Sunday, December 20, 2015

Using CER to Deepen Thinking

When I started using the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning framework last year, little did I know the transformative power it would have in all aspects of student learning. Opportunities to incorporate scientific argumentation in the classroom continue to present themselves.

The last time I taught College Biology was pre-CER for me, so it's been exciting finding ways to incorporate it into the methods I've traditionally used with this class. One recent shift was a speciation activity from previous years. The original lesson asked students to plot data about the location of various sub-species of the California salamander, Ensatina. Students would then answer questions about the patterns that the sub-species created and eventually be "led" to the possibility that speciation had occurred. Here's a LINK to the original lesson from ENSI. I like that the activity is based on actual research on ring species, initiated by Robert Stebbins from UC Berkley in the 1940's. However students never really puzzled over the data as much as would have liked them to. So, I decided to apply the principles of CER to the activity, hoping to see more critical thinking.

Image from
To start the activity, I shared the story of the Ensatina salamander species with the students. I showed them photos of what the sub-species look like and discussed the history of the research that has benn done on the species. Students then used the data and map from the original activity to plot the locations of the salamanders. At this point, instead of answering scripted questions, I tasked the student teams with (1) Writing a CER argument addressing the question, How did speciation of the Ensatina salamanders occur in California? (2) Diagramming a whiteboard model to support their argument. Remember, the students had no knowledge of the actual scientific result of this research.

The discussions teams had while developing their CER and whiteboard models were exactly the type of thinking I was hoping for. Students debated which sub-species was the most ancestral, why salamanders in different areas of California looked so different, and applied topics from class such as disruptive selection, habitat isolation, and hybridization. Each of their models and arguments ended up being a little different. Since we didn't have time to run an official white boarding "class conference," I asked every team to create a video describing their CER with the whiteboard model as a prop in the video.

This wasn't the end of the activity, however. I wanted the students to evaluate each others' arguments. Also, I no longer give points for group work, so I was searching for a way to assess my students individually on this topic. What I decided to do was this: Each student watched three CER videos from teams other than their own. After watching the videos, they critiqued the arguments discussed in the videos by responding to the prompts below.

1) Compare and contrast the speciation arguments in the three videos you watched.
2) In your opinion, which team developed the strongest argument? Why? (Discuss the qualities of all three arguments in your explanation.)
3) Describe two additional pieces of information that would have improved all the groups' arguments. In other words, if you could request that the original salamander scientists provide you with more data or information, what would have been helpful to know to support the arguments?

The results were outstanding. Students dug into the arguments of their peers and provided very insightful analyses of evidence.

Here are some excerpts of student work from the peer critique:

I was extremely happy with the outcome of this CER lesson. Not only was the content of the course reinforced, but students participated in powerful science practices. Double win!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

My Favorite Things

What follows is an article I wrote for the most recent MnSTA Newsletter. The online version can be found HERE for people who are members of MnSTA. 

A few weeks ago, I was searching online for something new to supplement the phylogenetics lessons the College Biology class had been working on. When I finally came across a great resource, one of my first instincts was to tweet it out, sharing it with my fellow teaching colleagues.

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It seems as though many teachers are pre-programmed to share. Put two or more science teachers in a room, and it’s my observation that it takes approximately 4.2 minutes (give or take) before they start talking about examples of their favorite lessons, websites, or labs.

So in the spirit of sharing, I’m beginning a series of articles themed, “My Favorite Things.” For each edition of the MnSTA newsletter, my goal is to share with you one website, one book, and one podcast that are “favorites.” Since I’m a Biology teacher, these will mostly concentrate in that discipline area, but I’m hoping as the articles get rolling, I will hear from many science teachers throughout the state of Minnesota, willing to share their favorite things. Yes, this means you! If you have a book, website, or podcast that inspires your teaching or is simply one of those resources you turn to regularly, please contact me (information at the end of this article). Your ideas will be shared here as part of the regular article.

With that said, onto the sharing!

Website: “NOVA Labs: Evolution Lab.”
Here is the phylogenetics website that had me so excited a few weeks ago. In this “game,” students are guided through a series of missions in which they initially build phylogenetic trees based on traits, fossil evidence, and then eventually DNA similarities. Part of each mission is a tutorial introducing new concepts and tools, with the following challenges getting progressively harder. There are questions at the end of each mission to check students’ new learning, and players can only move on to a new mission once they’ve successfully unlocked the previous one. I was pleased that NOVA covers a wide diversity of organisms in these missions, from bacteria to dinosaurs to hominids. One of the missions also challenges students to consider practical applications of phylogenetics in medicine. It took my students approximately an hour to go through all the missions, and afterwards I asked them to write a paragraph using what they learned in the NOVA Lab as evidence for questions they were exploring in class.

Book: Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning by Paige Keeley.
Many of you may have seen or have been using the subject-specific formative assessment probes designed by Keeley, which are wildly popular among science teachers. While I do incorporate a couple of these probes here and there throughout my curriculum, the Keeley-inspired tools I use the most come from this book, Science Formative Assessment. Here, Keeley spells out a variety of generic strategies that can be used in any science class to get a better idea of student thinking. Just in the past quarter, I’ve used at least three ideas from this book. For a recent debate about energy in food chains, students participated in a “Four Corners” assessment. They were asked take a stand on a question by moving to the corner of the room that represented their answer and preparing a “position statement” defending that answer with the other like-minded students in the corner. In preparation for a quiz on classification, students worked in pairs to complete a “Justified True/False” and then rotated through other groups to defend and clarify their justifications. To show changing thinking about photosynthesis and expose misconceptions, I asked students to “Post-It Vote” on a question before exploring the topic in class, and then again afterwards. All three of these methods, and 72 others, are described in detail in Keeley’s book.  

Podcast: Horizontal Transfer by Paul Anderson and David Knuffke
If you teach high school Biology and don’t currently listen to podcasts, this podcast alone should be enough to get you on the bandwagon. Produced by Paul Anderson (of Bozeman Biology video fame) and fellow Biology/Chemistry teacher David Knuffke, Horizontal Transfer is a weekly discussion of ideas, tools, and resources pertinent to all Biology teachers. From topics as specific as “graphing” to broad, philosophical ideas such as, “the ideal high school,” each episode is engaging and entertaining. From the beginning, Paul and David encouraged the listening audience to contribute to the podcast with feedback and “teacher hacks,” which they feature as a regular part of the show. Because of this global collaboration, listening to the podcast makes you feel like a part of a greater community, not just a passive recipient of information. Catching up on past episodes is easy as well, since Paul and David also created a website (of the same name) to archive all the shows and resources.

On a side note, I get asked a lot, “Where do you find the time to listen to podcasts?” Think about all the mindless tasks you may have during the day, and these might be the perfect moments to put on a podcast: a long commute, doing the dishes, raking leaves. Once you get started, you’ll start recognizing all sorts of unclaimed minutes throughout your day. Give it a try!

If you have some “favorite things” you’d like to share with Minnesota science teachers, please send the name of the website, book, or podcast with a short review to Amanda Meyer via email ( or Twitter (@alynnmeyer). Looking forward to your contributions!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Formative Assessments in Biology

As a part-time technology integrationist for my district, I create a monthly newsletter on Smore for all the staff members. It usually includes updates, ideas from various K-12 classrooms that I've seen, and suggestions for new tools to try. This month, I focused completely on formative assessment. It's been a big part of our PLCs, and after a conversation with some of my colleagues I realized that I use a lot of tech-based formative assessment in Biology.

So this post is a summary of some of the digital formative assessment tools I shared with my staff members in the October newsletter. For each resource, I've provided an explanation of what it is, how it works, and an example from my own classes. I also have a large arsenal of non-tech formative assessment ideas I use in class, mostly based on Paige Keeley's "Science Formative Assessment," which I use weekly. Maybe I'll share some of those in a later blog post!

I know that formative assessment is one of those "buzz words" in education right now, but once I started using targeted methods more thoughtfully to truly probe what my students were thinking, I was just coasting along in class, doing my own thing, oblivious to what my students needed. Bringing in effective formative assessment was the first step in creating a responsive, learner-centered classroom.


Are you looking for a good way to get at students' initial ideas about a topic or new content? Padlet is a great tool for aggregating students' thinking so that the entire class can share with each other. This also allows you (and the students) to look for common misconceptions and/or patterns in thinking.

Set up an account online and create a blank Padlet. Each Padlet you make has its own web link, which you can copy and share with students. All the students need to do is go to the web link, click on an empty spot, and then start typing! Students can also add photos and links to their submissions. Although I've always had students access Padlet through a link on Safari, there is also an app.

The photo below shows how Anatomy students shared their questions related to zombie anatomy after watching a series of video clips and making observations. These questions were then connected to the unit on the Nervous System.


In looking for a digital tool that allowed students to share models in Biology, I came across the web-based tool, Formative. Using Formative, students can answer various types of online questions the teacher has designed. What makes it better than other tools, in my opinion, is that students can draw their answers and there's no log-in or account required for the students.

Once the teacher sets up an account, s/he can design assessments with many different types of questions: multiple choice, show your work, short answer, true/false. You can also add a variety of content to accompany the questions: images, text blocks, a whiteboard, and YouTube videos. After creating the assessment, one option is to copy a link that makes the assessment accessible, even without logging in. Students are immediately prompted to enter their first and last names when they access the link and start the assessment.

Biology students completed an experiment investigating the greenhouse effect this fall. After the experiment, I wanted to know what they thought about their results. Using Formative, I asked them to draw what they thought was happening in their Control and Experimental bottles. Once students submitted their drawings, I could see all of them in one place on my Formative account, making it easy to skim through them and get an idea of where students had gaps in understanding.


I have seen many more students using Educreations this year. It's a simple way to make quick videos. Students can add photos, text, and/or drawings to their video, and then narrate over the image they've created. Having the students speak and explain something visually at the same time is a powerful way to get a peek into their thinking.

You as a teacher will set up an Educreations account and classes in that account. Each of your classes will be assigned a class code. When students originally sign up for Educreations in the app, it's good to have your class code handy for them. If they enter your class code, you will automatically see all their completed projects in your Educreations account. Students can also copy a link to their Educreations video and submit that link on Schoology.

After requiring some student research on the Nitrogen Cycle, I wanted to know what they understood so that I could plan out instruction for the standard. So I asked the students to build an Educreations video showing particular terms and describing their current understanding of the cycle. After watching these short videos, I had a much better idea of where they were struggling.


Socrative is another type of "quiz builder," but there are a couple of things that I think make it stand out from others. First, some students really like the "space race" option, where the class can watch progress through the quiz as all the individuals or groups completing the quiz move their rockets across the screen as they get more questions correct. Socrative also has very detailed teacher reports, which is something I'm looking for with particular assessments.

After you set up a teacher account, you are assigned a "class number" that will never change. Students can go to Socrative online or via the app, enter your class number, and get right into the quiz. Some other nifty options Socrative offers are "Quick Questions," "Exit Tickets," and different options for pacing within the quizzes.

Before starting the topic of Evolution with Biology students, I wanted to know what common misconceptions they had. I set up a series of true/false questions in Socrative that the students answered before learning anything about Evolution. With Socrative's super-duper reports, I could quickly and easily see that most students were okay with Questions 5 (below), but I knew I definitely needed to focus on Question 1 throughout the unit.


Popplet is a mind-mapping app that is super-simple for students to use. A good application for this app is when students have been learning a bunch of different pieces that then need to be connected to a bigger idea. It's another way to encourage students to think critically about their learning - and for you to see if they're ready to extend to that higher level of thinking.

No account required for you, no account required for students. Yay! Students simply open the app, create their Popplet, download the image, and then submit the image to Schoology to share it with their teacher.

In an attempt to help students understand the connections between 2 different standards that they had previously learned (the carbon cycle & climate change), I gave the class a set of "vocabulary" terms from both topics and then tasked them to create a Popplet that connected all of the terms with their own ideas.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Week 5 for SHS Biology

My original goal for blogging this year was to reflect on my classes each week. Well, the last time I blogged was for Week 1 - how quickly a month passes by! So this post will be a summary of what's been going on in the Springfield Biology classes over the last month, instead of the last week.

Things that have been working well:

  • Leveled Assessments: A change to this year's standards-based format is students completing different assessments for each level. A Level 1 Assessment of a standard is the most basic content knowledge. It serves as a baseline for me to see where the students are starting, and the scores aren't entered into the grade book. A Level 2 Assessment is similar to the Level 1 Assessment, but has less supports. It isn't entered into the grade book either, but students must retake this assessment until they reach proficiency. A Level 3 Assessment is an application question related to the standard, and to reach a Level 4 students have to perform additional research or tutoring for a peer. So far, I'm very happy with how the assessments are working. I like getting that initial information from the students, and I feel more secure that they understand the basics of a standard before we move on to higher-order thinking.
  • Note-taking in College Biology: In past years, I've struggled with assigning students to take notes from their textbook readings. It takes a lot of time to teach them this skill, and it's very challenging for students. However, I've had many past students say they were unprepared for college text reading once they started their degree programs. So this year I used a version of Lee Ferguson's (@thebiospace) notes document to teach note-taking to my College Biology students. We worked on an entire section together, and then they practiced on their own. Another change I made is that they don't read the book for all of their content - sometimes I provide a video instead (for which they use the same notes format). So far the balance has been about 50/50 between textbook content and video content. When they are required to take textbook notes, I keep the length of the section short and make sure the topic is fairly straight-forward. 
  • Climate Conference: I've always felt guilty about the lack of attention I've dedicated to climate change in Biology class. It often gets discussed briefly as a side-note at the end of our discussions about the Carbon Cycle. This year, I was determined to wrap the entire unit about the Carbon Cycle, Photosynthesis, and Respiration around the topic of climate change. The students started by generating questions about a video I showed regarding global temperature changes over time. They then planned and executed their own greenhouse effect investigations, learned about the carbon cycle, investigated photosynthesis & respiration in snails and elodea, and are now in the midst of a Climate Conference simulation, pulling everything they've learned together. I designed this activity to mimic the UN Climate Conference that will take place in Paris in a couple of months. Each of the teams in the class chose a country to represent. Based on that country's needs and limitations, they are designing a plan for their country to cut 10 billions tons of carbon emissions by the year 2055. Plans will be shared and analyzed at our "official" Climate Conference this week.
Things I'd like to improve on:

  • Because I started the topic of climate change with student questions, I need to weave those back into the discussion at the Climate Conference. I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to do this yet.
  • I need to be more clear with my College Biology students about when an assignment is for practice and when it is for assessment. These students are typically very grade-conscious, so I need to lower their stress level by being more transparent about points. It's challenging to use standards-based grading in my 10th grade Biology class and traditional grading in the college-level class. So much of my communication about assessment has been in "SBG" world over the last year, so it's hard to switch back into the traditional mode.
  • Argumentation in Biology: Many of my Biology students are still struggling with portions of the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning framework we use for the scientific argumentation standard in class. They were introduced to this last year, but they are especially confused about dissenting evidence and further research. I need to have more one-on-one conferences with students to help clear up confusion.
There have been lots of great things going on in the classroom, but a month of great things is hard to sum up in one blog post. I'll do my best to write again next week so that I can provide a more detailed account. Until then, enjoy some photos of Springfield students in action.

Where does the mass of a plant come from? Pre-assessment results (A = nutrients in the soil, B = sunlight, C = gasses in the air, D = water). Fascinating outcome; lots of learning yet to happen!
(Clockwise) Working on the greenhouse investigation, watching videos of their classmates' lab results, making banners for the Climate Conference, "choose your own adventure" carbon cycle with QR codes, and diagramming results from the plant energy investigation.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Week 1 for SHS Biology

Every year, I change my Week 1 strategy a bit (or a lot) in an attempt to meet the following goals:
  • Get to know my students a little.
  • Help my students begin to know me.
  • Begin building classroom culture.
  • Give the students some information about what to expect from class.
  • Allow the students some input regarding the class.
  • Solidify routines and procedures that are important to student learning.
  • Do some science.
And do all of this in an efficient way so that I don't drag the "intro to class stuff" on so long that it's October before students actually start digging into the content! So much to do in so little time...

This year, I decided to organize all of these goals around "themes" that I felt were important to learning in Biology class: Persistence, Teamwork, Problem-Solving, and Curiosity. Here's the low-down on what the students did to explore these themes.

We had 20 minute classes on the first day of school (and my first hour Biology class was even shorter), so we only had time to do the following:

"Warm-Up." This is one of those procedures I want students to get used to. Every day when they come into class, there is something on the board for them to do. Today, they had to write their name on a popsicle stick. I'm old-school and use these for calling on students or making lab groups throughout the year. I like them better than any digitized name-picker I've come across.

I showed an Intro to Biology Video (below). This one gets my adrenaline racing every time.

I explained how to access and interact with the Course Overview video. I created a video of me talking through the Course Overview. I put it into Zaption and added various interactive questions to it, as well as places where I asked for student feedback and comments. The students had the whole week to find time to watch this 10-minute video, and we'll discuss it more on Monday or as the need arises. Personally, I really dislike talking through the course overview in class.

The "Warm-Up" for the day was to complete the "Get To Know You" survey from Panorama Education (click here). This is only my first year of using the survey, but I'm kind of digging it so far. I took the survey first, and then after the students took it, the survey gave them information about how their answers were similar to mine. And I received analogous information about the students as well. I like the instantaneous connections.

Students worked in partners on this "Saving Sam" activity (click here). Themes that this addressed are Persistence, Teamwork, and Problem-Solving. After the activity, student teams brainstormed what this activity indicated to them about learning in Biology class. I recorded all of their answers on a huge Post-It note.

"Saving Sam" success!
The "Warm-Up" today was to sign up for Remind for the class. Then students received their science notebook and started getting it organized. I've had the students use composition notebooks for science for many years now. This is definitely an integral procedure for my classes. Lee Ferguson has a nice set of videos on how to set these up. Here's the first:

Students explored ice balloons as a way to generate questions. This is an activity I've done for quite a few years. I picked it up at an inquiry workshop and modified it to fit my needs. Students get a tray with a frozen water balloon, some dissecting probes, a thermometer, food coloring, salt, sugar, and corn starch. They have approximately 10 minutes to explore the ice balloon using the tools (and keeping it in the tray). While they're experimenting, each student has a stack of small papers they use to record their questions about the process - one question per paper. When they're done, a team of 3-4 students should have a large stack of questions generated. I then briefly define open vs. closed questions, students sort their questions into open and closed, and finally record a few examples of each in their notebooks. Themes this activity addresses are Teamwork, Problem-Solving, and Curiosity. It was also a good introduction to my expectations for materials use and clean-up in the Biology lab.

Once again, when the activity was done, I asked students to reflect on what this experience indicated to them about learning in Biology class, and I recorded their ideas on a second giant Post-It note.

Exploring ice balloons.
For the "Warm-Up," students practiced changing questions from closed to open and open to closed. This is getting them prepared for the Question Formation Technique we'll be using in class, based on the book,  Make Just One Change, by Rothstein & Santana. (Click here for a link.

The students started on an activity I have never done in the past, but feel is becoming increasingly important in my classes: how to evaluate online sources. I try to emphasize in my course that students have unlimited information at their fingertips and I am not the sole provider of knowledge. However I've realized that students don't know how to find and/or evaluate digital content. So I put together a series of short exercises to help them with this.

1. Establish the need. I asked the students to all put the question "Are vaccinations safe?" into the search bar on Safari. (My students all have iPads.) I then assigned each student a site from the list that was generated. I did this by number: student 1 had site 1 at the very top, student 2 had the next site down, etc. Their task was to skim the site and decide how it answered the question - yes or no. Students then pasted a copy of their site's url and the "yes" or "no" answer onto a class Padlet to share the results. As you can see below, the sites ranged from .gov to .org to .com and more, and students found both yes and no answers. I used this as a springboard to point out the fact that different sites provide different answers, so our job as question-askers is to sift through for the most credible resources.

Padlet results for top 20+ online hits: Are vaccinations safe?

2. What is credible? Students were then given the titles and urls of 11 different websites and asked to rank them (based on name and url only) in order of credibility.

Like many of my new ideas, this one went longer than expected, so we stopped here for the day.

I introduced the first homework assignment of the year - what I called a "practice assignment." Instead of lecturing in class, students access content outside of class via iBook, video, website, or traditional textbook. Students choose which learning tool they prefer. I provide them with guiding questions to write about as they move through the content, and then students fill out an online feedback form. To practice this type of assignment for the first time, I put together some resources on Ebola. We won't be discussing the content for a few days, but I always try to give students multiple days to get assignments like this done so that they can plan around wifi needs and busy schedules.

The "Warm-Up" today was only possible thanks to this great spreadsheet shared by Alice Keeler (click here) designed to collect and organize student ideas for tweeting. I asked the students to tweet (using the shared spreadsheet) about one thing they learned, still wondered about, or something that just stuck with them from class this week. I'm planning on asking the students to do this every Friday as a warm-up. Research on memory shows that if learners wait a while after learning something, and then go back to access that information at a later time, they're more likely to remember it long-term. By the way, you can see some of my students' tweets from this warm-up at @MeyerScience.

To continue the credibility evaluation from the previous day, student partner groups were assigned one of the 11 sites to actually visit and determine everything they could about the author of the site. Was it one or more authors? Was there an editor? Were the authors restricted? What was the educational background of the authors? Did the authors have a bias or affiliation with a particular cause? Was the author monetarily sponsored in any way?

Students reported back what they found and then re-ranked the sites as a class (with very different results from the initial ranking). 

I still have one more activity related to credibility of online sources that I'm going to present to the students on Monday (it's all about using Wikipedia correctly), and then we'll create one more giant sticky note about the experience. The themes that this one addresses are Problem-Solving and Curiosity. After this last activity is done, students will participate in a "chalk talk" to summarize all their Post-It note ideas under three topics: What can I expect of my teammates in Biology class? What can I expect of my teacher in Biology class? What can other expect of me in Biology class?

More than any other year, I feel like the time spent during this first week was a nice balance of my goals. The true test will be the outcome of the chalk talk on Monday. I'll report back next week!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Two Cents On Conferences

Based on a completely unscientific examination of my recent social media connections, there has been a lot of chatter about the nuances of socializing during educational conferences. More specifically, some conference attendees have felt left out, snubbed, or simply ignored by their peers. A few post-ISTE15 blog posts addressed this phenomenon, as well as less directly, some reflections from FlipCon15. It seems as though the relatively new advent of virtual PLN's and the seemingly exponential growth of the edu-famous entourage have collided to form the perfect storm at educational conferences. 
Some teachers have friends around the country (or around the world) that they are only able to visit face to face once or twice a year. The conference is like a lifeline for these types of relationships, so of course they want to spend as much time as possible with these colleagues. On the other hand, some attendees have only "known" a favorite presenter or blogger or podcaster virtually, but have learned from or been inspired by him/her. Of course they want the chance to meet that individual in person at the conference to thank him/her or just socialize for a while.

What results is a sometimes uncomfortable situation in which a conference attendee might feel like s/he is back in high school, sitting at the lunch table all alone, while the cool kids whoop it up a few tables away. 

Well, I've decided it's time I add my two cents worth on this topic. Please note that these are strictly opinions based on one person's experience (mine!), but here are my limited credentials:
  • I'm an introvert at heart.
  • I have my own edu-heroes whose podcasts I listen to, blogs I read, and/or Twitter accounts I follow. 
  • I have no problem starting up a conversation with someone on social media, but I am a little more shy in person.
  • I've attended a variety of national conferences, sometimes with close friends, but usually on my own.
So, with that glimpse into my psyche, here are my ideas about what we could do to better avoid creating "high school cafeterias" at our education conferences. I think some of these strategies would help more attendees to feel included, but also allow for those "PLN reunions" to happen. 

Changes at the Attendee Level
1. Individuals that are planning on attending a conference, especially a national conference, should spend time before the conference connecting with other attendees digitally. Get on social media and find out who's going to be there. Set up some "outings" or "meet-ups" ahead of time so there's some guaranteed face to face time. Advertise which sessions you might be attending so that you can pre-connect with others who will also be there. This ensures a friendly face to look for when you get into the room.

2. If you happen to go to a session in which you don't know anyone, introduce yourself to the people sitting next to you. You'd be amazed at the stories and knowledge your "next door neighbor" has. I met some of my most interesting connections at NSTA15 last winter using this philosophy. You might not get the chance to have a coffee with that edu-famous presenter you really wanted to meet, but I'm here to tell you that there are a ton of amazing educators in the audience that would love to meet you and chat.

3. For those educators who do know a lot of people at the conference and have been looking forward to spending time together, I think it's courteous to make one simple change: Avoid adding the conference hashtag to your personal tweets. Looking to get your PLN together for dinner? Sharing an inside joke? Reminiscing about past gatherings? Those tweets are targeted to a specific, select group and don't need to be shared with all the conference attendees. It only makes other people feel like they're missing something when they really aren't a part of this insular conversation that you've made public. I'm not saying that you shouldn't have these Twitter conversations with your buds; I just feel like there's no need to use the conference hashtag with these tweets. Hashtagging should be for conversations about experiences, ideas, and learning that all people can feel a part of.

Changes at the Presenter Level
1. If I were to lecture in the classroom, I wouldn't continue for very long before I took a break and asked students to process that information in some way. Similarly, I feel like part of a presenter's responsibility is to allow time for attendees to bounce ideas off each other during the presentation. This not only allows an opportunity for the genius of the room to be uncorked, but it also has the potential to get people talking to others they may have never otherwise met. You could even be really crazy and purposefully mix up those groups so that attendees don't only talk to the people they chose to sit with. Give your attendees time to verbally process with each other and the opportunity to meet a like-minded friend.

2. Keep in touch with the attendees who contact you. If someone at your session tweets about it, respond with a "favorite" or written reply. If you receive any correspondence later about questions or resources, make sure to take the time to answer. I'm sure it can get a little overwhelming if you receive a lot of requests, but if you're going to put yourself out there as a presenter, I feel like you have a responsibility to "walk the talk."

Changes at the Conference Level
The conference format can go a long ways in allowing for different types of interactions amongst participants. Based on the conferences I've attended, here are some "format" ideas that I think work well to achieve a balance amongst the myriad of attendees' social expectations.

1. Provide communal meals onsite and make sure there's enough time to eat them. Let's face it, a lot of our conference socializing is done over drinks or a cheeseburger. For those attendees that don't know a lot of people at the conference, a communal meal is a great place to meet someone new. No need to worry about finding a lunch date, just simply join a table. Sometimes tables are explicitly organized by interests so everyone has a "home," but they don't need to be. We're all adults and should feel somewhat comfortable (albeit, a little awkward) joining a table of strangers for dinner. For attendees that already have a group of friends they'd like to spend time with, a nice long meal time allows the opportunity to eat outside of the conference and catch up.

2. Plan for a variety of session types, some of which are meant to simply bring people together. Many big conferences will have a "first-timers" breakfast to kick off the conference. FlipCon has scheduled time for job-alike sessions for people to meet each other and share ideas. One of my favorite memories from ISTE14 was attending the "Birds of a Feather" gatherings that united educators around common interests or passions. I met so many intelligent, friendly colleagues at those sessions. Traditional conference sessions can be very one-directional. The presenter or the panel "talks at you" and there is no community connectedness. This is fine for some topics, but conference planners need to make sure that there are also many scheduled, intentional opportunities for conversations to happen. 

A conference is what you make of it and adaptable to what you need from it. Just remember that everyone attends conferences for different reasons. Presenters and conference planners can do a lot to help ensure that attendees with diverse needs are all satisfied. But at the same time, your attitude, courage, and empathy can go a long way in making each conference a valuable experience.

Photo from Denisefg87 on Flickr, available via Creative Commons.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer Reading: "Building A Better Teacher"

I heard Elizabeth Green speak about her book, Building A Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), on an episode of American Radio Works this past fall, and she's been on my reading list ever since. While I was expecting the book to be a methodical description of what the research says about effective teaching, it turned out to be more of a comprehensive, historical look at our nation's thinking about teaching. Not that this was a bad thing. I learned a lot about the complexities of "good teaching" and why it's difficult to write a book that's a methodical description of effective teaching.

My first surprise was that researchers in the U.S. haven't been studying the "science of teaching" for very long. Green takes the reader through a history of this research, essentially starting with an educator named Nathaniel Gage. Gage was a professor at the University of Illinois and one of the first to employ experimentation as a tool to study teaching. Eventually, Green moves forward in history, through various researchers, until she reaches a Michigan teacher: Deborah Loewenberg Ball (currently the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan). Much of the book, in one way or another, is connected to Deborah and the style of teaching she developed for math classrooms. At the risk over-simplifying the methodology, Green describes the following differences in Loewenberg Ball's teaching:

  • Begin a lesson with a question to spur student curiosity and discussion (instead of direct instruction by the teacher).
  • Allow student discourse to drive the teaching and learning of the lesson (instead of pre-determined teacher questions and time commitments).
  • Plan for teaching a few big ideas in greater depth (instead of many topics superficially).
These ideas were further validated for Loewenberg Ball by a visit to Japan, where she was able to observe typical math classes in session. Green also writes quite a bit about the Japanese practice of lesson study and attempts in Michigan to model the process. Although many educators saw the value in Loewenberg Ball's methods, it was challenging to scale the system.

There are a few chapters in the book that discuss charter schools, such as the KIPP and Uncommon Schools networks. These schools typically focus on prescriptive teaching methods to raise test scores for struggling students. While they have had some success on standardized tests, Green describes questions within these communities about the depth of learning for their students, at which point she circles back to Loewenberg Ball's work.

Although this book does not encompass all the research on teaching that has taken place, it was a good introduction for me. I liked the historical lens, as it made Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching.  It was Loewenberg Ball's teaching philosophy that resonated with me the most. Even though she is focused on math instruction, many of her methods transfer well to science. Tools for Ambitious Science, in my opinion, applies Loewenberg Ball's work to science instruction.
trends in our national impressions about teaching more evident. Also, because of this book, I stumbled upon a terrific website for science teaching:

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Summer Reading: "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet"

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a book of surprises and contradictions. Although the book jacket describes its main character as a "twelve-year-old genius cartographer," it also has an awful lot to say about the nature of science. After a couple of pages into the first chapter, I thought that perhaps this would be an appropriate book to read to my two boys, as the main character is only a few years older and there are quite a few illustrations in the margins. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that although children would enjoy the storyline of T.S. Spivet, they would certainly struggle with some of the philosophical and metaphysical themes running throughout the novel. My final surprise was how much I enjoyed this book. Its story was engaging, which made it hard to put down. The illustrations were clever and thoughtful. And finally, it encouraged me ponder big questions about life and the universe. 

Part of my enjoyment in reading this book is that I really didn't know what it was about when I first put it on my library reserve list. For that reason, I don't want to give away too much of the plot. However, I will tell you this: T.S. Spivet is an adolescent boy, living in Montana, with an insatiable curiosity and uncanny ability to put his thoughts into pictures. He thinks about all sorts of everyday occurrences in terms of data, models, measurements, and trends, sketching them out in a series of notebooks. This is the source of the illustrations in the book.

An illustration at the opening of a chapter. T.S. ponders migration.

One of the sketches from the beginning of the book. T.S.'s sister is shucking corn while he's collecting data. He gets upset when she finishes the job without him and his data set is incomplete.  This was my first clue that this book was something unexpected and unique.

One of my favorite sketches from the book. T.S. travels to Chicago and ponders the nature of shorts vs. pants.

An event occurs in the book that prompts an independent, cross-country train trip for T.S., during which we get to learn more about his unique perspective of the world, discover some of his family history, and peek more into his relationships with his father, mother, and siblings.

As I said above, it doesn't seem like a book with this storyline would have a lot to do with science, but T.S. thinks about everything in life through the lens of science. He observes things that others might ignore, asks probing questions, collects data and looks for patterns to form hypotheses. We get to learn more about his grandmother, who was a geologist in the early 1900's, and the struggles she experienced as a female scientist. T.S.'s mother is an entomologist, which also has an impact on the development of T.S. as a character.

T.S. is supposed to be a child genius in this book, but I originally had a hard time trying to maintain that image of him as a 12-year-old in my mind, finding myself constantly challenged by his thinking and creativity. But as I saw the themes of the book play out, I realized that this story would have been impossible if T.S. was an adult. Seeing the world through a child's eyes is a completely different experience compared to an adult's perception. The magic and mystery of the book are possible only because the main character is a child.

As educators, we need to remember the valuable perspective students bring to our own learning, simply because they are so new to the world. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet reminds us to cherish children and their perpetual wonder.

*All photos were taken by the blog author, Amanda Meyer.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer Reading: "The Sixth Extinction"

Image from, labeled as "Free to use and share."

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History was first added to my summer reading list as one of the potential book reads for Horizontal Transfer podcast listeners. It didn't make the cut for that particular group, but after listening to an interview with the author, Elizabeth Kolbert, on an MPR podcast a few weeks ago, I decided to read it anyway. She captured me with her descriptions of the book that made it seem one part adventure and one part natural history. The book did not disappoint in this regard, however I feel that the science stories it shared were more suited to new-comers to the topic.

Much of the book involves Kolbert traveling all over the world in order to experience unique ecosystems, locate a rare species, or visit the site of a historic event. She starts the book with a few chapters on endangered or extinct species and their connection to the mass extinction events of the past and present. A trip to Panama examines the current rapid decline in amphibian populations, and chapters about mastadon fossils and great auks take the reader through the history of scientific thought about extinction. The discovery of the KT-Boundary and its associated "bolide" impact is explained through the use of ammonite fossils.

The second half of the book reveals more specifically how humans are directly linked to the current mass extinction event, or the "Sixth Extinction." In these chapters, Kolbert travels to Scotland, the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Italy, the Great Barrier Reef, the Andes Mountains in Peru, the Brazilian Amazon, New York, and Cincinnati to focus in on the major human impacts on global extinction: ocean acidification, deforestation, and the transportation of invasive species. Again, she scaffolds these chapters with stories of particular species, such as the little brown bats that are dying from white nose syndrome and a Sumatran rhino a zoo is attempting to breed in captivity. She even spends a chapter on Neanderthals and their possible extinction as a result of interactions with H. sapiens.

Kolbert does not end The Sixth Extinction with her prescription of "how to make it all better." We are in the midst of a mass extinction, and righting the ship at this point may be out of our hands. She outlines that there are two possibilities here: Number One, humans continue to impact the Earth in a way that eventually leads to our own extinction. The Earth will continue into the future, less diverse but still teeming with life; we just won't be a part of that. Possibility Number Two, our creativity and innovation will allow humans to explore and settle in different worlds. Most importantly, Kolbert makes clear that up until this point, we have been causing extinctions without truly understanding their impacts. Now that we have a better understanding of extinction, biodiversity, and evolution, we need to be more thoughtful about the choices we're making that affect the biosphere.

I have to admit I found myself wishing to visit some of the places Kolbert describes, especially considering many ecosystems are disappearing (the Great Barrier Reef may be gone in 50 years). However, can I justify that type of travel when so many extinctions are directly or indirectly related to climate change? Not really. Other than enjoying Kolbert's descriptions of these amazing ecosystems and species, I can't say this book offered me a lot of new scientific information. Many of these case studies have been covered pretty thoroughly in the news. In fact, a few days ago, I ran across this recent study supporting that we are indeed in the midst of a mass extinction event. I agree with Kolbert in that humans, in general, need to become more aware of the impact of our actions on other species. This is where my role as a science teacher comes into play. Though I am pretty familiar with the science in her book, my students are not. I have the resources and time to educate students about these pressing issues. In summary, I didn't learn much new information by reading The Sixth Extinction, but I will definitely share excerpts from the book with my students.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Summer Reading: "Whistling Vivaldi"

Inspired by our high school English department, last year I started posted outside my classroom door the book/s I was currently reading. I've always been a voracious reader, and now my entire family gets giddy about books the same way some people anticipate and discuss a new Game of Thrones episode. (Okay, my husband and I are pretty giddy about GOT as well, but mainly because we loved the books first!) So, although I'm constantly reading at least one book at any given time during the school year, summer is when I really kick it into high gear. More free time, combined with hours at the pool and weeks at the lake, gives me ample opportunity to start checking off those titles that have been on my book list all year.

My hope is to share some of those books via this blog this summer. Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele is what will hopefully be the first of many that I write about.

I'm pretty sure I came across this book in a Twitter chat at some point this past year, but that's all I can remember, so I apologize for not being able to give the recommender credit. The full title is, Whistling Vivaldi And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. Here's the first line from the jacket cover:
"In Whistling Vivaldi, renowned social psychologist Claude M. Steele addresses one of the most perplexing social issues of our time: the trend of minority underperformance in higher education."
Although this is no "light" summer read, I appreciate that Steele uses a combination of personal narrative and solid research to take the reader through the relevant discoveries on this topic. Personally, it was the most evidence-based and actionable book I've read regarding minority cultures in education. Now, I haven't read extensively on this topic, but never did an assigned reading in my licensure program so clearly and rationally outline the potential causes of the achievement gap or such realistic ways to start closing that gap. Having now been immersed in Steele's research, I see connections to his observations in my everyday life: the television we watch, the trip to the grocery store, and of course, my classroom.

The basis of Steele's book is understanding a phenomenon called "stereotype threat," and he spends a few chapters developing this idea for the reader. To truly understand stereotype threat, I strongly recommend you read the book, as Steele takes you through many experiments and experiences to build his theory. However, in a nutshell, stereotype threat says that any minority group tends to perform more poorly on a given task in an environment that reminds them of or reinforces their minority status. For example, Steele recruited male and female college students who were at the top in their math classes. He gave them challenging, GRE-level assessments in English and Math. The students scored similarly on the English test, but women scored significantly lower on the Math test. Steele had a theory that this was a result of the stereotype that women aren't as "smart" at math. Simply having this stereotype hanging over them puts more pressure and anxiety on women, interfering with their cognitive processing. There is no stereotype threat for English for women, and therefore there was no significant difference in scores.

To test his theory, Steele removed then removed the stereotype threat before administering the Math test by simply telling the women, "You may have heard that women don't do as well as men on difficult standardized math tests, but that's not true for this particular standardized math test; on this particular test, women always do as well as men." When this simple statement introduced the test for women, they "performed at the same high level as equally skilled men." Steele gives examples of similar experiments with similar results for black college students (revealing a stereotype threat for any test of intelligence), white male college students when compared to Asian students on a math test, lower class French students when compared to upper class French students on a language test, older individuals compared to younger individuals on a memory test, and on and on. Stereotype threat affects performance of a multitude of skills in an entire spectrum of groups of people.

On a personal note,  just this week I came across recent news stories about Michelle Obama using a commencement speech to acknowledge stereotypes she dealt with growing up and the #DistractinglySexy social media campaign. It's clear that stereotype threat is alive and well, pervading every aspect of society.

Once Steele establishes the existence of stereotype threat, he then describes the multiple ways it affects people's lives, once again based on evidence-supported research. Not only does it interfere with concentration and cognitive processing, but the often unnoticed stress it causes dramatically impacts health. The high incidence of high blood pressure in African American populations is given as an example of this and experimentally validated, according to Steele.

Steele ends Whistling Vivaldi by outlining a handful of tested methods schools and other organizations can employ to reduce stereotype threat for their populations. He goes through the research on this subject just as thoroughly as he treated the earlier research on the establishment of stereotype threat. As a science teacher, I appreciate this book's combination of personal narrative, stories of real people, and evidence-based research. And the topic of stereotype threat, I would suggest, is essential for every person - not just every teacher - to better understand.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Year One of Standards-Based Grading: Lessons Learned

As I researched Standards-Based Learning last summer, preparing to implement it in my classroom for the first time, I collected copious amounts of resources and chatted with colleagues across the country in order to be as prepared as possible in this new venture. As is typical in education, however, I couldn't predict all of the repercussions of the change. What follows are the unexpected and unforeseen results of Year One of SBL in my high school science classes.

1. Some students will fight against the SBL system.
After a summer of preparing for this big change, I was excited and full of optimism to dive into SBL. I carefully planned out the first week of school, intentionally creating experiences for students that would help them buy into the classroom culture and philosophy that accompany SBL. All seemed to be going well, until students received feedback on their first assignment. "Why do I need to redo this? I'm fine with my score." "Why can't you just give me a grade for this?" "Why can't I just be done with this assignment?" For whatever reason, many of my students this year had no desire to improve their work and reach a "proficient" level in class. They started the year by completing every assignment as quickly as possible so that they could simply be "done" with it, and ended the year by not completing assignments at all because, "I'm just going to have to redo it anyway." This attitude may have been particular to this group of students, but I firmly believe that it's indicative of a larger problem. See #5 for further elaboration.

2. Students, parents, and fellow staff members will need constant reminders about why SBL is important and "how it works."
Not only did many students push against the "attitude of improvement" that is inherent to SBL, but the unfamiliar SBL tenets of multiple attempts, no late work, and no extra credit, along with crazy-looking grade reports, required multiple explanations and re-explanations of SBL practices and philosophy throughout the entire school year - until the final grades were in the book. These reminders were necessary for all parties involved: students, parents, and even teaching colleagues. My administrators were very supportive, fielding many phone calls from parents and even visiting my classroom to hold discussions with the students. My colleagues were full of questions about the process, which was encouraging, and I tried to answer them to the best of my ability. I can't over-emphasize how surprised I was that these questions didn't go away as we advanced through the school year. In my experience, people don't understand SBL all at once; their understanding (and also confusion) about the process continues to evolve as their experience with the process broadens.

4. The classroom teacher must have solid assessments in order to collect evidence of student learning.
I was very confident in my formative assessments starting the 2014-2015 school year, and my intuition was supported. I have worked hard to develop a variety of experiences, such as activities, experiments, and discussions, that encourage students to learn and practice content via active participation. I'm constantly on the look-out for better lessons, but the formative portion of my class is pretty solid. The summative assessments have been much more tenuous, however. I've been experimenting with different forms of summative assessment for the last few years, never happy with the outcome. This year, I decided to give student portfolios a try, as they seemed to be a logical fit with SBL. They lasted for one semester before I decided a change was called for. There were multiple factors that went into that decision, but one of the major reasons is that I was not convinced the portfolio work was an accurate reflection of what the students actually understood about the learning targets. Kind of a big flaw for a summative assessment. So, in January, I switched to free response, application questions as summative assessments for each target. Because the questions weren't dependent upon memorization of facts, I allowed students to use their science notebooks on these assessments. This shift required that I ask deeper-level questions of students, and I thereby better understood each student's thinking on the learning targets.

4. Yes, it's true! Grades in a SBL system are more reflective of what students actually know. 
I don't know how many times I'd read or heard this statement before actually using SBL with my students, but it didn't really sink in until the end of the year. I had a handful of students who would have just barely passed Semester 2 if I had been using a traditional, percentage-based system. However, because I organized my gradebook according to standards, I could see that they didn't have any evidence supporting their what they knew for one or more learning target. So instead of simply using a "D-" as qualification to pass the course, I informed the students that in order to receive a grade on their final report card, they needed to complete their work for the the missing learning targets, explaining that without evidence of their learning on that target, there was no way to provide a grade showing what they knew. Most (but not all) of these students rose to the challenge and completed their work.

5. The biggest challenge in moving to a SBL classroom is not figuring out how to make it work in with your traditional gradebook. The biggest challenge is shifting the learning mindset. By the time students have me as a teacher for the first time, they have been in a traditional classroom for ten years. Instead of delivering content by the "open ears, pour it in" method, I start exploration of topics by intentionally creating discrepant events for students, causing them to be confused about what just happened. I expect them to learn via experiences in which participation and reflection is required. When straight-forward content delivery is appropriate, there is rarely an in-class, teacher-led lecture. Instead, students are provided with various resources (videos, textbook, iBook, websites) to support interaction with that content. And on top of all that craziness, instead of giving a "score," I give feedback. Instead of informing a student of the percentage they scored on an assignment, I refocus them on proficiency. No wonder students are frustrated. This system is 100% different from the "schooling" they've grown accustomed to over the course of a decade. It is a huge challenge to convince students to embrace classroom habits that are best for learning instead of clinging to habits that are comfortable, and sometimes easier.

Many of my "lessons learned" might convince any dedicated educator to return to traditional grading, but lesson #4 is my iron-clad argument for persisting with SBL. For the first time, I feel like the feedback and grades I'm providing to students not only truly reflect their learning, but also help to propel student learning. It's no longer the arbitrary grading "categories," the category weights, or points per assignment that influence a student's grade. It's the evidence they provide through the work they complete. Despite the mental challenge of facing students who are more comfortable with seeing Biology class as a series of assignments they have to "get through," my heart is happy to be able to have conversations with students about what they have learned instead of how many points they've accumulated. I'm excited for the many years of "SBL lessons learned" yet to come.

Image from BK on flickr, labeled as Public Domain under Creative Commons.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Cheating" in the Google Generation

Do you remember the girl in your class who tried to squeeze all the dates for the History test onto the palm of her hand so she could surreptitiously sneak a peak at them during the exam? Or the one who drilled his buddy from the other Biology section with questions about the same test that he was about to take? These were the typical cheating behaviors I witnessed as a student in the late 80's/early 90's. While these behaviors haven't gone away, they have been supplemented by what many consider an entirely new form of "cheating." Googling. In the last week, I have had two separate conversations with fellow staff members about cheating incidents at our school, and they both involved online information. The instructors were rightly frustrated that the students were trying to take short cuts in their learning, however in the back of my mind, I was struggling to be entirely sympathetic. You see, I don't feel that accessing online information in order to complete an assignment or assessment is necessarily the issue that needs to be addressed. I think the root of the problem has more to do with the type of work we are asking our students to do and the level of the questions we are asking our students to ponder.

Everyone "knows" that any fact-based question you could ever want the answer to can pretty much be found by searching the internet. However, teachers are still shocked when students find answer keys for their math worksheets online or do a quick Google search during a test to find the name of the capitol of Togo. (It's Lome, by the way. I just Googled it.) We are at a crossroads in education. Teachers and libraries used to be the sole dispensaries of knowledge, but now much of the information teachers once dispensed is free to anyone with a device and an internet connection. So where does that leave teachers? What is our role in this new, fact-flooded ecosystem?

It has become increasingly clear to me in recent years that what I learned about Biology as a high school student and how I showed my teacher I learned it is no longer a relevant system for my students. Last year, I stopped requiring my students to complete multiple choice summative assessments. Instead, multiple choice formative quizzes are given to assess how students are progressing through the introductory levels of learning a topic. These are not graded - they are simply information for the students and myself. Last year, I also started utilizing more verbal, project-based, and hands-on type assessments, trying to get into what the students truly understood.

This year, the way I assess students has continued to evolve. My current summative assessments are designed to allow the students to show me what they understand, not what they have memorized. Therefore, I allow Biology students to use any resources that are in their notebooks while they work on the assessment. The notebook is their "internet," their repository of facts. I don't care if they have access to the structure of DNA during the assessment; I want to know if they understand the structure well enough to explain to me what happens to the DNA molecule when its environment changes in some unpredictable way. On a recent Anatomy assessment, students used all their class resources and the internet to choose a skeletal system disorder of their choice and explain to me how the topics they learned about in class (bone histology, gross bone anatomy, articulations, surface features, and bone repair) related to that disorder. And I told the students a week ahead of time that this is what the assessment would be. No surprises. I am constantly reminding my students: This class is not about what you can memorize. It's about what you understand. It's not that the factual content isn't important - it's just not what I'm going to directly assess my students on.

Therefore, one role for the teacher in the information-rich 21st Century is to scaffold learning so students move beyond factual details and into deeper connections with content. A second role for teachers is to guide students in swimming through and evaluating that deep pool of content. Teachers need to ask the questions that don't have right or wrong answers (and therefore can't be "cheated" on) and encourage students to ask their own questions. After establishing or generating a question with many possible responses, teachers must instruct students how to construct a solid opinion or argument based on reliable evidence. This is where the skill of sifting through and evaluating information becomes important.

I think a concrete example of this skill in action will be the best way to illustrate my thinking here. I have a colleague who recently told me about an HHMI activity on the Rock Pocket Mouse mutation that she worked through with her students. Knowing that DNA mutations were going to be a topic coming up in my own Biology classes soon, I looked into the resources. After transcribing and translating various sections of the mutated gene, students are asked a series of relatively low-level, one answer questions about the process. What I was looking for from this assessment was not could my students could pick out mutations, but could they understand that mutations can be good, bad, and neutral for survival. So I shifted the assessment to a Claim, Evidence, Reasoning format. The students still started by transcribing and translating the genes from the original HHMI activity. Then they were asked to answer the following in a claim: Are all mutations bad? As evidence, they reflected on what they observed in the Rock Pocket Mouse activity, but also what they found in researching other mutations of their choice. I provided links to information and videos about particular mutations, such as lactase persistence, to get them started. For the reasoning section, students needed to use what they knew about particular changes to the DNA (and thereby, amino acids) in these mutations that supported their claim.

"Cheating" on the types of assessments I've described above is nearly impossible. No two students will explain their understanding in exactly the same way. There are multiple right answers. I'm not assessing their ability to memorize. I'm assessing their ability to articulate their understanding, apply their understanding under new conditions or in different situations, and evaluate information as it relates to their understanding and opinions. In opposition to viewing access to information as "cheating," I'm trying to encourage my students to use all the information at their disposal to tackle tough questions. As I recently tried to propose to a teacher who was frustrated with students cheating in his class, maybe instead of trying to stop cheating by blocking websites and locking devices, we need to ask our students to show their understanding in more varied, complex ways.

Image "A Cheating Oldie But Goodie" by Mr_Stein from Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.