Who Says You Can’t Teach Writing in Science?

I borrowed an idea from John Spencer about using a photo writing prompt to get some creative juices flowing in learners. There is a Tumblr page that has a collection of writing prompts to help start that process. Tumblr is blocked, so I hopped on to compfight.com and searched the word “quiet.”

I got this image. I put it up, gave some brief instructions, and said “go.”

“Do we describe the picture?”


“Should we explain it?”


“I want you to look at it, settle your head, and then just write.”

“Can I write a poem?”


I’m trying to show my freshman that the world is not “right” and “wrong.” There is no black and white. Each of them is a lens into the world and they need to 1) be given a chance to share that lens, and 2) know how to articulate what they are seeing.

Here are some excerpts:

I used to play in a park near my house; there was a huge (or at least it seemed huge) tree in the park with old wooden steps nailed to it, so I could climb it. I always ended up getting too scared; I would stop halfway up and come down.

I think the picture is kind of mysterious in a way, because it leaves people thinking and wondering about what it is supposed to mean or if it is even supposed to mean anything. Maybe it doesn’t have a meaning or a point. Maybe someone just wanted to take a picture.

Even though you are grown, everyone has their own place of peace, their own place to be still and quiet. This is the place they go to, to get away from the crazy lives we live and go back to those days of our childhood.

Who says you can’t teach writing in science?


You can read more of the excerpts above by Laura, Dannie, and Erin.

Adapting for Learning – Planning and Implementation

Here is what I’m look at for the middle steps of The Ladder I’m trying to build up for my learners. You can read Part 1 here.

Obviously, before we begin these steps (3 and 4), we’ve given them the learning objectives for the chapter we’re moving to and they’ve taken some form of pre-assessment that will give learners the information they need to make informed decisions. This will also allow you to make sure they’re targeting the correct objectives for learning and not just taking shots in the dark.

In a straw poll, about half of my learners said they liked paper copies of materials, while the other half said they liked being able to do their work digitally. I’ll be keeping paper copies of these forms on hand if a learner needs one, and they’ll also be available for download to their computers or Google Docs if they want to go that route.

You can see the document here.

I have spaces for each of the standards they need to improve on and they systematically break down the content based on their needs.

In order to track each learner, they will be using a couple new forms. First, they’ll have to fill one out that mimics their weekly planning. I can keep a digital copy for quick recall each day if someone loses their paper, or if I need to get someone back on track with their learning. The second is a daily “What did I learn” form. They simply tell me what they learned…whether they did a lab, looked at some videos, ran a simulation…they need to articulate specifically what they worked on and how it applies to their learning plan.

As an added layer of tracking, I’ll also be initialing their work each week. So, it’ll take away the opportunity for excuses to be made for not progressing.

Again, this is all very fluid right now and I haven’t begun implementation yet. I’d appreciate comments and thoughts on this middle part as to how I could improve or tweak this to help learners progress through the content.

Adapting for Learning – The Ladder

It’s been a week since I’ve written. That is both good and bad…I got a lot more work done this week, but now I have about 1000 ideas flying through my brain, and I have to organize some of them in order to keep functioning. This is my grandest idea out of all of them, and it will be a short series on how I think it will flesh out once I try it out.

First, some background: I’ve felt very convicted lately about what a true mastery class should look like. Right now, it is learner-centered in the sense that I am not standing up front and teaching everyone at the same time. But, I am still dictating the learning and the achievement by giving the assignments and expecting certain outcomes (ie 75% to move on). In Korea, this worked well, mainly because all of my learners were driven to do well in school. Here, in the US, I am having more of a battle with learners about their learning. I’ve come to grips with the fact that I cannot direct everyone’s learning.

But, I can help them direct their own. That’s what really spurred me to think this through a little more thoroughly. I’m calling it The Ladder.

Step 1 – Objectives. We still live in an objectives and standards-based world. I have certain topics I have to cover in my curriculum. My first step is to translate these standards into English for my learners and scaffold for them for each topic. This will be a generic form where they can see individual learning objectives that all connect back to a given state standard. This step is more for me and book keeping, but it is still good to expose the learners to standards and objectives.

Step 2 – Pre-Assessment. I am a bad pre-assessor. If I want to see changes in education that move toward measurable gains, I need to begin modeling that philosophy in my own teaching. This will simply be a multiple-choice Google Form that will give them a baseline score against the standards in the unit. I’ll be using Andy Schwen’s templates that he’s shared on his blog. Extremely powerful tools there. Again, this will be a baseline assessment to help the learner pinpoint what areas they need to focus on in their planning phase.

Step 3 – Improvement Plan. This is where the learner really begins to take control. Once they have the feedback from their pre-assessment, they can begin to craft (with guidance from me) their improvement plan to fill in the gaps. The goal here is for a personalized education for each learner that is focused on their own benchmarks and allowing for more freedom to incorporate their interests. They already have their own blog, so I’m also thinking a blog post hashing out their learning goals and strategies will help them think through the process a little bit more and add another layer of accountability.

Step 4 – Learning. This is the nitty gritty. Learners are focusing on the individual skills and benchmarks they have identified as learning goals. As long as they are hitting their objectives, it is up to them how they learn it. If they need a podcast, I am willing to help that way. If they want to find a simulation to walk through, I’m fine with that. I’d be even more fine with them finding someone that works in the field they are learning about and talking with them. This is the broadest step on the ladder and because they have the plan in place, should be the exciting part of the learning. Ultimately, I would like to learn along with them, rather than direct the learning.

Step 5 – Re-assessment. As the learner progresses through their material, re-assessment is paramount in making sure they are hitting each objective and that misconceptions are caught quickly and corrected. This is where the mastery component comes into play. Assessment, reassessment, and reassessment until the concept is well-developed and understood. I’m picturing this as a lot of conversations with me and their peers as they work to put the icing on the cake, so to speak.

Step 6 – Summative Presentation. Not necessarily a stand-up-front-and-talk presentation, but something where they demonstrate their skills. I already have tests written, so that could be one method of demonstration. They could also put a comprehensive unit (content created solely by the learner) to be used in the future. Again, I want the learner to play to their skills and show me what they have learned in one concise, comprehensive fashion.

I realize that this is an extremely ambitious plan. I’m not planning on using it for another 2-3 weeks so I can get the details and the forms put together. I would really appreciate comments and thoughts on the plan above and what you think could be done better or differently.

Update: You can read Part 2, “Planning and Implementation,” here.

Educator, Learner

This morning I’ve been reflecting on the last year of teaching and what growth I’ve had and what growth I still need to accomplish.

My first attempt at blogging was called Mastering Chemistry and I tried to reason out what it meant to build chemistry students. I wrote mainly about my classes and the blog was usually a space for me to post overflow from my head. But, I didn’t have any way to connect with other chemistry teachers to give thoughts or help. It was stagnant and one-dimensional and as a result, didn’t grow. I didn’t improve much from maintaining it and it fell into the blogging purgatory of marginal and sporadic use.

I realized that to become a better educator, I needed to find a way to continue my own growth. I needed to be a consistent learner. I would participate in monthly PD meetings (run fantastically by our wonderful and talented HR director) that would push me, but it was difficult to find follow-up time to get feedback on the skills we were trying to master in our fields.

Up until March, I had toyed around with joining Twitter to see what it was all about. I tried once or twice to sign up, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. On the third time around, I committed and joined the conversation. I met some fantastic people right away and I’m continuing to meet amazing educators doing innovative and inspiring work in their schools. More importantly, I went from being an educator to a learner, and I realized that the two must go hand in hand if we want to be the best we can in our schools.

I began blogging more and I built my PLN as fast as I could. I wanted to learn more so I could become a better educator. As I built my identity and learned more about myself, I was hesitant to “name” this space because I didn’t want to pigeon-hole it into one genre of writing like I had done with the first one.

Looking back, this space has really been integral in defining my identity. I am an educator. I am also a learner. The two are intertwined and growth comes from embracing both of those labels.

I hope to continue to lead my learners by example over the next six months and for the rest of my career.

Progress is an Option

Before I begin, I want you to know that this post began as one thought, turned into a second, and by the end, had gone through a third, fourth, and maybe a fifth…I’m not sure. I think I have it written well, but please forgive me if I don’t.

Most of you know that I practice in a flipped classroom and that an integral part of my class is that learners are given the opportunity to pace their own learning. Now, I do offer guidance and give them more freedom as the year progresses, but the basic idea is that Student A will not always be working on the same thing as Student B, which is fine. I think it is extremely important that learners be given the freedom to take more time when they need it and less when they don’t for any given topic.

I’m also okay with “busy” learning spaces. I like learners up and moving and I like discussion and collaboration. When you have a room full of freshman, the volume can get pretty high, but as long as they’re being productive and challenging one another, its music to my ears. Managing a busy class is tiring, but I’m in there, learning with them.

My blood pressure really begins to build when a learner makes a deliberate decision not to participate in their learning. To me, they are not only halting their own progress, but they are also hurting other learners in the room by omitting the contribution they have to make.

Is it my job to make the learner learn, or is it my job to help the learner want to learn? Unfortunately, I still feel a twinge of the former.

I am not an entertainer. I do not stand up and do a song and dance routine in an effort to keep learners engaged. Rather, I am focusing on providing dynamic learning experiences where each individual can be an integral part in someone else’s learning…not just their own. Just today, my biology classes were working on density. It was fantastic to see small groups collaborating and pulling from one another rather than diving to a computer to look up the “answer.” A snippet of conversation I heard:

_Student A: What’s a regular object?

Student B: I think it’s something you can measure.

Student A: Can’t we solve for volume? How do we calculate that?

Student C: It has something to do with area…I remember this from algebra last year.

Student B: Why are we doing this? This isn’t math…_

…and on it went. They eventually figured out, through discussion and without computers, that you can find volume of regular objects by finding the area of one face and then factoring in a third dimension…depth.

Without the cooperation and engagement of every individual, this conversation would probably have gone much differently. If Student A, B, or C hadn’t participated, would they have been successful in the task? I would like to think so. Would it have been okay for them to have failed at the task? Sure…that’s part of learning.

But, that story changes when one individual drags the group down because of a refusal to progress. It would have been much more difficult pulling from only two experiences. Student C led them down the right path and by working together, they were able to solve the problems and complete the task at hand.

Now, I could have stood up front and taught density. In doing so, I would have effectively removed the influence of those refusing to progress, but it would have been at the expense of true learning. That is not a compromise I am willing to make.

Our learning spaces should foster learning communities. We need to become parts of those learning communities by standing back and encouraging those outsiders to share what they know.

Angela Maiers TEDxDesMoines “You Matter” talk has exploded on Twitter and the internet in general. It is one of my favorite TED talks…ever. She focuses on showing every child that walks through our rooms that they have an important contribution to make and that we want to hear it. Their thoughts matter.

Building learning communities is a great way to help that quiet/shy/defiant/confused/whatever learner embrace the fact that they matter and will promote a culture of learning and collaboration. How can you change your class to incorporate this?

Failure is an option…but don’t forget about progress.

Who Should We Teach?

I missed the first half of the Republican debate last night due to a soccer game. I caught the second half, and was a little frustrated that Brian and John focused so much on the four popular candidates, but that’s neither here nor there.

What caught my attention was in the blogs after the debate was over. I saw this blurb as part of a larger article on EdWeek’s website:

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said he doesn’t think that schools should have to educate the children of illegal immigrants.

This got me almost as upset as Newt Gingrich’s agenda to increase charter school allowances and broader choices in schools and Rick Perry’s massive budget cuts to education to help close the state budget deficits.

The precedent that would be set by teaching only certain, qualified children is staggering. America is built on opportunities, including opportunity to improve education, livelihood, and safety. I completely understand that there are other major issues with illegal immigration, but I can guarantee you that the solution is not to begin barring these children from our schools. We cannot begin to divide children into “haves” and “have-nots,” least of all along educational lines.

I am a taxpayer. I understand that my taxes pay for public services as well as my own paycheck. I also understand that my taxes are covering (in part) for those individuals that can’t (or don’t) pay taxes. I have students in my class that fall below the minimum tax bracket…yet, they have the opportunity to come to school. When we refuse to teach children of immigrants that don’t pay taxes, we should also refuse to teach children of Americans that don’t pay their taxes.

Both ideas are ludicrous.

When I signed up to teach, I didn’t do so with a caveat that said “I will teach children of parents that pay taxes.” I agreed to teach every child that walked into the school to the best of my ability, regardless of race, religion, economic, or immigration status.

If we are teaching these children, we have an opportunity to build the values of truth and lawfulness while they are young. We have an opportunity to teach them lessons that their parents may or may not be living out. We have an opportunity to be a very powerful, positive influence on their lives. Like it or not, immigrant children will be future leaders along with ours. Should we refuse to build them up?

Every child has the capacity to do something positive in the world. I, for one, will continue to serve every student with that hope in mind.


As a sidebar, the article about Gov. Perry’s cuts in education was written by a high school student.

Teaching is Like Bowling

This past weekend my wife and I travelled up to South Bend, IN to spend the weekend with her family. Her youngest brother turned 16, and with both of his older siblings out of the house, we wanted to shake it up a little bit for such a large milestone in his life. My in-laws live out in the country on the west side of the city, and the cold front that blew through the midwest this weekend pushed us outside for the majority of the weekend. It was a great time of relaxing and just enjoying the outdoors without sweating for the first time in months.

by Greg Nissen, FlickerCC

Sunday evening, we decided to go bowling as one last birthday fling before my wife and I had to head back to Evansville. The alley we like to go to has 12 lanes and usually less than 10 people. Its a nice, quiet place that we usually head to when we get the urge. By no means am I an accomplished (or even mediocre) bowler, so I’ll leave my score out of the discussion…and to be totally honest, I really didn’t even begin thinking about this post until the end of the day today.

If you’re like me, you go bowling once a year…maybe. We all pretend we know what we’re doing, carefully picking out our ball, lacing our shoes, and testing the hand dryer on the ball rack. We spend time preparing and visualizing bowling strike after strike while our friends and family cheer and give us high-fives as we strut back to the benches.

What really happens, is we throw gutter balls for the first couple of frames as we get our feet under us. The weight of the ball is strange and that lane begins to look a lot wider and narrower as we struggle to find a rhythm.

Teaching can be just like that, especially in our first few years. I’m only in my third year, and while I feel much more comfortable in the classroom now than I did when I started, I still struggle to find my rhythm.

I can plan my game all I want, but when it comes down to it, the best way to throw a strike is to relax and let the weight of the ball do the work.

My experience, albeit short, will guide my curriculum, my relationships, my decisions, and everything else that comes along with teaching.

So, what about those of us that have very little [no] experience? That’s when we find the pro in your department or school. They can guide you, give tips, and help keep your aim true while you continue to find your rhythm. There is no shame in asking for help, as long as you ask with humility. Be willing to take some criticism and realize that they have seen just about everything. We can learn from their experience and grow continually into better teachers.

Don’t expect a perfect game your first, second, or even third time out. Continue to work, learn from mistakes, and keep looking down the lane.

When Should We Introduce Social Media?

Each month, I go to “New Teacher Training” run by our district. It is a monthly meeting for anyone new to the school district, regardless of age or experience. Many of the teachers are new teachers and we spend time discussing many of the “little things” that can come up during your first year that they don’t necessarily teach you in college.

We began yesterday with a couple questions, one being: “What was your biggest disappointment thus far?” Responses varied from parents not coming to open house to being cussed out by a student. I was talking with one of the teachers near me when I heard one person in the group say, “I was very disappointed when I found out that some of my 3rd graders have Facebook accounts.”

Without getting into a major debate over lying about your age to get one and what role the parents play, this comment really made me sad because I think there is a learning opportunity that is being missed by teachers, just because it is Facebook. I do understand the age requirements and the issues that can arise from signing your child up (or the child signing themselves up). Those issues aside, my question is why shouldn’t 3rd graders (or any learner) be exposed to social media in the classroom?

The reason I asked myself this question stems from the truth in that children will learn about social networking _some_where…why shouldn’t it be in school? That way, a responsible adult can help them work through things like their digital footprint, social etiquette, and the responsibilities associated with being a digital and global citizen. If we don’t take the time to teach or even model social networking skills in our classes, learners will be left to navigate the jungles of the web on their own, and maybe even make some mistakes that will follow them for the rest of their lives. I don’t mean to be heavy or alarmist, but that really is the nature of the world today.

Inevitably, there is the question of how to expose learners to social media without asking them to sign up for an account? I don’t mean showing them your Facebook page, I mean actually bringing learners into the social media world and giving them an opportunity to be active participants and contributors.

The easiest way to expose learners is to take a day or a couple of lessons to set up a class Facebook or Twitter account. It becomes a window to the rest of the world, where the sky is the limit. Bring in other classes, create virtual pen-pals, learn a new language…in short, show learners how to use the web as a resource and not a destination. The younger we expose them to this idea and help foster responsible use, the better off they’ll be in middle and high school when they have their own accounts and are on their own.

Social networking can also be used to build literacy skills. I find, many times, learners are too “wordy” in responses. You can use a class Twitter account to help them communicate concisely, with vibrant and descriptive vocabulary while following a 140 character limit. Another idea I had is a problem solving activity of sorts…maybe set up a mystery in which someone can only send clues through tweets, and the class has to solve the problem using the short clues they get. You can ask them to consider context, the audience, tone, word choice…again, the sky is the limit.

There is more and more evidence showing there is no such thing as a “digital native.”(1, 2) No one is born knowing how to interact and connect using the web…it is a skill that is learned as you use it more and more. Further, learners are great at “cutting and pasting, texting, Googling, and Facebooking, their range of skills does not necessarily extend to more complex technological tasks, such as creating and publishing digital stories or websites.” (3) If we don’t take the time to teach them these skills in school, I can assure you, they will take the time to teach themselves.

Don’t be afraid of using social media in your class. Embrace the connections that can be made. Model good citizenship and networking skills. Encourage children to actively participate and contribute to digital learning networks. Who knows…you could very well be learning something from them someday.


Update: Thanks to Deb Wolf for passing along another article I had a hard time finding: Open University research explodes myth of ‘digital native’