Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The guiding question should always be, "Is this what is best for kids?"... Right!

@arneduncan Arne Duncan I couldn't agree more. RT @DellaCCS @arneduncan The guiding question should always be, "Is this what is best for kids?"

Am I the only teacher that is tired of hearing this? There was a time when I believed we should ask, “Is this what is best for kids?” or “Does this affect our students?” before discussing any issue. I thought this would be a good way to avoid the 45 minute conversation about the pros and cons of assigned teacher parking at a school faculty meeting. Just imagine how much fluff could be dropped from the numerous meetings we attend each week. Anyway, my opinion has changed slightly. Why? Simply because the words have no meaning. How can they?

I have no doubt that the people that utter these phrases, and then proceed to push their detrimental educational policies, truly believe that they are doing what is best for students. My problem is this, simply saying you are doing what is best for kids does not make it the case!

I braved the heat to attend the Save Our School’s March in DC this July. As a teacher I felt a responsibility to my students to do so. I figured I have no right to complain about the problems with standardized testing if I am not willing to do anything about it. Here is the thing, I have a ten year old son who is diagnosed with autism. I know he is behind grade level. When he started kindergarten he could not speak a complete sentence. As he prepares for fifth grade he reads, writes, talks in non-stop complete sentences, and does math. His standardized test will show he is behind grade level and could aid in labeling his teachers and school as failing. When in truth, his teachers are all incredible and we owe them so much. I do not need a standardized test to tell me how his school and his teachers are doing. I also know exposing him to one is not what is best for him.

So I have to ask, with all the educators, parents, students, administrators, authors, bloggers, and other invested parties across the United States expressing their dissatisfaction with NCLB, RttT, and standardized testing is Arne Duncan even listening? I get the feeling that the guiding principle is not, “Is this what is best for kids?” Rather... it is, “Is this what I think is best for kids?” Or possibly...”Is this what is best for kids within the confines of the agenda I am pushing?”

We need to be honest here, if the “educational reformers” were really concerned about doing what is best for kids they would stop ignoring and vilifying the people that work directly with our students every day.

When I read the above post it really annoyed me! I am sure I am not the only one irritated by this post though, why does it bother you?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What happens when you give students choice?

Last week I told my environmental classes to pick a topic that falls under the umbrella of the BP oil spill. They could pick anything that interested them. They then had to develop five research questions that would guide their research. I created a google doc and shared it with everyone in each class. The students posted their topic, research questions, and eventually their answers. The students used google doc's collaborative capabilities to leave each other comments and suggestions. The students were then given the challenge of publishing their work in a way in which our district and community could learn from it. Students again used the google doc to make suggestions and comments about how they would do this. I love that all three classes picked a different tool to complete the challenge.

The students were given choice in both their individual topics and in how the class would publish them. Although they worked individually or in groups of two on their topics, they worked collaboratively throughout the project in making comments on each others work, proofreading posts, developing a reference page, and in making other formatting decisions.

This was the first time I have attempted a project with so much freedom and I am extremely happy with the results. That is not to say that it went perfectly by any stretch of the imagination though. In many cases I wish the students research would have went a bit deeper. Many of the students might have taken the project a bit more seriously. It may have taken a day or two longer than needed. Many students would claim they were done when there was many ways in which they could have continued to contribute. Considering all these flaws, the bottom line is that this was a very new experience for all of us. I will get better at facilitating it, and they will get better at working together. In the end, you can be the judge if it was successful or not.

I am posting the following message on our district website tomorrow after meeting with each class one more time:

April 20, 2011 marks the one year anniversary of the BP gulf coast oil spill. Environmental science students were asked recently to research a topic that related to the spill and interested them. They were then asked to work together as a class to find a way to share what they have learned with each other and the world. Below are the results of their endeavours. Please take some time and discover for yourself the effects such a terrible disaster has on the environment. The students would love to hear from you, feel free to leave comments for them!

Environmental Science Period 5
Environmental Science Period 7
Environmental Science Period 10

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Alternative to Live Student Presentations


Have you ever had a great idea for a student project only to get to the presentation day and realize that you have done something terribly wrong. Without proper planning sending students to the board to give presentations can be a nightmare. The time wasted in just getting their presentation, often a PowerPoint with way to many words on it, on the board can be horrifying. Once the presentation is on the board, no matter how many times you advised against it, there is always the group that insist on reading every word on their slides. Not to mention the time wasted while the students stand in front of the room arguing about who is going to speak.

OK, well hopefully this isn’t the norm, but I am sure we have all been their at one time or another. I picked up a great tip a couple weeks ago from the TIEnet Collaboration Day Training held for Classroom For the Future teachers in York County, Pennsylvania. Hopefully someone will read this and be willing to give the presenter the proper credit in the comment section. Basically the idea is to have students record their presentation using a screencasting program.

The Lesson:

Taking on my role as a CFF coach, I worked on this lesson with my student teacher. The lesson took place in her/my ninth grade general biology classes and was used to review the characteristics of vertebrates. We assigned each group a different class (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) and had them work collaboratively to create a slide show about the characteristics for their topic. The students used Google Docs to collaboratively create the slideshow and were not allow to incorporate anything but pictures. The only text in the show was to be on the title page. The students then prepared what they would say over each slide, making sure that everyone in the group would have the opportunity to speak. After that they used Cam Studio (very simple to use) to record a screencast of their presentation and uploaded their final product into a Moodle forum.

You can see the instruction sheet here: Vertebrate Characteristics Presentation

The Results:


I thought I would include a list of the reasons I really like this project.
  1. Once students share their presentation to the Moodle forum I had quick and easy access to them. It is very easy to scroll through the forum, click on a presentation file, and play it for the class. No time wasted changing groups and finding presentations. That time can be replaced with meaningful conversation about the presentation itself. Due to the nature of this project the presentations themselves are very short. Making things go quickly.
  2. The presenter (wish I could remember her name), from which I got this idea, said that she set up stations and had the students rotate through with a set of headphones. She also placed questions at each station that the students had to answer. This is also a great idea, but I did not use it this time around.
  3. When students give a live presentation it ends when they finish. This method allows their complete presentation to be stored in Moodle. Students can access each others presentations on their own time and easily use them as a study tool. I even suggested that they watch them with the volume off and see if they can guess which characteristic each slide is trying to portray. They can then go back, turn the sound on, and see if they were correct.
  4. All members of the group had a role to play. During the creation of the slides students were working collaboratively using Google Docs. Once the slide show was created students had to prepare what they each were going to say during the recording. Since we can look at the revision history in Google Docs and hear there voices on the recording, it is pretty easy to confirm all the students level of participation.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Setting up Student PLN's

This year I am experimenting with setting up student PLN’s in my environmental science classes. We are using them to follow people via Twitter and Google Reader that post information about environmental issues. Students will browse their PLN over a two week period to come up with a topic that relates to class, in which they will write about using blogger. We are going to set aside every other Friday to read each other's blogs and use them to have a class discussion.

Our first blog was due last week and I have to say it was quite the success. I was very pleased with their posts and how they related them to class. The wonderful thing is that they will only get better! Already students are incorporating different forms of media into their posts, as well as linking them to relevant websites. In the beginning I had a few students question if they could just google “environmental issues” to come up with their topic. The way I explained it to them was that their PLN will be a group of experts in the field that are locating and filtering the best information on the web and then sending it right to them. By incorporating these tools they are essentially eliminating the need to search for articles and rather are focusing more on finding the ones in which they are interested. After the first blog was due I had a few students tell me that they are really starting to understand the benefits of using the PLN and are loving the project.

I thought I would dedicate this post to how I accomplished aiding the students in setting up their PLN and the tools I used to make following each other a bit easier. To start off I put together a page on our class website about setting up their PLN. Directions, how-to videos, and other sources are included on the page. I also included a Google Form for them to fill out to turn in their screen names, url’s, and other information. Right off the bat I will admit that following directions has been the biggest hurdle in the project. Apparently a little knowledge can be dangerous, and most students figure they can set up a Twitter account without reading the directions. Unfortunately, since I was requiring them to use specific screen names this created problems. The other major obstacle I have run into is students entering information (such as a password) and immediately forgetting it. Frustrating! It was quite the headache to get every student set up and running with a Twitter, Blogger, and Reader account. It can be done, but I spent many hours working with individual students to do it! You can find my directions here: http://environmental.hanoverpublic.org/pln-and-blog-instructions

After getting everyone up and running I wanted to find an easy way to have them share their information with each other. To do this I entered all of their blogs into my Google Reader account. From there I sorted them into folders by periods. I then used the period folders and created a subscription bundle for each class. Links to each bundle were posted on the website. With a single click students could subscribe to everyone's blogs. I had my students subscribe to all periods. 
I was able to accomplish the same goal for Twitter using TweepML. With TweepML it is easy to create a list of twitter users that can be shared with others via a link. They can then follow the entire list by clicking the link you provide.  Links for each class were posted to the same section on my website. I named this section of the site Follow and Join the Discussion. Not only can my environmental students use the links provided, but I encourage others to follow and joint the discussion as well. Hopefully we will start to see some comments from parents show up on the student blogs. You can find this page here: http://environmental.hanoverpublic.org/follow-and-join-the-discussion

Due to my wordy introduction to this project I started to get the feeling the students were having trouble deciding exactly what I wanted in their blogs. To aid the students I added the following page to the website in which I tried to briefly outline the blog requirements. http://environmental.hanoverpublic.org/class-information/blog-requirements

There is a lot of thought going into this project on my part and I am honestly really excited about it. I will try and post more about this project as the year progresses.  I think by incorporating these technologies into the classroom I will find more wonderful uses for them. I already suspect that Google Reader will open some new doors due to its sharing abilities.

I would love some feedback from anyone doing a similar project. One of the big questions I am researching right now has to do with comments. I would love to read all the comments students are leaving on each others blogs but have yet to find a good way to do this. It is too bad that this is not an option in reader. It would be really nice to be able to view and leave comments right from Google Reader. Although any web app that will allow me to follow and read comments would work! Any ideas?

Below are two examples from the first round of blogs:

Disney saves Bahamian coral reefs!!!!

Old Shows are still around and Fighting the Environmental Issues

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Student PLN's

Copied from my blog: Suter's ED620 Class Blog

In my previous post I discussed the possibility of having my students create their own personal learning networks for environmental science class. After pondering this for a while longer I have decided to start the year by having them take some initial steps in doing this. The first thing I am going to have them do is to create a wordpress blog (If blogger becomes part of the Google Apps for Education I will use it) like we are using for class. In fact, I have “stolen” much of the directions for this assignment from this course. I set up the blog assignment on an environmental website I have been working on for class. Students will be required to blog a minimum of once every two weeks. Students will receive class time every other Friday to read each others blogs and comment on them. I envision using the last part of these periods to have a group discussion about what the class has blogged about. I modified the rubric from class a bit and plan on using it to grade blog entries.

One of the big issues for me was determining how I was going to keep up with reading three classes worth of blog entries and also give the students access to each others blogs. I believe I have solved these issues. As for keeping up with the students blogs, I plan on subscribing to them in Google Reader. By making a folder for each class following their blogs via their RSS feeds will be relatively easy. When setting up the website I posted a google form with two questions. Students will fill out the form adding both their period number and blog address. Right below the form I inserted a google spreadsheet. Once the students add their information to the form it will show up in the spreadsheet. Until Google Apps starts to include Google Reader (which the tech guy at school believes will happen soon), I will have the students access each others blogs from this part of the page. Once Google Reader becomes part of Google Apps I will be able to aid the students in setting up feeds. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I could set them up and share them with the students.

In addition to blogging I am also going to have the students set up twitter accounts. We are going to start by just following all the students in the environmental classes. Twitter will be used for various class activities at first. When Google Reader is added, I might have students start following some environmental bloggers and tweeters to aid them in finding topics to blog about.

Why do all this?
  1. The first answer that comes to mind is that it will aid at bringing current events and expert opinions into the classroom. 
  2. There are a few major issues that act as an umbrella over almost every topic we discuss in class. Some students might find that they have a passion for one of those issues (recycling, global warming, etc.) and start to develop a voice and a love of learning for a specific topic as the year progresses. This is really the reason that excites me the most. I hope to find a few students that really become passionate about a topic in environmental science and start to apply themselves well above and beyond my expectations. 
  3. Even if a student doesn’t become an avid self-directed learner of environmental science, helping them to see the value of these tools, and the application of a personal learning network, might prove an invaluable skill they later apply to another field of study. 
Feel free to visit my environmental page’s blogging section and offer any suggestions about any of this. I am entering uncharted territory here and value the opinion of other educators.

PLN's and Students

Copied from my blog: Suter's ED620 Class Blog

I have been toying with the idea of having my junior and senior environmental science students create their own personal learning network next year. I have put a lot of thought into this but am still at a loss for a way to make this happen. Keep in mind that I am talking about trying this with approximately 60 students. I also want to point out that I do not want to do this because I want to use the tools mentioned below in the classroom. They are just a means to an end. I think the “big idea” here is to find a way to connect students to people working and writing about environmental issues outside the classroom. How do we tear down the walls and connect our students to a world that is already globally connected and discussing the same issues? Below are a few of the ideas I am working with right now:
  1. Have the students create Twitter accounts and follow me and each other. This way not only would they have an account to receive my class updates, but would be able to connect with each other and others outside of school. It would be cool to require them to make relevant tweets each week. My main concern with this would be grading them. They could post links to relevant articles and websites but the reality is that it could be very difficult for me to grade this effectively. I love the idea of using Twitter at the end of a class period to have the students post about what they learned that day. I also used Twitter last year effectively on a field trip to the Chesapeake Bay in which the students used their cell phones to tweet what they were learning about to a Twitter hashtag. At the end of this post I embedded a great video on using Twitter in a college classroom.
  2. It would be interesting to have students create a blog just like we are doing for this class. They could blog about websites or current events that relate to what is being discussed in class or blog about the many green initiatives that they discover in their area. Again, as I go to the blog address page on D2L and click through 13 other blogs I wonder if it would be possible to grade student blogging on such a large scale. Today, I went through all the class blogs and added them to my Google Reader. I then filed them in a folder called ED620 Class Blogs. This makes seeing updates so much easier and leads me to believe managing numerous student blogs might actually be possible.
  3. I am hoping Google Apps for Educators adds Google Reader to the education suite soon. If they do I think it would be cool to have students find and follow a handful of blogs dealing with environmental issues. If this requirement was done in conjunction with a requirement to follow similar people on Twitter it could be even better. By following some blogs and twitter users the students would undoubtably hit on great references to items that deal with class discussions. In turn, giving them an abundance of material to blog about on a weekly or biweekly basis. Not to mention Google Reader could be used to follow their classmates blogs and aid them in posting comments.
I see some real benefits to having students set up personal learning networks. First of all, the potential for bringing in real world current events that relate to class is enormous. There is also the possibility that some of the students will hit on ideas and topics that really interest them and encourage them to take part in some serious self-directed learning. I love that by publishing their writing to a blog rather than handing it in, we move away from an audience of 1 (the teacher) to an audience of many (peers).

There has been a lot of conversation lately in the education world about how wonderful, necessary, and beneficial PLN’s are to educators. I wonder why I haven’t seen more discussion on how to have our students create their own. Would love to hear some comments and ideas on this!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Demonstrating Mitosis Using Digital Flip Books


Students normally do not have trouble understanding that mitosis is the process of cell division.  They can even memorize what happens in each phase and identify representative pictures.  I wanted to come up with an activity that would help them to see that this was a fluid process and would allow them to demonstrate their understanding.  Last year, during our mitosis unit, I was speeding through a bunch of pictures I took of a clay figure with my iphone when I was hit with the idea behind this lesson. 


This lesson was done with two general biology classes.  70% of the student population in the first class are ESL students and 42% of the student population in the second class are learning support.  Both classes have learning support and ESL students.  The students did an awesome job with this project and I really felt it ended up being the best unit I taught all year.

Technology Requirements:

Digital Cameras - I gathered cameras from around the school and many students brought personal cameras to class as well.

Tripods - This lesson is much easier if they have tripods to mount the cameras.  Ring stands from the chemistry room might be a suitable substitute as well.  I found a quick email to the faculty provided me with all the loaner stands I needed.

Microsoft Movie Maker - This program worked well for this project.  Just make sure to change the default time for still pictures before adding them to the movie.  Otherwise you have to do each by hand.  Many of my students had over 80 pictures. 


Pre-activity Graphic Organizer
Digital Flip Book Handout
Digital Flip Book Rubric

Student Samples: