Saturday, September 24, 2016

Making Progress

After a three-day high school retreat and week-long vacation thanks to the Korean holiday called Chuseok, I was anxious to get things in class back into a rhythm this week. Now that the week is done, I can say with confidence that learning was happening and students are making progress!

I'm still getting used to teaching Biology to 9th graders (as opposed to 10th graders) who haven't yet been exposed to the CER framework or any modeling exercises. For a warm up this week, I asked the students to draw a model (explanation) of what happened in their greenhouse investigations from before break. It was a train wreck. However, it did give me insight into (a) their lack of understanding of what a model is and (b) their shaky conception of the greenhouse effect and its relation to the carbon cycle. What to do? Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold.

So I put everything else on hold for a day and a half, and the students practiced designing models, with help from me along the way. I started with direct instruction and gradually released the task to them. They probably created close to ten models in the course of 2 class periods. Afterwards, I assessed them again with a warm up: "Diagram a model of how rice cooks." (I wanted something that all students were familiar with and wasn't overly complicated. The results were amazing. One student drew the steps for how rice cooks instead of an explanation, but was able to make corrections once prompted. Otherwise everyone was on target. Whew.
Practice models for the Greenhouse Investigation. Getting better!
AP Biology students finished their first CER poster session this week. I didn't want to assess their posters this time for 2 reasons: They created the posters in groups, which makes individual assessment tricky, and with this being their first attempt at this type of work, I felt it would be unfair to penalize them while they're still novices. Instead, I required the students to complete peer reviews on each others' posters. My classes have had a less than stellar track record with peer review in past years; students don't take it seriously and/or they just aren't very good at assessing work. These AP classes, however, did some great work. I gave them the rubric below to record their assessment. For most of the students, their feedback matched mine almost exactly. I was especially focused on their understanding of statistical analysis (Evidence) and natural selection (Reasoning) and very happy with the outcome.

By the way, I designed this CER on a real-life data set of lab mice at the University of California, Riverside. The mice were artificially bred to run for long periods of time. I got the idea from this site,, and reworked it a little to make it more CER-friendly. The students developed their own research questions and method of measurement. They were able to incorporate standard deviation and standard error of the mean into their calculations. It ended up being a very robust investigation.

In Environmental Science, students are working through a unit I decided to call "Principles of Ecology." I had them complete a pre-assessment to see what types of Ecology topics they remembered from Biology, and then designed the unit around what they had forgotten. I've wanted to have students build Winogradsky columns for many years, but it never fit perfectly into any of the standards. However, range of tolerance is one of the Ecology topics my ES students are learning about, and the columns fit in perfectly! It was a challenge to find mud from a stream or pond in metropolitan Seoul, but I successfully trekked down to the local canal before school one day and dug up a bunch of sediment. With no buckets or trowels to be had, I used a plastic storage crate my sons keep LEGO in and a soup ladle. I got some strange looks from the elderly Koreans and commuters on the bike/walking trail. The sediment was pretty sandy, so I'm hoping it works okay. The ES students had fun mixing in the newspaper and egg yolk for carbon and sulfur resources. One student had never separated a yolk from the egg white before, so he even learned a new baking skill - bonus!

To model limiting factors, ES students did some "hunting" of yellow, puffball mice with pipe cleaner owls. Kind of reminded me of the "ring the bottle" game I used to see at county fairs. The class will be writing CER arguments based on their results in class next week.

One final accomplishment for the week: I found a bike and rode it to work a couple of times (not on the day when I had to collect canal sediment, though!). It feels good to be getting into a rhythm and feeling comfortable in my new city and new school.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Trip To Singapore

During my first week at APIS this fall, all staff were presented with the opportunity to apply to be on a team of teachers and administrators that would travel to Singapore, visit some international schools, and bring back ideas and inspiration for APIS. The focus of this trip was to be, "personalized learning."

I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of 14 staff members to go on the trip, and at the beginning of September we took off for a 4-day whirlwind visit in Singapore. Two of the days were spent traveling, and on the other two days we visited schools.

The first school we visited was Singapore American School, the focus of this blog post. It's a huge international school with a stellar reputation. However, recently they decided that they needed to start thinking more about the future of education and adapt their instruction to fit 21st Century Learning. Over the course of a year, they sent teachers to many schools around the world to gather information about advances in education, and then a core group of staff members worked together to develop plans, based on what inspired them, for the future of SAS. They are just now in the first years of some of these changes.

Several teachers had conversations with us about the SAS Advisory program, and we also got to see their cutting-edge Early Childhood classrooms. The two initiatives I was most interested in, however, were in the high school. One program that was piloted last year and has been extended to include all Seniors this year, provides time, resources, and mentors for every Senior to complete a "project" of their choice. These projects might be writing and performing a play, starting a business, or completing long-term scientific research. Along the way, the students have classes to support their goal-setting and people skills, but also have some flexibility in their schedules if they need to leave campus for their project.

The other intriguing program we were able to visit was for those Seniors who have already completed all their requirements for graduation and have potentially reached their limit for AP courses. As Juniors, these students can apply to a special group of approximately 20 students who meet as a "class" all day every day to experience a truly interdisciplinary, personalized curriculum. The class has 3 teachers (one ELA, one Math, one Science) who are in the room all day as well, and the students receive various English, Math, and Science credits for taking the course. There are short, direct-instruction sessions for those students who need them, as well as large-group discussions, but there is also plenty of time for students to explore individual passions. The space they spend every day in is pretty amazing too. Check out some photos below:

Central work area. Kitchenette in the back.

Cafe-style booth seating for more intimate conversations.

A glassed-off conference room within the larger room. Plenty of whiteboard space for ideas.

Comfy seating in the conference room.

Project board with standards the students are working on, as well as a timeline for daily goals.
I would love to teach in an interdisciplinary, passion-based, personalized environment like the class I saw at SAS, and I'm excited that APIS is looking in this direction! I feel so fortunate to have been able to visit these schools and see the creative ways they're thinking about education.