A few loose thoughts from the past week

Firstly, I want to thank those who have encouraged me to write more and share more of the issues in education that I learn about as I work with students and teachers. It seems that as I’ve made more of an effort to write, I’ve found more opportunities. Here are three different thoughts I’ve put to writing this week that I’ll share here.

“It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”

Last week the baseball player, Ernie Banks passed away. Here’s what I felt compelled to write the next day after being reminded about his legacy during a radio report:

If you aren’t familiar with this former baseball player, please find any brief obituary. Here’s what I’d like to celebrate about him: Win or lose Ernie loved his job and made an effort to share his optimism with those around him- fans, teammates, or reporters. I think this is a legacy I can aspire to. I’m going to make an effort, and I encourage each of you, to show up for work with Ernie’s level of enthusiasm and gratitude. I am very lucky that everyday I can be with compassionate and committed co-workers and endlessly fascinating students, and I will do what I can to let those around me on our campus that no matter how exciting or mundane the task at hand we are at the forefront of excitement and innovation in education.

The following Monday, Banks’ legacy was summed up this way: He was one of the all-time greatest ball players, among baseball’s inner circle of the best of the best. Yet, he will be remembered as a great person who did what he could to bring joy to those around him.

Want Relevance and Rigor? Immerse your school in current global affairs and global competency

I had an opportunity to apply for a scholarship to travel abroad for a week. The application gave me the opportunity to write about the importance of global competency and 21st century skills (which I hope to further define in future posts). In 400 words or less, here’s what I had to say about this.

Two of my roles in the school are instructional coach and classroom teacher and I use both roles to promote global competency and teach 21st century skills. In my AP Physics and AP Statistics classrooms I seek to have students investigate issues from around the globe. For example, in Physics we can study the use of rolling water containers to prevent women from needing to carry water for hours every day. In Statistics, we regularly use global data such as education levels or public health to learn about concepts like linear regression, finding summary statistics, and testing for statistical significance. In addition to understanding about the world, I want my students to be confident problem solvers who can direct their own inquiry, recognize the impact of multiple perspectives, communicate to a diverse audience, and be empowered that they can use their skills to take actions to improve their community. An important part of developing global competency is using technology and collaboration. For this I use Google Docs and Google Sheets to help students collaborate online with each other and learn how to share scientific data. I have introduced flipped classroom resources so that students understand that learning does not have to be confined to when they are in a school.

As an instructional leader I’ve made an effort to empower our school faculty to teach 21st century skills and promote global competency in their own classrooms. We have a school-wide focus on global citizenship and I make an effort to support teachers in making their lessons better in the following four ways: Include student choice, make the student task authentic to the work real professionals do, include a significant global issue, and require students to present or exhibit their work to a real-world audience.

Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom

Our campus faculty is reading the Rick Wormeli book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal in anticipation for his visit to San Antonio February 18th. The principal and I have worked together to help teachers process the book and in our next faculty meeting I will be facilitating our discussion of Chapter’s 5 and 6 about tiering assessments and designing good test questions. As a way of pre-thinking each faculty member is bringing three ideas they learned, two ideas they found interesting, and 1 question they still have. As a way of giving you a glimpse into how I am currently thinking about my classroom practice here’s my response to the three prompts:

3 Things I found out:

1. For tiering to be effective, it is best to stay focused on one concept or task for students to learn. When there are multiple learning objectives then it is harder to understand what level different students need to be working at and to make the objectives and purpose of tiering clear to students.

“To avoid a potential pitfall with tiering, be sure to stay focused on one concept or task” pg 57

2. Because feedback is so important to students and a key skill for differentiated instruction it is better to have shorter assessments more frequently instead of longer assessments over time. For one thing, longer, more complex assessments take more time to grade, thus making the feedback less immediate and useful to students. Additionally, shorter assessments make it easier to zero in on what students know and do not know. This in turn, makes the learning objectives clearer to students and makes it easier to know what to do next to reach the targeted level of mastery.

“In order to get an accurate rendering of students’ mastery and support the emphasis on formative assessment mentioned earlier, smart teachers give multiple, smaller, and focused tests over the course of the grading period…” pg 84

 3. For tests to be valid measures of understanding, students must have a clear idea of the format. For example if students are going to be asked to identify if a math problem is impossible to solve using only the given information, then students should have been exposed to this possibility leading up to the assessment and be familiar with how to recognize and respond to it. This aligns to the idea presented earlier in the book that to be clear about the objectives assessed, give students a blank copy of the test at the beginning of the unit and ask them to look it over to see what is coming next.

“We don’t call for an approach on a test question that wasn’t practiced by students extensively during our lessons” pg. 83

2 Interesting Things:

1. Frank Williams’s Taxonomy of Creativity immediately made me think of ways my classes may be boring to students, and ways that I could make it more engaging. I firmly believe that the best scientists are creative individuals and creativity is necessary for using the tools of math and science to their fullest potential. The go-tool method I use for increasing engagement is puzzling or challenging lab setups, but I would really enjoy having my students work their way through the taxonomy after a complex topic like conservation of energy has been introduced.

2. The discussion questions at the end of Chapter 5 were really interesting to me. I think I struggle with delivering the right amount of rigor to each student. The AP objectives are rigorous, but sometimes I feel that students are left behind as a topic is introduced and developed, and then half the class is stuck waiting, while I loop back to catch up those students who are struggling. While there’s intent to differentiate, often as I try to respond to the needs of some of my students, I pull the whole class into work that they aren’t ready for or already have learned.

1 Question I still have:

Is it best for students that I impose a uniform time limit (except for those with disabilities) under the justification that they need to be prepared for the time limits of the AP test, even though some students would be able to earn higher scores if I let them stay in class to finish the test? Will they cheat if I let them go to their next two classes and then come back at lunch or after school to finish a test?

 

Can the model for great classrooms can be found in pre-k and kinder?

The 2013-2014 school year has been underway for about 3 weeks now.  I have been teaching a class of 21 eleventh and twelfth grade students, my daughter has started 4th grade and my son has been in preschool after being taken care of at home for the last two years.  My mother made a career in early child development, coordinating child care services for an urban county in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaching college courses part time.  I mention this because I was raised learning about the importance of pre-k and kinder education and how it fits in to the work done in elementary, middle, and high schools.

So before I write more about elementary and secondary classrooms, I thought I’d start with a few things worth sharing about the education of three, four, and five year-olds.  Sir Ken Robinson shared in one of his recent TED talks that tests for creativity given to five year olds produce higher scores than the tests given to 10 year olds.  In essence he argues that formal schooling reduces the ability of kids to ask questions, be creative, and learn for themselves.  This got me thinking that if inquiry, creativity, and self-directed learning are things I value in secondary students, then perhaps some reflection of what these traits look like in pre-kinder classes could help me articulate to the teachers I work with what traits we want to see in their classroom.

So in what ways are pre-k students creative?  The first thing that comes to mind is what I hear and see when kids have time to play by themselves.  Sticks can turn into swords, blocks can turn into houses, and kids can turn into talking ponies (my family has been on a My Little Pony kick for a while now).  Kids are not limited by what they have to play with, and will simply imagine that whatever they need is what they have.  There are no constraints on their creativity until an adult tells them that the time has come to stop playing.

Is there an “educational value” to this kind of creativity?  Certainly there is for pre-k and kinder students.  If they are trying to engage in this sort of play with others, then they learn important social skills as well as develop the language capabilities to communicate effectively.  If a student is engaged in creative play by themselves, then I believe that children are learning an important lesson about independence, and that the act of imagining and creating is intrinsically rewarding.

Is there a way to allow elementary, middle, and high school students to engage in this kind of creativity in their education?  A school can help support student creativity by ensuring that there is adequate time for recess, art, and music.  Clubs and organizations will often allow creative students to have an outlet for their passions.  However, I would like to see the goal of creativity embraced as an essential part of the core curriculum.  The Common Core won’t do this, and it’s not likely to be a part of any college readiness initiative like AP and IB programs.  Instead, we need the individual classroom teachers to understand what it means for a scientist to be creative or a mathematician to be creative or a social scientist to be creative or a reader and writer to be creative.  Once the classroom teacher understands creativity, then they can build it into their program.  I’ll close this section by saying this, most math and science teachers cry a little inside (sometimes very deep inside) when they hear a student say that they don’t like math or science because they are a “creative person” as though the two were mutually exclusive.

A simple physics problem

I was reading about the San Francisco Forty-NIners ground-breaking ceremony for the new stadium in Santa Clara.  An article from the Sacramento Bee’s 49ers blog discussed the measures taken in contstruction and design to make it more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

One of the signature features will be a living green roof, which is supposed to help the building itself use less energy.  Here’s the physics problem:

“One of the problems Jack Hill, the project executive for the 49ers’ new $1.2 billion stadium, currently is facing is how to transport 2,000 tons of dirt and top soil 150 feet in the air.”

So how much energy is required to transport that mass of soil up 150 ft?    Is it even possible that the building’s energy usage would be reduced enough by the green roof to ofset the energy cost of the roof’s construction?

Naturally, I’ll answer the first question in metric units:

1.8 x 10^6 kg * 9.8 m/s/s * 46 m = 8.1 x 10^8 J = 225 kWh

So what?  Looks like I have reason to contact some Environmental Science students and see what they make of this, either that or pay more attention to my home energy bill.  The 225 number doesn’t seem that huge, so eventhough it may be difficult and time consuming to get the soil on the roof, in a back-of-the-envelop conservation-of-mechanical-energy sort of way its not too much trouble to get the soil up there.

Essential topics in physics

I asked my students at the end of the 2011-2012 school year what they thought was the most important physics concepts taught.  Here are some of their responses

Their choice

justification

Newton’s Laws “fundamental to all things and is everywhere you look”
Radiation and Radioactivity better informed about what is dangerous and what isn’t
Conservation of Energy “People know there are limited resources but may not realize the significance of changing one energy form into another”
Basic Kinematics used in understanding motion
Momentum, Inertia, Relative Motion “If everyone had a working knowledge of those concepts the number of idiotic drivers on the road would decrease greatly”
Basic Forces “better understand some of the aspects of their daily life”
Newton’s 3 laws “they affect everyone… give everyone a greater understanding of the world around them”
Position/velocity/and acceleration “Most visible in people’s everyday lives.  This may get them thinking scientifically about other phenomenon”
Newton’s laws “Helps people predict the motion of objects in everyday situations”
Momentum or similar “People should know how things move, especially their car
Newton’s Laws “Improve safety” “Newton’s laws can be applied to many everyday things that we do”
Thermodynamics Integral to many things we take for granted in society

Assessing Essential Concepts in Quantum Theory

In last Sunday’s NY Times magazine, David Javerbaum wrote an outstanding opinion piece titled A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney. The article uses key concepts from quantum physics and uses them to show how the quirks of Mitt Romney (or the most commonly portrayed stereotypes of Mitt) make perfects sense through the lens of quantum physics. One of my favorite aspects of this piece is that he uses the favorite phrase of mine, Complementarity, in his description. I worry the word is in danger of being lost as modern physics seems to be leaving the Copenhagen Interpretation in the past. Yet the concept has helped define my pragmatic, harmony-seeking, outlook on life and conflict.

But anyways… A physics teacher/blogger/tweeter I follow commented that the article provides evidence of the author’s understanding of physics. So that gets me thinking about teaching and assessment. If an instructor does an outstanding job of teaching and explaining the concepts of quantum theory, then the student should be able to write a comparable essay comparing any person or thing to a quantum phenomenon.

For example, my first thought was to create a quantum theory for toddlers (or more specifically, my almost-three-year-old son). If you understand concepts like entanglement, superposition, probability, etc. and you’ve ever spent extended time around a toddler, you should be able to see how the essay practically writes itself.

In the past, after teaching Physics 1 students about wave/particle duality, part of my assessment was to require students to develop an analogy using an everyday experience or idea that exhibits a dual nature to explain the nature of light. I now see how the concept can go much further.

The article tries to use quantum mechanics concepts to explain Mitt Romney. In the physics classroom could we give kids the article and use Mitt Romney to explain the quantum mechanics concepts? Then we can ask students to discuss who or what they would explain using quantum concepts. I imagine kids explaining their relationship with their parents, or the interactions within cliques using these concepts. Presto, there’s your final assessment over the QM unit.

Comment starters:

What do you think about using this article in physics classrooms?

What analogies do you think kids would want write about?

What complex aspect of your life do you think you could explain using quantum mechanics?