Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Should Iowa Adopt the Next Generation Science Standards?

This last fall, I was given the opportunity to sit on an Iowa Department of Education task force looking at the question of whether my state should adopt the Next Generation Science Standards in place of our current Iowa Core Standards in Science. The committee consisted of about 20 people from across the state who represented various interest groups. There were some teachers, students, parents, professors, STEM coordinators, DE people, and even a congresswoman or two. After three meetings in Des Moines, I can tell you that the group of professionals called to action in this committee were at the top of their game. I have the utmost respect for each of them and their opinions (even those I disagreed with). They were passionate, without an agenda, and highly concerned about the direction Iowa should go in terms of it's science standards. In the end, the committee voted to recommend that Iowa does adopt these standards, but there was some hesitation in many members.

That being said, let me give you my thoughts, reservations, and hopes for our state.

I went into this thing a blank slate. Overall, I am not the biggest fan of standards in general. As I have said before, I believe that they stifle creativity for teachers, limit student choice as to elective classes, and rarely fit with what I think should be taught in high school. But.... as we are stuck with having to adopt something, I was willing to give them an ear and keep an open mind.

Spoiler alert: I voted that the state should adopt, but I had reservations. Let me explain my thoughts here.

Why the State should adopt:

In looking at a comparison between the Iowa Core and the NGSS, there were a few distinctions that stood out in my mind. First was the research they were based on. I am not a fan of educational research in general, (its all soft science) but am aware that there are many out there that know more about it than I do. Both of the standards documents are research based. The NGSS follows the Framework for Science Education published in 2012, which was based on the last decade's research in how science should be taught. The Iowa Core was based on the original National Science Standards document that came out in the mid 80's which means the research behind it was probably done in the late 70's. This was before we had computers! Score 1 NGSS.

The second interesting fact about the Iowa Core came when a panel of the actual writers sat before us. They were understandably proud of their document. They spent hours of their life in working through its intricacies, and themes. However, there really were only a handful of them, and they had other jobs. They consistently told us that if they had more time, money, and support, they would have developed something similar to the NGSS. I am proud of a lot of what I write, but I know that if I didn't have a day job and could devote my time to, say this blog, it probably be funnier, and make a lot more sense than it does.

Third was the PD piece. The Iowa Core, to me, was not implemented with fidelity. Our state had switched gears to many times, altered what they wanted, and finally failed to assess anything. 2013 was the year where science was supposed to comply with the standards placed in the core. Most of us teachers are completely surprised we made it this far. Many science teachers tried to put our heads in the sand and wait for it to go away. With the NGSS, you can't do that. It calls for a complete revamp in what is taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught. This scares the hell out of me.

In the end, it is my hope that the State of Iowa does adopt these standards in their entirety. The NGSS is not designed to be a document that you can not take apart and use pieces and parts. It is a full curriculum of standards that demand integration of the disciplines traditionally held apart. To do this, however, calls for a strenuous change to the current status quo in science teaching. Are the teachers, administrators, and state officials in Iowa ready or willing to make this change? Is the political climate that surrounds these kinds of decisions too charges for our legislators?

Please comment on your thoughts below.


Monday, November 18, 2013

What I Don't Know...and Some of What I Do

I was recently asked to post to a blog we are using in my building. I thought I would share it with anyone reading this blog as well. 

For more posts from teachers at Bettendorf High, click here.


What I Don't Know...and Some of What I Do

Confession time…..

I don’t know where I stand on climate change. There I said it, what a relief! I have read a lot of scientific articles, looked at a lot of graphs, know quite a bit about scientific principles that govern such things, but even with all of this background I am still unable to make any kind of firm stand. What is even more interesting though, is that it doesn't bother me. Let me clarify that.  If the glaciers are going to melt and drown all of Florida, I do care. (#Disneytripplanned) What I am content with is my ability to say that I haven’t developed an opinion. As it turns out, I am completely undecided about a great many things. I don’t have firm stands on ethanol production, string theory, or if Snookie should have been kicked off of Dancing with the Stars (#neededtogo). On these examples, I am comfortable saying that I don’t know the full story on the environmental impacts surrounding ethanol plants, the mathematics for a universe with 13 dimensions, or why it is important to keep your toes pointed when performing an Argentine tango. It is not that I don’t care about these topics, in fact I do a great deal. Its just that right now I do not feel that I have the background on these subjects to make an informed decision… and THAT’S OKAY. I refuse to feign a belief in an idea if I am not educated about it (#notapolitician).

Ignorance is bliss.

It truly is. I am not talking about stupidity, or a blatant disrespect of basic facts. I am a firm believer than in order to develop an opinion, one has to do the research. Content is an integral part of schooling and learning. I am talking about the unknown. I am referring to being ignorant of the unexplored, the unimagined, or the mystifying. This is what interests me; this is why I learn… and given enough interest, there is nothing I can’t learn. I believe our students also crave mystery more than rote learning. The unknown is a crucial part of schooling that I think doesn't get enough attention. So often, we as teachers fall into the trap of treating our profession as a delivery system. The kids sit in plastic seats and we feed them information. At this, we are experts. We add garnish to our lessons with flashy technology, code it with pedagogical jargon, and celebrate any tiny upward variance in standardized test scores.

Where does the unknown fit in? There is still a lot of the world that we are truly in the dark about (Yeah, I am looking at you gravity.) When a bunch of physics teachers get together to chat, we don’t discuss Newton’s Laws, we talk about what we DON’T know. Give me quantum gravity, neutrino fluctuations, or the rules regarding an Oxford Comma and watch the cognitive party start! Last night my son and I spent 30 minutes discussing why mayonnaise sales have grossly outnumbered salsa in the US. Who knew? (#ketchup3rd #getinthegameheinz) Discussions about what you already know doesn't yield anything. I am constantly focused on what I don’t know. Now think about topics kids are truly ignorant about.

Lucky for us, most students are truly ignorant about a great many things. (#quoteme)

Finding ignorance is not a problem for teachers. The problem we face as teachers of all levels is at some point in time, their natural curiosity about the world was diminished. They don’t even care that they are ignorant. That’s the problem. I want to learn, I want to grow, I want to hear your point of view. When or why are our students losing this drive? Why are they so complacent in their development?

How this has happened, or why it happens can be argued. As I have the keyboard here, I will give you some of my take on the matter (#feelfreetodisagree). I think that this push for standards, state and federal control of curriculum, and the external pressures placed on teachers are strangling our system. Teaching is, by its nature, creative. To be effective, curriculum needs to be adaptive, based on teachers’ strengths, and as individualize to students’ needs as it can be. While trying to corral curriculum into state or national standards may look good to a politician or administrator, it looks completely different from someone on my side of the desk. I teach to a student, not a standard. It is a human endeavor, not mechanical. Jane isn't just taking Physics, she is taking Like’s Physics. There is no best way to teach, there is no silver bullet for learning, no utopia that we can achieve that will reach all students. At no point in our future will we “figure education out” so that it works like a well oiled machine and never has  to be looked at again. What we have are good people running against the wind in an uphill job.

So what could this look like? We hear a lot about how we are failing our students nationally and how things need to change. Rarely does anyone tell us how to do this. Today is the day, friends. As I have a captive audience (#youreadthisfar), I will give you some of my ideas. Again, these are my thoughts on a Wednesday afternoon, and may change by Monday.

1) Don’t be afraid of a good argument with students. Often times we shy away from these kinds of things as they can get heated or tiresome. I find that these situations can lead to my most memorable lessons. Remember though, that there are different ways to argue. The classic argument involves a war model: you yell out your side to the high hills until you either win or concede. But there are other ways to argue. Why does there have to be a winner to an argument? In math and science we argue differently; we argue for proof.  For example, I have been altering many of my labs in physics towards what we call a “modelling” approach. Last Monday, my students took data on variables that affect the period of a pendulum (#classiclab #stilladisaster). Before we drew conclusions, I made them whiteboard their results and share their theories with the class. At this time, I basically argued with them over their data. How reliable was it? Are you sure you can back that claim up with evidence? I don’t care what you feel about what should happen, what does your data say? I am not being belligerent, I am being a scientist. At this point in the semester, it brings me the greatest joy when they start to hold each other accountable and argue amongst themselves.

2) Don’t be afraid of alternative points of view. When talking about evolution, how can you leave out intelligent design or catastrophism? Why broom these under a rug? Why don’t we look at data and let the students draw their own conclusion. If 99% of scientists have reached the same decision, shouldn't your students reach it as well judging the data? It baffles me how you language arts teachers deal with poetry, or art teachers with interpreting Picasso? Sometimes there is no right answer.  I think there is a lesson to learn for us teachers as well. A very bright young teacher I know brought up over lunch one day (#bestplaceforPD) that things like blogs, twitter chats, and FOX News are really creating a dichotomy in our society. If all I watch are the same news shows, or read the same blogs (present blog excepted), I am only reinforcing my beliefs, not challenging them. Try posting a diverging comment to a blog or chat. They will crucify you! The people who read these blog are usually of a like mind and don’t want to hear views that are not supported by their peers. They have been preaching to the choir for so long, that their beliefs are cemented in their minds as a dogma, instead of a conceived fluid idea. This gets compounded when you realize that search engines and news feeds run algorithms that only show you articles that are similar to what you have already read. Google perpetuates this! Teachers take heed and diversify your PLN. Invite differing opinions and don’t be afraid to share yours. (#I’mnot #soapbox)

3) Ignorant people ask questions. This is good. Push them to ask why things happen, why are you teaching them this, or why is it important. As I said before, I am ignorant about a great many things, but my ignorance breeds a drive to question. It seems that the more you know, the more you don’t know (#Yoda?). PhD’s do research; we pay them a lot of money to find questions that have never been asked before. If you think that doctoral diploma means they have it all figured out, you probably have not worked with too many of them. If our goal as teachers is to impart the knowledge students are going to need to be successful, we are fighting a losing battle. When I went through high school we didn't have the Internet! How could my teachers prepare me for today’s world? We need to train kids on how to question effectively and back up their claims with evidence, even if we disagree with their conclusions.

I am a teacher. Of all the professions that I could have chosen, both then and now, I still believe my place is in front of kids. It may be close to the hardest job in the world; one of the most scrutinized, underpaid, and underappreciated, but it is what I have devoted almost two decades of my life too.  I know a lot of teachers and I can tell you that I have never met a single one that did not give it his/her all, in school and out, for his/her students. I have the utmost appreciation and respect for everything that you do, from the papers you publish in journals, to the small comments you leave on the margins of your students’ term paper. Please, if there is anything I can help you with, let me know. Also, if there is anything above that sparks your interest, please leave a comment below. Feel free to agree with me, but especially feel free to challenge me. 


Friday, October 18, 2013

#Iaedchat on Gamification

#iaedchat Gamification in Education

(Note to self: make a better face when starting your video if you are going publish it for others to see)

The following are links to pages on this blog if you are interested in developing your own game. If you have intentions of going down this path, please hit me on twitter or email. I am more than willing to consult with districts on their games. I have worked with several districts who have begun to develop their own games.

Gamification Intro

Mission Possible: Our Professional Development Game

Mission Possible Overview

Crowdsourcing Your Professional Development

The Back End of Mission Possible

Mission Possible: Behind the Curtain (Video)

Link to our Mission Possible Site

Galaxy Fleet- Gamifying a classroom

Gamification with Students: Galaxy Fleet

Galaxy Fleet 

Galaxy Fleet T-1 day.. This then goes on for several posts dealing with how the model worked in the classroom.

Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help. Good luck!


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Today's Fix for Education!

So yesterday I was sitting through a meeting of the Governor's Task Force on the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards. We spent the day being brought up to speed on the current Iowa Core Science Standards... their inception, intention, and development. I listened for many hours to the reasons that the standards were made, continued to refine my opinions of the feasibility of the standards, and their merit with respect to the NGSS. 

It was during a panel discussion with some of the writers of the standards that something occurred to me. It was a simple idea, common sense really, but so foreign to today's thinking that it was almost incomprehensible. 

The panel was discussing the elementary standards (something I am fairly well versed in even though I teach high school). They mentioned that they banded them to grade bands, and made them a progression, but limited in content due to the fact that elementary teachers have so many other things to worry about on top of science. For a moment I thoughtfully placed myself in the shoes of one of these elementary teachers. These are a group of people who work very hard with challenging kids, teaching them to read, add, think, spell, write, and grow into young adults. They are being pulled in so many ways that if I were them, there would be no way I would be able to keep anything straight, let along try to adopt new standards every few years. 

Why do we have separate standards in elementary for literacy, math, science, social studies, and all the others. Why don't we just have one set of standards that encompass all of these. For middle school and high school it makes sense to break standards into disciplines because we teach specific content areas. Why do we throw all of these different documents at our elementary teachers when they only have like 15 minutes of prep at a time. I believe that learning could be much more integrated in the younger levels if someone took the time to COMPLETELY ALIGN their standards. My son came home with a math problem the other day where he was supposed to read a histogram of kid's heights in a mystical class from his math book. Why could he have not done an experiment to take that data himself, plotted it, and tried to draw conclusions about age and height? I will tell you why... that is science and he was learning math!

I am not saying that teachers do not try to integrate this as much as they can; I think they do. I just think that if we write the documents for the standards in one form, they will not tend to split them off. I would hate to try to master all of those documents. Why not just have one?

Maybe I am completely out of my area here, but I think it is possible. I realize that different committees made each of the common core standards for each discipline, but why can't they talk to each other? Make the standards seamless, easy to use, and adaptable. Then let teachers find creative ways to meet them.

What do you think? I am off here?


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mission Possible 2.0

I recently published an article in Learning and Leading with Technology outlining my work on Mission Possible. Let me tell you that my emailbox/twitter/blogger has been full ever since. I can not thank all of you enough for your support of my model, or express the delight I have in hearing all of the innovations that have come from this simple linking of ideas.

If you follow this blog, you will probably noticed that I have not posted much in a long time. Right now, I am in the middle of golf season, trying to teach an overfull schedule including biology (not my fave), and keep up with the enthusiasm surrounding the globalization of Mission Possible.

With that, I am always willing to help all of you in any way I can. With the volume of requests I am getting it is making it hard for me to put in the effort I believe you need from me in beginning this process. When confronted with this kind of problem, I face it down like a heavyweight.

I have decided to kick the help I offer up a notch. If you are serious about starting a game, I believe whole-heartedly that I have experience to offer. I am willing to work with you virtually, as I have been, but truly believe that I could do more help working with your people face to face. I have been approached, and am willing to work as a consultant on beginning this process. If you have a small amount of funds to get me there, I can find time to work with your people; be it teachers, tech staff, or administration. As you all know, I am giving my model, my files, and my ideas away for free. I will never charge you to use the idea, but I do want you to succeed and think I can help.

As for Mission Possible 2.0, I have some new items on my agenda.

  1.  I am working with some programmers to make the back end files more self-serving, using advanced formulas and trying to get the points to add up easier.
  2. I am also working with programmers to try to find a way to upscale the model for larger districts. I am looking at Microsoft Access for the database, infused with google sites or wordpress.
  3. I am beginning to implement "Achievements" as a new reward system in the game
  4. I am looking at the upper levels and expanding them to include more choices for teachers. 
  5. I am finding new ways to reward teachers for their accomplishments. 
  6. I am working on trying to incorporate social media as a more integral part of the game.
If you follow our site, you will see some of these changes as they are being made. This kind of thing is never finished, it is only made better. If you would like to discuss my ideas, please respond here as always, hit me on twitter, or chuck me an email. 



Friday, August 23, 2013

(Video:) Mission Possible- Behind the Curtain

I know it has been a while since I have contributed anything to this blog, but I thought it was time. I recently was fortunate enough to get an article published in Learning & Leading with Technology. Since then, I have gotten several emails and calls about how I run the back end of the program and thought it may be nice to put my thoughts to Youtube and try to answer any questions that come up.

When I did this, it was using free software and knowing very little programming language. If anyone who knows more about computer programming than me (which is probably all of you) and wants to help out on this project, I would love to find a way to better keep track of these totals.

That being said, here is a quick and dirty run through my model.

If you have any questions, or would like me to go further into any part of the model, please let me know and I will try another screen-cast. I have also meet several times on Google hangouts or Skype with interested parties.



Friday, June 28, 2013

Next Gen Science Standards, a Need Unfilled

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Steven Pruitt speak at Iowa's kick off of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) this spring. Now, those of you who know me, or have read any of my earlier posts, should know that I am both the theorist (the talker) and the engineer (the doer). I seek out innovative approaches to teaching by lurching blogs and twitter like a squirrel in a bush hunting nuts. But like the squirrel, I am finicky. I won't eat anything. I also don't like to be force fed. Right now I am trying to decide if these standards, were tossed before me by Cinderella, or laced in poison.

Enough with the rodent analogies.

I am by no means an expert in these standards, but from my cursory study of them, along with my visit with Dr. Pruitt, I have come up with some opinions. 

1. Dr. Pruitt surprisingly makes a lot of sense! He stood before us for eight hours on a cold Iowa spring day giving more than 200 educators an overview of the history and purpose of the standards. He spoke of the need for commonality, the research background underlying then standards, and the intricate politics (or lack of) that went into the decisions made in their development. All in all, he made very good arguments, had research and reality to back up his claims, and was not afraid to tell us the shortcomings involved with their development. I left there trusting that the guy knew what he was talking about.

2. Dr. Pruitt made a lot of sense to 200 educators. I can tell you that, even with my BS glasses on, I came out of that day sipping the Kool Aide. If his goal was to get Iowa's educators excited about the standards, mission accomplished... if Iowa only had 200 educators. My biggest worry on the long drive back to Bettendorf, was how I was going to spread my enthusiasm for what was coming down the pipe. When I got home, I quickly realized that this was going to take some time.

3. Science is not Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Earth/Space science. This was the brightest epiphany for me since that day. It was not Dr. Pruitt, but a particle physicist I know from Coe College that happened to be at the kick off that drew me to this realization. I had worked with Dr. Ugur Ukgun for several years, where he has led me though the intricacies of quantum theory and experimentation. That day, however, he wore a teacher hat. He had been engrossed in laboratory work at the University of Iowa for over a decade while getting his doctorate. Now he was looking for the brightest minds for his own labs. It hit me that this is the guy I am preparing my students for! I needed to pay attention. He said two things that strung a chord with me. He talked about scientific research as being non-denominational. He didn't consider himself a particle physicist, or even a physicist. He was a scientist. In his work, he needed very high level chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, and three other scientific disciplines I had never heard of. Science was not a set of classes, but a way of thinking about nature that is cross-discipline at its very nature.

4. Math is a language, science is a method. The other point that Dr. Ukgun made was that if a student was weak in science, he could work with them. If a student was not proficient in the language of math, he couldn't even talk to the student. Math is the language of science. He believed that if high schools focused more on math (and with that computer programming) they could pick up the science concepts later. This was rather humbling to me as I have devoted many hours to teaching kids science, but his point had some validity.

5. Performance expectations are not the same as standards. They don't just tell us what students should learn, they dictate what students should be able to do. They have the odd feel of Hogwart's potion making class. I am working on my contempt glare ala Professor Snape when a student's potion blows up in their face. I am joking of course, but there is an element of performance assessment that is inherent in them. My problem with performance assessment is that I am not ever sure how to ride the line between pass/fail and giving students too many points for "trying". I guess I will have to look into this. When I figure something out, look for a post:)

6. Lastly is the "Need Unfulilled" aspect of this post. Dr. Pruitt made it exceptionally clear that these performance expectations are not curriculum. They are not intended to be "how to teach", just end results. This is where the teacher comes in. I applaud his committee for giving us reign here to play to our strengths and devise what we feel effectively matches our strengths and individual student's learning styles. However, the amount of work needed to make this change is daunting.

Thus I call to you all again. I am going to be fighting through this for the next few years. So are many of you. Join me in the conversation about how this these standards are interpreted into daily work. I am "phoning a friend" so to say so that we can talk this over, hash it out, and do it the right way. I believe this has to come from teachers, not politicians. We need to take the initiative, something we didn't do with No Child Left Behind. The biggest problem with that legislature is that politicians thought it up and ruined it. Lets have this come from us. We have the guidelines, we just devise the game.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Wrapping up gamification in Astronomy

Many of you have been following the implementation of Galaxy Fleet in my astronomy class. This experiment was conceived after the development of Mission Possible, it professional development model for technology PD. The process of applying gamification to my classroom had very distinct differences to applying it to our staff.

Most notibly, I was alone. In developing Mission Possible, I was fortunate in that I was surrounded with people who were excited about the idea. Leanne Wanger, our teacher-librarian was instrumental in the implementation of Mission Possible, and my principal Matt Degner's trust and leadership was essential. With Galaxy Fleet, I was alone in the development of the structure, the activities, the exams, and the back-end bookkeeping. 

Student Reaction:
In keeping updates on this blog, I was focused on the student reaction the process as we went along. I made adjustments on the fly if things were not going well, always kept upbeat about advancement through levels, and made Bead Ceremonies as public and special for everyone. It was nice to start a day by saying "Please join me in congratulating Joe Smith on earning his silver Ensign Rank!" The kid would come forward, be presented with the bauble, and shake my hand. The class liked the individual recognition of their peers.

Today I looked over the end survey for the class.
The comments spoke a very similar story. When asked if they enjoyed the gamifiaction model or they think I should throw it out, a vast majority said they would like to see it stay. Most of the comments revolved around it being fun, a great way to motivate students, and helped them learn the material. Many of them liked the testing procedure where they took several smaller tests instead of one large chapter exam. Even if I decide to not do Galaxy Fleet, I am going to give serious thought to keeping aspects of the testing procedure.

Some students mentioned how competition was a great motivator for them, and that this transition was easy because many of them play video games based on the same principles. They enjoyed trying to reach a level and gaining the recognition as they went.

That is not to say that every student bought into the idea. As you can see from the above graph, four of them were not interested in the game at all. In the comments, one wrote that if he/she wanted to be enlisted in ranking exercises, they would join the army, not take an astronomy class. One mentioned that there was a lot of things to remember in the labs, exams, and homework that was assigned. They had a hard time remembering to do all of it. They also felt frustrated in not reaching levels, wanting to drop the class because they felt they couldn't get anything right. These kind of comments concern me, and can not be fluffed off as outliers in the average.

Grade-wise, the students probably did better under this system, however, it is hard for me to attribute that to the game, or the fact that I took several more days to teach the material. I would say that the game motivated several kids in a way that I didn't have to personally keep them on task. However, if I took the same amount of time in my traditional learning cycle structure, I may have had similar results.

Overall, I am at the point in the process where I look at next year. Do I do this again? What changes would I make? I believe I have learned a lot about what motivates kids, how to tap into their competitive nature, and keep them focused. I am going to definitely keep some aspects of the game, if not the entire system.

I will keep you all updated.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Classroom Gamification Update

I realize that it has been a while since I have posted an update on the Galaxy Fleet game I am running in my class. I have few excuses except to say that keeping up with the game is very time consuming. Choosing to do this from scratch, with little back end support in place has proven to eat time quicker than a Sarlacc eats a bounty hunter. 

I have found that in order for the game to run smoothly, the students need to feel success periodically. This means that I need to be up to date on grading and awarding of points. The thing would not work if they did a lab activity and it took me three days to grade it, this forcing them to wait that time for their commendations, and therefore slow down the frequency of bar exams. I have to keep things graded everyday. Who knew this game would force me to be a better teacher! 

So where are we now? Of the 25 students in the class three of them have not reached Ensign status. That means that most of the class has passed the cadet bar exams with no less than a 70%. Granted, they could retake exams, but in my normal tests, there was no way 22/25 would have gotten a C or better. 

Of those who reached Ensign status, I have about half who have silver (extra work) status and one that got gold. This one girl who made gold passed all three of the exams on her first attempt and did the extension activity. I can tell already that there are a lot of Ensigns who want a gold bead when they hit their commander status. Since they can all get a gold bead, they truly are not competing against each other, only against themselves. They see her with her shiny gold bead and want that recognition. The game is putting wind in the higher achieving student's sails. 

What about the lower three who have not gotten there? I had a serious talk with them yesterday about their grades and the importance of putting in effort in class. Their stalled movement through the game has given me an avenue to breach the topic of not handing in work. Before this system, I found myself waiting until the summative exam before finding out they were not going to turn work in. Then they coming in after the fact to finish their labs. They failed exams because they didn't do the labs, then did the labs late for credit, turning them into busywork instead of their intended purpose. The game system forces those activities to be in before the exams which keeps them as a learning tool instead of empty points. 

After going through about half of the game, I am still on the fence as to whether it is a good idea or not. I truly believe the students enjoy the game and are more engaged. It is hard to tell if they are retaining the material as they are able to retake the exams, which they were not able to do before. A post-game survey of the class will probably reveal a lot. 

I will try to keep you updated better than I have. 


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Gamification day 5 recap

I was in Johnston yesterday to kick off the next generation science standards for the state of Iowa. I will probably post on my thought on this sometime soon.

For now, lets fill you in on how my gamification class has been going.

Galaxy Fleet has now graduated three quarters of its cadet class to the title of ensign. Several of the students have received silver beads and one very bright sophomore has gotten gold. We have held two ceremonies at the beginning of class where cadets come forward to receive their beads. I can tell you that those that come up are proud of their accomplishments. A simple handshake and having the class clap for them has really focused them on completing the tasks.

I informed them that they would not receive the points for exams if they do not pass them. I also informed them that they would not be able to even take higher exams until they pass e previous ones. This has spurred them on to retake the exams.

Allowing the to retake the exams has driven them towards passing them. They study for that second time, and really get upset when they fail. These are the same students that have struggled on every previous exam but never cared to even look at them again after the test was over. Now they know that the material is important because they will not move on without showing proficiency. My goal is to have the all pass to ensign by tomorrow. I think They can do it if I nudge them a bit more.

We shall see. Ensign exams start on Monday so they had better be ready.

I will keep you posted,


Monday, April 29, 2013

Gamification Day 3 Recap

Friday went very well. They handled the lab activity better than most of the activities they did earlier in the semester. They were using light probes to make a graph of the intensity of light as distance increased. They then fit a curve to find that the relationship was an inverse square. That is pretty high level math for some of these students.

The first thing I noticed was that they finished the lab within the given time period. This is not normal. They knew that they would not be able to take their bar exams until the activity was turned in and thus they got it in on time. Some of my lower achieving students also focused on knowing how the lab was done and what the conclusions were. This was remarkable as in previous labs, if they turned it in, it was probably half done with little thought to conclusions.

Today will be a big day for the class. They will be taking their first bar exams. I am having them all take the multiple choice section, and then giving them an option to take either the free response, or the math portion. Many of them may take all three, but they are given the option. They need only pass two of the three to make Ensign, but passing all three gives them a brighter colored bar. I will truly get to see if these incentives are effective today. How many will choose to take all three? How many will pass on the first time? What will that do to their engagement if they fail? If they succeed easily?

I will let you know how it goes.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Gamification Day 2 recap

Day 2 is done and things are still going strong. I was able to stay on schedule with finishing the Electromagnetic Spectrum activity. 

I altered this activity from a lecture to a webquest to find information. Instead of me standing before them and going through the entire spectrum (which really is a pretty good lecture if I do say so myself), I gave each of them a wavelength and 20 minutes to research it. They then combined the data they found on a google doc that is shared so they can all have them as notes. They each stood before the class and presented their type of radiation. The found the radiation's speed (all the speed of light), its frequency, permeability to atmosphere, how it was created, and one use for it. 

Doing this again, I would probably focus more on the applications of each type of radiation instead of the numbers related to it. I interjected some things from my old lecture as they presented to try to get students something to remember about the radiation. 

Overall, I think it went well even though it took about 20 minutes more than my normal lecture. I can tell you that giving them only 20 minutes before they presented forced them to focus on the task at hand. A much greater majority of kids were on task on during the research part of this activity than some other activities. Keeping them focused during the presentations was a struggle so it will be interesting to see how much they absorbed. 

Today we are doing a lab using light probes and the inverse square law. This will be interesting as the equipment is intensive as well as the math component. Traditionally they are hard to motivate when the task is challenging. We shall see if they step up.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Galaxy Fleet Gamification Day 1 recap

Well I survived the first day of my classroom gamification experiment. This may have been the most important day of the lesson, the day I had to sell the students on the idea. Here are a couple of observations from that first day that I think I should share.

  1. I did not bring out the coat to turn myself into the hard ass admiral as I planned. I ran the class as myself, but as we got into the game I did joke about how I was thinking of using the character. They thought the yelling and the southern accent was pretty funny. I will pull him out when the class needs some motivation (in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way)
  2. Overall they seemed to think of this as a pretty good idea. It is hard to get a read on every student in the room, but most expressed willingness to try it. 
  3. I heard comments from some of the best students in class that they were going to be the first one to the level of Captain. For the top end student, it took me literally four minutes to tap into their competitive nature. Lets see if it will hold for the entire unit.
  4. The mid-level students seemed to like the idea in general (most are "gamers" and the idea of gamification seemed natural to them). I think they are a bit hesitant about the amount of work that I am going to ask them to do, and the testing involved, but hopefully they will fall in line as we go. 
  5. I have a group of lower-level students that concern me the most. There are two sects here. There is a group of four that sit in the back, do little work, and thus do poorly on exams. I know for a fact that these are smart kids, who have the ability to learn this. However, they are disenfranchised with high school in general and thus are the hardest to motivate. I have been working with one of these individuals a bit lately, talking to him about being a leader of his group of friends, and how he can help focus their attention. I am happy to say that out of all of the students in the class, he was the most excited about the game on that first day. I think he wants to do well, but for some reason that is not "cool" with his friends. This is giving him an avenue outside the normal school-type functioning, that he can embrace. I will work on him a lot through this experiment. 
  6. The other sect that worries me are the students who feel that they are not smart enough to do the astronomy. They feel that their background, especially in math, is hindering their learning. It is my hope that both of these groups of low-level students can feel some successes in the lesson as they go and that that success will carry them to learn the material. 
  7. I will say that the game is also fun for me. Having created a "Star Trek-like" game, I made myself the commander. I asked them to call me "Sir" or "Admiral". That is fun in itself. They stand at attention when I enter the room, which really is a cool feeling. 
Yesterday we did an intro to EM radiation with the activity Lost in Space. Today we will be exploring the EM Spectrum and beginning an activity on the Inverse Square Law. 

I will let you know how it goes.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Galaxy Fleet Day 1

Today is the first day of my gamification experiment and I am excited to get it started. The anticipation of something new can be consuming, and filled with anxiety. You all know how it is. I was up this morning at 4:30 with epiphanies about creating characters for the class. Do I think the kids would like to meet a hard-ass military general who will introduce the game to them? Do I put on a coat and accent my voice to turn into  this character or just do it as myself? Cool or lame... it is a fine line. Science Expert Dr. Like in a lab coat could take them through the activities... ???

I brought the coat but even one hour before class starts, don't know if it will come out of the closet. Game-time decision.

I did figure out how I am going to grade this thing though. My plan is to have 85 points for each learning cycle. 30 points will be from their scores on two of the three bar exams, 45 points will be from the activities that gave them the commendations the exchanged for the exams, and 10 points will be if they participate in the process. I don't like participation points, but with what I may ask them to do, it would be nice to give them some small reward as an incentive. I am thinking of taking off those points if say, they don't follow the game by wearing their lanyard displaying their rank or stand at attention when the General enters the room, or call me sir... you know the fun part of the game. With three learning cycles planned, that is relatively the same points I would have devoted to this last semester.

Time is a big factor in this, so I will be pushing them hard. It doesn't help that I just graded their last exam and it was far from stellar. I plan on using this fact as a springboard for changing what we are currently doing to something new, fun, engaging.

Wish me luck. I will update you all tomorrow on how it went.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Gamification of Classroom T minus 1 day!

I am planning on starting the gamification of my Astronomy class tomorrow and I am getting nervous. If you have not been following this blog you can find information on the planning stages here and here, and you can get to the site I set up for the class here.

That being said, I plan on blogging updates on this every day for the duration of the experiment. Today is T minus one day!

Over lunch, I will be going to Hobby Lobby to retrieve the beads and pins for their level awards. Nothing like waiting for the last minute!

I went through my schedule on how I believe the day to day progression is going to go and I came to a realization... I need 19 days for this and I really only have 10! With the addition of several activities to round out some abbreviated learning cycles, the timeline for this curriculum has grown much more than I anticipated. I spent an hour this morning paring down the days in an effort to lessen the blow the other units I need to cover before the end of the year. I have a schedule now that is 14 days long, which I should be able to make work.

We shall see. Feel free to give comments or suggestions as I go. I will try to get some pics and such as I go.

Wish me luck.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

If Twitter is the Answer, What is the Question?

I recently heard George Couros (@gcouros) speak to our K12 staff about advances how our society utilizes technology and how our schools need to catch up. I have to say that I agreed with most everything he said. I am obviously a blogger, believe that we need to foster 21st century skills in our kids so they can compete in a global economy, and firmly believe in giving back to my profession. Last year as the keynote speaker at our National Honor Society induction I urged the students to create something (ala #Starwarsboy). Needless to say on most respects Mr. Couros and I seem to be cut from the same cloth.

That being said, I want to address a twitter issue. I call it a twitter issue because it is becoming an epidemic in teacher circles. So much so that the teachers that probably need the good attributes of the media platform want nothing to do with it. Mr. Couros stated that "If you are not on Twitter, you are becoming illiterate." Many of those I follow on twitter are engrossed in the wonderful things that twitter can offer. They have encouraged its use by others to a point that it is starting to have a backlash around the water cooler. I am not being critical as I do use it in edchats, have connected with some great educators, and have gained some followers that are probably reading this right now because of it. I think twitter can be a good thing. It has been a good thing for my professional development.

Twitter doesn't address the real problem though. The problem, as I see it, is that many teachers do not feel a need to better themselves using any method. There are many reasons. Time is the biggest. With grading papers, planning for the next day, calling parents, running a class, meetings, and initiatives it is hard to find time to devote to your learning. Some have done very well in the profession and feel they can ride out the rest of the ride, and some think they knew it all coming out of college.

Many of us do see the need to keep up. Before blogs, twitter, news feeds, and online publications, used to get peer reviewed journals in the snail mail. We know that education changes and that attending a conference once a year is not enough to know your profession. We wrote (and still write) articles to educational journals, do research in our classrooms, and share back to the profession. When I started, I knew very few in my building that did this kind of activity. This kind of intrinsic professional development was the realm of college professors, AEAs, and department of ed committees.

What we need to recognize is that that has changed. Giving back to the profession should be a regular part of the job. I write this blog as a way to do that. I recognize the importance of giving back to the profession and that is how we as a nation will get better. I feel like I am being a teacher in writing this and I make time even though it is precious.

Yes, twitter is an avenue to do this, a good avenue really. I use it regularly and I believe that. But it is not the only avenue. Mr. Couros's quote is not unique. Many more like it sail around the ether of RT-land spreading like the flu. What those kind of quotes do is divide our profession into followers and dissenters.

If we want real change in our teachers I feel we need to encourage them to grow using the exploration of whatever kind of media a person feels comfortable with. Zite, Flipboard, Google Reader, News Sites, the Dept of Ed Website, or online publications can do this in some ways better than twitter. I have been encouraging those around me to read these kind of things, to keep themselves current to what is going on, and to join in on the conversation. I have seen in the last decade, even in the last year, how much more accepting teachers are of new ways of learning for them and their students. I know we have a long way to go, but when I find myself reading blogs on educational policy instead of watching Netflix, it amazes me how far I have come. I look at all of the social media and news sources I read in a day and still realize that most of my opinions are made by talking to real people, face to face. We discuss issues, we probe problems, and refine our thinking in real time.

I worry about relationships in social media. We are not walking through this technological adolescence, we are running blindly. I dig you guys, I really do. I enjoy having followers on twitter and hearing from people who read this blog. I have no problem carrying on a dialog involving education, but I, and you have to know that that is not a conversation. It is not a conversation when you can script what you are going to say, edit and delete before you hit send. It is not a conversation when you are limited to 144 characters. I worry about our kids and how this will effect their relationships. Relationship dynamics are changing and I don't think anyone knows how that will effect us and our students. We can't forget those around us for those a half a continent away.

That being said, I am going to stop there and read a book with my daughter.


Monday, April 15, 2013

Is Content Dead?

In 2002, I sat in on a colloquium at my grad school where a professor was speaking about the power of the Internet. He spoke at long length about how we are teaching students the wrong things. He argued that information should no longer be taught in our schools. Any rote information, be it the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the number of Justices on the Supreme Court, or Newton's Laws of Motion, can always be looked up in a couple of seconds using the Internet. That was startling in 2002, but holds probably more validity now what I have the Internet in my pocket.

He argued that we should be teaching kids how to make better and better google searches and work on technology skills that will allow them to retrieve this information out of the ever-expanding mountain of data that is out there. He quoted statistics about how there are thousands of new papers published every day and that there was no way that anyone could keep up with the surging tide of knowledge that was flooding our world. Teach them how to get what they need when they need it, that was his philosophy. There was no need to actually know anything so long as you can have the information on hand when it was necessary.

I sat in silence in 2001 closing my eyes and hoping that his ideas would not pick up steam but fade into the black hole of educational reform agendas.

They did not.

I have read numerous blogs, several tweets, and sat through a few edchats to know that this loss of content knowledge is a real agenda on the minds of some educators. It has been over 10 years since this idea was proposed to me and my feelings on it have not changed. Let me spell out my reasoning.

Learning must occur in context. If put to the question, I would say that I am a constructivist in my educational philosophy. (If you do not know what constructivism is in education, you can always look it up. I am sure wikipedia has a great article on it.) I believe, as many educators and brain researchers do, that students learn by assimilating information to what they already know. In order to understand a concept, a person accesses some part of their brain where similar information is stored and links the new information to that.

In science, this is why identifying misconceptions is so important. If a student comes to us strongly believing in a misconception, it is imperative that that be drawn out before any new learning can take place. The experiences that we have had before coming to the classroom are just as valid to us as those we have in the learning environment.

I follow a learning cycle approach to teaching. I have chosen to stick with the simple 3-step model involving exploration, concept development, and finishing with application. This preliminary exploration phase is where I give the students a common experience for which we can draw new concepts from. In truth, I am asking them to access their preconceived schema and drawing out any misconceptions they have about the topic. This puts the learning in context with what they already have experienced, or in some cases fabricated an experience that the class can share in.

This is a missing piece in the "no rote learning" model. As an example. In 1999, I was offered a summer internship at the Mayo Clinic. I was to work in an orthopedic research lab studying cures for arthritis. Upon entering their lab, I ran across large research studies posted like movie posters on the wall. "Articular cartilage regeneration using periosteum" was not in my vocabulary. I understood two words in that title. It took me a while to gain the background knowledge, vocabulary, and skills needed to make a contribution to the lab. I was a smart guy, but this was completely out of my wheelhouse. I think over the summer, I may have done more harm than good in that place.

This is an extreme example. In all my schooling I was never introduced to these concepts and had to learn them from scratch. I was motivated to do so as I did not want to fail. I can only imagine what students would be like that had no rote knowledge to draw from.

There was a book published a while ago called Cultural Literacy- What Every American Needs to Know. In it, the authors outline basic knowledge that they believed American voters needed to know to contribute a contemporary society. They actually have a list of about 5000 words that should be in everyone's vocabulary. This goes to the other extreme, but I think there is some merit to the idea. In order for us to communicate, we need to speak the same language.

I was able to work at that orthopedic lab, as well as a particle physics research lab at the University of Iowa helping build the Compact Muon Solonoid in CERN, Switzerland due to the fact that I had a strong science background. I agree that students need skills in finding information, and that not everything can be taught in our schools, but a fundamental understanding of how the world works in necessary. Students need background information in order to learn new things.

Please comment and join in on the conversation. Where are you on the "content" spectrum?

Chris Like

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Science Teacher's Reading List

I thought I might give y'all some insight into what I have been reading that have changed my teaching. I have put together a short list here of some of the things that keep me busy when I am not putting time into writing this, planning that, grading those, or presenting whatever. Most of them are classics that are such a staple in our society, that you can draw examples from them and many of your students have heard of the book.

1. A Brief History of Time- Stephen Hawking

Even though it celebrated it's 10th anniversary about 15 years ago, this piece of literature is a must read for science teachers. Hawking writes this for the layman (under 200 pages), taking complicated mathematical astrophysics and simplifies so my mom can understand it. Hell, he only uses one number in the whole book (the speed of light). I have my students in my Astronomy II class read this as supplemental material for particle physics, Einstein's Theories of Relativity, and Black Holes. Much of this book is still applicable with new physics, but you may want to look up some new physics after chapter 8.

2. The Elegant Universe- Brian Greene
When you finish with Hawking, you may want to expand your knowledge to more current theories on string theory, M theory, or quantum tunneling. No one is better at this than Brian Greene. He is a string theorist, but try to not hold that against him. The beginning half of this book is wonderful. He uses real examples to teach us about dimensions, the speed of light and Einstein. I am not sure how much of the string theory stuff I buy into, but it is always good to see all of what is out there. He made a PBS special on this that you can watch online that is also great. I believe you can even use clips from it in your class. 

3. The Clockwork Universe- Edward Dolick

This is essentially a biography of Isaac Newton. I am a huge believer in the importance of the history of science. Scientific developments are subject to political pressure, society's whims, and funding. It was no different in the time of Newton, and it is no different now. I think you should definitely read a biography on Newton, Galileo, and Kepler if you are going to teach physics or astronomy. 

4. Cosmos- Carl Sagan
No one is better than Carl Sagan. He is somewhat of an icon in my astronomy classes. Even though this Cosmos series was shot in the 80's and has very poor effects as seen today, my students love it! Carl has a personality and a flare for drama that is unmatched in today's discovery channel specials. The series is on Netflix and is totally worth a look. This book is a must read for astronomy teachers. 

5. Surely You are Joking Mr. Feynman- Richard Feynman
Any book by Feynman is a gem. His books were ones that physics teachers anticipated like a 9th grade girl waited for a Twilight movie. He is funny, light, and brilliant. After you get a feel for Feynman with this one, check out his Lectures. 


1. Timeline- Michael Crichton
Anything by Mr. Crichton is great, but this one I really enjoyed. I am a big history buff as well. I heard at one time that the way in which he describes going back in time using quantum foam and such is theoretically possible, but you know how non-fiction is. This may be on my top 10 book list and has some interesting science in it. The movie is okay, but nothing compared to the book.

2. The Sum of All Fears- Tom Clancy
Tom Clancy writes terrorist handbooks. All of his books are amazing in their detailed descriptions of how the military functions. He describes the engineering behind a lot of military applications of what we talk about in our classes. His best book may be Rainbow Six, but this one describes how to create a nuclear bomb in intricate detail. Coming from the guy that crashed airplanes into the Capital Building a decade before Bin Laden, this guy knows the mind of the military and their enemies. I would suggest starting with Patriot Games and read the all. Ignore the movies. 

3. Science Fiction- Various Authors

I am going to cap this list off by encouraging you to read some science fiction. Although the science may be bad in these, the imagination that goes into the uses of simple scientific principles is noteworthy. I read these as they are classics that any fan of the genre are must reads. Most of these are a series of books that if you like the first one, you wont want to stop. 
  • Ender's Game- Orson Scott Card
  • Foudnation and I, Robot- Isaac Asimov
  • Battlefield Earth- L Ron Hubbard

Finally, as I have your attention, the best series I have ever read has nothing to do with science, but is amazing anyway. If you have not read George RR Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, you are missing out. It begins with A Game of Thrones and only gets better after that. HBO has picked it up and done a great job adapting it to screen. 

Please let me know what you are reading as I am always looking for something new. 


Friday, April 5, 2013

Why It Is Okay to Lie to Students... And When It Isn't!

For those of you who are not science teachers, hold on for this post may blow your mind. I am not sure how many of your realize this, but on some very real occasions, I purposefully lie to my students. I hedge the truth, I pander through partial truths, and sometimes outright omit the truth. I would like to tell you that I don't do this on purpose, but in most cases, that would be a lie in itself.

I want to discuss some science today. Stick with me through this and I may change your world, at least the one your high school science teacher told you existed.

Most recent lie:

Earlier this week I taught Bernoilli's Principle to my physics class. This is a very famous principle dealing with fast moving fluids in a closed system. It is the reason that we get lift using laminar flow over airplane wings, or how your carburetor works to draw fuel in your car engine.

 There is currently a heated debate on whether this can be used to explain why a curve ball moves, or my golf ball turns left after it leaves my club.

Technically these involve another principle that is very similar to Bernoilli (Magnus effect), but differing in that they do not require a closed system. The differences in the physics are so minor, that most teachers tell their students they are the same thing. I know they are different, but since we didn't really differentiate between what an open and closed system was (I didn't have time to add a second principle) I told my students a lie.

I am sorry for that, but it is by no means my biggest lie.

Most Blatant Lie:

Electricity is a difficult thing for students to understand. We simplify it down to moving charge through wires and components of a circuit. Students do lab activities with Christmas lights, measuring currents through resistors, and learn about switches and capacitors. I tell them that the lights in their house work under a similar principle as what they are learning in class. Blatant lie.

The lights in their house as with much of what is plugged in uses AC current instead of the DC that we are using in class. Students imagine electrons whipping through the lights, exciting gas molecules or heating tungsten to light their room. I mention briefly the difference between drift current and the electric field, but in the two weeks that I have devoted to electricity, I can't go into all that.

Most Outrageous Lie:

I save my best fallacies for chemistry class. We tell them that everything is made of atoms, and that atoms are made of protons and neutrons. The gross omission is that we stop there. Sure in my advanced class, I cover quarks and leptons and the force carriers, but a general chemistry student is simply not ready for that.

If that isn't bad enough, think about the lie we are spilling when we draw these particles on the board. 
This is nothing like what an atom looks like! First off, representing the particles as small spheres is a misrepresentation of what they truly are. What is an electron?.... Its a quantized amount of energy that has a charge of -1.6E-19 Coulombs. It has mass due to its interaction with the Higg's Field giving it a rest mass of 9.11E-34 kg, which changes as it moves. Does an electron have a volume? I have never seen that figure. We know it is localized, but to draw it as a small sphere is completely misleading. The nucleus is worse! It is drawn as a jumble of protons and neutrons, vibrating around each other. Technically is should be a soup of quarks waving in and around each other. Do quarks have a volume? Hard to tell.

Chemistry teachers know that electrons don't orbit like planets as they do in the previous picture. Electrons exist somewhere in orbitals (which for all we know are just mathematical probabilities) that surround the nucleus. In fact, they appear to exist everywhere at once. Why do we draw them as planetary orbits? Well there is a reason. That model explains spectroscopy very well. Students can visualize electrons jumping from one orbital to another. This was worked out a century ago by Neils Bohr. This was his model... 100 years ago! 

The scale of that picture of an atom is also completely off. Electrons have 1/2000th the mass of a proton, and the nucleus is WAY smaller than that. As a matter of fact, most of the volume of an atom is empty space. Try discussing the real scale of an atom with students. Since I am made of atoms, and atoms are basically empty space, does that mean that truly I am not here? If I am basically empty space, and the desk is empty space, why can I not pass my hand through the desk? What does it mean to feel something?

Objects are tangible because that empty space (electron orbits mostly) are filled with a few electrons. That makes them negatively charged. The negative empty space in the desk repels the empty space in my hand and thus I can not put my hand through it. In fact, the reason you can see your own hand is the interaction of photons from the lights with that empty space, exciting atoms until they release photons that you can see. 

Never lie when it sets up a misconception. 
Many would argue that any of the above lies would set up some misconceptions for a student's future understanding of these principles. Most of my hedging of the truth is due to the speed at which I have to cover material. I am very careful to mention many of the above aspects of nature at some point in the year so as to clue them in on what comes next, but many times it is cursory. 

We need to be very careful about setting up misconceptions in students. As the above conversation notes, I am not alien to this idea, but there are things that I have seen that concern me. Elementary text books need to be VERY closely scrutinized. I understand not telling a 3rd grader the whole truth about an atom (I don't even stress this to my high schoolers). What I can not overlook is when my son's textbook tells him that mass is anything that takes up space. This is setting up a harsh misconception between mass and volume. What compounds this is the fact that many elementary teachers are not confident enough in the science to know the differences. They rely on that book for their information and may not have the concept separated in their head. This may be a harsh example, but it happens more often than I ever imagined. 

What lies do you tell, or what have you seen?


Monday, April 1, 2013

Characteristics of Effective Teachers

We often hear about the characteristics of effective learning. Classrooms need to be student-centered, based on problem solving, etc. On a recent application I was filling out, I was asked to give the top 5 characteristics of a science teacher. It was an interesting question to ponder. I put fingers to keys and in about an hour, I came up with the following. After pouring out my ideas, I thought it would be interesting to pose the question to the rest of you. I see so many attributes in the excellent teachers that surround me, it was hard to narrow down my list to just 5.

Teachers wear many hats. They can be instructors, coaches, psychologists, friends, secretaries, administrators, referees, and parents, all before lunch. To perform these duties they need a set of core characteristics. The following is a list of some of what I believe are the most important attributes a teacher must possess.

Knowledgable: A science teacher must be confident in the material they are presenting to their students. Science, in its very nature, is content driven. The laws that govern the universe are the basis for every discipline in science. A science teacher needs to understand at a deep level, the intricacies of how these laws are weaved together, for it is our goal to pass these patterns on to our students. Aside content is the appreciation and knowledge of teaching pedagogy. I firmly believe that teaching is an art form, based on a teachers' fundamental methods of instructing. Although the students are not always privy to it, good teachers have a method to their madness. I use learning cycles, some use modelling, whiteboarding, etc. Regardless, good teaching centers on pedagogy.

Understanding: Relationships are fundamental to teaching. Teachers need to be more than friends to their students. They need to celebrate successes, be a shoulder to cry on, a confidant, a cheerleader, all while pushing students to achieve more than they knew they we capable of. Teachers need to understand that every student is different, have different histories, personalities, and future plans. Not every student will respond to a teacher's personality or style, but the teacher must be understanding and empathetic of each and every situation.

Diligent: Teaching is not for the weak willed. It is a demanding profession that requires hard work and patience. There are many parts of the job that can be mastered with a strong personality, but not all. Grading papers, planning curriculum, collaborating with colleagues, writing tests, aligning to ever changing standards, attending professional development meetings, and inservice days require teachers to be hardworking and diligent. These are not the most fun aspects of the profession, but they are at the core of the job.

Respected: I believe that this is the single most important characteristic of any teacher. If a teacher is respected by his/her students, they tend to rise to the expectations set in the curriculum. Discipline issues tend to be less if that respect is there, and any that arise can be dealt with without bringing in outside help. Respect is earned, not given or implied. Teachers need to devote effort to gaining and keeping their students' respect throughout the year. This can be done using numerous avenues. Developing a relationship of mutual with the student is key here. Students will respect the work the teacher is trying to do if in turn the teacher has a respect for the reasons the student is acting the way they do.

Adaptable: Whether it is a snow day that moves the test back, a senior meeting that had to be rescheduled during 4th period, or major alterations to the state's content standards, teachers have to be adaptable. Teachers make hundreds of decisions every day that can make or break a lesson they are teaching. They have to be able to think on their feet and alter their plans sometimes on a moments notice. They need to understand the big picture in curriculum and trust in their core pedagogy enough to alter lessons in stride. The evolution of the scientific world is accelerating as well. Teachers need to re-learn the new aspects of their discipline, whether it is the finding of the Higgs Boson, or the the mapping of the genome. They need to learn, and then adapt it to their classroom.

By no means are these the only attributes that make teachers great. This list is simply an overview of some of the characteristics I have seen in the great teachers around me.

Please let me know what else fits in here. What are your 5 characteristics of an effective teacher?


Thursday, March 28, 2013

21st Century Skills- A Missing Piece- Production!

If you have been following this blog, you probably know how big a fan I am of the learning cycle approach to science teaching. I run my classroom on a three step cycle beginning with an exploration activity, then the concept development, which is followed by an application of the content acquired.

I believe firmly that this model can and should be used in many teaching experiences. There is no reason why it should be less effective when teaching 21st Century Skills. I can tell you that when planning any learning cycle, the easiest part to breeze over is the application. The students already know the material, why spend more time making sure they can apply it? In truth, this is probably the most important step in retention of the concepts.

I am not saying that this is not being done in our classrooms with regards to 21st Century Skills. I believe it is. What hit me this morning in the shower (where I do my best thinking on Ed tech) was that we should be pushing higher end applications of these skills. Today's bright idea revolves around some examples that are currently not available in my building but I believe they should be. They are all favors of the same candy, simply presented in different wrappings.

1. Video Announcements- About 7 years ago, my building tried this. At that time, a class called TV tech produced a 5 minute video to be shown during announcements about once a month. That was almost a decade ago. Producing video has become so commonplace that there is no reason that students can not read the announcements every day on video. I envision a couple of students dressed well sitting across a formal desk delivering the announcements. Maybe once a week, they could do a sports story or cover the various clubs and activities out there. I have even thought about maybe allowing commercials when time allows that may provide some funds. (Interview a florist before homecoming talking about the best kind of corsage.) Our school newspaper is amazing in its production, why can we not do the same thing with video?

2. Video production- I would like to see a class where the students make a short movie. They work on a script, find some actors, locations, film, edit, and do post production. The software to do this is relatively cheap and easy to use. We have a lot of students who are doing this at home, or would like too. The school should support them with guidance and a venue to show off their work when they finish. How cool would it be to show these in our auditorium at on a night showing. Create posters, the whole deal. Our school plays are incredible, why can we not tap into those actor's ambitions with film.

3. Music production- I sat in an English teacher's classroom after school the other day when a student came in to play one of the teacher's guitars. This young man, who I knew from my astronomy class, picked up the three pounds of wood and string and pounded out two pieces of his own music. He belted lyrics that he and the teacher worked out together after school. I asked if he had ever recorded his music and he said he had some stuff at home. He also had a notebook of over a dozen other tunes that he was working on. We need to support this kind of ambition any way we can. I would like to see the school invest in basic studio equipment and make that available to students. How cool would it be to teach kids how to use a mixer, record tracks, and produce student made music. Last year I attended our talent show and was introduced to several students who were placing music on YouTube and even one who has a song on iTunes.

There are many more examples of the kind of thing that I am talking about here. We currently have a class called Planetarium productions that tries to fill the production void in our school. Students have 9 weeks to write a script, make the visuals, record the music and narration, and program the planetarium to produce a show. It is a great class that students really enjoy taking. In the end they have a show that we use in our planetarium for other classes. Unfortunately As this is not a science Elective, it is usually the first thing we cut from our curriculum when we are short staffed. Also, this is a school-centered class, where students work for a purpose set by us. In the previous examples, the school would be working for the student to produce their own work. I can't think of anything more engaging that that.

I believe these are the type of things that people want us to be doing. They are Quadrant D, engrossed in 21st century skills, centered on problem solving, require timetables, are high in rigor, and naturally engaging.

If your school has these programs already, great! Please let me know how it is going and some of the successes or tribulations you are having. If you have other applications of real production going on in your school, please post a comment to let us all know what is out there.