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!

Euglena inquiry reflection

“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:

  • hypothesis
  • claim
  • evidence
  • reasoning

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

Blog shift? or just BS?

I’m not sure where this is going but I feel like I need to do something different with this blog.

My basic modus operandi of the past year has been to write posts that are esssentially informative, persuasive or motivational.

While this has been fun and has helped me to hone by beliefs about education into a clear and cohesive message, I don’t know how sustainable it is going forward.

What I’d really like this space to become is something more reflective. I’m a very reflective person and I believe that reflection is critical for my students. With that in mind, I’m going to try to use this space as a reflective journal for a while and see what happens.

I hope not to lose readers because I don’t just want to broadcast into the ether. That being said, I’m at a point where I feel like writing for myself is more authentic. If anyone else out there benefits from my ramblings, so be it.

Please continue to comment.

Ask questions.


I hope we learn something together.

It’s better to burn out than to fade away

It’s better to burn out than to fade away
~ Kurt Cobain

I’ve been gone way too long from this space.

Many things have been going on in the meantime, though.

I’ve applied for and received an entrepreneurial award from Washington STEM!

I’ve applied for an AMGEN Award for Science Teaching Excellence (wish me luck!).

I’m also working on an application for a Teaching & Learning in the 21st Century Grant from State of Washington.

Yes, I’ve become a bit of a grant chaser of late. I’ve just hit a point with what I’m trying to do in my classroom and my school that I feel a need to “go for it.” To me, this means securing as many resources as I can for technology-rich project based learning so that there are no excuses any more!

I guess what it really boils down to is this: I’m at a point where I am very confident with the direction my classes need to continue to take. I’m confident in the project based learning model that I’m developing. I’m confident in the value of integrating multiple content areas. Progress is being made. Now it’s make or break time.

I’m a patient person when it comes to students. However, when it comes to improving the instructional experience that those students get, I feel like I’m constantly behind the 8-ball. A day wasted in the education of child is a day that can never be recovered.

There is something else going on here too, though. I’m putting the model and my school to the test.

If I do the very best instruction that I can with the best available resources; it had better work. If it doesn’t, either the model is broken (I think High Tech High and others have proven the model thoroughly) or my school is.

If the school is broken then it’s time for me to look elsewhere before I burn out.

When it comes to education, Kurt Cobain was wrong. It’s better to move on than to burn out and give up…

Reflection – a critical step in learning


I have a new transfer student in my chemistry class.  Yesterday, I overheard her talking to her classmates about her previous science class.  She said something along the lines of,

“we did a lot of experiments where we had to design our own experiment and write lab reports about it.  We didn’t really learn anything, though.”

Hearing this, I had a couple of thoughts:

The first was that this teacher may have had his or her students doing experiments for the sake of learning “THE Scientific Method.”  I was often guilty of this during my first couple of years of teaching.  Kids would to inane experiments like testing which type of bubble gum had the longest lasting flavor.  Afterwards, both they and I felt like they hadn’t learned much.

The second was that, even if they were doing experiments based around rigorous content, they probably were missing out of the key step of reflection!

Reflection is a critical step in the learning process. It is also one of the most overlooked steps. At the culmination of any learning experience, students should reflect on that experience. This enhances metacognition and helps to “lock in” learning.

I like to have my students reflect on a variety of things at the end of a project or inquiry experience. I ask them to reflective questions, such as:

  • What did you learn about content? (this is usually specific to the main topic of the project or inquiry experience)
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What did you learn about doing a project? (this is sometimes specific to they type of product but not always)
  • If you had it to do over, what would you have done differently?

Why is reflection so important?

One of the biggest reasons that I have noticed is that when I shortchange reflection, I sometimes hear comments like,

“we did all of that work and I didn’t learn anything,” or, “that project was boring because we didn’t really learn any science.”

Conversely, when we spend adequate time reflecting on the content, process, product and their effort, students tend to say (or write) comments like,

“I can’t believe how much I learned from this project. It was really hard and at first I thought I couldn’t do it. Now I know I can!”

When they spend time elaborating what they have learned, I find that I can tell a LOT about their learning just by reading their reflections. They refer to content learned and how and why they learned it is ways that leave no doubt that they now own that knowledge.

That’s what all teachers want right?

Photo used under cc license from the flickr stream of Jim Moran

Why my instructional approach didn’t work (PBL Series Part 2)

You may remember, when we last left our hero, he’d enjoyed a subtle epiphany.  It went something like this, “I plan all this stuff and throw it at the kids.  They don’t think it’s as cool as I do.  Now what?”

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

There were 3 main problems with my old approach:

  1. Not enough room for student choice. I planned all of the lessons, labs and activities.  I directed the content, the process, and the product.  They were along for the ride.
  2. The connections that held the content together were all mine. It felt disjointed to them because I didn’t make the connections explicit, in hopes that they would discover them.  Too bad they couldn’t see into my scattered mind…
  3. Not enough room for inquiry. I was answering questions that they didn’t even ask.   I was answering my questions, not theirs.

So, having been properly epiphanized, I had to convert to a new pedagogical religion.  Enter project based learning (PBL).

This truly was less a sea change in my practice than a slight but critical shift.  All instruction must be about the end goal, aka “the project.”  The project, which is really about answering “the driving question.”  Duh duh DUH!

When it all boils down to it, I realized that I needed to plan less stuff for the kids to do and give them more time along the way to create a project.  I had to give them more choice about the project, the questions they were trying to answer and how they would answer them.

Next post – What PBL is and what it isn’t

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Photo cc license by degreeszero on Flickr

Blogging with students – a reflection

Eye reflectioncc license by

Eye reflection

This past year was my first experience blogging with students. It certainly had its ups and downs but was a positive experience overall for me and for my students. To read why we were blogging in science class (and why I think your students should blog) go here:  “Why Are We Blogging in Science Class?”

How I started:
In September, I set up each of my 100+ students with an Edublog of their own.  I used the tips found at The Edublogs Community and The Edublogger liberally. The gmail hack for setting up their accounts and the tip to use Google Reader to follow their blogs were great.   Actually the whole series on setting up student blogs that begins here is a must read.  I set up folders in Google Reader for each of my classes and followed all of my students’ blogs from there.  I also followed all of their comment feeds to monitor them.  All blogs were public and comments were not moderated.  I have had to remove ~50 spam blog comments this year but the process is quick and easy.

Once they were set up, I asked my students to play around in Edublogs by setting up a theme they liked and making a first post called “What I Want to Learn this Year.”  This got them familiar with the control panel and the posting process.

How it progressed:

I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted the students to do with their blogs.  I had them do a few assignments that were posted there, I had them reflect on completed projects, and I had them do extensions there.  I quickly realized that they needed to know what makes up a good blog post.  So, we brainstormed that together and I made this post:  “What Makes a Good Blog Post.”  The posts (for the most part) continued to improve.

Problems I encountered and how I addressed them:

  • Lack of computers at times – addressed by booking labs when needed and buying more computers for next year (I’ll be close to 1:1)
  • Lack of computer access at home for many students – I gave ample class time to complete assignments and plenty of extension opportunities for those who finished more quickly
  • Attendance – ample computer time and extensions (see above).  I do think that the electronic structure of my classroom with Edmodo and Edublogs made students more aware of what they had missed and more likely to catch up
  • Note: these are all problems that I had encountered before and will encounter again
  • Some students wrote too little – I left them comments with specific feedback
  • Some wrote too much – feedback comments
  • Many did not read the comments that I dutifully left them – I need to work in more regular interaction with their blogs in my class

Benefits & Successes:

  • Many students wrote much more on a blog than they ever would have written on paper
  • Students were much more willing to revise their work than they would have been with paper assignments
  • The blogs integrated photos and links to sources.  I enjoyed reading them much more than I enjoy reading lab reports or research papers
  • The blog became an excellent tool for differentiation – my class was more differentiated last year than ever before.  My faster working students were able to continue on with greater depth or extension assignments of their choice while I was able to provide more assistance to students who wanted or needed help
  • The combination of Edublogs and Edmodo (free online course management software) helped me to keep up with student work as it was posted and I provided much more specific feedback than ever before

My vision for the coming year:

The students’ blogs will be their electronic portfolio for my class.  I hope to rope in some other teachers to this as well and if I can, each student’s blog will be his or her electronic portfolio for multiple classes.  Students will create pages to demonstrate work samples and best works and reflect upon them.  They will journal along the way as well, although I won’t mandate any minimum number of posts (maybe I’ll give them a maximum).  I’m going to use the new RSS import feature in Edublogs to roll students’ posts through my blog as well.  I also hope to find time to get them reading and commenting on each others’ blogs more.  I hope to use Jing (thanks, TeachPaperless) to give student quick screencast feedback, rather that just written comments.

Eye reflection – cc license by