Adventures in Gains and (Habitat) Losses!

The science of today is the technology of tomorrow.

– Edward Teller

What do habitat loss, land use, and tropical rainforests have in common? What I taught this week. Allow me to explain.

Resources in order of this SPECTRUM Acrostic

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.07.13 PMBack with my 6th graders for a week, we jumped into to some pressing topics including endangered species and how they are affected by habitat loss, land use and the unsustainable farming practices from the Dust Bowl, and the products from tropical rainforests. Still new to the scope and sequence of this NGSS aligned curriculum in Maryland, I’m along for the ride through these seemingly disconnected concepts, but quickly got the hang of the goal this week. Connecting these concepts allows students to bring local and global actions in environmental use together, with lessons on how humans interact with the environment over time. Just before I began with this class, they completed a survey on endangered species using the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Redlist Species List. They then completed a reading on the driving factors pushing habitat loss including agriculture, deforestation, and degradation. Gloom and doom stuff for sure, except for this.

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It hit me as I was showing a Dust Bowl video and trying to give more context to the otherwise bland material provided (two-page article with no images or sensory input). The idea was still churning as we moved from Dust Bowl imagery to Google Earth Engine time-lapse satellite images showing how land use has changed globally since 1984. The seed of my idea finally germinated when we settled into making observations on a University of Maryland Earth Engine partner site’s deforestation satellite data products on forest gain, loss, and extent in various global and local points. Finally, I vocalized it with my students. Technology, particularly satellite imagery. We didn’t have this kind of technology during the Dust Bowl. We didn’t have the promise in massive banks of sensor data from space, air, and ground available to use to make decisions about land use and sustainable practice. But we do now, and the kiddos in my room are a prime age to embrace STEM careers and technology to make those decisions moving forward. Sure we can learn from the agriculture crisis and lessons from the 1940s, but we can equally learn from the potential energy of knowledge stored in the classroom every day. How do we leverage that power?

Students created business cards. This one stood out. “Make the environment great again.”

To carry the theme of my idea, I asked students to create their own business card after they turned in their weekly assessment. Some had never heard of a business card, others hooked the idea right away, skipping back to their desk with ideas. Most enjoyed being given a free and creative endeavor. This business card, in particular, stood out to me.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.12.45 PMUsing the above sites from Google Earth Engine was a nice start to addressing engineering practices through the use of technology, but there’s so much more we can be doing. In this unit, students design and create a solution called “Going Green,” which addresses sustainable practices for all ages. We’ll focus on that next week. In the meantime, here is a great resource on teaching endangered species and biodiversity from TeachEngineering.org – I I hope I can do this in the classroom soon!

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As a rotating teacher for this campus, I’m in a lot of different classrooms every week. I’ve made a career out of it the last few months, teaching all grades and all topics. A basic observation I’ve made, other than how messy most of them are, is that they are not set up to be student-centered. Perhaps regular supplies are available (pencils, sharpeners, hold-punches, colored pencils, etc.), but not learning supplies. Books may be out for students, but they are scattered in bins or in sparse piles. Scientific supplies are carefully stored in the storage rooms, out of reach of the unsupervised room of adolescents untrained in caring for equipment on a daily basis. Even demo supplies like bins for model-making are absent or scattered along the classroom to look like litter. Often I’ve observed that in the effort of safety and classroom management, the room is void of decoration or student-produced work. It’s been tough, and this classroom is no different. I’ll save the topic of creating student-centered classrooms to promote classroom engagement for a future topic, but it’s on my mind more than usual.

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In one week, we combined the concepts on habitat loss, land use regarding unsustainable farming practices using the dust bowl as an example, and tropical rainforests. Because I’m brand new to this district, and state for that matter and NGSS is still a relatively new curriculum for them, I don’t always get to see the big picture and I’m often inspired to add features that may not have been written in the plan, like lessons from the Department of Natural Resources or the National Wildlife Federation. It made me realize that we as teachers rely on curriculum to feed the basic structure of lessons to students.

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Here is something I did to quickly change the culture in some really poorly functioning classes I’ve seen to date. Knowing my time with these students is short and praying for some grace under pressure, I started a daily “self” sheet. In lieu of a content warm up, we began each period with students adding to four categories for self-reflection on a blank sheet. Each day, we added to the following boxes:

Box 1 – Get to Know You
Box 2 – Guiding Question
Box 3 – Reflections on Learning
Box 4 – Goals for Learning

Each day, I’d pass out their sheet with different comments from me in varying colors, and they would add more guided writing in each box. Day 1 including favorite food and color (so I could learn their names quickly), guiding questions on how habitat loss affects endangered species or other scientific questions that students produced independently, reflections on what they’d learned the week prior and listing one academic and non-academic goal. After Day 1, I wrote comments on each sheet and learned their names overnight through pneumonic association with color and food. After Day 2, I continued to write comments in a different color pen. By Days 3 and 4, students knew exactly how their day would begin with me, and who doesn’t want to begin by talking about themselves? This ended up being an incredible effective management tool emphasizing academic and behavioral accountability in students, as well as a direct 1:1 relationship between us that otherwise cannot happen in the zoo of the class period. Wow.

Finally, on Day 5, they reflected on how their week with me. But I didn’t collect them on Day 5. I gave homework instead.

Homework. The lost frontier. My philosophy about homework is that it should cross multiple modalities, emphasize student choice and individuality, incorporate family and community by choice, and extend a love of learning (if not learning itself) outside the classroom in off hours, especially science and its infinite reach. Above all, it should be fun and something I don’t have to grade. Sure, a little Pavlov is mixed in, but students can choose what they will do. For a tic tac (or Tic Task as I call them now), they can turn in their daily sheet with a recorded observation of a phenomenon outdoors. For one small candy, they can attempt to answer their Guiding Questions through the week. For a chance to grab from the Parent Grab Bag (filled with rewards in choosing songs, videos and fun chores in the class), they may choose to get their parents’ signature and comments or questions. Notice they elect to do this without knowing what the reward is, a touch I thought kept things fair for all students regardless of their home life, and this concept was repeatedly expressed as optional. To continue our conversation about jobs, they can add questions about jobs in exchange for helping me pass out papers (why do students love to do that?!?). The bonuses are unrewarded but listed as reminders of how they can always improve, including teasers on events in the natural world that they can research on their own, like the Azure Arch’s fall in Malta due to a big storm. We’ll see what comes up on Monday.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.43.14 PMIf I could undo anything, it’s the amount of paper that’s used to print the curriculum in this district. I’ve tried to keep my mouth shut about this since I’m new, but I find great irony in teaching about deforestation to tweens with piles of unused handouts surrounding every science teacher on the campus. Is it a consequence of migrating away from textbooks? Do teachers internalize their stress or are they as bothered by it as I am? Are they trying to roadmap their week to create double-sided documents efficiently? Are the curriculum providers supporting them focusing on paper-reduction? What can I do to help fix this problem?

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Media makes the teacher, curriculum writer, media producer, aunt and friend in me happy. This week was just about sharing it as much as possible to bring life into the classroom. Exciting wildlife film teasers like Planet Earth II. We need that kind of inspiration in our world, no matter who we are or what is happening in our world. And because I teach sixth graders this week, I threw in some fun humor. It is, of course, what we all need during times like these.

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