Making Science Meaningful

Some of the most meaningful learning experiences for me as an educator has involved teaching science. For some time it was a lost or misplaced content area after a district driven by making scores pushed it out. During this void, I was fortunate enough to be a part of engaging professional development. Reflecting on myself as a learner, I loved projects and learning through them.

Image of a student project.

A flow chart created in Google Drawing illustrating the food chain and flow of energy of an endangered species.

My joy for new and enticing PD led me to venture into project based learning (PBL) and trying some STEM courses over at Teachers’ College a few summers ago. It was idealistic that these two active learning pieces would fit nicely over the course of the next four school years. In order to not overwhelm myself, I started with a very loose PBL structure that embedded reading and writing skills within the science learning. It was easy for me to incorporate these content areas because I was also actively utilizing AVID strategies within my routine instructional practices.

Image of a student made insect model

The insect baby made from chenille stems a student created through drafting Punnett squares to uncover the alleles the insect would exhibit.

What eventually became the icing on the cake was infusing art into my teaching of science concepts. I had the pleasure of teaching for two school years at Elmwood Elementary where art is “the thing.” My time and experience in using art in my lessons really changed the dynamic of the “finished product.” I found it easier to include the elements of art in many of the projects and students were enamored by the idea of using art.

Image of a student project.

Students learn about simple machines and build a compound machine that incorporates multiple machines using recycled materials.

Here’s an outline of my instructional process. I build units based on major science concepts using the Next Generation Science Standards. Within those units I incorporate reading, writing, collaboration, communication and technology skills. I backwards map the major ideas to be learned and follow that learning using assessment checkpoints. Most often these checkpoints build on one idea to the next leading up to the final product. All units are built organically and the projects or tasks may have changed from year to year upon reflection.

Creating these interdisciplinary units have been developed over time through constant reflection and an earnest desire to have my students fall in love with science. They may seem overwhelming but I have found it as a way to work smarter by combining necessary skills from other core subjects. Fall in love with the idea of having students learning science with meaningful experiences that will spark their curiosity while practicing skills that will make them better learners in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

Improving Literacy with Fluency Tutor

Fluency Tutor logo.Hi everybody! So, I’ve recently been using a fantastic reading app called Fluency Tutor. The app is meant to take the place of traditional timed fluency tests and running records, both of which are extremely time consuming. The app has several tools/functions that make it a breeze to use. First, it is completely Google compatible. You can import classes from Google Classroom and create Google Classroom assignments from within the Fluency Tutor app. You can also assign to individual students or the whole class, all from with the app. It is also very easy to update your class if you’ve had new students join your Google Classroom.

Fluency Tutor also comes with Fluency Passages that are leveled. You can search passages by lexile level or AR level. This is just my personal opinion, but I’ve found the passages to be of high quality. Many are non-fiction and contain interesting topics like the process in which diamonds are created or how your tongue works. I also really like that some of the early-reader passages don’t look like early-reader passages. But the thing that I really like about this app is the digital tools it contains for students and teachers. Students can record and listen to themselves or even save their recording directly to their Google Drive. They can also have the text read to them and there’s even the option to have it read back in a different language! I’m not sure if every language works for every passage but I’ve seen a HUGE list of languages to select. Students can also click any word in the text and get a definition or a picture definition.

The teacher can create a vocabulary list for all of the words a students has clicked. The list features definitions and is created in a Google Doc. Once passages have been graded, students can see their scores  on a graph- there is a words correct per minute score and a ‘fluency score’ which grades them on phrasing, expression, etc.

For teachers the tools make grading a breeze! Once a student has finished their recording you can listen to it (or any past recordings) while looking at a copy of the text. If you click on any word in the text you can mark it as an error. You can also select the type of error, omission, insertion, substitution, etc. Also, when you click a word to select an error, the recording pauses. After you select the error-type the recording resumes. Awesome! You then mark the last word read in the text and fluency tutor calculates the words correct per minute for you. Once you’ve graded all the recordings for a particular passage you can download a spreadsheet (Google Sheets) with all the scores.

My very favorite tool allows the creation of fluency passages. This can be accomplished by the teacher or the student! Once the Chrome extension is installed a page can be turned into a fluency passage with the click of a button. Now, this doesn’t work with every page and will not work with pdf’s but when it works it is amazing. The resulting page typically looks very clean and pictures that were on the page are often embedded within the passage without errors. For older students, this is really fun and puts them in control of what they are reading. I really love this app because of how easy and useful it is. If you’ve ever hated trying to find time to do 20+ fluency tests then I would highly suggest this app. It does cost 99$ a year, but for me it was totally worth and this will be a tool that stays in my toolbox.

Thoughts From a New Coach

Those who get the best results are the ones who ask the most questions and aren’t afraid to try new things.

In my first year as an instructional coach, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own teaching.  After 15 years in the classroom, it was a scary move to attempt something new. If you had asked me what I thought about this new role earlier in the year, I may not have had such a positive response.  I missed working with “my own” students and I missed the comfort and predictability of my role as a teacher. In the past two months, the Instructional Coaches have been required to attend a substantial amount of training.  The teachers are not unwarranted in their concerns and comments of “I haven’t seen you in so long” or “do you still work here?”

While it bothered me that I was unable to support the teachers I work with as much as I would have liked to, this heavy dose of information rekindled my love of learning.  While sitting through each presentation, I caught myself thinking “I wish I had known that when I was in the classroom” or “that would have helped so much.” There were quite a few moments where we learned the research behind one strategy or another that reinforced some procedure that I had always felt in my gut to be best for students.

Long story short, I wish I could go back and be the coach that I never had.  Of course, I learned to do some things well, but I know so much more now that could make me a better teacher, I almost feel guilty for not providing my students with more than I was able to give them at the time.  I always worked very hard as a teacher, but all I could do for my students was the best I knew how to do.

The harsh reality is that we (as teachers) aren’t getting the job done.  According to the California School Dashboard Website, only 21.2% of our students were College/Career Ready in 2018. (Source: https://www.caschooldashboard.org/reports/39686760000000/2018)

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here.  Teachers are working very hard. Many have more on their plate than ever before and they are doing the absolute best they know how in order to serve their students.  No good teacher, however, will ever tell you that they have no room to improve. I personally believe that 21.2% is not good enough. What we are doing is not working.  My suggestion is to try something new.

So where does technology fit into all of this?  The State of California actually has Standards for Career Ready Practice.  (Source: https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/ct/sf/documents/ctescrpflyer.pdf)  The fourth of those standards is

Apply technology to enhance productivity.  Career-ready individuals find and maximize the productive value of existing and new technology to accomplish workplace tasks and solve workplace problems. They are flexible and adaptive in acquiring and using new technology. They understand the inherent risks—personal and organizational—of technology applications, and they take actions to prevent or mitigate these risks.

My big takeaway from this standard is that students need to be fluent with the acquisition of new technology skills.  This fluency can only be perfected through exposure and instruction and it needs to begin as early as possible. Just as students learning a new language benefit from being immersed, so do our students who are developing their technological knowledge.

Many teachers are not digital natives.  This is not an excuse that we can accept to justify our lack of instruction with technology.  Our students depend on us to teach and guide them to digital fluency. When I started teaching, I was not an expert at anything.  I’d argue that I’m still not an expert at anything, but my skills are much better developed. I tried new things and I improved. I was fortunate to have others (both adults and students) who helped me improve.  I was able to ask questions and search for answers.

My observations as a new Instructional Coach have shown me that the teachers who are asking the most questions and trying new things are making the most growth (both as professionals and as measured through assessment of students).  Both veteran and brand new teachers are doing amazing things with students that are helping to prepare them for their futures because they aren’t afraid to admit that they don’t know everything and they are willing to ask for help.

Those who’ve worked in Stockton Unified long enough have seen many failures in the past.  If you’ve been considering a new approach, thinking about implementing more technology in your classroom, making drastic changes to the way things are done, or even trying to carry out some small modification to your previous way of doing things that will incorporate technology, I’d like to quote Mark Hall from a recent conversation we had:

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

The Argument for using Google Classroom with Digital Immigrants, Digital Natives

Digital Native? Digital Immigrant? What is that? As teachers, we often tell our students to break down the words we don’t know and to piece together using context clues. Most of us educators will look at the digital and understand that it refers to a technology in some capacity or more likely the computer. But how does being a native or immigrant fit into this picture? Great question! Natives are people who are residents who live in a certain area. Immigrants as we know travel from one place to another. This is also in the very true in the world of technology we live in today. In Marc Prensky’s article “Digital Native, Digital Immigrant”, he discusses the world we live in through the lens of digital literacy and knowledge of technology.

Prensky talks of “digital natives” today as the net generation or digital generation – Kindergartners through college who have grown up with everything digital – Internet, TV, computers, computer applications, digital music players, video games, etc. “Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet” (Prensky, p. 1). Prenksy discusses how technology has infiltrated all aspects of our lives and instead of purposely leaving out technology or having it become a baby sitter, using it to deepen and further learning is essential for students to be prepared for 21st-century learning.

Prensky goes on to discuss who are we that did not grow up with this digital technology? As time has passed, people who have seen technology come into our everyday lives and have seen it take over our daily life are known as digital Immigrants. Prensky says “Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives,  become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology“ (Prensky, p. 1-2). Our students feel the same way about technology. The fascination of what the possibilities are boundless when our students enter the cyber world. We as immigrants have to be more understanding that technology is here to stay and to keep our kids engaged and prepared we have to mold and adapt to our students, not for them to mold and adapt to us.

As we move into and through the early parts of the 21st century, it is essential that we as teachers bring technology into the classroom and give our students opportunities for them to use technology the correct way and how it correlates with college and career readiness.

Starting a new school year is the perfect time to implement Google Classroom into your classroom. It allows you to cover the importance of routines and expectations around technology in your classroom and to stress the importance of how to become responsible digital citizens. With that being said, here are five easy ways to implement Google Classroom into your daily teaching assignments and activities to improve your classroom instruction and engagement when starting the new school year.

 

  • Posting questions for simple quick writes

 

unnamed1This is an essential first for the digital immigrant. By posting questions or simple prompts through the question tool, it gives your classroom a chance to open the door to technology and see what amazing opportunities can happen through learning through this media. By posting a simple question or prompt online, students can: practice typing, get familiar with the keys, learn to navigate the computer to go to google classroom, and finally, how to post something that positively contributes to a learning environment.

As students get comfortable posting their answers, you can then allow them to respond to other students in the classroom to promote the sharing of ideas and learning how to give proper feedback to their peers.Untitled 3

This is important because students then feel their work has value and has meaning and purpose. This will take time to practice with norms and expectations, but students do enjoy responding and learning how to engage in discourse on a digital platform. It is a great opportunity to teach them real work life skills on how to communicate with peers in acting in a professional setting. This will transfer to other forms as they grow and mature (or at least we can hope).

 

  • Posting math word problems and students explaining thinking

 

unnamed 4This is another great introductory tool for teachers to have students use math with technology. This is also great support around SBAC (hint hint)! Post a general word problem and have students explain their thinking about how they solved it. Start off simple with number sense or easy addition or subtraction problems that students can generally explain with their words. Not only will students feel confident in answering questions, but they will learn how to use proper vocabulary in explaining their thinking. With the shift in math being more explanatory rather wrote notation, it’s important to build in simple activities to show students and have them practice how to explain their thinking, which translates into college and career applications later.

 

  • Announcements – links and general news

 

We all get sent links throughout the year to give our students and or parents to take for feedback. Google Classroom is a great way to push these links instead of writing them on the board or trying to type the right link!

To do this, click on the giant plus sign in the lower right corner.unnamed 5

Click on the announcement option, and then you may type your instructions or note for what you want your students to do.unnamed 7

From there, copy the link you need to use and insert into the link option in classroom. By doing so, it will automatically take students to the survey/website/video you need them to go to without worrying about typing the wrong link in the URL bar. Plus, this saves time in making sure all students can get to the right website quickly and effectively. This also helps with instruction if you want students to read online articles or go to a certain website like ST math, Starfall, etc.

These are just a few ways teachers who are digital immigrants can acclimate to the 21st century in the classroom. As always, make technology work for you, not the other way around!

Digital Formative Assessment

Early in my career as an educator, I became a staunch proponent of utilizing technological resources to collect and analyze assessment data.  I’ve spent countless hours collaborating in the creation of digital assessments and providing training in how to use various platforms to evaluate assessments. All of this, ultimately, with the express purpose of giving kids the information needed to improve their learning.  With technology, the feedback could be instantaneous and that’s the beauty of it. My collaborative efforts, however, focused mostly on summative data.

It wasn’t until the past few years that I actually began to explore more tools for formative assessment.  To me, I could always rely on whiteboards, observation, and discussion to elicit data and monitor student progress.  A little circulation around the class to see what students are producing and well planned questions for understanding allow a quick idea of how a class is doing.  I knew that being able to make informed decisions in the moment and providing corrective feedback ongoing throughout the lesson was essential to success, I just wasn’t putting enough consideration in how digital resources could improve efficacy in this aspect of assessment.

As outlined in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, there are four attributes to Formative Assessment. They occur in a cycle involving clarifying intended learning, eliciting evidence, interpreting evidence, and acting on that evidence.  This process should be fluid and ongoing throughout instruction to enable students and teachers to give and receive actionable feedback to improve learning.

Timely and specific feedback right in the thick of learning is essential to student learning.

So how can teachers use digital resources to implement strategies that may help in this endeavor?  One possible method, I happened to discover while implementing the Netop student application used to monitor our chromebooks.  Besides using the software to communicate with and monitor students in their use of Google applications, it can also be used to engage students and allow them to demonstrate what they know.  For example, during a third grade opinion writing activity we used Netop to allow students to demonstrate their development of a well stated opinion on the classroom projector. Students were eager to have their screens shared on the big screen while they used tools on their chromebook to identify elements of their statement, receive corrective feedback from the class and teacher, and then revise/edit their writing – on the spot. (Editors note: Netop is available to all SUSD classes. For more information contact Mark or Viry in the curriculum dept.)  For fifth grade math, using Google Classroom, DocHub, and Netop; students demonstrated how to create a visual model representing addition of fractions with unlike denominators. All students completed the problem and random screens were selected for display. Students were asked to justify their thinking with partners before presenting their work on the big screen. While observing student work on the Netop monitoring interface, a common error was identified which multiple students made in the process.  Corrective feedback was given immediately to the class before they even completed the problem. The possibilities for formative assessment through the application in conjunction with other resources seems to be limitless.

Another method that can be used for on the spot formative assessment is the use of Plickers.  The application is free and easy to set up. After creating an account online, teachers can choose from a bank of questions, or create their own, for quick checking for understanding.  Student response cards are printed out using the program and teachers download the app on their phones to scan student responses to get immediate feedback. With the implementation of Plickers I have seen classes reach 80% proficiency for a targeted standard within 15-20 minutes after completing multiple problems through the app and receiving feedback.  Finding misconceptions is easy with the collection of the data and having open discussion. With the correct insight brought about in the immediate evaluation of results, students make adjustments and improve. The data also allows teachers to identify specifically which students will need more support or targeted small group intervention after the lesson.

A digital vehicle that some teachers seem to be familiar with that helps to promote collaboration and discussion are back channel platforms.  But those that have experimented with them or use them faithfully may have not considered using them for formative purposes. During lessons, teacher can have a backchannel running, from an application such as Padlet, where students are asked to post questions for clarification.  Some may feel more comfortable addressing some of their learning needs in this format and do not have to wait to address concerns. Teachers can also ask the class to make predictions while modeling a problem or document their metacognitive process while problem solving. Not only can students become more engaged, but the teacher can gain valuable insight as to what they are thinking and clues to their level of understanding.  When posing questions, the teacher may even ask the entire class to post their answers as opposed to randomly calling names for responses. This makes sure everyone has to give input and, again through an application like Netop, display student work for elaboration and feedback.

With all the new innovations and programs now available, the possibilities seem to be limitless.  It’s up to educators to imagine what new and creative ways they can be used to help students be passionate about learning.  I think we need reminders sometimes not to get too wrapped up in one aspect of teaching pedagogy, or in my case one aspect of assessment, and contemplate how various technological resources can serve multiple purposes in the learning environment.  Our willingness to explore these possibilities I believe can make a world of difference in impacting student outcomes.

Teaching Math In the Digital Age: The Debate and More Resources (Part 2)

My experience with intertwining technology into my Math curriculum has been a roller coaster. Initially, 5 years ago, the attempt to combine the two knocked me down and out more than Mike Tyson in his prime. Once the initial problems occurred I felt like throwing in the towel but I knew if I could use tech with Math my lessons, student engagement, time management, and data collection would all be improved if I stuck with it.

Now, five years later, I have a system that is working for me and my population of students. I know that there are naysayers out there that are totally against anything tech in a math class besides a calculator, but I can say from my experience that student growth and achievement have gone up in my classes since I introduced tech into the game. My students are not always locked into a screen and there is always a time to put pencil to paper, or expos to whiteboards. What I am trying to get across is that there are powerful tools that technology can provide educators and I believe it is our duty to teach our students how to use them correctly so they can implement them in their college or career choices.

There have been many studies regarding tech with math and the overall consensus is that technology should be used to bolster learning. Researchers have stated that the key to being successful is to get accustomed to the programs and be educated on what you are exposing your math students to, so they can have success with the tech. There are downsides to using tech like distracted students and cheating, but the benefits far outweigh the cons according to research.

Picture of student working on a computer.

Students use Tinkercad to design 3D objects and models.

On that note, I am going to give you, the reader, a few more programs that are extremely effective when it comes to student engagement and technological skill. The first being Tinkercad, which is a student friendly version of Autodesk (design program). This program allows students to create 3 dimensional objects and can be used for geometry but also for engineering purposes. Tinkercad is used best when the teacher has a 3d printer because student ideas can come to forwishen over the course of a day of printing. I have used Tinkercad to teach area, angles, and volume for different shapes.Perfect cubes, cube roots and finding square roots could also be taught with the program as long as you take the time to create an assignment that includes Tinkercad. If the students have a google account they can save their designs in the cloud and upload them into google classroom with a few clicks of a button because it is a cloud based program. There are tutorials for the students and teachers on the site, and the best part of the program is that it is another free resource. The skills that students learn in Tinkercad can be used for jobs of the future and enable students to creatively engineer.


The next program is mainly for students to obtain vocabulary terms in a fun and creative way. It is called Flocabulary. Flocabulary is a website that creates rap music based on many different subjects and topics. My students enjoy the music and seem to retain more of the terms than traditional ways of teaching vocabulary in Math and any other subject. The students will usually watch a music video, do a few exercises based on the video, take a quiz, and then create their own rap using the vocabulary they used. This program is also synced with Google Classroom, so adding students and classes is as simple as a few clicks of the mouse. The only issue with this program is that it is not free. There are individual, school, and district plans that can be bought and are definitely worth the price.

Implementing these two programs will get your students more engaged and subsequently give them tools that can be used for their entire lives. Whether it be designing a new logo, car, a shape, or making music with a program, the students will definitely be better off going forward in their education with skills that are applicable to the real world. In this day and age being creative and collaborative are highly valuable in the work world and I believe we as educators should use the tools that will enable students to attain these skills rather than stifling their creativity with the same old curriculum.

Task Before Apps

Recently I was pitching an idea for a workshop on spreadsheets.  The an administrator gently shot down the idea. He had politely listened and then asked a couple of questions, “Are you going to do more than just show the basics of how to start a sheet file? What are you going have the teacher do?  What will be their takeaways? Will this help them in their classrooms?”

His words that impacted me the most were, “True, we are looking for classes that teach applications and programs, but we want classes that put “tasks before apps.”

I drew a blank.  I couldn’t remember hearing that phrase. What does he mean, “tasks before apps?”  My creation for a spreadsheet presentation got shelved.

A week later I attended a workshop by Martin Cisneros.  He presented some 40 plus or minus apps and tools for use in classrooms.  Repeatedly he told us to choose only two or three, and not try to master all of them. As I explored each app as he presented it,  I began to realize what “Task before App” means.  Some apps and extensions he presented were useful. Some were frivolous. Some had no use in my classes.

I understood:  If I don’t have assignments to use the app, then there is no need to teach the app.  Now I understood that administrator when he says, “task before app.”

Let me share just two apps that have become mainstays for me.

First, Keep.google.com;  

keepI use the Keep app to make notes that include lists, links, pictures, note taking, outlining and reminders.  I can even use them as a collaboration tool. The best function of all,  is that this one app will automatically sync across all my devices. I have an icon on my smartphone, an extension on my laptop and on my desktop.  It doesn’t matter where and when I add a note, it automatically syncs with all the other devices.   


Second, Mercury Reader offered by postlight.com.

mercury readerI use the Mercury Reader to get rid of all the clutter on web pages. It simplifies the looks of the page to make it easier to read. I can easily print hard copies or post to Google Documents or to a Google Classroom assignment.  All this make the pages become student friendly.

Other features allow me to toggle to a white on black screen or increase the font size.    I can highlight.  I can send it to a Keep note.  For Kindle owners, the touch of a button will send the file to a Kindle for on the go reading.  

I hope you can enjoy these two apps for the task that need apps.