February 14, 2013 — inquiry Tagged inquiry, reflection, whiteboarding, whole class inquiry
“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” ~ Paulo Freire
In my previous post, I described my effort to take a “cookie cutter” lab and make it more inquiry-based.
My students decided to test 7 variables about the Euglena setup that we were working with:
- distance from the light
- type of paper covering the Euglena container
- size of holes in the paper
- type of material covering the Euglena container (foil)
- type of light (black light)
- amount of liquid in the container
- size of container
Each group planned and carried out their experiment with minimal input from me. Today they gathered their data and put together whiteboards to summarize their results. I asked them to divide their whiteboard up with the following sections:
Here is an example of one whiteboard:
We ran out of time to have our culminating discussion, so that will have to wait for tomorrow. From my conversations with the students while they were making their whiteboards today, this inquiry will help set them up well for learning more about the process of photosynthesis.
A few random reflections:
- I believe the students were more engaged in gathering data than when they just “do a lab”
- I felt that there was more curiosity and more interesting questions posed today than usual
- My students are still struggling with reasoning, so I need to keep working on that skill
- I need to introduce a small group whiteboarding protocol to keep all students involved actively in the creation of the whiteboard
February 7, 2013 — igniting inquiry, inquiry Tagged igniting inquiry, inquiry, whole class inquiry
Euglena in vials
After complaining that I struggle with inquiry in biology, I was confronted with a great opportunity to take a non-inquiry lab and bend it to my inquiry will!
The lab involves students observing Euglena (a photosynthetic protist) and their response to limited light. The basic lab consists of placing the Euglena in a container wrapped with black paper and cutting a small hole with a chosen shape in the paper. The Euglena then move to the location of the hole to get the needed light. Rather than just having the students do the lab as is and move on, I am going to ask them to generate questions about the Euglena and design an experiment to test their questions. We will do this in a whole class inquiry style where each group will test a variable and report their findings back to the class.
The key will be making the photosynthetic properties of the Euglena the central feature of the inquiries. In other words, students won’t be adding chemicals to the medium or doing other tangential inquiries.
- Brainstorm variables that may affect the photosynthesis of the Euglena
- Eliminate any that we can’t measure or are inappropriate
- Select our top 6 that we think are the most interesting or important
- Each group selects one variable to test and plans their experiment
- Once their plan is approved, each group carries out their experiment and gathers their data
- Each group uses a whiteboard to organize their findings and report back to the class
- We have a whole class discussion about our findings and connect our results to photosynthesis
Once we’re done – I’ll report the results!
February 5, 2013 — assessment, inquiry, learning, Practice
There is no other way to slice it.
For the last seven years, I taught in a school that gave me near-complete freedom to teach what and how I wanted to. With the National Science Education Standards and the Washington State Standards as rough guideposts, I focused on big ideas and my students investigated them deeply through prolonged project-based learning experiences. To ice the cake, I sported a 1:1 student:computer ratio in my classroom.
Inquiry was deeply ingrained in what we did but often on more of an academic, rather than scientific, level. Student curiousity and questions would absolutely drive the learning, much of which was accomplished via online resources. My students did some really amazing interdisciplinary technology-rich projects.
As proud as I was of these projects, I sometimes felt too little of the learning was rooted in scientific inquiry. This was especially true in biology. It is just plain hard to teach certain aspects of biology through scientific inquiry.
Physics and chemistry were always much easier to attack via rich scientific inquiry. I think this is mostly because the physical sciences are rooted in universal phenomena that we can often reproduce fairly easily (an inexpensively) in any classroom.
So, what’s so special about scientific inquiry?
When students actively engage in gathering data about the world around them and use this data to answer THEIR questions, they come to much deeper understanding of scientific principles than through “discovering” them on the Internet.
This brings us to my present context. Because I’m no longer spoiled with the freedom and technology riches that made my life easy before, I’m having to reinvent myself. So far, I’ve been surviving – sometimes using methods and materials that I would have shunned in the past few years. I’m increasingly finding my groove, though.
One thing is certain – it’s making me a better teacher.
Scientific inquiry is the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m identifying one or two key “labs” per content standard to serve as an anchor experience. From there, students will explore outward as their curiosity leads them. The key is helping them to come back together to share learning from their experimentation and to clearly connect their findings back to the standard. One way I’m doing this is with lots of whiteboarding and socratic discussion. Another way is with a strong emphasis on evidence and reasoning.
As I’ve started doing this, I’ve identified my students’ need for discourse skills. I’m thinking I need to develop protocols for small group and whole class discourse to scaffold them toward effective scientific discourse. Once I put these protocols together, I will share them here for feedback.
February 2, 2013 — learning, Practice, professional development Tagged improvement, practice, professional development
On homeostasis and entropy:
Homeostasis is a simple, yet powerful core concept of biology – that all living things strive for balance
The catch is that the mortal enemy of homeostasis is entropy – the principle that all things in the universe tend to disorder and that it requires energy to resist the inevitability of this disorder.
If I don’t work out every day, my physical fitness deteriorates. I have to put energy in every day to maintain (better yet, improve) my fitness level.
I want to be a better teacher. If I don’t direct energy every day into getting better, I’m getting worse.
A challenge to myself:
Teaching is incredibly complex and if we aren’t careful, we can get worse at it – and quickly. So I’m going to use this blog to help me do some work on my craft. I hope my readers will feel compelled to question, criticize and otherwise push my thinking.
To start down this road, I’m pulling together 3 core tenets of my classroom to place emphasis on. The first is inquiry. Since moving to a new school, I’ve been swimming upstream to try to get back to the headwaters of inquiry. The second is student engagement. More student connection to the content, more student thinking, more student doing. The third is assessment; both formative and summative (standards-based grading).
To summarize, 3 goal areas to improve my teaching practice:
- Inquiry (more and better)
- Increased student engagement
- More effective assessment
How will I improve?
Cal Newport has blogged repeatedly and brilliantly on the idea of deliberate practice. Daniel Willingham, in “Why Don’t Students Like School” wrote:
“… if you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be satisfied simply to gain experience as the years pass. You must also practice, and practice means (1) consciously trying to improve, (2) seeking feedback on your teaching, and (3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job.” (Willingham, 2010)
All roads lead to practice, it seems. So that’s where I’m going.
It isn’t complicated: Pick a focus strategy, protocol, method, whatever. Plan it. Do it. Reflect. Revise. Redeem. Repeat. Attack those 3 goals fervently, consistently and intentionally. The plan and reflect parts will happen here – for all to see. If I get really ambitious, I’ll post some video. That idea scares me, so that probably means I should do it!
December 8, 2012 — assessment, standards-based grading Tagged assessment, sbg, standards-based grading
I have just completed my first trimester of using standards-based grading (#SBG) after taking a 2 year break from it. Now it’s time to step to the podium for the post-game press conference.
This time around, it has gone much better. No major student complaints, no parent “sit-downs” where they are mentally fitting me for concrete galoshes, and no suggestions from administrators or school board members that all teachers adopt #SBG or none do it. Now I will take your questions.
“Coach! Can you give us three things you liked about this trimester?”
#1 – Keep it simple, stupid
One of my biggest frustrations with #SBG my first time trying it was the complexity of the grade book. Score entry and task/ assessment tracking was awkward. The Power Law made grades mysterious. Averaging assessments to reach a standard score was even worse (and counter to the ethos of #SBG). District mandated grading software made all of this even worse. This time around, I have better software and I went with my adaptation of Frank Noschese’s K.I.S. SBG. This has worked much better.
#2 – The “eye test”
Students’ final grades were much in line with my informal assessment of their skills, knowledge and effort. I’ve always felt that a good teacher could give his students a very accurate grade without any scoring, points, standards, etc. We do all of that for the consumption of students, parents, administrators, etc. so that there is perceived fairness and objectivity to the grades. Of course, grades are still subjective no matter how you arrive at them.
#3 – Winning hearts and minds
Quite a few students have caught on to the system and have begun using the language of “meeting standard” and “reassessment.” I wish I could say that they all get it and they all love it but that would be a lie. They’re coming around, though, just not nearly as fast as I’d like (isn’t that always the case?). The real success has been the number of colleagues that have expressed interest in coming over to the #SBG Rebel Alliance (I can’t picture #SBG as the Dark Side). One has even decided to take the #SBG plunge for 2nd trimester!
“Thanks coach. Now can you give us 3 dislikes about your 1st trimester’s grading efforts?”
#1 – How many points is this worth?
Yes, I still get this question and, yes, I still hate it. There are still too many students who really don’t get #SBG or how their grade is calculated. I need to get better at communicating the system more clearly, quickly and effectively. Most likely, I need to simplify what I tell them and dole it out in smaller bites on a need-to-know basis. Luckily, I get another chance at this this trimester!
#2 – “Mister, we take too many quizzes!”
The kids who have said this to me are right. I have been quiz-happy this trimester. For someone who used quizzes sparingly in the first 7 years of teaching, I’ve become too dependent on quizzes as my primary type of formal assessment. One of my main goals for 2nd trimester is to do more informal assessments (observations, conversations, discussions, whiteboarding, writing prompts, etc.) and to gather records of said assessments to use for grading purposes. I have decided that quizzes do certainly have a time and place in my classroom, though.
#3 – Grain size
This dislike is in reference to the standards I used for grading purposes 1st trimester. I struggled through much of the trimester to effectively triangulate the ideal “grain size” for my graded standards. In other words, some standards (e.g., Plate Tectonics) were too broad and actually included several different key parts (Causes of Plate Tectonics, Effects of Plate Tectonics, Plate Boundaries, Layers of the Earth). Other standards became too narrow (Microscope Skills) and could only be assessed very directly.
“Coach – How would you assess yourself for the 1st trimester?”
Overall, I’m giving myself a solid 2.5 (out of 4) for 1st trimester’s #SBG efforts. I have demonstrated basic understanding of #SBG and have applied the skill with partial effectiveness.
“What are your goals for next trimester?”
I hope to leap to a 3.5 or 4 next trimester by improving my communication to students, diversifying my assessments and honing my standard “size.”
“Okay, coach, that sounds like it would earn you a solid 3 for ‘meeting standard.’ Just how do you plan to exceed the standard?”
I hope to successfully mentor at least one colleague into the #SBG team. Beyond that, I plan to make more of an effort to spread the word to my larger base of colleagues outside of the science department. I work on a staff of over 100, so there are many opportunities to find willing converts!
I borrowed this image from this post. Thanks!
November 11, 2012 — assessment, standards-based grading, UNgrading Tagged assessment, sbg, standards-based grading
A few years ago, I dove into the world of standards-based grading (SBG). While it had its merits, I decided to dump SBG for what I called UNgrading. I happily rolled with UNgrading for two years and mostly loved it. My chief struggle was finding time to conference with all students about their grades.
This year, I’m teaching at a new school with much less flexibility. My new school is much more locked in to curriculum and pacing guides, common assessments, etc. I have larger classes and a larger student load overall.
After a few weeks of existential vertigo, I needed to break the status quo. Full-fledged project-based learning with UNgrading wasn’t an option for me or for my new colleagues, so I decided SBG would champion my subversion campaign.
I have mostly avoided my previous gradebook frustrations with a version of the Keep It Simple Standards-Based Grading recommended by Frank Noschese. I have also read everything on the blogs of Shawn Cornally and Jason Buell and they have been crazy helpful. Yay blogosphere!
The cool thing is that several of my colleagues have expressed interest in jumping on board the SBG Express! My new administrators have been incredibly supportive of SBG as well.
I’m not happy that my primary form of assessment so far has been lab reports and quizzes. I definitely need help in this area.
I still have a lot of room for improving how well I communicate my grading method to my students (and parents). The kids are only just now starting to get it, 12 weeks into the school year.
In spite of these struggles, I feel like I’m on the right track!
October 4, 2012 — ed reform, professional development Tagged teacher evaluation, tpep
My new school district is voluntarily using the process outlined by Washington State’s Teacher & Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP). As of the 2013-14 school year, all districts in Washington will use the new evaluation process.
I’m already experiencing its negative effects…
At the beginning of the year, all teachers were required to create Professional Growth Plans (PGPs). We were required by our district to use improving student achievement as one of our two goal areas. The second area had to be aligned with the rest of our professional learning community.
There lies problem #1…
We were not allowed to choose our own goals in this process. On the flipside, we also weren’t even encouraged to select goals that were aligned to a personal deficit or weakness. Shouldn’t a true improvement process be either, a) personal, or b) based on improving actual weaknesses?
Problem #2 relates to the requirement to assess student growth with data…
Of course, I see nothing wrong with assessing student growth. That is part of the basic core of teaching. The real problem lies in the requirement for growth data. We were essentially encouraged to give a pre-assessment as a baseline (one which we know students will score low on, since they haven’t yet encountered the content) and then measure growth from there. 70% of our students must show measurable growth. This shouldn’t be hard to do since we are comparing to a baseline pre-test and they just have to show some growth. This is the first example of setting the bar low that I see in this process.
Of course, administrator observation of the teacher in action is a big part of the evaluation. The flipside of the TPEP is that principals are evaluated as well. I’m not sure exactly but I believe that principals are required to show measurable evidence of teacher improvement under their leadership… and this is where I just busted my shins on the low bar set for me…
Problem #3 is that the requirement for administrators to show measurable teacher growth causes them to set the bar low as well…
Every administrator I have taught under has been hesitant to rate teachers as exemplary during evalutions. More than one has told me flat-out that they don’t rate teachers too highly because they want to leave room to document “growth.” It’s much easier to show growth when you set a low bar in the first place.
Which brings me around to the observation that I received today. My administrator spent several minutes gushing to me about my content knowledge, pedagogical skill, rapport with students, professional leadership, etc. Then he handed me my very underwhelming evaluation. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t score me as “Unsatisfactory” in any areas. However, he also didn’t score me as “Distinguished” in any areas. For most areas I was scored “Proficient” with a few as “Basic.” Yet, he gave no explanation as to why some areas were only “Basic.”
Now, you must understand that I am a perfectionist and would be the first to score myself very harshly. Of course, this perfectionism also makes me obsess over my “score.” My real point here is that all of the descriptive feedback was glowingly positive and yet I had a few areas with a score of “Basic” and none with a score of “Distinguished.”
Of course, I think I know what is really going on here. My evaluator is also being evaluated. Part of his evaluation is based upon the improvement of the teachers reporting to him. Thus, if he sets the bar low, he can then score me higher at the end of the year and show clear “evidence” of improvement. This sounds just like what we were encouraged to do with our student achievement “data.”
Nonetheless, I’m left feeling that this whole process is yet another shell game that has replaced our – admittedly less descriptive – evaluation process with one that masquerades as being more nuanced and specific but really just creates more hoops to jump through.
Color me underwhelmed…