Saturday, December 6, 2014

Driving Questions, Part 2

In the last post I explained that I've started incorporating driving questions into Biology class. I use these driving questions to capture student interest, scaffold the progression of learning, and assess the students throughout the unit. This is my first foray into organizing class in this way, so by no means are these posts prescriptive. In fact, I hope they generate feedback about the aspects of this method are solid and those that need improvement.

With that in mind, I offer up the next topic the students investigated as a part of Ecology: Energy Transfer.

I started this unit by showing a clip from the TV reality show "Survivor."

In this video, the survivors have just won some chickens (and chicken feed) as a reward. Because of their hunger, they start to fantasize about how they'd like to cook the chicken.

After students watched the video, I had them privately answer the following question, which was essentially the driving question for the unit:

The Survivors in this video were very excited to cook their chickens!  If you were on this episode, what would you suggest to your fellow castaways?  Indicate your thoughts by choosing one of the options below:

1. Kill the chickens as soon as possible and eat them.  Then eat the chicken feed.
2. Feed the chickens for a while and then eat them.  Eat the left-over chicken feed.
3. Feed the chickens for a while and eat their eggs.  Eat the chickens and feed later.
4. Feed the chickens and eat their eggs until the feed runs out.

The next day in class, student participated in a whole-class, active simulation which is designed to help them understand that the amount of energy available at each trophic level is lower than the level before it. Here's a brief overview of what happens during the simulation:

  • Some students are the "sun." They continuously wander the room and hand out 10 calorie "packets" of energy (10 lima beans) to groups of students who are producers.
  • Producers have 5 cups that represent things their energy might be used for, such as respiration, reproduction, and growth. The 10 beans are distributed amongst the 5 cups according to guidelines. Some cups get more energy than others. 
  • When the producers' growth cup has 10 beans in it, they get "eaten," meaning they take their energy to one of the primary consumer groups. This group also has cups and divides out the calories according to pre-set conditions. 
  • When the primary consumers' growth cup has 10 beans in it, they get eaten and therefore take their energy to the secondary consumers.
  • Consumers continually receive energy from the producers, even though they are occasionally eaten. In the same way, the producers continually receive energy from the sun. All groups keep track of how many times they are "eaten."
  • Transfer of energy continues until I feel like they have enough data. The class then averages the data for all similar groups.
When the data is averaged, it's clear that the amount of energy decreases with each successive trophic level. This is because the organisms are using some of their energy, or it's escaping as heat. I don't "tell" the students this however. Instead, I ask them to analyze the class data and design a model that describes changes in energy through a food chain. Here are some samples of their work:

I was ecstatic when I saw this last model because even though the students hadn't yet learned about energy pyramids, they ended up creating an (upside-down) energy pyramid based on the data. The understanding came from their own experience, rather than what I or their textbook told them.

Now that students had some in-class experiences around the content, and were hopefully generating questions in their minds about that content, they were primed for application. They learned about energy pyramids, the "rule of 10%" in energy transfer, and worked on mathematical applications of the rule. After the application phase, I ended the unit by proposing the "Survivor" question to the class one more time. This time, students chose their answer and went to a corner of the room based on which answer they chose. Once in the corners with like-minded classmates, they worked to produce an evidence-based argument to support their answer. Finally each group presented its argument and we wrapped up the topic with a whole-class discussion around the arguments.

Even though Answer 1 is the preferable choice based on energy transfer, other answers could be argued as well. So what I really like about this question is not that many students end up with the "right" answer, but that they have some good discussion of their thoughts while trying to reach a consensus on the "right" answer.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Driving Questions

In a year that has seen many changes in my classroom, one of the most influential has been the incorporation of driving questions. Driving questions set the stage for the learning that will take place in the next day, week, or month. They are the initiator of curiosity, the thread that connects the learning, and the basis of assessment.

While taking classes to earn my teaching degree, many of my professors spoke of starting a lesson with a "hook." I want to emphasize that a driving question is not a lesson hook. While a driving question is used to initially engage students in learning, much like a lesson hook, it's role in learning is much more deeply embedded in the entire process.

At the urging of Tricia Shelton (@tdishelton), whose expertise clarified the value of a driving question for me, I'd like to focus on some sample driving questions I've used in my Biology classes and commonalities each of the those questions share, in hopes at arriving at a set of criteria that are important for creating a successful driving question. I will write a separate post on each driving question and then tie those reflections together with one final post on Driving Question Criteria.

The Minnesota science standards are heavy on Ecology, and that is the topic with which my Biology students spend much of Semester 1 grappling. Therefore, my three sample driving questions are all within the content of Ecology: Nutrient Cycles, Energy Transfer, and Population Growth.

Nutrient Cycles
How do we make the Carbon and Nitrogen Cycles interesting, relevant, and engaging for high school students? This is a question I've been playing around with for many years. For some reason, it is one of the most challenging concepts for students to master, and it's not as "personal" as other topics like genetics or immunity. For me, it's not so important that students can replicate the Carbon and Nitrogen Cycles word for word and arrow for arrow, but that they understand how the cycles can be disrupted and the consequences therein. However, to understand the disruptions, they have to understand the "default settings" of the cycles.

In developing driving questions for investigation of the cycles, I asked myself, "What are the real-world implications of the cycle?" and, "In what way do these implications affect students directly?" For the Carbon Cycle, the unavoidable implication is climate change. For the Nitrogen Cycle, the implication I chose as the focus of the driving question was eutrophication.

Carbon Cycle Driving Question: Is climate change natural, or caused by humans?

Before diving into the Carbon Cycle, I presented the following graph to the students:

I asked each student to independently record any observational statements or questions they could generate based on what they saw in the graph. From there, the students read this article (link) from USA Today that had recently been published. After reading the article in teams and discussing its meaning, each student responded to this prompt: What do you already know about climate change? Here are some student responses:
  • Over time the land and ocean temperature is rising. This will cause sea level to rise.
  • The world is getting warmer because of the earths tilt towards the sun. Another part of it is the pollution but neither is the full reason of it.
  • Humans are making climate change worse. The climate is getting hotter.
  • Human activity highly impacts the environment, thus drastically changing the climate. Climate change is also a natural occurrence. Earth has a cold stage and a warm stage, so humans may not be the primary cause of the climate change.
  • The world is getting warmer, causing more damaging storms and hurricanes/typhoons. Global warming causes the summers to be hotter and the winter to be colder.
  • The world is heating up and animals that live in the cold are slowly going extinct. Humans can help cool the Earth down and save the animals.

As you can see, their ideas were all over the place. So the next step was to dive into the content. The main source of "content" in my classes is through investigations, simulations, and other activity-based learning scenarios. So students learned about the use and production of CO2 by participating in a student-designed inquiry investigation using bromothymol blue, snails, and elodea. They experienced the Carbon Cycle by exploring an online "game" (link here) and worked through a POGIL.  After each activity, students were prompted to tie their learning back to the driving question and evaluate their changing understanding. When I felt students had a good handle on the content, it was time for a formative assessment of the driving question. Here is how I designed the assessment...

For the driving question above (Is climate change natural, or caused by humans?), state the following: 
  • Claim: Your answer to the question.
  • Evidence: Information from three different class activities that supports your claim.
  • Reasoning: Your explanation of why/how the evidence supports the claim.

By framing the assessment in this way, I wasn't asking the students to simply regurgitate facts. Instead, they needed to use their newly-acquired information to take a stand. Their experiences in the classroom became their evidence and their application of what they had learned became their reasoning. A sample of a student's claim:

My claim is I believe climate change is caused by humans. My evidence is that in our carbon cycle model I learned that carbon enters our atmosphere through respiration, and we humans go through the respiration process. Another piece is in our video we watched I learned fossil fuels produce carbon in the atmosphere through the process of combustion, and humans burn the fossil fuels through everyday activities, like blow drying hair and driving cars, creating more carbon. My last piece of evidence is through our carbon cycle model I learned that plants go through photosynthesis to take in carbon from our atmosphere, and humans are cutting down and destroying plants to develop cities for our growing population.

This was the first assessment of this type that students completed in Biology class. And although not all of the final work was spectacular - or even scientifically accurate - I was confident I was headed in the right direction in asking students to apply their knowledge to the driving question. Next year, I'll include more primary sources about climate change in particular, and not just the Carbon Cycle, but it was a good start.

Nitrogen Cycle Driving Question: Why did so many fish die last spring in Beaver Lake, MN?

For the Nitrogen Cycle, I wanted to focus on a driving question that was a "closer to home" for my students. Minnesota is known for its many lakes, and most of my students have an attachment to a particular lake. Perhaps they fish on it in the summer or icefish in the winter. Maybe they like to go tubing or water skiing. Minnesotans spend a lot of time on the water in general, and you don't have to drive very far to find a lake. This also means that every Minnesotan has seen a lake at its worst in August, with the color and consistency of pea soup and a horrible stench. Eutrophication is a by-product of the Nitrogen Cycle most of my students are aware of, even if they don't know what it's called or why it happens. 

To start the Nitrogen Cycle, I showed students a news report about a massive fish die-off in a Minnesota lake last spring.

I challenged the students to discuss in their teams why they thought the die-off occurred, and then the teams shared to the class. I recorded their ideas on our class whiteboard. Notice how all of the ideas were related to our extra cold and snowy winter last year.
Next, onto the content. Students collected soil samples from locations of their choice (river banks, sweet corn fields, soybean fields, gardens, lawns, a golf course) and then tested the amount of nitrate in the soil using Vernier probes. They completed a POGIL about the Nitrogen Cycle. They watched a video on eutrophication. After all of these experiences, I once again assessed the students on their understanding of the Nitrogen Cycle based upon the mystery presented in the driving question. 

Claim: Answer the question: Why did so many fish die last spring in Beaver Lake, MN?
Evidence: Support your argument with specific examples from both videos. (I was referring to the news report and the eutrophication video here.)
Reasoning: Explain the science behind your argument with in-class artifacts from the Carbon Cycle and Nitrogen Cycle.
Notice that although this assessment still had the Claim/Evidence/Reasoning format as the Carbon Cycle assessment, what I asked the students to do here was a little different. The evidence they provided was from the videos, and the reasoning was based on in-class artifacts. Also, I not only required that students demonstrate connections to the Nitrogen Cycle in their explanations, but I was also looking for connections to the Carbon Cycle. Just because a topic is "covered" in class doesn't mean it won't appear again in the future. This is a great way to emphasize the inter-relatedness of Biology topics with students. Here is a sample student response: (By the way, I gave the students the choice of completing this CER as a written response, on Educreations, or via audio recording.)

My claim is that so many fish died because there wasn't enough oxygen in the water. My 
evidence from the eutrophication video is the algae was eating everything in the water, 
reproducing so much that the sunlight couldn't reach the plants below. Because of this, no 
oxygen was released under the water and the bacteria used it all. When the nutrients got in the 
water, the algae ate it. They used cellular respiration to reproduce. As more reproduced, they 
used photosynthesis to all become more green. With the algae eating all the nutrients, nothing 
else under the water had enough nutrients to eat and grow. After they produced and used 
photosynthesis, there becomes a thick layer on the top. The sunlight only hits the algae on the 
top and the use respiration again to reproduce. All non bacteria life under the surface doesn't 
have enough oxygen to live. This probably didn't happen in the winter where there was a thick 
layer on the top. With the ice, it is hard for the sunlight to reach the bottom. There could have 
been a little bit of algae because of the decomposition of the plants before the lave froze over. 
With no sun getting to the plants because of the algae and ice, the plants died and 
decomposed, causing more algae. In this situation, the used cellular respiration to reproduce. 
After there was so much algae, the plants and fish didn't have any food, causing them to die off. 
The smell came from all the dead fish decomposing, letting ammonia and nitrate out that the 
had trapped in them.

As in any classroom, the quality of student responses was variable, however I feel that all students are held to a higher standard by using this type of assessment. Without a well-formed, applicable driving question, an assessment that requires this advanced thinking and rationale from students would not be possible. 

In my next post, I'll write more about a sample driving question for the topic of Energy Transfer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Have Some Challenging Students? Thank Them.

For the second year in a row, students in all of my classes recently wrote thank you notes to members of the school community. I printed out small papers with the following prompts:

Dear _____________

I am thankful for you because....


I encourage the students to complete at least one thank you to anyone they choose at the school; this includes K-12 teachers, administrators, custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, and paraprofessionals. I have never had a student refuse to participate in this activity, and many students decide to write more than one thank you. On the morning before Thanksgiving break, I deliver the notes to the staff members, typically to their district mailboxes.

As I was thinking about this activity over the weekend, I started pondering: Do students ever get a thank you for the unique qualities and talents they bring to their classes and learning communities? Probably not. If I was asking them to write their thanks to a staff member, maybe I should do the same for them.

Two things were in my favor for making this idea a reality. First, I have the ability to send individual messages to all of my students via Schoology, our district-wide LMS. Secondly, since I'm only teaching students part-time this year (my other position as a District Technology Integrationist takes up the rest of my time), I only have about 75 total students in all of my classes.

So yesterday afternoon, I sat down at my computer and started writing individual thank-you's to each of my students. It was hard to get going at first because I wanted to make each one personalized and specific to that student's qualities. However, I eventually got into the "zone" and finished them within a little over two hours.

After completing my final note, I sat back and realized how happy I felt. For every one of my students, even those that challenge me on a regular basis, I was able to come up with one or more positive attributes he or she brings to the classroom. I realized that some of my students are really great leaders, some are patient and thoughtful teachers of their peers, and others have an infectious sense of humor that sets the whole class at ease. I even was able to appreciate those students who ask, "Why is this important?" and, "Can't we do this a different way?" on a daily basis. Those are the students who constantly push me to be a better teacher and to reflect on how students are learning. Writing the notes forced me to take the time to think of my students as an individual, and not just a part of a class, for a few precious minutes.

Besides the insight into my students that this exercise surprisingly evoked, I also received many grateful replies from the students after they read their messages.

So whether it's Thanksgiving or the middle of March, if you're feeling overwhelmed by your most challenging students and it seems like nothing is working in your classes, consider writing thank you notes to your students. Not only is it a powerful mental exercise to find the good in all of your students, but it may just be that one connection that makes a difference in a day, a year, or a life of a child.

Photo "Thank You" by Katharina Friederike from Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Standing Back

The majority of students in my Anatomy class are Seniors, and I've noticed that their motivation and patience has already started to wane, even though it's only halfway through the second quarter. Yesterday students completed a POGIL on sarcomere contraction (the functional unit of a muscle cell) and worked through the basics of the process. I could tell that it was challenging for them and a little frustrating. So today when they got to work on a structural and functional model for the sarcomere, tensions were already high.

All the groups were stumped or hit road blocks at one point, but there was one group in particular that had me concerned. I could hear their voices getting louder as they debated how to build their model. They struggled to solve the issue of making the sarcomere contract, and once they did come up with a solution, some members of the group felt it was too challenging of a solution, while the rest wanted to try it out. I encouraged them to keep moving forward, and they did, but with lots of complaints.

At the end of the period, all of the other groups had finished their model except for this one in particular. I told them they would have time to work tomorrow, but two students decided they'd rather stay and finish. They spent over 20 minutes of their study hall time finishing up their model. While they worked and I listened to their conversation, I could hear their mood lightening and the optimism returning. Maybe the model would work!

When they finished, they insisted that I come over to see how their model worked. They told me repeatedly, "You need to show this to all your classes!" Since we often share video products with another Anatomy class in Kentucky, they asked, "Are we making a video of this?" I told them yes, and they immediately asked, "Are we sharing it with the Kentucky class?" I said "yes" once again, and they actually cheered.

I learned something from my students today. I was reminded of how important it is to allow students to struggle. My first instinct is to step in when I sense confusion or frustration, especially within teams. However, had I attempted to make things easier for this group today, the sense of accomplishment and excitement that they experienced by the end of the class would have never happened. At one point while they were still in the weeds, the group called me over and asked if they should just drop their idea and try something easier. I encouraged them to see their more challenging design through to the end, and because they stuck with the challenge their accomplishment was all the sweeter.

While the traditional image of a teacher's place is at the front of the classroom, directing the show, I find myself "standing back" more and more to watch and probe as students grapple with tough questions and deeper learning.

The final model. It was all those little strings needing to be tied that almost put the group over the edge!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cross-Country Science Collaboration, Part 2

In the previous post, I described the nuts and bolts of a collaborative unit between the Anatomy classes of Trish Shelton (@tdishelton) and myself. In this post, I'd like to delve deeper into the pedagogies that truly made this unit unique. I need to preface this by saying that the majority of the innovation was driven by Trish's expertise in NGSS, and much of the time I was simply soaking up the "sciencey-goodness."

I've attempted to break up the pedagogies into four major themes that have had profound impacts on how my students experience science learning.

1. Student Questions
We started the unit with a video about water intoxication that was intended to introduce the driving question. However, immediately after showing the video, we solicited student questions. We emphasized to the students that these questions would help to determine the direction of the unit, and they did. The students were also given multiple opportunities to revisit their initial questions and consider new questions they were forming as they learned more content. We checked back on previous questions to make sure they were making progress on those, and researched new questions. All of this research was eventually used in the final Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) discussion addressing the driving question.

Here is an example of a question prompt in the middle of the unit, intended to help students reflect on prior questions and consider new questions:
  • We are wondering about _____ because _______.
  • We think that if  we knew _____, it would help us to explain _______.
A student response:
"We were wondering about why the liquids didn't flush out of his system because we now know that that should have happened through filtration of the kidney. We think that if we knew his kidney failed, it would help us to explain why he died."

2. Content via Processes
Although students learned specific content throughout the unit, this wasn't the focus of the assessments. Three main science processes were stressed throughout the unit, again based on previous work Trish had done in this area: Argumentation & Explanation, Evaluating Models, and Constructing Models. Based on rubrics that Trish initially built, here is an example of the guides I designed for assessing student work (I incorporated suggestions on making single-point rubrics based on this blog post):

Argumentation & Explanation

Areas that need work.
Standards for this performance.
Evidence of exceeding standards.

Claim is clearly stated.

Multiple pieces of evidence are present.

Evidence supports the claim.

Scientific ideas are used as reasoning to relate the evidence to the claim.

Evaluating Models

Areas that need work.
Standards for this performance.
Evidence of exceeding standards.

Identify the model target (purpose) and the core scientific principle or idea represented by the model.

Describe how the model addresses the target with evidence from the model.

Base the evidence on an analogy between the target and the model related to structure, function, or both.

Identify the limitations of the model.

Identify the merits of the model.

Constructing Models

Areas that need work.
Standards for this performance.
Evidence of exceeding standards.

Identify the purpose of the model (predict, explain, test a process, generate data).

Assess if the model reliably achieves its purpose. Provide evidence.

Compare the model with alternate models. Evaluate merits and limitations of each model.

Identify model revisions that were applied and the rationale for those revisions.

All of the student work was evaluated based on one of the three rubrics. Other than identifying anatomical structures during the kidney dissection, students were never strictly assessed on their content knowledge. They were instead asked to use the content they had learned as evidence for a claim based upon a phenomenon. Or the students were expected to pull upon their knowledge of content to evaluate and/or create models. This is a much deeper type of scientific thinking and more challenging for students than simply regurgitating facts on an exam. Employing the science processes as your assessment of student learning places an emphasis on application of content to solve problems and explain observations. And I would argue that my students learned the content in the initial unit as well as, if not better, than they had in previous years. This is "science learning" at its best, helping all students to "think like scientists," an essential skill for their futures, regardless of whether or not they pursue science as a career. Even more important, perhaps, than the content.

3. Modeling Progression
Throughout this unit, students worked with models in a variety of modes. They created their own whiteboard models describing their thinking about the driving question three times throughout the unit. They worked with and evaluated three different pre-set models to understand content: the bean and rice filtration model, the dialysis tubing investigation, and the kidney dissection. They also created their own model for the urinary system to demonstrate their final understanding of the processes they had learned.

The progression of whiteboard models to show student thinking was an especially powerful aspect of this unit. Not only did their whiteboarding help me to better understand the changing student perceptions around the driving question, but they also made the student thinking more clear to the students themselves. Each of the models was the result of conversations within student teams, and the discourse that occurred amongst the team members helped them to more succinctly organize their own thoughts. They were also able to reflect back on their learning as they looked at Model 1 vs. Model 2 vs. Model 3. This reflection on change in thinking emphasized how scientific ideas can evolve over time.

4. Student Connections
One of our goals in this unit was to explore ways for our students to interact with each other. Although our thinking on this goal is still developing, I'm excited about the possibilities based on what we have accomplished so far. Trish's students use Twitter quite a bit during their class time to communicate with each other, their teacher, other students, and even scientists. Twitter is blocked in my school district, but we do use Schoology as an LMS for all courses.  I thought that perhaps a joint Schoology course for Anatomy students in Minnesota and Kentucky would be a good substitute for Twitter for now. And thus "Biofeedback" was born. In this Schoology course, so far students have participated in a brief introductory activity and shared questions around our second unit focused on energy. As the year progresses, we hope to continue to find more uses for the Biofeedback course.

Our students were also able to connect via Google Hangouts at the end of September for a simple introduction activity based on the common icebreaker "Two Truths and a Lie." For this version though, groups of students from both schools were asked to find two Anatomy "truths" and one Anatomy "lie." They took turns presenting their research to the other school via GHO, and then the students had to determine which of the facts was a lie. Although there were some audio and lag issues, the students enjoyed the interaction and requested that we try again in the future.

The dominant form of interaction recently between the two schools has been the coaching of video artifacts. Trish has worked with Benchfly in the past to introduce video as a medium for students to explain their scientific thinking. Benchfly is also a service to house all of the student-made videos. In previous years, Trish's students had coached each other's videos, looking for claim and evidence and commenting on various aspects of video formatting, such as lighting, sound, and framing. Now that our classes are connected, we have been trading student videos between the students at the different schools and asking that the students coach their cross-country counterparts. We have found that even though our classes are working through the same unit, because student questions drive the learning, the classes sometimes move in different directions. Therefore, the video products the students create are never identical. This sets up a unique situation in which the content and experiences in which the students are immersed is the same, but the discussions and thinking about those experiences is different. So when students coach each other's videos, they have the background knowledge necessary to evaluate them, but the videos are not replicas of their own. They often take the learning in a new direction.

An example of this is the "Make a Better Model" videos. The Minnesota students had a lot of questions about the removal of drugs and toxic substances, based on the beans and rice filtration model. Trish's students had a lot of questions about the brain and it's role in water regulation. When students shared their "Make a Better Model" videos with each other, these differences were clear in the videos. The students' approaches were completely different, which made the coaching more challenging, but also more realistic. I explained to my students that this is why clear communication in science is so important. Not everyone has the same experiences, so it is essential that when you're explaining your thinking that you do so in a way that is accessible for anyone.

Trish and I have continued our collaboration and are currently in the midst of Unit 2 focusing on Energy. We're using the same pedagogies that were so successful in Unit 1 and are constantly revising and learning as we move forward. I will make sure to continue to document our progress on this blog. Please feel free to share any questions or comments!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Cross-Country Science Collaboration, Part 1

About a year ago, I "met" Trish Shelton (@tdishelton), a high school science teacher from Kentucky via Twitter. We immediately recognized that we share similar thoughts about science learning and teaching, and continued to communicate via Twitter and Google Hangouts. Through our conversations, the decision was made to connect our Anatomy classrooms during this 2014-2015 school year. So far, this adventure has entailed planning units together, utilizing a joint Schoology course for our students, exchanging student work between classes, a Google Hangout between the classes, and constant communication between Trish and myself.

I hope to share the experiences of our collaboration throughout the year, so this post is the first of many reflections on this unique experience.

Trish had an idea of where she wanted to start the year - a unit on the urinary system and homeostasis that had been successful in the past, although she had never started the year with this particular topic. Being a science teacher in an NGSS state gives Trish a very specific lens through which to view planning and instruction, and she felt this unit in particular would be a great way to immediately incorporate NGSS. My home state, Minnesota, does not use the NGSS, much to my chagrin. However, I hadn't taught an Anatomy class for two years and was looking for curriculum changes that would better reflect my own evolving thoughts regarding science instruction. In other words, when I heard Trish had this unit she wanted to try out for our first topic, I was all-in!

After some "beginning of the year" activities focused on asking questions, learning in teams, mindsets, and scientific explanations, we were ready to start on Unit 1. What follows is a general sequence of how the students approached the driving question: If water is necessary for survival, how can such an essential substance hurt us?

*By the way, no, I don't teach in an all-girls school as the photos and videos below may suggest! My class consists of 16 Junior and Senior girls, and 1 Senior boy.

1. Students watched a YouTube video (link here) of a news report about a high school football player from Georgia who died of water intoxication in August. They recorded their questions on a Padlet.

2. Teams created whiteboard models of what they thought happened to the victim's cells. They used their iPads to take photos of the whiteboards and posted them to Schoology.

3. Urinalysis Investigation. I mixed up four different "urine" samples from four "patients," and students tested the samples for sugar, protein, pH level, clarity, and color. They were also given information about the presence of blood cells and other debris. Based on their results, they needed to determine what, if anything, was wrong with the patients. For each patient, they structured their diagnosis in the following way:

  • Claim: State your answer to the following question: What condition does the patient have, if any?
  • Evidence: Use multiple pieces of evidence to support your claim.
  • Reasoning: Explain how or why the evidence is connected to the claim.
Students then recorded videos in which they shared their "diagnoses" with the patients. They also created a class model of what "normal" vs. "abnormal" urine looks like.

4. Students watched a YouTube video about the general structure of the kidney. They then participated in a simulation of kidney filtration, timing how long it would take to separate rice, beans, and staples using different methods. The beans represented the blood cells that stay in the blood vessels, the rice represented wastes that enter the glomerulus, and the staples represented drugs and other toxins that are actively transported into the filtrate.

5. Whole class discussion on the difference between structure and function. I brought in a football helmet and a hat I wear when I run. I asked students to brainstorm in their teams the structures that made each head covering unique and how the structures contributed to the overall functioning of the hat.

6. Students reflected on their learning by writing a tweet, "What I know about the kidneys so far..." and posting questions that they still had on Schoology. They then researched to see if they could learn more about the questions they had.

7. Dialysis Investigation. Students filled dialysis tubing with various types of solutions, such as salt, sodium bicarbonate, sugar, and starch. They placed the tubing in distilled water overnight, finding the mass of the dialysis tubing before and after adding it to the water. They also tested for the presence of the solutions inside and outside of the tubing.

8. Students watched a YouTube video about the structure and function of the nephron. Based on this new information, they evaluated the dialysis investigation as a model for nephron function as the assessment for the investigation.

9. Sheep Kidney Dissection. A verbal "practical quiz" on the structures of the kidney based upon the dissection also included questions about movement of urine and blood through the kidney.

10. Urinary System Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER). Students submitted a written reflection of what they had learned from the three models (Beans, Dialysis, Kidney Dissection) using the following format:

  • Claim: State your answer to the following question: How does the urinary system work?
  • Evidence: Use information from the three models to support your claim.
  • Reasoning: Explain how or why the evidence is connected to the claim.
11. Teams created whiteboard models of their new thoughts of what happened to the victim's cells (from the beginning of the unit). They used their iPads to take photos of the whiteboards and posted them to Schoology.

12. In teams, students evaluated one of the three models (Bean, Dialysis, Kidney Dissection) based on its merits and limitations in explaining urinary system structure and function.They recorded videos of their model evaluation to share with the class.

13. Make a better model challenge. Students were tasked with using what they had learned thus far to create a better model of the urinary system. They were given random supplies from the classroom and recorded their model and explanations to share with the Kentucky anatomy classes.

14. Homeostasis Simulation. The player in this simulation needs to adjust various internal conditions of a runner as she speeds up, slows down, and traverses up and down hills in a virtual race. Students begin to understand how the body reacts to changing environments in order to maintain relatively constant internal conditions.

15. Students watched a YouTube video about negative and positive feedback loops. They worked through sample scenarios of feedback loops in the human body, identifying sensors, effectors, and whether the loop was positive or negative.

16. Students read articles about water balance in athletes' bodies.

17. Cheek cells observations. Students collected their own cheek cells, stained them with methylene blue, and observed them under a microscope before and after being flooded with salt water. They connected these observations to results from the dialysis investigation.

18. Teams created final whiteboard models of their new thoughts of what happened to the victim's cells (from the beginning of the unit). They used their iPads to take photos of the whiteboards and posted them to Schoology.

19. Whole-Class CER. Students worked together as a class to develop a claim as to why the football player died of water intoxication. They were able to anything they had done or learned in class as evidence, and they related their explanations back to to "big ideas" of osmosis and homeostasis.

20. Summative Assessment.
Choose ONE of the following explanation prompts and respond based on your understanding of:
  • The Urinary System.
  • Osmosis.
  • Homeostasis & Feedback in the Body.
1) Explain why the composition of urine could change throughout the day.

2) A ship sinks off the coast of the United States leaving its passengers stuck in life rafts. After several days, the passengers begin to notice the darkening of their urine, decrease in urine output, and the symptoms of dizziness, weakness, and nausea. Several passengers decide to drink the seawater. All the passengers that drank the seawater died of dehydration. Provide an explanation for the “seawater poisoning.”

**Whew, that got a lot longer than I anticipated! 
In my next post, I'll share my reflections on student learning during this unit.**

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Best Laid Plans...

Recently, I watched an extremely brave teacher on the Teaching Channel as she shared a "failed" lesson from her English class. The camera was in her classroom and recording all the awkward moments and typical student responses when they aren't engaged in a lesson. She then went on to successfully change that lesson for the next section of students. She also debriefed with a colleague when everything was said and done, questioning whether her students were even ready for the task she had planned for them.

These "failure" narratives, occasionally shared by teachers in public spaces, are like a fresh of breath air in the super-hyped, "look at the awesome thing I did," and "aren't my students amazing?" world of edu-social media. Not that people shouldn't share their successes and their students' excellence (in fact, I do this quite often!). It just gets a little overwhelming when you're struggling in the trenches of your own not-so-perfect reality. This is why I appreciate it when teacher-bloggers bare their struggles. It reassures me that even though I have my own challenges, this is a normal occurrence for educators.

So, in the spirit of the brave teacher I spoke of earlier who opened the doors of her classroom for everyone to see, I'm going to begin sharing more lessons, ideas, and projects in my classroom that aren't successful, starting with my idea for student research projects.

Inspired by the idea of Genius Hour and my own conviction that students should be participating in scientific research that is relevant and interesting to them, this summer I envisioned that my students would do unit "research projects" related to each unit topic. For example, for the first unit of the year, Ecology, students would choose any topic under the very wide umbrella of Ecology and design a project of their choosing. Besides being within the realm of Ecology, the only other stipulation would be that the project had to be shared with others in some way. My students had completed similar projects in the past, but finishing one for each unit was a new expectation. Also, I planned on tying Minnesota's Nature of Science standards to the project this year.

During the first week of school, I briefly explained to the students that they would be doing these projects, but before I knew it, midterm had come and gone without any class time spent on the research. I told myself that this is typical of the first quarter of school, when we spend a lot of time developing class culture, routines, and everyday skills. Change of plans: instead of having a project with every unit, we'd have a project for each quarter. I scheduled a class day for students to choose their topics and start researching. They were supposed to fill out a Google form to let me know what topic they were considering and what help/materials they'd need from me. My students struggled to choose their topics and only about a third of them even filled out the form. For the students that did have a project idea, they were unsure how to begin their research from scratch.

The next time the students worked on their projects in class, I tried to help them develop topic ideas with a whole-class activity. They filled out another form, or that is, some of them filled out another form. Not only were some students still unsure what they wanted to research, they also couldn't imagine what their "product to share" would be.

Hoping that the third time would be the charm, I spent a Sunday afternoon scouring TED for videos about pursuing curiosity and being creative. I showed the videos in class the next day, and asked the students to backchannel their thoughts while watching the videos. We had a whole-class discussion about why curiosity is important. I asked them to fill out the Google Form with their research ideas one more time.

I still received responses from less than half of the students.

At this point, we were under 2 weeks from the end of Quarter 1, and students had yet to do any meaningful research on their projects. Many didn't know what they wanted to research and/or what their product would be. And we ended up needing to devote a lot of class time to a different project the students were also struggling with - their digital portfolios (I'll blog about these as well in a separate post). It was time to call "uncle." The research projects were not going to happen during Quarter 1. For all intents and purposes, the idea was a failure.

So far.

I still intend to have my students complete at least one research project this year, probably as a cumulative piece at the end of the school year. But everything that I had dreamed up and planned for these projects over the summer just ended up fizzling. There's a part of me that feels like I failed in some way, but another part knows that you need to know when to let go. This wasn't the first time that everything didn't go exactly to plan, and it won't be the last. Just like the teacher from the video I mentioned earlier, I tell myself what's important is the ability to be a responsive teacher and adjust a failed idea to something in which students will find success.

Photo is from a map of the old Berlin train network, taken by SnaPsi Сталкер, from Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Connected Moments

What follows is an overview of what I did between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m yesterday morning while in my pajamas and eating my breakfast:

  • I checked my Schoology notifications to looked over some student assignments that had been handed in the previous night. I entered the scores in my online grade book and removed the students from our district ICU list, also online. This automatically generated an email to their parent or guardian, letting them know the assignment had been completed.
  • I listened to my Voxer messages and left some messages. I had questions about metacognition, so a fellow Biology teacher from New York and I decided to chat about strategies he uses in his classroom.
  • I checked my Newsify account to read the most recent posts from the blogs I follow. 
  • I e-mailed an Anatomy teacher from Kentucky I've been working with regarding setting up a Google Hangout soon for our classroom collaboration.
  • I checked my Schoology messages and discovered that some students were looking for feedback on their Weebly digital portfolios. So I opened up my Weebly classes, checked out the student portfolios, and sent them feedback via Schoology messages. I also updated their scores and feedback in a Google Doc I created for the in-progress portfolios.
  • I checked my personal blog to see if their were any posts I should respond to.
  • I read through the two whitepapers I subscribe to.
In October of last year, I wrote a piece about being a Connected Educator and shared it with my colleagues. This year, I had no intention of writing about the topic because I didn't feel like I had anything to say that hadn't already been said. However, after breakfast yesterday it hit me: the connections and information we have at our fingertips are just amazing. Working with teachers across the country, open and immediate communication with students and parents, up to date information about the latest in learning and education...none of this was possible before I became a connected educator. Moments like yesterday morning simply inspire awe in what is possible.

Photo from Heather on Flickr. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

In a World Full of Distractions...

I write a "Tiger Tech" newsletter every other week for our staff, and publish it via Smore. The following is a piece I wrote last week. 

I recently read an article from The Washington Post entitled, "Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class." (Link HERE). Like many headlines, this one was a bit misleading, but the content of the article was still thought-provoking.

Clay Shirky is a professor of media studies at New York University, and he's had a "relaxed" approach to devices in the classroom for many years. However, he has noticed that his students are becoming more and more distracted by their devices in recent years. He attributes this to the many social media platforms that compete for student attention while they're working on school-related technology tasks. He states, "Computers are not inherent sources of distraction - they can in fact be powerful engines of focus." However, "...hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract..." Shirky also discusses how these distractions encourage multi-tasking on the part of students, which has been shown to decrease learning in multiple studies.

After reading the headline and beginning of this article, you might expect that Shirky threw up and his hands and banned all technology from his classroom. This is not exactly the case, however. He reports that he has changed his rules for devices from "allowed unless by request" to no device use "unless the the assignment requires it." In other words, students are only using their devices in class if there is a specific learning goal for using that device.

I see our high school students struggling with these same issues. When is an appropriate time for them to check their most recent "Draw Something" picture or visit a messaging service? These programs have notifications, pop-ups, and all sorts of bells and whistles that are constantly crying for their attention. I believe it's part of our role as teachers to help them navigate this world. Shirky states in his article,
I've stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity toward involuntary and emotional reaction.
After reading this article, I've been trying to make this more clear for students in my classroom by stating explicitly the appropriate times for...
  • No devices at all.
  • Using devices for a specific classroom task only.
  • Using devices for their choice of activity.
I think there is a time and a place for all of these situations in the classroom, but it's our responsibility to guide students in interpreting the task and environment correctly so they can eventually determine appropriate device use for themselves.
Image"Partial Attention" from Flickr by Marina Noordegraaf. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Thinking About Flops

I write a "Tiger Tech" newsletter every other week for our staff, and publish it via Smore. The following is a piece I wrote about a month ago. 

Have you noticed how students seem to be really well-behaved during the first two weeks of the school year, until the third week rolls around and you find yourself dealing with more and more behavior issues? At first they're small things, like a couple of students whispering in the background when they should be listening, but then you suddenly have your first major "confrontation" of the semester. We all know that how we deal with these challenges early on can have implications for the entire school year.

It seems to me that trying something new in your classroom, whether it be technology-related or a different teaching practice, follows a similar path. The first few weeks can be exciting and full of high expectations, but it doesn't take long to hit that first stumbling block. I had a lesson last week that took a lot of thought and planning on my part. Not only did it use technology that was new to me, but I was also exploring a different way of introducing content to students. To make a long story shorter, it flopped. The students didn't engage in the topic like I thought they would, one of the tech pieces gave us trouble, and when it was all said and done, I don't think it promoted the student thinking I was hoping for.

While my knee-jerk reaction is to throw up my hands in exasperation when these set-backs occur, I try to focus on having a Growth Mindset, knowing I can improve the lesson through additional reflection, practice, and time. After all, isn't this the same expectation I have for my students when they struggle?

So as we approach the midterm of Quarter 1 and that "beginning of the school year" glow starts to dim, I encourage you to give yourself a break! Not everything new you try in the classroom will work perfectly the first time. But don't let those set-backs stop you from moving forward either. After all,

"If we only did things that were easy, we wouldn't actually be learning anything. We'd just be practicing things we already knew." - David Dockterman