesterday’s education for tomorrow’s kids. Where is the programming, the genomics, the bioethics, the nanotech—the stuff of their time? It’s not there. Not even once a week on Fridays.

That’s one more reason the kids are so enraged—they know their stuff is missing!

I might argue against that. Do they really know that their stuff is missing? Or do they only know they want something different?
The fact is that even if you are the most engaging old-style teacher in the world, you are not going to capture most of our students’ attention the old way. “Their short attention spans,” as one professor put it, “are [only] for the old ways of learning.” They certainly don’t have short attention spans for their games, movies, music, or Internet surfing. More and more, they just don’t tolerate the old ways—and they are enraged we are not doing better by them.

And if we educators don’t start coming up with some damned good curricular gameplay for our students—and soon—they’ll all come to school wearing (at least virtually in their minds) the T-shirt I recently saw a kid wearing in New York City: “It’s Not ADD—I’m Just Not Listening!”

Whew. It's tough just to pick out a few parts of that article to comment on. It is rather enraging. I frequently remind students that I am not "a paid entertainer" and part of the responsibility to make things interesting rests on their shoulders. I don't think it is acceptable for students to sit back and to send the message, "Engage me or Enrage me."

However, I do see some valid points to the article. The world IS changing, and education should be forced to change with it. However, as with any innovation, there needs to be time, money and support.

I use various technologies in my classroom. I have been using digital video, internet simulations and powerpoint lessons for years. I am currently looking into implementing blogs, wikis, and Flash into my curriculum. However, I struggle with the time. From the moment I wake up at 4 am, until I leave school at 6 pm or later, I am racing around. I can only imagine what I might be able to come up with given an uninterrupted chunk of time with similarly-minded professionals. We have a lot of good ideas inside of us, but not the time to flush them out.

Money is also an issue. Teachers need experts to train them. However, what would be the motivation for a technology expert to accept a position in a school district for $50,000 a year, when they can make that much in 6 or 7 weeks in a lucrative tech field? From limited personal experience, this is a growing problem, as science and technology trained professionals leave teaching to pursue more appropriate compensation for their talents. Schools also need money to upgrade their equipment. Prensky demands "some damned good curricular gameplay." We need the equipment and network to support it. To implement technology to the extent to which Prensky refers, we need more that a few computer carts for schools 500+ kids. And, as the technology gets more interactive, the strain on the limited systems will become more pronounced.

And, most importantly, there needs to be support. Prensky asks, "Where is the programming, the genomics, the bioethics, the nanotech—the stuff of their time? " It's out there, but teachers can't yet grasp it. When a technology start-up encounters an area of non-expertise, what do they do? They secure additional funding and hire a consultant. However, across the country, school district budgets are being slashed. Just as a start-up would not ask a non-expert to waste their time muddling through a problem they cannot solve, teachers should not be held responsible for being unable to integrate such technology into the current curriculum. Provide us with the expertise, the training and the time to learn, and I am sure we would see more invigorating results.

Prensky, while initially raising the hairs on the back of my neck, makes some very valid points. Education does have to change. But in order to do so, the current time and funding structures will have to change as well.
An African proverb says, "It takes a village to raise a child." Well, it's going to take a whole lot more than just teachers to change education. But with the necessary resources, we are up for the challenge!


Friday, January 12, 2007

CFG: Critical Friends Group

In the hectic schedule of meetings and obligations, there is one commitment that I eagerly anticipate - our CFG meetings. This is the second year I have participated in a Critical Friends Group (CFG) at my school. A group of us meet each month to discuss a piece of work or an issue brought in by one of our colleagues. Our structured conversations last about an hour, but the renewed pedagogical vigor lasts for days to follow.

We use protocols, such as the Collaborative Assessment Conference, Tuning Protocol, Consultancy and others. They all differ slightly, but all share a similar characteristics: all provide for a structured conversation about a piece of student work or an educational issue. This formal discussion is far more effective than the typical "teacher's lounge" conversation.

CFGs are a trend quickly infiltrating school systems. The National School Reform Faculty maintains an entire website on the subject of CFGs.

I agree with Carol Nejman when she says, "In a teacher's life there are always a thousand things to do and not enough time to do it all. Disciplining myself to take the time to meet with colleagues on a voluntary basis was difficult at first. Later, the work became so invigorating I couldn't stay away."

That's what CFGs do for me. I think they are fantastic. Too often, as educators, we are isolated in our own classrooms. In fact, I haven't really formally observed another teacher since I completed my preservice training. I can learn a lot from my colleagues, however, the system is not currently designed to encourage such interactivity. Any move towards making professional development more collaborative receives high marks from me.


Friday, December 22, 2006

How to Build a Student for the 21st Century

A recent Time article begins with a clever snapshot of Rip Van Winkle awaking from his 100 year nap to find himself immersed in unfamiliar technology, only to seek refuge in the one institution that has not appeared to change at all - a school.

The article was prompted by the
New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce's December 14th publication of its powerful recommendations for sweeping change in American education. Although there is apparent controversy with some of the bold proposals, the consensus of these educators and business folk is that "we need to bring what we teach and how we teach into the 21st century."

Time Magazine specifically highlights these four "21st century skills."

1. Knowing more about the world - As global citizens, students have an obligation to become aware of and sensitive to other geographies, cultures, and languages.

2. Thinking outside the box - Future job opportunities will focus on creativity and innovation, not rote or repetitive tasks. Time cites NCLB as one of the reasons schools have actually steered away from this goal in recent years. The need for more interdisciplinary curriculums is also stressed.

3. Becoming smarter about new sources of information - There is no question students can access more information that ever before. Educators must now facilitate skills in managing, validating, and interpreting that information.

4. Developing good people skills - Today, a person's EQ ("Emotional Intelligence") is even more important than their IQ. Traditional schooling can be competitive and individualistic, which does not bode well for tomorrow's collaborative workforce.

Learning 2.0

These goals are important and attainable. For example,
we pioneered and do continue to focus on civil behavior, with our building specifically concentrating on the five domains of Emotional Intelligence.

1. Self-Awareness, 2. Self-Regulation, 3. Motivation. 4. Empathy, 5. Social Skills.
These qualities have been shown to directly impact students' academic learning, particularly among early adolescents

Our students know the vocabulary. They are used to referring to the domains when complementing other students or when discussing disciplinary infractions. A poster listing the five domains hangs in every classroom.

The need for updated literacy skills are as critical as social-emotional skills. NCREL's EnGauge website discusses the importance of this digital-age literacy as part of a necessary set of 21st century skills.

Systemic change takes time, but there are steps parents and educators can take. The Time article discusses, a curriculum clearinghouse based on the wiki concept. NCREL has created a variety of frameworks (such as the the one below) that an educator can use to become more mindful of the integration of 21st century skills into current lesson plans and activities.

Educating these "21st century students" remains a daunting task in my mind. It is easy to get bogged down with the daily grind of the current public school system, however, I have to vow to not give up trying to address these goals of global awareness, innovative thinking, increased digital literacy, and social-emotional competencies. These skills are vitally important for our students.

Schools featured in the Time article include Seattle's John Stanford International School, Michigan's Henry Ford Academy,
New York's Baccalaureate School for Global Education, and Michigan's Farmington High.

A great post at highlights the irony of the Dec. 25th Time issue directly following this Dec. 18th article.
I find it fascinating how the article suggests that eventually projects like Curriki might “take the Web 2.0 revolution to school,” as if there aren’t countless educators working their butts off to demonstrate to their peers how blogs, podcasts, wikis and other tools can be used to improve student learning. It’s as if the amazing, transformative universe documented in the Person of the Year issue hasn’t even come knocking at education’s door yet. Or perhaps the industrial-era schoolhouse walls of are simply too thick for us to hear it knocking. Maybe it’s because too many educators and students who embrace Web 2.0 are finding themselves in conflict with a system that worries what might happen if students are given too many opportunities to express themselves online, whether at school or at home.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Power of "I Don't Know"

I think many teachers are compelled to give their students the impression that they know everything. Maybe I'm just lucky to be teaching in a discipline of theories, where ideas are expected to be introduced, challenged, rejected, and modified over time.

I have resigned myself to realize that even the most rigorous college science training does not prepare one for the questions 7th graders ask. "What state of matter is fire?" (hot gas). "Are there siamese-twin animals?" (there are). "How do bears pee when they're hibernating?" (they don't. they recycle the nitrogen into protein). "What would happen if you dropped antimatter in the earth's mantle?" (I don't know).

You'll notice none of them ask me what the Na/K ratio is in the sodium-potassium pump. Or what is the adductor to conteract the deltoid muscle. They don't ask me how many electrons are in the outermost orbital of a noble gas. Nope, my college education does not help me when kids start asking questions.

But, what does help me is a pad of post-its, an insatiable desire to learn, and access to the internet. At the end of the day, when my computer screen is littered with question-riddled post-its, a few students and I will look for the answers, and those we can't find, we submit to the experts. My favorite site is the UCSB Scienceline, where actual scientists email responses to student questions, although Wonderquest and The Why Files have helped us out, too. And I can't leave How Stuff Works off the list of most helpful sites.

"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; this is knowledge." - Confucius

"The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds." - John F. Kennedy

"The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know." - Albert Einstein

"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." - Socrates

These are some pretty smart guys, and they seem to be sharing a similar message. Ignorance itself is not to be feared. It is an tool to define the parameters of your current knowedge and to identify areas in which to expand your knowledge.

I firmly believe in admitting when I don't know something. In fact, I think it is very powerful to say to a student, "I don't know," followed by, "but we can certainly find out!"


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Going with the FLOW

On any given day, I encounter a myriad of emotions in my classroom. A single lovingly crafted lesson may resonate with a particular group of students, propelling them onward towards success, while others in the class may react with anxiety, apathy, or frustration.

This phenomenon, perhaps, was a bit of a mystery in my fledgling years as an educator. However, as I gained experience, I began to see patterns.

However, it wasn't until I was exposed to the ideas of Mihaly Csikszentm
ihalyi and his idea of "Flow" that I had a tangible expression of these patterns. Education is a constant balance. The great myth is that every student receives a similar education in a particular class. We educators provide the challenge, but as the chart suggests, a fixed challenge may elicit very different reactions in students of varying skill levels.

This is why I believe in differentiation. I don't want students to be bored, apathetic or anxious in my classroom. It isn't even enough for them to be relaxed or in control. In order for each student to grow, they need to be presented with the appropriate high challenge level for their current set of skills. Similarily, if they lack the skills to work on the expected challenge, it is up to me to provide support in building those needed skills.

This is not to say I think differentiation is easy. In fact, I think this is the most difficult aspect of my job. Unfortunately, I also think it is one of the most necessary. In a classroom of 30 kids, it is impossible to get simultaneous flow without differentiation.

We all have experienced flow. We may have called it being "in the zone" or "in the groove," but we recognize the state in which time flies by as we are engaged in something we competently enjoy. Flow is often described as an optimal state of intrinsic motivation.

Wouldn't education be effective if all students worked in an "optimal state of intrinsic motivation"?


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Defective Blueberries vs. Challenging Kids

This is a wonderful story for educators and non-educators alike. People so frequently try and project the "business model" onto schools. This model is ill-fitted to the realities of education.

The Blueberry Story By Jamie Robert Vollmer

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of in- service training.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle-1980s when People Magazine chose its blueberry flavor as the "Best Ice Cream in America."

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the Industrial Age and out of step with the needs of our emerging "knowledge society." Second, educators were a major part of the problem: They resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! Total Quality Management! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced—equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman's hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant. She was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, "We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream."

I smugly replied, "Best ice cream in America, ma'am."

"Premium ingredients?" she inquired.

"Super-premium! Nothing but triple-A." I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

"Mr. Vollmer," she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, "when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?"

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap. I was dead meat, but I wasn't going to lie.

"I send them back."

"That's right!" she barked, "and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all. Every one. And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it's not a business. It's school."

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, "Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!"

Speaking of NCLB, read another teacher's opinion Of "No Child Left Behind" and Blueberries (2003)


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

AYP: Are You Preposterous?

On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (see legislation or wikipedia article). In theory, it is a wonderful proposition focused on stronger accountability, more freedom for states and communities, proven education methods, and more choices for parents.

One of the requirements of NCLB is that by 2013-14 all students meet or exceed state learning standards. In 2001, an average of about 40% of Illinois students met or exceeded state standards. In a high performing district, this might be closer to 85 %.

The graph represents Illinois' plan to reach the 100% mark by 2014.
Source: IL State Board of Ed website (I'm not sure why we take an "improvement break" between 2012 & 2013.)

Schools are held accountable in their entirety, and also within particular sub-groups.

The 9 groups considered for AYP analyses are:

1. The Entire School
2. American Indians/ Alaskan Natives
3. Asians/ Pacific Islanders
4. Hispanics
5. Black/ African Americans
6. White/ Caucasians
7. Students with an Individualized Educational Plan
8. Students of Limited English Proficiency
9. Students receiving Free or Reduced Price Lunches

If any one of the 9 groups does not meet the criteria for the AYP indicators: (participation, academic acheivement, attendance, etc...), the entire school is designated as not demonstrating Adequate Yearly Progress. In other words, in 2014, if 100% of your LEP kids, or special education kids, are not meeting or exceeding state standards, your entire school is considered "failing." (There are currently 25% of public schools considered failing in the US... and current AYP goals hover in the 40% range right now.... you predict the trend in the percentage of schools considered failing over the next five years.)

Go figure: In 2003, all special education students had to take the same state test as other students and their scores countes in their school's AYP. Shortly thereafter, the federal gov't relaxed the requirement slightly, and schools are able to exempt up to 1% of their population from taking the standardized test. This means students with severe mental retardation, autism, traumatic brain injuries, and other severe disabilities have the option to "not count" against AYP for a school. (Remember, if one subgroup fails, the entire school is labeled as failing.)

Many people argue that AYP requirements unfairly target large, diverse districts. If you have many subgroups, you have "more chances" to fail. Also, a subgroup must have at least 30 kids to "count," so smaller districts often can work around the requirements.

The consequences for not making AYP can be serious, ranging from giving students the option to transfer to another school (transportation paid for by sending school), to providing extra tutoring, to shutting down the school completely and re-opening it as a charter school or under the direction of a private firm.

By the way, right now, according to a 8.16.06 article on, "Under the No Child Left Behind law, states were supposed to have highly qualified teachers in every core academic class by the end of the last [05-06] school year. None made it." In addition, independent studies predict that 99% of public schools will be labeled as "failing" by 2014 due to issues with AYP requirements.

Wow. Nearly a 100% failure rate. I firmly support the ideals promoted but the law, but could it be that NCLB is a bit quixotic?


Sunday, November 05, 2006

You'll never know when you're making a difference

Teaching middle school is a funny thing. Year after year, you work with students in perhaps the most tumultuous time of their lives. School sucks. Parents are lame. And all authority is to be challenged. We do our best, then let them go.

Years later, an amazing phenomenon unfolds. Some of them come back. They tell tales of moments amidst the middle school chaos that penetrated their identity-crazed self-obsessed beings and affected their very core. Out of the 226,800 moments of their middle school careers (defining a "moment" as one minute), it never ceases to amaze me which moments earn this influential honor.

A sophomore came back and shared a recent English 2 assignment with me about the pressures she feels in high school. She was not a student I was particularily close to; in fact, I rarely recall exchanging any words with her outside the curriculum.

In her paper, she recalls the first few minutes of ninth period of her 7th grade year, a set of moments that have long escaped my memory. She states in her paper, "I don't remember much of what she said that day, or really anything from that entire year. But that day, she unintentionally taught me the most valuable lesson of my life."

She proceeds to write a verbatim record of my brief statements explaining why I have never experimented with tobacco or drugs. My comments lasted no longer than a minute or two, though, according to her, "my life was drastically changed for the better that first day of seventh grade."

I am aware of my words, actions and reactions every moment of my teaching experiences. Among the clamoring adolescents, I just never know who might be listening.