Re-establishing my voice

When I first started this blog, I struggled to find my voice. My writing was awkward and alternated between self-consciously verbose and too slangy.

After a while, I got a good flow going and really found my voice. I mostly did this by writing for myself and writing about whatever came to mind. I wrote about what excited me, what I found interesting, what I was thinking about or wrestling with.

Then, as I began to work through my Master’s degree, I had to do a lot more writing – for my classes. This took time away from my blogging; this space became less of a priority.

Now I’m done with my Master’s but I’ve been part of blogging and engaging in social media promotion for Success at the Core at their Core Connections blog. Somehow the sheer act of being told I have to blog has made me less likely to want to do just that.

However, my writing for that blog is a different form of writing than what I typically have done here.

Bear with me while I rediscover that voice. I have a bunch of stuff rattling around in my head that needs an outlet!

Keeping my head above water

Head above water

Just keeping my head above water…

I never moved in my schooling career (with the exception of moving up levels with my peers, of course). I was in the same school system in the same town from K-12.

Until this year, I had never moved in my teaching career either. I had worked in the same school for all of my seven years of teaching.

This year I am working at a new school. I’ve left White Swan High School for Sunnyside High School. I’ve left behind all that was familiar and comfortable for a whole new teaching context.

I’ve gone from a school of 250 students to one with 1800+ students.

I’ve gone from teaching 3 sections of biology and one each of chemistry and physics to teaching 3 sections of 9th grade integrated science (earth science & physical science) and only one section of biology.

I’ve gone from a self-designed project based curriculum to a very textbook-centric curriculum.

On the plus side – I’ve gone from a 45 minute (each way) commute to a 3 minute commute. I’m now teaching in the same district where my kids are students. I’m now fully invested in my local community in every way.

The best thing about teaching in a new place for me, though, may be the reset. While it has been stressful and has often left me feeling disoriented, I think we all need to “start from scratch” once in a while. Much like moving into a new home, I have been forced to sift through every aspect of my teaching and decide what should stay and what I can do without.

For the moment, I’m just happy to keep my head above water.

Image used under CC license from the Flickr photostream of BotheredByBees

Kicking off the Inquiry (QFT + CPS = crazy delicious)

This post is the final assignment for my spring class (Current Trends in Curriculum and Instruction: Inquiry and Problem Solving) through UW Oshkosh’s Teaching 2.0 program. We have been required to do 3 lesson trials where we implement a new strategy in the clasroom and track the results. In this trial, I combined the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) and Creative Problem Solving (CPS). The resulting mashup was nothing short of crazy delicious.

First, I kicked off the inquiry with a slideshow of images designed to inspire questions and curiosity:

The slideshow culminated with the Question Focus, “Clean Water.”

Students worked through the QFT process in small groups and then we compiled their priority questions into a master class list. Next, we worked through that list to select 2 driving questions for our new project:

How does dirty water affect the world?


What defines clean water?

This is where the QFT ended and the CPS began. I asked the students to begin brainstorming topics, questions, phrases, concepts, etc. related to our first driving question. We then used the SCAMPER protocol (CPS) to build their lists. This process was captured in web format on whiteboards:

While I wish we’d had more time for this step (we only had about 7 minutes), the brainstorming was mostly successful.

Finally, we compiled their brainstorming into a master class list and looked for “Hits and Hot Spots” (another CPS protocol). In this way, we were able to settle on key areas of inquiry for this project. The next step will be for each of my students to select their own guiding question that falls under one or both of our class driving questions. Finally, I will group them into small groups of 2-4 with shared or similar inquiries. This will provide social support as they work through this project.

Overall, QFT and CPS were a useful pairing that helped to get this inquiry project off and running with a bang! The questions were more varied and deep than my students sometimes generate and their topic brainstorming gave a solid structure for our project.



(2005). Chronicles of Narnia (Lazy Sunday) [Television series episode]. In Saturday Night Live. New York: NBC.

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011).Make just one change: teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.

Treffinger, D. J., Isaksen, S. G., & Dorval, K. B. (2006). Creative problem solving: an introduction (4th ed.). Waco, Tex.: Prufrock Press.

My Element Project Reflection

Project Summary:

My chemistry students completed a project in which they selected an element to research and relate to themselves. They used Animoto to create videos about their element and themselves. Along the way we did several labs and class activities to help them learn about properties of elements, atomic structure, and the organization of the periodic table.

Student Work Samples:

Project Reflection:

This was a fairly “high-minded” project with a significant technology aspect. In the attempt to make it personal and relevant for my students I reached for the idea of connecting the element to yourself. This was very successful for some students at times. Others never really grasped the idea or did it in a shallow, passing manner. Overall, I think this project did much of what I had hoped it would do, although I still would like to revise it a bit for next year.

Project Strengths:

One of the greatest strengths of this project was the use of technology. The students really picked up Animoto quickly and made some engaging, fun products. These videos were much more engaging for the audience (fellow students) to watch than any other form of presentation I’ve had them do in the past about elements.

The personal connection caused them to think much more analytically about the properties of the element than when I’ve had kids do similar projects in the past. They were trying to find out the context for the “stats” that they looked up about their element to see if it related to them. For example, I had several conversations with students about boiling points of elements and what was a high or low boiling point and what that meant (an easy connection to temperment). Many students had to do additional research about the periodic table and other elements to put the facts about their element into context. That was certainly one of my central goals of this project.

I was pleasantly surprised about how personal and deep some students chose to make their connections. There was a lot of heartfelt applause in the classroom after some of these videos and I think a big part of that was respect for the risks that their peers took. I believe this project has impacted the community of our classroom in a very real and positive way. While impossible to quantify, that is a huge accomplishment in my mind.

I also heard a lot of rich content discussions between students during research time as they were learning about their elements. They would share interesting tidbits with each other, ask questions, explain, compare, make connections. I explained the concept of isotopes to a couple of students who asked and then heard those students explaining it to their peers later.

Students are very good about supporting each other with technology. Whenever I do a “high-tech” project with students, I can count on showing a few of them how to do something and then watch those few teach several others. This happens so naturally that they often don’t even realize that they’re doing it. The funny thing too is that they often have content discussions interwoven with their technology discussions. This type of learning is very hard to quantify but powerful nonetheless.

Project Weaknesses:

In spite of the successes, this project definitely had its weaknesses. The greatest weakness, in my opinion was that it became a bit of a “project-oriented learning” experience. In other words, we spent a few weeks doing labs, lessons, and in-class activities before my students selected an element and got down to work. In fact, because I told them that they needed to pick an element that described them in some way, that almost forced me to teach them a fair amount of content before they could make an informed element choice.

Another weakness of this project is that many students struggled to connect their element to themselves. Some made poor element choices that made their project much more difficult than it should have been for them. Many just weren’t sure how to make a connection between themselves and an element or didn’t want to be that transparent in public.

How I will change this project for the future:

I will try to find a way to help my students select their elements earlier in the project and take time throughout the project to make connections. For example, when we do a lab early in this project about the properties of several common elements, I will then ask the students to research those properties for their chosen element. This would be a way to interweave the content and the project more closely together.

I would like to better scaffold the personal connection part of this project as well. I actually had hoped to develop a collaboration with the 10/11 English teacher for this project but it didn’t come to fruition this year. My idea was for them to be writing a very personal and closely related essay at the same time that they are doing this project in chemistry. Assuming that will not be a part of this project next year, I will need to spend at least some time (homework?) getting them to be introspective and completing some sort of graphic organizer to help them compare to their element in a structured way (Venn diagram, maybe?).

Going Beyond Group Work to Authentic Student Collaboration

Note: This post is part of the Teaching 2.0 Masters in Curriculum and Instruction Program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. My current classes are about Project Based Learning and Assessment.

This synthesis essay is intended to focus on group work and is based upon readings from Productive Group Work by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher and Sandi Everlove


“…things can happen in a band, or any type of collaboration, that would not otherwise happen.” ~ Jim Coleman, American Actor


Authentic student collaboration is the Holy Grail of classroom teaching, elusive as a double rainbow. In the pursuit of this goal, we are tempted to settle for productive group work as the best we can do. While better than having students sit silently in rows working independently, this watered down collaboration should not be the ideal.

My primary criticism of Productive Group Work (the book) is that the examples given were very simplistic and mostly derivative of fairly traditional classroom structures and teaching methods. That being said, I think the authors did this intentionally to try to move the dinosaurs a few steps in the right direction. For one already using group work in his or her classes, the examples were minimally helpful. That being said, the key tenets served as good reminders of things I already knew – with some useful gems sprinkled in here and there to boot.

The foundation of Productive Group Work is Johnson and Johnson’s (1975) five principles for making cooperative learning successful: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small-group skills, and group processing. With these broadly applicable principles, I find no quarrel.

However, in Frey, et. Al.’s treatment of these principles I found a major disconnect. The classroom example (Cube-It) that they chose to use here was so simplistic and teacher centered that it grated on me. In fact, I realized that the example used in this chapter is why I quit reading this book when I first received it from ASCD.

With that said, I found the rest of the book to be mostly enjoyable and I felt that I learned some new ideas and structures from it while being remembered of other good things that I had forgotten. The prompts and reflective questions that they provided are an outstanding resource that I will definitely make use of. There are a few of them that I would like to turn in to a student handout and/ or a poster for my classroom (Language of Learning, Common Interpersonal Skills, Active Listening Techniques, Discussion Starters).

I also appreciated the heavy emphasis on reflection and the importance of group processing. I have become increasingly focused on student reflection in my classes and enjoyed the take that Frey, et. Al. brough to the table. Their treatment of group processing, in particular, gave me some new methods to implement. For example, the “roundtable activity” is one I plan to use in my classes immediately.

One key idea was the importance of having students maintain learning logs for group and individual reflections. By keeping  a learning log and referring to it at reflection times, I believe my students would be more likely to “keep the thread” of the project and further reaffirm the learning that they have already done.

Finally, although I have had students complete self monitoring questionnaires, I’ve not used them as part of a group processing structure. I could envision this being a regular part of the reflection process in my classes.

I could see a typical reflection day during a group project going like this: first, students use a self monitoring questionnaire to evaluate their personal and group efficacy for the prior week; second, students get out their learning logs and engage in a roundtable activity to “debrief” recent activities and learning; third, each student gets on his or her blog to reflect on their learning and group/ individual activities for the past week.

Frey, Fisher and Everlove missed a real opportunity with this book. They could have pushed for teachers to take their students to the next level of group work – authentic collaboration. I define this as when students work together to create (or support each other in the creation of) a high quality product with genuine value. When the students care about the outcome of this product and are committed to its success, authentic collaboration can take place. This collaboration can be formal (co-creating a product) or informal (ad hoc peer critique).

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly collaborative; whether in the workplace, school, or creative spaces.

If we do not prepare our students for this world in the most authentic way possible, we are doing them a disservice.



The importance of intentionality

“Ultimately, human intentionality is the most powerful evolutionary force on this planet.”

~George B. Leonard (American author b.1923)

Next time I have the opportunity to talk to a new or pre-service teacher about improving their teaching (like tomorrow in my PLC), I will give them the following 2 thoughts to consider:

#1 – Reflection

You will do a lot of good things and a lot of not so good ones as a new teacher. This is normal and perfectly acceptable. Reflect on the good and the bad in order to shift the balance in favor of the good. This is a gradual process that will frustrate you with its glacial pace.

#2 – Intentionality

The greatest difference between a novice teacher and an expert is not necessarily skill or knowledge but intentionality. A novice teacher does things – good and bad – by accident. A master teacher does good things intentionally to achieve the desired end.

Caveat – the best way to shift from novice to expert, from accident to intention is reflection (see #1, above).

Running blind

What is the purpose of grades?

I would argue that the purpose of grades is not reporting progress or measuring learning.

The purpose of grades is sorting, rewarding and punishing.

Students are sorted based on their grades (honor rolls, class tracking, awards, scholarships, college admissions, diplomas, etc.).

We reward the students who are compliant and punish those who are not. The short-term damage to learning is often severe. The long-term damage to the lives of students is immeasurable.

When you add in to this morass the fact that grades are often arbitrary, capricious, based on a teacher’s whims and whether or not they “like” a student, you paint a really ugly picture.

No wonder so may kids (and parents) hate school.

I am a teacher and love what I do. I hate grading.

I have 2 kids in school right now and I am hating the system more every day. Grading and all of its associated ills are just one aspect of this flawed system that I am growing increasingly weary of. Now that my own children are being negatively impacted by the inherent flaws of the system, my reaction is becoming stronger and more visceral daily.

I often say that I don’t know exactly what the best answers are but I sure can tell what they aren’t.

We are running the wrong direction in America’s schools and doing so as fast as we can… while wearing blindfolds.

running blind