Urban Science Blogging

[important]This is a guest post from my wife, Dr. Jessica Meade. For a few years, we had a teaching blog together, but since we are going to be working in different districts this year, we decided to split the blog. Her new blog is called Peaceful Teacher. Check it out! [/important]

This year I taught AP Biology and 2 Integrated Science classes.  In our urban, underperforming school, Integrated Science is for students who are either 1) not ready for chemistry 2) haven’t passed biology but there is no room in revisited biology 3) have an intense IEP and need a third science that is not too difficult or 4) it fit in their schedule and meets a requirement for a non-honors student.  I requested this course to teach while I learned AP Biology because I had taught it before and really enjoyed it.  This year had more challenges, but I learned more about differentiation and opening student interest than ever before.

Integrated Science in our school includes four basic sciences:  chemistry, earth science, environmental science, and physics.  My joy in teaching this course is that there is a lot of freedom in content and delivery.  We don’t have enough books, so it can’t ever be a text book centered course.  I start with chemistry to give them the foundation they need to take chemistry in the future if they choose to.  Many of them do not feel confident about taking chemistry and I can quickly teach them the first several units of chemistry in four weeks.  Then we move on to Earth Science.  This year something magical happened.  I was showing them the BBC video Power of the Planet (which is fantastic by the way), and they had an animation of how Iceland was formed.  I pause movies all the time because it helps to keep kids awake.  So I paused and said, “Hey, my mom is in Iceland right now.”  This concept was completely beyond my students’ understanding of the world.  People take vacations in places like Iceland?  Why?  What is she doing there?  Are there hotels?  The questions were endless.

I have always know that my students see their world as very small.  Many have never been out of state.  Some have never been out of our city.  Some students are from other countries but left them for a better life here – they would never go back for a vacation.  I had a light bulb moment:  My students should plan a vacation to an earth science hot spot.

When I introduced it to them, they were excited.  During our brainstorming session, the students struggled to hold onto the idea that it was a trip to see something in nature.  “Can’t I see the Eifel Tower?”  “Can I go see the pyramids?  Where are the pyramids?”  I quickly realized that my students have had very little experience with geography and that that would be a hurtle to undertake.  After brainstorming, I told them we would be making blogs.  Not one student of my two classes had ever made a blog.  Most had no idea what it was.  With this lack of information came resistance.  They tried to argue with me to make posters or brochures.  I tried to reassure them that it would be cool, that they would like it.  At the very least, they would gain a powerful skill on the computer.  I saw that students were truly very interested in gaining more skills even if they really did not want to.

Our computer labs have few working computers.  Many of the computers run very slowly or have obvious viruses.  We all accept these issues but it is frustrating.  Students could work faster on their phones than waiting for google to load.  None of the labs had a projector screen but my original plan was to walk the students through the blog set-up all together.  I ended up walking them through the beginning process orally, but I had to go around to each student to help them.  Then I quickly had a few student experts who could help others.  I chose to use Blogspot because it is a format with which I am very comfortable.

In terms of setting up accounts, I anticipated that some students did not have reliable email accounts for which they knew both username and password.  Most students have little use for email.  I was prepared to help them set up new email accounts and names for their blogs.  I did not realize how much they would struggle for a username, password, and name for their blog.  In retrospect, I would have done more brainstorming about the names of blogs in our classroom and help them to understand what the name should be about.  Some of the names were about their travel blogs and some of the their names were less applicable and more about personal expression.

Surprisingly, setting up the blogs took one entire block.  It was much more difficult than I expected.  Mostly because they did not understand what we were creating despite the examples I showed them.  Some of course had their blog set up in five minutes and were ready to go.  I had a handout which I will attach that guided students along the assignment.  The faster students began researching different locations.  I provided links to several travel websites and to obvious Earth Science hot spots – Hawaii, Iceland, Grand Canyon.  The first page of the blog was to be an introduction to their trip.  Once students had a spot selected, I helped them make their first post and publish it.  When students saw their blog with a post as an actual website, it was a magical moment.  Students said things like “I just made a website?” “Other people will see this and read it.  Cool.”  “Can I make a blog now about my own stuff too?”  It was very exciting.  Students were very motivated to make their blogs look good with pictures and design.

For my class, I decided they needed to have at least 8 entries including details such as how they would travel, costs, hotels, hiking guides, or tour guides to get to remote places, equipment needs, and whatever else they could think of, with many pictures to make it interesting.  They were required to explain the Earth Science behind the place they were visiting – in other words, how was that volcano formed?, how did that canyon form? and so on.  We also learned new words such as itinerary, we grew a real understanding of geography such as the difficulty of traveling from Arizona to Alaska in one trip, and students saw the range of costs of travel.  This broad set up allowed me to tell students individually exactly what I expected from them.  My class was supposed to be co-taught, but due to budget issues, I was on my own.  After the first day, I asked some student experts to sit next to students who were struggling to give them some guidance, and I am very grateful that those students were willing to help.

After the first few days of getting things set up, locations chosen, and research in motion, things became more exciting in the classroom.  Students were calling me over constantly, not for help, but to show me beautiful pictures or amazing hotels they found.   They were showing each other the beauty of the Earth and figuring out how to explore it.  One student showed her blog to her mother and they are now planning a trip to Sedona, AZ.  The student felt very confident in helping her mother to find flights and hotels, and knew how to get there from the airport.

In total, we spent 8 full blocks in the computer lab.  They were not consecutive days due to the difficulty of scheduling lab time in a large school.  Having non-consecutive days gave us time to reflect on our projects and time for me to continue teaching the basics of plate tectonics, volcanoes, and earthquakes.  As we worked, students were able to make connections between the content and their projects, and I saw evidence of this understanding in the final projects of the blogs.  I took half a block one day and gave each student a copy of a map of the world.  I showed a simple map of countries on my projector.  We spent time finding the locations of everyone’s trip.  Students also asked me to show them Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, feeling it was a safe environment to admit that knowledge deficit.  We filled in about 30 countries, and the students were completely interested.

What started as a rough lesson plan of a project developed into a life changing educational experience for many of my students.  They were proud of having a place on the internet, they were excited about travel and all desired to go to these places some day, and they were fully invested in learning.  Many of my students have at-risk qualifiers on many levels and our classroom is disrupted by their issues almost daily.  I can’t say that this project filled our classroom with rainbows and every student completed a perfect blog.  I can say that more students than usual completed a project and that the students who did complete it or even get a good start at it, were very proud of their products.  As a final project, students had to research an endangered species and teach us about it.  They could make a powerpoint, a poster, a research paper, or a blog.  All of the students chose to make a blog, because they felt it was such an easy way to present information.

Blogging is very powerful for our students, giving them a voice, creating a place to write and care about the message, and being a part of the technological world.  I have no doubt that in future classes, if given a choice, they will use blogging for a project.  Some teachers may feel hesitant to try a project like this in a class that is large, with many issues.  I encourage those teachers to try.  Blogging is not successful in the classroom because it is a nifty new tool.  Instead it is successful because it gives the student creative ownership and an online presence in a healthy, intellectual format.


Changing of the Guard

There is a wonderful episode of the Twilight Zone where an aging private school teacher faces his deepest fear: that of being forgotten, without everhaving made a difference in the lives of his students. He eventually convinces himself that it would be better to die by his own hand instead of living with his depression, and so he goes off into a snowy Christmas Eve night with a gun. He eventually wanders to a statue of Horace Mann. The inscription reads, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” But, before he is able to shoot himself, shades of his students visit him to share gratitude and appreciation for all of his work, care, and love of literature.

How many students have sat in each of these chairs? How many papers, homework assignments, essays, projects, ests and quizzes have I graded? When I am alone in the classroom, my classroom, whose voices do I hear? Whose smiles do I see? What angry glances are thrown my way with contempt? How many posters and pictures and projects have hung on the walls, or from the ceiling?

How many students have changed my life?

Around my classroom, right now, I see portrait posters of heroes and leaders, artists and scientists, writers and activists. I see student projects and conceptual art. I see dozens of places from around the world and read the poetry of Rumi. There are many complete sets of objects once called encyclopedias. I have a file cabinet filled with manilla folders, stuffed with lessons and printouts of really cool stuff I created well over ten years ago – long untouched. On the table in front of me is my Macbook Pro, my Dell M1330 laptop, my printer from home, my Dell XPS desktop, my Linksys router, folders, a stapler, a 3 hold punch, lots of unused power cords for laptops that could not be salvaged from obscurity. I have field trip forms for a trip to Boston tomorrow (Adams Historic Park and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University).

The homeroom bell rings… Another day begins.

My time at New Bedford High School has been eventful, to say the least. I have learned much about the nature of school politics as well as the ins and outs classroom  management. In one of the first weeks of teaching there, a student lit another student’s jacket hood on fire. I have seen more triumphs (big and small) than suffering, but both are present in an average day. To a certain extent, guns, gangs, drugs, violence, sexual abuse, police as the enemy, poverty, homelessness and broken families  have all sat in the seats before me as I try to teach the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson. On the other hand, dozens of students have entered the field of history, while hundreds have gone to college for the first time… all sitting in front of me from one class to the next. Many students have found love, purpose, identity, faith, and their potential in my time here at this school.

How does one measure a lifetime?

Is a teacher’s job a career? Is it a life? I keep thinking of how students who saw me in the summer were shocked and awed to see me in shorts. When I was a teenager, I found it hard to see a teacher beyond their job. My experience with them was limited to the give and take, the time from bell to bell. How could they be anything else?

So now, here I am. One lifetime ends. Another begins. I learned a lot about myself. I saw greatness in my colleagues, and more importantly, my students. I made mistake after mistake, sometimes too slowly learning how to improve lessons, pedagogy, and professionalism. In the end, within the pale blue walls with bright orange cabinets and closets that was my classroom, I changed… and nothing was lost.

Goodbye, New Bedford High School.

It was a good life.

Hello, Sandwich High School. A new life begins.

1960-2012 Timeline

The last 50 years are some of the most important ones in US History. What events, individuals or issues are the most important to be remembered? We’re going to find out by making our own interactive timeline of US History on those years.

Here’s where we’re going to focus:

  • People – Who  is historically significant? How do we know? What standards do we measure them by? As a class, we’re going to make a list and then stick to it when adding people to the timeline.
  • Events – What’s an important event? What causes it? What’s the impact?
  • Issues – What themes keep coming up over and over again? Race? Religion? Money?
On your timeline, please remember to include
  • An image
  • A title
  • The exact date (as close to possible)
  • A description in your own words (5 sentences)

Let’s get started! Click below…





OK Dipity kind of stinks…

Lets go instead to this timeline… Tiki-Toki

1) Go to the site here: http://www.tiki-toki.com/

2) Use the username: mreverett2012

3) Use the password: 4112mre

4) Click on US History 1960-2012

Go Tiki-Toki!

The Troubled Gatekeeper

The end of the school year is a rough time, especially for seniors. First, let’s be honest – there’s the prom to think about. Then there’s pressure about college. There’s uncertainty concerning summer work – whether you’ve got it, need it, or doing everything possible to avoid it. Finally, for many there’s a big black hole where the future should be.

Now put graduating on the top of the list. Lots of students don’t need to worry about it. It’s kind of like the end of a movie that you don’t like – but know is coming in about 15 minutes. You just sit it out. For others, graduating is like doing that last chore that you dread. It’s something that is just unpleasant, but you know all kind of people expect it from you, so you do it.

Then there’s the anxiety created for some kids who know they just might not make it. They see the gates that lead out to the ‘real world’. They see the light at the end of the tunnel, but… there’s one person standing in their way. It’s the last gatekeeper.

Sometimes that person is me.

I’m not sure how it works out this way, but it does. US History gets on the list of the classes you have to pass before graduation. Maybe they skipped it in sophomore year. Maybe they failed it 3 times. For whatever reason, I become the teacher that some students need to pass before they graduate. The problem is that ‘some kids’ don’t realize it until the last two weeks. Sometimes they don’t know it at all. Guidance counselors ask if there’s any way so and so can pass. “Can I have all my  late work now?” “Please” is sometimes optional, but that’s ok. It’s not about me at that point. I have to remember that.

What do you do? One student has a 48 average one quarter and a 73 for another. The school says that they have to get about 65 to get a D and pass. They’ve missed 27 days of school in the semester, including 16 in the last month or so. The numbers don’t add up. On the other hand, maybe that same situation needs some context. The step-father just died. The student has been making work up online by staying in touch with the teacher a couple of times a week. Maybe the IEP allows for alternative assessments and extra time to make up major assignments. What if a scribe is required? Or tutoring?

Do they pass through the gate, or not?

I hate that call.

Should there be exceptions for students that try? Should there be a different set of rules when the stakes are raised? Do I ‘hold the line’ against all that stand against me, whether its guidance, administration or parents? What if the school doesn’t want their grad numbers to dip? What if (gasp) I get overruled up the chain of command, after the fact? Yup, that’s happened.

I wonder what this says about me as a teacher. On one hand, I want to be fair and consistent. Numbers are numbers. On the other hand, I have bent the numbers from time to time because I’ve lost sleep over what is best for the student in the long run. Do I rationalize my decision by saying that they did actually learn things that weren’t reflected in their grades anyway? What does that say about grades?

Clearly, I am a troubled gatekeeper  – but at least I am reflecting on it. :)

Some do get the ‘None shall pass!” Others get a pat on the back and a tilt of the head as I move aside. Some get a well-respected handshake and well-wishes. I’ll still question my decisions each time, but not my intentions. At least I’m clear on those, and maybe that’s enough.