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Another goal of mine with digital notebooks was to enable new forms of collaboration in my classroom. Because digital documents like GoogleDocs allow multiple people to access and edit the same document online at any time, it opens the door to new possibilities for both students and teachers:

1. Colaborating like scientists

Lab work in my classroom is almost always collaborative. Even before going digital my students would work in teams to plan and perform experiments, which encourages scientific communication and cooperation which are authentic science (and life) skills. Using digital science notebooks can take this collaboration a step further, because instead of individually recording in their own paper notebooks, with a digital notebook students can share the same document so that each of them can edit and view each others changes on their own screen. This is wonderful for typically collaborative tasks such as planning a procedure or collecting data. I’ll often have lab teams start with a collaborative document for an experiment so they each have the same document in front of them:

Saturation Puzzle doc

An added benefit of doing this type of group collaboration is that with a digital projector you can quickly turn it into whole class collaboration. Have a group that’s stuck? Display their document for the whole class on the projector and see if anyone has a solution. Have a group that’s doing stellar work? Share it with the whole class as an exemplar.

When it comes time for a more individual task (like writing a conclusion to an experiment) they can copy and paste the group work into their own document, and then finish on their own:

Saturation Puzzle individual

2. Researching as a team

Another collaborative task that is enhanced by technology is researching a subject as a team. This is similar to the classic jigsaw learning approach, except that all the students on a team are editing the same collaborative document. Depending on goal of the learning activity, you can either assign different students specific sub-topics to be responsible for and become an “expert” on them for their team, or you can let the team decide how to divide and conquer the research. Here’s an example of this from my 6th grade earth science unit:

collaborative research

I adapted this first learning activity from a fantastic inquiry-based lesson called Discovering Plate Boundaries developed at Rice University. The multi-part lesson engages students with real maps of relevant plate tectonic information (volcanology, seismology, geography, and geochronology) and challenges them to discover patterns at the boundaries of plates and then classify them. Each student on the team becomes an expert on one of the 4 maps, and then they use their combined understanding to classify all of the major plate boundaries in the world on a collaborative document (I still have them label the map on paper though- it’s just much more efficient for coloring!)

3. Giving feedback to peers

This is something I’ve only scratched the surface of this year, but with more modelling and practice I think it could be a game changer in the classroom. The power of peer feedback is particularly obvious with the Middle School students I work with, and digital notebooks make the process much easier and more flexible. Students can leave comments on each others documents in real-time, even while a student is still working on them. Multiple peers can comment simultaneously on a single document, and the commenting doesn’t need to be done in person- for example it could be assigned for homework. What’s more, students can reply directly to comments, opening up the door for a back-and-forth conversation. I haven’t done enough of this yet in my own classroom, but if you’re interested check out Oliver Quinlan’s post for more details on how to do it well. What I have done a lot of is teacher-student feedback using Google Docs comments, which works extremely well. If students are making edits to a piece of work, I suggest having them make any corrections in a different font color rather than deleting anything. This way students have a nice record of their learning in their notebook and better learn from their mistakes. Here’s an example:


4.What about plagiarism?

This was another one of my main concerns going digital last year: with most student work online, would the temptation for copy-and-paste plagiarism make it a problem I would have to constantly police? Yes and no. On the front end, for any digital work discussing plagiarism and making expectations clear to students is a must. We did this at the school level and I also reinforced it within my classes. Even so, instances of plagiarism popped up, but in my opinion no more than normally. Digital notebook may make plagiarism easier to do, but it also makes it easier for a teacher to identify. GoogleDocs shows the last editor of a document right in the Drive view and tracks all editors in the revision history. So if a student is editing a document they shouldn’t be (like doing someone else’s homework), it’s plain for the teacher to see. Checking for plagiarized work is easy too- if I’m ever suspicious on a research project I can just Google a sentence of a students work to see if it’s original or not. Same goes in Google Drive- you can search for text within documents, so seeing if a student is using someone else’s words is only a click away. So yes, digital notebooking does make plagiarism more of an issues, but it’s a issue that I think needs to be taught, and digital notbooking allows students to start practicing habits of a good digital citizen.


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My biggest fear about going paperless was the impact I thought it might have on student engagement. Would students stare at their screens and ignore each other during class discussion? Would the laptops become more of a distraction than a tool for learning? To try and avoid this fate I began the year by creating a set of technology rules with students, which is the topic of this 2nd reflection on my paperless year:

#2: Technology rules- but rules for technology use are trickier than they seem

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 4.33.33 PMTo create our technology rules I based them on our school’s 4 core values of respect, honesty, responsibility, and compassion (see the template on the left). Unfortunately I don’t have a finished copy of the rules-  I was a little to zealous in my classroom cleaning this week- but I’ll need to improve them anyway because there were things I didn’t anticipate. Here’s a sampling of some of the rules:


I will be respectful:

  • Close your screen during class discussion

I will be responsible:

  • Stay on task when using your computer
  • Bring your charger to class

I will be honest:

  • Don’t copy and paste other’s work

I will be compassionate:

  • Help others who are having problems

For the first half of the year everything ran smoothly, and I was laughing at myself for being so fearful of the switch- my students were using their computers responsibly and they seemed no more or less distracting than a piece of paper would be. There were a few violations here and there, but it was so rare I didn’t even keep track of them. It seemed so easy that I even started composing a blog post about going paperless the “painless” way.

However, as the year moved on and those teenage hormones started kicking in, I noticed a sudden uptick in bad technology behavior. More and more students had lost their charger and almost every class someone had to go on a “charger hunt” around the classroom to find one to borrow. The chat feature in Gmail became more popular with students, who started routinely chatting with friends in other classes. Certain students also started getting sneaky about staying on task, quickly switching their computers from one screen to another. All of this made me start to feel like a technology policeman, keeping a watchful eye on potential criminals and doling out punishing justice whenever a caught an offender. It wasn’t painless any more.

What I thought were simple consequences also turned out to be problematic. How do you confiscate a student’s computer in a paperless classroom? In some cases I could just print out their document and let them continue on paper, but what if the learning activity involved a simulation or creating a movie? All technology violations are not created equal either, so I had to make tough judgement calls about whether students needed a reminder or some kind of consequence.

To improve things for next year I know I need to be more proactive and prepared. Now that I know the most common problems I will encounter, when we make our technology rules up for the year we will need to discuss more specific examples so expectations are clearer. We will need to review our rules too, probably once a quarter to keep them fresh in student’s minds and also to be able to make changes if we need to.

In terms of accountability, next year I’m going to base our rules on our Middle School’s Learning Habits. These are similar to the school’s core values, but they are more specifically about behavior and students receive grades on these every quarter. This way students would get feedback on their technology behavior in their report card, which would help hold them accountable. I will need to keep better track of both good and bad technology behavior, and perhaps even use something like Class Dojo to communicate this with students. Also, by tying our rules to the Learning Habits students could self-assess themselves periodically so it wouldn’t just be me as a technology policeman.

As for consequences of failing to use technology properly, I need to rethink these to make them more effective and to help students make better decisions. Instead of just a verbal reminder the first time, I think making it visual by attaching a Post-it note to their screen would be a helpful reminder. A discussion after class could also be part of this process, so the reminder is not just shrugged off. If student continue making poor choices I need be more prepared to have them go back to paper. This way I can move students to this swiftly when the laptop is getting in the way of their learning.

So overall it was a year of a lot of learning for me, successful but certainly not painless! I’d love to hear other ideas and suggestions from other teachers out there about how to manage technology well.

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The school year has come to a close, and I finally have time to blog again! This year I experimented going paperless in my science classroom by using digital science notebooks- an online version of the classic science notebook that I set up using GoogleSites. I’ve already blogged about setting that up, so I won’t go into the details here, but I’ve received so much interest from teachers about digital notebooks that I plan on making some how-to videos this summer, so stay tuned! What I’d like to do in this post is start sharing my thoughts on how the digital science notebooks worked (especially in light of my goals from the beginning of the year), and how I’m planning on improving them for next year. There’s a lot to reflect on, so I think I’ll post it one nugget at a time.

#1: Digital organization is much easier (most of the time)

My first reason for going paperless was to help students stay more organized, without consuming class time with menial tasks like sorting papers into binders or gluing sheets into notebooks. To accomplish this, all of my “handouts” were Google Docs, which are easily shared with students using Hapara. My students had three folders on Google Drive which contained all of their documents: Science Class, Science Lab, and Science Homework, and could access these documents either directly through Google Drive or through their digital science notebook on GoogleSites. So opening up a document wouldn’t take longer for students than passing out a stack of papers. Each time we completed a unit of study we did a little clean up with their folders to put all their documents in a sub-folder, which would take about 5 minutes in GoogleDrive. The biggest digital advantage over paper is that students never lose documents- so that excuse becomes totally  obsolete. Another handy benefit is that students who are absent in class get the documents digitally anyway, so they can get caught up even before the next class.

On the teacher side there is a nice organizational advantage as well: no more time wasted at the beginning of class collecting assignments. Since GoogleDrive tells you when the document was last edited, and Hapara shows you this data for your whole class at a glance, it’s super easy to “collect” docs and see which students have missing assignments. For projects and assignments that students might edit and improve, you can also tell right away when they’ve made new changes to the document:

A student's geology documents in their digital science notebook

A student’s geology documents in their digital science notebook

One simple improvement for next year is the way I named student’s documents. I used the Hapara feature of including the student’s name automatically in the document title, which makes searching up a specific student’s document a cinch, but I should have also included a number at the beginning of each document title (01, 02, 03, etc). This would make documents appear chronologically in on students’ digital science notebooks, which unfortunately only lists documents in alphabetical order. Numbering the docs would not only make new documents easier to find, it would maintain a clear chronology of learning for students to see, much like a paper science notebook would.

The main drawback is when computer issues get in the way. Occasionally a student would have trouble connecting to the Wifi network, or their laptop would need to be charged, or their computer would take a long time to log in. Little snags like this can be annoying- do you pause the lesson to help solve the student’s technical problem, or continue on without them? Since this is my 6th grade students first time in the 1 to 1 program, they aren’t extremely tech savvy yet, so often I would choose to wait and help them out. But next year I think I need to spend more time developing students responsibility and critical thinking around technology. For example, bringing your laptop charger to my class is just as important as bringing a pencil used to be, so I need to make that expectation clearer from the get-go with a technology agreement and prepare for the inevitable day when a student still forgets, which will bring me to my next reflection about technology rules…

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NGSS for dummies

After my initial read of the Next Generation Science Standards, I decided to dive in deep into the elementary standards and treat the draft standards as though I was going to have to teach them next year. The result was less than inspiring… Although I am a firm supporter of the intentions of NGSS as I wrote earlier, there are a lot off issues that need to be addressed in this draft. Because it’s an overwhelmingly large document to break down (even when just focusing on elementary), here’s a visual version “for dummies” of my NGSS criticism:

Here’s a key to my icons:

  • Tacked on: these topics have performance expectations do not fit well with the central idea of the topic and in my opinion they add unnecessary breadth to the standards. Unfortunately, this “tacking-on” seems to be rampant in the standards, and I’d love to be able take a red pen to them. Example: The 1st grade Structure and Function topic focuses on… structure and function of plants and animals (duh) until it starts tacking on random expectations about heredity, parent behaviors, and communities.
  •  Bloated: these topics have so many big ideas slapped together that in my opinion it would impossible to address them together in any meaningful depth (without taking an impossible amount of time). For some reason is a problem in with 4th grade: Life cycles, Earth processes, and Energy are in need of some serious editing. Example: the 4th grade Earth Processes unit tries to combine weathering and erosion, fossils, and geological hazards all under one topic- yikes!
  • Disastrous: these topics are a complete mess of barely related performance expectations, and contain no clear central idea as far as I can see. All 3 “disaster” topics are in Earth Science, so they’d better find a new team of geologists to fix these! Example: The 5th grade Earth Systems topic is all over the map including the different earth “spheres”, the workings of climate, the importance of the ocean, the water cycle without the cycling, and environmental conservation without climate change.
  •  Repetitive: these topics contain central ideas that are already addressed in an earlier grade’s topic, and without enough additional depth to justify further study. This could be cleaned up easily by combing some of these topics for more depth in one grade level. Example: In 2nd grade there is a Pushes and Pulls topic which overlaps a lot with the 3rd grade Interactions of Forces- why teach similar forces units two years in a row?
  • Not age appropriate: these topics should be moved up to a higher grade level because it would be more fruitful to be able to investigate them in more depth with older students. Example: The Kg Weather topic would not include any quantitative data collecting like temperature and rainfall. Why not wait until students are ready to use meteorological tools to analyze the weather?
  •  Very good: these topics are clearly focused around a central idea and would allow for rich, inquiry-based learning. If only there were more of them!

Overall, I believe the NGSS draft still has a long way to go to achieve its stated goal of more depth and less breadth in US science education, balancing emphasis on content with skills and cross-cutting concepts. The structure of the standards with 4 topics per grade level after 1st grade is a simple barrier in itself- it seems to imply that 4 science units would need to be taught each year, and many of these topical units are very broad in content as currently written.

I would love to discuss the topics in more detail, and hear others’ takes on the standards. If you’re interested, check out the #NGSSChat on Twitter this Thursday at 8pm Eastern being organized by @FredEnde. That will be 3 in the morning for me in Qatar, but I think I’m actually nerdy enough to wake up for it!

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Back from the dead

It’s the day after Halloween, so it’s pretty fitting that today I’m coming back from the dead and finally blogging again! The past few weeks have been crazy for me, as I attended not one but two international science ed conferences which had me jet-setting around to Athens and Barcelona (don’t you feel sorry for us international educators??).

My travels (and subsequent opportunities to do some reading) has left my mind buzzing with new ideas- I’ve probably got enough material to post for the rest of the year. So here’s a little teaser of some things to come:

  • Nuggets of wisdom from Dr. Fran Prolman’s outstanding teacher leadership institute including strategies for building effective teacher teams and how to deal with “difficult conversations” with parents or other teacher
  • Thoughts on how to reinvigorate the tired elementary science fair, including a new online student manual that I’m creating for the NESA Virtual Science Fair which my school is involved with
  • Reflections on progressive education and radical school reform after reading Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve
  • Forecasting the future of textbooks after being inspired by Al Gore’s iPad app e-book thingamajiggy Our Choice 
  • And finally wrapping up the discussion of pre and post assessments, with some statistics for dummies
Great- now I’ve got a nice long to-do list for myself. Stay tuned!

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A few years ago I attended a  presentation at my school called “Thinking about Knowledge” by Martin Skelton, and one brief comment he made really changed my whole outlook on assessment and reporting. He simply said “true assessment must be pre and post”. In other words, how can you claim to assess learning and report on learning if you don’t know what students know beforehand?

This set me off on a tangent thinking about the future of report cards. Sure everyone’s on the standards-based bandwagon now (including myself), but wouldn’t report cards be even better if they were student-based, that is they report the actual growth of the student’s learning, not just a final snapshot of how they measure up to some arbitrary standard? I understand that have some benchmarks for evaluating one’s progress compared to the “normal” expectation is important, but I think the evolution of learning is trending towards even more personalized learning and assessment, and soon we should be able to track and report on learning in a truly student-based way.

Anyways, I digress! The point I’m trying to make is that teachers need to do a better job of pre-assessing their students. While some may think pre-assessment is a waste of time, the opportunities they give for personalized differentiation and assessment of learning progress are many and valuable: Pre-assessing allows you to identify the students who already have a grasp of certain concepts and will need to be challenged in other ways to continue learning. Pre-assessing exposes student misconceptions that may interfere with learning and need to be addressed. Most importantly pre-assessing gives the teacher and the student a clear“before and after picture” of their learning, which is useful for student reflections, parent conferences, and teacher improvement as well.

For the past few years we’ve been doing pre and post assessments for all of our science units K through 5. It’s taken a lot of trial and error to refine them, but we’ve improved them to the point where they are useful and important piece of our curriculum, so I’d like to share the product and the process. Since it gets a little technical (and it’s getting a little late for a sleep-deprived new parent like me), I’ll break this up into a two-part post: the pre post and the post post.

I’ll use our 3rd grade Sound and Light unit as the example, since I can share some of the pre and post data that’s already come in this year (if you’d like to see examples from other grades- just let me know). Here’s the Sound and Light  pre-assessment, a short written assessment with 6 short-response questions:

The questions have been developed carefully to get a bit of assessment evidence for each of the key concepts of the unit. The post-assessment, as you will see, is much more thorough, but I believe efficiency trumps thoroughness for pre-assessments, so we’ve kept our pre-assessments short and sweet. Also, all of our pre-assessment questions are open-ended/free response, since we don’t want to encourage any guessing with multiple-choice type questions, we want the pre-assessment to be as true a reflection of students’ prior knowledge as possible.

I should add that the pre-assessment is given to students at the very beginning of the unit, with basically no prompting other that “I’d like to find out what you already know about sound and light. If you aren’t sure of something, it’s fine to just write ‘I don’t know.'” Students unfamiliar with pre-assessments will need reassurance that it’s not graded as well!

Teachers don’t need to spend time rigorously assessing these pre-assessments, they simply give them a look over to help them identify the students who already have a lot of prior knowledge about the subject and will need their learning differentiated. We have a pretty high-achieving student body, so there’s always a few in each class who need this kind of extra challenge (side note: I once had a 1st grader identify on a pre-assessment the scientific name and function of each of a fish’s fins! Good luck differentiating that one!).

Then pre-assessments are passed on to me. As the science coordinator at my elementary school, I use the pre and post assessments to evaluate the success of the unit. So take a random sample of 5 students from each class (random.org is a great site for generating quick random number sequences for this) and score their pre-assessments. Like all of our assessments there’s a 4-point standards-based rubric for this. A 3 is meeting the standard, a 2 is approaching, a 1 does not meet, and a 4 is exceeding or excelling. Here’s the scoring guide for the pre-assessment:

I record all of these scores into a spreadsheet, because I want to be able to compare the scores of the same students on the post-assessment after the unit. This year I’ve been using GoogleDocs for my spreadsheets, because it’s great for sharing the results with teachers easily and without cluttering up their inboxes. Here’s a snapshot of what the spreadsheet for this pre-assessment looks like:

As you can see, besides the 4-point scores, I also like to pick one question and record their responses. There’s always some interesting prior conceptions that pop up… for instance you can see here some students are already making connections about sound and air, and sound bouncing off things, and a couple of the students are already aware that sound in made from vibrations (differentiation anyone??).

Lastly the pre-assessments are saved so students can look at them again after the post-assessment at the end of the unit. But more on this later in the post post… stay tuned!

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One of my responsibilities as elementary science coordinator is to be a mentor to homeroom teachers and help them become better at teaching science. I must admit this is probably the hardest part of my job- it’s one thing to be critical of yourself and work to improve your teaching, but teaching teachers, that’s a different story. Up till this point most of my mentoring has consisted of leading by example, teaching model science lessons in our science labs, which is well inside my comfort zone. But I know in order to take our program to the next level I’ll have to do more: instead of being just the captain of the team, I need to be a coach.

Science coaching (as well as coaching in other disciplines) is pretty trendy right now in elementary ed. However, there seem to be many different varieties out there, and I’m going to need to figure out the recipe that works best at my school. Here are what I believe to be the key ingredients:

  • Model teaching
  • Providing professional resources
  • Teacher observation and consulting
  • Facilitating learning activities
I’m not going to delve into model teaching, because I already do plenty of that, and frankly that’s just regular teaching with another adult in the room. At first I guess it was strange, but once you realize your both on the same team ,it’s actually much better having another teacher with you.
Providing professional resources is easy as well, but probably the least effective ingredient. Just think of all the required readings or faculty “book studies”… in my experience they result in a lot of last-minute skimming and shallow conversations. Good for creating a common language around a new initiative, but not sufficient to reach any meaningful depth. Nevertheless, I’m kind of a professional reading nerd, so I continue to give teachers at my school excerpts from my favorite summer reading each year. One year I put a small note at the end of the reading, asking anyone who finished it to let me know what they thought… still waiting for a response. There are other options out there more interactive than readings, such as NSTA’s Learning Center where teachers can take mini-course online by themselves to brush up on their background knowledge, but I’m not sure how many elementary teachers would have the time or desire.
OK, on to the meaty stuff. Observing teachers can be an intimidating prospect, and also blurring the line between coach and administrator. But I’m going to have to suck it up this year, because nothing embodies the spirit of science coaching more than working directly with teachers on their teaching. Luckily, my school has had some training in an interesting observation protocol called Looking for Learning. You can check out their website for more info, but the basic principle behind this kind of observation is that instead of observing the teacher, your main focus is observing the students. So while students are engaged in an activity you conduct mini-interviews from student to student, aiming to get a grasp of how much learning is actually taking place during the activity. Of course this is all in the context of what the teacher is doing, and how they’ve structured their class. What makes it an interesting approach is that sometimes even when classes appear to be busy learning, there’s not actually a lot of learning taking place (or at least not the kind the teacher intended). The follow-up conversations with the observer and teacher are also interesting as the two compare notes on how they perceived the engagement and learning of different students in the class. Because the focus is on the students, it seems less confrontational, but the approach remains effective because the responsibility of the teacher to ensure all students are learning is clearly implied- if learning wasn’t taking place the next step is to look at what can be done in the future to change that. As with reading professional resources, the effectiveness of observations and consulting will depend on teacher buy-in. So I’m planning on initiating these with teachers who I think would be most receptive initially, and then depend on good word-of-mouth to involve others.
Last but not least, there’s the learning activities, which is just code for getting teachers messy with hands-on science in an attempt to spark those deeper conversations and thoughts about inquiry and pedagogy. When I think back to my favorite professional development experiences (the Dana Hall Science Workshop and a graduate class on experimental design at the University of Maryland), both of them were so stimulating simply because we were expected to do science as a student while thinking like a teacher. The common experiences of searching the beach for fossilized shark teeth and building a water tower of toothpicks led to much more lively and focused discussion between colleagues than any reading I’ve ever done. So I hope to recreate that in some small way for the teachers at my school, letting them dive into a hands on activity with the eagerness of a student, and then encouraging them to process it through the eyes of a teacher. Whether it’s possible to do this successfully in short sessions at the end of a long day with a bunch of familiar faces…. we’ll see!
So there you have it, another work in progress. 🙂 I’ll post more as the plan becomes clearer- in the meantime I’d love to hear from folks who have had successful in-school PD or coaching in the past. Despite these best-laid plans, I’ll probably need to focus my time in a couple of these 4 areas, and it would be helpful to get some idea where to throw my weight.

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