Tag Archives: writing

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.


Goals & Blogging

I’ve learned a lot this summer about reflective writing by reading very inspiring and thoughtful blogs by teachers, principals and superintendents. Since our high school’s literacy initiative this year is to focus on writing, I have decided to return to writing reflectively about my own professional thoughts and experiences. In my first few years of teaching, I used to write almost everyday. I would keep files on my Amiga, print them on my dot matrix printer, and then collect them in three ring binders. I believe they are still somewhere in the basement, packed away.

The inspiration to write again – as much as possible – comes from reading (and modeling) the blogs of some extraordinary educators. I’d like to share a few of them here first:

  • Outside the Cave – This is one of the most prolific, concrete, organized, and reflective blogs I have read by a teacher. I really enjoy reading the posts. There’s a personal style and flow to the writing that draws me in and also makes me think. It is a great inspiration.
  • The Principal’s Principles – Reading a blog from an administrator’s perspective is very interesting. I’ve always thought, because of my experience at my high school, that principal’s were so bogged down with the management of a school, that they don’t have a single second to share their thoughts and experiences (and commentary on research) with the world. This blog definitely proves it false.
  • Crazy Teaching – I have to admit that when I wake up in the morning and check my messages and emails, I also look on Twitter to see some of the latest posts from this very inspiring science teacher and instructional coach. Her finger is on the (research based) pulse of continually pushing the edge of teaching and learning. Her posts remind me of a doctor who once told me that he has always tried to lead his life being on the ‘edge of what is known’. He said that is where everything interesting happens. He was in his 80’s and still acting on that vision. Terry does the same.
  • The 21st Century Principal – When I first started following teachers, principals and superintendents on Twitter to build my personal learning network (PLN), I noticed that many profound and interesting tweets were coming from this person. When I explored his blog, I noticed something different, and not just in the title. He was a teacher, principal, IT director and superintendent that broke apart my expectations. His recent post is about returning to the classroom to teach, while still remaining an administrator. He also writes about modeling technology for instructional purposes. It is refreshing and empowering to read from the day to day reflections of a 21st century leader.

Now I’m beginning my 16th year of teaching at the same high school, and I want to clearly establish and articulate my goals for the school year. I intend on writing about these goals reflectively throughout the school year, trying to gauge whether I am able to maintain, sustain, and expand them as the day to day experiences of a 3000 student school play themselves out.

Goal #1: Be healthy.

For me, this goal means that I have to maintain my mental and physical well being. It seems easy, but to those who have taught in a sometimes challenging school environment, it is very easy to lose track. When I don’t take care of myself, I become weaker in my ability to care for others. There are many websites that offer advice in preventing teacher burnout as well as making healthy diet choices and keeping yourself on a sustained exercise schedule. For me, all three are important, and have been neglected at different levels over the years. I do not simply want to live, but live well. I don’t simply want to teach, but teach well. I want to be a better model for my students in making healthy life choices, and be open about that. By sticking to this goal throughout the year, and writing reflectively on it, I hope to be able to meet all three of those expectations.

Goal #2: Grow professionally.

I am at the mid point of my professional teaching career. Most teachers go for 30+ or sometimes even 40+ years in the field. When I began teaching, I told myself that I would evaluate my goals and vision at five year intervals. This would give me a somewhat random point to step back and see if I am still meeting my life goals in my professional job (that might be a different post).

After the first five years, I decided I loved teaching and wanted to continue. I was happy experimenting with different methods, specifically technology, to facilitate effective learning in the classroom (this was when my computers were new). After the second five years, I had reflected on my growing confidence in my content area. I felt that I had pushed myself to the point where new content opportunities would engage me and the students more. In other words, I wanted to keep learning and share that new learning with my students. I was able to do this with designing and teaching a course on Multicultural Studies. Technology use was fading in the classroom, because of the lack of adapting resources at the school, but I found myself expanding deeper into the area of online learning. I taught a virtual course in American foreign policy for a few years and also integrated an open discussion forum on my website, which was continually evolving to deliver content and (hopefully) engage students.

At the end of my third five year reflection, I had discovered my potential (in my opinion) as a leader outside the classroom. I had taken part in community leadership initiatives, two years of leadership training from a national program, led a school restructuring initiative of teachers trying to offer a pilot program to reform their school, and enrolled in a principal’s license program. All of these pointed me in the direction of professional growth. I found that spoke to a part of me I had not explored before. In spite of institutional inertia as well as political and economic challenges, that part of me is still strong. I want it to be nurtured.

Now, for my fourth five years (or wherever it will take me), I want to integrate all of these self-findings into my day to day experiences with students in the classroom. I have discovered an entire network of teachers and administrators around the country with similar goals. They all have a desire to share their practice and grow professionally. For me this means I want to share. I would like to collaborate with other teachers, get feedback on lessons and practice, and learn from others who are similar to me. I also want to try things that are new. I’ve learned that I am not comfortable in the center. I need to be on the edge of what is known. I’ve seen this modeled in others and want to nurture this in myself. It could mean more use of social media, or more development of 21st century skills, or more out-of-class learning experiences, but it must be new. I do not want to find  myself ever in a ‘rut’ in the classroom. I need to focus on this goal every day. Finally, I need to  reflect. This is why I am writing now, and its why I want to do so publicly. I am asking for support with each word typed. As a teacher, I cannot live on a metaphorical island and pretend I am growing. None of us can.

Goal #3: Empower others.

My last goal is one of the most important to me. As a teacher, I think its easy to fall into the habit of caring for others more than you care for yourself. That’s the part of us that seeks to serve the community, and the future (children). For me, I have learned the power of the network. Breast cancer survivors can extend their lives by talking in group therapy. Social media contacts have strengthened friendships and expanded the ability of people from around the world to share common interests and dreams. Unions have built their strength through history around the power of the whole, not the individual. This is a lesson I’ve known, but not fully practiced as much as I should. What good is a personal strength if not shared with the world? What good is there to experience growth in myself and not share it with my colleagues and students? What good is it to struggle against sometimes impossible odds (pushing that boulder up the hill) without seeking the support of others? I don’t want to presume that I alone have the ability to empower others, but I do have a role to play in making my world a better place. I can only do that by passing along lessons and failures with those close to me. This includes my students. We don’t grow unless we fail. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned recently, and I want to share it openly with my students. I want to also empower, to the extent possible, groups of people through shared discussion, a common vision, and mistakes that may be familiar to many. This means coaching the new use of Web 2.0 possibilities. It means strengthening the relationships with my students (working harder at that) so that I can  have the structure in my classes to teach my content. It also means being humble enough to let others empower me. This has to be a priority. I don’t have all of the answers or know all of the questions. I can’t grow if I’m insulated from change. I want to literally ‘be the change I want to see in the world’.

Those are my goals. I intend to measure my experiences through the school year against the ‘rubric’ I’ve laid out here. It should be fun!

Wordle: Writing Prompt

Wordle is a very useful website that creates word clouds. It can scan websites for their content and then select words that are used most often and make them larger, or it can offer you the opportunity to list your own words and then see them transformed into a word cloud. Here is the word cloud for our website, nbleadership.com.

What does this word cloud say about the site? Students are our focus. We definitely believe in using technology to facilitate learning. This is a teacher-led site. We also believe strongly in teaching for the 21st century, not the past. Try it out for yourself on your favorite sites and see where their priorities lie.

You can also generate word clouds from instant student feedback via Polleverywhere.com. There’s also a wealth of resources for using Wordle in the classroom. Simple search for ‘wordle in the classroom’, or check out some of these sites:

Note: Of course, in our school, this assumes you have a computer in the classroom (half don’t) and that you have internet access, and that you have a projector (most don’t). To get where other schools already are, we have to sprint to catch up. Let’s make our voices heard on this, so teachers can support their students with the most basic (in 2011) skills possible.