Snow Day… Can’t Stop Digital Learning Day

Today is Digital Learning Day sponsored by the Vermont Agency of Education; it’s also a snow day. Perhaps snowing on the parade of the masterminds working to promote technology in the 21st century classroom, but I say ‘Nay!’

The beautiful thing about technology is it connects teachers and students even when not in the same place. Even as I write this is at 6:50am (physically impossible to sleep in really),  I have already created a tutorial using an iPad app called ShowMe, the tutorial will to aid my students in completing a Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium homework assignment due tomorrow, since I won’t see them for questions today. Check it out:

But, since I won’t be able to document and share how technology would have been used as a learning tool in my classroom today; I figured I would share some of my favorite examples from earlier in the year:

1. Stop Motion Studio: A free iPad, iPhone app (as well as other smartphone and tablet versions I believe) that allows you to easily create stop motion productions by taking a series of images in the app, adjust the length of time for each image, as well as the ability to add voice over to narrate the images. Here’s an example from an AP Biology class teaching about G-Protein coupled receptors.


2. Puppet Pals: Free or paid versions, more tool options with paid version. This app lets students create a character (their puppet) that they can superimpose their face onto. Then as they manipulate and move around their puppet they can record the movements they are doing with the puppet while simultaneously narrating with a script.


3. iMovie: iMovie can be purchased both in desktop/laptop versions as well as on an iPad. Effects are slightly more limited on the iPad; however, video, images and audio can easily be imported from the camera roll and put into a well crafted video. This allows students to create a well crafted video product in a very short amount of time. Students in this example created a video of still shots of their earthquake project to share before doing a physical demonstration with their model. After their presentation, which they recorded, it was quick and easy for them to insert the recorded video of their model in action to support their video.


4. Garage Band: A fairly straight forward user interface allows for mixing tracks prerecorded with other devices or, recording directly from the tablet or computer being used. This allows for songs, vocal and instrumental to be recorded separately and then put together into on song. Using iPhones students recorded both vocals and acoustic guitar tracks on the voice memo option. These audio files were then emailed to a computer that edited to two tracks and aligned them to make the final songs. This song was then imported to iMovie serving as the music for the video the class made in parallel to the song, creating this final music video product:


The most important idea to remember when incorporating digital learning into the classroom is patience. Technology is an amazing tool, but their is certainly always going to be hiccups along the way. Be patient, be flexible and use our students as resources. They are great technology problem solves and should be part of the team as we work to blend technology and our classrooms. It is about their learning after all.

Even on a snow day, digital learning still can happen!

Don’t Stop Expressing.

When you think about AP classes most likely you are going to imagine the top academic students enrolled in fast paced, content driven courses. Taught similarly in depth, breadth, and pace as a college course because one of the end goals for many students is to do well on the AP test and earn college credit.

Admittedly I am slightly biased, but would suggest that AP Biology is one of the more difficult AP courses offered based on the level of information required by the curriculum, as well as student feedback at my school. Due to its level of difficulty and mass of content I’ve observed and experienced it instructed in highly lecture based manner. An effective method of giving facts and memorizing metabolic pathways, functions of organelles and other biological facts. For many AP students they thrive in an environment when they are told what the information is and then later have to spew it back in a glob of memorized facts. This is how they have grown up learning and their brains are quite successful at it.

However, a down side to this is that students often don’t develop the thinking or problems solving skills to apply these facts to an unknown situation, question or problem. So, when they are given a problem to solve they are unsure of, they surrender. Instead of being able to use their knowledge to show they know what it means and apply it often there is disconnect between the facts they have memorized and the big picture they apply to.

The college board has recently redesigned the AP Biology curriculum to be much more problems solving based, using the scientific method and biological knowledge to answer questions about the natural world. I appreciate this change and redirection of the curriculum, for the outcomes of the new model are much more important for students than the latter.

It is a continued effort to create question and problems that forces students to practice thinking. Quite often, meeting resistance and having to convince and coax students to keep working and not simple say “I don’t know” and give up. Perseverance is term I’ve recently begun to use often as a teacher, working to teach students perseverance because for many of them they haven’t had to learn that skill from a young age, but will certainly need it in the years to come.

Recently, I proposed to my AP class that for a midterm project the could take the information we have covered in our unit on genetics and turn it into a song and video. Now, this was an incredibly rewarding project 2.5 weeks later, but it surely was an exercise in perseverance. Many hurdles came up along the way. There were troubles writing just the right lyrics, many attempts with several varieties of technology to record vocals and instrumentals all with moderate success and lots of failed attempts (we ended up using iPhones), malfunctioning video equipment, but in the end every thing came together with a product everyone was proud of.

So, in the eyes of some, a less than tradition assessment for an AP class, but I am certain of several things: My students learned, they stuck with it and persevered, and they had fun while doing it.

I can’t think of better outcomes.

I’m back!

I recently realized its been about a year and a half since I last posted. Yikes.

Why you may ask? Last school year, 2012-2013, I started teaching AP Biology and ever since it’s been a whirlwind of fast paced, in-depth content on top of keeping up with the planning, grading, etc… of my other classes. So, needless to say I’ve spent the past year, well teaching. Oh, yeah, not to mention coaching cross-country and track while trying to have a bit of a life too…

I have had many great experiences and have grown as an educator and a person. This growth has occurred in many facets. First, developing my ability to teach a high level of content while holding a pace to be prepared for the AP test in May. Secondly, I have a better understanding of my content area, which allows me to break it down to its key points to; being more successfully reaching out and teaching all students. Finally, for this post, I feel more confident as an educational leader in my school.

I’m not saying the whirlwind is gone, not by far, but I am keeping my head slightly higher above the water. With this extra breathing room I plan to revitalize Is This Science? and continue to share my lessons learned, project and assessment ideas, and some of the fun and ever entertaining stories of being a high school Biology teacher. The ones that make you ask: is this science?

Let them struggle, so they can learn.

Let me begin by saying 100% believe that all students are different. Each and every student has a variety of strengths and weaknesses as unique as their genetic sequence.

As educators our job is to provide instruction in a variety of ways to play to our students strengths, while also improving upon their weaknesses. This is done in countless ways starting with differentiated instruction, accommodations determined necessary by IEP and 504 teams, or something as simple as spending a few extra minutes at the end of class double checking a student wrote down his/ her homework. Recognizing these differences and solving the puzzle of how to connect with, and help each student learn are crucial aspects of the educational process.

The most important part of learning is learning how to learn. Developing critical thinking, judgement, and problem solving skills only comes through practice. These types of skills do not come easy, and they certainly do not spontaneously develop. They are learned by struggling, getting frustrated, confused until you have your “ah ha!” moment.

A fear I have at times as I see students working with assistants or tutors as part of their accommodations is that they no longer are given the opportunity to surpass a roadblock and celebrate an ah ha. Instead they’ve been conditioned to give up when they get stuck and get the answer given to them “help”.

This is not our students’ fault, Pavlov would proud of what we’ve accomplished. When a paragraph of text isn’t understood, instead of rereading it a few times, practicing reading comprehension, students can easily find someone to tell them what they need to write, as long as they look frustrated or confused enough.(who’s been conditioned anyway?) Oftentimes, when a problem gets tough the towel is thrown and the battle to solve it is over; instead someone around can “help” me solve it.

The best successes are those that come from a hard fight. In the end students are more proud of an accomplishment they worked for than of anything that is simply handed to them, even if it was hard,

We need to rethink how we support students. Re-train the staff that provide the support. Student should be allowed to struggle, get frustrated with hard work. Our role should be to facilitate or prompt how to get over a hurdle. It should not be to carry them over the hurdle, or put them on a track without hurdle all together, for fear they won’t clear it.

A student who difficulty with reading comprehension will never develop those skills if she never has to grapple with informational text. If she is simply told what to write based on the ability of someone else to read and understand the text for her she will not grow.

This is a monumental system wide change, but equally in magnitude is its importance. The first step starts at home. My goal for next year is to help more directly model, for those assistants I work with, how to facilitate problem solving without solving the problem.

Testing, testing, and more testing.

As I looked at my school’s online calendar today I couldn’t resist snapping a screen shot:

It reminded me of a post I wrote last May on assessment overload and truly epitomizes how much testing our students are put through. Depending on a students given course load and grade he or she could be in for any combination of these tests, all for different reasons. AP tests the culmination of a rigorous year, college credit on the line; MAP testing to assess yearly progress in math and reading; and NECAP tests in science to assess achievement of the science standards.

Recognizing the importance of assessment I also wanted to bring recognition to the hard work, brain busting effort (hopefully) that our students get put through as the standardized test season begins. How then should that impact instruction? What should teachers do to help make this time easier?

Even as I write, I realize that my own frustration at students skipping my classes to go home after completing AP testing may be unjustly directed. It’s often necessary to stop for a minute to see a situation from the other side. What state would my brain be in after a 4 hour test? Perhaps an afternoon to rejuvenate and rest is just what they needed. Let’s all try to keep perspective.

Unofficial Twin Day

Teaching is all about building relationships. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. So, when you realize you own the same shirt as one of your students and it’s suggested to have a twin day… why not go for it. It certainly was a fun day in class.

And the teacher becomes the student…

Even though this was posed, one of us didn’t know where to be looking.

In case you were wondering; this did not help my case as a teacher looking so young. It’s probably a good thing I’m the only one in a tie most other days. But today, can you guess who’s who?

Man vs. Chicken 2.0

Last year about this time I wrote: Man vs. Chicken: A Battle in the Name of Science describing a laboratory investigation into the different types of fractures using chicken bones. As most teachers, from year-to-year I create new activities, get rid of the flops and tweak those that have been successful in the past. That’s just what I did with this investigation.

There were two major adjustments this year:

1.Instead of simply using cleaned, dried bones students used a combination of cleaned bones and wings with muscles (that’s the meat) and cartilage still intact. This allowed them to compare the differences between imitating fractures in both situations, and analyze which represents more true-to-life fracture events.

2. This is where the 2.0 comes in. In past years I have had student make sketches and observations based on the fractures they had created, and then answer discussion questions related bone structure and fractures. However, this year we went paperless. Most students carry with them a small computer in their pocket; smart phones complete with a video camera. So the assignment became filming their fracture events while narrating the process. There were 5 main idea they were to include in their video:

  • Describe how they will be fracturing the bone.
  • Predict what type of fracture they will produce.
  • Explain how this fracture may occur in real life.
  • Observe the fracture, describe and determine if their prediction was accurate.
  • Determine which bones best modeled accurate fractures, why?

These videos were then emailed to me, which I then compiled into a class video that was viewed as a class. Overall, the new tech version of the chicken bone lab was quite successful. Students seemed much more engaged and provided great narration and dialogue regarding the fractures that would not necessarily have occurred in the same fashion if they had been simply writing about what they had observed. Also, filming provided a role of cinematographer to students who were not interested in getting hands-on with the chicken bones. Finally, students love an opportunity they get to use their phones in class without having to sneak a text message from under the desk of a sweatshirt pocket.

Already looking to next year, I plan to delegate the video editing to students who are interested in creating videos. Here is the final video, enjoy.

Standardized Tests: Now ineffective assessments of teacher performance too…

Those of you who follow the thoughts I share on my blog consistently have undoubtedly discovered my disdain for standardized testing. In fact, I have an entire post titled “What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing” that outlines what I believe are the failings of the standardized test for New England, where I am a teacher.

One point I did not really discuss in that previous post is the subsequent use of standardized test scores as means of evaluating teacher performance. If a test can not adequately assess student learning how can we then take that data and try to draw conclusions regarding how successful teachers are as educators. Yet, this is exactly what is happening in some places.

Through a teacher I follow on twitter (@coolcatteacher) an article on this topic was brought to my attention. It outlines the persecution one teacher faced based on her region’s standardized test scores, and the true story of who this teacher really is. I would strongly urge you to read this: “The True Story of Pascale Mauclair” shared on Cool Cat Teacher blog (The rest will make much more sense if you read this first).

I would hope that anyone with any respect for educators, any understanding of the educational process, or experience in the field of education would be as outraged and disgusted by the treatment of this woman. She should be praised for her dedication to providing education to all students. Working tirelessly, I am sure, to provide instruction to these students who without her may not have another option for education.

My first reaction to this article is if we continue down this path of basing teacher performance on student test grades we are going to create conflict and animosity between teachers in schools. It’s a lot easier to teach students who are already engaged in your content, have stable home lives, and amazingly speak the same language as you. So, does this mean that all teachers with seniority will be able to teach these classes, while new teachers will be assigned students who do not fit all or any of these characteristics?

As a new teacher, 3.5 years in, part of my identity as a science teacher is that I believe all students deserve access to science. Understanding science is one of the greatest ways to enrich your life. By understanding the natural world around us we become a more active and inspired member of it. In my few years teaching I have become the general educator in science on a team with three special educators. We are creating a class to provide students access to science. Students who prior to the past few years did not receive true science instruction because they we in alternative programs because of their wide variety of learning impairments or development disabilities.

Our class isn’t perfect; however, it is a step in the right direction. We have provided these students with much more valuable science instruction  and  are always adjust and improving it. These students will be taking the NECAP when they are in 11th grade, or will complete an alternative portfolio if eligible. Should my performance be judged based on these students NECAP scores, A test not designed for them as learners? Would it have been better if they weren’t in a science class? Another teacher can deal with them… These are the thoughts, the problems that stem from forcing teachers to worry about how they will be judged based on ineffective standardized test. Tests not designed with the variety of learners in mind.

Personally, I’d rather give a student the chance to succeed than ignore them so I am not considered a failure.

Another problem I have with the use of this test score is that anyone with any kind of basic stats knowledge could tell you that when you have a sample size of say 11, like Ms. Mauclair’s ESL classroom, conclusions drawn from that data are going to be unreliable given there is too little data. Beyond sample size, the bigger picture is that these students were taking a test, most likely in english, most like written, having had only a few months to a year instruction in the ESL classroom. Again, a test not designed for the learners.

I’d like to see lawyers pass their Bar Exam, a doctor pass the MCAT, or a business graduate student the GRE in a foreign language they have been learning for 3 months. It’s just not reasonable and that expectation would never be forced on those people, so why would it be forced on recently immigrating 6th grade students… it shouldn’t.

Most of all, I am outraged and frustrated at the system the allows teachers to be unjustly persecuted and diminished as professionals by journalists in the media and politicians in office that have no understanding of educational system. They clearly take no time to learn about, nor care to even attempt to understand what is actually behind these standardized test numbers. If they did, this teacher, myself  and so many others would not be feeling so disrespected and unappreciated in our professional.

It’s shameful, and we need it too change. Our students depend on it.

Technology, a Tool for Instruction.

Seems like these days new technology arrives daily. Phones, laptops, tablets, you name it. I’ve never been one to buy the newest tech just because its new, and I’m sure most teachers will tell you their schools are not state of the art. In fact, until this year I’m pretty sure we were running briskly walking Office 2003.

Technology, in all of its facets, is not going away. So, as educators it has become an additional aspect of our profession to teach students how to use these new tools. For many schools, especially smaller ones like my own, there is not a full-time technologist or technology instructor. It comes down to those who dabble and explore technology simply because they have personal interest and motivation to learn for themselves. It takes these individuals, I’ll include myself  in this category, but also the appropriate tools to instruct with.

In order to teach students how to use technological tools it is quite important that you have access to these tools. In fact obviously its the only way to provide students with meaningful opportunities to development technical literacy that will benefit them in the future. However, the most important point I would like to make is as I stated earlier these are tools for instruction, and do not replace instruction. We need to know how we plan on using the new technology we plan to incorporate into our classrooms.

Unfortunately, with ever-changing technology and schools’ attempting to keep up I have noticed a common trend: School’s buy technology  and then try to figure out what to do with it. This is an ineffective use of funds, and a poor way to plan student learning. For instance, during a planning meeting between myself and a few special educators I co-teach with earlier this year some one said to me (to the gist of)  “Our department got half a dozen iPads, so what can you do with them?”

This, to me, is absurd. If we are going to spend hundreds of dollars on technology let’s know what were doing with it. How will we use that tech to teach students the skills to succeed in the age of technology? Or how will we use that tech to teach classroom content? These should be the first questions asked before any purchasing is done, or else you end up with teachers with really expensive note pads and calendars that maybe have some fun games too.

Yes, I can write about this and be frustrated all I want, like so many others, but I decided to put my money where my mouth is and joined my school’s technology committee. The goal of the committee is to develop a plan outlining the direction our school’s technology  use. Where will we be over the next few years and further into the future. This plan is to include both physical purchases of technology but also create, and then hopefully install, a technology curriculum that will be used in our school to guide how we employ this technology to make 21st century students.

It may not be possible for school’s to keep up with the technology race, but we should try to at least pace off of it so we don’t get left in the dust. Remember, technology is a tool for, not alternative to instruction.

Happy Birthday!

Today marks the 1st birthday of Is This Science?! What a great year it’s been. First and foremost I want to thank all of my faithful readers. Your responses and opinions truly mean a lot; providing inspiration to continue to write the next post.

It’s been a busy year with just under 5,500 views, due in part to being freshly pressed in April. I am pleased and amazed!  Knowing that my thoughts have been read by so many* far exceeds any expectations I had going into this endeavor a year ago.

*Don’t worry, I am a scientist, I realize those are not 5,500 individual people. I’m thankful for the repeat offenders.

To honor the 1 year anniversary of ITS? I’ve put together a collection of my personal favorite posts from 2011. Enjoy!

Bang!: The post that kicked off ITS? an introduction of me and my goals.

Man vs. Chicken: A Battle in the Name of Science: My reflection on a great activity I use in my Human Biology class, featured by WordPress, being freshly pressed.

We’re All People: A reminder to teachers to keep in mind our students are people too. And like all people, have lots of distractions, turmoil, chaos in their lives. So, let’s treat them accordingly.

What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing: The trouble with standardized testing, my take.

“Is that a clip on?” and Teaching: A Community Approach two examples of how I put a strong emphasis on building community in my classroom. Nothing says community like tie tying and grilled cheese.

Cheers to another great year! Stay tuned for what’s to come!