The “V”s point uphill

October 17th, 2009

We’re working with topographic maps in class now. Well, actually we have yet to work with “real” topographic maps – as I think they are somewhat intimidating when you first lay eyes on one, with all those contour lines… so we’ve been working our way up to them with smaller, simpler bits and pieces of topo maps. But next week I’ve got two classroom sets of laminated quadrangle maps for areas not far from Rochester, and I am working on some sort of “map-quest” activity for my students. I’m aiming for authentic, and we will see how it ends up…

I did manage to address the common misconception of “streams/rivers always flow south” (they don’t). It seem like lots of kids have been told at one point in their school career that the Nile flows north, and that this is really special or unique.  (I guess it might be statistically unusual – maybe more rivers on planet Earth happen to flow south, and fewer flow south, but if so that is just coincidence. I am trying to find some data on this.) The kids seem to then assume that the Nile is special because it is breaking a “rule” – and so they then come away with the idea that really all rivers are “supposed” to flow south. I know I will have to keep going back to this one, though.

One thing my students are still having trouble with is the whole concept of “streams cut V-shaped notches in contour lines, and those V shapes point UP-hill”. This isa very useful thing to know – both for the Regents exam, and for making use of topo maps. About half my kids still want the Vs to point downhill. We’ve taken notes on the topic, we’ve drawn contour lines, we’ve made play-doh models of hills with streams and then generated contour lines from those, and I made a big play-doh “volcano” with a stream running down the side, with contour lines drawn on it for them to examine.

I can tell that some kids have no problem with the different 2D to 3D “mental/spatial translations” required for understanding topo maps, but others really are struggling with it. I suspect that a bunch of students still don’t actually understand that the profiles (cross sections) that we have been drawing have a connection to the shape of the hill or valley or landscape they come from. Maybe I need to bring in a big knife and chop open my play-doh model…

Week one of the (hopefully) long-running new show, “Hey Teacher!”

September 12th, 2009

In the last week of August, I got an ES position in a somewhat nearby district.

Here’s a rundown of what I did with my classes during week 1.  (It’s rough – really just notes for myself and my mentor.) I had each of my two ES sections 3 times this week (84 minute periods). I’m trying to start strong with various habits and procedures – although i sometimes worry about my ability to keep some of these things going all year long…

Meeting 1/Day 1:

  • Bell Work = “what is earth science?”  – sort of trite(?), but gave us a chance to talk about the various fields/topics that make up earth science. I am using a colleague’s suggested format for Bell Work, where there is a spot for students to draw their “mood” for the day.
  • “who is mr. Y_______” slideshow
  • students fill out index cards for me answering the same 6 questions that i did in my slideshow
  • students share out something from their card
  • students take photos of each other holding up name signs (some girls REALLY did not want their pics taken, this was defused by letting them take pics in pairs or trios with friends if they wanted)
  • handing out textbooks and paperwork (parent info forms, safety agreement)
  • talking about class guidelines and procedures
  • talking about Regents requirements, lab, etc.
  • slideshow of scientists who (mostly) I have worked with or known or have some tenuous connection with, to choose a class name – the students really enjoyed this, and lobbied each other loudly before the class vote. i stole this idea from one of my CTs during student teaching. It gives a chance to introduce students to various real science fields and sub-fields etc. and put some real faces on them. I tried to make sure I had men and women and several races represented – sort of hard, since I honestly have mostly worked with old white guys.
    • one class chose Tyson (Neil Tyson the NOVA host – a teacher who I know has met him, not i, though i did do an internship at the American Museum of Natural History, where he works)
    • other class tied between Yale paleontologist John Ostrom, and my Dad (Ostrom won in the runoff)
  • got one really nice student comment on day 1 from one female student- “i’m really glad you came here to teach!” (wow!)

Meeting 2:

  • Bell Work = “What is a scientist?” (again, kind of broad, but gave us a chance to talk about observations, inferences, etc.)
  • Inquiry Cube Lab
    • I created half-page task sheets for this (no lab worksheet), and designed them so that by following the numbered check-off task sheet, by the end of the period they would have produced and possibly finished their first formal lab report on their own paper. (had one student ask if I would do that for every lab, and that he liked it.)
    • engagement was very high with this lab, although one class seems to have some girls who get frustrated easily, or don’t think that they can solve problems or think about “hard stuff” – i will be keeping them in mind as i design activities and scaffolding, to push them a bit
    • i let them choose their own partners, but i have some situations that may require me to assign partners on future labs. i have one new girl who comes from a very religious family or culture. she dresses very formally/conservatively – pantyhose, dress shoes, etc. she is very shy, but also very smart (is in 10th grade, but took chemistry last year at another school) – anyway, she may have trouble finding partners, since she is new and is shy and a bit different, in a school where many kids have known each other from kindergarten.
  • i have a boy and girl who are boyfriend and girlfriend, who are sitting together in the back so far. i think their chatting may be a slight problem on days when we are not moving around so much, and working at desks. according to their 9th grade bio teacher, they both “hate science”, and will need watching… hmmm – well, i don’t really believe her, and i hope/think that i can help them to enjoy science this year. i will be thinking of these two when i design activities also.

Meeting 3

  • Bell Work – matching “-ologist” names to definitions (geologist, cartographer, paleontologist, etc) (stole this from the semi-lame book “earth science warm-ups”)
  • handed out “unit 1 outline” which lists vocab, essential questions, skills/concepts, book chapters etc. for unit 1. (similar to what one of my CTs during student teaching used for his classes – it can double as a review sheet for unit tests or midterm)
  • NOTES: co-constructed some formal definitions (observation, inference, hypothesis, etc) and had students take notes in their binders for the first time. (some groaning and moaning, along with students admitting that some teachers have them take notes all period.)
  • Scientific Method(s):
    • broke students into teams of 2-3
    • i talked a bit about how the scientific method is more complex than they had previously been taught
    • each team had a step in the scientific method written in large print on a piece of paper
    • teams had to consult and decide where in the “scientific method” their step might fall
    • teams came up to the board to tape their step up, and i led discussion/voting on changes
    • we came up with a final diagram and the students requested (!) that we put it on the wall of the room, and i talked about the complicated/messy nature of real science, etc.
  • Friday Science News - i gave them an abridged article from the D and C from a few days ago, about the Mt. Morris dam, and flooding in the past, and had them read it to themselves, and write a summary and describe any ES concepts in the article. in the future i think we may read the article together, or vary how we read it and write about it.
  • Textbook homework – I gave them 15 minutes in class to start some textbook homework working in teams or alone, using fill-in-the-blank sheets that the other ES teacher had already printed for her section. I am not sure about using these going forward, but I also don’t know what other kind of textbook work or hw to give them… this is something i feel kind of lost about.
  • I got a nice comment from the boyfriend/girlfriend pair towards the middle of the class. he started to complain about their science teacher from last year, and i steered conversation away from the complaining, but he said to me “boy, where were you last year in science!”

Upside down, smashing his tail in the water…

August 10th, 2009

We went on a whale watch in New Hampshire a few days ago, on a mini vacation. We were supposed to go last summer, but got caught in traffic and missed the boat by a few minutes, so they gave us a rain check, and we finally got to cash it in. We saw a total of 40 fin and humpback whales on the trip, and the whales were feeding madly, which was really neat to watch – they blow lots of bubbles under the water to confuse krill and small fish, and then they leap about halfway out of the water (often in pairs) in the process of gulping up all the food. But the most amazing display we saw was this humpback (see video below) who slapped his tail in the water over and over, for about 3 minutes, right near our boat. The guides had never seen anything quite like it – especially since the whale was belly-up for a lot of the time. It probably was meant to get the attention of other whales – and as we left, a couple other humpbacks came and joined the first.

You are my density!

July 27th, 2009

I took part in an earth science PD last week, and here’s a shot of a 4 layer density demo that we tried out that worked really nicely. It used near boiling water, warm water, room temp water, and ice water and 4 colors of food coloring. You let the waters simultaneously drain into a clear tank from 4 styrofoam cups, each with a pencil hole in the bottom. You can see the setup here. (We poked the holes when we were ready to start it off.)

Win this giant jar of M&Ms!

July 27th, 2009

I found this video pretty enjoyable – it describes using solid state chemistry and packing fraction calculations to beat a “how many jellybeans?” type of contest. At 9 minutes, it might be too long for even an AP chem class, but the ideas in it could be adapted quite nicely.

At the Zoo-ooo…

July 12th, 2009

I went along as a chaperone with my 5 yr old son’s day-camp to the zoo last week. This particular zoo has expanded a good bit in the past couple years, though there are definitely parts that have not changed that much from when I was a kid. I always forget that I find zoos somewhat depressing, and so I go, and then I feel badly for the animals living in cramped conditions that aren’t really much like their natural habitat . I do feel that zoos serve some noteworthy purposes – from educating the public about animals and wildlife issues to helping in the recovery and rescue of endangered species, but I’m not sure about how it all balances out.

Anyway, this time it was the visitors who were weirding me out – specifically lots of the chaperones and counselers and whatnot from other groups visiting that day. There were too many different field trip groups at the zoo that day to count – mostly being herded around by teenagers and college students in daycamp STAFF t-shirts. Anyway, the phrase I kept hearing over and over from the counselers and chaperones was, “That’s DISGUSTING!” It happened over and over, all around the zoo – at the tanks of hissing cockroaches (ok – maybe that’s to be expected), at the elephant center, and at the polar bear pools. I know these folks aren’t necessarily teachers or educators, but it’s just sort of weird that these were the folks guiding the kids around the zoo, supposedly exposing them to the “wonders of the animals kingdom” – and they just seemed to keep freaking out and passing along the idea that nature is gross.

My whining probably makes me sound like a snobby idealistic science teacher fresh out of ed school. And I guess I am that to some degree. Maybe it just shows that my ear has changed a bit in the past year that I’ve been thinking about teaching 18 to 20 hours a day, in that I am more tuned in to this sort of thing. I know I’ll have students who are grossed out or reluctant to get their hands dirty in my classes, though as a chemistry or earth science teacher I won’t really run into that in the way biology teachers probably do.

I’m not quite sure how this connects, but this post was inspired in part by the photo and description I just found of this art installation at a zoo in Vienna. Two artists have a added big items of human trash to the animal enclosures, to inspire discussion and thinking about impact of man on the supposedly idyllic natural setting that the zoo residents come from. I’m going to assume that these pics are real, and not just photoshopped (though I am a bit suspicious of that fish-tank pic). I like the idea – but I doubt the animals find the additions much weirder than what they are used to – though maybe they find it disgusting…

Conferencing and Postering

July 10th, 2009

Well, I’ve now attended at least one conference in every field that I have worked in (or am getting ready to work in) – I went to several Geological Society of America conferences back in the early ’90s, then I attended a couple of gigantic Internet conferences in ‘98 and ‘99 (that were very important at the time but that probably evaporated in the dot-com crash), and now I’ve been to an education conference.

Not to be a whiner, but this conference definitely had the biggest and ugliest badge that I’ve ever seen. But it made up for it by being in Washington DC about 4 blocks from the White House, having really good food, and pretty excellent sessions.

I presented a poster entitled “The Teacher as Designer: Innovative Practices Informed by Personal History, Theoretical Grounding, and Professional Learning“. Yes, that’s quite a title, but the poster sort of summed up the insane amount of work that I’ve done in the past 15 months, and so it needed a long title.

The session that i helped run along with my advisor was entitled “Learning Outside the Classroom: Inquiry Inspired by Your Surroundings”. The teachers and teacher-educators who attended were definitely a bit hesitant when we forced them to go outside the hotel in small groups with a box of tools, and come up with some sort of investigation and data collection activity in just 20 minutes. But it inspired lots of good discussion afterwards, and I think it really got people thinking about the fact that you don’t need to arrange for a bus in order to take your class on a field trip – you can take them to the parking lot and find ways to have them do real science there.

Here are some odds and ends and thoughts about this conference:

  • attendees were a mix of pre-service teachers and teacher-educators, very heavy on the undergrads and light on the older career-changers – - at least among the people I met
  • hotel beds are the best kind of beds for jumping on (learned this from my kids)
  • hotel key-cards are totally cool (ibid.)
  • hotel are just chock full of elevators and escalators that are almost as awesome as having cable TV that you can watch from your bed (ibid.)
  • states besides NY have some REALLY widely varying regulations for teachers – I met folks who were about to start teaching having taken only science classes (no ed classes), and folks who won’t be able to teach until they have taken classes in ALL the sciences (chem, bio, physics geology) plus education courses
  • I met some pretty neat teachers from Texas who seemed to contradict the general consensus that everything evil in education has come from the lone star state (NCLB, etc.)
  • I get randomly and embarrassingly choked up when I go to the Air and Space Museum and get close to any Apollo mission stuff
  • my poster really looked amazing thanks to the design help I got from my advisor and my supervisor, as well as the graphics guy at the Warner School
  • it was pretty cool to meet and talk to people from all over the country who are interested in being awesome science teachers – and to realize that I have learned a heck of a lot in my Masters program that I can share with other people
  • President Obama is totally a superstar, judging from the insane number and variety of t-shirts, hats, etc. that I saw on sale all over DC – almost all of which I saw on people, everywhere I went. I really don’t think any previous presidents have had this sort of treatment and adoration. It was pretty interesting and inspiring to see.
  • everyone is struggling with teaching inquiry – but they’re definitely trying
  • not everyone has heard of discrepant events
  • even teachers and NSF folks running sessions at conferences can have demos flop on them

My kids did not care that we didn’t go whatever huge fireworks displays were in planned for Barack’s first 4th of July – since they got to run around our friends’ backyard in VA waving sharp metal wires coated with oxidizers and powdered metals that were combusting madly, and then eat ice cream on the front sidewalk in their sleeping bags while the neighbors set off all sorts of crazy fireworks in their driveway. All in all, it was a pretty good time.

Field Trip!

May 27th, 2009

Last week I had the awesome opportunity to rejoin my suburban 8th grade earth science classes from my fall observation and student teaching, as they went on a full day field trip to Letchworth State Park. There are 3 sections of this class, and we took one section (ranging from 15-21 students) per day over a 3 day period. Previously I’ve read one research article about field trips and education, but this was a chance to help out and get firsthand experience with a very experienced teacher.

Until last year this field trip (which is a district requirement for ES) was run in just 1 day total, bringing all the sections of earth science in the middle school, including 6 other sections taught by the 2 other ES teachers. It was a mammoth expedition that required 5 buses and a large number of chaperones, and my CT had always felt that the large size limited the value of the trip for the students. Based on my observations of this year’s trips, I can’t imagine doing it the other way – all in one day. Even with groups this small, there were a good number of straggling or distracted students at every stopping point who did not get to hear the full explanations from my CT and me. It’s easy to imagine that with larger groups, there would be a certain portion of each class who could go through the whole field trip without once paying any attention to their surroundings. I don’t mean this as a knock against my students, but a field trip does offer lots of opportunity for socializing with your school friends (with little adult supervision), which is a very important activity when you’re in 8th grade. Many of these students recently went on a three-day trip to Washington D.C., and I asked lots of the students about that trip throughout this one, and what they enjoyed most about the DC trip. There was a good percentage who found the bus ride to and from D.C. to be the best part of the trip – pretty good evidence for the importance of socializing.


The goal of the Letchworth field trip was for students to bring together all the concepts they’ve been learning in earth science all year, and to try to make sense of why the park looks like it does, and to also think about the manmade and natural forces that have shaped the park. For many of the students, this was their first time actively seeing sedimentary rocks outside of the classroom. (As my CT said, they’ve all driven past lots of road-cuts, but I suspect that they haven’t realized that they’re seeing sedimentary rocks there. )

The students each had a clipboard and a lab packet with requirements for general observations at a number of locations, as well as specific questions that needed to be answered. The packet was quite open-ended, and had many questions that could be answered at multiple locations, with only a few truly location-specific questions. Maybe this also had to do with the fact that we were seeing similar things over and over – erosion, massive walls of shale and sandstone, waterfalls, as well as glacial deposits and a wide variety of evidence of the influence of mankind (especially the many trails and steps built by the CCC). My CT has worked as an environmental educator, and he has a good instinct for keeping students engaged and learning when they are outdoors, but also allowing them the opportunity to explore on their own, and experience the random neat stuff that comes up on a hike in the woods. The packet is designed to encourage a good amount of observation and a certain amount of processing, but then they spend the next day back in class on the last half of the packet, making more connections between the things they observed and the things they’ve been learning all year. The packet also went beyond earth science to talk about the impact that the CCC had on the park, as well as the use of the land by Native Americans before the Europeans arrived.

At one point, we stumbled across a huge number of puddles full of tadpoles down in the bottom of the gorge, and I spent a good bit of time with some of the straggling students examining them and talking about the life cycle of frogs and toads, and why these creatures seem to have so many offspring when compared to humans. When the students came and told me they had found some grown frogs in the water at the edge of the River, I went over and I was baffled by the sight of 7 or 8 adult TOADS swimming around. When I pointed out to the students that toads don’t usually hang out in water, but prefer life on land, we all puzzled over what we were seeing, until we discovered the long strands of toad eggs nearby – it was egg-laying time. It was pretty neat to see 8th grade girls scooping up handfuls of tadpoles to show around to their classmates, and everyone wanted to touch the toads and the strands of toad eggs that I picked up and showed around.

My CT pushed the kids pretty hard with the hiking – I think each class hiked at least 2.5 miles, and one class probably did about 4 or 5 miles in the end. We varied the trips each day based on the weather, and the capabilities of the students. Day 2 did the least hiking, since we had 2 students with developmental and/or physical limitations in that class, but that class was still pretty worn out by the end of the day. The bus rides back home were very quiet when compared with the rides down, and I’m pretty sure there were kids who were asleep on the ride back each day. My CT was very careful with safety, and also made sure to keep the kids hydrated, as we had three pretty hot and sunny days. I had a couple occasions where students made me a little bit nervous with skipping (or stumbling) within 10 or 15 feet of the edge of the gorge, and there are definitely places in Letchworth where you could go over the edge if you really made the effort, but I like to think that I was just being healthily paranoid. There was a bit of groaning and moaning about bugs and being tired, and lots of speculation about how long until lunch, but not quite as much as I expected.

My CT and I could only laugh (and wince) when we heard students on the bus ride home of the Friday trip talking about the upcoming 3-day holiday weekend – with one girl saying, “Yeah! We didn’t have to learn anything today either, so really that’s like a 4-day weekend!” My CT pointed out to me that students generally believe that they are only learning when they are in the classroom – taking notes, or working on lab sheets. Even after spending a day in the woods absorbing all sorts of things, the habits of our school systems die pretty hard – learning equals notes or lab-work inside a school building. Overall I think all three trips were a huge success, and regardless of the amusingly telling comments like the one above, the students did learn a lot, and they did make connections between the things they’ve been seeing and talking about in class and the world around them. I think my CT would have liked to have been able to prepare the students a bit more beforehand for the trip, and this is one thing that the research shows can really make a difference in what students get out of fields trips (having them research and read about where they will be and what they will see and be looking for). But it’s a struggle, because he’s in a constant race with the coming Regents exam, and so one of the three classes did not even get a day-before overview of the trip. But the trip was well-designed, so that students had time to look around and absorb things at their own pace for the most part, as we guided them to interesting spots. At the end of the day, my CT was just as excited (or more so) about teaching kids to skip stones as talking geology with his students. I think he doesn’t really judge the success of the trip by how many kids finish their packet, but by their engagement with the environment during the trip.

teens and twitter

May 17th, 2009

I don’t use twitter, but I’m going to be working with teens for umm… the forseeable future. This Microsoft researcher posted some interesting preliminary data based on her interviews with teenagers and their use of twitter, social networking sites, email, etc.

These two bits struck me as interesting:

“They don’t watch a lot of news and they have no media literacy training and they’re not even thinking about credibility of news.”

“Most don’t associate using social media with computer science or developing software whatsoever. And the classes on programming in their schools aren’t helping.”

LA Times article – The Rigors of Life Unplugged

May 6th, 2009

This is an interesting article about a high school class that had students go without tv, cell phones, internet access etc. for a week.

Daniel Romero read a book for the first time this year.
[Andres] Lopez actually communicated with an uncle during a rare conversation about swine flu, politics and history.
Jenny Corona connected with her autistic brother, and, to her utter amazement, read an entire Harry Potter book in four days.
Without her headphones blocking out the real world, Flor Salvador heard strange chirping sounds.
“I didn’t know we had birds!” she wrote in her journal.

Here’s another article about a college professor who had students try it just for 24 hours.

Wherever I end up teaching, my students are going to be digital natives – and even if I think of myself as almost a digital native – or at least a pretty early adpoter, my brain has been trained a bit differently than my students brains. But I’m not really sure yet what that’s going to mean…