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Showing posts from February, 2017

Narnia, Oz, or Mordor: Classroom Realms of Learning

There are different types of classrooms, this we know. Traditional set ups with desks in rows and a quiet atmosphere. Chaotic, energetic ones with little discipline. As well as, the endless varieties in between, whether communal or independent, teacher or student centered they all have been created for one purpose- education. These realms can be magical, creative, adventurous, and yes even a bit frightening. They are interpreted and discovered by our students. One day they may be Narnia while another a yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City, and hopefully rarely a large fire of doom like Mordor. But regardless of design and emotion it is these playgrounds of learning that shape our students for the future. So how do we make sure our classroom landscapes are built of magic not boredom and calamity?

It all depends on whether every day you are mindful of and focused on students. Snape always came off as mean and harsh but in the end he had a role to play to keep Harry safe. Gandal…

Leaves, Petals, Stems Oh My! What's in Your Science Wallet?

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Leaves, their main purpose is to collect sunlight and perform photosynthesis. They come in all different shapes and sizes.


Just to name a few categories. Their outlooks different on the best way to acquire the most sunlight-hence the goal. Grouping smaller leaves into various patterns or creating one large all encompassing leaf, large surface area. But whatever the shape, design, or size they all reach the ultimate goal, nourishment and survival. In my classroom, leaves represent the lessons, the standards or TEKS of learning, the differentiation of ideas and products. But all leading students to a common goal, knowledge.

Stems, the support and structure of the plant. Does the plant grow short to the ground or as tall as a Sequoia? Is the stem thin or as thick and old as a redwood? Is there thick bark protecting it from the bitter cold of winter, or a thin cuticle helping it to photosynthesize and grow? What ever its architecture it provides stability and resources to the plant. It ho…

A Nature Walk: Active Learning while Investigating Local Flora

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A Nature Walk is a fantastic way to get students interested in their environment.  What types of flora and fauna can you see? How does this flora impact your life? Do you affect the flora and fauna around you? Plants may seem like immobile, sedentary, boring organisms but when you stop and take a look you see the adaptations of defense, offense, and even camouflage that make plants very interactive in their habitats. Today, being a warm February day in Texas, I took my students outside to collect some data.  Three types of adaptations of local plants, 3 different types of leaves: using a picture classification sheet for reference and to collect various types of leaves. Tomorrow we are going to create a dichotomous key with the various samples we collected throughout the day. An active, mobile learning experience that continues into a dichotomous key and classification activity. Plus, we got to walk around outside where they got to blow off some steam and get some exercise at the same…

Ebb and Flow

Ebb and Flow

The transparent, shiny surface seems clear

but it is opaque, hiding the edges of what lies behind it, shadowed, obscured

seemingly empty but vaguely full

schools, herds, reefs, pods  skirting the deeper zones

like a quiet sigh of relief

not seen but felt

then sunlit and outlined coming into focus


The moment arises when thirty eyes are upon me

waiting, anticipating

and for a moment, a brief instant, fleeting

I pause, doubting

then a pencil drops, a shoe scuffs, a chair squeaks

smooth to ripples

I no longer see edges but landscape


The ebb and flow

begins like an eddy

swirling, flexible, fluid

up and down like gentle waves

then waters calm and the focus of

knowledge appears no longer deep in the current

but at the surface

floating

gathering currents into a focused stream


The distant sound of ringing

a swaying buoy

sending out a reminder, a direction

a slip stream, undertow, tide

redirecting the flow

bringing …

Race to Nowhere

Stressed about grades, over-committed, multiple athletics, orchestra or band, chess club, math club, science club, I can go on. District Spelling Bee winner, studying for the SAT and ACT, all the while attending 8th grade and maintaining an A average. Does this sound like a super child, a robot, a fictional character? It does actually, but it isn't. This is a student I taught in 7th grade and is still on my Quiz Bowl team this year. as ambitious as this sounds, it is so unbelievable that a 14 year old takes on so much pressure. "Oh, they're young, they can handle the stress." Maybe for awhile but it takes its toll, causing hair loss, nervous ticks, even anxiety attacks. And for what? Getting into an ivy league school? How important really, is an ivy league school?

What is truly sad, the aforementioned student is one of many I teach. Perfectionists, with a to do list impossible to conquer, expectations so high they can never be met, especially because they are continua…

Go Ahead and Argue: A Time for Autonomy and Self-Expression

A parents Achilles heal in any of their children, arguing every point if they do not get their way. How do we turn this innate skill into a useful tool in the classroom.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. Then I have them practice their skills with a partner. Do they have their data focused enough to win a debate? 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 toward…

Creatures That Don't Move: Getting Students Mobile and Active

As adults, we rarely sit still for very long. We take breaks, stretch, even take short-walks for coffee throughout the day to help us stay awake. It is unreasonable to expect students to sit still for an hour and pay attention without any break or movement. Physical activity need not be recess, but it should include flexible seating, where students can stand at standing desks or sit at a variety of desks and tables. Let students be mobile as long as they are respectful and do not disturb the classroom flow. Creating a space that promotes activity and mobility sets the tones for personal empowerment and autonomy. In my classroom there are three sets of four standing desks, three round tables and 9 science tables. Students are welcome to move about during the classroom as long as they are quiet and on task.

Why is mobility so critical for academic engagement and physical health in the classroom?  Especially in a junior high school or high school students do not have recess. They have one…

Rethinking Existing Data: Reflection and Reformation

Often, after passing a test or quiz back we simply go over the answers and check for understanding. We many times, due to time constraints, neglect to actually analyze the results and discuss the grade and how to improve next time. I know as a teacher this is what I do most of the time. At the beginning of the year I had students write goals for the year, we do discuss these goals at progress report and report card dispersal, but often I do not delve deeper into the reason why some students have an A for me while others a B. I forget to go to the next level and discuss strategies for achieving a higher grade. Study more is not a strategy. Sketch notes, mini ISN, or podcasting are strategies. Looking at data is one thing, breaking it down with students and reflecting on personal growth and reform is another.

Getting students to recognize their need to integrate different strategies can be a challenge.  They have a B and many students feel a B is acceptable so why change their study hab…

Critical Questioning Strategies in a Science Classroom: Getting Students Pondering

There are several strategies I throw at my students on a weekly basis that gets them thinking about science in a new way: Changing up the Symbol System, Reversal of Thinking, Analogy, Analysis of Point of View, Webbing, Complete an incomplete, and hypothetical thinking. I use these as openers, brain breaks, and even turn to a partner and share questions. Anytime I can get my students to analyze, justify, expand upon and correlate information in a new way, the more my students can find what works best for them. I like to give them as many strategies as possible to add to their arsenal of learning tools.

Changing up the symbol system forces learners to step outside their comfort zone by displaying information alternative to the written word: Draw an example of the scientific method in use-not using words, sketch notes, stand up and use movement to portray the movement of molecules in photosynthesis or cellular respiration. Act out the movement of food through all the organs of the diges…

Assessment that Builds Autonomy

Modeling, as every teacher knows, is key to creating any kind of autonomy. But after teachers demonstrate a strategy, use guided practice as a large group, have students practice independently in small groups, then they need to provide opportunities for students to self-direct and guide themselves to the next step. This gradual release of responsibility creates optimal learning because the support and scaffold that is put into place by the teacher is slowly removed leaving the students to own their learning and take charge. The more a teacher steps back and observes the more a student will begin to take risks and innovate. Their comfort zone will expand and they will be more open to new experiences. In fact they will create them for themselves.

How can students build learning autonomy? Setting personal goals and monitoring and managing their implementation. Goals are a choice and when students are given a choice they will more likely tough through any challenges and accomplish them. W…

Why Build Autonomy in Students?

Students in the 21st century will either be passive repositories of  repetition and memorization, acquisition and regurgitation or self-learners with successful strategies and tools to be able to shape and operate their own ideas into creative innovation and useful applications. The ability to manipulate and alter your own learning is a tactic all students should be able to utilize. The more autonomy a student possesses the more independent the feel, the more risks they will take, the more times they will willingly fail just to be able to try again, the more likely any hurdle they will face will be a mere obstacle used to rise and survey the objectives.

Learning does not occur through teaching but through engagement, analysis and application of this knowledge in ways that make it personal and memorable. Building confidence and learning autonomy must involve the construction of listening, inter-personal, speaking and writing skills. Reflection and feedback are the glue that binds self-…

The Comfort Zone: Is it Bordered by an Enclosure or a Bridge?

A zone of saturation is the level at which water has filled under ground soil and sediment. A zone of demarcation being the border between two areas that are not inclusive, but rather need an area of separation. Residential versus industrial zones, no fly zones, and frigid versus temperate zones. All areas of division, some small in area while others expand over thousands of miles. However, anyway you look at it, they are given areas with certain characteristics that allow it a purpose or use. This territory can be designed to be temporary, fluid, or definitive. But, there always seems to be "the other side." The area viewed from a far, either with envy or dread. Much like a comfort zone, many stay safely behind the walls of the sector while others scale the walls and venture out into the unknown.

Students create this zone through habit, fear, or they can be raised by others through lack of conviction and hesitancy. They decide to wait a moment before answering only to be cu…

Mini ISN's: A Great Tool for Organizing A Unit

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I have used binders, interactive notebooks, folders and just about anything for students to get organized, reflect, and analyze their notes. Some students love to just glue into a composition notebook or 3 whole punch and stick in a binder. Usually I allow them to organize any way they see fit, at least my GT classes. But a year or so ago I added to the end of the year what I call a mini-ISN. I have students take anywhere from 8-10 pages of computer paper and fold in half, and use a piece of yard to bind it, very simple. Then voila' a mini ISN (Interactive Science Notebook) a compact, portable, interactive study guide. I have taken a survey every year and by far, overwhelming results, students love these self-made, class organized, review tool.

This not only cuts down on paper because all their notes are in this same booklet, it also is a fun way to collect and compile all the graphic organizers of the unit. I even have students unpack the TEK"S (standards) and reflect on the…

Cherry, Carnations, and Chocolate

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Valentines Day as adults it entails wooing our partners with roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Romantic dinners and love in the air. But in a school setting especially a junior high, it is a hormonal feast of balloons, giant bears, and red candy:  Fun Dips, lollipops, candy bars. A cornucopia of hyperactivity, sugar rush, and excitement. During our advisory classes PTA moms delivered vases of valentines carnations with love and friendship notes. It made me smile and reminded me of Mean girls when Gretchen Weiners does not get a holiday gram.


I was standing in the hall before class and I couldn't help laughing at the sea of red, the smell of cherry permeating my sinuses. I have memories of hating this holiday because I never received a rose or box of chocolates, at least not until high school. It seems sad to me that so many students are overlooked. I understand the celebratory and fundraising reasons why, but we never take the time to notice how impactful being forgotten…

What A Difference Practice Makes: A Successful Quiz Bowl

It always astounds me how much hard work and dedication make all the difference. It seems logical enough. The parable of course is used all the time. But I have practiced with many of my teams and never seen instant results. At the last tournament I let every player compete to a loss of tremendous proportions. Almost every team was in the bottom 3rd. But from that I weeded down to the top 12 players. These 3 NAQT Quiz Bowl teams practiced almost every day after-school for a month. When others kids were home having fun, these students were at school with me practicing and strategizing. This dedication paid off.

Non-Catholic Schools (MS-21) # Team W–L % Points TUH P TU I PPB PP20TUH 1St. John's A10-01.000449520054741923.75449.52Annunciation Orthodox A9-10.9004020200408218

Misconceptions about Gifted Students and Gifted-Talented Classes

What makes a student a gifted and talented student, an academic versus PRE-AP student, a SPecial EDucation student? It is based on how students learn, how they process information, how equipped they are to master the content. Those students who need extra help, more time to process, may be placed in special education classes while those students who process faster are placed in a more advanced curriculum. GT, gifted and talented, is a very misunderstood placement. Many feel it is elitist only benefiting affluent students, others feel it is a reward for being motivated and creative. It is neither. It is a curriculum designed to best accommodate the needs of students who think differently and need a challenging, rigorous pace. As much as special education is designed to help struggling students meet their goals, GT's purpose is to help students who process information in their own way, reach their optimal potential.

A gifted program should not be an experimental group led by whoever …