Showing posts from November, 2016

Kicking Students Out of The Box: Closing the Lid on Linear Thinking

There is inherently a box we all place ourselves in. A safe place where we can analyze, synthesize, and even criticize the world around us. We can leave the box open so we can hear what is going on around us or we can close it to make sure we become oblivious and hardened to our surroundings. Or, we can rip open the box and climb out tossing the box aside, allowing the melody and harmony around us to stir curiosity, spark interest, and steer us forward. Knowledge is found outside the box, in light, sound and nature. How do we get our students to choose to leave the box behind?

Flattening the box is not a easy feat. we often want to return to it when defeated and discouraged. So rather than dismantling it we often just slide it into a corner just in case. Knowing it is there, like a safety blanket. How do we get students to close the lid and walk away from the box? We bring them out slowly because to force will cause retreat. For it is always a choice. The choice to do so emerges throu…

Future City: An Engineering Competition

This competition is a popular one. I have mentored teams in two states: Georgia and Texas. This is my tenth year being a mentor. It is now becoming more popular here in Houston and more challenging. My teams have always received awards because they work very hard and generally get an award for best city design or best transportation. These last few years however, my teams have also made it into the top five regionally ending in a 4th one year and a 3rd another in place standing. Only one team per school can make the top 5 per year to make the competition more fair and competitive. This year we are determined to do better then 3rd place.

Last years 3rd place team is in tact and are competing again. This is awesome. I am excited to work with them again. In the past, schools were allowed to bring 4 teams. With the sudden influx of teams this year we are only allowed to bring 3 teams. At my school word has spread and many students want to participate. A total of 9 teams of 4 are competing…

Dyson: How can a Vacuum be a Learning Tool?

Engineering is the first things that comes to your mind right? Dismantling a hand-vac and then reassembling it can be a a great tool to discuss blue-prints, structure and function, even technology and its advancements over the centuries. But does a simply hand-vac lend itself to any other scientific topic? I am a Life Science teacher and I wanted to order the Dyson Box for my classroom. It is free, and I was curious to try it out. I wanted to make sure it was fun and engaging but also that i could tie it to my curriculum. So last year, my first year ordering it, I sat down and took the vacuum apart, investigating all the parts, lied them out on the table, drew them, them reassembled the unit. After looking at my drawings it sparked a thought.
The parts looked very much like tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, muscles. An aha! moment. I wrote a simple lesson plan, with very little direction. I wanted to see if my students would come up with the same conclusion I did. On each table as th…

Start Spreading the News: Scientific Inquiry through Current Events

Advancements in science are happening every day: Medical advancements, discovering new distant planets, the latest technology. Historical events are occurring all around us, changing the world dynamic. These incidents, milestones, and sometimes tragedies should not become part of the backdrop but integrated into the classroom dialogue and used as a way to connect students with a global perspective. These situations may seem distant and irrelevant to students but we need to bridge the gap and bring them into focus. Students need to feel a part of something bigger, a global community, a world stage, the human species. empathy comes from understanding and as a teacher we need to bring this perspective into the classroom.

Rather than a stare, disbelief, feeling there is nothing we can do, we need to instill in our students an appeal to get connected. To seek ways to make the world better. We can do this by finding stories of real people doing real things. Not just scientists in a lab, ast…

Common Sense: Can it be Taught?

What is common sense, really? Recognizing things are not as close as they appear in a side mirror? Not blowing your hair dry in the shower? Being careful opening a microwave dinner as steam may cause burning? All of these however, are written out for us clear as day. We have warning labels. So are they common sense? Someone actually didn't know and had to be warned? These were in fact deemed so important as to make sure people are aware of the dangers. So is common sense an inherent skill we are born with or a trait we cultivate throughout our life-time? Do some people have a stronger sense than others, like a spidey sense? Ultimately is it necessary or can we be taught how to be prepared for the unexpected?

I watch my students interact and make daily choices. I try to observe more than I facilitate. It is interesting to see which students think about the task, plan ahead and how many don't. How some students are okay with having to repeat the activity after being unsuccessful…


The holidays are always a trigger for a lot of emotions. They are the time of the year wh,en we take stock in our lives. A season where we recognize what we are thankful for. A moment of the year where we travel long distances to be with those we love. We forgive past transgressions and choose to love. We volunteer, we donate, we sacrifice. We see our larger role in the universe, we try to be the best versions of ourselves. Days become months of smiles, hugs, and good tidings. But then January rolls around and slowly these feelings fade into daily life. But they begin anew and we fade into them with a renewed spirit.

I open my eyes, stir in bed, until I smell the turkey. The smell of sage, rosemary and thyme wafting into the bedroom.This arouses me and I climb out of the sheets eager to begin preparing my traditional dressing. It could be any Thanksgiving of my childhood. The Macy's Thanksgiving Parade on the television in the living room, mom chopping celery in the kitchen. I hav…

Music: A Journey Through Memory

The slow, quiet beginning fades in like a sunrise over the majestic California mountains. Walking through a bustling campus unaware of the noise focused only on the increasing electronic groove of 1980s synthesizers and the hollowness of 1970s funk. I have the latest headphones and Disc Man. My 1997 physique doesn't tire as I speed walk through the crowd. My long auburn hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail. My comfy jeans and UCLA sweatshirt are keeping me warm in the cool Los Angeles breeze. A clear memory, crispness of the air, foot traffic adorning the pathway, the eagerness of students as they make the long trek across campus. This distant memory all floods in as I sit in my 2016 bedroom, headphones on listening to Elegia by New Order. A song that transcends time.

They say smell is the strongest sense, that the fragrance of flowers, odor of musk, even the delicious waft of home cooking are what trigger memories most. For me, however, it has always been music. Growing up in …

Remediation and Enrichment Circles: Data Driven Activities

Students have varying levels of success on assessments, this may come from a lack of understanding, a lack of studying, even a lack of motivation. So how do we as teachers make sure that every student is successful? Once students have mastered the content do we provide ways for them to find enrichment based on interest not more work? As teachers we need to assess of course, but can we get just as much data from observations as we can from written or formal assessments? I say yes. It takes a solid game plan but for me one-minute check-in's, reflection, and remediation and enrichment circles are the best strategies to make sure every student is mastering the content.

Every week students meet with me for at least one-minute to check-in: ask questions, share ideas, design a personal plan for enrichment or remediation. I have students reflect a lot, either through journal writing, blog posting, or collaborative groups. I have students play 4 corners a lot with basic topics and then get…

Digital Interactive Notebooks: A Virtual Way to Organize Classroom Portfolios

Leave the paper behind. Reflect, blog, organize on-line. Upload documents, add photos and podcasts, even add links to websites and videos. Online portfolios are a great way to get students reflecting on their learning, keeping track of their progress, and inviting parents into the classroom to catch a glimpse of the way the classroom works and their child's assignments. Edmodo, Sophia, and seesaw are all great programs available to have students create interactive notebooks online. Portfolios or interactive notebooks have many purposes but most importantly it is a fun, creative way for students to stay organized and motivated.

Feedback can be instant. Students share their ideas via the class blog through writing and podcasts. Every student has a voice and they can chose to make something public for the class or private to me. Also, only their parents have access to their portfolio. Writing a class blog keeps the class discussions open and flowing even outside of school. Students po…

Augmented Reality: Accelerating STEAM Education in Your Classroom

Virtual rocket launches, journey through ecosystems, even travelling through the human body. Augmented reality is an amazing way to get students engaged and interactive in a science classroom.Augmented Reality (AR) content can be accessed by scanning or viewing a trigger image with a mobile device that creates a subsequent action. This action can be a video, another image, 3D Animations, Games, QR code, or whatever you want it to be. For example, I use virtual hip-replacement animations or heart transplant virtual tours with my students. We have a BYOD (bring your own device) program and for those who do not have a device I have ipads & laptops in which they can use URL's.

Augmented Reality is an example of a technology that can make any classroom an exciting learning experience. Aurasma Studio is a great tool to use to transform any lesson into an engaging and relevant event. What in the past had seemed like Science-Fiction is now a part of our reality. Children are finding Po…

Argumentation Driven Classroom: Teaching Students How to Argue with Finness and Respect

Using argumentation in the classroom is often a tough endeavor. It takes a lot of modeling and patience. But in the end it is definitely worth it because you foster research, understanding and interest when students can bring together different ideas and argue or debate their findings. The first strategy I use when setting up an argumentation lesson is to have students collect data and write explanations down in order for them to make real world connections. Having students determine explanations for scientific phenomena helps students understand data, communicate their understanding to others, and make links between scientific evidence and scientific information.

The most popular device to aid students towards a deeper understanding is the use of CER's or Claim, Evidence, Reasoning. When students use these three together a synthesis occurs. When they write a claim they explain the answer to a scientific phenomenon  with a statement. A concise statement. Then in the evidence porti…

Acoustic, A Capella, or Rock n Roll: Stripped Down Lessons vs. Full Ensemble Activities

Acoustic music is music that solely or primarily uses instruments that produce sound through acoustic means, as opposed to electric or electronic means. -Wikipedia 

A cappellamusic is specifically group or solo singing without instrumental accompaniment, or a piece intended to be performed in this way. -Wikipedia

Musically, rock has centered on the electric guitar, usually as part of a rockgroup withelectric bass guitar and drums. -Wikipedia

Three different types of music mainly variant due to the instruments that are incorporated into the music or the lack thereof. This got me to thinking. As with music, teachers use different devices and equipment to convey information to their students. It is necessary to use different styles and techniques to make sure we reach every student. Bells and whistles are exciting but sometimes a quiet lesson is needed to engage and focus students. Acoustic is just as exciting as drums and electric guitar when it is performed by magical and talented musicia…

Zombie Apocalypse: How do We Avoid the Blank Stares and Shoulder Shrugging?

How do we get our students to actively design rather then passively consume information? How do we prevent our students from falling into a creative chasm where they get lost in too much information? How do we create trail blazers? How do we get our students to unleash their creative minds? We teach them how to be independent learners. We provide hooks and discrepant events because they add to comprehension, encourage interest, and help with recall. We lay the framework and let them write the discourse.

The brain is a muscle, we need to train it just like we do any other muscle. We stretch before exercise, why don't we stretch before we learn? How can we teach our students to do this? Teach students to make great observations. Their surroundings often become background, they walk through it never stopping to notice the subtle changes that occur daily. They neglect to embrace the vast differences and similarities of behaviors and actions occurring around them. A fun way to get thei…

Circumstances: A Slippery Path to Independent Thinking

The most creative and innovative ideas come from struggle. Challenging experiences lead us to find a new way of thinking in order to discover imaginative solutions. Circumstances may be out of our control, especially as children. But, they may also be self-created out of doubt, fear, and insecurities. Where we live, our outlook on education, our prior experiences all play a role in our circumstances. This sphere can be far reaching or it can cling to us directly. Our highway can be slippery, but if we have good tread the pavement will become more stable. As a teacher, we need to pave the road for our students, light the street lamps, add a cross-walk with a crossing guard, even a stop light to prevent misconceptions and road hazards. How do we set up a classroom in order to keep traffic flowing but also allow for lane changes, u-turns, even parallel parking? 

We need to teach students, like a skid on an icy road, steer into the skid. Recognize the situation and accept it head on rather…

Interactive Case Studies: Critical Thinking in Real Time

Interactive case studies allow students to practice critical thinking skills as they play the role of scientist to solve real world problems. This is not only engaging it is crucial for students to understand their role in the world, that there are many real world issues that they will be facing within their life-times and that they can help solve them. It also puts students in the drivers seats on the race course of relevant, current, real world scenarios, a track they themselves have control over. They can steer towards the problem and attempt to solve it  or venture away from it but by doing this can cause more problems. This puts real world events into perspective. Critical thinking and self-awareness are key to a true learning experience and with interactive case studies these are both addressed.

NSF, The National Science Foundation, has created a program called the National Center for Case
Study Teaching in Science where they have compiled case studies for all age levels. These c…

Student Centered-Classroom: Holding Students Accountable for Their Learning: STEAM & Design

There are four strategies that should be a staple in any classroom, especially science. Innovate, collaborate, differentiate, and integrate. Sounds impossible to bring all of these into the forefront of your classroom design, but in reality, not at all, Students will be engaged, motivated, and curious every day if they are allowed to tinker, design, create, and innovate. This can be as simple as a makerspace but if one wants to take it to the next level, set up integrated content stations where students can demonstrate their understanding. These stations can be designed around remediation or enrichment but should always be available to every student and a place where they feel comfortable exploring and discovering relevant and current information.

Stations are a quick easy way to allow students to explore and review vocabulary, individual concepts and even see the big picture by making connections between larger concepts. While some students are exploring the stations other students c…

Lab Mapping: A Student Driven Data Organizer

What is lab mapping? A treasure map of information for students to use as they complete a lab/activity. Providing students with a map or organizer before a lab activity or other classroom task. It is a way for students to read over the instructions and dissect them before they begin. In a 50-minute class this very well may take place the day before or at the end of the class or for homework. As we all know students often DO NOT read the directions. This forces them to get organized and completely understand the instructions before beginning the activity.

What should the lab map look like? You can design it based on your grade level but they should all include boxes where students can answer the following questions or collect the following data:

1. Sketch and label all the materials you will be using in this lab/activity.
2. Draw symbols and explain all safety considerations you must follow during this lab/activity.
3. Draw and label the set up of the lab/activity-be specific and inclu…

CAST: Conference for the Advancement of Science Teachers

I haven't been to a large conference for about eleven years. It was a science teachers conference in Georgia. It was my second year of teaching and honestly, I was overwhelmed and unsure how to get the most out of it. It was crowded, I spent most of my time in the Exhibit Hall talking to vendors and gathering posters etc. I went to a few workshops where lab activities were demonstrated, with no samples provided, discussions of science with little application ideas, and thus I ended up leaving the conference feeling like I didn't get that much out of it, except a weekend trip with my family.

This last weekend, my fifteenth year of teaching, I attended my second conference: CAST. It was in San Antonio, TX. It was crowded too, but in an enormous conference center, I mean gigantic. They provided half-an-hour travel time in between sessions but if you didn't leave your previous session a little early you would be at the end of a very long line for the next workshop and might no…

How Collaboration can Lead to Success: Model and Practice

Collaboration seems easy for some people. They are outgoing, well-spoken, energetic, and infectious getting those around them to listen and respond with ease. But for others, shyness, lack of vocabulary, even frustration or reluctance can lead to a lack of cooperation. How can we get our reluctant and motivated students to come together and truly collaborate. It all begins with creating a classroom where every voice matters, where students can chose to speak or remain quiet, but the freedom and energy draws the quiet students in, they listen and learn just may not speak up. We as teachers need to model that talking and sharing is a safe endeavor where everything shared is important and appreciated.

Teaching teamwork may seem easy. Just throw a group of children in a group and they will figure their roles out and cooperate to reach a common goal. As we all know from experience, this rarely happens. As adults when we are placed in teams we are given roles, goals, expectations. We may no…

Engagement: How Can We as Teachers Improve Engagement in Our Classrooms?

Active time versus dead time. There should be minimal dead time in a classroom. During dead time or transition time, I use brain breaks during changeover times or play music to keep the focus on the shift of activities and when the music stops the next activity begins. Model these conversions so they become routines rather than disruptions. This minimizes dead time where students get unfocused and off-task. Also, during shifts of focus students come up to my desk and do their 1-minute check-in's this reinforces focus and allows us to get on the same page academically and behaviorally.

Warm-ups are a great way to get students curious and focused when they walk in the door. Put a picture on the smart board or sometimes I have a discrepant event taking place in the front of the room. A cup of bubbly water, or dry ice, even a compost jar will do the trick. This gets the classroom buzzing and then they write a brief reflection in their journals. Having a routine helps students get in a…

Routines in the Classroom: Do They Lead to Rigor or Repetition?

Routines do not mean long, boring, teacher led actions. They simply mean organized situations where behaviors and actions are modeled and practiced for efficiency and effectiveness. They can be structured around passing out or turning in papers, collecting materials, cleaning up, even warm-ups and tickets-out-the-door or brain breaks. They are consistent and make students feel there is a structure and organization for the class. Students need to feel like there is a purpose for things, they need to have something that is uniform and stable. Stability is key for students to feel comfortable and focused, this is when learning takes place.
Rigor and grit occurs when students are free from the tedious and can focus on the creative, innovative, and curiosity that drives their motivation and determination. When they have routines for the simple things they can accomplish them quickly leaving more time for the active, authentic learning experiences designed by their teachers. A makerspace cre…

Quiz Bowl: A Day of Learning Experiences

Last Saturday I took 6 teams of students to a quiz bowl tournament. It was a huge endeavor one that I will not undertake again, at least on that scale. I absolutely love quiz bowl, but six teams 3 6th grade and 3 7/8th grade was just too many. That was the first lesson learned. There were a lot of tears when they lost a game, but parents were there to help with bruised egos and this made my day a lot easier. I could not get to every game, as three teams were playing at the same time. This made it challenging to give my all and to cheer on my teams. I did manage to see at least one game for each team but, I wish I had had more time to focus on individual students.

We practice three days a week, so I do know all of them and provide positive feedback and critiques for them, but they needed my support on Saturday and I was stretched to thin to do that. So lesson two learned. But they did have fun, learned a lot, and learned tons about losing graciously, humility, and determination, or lac…

How Important is Data? Using Data to Help Improve Student Success

Formative assessments are a useful tool in any class. Whether they are tickets-out-the-door, warm-up reflections, even a simple open hand, two fingers, fist approach (hold at your chest tight so others don't see). These are used to quickly assess student learning and understanding. In my classroom I use one-minute check-in's with every student, this gets them asking questions, sharing ideas, and I get to see depth of knowledge and comprehension,

I also love as a mentor, cheerleader, trainer to step back and simply watch. Students are the stars of the classroom, practicing their lines, reading their scripts, even finding their spots on the stage. They sometimes have the spotlight on them or they may be extras or behind the scenes. But they all have a purpose, know they are a part of the class community and feel safe to either sit in the audience or shout their ideas to the rafters. Yes, my classroom is very much a theater,

Some of my students are set designers, my artists, writ…

EdCamp CJ: An Adventure in a Student-Centered Classroom

A few weeks ago in a chat, we were discussing the edcamp format and how engaging it is. It is a conversation strategy where rather than one person talk about their ideas, an open-dialogue ensues where everyone speaks and comments sparking an interactive and meaningful learning experience. Someone asked if anyone had used this format with students? This sparked my interest, intrigued me. At that moment I began planning an edcamp day in my classroom.

Tables in my classroom are already set up to create a communal feel. Standing desks in the back, two round tables in the middle and science tables put together in threes to make large group tables. This is the perfect setting for an edcamp style discussion. I wrote some vocabulary terms and questions on the board all about the Circulatory System. This discussion, I decided would be at the beginning of the unit rather then the end. This way it was about what they already knew, then they could learn from others rather than just review an alre…

Ideas for using mini whiteboards

A simple white board can be a great tool. Not only is is quick and erasable but it also saves paper. I went to Home Depot and asked for a large white board. Then I had them cut it into 30 smaller pieces. Voila a class set of white boards. I have used them numerous times, students love them and they are easy to move about and clean. Here are a few ways they have been useful in my classroom:

1) Each student drew an organ and then we placed them all together on the floor to make a human body.

2) A quick assessment tool, draw A, B,C,D and hold it up (usually tight to the chest so others can't copy or see)

3) Write a question you think might stump a fellow student about our current topic-trade with a classmate

4) Make a giant graph of data on the floor, all A's, B's etc.

5) Use them as ramps in lab activities

6) Write different terms on some and definitions on others and have students match them up by walking around the room

7) Card sorts but they are the cards

8) Have each stu…

How to support stressed-out students

Overachievers, underachievers, reluctant learners, worry worts, and perfectionists. Just about every student carries a level of stress with them throughout the school day. Whether is is coming from a place of fear of inadequacy, social awkwardness or parental pressure most students feel overwhelmed at some point in their school week. It can be noticeable or well hidden. But as teachers we need to try our best to not add to the layers of stress that our students are burdened with. Sports, music, academics it doesn't matter every aspect of a students life brings with it a little bit of stress. Add them all together, it is no wonder they act out or shy away.

Homework-is it really necessary? Is it purposeful, is it better completed in class with collaboration. Not everything needs to be done in isolation. A balance of both works great in my classroom. Every week discussion questions are posted on Canvas and they have 7-10 days to complete them. All other work is completed in class, an…

What's in my teacher bag?

What is a teacher bag? To me it is a "bag of holding', or for you non-gamer's, a bag of endless crevices and pockets to store anything and everything. It contains the latest this and that, new technology or software, student work, lesson plans, makerspace materials, flexible seating, standing desks, even my classroom as it has evolved over time. It is a collective of the tangible and imaginable, the failures and successes, the enduring strategies and the current "flavor's of the month." It is important that it never be emptied because it encompasses every aspect of my teaching career and holds the reminders of where I have been as a learner and educator and where I am heading as a teacher.

It is a quiet place where I can meditate and reflect but also a bustling place where ideas are being generated. It is my storage place, my haven, my meeting place where great minds share ideas and innovations. I collaborate here with my team, colleagues, even people from a…

Music: Does Background Music Calm Students?

Two weeks ago I finally got my Spotify playlist complete and began playing it my classroom. It is a list of movie theme songs, Disney instrumentals, even some Mozart and Beethoven. I decided to collect some data, play it full time and write down some notes and after two weeks I would reevaluate if necessary. I explained to my students early on that "If I can't hear the music you are too loud." As my classroom is a student-centered classroom the majority of our class time is build around collaborative groups, which can get noisy at times.
Over the two weeks the volume was lowered a little every day to see if they would get quieter on their own. I would raise the volume at times, lower it at others. It took the full two weeks for this strategy to actually work. They quieted themselves almost on cue with little fuss it became automatic. One day I turned it off to see how they would respond. They noticed and asked me why it wasn't playing. It has now become quite routine…

Discomfort, Growth, and Innovation

For any true growth to occur, some discomfort must be allowed to surface. That moment of fear before you introduce a new concept or idea to your class. The instant you realize you have ventured into uncharted waters, but continue to tread water further from the shoreline. That uncertainty you feel when you are unsure of how others will react to your innovative design. But, then suddenly the relief that you succumb to as the turbulent waves become calm seas. This is when the sails unfurl and the wind of accomplishment sets you free.

I have always stepped outside my comfort zone to try new things, but I have always had a safety net or a plan B. My navigation system has always been aligned with my path so I can quickly change direction and get back on course. I rarely, write detailed lesson plans, I have goals and essential questions and yes, a plan but never a concrete one because I alter my travel plans according to the weather and current. Otherwise known as my students. But the disco…

Why do Students Cheat?

There are dozens of articles, and endless research on why cheating occurs. Why seemingly intelligent, high achieving students resort to copying someones homework, peeking at someone else's test, and yes even plagiarizing someones work. When I was in college I watched other students do this during a test. Proctors would walk up and down the aisles in a 300 plus auditorium and cheating was everywhere. But why? Was it the thrill one might get caught or was there far too much partying and hung-over students just needed to get a passing grade? Either way most got away with it. Teaching generation after generation that cheating works.

In 7th grade, the stakes may seem lower, but often they are higher. The pressure placed on them by ever watchful and encouraging parents. Peers that always get the A making them feel second best. Even, unfortunately too much pressure placed on them by teachers and themselves to exceed all the time. I teach 120 gifted students who on a daily basis I have to…

Halloween: A Teachable Moment

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Harry Potter, Ghosts and Witches oh my!  Taking my 6 year old trick-or-treating this year was an adventure. My neighborhood is a quiet one on Halloween with only about six houses out of about 60 actually participating. Last year my sons was miserable and saddened that this was the case. So this year we piled in the car, and drove to a neighborhood down the street that was bustling and humming with laughter and anticipation. He was mesmerized by the vast array of costumes.

Halloween now-a-days is all about the candy of course. But before we journeyed into the sugary fantastic world of treats and trickery I sat down my son and we discussed the meaning behind All Hallow's Eve. Halloween is the night before All-Saint's Day. I explained that "Begging at the door grew from an ancient English custom of knocking at doors to beg for a "soul cake" in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. Soul cakes, a fo…