A Letter to Students and Parents

I began writing my course audit for AP Biology this week, which is always a fun thing to do. Part of my course description includes a short letter to parents and students at the beginning, so they have glimpse of my philosophy on the class and school. I also looked back at a course audit I had written for AP Chemistry my first year of teaching. The dissonance shocked me. This is from 2009:

Teachers, Students, and Our Roles

You will not succeed in this course if you become merely an observer. Learning does not happen by being a spectator. You, as the student, are expected to take your education seriously and to be responsible for your own learning. Your success will correlate directly to the amount of time and effort you put into your studies of chemistry outside of class.

At this stage in life, you are called to be a student. Time management will be essential in your success not only in this class but also in all your studies. This is not the only class you are taking. If you need help in setting up a “time budget,” you may see me to set up a study schedule to help structure your time and foster good habits.

My job, as the teacher, is to facilitate your learning through instruction in class as well as outside of class if you need extra support. Throughout this year, I will provide you with experiences that are meant to engage you intellectually and that will help you broaden your knowledge of chemistry. One way to maximize your success is to have open communication between one another. As we progress through the course, I need feedback from you as to how the material is being presented so we can maximize class time and ultimately enhance your understanding.

It is also my job as the teacher to design effective assessments of your learning. Exams, quizzes, and labs will help me make evaluations of your success in the class. Quizzes will be given twice in each chapter and a test will be given after every 2 chapters. All tests are cumulative and timed.

All of this is good information and important, but it is very condescending (to me) and really does not portray a very inviting class. Here is my letter for 2012:

Teachers, Students, and School

The world is changing. Simply memorizing facts is no longer appreciable in a digital world, where information is available any time, any where. This fundamentally changes the roles of students, teachers, and schools.

As a teacher, it is my job to help provide a starting point for your learning. I will be available to help answer questions, but it is also my job to ask even more questions. Biology is the study of history and science, but it is also the study of the world around us, which requires questioning and experimentation.

As a student, you are expected to fail. We learn by making mistakes. I will push you to make mistakes, but I will also support your learning as you evaluate those mistakes. You are expected to persevere and continue to make progress. Learning opportunities for multiple styles will be provided, which will allow you to craft your learning experience in AP Biology.

School will be a place of collaboration. While in class, you will be working in small focus groups that will in turn support one another through each unit. These groups will help you develop time-management and collaboration skills that are essential after your formal schooling is over. While in class, you will have the option to structure your learning time based around lab investigations, research, or application projects. We will focus on real-world uses of the information you are collecting and reshaping into something useful. Community outreach will be encouraged as part of the course.

I am already excited about next year.

Change Teaching by Changing Grading

I have made a few changes in my chemistry class recently that came more out of pragmatic necessity than anything else, but these changes have caused me to revisit grading…again.

Ultimately, what caused my change was the expectation of having three graded assignments put into the grade book each week. That’s three for every student, every week, for every class. With 110 students, that would be 330 graded assignments every seven days. Without visiting the fact that so many assignments dilutes grades to nothingness and that I have more to be worrying about than finding three assignments to grade, I began searching for a way to (somewhat) meet this expectation.

I use modified standards-based grading in chemistry. Students are assessed on their ability to perform a task around a certain concept. So, I do not grade worksheets or menial assignments because again, they are not necessarily true reflections of what the student can actually do with the material. Stemming from that idea, I began asking students to self-assess on a scale of zero to five, with a “zero” meaning they have not visited that concept yet, and a “five” meaning they can teach their peers.

Without making a big deal of it, I would enter that self-assessment into the grade book. The next day I would go back around and ask each student to re-assess their learning. If it went up, that was good. They were making progress and moving in the right direction. If it stayed the same or even went down (after attempting a quiz on worksheet), I would pull them aside and provide direct instruction. I would then enter their second (or third) assessment into the book. The grades are always in flux and (I feel) represent their learning more accurately. Now, the process is done using a Google Document filled out as they learn so I don’t have to run around the room so much. As part of their assessment, they also have to list evidences they can provide to prove their ability.

What does this mean? Aside from meeting an expectation, I have not seen students take advantage of this tool, either in the discussion or in the Google Doc. They are assessing candidly and using concrete evidence to back up their score. What I’ve also noticed is that their scores are what I would have assigned if I were the one doing the scoring.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/intrepidteacher/status/174122976936075265″]

How do you show trust and respect to your students? If we are not constantly thinking about our grading policies, we are more and more likely to hurt their innate desire to learn. What can you do differently to involve them in the grading that happens in your class?

Student engagement is proportional to their investment in the class. We can complain that all students and parents seem to care about these days is the number next to their name. Try to work on encouraging investment by letting go of the habit or drive to be in total control of those grades. As students feel more empowered, they will become more engaged in their learning.

The #Flipclass on NPR

I was given a unique opportunity today to join our local NPR host on a show entitled The Trend. The first half of today’s show was about new classroom models popping up around the city and I was invited to represent the flipped classroom. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

Erinn Jankowski

Two other teachers joined me from school. Erinn Jankowski and her co-teacher Heath Harrington run a pilot program called the Center for Community Outreach (CFCO). Their purpose is to have high school seniors working with local non-profit organizations on a wide variety of projects. It really is an amazing class and you can read about it here if you’re interested in learning more about it.


It was a great time talking on the program about the flipped classroom and how we need to adjust our teaching philosophy to allow student choice and autonomy.

I was proud to represent the teachers that are working so hard to provide better education opportunities for students across the country. If you would like to hear more about the flipped class and Erinn’s CFCO, you can listen to the entire show online.

Coming Soon: Weekly #Flipclass Chat

With the discussion about the Flipped Classroom gaining steam globally, I thought it was about time we begin to connect in real time.

I emailed Jon, Aaron, Ramsey, Dan, and Phil and we are excited to announce that the first-ever FlipChat will be held on Monday, March 5 at 8PM EST.

We wanted to do this for a few reasons. First, the Flipped Classroom NING is a great way to connect with others, but it doesn’t facilitate whole-group discussion easily. Also, you need to wait between posting a question and hearing a response. Twitter will help alleviate that waiting period. Initial questions can be answered in real time, and then further discussion can continue on the NING in the following days.

Second, if you are on the fence about flipping, this is a chance to get real-life flipped class teacher advice or thoughts. We all know the process can be daunting, so this is your chance to connect and build a strong PLN centered on flipped classes.

Third, we all know there are common problems that arise in any flipped classroom. A Twitter chat will allow us to collaborate weekly on these issues and attempt to come to a group-informed decision on how to tackle these instructional goals.

Like I said before, we are very excited to get this going. The collaboration has been great on the hashtag, so we’re excited to build on that momentum. Watch for updates on topics and resource links, and mark it on your calendar using the Google button below so you don’t forget!

Heroes and Villains

We have a saying in the science department here: students lack mental stamina. They are faced with problems, and instead of working together to find an answer, they give up entirely. “This is too hard” and “I don’t know, so I’m not going to do it” are frequent responses when I assign something that requires thought. It takes a lot patience to work with repeat offenders, but I have to strike that perfect balance between gentleness and a firm disposition.

That is not an easy task for me.


A non-negotiable in my class is that students move toward independent learning and thinking. I love to see the struggle on a student’s face as they put their frontal lobe through a workout to solve a problem. The light bulb coming on is one of the most satisfying things that can happen during my day. What really makes me nervous, though, is when the bulb dims and flirts with extinguishing permanently.

I think a flipped class accentuates this problem. I present the class with information, and they are responsible for its consumption. A video to watch, an article to read, maybe some notes to take. To move to deeper thought, I have found (with my students) that building a basis for discussion is preferable to throwing them in headfirst. After that initial stage, we can move into the fun stuff…debates, discussions, videos, writing, creating.

I do not know if there is a term for what I am experiencing now…maybe active reluctance is the best way to put it. Some are choosing not to adequately consume the initial information, and they are having a very hard time making the deeper connections. That turns into frustration and resentment, which has turned out to be a toxic feeling. I found today, right before a quiz, that about half of one of my classes does not feel like I am doing my job, which was a tough blow. Again, a gentle, but firm response was needed.

I still gave the quiz. I understand frustration, and I understand that my class is totally different than every other class they take.

I also understand that our choices have consequences. I did not bring the issue up after the quiz…it would not have helped ebb the frustration. Glancing through the papers, the majority of them looked okay, so I still have to decide how I will address their concerns next week.


I want to be someone’s hero. I am completely comfortable saying that I hope to inspire one person over the course of my career. But, I am realizing more and more that we have a significant responsibility to be both a hero and a villain. One cannot exist without the other. The growth of a hero is spurned by the actions of a villain.

I make choices every day that could upset some learners. But, it is also my responsibility to turn around and make it into a positive learning experience, and that is what I am experiencing now. As we run out of days in the school year, I will continue to push their young minds. That means I will have to make some unpopular decisions. I can take solace in the knowledge that there is a bigger goal in place. One quiz will not make or break a school year, even though it feels like it at the time. I just pray I have enough wisdom to show that to my students.

I Can

In the spirit of full disclosure, this has been a discouraging week for me. Students are antsy and in need of a break. I am fighting some old battles with kids refusing to think or show interest in anything at all. I am also working with issues professionally I did not expect to have. Education news coming in each day shows glimmers of hope, but is tough to stomach in the current system.

But, despite the bad news and the “I can’t” thoughts earlier this week, I can choose to think differently.

I can…

– work hard every day to make sure I give my students multiple opportunities to learn.

– persevere and do what is right for my students when culture pushes back.

– demonstrate positive redirection when I fail.

– collaborate with students and other teachers to find solutions to problems.

– teach students to think critically about the world and about their beliefs.

– choose to keep my head high and continue to improve rather than wallow in self-pity.

We can choose to work with what we have an do our absolute best for our kids. Or, we can kick the stone on the path with our heads down and give in.

I choose the former.

I Can’t Teach Science

Ever since the State of the Union address on January 24th, I have seen more blog posts and articles on STEM than I have in a very, very long time. The problem is, they’re all focusing on the wrong thing.

I feel like I’m channeling Michael Doyle and even Dan Meyer today, but it really is getting to the point where the nation’s science, math, technology, and engineering teachers need to speak up more and let policymakers know that they aren’t allowing us to teach anymore.

Science can’t be “taught.” I can tell kids how chromosomes randomly separate into sperm and eggs that eventually might become a living organism, but that takes so much away from the magic of seeing how diverse life is when the two meet. I am required to teach how to find the probability of what the results of a cross will be, but you cannot cage life into a Punnett square. But, by law, that’s what I have to do. I’m evaluated on it. My students are evaluated on it. But, in reality, they aren’t being evaluated on what they know about science.

Science is living. Science is making observations, asking questions, and then finding what seems to be a good explanation for what you saw. Science is communal. They need time to debate, to discuss, and to troubleshoot. Otherwise, we’re just teaching letters and numbers now and that’s our science scores are so low.

Science has become artificial, and just like artificial grass, the burn hurts much more when you fall down.

I Can’t Learn You

I read a post from Jeff Utecht just ten minutes ago which got me into this thought. He wrote about helping a teacher flip her history classroom:

Parents [are] calling into question the idea that the teacher isn’t “teaching my child” and the frustration their child is having to “find the right answer.”

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about how to do a flipped classroom. I do my best to guide and show different resources, but when it really comes down to it, you need to do what makes sense for your classes. If it involves video lectures, then we can make lectures. If it involves a research project, then we can design a project. What it comes down to is the fact that students are taking responsibility for their learning. I can help you scaffold and plan for it, but I don’t know your class or your school’s culture.

All this to say: sometimes teachers do the same thing. I have led sessions where people want to what exactly they need to do to have a flipped class. I tell them the same thing I tell my students: there is no one right answer. It depends on your class, purpose, and learning culture.

True learning comes from exploration, risk-taking, assessment, and reflection. Let’s work on stepping out of our old habits and start embracing and emulating that model with our students.