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: http://www.showme.com/sh/?h=JVCs1Ca.

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!

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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.

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.

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.

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!

My White Whale

Honestly, I’ve never read Moby Dick, nor do I know if this reference is accurate, but hey, I’m a science teacher I’m going with it.

As I get more and more marking periods under my belt, collecting data points along the way, I’ve been able to find some interesting trends. Earlier this week a new trend came to light as I looked back on the marking periods of my past years. Every semester I come across an assignment, an assignment that I need to grade, an assignment that always finds its way to the bottom of the pile, an assignment I put off grading just one more day.

These assignments are what I’m calling my white whale, also known as the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus (couldn’t resist throwing some Marine Biology in there.) The elusive assignments that just can’t get graded.

Last year there was a set of constructed responses, yesterday I finally got through a stack of lab reports. I’ll tell you it’s a good feeling finally getting through them all, but its been about a month since I first collected the assignment, and I have taken FAR too long  to grade them.

I can’t quite put my finger what it is about the assignments. Sometimes they are longer assignments; while during other marking periods it’s a short assignments. I bring them back and forth between home and school, planning to grade them, but grade other assignments instead. I look at them, I shift them around from one folder to another, shuffle and reorganize them, but darned if I can get myself to sit down and just grade them.

During this whole time, as I dance with these assignments, I find I grade other assignments faster, a way to put off grading the white whale. But once I get through the new assignments, my brain is burned out and I push them off to the next day. Honestly, it’s quite an elaborate game I play with theses assignments.

Luckily, I average returning assignments the next day or two, and within the week for larger assignments. So, my students are forgiving. But, it does prevent me from catching up with students who have not done the assignment yet, certainly a downside as I try to make sure students are caught up on their work.

Looking at it maybe I’m the white whale, trying to escape, as the assignment is Ahab looming over me not letting me forget he’s there, unable to escape no matter how elaborately I try to dance around it. Either way, I wonder what the assignment will be next marking period, maybe this time I won’t let any of the assignments get the best of me and break the trend.

Maybe I should read Moby Dick. (If I’m going to reference it after all)

My Top Picks for Science Fair 2012

            A standard part of the 10th grade Biology curriculum at my school is designing, conducting and presenting scientific research at the science fair. This serves as an excellent opportunity for students to work through the process of the scientific method thinking creatively and independently as they design their experiment.
          Since, for most students, this is their first inquiry based science fair project, versus building a model… like a volcano (classic), they are constantly supported throughout the process. Multiple instances of formative assessment as they first design their experimental question and hypothesis, continue on to the development and completion of the experimental procedure, and finally during the analysis and discussion of the result. They receive feedback and suggestions at each step, as well a guidance and deadlines to try to defeat the terrible foe: procrastination.
           As we start this process as a class I have put together some of my favorite experimental questions as posed by my 10th grade students. These are favorites because of the creativity, the topics, or it is based on something that significantly piqued my interested as well. The wording is their own after having adjusted it based on the original set of feedback I provided.
My science fair top picks for 2012:
  • Are green detergents actually less harmful to the environment?
  • Do weather conditions impact deer movement?
  • Does playing video games stimulate your brain in way to do math problem quicker?
  • Does the price of bottled water influence people’s decision on which water tastes better?
  • Does snacking prior to reading increase reading rate?
  • Which denomination of US Dollar bill has more bacteria on it?

With all students having created questions, the next step is determining, how will they test them? What will they learn? I’ll keep you posted.

The Things Students Remember…

One set of my classes just took a test on the different Biomes of the world. We covered 9 of them: Arctic, Tundra, Coniferous Forest, Deciduous Forest, Estuary, Savanna, Desert, Rainforest, and Coral Reefs.

A Deciduous Forest during October in Vermont

During this period of study students researched the defining characteristics (rainfall, average temperature, etc…) of their chosen biome. The next step was to examine the adaptions of organisms that are able to survive and live in those different regions of the planet.

We covered countless examples of different organisms with varying traits, and different evolutionary benefits from across all of these biomes. One of the questions on the test was to provide an example of an organism from the Desert, Savanna, and Tundra and then describe one adaptation that increases the survival rate of each of the organisms.

Of all the organisms we discussed, and had to choose from, I saw an overwhelming trend that students provided the same example organism and the same adaptations as their classmates. I collected the following data:

81% of my students described the cactus from the Desert

74% described the caribou from the Tundra

61% describe the zebra from the Savanna

(Sample size 54 students)

 As I graded these tests I wondered what made students remember these organisms? These adaptations? Why were so many answers so similar?

As I proctor quizzes and tests I wander through the aisles of desks answering questions and checking to see that directions are being followed accurately. I am pretty aware of what’s going on, it hasn’t been that long since I was in their seats. So, I have thrown out the idea of a vast conspiracy against me with an elaborate underground system of note passing and sharing answers via text message. (I hope)

So what are the other options?

My next thought is that many of these students have seen movies like “The Lion King” and are comfortable with recalling information related to zebras or other savanna organisms. I’d also guess when anyone thinks about the desert a cactus is one of the first things that comes to mind. Students have prior knowledge of these organisms, so they connect better with them, and can describe them more successfully.

On the other hand, I myself am fascinated with the cactus, and as a result got excited to talk about them. The fact that their roots can grow rapidly at the stimulus of moisture, and they create a flat network of roots close to the surface, like a flattened umbrella, (a simile I used in class) allowing rapid collection and then storage of up to 3,000 liters of water in their enlarged stems. Amazing.

Though its hard to actually show my excitement and awe at these organisms as I sit here typing, perhaps being a “scientist nerd geek”, as I was called by one of my students last week, is actually paying off. Perhaps my enthusiasm, though they might think its geeky, actually caught the interest of students, provided the right environment to remember, or just the memory of that time ‘dorky Mr. Reid got really excited about a cactus’. And so, voila when it came time to show what they knew they could remember my excited, nerdy ramblings.

I can’t be sure which explanation may have more influence over the outcome: my excitement during instruction, their prior knowledge, or even an option C. Whatever the reason it’s a win-win situation, learning occured.

Building connections to prior knowledge is such an important step in learning. Making the content applicable to the students, and what they already know, and have experienced is the keystone to developing long lasting knowledge and skills. On top of that how can I expect my students to be excited about Biology if I’m not. I can’t. So, I own my passion for science and accept great nick names that go along with it.

What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing

For those of you unfamiliar with NECAP testing, it is the New England Common Assessment Program. A standardized test that aims to assess student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science in Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine. It is scored on a scale of 1-4 based on proficiency at meeting grade level expectations. 4 being proficient with distinction, 3 being proficient, 2 is partially proficient and finally a 1 is substantially below proficient.

Being a science teacher I have only worked with, and experienced the NECAP Science test. So, the following is based on my experiences proctoring and analyzing data collected from the NECAP Science exam.

There are 4 main problems I have with the NECAP test:

1. The Breadth is too Wide

The exam is taken by 8th graders and again as 11th graders. This means that in 11th grade students are taking a science test based on 3 years of content. In my school the average student would have taken Physical and Earth science , Biology, and Chemistry in 9th, 10th and 11th grades, respectfully.

That’s a whole lot of science to expect students to remember, especially given that the questions do not focus on the big, over-arching ideas from those branches of science. Instead, they focus on  specific scientific factoids that you remember or your don’t. Basing student proficiency in science on 60 or so questions from 3 years of content is ludicrous, and unfair to our students.

From my own experience flipping through the exam last year there were several chemistry questions about reactions and chemical bonding that I’m not sure I would have answered correctly, even with extensive post-high school scientific study.

The test covers too much content and the focus is too specific. It’s like trying to understand the whole universe with one telescope.

2. Little Depth of Knowledge

As I previously mentioned the majority of the test focuses on the ability to recall a specific fact about a topic, with a huge library of possible scientific topics to choose from. This means that students who are good at recall and can pull out those facts, filed away long ago, will do great; however, students that are not as successful at remembering just where the equation for photosynthesis got stored in their brain 1.5 years ago will not be quite so successful.

Beyond this, the test does little to assess higher order thinking, like hypothesizing, designing experiments and conducting them, or and making judgements and evaluating the validity of that hypothesis. Processes from levels 5 and 6 of Bloom’s Taxonomy, creating and evaluating. Instead the test focuses on remembering, describing, and solving, levels 1-3.

This is frustrating because science is about using the scientific method, inquiry, to learn and solve problems. In my classroom especially, I put a strong focus into teaching students how to think scientifically. Learning how to develop a hypothesis and then design and conduct an experiment. From there we can then analyze the results of that experiment and make judgements on the validity of our hypothesis by drawing conclusions. All higher order thinking skills, levels 5 and 6 according to Bloom, and none are adequately assessed by NECAP.

I may not have remembered the answer to a NECAP question about chemistry, even as a science teacher, but I’ll tell you, I’ve learned the skills to find out the correct answer. Which skills are more important to have? Which skills are more important to assess in our students?

3. There is No Motivation

NECAP test scores have no impact on students’ ability to obtain course credit, graduate, go to college or get a job. There is no motivation. No reward for putting your best effort in and no punishment for making doodles all over the test instead of answering the questions.

So, how can we expect to get students best efforts and accurate results when we demand that they spend three days, taking 2-4 hours of standardized tests a day, without any way of showing them that we value their time and best effort because the nature of the test has no value in their life.

When you have parents telling students “not to worry about the tests”, “don’t work too hard”, they “don’t matter to you” (all things student have told me) then why would we expect a full effort. Yes, there are those students that are intrinsically motivated to excel at all things they are exposed; however, this in not all of our students. If we want to get a the best effort from students we have to motivate them to do so, just like any other aspect of life.

4. It is Standardized.

The problem I have will all standardized tests is that students don’t have standardized brains. I know that each and every one of my students comes from a different home life, school back ground, support system, even genetic make-up (I am a Biologist after all). So, they are not going to learn in a standardized way. As a result I don’t teach each student the same, I don’t interact with all students in the same way, and I especially don’t assess students’ learning in the same manner.

So, why then, if all students learn differently, would we base the progress of student learning and school performance on one type of assessment. We should not.

We need an alternative.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that schools and teachers should be held accountable for student learning; however, NECAP is not the right tool. For the reasons outlined above I believe NECAP does not present an adequate portrayal of student learning and does not present adequate evidence of the hard work, time, and dedication I know that I put into teaching my students every day, and assume my colleagues do as well.

Though, as a Vermonter and Red Sox fan, a piece of me dies saying this: perharps we should take a page out of New York’s book and look at their Regents Exams. From what I understand, they are standardized yearly exams that specifically test the  content of the course the student was enrolled in that year. For instance taking a Biology Regents Exam are you take Biology (brilliant!). The results of which are directly connected to achieving a regents diploma at graduation. Both narrowing the breadth of the exam and attaching student ownership to the results.

This still is not perfect though. It would still be a standardized test, and would most likely rely on assessing lower order thinking, testing primarily recall ability. Though it would take out a few strong variables. But do we really need all students to pass the same test? Does that test what they have actually learned and taken away from a class?

Perhaps the science fairs that so many schools put on should be connected to assessing student learning in science. Having a nationally or regionally standardize form for assessing students ability to develop, test, and evaluate hypotheses. This would allow for the assessment of recall and basic facts in the background information, while also assessing higher order thinking. This form of assessment would also be broad and open-ended enough that students with a variety of cognitive, motor and communication abilities could perform the task in a differentiated manner. I think I’m on to something! More on this later.

Whatever the tool is, we need to find a new one. A way to assess students and to judge the success of our schools other than a standardized test that sets all but a small window of students up for failure from the start. I don’t have the solution, but I’m working on it.