Wednesday, November 30, 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 through challenging, inquiry based experiences where staying in the box limits their thinking. Discrepant events where the box blocks their view and they are drawn outward from its shadow by wonderment.

A student-centered classroom is one step in many. When students are in charge of their learning the box is slowly pushed into the corner. The excited voice of a fellow student is intriguing. Realization that others around you are having fun and learning in new ways draws the box even further way. The box is isolating so collaborative work allows students to listen and grow from these situations. When students can share ideas it solidifies their own understanding and reassures them that what they have to offer is important. the more we belong, the more we feel connected the more the box becomes unnecessary. What types of lessons dismantle the box? Problem-solving, give students access to the makerspace to build a model, a vacuum to dismantle and reassemble, a frog to dissect, a puzzle to solve. All interactive and based on inquiry and problem solving.

Even the little things, blog posting, podcasting, stop-motion video, reflection writing all shrink the size of the box. When the box goes from one that encompasses our entire body to one where a small trinket resides, the box becomes less important, a simple container rather than a safe haven. Thinking outside the box occurs when our voice is confident, we believe in ourselves, take-risks in order to grow, and when circumstances guide us not fear or doubt. When teachers create challenging experiences students will discover impressive answers that will motivate them to go further. Independent thinking comes from seeing the box as a stepping stool not a hiding place. Let students collaborative stack their boxes and they will climb them to seek their own answers and create their own learning experiences.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

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 locally at my school to determine which 3 teams get to attend the regional competition at the NASA Center in January. Now let me be clear, these 9 teams have been writing a 1000 word essay, designing and creating a model (to scale), playing SIMS City and creating a visual presentation and practicing a 7 minute speech since August. All in the hopes of getting to be one of the 3 teams. Astounding right?

Today is our local competition. They are pumped, eager, nervous, but excited to try out. I asked six science teachers to help me judge the performances. Each teacher will be given a rubric (designed by the actual competition) in which to score their speech and model. I will add up the scores and the top three will get to go to the regional competition. They have all worked so hard since August both in my club meetings and outside of school in their teams. I wish I could take them all. There will be stand out performances which will gravitate to the top while others will not. I have been talking to them and answering their questions since August so I am truly excited to see all the presentations. This will be my first time seeing their models and hearing their speeches.

This is an amazing opportunity for anyone to connect science, math, ELA, engineering and speech in their classrooms and beyond. It is a national competition and I hope that word spreads and others begin to join because it is fulfilling and rewarding not only for students but for parents and teachers alike. My goal is to get to nationals in Washington D.C. maybe the 10th year is the charm. I have never taken the same team twice so maybe that is a good sign. I will keep you posted.

Monday, November 28, 2016

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 they entered the room was a mini-vac, tools, and a handout with a visual of how to take it apart and put it back together, and a booklet on the parts and functions of the vacuum. On the board I wrote "How is this vacuum like the human body?" This was an engagement lesson, a hook, students had not been given any vocabulary of background on our new unit: Skeletal, Muscular and Integumentary systems. They were aware this was the next unit but we hadn't discussed it yet as a class.

Before any tool was touched, students read the background of Dyson and how collaboratively the vacuum was improved upon and finally became what it is today. Then I asked students to take apart the unit and draw and label the parts. Then as a group discuss why each part was used? Why is each part of the whole important? After about ten minutes, students reassembled the vacuum. Finally I had them look at their drawings and determine how they are similar to the human body. Students did determine skeletal and muscular. But, they also made connections to other body systems: Nervous: electric currents telling it what to do? Circulatory: engine the heart. Even Excretory, cleaning out the waste through the tubes like the ureters. It is amazing what they come up with when asked one simple question "How is this vacuum like the human body?" 

Dyson Box is available to order on the website. It takes several months to get so order early. It is not only for science. My colleague is an ELA teacher and she also ordered one this year and she has hers on a back table and students after they finish an assignment go back and tinker. She has them tell her how they are discovering new things and they write simple first person narratives. The box is delivered to your school. It is yours for about 5 weeks then you need to ship it back, all free with labels, I just drop it off at a UPS store to make sure it gets sent out quickly. I recommend this for any classroom, students love it, it spawns curiosity and discovery. It is great for a makerspace or genius hour. Give it a try i know your students will love you for it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

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, astronauts in space, or famous people using their voices to bring about change, but also kids around the world in small villages of Africa, inner city schools in Los Angeles, and suburban schools of Boston. What do all these students have in common? A recognition of purpose, a drive to improve the world and a determination to do so. Change is happening because individuals young and old have chosen to do so, to sacrifice for the common good. This curiosity, innovation and motivation is what we need to be fostering in our students. We need to be leading students to independence and individuality. We need to be providing them with problems to solve and let them take it from there.

The best tool we can provide our students is choice and creativity. In my classroom I use many different resources for students to read, interact with, and share stories of achievement. Science News for Students, Science World, DOGO News, Rice University Archives are all amazing places for students to read about science advancements. the more they read about science the more they will connect to it and understand its importance. My students participate in many science competitions Future City and city of the Future Houston 2050, both of which require engineering, math, writing, performing a speech, design, and building a model. Both are STEAM driven and provide an opportunity for students to investigate how science is used for innovation. How science is used to improve our lives and how it will shape the future.

Finally, I have students read case studies about world issues from lack of clean water, outbreaks of disease, food shortages, and loss of habitat. Then students conduct research to help solve these issues, write a paper, and share their findings in a speech. For this PBL I often team with ELA. This allows more time for a deeper understanding of the articles and research and more time to write research papers. The speeches are given in science class and we use them as a spring board into our ecology unit. Collaborating across the curriculum is a great way for students to make connections and understand the importance of world issues and collaboration in solving them.

Scientific inquiry is a critical thinking path that every student needs to follow. A destination and a journey all rolled into one package. Current events should never be glossed over, they should be embraced and used as a learning tool. The more we feel connected to the global community the more compassion and empathy we feel as humans. Tragedy should not be limited to those local but felt by all, that is the way change occurs. When we climb to the mountain top to peer out on all of existence we do not feel isolated and alone but integrated and our purpose is revealed. Students need to feel this too. Not just on the internet but in the tangible, relevant, meaningful world in which we all exist.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

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 while others get distraught after the littlest of errors. Mistakes are a part of being human, everyone makes them. Does that make them null of common sense? If we make more mistakes does that mean we lack common sense? Webster's Dictionary defines common sense as good judgement in practical matters. What if good judgement is used but failure still occurs? Can we teach common sense? Or are we as teachers more likely to teach confidence and organization and planning which can lead students to good judgement? Is judgement internal and fixed or fluid?

I listen to my own children as they laugh, think about the future, make decisions based on feeling and prior knowledge. I talk to them about being practical, I ask lots of questions. Why do you think that is the best route to take? Do you think that finances may prevent you from reaching that goal? What might be the best steps to follow to achieve that goal? But as a parent all I can do is model good choices, self-confidence, and realistic and rational decision making skills but they will ultimately make their own choices. So can we teach common sense or can we only teach them the strategies and problem-solving skills to develop their own common sense?

After being a mother for 26 years and a teacher for 15 I have come to the conclusion that common sense is personally based on prior experiences, parental influence, social and peer interaction and self-image. The more we model independence, critical thinking, problem-solving, inquiry, and collaboration the stronger the skills children develop. We provide them opportunities to grow, fail, discover, tinker and create, build their foundation of knowledge. We allow them to make choices, whether positive or negative but allowing them to learn from misjudgments makes the foundation stronger. It is the foundation that makes a building centered, sturdy and structured. The walls and ceiling may be what covers and protects but they would not exist without the foundation.

As a mother and a teacher every day I create challenging experiences where my children and students feel confident to overcome any hurdles in their way. Failure is an option, it is welcomed. But, it is followed by learning and growth. Failure is temporary. Confusion, doubt, fear are only temporary. Building off of these is what makes us human, what makes us develop and grow, what ultimately provides us with common sense. Common sense as personal and internal as it may seem is ultimately a base of who we are determined by a multitude of factors, family, education, growth mindset, and circumstances we may not be able to control. But as adults, our role is to foster this by showing every student they are valued, loved, respected, and appreciated because when we feel like we belong most of our common sense falls into place naturally.

Friday, November 25, 2016


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 have always had fond memories of this particular holiday. While I was growing up Thanksgiving was always a grand event, every side-dish you can imagine on the dining room table. The nice linen and china set in amazing table settings. Every last detail of decor organized by my mother who at the end of a long day of cooking was usually too tired to partake in much dinner.

As an adult, you try to create new memories for your children. A particular movie, change up the dessert, starting early with the Christmas tunes. This year current alternative rock, Community on the TV and board games. Lots of board games. To get all four of my boys in the same room, interested and engaged in a common event is nearly impossible but the holidays bring out the best in us, most of the time anyway. The best Thanksgiving episode this year was This is Us 'Pilgrim Rick" even my 18 year old was quiet and reflective during this show. Family together, arguing but together. Realizing that families do bicker and fight, say things they don't mean, upset us, frustrate us, make us cry, but they are family and we forgive and love them despite all of their shortcomings.

This was my Thanksgiving. A day of four boys bonding over board games but only for awhile before one upset the other and my youngest lost a game and ran out in a fit. But, rather than getting upset, I took a deep breath, and smiled for a perfect dinner, calm demeanor, smiling children was never in the cards for this family. That is what makes us, us. The arguing, stomping away, spilling the milk, messy kitchen, frustration but eventual rejoining over pumpkin pie and hot cocoa is this family. We have a big group all trying to be the loudest, center of attention, well trying to be heard over the din of six voices. This odd ball, loud, crazy, irritating, but loving family is what I am truly thankful for.

After the dishes are finally done, kitchen clean, nerves calm we sit down to one last moment of family time. We each say why we are thankful, which for teenagers can be quite challenging to put into words. But they do. Family, health, opportunity, knowledge, acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, love. We are thankful for challenging each other and forcing us to take a long look at ourselves. To set goals and to help each other reach them. To listen even in anger, to respond not react, and to never go to bed angry. Unconditional love and family now that is the ultimate prize to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

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 a house hold where movies, TV, and music were ingrained in my daily life it makes sense that soundtracks, theme songs, and popular tunes are what take me back the most. I came of age in the 1980s when Disco was over and before Grunge changed rock n roll forever. It was the generation of Prince, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, and every synthesizer laden, emo, song imaginable, We were the generation when MTV actually played videos, Video Killed The Radio Star being the first one ever. It changed the face of music as we knew it.

I can close my eyes, turn up the volume and be transported anywhere in my life if the song is right. Duran Duran, high school quad, friends surrounding me, feathered hair and parachute pants. The Cure, San Francisco walking through The Heights. Foo Fighters, the worst break-up of my adult life, Monkey Wrench is still my battle cry. The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Radio Head for when I am down. ABBA, The Beatles, and Green Day for when I am energized. But my favorite songs ever, my go to's when I am meditating and need to clear my mind, Massive Attack: Angel & Unfinished Symphony and the song that I began this post with Elegia by New Order.

Music is transcendental, life-altering, and most importantly it is like a time-machine encompassing your being and transporting you to any time you want, childhood, adulthood, best days of your life or even those not so great times but times of great change and redirection. Next time you want to scream with frustration or cry with utter despair, listen to the cords, the gentle rhythm, the lulling tone, the energetic beat of your fondest memories being brought to life in music and you will see the light. You will reflect, remember, and recover. It will give you a new sense of purpose, determination, and fortitude if you let go and simply listen because music has power if you only open yourself up to it.

The melodic wave of the simple piano brings me into the story, Elton Johns voice, like a blanket shrowds me in a memory of my dad driving our olive green Jaguar, my mom tuning the radio, my sister and I in the back seat, quiet listening as the best song begins to play. There were no headphones or ipods only the radio or an 8-track player. Tiny Dancer hummed as all four of us unified in our engagement whispered the beautiful lyrics not singing too loudly for fear of missing any of the song. To this day I still have to whisper the lyrics. It is one of many songs that have played a role in who I have become, as with all music, listen and it will become a part of you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

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 into groups based on their answers. In each corner of the room I place an A, B, C, D and an answer to a particular question. Sometimes all of them are wrong, sometimes all of them are correct, and everything in between. But the reason for this activity is to get them a) up and moving, go to the corner that has the right answer. Usually a split between 2 but if I make it challenging enough an even 4 way split occurs  b) then I have then in these groups sit and discuss/reflect on why they believe that is correct. Usually it doesn't take long until they are all in one group united. But, I identify very quickly those who need remediation or enrichment.

Those who got the right answer and can explain it accurately, move to stations where either they are creating something, reading and sharing an article, and sometimes watching a short video on a related topic. Those who struggled with the content are sent to stations with matching games, vocabulary review, and even diagrams and review packets. These students are also required to come sit down with me in a "follow-up" chat. This is all happening simultaneously so students are not singled out. Lastly, we all come together as a class and I do another 4 corners activity, same topic different question and make sure that every student understands and chooses the correct answer. They usually do. These I call remediation and enrichment circles.

From day one I have always explained to my students that some topics will come naturally and easily for them, while others will present a challenge. We will organize these remediation and enrichment circles because we want to make sure as a community we are successful. Sometimes you will be in the remediation circle and other times you will be in the enrichment circle but always at the end you will feel confident that you can do well on the test and that you understand the unit information. Listening and walking around the room-observing is my best tool. Having them one-on-one check-in allows them to listen and reflect. Together these lead us to the "circles" and then ultimately to successful completion of the unit.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

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 post questions and they answer each others inquiries. This builds a community of learning. This also, builds trust and respect as before any entry gets posted to the class page, it is approved by me. I model blogging and podcasts as well to make sure students are comfortable posting and sharing.

Reflection is key for growth. Having students write privately for me as well as for one another keeps them focused on becoming better writers as well as better listeners. They need to read several other blog posts per week and comment on them. The conversation is fluid and informative. Their portfolios are full of writing samples, pictures of makerspace assignments, podcasts, videos etc. This gives students one place to check out their progress. Also, when their grade falls behind parents can also see their progress and what they are missing. Better communication, better progress. Interactive notebooks have become the norm in many classroom, however, online-portfolios have not yet truly taken off. But, with a little patience they can be integrated into any classroom making it more inclusive, engaging, and cooperative.

Monday, November 21, 2016

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 Pok√©mon with their phones, visiting exotic places with their 3-D viewers, and completing virtual lab experiments with the click of a button. There are practical examples for Augmented Reality being used more frequently by teachers as the ability to combine digital content and information becomes the norm by using triggers (Aurasma) to overlay images and locations. This opens up a whole new world of learning opportunities as it places control in the hands of students-they are the drivers of their education and the owners of their learning.

I use QR codes all the time. put them up around the room or in the hallways to get students up and moving. I link the QR codes to practice quizzes, Brain Pop video's, even virtual labs. Students enjoy having the ability to be active learners. Last week, I added a podcast to a QR code and students listened to a test review in groups and practiced their higher order thinking skills by using verbs to make connections between Respiratory, Circulatory Systems. Students also enjoy creating their own augmented reality by making stop motion videos and overlaying them with real world videos of the animals in their habitat and articles about their critters. It is an awesome way for them to make larger connections and construct their own platforms to share with other students to enhance the learning community resources.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

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 portion they support their claim with the use of their collected data and resources. Finally, they write a reasoning section where they justify their answer using scientific evidence and principals. These are a great strategy to use at the end of the unit because it assembles their knowledge but also reinforces the importance of evidence and justification.

These CER's can be written individually or be used as a collaborative assignment by first having students write a personal claim, based on their own consideration and ideas. Then as a group students discuss their conclusions and support their ideas with evidence they have collected. Then together they can revise their conclusions based on observations, new evidence and resources, and their partners data as well. This allows students to really argue and debate their evidence and also accept new ideas and alter their opinions and viewpoints. Argumentation instills respect and collaboration. After modeling this process students enjoy the process.

Argumentation lends itself to the fulfillment of the practices of science as well as other subjects by: allowing students to ask questions and define problems, develop and use models, plan and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, perform computational thinking, designing solutions based on constructing their own explanations, and engaging in argumentation with the use of evidence, data and understanding of the natural world. Through this process they observe, collect, evaluate and eventually communicate their findings with each other and beyond. This is the basis of science. Using argumentation in the classroom connects science, reasoning and communication skills into a cohesive learning experience.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

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 

cappella music 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 rock group with electric 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 musicians. While a cappella takes dedication and lots of practice to master it is quite different from other styles as the accompaniment is silence rather than music. These all lead to a different mood, tone, and experience musically.

In the classroom acoustic lessons drive the classroom dynamic. They are the lessons that drive the unit forward, they are played out with a hook and maybe a discrepant event but stay at an even keel with students working together towards a common goal like completion of a mini-project with vocabulary and review being the main focus. They are necessary and can be engaging with the use of collaboration and design and creation. However, they are student-focused and driven and are generally based on a routine and predetermined assignments.

A capella is vocals, loud and energetic. They are more individual centered. Students working on problem-solving independently but them coming together at the end to peer review, share, and discover new ideas together. They begin slow and melodic but then slowly build towards a group ensemble, a combination of voices leading to a conclusion of musical semblance and harmony. These lessons often end in the makerspace building and tinkering to create a final product that correlates all of their individual data into a singular piece of knowledge.

Rock music lessons are often based around organized chaos,flexible grouping, stations activities, labs where students are problem-solving and constructing and the mood of the class is energetic and excitement. The guitar riff is when curiosity becomes discovery and innovation while the drums the anticipation and eagerness that drives students to keep going through any challenges and frustrations that may have been placed in their way. Together the instruments lay the groundwork for fluid, active, authentic learning to permeate the room and the vibrations of creativity bounce off the walls. The classroom feels like a recording studio- the teacher the producer and the students the band writing, editing, bringing new ideas into the world.

Friday, November 18, 2016

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 their minds more focused is to place hidden objects around the room. Make them noticeable. Do not mention them and see if students do. Give a candy to the first student who does. Then add more and change them and students will begin to look for them, making more observations.

Create situations for students to use deductive reasoning as well as inductive reasoning. Put an answer to a question on the board and have them work collaboratively to determine the problem, they will need to work backwards to problem-solve. Get students used to thinking out-side-the-box by presenting them with problems that can not be solved. Situations that challenge them to find a new way of using their critical thinking skills. To discover that the path is more important than the destination. All learning is based on prior knowledge, we need to turn that prior information on its head and create experiences that challenge these beliefs.

Optical illusions, brain teasers, case studies, and simple demonstrations like dry ice bubbles can change their way of thinking and open their minds. Students minds need to be blown every day, challenged every day, not always by teachers but by themselves. Teachers need to set up circumstances where students may be confident in their answer only to be wrong. To get frustrated and determined to figure it out. Once they feel safe to fail and take-risks this will become ingrained in their learning. They will accept failure as a detour and detours can be exciting.

For example, I put two cups of clear liquid on a table in the front of the room. One is water, one is water with mystery beads (these absorb light and become virtually invisible) I place a straw in both. The mystery bead cup, has a straw standing straight up while in the other cup the straw is leaning on the side. I have them guess what is happening. They can only look at the cups, not touch it in anyway. They are convinced the mystery beads are gelatin or I glued the straw to the bottom, I empty the water and show them the beads, explaining our eyes do not always provide us the correct information. Observations are not always right. How do we make sure what we see is the truth? We need to teach them to collect lots of data to determine this.

Using discrepant events removes zombie like symptoms. When they go home after an exciting, active, authentic day of science, sit down at the dinner table, and their parents ask "What did you do today?" they smile and explain that "Did you know..." rather than a shoulder shrug. Every time you hold back an explanation and allow students to discover it on their own you enrich learning. When you ask open-ended questions that lead to multiple answers and discuss them as a class you help spark interest. Science does not have one way of doing things, it is not based on permanence but on fluidity. Never let compliance, zombie thinking, rear its ugly head in your classroom. Allow students to take the lead and their excitement will keep them focused and engaged.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

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 than try to avoid it. If we slam on the brakes, deny or ignore our circumstances, the wheels may lock, propelling the us forward out of control. To overcome circumstances that are out of our control we need to take a breath and understand why we are facing these challenges and what is in our control. What can we do, on our own to redirect our vehicle, to get our tires aligned and back on the road. For it is the road that leads us to keep a growth mindset or lose our way and become fixed. It is the road signs that direct us forward, providing choice of destination. It is the off-ramps of the busy interstate that allows us to slow and take meaningful adventures.

A new way of thinking puts things in perspective. A new connection is made and new circumstances are formed. Small or large, subtle or life-changing it doesn't matter because every forward-thinking, innovate, progressive, open-minded thought we have lays the concrete for more roads, trails, and highways. Like neurons transfer the electrical signals through out our bodies, these thoroughfares we traverse carry our circumstances, transport our histories, lay the foundation for our futures. We need to accept that our circumstances are the road blocks, obstacles, and barriers that lie in the road. It is imperative that we not avoid them but climb and conquer them. This way, they are are not chasms that swallow us but a down ward motion that propels us forward. 

Circumstances are a part of life. Unavoidable situations, joyous occasions, tragedy, comedy, mystery, but all experience. It can be a large pothole or even a multi-car pile up, but when we see the end of the tunnel, when people around us believe in us, come to our aid, we can see that circumstances change. A new type of thinking, one that can be encouraged in the classroom, positive, enlightened, and accepting can help students over come these circumstances. In the classroom, student voice quiet or loud needs an audience. Argumentation, debate, student-led discussions give students a voice, confidence, and choice. It creates a new way of thinking, not feeling like a student but a participant in their own learning, the creator of their destiny, conqueror of circumstance.The driver of their own vehicle, the designer of their learning and growth.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

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 case studies funded and researched by the National Institution of Health, have been written for student engagement by creating scenarios where students can problem-solve and work their way through critical thinking tasks in real time which are then sent to the teacher for evaluation. These case studies are not completed in a day or even a week but can last throughout the year. This can be set up to be an enrichment project that students can progress in when they have time rather than a requirement an adventure.  Has a data base of hundreds of cases to choose from based around just about every science topic imaginable. Could they be used in other subject areas? Just take a look at the catalogue, I believe they can. Case studies because they are real-life stories are intriguing to students. They are relevant enough to keep their curiosity but also interesting and challenging enough to keep them motivated to continue in the research and data collection. In the end after solving the case study, they are proud because having taken most of the year, it is a rewarding to close the case. To discover that they are truly scientists and can make a difference.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

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 can be working on a lab activity, reading an article or tinkering in the makerspace. These stations can be left up for a day, creating a quick vocabulary review, displaying a short video or a virtual simulation. They can also be set up to be visited for a week allowing students to revisit to review like a matching game, Brain Pop, simple lab procedure. Either way in a student-centered classroom they are student-paced and there is no stress about when to finish them. This way students will discuss and share generating interest and curiosity.

Innovation is a term used to describe forward-thinking and out-of-the-box teachers. But, it should also be used to describe creative and inspired students for the classroom is their canvas and we merely observers. Students are innovators when they have the opportunity to be held accountable for their learning, not in the form of tests or assessments but in the fact that they are risk-takers and look for unique ways to solve problems. That they fail forward using every chance they get to attempt and tinker and redesign and rethink until they reach their goal. Allow students to design and create stations for each other, this way they can again take ownership and can be held accountable for their learning.

As humans we seek companionship, we want to cooperate and work together. Even reluctant learners enjoy collaborating with their peers. If the lesson is designed around discovery and not mastery these withdrawn students will feel safer to jump in and participate. Confidence is built on conquering the little things, feeling apart of something bigger. It is important for students to talk to one another to solve problems, to work along side one another to build and design, to listen to each other to create a respectful and trusting community that has fun, faces challenges, and cares about one another. This in turn holds them accountable for their own learning. They will take responsibility to be good members of the community.

Differentiation is natural in a student-centered classroom because if it is truly student-led then they are in fact working at their own pace, choosing their own path, providing constructive feedback to one-another, sharing ideas and problem-solving. The blue-prints are the TEK's or standards and the scaffolding and structure comes from their imaginations. Each looking quite unique, but combined create a beautiful skyline. Checking in with the teacher frequently, keeps students on track and lets the teacher know if remediation or enrichment stations are needed for every student. While some students need a little push in the right direction, others are adding the last brick in their structure. Either way, reflection and feedback will cement their knowledge.

Integration of multi-curriculum is also important in any content. Reading, writing, designing, creating, graphing, even history are all brought together in my science classroom. It is crucial for students to understand that there are no isolated subject areas, that combined they build the structure, each floor may be isolated but the staircases and elevators connect them. As learners we must travel every floor of the skyscrapers we build to accommodate our knowledge. We must not skip them because we feel there is nothing we need to know. When we enter the elevator we need to click on every floor and light up the board, and at each floor when the door opens, step out, look around and discover what the rooms have to offer. Then when we reach the top, the roof, we have a well balanced understanding of the world around us, a strong growth mindset, and at the end of a long days journey one can revel at the view.

Monday, November 14, 2016

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 include every step with a simple sketch.
4. What are the learning objectives or expectations of the lab/activity. What are you expected to know after completion of the task.
5. Explain the data that will be collected. or State the problem or questions that will be determined at the end of the lab/activity.
6. Define the science concepts or vocabulary that will be addressed in this activity/lab.
7. What resources will be used during this activity/lab. Notes, text etc.
8. What predictions do you have prior to beginning the activity or lab.
9. How does this activity/lab connect to the unit we are studying?
10. How does this activity correspond to previous units?

On each table have two stacked cups a red one and a green one. While students are completing the lab map the red cup should be on top. After students complete the lab map they can let you know it is time to check it by changing the color of the cup on their desk to green. This is an easy way to monitor the tables as you are walking around the room. Also, assign each student a role in the group, this can be done randomly, assigned for purpose or by student choice. The following roles have worked well for me with this strategy.

1. Monitor Procedures
2. Manage Equipment
3. Record Data
4. Monitor Time
5. Question Asker-only one that can come ask the teacher a question or raise their hand for assistance

After completion of the activity/lab have students write a reflection comparing their lab map with the lab sheet. This will help students see the importance of lab mapping and reading all of the instructions carefully before beginning an activity. Lab mapping is a great way for students to get organized before a lab/activity by putting the responsibility of learning and reflection in their hands and assuring that they are well-prepared before they take the first step. This also builds confidence and helps with collaboration.

Below are some examples of lab maps you can utilize in your classroom:

Sunday, November 13, 2016

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 not be able to get in. However, they had hundreds of sessions about 46 different at each time slot. So choices abound. I didn't have an issue, I guess my choices were not the popular choices. I attended a total of 15 hour long workshops over 2 1/2 days. Every slot offered, I was there. Plus an hour to walk the exhibits and gather some posters, videos etc. An incredible but busy few days.

I have so much information swirling in my brain. I took notes, gathered handouts and even have access to all the documents at the conference, the courses I attended and those I did not. It is very overwhelming. So in order to truly reflect on all of the awesome information I have decided to write a reflection post on every one of the sessions I attended and those I may learn about within the large amount of documents at my disposal. So over the next few weeks there will be a lot of reflection, application, and if I used the strategy in my classroom integration posts.

Professional development is critical for teachers if we want to stay current, relevant, gain insight into our teaching and reflect and grow as educators. The large conferences, as intimidating as they may seem, are the best way to network and communicate with other educators, scientists, professors and vendors.There are such amazing resources out there, many of them free, that we do not know about, I discovered three at CAST that tomorrow I will be use in my classroom, I am elated. You will just have to wait to see what they are over the next few weeks. Do I have you on the edge of your seat?

If you read my blog you know I am a risk-taker, I try new things all the time. I am also a realist and because I reflect often, I recognize my weaknesses and strengths, I face my failures not with disappointment but with an eagerness to tweak and update in order to make my teaching more successful for students. But my ultimate goal, as I have said in many a Twitter post, is not to teach my students science but to teach them how to teach themselves science. It is my curiosity that drives my growth mindset, I may not integrate the myriad of ideas in their entirety, but take bits and pieces of various strategies and lay them out for my students to choose from. I may combine some, even just take part of one, the end of another use them separately. But most of what I learned will be integrated into my classroom in some fashion. I chose courses that I knew spoke to my teaching style, unique as it may be and that provided me with opportunity to find the hidden gems at the conference.

A truly student-centered classroom is about student engagement and them knowing the expectations, so the little things that are easy to implement with modeling and routine are what work best. Challenge with big ideas, discrepant events, and choice but allow them to feel confident in the routines. So tomorrow I will demonstrate just one of many new things that my students have coming their way. I know that these will enhance their learning. Isn't that why we are here? Why we are teachers? To create authentic, active, relevant experiences that students can embrace and use to enhance their growth mindset. The greatest gifts we can present to students are curiosity, self-discovery, and independence. These are what I seek to provide for my students every day. This is why I attended the conference to learn but ultimately to find strategies to continue to help my students become curious, independent, engaged learners.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

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 not agree with or even like those we are teamed with but we figure out a way to make it happen. We need to tell students groups are not always a choice but focusing and collaborating and treating others with respect is a choice. We as teachers need to model how to do this. So how do we do this?

I tell stories of the various teams or groups I have worked with over the years. The successes and the the failures. I explain why some groups work better then others. It all comes down to respect and listening skills. Everyone has a voice and has something important and valuable to share with the group. You must be willing to listen to every idea. Also you must stick with your responsibility, your role and let others complete their own tasks. When we allow others to complete their goals then the group will work better together.

Some students will not complete their role. They are reluctant learners and they will leave their job unfinished. It is a teams responsibility to help one another but if a member just does not keep up with the group agenda then, they need to complete their own part of the project. They need to talk with the reluctant learner and see if they can get them to re-enter the group but it is not their responsibility to get that students part of the project completed. When the pressure of that is released, students are more likely to cooperate and accomplish their goals. Model collaborate but do not hopld students responsible for another students work.

My students work collaborative all the time. We have had teams that are extremely successful but others were not. But I have never given a student a grade they did not achieve whether an A or an F. Once a student does fail a PBL or collaborative project they learn from this experience and do step up in further projects. Lots of practice is how my students have become comfortable and responsive when collaborative assignments are given. They like them actually, they choose their own groups most often, and are respectful of others opinions.

Friday, November 11, 2016

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 and get organized quickly, write their warm-up, and by the bell we are ready to begin the first activity.

Let students collaborate, get up and move about, and have choice of materials. This can be easily accomplished with flexible seating: for me standing desks, round tables, communal science desks, all set up to be one large active community where students are fluid like mercury, regrouping and shifting. The makerspace has also become a focal point of the classroom, where students actively search through recyclables, materials, art supplies to find the perfect material for which they design and create their assessment. Students have choice and use it frequently to draw, write, build, even sing or rap their assigned topic.

Active, authentic learning takes place as students become more fluid and hands-on. When they feel safe to rake-risks, collaborate and even fail because they know they have a myriad of opportunities to retry and be successful. Success is instant for some students but slow for others. Let students work at their own pace, design their own experiences and own their own learning and they will become invested and will value education.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

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 creates an opportunity for design and engineering but after the fun is over someone needs to make sure it is clean. Having this as a class job makes this more effective because there is less time needed to clean up and more time for building and constructing.

Routines are necessary but they should only be used to keep the track of the class on course. The scaffolding of a student-centered classroom is the routines and community goals set by students. The structure however, needs to be based on relevance, interest, and student choice. Rigor can only truly become the norm when a consistent routine is in place. Grit will become a natural event when students choose how to demonstrate their knowledge and when teachers become mentors, cheerleaders, and even trainers rather than leaders in the classroom. Let students be leaders and they will rise to the occasion. Routines lead to grit and rigor use them together and students will take the lead and learning will be exponential.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

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 lack thereof. All three of my 6th grade teams were there to learn and have fun not to get us another place in Nationals. They were motivated and tried their best but between them won only 3 games out of six each. This was their first ever competition and they did fantastic.

Two of my 7/8th grade teams made it into the playoffs, while one lost every game. Two teams did great and were organized and motivated and it showed. Coming in 8th and 16th out of 64 teams. The third team lost two games and then derailed because they were sore losers and were blaming everyone else for their loss. I had to speak with them about losing graciously and not giving up, but alas I had to move to another team and then they just derailed further and lost all 6 games. But in the end they learned a valuable lesson. They stayed after their defeat and supported the playoff teams and all of them understood what happened and how they could have been a stronger team.

A long day with 30 students and about 15 parents. I was also sick as a dog coughing, fever, runny nose. Lesson number three, get lots of sleep and stay healthy before a competition. I do work very hard balancing all six of my science competitions, 4 boys, teaching etc. Lesson four, let the little things go and focus on what is important. The one thing I always tell my students "Integrity, determination, responsibility." but most importantly "Have fun and losing is a stepping stone to winning."

Our next tournament is December 10th, less teams, more sleep, and just relax and have fun,

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

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, writers, script writers and even directors, or they are the actors, chorus, and stage hands. But they all together create the community of our theater. How do I know if they are successful? If they have hidden themselves behind the set and fallen behind or may be at the microphone but really have not learned their lines? I observe, I take notes, I collect data by watching, listening, and correlating the information into useful data.

Projects, PBL's, labs, activities such as debates, makerspace creations even raps and songs are all great formative assessments where students have a choice in how they demonstrate their knowledge. When students are in control of their learning experiences they are more willing to come center stage and less likely to hang out in the wings. How do you get students to feel comfortable to take the lead? Give them ample opportunities to share ideas, collaborate, and yes be center stage, be the star if that is what they want. The more students talk to one another, listen to one another, praise or critique one another, the more they feel apart of a safe community.

Data can be formative or summative. Summative is necessary to help drive a curriculum forward, to make sure the standards are covered, students are mastering the state or national content, and to help address school objectives. But they are only a snap shot. True data comes from formative assessments to help students see their strengths and weaknesses, and help teachers see where their lessons need to go to achieve student success. Data comes in many forms but informal data are the most important because students learn at different rates, lessons vary and success levels of students vary based on the rigor and challenge of these activities. Long term data is crucial to understanding every student and their long term growth.

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 already tapped out topic.

This was my first ever edcamp style chat. My classes have had speeches, debates, even group presentations but this was the first time they had were allowed to basically have a conversation with little help from me. I was merely an observer, I chose a moderator to keep the conversation going, while I sat back and watched. It was shaky at first with many students speaking over one-another but slowly they began to settle in and a great conversation ensued. I took notes and the next day I gave a copy to them showing them what they came up with on their own, what they knew ahead of time and we added to their prior knowledge with a recap and some notes.

I am definitely going to try this again with another unit. Now that they have had the opportunity to have one they are excited for the chance to have another one.

Monday, November 7, 2016

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 student in a group of 4 draw a different part of an organ or part of the body then mix them up and like a jigsaw have students create the right image

These and many more. The flexibility they provide is endless. I love that they can be cleaned very quickly and reused. They are also inexpensive and are long-lasting cutting down on needless copies.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

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, and if not then becomes homework. If students go home with homework then they were not productive in class. This keeps stress levels low for my students when it comes to homework.

Options and choices lessen stress because some students love to write, while others love to draw or create, while others love to share and talk. Give them options in which to present and share their understanding of the content. Most of this occurs in the makerspace. The uniqueness and individuality shows here as I get so many different interpretations of the same topic it is amazing and leads to a great class discussion. Ultimately class discussions ease stress because it reinforces the information in a kid friendly arena where they are in control of the information and their own learning.

Lastly, talk to students weekly one-on-one, give them the opportunity to have a moment or two to ask questions and share ideas alone with you. This relieves any apprehension. I have found that these 1-minute check in's not only have alleviated almost any behavior issues but student achievement has increased as well as test scores. Students are more empowered and more motivated to participate and learn from one another. This has been the true sign that listening and forming strong, respectful relationships with students relieves stress and lets them focus on personal growth and learning.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

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 around the world on Twitter, Voxer, Skype even Face Book. But also a diary and journal where I write my deepest fears and doubts. Where I face my insecurities and respond to naysayers. It is a place that travels with me through every season, even when in the heart of summer when my focus is being a mother and wife, enjoying my summer, it is there to jot down ideas for next year.

My teacher bag is not a container but a position that always puts students first, guides me to wherever I need to be to make that happen, and where I can find fulfillment as an educator. It is a safe place where no one but me ventures, where failure is welcoming and growth is inevitable. It is a thought, a feeling, a certainty that I am where I am supposed to be.

Friday, November 4, 2016

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.

Music in my classroom at least, does calm students. On occasion I will change to the playlist of upbeat current songs for brain breaks and clean up time. But the rest of the class there is a gentle, relaxing feel that keeps students focused. They are getting their classwork done earlier and as a class we are able to move at a faster pace. I am wondering why it took me this long to actually utilize classical music in my classroom. The students love it when I add a new song and they can figure out which movie or television show it is from. This week: The Walking Dead and The Lego Movie both of which they identified pretty quickly. Music the latest tool in my teacher tool box.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

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 discomfort is always there because I rarely anchor in place but would rather drift in order to provide opportunities for them to peer at the horizon, swim with dolphins and even explore the greatest barrier reefs. This somehow works for me and my students.

Growth comes from taking risks and either succeeding or failing and swimming back up, life-jacket securely fastened, or even choosing to float or tread water to let the waves steer your course. Either way choice is key. Flexibility and motivation is what truly sets students on the right course. Always let them know a life boat is near by but place it just out of reach so they feel the salt on their skin, their eyes may burn a little from the splash of the waves but the engagement and exhilaration of learning makes them want to struggle just a bit. Students love to be challenged but only when they know that eventually they will make it to shore. So it is the balance between a distant horizon and feet in the sand that keeps them curious and determined.

Innovation does not mean that a teacher has created authentic lessons. It means that together students and teachers have created a "shark free zone" where every student can see the bottom of the clear water. That colorful fish and sea life can entice and draw them in but a snorkel or oxygen tank will always be available. Many students will choose the snorkel, stay near the surface but with a well-lit course we should be able to lure many to dive deep and find the so called buried treasure. Discomfort is the moment students jump in to the murky waters but swim to the clear blue. Growth is letting go of the snorkel and choosing to take the plunge into the darkness in search of hidden gems. Innovation comes when students and teachers recognize that together they are more likely to conquer the rough seas and make it to the calm waters through experience and discovery.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

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 reinforce with, failure is a good thing. It is alright to turn something in that is not perfect. They will tear up nearly completed projects and begin again because the lines are not straight. This is setting many of them up to withdraw from learning, not take risks, and internalize every criticism.

As teachers we need to build strong, trusting, respectful relationships with our students. We need them to believe that we will tell them the truth and that when they fail, we will welcome it and help them succeed. Not give them negative feedback and move on. I discuss every assignment with a rubric. After the assignment is completed and graded, I pass it back and we have 1-on-1 check in's about their progress. This is instant feedback, purposeful critique and praise, and reassures them that no matter the grade I appreciate and value their effort. It is crucial for teachers to reflect on their teaching and it is also crucial for students to set goals and reflect on their learning. If this is continual they will find solace in it. They will see their growth and not internalize only grades.

Children cheat for many reasons, least of all to win. They want to belong to a community of those who are praised and have opportunities to try again without penalty. If a classroom is designed not around a pacing guide and grades but on growth and progress students will not feel the need to cheat. If they do and receive a good grade, they will feel relieved but when they see others who failed honestly, and get to retry and succeed, share their journeys and are proud of their accomplishments then students who cheated will not see any value in continuing to cheat. Set up a classroom of success geared around failure and there will be no need for students to feel the tug towards dishonesty.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

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 form of shortbread and sometimes quite fancy, with currants for eyes became more important for the beggars than prayers for the dead. This slowly became treats, candy, etc."

Each beggar sang a song which also over time has transformed into "trick or treat"

Soul, soul, an apple or two,
If you haven't an apple, a pear will do,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for the Man Who made us all.

I could have gone on and on but, alas he just wanted candy. I thought well, my little story went in one ear and out the other. BUT at the 3rd house, "ding dong", the door opened, and my son, to my surprise exclaimed "I am not a beggar, but if you haven't an apple a pear will do, did you know that is what they said before we started saying trick or treat, my mom taught me that."

                                                           Image result for pumpkin

Classroom Microhabitats

Gardens can be well-groomed with precise rows of petunias and squash, or they can be unkempt and more natural. The gate can be kept closed, ...