Adventures in PD & Motivation!

Jack Kennedy always said to me, “Hedy, get involved. That’s the secret of life. Try everything. Join everything. Meet everybody.”

– Hedy Lamarr, inventor of Wi-Fi, actress.

“What made you go into teaching?” This is the first question we were asked in our 12-week Skillful Teacher Professional Development course a couple weeks ago. It’s an obvious place to start, except it’s not an easy one. Why did I get into this, and where is this path in science education taking me? Is it weird to admit I did all this because I hated my own experience through science classes in school and in college? Or, instead, is it on point how in joining a massive group of professional learners in science and STEM education, I have found where small paths turn into well-guided trails to ridges and peaks in education? Last summer, I led a group of engineers through a career-immersion experience in China. As we walked through Tianamin Square in a hot, breezy Beijing afternoon, a scholar shared with me what his mountain-climbing mother taught him, “One must have a guide the first time. You cannot find the top of the mountain all by yourself.”

This Adventure celebrates how the continual involvement of educators to engage in professional development, and in my case, professional development development, elevates us to new vistas. We are teachers, we are educators, we are developers, we are researchers, and practitioners — and we are all in this together. If you love the levels of science education education (like science education “Inception”), continue. Otherwise, choose a different Adventure. But before you do, consider this question: “What made you go into changing the world through education?”

Resources in order through this SPECTRUM Acrostic

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At last, we are concluding our Astronomy in Unit 2. Don’t get me wrong, it’s my favorite topic. Yet between the holidays and interruptions with snow days, it just keeps going… It seems like after the solar system and planets, too much time is spent on our galaxy without current applicationof scientific research (ie hands-on labs or current research). Days on the shape of galaxies (I get it, there are three). Nearly a week on Big Bang Theory, really? That said, I love how we end this mind-boggling unit on the solar system, galaxy, and universe, with the beginning. It was also appropriate timed in the passing of the great Stephen Hawking, for whom this Adventure is dedicated to.

“Is it difficult to comprehend? Perhaps. But I believe it is still worth trying.” Stephen Hawking 1942- Pi Day 2018

Soon, we explore weather and climate. My students are primed, already 
asking questions like “Does snow come from space?,” “Can we grow potatoes on Mars the same way as on Earth?,” and “Why do we have snow days when it’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit but not 33?” To strike up interest as we come back to Earth from space, I’ve started countdowns to the vernal equinox and shared pictures of buds as they begin to appear. I also started natural history club for the introverts, where we silently exchange notes about the changes happening outside in our journals, and often I read a short passage from Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. In an interesting twist, the schedules in my two schools have recently switched and there’s either no lag between topics or I’m now teaching in the opposite order as before. It’s fun, albeit a little confusing when routines change. We are, I hate to say, creatures of habit.

The national NSTA conference in Atlanta was perfectly timed to add some verve to the craft. Here, among my 12,000 peers in science education, I picked up (literally picked up, because teachers are and always will have sticky fingers for the fun and nifty schwag) tons of ideas for 8th grade activities in Earth Science! It’s not just Earth Science, although visiting NASA, NOAA, and USGS always creates fun highlights. Science educators have the coolest careers ever. From biomedical science to soils to drones, we have an innate interest in picking something up and getting involved, because we know it will be benefit us and help benefit someone else, some day. Maybe even Monday when we arrive back at school…

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In the spirit of professional learning and embracing the never-ending cycle of teaching and learning, I’m sharing my adventure in both attending professional development and leading professional development development at the same time. While attending the Skillful Teacher course, I’m also managing the production of an amazing PD program for Accelerate Learning, Inc.’s National Institute of STEM Education. In coordination with their esteemed STEM Teacher and Campus certifications, as well as the STEMscopes curriculum resources, I have the privilege of harnessing the writing expertise of a half-dozen professionals for a brand new NISE product. As for professional development development, I’ve always found great reward in coaching adult writers and learners to build resources for others. I use to struggle in this role, working with developers with dozens more experience than I. Now that I’m teaching and managing at the same time, I’ve found even greater reward to building these relationships as we build a sturdy product together. In the same evening, I get to share with my teaching peers in Skillful Teacher, and then over break in my truck, bring the same ideas in, say, Master Objectives and Learning Outcomes to my writing team. produce the same thing for teachers. With a cup of tea to boot.

digress. How in the world does this benefit you, reader, as you await (patiently) resources to build student-centered STEM classrooms? The answer hit me as I listened to Mr. Dempsey on NPR recently. Leaders of all kinds, teachers and teacher’s teachers, must demonstrate a commitment to reading and learning at all times in their career. We never stop learning. We must transmit to our peers, or the loop of growth within and among us stops, and the effort of sense-making for others fails. Will you join me in my pledge to engage in learning and leadership? You just did.

Skillful Teacher is a brilliant course dedicated to immediate and continual improvements in the classroom, filled with dozens of strategies and supports. We start with bringing in the powerful lessons in teaching the Growth Mindset, set forth by Carol Dweck and continue with learning partners in actionable areas of lesson-framing including curriculum development, assessment and peer-exchanges in class. “How elastic is your brain?” is what we are asked to do as educators looking at Brain Research at Stanford: Mindsets. 

Our learning partners range from elementary, middle and science,and we are all tasked with a project to match our strategies with growth mindset principles. We look at research from PISA and OpEd studies to see how teachers and growth mindset are a huge component to helping students feel a sense of belonging and leapfrog into a higher socioeconomic quartile. Specifically, we rehearse growth-mindset statements to increase students’ perseverance in class, which I myself see beginning to wane at this late winter. I just gave them a survey about how they are feeling about science, and overwhelmingly they asked for more hands-on labs, more outdoor opportunities, and more building, less reading. I hear you 8-graders, and I’m on it. But we need to get through this Earth and Space stuff, and your struggles will pay off. A friend once told me, “the struggle is good.” This always helped me nourish the growth mindset experiment. 

Attribution Theory. 

What are some things we can do to extend students’ learning when they consider themselves “done”? We’ve all heard the excuses:

  • I don’t get it.
  • You never taught us this.
  • You’re bad at teaching.
  • I don’t want to do this, this is too hard.
  • Can I go to the bathroom?
  • When am I ever going to need this anyway?
  • And my personal favorite, when does this class end?

Sure, it gets tiring, but how do we attribute one’s success or failure? Internal vs. external factors play out the internal voice we hear in our heads (and our classrooms), so we need to emphasize the effort that goes into internal, more variable, results. Success is less about luck or talent, but effort. According to Skillful Teacher, “attribution theory is concerned with the explanations we give ourselves when we succeed for why we succeeded and when we fail for why we have failed.” If students feel like school is something that happens to them, then they won’t want to participate. For me, I’m reminded of the importance of the word “yet.” For the next few weeks, we will be focusing on a project using five different approaches in developing the growth mindset. It’s due in May, I’ll share it then!

Here’s another way to stay in tune with best practices; Action Research. It gives us a way to measure our own progress in practice while measuring the learning of others. It keeps things real. As one peer shared, using research in action helps teachers “prove their gut theories are correct.” Together with my peers from Montana State’s Master Science in Science Education (MSSE) at NSTA’s Teacher Research Day in Atlanta, our panel helped answer questions about other educators getting involved, either informally or formally. 

Among our audience were teacher leaders who also lamented about lack of motivation in their own learning communities. I’d never connected this issue since, as I said, I’m intrinsically motivated by a cool science video or beautiful sunset. Maybe there’s a tie-in between action research and motivation, knowing eventually your voice can be researched and heard in your community. Mine has, and it’s a huge reward in itself. Way to go MSSE!

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One great thing pulling all professional development together is the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. These eight actionable statements add clarity to the ambiguous term “inquiry,” and craft to the acumen of educators and developers alike. As we complete Unit 2 on Astronomy and students transition from Development and Using Models to Developing and Communicating Information from NGSS Appendix J, specifically with graphing and labeled diagrams. Since we are just now finishing their unit projects on building habitats for humans on other planets/asteriods, etc., I’ll share the results in another upcoming Adventure. 

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As promised, here’s a summary of the Emoji system I use to build autonomy and accountability among citizen-ship in the classroom. The prize itself? A tiny emoji eraser, or the occasional end-of-quarter keychain called the “dolphin prize” or “timberwolf prize” depending on where I’m teaching. As much as I hate using candy as a motivator and often do, I refuse to give candy for this prize. This prize is tangible and shared with peers.

What does it take to win the Emoji Prize? Each table group has weekly (now monthly) contests using a point system for good-citizenship each day. Was someone absent from their group? Then THEY are the ones supplying the make-up work for their peers. Did they push in their chairs? Did they self-monitor each other to limit calling out across tables and maximize staying on task? Did they turn in work, and if so, did they initial (dualing as a receipt system for proof of turning it in?)

I keep the grid in their table folders and each take turns filling out the grid, and I then walk around and grade quickly in between classes with points.

Using a system of tie-breakers, I give immediate feedback to show when table groups are either doing something or not. If they are listening without interrupting, that’s HAPPENING, but if they are interrupting, then that’s NOT HAPPENING. At the end of the contest, often table groups will have won or lost by a single NH. I can now just say from across the room, “y’all, that’s a Not Happening, you know what to do,” and they settle down.

They can see this development of behavior over time with the grids I show to announce the prizes.

There’s a little more to this system as it develops in sophistication over the school year, but I’ve supplied the link to the Google Doc where I write the criteria below as the free download. This system is subtle and tremendously helpful for providing consistency and opportunities for explicit citizenship building skills. Some of my co-teachers and teacher peers have taken to adopting it this year. I like how simple and effective it is.

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This month, I’ve learned a lot about learners – both young adult and adult. What is the same, and what’s different, other than age? I get to coach teachers through NISE’s STEM Teacher Certification program, and have found similarities in the pacing, motivation, and pathfinding for middle school students and teachers alike – motivation especially. I’m intrinsically motivated in this career, obviously emphatically. I teach middle school students after all, and get to use my PD-development as inspiration. I don’t need much to inspire me, and sometimes I forget others are not always so much.

My biggest teachable moment did not come from the classroom, or my commute between schools, NSTA networking with colleagues, or even on my conference calls with writers. It came from my kitchen, where a friend made a home-cooked meal to save me from yet another microwave meal. As I lamented over the lack of motivation in young students and tired teachers, high-caliber PD-writing was taking place with my project, as we spoke. Such a stark difference! Why are some of my students bragging how they CAN’T WAIT to quit school when they turn 16 (this is apparently legal in Maryland)? They say they can’t WAIT to work at a gas station, except do they really know the stunting nature of this to their future? These aren’t just a few students, but half of one of my classes. How will our team, diligently writing PD modules on argumentation, misconceptions, or even response to failure, fix this? What can we do to help students care about their futures as much as they care about the here and now? These are not easy questions to answer, certainly over stir-fry. My friend, who is not a teacher but a parent, concluded, “There’s not much you can do, you just have to keep saying the good message over and over. People don’t change change overnight. It’s a gradual thing, and then they just sort of show up.”

So, that’s it. Teachers, like parents, just gotta stick with it. Be positive, kind, and caring. Demonstrate empathy every day with a gajillion different examples. My mentoring teacher taught me years ago a cardinal philosophy, “I’ll go out of my way to help you if you show me that you care.” To fight against apathy, I’ve since added “I can’t teach you to care, I can only show you the consequences when you don’t.”

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This month, I employed more strategies for integration and literacy than usual. Through active journaling in advance of the Maryland Integrated Science Assessment (MISA), I doubled-up on writing practice using brief constructed responses (BCR) as activators for students’ unit projects. Starting with a prompt about, say, growing potatoes on Mars, I’d ask them to write a statement on what is necessary for this to occur, then followup with showing other media and ask them to write follow up statements in their journals. I also enjoyed showing brief videos from a myriad of topics, like chemistry, geology and the water cycle, to ignite students’ minds as they recorded the main ideas on folded papers.

In retrospect and through student surveys, this video round-robin was fun but needed to be prioritized a little more. I’ll see what I can do to increase relevance for students. 

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How do you respond to failure? How do you define the failure to which you are responding to? For me, it’s not about content, but context and motivation among unmotivated students. A part of my dream of engaging in my “Science is Everywhere” philosophy dies when they threaten to cash in their school careers. Did I not follow through with every consequence to help them stay motivated? Did I not encourage their efforts enough? Did I fail them in some intangible way? I get it – motivation matters, and this is when it matters most. Recently, I made a pledge to a student to try to address this. She’s brilliant, yet suddenly and incredibly unmotivated. Usually, she’s one of those who is perfectly OK with a B if it means keeping her mind uncluttered to still enjoy her other interests, and that’s ok with me. (Of course I want her to pursue an A and choose a science career, except I’m also increasingly tolerant of honoring students’ choices in balancing their stress-loads. This might be another conversation…). Anyhow, this was my pledge to her since we generally relate on a more mature level. ‘I’ll go out of my way to make sure what we are doing is engaging to you if you’ll show me what you need for said engagement to occur.’ She complied. If I could undo anything, ever, in my career, it would be to never have had to have this conversation to begin with. Ugh. Student voice surveys created. Polls on topics for next unit created. Lists of titles of books and websites that students might find interesting, despite waning motivation, underway. Now I’m looking for guest speakers and might give this Skype a Scientist thing a try. Opportunities for productive failure are in now progress. Onward. The gravitas of making sure your class is somewhere people WANT to be really sinks in this time of year, doesn’t it?

Off topic: Here’s a cool thing which comes from spending a year trying to teach students to pay attention. I’ve found that sometimes we have to teach what’s wrong with an abstract concept before they really concretely learn what’s correct, like showing “What’s wrong with this picture?” At the very least, I’m learning to leverage the middle schooler’s tendency to rip apart an inaccuracy in order to expose what they know to be true.

Case in point. Actually, my lowest performing class caught this. “What is wrong with this picture,” from Crash Course? Comment when you find it! (I’ve already emailed them, hopefully this will be fixed before you show your students). Also, here’s a nod to the great work at Smithsonian Science Education Center for creating videos to help science teachers address misconceptions – particularly around the seasons, which is tricky to teach, albeit rewarding.

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OK, this video on from a writer working on  a claim-evidence-reasoning PD session just tickled me. And happy international women in science day! Lovin the great work coming out of female researchers and stem careers. Also, don’t forget to submit your name so it can be on the Parker Solar Probe as it journeys to the sun!

Download & Thanks

If you’re interested in building student automony and accountability in your classroom and would like to try the Emoji Prize system, please email me at What I’ve provided is just a summary, and it’s evolved a lot as it should over the year. You can see me building it week by week here in this Google Link:

Many thanks and safe travels!

The mission of is to document Adventures in cultivating student-centered classrooms in STEM and beyond. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright 2018 Full Circle J. Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

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