Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How People Learn, Ch 1: From Speculation to Science

Reading this chapter has me excited to look at the science of learning in greater detail.I've realized over the course of this year that not everybody learns like I do, and that even the things that "worked" for me were not necessarily the best ways for me to learn.

I enjoyed the side discussion about "Fish is Fish", in which a fish is told about the terrestrial world by a frog and interprets everything the frog says through the filter of what the fish already knows. This is an aspect of learning and thinking that I think everybody needs to be made aware of; many of the difficulties and conflicts that come up between people (and communities, and nations) can be traced back to this sort of blindness to our own paradigms.

The book is absolutely right when it says that you have to address a student's mental framework (paradigm) in order to get them engaged in learning. There are two especially tricky things about dealing with flawed paradigms, though:

1.) People are generally oblivious to the fact that they have paradigms. A person's conceptual framework is so ingrained into how they see the world that they have no sense of how it limits them. Asking a person to be aware of his/her paradigms is like asking a fish to be aware of water.

2.) When you do confront people with the flaws in their paradigms, they often get really defensive about them. People don't want to discard their pre-established ways of looking at the world. It's threatening and uncomfortable, and it makes them feel stupid. People will often ride a flawed paradigm down into utter disaster, long after it becomes evident to everyone else that the framework is flawed (c.f. Operation Iraqi Freedom; Vietnam War; fiscal policy under Herbert Hoover; collectivist farms in Stalinist Russia; Roman Catholic Church re: geocentric model of the universe; et cetera, ad nauseum).

Since I'm going to be teaching physics in the spring, I have a big challenge ahead of me with confronting student paradigms. Somehow I need to address the many, many misconceptions they will have about how physics works, without making them feel threatened or attacked in the process.

It's going to be an interesting semester...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pre-assessment, "How People Learn"

"Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives...most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity...[and] when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life."

“… flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
When and where in your life have you experienced learning experiences or activities like this, where you were so absorbed in what you were doing, you needed no extrinsic motivation to continue? When do you feel the most alive and interested in what you are doing?

I've always been driven by activities that engage my imagination, my sense of wonder, or both:

When I was a child I would play with my brother and my cousin with our stuffed animals, crafting elaborate stories of adventure and epic battles between good and evil. I have spent much of my time in the ensuing years as a storyteller; even now, I devote a large amount of my free time to creating a biweekly podcast for my fiction. It makes no money for me, but it is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. I enjoy acting and cooking, both of which give me chances to create something new and interesting out of "raw" components. And I enjoy playing guitar, which gives me a chance to use my hands to make something beautiful.

My sense of wonder has always been well-developed. I remember going to aquariums and staring for hours at those creatures from another world; when we went to EPCOT Center, I was so entranced by "The Living Seas" that I didn't want to leave. Planetariums and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX evoked a similar feeling of awe. As I got older, I felt the same way about visiting museums, watching plays, walking through redwood forests, and reading novels, especially science fiction and fantasy. If someone can give me a glimpse of another world and populate it with interesting people (with interesting problems), I get sucked in really easily. I don't get to read as often as I would like, but there are some authors who I make appointments for: Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison, J. K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, George R. R. Martin. When one of their books comes out, I drop everything else and devour it, sinking myself back into the world of those characters I've come to love so much.

Those are the two big requirements for "flow" for me: the chance to be creative, or the chance to encounter something new, awesome (in the older sense of the word), or wondrous.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Writing to Learn

In these two chapters we looked at the use of writing in formative assessments, largely in the form of note-taking and worksheets oriented around reading assignments. I'm reminded of a quote that has been variously attributed to Richard Hugo, E. M. Forester, and Saul Bellow: "How do I know what I think until I see what I write?" Writing sharpens thinking -- as I'm sure the REACH staff knew when they decided to assign us to write blog posts in response to our readings. :) We can take advantage of that by having students write in ways that will help to organize and clarify their thoughts.

One thing that I found helpful in the articles -- beyond the wide swath of different writing assignment tools, several of which look very promising -- is the notion of reading with a purpose in mind, and making that purpose clear to the students at the outset. It's not something I'd particularly thought about before, but it's true: the way I read, say, a biology textbook when researching a lesson is very different from the way I read a novel, which is different from the way I read a newspaper. Most of our students probably don't have much experience with reading for anything other than narrative, which can make other forms of reading confusing when they run into them. Using formative writing assignments will help our students to understand why they're reading what they're reading, which will hopefully help them to put the focus and effort where they are most needed.

In what ways do you currently use writing-to-learn strategies in your class?

I use "Do Now" writing assignments to activate background knowledge prior to a lesson, as well as to help them organize their thoughts about material we have discussed in previous lessons and make connections between those lessons and the new material. Sometimes these writing assignments are about purely factual issues, but often they are Thinking Questions that ask the students to speculate based on what they already know.

I have also used worksheets with short essay questions to have students respond to articles they have read. However, the amount of actual reading we have done in class so far is relatively little.

In what ways could you expand your use of these strategies?

I hope to address this tomorrow when I give my students an excerpt from "You Are Here" by Thomas M. Kostigen, in which he uncovers major ecological problems around the globe and looks at how the things we do have an impact on those problems (for good or ill). The book is part investigative journalism, part ecology lesson and part travelogue, and it makes for easy and engaging reading. Kostigen does a great job of bringing in the human element, showing (for example) the lives of illegal loggers in Borneo, or a small family of subsistence farmers in Amazonia. I am hopeful that it will help our students make connections between themselves and these far-off places where our innocent actions can cause so much lasting harm for everyone. This assignment would be a natural place to make use of a formative writing assessment, both to make the purpose of the reading clear and to help the students to identify parts of the text where they are making connections, suffering confusion or asking questions.

How can writing strategies help students “hold their thinking?”

I think that goes back to the quote at the beginning of the article: you don't really know what you think until you can put it into words. By giving students a chance to interact with the text in a structured way, you give them a chance to let their thinking crystallize so they can examine it further and compare it with the thinking of others. These structured writing assignments give students a "safe" way to comment on the text; they don't have to come up with a response out of thin air.

For the excerpt I'm going to give them tomorrow, I think that the double-entry diary and a set of "mission objectives" will give them the structure that they need in order to make sense of the reading. I'll also give them space to write down words they don't understand so we can deal with any vocabulary issues. I know that the students are doing lit circles in English right now, so they know how to engage in extended reading; hopefully I can touch base with Willi to get some pointers on how to make this happen smoothly.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Older Readers & Vocabulary

What specific words do you see as vital to your unit that students might have trouble with?

For the ecology unit, I've chosen to focus on the following words:

Ecology (duh)

Primary Consumer
Secondary Consumer
Top Predator



Keystone Species
Exotic Species
Invasive Species

How did you go about choosing these words?

These word lists follow some basic thematic groupings: Levels of Organization; Community Roles; Community Interactions; Resource Movement; and Ecological Disturbances. These are, to my mind, the basic concepts that need to be dealt with in order for someone to understand ecology, and the minimum vocabulary terms that you should have access to if you're going to have a serious discussion about ecology.

The activities that we did during the last week and a half focused on community roles and levels of organization. We'll be continuing to hit on those as we get into community interactions and resource movement over the next two weeks. I think that ecological disturbances should be introduced gradually as I touch on the topics related to each type of disturbance; for example, now that I've dealt with community roles, I can introduce the students to what happens when you take out a predator at the top of the food web, or when you remove a key prey resource that a secondary consumer depends on.

Alternatives to "Look it up in the Dictionary"

This was an excerpt from Words, Words, Words by Janet Allen, and it was one of the most resource-rich reading assignments we've had to date. Unlike some of the other chapters we've read, which were full of good ideas but had little in the way of illustration, this book actually shows us what these literacy tools are supposed to look like.

The chapter opens by pointing out something that I had never really considered about teaching vocabulary: for students who have a low literacy level, looking something up in the dictionary really isn't very helpful. This was rarely an issue for me as a child: since I had been reading for as long as I could remember, I had little trouble understanding most dictionary definitions. If they used a word I didn't understand, I'd look up that word. Ms Allen tells of a situation where this went awry for her students, and the anecdote is both funny and tragic:

I handed out lists of words and had students copy definitions and write the words in sentences. Still they didn't know the words. They asked me which definition to copy from the dictionary. I told them to copy the one that made sense, the one that fit the context. They looked at me as if I were an alien and asked, "Can we copy the shortest one?" None of the definitions made sense to them. Often they didn't even understand the words used in the definitions. (p. 33)

Another thing that she points out is that often the parts of a definition don't capture the whole. Defining "floozy" as "a slovenly or vulgar woman" doesn't really tell us the functional meaning of the word, i.e., a slut. Partly, this is the result of the dictionary using polite, circumspect language that doesn't fit the spirit of the word, but part of it is just that the definition can't capture the context in which the word is used.

In light of these limitations of dictionary definitions, the different graphic organizers and worksheets illustrated in this chapter are a life-saver. Some of them are a bit complicated for my kids at this stage, and some seem much better-suited to Humanities than Science, but there are some gems here that I think could be useful in my class:

Concept Attainment (Figure 3.2): This could be useful for some of the "big idea" words that we discuss in science, though I'd have to think about which words in particular are best suited to this sort of analysis.

Concept Ladder: This sounds like it might be good for pre-assessment on scientific concepts, but I'd like to see a copy of the worksheet first.

ABC x 2: This is another one I want to see a copy of. I'm not sure if it would be useful or not, but it sounds like it could be.

Knowledge Chart: I like this one a lot. It's similar to the KWL charts, except that the "W" column is missing and it's focused on a specific word rather than a broad concept.

Analysis Map: This is another one that seems like it would be a good thinking tool for "big idea" concepts -- not so much for teaching vocabulary initially as for helping them to organize their thoughts after they've had some instruction on a topic.

Context-Content-Experience: This one is really cool, but it also seems very cerebral and a little complicated to fill out. I'm impressed by the student who was able to draw examples from PE, Math and Science for the concept of "metamorphosis". I don't think my students are ready yet for this level of sophistication.

Words in Context: This could be really useful with science words, since it breaks up the target word into its separate parts. Most scientific words are made up of a fairly predictable set of components, and getting my students to recognize those components would be very helpful in their ongoing education. Of course, as Ms Allen points out, if you can fill out this worksheet on your own, you don't need it, so this is something we'd have to do as a class and/or in table groups.

Thinking Trees: This one immediately made me think of my students' end-of-the-year class project, which is to create a poster, handout and verbal presentation about an ecological issue. I love how the organizer moves the student from the broad to the narrow, from the general to the specific, and from problems to possible solutions. This could be really useful for organizing their thoughts and research in preparation for doing their posters.

The trick now is going to be figuring out which tools will give me the most "bang for the buck" with the small amount of time remaining in the semester. Ms Allen warns against weighing students down with too many worksheets, and the point is well-taken. How can I give my students the best support possible without giving them so much to do that they miss out on the point of the exercise?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

After Third Grade

This article from Educational Leadership was more of a meta-analysis than an actual research piece; the authors combed through a bunch of papers for strategies found to be successful in promoting literacy among older students, then compiled the ones that were the most consistently useful here in this paper. By their very nature, meta-analyses deal in generalities, so there isn't a lot of "meat" here, but it's a good overview for teachers who want to promote literacy in their classroom.

The key thing that I took away from this article was that literacy promotion requires a comprehensive, integrated approach across subjects. Teachers need to work together to coordinate comprehension training; students need to work together in teams so that the stronger readers can assist the weaker ones; school libraries need to have a diverse mix of reading material across subject areas; multimedia techniques need to be incorporated with more traditional methods, so that students can successfully use the forms of literacy needed in the 21st century (including navigation of hypertext and cross-correlation of text, sound and video). Everything needs to work together with everything else in a way that is purposeful.

It really brought home to me how much work we still need to do at ARISE on interdisciplinary integration. Willi, Paul and I do talk about our plans and try to hit on similar themes in our classes, but ultimately we each have our own little worlds inside our classrooms, and there isn't a lot of integration between them. That's something we're going to need to do better at in coming years if we want to give our students the best literacy support possible.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Strategies That Work: Possible Unit Texts

What are the possible texts you will be using in your literacy unit? What challenges do you see these texts posing to your students in terms of comprehension?

I'm currently working on teaching a unit on ecology. This is a vocabulary-intensive field, so literacy techniques should prove very useful here. I've already started using "Vocabulary Note Cards" to give the students a chance to work with the language before encountering it in their reading.

It's hard to find good entry-level texts on ecological issues. There are picture books for young children and thick nonfiction tomes written for well-educated adults, but there isn't much out there for teens and less literate adults who might want to know about the issues affecting our planet. Because of that, I'm falling back on periodicals. I've started scanning the newspaper each morning while I ride the BART, looking for articles about environmental/ecological issues that we could discuss in class. I should also go to the library and see if I can find some good magazines for our use.

The biggest challenges I anticipate are (1) articles with a lot of vocabulary terms and (2) articles that are written above the reading level of most of my students. I'd like to challenge them a little, but not so much that they get frustrated and give up.

Looking at the lists of strategies that good readers use, which strategies do you think would prove most useful to your students in their comprehension of the text you give them?

  • Monitoring comprehension is foundational, I think. If you don't know when you're lost, you can't take any steps to correct it.
  • I like the idea of using sticky notes to make notes on the text. While I wouldn't have any problem with them writing on photocopied newspaper articles, I notice what the authors said about students filling up sticky notes where before they couldn't write more than a few lines on a blank page.
  • One technique that they didn't explicitly mention in the text is the Socratic seminar. Our students have practiced this technique a few times in Advisory, and I think it lends itself well to the (often-contentious) debates about ecological issues.

I also want to talk to Willi about the strategies she is using in Humanities. The students are currently doing literature circles, so I think it would aid buy-in if we could use the same techniques in both classes.

A final thought: One of the things this week's assignment has done is to make me more aware of my own literary comprehension -- or lack thereof. Every time I sat down to work on the homework for this week, I found my eyes crossing in short order. Partly, I think this is because of the lack of visual aids; this book has long stretches of uninterrupted text about techniques that are not really explained very thoroughly (at least not in these opening chapters). I tend to learn complex concepts more easily when charts and diagrams are employed. Of course, my fatigue is no doubt another factor; I've hit the end-of-semester drag, I'm only sleeping five or six hours per night, and I'm running into a chain of discouraging events at school. It probably says a lot that I devoured that first chapter last Thursday, when I'd only had to teach one lesson and it had gone quite well, whereas now I'm having a hard week and trying to read this stuff on my own.

There's a lesson there for teachers: the stuff going on in your students' lives is going to affect their ability to absorb new content, especially via reading. Most of my students are far less literate than I am, so if I'm having trouble reading my assignments, how much more are they!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Literacy Pre-Assessment

1.) What was your own early experience as a reader? When did you learn to read? What do you remember about it?

I've been reading literally for as long as I can remember. By the time I entered kindergarten I was reading NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC on my own. I didn't understand all the words, of course, but I understood enough to keep me engaged with the content.

When I was in elementary school and middle school I used to read the dictionary for fun. I loved learning about words, where they came from, and how they were related to other words. I was home-schooled from 3rd grade on, and Mom used to have me start every day with a "Word of the Day" diary: I had to look up a new word, write down its definition, and use it in a sentence. Typically, the search for one interesting word would lead me to six others. Even into my teens and twenties, I would often go to the dictionary to look up one word, then become side-tracked and spend half an hour jumping from one word to another, absorbing new vocabulary. Dad used to shake his head in amazement when he would come into the family room and find out that the book I was curled up with was a dictionary.

One big part of my early literary experience was when my Mom would read to my brother and me. This continued even into my early teens. She read to us from The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Mr. Revere and I, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, several books by Jules Verne, and others that I've since forgotten. Listening to a very fluent reader like Mom helped me to understand how books were supposed to be read: dynamically, with proper emphasis and emotion. (Sometimes a little too much emotion: Mom used to get choked up at the ends of a lot of our books, to the extent that it became a running gag. She would bury her face in the book and make loud weeping noises, and the resulting laughter would relieve enough of the tension for her to go on.) Hearing such a wide variety of words spoken aloud also greatly enhanced our oral vocabulary.

As I grew older, I would often return the favor by reading to Mom. I used to sit in the kitchen while she was making dinner, either working on schoolwork or reading for pleasure. When I found an interesting passage, newspaper story or magazine article, I would read it to her and then we would talk about it. The content ranged from serious editorials to book excerpts to Dave Barry columns, so I got a lot of experience in reading different kinds of content aloud. Looking back on it, Mom and I were almost a two-person forensics team.

2.) As you grew older, what was your experience with reading in school? What (if anything) did you like to read? Pay particular attention to your reading experience at the age of the students you teach now. What was reading like for you at that age?

Early high school was a very exciting time for me as a reader because the first of the new STAR WARS novels began coming out at that time. I had fallen in love with science fiction and fantasy in general, and with Star Wars in particular, so the existence of all new stories with my favorite characters was cause for rejoicing. Timothy Zahn didn't write down to his audience, so those were highly stimulating books for me to read, even if they weren't what you would call highbrow literature.

Mom had me read some of the classics, in addition to the modern SF/Fantasy stories that I tended to choose on my own. I remember, at various points in my schooling, reading The Red Badge of Courage, Animal Farm, one of the Huck Finn books, and Black Beauty; I'm sure there were others, too, but they've faded from my recollection. I also had to read Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet for my Shakespeare class.

During my teen years I also read through the Bible, in its entirety, at least twice. I had been reading the Bible on my own from a relatively early age -- first using a simplified children's translation, then the Living Bible paraphrase, and finally the NIV -- but it was when I got into high school that I really started to make a serious habit of it. Between daily readings on my own and discussions in youth group and Sunday school, I became very familiar with the unusual language used in the scriptures and modern religious texts.

Besides novels and the scriptures, I also read magazines, newspapers, and (especially) comic books, which became a major addiction of mine during this time period. Except when we were dining together as a family, I never ate without reading something -- even if it was just the cereal box in front of me. I also used reading as a refuge from social interaction, since I was rather shy and very self-conscious about my weight, appearance and lack of social skills. During family gatherings, when other kids were playing whiffle-ball or throwing darts, I would be the one inside on the couch with a book in my hands. Reading was a precious comfort to me at one of the most difficult times in my life, and I would retreat to that shelter whenever I could get away with it.

3.) Answer the same question with regards to writing.

I've been telling stories since at least first grade, when we had a story contest at my Montessori school and they brought in someone to type our stories for us while we dictated them. (Mine was about two friends, an icthyosaurus and an elasmosaurus. Yes, I was a dinosaur nut -- and no, those aren't actually dinosaurs. At the end of the story they went home to eat pancakes.) My story won third place, thus creating a monster that persists to this day. :)

Once I got into home-schooling, Mom used creative writing as a way to engage me in assignments that were otherwise making me drag. I remember the first time she did this: I was either seven or eight, and doing an assignment for science about cleaner wrasses. I enjoyed learning about them, but I was bored with the idea of a written report. Mom suggested that I write her a story about them, and that sounded like a lot more fun. The result was a whimsical story about cleaner wrasses who ran a "service station" for bigger fish, which was being threatened by a group of "gangsters" who were sabre-toothed blennies. It was the sort of thing that somebody might have made a movie about a generation later, but at the time it was wonderfully obscure, and it made the project a lot more fun.

It also opened the floodgates. I wrote another story the year after that one, a long and rambling journey into weirdness that was equal parts The Phantom Tollbooth and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. In the early 1990s I wrote a series of stories based on adventures that my cousin Monica, my brother Casey and I had acted out with our stuffed animals during our younger years. In 1995 I had a dream that inspired me to write a novella about a woman who was changed into a wolf. In 1996-98 I worked on a set of novellas about shapeshifting aliens who protected the Earth (and other primitive planets) from the classic UFO-flying "Greys"; I completed two of the planned set of six stories, then got halfway through the third before I realized it wasn't working and abandoned it.

In 1996 I also joined an online writers' group, where I got interested in shared story universes. I started small at first, putting out a couple of character intro stories and a few other bits here and there. By 1998 I was deeply involved with the community and had helped do a huge amount of world-building for the Metamor Keep story universe, which eventually spawned my own spinoff of Metamor City. I continued writing off and on throughout my college and grad school years, eventually completing my first full-length novel earlier this year.

Writing nonfiction has never been as interesting for me as writing fiction, but it wasn't hard, either. The hardest part of writing good nonfiction was doing the research. All those years of reading anything and everything that I could get my hands on helped to build my feel for what it meant to write in different genres. I served as the editor for my youth group's newspaper, which gave me practice in writing editorials and other forms of persuasive writing (as well as editing other people's writing, which was both torturous and the best thing I could have done to build my own writing skills). I got consistently high marks for my written papers when I got into college, and it wasn't until I had to write my thesis for grad school that I learned of my biggest flaw as a non-fiction writer: too much of a propensity for overstatement and excessively flowery language. I blame my fiction writing for that. ;-)

4.) Thinking about your own classroom right now, what role does literacy play in your class? What do you want to learn how to do better in your classroom to support your students in subject-specific literacy?

One thing that came out in my reading of the article was that I'm not doing a lot to build comprehension. I wrote my lab experiments with an informal style and simplified language, thinking that I could produce comprehension simply by not challenging their vocabulary too much. I didn't think about the fact that comprehension is a separate skill, and that the students might know 90% of the words on the page yet still be unable to derive meaning from it. No wonder most of my lab worksheets went unread!

Vocabulary is a constant struggle in science, as well. While I tried to scaffold understanding of many important terms, I don't think I did enough. I would put the words on the board, break them up into their roots and define the roots, and then try to explain the definition of the word -- but I don't think I was giving the students enough situations where they were forced to with those words while they were fresh in their minds, which might have helped them to retain the knowledge. I was appalled this past Monday when I discovered that one of my students -- who is poorly self-motivated but not stupid -- did not remember what homeostasis was. This, despite the fact that the whole unit has essentially been about homeostasis.

The article described a number of tools for practicing both vocabulary and comprehension, but it's difficult for me to build solid mental constructs about these tools when I'm just reading about them. I'd like to see these tools implemented in our REACH meetings, either as a group or one-on-one with Victoria, so that I can see them modeled and then practice using them. I want to give my students some better grounding in vocab and comprehension, especially as we're getting into the jargon-heavy field of ecology, but I won't feel like I really understand these tools until I have the chance to practice with them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Inquiry vs. Content

This article struck a nerve for me, because it highlighted one of my ongoing insecurities about my own teaching: the fear that I haven't been effectively implementing the sort of inquiry-based approach to learning that I wanted to use. Given my students' poor performance on the quizzes after the early lab activities, I had to conclude that they retained very little of what I had tried to teach in those lessons.

How do you know students understand key points of your content?

I've been trying different approaches. The quizzes are intended to check for the ability to remember, comprehend, and analyze/synthesize concepts discussed in class. The students are improving in their ability on the first two points, but many of them haven't even tried to answer the more difficult written problems intended to check for the latter. Less formal checks for understanding, like asking them to explain concepts to me verbally, have mixed results.

Today I tried something new: I had my students do a written reflection for me on three questions related to the cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous systems. The focus of the questions was on how these different systems keep the rest of the body running. I also asked them to each identify one thing they understand now about biology that they didn't before, and the biggest thing we've talked about that they still don't understand. I haven't checked these papers yet, so I don't know how well they did. I do know that a lot of them wasted time during the class and didn't finish, even with the incentive of having the computers ready and waiting for them to use after they completed the assignment.

What skills/understandings do students need to know about learning your specific subject?

I'm trying to parse this sentence in order to answer it correctly. I think it's asking, not what specific skills and understandings must be gained by the end of the course, but what skills and understandings they will need in order to even begin learning effectively within my subject. The latter is a more difficult question, and also more interesting.

One thing that I think is key is the concept of the scientific method. This is something I haven't hit on heavily in the class up to now, and I think it's going to be crucial when we start to get into ecology. One can work through much of physiology without understanding how we learn things in science: the parts of the body and their functions are very well-characterized now, and it isn't necessary to understand the process of scientific inquiry in order to know how these parts work together. When we get into ecology, though, that's inherently fuzzier territory, and the system of observe-hypothesize-test-refine is going to be much more important. Scientific method is important both as an understanding (they need to get the reasoning behind it) and as a skill (they need to be able to do it, if they're going to do inquiry-based learning).

Another key understanding that underlies biology is that everything is connected to everything else. We study organs and organ systems in isolation, but it's critical to realize that these things function as parts of a unitary organism. Similarly, the different organisms in an ecosystem are closely tied together, both with other members of their own population and with other populations occupying different niches within the community. What affects one species affects the others it is connected to, as well.

How are you teaching this in your class right now?

Not well enough, to judge from the results. I'm going to need to put in some serious effort on this next unit to design inquiry-based lesson plans and get away from both all-traditional instruction and undirected hands-on exploration.

Oh, yeah: and I have to do it with two weeks less time than I thought I had.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lesson Planning: The Real Story

How do I plan my lessons? Well, it goes something like this:

1.) At the beginning of the year I identified the topics that I wanted to teach and when I wanted to teach them. I worked out a syllabus with plans for where the major projects would go and came up with some general ideas for how I wanted to present certain aspects of the material.

2.) The actual lessons then got put together at more-or-less the last minute. Usually I'd be working until 10 or 11 the night before, writing out lab worksheets or putting together slides. Then the next day I'd have to do it all over again.

3.) Eventually I started coming up with some multi-day assignments that would save me from having to start again from scratch every night. I also brought in La Clinica to do a two-week sex ed program, which took up an hour of class every day and thus cut the amount of time I had to plan activities for in half. This probably saved my sanity when I was trying to catch up on grading for the mid-semester marking period.

4.) Currently I have the students working on a big mid-semester Public Health Project, which is taking up good-sized chunks of time with comparatively little direct instruction on my part. Again, this has saved my sanity. Gustavo and I are team-teaching this section, since he knows the computers and the community far better than I; together we broke down the PHP into small, digestible steps for each day's activities. This has greatly reduced the amount of last-minute planning that I need to do ... though Victoria and I were still working on scaffolding the whole idea of a Public Service Announcement on the morning that the project began. :)

In general, then, I would say that I tend to plan the Big Picture far in advance and do the details at the last minute. This works better at some times than others; I feel like I'm pretty good at coming up with ideas to present material -- something that several others have echoed -- but it's easy for me to get to that point where I feel overwhelmed by all the stuff on my plate.

On the bright side, I think that the second unit of this class was structured in advance much more than the first unit. On the other hand, we're running about a week and a half behind schedule, so some of the stuff I had in mind for Unit 2 isn't going to happen. Figuring out what to keep and what to toss is the next big challenge.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Science Framework

This was actually my third time examining the California content standards for the sciences. I had to go through this document with a fine-toothed comb when I was studying for my two rounds of CSET exams in early 2007 and early 2008. Of course, in those cases I had a month or more to review them, not four days in the middle of the midterm week. ^_^ Needless to say, I gave the document a far more thorough examination the first two times.

Now that I'm actually attempting to teach this stuff to students, my primary reaction to the list of standards is: "Yeah, great. And while I'm at it, let me spin some straw into gold for you." I have one semester to teach my students all the biology they will get in high school. Even with two-hour blocks --which I consider the absolute minimum to get anything accomplished in a lab course -- that's not remotely enough time to address all of the standards they present. I my planning this year by cutting down to three content areas, then eliminated one of those during the summer retreat. Now I'm at the end of the time I had set aside for the first unit, and my students still need more time working with this material to really get it. If they can leave my class with a genuine understanding of physiology and homeostasis, and nothing else, I'll count that a victory at this point.

Having high standards is all well and good, and I believe in holding students to a high bar for achievement. What I've discovered in the last seven weeks is the difference between a high bar and an impossible bar. My students are not prepared, at this age level and maturity level, to process all of the information that the Science Framework asks them to process. If I had four years with them, I might be able to build understanding of all of the content standards for one of the sciences. As it is, though, I need to choose between breadth and depth, and our school's charter is clear on which one wins out.

At any rate, a lot of the stuff they want students to know is really only of tangential importance:

Students know meiosis is an early step in sexual reproduction in which the pairs of chromosomes separate and segregate randomly during cell division to produce gametes containing one chromosome of each type.
(Biology Standard 2a)
Is meiosis an important biological concept? Yes, absolutely -- if you're planning on pursuing a degree in biology. As such, it's absolutely an essential standard for a university-level bio course. But I feel fairly safe in saying that most of my students do not need to know this. I would much rather throw out all of meiosis, all of Mendelian Genetics, and spend extra time on proper sex education and risk assessment. It doesn't matter how much they know about how sex works, on a genetic level, if they don't understand how to make good choices about their own sexual reproduction.

The key here is to separate out the important from the relevant and timely. Many of the content standards fall into the former but not the latter. Unfortunately, as long as the government bureaucrats overseeing school "reform" fail to understand that distinction, it's likely that we're going to keep bashing our heads against the wall, throwing a mountain of information at students and hoping desperately that it sticks.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Assuming the Best" and "Reaching Fragile Students"

Continuing our study of classroom management and culture, these two articles addressed issues that are very immediately relevant for me.

In "Assuming the Best", authors Rick Smith and Mary Lambert talk about the unwritten contract between teacher and student: The student wants to learn in a safe and structured environment, and the teacher does his/her best to provide that environment. When students act out, they are (consciously or subconsciously) testing the teacher to see if that contract will be upheld.

That, in and of itself, is not a new idea to me. There were some specifics in the article that I found valuable, though:

1.) The idea that we have our own "internal radios" projecting unhelpful static, just as the students do. While their radios are saying things like "Being seen as cool is more important than anything else" or "School is boring", our radios are picking up static like "These kids don't care" or "They're just lazy." That negativity can poison our relationship with our students and render useless any tactics that we might employ to gain their compliance. (As Victoria pointed out two weeks ago in our meeting, mere compliance is not the objective: engagement is.)

2.) How we correct behavior is as important as that we correct it. There were some incidents this week that I think I handled well on this front, but in other cases my tone was too harsh and the correction may have been too public. I'm still figuring out how to convey a firm, serious tone without it coming out unnecessarily harsh, and it gets harder when I'm short on sleep. I've got to remember to keep taking care of myself so I don't take out my own exhaustion on the students.

3.) The idea of the "Two by Ten" strategy intrigues me. (That means spending two minutes a day for ten days talking with your toughest student about whatever interests them -- as long as the conversation stays G-rated.) I can already think of a few students I want to try this with -- if I can keep them from running away from me. ^_^

Some of the ideas suggested in the article seem more immediately useful than others. The concept of building behavior rubrics (a set of guidelines for what good behavior should look like in various situations) sounds good in principle, but my mind shudders at the thought of any more organizational prep work when I'm already up until midnight three or four nights a week working on lesson plans.

The other article, "Reaching the Fragile Student", talks about creating an inviting learning environment that won't turn off students -- especially those whose lives, frankly, suck in a lot of ways we can't control. Our school is off to a good start with this, I think, in that no student ever gets a grade below a B: if your work isn't up to expectations, you have to fix it or take the class over again. Classes that you don't complete with at least a B don't give you any credit hours and aren't included on your transcript. Of course, we do have to deal with the problem of students who are (for example) juniors by age and 9th-graders by credit accumulation, but better for them to stay and learn with us than to end up with a diploma that isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

This article also talks about looking to heal conflicts through mediation rather than just suppress them with punishment. I had a couple of experiences with that yesterday, one of which I'll share here:

One of my students, A., is smart and diligent in her own work but has trouble relating to other people. She seems to have a big pile of resentments built up from the way people have treated her over the years, and it's caused her to put up defensive walls that make her seem mean and off-putting. She despises group work and doesn't want to collaborate with anyone. As a quite dark-skinned African-American woman in a school that is 85% Latino, she feels alienated from the people around her; she believes that the other students won't work with her because they're racist. That makes her more angry and defensive, which causes people to pull away from her even more -- thus reinforcing her opinions. When the class divided into teams for a project, she was the last person left unpicked and refused to work with the team that was assigned to her.

I talked to her yesterday in private about how we project impressions to the people around us, and how her very self-confident, "go to hell" persona was intimidating to others. I shared my own feelings of isolation, being an Anglo man in a Latino school, and that seemed to resonate with her. Racism, I said, is a hard thing to deal with directly because you can never know what's going on in another person's heart, and all you can do is strive to be the best person you can be so that others have a chance to see that whatever prejudices they might have don't apply to you.

I told A. that she's going to need to be willing to open up and be vulnerable, to risk getting hurt, in order to give people the chance to make a positive connection with her -- essentially, she needs to try to "assume the best" about her classmates. I then suggested several individuals in the class who could make good partners, and she agreed that a few of the ones I suggested were nice and would talk to her. I'm hoping that this will be the beginning of a new start for her, and that she can take the risky step of giving someone a chance to be her friend.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Warm but demanding

The articles we were assigned to read for this week ("The Teacher as Warm Demander" by E. Bondy & D. Ross and "Understand the Symptoms" by M. Tate) struck a resounding note with me. It's good that I've read these articles now and not before I started teaching; I don't think I could have really grokked them until I had some actual classroom experience under my belt.

"Understand the Symptoms" talks about four of the most common causes of student misbehavior: needing attention, needing control, boredom, and feelings of inadequacy. I've seen cases of all of these in my class, and some cases where I'm not quite sure I've identified which of these the root cause. To be sure, they often go together: a student who feels inadequate to understand the material might stop trying, get bored, and act out in order to get attention. Another student might get bored because he understands the material perfectly well and wants me to get on with it already. The tricky part is identifying root causes, and I suspect that comes with getting to know your students better. I've already gotten valuable insights on a few of my students by talking to Romeo, who seems to know a lot about everybody (which is probably part of his job description, come to think about it).

"The Teacher As Warm Demander" highlights the kind of teacher I try to be: one who communicates clear expectations but also clearly conveys an affection for the students. Being human, I sometimes have problems with conveying "unconditional positive regard" for students who are frustrating me, but I think I'm getting better at it. One of my students who was causing a lot of disruptions early on, C.R., has gotten a lot more on-task since I made an effort to slow down the pace of my instruction and explain things more clearly. I gave him one-on-one help when he was working on our drug education project, and I think that helped to show him that I did care about seeing him do well in the class.

One passage in this article that I found interesting was about learning the cultural context of students' actions:

"Gaining insight into cultural values and habits helps teachers monitor their reactions to student behaviors that they might deem "bad", but that are considered normal or even valued in the student's home culture." (p.3)

Leaving aside for the moment the thorny question of whether all cultures are equally valid/healthy/productive for their members -- particularly in a global 21st-Century society -- I'm curious about what sorts of behaviors would fall into this category for my students. What are the cultural mores and expected behaviors of Latino and African-American culture in the East Bay? Which of these manifest themselves as "bad" behavior in the classroom?

On the whole, this article was challenging for me. I saw some things in it that I'm already doing, some things that I want to do better, and some that I still need to implement. Being consistent about discipline is one area where I need some work: "Many teachers believe that they are showing students they care when they continually give 'one more chance.' Unfortunately, giving 'one more chance' demonstrates that a teacher does not mean what he or she says, and this practice could be interpreted as a lack of caring." Ouch!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Progress Update

Wow -- it's been a long time since I updated this blog. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind!

On the whole I feel very good about the way my first year of teaching is progressing. I've been leading the students in a variety of interesting activities that all feed in to a central, cohesive theme. I'm starting to get to know the different students and recognize the ones who are really engaged with the material. Last Thursday our co-principal, Romeo, sat in on my lecture that introduced the nervous system, and by his tally more than half of the students asked meaningful questions about the material. Other teachers report that students have been speaking positively about my class and me as a teacher. The activities seem to be well-timed; while we don't have a lot of wiggle room on most labs, the students have generally been able to finish everything in time to get things cleaned up for the next class.

On the down side: I have a handful of students who seem like they really don't want to be there. One of them, P., is pretty obviously desperate for attention. He's been kicked around from one school to another and gained a reputation as a "bad kid", which he has apparently embraced. (Perhaps a negative self-identity is better than no identity at all?) He has a tendency to roam around the classroom during the labs and make loud outbursts during direct instruction. He can complete at least some assignments, but he needs a partner who will keep him on-task and be patient with his antics. In yesterday's lab I saw him working with one of my most earnest students, F., and on the sections of the lab where she assisted him he was able to complete his work and turn it in. I may ask her if she's willing to continue working with him like that; it may help her own learning to assist another student, and I think she has the temperament for it.

I also have a couple of packs of female students who are more deeply engaged in their mutual social life than with anything going on in the classroom. In my first section, 9B, the young women in question are the "cool girls", the ones who are beautiful and fashionable and oh-so-aware of this fact. When an activity is too gross or unpleasant, or when I'm trying to give instructions, they'll withdraw and talk to each other rather than focus on the work. They seem to be getting better about this, though, and on Thursday's lab they actually completed their work first and did an excellent job with it. One of them was even asking some very thoughtful questions during Thursday's lecture.

The pack in my second section, 9A, is more problematic. These are what I mentally refer to as the "chibi girls": cute, giggly, gabby, easily-distracted, and acting about three years younger than everyone else. When one of them goes to the bathroom, they'll all look for a way to sneak out after her when my back is turned so that they can go socialize. During lecture they keep up an almost constant background chatter; when I ask (or tell) them to be quiet, they start up again as soon as I go back to my instruction. In light of this, it should be no surprise that they're frequently lost during the labs, since they don't pay attention and won't read the worksheets that reiterate my verbal instructions.

At this point I think my biggest objective is to get the students to grasp the idea of the learning contract: I can be flexible in how I present the material and work with them to help them learn, but they need to be an active part of the process. If I'm going too fast, or not giving enough detail, or not explaining something in a way they can grasp, they need to tell me so I can make appropriate corrections, rather than just disengaging and doing their own thing. When Romeo sat in on that lesson, everybody stopped horsing around -- and because of that, they started to get interested in the material and asked some great questions, including the ones who normally don't get engaged. I'm hoping that this lesson will stick in their heads and that they'll start actively looking for the stuff that will engage their interest -- though Romeo tells me it will take them a while.

Of course, he also said that this group of 9th-graders is much better-behaved than their first group, so I'm hopeful that our ongoing efforts to build a culture at the school are working. Little by little, we build...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

UbD Chapter 13: Yes, but...

In this final chapter of UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN, the authors explicitly address the three biggest objections they have faced with the UbD approach: namely, the need to "teach to the test", the excess of content that must be taught, and the lack of teacher time to implement these plans.

They answer all of these objections ably. While they are realistic about the pressures that teachers are under to perform, they are also brutally honest about the present state of affairs: they point out, for instance, that the schools that perform the best on standardized tests aren't the ones that spend endless hours training students to take tests. They also address one of the concerns that I had about the UbD approach: namely, schools that implement it do see a rise in test scores among their students. It is possible to teach for understanding and still reap a "fringe benefit" of improved performance in standardized assessments.

One part of this chapter that I found interesting was the reference to a collaborative curriculum-planning community called UbD Exchange. Apparently there are teachers all over the country who are using UbD and making their lesson and unit plans available over a shared website. I'll need to find out how we can access this service, because it would be a huge help to me in my ongoing lesson planning -- especially when I get ready to teach physics in the spring semester.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

UbD Chapter 12: UbD as Curriculum Framework

In this chapter the authors attempt to expand the concept of UbD planning to the broader sphere of entire curricula and programs. This is something that ARISE is already doing, attempting to unite all of the classes faced by each grade level under a common set of essential questions. In the case of my 9th graders, as mentioned before, these questions are: Who am I? Where are we going? What are the tools that will help us get there?

I like the idea of organizing the curriculum this way, and it has certainly helped me to better arrange my content in a way that will be engaging (I hope) for my students. As the authors point out, the logical order in which one might lay out a summary of the knowledge in a given field is not usually the best order in which to present that material to a novice. This is something I already knew on some level -- witness my rejection of the cell-first approach to teaching biology that has been used in so many courses and textbooks. However, the order that I had first planned on presenting the material -- focusing on ecology, then physiology, then evolution -- may have been appropriate for a storytelling-based approach to biology, but it wasn't the best approach for a bunch of 9th graders who are primarily interested in what's happening to their own bodies.

I found this chapter to be a lot harder to get through than most of the previous chapters. The authors, having made their central points in the earlier portions of the book, seem to be flailing around at this point, presenting their ideas in a haphazard way and delving too far into extraneous details. The three-page recapitulation of a rubric for scientific inquiry was almost ridiculously excessive, and probably should have been relegated to an appendix; they talk at great length about "scope and sequence" curriculum planning without ever defining it; and most of the ideas presented in the chapter have been adequately addressed earlier in the book.

That said, there are some good points in here. One that jumped out at me was the example of software manuals: Most complex software programs come with "Getting Started" guides to get people working on the basics quickly and tutorials to walk them through more complex features; the reference manual, if it exists at all, is a separate document designed to be called upon only when needed. (Most programs nowadays, in fact, eschew reference manuals entirely in favor of complex Help menus.) As the authors point out, many elementary students are able to master quite complex software using this approach, while high school students are baffled by the linear, fact-driven presentation of science and history.

It's an important lesson, and one that already has me thinking about the 10th-grade physics class that I'll be teaching next semester. The focus of that class is on Newtonian mechanics, simple machines, and thermodynamics, and I'm beginning to think it might be wise to have the students discover Newton's laws by observation and measurement before having them described. The tricky part will be figuring out how to allow them to explore those laws, given the messy and complicated systems that are available to us in the real world. Hmm ... I wonder how much an air track costs...

Friday, August 22, 2008

UbD Chapter 11: The Design Process

This chapter reviews a number of ways to practically apply the concepts presented earlier in the book, taking into account that many teachers will be approaching the UbD process with lessons and units already planned out. I count myself fortunate that I was exposed to UbD at the beginning of my teaching career, but I can still draw a number of helpful tips from this chapter, particularly since certain elements of our course design are mandatory and I need to figure out how to incorporate them most effectively within an understanding-based framework.

One point that the authors give extensive time to is the idea of compromises and dilemmas in teaching. They warn against relying too much on process and losing touch with what's going on with your students:

"Too much reliance on a recipe leads to other problems. It can close off thoughtful responsiveness of the teacher-designer -- empathy! -- in the false belief that any well-thought-out plan must, of necessity, work, and if it doesn't, it must be the students' fault." (p. 267)

I probably narrowly missed falling into this trap myself, to be honest: my "xenobiology expedition" idea would have been great for students of a certain stripe, but it just isn't likely to work with students who are as grounded in the brutal realities of inner-city life as mine are going to be. I'll have to meet them where they're at and do my best to make the content as relevant as possible -- and, even then, keep in mind the need to keep getting feedback and making adjustments on the fly. As the authors make clear throughout the chapter, good design is an ongoing, iterative process -- one that's never really finished, because each crop of students is different.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stage 3 Summary

My completion of Stage 3 of the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN course takes place after our professional development retreat, a week of meeting with my fellow teachers at ARISE, and a complete overhaul of the order of presentation. All the same, I'm feeling good about where things are.

ARISE is big on using Essential Questions that run across multiple subjects in a grade level, giving the students' entire learning experience a feeling of cohesion and unity. The questions for the 9th Graders this year are:

  • Who Am I? (Anyone who fails to recognize the applicability of this has forgotten what it means to be fourteen.)
  • Where Are We Going? (My perhaps-too-close-to-the-mark addition, "...and why are we in this handbasket?", is left unstated.)
  • What Are The Tools That Will Get Us There?

In the case of biology these questions tie in nicely to the themes of physiology (looking at the student's own body), ecology (looking at how all of our lives, animal and plant alike, are tied together), and scientific skills and social outreach (which address the technical and personal aspects of how we're going to deal with the problems that face us as a species).

Given this progression, it was necessary to push ecology to the back burner and focus on physiology for the first unit of the course , with skills and social perspective spread throughout both units. This will engage the natural self-centeredness of 9th-graders, then (I hope) expand their thinking to the people and world around them. It might not be the most elegant presentation of biology, but it's the approach that will be the most immediately relevant to the students, and that's the important thing.

As far as lesson plans are concerned, I've worked out a syllabus for what to teach and when, which covers the entire semester. Victoria, my coach, agreed that it was a challenging curriculum but worth a try, provided that I keep giving the students opportunities to revisit what they've learned and integrate it with new concepts. I'll be using a lot of formative assessments this year, and the list provided in Chapter 10 will be a big help.

The key thing, from an instructional standpoint, will be to keep tying back everything that the students are learning to the big unifying concepts. Fortunately, I don't think it's that hard to do that in biology, because everything really is connected. My first unit -- "Your Body: A User's Manual" -- will use the analogy of the human body as a machine, which needs fuel (provided through the digestive system) and oxygen (the cardiovascular and respiratory systems) in order to run and a control system (the nerves, sense organs and brain) in order to steer it. I'll round out the unit with explorations of the three biology topics that can most easily capture students' attention: germs, drugs, and sex. (I'm particularly looking forward to my demonstration of germ transmission, which will use ... no, I'm saving that for a surprise.) Not coincidentally, these are three issues where our students are most in need of good instruction.

Yesterday I worked out what I'll need in order to do each of the lab experiments over the course of the year. Now I have to push to actually get those supplies, and as soon as possible. Good thing I don't actually have my first biology lesson until a week from tomorrow!

UbD Chapter 10: Teaching for Understanding

This chapter was chock-full of good advice, even if it was necessarily general. I was somewhat relieved to find that the authors came out in defense of direct instruction, reaffirming its necessary place alongside exploratory and constructivist approaches to education. Certainly I couldn't imagine teaching science without a combination of these methods; after all, if men as brilliant as Aristotle or Hippocrates had so many mistaken ideas about biology even after a lifetime of study, we can hardly expect students to "construct" correct understandings without some essential underpinnings.

Still, this chapter had a whimsical but sobering reminder in it: To whatever extent you're inclined to do something, you're probably going to overdo it to that extent.

Teachers who love to lecture do too much of it; teachers who resist it do too little. Teachers who love ambiguity make discussions needlessly confusing. Teachers who are linear and task-oriented often intervene too much in a seminar and can cut off fruitful inquiry. Teachers who love to coach sometimes do too many drills and overlook transfer. Teachers who love the big picture often do a poor job of developing core skills and competence. The upshot? Beware of self-deception! (p. 242)

For myself, I know that I'm both a big-picture thinker and a lecturer: I like imaginative tangible projects, and I also like to hear myself talk. I have to be careful throughout the coming year to save the talking for where it will do the most good, and to teach the skills necessary for the students to do the tasks I want them to do -- something that Victoria already warned me about. Happily, our 45-minute lessons on Wednesdays give me a nice time block when I can focus on skill-oriented instruction; it's too short a period for any but the simplest experiments and demonstrations, but it's a good length for introducing concepts like, say, the scientific method, or how to conduct an interview for the students' ecological awareness project.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

UbD Chapter 9: Planning for Learning

The first chapter of Stage 3 -- developing a learning plan -- was a massive barrage of new content spread over 35 pages (which is a lot when you're talking about information-dense textbook reading). I'm still assimilating it all, and I think it may be a while before I feel like I'm actually "getting" everything in here. As I've noted before, straight reading is not my most efficient means of taking in new information, and there was enough here to make my eyes cross.

The basic concept is that a lesson plan should be designed with seven criteria or stages in mind, represented by the acronym WHERETO:

W = Where is the content headed? Where are the students coming from?
H = Hooking the students: how do we get them engaged with the material? How do we hold onto them once we've got them?
E = Explore and Experience, Enable and Equip: Students need to have experiences that will help them explore the Big Ideas of the unit. We also need to Equip them with the tools they'll need to perform well in the assessments and demonstrate understanding of the material.
R = Revise and Reflect: Return to the same questions and problems again and again. Challenge initial assumptions. Make the students think again about their first instincts, and see how their inferences change in the light of new knowledge. This mirrors what Howard Gardner said about "going deep": you have to stay with a topic long enough to get down to the student's essential misconceptions and dispel them before new understanding can take root.
E = Evaluate work and progress: This refers to letting the students evaluate their progress, not just the teacher. These is where strategies like the "1-minute essay" become invaluable. Give the students opportunities for constant reflection.
T = Tailor and personalize the work: I really, really appreciate what the authors say about this one -- namely, that a "diverse" student body is not merely one that is composed of minority groups. Every student body is diverse because all students come to the class with different strengths, weaknesses, prior knowledge, learning styles, interests, and preferences. (The use of "diverse" as a euphemism to describe members of racial minorities has always struck me as deeply offensive for this very reason.) It's important to keep pursuing the same Goals and Desired Results while making room for students to explore the content in different ways, as befits their strengths.
O = Organize for optimal effectiveness: It's important to present the material in a way that will generate the most interest and maintain that interest throughout the unit. Marching in a straight line through the content is bad for understanding on several levels -- it lowers interest in the material, which causes students to disengage, and also prevents students from going back to Reflect and Evaluate on previous content. I particularly liked the analogy here to soccer training: teach discrete skills, then build up to more sophisticated drills, then "play the game" (which would probably equate to the Performance Task Assessment we constructed in the last chapter).

In between pulling my focus back to the material of the chapter -- did I mention this was a LOT of reading? -- I've been brainstorming about "hooks" to get the students engaged early. That, in turn, has led me back to the xenobiology theme that I came up with earlier in the design process. What if, instead of just making the xenobiology presentation the big end-of-the-year class project, I build that concept of exploring an alien world into many of the projects throughout the year? I could present the students with "messages" and "log entries" from the captain of a new colony mission that has landed on an alien world; the colonists are running into various problems with the local flora and fauna, and the captain has turned to his team of xenobiologists (the students) to figure out what's going wrong and how to fix it. Our class can then turn to considering different real-world situations and extracting the necessary Understandings to make sense of the problems being faced by the space colonists.

This suggests a structure for the overall unit: Begin by explaining the role that the students are playing and presenting a message from the captain, describing a mysterious problem with the local ecology and asking for their help. I can start out with a pre-assessment where the students guess at possible causes of the problem, which should reveal which ones have some prior understanding of ecology. We can then return to the colonists' dilemma throughout the unit as we uncover new understandings and new knowledge; through written responses and class discussions, the students can refine their previous thinking about the situation, until they finally arrive at the actual cause and a recommended solution at the unit's end. The two subsequent units can feature similar biological "mysteries" for the students to solve in the areas of homeostasis and evolution.

I think this will be a fun hook for the students; the idea of learning from Earth's biology to answer questions about an alien world inherently embodies the idea of "transfer", which is one of the true marks of understanding. It also creates a theme that I can draw on in activities and assessments throughout the rest of the unit.

Stage 2 Summary

After reading through the additional examples in the workbook, I believe I have come up with an effective rubric for my Amazon Basin Brochure. The students will be graded on two separate scales:

Understanding (65%):

4 - The brochure clearly and accurately identifies all of the major reasons why slash-and-burn agriculture is destructive and ultimately counterproductive. The brochure shows sensitivity to the Amazonian farmers' difficult situation and clearly presents the benefits of shade-grown crops as an alternative. There are no misunderstandings of key concepts.

3 - The brochure correctly identifies at least two of the major reasons why slash-and-burn agriculture is destructive and counterproductive. The benefits of shade-grown crops may be presented somewhat glibly, without full acknowledgment of the farmers' concerns. Any misunderstandings are minor and do not affect the central argument.

2 - The brochure only correctly identifies one of the major reasons why slash-and-burn agriculture is destructive or counterproductive. The concerns of the Amazonian farmers are not explicitly addressed and/or the reasons for switching to shade-grown crops are not properly explained. There may be evidence of misunderstandings that affect the central argument.

1 - The brochure shows little apparent understanding of the relevant ideas and issues. Phrases may be repeated verbatim from reference materials without proper understanding of their meaning or their relationship to each other. The arguments used against slash-and-burn agriculture and in favor of shade-grown crops are inadequate and do not address either the lasting effects of deforestation and/or the benefits of shade-grown alternatives. The document reveals major misunderstandings of key ideas.

0 - Assignment was not completed; no assessment can be made.

Performance (35%):

4 - The brochure is presented eloquently and powerfully. It is well-organized and lays out its argument in a logical, engaging and persuasive way, mindful of the audience, context, and purpose. There is unusual craftsmanship in the final product.

3 - The brochure is presented effectively. The argument is presented in a clear and thorough manner, showing awareness of the audience, context and purpose.

2 - The brochure is presented in a somewhat effective manner. There are problems with organization, clarity, thoroughness, and polish. It is unclear whether the audience, context and purpose of the project have been considered.

1 - The brochure is presented ineffectively. It is unpolished, with little evidence of prior planning or consideration of its purpose and audience, OR it is so unclear and confusing that it is difficult to determine whether the key points have been covered.

0 - Assignment was not completed; no assessment can be made.
On the whole, I think this stage has been very helpful in sharpening my ideas about how to assess understanding of the ideas and concepts established in Stage 1. My conversation with Page yesterday was particularly helpful; it got me thinking about all of the tangential skills and abilities that are necessary for students to successfully complete the tasks we give them, and the importance of making sure that the students are prepared to use those skills as well as the explicit content that we want them to learn. Even when we're not "teaching the test," we never quite escape the challenge of teaching students how to perform the assessments we intend to use.

In any event, all of this work on assessments has made me eager to get into the question of how to present the material we're going to be assessing. It's time for Stage 3: planning the lessons and activities that I'll be using to help the students learn about ecology.

Self-Test Assessment

In considering my idea for the Unit 1 summative assessment -- the brochure written to farmers in the Amazon Basin -- it's important to stop and do a reality check to see if it will be a useful and valid assessment. The following questions come from p. 180 of the UbD workbook.

How likely is it that a student could do well on the assessment by...

1.) Making clever guesses based on limited understanding?

Not very. The students are going to have to translate some complicated ecological concepts into language that the farmers could understand. It's not enough for them to say that slash-and-burn agriculture is bad or that shade-grown crops are good; they have to be able to provide a well-reasoned argument from the ecological principles we discussed in class.

2.) Parroting back or plugging in what was learned, with accurate recall but limited or no understanding?

I don't think so. Accurate recall may help them remember some basic facts about the Amazon, but explaining the connection between the farmers' activities and the resulting changes in the ecology will require a deeper understanding.

3.) Making a good-faith effort, with lots of hard work and enthusiasm, but with limited understanding?

Anyone who puts in a lot of legitimate hard work on the project will have formed a deeper understanding by the time they finish. This isn't something they can just push through with brute force.

4.) Producing lovely products and performances, but with limited understanding?

No matter how pretty the brochure, the student isn't going to score well unless they make a solid, persuasive argument.

5.) Applying natural ability to be articulate and intelligent, with limited understanding of the content in question?

While being articulate and intelligent will certainly help, I think it will be easy to tell from the student's arguments whether they have a true understanding of the content or not. It is possible for a person to articulate a superficial argument in an attractive way, but I don't plan on being taken in by such pretty facades.

How likely is it that a student could do poorly on the assessment by...

6.) Failing to meet the performance goals despite having a deep understanding of the big ideas? (i.e., the task is not relevant to the goals)

I don't think that's very likely. I plan to make clear to the students what I'm looking for, in terms of the structure and format of the brochure, so as long as the student is reasonably articulate they should be able to convey their understanding in the content of the brochure. My one concern here is for the English Language Learners, but the language gap is something that they're going to face with any substantive assessment. If a known ELL is having trouble expressing him- or herself in text, I should have plenty of advance warning and be able to make accommodations. Perhaps I can work with the student's English teacher to help them sharpen the technical aspects of their writing. In any event, I plan to ask the students to turn in a draft of their brochure before the project is due, which should give us advance warning to clear up any difficulties of this sort.

7.) Failing to meet the scoring and grading criteria used, despite having a deep understanding of the Big Ideas? (i.e., some of the criteria are arbitrary, placing undue or inappropriate emphasis on things that have little to do with the desired results or true excellence at such a task)

This seems very unlikely to me. I'll be grading the students' work on two rubrics, one for Understanding and the other for Performance, as recommended by the UbD textbook. If the student has good understanding of the material, that should come out during the draft stage, and I can give them tips at that time to help sharpen up their execution.

On the whole, I think that this project meets the desired objectives for a summative assessment. The key, as Page told me yesterday, will be to make sure that the students are clear on what is required of them, and to check their progress at the draft stage to make sure that they're on the right track.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

UbD Chapter 8: Criteria and Validity

In this second half of their discussion of Stage 2 (Assessments), the authors turn their attention to vetting the assessments we brainstormed about in Chapter 7. An assessment activity may be interesting and creative, but that's not enough; it also has to measure whether the key understandings, knowledge and skills have been attained, and it must do so in a manner that will reliably gauge the student's capabilities.

Here the authors delve into the topic of rubrics -- which, in educator-speak, specifically refers to scoring guides that list the criteria that a student's assignment must aim to reach. These are new territory for me, though I understand the logic behind them; happily, coach Page Tompkins has directed me to RubiStar, a free online service to help teachers develop quality rubrics. I'm sure I'll be making use of it as my design work progresses.

Page and I had a great conversation this afternoon, and together we separated out my various formative assessment projects from the summative assessment at the end of the unit. I hadn't distinguished between them when I was brainstorming, but as we talked it over I realized that two of my ideas were best suited to use as a summative assessment to round out the unit. One of these was the "invasive species report" that I mentioned in my previous blog post -- a truly complex task that would require a lot of prep work to make sure that the students understood what was needed. The other idea was to have the students design a brochure aimed at Amazon Basin farmers, explaining to them why trading slash-and-burn agriculture for shade-grown crops is in their own best interest.

While I like the idea of the invasive species report, it's probably better-suited to an entire class on ecology. It would require teaching the students how to perform research, weigh the validity of sources, and write a detailed paper with references. All of those are valuable scientific skills, but the project would assess those skills at least as much as the actual content of the unit. I'm more concerned at this point with establishing that the students have grasped the basics of how ecological communities work; a Scientific Skills course is better aimed at students who actually want to go into the sciences, not a survey course like freshman biology.

(Come to think of it, Scientific Skills might be a great summer elective course. I'll have to talk to Romeo and Laura about that...)

In contrast, the Amazon brochure requires fewer technical skills but more understanding of the Big Ideas of ecology: the interconnectedness of species (removing the trees destroys the "keystone" that hold the local community together), the cycling and flow of resources (the poor soils of the Amazon can't hold nutrients on their own, so without the trees the land soon becomes unproductive), and the effects of disturbance on ecological balance (the species removal and habitat destruction cause permanent shifts in the local ecology from high to low biodiversity). Presenting the argument to the farmers will also require the students to engage multiple Facets of Understanding, including Explanation, Application, Perspective, and Empathy (since they need to see the problem from the farmers' point of view -- they're just trying to feed their families, and many of the products they produce are driven to artificially-low prices by market forces that favor short-term exploitation over long-term resource management).

The brochure project can be combined with other, more traditional forms of assessment to test the students' knowledge and understanding of other aspects of the material. A test with a mixture of multiple-choice, short-answer and short-essay questions should help to cover the gaps, along with the formative assessment projects that I'll be using throughout the unit.

Now that I've chosen my end-of-unit assessment project, I'll need to come up with a rubric that is suitable for it. The two metrics suggested by the UbD authors -- Understanding and Performance -- seem like a good place to start. Proficient "Understanding", in this case, would mean that the students demonstrate a grasp of the ecological issues at play in the Amazon Basin and the negative effects of slash-and-burn agriculture; proficient "Performance" means presenting a clear and persuasive argument that acknowledges the farmers' situation while offering a better alternative. This project will also give the students a chance to engage their creative sides, if they so choose, which will probably help keep the artsy types engaged.

Time to start digging into this and get a good rubric in place.

UbD Chapter 7: Thinking Like An Assessor

In this first chapter of Stage 2 of the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN process, the authors focus in on the idea of designing assessments before getting into the details of content. Before you can figure out what to teach, you have to figure out how you're going to measure attainment of the goals laid out in Stage 1. The analogy used is one of the justice system: we have to gather sufficient evidence to “convict” the students of having learned the material -- a humorous but perhaps somewhat insulting analogy. :)

This chapter was full of great ideas. I love the concept behind the GRASPS model of assessment (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Product/Performance/Purpose, Standards/Criteria for Success): posing a problem for the students to solve that mirrors a real-world situation. The big end-of-semester project that I envisioned earlier, in which the students play the role of xenobiologists reporting on an alien world, closely mirrors the GRASPS ideal, even if the sci-fi spin gives it a more whimsical feel than a “real” real-world scenario. This reassures me that my thinking has been on the right track.

I've also come up with an idea for a GRASPS project to close out the ecology unit: Have the students research an exotic species that has been introduced to California, determine whether it has become invasive, and then play the role of researchers recommending to the appropriate government agency what steps (if any) should be taken to control the species – and what will probably happen if the agency doesn't act. I'm hoping to bring in one of my former colleagues from UCSC to talk to the students about her research on invasive species, so the students can get a feel for how this sort of research is done.

I was also heartened to find that this chapter reaffirms the need for a wide variety of assessment methods, including old-fashioned tests and quizzes. I know that there is a lot of resistance to these methods in the progressive education community, but they remain an effective way of testing for knowledge of basic facts and skills.

Another trick that this chapter mentioned that seems very valuable is the “one-minute essay”: at the end of class, have the students write down (1) the big point that they learned in class today, and (2) the main unanswered question that they're leaving class with. This is such a simple, elegant way of checking the students' learning that I couldn't keep from grinning when I read it. I'm going to be sure to implement this system from the very beginning; the ritual of filling out these essay cards at the end of class, then discussing them at the beginning of the next class, should help to introduce some valuable structure and rhythm into the class.

One question that lingers in the back of my mind is whether I should implement these GRASPS projects as solo efforts or group assignments. On the one hand, having each student complete the project for themselves allows me to check each student's understanding individually; on the other hand, students who have difficulty writing in English may not be able to present everything that they understand. Perhaps I could have each student turn in their own project, but allow them to compare notes and collaborate with each other during class to check their comprehension and reasoning? Any advice or suggestions that others might have on how to deal with this problem would be appreciated.

Stage 1 Summary

Stage 1 Summary:

After completing the Stage 1 section of UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN, I feel much more confident that I'll be able to present the material to my students in a way that is both engaging and relevant. The trickiest part, I think, was distilling out the “Big Ideas” of the material and devising the essential questions that would tie in to those ideas. The process is very logical, on the whole; it just takes some practice to get used to designing a curriculum this way.

The biggest concerns I have now are practical ones: how to introduce this material to my particular crop of students. As Page noted in response to my last blog post, these students are likely to speak a language other than English at home and may be behind grade level in their English reading skills. I'm not sure yet how I'm going to present this complex and challenging material in a way that will ensure these students are able to keep up. I'll have to review the articles on dealing with English Language Learners and ask some of my fellow science teachers for ideas. Right now I'm reminding myself of what George Leonard said in MASTERY – to embrace the process of gradual improvement. I know I'm not going to do this perfectly right out of the gate, and trying to go from Zero to Master instantaneously would kill me. I'm going to do the best I can, leaning on the wisdom and experience of those around me, and revise and refine my methods as I go on. I have no doubt that my second semester of teaching this class will go more smoothly than the first, and next year I'll do better yet – assuming I haven't hit one of Leonard's plateaus by then. :)

Very well, then. Onward to Stage 2.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Unpacking Goals

After working through Chapter 6 and looking at the content standards again, I've taken another look at my big ideas, the stated or implied real-world performances that go with the standards, and the essential questions that fit best with the standards.

  1. Interconnections between species
  2. The flow and cycling of resources (energy and nutrients) in ecosystems
  3. Ecosystem responses to disturbance

Students should be able to...
  • ANALYZE changes in an ecosystem.
  • REPRESENT energy flow through an ecosystem, as in an energy pyramid.
  • DISTINGUISH accommodation within individuals from genetic adaptation in a population. (I'm saving this for Unit 3 when we get into evolution.)
  • DETERMINE the fluctuations in population size caused by birth, immigration, emigration, and death.


Students should understand that...
  • Ecosystems include a variety of different roles that can interact in complex ways. (Big Idea #1)
  • Both negative interactions (competition, predation) and positive interactions (cooperation, mutualism) are important in shaping the structure of ecological communities. (#1)
  • Different species use different survival strategies, which can be successful in very different ways (e.g., r-selection vs. K-selection; Type I, II and III survival curves).
  • Species' populations can be regulated from the "bottom up" (by resource limitation) or from the "top down" (by predation and disease). (#1, #2)
  • Nutrients cycle within the biosphere: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and water are reused again and again, with little "new" input or loss (though human CO2 production is a major exception!). (#2)
  • Ecosystems are open-ended with respect to energy: producers obtain it from one source (almost always the sun) and pass it up the food chain, losing some energy to heat at every step. (#2)
  • Some ecosystems depend on "keystone species", and that threatening these species threatens the entire structure of the community. (#3)
  • Outside disturbance can upset the balance of an ecosystem, and that the degree of upset depends on both the magnitude of the disturbance and the robustness of the ecosystem. (#3)
  • How are different species dependent on each other?
  • Why is preserving biodiversity important?
  • What makes an ecosystem stable or vulnerable?
  • How do resource needs constrain the structure of ecological communities?
  • How can we protect ecosystems from damage, and when should we do so?
  • Have students plot the flow of resources and/or interaction webs in sample ecosystems.
  • Write the "biography of a nitrogen atom" (or a carbon atom, etc.) as it journeys through its nutrient cycle.
  • Examine population data to determine if a species is at its carrying capacity in a particular ecosystem.
  • Identify populations that are under "bottom-up" or "top-down" regulation.
  • Study real-world systems where dramatic shifts have occurred in community structure, and identify likely causes for the change.
  • Research an exotic species that has been introduced to California (chosen from a list) and present a report explaining whether it has become invasive, how they can tell, and what is being done to combat it (if anything).
At this point I think my Stage 1 picture looks pretty clear. Assuming that my coaches agree, I'll be ready to jump into Stage 2: designing the assessments that will allow my students to demonstrate their understanding of the material.

UbD Chapter 6: Crafting Understandings

In this chapter of UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN we delved into what we specifically mean by "understandings" and how to craft useful ones for our classes. I feel pretty comfortable with this concept now; the idea that "knowledge" refers to discrete facts that can be taken as givens, while "understanding" refers to the theory or inference that we make from those facts, is one that meshes well with my experience in scientific research. Looking at the list of sample understandings that are commonly mistaken for bare facts (pp. 136 & 138), I was somewhat surprised that any educated person would be willing to accept these deep concepts on mere authoritative fiat.

Then again, that got me thinking about my own response to concepts in geometry like the Pythagorean Theorem. I was never all that interested in mathematical proofs when I was in school, and I remember being annoyed that my textbook spent so much time proving ideas that were so easy to remember. As long as I could remember the formula and knew when and how to use it, I didn't care to know the gory details for how mathematicians proved such things. In retrospect, it's obvious to me that I didn't understand (heh) the distinction between knowledge and understanding, nor the need to "construct" understanding of deductive theorems.

Constructing inductive understanding was always pretty easy for me to wrap my brain around, perhaps because that's the way science works. It's easy to understand why you have to use speculation, testing and reasoning to come up with a theory for how something generally works when all you have to work with are a few specific data points. Deduction, to me, always felt like working backwards: if you've set your axioms right, there's only one possible conclusion you can reach -- but who's to say whether your axioms are right? Even something as seemingly solid as geometry is ultimately rooted in a fairly arbitrary set of rules; once you change those rules, your whole system of deductive consequences is changed as well. Even more disturbing, there is no one "true" set of geometric rules that applies in all situations; Euclid's system works well for most common circumstances, but when you start getting into the far-flung corners of physics, they're no longer applicable.

I suspect that this lack of congruence between math and reality is part of why I've always found math irritating, even when I was good at it. It always seemed to me that math ought to be "true": that it should remain consistent with reality in all circumstances, without resorting to apparent "cheats" like imaginary numbers and non-Euclidean geometries. (The existence of pi still creeps me out when I think about it too much. I'm surrounded by circles, spheres and cylinders of quite obvious solidity, and yet their areas and volumes can never be precisely known because they are dependent on a number with an infinite number of digits!) The notion that new maths had to be invented in order to describe quantum mechanics is deeply distasteful to me, on a level that I'm not sure I can really explain even today. I suppose I have to look at "ordinary" math the way that I look at Newtonian mechanics: a useful approximation of reality that works for most practical purposes.

My own struggle with truly understanding math is a useful reminder of the struggles faced by my students:

"...experts frequently find it difficult to have empathy for the novice, even when they try. That's why teaching is hard, especially for the expert in the field who is a novice teacher. Expressed positively, we must strive unendingly as educators to be empathetic with the learner's conceptual struggles if we are to succeed." (p. 139)

I'll have to stay aware of the fact that many of the biological principles that I'm teaching these young people will be just as baffling to them as the paradoxes of mathematics are to me.

Hmm ... maybe I should put a giant pi symbol over my desk as a reminder.