Monday, September 24, 2012

Two Cool Tech Tools

Two great tools I have to share...'cuz they're too fun to keep to myself!

The first is called DoppleMe. Sort of a silly little tool here: basically it lets you create an cartoon avatar that you can use for all kinds of websites. You have to create an account if you want to have full access, but even the free tool will let you create an avatar that might almost look like you. (Or anyone else, for that matter.) Here's one I made of myself...almost looks like me!

Kinda cute, right?

Now for the really spiffy one...Blabberize. Here's the idea: upload a picture, and the site will create a video from it by capturing audio and automatically making the mouth move along with the sound. Here's a blabber I made (using my cute little avatar, of course) to illustrate:

Hilarious, right?

You can create several clips and string them together, so you could have multiple characters (from different photos?) go back and forth with a conversation. You can also make multiple mouths that will work in tandem--a whole choir, if you want. You can either upload audio, or record it right from the microphone on your computer.

Would you use these with your kids? If so, how?

Killing a Love of Reading

As I drank my morning coffee today, I was browsing my Twitter feed; a typical morning ritual for me. Someone I follow had shared an interesting blog post this morning about the problem of incentive programs for getting kids to read. You can read the post here if you are interested in what got my wheels turning.

I love to read. I try to read--in print, not just pixels--at least half an hour a day, no matter what else is going on, just for the pure pleasure of it. I usually have a novel on my night stand, often I am in the middle of another book or two (often profession-related), I subscribe to a couple of magazines and professional journals...there is a lot of print material close at hand. No one has to give me a star on the sticker chart to get me to read...I just love books.

My kids do too. Sometimes it drives my poor wife crazy: she'll come into the living room where my two kids and I have been reading, and find a dozen books and magazines laying around. My son often is in the middle of at least three or four books all at the same time. (The apple doesn't fall far...) I'd like to think that my kids came to love reading by having parents who love to read. 

I do worry a bit though that a teacher might do something to screw this up for them. (Sorry; that sounds pretty nasty, doesn't it?) I'm afraid that they might someday have a teacher who would set up some sort of incentive program to try and get the class to read more, and incidentally squash a their willingness to pick up a book to read it just for pleasure.

Does that sound counter-intuitive? That giving kids a reward for reading a book might actually make them want to read less?

I've seen it happen.

In my most recent position in a school, I served as Technology Coordinator. My office was adjacent to the school library. When classes would come in to look for books, I often would stroll out and talk with the kids about what they were reading, and offer suggestions of some of my favorites as well. (For a techie, I sure do like the ol' printed page!)

And while I could often "sell" a favorite book to an interested reader, there were some times where there was no hope.

I want you to picture the scene: there I was, with a knot of six or seven 5th graders, standing by the stacks. I'm trying to get to know their preferences for genres, their reading level.

"Historical fiction you say? You want a shorter chapter book? Hmmmm... Oh, here's a great one!  Twenty and Ten is of my favorites!"

I gave them just enough of the plot: the twenty kids living in an orphanage in Nazi-occupied France decide to take in ten Jewish kids and share their rations with them to keep them alive. They have to hide the fugitives, and when the nun who runs the orphanage is detained in town, they have to fend for themselves when the Nazis come looking for the Jews.

I had them hooked, and they were actually arguing over who would get to read the book first!

So I hand to book to the first kid. She flips through it, looking at the size of the text on the page, reading a passage here or there...and deciding it might be just the right book for her.

(Yes! Success!)

And then...she closes the book, and turns it over to check the spine.

"Oh, thanks anyway, Mr. Mulder...but there's no orange dot. Sorry. Anybody else want it?"

The rest of the kids agree: "Nope. Need an orange dot. Gotta get some points." And so they moved on, leaving the book in my hand about which they had been so excited just seconds before.

Bizarre? Yes...but not really. You see, our 5th and 6th graders were using Accelerated Reader to track reading--awarding "points" for the number of books read, and the scores on computerized comprehension quizzes.  All the books for which the kids could take an AR quiz were marked with an orange dot on the spine. And there were a lot of orange dots...but not on every book. And so this became the acid test: "even if someone recommends a book to me, and it sounds like a book I'd really enjoy...if it doesn't have an orange dot, I'm not going to take it."

An amazing book choice, left on the shelf. A book they were excited about, a book they would have passed around and talked about and learned some important lessons of human kindness and courage in the face of incredible danger. A book-love that could have been, for want of an orange dot.

Killing a love of reading.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Messy Science: Adventures in Inquiry-Infused Science Teaching

I'm thinking a lot about how we (teachers) approach teaching science right now. I've taught a science methods course ("here's how to teach science in elementary school") for the past five or six years, and I'm teaching it again this fall. I love it--makes me miss teaching middle school science, to be honest. One of the things we talk a lot about in this class is the fact that teachers tend to teach as we were taught. The big problem with that is many elementary school teachers dislike science, or even actively fear teaching science. Many teachers in the elementary grades want to teach kids how to read--not how to ask questions, think critically, be curious, stand in awe of the design so obvious in creation. (Okay, that's my cynical, science teacher's eye on the situation anyway...feel free to disagree with me on this.) If it's true that many of us had teachers in elementary school that didn't love teaching science, this must have an effect on how we, in turn, think about teaching science. I'm afraid it's a self-perpetuating cycle.

And I'd like to see that change. <Cue ominous music...>

Much of the current literature on science education points to "inquiry" as a best practice for teaching science. Inquiry-based science teaching is much more open-ended than traditional science instruction. It welcomes students' questions; in full-blown inquiry settings, students set much of the agenda for how they will explore and investigate and come to deep understandings about science concepts.

Recognizing that most of my college students didn't experience inquiry-infused classrooms in elementary school (or even in high school), I love to do science with them--practicing inquiring--and then analyze the activities we do. Hopefully this gets them to think deeply about why we do what we do...and not have them simply teach as they were taught. (This past week, we did "The Milk Lab" as an example--you can check out the basic idea here; it's super fun! Good conversation afterward too about the nature of science, their experience with science in school, what they noticed about me as a teacher in an inquiry setting, and what they noticed about their own thinking and behavior during this activity. Pretty gratifying as a teacher!)

This isn't new stuff for me, really. I started striving for a more inquiry-infused science classroom back around 2003-2004 or so, and I even wrote a few things about teaching science this way to encourage my colleagues in education. What follows is the text of an article I originally had published in 2009 in Christian School Teacher, a now-defunct publication of Christian Schools International. You can view the original article here on the archive of their blog site.

It’s the second week of school, and my 7th graders are busy in the science lab.  One pair of students is carefully measuring exact amounts of water with a graduated cylinder before dumping them out on the tiled floor and mopping up.  Another pair is pouring maple syrup on squares of carpet and then trying to scrub them clean.  A third group is weighing a bucket of pea gravel from the playground.  The duo in the corner has their rulers and calculators in hand to measure distances, compute surface areas, and determine unit costs. What’s going on here?  Why so many different activities going on all at once?  Why would I put myself through this controlled chaos?  Actually, it’s an endeavor in engaging students in an inquiry-infused science activity.

What is “Inquiry?"

“Inquiry” is a huge buzzword in science education.  While there are a great many possible ways to define inquiry in science class, I prefer to use the following: “Engaging students in discovering the wonders of creation by seeking answers to scientific questions.”  I am convinced that the purpose of teaching science in Christian schools is to open students’ eyes to wonder at the creation, and thereby stand in wonder of the Creator as well.  I have also become convinced that teaching students to ask scientific (that is, testable) questions is an extremely engaging way to do just that.  I’m learning, more and more, how to put this definition into effect in my own teaching practice.  This has meant, however, that I’ve changed the way I think about what happens in my science classroom.  Rather than fearing students’ questions, I am learning to embrace them, and in particular those messy questions that are not easy to answer.  

Inquiry in Practice

Let’s return to the scenario I’ve set out at the beginning of this article.  I can’t claim to have come up with this activity—it is a classic of sorts—but it is a useful example to explain what I mean.  The past several years I have used this activity early in the year with my 7th grade science students to help teach them some science process skills (predicting, hypothesizing, measuring, controlling variables, etc.) as well as to get them excited and motivated to learn more about God’s world.  I find that this activity is a highly motivating and empowering way to get students to tap into their often-squashed curiosity that may have lain dormant in previous science classes.  

About a week into the school year, I tell my 7th grade science students that they are about to participate in a lab activity, which is often enough to get them excited!  I pull out five different brands of paper towels and set them in front of the students.  Then I ask the Magic Question: Which brand is best?  This is by nature a “messy” question, a subjective question.  There is not necessarily one right answer.  Yet I challenged my 7th graders to find an answer to this question, and even gave them three class periods to investigate, think critically, experiment, communicate, and justify an answer.  

Students quickly begin offering suggestions—often based on T.V. ads or their family grocery-buyers’ preferences.   As soon as everyone seems to have an idea in mind as to their paper towel preference, I turn students loose in the lab to begin trying to determine which brand is “best.”  I have a variety of materials set out that might help them: balances, graduated cylinders, beakers of various sizes, droppers, funnels, rulers, and magnifying glasses.  Students excitedly begin pouring water on tables and sopping it up, measuring, recording data in their notebooks, and arguing their respective cases.

argument is actually the key to this activity.  After letting students make a mess for fifteen or twenty minutes, I note the disagreement evident in our class about our paper towel preferences and ask a second Magic Question: What do we mean by “best?”  This question often confuses students initially, but they soon realize just how fuzzy—and subjective—the notion of “best” really is.  I ask students to argue their case as to what makes one brand of paper towels better than another.  Students begin to offer many suggestions: absorbency, strength, durability, softness, appearance, and cost/value often top the list.  This discussion draws out the idea that the term “best” is messy and subjective, and students will need to be more precise.  It also brings up the key idea in doing inquiry: they’ll need to collect evidence to support their notion of which brand is the best.  I then encourage pairs of students to determine how they will define which brand is best, and how they can test their predictions.

After a few more class periods to carry out their tests, I give students time to share their results in class, including their definition for the best brand, their predictions for which brands will be best, their procedures for testing, and the evidence they’ve collected to support their results.  Predictably, students disagree about the results, because they have different definitions and different procedures for testing their ideas.  This gives me a good opportunity to explain that this models the work of professional researchers—that the ground rules they set for their investigations largely determine the sort of procedures they will use and therefore the results they might obtain in their investigations. It also gives us an opportunity to discuss how we as Christians put our faith into action; that even when we disagree, we must be respectful and gracious to others.  Through this processing, students come to understand that answers in science are not always cut-and-dried; a messy question is apt to have a messy answer as well!

To sum up, inquiry-infused science teaching involves engage students in answering testable questions.  Through these questions, students begin investigating some aspect of creation.  In the course of their investigations, students will make claims, and generate evidence to substantiate these claims.  Finally, students communicate their findings to interested people, explaining their procedures and results.

Managing the Challenges of Inquiry-Infused Science

Teaching science this way has been a journey of discovery for me as well as my students.  There are some real challenges that may need to be addressed if you seek to incorporate more inquiry-infused activities in your science teaching.  Let me share a few suggestions:

First off, managing groups of students doing very different things can be a challenge.  Because of this, I’ve had to develop clear procedures for start-up, materials maintenance, safety, and clean up—and teach these to my students!  Also, it’s a rare case that I have 18 students doing 18 different things at once—I usually have students working as pairs or even quartets, which helps to limit the number of different things happening.

Second, inquiry-infused activities sometimes take more time than other approaches to teaching science.  Thus, I’ve had to “prune” some non-essential topics from my science curriculum to give the time needed for students to explore and discover for themselves.  It is true that I’m teaching less science content than I used to, but I would argue that I am actually teaching it better by infusing inquiry into my science classroom, because my students understand it better and actually remember what they have learned.

Finally, not every activity I do with my students has the level of open-endedness as the paper towel testing lab.  I have begun to incorporate a range of inquiring activities into my science teaching practice.  After all, even reading a textbook can become an inquiring activity if it is approached from a perspective of “let’s find out!” instead of “here’s what you need to know.”  It is truly exhilarating to see students’ curiosity coming out in their questions as they investigate the world around them!


I have come to the realization that welcoming students’ questions is the foundation of modeling what science class is all about—coming to a deeper understanding of the creation and, by extension, the Creator.  This shift has been challenging for me at times; when students ask questions, my first inclination is to answer them!  I’m learning, however, to respond to a student’s question—even if I know the answer!—with something like, “Ooo, that’s interesting!  How could we find out?”  While this doesn’t always work, I’ve found students are much more engaged, more willing to ask questions, and more able to understand things at a far deeper level than they ever really did when I just “told them.”

You’ll notice that throughout this piece, I’ve tried to use the term inquiry-infused science instruction rather than inquiry-based.  This is deliberate—I fully recognize that my classroom practice is not completely based in asking and answering questions.  I am learning, however, to embrace the unknown and actively seek to engage students in asking questions that will guide their learning.  As I’ve sought to infuse my science teaching with more inquiry, I’ve seen a direct correlation in my students’ motivation and interest in science, and my teaching has become more interesting as well.  Allowing my students the freedom to ask questions with messy answers and then encouraging them to look for the answers has been an adventure in learning—for them, and for me as well.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Slow to Speak

I've had it three times in the past few days...I was quickly dashing off an email and inadvertently either confused someone or insulted someone. Totally unintentional, you know? But I wasn't being careful enough with my words. Contributing factor: I'm the sort who starts to feel tense when I get more than 20 or so items in my inbox. So I try to deal with things as they come in, lest they pile up. In my haste to get these things off my agenda, I was not careful enough with my words. As a result, I had some cleaning up to do, either in taking a longer time to explain myself, or in admitting that I was unthinking and shot from the hip...and accidentally hit a target I wasn't even aiming for.

Then...last night, I was listening to my daughter review her Bible memory work for this week. Of course it was James 1:19-20:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

Okay, so it was email, and not speaking, exactly, and I wasn't speaking (emailing) in anger either--just trying to get a few items off my to-do list. But I think the same sentiment applies. I need to slow down and be more intentional about what I have to say.

In our blab-it-on-Facebook, shout-it-on-Twitter culture, people often seem quick to speak and slow to listen. The tech tools we use seem to make this this sort of speaking ever easier...which means it's more of a problem.

Challenge of the week: slow down and think before putting a message out there, whether spoken, written, or in pixels.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


I'm talking with my students in ED101 about our motivations to want to become teachers. The class is mostly freshmen, and many of them are taking the course because they think they want to be teachers. Some are very honest that they aren't sure if this is their life's calling.

They largely have noble motives for thinking about this vocation. I love to hear their stories--the great teachers who have inspired them, the people who have pointed out their gifts and talents and encouraged them to think about teaching, their personal drive to make a difference in the lives of kids. One student was even very bluntly honest: "I think having summers off will be pretty great." Love that authenticity.

We spent some time in class today talking about calling, as in, "Am I called to teach?" This is a challenging question for them. Some feel a very clear calling from the Lord that this is His will for their lives. Other feel a lot more tentative--that they are open to it, but not sure if this is really for them. Still others aren't quite sure what to do with their life, and since they've spent so many years in school already...maybe teaching is the right place for them?

We talked about specific calling: "I believe God has a specific plan for my life, and that involves me becoming a 4th grade teacher." I know people who feel this level of specificity in God's call in their life. I really wish for that kind of clarity, even though it seems a little scary, because I don't always feel like God's will is made that plainly clear in my life. I'm the sort who would really like neon letters in the sky and a booming voice from the heavens. (Actually, that might be kind of scary in a different way!)

We went on to talk about calling in a much more general sense. I shared with them a famous quote from Frederick Beuchner:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 

I've read this quote so many times and heard it in so many contexts, it is almost becoming a cliché to me. 

But I also believe it is true.

And I also believe it is helpful for discerning God's will for our lives. A former pastor, in a sermon about discerning God's will put it this way:

Jesus says, "Follow me!"

I say, "Lord, I'll follow you! Make the path plain for me though, okay? Then I can see where we're headed, so I can really follow you."

And Jesus says, "Follow me!"

And I say, "Lord, I'm happy to follow you, and I will...but can't you just give me the basic outline of the path first so I know where you're leading?"

And Jesus says, "Follow me!"

And I say, "All right, Lord...I'm with you, but here's the thing...I could go this way, or I could go that way. I could choose this thing that seems good, or I could choose that thing which seems equally good...and it would really help clear things up for me if you would just tell me if it should be 'this' or 'that.' Then I'll know I'm following you, okay, Lord?"

And Jesus says, "Follow me!"

And I say, "Okay, Lord, c'mon...can't you just tell me which one I should choose? I would feel so much more clarity if you would just tell me I should do 'this.' Or should I do 'that?' How do I choose? I just don't know which one is your plan for me. Help me out here, Lord! I want to follow you!"

And Jesus says, "So choose! Do 'this,' or do 'that.' But follow me!"

This gets at the heart of the issue of calling for me. I'm often so wrapped up in trying to discern God's specific plan for my life that I fail to remember His BIG plan for my life: that I follow Him. I had a bit of this when I was considering whether to keep teaching at an elementary school or if I should move into teaching at the college level. "Should I do 'this,' Lord? Or should I do 'that?' Will you make your will clear for me?" 

And perhaps God's real answer was, "Dave, I've given you gifts to teach. Are you going to teach in the elementary school? Great! Follow me! Teach those kids to the best of your ability. Are you going to teach at the college? Fantastic! Follow me! Teach them to be great teachers."

Much as I'd love to have a very specific plan spelled out for my life, I'm learning to rest in God's broader plan for my life.

There is a world of need out there, and God is calling me to be active in it.

I am called to be a faithful servant wherever I am. 

I am called to faithfully use my gifts, whether for 'this' or for 'that.'

I am called to love God above all and my neighbor as myself.

I am called to follow.