Adventures in Geology & Growth Mindset

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The mission of spectrumclassrooms.com is to build opportunities and share opportunities for teachers to share their journey in creating STEM classrooms. 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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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.‚ÄĚ

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.

I¬†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 learnmore@stemjourneys.org. 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:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1wCBccggnkvU6Xn2wnQ7a01lkAdGLrW-pLhYjTUJ7IcQ/edit?usp=sharing

Many thanks and safe travels!

The mission of spectrumclassrooms.com 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.

Follow #onejobtwoclassrooms and #crazybusiness for more.

Adventures in Olympics, Physics & Empathy!

The Olympics remain the most compelling search for excellence that exists in sport, and maybe in life itself.

– Dawn Fraser
Australian swimmer, 3-time winner at the Olympics

If you know me, you know I’ve always exclaimed, whole-heartedly, how the world would be a much worse place if it weren’t for the Olympics. It’s a cruel thought, really, because it postulates our world was a bad place to begin with. Our world is not a bad place. It’s just I think the Olympics help make the world a better place. This cloudy gray February, cooped up with my 8th-graders and a healthy dose of cabin fever, I couldn’t agree with myself more. This Adventure comes from a tired optimist championing through mountains of grading on Pluto’s dwarf planet status, rinks of endless planning instruction around the rest of the solar system, icy slopes of grief over Parkland, Florida, and colorful podiums of joy in the (science behind) the Olympics. It’s been a record-setting couple weeks.

Resources in order through this SPECTRUM Acrostic

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We are almost done with Astronomy. We still have the characteristics and formation of the solar system to go, and some mind-blowing looks at other galaxies, too. Soon, however, we’ll move from Unit 2’s Astronomy to Unit 3’s Weather & Climate and on to new Adventures. Did I miss writing about Unit 1 on Forces & Motion? Yes and no. I was swamped beginning a school year on two campuses, so am using this opportunity to bring motion and sports full circle through a celebration with the winter Olympics. Since summer Olympics occur before school starts, teachers can really only maximize on this unique opportunity every four years.

What I did not expect, however, was being able to make connections between Unit 1’s Forces and Unit 2’s Astronomy foci with a thematic approach like Olympic sports. That. Is. Awesome.

What do figure skating and Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion have in common? Duh, Angular momentum! Snowboarding the half pipe and potential and kinetic energy? Gravitational acceleration, of course. Engineering performance suits and spacesuits? Materials science and solar radiation. Speed skating, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Curling, friction. Thanks to the exceptionally well-done videos from National Science Foundation’s “Science and Engineering of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games,” each day was its own mini-celebration. I opened each day with a different video from this 10 part series (nicely fitting over ten days of instruction), and then opened it up for a quick brainstorm on how these videos are connected to our over-arching theme this year, “Science is Everywhere.” Keep reading and you’ll find examples of this in Teachable Moments. But first, an ode to Pluto.

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Pluto and Valentine’s Day go hand in hand. Not only is it nice when a holiday ties in to the curriculum, like when Valentine’s Day falls over an investigation and debate over Pluto’s fabled status as ninth planet vs. a dwarf planet, but it’s also fun. To celebrate, I created this valentine featuring Pluto’s icy heart.¬†¬†

I then used the last five minutes of Wednesday’s class to have students fill them out and paste in the hallway for all to see.¬†

Just some great responses from my students from both campuses:

  • “Pluto, come back! Maybe if you eat your vegetables and drink your milk, you’ll grow big and strong like the other planets!”
  • “Pluto, stay small.”
  • “Pluto, we all have to go sometime.”
  • “Pluto, I’m sorry you’re not a planet anymore.¬†Next time, maybe stay out of Neptune’s orbit.”
  • “Pluto,well, you tried.”

Using academic discourse and accountable talk strategies, we concluded our “what happened to the ninth planet” research with a debate (or panel in some cases) on Pluto’s dwarf planet status. We also had fun watching this video on how planets should ‘behave’ with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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The NSF “Engineering Suits” video connection to the Olympics and space was kind of a last minute thing. We were studying sunspot activity and I needed a way to tie in how solar radiation is absolutely a factor in space exploration and space suits. We did a quick overview of Mars exploration (we touch on this through the year thanks to my obsession with Elon Musk, SpaceX and NASA), courtesy of Space.com¬†and Smithsonian. That tie-in helped hook students from an otherwise low-level scenario for why they were to graph sunspot activity with magnetic storms to begin with. Here was their original introduction to the topic:

As for our Unit project on consulting for movie sets and anatomy of scene building, stay tuned for the next Adventure.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.13.45 PMThis is the time of year where deeper connections are made with students depending on their independent interests, concerns, and development. I’ve enjoyed this rewarding, albeit exhausting, part of teaching. Some love me, some hate me. Some are checking in and some are checking out – it is middle school after all. Some are consistently improving, others in spikes. Two students made me a haiku on string theory, and another gave me a journal for exploring. I love letting them choose their own ’emoji’ eraser when they come in for extra time to work, because ‘with responsibility comes choice.’ One very diligent student loves flowers, and when I gave her my personal copy of a botany coloring book offering to make a copy of the pages she was most interested in, this is what she brought back.¬†

As for my Emoji prize system, I know I promised a section in this Adventure. It’s an awesome way to help emphasize my expectations of responsible citizenship in both schools, and it provides continual feedback. I have every intention to write about it, but I am heart sick about Parkland, Florida. And outraged. I am instead dedicating the rest of this Adventure to those 17 souls we lost in another round of senseless gun violence and the brave survivors who are standing up to make change. Being back in the classroom(s) has brought this (and sadly, the many other school shootings we’ve experienced) so close. A nearby arrest of a high school student who brought a loaded gun to school in my DC-area neighborhood brought this even closer. I am NOT prepared should this happen in my school(s), and I’m creating a network of concerned teachers and administrators who want to share knowledge in their preparation journey and make changes to our nation so we don’t have to ever use the knowledge to begin with. Please join the Blue Apple Network, and thanks to instructables.com for the use of our icon.

As for my prize system, stay tuned for my next Adventure.

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Here’s just one example of how “Science is Everywhere” and can be taught with minimal effort, on the fly. In 10 minutes, we connected the concept of arm¬†movements and spinning in¬†figure skating with angular momentum of planetary motion by having students spin in an office chair and, for my higher-performing classes, previewing images of how this¬†works with planets and Kepler’s Laws.

For my even higher-performing classes, we extended our work to Dark Matter and Black Holes. They could see and feel how these concepts are connected in a universal way (pardon the pun), and it was fun. It was science education nirvana.

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I didn’t get to watch much of this year’s Olympics. I can’t tell you much about Shaun White’s big win, but we did enjoy watching a review on potential and kinetic energy and the science behind his boarding in the last Olympics. I missed Chloe Kim and Mirai Nagasu, I was buried in grading papers on gravity and revolution, both of which I’m sure these athletes appreciate on a whole different level. I missed the buzz about the eye-catching speed skating uniforms because I was reviewing the engineering suit clips, etc. I missed the Olympics because I was too busy teaching. It’s ok, because I knew the world was becoming an even better place in PyeongChang, with or without me. I chose to focus my time the way I did, because I wanted to teach, and I needed the focus given this sad time in our nation.

I did, however, make big strides in getting students to engaged in discourse. Yay me! On the list of favorites for students is debates. So, after a sobering lesson on comets, asteroids and meteorites, we had a 7-debate debate called “Are We Doomed?” inspired from assigned articles.

That’s Kathy, by the way, our new mascot (for this school). Her mate, Chuck, is the other school’s mascot. You’ll be seeing more of them as we go along, and they help remind me of the many lessons I’ve learned in my dueling trips to China.

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I had lots of notes for undoing the misconceptions we bumped into through all of Unit 1. Graphing speed over time vs. distance over time, fails over calculating momentum and misalignment of math vs science when it comes to teaching scientific notation, you name it, I have Undo notes for it. Instead, this section is again dedicated to what should not have happened in Florida or any of the schools that have had shootings, ever. These are children we teach, our future care-givers. Not only will they hopefully choose STEM careers to save us from ourselves, but they will also take care of us when we are old. Yet, their lives are quite literally our futures, and they are crushed under our ridiculous present. We teach empathy but do not embody it? There are no words to express this incalculable rage and concern I have except these. Undo it.

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I’m starting a new Adventure on literacy and looking at how reading for fun affects behavior in both schools. I’m meeting up with the Media Specialists in both schools for ideas, and I’ll keep you posted on the progress. Thank you Tennyson, for this wonderful song called “Beautiful World” which I play on sad days as students arrive (sadly, I’ve had to play it all to often this year).¬†Also, happy International Women in Science day to all! Check this out! New templates to teach about women in science!

As the closing ceremonies near and our next opportunity to include the Olympics in instruction will be far, I end with a sincere thank you to the Olympics for bringing some well-timed inspiration to my winter classrooms. Yes, I love the science, but I also love the flags, parades, the international colorful zeal, the stories across all ages and walks of life, and the connection of sport and comrade from around the world. The distraction, I mean therapy, was particularly helpful this time around. The Olympics truly do make the world a better place, or at least my world.

Download & Thanks

I don’t know where the awesome graphic in this PDF came from, but thank you to whoever made it. I’m sending it along in an adorable valentine for all to use and enjoy.

I love you to Pluto and back

The mission of spectrumclassrooms.com 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. Follow #onejobtwoclassrooms and #crazybusiness for more.

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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