Tuesday, September 30, 2014


This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 30: What would you do (as a teacher) if you weren’t afraid?

I've often dreamt what learning in the classroom could look like if there weren't any outside influences exerting expectations. I'm not sure if being afraid is what's holding me back from realizing this dream, but rather the traditions of how "school" is done. I suppose I could throw caution to the wind and implement these changes, but I'm pretty sure my job would be in jeopardy if I did. So on second thought, maybe fear does play a role in this...

My ideal classroom would be free of standards, units, assignments, and assessments. Students would pursue their interests without any limitations in content. They'd use technology to explore content, connect with people outside of the school building, and create products that they could share with others.

My ideal classroom wouldn't be called a "science class" because students would be reading novels, writing plays, creating art, researching historical events, and manipulating mathematical equations, all in support of their science interests. The classroom would be truly interdisciplinary.

My ideal classroom would have a two-way door, through which students could exit often to explore what they wanted learn from the community, and through which the community could enter to interact with and share expertise with the students.

My ideal classroom would have students engaged in work that is relevant for themselves and the community. Creating products that have a purpose, engaging a real-life audience, and providing community service would be natural components of each student's learning process.

My ideal classroom would allow me to be a mentor for my students, guiding their learning, helping them to ask probing questions, getting them connected with the resources and people they need to pursue their interests.

Most importantly, my ideal classroom would be built upon the philosophy that human beings are naturally curious, and as a teacher in this classroom I would do everything in my power to cultivate that curiosity. Because of this mindset, students would become life-long learners, not just Biology students.

Photo from Ragesh Ev on Flickr. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Then & Now

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 29: How have you changed as an educator since you first started?

The easier question to answer here would be, How have I not changed since I first started teaching? It's easier to answer because my response would be much shorter. I change as a teacher every year, and the accumulation of changes over my past 10 years of teaching is challenging to describe in one blog post. So instead of discussing the myriad of ways in which my teaching practice has changed, I'll describe one consistent pattern. That is, the longer I teach, the more student-centered I become. Here are some specific examples of that shift:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Technology & Curriculum = Predator & Prey?

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 28: Respond: Should technology drive curriculum, or vice versa?

Like many things in education, I don't think this is an either/or question. In my experience, both of these conditions can be true and also be effective. It's a bit like "the chicken and the egg" question. Technology and curriculum should feed off each other.

One of the topics that my students study during the Ecology unit is predator/prey relationships. Classic relationships of this sort are characterized by an evolutionary "arms race." Over millions of years, predator species evolve to be faster and more powerful to increase their success in capturing prey. At the same time, prey species evolve better camouflage or more toxic poisons to better protect themselves. These adaptations escalate over millennia due to the complex, interweaving relationships between the two species.

I see the relationship between curriculum and technology in much the same light as a predator/prey relationship, minus the antagonistic nature of the relationship. The two spheres push each other to be more powerful, more efficient, more creative, and more diverse.

While this relationship can be beneficial for both technology and curriculum, the one caution I have is that students should not get lost in the shuffle. As both entities continue to push each other to be bigger and better, they still need to keep their focus on what is best for student learning. More technology or new curriculum might be exciting and newsworthy, but if it doesn't help students to ask deeper questions and make more connections, it's not education.

Photo from Elizabeth on Flickr, licensed through Creative Commons.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 27: What role do weekends and holidays play in your teaching?

Let me lay it all out on the table tonight: I feel guilty for the amount of time I spend working on school-related responsibilities while I'm at home with my family.

My official work day starts at 7:40 and ends at 3:40, but I usually get home at 5:00 or later. I always make it home by 5:30 for supper, unless I have a meeting or an extracurricular commitment. Later at night, I usually spend at least an hour or two finishing up more work for school, varying from evaluating student work to adjusting a lesson that was prepared to searching for an answer to someone's technology question.

The weekend hours are quickly consumed with assessing student work, planning for the upcoming week, and writing my weekly parent update. Every other weekend, I also write and distribute a district technology newsletter.

I have colleagues who have drawn a line in the sand and declared that they won't do any school work at home, or they'll always keep the weekends work-free. I don't know how they do it. I don't feel like there are enough hours in the day to finish everything I'd like to get done now, much less completely blocking out two entire days. But at the same time, I have this tremendous guilt. I should be playing more games with my sons. We should be going outside more often. I should be doing science experiments with my sons. My kids have been asking me for months to teach them how to write in cursive. My husband and I haven't gone out to a movie in months. It pains me to even type all of this out.

I've been teaching for 10 years, and I still haven't figured out how to balance my home life with this crazy-demanding job. Being a teacher is a part of who I am, and it's difficult for me to be "less" of who I am by simply devoting less time to it. At the same time, being a mom and a wife are also part of who I am, and I feel I am "less" of myself when I let the my teacher-side take the reins for too long.

How do we do this? How do we devote ourselves to the people we love and maintain our passion for our chosen profession at the same time? The stress of this constant internal debate wears on me.

Today was a Saturday. I knew that I wanted to accomplish five things:

  • Spend time with our First LEGO League Team during their weekly meeting. Both of my sons are on the team and my husband and I are coaches.
  • Work out at the fitness center.
  • Play a new game with my family (they've been waiting for me to have time to do this all week.)
  • Practice guitar with my sons.
  • Read some chapters from my new book.
As I thought through my day this morning and realized everything I'd like to do, I said to myself, "Okay, it will be fine to leave the school work until Sunday. I should be able to get everything done if I have the entire day tomorrow to work." Things were going great until I realized this afternoon that we do have another commitment tomorrow afternoon. Immediately, my brain went into panic-mode. How was I going to be able to get all of my work done now? Would I have to sacrifice one of the the activities I wanted to do today so that I could get started on my school work early? It's like this constant, nagging tap on my shoulder, never completely letting me be "in the moment" because I'm anxious about all the work I know I still need to get done. So, you see, even when I do make a conscious decision to set aside my work for a period of time, the knowledge that it's waiting to be done is still clinging to me, affecting everything I do.

Sometimes my head clears enough to recall that many people in other professions don't have this incessant conflict in their minds. When they leave work, work is done. They don't have to think about it again until they're physically back at their job. What a luxury this would be.

How can I be the teacher I want to be, but not short-change my family the attention they deserve when I'm at home? How do I take back my weekends for myself, my husband, and my kids - or is this just the way it is for all educators? If any of you have any suggestions, I'd truly appreciate hearing from you.

Photo from Bing Images (dangerousharvests.blogspot.com). Labeled as "Free to share and use."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Early Morning Resource Routines

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 26: What are your three favorite go-to sites for help/tips/resources in your teaching?

My day is fueled by routines. I am one of those people who feels out of sorts and crabby when her routine is disrupted. I'm worse than a toddler who misses her nap. One of those routines is my morning ritual, helping me ease into the day. I wake up a couple of hours before I need to be at work. Some days, I go to the local fitness center. Once I'm home again, I make my breakfast (always the same thing: fruit, plain yogurt, and granola), feed the cat, and grab my iPad for my daily wade into a stream of various ed-tech resources.

First, I check my e-mail. There are two Paper.li newsletters that I subscribe to and receive daily via e-mail: "The Teacher Technology Daily" published by Jason Seliskar and "#flipclass" published by David Prindle. I think I stumbled upon them while scanning Twitter about a year ago. Next, I open up my Newsify app and skim through all of the blogs I'm subscribed to. Finally I open up Zite and read through any articles that catch my eye.

Essential to each of these subscriptions or apps is the ability to easily e-mail or tweet out the resources to my colleagues, and/or add the resources to my Evernote account. Although they seem like simple resources, these blogs and news articles have been my most reliable source of up to date ed-tech news, trends, and just plain old thoughtful teaching. When I look at how much I've learned throughout a year of diligently maintaining this routine, I'm amazed. It easily beats out any other professional development I've participated in with simply the volume of information I've been able to have access to.

I love taking the time to read through all of these resources in a quiet house early in the morning before anyone else is awake. It is during this time of the day that my brain is the freshest and most ready to process new information. If I ever miss this routine for any reason, it feels like my entire day is off-kilter. I guess it's really not all that different from the very traditional reading of the newspaper over cup of coffee in the morning. I've certainly come to rely on these resources for news, as well as my daily dose of inspiration.

Photo from Bryce Bradford on Flickr. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Scratch-Off Collaboration

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 25: The ideal collaboration between students - what would it look like?

The following is what one of my students submitted for the end-of-week team evaluation on Friday:

"We had some really great discussions Thursday, 
everyone participated and 
we all shared ideas and learned, 
it was really good."

Now I could go on and on about what I hope to see from student collaboration in my classroom, and it would probably be laced with a bunch of edu-babble (as I tend to do). But I think this student pretty much sums up what I would describe as ideal collaboration. The key words for me are: participated, shared ideas, and learned. I especially love his comment at the end: "It was really good." This is what I want for my students when they interact in teams. I want them all to be involved, I want learning to take place, and I want them to feel good about what they accomplished when everything is said and done. 

So what did this student's team do on Thursday that he thought was "really good?" They took a quiz. But this wasn't your typical team quiz. This quiz is based on the Readiness Assurance Process (RAP) designed by Larry Michaelsen as part of his Team-Based Learning approach. I learned about it for first time this summer while taking a Biotechnology class. For a field trip, we visited an active-learning classroom at the University of Minnesota and learned about their science courses that utilize team-based learning. I was inspired and immediately knew I wanted to incorporate portions of this approach in my own teaching.

One facet I wanted to use was the quizzing methodology. After a period of inquiry into a topic, my students are given a content assignment. This assignment gives them options in how they learn the content associated with a given topic. They may read a textbook, watch a video, explore a website, or read an iBook. Regardless of the mode of delivery, students are all expected to come to class with new information they've learned. They then take a 5-point quiz on that topic in class. They record their answers on paper, as well as in an online quiz on Schoology. Finally, the students complete the same quiz one more time, but as a team.

For the team quiz, the students use an IF-AT form to record their answers. The IF-AT form is a way for students to receive immediate feedback on their quiz answers, and requires that teams continue to answer quiz questions until they reach the correct answer. It accomplishes this with a scratch-off process. A team discusses a question, settles on an answer, and then scratches off the box on the IF-AT form that's above their answer. If they've answered correctly, a star will appear. An incorrect answer results in an empty box after being scratched off. If a team answers a question incorrectly, they continue discussing and choose a second box to scratch off. This sequence proceeds until the team scratches the correct box.

Sample IF-AT form. I only use five questions at a time.

What makes this quiz great at eliciting team collaboration isn't the IF-AT form directly, but the discussion and debate that have to take place among group members while completing the quiz. Students still have their personal answers in front of them on a piece of paper, but not everyone in the group always has the same answer. The students have to debate and defend their answers before scratching off the team answer.  This discussion process requires that they think back to the reading or video they completed as homework and use what they learned to support their opinion. The depth and intensity of these discussions are amazing to hear in progress. As well as the cheers when a group scratches off a correct answer. 

These quizzes only make up a minute portion of the students' grades, but I tell them outright that I'm more interested in hearing their debates than the status of their final score. The recall of the new information they learned and defense of their understanding of that information encourage deeper learning of material and better long-term storage. Finally, the comradery the quizzes create fosters improved team interactions and positive attitudes. If students come away from a team interaction feeling good about themselves and the interactions of the team, I know they have had a successful collaboration experience.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Learning: It's Too Much Work

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 24: Which learning trend captures your attention the most, and why? 

I recently had a conversation with some of my students about making corrections on a lab report they had written. A report that had no "score" as of yet because the students had not completed the work to a "proficient" level. It had been peer reviewed multiple times, and I had given the students many comments on how to improve their reports, but they just hadn't done the work to improve them yet.

The conversation went something like this:

Me - "I saw that none of you have completed your corrections on the lab yet. Is there something that you had questions about?"

Student - "No, not really."

Me - "Is there another reason that you haven't done these corrections yet? Something I should know about?"

Student - "No, I just don't want to do them. They're too much work."

Me - "Well, I just want to make sure you understand that you have the opportunity to redo this work until it reaches proficiency, with no penalty for your previous attempts. You get that, right?"

Student (looking away, under breath) - "Yeah."

Me - "You don't sound very excited. Do you sometimes feel like you'd rather just do it once and have it done, regardless of how well you do it?"

Student - "Yeah, sometimes."

After this exchange, I continued to ask questions and eventually found out that they did have some questions about my comments. I worked with the students 1:1 for about 5 minutes each, cleared up their questions, and their corrections were done.

This is why I think the trend toward Standards-Based Learning is so important. My students, growing up on a steady diet of "once and you're done" grading have come to see education as a series of tasks they have to check off their list instead of a spiraling process that turns back in on itself over and over again. When given the opportunity to be successful in class, they cut corners because they're used to an educational system that values efficiency over depth of understanding. Standards-Based Learning is more than an alternative way to assess students, it helps students and teachers think about education in a completely different way.

SBL emphasizes learning as "work in progress."

SBL encourages students to think about their thinking.

SBL prompts teachers to consider the depth at which their students are learning.

SBL allows for multiple pathways to learn the same concept.

SBL makes learning goals visible for students.

SBL cultivates a growth mindset, in teachers and students.

This is what excites me most about Standards-Based Learning. It's more than just a "trend in education." It has the potential to shape how students view education for the rest of their lives. My hope is that eventually my students will not see learning so much as "work," as "work in progress."

Photo from Justin See on Flickr. Licensed through Creative Commons.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Community Plans

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 23: Write about one way you "meaningfully" involve the community in the learning in your classroom. If you don't yet do so, discuss one way you could get started.

I'll be the first to admit I don't really involve the community in what happens in the classroom on a day to day basis. I send home weekly updates to parents of my students and post to a Twitter account for all of my classes (@MeyerScience). These don't even count as "meaningfully involving community in the learning", in my opinion though. So, instead of telling you all about the great things I'm not doing, I'll write about what we've got planned.

The 9-12 grade science teachers in my district (remember, there are only three of us!) dreamed up a plan over the summer that we would give our students the opportunity to link topics they're interested in to the things they're learning in class with unit "projects." This is essentially Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects, or whatever else you'd like to call it. We're just calling them "projects." I've spent the last day and half trying to help my students understand that:

A. Yes, you really can pursue any topic you're interested in for your project.
B.  I'm not trying to trick you when I say your "product" can be anything you want.

Yesterday, we watched a couple TED Talks about creativity, asking questions, and pursuing your curiosity. I also talked to them about my sons and how everything seems so fascinating when you're a kid. Today they worked through some goal setting. It's interesting to watch their reactions to this project. It's almost like they're so unfamiliar with the openness of the idea that their brains are literally frozen in place. They're really struggling with trying to decide what their projects will be.

For now, I'm just trying to help them move forward one day at a time. But looking into the more distant future, I'm hoping to have the students complete four small projects this year. Our goal is to have an exhibition of High School students' science work at the end of the year. Every student will choose their favorite project they completed during the year and "show it off" in some way at this exhibition.  I'm not sure exactly what it will look like yet, but it will happen in the evening when the majority of our community members can attend.

And then I'll be able to blog about how I've involved the community in the learning in my classroom, for real. Stay tuned.

Photo from Caroline on Flickr. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Monday, September 22, 2014

PLN Ripples

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 22: What does your PLN look like, and what does it do for your teaching?

When I imagine a PLN, I see it as ripples on the surface of water; ever-increasing spheres of interaction. Before creating an online PLN, I only had one or two ripples, involving very few people who were in fairly close physical proximity to me. As I ventured into the world of Twitter and Google+ however, those ripples multiplied and extended to greater geographical distances. All of these ripples, whether far or near, help inspire me to be a better teacher.

At the district level, our 7-12 Science Department has a total of three, yes three, teachers. I teach high school Life Sciences, another teaches high school Physical Sciences, and the third teaches the junior high science courses. Despite that fact that we're all teaching different courses, we find a lot to collaborate on during our weekly district-wide PLC meetings. We plan formative assessments, create rubrics for lab reports, and lately have been working on student portfolio and research project initiatives. We are committed to creating common themes and tasks that weave through all 7-12 science courses in our district. It's amazing to work intimately with colleagues who think about science and teaching in a similar manner.

The next ripple out would have to be my collaboration with Trish Shelton (@tdishelton), a Kentucky Anatomy teacher. We "met" over Twitter and quickly realized we think about the process of learning science in the same way. After chatting off and on last spring, we decided that we'd like our Anatomy classes for the 2014-2015 school year to interact with each other. So via email, Twitter, and Google Hangouts, we've been meeting and chatting with each other to plan models-based inquiry Anatomy curriculum. Our students just recently "met" each other over a Schoology course we set up specifically for their interaction, and tomorrow they'll participate in their first class-to-class GHO. The plan is that eventually the students from both schools will be able to work with each other for peer review, generation of questions, and sharing of investigation data. This relationship with Trisha and her students has been the most revolutionary change I've ever implemented in my classes. The students are energized and having fun learning, and so am I!

Taking one more step outward from the inner ripples is the Standards-Based Learning PLN that randomly came together during a Twitter chat one evening. There were five of us educators who were in various stages of development of SBL and wanted to learn more. We represented states all over the country, including Washington (@ogybuns), Minnesota (@dassel), New York (@wilsonsbiologylab), and Kentucky (@tdishelton). So we set up two GHO's this summer to talk more extensively about the topic. There is no way I would have been able to initiate SBL in my classes this year without their help. I was also take everything I learned from our conversations and pass it on to my district-level PLC. Now the three of us who teach 7-12 science in the district are all using SBL, thanks to those summer conversations. We are planning on another GHO at the end of September to touch base again and reevaluate once SBL has been implemented in our classes for a while. Also, two of us both teach in Minnesota, and are planning on visiting each other's classrooms sometime this year.

My widest-reaching PLN ripple is #biochat. Hassan Wilson (@wilsonsbiologylab) and I first "met" each other in the summer of 2013 while we were both taking an online class about flipped learning. We kept in touch for most of the year, and then in the Spring decided we should start #biochat. So every Thursday night from 7:30-8:30 CST we co-moderate a Twitter chat for people interested in Biology education. We also created a Google+ community to extend the conversations and archive resources from the chats. Last year, our chats were pretty standard, but this year we're incorporating some slow chats, Voxer chats, and GHO's. Not only have I learned so much from this weekly chat with my colleagues all over the world, but the energy and support I feel after finishing a chat gives me the push I need to keep going in all my crazy initiatives. It's such a relief to know that other teachers struggle with the same struggles I have, and wonder about the same questions I have. We might not be solving all of the world's problems, but the mutual support helps to see those problems in a different light.

As I reflect back on what I've written about my PLN, I realize that one of the keys to a successful PLN for me is having a variety of relationships. Some are more 1:1, others are with a large group. Both types of interactions have their value. Finally, I can see clearly that my PLN has certainly affected my teaching more than any one class, workshop, or conference. So many of the things that make my students happy and excited to learn are the direct result of a resource from or conversation within my PLN.

Photo from Sea Turtle via Flickr. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

My Kids, My Inspiration

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 21: Do you have other hobbies/interests that you bring into your classroom teaching? Explain?

I'm kind of a nerd in that the majority of my free time centers around education or my family. Besides being a voracious reader and casual runner, I don't have a lot of hobbies. Occasionally a book I read will relate to class, or running anecdotes will come up in conversation with students, but nothing planned or systematic.

Raising kids, however, has had a profound impact on how I think about teaching and learning. They never cease to amaze me with their curiosity. I occasionally write about my two sons (ages 10 and 7) on another blog site, which is strictly for family. What follows is an edited version of a post I wrote for that site last year.

My oldest son (9 years old at the time) showed this to me one morning. He had written this guitar music in bed the previous night. Each line was composed to represent a different character in a game he designed. Some of the lines are chords, and some are note-reading. Besides thinking it was cool that he wanted to compose his own music, I was delighted to see that he had taken such care and time in making precise staff lines and neat notes and handwriting. No one had to "tell" him to do this - he just decided to do it on his own and did it well because it was important to him.

The boys just finished the book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and were inspired to do their own origami. Now, we've had origami books and paper in the house since Christmas, and I've sat down with the boys to try to spark their interest, but it just didn't catch on. However, after reading this book, they went crazy. They found the instruction books and paper on their own and started folding. After making tons of swans by following the instructions in the books (as you can see above), they began designing their own origami - mostly in the Star Wars theme: Obi-wan Kenobi, Emperor Palpatine, R2D2, C3PO, Darth Maul, and a space ship. Others they designed are a hummingbird, a fish, and Viking ship. It was a good reminder for me that kids will learn something new when THEY'RE ready and when THEY'RE interested.

The older my own kids get, the more student-centered I become in my classroom. Because of weekly incidents with my boys at home, like the music-writing and origami flurry, I am constantly reminded that when learners are passionate about something, they'll endure all kinds of challenges in order to reach their goal. They'll learn more deeply, and are completely capable of doing so without someone constantly "nudging" them to work faster so they can reach some arbitrary deadline. It's because of these lessons from my own kids that I've eliminated tests from my classes and initiated Genius-Hour type projects. I'm constantly thinking, "Would my own two boys like to be students in my class?" For the sake of my students, I hope that answer is "yes."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Student Archival of Learning Via E-Portfolios

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 20: How do you curate student work - or help them do it themselves?

I reported in the "Day 19" blog post that my Biology students are using Weebly to create e-portfolios as a reflection of their best work. It turns out that a more thorough discussion of these portfolios is warranted by today's blogging prompt regarding curation of student work.

First, a little bit of background about my experiences with curation of student work. When I first started teaching, students kept all of their notes, assignments, quizzes, etc. in a three-ring binder. This is the method I used to keep my classes organized in college, so I thought it would work great for my students. Wrong. Items were constantly out of order, falling of the binders, and getting lost. We wasted valuable learning time just trying to keep the binder in order so that I could "correct" it. I wasted valuable personal time assessing every single piece of student work. And I hate to admit it, but since there were also points associated with organization of the portfolio, I wasted time checking that everything was in the "right" place.

About 5 years ago, I switched from three-ring binders to composition notebooks. This fixed two problems. Number one, no more loose paper and lost assignments. Number two, I stopped correcting everything. About once every two weeks, I'd haul all of the notebooks home and assess two or three assignments. If students didn't reach mastery on an assignment, they'd make corrections, and I'd assess it again...and again....and again....until mastery was evident, at which point the student would get his/her score.

This year, I really want to focus on students becoming better assessors of their own work. I won't lie; part of me is trying to avoid evaluating the same assignment four times. But in all seriousness, if a student needs my input on his/her work four times, who is really doing the work in the learning process - the student, or me? So I'm attempting to establish a work flow that looks something like this: personal assessment - peer assessment - personal assessment - submit to portfolio - teacher assessment - personal assessment. The student can still make changes after my assessment of and feedback on their work, but I'm hoping the quality will be better by the time it reaches me because of the peer intervention.

Okay, more on the e-portfolio, since this is what deals with the archival process the most. I decided to have the students use Weebly to create their portfolios after comparing a few different options. I considered Google's Blogger, but wanted more flexibility in format so that students could provide a variety of artifacts. I also thought maybe we could use Google Sites, but was worried it wouldn't provide enough structure, unless I developed a "scaffold" page for all of the students to start with. Weebly is a nice balance of teacher control and student creativity.

Teachers are able to get access to and monitor all their students' sites by setting up classes. Within those classes, I created the student usernames and passwords. For now, I've set the student sites so they are not public, but I plan to have the students open them up as they get more artifacts on them. Your first 50 student accounts on Weebly are free, and after that you have to pay $10 for each additional 10 accounts.

To get students started on their sites, I started a site of my own and designed it to show the students the elements they needed on their sites as well. For example, I wanted all the sites to be named using the same formatting and to include a description on the homepage about the purpose of the site. I've also required that students follow a common method for naming tabs for the various pages on their site. I'm hoping this will make it easier for me and other readers to find what we're looking for when we enter the site for the first time. All the other options, such as site theme, colors, photos, and font I left up to the students.
Sample homepage for student portfolios. Required tabs are boxed in different colors. (Home-yellow box, About-red box, Unit Title-green box)
Outline for required text on the homepage.
On E-Portfolio Introduction Day, I guided the students through the parts of their portfolios that were required and those that they were able to personalize. Weebly has a really simple function that allows the teacher to print out all of the student usernames and passwords on a document that can be cut apart and distributed to individual students. This seems like a minor convenience, but speaking as a teacher who has had to hand out student user information for a variety of programs, this is a real time-saver. So I gave each student their information, they logged in, and away they went. During this first interaction with their Weebly site, all I asked them to do was choose their theme, name their site, complete their home page, and create their first two tabs. Students enjoyed finding their favorite theme and adding pictures and colors that represented themselves. 

The next step in the archiving process is to give students time every Friday to choose assignments that they and their peers have determined show their learning around different targets. They will upload photos, web links, documents, and videos of their work. (Another reason I chose Weebly: It supports a variety of content). But the process doesn't end with the students adding their work to the portfolio. They will also write a short description for each artifact, describing:

  • Which learning target/s does this work support?
  • How is the artifact evidence for your mastery of the learning target/s?
In a unit tab, students can drag boxes from the left onto their page to add a variety of artifacts.
Although I have some trepidation about students' current skills in assessing their own learning, I truly think that this process will improve their "thinking about thinking" by the end of the year. The challenge for me will be evaluating how much time and guidance they'll need for the process. It's a brand new system for students, so I know they're going to be very confused and unsure of themselves at the beginning. I need to trust that it may be messy at first, but if I stay committed to the process the students will gain valuable insights and skills around metacognition.

Photo from Anne G. via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Student Reflections

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 19: Name three powerful ways students can reflect on their learning, and then discuss closely the one you use most often.

Moment of truth: Until this year, my students didn't reflect on their learning very often. I didn't have any structures in place to help encourage this practice, even though I knew it was essential for them in long-term processing of information. So this year, I've started implementing not one, not two, but three different methods that students are using regularly to reflect on their learning. This is completely typical of my attitude as an educator: Why try one new thing when there are two other great ideas out there as well! Sometimes this approach crashes and burns, but so far I'm really loving the results I'm seeing with these changes.

So here's a quick overview of the methods my students are using for reflection this year.

Model Progression
Credit for this idea goes to Trish Shelton (@tdishelton). We're collaborating on the curriculum for our Anatomy classes this year, and our students will be interacting with each other as well. We introduced the first unit by showing a short news report about a Georgia teenager who died of water intoxication in August, after which we asked the students to work in teams to create a diagram of what they thought was happening to the cells of the victim. My students just this week finished working through a progression of models to learn about kidney function, and we are now at the midpoint of the unit. Next week, they'll diagram a new representation of what happened to the victim's cells and compare it to their original diagram to examine the progression of understanding they've developed. At the end of the unit, they'll diagram the cells for a final time and reflect on the entire process.

Initial Student Diagram: Making their thinking visible.
Peer Review
I have found that students often have no conception of the quality of their own work, or their level of understanding of new concepts. This year, I've devoted a lot of thought and time into developing rubrics for all of the common assessments students have in Biology class, such as writing a procedure and organizing a conclusion. Now that students have rubrics for these types of assessments, they are able to evaluate each other's work more accurately, as well as their own. Before students submit their work to an e-portfolio (see below), they are required to have it peer-reviewed. As a reviewer, students are expected to score assessments based on a rubric and provide comments for their partner.  At this point, adjustments to the work are made if it does not reach the standard.

I've embarked on full-fledged Standards Based Learning this year. I wanted to harness a digital tool to curate the best student work and avoid hauling composition notebooks home every night! So my students have started to create e-portfolios. For each learning target, the students will evaluate their own work and choose an "artifact" to show their mastery of a given target. Only artifacts that are peer-reviewed and deemed high-quality will be included in the portfolio. With each artifact submission, the student will write up a description of how the work displays their learning surrounding the standard. So far, students have set up their e-portfolios on Weebly, and this week they will start uploading artifacts for assessment.

I'm hopeful for what this year will bring regarding student reflection. Even if only one of these initiatives ends up being successful, it will still be an improvement compared to previous years.

Image from Chung Ho Leung at Flikr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Teaching is like a LEGO set...

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 18: Create a metaphor/simile/analogy that describes your teaching philosophy.

We love LEGOs at the Meyer house. We've devoted an entire room of our house to them. My husband and I coach a FIRST LEGO League. Hands down, playing with LEGOs is the number one activity for my 7 and 10 year-old sons. So I didn't have to search very far when I was trying to find an analogy for teaching. Here are all the ways teaching is like a LEGO set:
  • When you first get a LEGO set, you put it together using the instructions. But if you're anything like my sons, within 24 hours the set has been taken apart because you know you can make something better with the pieces. Teaching is similar in that your first year or two you're teaching based on what you experienced as a student or what your teacher education program told you. Over time however, you develop your own approach and strategies and slowly dismantle that first "build." For me, this constant revision is one of the joys of teaching.
  • Building new LEGO sets from scratch depends on both intellectual ability and creativity. Teaching is similar in that educators need to be strong in their content, but at the same time creative and flexible enough to reach all of their students under all conditions.
  • Cooperation results in better builds. When my sons work together on a LEGO set, it's always an amazing product that's better than what they could accomplish on their own. My 10 year-old likes to focus on the minute details of a set, whereas my 7 year-old is more of a big picture guy. Their collaborative LEGO projects depend on both of these traits, so they balance each other out nicely. This phenomena holds true for the teaching profession as well. We can make some amazing stuff on our own, but it's when we collaborate with others that the best ideas and lessons are built.
  • All of the LEGO pieces in a set come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. Similarly, teachers have many different tools available to enhance student learning throughout the teaching day. For example, It might be easier to build a LEGO house if the pieces were all the same, but the end product would not be nearly as interesting. 
  • If you're building with LEGOs you can't be afraid of making mistakes, at which point you'll have to take apart your most recent creation, analyze it for flaws, and rebuild it. Teachers are generally uncomfortable with making mistakes and revealing our weaknesses. Instead we should approach mistakes for what they are: a pathway to learn more.
Photo from Benjamin Esham, Licensed via Creative Commons. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Future of Box-Tickers

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 17: What do you think is the most challenging issue in education today?


This is my answer today. A month from now, I may feel otherwise, but assessment has been on my mind a lot lately. It's probably the combination of many factors: the recent release of the scores for last year's Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) in Science, the writing of performance goals for my annual review, and a shift to standards-based grading in the classes I teach.

For this post, I'm just going to tackle standardized tests. The national discussion around science standards and developing a scientifically-literate populous has centered on promoting critical thinking, allowing students to ask their own questions, applying evidence in problem-solving, and finding connections in a systems-based approach to learning. Just recently, Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie, two university science professors, wrote an article for Times Higher Education calling for science education to stop training students to strive for the "right" answer as they feel it is leading to rampant scientific misconduct. Here are a couple of quotes from the article that I think are especially relevant:

"The obsession with box-ticking is a major culprit, where assessment rewards only the right answer rather than the process of research and the integrity of reporting."

"..teachers have not been given sufficient time by governments and curriculum developers to properly teach the scientific process and to do experiments carefully"

But do our state assessments measure these process skills? No, they are assessing for a "right answer." Students are simply box-ticking. Not only that, but in Minnesota, the assessments are given once, at the very end of the year, and teachers don't receive the scores until the following fall, making it impossible to use the results to help my students. Not that the scores are a clear indication of what the students know anyway; passing the test is not required for graduation so most students don't take it seriously, and, get this, the test results are not statistically significant. I know this because I volunteered to be a question writer one year to get a more well-rounded picture of the exam, and one of the test developers admitted the results aren't statistically significant after I continued to ask questions he couldn't answer. It turns out that Minnesota has so many science standards that a test designed to ask enough questions to deem the results significant would be unbelievably long.

Does this mean that I'm anti-standardized assessments? No, I'm anti-standardized assessments that don't help students learn and don't help teachers teach better. And this is where our greatest challenge lies. How can we develop national assessments that are:

  • Valid?
  • Anti-Memorization and Pro-Thinking?
  • Unbiased?
  • Learner-Centered?
  • Valued by Educators?
Regular assessments that truly illuminate students' thinking are key to teaching and learning. As challenging as it is to design effective assessments for my own small group of students, imagining what this would look like on a state or national level is certainly beyond me. But this year I've decided that I'm finally going to stop simply complaining about it and take action. I have some ideas in mind and people I'm planning on contacting to start the conversations about what science assessment in Minnesota should look like. Because it all comes down to one question,

Are we trying to promote a future of scientific thinkers or a future of box-tickers?

Photo from Alberto G. on Flickr. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Were You Thinking?

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 16: If you could have one superpower to use in the classroom, what would it be and how would it help?

I was one of those kids who generally likes school.

I looked forward the first day of school every fall. I enjoyed learning new things. The structure of "school" worked fine for me and I caught onto things quickly. I had two parents that were supportive of me trying new things and provided a stable home life.

I know this is not the situation for the majority of my students, however. The older I get, the harder I have to work to "get inside the minds" of my students. Not only are we lacking a common school experience, but the issues that students of the 21st Century encounter daily are far outside the realm of anything I ever had to deal with as a child.

Therefore, the super power I would like to have is the ability to read minds. I realize that it would open up a whole avalanche of teenage thoughts I'd probably rather not experience (!), but think of all the insight you could get!

  • You know that student who is usually hard-working and respectful, but one day suddenly sluggish and contrary? Imagine how much better it would be if you could find out the real reason for for the change.
  • Have you ever felt like your students were right on target, learning and understanding a complex topic, only to be shocked when you assessed them for the first time? I would love to have a peek inside their brains while they're learning to better pinpoint the stumbling blocks.
  • How about those moments when students just aren't in a participatory mood and the fabulous whole-class discussion you were hoping they'd generate falls flat? Are they shy? Are they tired? Are they not interested in the topic? Scanning their thoughts at this point would certainly be helpful. 
Maybe I could have a special helmet to wear that protected me from reading minds when I didn't want to use my powers (for X-Men fans, I'm kind of thinking of a reverse-Magneto helmet here). When the situation arose, I could simply remove my helmet and a get "read" on a class of students at a moment's notice. 

But until I get bitten by a telepathic spider, or fall victim to radiation poisoning, or mind-meld with a techno-organic super suit, I guess I'll just have to make due with the powers I currently possess: the ability to be patient, ask questions, and get to know my students at little better each day.

Photo from Amanda Tipton on Flickr, Licensed via Creative Commons.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Three Strengths

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 15: Name three strengths you have as an educator.

Like many teachers, I have a hard time being vocal about my strengths. It always feels a bit conceited to me. But I've already made it this far in the challenge, and can't turn back now. So, to get through this very uncomfortable (for me!) post as quickly as possible, I'll keep it short.

1) Resilience: I'm not afraid to try something new and fail. In fact, I thrive on it. This is one of the aspects of teaching that keeps me excited each year - the ability to constantly experiment with teaching methods in order to better reach the learners in my classroom.

2) Creative: I never have been an "arts and crafts" person, but I do love taking a concept and coming up with a creative, engaging way to help students understand and learn that concept. Just today, I decided that since my students always have a hard time remembering the equations for photosynthesis and respiration, we'd create a class chant and movements that would help them remember them the processes better.

3) Hopeful: Even on days when students are challenging, technology doesn't work, colleagues are negative, and the night is filled with school work, given enough time, I'll eventually stop dwelling on the bad and start figuring out a "fix." I'm a problem-solver, so if something isn't going well, I rarely just throw my hands up in the air. Instead, I pursue a way to improve the situation.

*Despite this being an awkward post to write, I was excited about finding this awesome photo. It's from Bhope34 on Flickr. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Does Your Feedback Say to Students?

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 14: What is feedback for learning, and how well do you give it to students?

It's a little ironic that I sit down to write this post after just spending a couple hours on a Sunday evening writing feedback on student lab reports. As I was writing comments, questions, and suggestions for my students to improve their work, I was thinking about how I used to provide "feedback" for students. When I first started teaching, I'd correct a lab report by referring to the rubric to count up all the errors they made, and then give them a score. Done. Done for me and done for them.

Consider what this type of "feedback" says to students. It says,

"This was your one shot to prove to me what you can do, and you blew it." 
"This one-time score will forever impact your overall success in this class." 
"Your teacher holds all the knowledge, and s/he found you lacking." 
"Your learning is done."

Slowly, as I became less satisfied with this type of "feedback," I began to experiment with different ways of using feedback to help my students learn, instead of using it as a signal for the end of learning in the form of a grade. Even the idea that the teacher, "corrects assignments" is limiting to student learning. Instead, I started asking students to make the corrections on their assignments, and used key words to indicate what types of corrections they should consider. "EM" meant "Explain More" and "SP" meant "Be more Specific." I stopped recording scores in the grade book until the students' work met the standard that had been established. And for the first time this year, I'm using Standards Based Grading in my classes.

Here is an example of comments from the assignment I was assessing tonight. The students created their own experiments, and wrote a procedure, data table, and analysis for their experiment based on rubrics. They submitted their work over Schoology, I then evaluated their work based on which level of the rubric they reached, and left comments in Schoology. Only assignments that reached a "3" on a given rubric were recorded as a score. Everything else is considered a "Work in Progress," a handy option in our district's grade book.

Students are then given time to consider my feedback and make corrections, after which I look over their work a second time and follow the same process. This cycle continues until the student reaches all "3's" or higher, or the end of the quarter - whichever comes first.

I've become more intentional about including peer evaluation in the feedback process as well. Before students submitted the above assignment to me, the procedure had been read and evaluated by four other students, and the data and analysis had been read and evaluated by two other students. In this evaluation, students had to determine if the work was at the 1, 2, 3, or 4 level based on the rubric. If it wasn't yet at a 3, they wrote comments for the owner of the assignment to help him/her improve the work. In my first experiment with peer feedback in class this year, it didn't seem to significantly improve the students' learning. But I'm not sure yet if that's because the evaluating student wasn't serious about his/her role, or if the student receiving the feedback didn't act upon the suggestions. Nonetheless, I'm committed to making peer feedback a permanent and regular part of science class. The students will be evaluating another lab report for their classmates this week.

I'm sure the practice and implementation of feedback in my classroom will continue to evolve, but I'm confident in saying that its purpose has been cemented in place. I will never again use feedback to squelch learning, as my grading practices did in the past. Feedback will continue to be a way to say to students,

"Take this chance to learn more deeply."
 "Try to see your work from a different perspective."
"Your learning is more complex and important than one score can show."
"While you're trying to improve, I'm willing to give you the time and input you need to do so."

*Image from flickr, licensed under Creative Commons: 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Frosting Without The Cake

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 13: Name the top edtech tools you use on a consistent basis in the classroom, and rank them in terms of their perceived (by you) effectiveness.

Writing about technology tools in the classroom is not my favorite topic for a blog post. After all, without strong pedagogy, the tools are simply frosting without the cake. And I really don't like frosting on its own; it's way too sweet. But since I have benefitted from reading so many other writers' posts about edtech tools in the past, it's time I give back and contribute to the conversation.

Here is a list of every tech tool my students or I used in the first four weeks of the school year, as well as how often it was used:
  • Schoology (nearly every day)
  • Google Forms (4 days)
  • TED video (1 day)
  • Remind (12 days)
  • YouTube (5 days)
  • Google Docs app, Pages app, and/or Notability app (4 days)
  • Camera app for video (3 days)
  • Padlet (3 days)
  • Weebly (1 day)
  • Nearpod (1 day)
  • Zaption (2 days)
  • Answer Garden (1 day)
  • Planbook.com (every day)
Despite the LMS-bashing that seems to be circulating on my Twitter feed right now, I have to say I love Schoology and I'm not ashamed to admit it! Yes, it's amazing to have everything the student needs for class in one place, but what I love even more is not how it facilitates sharing between me and my students, but how Schoology allows students to share with each other more easily. The discussion feature is flexible enough to be used for sharing all sorts of ideas between students. For example, I recently challenged my Anatomy students to share one question they still had about the kidney in a Schoology discussion, and then search for and post a resource that answered the question so that we could develop a class repository of information about the topic. In Biology, students were able to share lab results with their classmates by uploading videos to Schoology. Students discussed their results in a video and then uploaded the product to a Schoology media album so their classmates could use the results for a final conclusion write-up.

The other high-use tool on this list is Planbook.com. If you don't already have an online lesson-planning tool you love, you definitely need to consider this one. For the very reasonable price of $12 per year, you get a nicely-organized planbook with lots of bells and whistles. Here are some of the features about it I love:

- I used to have Post-It notes all over my paper planbook because of all the adjusting to lessons I did every week. With an online planbook, changes are easier to record and less messy.
- It has an iPad app that has all the same features as the desktop version.
- You can link photos and websites into your plans. So if I have a lab set-up I want to make sure to remember for next year, I just snap a photo of it and upload it to that specific day and lesson in Planbook.
- If you are a teacher who shares a week's worth of lessons with students so they can plan ahead, it has an option to create a link for students to view your planbook. But I can still write notes to myself in the planbook that the students can't see.

I expect Weebly use to become more common in my classes as the year progresses. The students just started their Weebly accounts on Friday, but they will be using them on a weekly basis from now on. Weebly will be the platform for their e-portfolios. Because I'm diving into standards-based grading this year, I really wanted to have a way for students to evaluate their own work and only submit their best work to me to be graded. The Weebly accounts are personal websites that will be used by students to share their work. I was able to create my classes after initiating my own account, and then set up each of my students in a class with a username and password. Weebly has been very thoughtful in their planning for teacher oversight of the student websites.  I don't have to allow the websites to be public right away, but I still have access to view all of them.

All of the other tools are used sporadically throughout the week. If you have any questions about how I use these other tools on my list, please let me know!

Photo by Maddie Keating, "One Hundred Eighty Four," from Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.

Friday, September 12, 2014

My Student-Focused Future

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 12: How do you envision your teaching changing over the next 5 years?

For the first time in 12 years of teaching, the new school year started without me explaining a single classroom "rule" for my students. In past years, I'd read numerous articles about teachers who worked together with their students to develop the classroom rules, and although this option felt okay to me, it still wasn't quite what I was looking for. Finally, this fall, I came across this article from Edutopia about establishing classroom norms.  Here was an approach that made sense to me. I liked the combination of student independence and community-building inherent in the process. It took us over 3 weeks to step through a process of creating classroom norms, but it was definitely worthwhile. After students generated norms individually, as teams, and then as a class, we chose key words as reminders of the type of learning environment they wanted to create. The photo above shows each of the key words the students felt were important, signed off on, and hung around the room.

The reason I share this anecdote is because I believe it symbolizes a significant shift in my learning philosophy. I have found that my teaching has become more student-centered over the past five years. I've begun to focus less on "getting through" the content and more on helping students ask questions, creating opportunities for student choice, and emphasizing learning as a process.  This shift started with small changes like incorporating teams and flipping the classroom. Last year I took a big leap by eliminating traditional tests from Biology classes and incorporating project-based learning. This year, I'm focused on standards-based grading, e-portfolios, and allowing student questions to drive the curriculum sequence. I can only hope that my teaching in the next five years will continue to follow this path.

What is most interesting to me as I reflect on this shift is that the catalyst for the change seems to be watching my own two boys grow and learn. Anyone who has spent any time around young children knows that they have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and boundless curiosity. Left to their own devices, kids are great at learning. While I teach high school students, who have generally had this instinct driven out of them by years of highly-directed learning, I have to believe that they still harbor the potential to be curious and excited about learning. The way that I assess student learning, the "assignments" that I design, and the classroom environment that I work to achieve are now all conceived with this end in mind. In five years, I would love to be teaching in a classroom where each student has true autonomy over their learning.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Learning Zen

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 11: What is your favorite part of the school day and why?

I've been struggling to pin down the one part of the school day that's my favorite, and I think it's because my experience is so different from day to day. These days, even my prep period is unpredictable. It's during first hour, which should be great for getting labs ready and making last-minute copies, but these days it's been a lot of "Help! My iPad isn't ____ and I need to use it in 10 minutes!" Having been in that situation many times myself, I don't want to leave teachers or students in the lurch. But it also makes my prep period a little chaotic most days.

So, instead I'm going to interpret this prompt a little more broadly and try to put into words the moments of "learning zen" that keep me going as a teacher. If you're an educator, you already know what I'm talking about. Although there may be some specifics that differ from teacher to teacher, in general I'm thinking about those moments when all seems right with the world. A lesson is unfolding as you imagined it, students are engaged, and the learning is truly visible.

Recently, one of these moments occurred in Biology class. Although the circumstances for this type of experience can be varied, for me it always results in a sense of "flow;" like the student learning is a perpetual motion machine instead of that wind-up car I have to constantly attend to. Students feed off each other's engagement, and thereby learn more in the process.

Before diving into the topics of photosynthesis & respiration, Biology students had designed experiments to see how snails and pond plants use and release carbon dioxide. Each team ended up setting up different experiments, therefore we needed a way for them to share their results with the rest of the class so an overall conclusion could be established based on all the evidence. To accomplish this, each team was required to create a video that showed the results of their investigation, and the video was then shared with the other teams. The only requirements of the video were that #1, every team member needed to be involved and, #2, the team needed to explain their claim, evidence, and reasoning in the video.

And this is when the magic happened. Once they were given some direction, the students really took off on the assignment. I got to stand back and watch them discuss, teach, and come to conclusions within their teams about what claim their evidence supported and how best to display that in a video. For the most part, all students were engaged and thinking deeply. Some teams were pretty creative in the videos as well. They had fun planning how they would share their evidence, and a few even personalized the video. After almost four weeks of school, I started to see the teams gel together, enjoy each other's company, and compound each other's learning. It was a joy to behold. Below is an example of a finished product.

So, although I can't really pinpoint my favorite part of the school day, I can say with certainty that these sporadic moments of "learning zen" are one of the reasons I continue to love my chosen occupation.  Not only are the students grappling with challenging concepts, but they're also experiencing positive interactions with their peers and enjoying themselves, which causes the new concepts to "stick" even better. 

What does "learning zen" look like in your classroom? What can we do as educators to foster this type of experience for students? I look forward to hearing from you!

Photo from Roberto Zingales at Flickr.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What You Never Knew You Wanted To Know

A photo of my family at Old Faithful this summer. They are definitely the most important thing in my life.

This post is part of the 30-Day Blog Challenge from TeachThought. To learn more about the challenge go to www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/.

DAY 10: Share 5 random facts about yourself...
1) I have a minor in Spanish and have visited Guatemala three times.  On one of the trips, I stayed with a family to practice the language, climbed a volcano, and visited the Mayan temples that have a cameo in Star Wars. During the other two trips, I stayed in a small village and volunteered sorting coffee, planting trees, and completing various construction jobs.
2) I had a bad habit of biting my fingernails all during childhood and until I was in my 20's.  Every once in a while, usually while I'm reading a good book, I catch myself biting a fingernail again without even thinking about it!
3) I like to sing and act. I was involved in many musicals and plays throughout grade school and high school. My freshman year of college, I sewed costumes for the theater department as part of my work-study job.  Nowadays, the closest experience I get to this is acting out all the crazy character voices in the books I read aloud to my sons.
4) My husband is a stay-at-home dad and has been since my eldest son was born. Before we even had children, we always knew that one of us would stay home with them, and he has done an amazing job. We've gotten used to people initially looking at us strangely when we explain our situation, and my husband has reconciled himself to the fact that he'll never really fit in with the stay-at-home mom groups.
5) I love reading all types of books, but I've always had a soft spot for fantasy novels. I read The Lord of the Rings series and the Chronicles of Narnia as a young childway before I was able to completely understand them. I'm currently reading The Book of Three to my boys and loving all the memories it's bringing back. (Oh, and there are some great character voices to create in reading this book out loud as well!)

Share 4 things from your bucket list...
1) Teach abroad.
2) Visit the Galapagos Islands.
3)  Be in a community theater musical with my boys.
4)  Run a marathon.

Share 3 things you hope for this year, as a "person" or an educator...
1) I shared with my students today that I have one wish for them: "Grow." Grow in their learning, grow in their understanding of the world, grow in their relationships with each other.
2) I am hopeful that each of the teachers I work with as a technology integrationist feels supported in our new initiatives.
3) Finally, and most importantly, I hope that I can continue cultivating strong bonds with my family despite increasing demands from my job.

Share 2 things that have made you laugh or cry as an educator...
1) In one of my first years of teaching, a Senior football player in one of my classes accidentally called me "Mom" in front of the entire class. The other students gave him a hard time for it, and at the time I tried to brush it off to save him some embarrassment. I had a good laugh about it later when I was alone, however!
2) I am the Knowledge Bowl coach for our high school, and I've had some great laughs with these kids. Whether it's goofy answers during practice or funny stories on the bus on the way to a meet, I always enjoy their zany sense of humor.

Share 1 thing you wish more people knew about you.
1) I am a very focused person. This means if I'm working on something at my computer and you try to say something to me, I might not break away my attention. If I'm in a meeting, I don't deal with deviations from the agenda very well.  Even if it appears I'm not "actively" doing something, you can bet my brain is working out some sort of problem or planning and organizing some future activity. Sometimes this comes off as being overly serious or even angry about something, while in reality it's just me concentrating. My husband teases me that I have a "face" that I make when I'm in this mode, and it could be easily misinterpreted as frustration or inattention, when in reality it's a reflection of those gears in my mind spinning.