Friday, December 22, 2006

How to Build a Student for the 21st Century

A recent Time article begins with a clever snapshot of Rip Van Winkle awaking from his 100 year nap to find himself immersed in unfamiliar technology, only to seek refuge in the one institution that has not appeared to change at all - a school.

The article was prompted by the
New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce's December 14th publication of its powerful recommendations for sweeping change in American education. Although there is apparent controversy with some of the bold proposals, the consensus of these educators and business folk is that "we need to bring what we teach and how we teach into the 21st century."

Time Magazine specifically highlights these four "21st century skills."

1. Knowing more about the world - As global citizens, students have an obligation to become aware of and sensitive to other geographies, cultures, and languages.

2. Thinking outside the box - Future job opportunities will focus on creativity and innovation, not rote or repetitive tasks. Time cites NCLB as one of the reasons schools have actually steered away from this goal in recent years. The need for more interdisciplinary curriculums is also stressed.

3. Becoming smarter about new sources of information - There is no question students can access more information that ever before. Educators must now facilitate skills in managing, validating, and interpreting that information.

4. Developing good people skills - Today, a person's EQ ("Emotional Intelligence") is even more important than their IQ. Traditional schooling can be competitive and individualistic, which does not bode well for tomorrow's collaborative workforce.

Learning 2.0

These goals are important and attainable. For example,
we pioneered and do continue to focus on civil behavior, with our building specifically concentrating on the five domains of Emotional Intelligence.
1. Self-Awareness, 2. Self-Regulation, 3. Motivation. 4. Empathy, 5. Social Skills.

These qualities have been shown to directly impact students' academic learning, particularly among early adolescents
Our students know the vocabulary. They are used to referring to the domains when complementing other students or when discussing disciplinary infractions. A poster listing the five domains hangs in every classroom.
The need for updated literacy skills are as critical as social-emotional skills. NCREL's EnGauge website discusses the importance of this digital-age literacy as part of a necessary set of 21st century skills.
Systemic change takes time, but there are steps parents and educators can take. The Time article discusses, a curriculum clearinghouse based on the wiki concept. NCREL has created a variety of frameworks (such as the the one below) that an educator can use to become more mindful of the integration of 21st century skills into current lesson plans and activities.

Educating these "21st century students" remains a daunting task in my mind. It is easy to get bogged down with the daily grind of the current public school system, however, I have to vow to not give up trying to address these goals of global awareness, innovative thinking, increased digital literacy, and social-emotional competencies. These skills are vitally important for our students.

Schools featured in the Time article include Seattle's John Stanford International School, Michigan's Henry Ford Academy,
New York's Baccalaureate School for Global Education, and Michigan's Farmington High.

A great post at highlights the irony of the Dec. 25th Time issue directly following this Dec. 18th article.

I find it fascinating how the article suggests that eventually projects like Curriki might “take the Web 2.0 revolution to school,” as if there aren’t countless educators working their butts off to demonstrate to their peers how blogs, podcasts, wikis and other tools can be used to improve student learning. It’s as if the amazing, transformative universe documented in the Person of the Year issue hasn’t even come knocking at education’s door yet. Or perhaps the industrial-era schoolhouse walls of are simply too thick for us to hear it knocking. Maybe it’s because too many educators and students who embrace Web 2.0 are finding themselves in conflict with a system that worries what might happen if students are given too many opportunities to express themselves online, whether at school or at home.

Friday, December 15, 2006

12 Days of Christmas - Math Lesson on Percentages

It was getting close to the holidays, and my students' attention for math was beginning to wane. So I developed an activity so that they could exercise their imaginations, while practicing their math skills.

You might know the song… “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… a partridge in a pear tree” etc. If you really bought all 78 items sung on the last day of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” it would cost you $18,920 this year, according to USA Today.

If you were to choose 12 days of gifts for your own true love, what would they be? More importantly, how much is it going to cost you?

It is kind of interesting to see what my middle school kids would buy in this lesson on percentages! (I got a lot of spinning rims (did you know they made them for bikes?!), iPods and grills.) Feel free to borrow, copy, or modify the activity.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Power of "I Don't Know"

I think many teachers are compelled to give their students the impression that they know everything. Maybe I'm just lucky to be teaching in a discipline of theories, where ideas are expected to be introduced, challenged, rejected, and modified over time.

I have resigned myself to realize that even the most rigorous college science training does not prepare one for the questions 7th graders ask. "What state of matter is fire?" (hot gas). "Are there siamese-twin animals?" (there are). "How do bears pee when they're hibernating?" (they don't. they recycle the nitrogen into protein). "What would happen if you dropped antimatter in the earth's mantle?" (I don't know).

You'll notice none of them ask me what the Na/K ratio is in the sodium-potassium pump. Or what is the adductor to conteract the deltoid muscle. They don't ask me how many electrons are in the outermost orbital of a noble gas. Nope, my college education does not help me when kids start asking questions.

But, what does help me is a pad of post-its, an insatiable desire to learn, and access to the internet. At the end of the day, when my computer screen is littered with question-riddled post-its, a few students and I will look for the answers, and those we can't find, we submit to the experts. My favorite site is the UCSB Scienceline, where actual scientists email responses to student questions, although Wonderquest and The Why Files have helped us out, too. And I can't leave How Stuff Works off the list of most helpful sites.

"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; this is knowledge." - Confucius

"The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds." - John F. Kennedy

"The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know." - Albert Einstein

"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." - Socrates

These are some pretty smart guys, and they seem to be sharing a similar message. Ignorance itself is not to be feared. It is an tool to define the parameters of your current knowedge and to identify areas in which to expand your knowledge.

I firmly believe in admitting when I don't know something. In fact, I think it is very powerful to say to a student, "I don't know," followed by, "but we can certainly find out!"

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Should Wikipedia be used in school?

A funny thing happens when you mention Wikipedia in schools. Some teachers stare at you blankly while trying to place the origin of that strange word you just used. Other teachers start shifting from foot to foot, until they explode in a tirade professing that any responsible teacher would keep their students far away from that unreliable source. Still others nonchalantly shift away from the conversation, not wanting to admit that they didn't realize Wikipedia wasn't just an ordinary encyclopedia after all.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. But not by much. I conducted an informal survey at my own school. Of the paltry 24 responses I received from my little query: 4 (17%) teachers sheepishly asked what Wikipedia was (introduction), 13 (54%) said Wikipedia should not be acceptable as a credible source, 3 (13%) said they would allow students to cite Wikipedia, and another 4 (17%) said they would allow it as a source, but not as a sole source.

Perhaps one of the most colorful responses I received comes, not surprisingly, from an art teacher.
This sounds like the perfect resource! I could make it say anything I wanted, anytime I wanted! (Sort of like the painter vs. the photographer. The painter can change the season with a brush stoke and a color change, depending on his mood. The photographer has to be a slave for reality and wait for real time to change the season.)

Interestingly, one might reasonably argue that technology is even changing the way photographers can capture and manipulate reality. But I digress...

The Wikipedia debate is not new. In a
July 2005 blog, Andy Carver acknowledges educators' "hostility" towards the resource, although he describes how "Wikipedia's flaws actually make it an ideal learning tool for students." In fact, Wikipedia surely embraces Carver's ideas, as these same ideas are quoted in Wikipedia's Schools' FAQ. Wikipedia never claimed to be valid. The disclaimer on the bottom of every page makes this quite clear. Sure, anyone can edit a wiki, and write that the moon truly is made of cheese. Although, in a heavily disputed study, Nature "suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule" as it found natural science entries in Wikipedia to rival those in Encyclopedia Britannica.

Whatever your stance, we all must agree that the wiki is not going away. So, as with many emerging technologies, we must find ways to use it as an educational opportunity.

chael Eakes weighs in on the debate,
There is no guarantee of quality for any given Wikipedia article. But more importantly, Wikipedia remains incredibly useful as an initial resource that provides a contextual framework for more exhaustive research.

Perhaps those four teachers had the right idea. Wikipedia is a valuable source, but should not be relied upon as an only source.

Andy Carvin takes it a step further in March 2006,

Students and teachers should debate Wikipedi
a and even contribute to it; remember, it's a work-in-progress, not a finished body of work. But all too often, the debate over Wikipedia's merits is left among the educators only, with students left out of the conversation and operating on a simple directive: don't use it. By ignoring Wikipedia rather than teaching critical, responsible uses of it, schools are practically inviting students to edit Wikipedia at their own peril. We should be preparing students for constructive participation in the Read/Write Web; otherwise it might as well be the Read/Vandalize Web.

Andy Carvin did his own survey of educators and found little consensus among educators when it came to Wikipedia.

Opinions abound on Wikipedia's usefulness in schools. I personally agree that Wikipedia is a useful springboard to further research, and an opportunity to really teach media literacy and fact validation techniques. In the world that awaits our student's tomorrows, I cannot think of two more valuable lessons for our kids.

More blogposts tackling Wikipedia : Infinite Thinking Machine

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Going with the FLOW

On any given day, I encounter a myriad of emotions in my classroom. A single lovingly crafted lesson may resonate with a particular group of students, propelling them onward towards success, while others in the class may react with anxiety, apathy, or frustration.

This phenomenon, perhaps, was a bit of a mystery in my fledgling years as an educator. However, as I gained experience, I began to see patterns.

However, it wasn't until I was exposed to the ideas of Mihaly Csikszentm
ihalyi and his idea of "Flow" that I had a tangible expression of these patterns. Education is a constant balance. The great myth is that every student receives a similar education in a particular class. We educators provide the challenge, but as the chart suggests, a fixed challenge may elicit very different reactions in students of varying skill levels.

This is why I believe in differentiation. I don't want students to be bored, apathetic or anxious in my classroom. It isn't even enough for them to be relaxed or in control. In order for each student to grow, they need to be presented with the appropriate high challenge level for their current set of skills. Similarily, if they lack the skills to work on the expected challenge, it is up to me to provide support in building those needed skills.

This is not to say I think differentiation is easy. In fact, I think this is the most difficult aspect of my job. Unfortunately, I also think it is one of the most necessary. In a classroom of 30 kids, it is impossible to get simultaneous flow without differentiation.

We all have experienced flow. We may have called it being "in the zone" or "in the groove," but we recognize the state in which time flies by as we are engaged in something we competently enjoy. Flow is often described as an optimal state of intrinsic motivation.

Wouldn't education be effective if all students worked in an "optimal state of intrinsic motivation"?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Defective Blueberries vs. Challenging Kids

This is a wonderful story for educators and non-educators alike. People so frequently try and project the "business model" onto schools. This model is ill-fitted to the realities of education.

The Blueberry Story By Jamie Robert Vollmer

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of in- service training.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle-1980s when People Magazine chose its blueberry flavor as the "Best Ice Cream in America."

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the Industrial Age and out of step with the needs of our emerging "knowledge society." Second, educators were a major part of the problem: They resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! Total Quality Management! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced—equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman's hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant. She was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, "We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream."

I smugly replied, "Best ice cream in America, ma'am."

"Premium ingredients?" she inquired.

"Super-premium! Nothing but triple-A." I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

"Mr. Vollmer," she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, "when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?"

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap. I was dead meat, but I wasn't going to lie.

"I send them back."

"That's right!" she barked, "and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all. Every one. And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it's not a business. It's school."

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, "Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!"

Speaking of NCLB, read another teacher's opinion Of "No Child Left Behind" and Blueberries (2003)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

AYP: Are You Preposterous?

On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (see legislation or wikipedia article). In theory, it is a wonderful proposition focused on stronger accountability, more freedom for states and communities, proven education methods, and more choices for parents.

One of the requirements of NCLB is that by 2013-14 all students meet or exceed state learning standards. In 2001, an average of about 40% of Illinois students met or exceeded state standards. In a high performing district, this might be closer to 85 %.

The graph represents Illinois' plan to reach the 100% mark by 2014.
Source: IL State Board of Ed website (I'm not sure why we take an "improvement break" between 2012 & 2013.)

Schools are held accountable in their entirety, and also within particular sub-groups.

The 9 groups considered for AYP analyses are:

1. The Entire School
2. American Indians/ Alaskan Natives
3. Asians/ Pacific Islanders
4. Hispanics
5. Black/ African Americans
6. White/ Caucasians
7. Students with an Individualized Educational Plan
8. Students of Limited English Proficiency
9. Students receiving Free or Reduced Price Lunches

If any one of the 9 groups does not meet the criteria for the AYP indicators: (participation, academic acheivement, attendance, etc...), the entire school is designated as not demonstrating Adequate Yearly Progress. In other words, in 2014, if 100% of your LEP kids, or special education kids, are not meeting or exceeding state standards, your entire school is considered "failing." (There are currently 25% of public schools considered failing in the US... and current AYP goals hover in the 40% range right now.... you predict the trend in the percentage of schools considered failing over the next five years.)

Go figure: In 2003, all special education students had to take the same state test as other students and their scores countes in their school's AYP. Shortly thereafter, the federal gov't relaxed the requirement slightly, and schools are able to exempt up to 1% of their population from taking the standardized test. This means students with severe mental retardation, autism, traumatic brain injuries, and other severe disabilities have the option to "not count" against AYP for a school. (Remember, if one subgroup fails, the entire school is labeled as failing.)

Many people argue that AYP requirements unfairly target large, diverse districts. If you have many subgroups, you have "more chances" to fail. Also, a subgroup must have at least 30 kids to "count," so smaller districts often can work around the requirements.

The consequences for not making AYP can be serious, ranging from giving students the option to transfer to another school (transportation paid for by sending school), to providing extra tutoring, to shutting down the school completely and re-opening it as a charter school or under the direction of a private firm.

By the way, right now, according to a 8.16.06 article on, "Under the No Child Left Behind law, states were supposed to have highly qualified teachers in every core academic class by the end of the last [05-06] school year. None made it." In addition, independent studies predict that 99% of public schools will be labeled as "failing" by 2014 due to issues with AYP requirements.

Wow. Nearly a 100% failure rate. I firmly support the ideals promoted but the law, but could it be that NCLB is a bit quixotic?

Monday, November 06, 2006

You know you teach middle school science when...

... you find this on your desk when you return from the copy room.

(Our school mascot is the lion. I'm glad to see the students can use them creatively.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

You'll never know when you're making a difference

Teaching middle school is a funny thing. Year after year, you work with students in perhaps the most tumultuous time of their lives. School sucks. Parents are lame. And all authority is to be challenged. We do our best, then let them go.

Years later, an amazing phenomenon unfolds. Some of them come back. They tell tales of moments amidst the middle school chaos that penetrated their identity-crazed self-obsessed beings and affected their very core. Out of the 226,800 moments of their middle school careers (defining a "moment" as one minute), it never ceases to amaze me which moments earn this influential honor.

A sophomore came back and shared a recent English 2 assignment with me about the pressures she feels in high school. She was not a student I was particularily close to; in fact, I rarely recall exchanging any words with her outside the curriculum.

In her paper, she recalls the first few minutes of ninth period of her 7th grade year, a set of moments that have long escaped my memory. She states in her paper, "I don't remember much of what she said that day, or really anything from that entire year. But that day, she unintentionally taught me the most valuable lesson of my life."

She proceeds to write a verbatim record of my brief statements explaining why I have never experimented with tobacco or drugs. My comments lasted no longer than a minute or two, though, according to her, "my life was drastically changed for the better that first day of seventh grade."

I am aware of my words, actions and reactions every moment of my teaching experiences. Among the clamoring adolescents, I just never know who might be listening.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Microbes in the Flesh

On my maiden voyage into blogging, I passed this ship in the night.

Adopt A Microbe - This is the stuff science teachers dream of. Well done!

In fact, I think people underestimate the desirability of micobes in noninfectious forms. Who needs a teddy bear when you can cuddle the Ebola virus at night?

This makes me think fondly of one of my favorite sites, Microbe World, full of microbe news and experiments.