Sunday, October 13, 2013

So this is what it means to be a Reflective Teacher...

I've always considered myself a reflective teacher.  When planning my units, I'd incorporate new labs and activities, trying to continually improve my practice.  It wasn't until this year, however, that I truly understood what reflective teaching is.  You see, this year, I've sincerely bought into the philosophy that I want 100% of my students to understand 100% of the content of the class.  I'd been slowly inching toward this by allowing corrections and redos in my classes, but this year I'm all-in.  I am refusing to "move on" in class until every student masters the objective, which is really stretching my skills in asynchronous learning.  Lately, I've been fretting over how much time it's taking to make this happen in my classes.  We have been discussing the Carbon and Nitrogen Cycles for three weeks - argghhh!  But just this morning I realized that this isn't necessarily a bad thing - it's a natural product of making sure every student is learning.  So, I started listing in my mind all of the things that are happening in my professional life right now, and I realized that these challenges are mostly a by-product of becoming a more reflective teacher.  So, without further ado, this is my interpretation of what it means to be a reflective teacher, based on events in my life over the last four weeks:


  • Being 2 weeks behind in your curriculum compared to last year because (gasp!) your students this year are different than last year's students.
  • Stretching your creativity to the limit because you need to reteach a concept 3 times for students to "get" it, and why would you teach it the same way three times when they didn't understand the first way you taught it?
  • Being willing to admit that lesson idea did not work, and not being afraid to trash your "favorite" lessons.
  • Acknowledging that 90% correct still means 10% not understood.
  • Understanding that when students aren't learning, 99% of the time it's NOT because they don't want to learn.
  • Forgetting the excuse "They should have learned this last year."
  • Throwing pacing and "getting through the standards" out the window.
  • Using student feedback to set assignment due dates and test dates.
  • Evaluating student work almost every night, and correcting individual student assignments 3+ times.
  • Willingness to build the lesson as you go based on what the students need.  
  • Having a deep pool from which to draw ideas so that you can create responsive curriculum on the fly.
  • Being shocked to discover all that students truly don't know.
  • Refusing to move on when the whole class isn't ready.
  • Finding material to challenge all learners where they are.
  • Explaining to parents and principals why the class has been "stuck" on one topic for three weeks.
  • Refusing to be bound by grading periods.
  • Admitting your weaknesses to other teachers.
  • Constantly weeding out portions of lessons that don't target objectives.
  • Using more class time when a lesson runs long and not just assigning it as homework.
  • Probing deeply into student understanding.  Just because they can correct their mistakes doesn't mean they understand it.
  • Knowing that there will never a be moment when you've figured it all out. Student needs are always changing.

You see, before this year, I was adapting my curriculum to what I thought would help the students.  I'd make a plan based on past experience and execute the plan throughout a unit.  This year, I'm adapting the curriculum to what the students are telling me they need help with on a day to day basis.  I know where we need to go, but I'm reading my students' cues to better determine how we'll get there and how long it will take.  It is a daily struggle for me to let go of the mentality that I need to be at a particular point in the curriculum by a certain day.  We may not accomplish all the objectives that last year's class covered, but I need to be okay with that. 

"To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge."

Nicolaus Copernicus

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Using #AR to teach the Nitrogen Cycle

The Carbon and Nitrogen Cycle are two important pieces of the MN state standards in Biology.  I don't think I've approached it the same way in all the years I've been in the classroom.  I just haven't settled on a strategy for teaching the cycles that I feel really helps the students understand the complexity and implications they hold. So this year, I decided to Aurasma-fy the nitrogen cycle.  This is just a piece of their learning cycle, however.  Before getting to the AR, here's the sequence of content:

  • Students brought in soil samples from various places near their homes, and tested them for nitrate using Vernier sensors.  
  • The class used mini-iPads with the Aurasma app to participate in a virtual scavenger hunt as an introduction to the Nitrogen Cycle.  (More about this below.)
  • Students watched a content video at home that initiated a connection between their lab data and the scavenger hunt, then finished the lab conclusion in class.
  • Next week, the class will set up "bottle ecosystems" to observe over 20 days.  Students describe how the carbon and nitrogen cycles are evident in the bottles via a report.
I started creating the scavenger hunt by writing out all the parts of the nitrogen cycle I wanted to cover, and divided them into nine separate steps.  I intentionally kept the steps short and simple as this was the students' first introduction to the cycle.  Next, for each of the steps I decided where I would place the clues.  I knew I wanted to run the hunt outside because then the students would be less distracting to other classes in the building.  Once I knew where the clues would be, I wrote a rhyme for each step that would lead students through the hunt.  I recorded the clues on Explain Everything and uploaded them to You Tube - these videos were the overlays for the Auras.

As the triggers, I originally thought I'd use the numbers on my signs.  When I loaded them into Aurasma, it told me they weren't distinct enough, so I had to find some pictures online that would work as triggers.  I ended up taping the pictures on the numbered signs for the students to trigger the auras.  The pictures related to the clues.  For example, in the photo below, the trigger is a picture of soybeans.

I put the students into partner groups and started each group at a different clue so that they wouldn't overlap as much.  At each clue, one student activated the aura while the other recorded the Nitrogen Cycle step in his/her notebook.  We have 50-minute class periods, and most students were able to get through all of the steps in that time.

A couple of challenges I had with the lesson:

1. Trying to find triggers that were distinct enough for Aurasma.  I knew the numbers wouldn't work, but I learned the morning that students were supposed to use the app that the first pictures I chose weren't working either.  I had to scramble at the last minute to find some replacements and redo the auras.

2. I have three sections of Biology that used the scavenger hunt, so I left the signs up outside all day.  By the time my last class of the day did the hunt, the wind had picked up and blew clue #6 away!  Next year, I'll make sure to use plenty of duct tape.  

Besides these two hiccups, however, the lesson was a success.  The students were engaged and excited to find the clues.  The diagrams that they ended up creating in their notebooks showed that they were beginning to understand the nitrogen cycle.  One student even commented, "That was a really cool app!"  Coming from a high school student, that's a glowing endorsement!

Students checking out a clue by the school sign.
*If you'd like to check out the auras I used for the hunt, my Aurasma channel is MeyerScience.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A #flipclass Photo Gallery

Here is a "technical" description of the classroom in which I teach on a daily basis:
  • The subjects that I teach are Biology, Chemistry, and College Biology.  
  • I deliver content via video outside of the classroom, aka "Flipped Learning."
  • I use inquiry approaches and Explore/Flip/Apply to direct the sequence of the content.  
  • The classroom is blended with the use of a class website on Schoology.  
  • Students use Google Docs for collaboration and submission of assignments.   
  • And so on...
I could continue to list the methods and tools I use in the classroom, but these descriptions will never truly represent how my students are learning.  The following photos, however, give a bit more accurate depiction of the daily ins and outs of their classes.

Biology students assessing biodiversity near our local river ecosystem.

Using their smart phones, students took pictures of plants and animals they found in the ecosystem, uploaded them to our Schoology class, and then used them in further discussions about food chains.

Designing food webs.

After food webs were completed, students discussed implications of disruptions in the food web.

Biology students used Socrative to participate in peer instruction.
Students answered questions on their own first, then worked with a partner to evaluate their answers, and finally resubmitted answers.

College Biology students working on a simulation of carrying capacities and their relationship to r and K strategies in populations.  Starbursts were used to represent resources which multiplied through many generations of population growth.

Biology students analyzing the results of the photosynthesis and cellular respiration inquiry investigation.

This lab sets the stage for photosynthesis and cellular respiration discussions.

Chemistry students used Aurasma auras to learn about chemistry equipment and safety in the lab.

The videos made by this year's students will be used in auras for next year's students.
College Biology students tested river water for dissolved oxygen and nitrate levels.
This was the first time we actually hauled all of the Vernier probes down to the river to do the testing on site. 

There are days when I doubt what I'm doing in the classroom, when I wonder how the students will ever learn everything our state standards require of them.  But when I look over these photos, I see the conversations students are having with each other, the questions they are asking, the teaching they are doing, and the problem-solving in which they are engaged.  These are the skills that will serve students for success in life.  The cliche, "A picture is worth a thousand words" is begging to be referenced here.  In education, we tend to throw around labels with reckless abandon, but when it gets right down to what our students are doing on a day to day basis, these pictures pretty much say it all.

Connected Educators Month

Why is it that I always get inspired in the morning while I'm eating my breakfast and in a rush to get out the door?  It happened again this morning.  I've been mulling around this idea of talking to my colleagues about how much I have learned and gained by being on Twitter.  I wasn't sure what the right format for this would be, however.  I didn't want to come across as being "preachy."  This morning, while eating my yogurt and scrolling through my Twitter feed, I remembered that October is Connected Educators Month.  What a perfect opportunity to bring up Twitter with the other teachers in my building.  So I found an article about teachers using Twitter that I had stashed in Evernote a month back, and decided to send it out to my colleagues.  Then I figured I had better write a little explanation of the article.  So, what started out as simply sending out a link via e-mail evolved into my "Twitter Manifesto."  Well, not really, but it did take up enough of my time this morning that I was definitely scrambling to make it to our 7:25 staff meeting on time.  What follows is my impromptu morning message:

Happy October!

Besides being the month in which the 1/2-year deluge of candy in our house begins (Halloween, Christmas, Valentines, get the idea), October is also "Connected Educators" month.

There are a variety of ways we are connected as educators, but I want to take a moment to share the amazing difference Twitter (yes, it can be used for more than spreading horrible rumors) has made in my connections with teachers.

A couple of years ago, [another teacher] mentioned that she was able to get a lot of great classroom ideas by being on Twitter. So I set up an account and gave it a try. I didn't have much success. I decided to use it as a way to pass class information on to students. That didn't work very well either. So, I set my Twitter account on the shelf for about a year.

Then, this summer, I took an online class in which I was able to find teachers to follow on Twitter who were interested in the same educational topics I was. I also discovered weekly Twitter chats, during which teachers communicate via Twitter for hour-long conversations about educational topics that change every week. Having real-time conversations with other teachers around the country and around the world has had a profound impact on how and what I teach in my classroom this year.

Let me give just two examples. First, Twitter has been great for spurring my creative juices. A lot of the technology that I've picked up and using this year, such as Google forms, gClass folders, and Aurasma were first introduced to me through Twitter. Secondly, Twitter is a great way to get education-related questions answered. I was trying to figure out the best way to get captions on the videos [my co-teacher] was making for our Chemistry classes. I posted the question on Twitter, and within minutes I had an answer from a fellow teacher in Pennsylvania who had just been talking about that same question in PD that morning.

If you're at all interested in starting a Twitter account and creating your own Professional Learning Community, check out the article below (by the way, I found it on Twitter!). It's a great place to start. Of course, I'd be happy to answer any questions you have as well.