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.