Category Archives: Science

Want innovation in the classroom? Get teachers involved in Policy

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by Maren Johnson

I spent the weekend in Washington DC at the Teaching and Learning 2014 Conference. It was dazzling. Famous and thought provoking speakers, incorporation of art and music, huge diversity in education viewpoints and experience.

With all the hubbub over the big names at the conference, what I'm heading home thinking about is a session led by a middle school science teacher from Washington state. From the small town of Cheney, no less.

Teacher Tammie Schrader's session was titled, "Coding in the Classroom." I went into the session expecting to learn a bit about coding itself, and perhaps a bit about how to use coding to teach concepts in life science. I came out of the session thinking about innovation and education policy.

Tammie started out the session by introducing herself and her classroom programs. She has been facilitating student coding in her science classes for several years now. That, itself, is innovative, but not extraordinarily unusual.

Then Tammie started talking about education policy. My ears perked up. What was going to be the tie-in here? I've been to sessions on innnovative instructional methods. I've been to sessions on education policy. I have rarely been to a session incorporating both.

Tammie's point? She wanted to do cutting edge things in her classroom. In order to be free to do these things, she needed to be released from some of the usual considerations of what might be expected in a classroom. There were a few non-negotiables, however. She would still need to assess; she would still need to show student growth. She wanted to assess and show student growth in a way that would fit her classroom. The solution? Get involved in policy. Tammie has done this, in a big way, at state and national levels.

I thought to myself, "This woman's message needs to get out there." So there I was, like the paparazzi, taking photos and tweeting. Not that Tammie isn't already well known in many education circles, but I wanted to do my part!

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The policy involvment has allowed Tammie's innovative classroom work to become systemic. Tammie has worked on state assessment committees and on designing frameworks for Career and Technical Education. She helped write the state science test. Because she knows what students are expected to do, she's not ignoring the state science standards or the Next Generation Science Standards. She's not letting all of that go. She's just helping to shape policy and then use it in a way that helps herself and other teachers be innovative in their classrooms.

Tammie has spent time talking to policy makers at all levels. Having a teacher involved in these areas allows education policy to encourage innovation as opposed to stifling it. Want innovation in the classroom? Get teachers involved in policy.

Speed Dating and Student Work: Half Days and a Senate Bill

Stopwatchby Maren Johnson

We sat down at a table in the science classroom at 2:30, just 10 minutes after the bell rang at the end of the school day.  We were ready to go: three teachers looking at student work.  Oh wait, there’s a student at the door who needs an assignment—one of us went to help him, the rest continued on.  What were we up to?  We were trying to collaborate, and we only had twenty minutes.  One of our members had volunteered to facilitate, and we even had an informal agenda: 5 minutes—introduce the lesson and provide background.  10 minutes—follow a simplified high-medium-low protocol for finding characteristics of the student work.  5 minutes—debrief.  

Partway through the high-medium-low protocol, a recently graduated student appeared at the door with a big grin, coming back to our high school to say hello.  We were happy to see him (he was a very jolly student)—we wished him well and sent him on to visit the math teacher.  Then we continued looking at the student work!  2:50 rolled around—we got up and left the room.  None of us usually leave the school at 2:50, the end of the contracted day, but on that day, I had another appointment, and needed to go, meaning that our collaboration time truly was limited to twenty minutes.  Twenty minutes is the length of time collaboration would have to be if it were to fit within the normal school day, with no early release, late start, or other modified schedule.

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Zombie Brains, Talk Moves, and the Next Generation Science Standards!

Brain in hand
By Maren Johnson

The zombies' odd, shambling gait, and their need to hold their arms straight out in front in order to maintain balance?  That's indicative of
damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor
coordination.  The zombies' hunger, and thus their unrelenting urge to chase and eat humans?  Clearly
a problem with the hypothalamus, the appetite control center of the brain—the zombies just don't know when they are full! And all that zombie rage? Oh yeah, that's originating in the amygdala, apparently overactive in the case of zombies.

I started the lesson by giving students a chance to surface their prior knowledge: students wrote answers to the questions, "How do zombies look different from humans?" and "How do zombies behave differently from humans?" We then discussed their answers as a group. I was a bit floored by the response. Students who rarely participated were eager to share, and these students knew A LOT about zombies. All that zombie knowledge gathered over the years from movies, TV shows, books, and video games? Now the students had a chance to share it in an academic setting. They also wanted to know more about the biology involved!

Many of the students were wildly excited about this science lesson.  My choice of words here is deliberate–in one of my class periods, it was a bit, well….wild. Students talking all at once, to me and to each other—they were on topic but almost no one could hear anyone. How to contain the chaos yet still direct that positive energy towards learning?

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Little Red Marbles and the Next Generation Science Standards

Photo Oct 11, 2013, 11:09 AM

by Maren Johnson

"Atoms are little red marbles too small to see," responded one of my students when I asked what he knew about atoms. I teach biology, so while atoms are important, we don't talk about them every day, and it was near the beginning of the school year. I asked a few clarifying questions to figure out what he actually meant.

No, he didn't think atoms were LIKE little red marbles, he actually thought they WERE little red marbles, that is to say, little round hard things colored red. Where did he get this idea? Well, to be honest, probably right here at school! We frequently use models at my school to teach about atoms. There's a few demonstration models up to the left created by the crafty physical science teacher at my school. Down to the right you can see a model of a neon atom constructed by one of my chemistry students.

While use of those models results in a lot of understanding, it can also can result in some misconceptions, especially when taken too literally!

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Ambitious Teaching = Rigor + Equity

Photo May 19, 2013, 12:32 PM

by Maren Johnson

"Ambitious teaching = rigor + equity. What does this mean for the Next Generation Science Standards?" This provocative question, posed at a conference last week by Mark Windschitl of the University of Washington, has been a framework for me for the last few days not just for thinking about science standards, but also for thinking about teaching in general.

First off, I like the term "ambitious teaching." Ambitious teaching sounds accessible, because, well, that means we as teachers can all aspire to high goals–and if we don't succeed, we can always try again! It's kind of like a "growth mindset" for teaching. Ambitious implies continuous growth, as opposed to reaching an endpoint.

Ambitious teaching in the context of the Next Generation Science Standards? That means rigor for both the teachers and the students–the new standards marry science practices, disciplinary ideas, and cross-cutting concepts in a way we haven't seen before. This will challenge our teaching, and it will also challenge our students. How to get the students to achieve this level of rigor? Growth mindset might again be part of the answer: Ann Renker, principal of Neah Bay Middle and High School, serving the Makah Indian reservation, has had remarkable results with growth mindset and incorporating the ideas of “hard work, not natural intelligence” throughout the school.

The Next Generation Science Standards have been designed from the ground up with equity in mind. Previous national science standards were based overtly, explicitly and almost exclusively on European tradition: Science for All Americans, basis of the National Science Education Standards, stated, "The sciences accounted for in this book are largely part of a tradition of thought that happened to develop in Europe during the last 500 years – a tradition to which most people from all cultures contribute today."

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Student (and teacher) Engagement: Increase the drama!

Photo May 11, 2013, 4:04 PM

by Maren Johnson

The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in — and stay tuned in — to watch drama.

~David Mamet, playwright and screenwriter

I don't usually get my teaching tips from television screenwriters, but I thought the above quote was worth some thought. If drama has a wide definition–let's say drama is a story resulting from human interactions–then adding drama to our teaching is definitely a way increase student engagement–the "tuning in" that David Mamet talks about above.

Our students often aren't here for the information, they're here for the drama. The students frequently find that drama in the actions of their peers. One of our jobs as teachers? Try to create that drama in our subject matter and class activities. Is drama necessary for learning? No, but it sure can help. Some ways to create that drama? Building teacher-student relationships, and including stories about content matter and school.

Last week at my school, a teacher sent out a link to an inspiring (and dramatic) Rita Pierson video on teacher-student relationships. Some teachers discussed it at lunch, a few other teachers commented by email. Teachers engaging other teachers, all right.  Another example: also last week at my school, a teacher announced "Staff Spirit Day" with the theme of "Hey, I went to college!" We were to wear our college sweatshirts and tell students positive stories about our college experiences.

No college sweatshirt being handy, I donned my high school FFA jacket–yeah, that's right, vocational agriculture all the way. I was part of an amazing high school FFA team–we competed in nursery landscape contests across the state and even made our way to nationals in Kansas City.

The FFA jacket I wore last Friday prominently featured the name of my high school, a neighboring school district to the one in which I now teach. As I was sharing stories of high school and college, one of my current students reminded me, "Ms. Johnson, my grandpa was your high school biology teacher!" Sure enough, which meant that my teacher-student-teacher relationship with this family now spanned two school districts and several generations! Good, we've got some human drama.

This high school biology teacher, as I described to my class, was a colorful character, a former Marine who was able to do push-ups with one arm while suspending himself between two student desks. He brewed coffee in his science prep room and gave us worms to dissect. He retired with the graduating class: the students proclaimed him the "Senior senior."

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Let’s Hijack that Spaceship: The Next Generation Science Standards

Mars Roverby Maren Johnson

The Next Generation Science Standards, like the Mars Rover or even some new and strange
space ship hovering above a farmer’s cornfield, are about to land here in
Washington and in many states across our country.  Our job as educators? Let’s hijack that spaceship. I mean that in a positive way: let’s grab
those standards, make them our own, and use them to improve student learning
and our science education system.

The final version of the standards will likely be released this month, and probably be adopted
soon thereafter by our state.  Some
changes from the earlier drafts many are hoping to see? Hopefully, some increased
clarity in language and a reduction in the overall scope of the standards,
avoiding the “mile-wide and inch-deep” problem. 
As one reviewer said, “We're
here to produce learners, not people who have been exposed to a lot of content."  Possible opposition to reduced scope in
standards? One person mentioned the “Julie Andrews” curriculum problem: what does
an individual want to include? “These are a few of my favorite things”—and it
is not possible to include everyone’s favorite things.

Why do I say the Next Generation Science Standards resemble a new
and strange spaceship?

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Double your fun with dual credit! Your Brain on Drugs

Photo Feb 9, 2013, 10:42 AM

by Maren Johnson


I'm excited about a new class I'm teaching next year. Yes, it's the honeymoon period–I haven't started teaching the class yet, so I'm still in the thinking, dreaming, imagining period–but hey, it's a good place to be–I'm going to enjoy it while I can.

The new class? It's a "college in the high school" biology class–a partnership between my high school and a state university to offer students dual credit. Students will be able to earn both high school and college credit while taking a class right here in their own school.

The class itself is fascinating. We are going to study the fundamentals of biology while looking through the lens of addiction, psychoactive drugs, and the human brain. We're going to do a series of cool labs, there's an online component, and even an interesting text. The biology of cells, organs, systems, and behavior–it's all there, we're just using a specific, high interest focus–the brain and addiction–to study it.

And why do I have time to think, dream, imagine about a new class? It's because I have a student teacher.

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The Kids want to Learn about Ducks! Time to review the Next Generation Science Standards

Duckby Maren Johnson

You’ve never seen science standards like these before. There’s a big change coming to science education in Washington state and in much of the rest of the country, and if you want to have a say in it, the time is now. The final public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards is now open for review and will close on January 29, so give those standards a glance! Read as much or as little of it as you want–all feedback welcome. With a strong integration of science and engineering practices with traditional science content, these new standards are challenging and thought provoking. Washington state is very likely to adopt these later this spring, possibly in March, so now’s your chance to weigh in.

I’ve had a few different opportunities to discuss this draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): once in a charming rural cafe with a group composed mainly of local science teachers; once in an urban conference room with science education professionals who were primarily not teachers; and on Twitter at #NGSS and #NGSSchat–check out those hashtags!

So what did people have to say about these standards which are radically different from what we have now in both form and content?

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