Apr 15

The Great Rock Mix Up: NSTA Edition

NSTA: the National Science Teachers Association holds conferences each year: three regional area conferences each fall, a large national conference in early spring, and a STEM forum in May. This year, I had the chance for the first time to attend a national convention and to present (twice!).

I have previously shared my Great Rock Mix Up lesson, an approach I use to bring inquiry to my classroom from the first day of school. I modified some of the information I have previously shared and added some details including the inquiry based rock cycle lab. Whether you looked at the original lesson or not, I invite you to download the resources and use them in your own classroom. I would love to hear how it works for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

 NSTA Great Rock Mix Up

Here are a few photos from the presentation. It was so exciting to see my presentation room fill up before the session began. I thought I was being optimistic planning for 40 participants, but before I knew it, I was out of handouts. By the time I got started, there were almost twice that many people! I encourage you to think about sharing your favorite lessons at conferences like NSTA. It is a great experience, and it it wonderful to share with fellow educators!

The room is filling up before the presentation begins

The room is filling up before the presentation begins

Teachers participating in the rock activities

Teachers participating in the rock activities


Apr 13

Data: It’s a four letter word

I love data.

I love numbers.

I love collecting data, analyzing it, drawing conclusion, finding new questions, and exploring all over again.

I love data. Without data, science would be difficult to communicate.

Data is beautiful.

Numbers explain the world around us and help us make sense of our daily lives. I remember the first time I read in my calculus textbook that you could calculate where a rainbow would form. I loved calculating relationships in statistics. It is thrilling to collect titration data, put it into a spreadsheet, generate a titration curve, and discover the equivalence point of the acid.

I love data.

But I hate data.

dataThe data I once loved has become perverted. The students in my room have become numbers on a spreadsheet. It is no longer so much about understanding or learning; it is about changing those numbers and making them higher. We collect numerical data constantly comparing it to the data we collect the day before, the week before, the month before, the year before. We are continuously asked what the data is telling us about our students. What are the numbers showing? Now collect this piece of data. Enter it into this spreadsheet. Enter it into that spreadsheet. Data, data, data. Data focusing on short term gains. The word data, as used constantly in schools, has almost become profane to me.

And I’m a science teacher! Data drives what I teach. How can I hate data?

It seems like we forget that we teach children. That some students in our room may show measurable short term growth, but what we really need to measure is long term growth. Data is rarely looked at for a particular student once they leave an institution (elementary school, middle school, high school), so longitudinal data is scarce. I want the focus in my classroom to be on the joy of learning, of understanding, of discovering. I want to help my students create a long term way of thinking and approaching the world.

Sometimes, the data we collect is not numerical. It’s not measurable and quantifiable, but that should not make it any less valid. How much joy is there when a concept finally clicks for a student? You can see it in their eyes – that moment of elation, of understanding. Is that measurable? I suppose in a way it is, but it is not something you will see on a spreadsheet in columns of names and numbers.

What about when a child drives parents crazy in a science museum explaining all of the exhibits to them ecstatically because she learning all about it in science? Did that show up on the test? Without stories from the student, you may never know the moment even took place. But was there growth? Was there learning?

How can we shift the paradigm from focusing on numbers on a spreadsheet to measure growth to something more valuable? I would love for our focus to move to student portfolios and student reflections. To conversations with students about their growth and learning. For a child to explain to me what they know and understand and then to document it not in a spreadsheet but in a journal of learning.

Perhaps for me, the trouble is that I am a scientist. I like controlled experiments. Students are not a controlled experiment and neither is their learning process. The learning cannot easily be quantified in a spreadsheet. What happens in the classroom is influenced by outside factors that I may never know about.

Perhaps for me, the trouble is that my goal is not to improve test scores. My goal is for my students to fall in love with science. To appreciate the world around them. To learn to ask beautiful questions that lead them on a life’s journey of learning and discovery. To maybe, one day, look back at the time they spent in my class and think, “Mrs. Wilson helped me see that I could be a scientist (or engineer).”

Perhaps for me, the trouble is that I want students to love collecting scientific data but not to be caught up worrying about grades and test data. I want the focus to shift from making an A to deep learning and understanding. (If it were up to me, we would through grades out the window, but that is a discussion for another day.)

As a scientist, I love data. But as a teacher, an educator, data is a four letter word. When used continuously to describe students, it is profane. We must change this!

Data is a four letter word.

I love data.

But I hate data.

What about you?

Apr 11

Beautiful Questions

QuestionsI don’t normally expect to find inspiration in the seat back pocket on an airplane, but last week while flying to Boston for the National Science Teachers Association’s national conference, I found just that.An article in Southwest/Airtran’s Spirit magazine about asking beautiful questions (“Chasing Beautiful Questions” by Warren Berger) started me thinking about just that: asking questions. The basic idea of the article as that questions – the right questions – lead to innovation and change. It’s not about finding answers but about asking the right questions.

Isn’t this what science is all about? Asking questions, and the journey those questions then take us. In the article, Berger outlines three beautiful questions:

  1. Why?
  2. What if?
  3. How?

Not only do these questions lead us to scientific discovery but engineering change as well. As I plan to incorporate more engineering into my classroom with science, I wonder how I can incorporate the idea of these beautiful questions. Teaching students how to ask good questions is a goal of mine. Now, I realize it’s also about asking the beautiful questions that lead to a life of passion. Berger also has a book about beautiful questions: A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas that is now on my reading list.

The idea of beautiful questions also started me thinking (and questioning) more about education in general. While at the NSTA conference, I spoke with many teachers. There was a common theme. We’re all in difficult places. The  focus has been shifted from learning to scoring well on tests. There is so much talk about data and numbers; I often feel we have forgotten that we teach children. Many (most) teachers feel powerless to affect change, yet there are so many of us! Surely all of us together could change the face of education. Why not? What if we did band together? What would that look like? How could we do it?

I encourage you to check out the article on beautiful questions and to start asking your own beautiful questions.

Mar 08

Are you listening?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Our school district has had a strange winter. We’ve been out of school for three separate events (extreme cold, Atlanta SnowJam 2014, and Atlanta Snowpocalypse 2014) for a total of seven missed days of school. We have three make-up days built into our calendar, and the decision was made to make up the remaining four days by adding 30 minutes to the school day for 48 days.

This week was the first week of extended days, and by Tuesday, I was stressed out. In talking with my colleagues, I realized we are all feeling this way. An extra 30 minutes at the end of the day puts our dismissal time at 4:30 pm, and by that time, traffic is worse and 30 minutes becomes more like an hour. I was definitely listening to what we as teachers were feeling.

But then I started having conversations with my students. Their already busy days are now longer. Some students have to get straight off of the bus and go to extracurricular activities or even school related ones often without dinner until 8 or 9 pm. These extended days cause students to lose 30 minutes to an hour or more of time to work on homework. Not only are teachers stressed, but our students are stressed as well.

After talking with and listening to my students, I realized I needed to make some changes with these extended days. I have been using the flip class model this semester. Most of my students really like it, but now there is not as much time to watch the videos at home. The solution? I’ll still have our flip lesson videos available for students as a supplement, but I will not be requiring as much out of school hours work. Just like teachers need work-life balance, so do students. It would not be fair to rob them of stress relieving activities like sports in order to be overloaded with homework.

I don’t know what my teammates and colleagues are doing, but for me, I hope I have helped my students feel a little less stressed. Since learning should be fun and not stressful, this is so important to me. This week also helped me to remember that it’s not just about listening to my needs and the needs of adults around me. The most important thing I can do is listen and respond to the needs of my students.

Are you listening to your students?

Feb 14

Let’s do (real) science!

student2Are you bringing authentic science experiences to your students? I’ve always been a big believer in doing authentic science with students. However, I’ve come to realize that students don’t just want to do “real” science. They also want to be part of something that matters and is important.

Last year, my students helped to design and conduct an experiment that was then carried out on our microgravity flight as part of NASA’s MicroGravity eXperience. They loved the experience and were excited to hear about the results. In fact, I had students contacting me over the summer to find out the results. I also had a great turn out in a before school event to share with them since they are now seventh graders.

This year, I shared about my summer experiences with my new sixth grade class. They wanted to know if they would get to be a part of an experience like last year’s group. At the time, I had a couple of plans up my sleeve for this year, but I didn’t know if they would come to fruition.

On Monday, I told my students I had been named as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. The first reaction from many of them? Now we can do an experiment like your students last year!

The moral of the story? Find real, meaningful opportunities to get your students involved in science. They want these experiences! There are so many out there. From citizen science projects to ones like I have had the opportunity to be involved in. Find something that aligns with what you teach, and let your students experience real science. Our kids want to change the world; let’s help them find the way to do it!

I’m sharing a few opportunities for you and your students. This is just a short list. There are so many more things out there! Search what you’re interested in, and find something amazing to share with your students!

Citizen Science Opportunities:

  • Zooniverse: a variety of topics ranging from space, to climate and biology.
  • NASA’s Citizen Science page: a variety of space related opportunities including closer to home opportunities like cloud watching.
  • SciStarter: a database of science projects that can be done at home, school, online, and a variety of other places in all science disciplines

Teacher Opportunities:

  • NASA’s Teach From Space MicroGravity eXperience: Keep an eye out for future announcements to be part of this amazing program to develop an experiment with your students that you will fly for them in microgravity as part of a parabolic flight!
  • NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program: Applications for this program usually open in September and announcements are made in February/March. Chosen teachers spend anywhere from a week to a month researching on a working NOAA vessel.
  • Siemens Summer of Learning: Two opportunities to be part of STEM either in Washington D.C. or as part of a research lab in the summer. Applications for this year’s season have closed, but they will open again at the end of this year for next year.
  • Honeywell Green Boot Camp: Bring environmental education to your classroom with this experience. Applications are currently being accepted!
  • Honeywell Educators at Space Academy: This one will change your life. Applications are usually open from September-December for the following summer.

One final note: Don’t give up! For Honeywell Educators at Space Academy, NASA’s Teach From Space MicroGravity eXperience, and NOAA’s Teacher at Sea programs, I was accepted the second time I applied, not the first time. All of these programs are very competitive, but don’t let an initial “rejection” keep you from trying again!

Feb 02

Thoughts about the focus on testing in education – after taking a test

Don't forget your hearty breakfast on test day!

Don’t forget your hearty breakfast on test day!

I took a teacher certification exam Saturday. It’s the second time I’ve taken a certification exam to add a field to my certificate in the past seven months. The great thing about the test I took today was that it was on the computer, so I was able to receive an unofficial score as soon as I finished. These two “high stakes” test experiences in the past couple of months have got me thinking.

I’m a really good test taker. I’ve done well on both of these tests with very little preparation. (I took  the GACE Science Broad Field 6-12 test in June, and the Technical Engineering test 6-12 today.) I studied a bit more for the science test and hardly at all for the one I took yesterday. However, I found I did really well on both tests.

The funny thing (okay, not really) is that testing was not a huge focus of my education in K-12. I took my fair share of tests – Standard Achievement Tests in elementary, SAT, ACT, and AP tests in high school.  However, the test was not the focus of my classes. Instead, my teachers taught me to think, how to learn, how to reason. I have great critical thinking skills and logical reasoning skills, and I know my experiences as a student helped me to hone these skills.

Today, our focus has shifted to “passing the test” or “exceeding the test.” In my state (Georgia) we are working towards a system that evaluates teachers based on student progress which will be mostly based on how well students perform on a standardized test. The test has too often become the main focus, and I think we’ve lost our focus. Do we want to raise a generation of awesome test takers with few other skills or a generation of students who can think and reason?

Do we want to raise a generation of awesome test takers with few other skills or a generation of students who can think and reason?

 I kick my heels in whenever I’m asked to specifically review for standardized tests. I don’t like test-prep type questions or taking time just reviewing specific standardized test style questions. When I give a summative assessment for a unit in my class, I explain to students that their study guide is comprised of their notebooks, unit planners, and other resources provided during the unit. I do not provide a specific study guide. I have found that many students treat a study guide as a “study only” – forgetting to review all of the other material provided during class. Then they exclaim in frustration that something on the test was not on the study guide – even though we covered the material in class.

Instead, I focus on providing students with hands on activities to help them explore and discover content on their own. My goal is to show them how to think, how to ask good questions, and how to reason their way through material. I believe that if students understand the material and know how to think then the test results will be better than if we just taught specific test taking strategies.

I gave a summative assessment to my students last week. One of my students created his own study guide of the material and used this to prepare for the test. When I passed back the test, he was surprised that he made a 100% on each standard. I was not. He learned how to synthesize the material for himself and how to think through the material. This is the lesson I hope all of my students are learning. I will not teach them how to take a test. I will teach them how to think, and the rest will fall into place.

Jan 05

The Eleven Meme

I was nominated by Marsha Ratzel to participate in this meme a couple of weeks ago. So, here it goes!

11 “Random” Facts about Me:

  1. My husband is from England and has an an amazing accent still, even though he’s been in the US for almost 15 years. All of his family still lives there. Also, we planned our wedding in three weeks. It was exciting, and I totally recommend doing it that way!
  2. In high school, I was in chorus, band, and drama. I feel sad for kids these days who have to choose just one.
  3. I received the Disney Dreamers and Doers Award when I was in high school It was to recognize students who ”possess the qualities of curiosity, confidence, courage and constancy.”
  4. I love science fair! I went to the Florida Science and Engineering Fair my junior and senior years in high school. It’s so cool that as a teacher I have been able to share science fair with my students and now have taken students to the Georgia Science and Engineering Fair!
  5. I am creative and logical; it’s an interesting but unusual combination. My teammate at school teases me about it because she thinks it’s funny how I can be so scientific and logical and creative. She says it’s not fair. ;)
  6. I love caves and tunnels. I think being underground is really cool, but I grew up in a part of Florida with no caves.
  7. When I stare at a full moon, I dream about visiting there someone day. I am also pretty convinced I’ll make it to space someday, somehow.
  8. I’ve gone to Space Academy, Advanced Space Academy, and flown in microgravity. I watched the final two flights of Atlantis lift off from the press site. I watched the rocket carrying Curiosity lift off from the press site. I’ve visited Mission Control for both the ISS and the shuttle during missions and walked on the floor of the historic Apollo MOCR. Now, we’re getting ready to talk to an astronaut on the space station with the students at my school some time later this year. I love the stars and am only slightly obsessed with space.
  9. I have a golden retriever named Devon (after Devonshire cream due to his creamy golden color) and two cats named Newton (after Sir Isaac) and Halley (of comet fame). What’s really interesting is that after deciding to name my cats after these two scientists, I found out that Edmond Halley helped fund some of Isaac Newton’s research.
  10. I live to draw and paint. Recently, I’ve been learning how to draw phrases with hand drawn typography.
  11. I am a Doctor Who fan. It’s funny because I remember some of my friends talking about Doctor Who when I was in high school, but I never watched it. Then I married a Brit and there was new Who, and the rest is history!

Questions generated by Marsha for me to answer:

  1. If you were going to go out to eat what kind of restaurant would you pick?  Chinese, Italian, Mexican or New American I’d probably choose Italian because I love penne alla vodka, but it would reallly depend on my mood.
  2. What non-teaching book has you really excited to read?  I’m sure you have a big pile of TO READs so pick just the best one. I love to read. I’m usually searching for the next book to read and don’t really have a pile. I love my Kindle! I’ve been wanting to re-read Contact by Carl Sagan for ages. I have the actual paperback, but I’m wishing it was available for Kindle.
  3. Who has had the biggest impact on your teaching practice? And who has altered the way you think about teaching? I’m not sure there is one person who has had a huge impact. It’s more of lots of little ideas coming together to help me gradually improve.
  4. Share something funny with everyone else. I got kicked off the bus in high school. You’ll never believe why. I was always bringing home science projects and equipment, and I was clumsy and fell down the stairs of the bus a few times, so the bus drive called my mom and asked me not to ride anymore! 
  5. If you had one afternoon to “waste” on yourself and totally endulge in doing something that you love, what would it be? I’d go to a science museum with a planetarium – or if I really had enough time, I’d head to the nearest NASA center and investigate!
  6. Why should teachers, in particular, consider blogging?  Is it a burden, a pleasure, a responsibility or a privilege? I enjoy blogging because it gives me a chance to reflect and share. I’d love to be the type of blogger that inspires like my friend Krissy at Venspired
  7. What has made your heart sing the most  in the past 6 months within education? Students. The best part of education is being able to spend the days in my classroom being inspired by the amazing things my students do. And when all the other stuff gets in the way, I just remember how awesome my kids are!
  8. I’m stealing this one….if you could give your younger self advice, what would you say? Dare Mighty Things! I am so much more confident these days then I used to be. I used to avoid risks for feel of failing. After learning of Teddy Roosevelt’s Dare Mighty Things quote, I now know “It is far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in a gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
  9. How do you find a balance between the professional and personal sides of life? I am terrible at this! I spend way too much time at school and not enough time balancing my home life and things that help me relax. I am working on it, though!
  10. Order, from greatest to least, these Masterpiece classics?  Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife,  Sherlock,  Upstairs/Downstairs Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Upstairs/Downstairs, Call the Midwife. (I could NOT get into Call the Midwife, and it may be a toss up between Downton and Sherlock.)
  11. What do you wish you’d taken in college in order to better prepare you for life, for being an adult and for being a teacher? Art classes because I wish I had some formal training. I did take a photography course with 35 mm cameras developing the film and the prints. I loved that! I was actually a psychology major with a chemistry minor and went back and took some additional chemistry classes before I even thought about teaching. Then, I went back to school to get my teaching certification. I think this roundabout way has really helped me as a teacher. I do want to get a masters and possibly doctorate one day, but I can’t decide in what, and I don’t want to pay for an education I can teach myself!

My Questions:

So, now I am supposed to generate 11 questions for 11 people to answer. I am just going to generate some questions but not nominate 11 people. If you feel like participating, please jump right in! Just leave a link to your post in the comments.

  1. What is your favorite color? Why?
  2. If you could go anywhere in the universe, where would you go?
  3. What made you decide to become an educator?
  4. Coffeehouse or Tearoom?
  5. Are you a Doctor Who fan? If yes, who is your favorite Doctor?
  6. Star Trek or Star Wars?
  7. Who is your favorite author? Why?
  8. What is the weather like today where you live?
  9. What one new thing are you planning to try in your classroom this year?
  10. What inspires you?
  11. If you were not a teacher, what would you be doing?

Okay, so I hope you’ll decide to play along. Have fun, and thanks to Marsha for challenging me!

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