Posts filed under ‘Inquiry and critical thinking’

Earth in Verse

I heard a snippet of Maria Popova’s “The Universe in Verse” and was inspired to do something for Earth Day this year.

Students were challenged to find a photograph of nature that made them feel happy and one that made them feel sad, and then to write a poem about one or other photo: Nature Light and Dark. I suggested they start with a descriptive phrase and go from there. Here’s the example I shared.

Why something so art-y and subjective/imaginative in science class? Because what you feel is what you remember and what you care about. And the world desperately needs young people who care about the state of the planet, who care to learn about it and do something, and know how to get others to do so too. It’s a lead-in to a unit on environmental science coming up.

They were free to use photos from their phones. They could also do a Google image search from a growing list of science terms that have something to do with nature. For the happy photos, they looked up images of places that they love. They picked an issue that they were especially concerned about as a search term to find a photo that made them sad. Here is the slide template I shared with them via Google Classroom.

It was lovely to watch them so completely absorbed, showing each other pictures on their phones, had to set a few boundaries – no selfies, or pics primarily of their pets. Resort pictures are not really wild ‘nature’ and that’s an important consideration these days where the wealthy get this manicured view of nature inside giant resort enclosures where the surroundings are often seriously impacted – Cancun springs to mind.

A bit of counseling to avoid the first image that pops up so we don’t see the same thing over and over. But also a lovely opportunity to roll the chair around to each group and listen in, encourage, help and coach. What IS a ‘good’ photo? – one that makes you feel something. In sharp focus, with ONE main thing that it’s about. But other than that, you sort of know when you see it. Some students are so schooled in ‘the right answer’ that it’s hard for them to know and trust their gut when it’s appropriate. And what is ‘good’ poetry? Another huge question but for the purposes of today, I suggested the following: It’s what is true for you. Write first whatever comes up from the photo that you feel most strongly about. THEN edit. Don’t worry about rhyme unless it comes easily. Consider the sound and rhythm, the meter of the words and the punctuation. Read it aloud. Does it sound right? Edit.

Students wrote their poem on the third slide and then copied and pasted their work onto a slide set for the class so it automatically made a slide show. Today, they read out their poems with the picture that inspired it behind them.

Here are the best poems and pictures in a Google Slideshow.  Kids would love it if you commented and said where you are writing from!

 

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May 15, 2019 at 8:22 PM 2 comments

The Freedom to Fail…

is central to success. ?!

Leading the lesson with that caused looks of confusion in my somewhat stressed students as we near the end of a major project. It’s important for me to realized too. I have to allow students to choose to fail. If there is no possibility that anyone will fail, success has no real meaning. And I am making myself responsible for all student work and taking on the onus. Plus it would make me super-stressed and really (even more) annoying, nagging them to death and um, treating them like I didn’t trust them.

Of course I’m going to support students, check in with them, break down tasks and deadlines and most importantly, talk to each individual group in this last project-work lesson. “How are you?” “What’s your panic level?” “What is next on your check list?” “Want me to look over your written section for suggestions?” (note NOT to re-grade stuff, that entirely changes the vibe.) “What are your plans to get this done with each other at home?” I also go round and distribute the rubric for the finished project to keep them focussed on what is required. Having kids share documents for color printing is a good way for me to give a last look at their work too.

We had a bit of a laugh looking at Tim Urban’s TED talk “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator” too.

I thought they would be tempted to spend way too much time decorating their poster board or to stick on random pictures just to make it look pretty. But in fact it was more like they didn’t want me to bug them – too busy getting it done.

It is SO hard to resist the urge to nag, require, boss and take over their decisions. I feel like a bad teacher if they are just standing about chatting when they could be working. Especially students who have been struggling. But when I think of how I learned not to procrastinate, I had to really feel the pain to make a change worthwhile.

I used to let grading pile up by the end of each quarter and then have a last-minute, late night frenzy, giving kids grades based on what was bad because I was too tired to notice what was good and give encouragement. Then they’d get their work back weeks after they did it, and would only look at the grade and not pay any attention to the other feedback. It was all long past. So it damaged relationships with my students which then resulted in tense parent exchanges too. It was ultimately enough pain to start to challenge the urge to procrastinate.

But the other piece was more positive: Barbara Nagle, a former chemistry teacher and mentor said that she was really curious to know how her students had done on an assignment right after they handed it in, and I noticed that’s when I was most motivated too. So I tried it after a particularly brutal end-of-term grading thrash. There’s also when I started to made more careful decisions for what to grade and not to grade. I write rubrics and/or a model answer for most pieces of work now. But I also just get on with it, (the mantra of – British psychotherapists 🙂 grading work often during seat work time in class, which allows me to give students one-on-one verbal feedback to save me the time of writing it down. Plus tone of voice can soften criticism to become coaching, and if I lead with curious questions, I often uncover what was going on with a child who’s done a horrible piece of work. Saves accidentally smacking a kid down when their dog has just died etc.  I know. It was sometimes horrifying how close I’d come to doing that in the press of work and hurry and stress.

I do have one student who is driving me crazy right now – bright, friendly guy but does nothing. Nothing. Just hangs out and shoots the breeze with anyone who will listen. I keep talking to him – checking he gets the big picture and try to help him feel how great it would be to have a project to show his parents etc. Come to think of it, I have two more who will probably end up with nothing much. Worked with them all today trying to structure tasks with them, one piece at a time. One did quite a bit and gave me a hug at the end. The other drew a picture of an eagle instead… But would nagging them make any real difference other than window-dressing with a ‘project’ that was basically done by me/parents/special ed colleagues? And would it do actual harm – helping to form entitled, lazy and ultimately unhappy young adults?

I do feel that it’s a genuine gift – the freedom for my students to feel the pain, visualize and to choose to avoid it, or learn from it. It’s good for me to remind myself that I’m in it for the bigger goal of preparing them for their adult lives, and it’s good for me to grip the controls a little more lightly – like riding a mountain bike over rough ground.  It’s not a free-for-all, it’s not chaos. My feet are definitely not up on the desk. And there are boundaries – no distracting other groups for example. And no chopping worms in half. But that’s another story.

 

 

March 21, 2019 at 3:25 PM Leave a comment

Kid 2 Kid Puerto Rico Solar Oven Project

With the power taking so long to be restored in Puerto Rico, solar ovens could be really helpful.  So we tweaked the solar oven project to challenge students to engineer a solar oven out of household items that 7th graders could easily find and assemble.

  1. We started with a do-anything, make-any-old solar oven with no guidance. They got the hang of it, and some experiences to link the physics of solar ovens to. The challenge was to heat 60ml of water the most in 2 minutes. I provided boxes, pizza boxes, mylar survival blankets, masking tape, magnifiers, scissors, cling film and other office supplies I had lying around as they asked. This playing around piece might sound like a waste of valuable academic time but it really does make the rest of the learning and the engineering go MUCH more smoothly. It’s also straight up more fun for me – I hate having to over explain stuff and boss around kids who don’t quite get the instructions. Obviously, I keep an eye on safety and circulate all the time to answer questions and give encouragement/re direct. The level of engagement is so high that there are very few discipline issues – the chaos that seems to be implied is way less than you’d think.

2. Then we studied some physics on a need-to-know basis:

 

a. Energy transformations in appliances, toys, pets and cars to review concepts they learned in earlier grades.

 

b. We had to review the definitions of energy and matter with a card sort, this time on a continuum, rather than one or the other. Much easier this way.IMG_1624

c. Light and optics lab to learn about reflection and refraction using light boxes.

 

c. Students researched ideas from other solar ovens being used in the world – in developing countries, by off-the-grid homesteaders, by campers and even by The Chef in his solar oven episode.

3. They put together their knowledge of physics and already-invented solar ovens and designed new solar ovens to fit the challenge with a second build day.

4. All the ovens were tested for effectiveness (temperature change of 60ml of water in a bean can).  Good to repeat the test to iron out data collection issues. I have kids put the ovens by temperature rise rank on the black top so we can easily compare and contrast them.IMG_7364IMG_1727IMG_2179IMG_2961IMG_1731

5. We evaluated the ovens on the use of easily available materials, and on ease of assembly and use. Then we combined the best ideas – what do you think? Think, pair, share. Each class came up with a design that was based on one of the top two or three

6. Apply for a job in the How-2K2K Video Production Company. Here’s the list of jobs. The application was a half page for them to say why they wanted the job and why they would be good at it. IMG_5485

7. Review and test on the science concepts we have been applying – optics, spectrum green house effect, energy transformations. Students see the test and use it to guide their review – I’ll use different solar ovens and energy transformers for the real thing.

Here’s the test and answer sheets.

8. Make the How-To video.

This was harder than saying ‘Hey kids, now you know your jobs, make a video.’ Who knew? After some false starts (chaos 🙂 I grouped kids by their jobs and briefed each group on what I expected. The director(s) were only in charge of the filming.

It’s a good idea to let the ‘how to’ group re-assembling the solar oven rehearse first with the camera people. Maybe one to record a time-lapse, one to videotape and one to take stills.

Props was the hardest job in the end. Students had a really hard time getting past ‘we don’t have a steel bowl at home.’ end of story. Went over how to solve a problem like that and one mom did go out in the evening to actually buy something. Ugh, not what I intended. I used the props people as floaters to fill in for other jobs that arose.

We talked about ‘finding something useful to do’ if they had spaces of time when their job was not immediately needed. What a great life skill.

It was really hard for the directors to assert themselves with their peers, as it is for most of us.

I allowed a catch-up day for editors, script writers and any other crews to finish off their jobs. Much better than a rubbish end product.

9. The Kid 2 Kid Solar Oven How-To Movie Premiere!

Here’s one of our best videos from Period 7

Here is the link to our other videos. And from Marshall Sachs’ classes too.

 

 

 

 

October 31, 2017 at 2:44 PM Leave a comment

The Hurry-cane Help Project

An engaging, upbeat (and manageable) way for students to respond to humanitarian crises!

Continue Reading October 4, 2017 at 9:21 AM 1 comment

Weighing in on Google and Chrome books

Using Google Classroom with Chrome Books for the first time and reacting to the NY Times article “How Google took over the classroom”.

Continue Reading May 21, 2017 at 7:47 AM Leave a comment

Ore to Store Mini-Project

What is the story of our favorite stuff? Student detectives follow the path to metals and ore all over the world.

Continue Reading April 21, 2017 at 2:16 PM Leave a comment

Sex Ed: Guess and Check

ARE there more teen pregnancies now than ever before? Are “kids these days…” more out of control, engaging in more risk behaviors and more likely to get pregnant in their teen years? Students start by guessing the answers to some key questions about sex – here’s the class sheet I used.

And then we discuss the way they will find out answers to their guesses using reliable, evidence-based, scientific sources that I provide for them. This is not a time to look stuff up on Google by themselves with these loaded questions. And searching for ‘teen sex’ is likely to come up with all kinds of inappropriate sites. Here is the link to today’s lesson plan which includes the links to reliable resources.

We talk briefly about scanning through charts and graphs looking for surprises – stuff that contradicts their guesses and anything else that startles them. That’s exactly what investigative journalists do – comb through boring-looking reports looking for the headline. In this case, it turns out that the headline “Today’s teens more responsible than you were!” would work. The trends with teen sexuality are by and large good news, well except when compared with other developed countries. That surprise leads to a short discussion of discrimination experienced even by the very privileged teens in my classes, just for being teens. FullSizeRender 19

For controversial topics like sex education, it’s extra important to use reliable sources and avoid fake news. This dull, dull topic is also re-vitalized when considered in the context of using science to figure out why the birth rate among teens has dropped, and why it is higher in some parts of the country compared to others. If we could figure out what is making the difference, effective policy could save lives and help teens launch into their adult lives without unwanted pregnancies.

This is just one piece of our sex education curriculum that we’ve developed. If you want the lesson plans with links, go to my school loop website. Sex ed started on March 9th, 2017.

After teaching this for about 33 years, I thought you might like a little list of tips that have helped me:

  • Talk over your sex ed curriculum with your administration ahead of time. You’ll need their support and backing. Sex ed stuff is the most likely part of the curriculum to get you into trouble with parents so front loading is extra important.
  • Try to teach similar stuff as your grade level colleague.
  • Share what will be taught at your grade level with parents in a neutral way – we have a folder of resources we use on Google Drive and shared the link with an e mail to parents from the principal. Parents can opt out.
  • Don’t try to persuade parents who want to opt their child out. Provide work from a text book so you don’t have to design an alternative curriculum.
  • Be clear that you are teaching information and not values. That’s up to families.
  • Frequently encourage students to talk to their parents about sex etc.- parent/child open talk about sex is the single most important factor in reducing risk behavior in teens.
  • Circulate a lot during activities, table discussions and while students are watching clips on their iPads etc. That’s when they might actually ask you a private, needed question. Many fewer parents that we think talk to their children openly about sex and yet we are in a culture saturated with it. They need a trusted, friendly and informed adult to talk to.
  • We teach our own sex ed and don’t outsource it to experts who will not have the depth of relationships that we do with our students.
  • Never, ever say “in my experience…”. Duh 🙂 And don’t share anything about your own private life.
  • Have a question box but don’t answer crazy stuff about unicorns (“If a man gets an erection on his head, is he a unicorn.” Yes. Really.), and unserious questions that are designed to disgust or embarrass you. Also questions that are inherently racist, misogynistic etc. You are the teacher. Don’t be bullied by naughty boys (mostly) intent on a laugh.
  • Re-phrase questions about your own sex life if the question seems serious. Re-phrase badly written questions that may have a serious point underlying them.
  • Model being matter of fact.
  • Talk about sex as an important part of life and a natural drive within the context of passing genes on to the next generation.
  • Scare tactics backfire. Being embarrassed is hard to avoid at first but the more relaxed you can be, the better you convey that sex is a normal part of life.
  • Give students time to practice talking about sex in mixed gender groups. It’s an important skill.
  • Embarrassment about ‘privates’ kills – my poor grandfather did not talk about changes in his bowel movements until his colon cancer was very advanced and it nearly did kill him. You might have similar stories in your family.
  • Re-phrase questions and answers in the third person. This avoids “You will find that…. ” which could seriously embarrass a student you might be glancing at accidentally. Generalizing “Many people find that…. ” is a safer way to phrase answers.
  • Some of the questions in the question box suggest that my 7th graders are viewing porn – how do we address this? This is a serious question that I don’t yet have a good answer for. It’s so easy for students to see it – if not at a parents house, then at a friends house or on a friend’s phone. Porn consumption is having a real effect on adult relationships. What is it doing to our children?  Our school community will need to engage with this question and soon.

 

March 16, 2017 at 1:41 PM Leave a comment

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