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. 

Working with NoTosh – session 1

“Sometimes it’s the haystack you need to find.” 

~Ewan McIntosh

A week ago, I had the great opportunity to work through a design thinking process with Ewan McIntosh of NoTosh. The purpose of the group is to work on the mission and vision of ISB. I’m excited to be part of this conversation as well as to be a participant in a deep design thinking project.

By no means am I a sketch-noter or an artist of any kind, but I did try to capture the flow of the day through notes.

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A few take-aways for my teaching practice:

  • Get people up! At one point in the day, we began a session and Ewan let us go a bit. Groups were mostly sitting down as they discussed. Some productivity was happening. A short video was shown and we were asked to notice what the participants were doing in the video. Their energy level was markedly higher and a lot of it was due to the way they were interacting. People were standing. They were closer. They were engaging with the ideas in front of them. So, we stood up and started. Boom! The volume of the room increased (not to an unmanageable level but to a good buzz) and the walls began filling with ideas. This is not new to me. I try to get my students up all the time but it was the first time that I deliberately changed the way I worked in a group. It drove the idea home and continues as another point in my debate between vertical and horizontal whiteboard spaces. My students often like keeping butts in chairs but get ’em up!
  • “Why” questions are hard. After “going into the wild” and talking with students, teachers and other community members, we rejoined to share ideas and dig deeper into some of them through the 5 whys. It’s a fairly quick process – ask a why question, get a response, ask a follow-up, get a response and continue until the 5th why. Now, there is a question to work with! The first time, I slipped into “What…?” frameworks and the questions went quicker but when we repeated with “Why…” I found them more thoughtful yet harder to generate.
  • How can Day 1 be the Groundhog Day? The energy, the care, the excitement, the memories – can all of those magical things that happen on the first day of school be continued each day? Teaching is hard. Each year I feel that the train leaves the station in August and moves quicker around the seasons until June. The speed and the work can wear one out. Yet, as educators we need to keep students inspired and excited about their learning. Each day. Along these lines is one of the reasons I’m trying to post a Twitter image at least daily. There has to be something each day work posting, right?
  • The power of paper – there are so many pulls to the digital world but the short-term permanence and strength of tactile and visual thinking through paper needs to have a place in our rooms.
  • 12% rule – don’t talk to much. A class is a learning space, not a soapbox.

Over the next few months, we have been tasked with collecting a lot of data. A project nest is set-up and I’m excited to see what it will look like in February when it is covered with stickie-notes. I look forward to be par of the process that then works through this amazing amount of data. Big thanks to Ewan McIntosh for the learning!

Experimenting w/ Student-Driven Inquiry Structures

Disclaimer: This is fully a work in progress. The post, the ideas, everything. I’m trying to get my thoughts in order so comments and suggestions are appreciated.

When I think of what I would like my science space to look like, I see students moving about independently. Some are modeling, some are collecting data, some may be researching, some are talking about their ideas and I’m getting the opportunity to engage with students about their data and their thinking. This does happen sometimes and it is great. What has not happened is where students are working on lots of different phenomenon at the same time. That’s what I’m trying to move forward on.

Upcoming are several standards relating to cells, body systems, cellular respiration, and photosynthesis. I am working towards setting up multiple presentations that students can access. These presentations do not tell students how do go about designing their investigation but leads them through key elements.

Starting Point: A phenomenon. This will likely be through the form of a video (as shown in the following presentation), a demo or directions for an activity.

Design Cycle: This year, I am working hard to embed the ISB Design Process into my practice. As such, stages of the design process correspond to student activity.






Science Notebook: The presentation has keys back to the science notebook to help with student organization. Work is to be done in the notebook with the exception of published elements.

The following presentation would be a choice for students. They would watch the phenomenon at the beginning and then begin work if they chose to continue. Feedback would be appreciated!

  • What are potential hang-ups?
  • What are improvements?
  • What are suggestions in managing students on multiple inquiry projects at the same time?

*Special thanks to Paul Andersen – many of the icons and scaffolds come from his great site.


Ignite Week: Makey It

One week. Two to three out of four blocks a day. 7th and 8th graders. Make something.

Project Title: Makey It!

Purpose: Join the physical world with the programming world through Makey Makey and Scratch

Possibilities: Endless

Student schedules were tossed out for the week as grade levels mixed and students signed up for projects based upon a 1-minute pitch from our Future’s Academy facilitators. A wide array of projects were offered from cooking to working with Precious Plastics to using laser cutters to create class signs to braving the Beijing metro to creating podcasts. I had a poor pitch, using the old school Operation Game as a draw but then realized that most students had no idea what I was talking about (oops, minute over!). Maybe the Makey Makey wires connected to me with alligator clips interested a few. Who know but my class showed up on Day 1 pretty excited and ready to create.

We started off by playing with the Makey Makey as I slowly added challenges and students finished the morning with having interfaced with bongo drums, a piano and a sampling keyboard. Walking out to lunch, students were excited and as they returned we looked at a single-player game and used the Makey Makey to control movements in it.

Scratch was next on the docket. Some of the students already had quite a bit of experience and the others quickly began catching on and using inputs on the Makey Makey to interface with Scratch. It felt as if by the end of the day most groups already had a good feeling of what they wanted to do for the rest of the week.

Three of the groups gravitated towards making a video game on Scratch and using the Makey Makey as a controller interface. Another group decided to make a calculator. They pulled together a lot of pieces on the second day but then a key group member fell sick and was out for the rest of the week. The eventual “calculator” was converted into another controller for a game on Scratch.

The final group found their inspiration in record players. They wanted to replicate a song using a bike wheel as the record and the Makey Makey to send messages to a Scratch-based piano. I was super impressed with their design challenge and the way they overcame technical difficulties. Other than dealing with wires as the wheel spun, a big issue was the Makey Makey only has 12 or so inputs available but they needed to program the song in a linear fashion. They tried using multiple controllers and computers and finally began working to join together wires that played the same note. Success!

Unfortunately the clock ran out on this group just as they were attempting the challenge of the record player needle. They were working with a spoon and getting some decent results but were not happy with it.

The Friday of the week brought all the groups back for an exhibition where parents were invited. There was plenty of excited energy to go around!

What would I do different next time?

  • As mentioned earlier, I’m not sure about the game controller bend. It seems that the groups who went off of that direction opened up doors to more creativity. The controller groups focused much more on programming the video game but that was awesome as well.
  • Throughout the process, we stopped to post work on student blogs in order to document the design cycle. This is important but often seemed to take too much time. Next round, I would like to focus more on process-style blog posts. Students snap a photo each hour or so and import it into their blog with a caption. Quick and easy.
  • I wonder how the exhibition could be changed. Student groups roamed about and some engaged with projects while others did not. Many of my students had games but ditched the controllers. I felt as if their work was not well displayed and their design process left hidden behind the scenes. I want to bring this out more in the future.

October Field Study Recap

A quick trip to the river for students to gather some data. Brrr….this week the weather began shifting a bit more and it is starting to feel chilly. The students who were bundled up on the ride out felt quite cozy as the wind whipped down the river. The rest of us will hopefully dress a bit warmer on the next trip.

Students are getting more efficient at collecting data. There were a lot of smiles as students managed to get to each site location and not feel rushed. The next step is to work in a bit more care on equipment handling and data collection.  I tried to make sure that each student in each group was prepared with a map, procedure and data table in their notebook but several snuck on by.

Upon return, students were asked to make a quick post on their blogs. Some quotes are below. Quick summaries on a blog is something that I need to work on as well as the students. For them, I need to step back one more rung and provide sentence stems instead of criteria. As many are new to blogging, more structure is needed. Of course this is optional as some students find plenty to write about and do not need this guidance.

“We went to Wenyu River and found lots of plastic wastes. Also, we found out that the number of chemical residues actually increased. I predicted that the number of plastic wastes would decrease during fall and winter since it’s chill and no one would come to the river for a picnic. However, the number of chemical residues lot more than last month. I am worried that the Earth might be cover by plastic wastes.  I wonder if the number of plastic wastes increases during fall and winter.” ~sk


“A wondering I have for next time is: Because there are very small differences of the data in different locations, I wonder if it will change more drastically when it gets colder.” ~EN

“I wonder if the flow rate will be slower or faster next time. I also wonder if the turbidity will go down or stay up.” ~JR

“One Connection is as it gets later into the year the turbidity goes down. I wonder if the pattern will continue and when we come back in December the turbidity will be even lower?” ~RR

“I wonder if as we go into November, December, and January the AQI was get even worse because usually in winter, the AQI will get worse as the people are burning coal to keep themselves warm. I also wonder if the forest’s AQI was be affected because there are more trash in the forest than in our other measuring sites.” ~AS

“We went out to our quadrants as usual, by the banks and near a tree. In Quadrant 1, there were considerably less ants than before, with now having only 26 when last time we had a whopping 48! Last time as well, there seemed to be more centipedes (at least 3) but now there seems to be none. Huh… weird. Maybe it’s because of the cold coming into Beijing?” ~KW