Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Outbreak at Watersedge: An Interactive Health and Science Simulation

When I was a middle school science teacher, I regularly used online simulations to enhance understanding of the topics we were studying. While a simulation can't (and shouldn't) replace hands-on activities in science class, there are some topics that are just too dangerous, or impractical, or on the wrong scale (too big or too small) for students to manipulate first hand. Other topics are too complex, and a simulation might help simplify the situation.

The Outbreak at Watersedge is a great simulation in this sense. It is an interactive game that simulates a public health crisis in the fictional town of Watersedge. The player takes on a role as an intern in the Watersedge Department of Health. The director of the Department sends the player on errands to take pictures, collect water samples, interview people, and map out incidents of illness to try and figure out why people are getting sick. It's a pretty well-developed simulation, and since it is narrative-based, it is fairly immersive. I'd say it would work well for the middle school crowd in particular, but it could be used for precocious upper elementary students as well.

Of course, no simulation is going to be a perfect fit for every classroom or curriculum. This simulation is a great way to understand how diseases are spread, and what causes epidemics, so it would probably fit best in a unit on disease and immunity or perhaps a science-and-society unit. It gives some practice in thinking scientifically, eliminating possibilities, and basing inferences on data and observations. This could be a great supplement to a science unit you teach!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Get Your Kids A-Bloggin'!

Are you an elementary or middle school teacher who would like your students to blog for school, but you're worried about privacy and safety? might be the answer for you. A twitter-friend recently mentioned this resource, and it looks pretty fantastic. (Thanks to @wfryer for the tip!)

Basically, Kidblog lets you create a safe classroom blog for each of your students for free. It's super-easy to get started; I had signed up and created my first post in about five minutes. Great controls--it's clear that the folks behind this tool get it in terms of what teachers and students need:
  • No student email addresses required--just a teacher email to create an account for your class.
  • Ad-free, so you don't need to worry about offensive or questionable content.
  • You can determine the level of privacy: public, just your class, or just the author and his/her teacher. (Student blogs are set to class-only by default.)
  • You can determine who may leave comments (same options as above).
  • Teachers can create password-protected parent or guest accounts to allow people outside the class access without making the blogs open to the whole world.
  • Teachers can moderate posts and comments, if you want to set it that way.
  • It's easy to create individual student accounts, or you can create them in bulk for a whole class at once.
  • Individual students can be given permissions to customize the look of their blog to some degree.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pieces of String

I have started several posts in the past couple days that just haven't come together. Writer's block stinks.

I really enjoy writing. But there are times where it just feels like work. Blogging is supposed to be fun, right? And it is--if it weren't, I wouldn't keep doing this.

It's a good reminder for me that students probably feel this way sometimes. We want them to write right now! But for some, the process of writing is...a process. Some students can just jot things down on the fly and they come out great. Others need to map the whole thing out ahead of time before putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard.)

I had a middle school English teacher (Hi, Mrs. Slegers!) who once encouraged us to keep a folder of "pieces of string." I don't know why she used that analogy. All the little snippets of writing that we would start--maybe without ever intending to finish them--were "pieces of string." Some of them were too short to save, but she said things like, "You never know when that little piece of string will come in handy."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wikipedia for School Work?

Oh, Wikipedia...what shall we do with you?

I'm so torn. I use Wikipedia myself regularly. But...not for academic work. What is a teacher to do?

This piece came up in my Twitter feed yesterday. It's a pretty thoughtfully written piece, though I'm not thoroughly convinced by his arguments.

Of course, I had a piece published back in the Spring of 2011 that basically makes the same argument (you can read it on pp12-15), but I was thinking more of elementary, middle, and high schools here.

Why does it feel different in Higher Ed? Because I clearly advised my freshmen in Intro to Education to not use Wikipedia as a source for a recent research project.

Do I need to get over myself here? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Alternatives to PowerPoint

If you are the teacher who assigns students to create PowerPoint presentations to show what they have learned, consider a few alternatives. This is on my mind because my students in Intro to Education are  giving presentations on school reform and some historical topics in education, and one of the requirements is to use technology to create visual aids...and I'm encouraging them to try something other than the PowerPoint they've always used.

So here they are: three alternative technologies you might consider:

1. Prezi

You must at least check out Prezi. It's a zooming, swooping alternative to PowerPoint. You can check out a sample presentation I created as an exemplar for my Intro to Education students here.

A couple things I love about Prezi:

Monday, November 12, 2012

13 Chapter Books All Kids Should Read

Earlier this fall, I ranted about reading incentive programs. (I have some pretty strong negative feelings about such programs.) In that earlier post, I referenced one of my favorite books, Twenty and Ten. A friend reported that after reading my post, she picked up a copy for her kids, who loved it (hooray!) She asked me for further here they are, my bakers-dozen of chapter books that all kids should read. In my mind, these would make great read-alouds for the 2nd-4th graders (with a few exceptions that I'll note), or independent readers for the 5th-8th grade crowd. They are presented in no particular order.

1. Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliet

Chasing Vermeer is a fantastic mystery-adventure--think of it as The DaVinci Code for the tween set. Here you meet Petra and Calder, unlikely 6th grade friends who are swept up in an investigation of art theft. You'll learn a lot about the famous renaissance painter, Jan Vermeer and some of the controversies related to his work, but it's wrapped up in hidden pictures, secret codes, and a quirky storyline that will capture the interest of pretty much every child to whom I've recommended this book. One of my very favorite books all around--not just kids' books!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Discrepant Events: A Science Magic Show!

Have you ever heard of Nikola Tesla? His story is fascinating, and sad. Suffice to say, the man was a scientific genius ahead of his time. I've read that scientists are still trying to figure out how he did some of the things he was able to do with electricity. Check out this picture of him sitting calmly in his laboratory while man-made lightning bolts crackle around him! The guy was a science magician.

Nikola Tesla, Science Magician

I should have had my camera in class for my Science Methods class this past Wednesday night. I had assigned my students to come up with discrepant events--science "magic tricks" you might say--and present them in class. No Nikola Tesla in our class, but they were pretty amazing demonstrations none-the-less...and definitely great for getting their future students interested and curious in science concepts!

Warning: the following paragraph includes a lot of educational jargon. If you don't care about educational jargon, skip down a paragraph. :-)

Discrepant events are a pretty powerful way to engage students in the processes of doing science. The basic idea is that you will demonstrate some sort of phenomenon that has a surprising or unexpected outcome. Educational psychologists would say these sort of events "prompt cognitive dissonance." In other words, they make your brain say, "Wait...what just happened?" and cause you to start asking questions and trying to infer what might be causing the phenomenon. This gets at all kinds of promising practices for teaching science, including identifying misconceptions, tapping students prior knowledge, and engaging in authentic inquiry.

Okay, enough of the education mumbo-jumbo...on to the fun! In class this week, all 26 of my students came with a crazy discrepant even prepared. No lie, we had people setting dollars dipped in rubbing alcohol ablaze, people standing on egg shells, and--the show-stealer of the night--grapes in a microwave...which arced with energy and burst into flame. (Okay, maybe we do have a Tesla!)

It was a lot of fun, and the students seemed genuinely excited and impressed with each other's work. Most indicated that after practicing an presenting a discrepant event of their own--not to mention seeing 25 others performed for them!--they would be much more likely to use these sorts of things in their own classroom. That swells me with joy!

Then, this morning, my friend Josh shared this link to the Exploratorium with me. Here you can find a whole bunch of great ideas for possible discrepant events! Definitely one I'll share with my students next semester.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Shooting Star is Not a Star

Do you teach an astronomy unit? Curious about meteors? Are you just interested with stuff crashing into Earth? If so, check out this simulation:

It allows you to simulate the impact of a meteor slamming into the 3rd rock from the sun. You can adjust the size of the meteor, its composition, the speed at which it collides with Earth, the angle of impact, and more. Pretty neat interactive site!

And then, you should give this song a listen...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Gem from Sir Ken

This video is old enough (2010!) to be considered a classic now...but in case you haven't seen it, you must. Great explanation of the current situation in education--including some history of what brought us to this point--and some pretty brilliant thinking about what could be changed for the future.

Thank you, Sir Ken Robinson, for sharing your wisdom with us.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

After the Politics: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

I saw this picture a while ago and I'll confess, I laughed out loud...

"Spotten!" my grandma would say. (I think that's an old Dutch word for being irreverent or even sacrilegious...) But I needed the laugh. I still need the laugh.

Truth be told, I'm a little worried about the Church in this political season. Seems like a great many people are very, very politicized. I've heard some pretty powerful rhetoric over the past few days and weeks and months. I'm tired of it. Tired.

I'm still very torn about this election. There are things I like about both President Obama and Governor Romney's respective platforms. There are things about the stances of both men that I find reprehensible.

But I believe that God is sovereign, and His will is going to be done.

And that's true whether Obama is re-elected, or if Romney gets a shot at turning things around.

So here's my challenge, Church: take Christ's words to heart. When Jesus is asked by the religious leaders what the most important commandment is, he turns them on their ears:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

I think we need to hear this clearly. What is our greatest commandment, from the Lord himself? Love God. And the second greatest? Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.

Yep. Even if you vote Republican, love up on your Democratic sister. And vice-versa: even if you take the Democratic party line, love your Republican brother as much as you love yourself.

I believe that Jesus is bigger than our political squabble. Let our love be bigger as well. After all, we are also admonished in Scripture:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7,8)

So, of course we may disagree. In fact, it's likely that we will. But love nonetheless.

I'm going to wrap up with a graphic my friend Nick shared a couple weeks ago on Facebook. I've shared it before, but I think it's good advice:

Blessings to you, my friends, as you vote today. 

Give thanks to God for the freedoms you have as you do so.

And then love your neighbor as yourself.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Practicing What I Preach

I'm very aware of my own hypocrisy in terms of the gap between my educational philosophy and my classroom practice. I'm working on shrinking this gap, but let's just be honest: on this side of glory, I'm never going to make this happen perfectly.

This has taken on even more gravity for me lately though, since I'm teaching future teachers. They are pretty critical of the teaching they are observing--some have come right out and said so to me (which is hard, but good in a way)--they want to see the message match the methods. Basically, I'm striving to be more and more deliberate in practicing what I preach. (For an example from earlier in the semester, read this.)

For example, I just finished marking a test for my science methods class. But it wasn't a typical test. In fact, to call it a test is a little misleading. Over the past decade or so, I've become a big fan of differentiated instruction. At it's core, differentiated instruction is about giving students choices; providing different options in the content they learn, in how they learn the content, and/or how they demonstrate what they have learned. (I got to hear Carol Ann Tomlinson--the "guru" of differentiated instruction--present at a National Middle School Association conference back in 2004 or so--really changed my thinking about teaching!) To me, differentiation is a very "Christian" way to teach: it acknowledges that students are created as unique individuals, and allows a teacher to tailor instruction to the needs, preferences, and gifts present in his or her class. When I was a middle school science teacher, I sought to do this as much as was practicable--to be honest, it is more work at first...but the more you do it, the easier it gets.

And now that I'm teaching future teachers, we talk about how differentiation is a great way to teach. But until this semester, I haven't done too much of it myself with the college students.

But I'm trying to be deliberate here, right? Practice what I preach? So, here goes...

I always put a test on the syllabus about halfway through the semester; it's a check-up to see that they understand the theories we've been learning, that they have a solid grasp of the vocabulary, that they are pulling the big ideas together.

Its just that...I realized that a pencil-and-paper test might not be the best way to do that. So I brought it up in class with my students. And they agreed, mostly...but they pointed out that studying for a test is "easier" in some ways than alternative forms of assessment. Because I made it pretty clear to them that I do want to know what they know, and understand what they understand.

So we talked about alternatives to a traditional pencil-and-paper test. I entertained any options they would offer, at least for the discussion. A few floated to the top: an interview, a group project of some sort, and writing an essay instead. After a little more conversation, we decided on three options. They could have their choice of how they would show what they have learned so far from among these:
  1. A traditional pencil-and-paper test, made up of multiple choice and constructed response questions. (Some of them felt quite strongly that this was their preferred mode for showing what they have learned.)
  2. A "creative writing" project, in which I would give them a prompt that would give them a context in which to write about what they are learning in class.
  3. An interview, either individually or as part of a group.
Care to guess how many students picked each option? I have 26 students in this course this semester. Of those:
  • 5 chose the pencil-and-paper option.
  • 2 chose the creative writing option.
  • 3 chose an individual interview.
  • 16 chose to be part of a group for an interview.
All of them reported feeling like the choice they made provided the best opportunity for them to show what they had learned. That's a pretty powerful statement, if you think about it!

This was not a challenge-free process for me. The seven students who chose one of the written options were "easy"--we had a regularly scheduled class time that they could use for writing their test. For the other 19, I had to schedule times for them to visit with me. This took a lot more time, of course. Individual interviews lasted about 15 minutes on average; group interviews were more like 30 minutes, so all together I spent several hours in these interviews with students. And of course there was extra time invested on my part for creating the different testing options.

I noticed a few other things about these different choices that I think were interesting. An observation: the students who took the pencil-and-paper version were actually more likely to get a poorer grade over all, though no one got anything lower a "B+." I think that the nature of a multiple-choice test is such that we tend to focus on which ones students get wrong. (Side note: I always encourage my students to justify their answers for objective questions like multiple-choice or true-or-false--this helps me understand what they are thinking as they mark their answer. But this takes a lot more writing on their part, which they are probably less likely to do, unless they are feeling tentative about the answer they have selected.)

The students who chose more open-ended options tended to do better overall, because they could tailor their responses to specifically what they had learned. Those who chose the creative writing version were given a prompt to provide some context for their writing, but then they could basically choose from all of the content of the course as they synthesized an answer. And the interview was probably the most "authentic" of all: I had a half-dozen prompts to get conversation started, but then we really just had a discussion about what they had learned. (Interesting to note how deliberate most students were at using vocabulary we had studied, explaining the different theories we had explored, and integrating  ideas to describe what "good" science teaching looks like.)

I asked the students who chose the non-traditional options if they prepared for the test differently than they normally would. Their answers varied: some said they reviewed their notes and went through the class activities pretty much as they normally would; others (especially those who did the group interviews) tended to talk more with their group ahead of time and work more collaboratively. One duo--one of the last interviews I had--said that they thought preparing for the interview was pretty rigorous, but ultimately it made the interview a pretty "easy" test.

And all together, they did really, really well: students discussed the nature of science and how best to teach it, they described different approaches for planning and presenting science activities, they were able to articulate the different philosophies of education underlying contemporary views of science education. The thing that got me so excited was how they were able to integrate their new knowledge from this course with things they had learned in other courses to describe their ideas of what a distinctively Christian approach to teaching science looks like.

So was the test "easy" for them? I think this might be the wrong question. We focus so much on grades--even in higher education--that we sometimes forget that tests are NOT really about generating a grade. At least, I don't believe they should be. The test should be about finding out what students know, understand, and are able to do as a result of their learning. And if I want to know what they've learned, why not give them the chance to tell me in the mode of their choice?