NESA Spring Conference 2019

The seasonal shifts at the time of Spring Break are always ones that catch my attention. This year it feels as if spring came early to Beijing as I sighted my first open flower during the initial week of March. This was definitely a first in my six Beijing winter-to-spring transitions. Leaving Beijing for the NESA conference in Bangkok was highly welcomed though not because I needed to thaw out. I came looking for some inspiration and thoughts as we move into the last bit of the school year. The lure of a workshop hosted by Dan Meyer first drew me and while that portion of the conference has been great, I have also enjoyed several of the keynote presentations.

A few nuggets to bring back & keep asking

  • is the work being done by my students beautiful?
  • is the learning playful?
  • are students engaging in meaningful thinking / action?
  • do stories connect the learning taking place?
  • are the stories of the learners in the room being shared?

The conference kicked-off with a celebration of NESA’s 50 years and a video featuring past students. These adults are 3rd Culture Kids so their thinking and statements were of high interest to me not only because my classrooms are populated by these students but my daughters are also navigating the world of various cultures and searching for identity. A few questions raised include…

  • How does growing up internationally effect your identity?
  • What is home?
  • How do we start in a new community? & How do we welcome others into our community?
  • How do we continue to celebrate home cultures while sharing and learning of all the cultures in our school?
  • Friend groups: where are the boundaries between groups / how does one cross boundaries between groups?

I have to admit that these questions are not ones that are front and center in my classroom. They don’t have a strong place within the mentoring program. I think they should. I want to bring these questions in and begin honoring more students by upping the premium placed on their stories, their development of identity and the need for each student to learn more about their peer sitting across from them in class.

These thoughts were immediately followed by a panel reflection by Cathy Berger Kaye, Ben Mardell and Tom Schimmer. Their thoughts seemed to focus on the tensions that take place in our teaching worlds. This tension could be part of the reason that the essential questions about student self from above are not addressed. Tom Schimmer discussed the conflict between standards and standardization. We can’t all hop down the same bunny trail, we need to be responsive to our students and he urged us to think of assessment as more than what do you know and also focus on who you are. As an added push, he added in the reminder that

foundational knowledge is critical in order to think deeply and collaborate with others.

Cathy Berger Kaye urged us to think of curiosity as a driver. I’ve heard many parents lament that their learners are not passionate. That’s ok, they are 12! Have these learners be curious about the world and about learning. Surprise the class. Shake it up!

Where is the productive disruption in our classrooms?

Ben Mardell asked us to embrace a framework of Yes, and…He asked us to consider how our learning spaces are playful and embrace the pedagogy of play.

Day 2 commenced with Steve Barkley discussing coaching and student achievement. His personal story of how he began teaching – with so many other adults working with him in his learning space – is so different than mine. I feel that my path of the lonely teacher road is more commonly followed by members of this profession. This year has been a great contrast. I have worked closely with GQ – sharing students, space and curriculum. I feel that I have questioned my on practice more than ever and have massively increased by bag of teacher options. How can we move all of our classrooms and buildings to a culture where teachers occupy the same space more often? Steve referenced the work of Ron Berger and asked us if our students consistently do work that is

  • Beautiful
  • Meaningful
  • Valuable

But what about the mathematics?

Yes, math was discussed a plenty as well. I’ve followed Dan Meyer’s work for years and he has given me plenty to think about as well as plenty of activities to work on with my students. It was nice to finally meet him and listen to him share thinking. Dan focused on storytelling.

Good stories have a clear goal.

Good stories show, not tell.

As storytellers find out, the timing of information is always important. In our own mathematical stories, how does the problem unfold? Remember:

You can always add to a problem. You can’t subtract.

How do we support storytelling in math and other thoughts…

  • Desmos has lots of great activities. Personal goal: Work more with the activity builder. Can I better integrate this powerful tool with science?
  • Continue with estimations. I liked how Dan used Goldilocks when discussing estimations: Too high, Too low and “just right” . Students framed their thinking with the too high and too low but shared out just rights. Goldilocks as a language tool is one item I’ll definitely switch too. Also, a focus on the just right. I think it will help my class conversations move forward a bit quicker as I’ve often discussed all estimations. It is highly likely that a wide range of estimations will still come out with only the just-right values to think about.
  • You can always add to a problem. You can’t subtract. Important – slowly release the problem.
  • Two goals should always be constant: Purpose of task & a connection of “old stuff” to “new stuff”. Is my thread always clear to students?
  • How would you test your idea? Justification is challenging for students. How can problems be presented so that there is the possibility of testing ideas. Students should be able to grapple with the uncertainty of their thinking and develop ways to test their ideas.
  • Need to know example. Would this lead students into wanting to better combine like terms?

Students pick 3 numbers. Decide upon them as a class. Evaluate the expressions for each of the 3 numbers.

Expression 1: x2 – x

Expression 2:
7 + 2x – 2 x2 + 5 – x2 – x + 5x + 3 x2 – 6x – 12

All in all, there is plenty of thinking for me to walk away with. Thanks to Dan and the other presenters for a great few days!


Project Collision – student reflections

A few thoughts from students as they reflect on the project…

Looking back on Collision, I learned that the most important step when designing is when looking, analyzing, and collecting information on flaws and areas of growth on our previous design using data collected. I say this because I believe that if we don’t use data collected on failures made in previous designs then we would lose the ability of correctly pinpointing exact areas in which big improvements could be made. For example, while looking over data made during drop #0 and drop #1, we learned that the accuracy of having the package land on the target got worse by an average of 18.45 cm. This caught our attention which led us to certain design changes, based on research and observations on other groups. In the end, we increased the level of accuracy by 24 cm.

Before this project I used to think that having a flat parachute instead of one with a cupped character force would cause the parachute to close up while traveling down causing a higher velocity. Now I know that, in fact, the cupped shape will catch more friction and air, resulting in it traveling much slower. For example, when we used the new design of a cupped parachute the maximum velocity ended up being a little over one meter longer per second. This has definitely changed the way I looked at how parachutes and friction work.

Looking back on Collision, I realize that the process we took to create our package and parachute is important to follow. I especially believe that to define and inquire on a topic is vital to any successful idea. For example, my group was given the task of creating a parachute that would allow our package to land safely and lightly. We immediately looked to the internet for inspiration. This led us to designing a design with a, relative to the package, large and flat parachute. We got this idea from searching up parachutes that have been made for small packages before, and other group’s designs. We also made sure to have the character force be pretty large, because, according to our research made in science: more character force results in more friction pushing upwards which is what lets the parachute slow down a fall.


Looking back on Collision, I learned that there’s always room for improvement and you can always make the design better. I say this because we had to fix our designs multiple times in order to get our final product. Also, it made me think more about the design. It made me more engaged in the project, think deeper in how to fix problems and overcome obstacles. Before this project I used to think that you only need a parachute and it will allow the package to slowly descend, have a soft landing and perfect accuracy. However, through multiple designs along with collecting data, I realized that having a parachute lowered our accuracy and our speed didn’t really change in our first design. For example, on our first design, I noticed that we had such a tiny parachute so it wasn’t able to catch enough air to let us have a soft landing. Yet when we changed into a bigger parachute for our second design, there was much more of a soft landing. Another thing that helped me develop was the realization that parachutes can lowered our accuracy. I think this is because the parachute drifted to one side. So, for our final design, we made the parachute longer instead of round. This way, the parachute didn’t drift as much and had a straighter landing.

Looking back on project Collision, I realize that testing with multiple designs is very important in creating a reliable system. For example, when we had our first design, so much things went wrong. Our parachute wasn’t able to successfully slow the speed down, so collecting data helped us figure that out. Through the design cycle, we were able to fix our mistakes as well as improve our design. We were able to look at the changes made through our data table and could add on to our designs to make it better.


Looking back on Collision, I learned about the forces that occur when someone or something is in motion. We also learned about the forces that occur when that person is NOT in motion. I learned about friction and the different types of it, and how it can slow things down. Before this project I used to think about nothing related to the subject. And you are like, how does this help at all. But my point is, I learned a lot. Before I don’t even understand enough of forces to think about it. All I knew was gravity, and how that stops us from floating away. I learned a lot thanks to this unit, and it was great. Yup. I think our group really did well in the design/ iterative process. We went like “WOW this idea is amazing!” Then we dropped it. The we were like “How in Pete’s sake did we think that would work?” And we fixed it. And new problems arose. And we fixed it. And so on. There was, like any other cycle, bumps, but we pushed through it, and it was chill.


Project Collision

We began with a fairly classical Egg Drop.

Decisions had to be made due to a budget and the criteria and constraints were pretty simple. Drop the egg from 5 meters, no additional materials and no guts. Well, we got plenty of guts though a few successes. This launched our project which was tucked into the theme of drone delivery systems. (An eye opener for me as I learned more about the big idea was how much drone work is actually being done right now.) Students had to design a delivery system that would allow an object to be dropped from a drone from a height of up to 10 meters.

This project was nestled into a slot between winter break and a week-long Chinese New Year break. Hit it and quit it! As such, we settled into the idea of covering some basic concepts of force and motion and focusing heavily on the iterative process of design.

For this project, we really wanted students to zoom in on the process of developing a testing plan and using data to inform their decisions. A big challenge was that collecting force data on items inside a falling package did not seem to be a possibility. Oh the planning meetings that took place as we went round and round. If you have a great solution, please let me know! Ideally, we could measure the force of the collision on an object inside a falling box but this did not happen.

The next idea was to drop items onto a force plate and measure the force on the outside of the box. Then, we could use that value as a design target.

The 5 m drop zone

Using a Vernier force plate, we began dropping “unprotected” boxes. The data was horrible – completely unreliable and through some research we came to the conclusion that due to the super short impulse / contact time of the package and the force plate, coupled with different parts of the package making contact that the data was expected to be unreliable. Back to the drawing board…

Finally, we landed on the idea of using LoggerPro to measure the velocity of the package as it fell. If the velocity just before hitting the target was reduced, then the force on the contents would also be better.

That was happening “behind the scenes”. In the meantime, what were the students dropping and what all were they measuring. To get the students into the project, we decided to open it up for them to decide upon what would be delivered and what would be their metrics for success. Products ranged from coffee to clothing to first aid containers to fast food to electronics…The ideas were everywhere which made it a lot of fun. Groups then met to discuss what would be a successful design. Two metrics continued to repeat: a “soft landing” and accuracy. The landing was measured using the video analysis and the accuracy measured in distance from the force plate.

Goals were set for each group to make it through at least a couple of design iterations though after a slow start, many groups began iterating like crazy. It was as if a certain amount of tinkering time was needed before essential pieces were put together and then projects quickly moved forward. The final exhibition was scheduled for an audience of high school students and parents of our students. This exhibition would include a pitch where groups talked to “potential investors” about their designs and an 8 meter drop.

A few take aways on the project:

  • Students were super into the act of iterating. In reflections at the end, it was voiced over and over how important this process is to a final design.
  • Students wanted more time to work on their projects. Yep – it was a quick one!
  • Students wanted access to more materials. At the beginning, I did not provide students with many materials. My hope was that students would search about a bit and have more creativity in their projects based upon gathered materials. This did not work out. More thought needs to be put into materials in the future.
  • Groups can either excel or sink. It was a quick project and so apparent as to which students do not do their part.
  • Dropping mechanisms that more simulate being released from a drone would be nice.
  • Being up 8 meters on the machine can get a bit sketchy!

Express It! (an FA Ignite Week)

During the fall semester, students in Futures Academy participated in their first Ignite Week. It was also my first Ignite, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to focus on nothing but one project for the week. I wrote about the Makey It! Project here.

The theme for this week was Express It! and the hope was for students to dive into their creative side. My group focused on a deeper look into what one day of their life would look like. They planned it out and then collected footage about their day. Some wound up with a video, some with comic and some used Scratch to create an animation.   I was actually a bit surprised at how quickly students got going on this project but it was about themselves! I liked the variation that came out of the work and the opportunity for conversations with students about their lives. Check out a few examples below! (Unfortunately, WordPress is not playing nice with our school video channel so videos are not embedded…)

I love watching the day start with the buses and cars in the background.

Video 1 – awesome FA student

The following video captures the work of a student creating a comic. He decided to film the his work in action and make it into a video. Pretty cool to watch!

Video 2 by another awesome FA student

A slightly different version, this student decided to use Stop Motion to express her day.

Video 3 by another awesome FA student

This grabbed the students as the focus was on themselves. I also think that the project chunk was manageable for students. From the beginning, they could visualize a final product. They know what one of their days looks like and then set out to capture it. This combination of being highly interested and having a good understanding of the final product kept all students engaged for the duration of the project.

Modeling: Before and After

I see modeling as the window into the thinking of students. An NGSS shift that I have attempted to make is to begin each phenomenon with a model that captures what students think prior to starting a deeper investigation into the concepts. Later, after investigations have been completed, necessary mini-lessons given, and lots of conversations had, students again model their thinking. One this year’s shift is the effort to tie a cross-cutting concept into the model as they develop. This additional move seems to result in a better grounding student thought. 

The following models are a series of before and after models. The phenomenon was an egg placed in vinegar to first remove the shell and then rotating between corn syrup and water. Students worked on developing investigations to quantify the changes in the egg after it was soaked in vinegar. The primary cross-cutting concept was structure & function. I like looking at the differences of the two models as their thinking mostly increased in depth.

recap: November Field Study

With temperatures dropping and the heat turning on across the northern part of the country, we begin rolling the dice with air quality. For a week, the forecast was looking doubtful but our morning dawned to favorable winds and somewhat blue skies! Below are a few snippets from student blog posts regarding the trip. 

Quick reflection: We are managing to get to the site and back in almost a school block. This quickness is nice due to the changing temperature though most students are coming dressed to stay warm. They are getting more efficient with data collection and their conversations as a result are becoming more interesting.

Blog Posts – This time, we scheduled the return block at school for students to submit their posts. A more detailed structure was provided as the reflections were generally weak last time. Wow! Many of the students provided much more detail in their thinking. I need to continue working to use structure as a way to allow students to better access their thinking and make ways for stronger connections to be had.

That’s it for 2018. We will again head out in January. One of the benefits I already see in visiting the site each month is that students are slowly developing a feel for seasonal differences. Some think it will begin getting warmer in January so we’ll see….

Always Formative(?)

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At one point the “Always Formative” blog was a constant tab open in my browser. It was 2011 or so and I was teaching at a small school and struggling to find a community of educators to tap into. Somehow, I came across Jason Buell’s blog and began reading. Jason is also a science teacher so his examples appealed to me. (Unfortunate side-note: I have no idea what happened to Jason Buell. His blog has not been updated since 2014 and his twitter handle (@jybuell) is no longer active.) 

The idea of Standards-Based Grading had not been on my radar though I was struggling with giving students meaningful feedback.  After reading a few posts, I immediately began shifting my practices. In hindsight, the students I taught that year probably wondered what in the world happened to their teacher as “grading systems” were tossed on end. But, it made sense. Assessment is a conversation and if the goal is continual learning, we should continue the process of working on an idea, developing our thinking and building upon that. If a school believes in reassessment of summative assessments then why not just focus on formative assessments. (Ha! that’s a lot of edu-jargon in one sentence.)

Where am I now? Over the past few years, I have been pulled in a different direction. I have spent countless hours developing, administering and grading summative assessments. In this time, it has been rare that a summative assessment resulted in a “surprise,” meaning that a student performed in a way that did not reflect their current work. The only surprises have come from students who were performing well but did not fully understand that particular question. Is this fair for them? So after straying away from Jason Buell’s mantra of Always Formative, I again feel drawn to his reasoning. Are there others out there who believe the same way? The following tweet from Kath Murdoch, whose inquiry work is currently shift some of my practices, caught my attention.

The question that drives this article and its response nicely put together some of my own thinking when thinking about students as learners.

“We questioned: is it necessary to have a summative assessment or could each project be a continuous learning journey with formative assessment opportunities during each stage of the process? “

“After the success of the marble run, we realized that we wanted to continue our development of creative projects for assessment and learning. Our aim is to create authentic projects which require our students to demonstrate their understandings in a meaningful context. These projects will be open-ended, with students starting from the same point but with opportunities to take them in different directions according to their interests and understandings. Students will make connections and use what they are learning throughout the unit. The projects will encourage students to carry on learning by making mistakes, trying again and having conversations with each other. Students will also benefit from the conversations at home. We realized that we had gone from summative assessments to creating continued learning experiences that often stretched beyond our classrooms.”

Shifting back to the lens of a science teacher, I think about the core of the NGSS standards: do science and solve problems. The goal is to weave together the three strands of science and engineering practices, content and cross-cutting concepts. Questions…

Shifting back to the lens of a science teacher, I think about the core of the NGSS standards: do science and solve problems. The goal is to weave together the three strands of science and engineering practices, content and cross-cutting concepts. Questions…

  1. How do we design a learning space that is full of inquiry where students are continually getting feedback on their progress as scientists?
  2. Can an active science notebook that includes modeling, investigative design, data collection and explanations be used as an ongoing process? This process is formative in nature as students are continually getting feedback and ideally improving each time a new phenomenon is investigated.
  3. If students are focused on the study of a phenomenon / engineering challenge, and their thinking is directed towards being a scientist what is the purpose of tacking on summative assessment at the end?

I am curious to hear thoughts that support always formative and those that feel that a summative assessment is absolutely necessary. In the end, I would like students to leave a year of learning with me with the thought that they are scientists and have a lot of evidence to support their thinking. This evidence would come from a notebook full of phenomenon-driven inquiry where they have actively modeled thinking (capturing key content), designed and conducted investigations and engaged with cross-cutting concepts.