A call for an audience!

My students are currently working on a web-based project.  In this project, they are answering the driving question, “How do we reconcile science and personal beliefs?”

Each student has generated his or her own guiding question that falls under the overarching driving question.  They are using their blogs (each of my students has his/her own) to answer their questions in a wiki style format.

Some student questions:

  • How are humans affecting the evolution of fish?
  • If extinct animals were still alive, how would that have affected human evolution?
  • How are humans evolving today?
  • If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?
  • How do different world religions feel about evolution?
  • How are modern humans and Neanderthals related?

The students have been engaged in deep research for a few weeks now and have begun drafting answers to their questions.  The opportunity for an international audience has certainly fueled their efforts.  Now I need help to follow through on that promise of an audience!

How you can help:

  • Please plan to visit my students’ wiki on 11/4 (or soon thereafter) to read and provide comments
  • If you have students with computer access, please consider asking them to read and provide comments
  • Please help spread the word to as many people as possible, via blogs, email, Twitter, word of mouth, etc.

Look for the link to the student wiki on 11/4 and thanks in advance for your help!

Big questions


cliche used? check!

cliche used? check!

Too often we treat our students with kid gloves.  We give them weak, watered down, sterile, sanitized, aseptic curriculum.  Curriculum that reminds you of grandmother’s powder room in which you were afraid to dirty the towels, so you dried you hands on your pants instead.

We don’t let students wrestle with the really big questions of life.  Instead, we try to give them “thinking skills” and teach them how to answer their own questions.  That is, as long as the questions are the “safe” ones.

I’ve been guilty of this at times myself.  This year I’m trying to force myself in the opposite direction.  It ain’t easy, for me or for the kids.

When it comes to evolution, students ask questions that many adults have yet to answer for themselves.  In many science classes, evolution is treated in a rigidly scientific manner.  This approach, while loyal to the content, allows students to compartmentalize.  They tell themselves that their teacher can only teach them what’s in “the standards” or “the book.”  The teacher uses this as an excuse to keep the carnage to a minimum.  Nobody wants the mess on their shoes.

Most science teachers take one of 3 approaches to controversial topics:

Option A - Ignore it; don’t cover it; avoid the controversy altogether.

Option B - Address it directly and scientifically.  Leave no room for debate, disagreement, or discomfort.  Heaven forbid you get a call from an angry parent (for what it’s worth, if you teach a topic they don’t like, they’ll call anyway…)

Option C - Preach the gospel of science, baby!  Convert your students to the church of Darwin & Dawkins.  Tell them what to believe and think and why.

Each of these approaches is wrong.

ostriches really do this???

ostriches really do this???

Option A is wrong because it sets students up for a life lived in denial and ignorance.

Option B is wrong because it ignores the nature of science.  Science is messy and constantly debated.  There is plenty of gray area in science.

Option C is wrong because it can offend people and drive them away from science forever.  People hold grudges against former teachers for the rest of their lives.

So what should we do?

mmm... truthiness

mmm... truthiness

I believe that we must allow students to wrestle with the really big questions of their world.  The very same questions that adults argue about endlessly.  The questions that have made CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News major players in the media market.  The same questions that have made The Daily Show and The Colbert Report so successful for their incisive spoofing of these “news” networks.

Does this mean we let them debate creationism vs. evolution in class.  Well, no.  However, I’m letting them examine such topics on their blogs as part of their current project.  Students have generated their own questions and are now diving in.  In about a week, the results of their research will be published on their blogs for all of the world to see.

At least it won’t be boring…

Self-lacing kid gloves from Wikimedia Commons
Ostrich picture from the flickr stream of Spartacus007
Stephen Colbert picture from the flickr stream of Mindsay Mohan

Never look a gift horse skeleton in the mouth

hit in the face with the inquiry stick

hit in the face with the inquiry stick

This post was inspired by the post Inquiry Stylee: Return of the “Horse” by  Shawn Cornally.  His blog, Think Thank Thunk, just plain rocks.

So often, the best inquiry smacks you right in the face and you don’t even see it coming.  When we do the “teacher thing” we often crush the inquiry before it even has time to take its first wobbly steps.  In fact, we probably do this several times a day:

Teacher: “Class, today we will be talking about BLAH!”

Student: “I have a question.”

Teacher: “Go ahead.”

Student: “Well I know we’re studying BLAH but my question is about…”

Teacher: “Let me stop you right there and destroy your curiosity.  If you aren’t going to ask me about BLAH then we don’t have time to talk about it.  Take your inquiry and your engagement somewhere else.”

Student:  “Oh, right.   This is school.  We don’t get to do anything cool here.”

And thus another student question dies a silent death.  The flickering flame of curiosity is snuffed out before it can become a wildfire of inquiry.  Bummer.

Once your inquiry radar becomes sufficiently calibrated, you’ll recognize this moment for what it really is; the possible jumping off point for some serious student learning.  I’m still working on the calibration, by the way.  I caught myself doing almost this exact thing just today!

This kind of inquiry is very, very difficult to prepare for.  It’s even more challenging to facilitate effectively.  It’s also the most fun you’ll ever have as a teacher.  By far.

The power of observation

taking notes

Sometimes teachers (especially in an inquiry-centered classroom) can get so caught up in running around the room helping students, that we miss the big picture.

What would happen if you just observed your students and took notes?  No talking, no running around putting out fires, just watching and listening.  What would you learn about your class – about the people who make up the class?

Key things to watch/ listen for:

  • What do they do when they enter the room?
  • How do they interact with each other?
  • What are they talking about?
  • Are they helping each other?
  • If they are helping each other, are they collaborating and assisting or are they just giving answers?
  • Does anyone step up and show leadership in the absence of your voice?

Sometimes you can learn a lot when you shut your mouth, slow down and pay attention to the details.

photo from the flickr stream of natashalcd

Why I dumped SBG (and why you probably shouldn’t)

I jumped on the SBG (standards based grading) express 2 years ago.  My main reason for going to SBG was an extreme dissatisfaction with the grading status quo.  I felt like I was doing kids a disservice with points and weighted categories and the like.

So I dove headfirst into SBG along with 2 of my coworkers.  We had read Marzano’s Classroom Grading that Works and a few other articles about SBG on the web.  That wast the extent of our SBG training.

We immediately got big push back from the “old-school” parents in our district.  We actually had to hold a 2 hour sit down meeting with several of them.  It was uncomfortable (and a bit bizarre).  I’m still not sure exactly what they wanted.

Anyway, 2 years of SBG led me to both love and hate it.

I loved replacing old evidence of student learning with new.  I loved focusing grades on learning and nothing else.  I loved getting rid of the grading of meaningless work.

I hated that kids never really understood their grades.  No matter how much I explained it to them, many never really got the system.  That meant that I was giving them grades that they really didn’t understand.   Shoot, sometimes I didn’t understand the way the computer tabulated them.

What I really hated was trying to do SBG in the awkward, clunky, slow online gradebook that we are mandated to use.  The system (Skyward) has a standards-based gradebook but it really wasn’t functional.  We had to create a bunch of weird workarounds within the system to make it work.  Even after that, the system still insisted on averaging their grades.

Mainly, I dumped SBG because it didn’t fit great with Project-Based Learning.  Because students are only receiving grades for their projects – grades they give themselves – there are not enough assessments or reassessment options for SBG.  That being said, I am keeping a shadow gradebook (in EasyGrade Pro) in which I’m using very subjective SBG.  This is only for me to see.  I’m considering it a bit of action research on my UNgrading practices as compared to SBG.

Obviously, I’m very happy with UNgrading and strongly believe it’s the right way to go.  However, many of you out there aren’t ready to make that leap yet.  Until then, SBG is a nice brigdge.

As if I have time to keep up 2 gradebooks… and my head explodes.

Important conversations

survey says....

survey says....

I took a survey 2 weeks ago about our school.  It covered a wide variety of questions, but one stood out to me:

The teachers in my school meet as a whole staff to discuss ways to improve teaching and learning.

I’m sad to say, I clicked the radio button for ‘Never’ and moved on to the next question.  I didn’t even deliberate.  There was no doubt in my mind that the answer was ‘Never.’

I brought this to the attention of the staff last Friday while leading part of our professional development.  I saw some nodding heads around the room, as well as a few blank stares.

The real epiphany, though, was when I led them into this conversation.  I led a socratic seminar focused around the question, “if you were a student at our school, what would your education to be like?”

The level of emotion in this conversation was palpable.  Many people expressed strong feelings and opinions that had clearly been pent up for years.  Several people shed tears.

This was an important conversation.

Yet, now that the raw emotion has been released and tears have flowed; now that people have had a chance to vent –  the real conversation has to begin…

What are we going to do about it?


Are you experienced (at giving feedback)?

Jimi Hendrix was the original master of effective feedback.  He could use feedback to enhance his music, not just to make your skin crawl.  Think – the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

are you experienced... at using feedback for good, rather than evil?

are you experienced... at using feedback for good, rather than evil?

I want to be the Jimi Hendrix of classroom feedback.  I want my students to bounce their learning off of me and I want to send it back to them in a way that helps them to see it differently; to see how they can make it even better.  I want to give them feedback that takes their learning to a whole new level.

Giving students effective feedback is a skill, one that must be practiced and honed.  There is a delicate balance there.  Get it right and it enhances the music of the classroom, like Jimi making his guitar basically sing.  Get it wrong and it sounds to students like a mic getting too close to a live speaker; they want to cringe and cover their ears.

Yesterday, I was rereading Susan M. Brookhart’s “How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students” (ASCD, 2008).  A few things jumped out at me that I missed before – maybe I just wasn’t ready for them:

  1. Studies have shown that achievement is higher for students receiving free comments (written by the teacher) instead of letter grades
  2. What is important is not how the teacher intends the comment but how the student experiences it – “as information or as judgment”
  3. Studies have found that feedback improves motivation and performance on divergent thinking tasks, while grades harm both motivation and performance

By the way, this book was published by the notoriously radical Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, in case you were wondering… (tongue firmly planted in cheek)

After reading this, I immediately jumped on my students’ blogs and gave them feedback.  I’m using a pretty simple format, adapted from Joe Bower and some of my past PD from Expeditionary Learning.

  • I notice…
  • I wonder…
  • What if…/ I suggest…

I’m working hard on hitting the right notes with respect to amount, tone, and focus for my feedback.  One of my goals for this year is to stay on top of the feedback, even when I feel like other things are piling up on me.  Sometimes feedback is more important than tomorrow’s lesson!

and so castles made of sand fall into the sea, eventually…

Jimi Hendrix experience album cover used under cc license from Jeff on Picasa Web Albums