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Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

Digital notebook free inquiryI’m a huge advocate for collaboration in and out of the classroom. Too often, teachers work in isolation behind closed doors, missing out on opportunities to share ideas with colleagues, get feedback, and grow professionally. Even if teachers reach out within their own school to collaborate, many are missing the chance to collaborate on a worldwide scale. Early on in my teaching career I was inspired by the likes of Dan Myer (math blogger extraordinaire) who not only blogged thoughtfully about teaching, but also published his lessons and videos freely- for anyone to use in their own classroom. It begged the question: Why doesn’t everyone do this? Especially in an age where teachers are just as likely to turn to the internet for lesson ideas as they are to the textbook, I firmly believe all teachers should simply share more of what they do.

In that spirit, I’m sharing all of my digital documents for my 6th grade science units, starting with the scientific inquiry unit in this post. Hopefully you’ll find a few things that are useful for you to use in your own classroom, or at least get a better idea of how documents can work in digital notebooks. I’ve organized them by categories so it’s easier to find what you want: the study guide, lessons, homework, and assessments. Each lesson document is a notes document for students intended for a different day (we have 80-minute blocks, so they are pretty involved), and they are in a “scaffolded notes” style (which I wrote about earlier). Although they are designed for 6th grade science, most notes and lessons could easily be adapted to Upper Elementary or 7th/8th grades.  (more…)

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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:

feedback

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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Back in April, we hosted a Science Collaborative Workshop with 21 PreK-8 science teachers from 5 international schools. (Check out these previous posts if you’re interested in the planning process or my take-aways from organizing the event.)  Since we all use the same AERO science standards, one of our goals was to work together to create standards-based science units that could be used as exemplars for other international schools. We nearly accomplished that in the span of the 3-day workshop, but making these units accessible (and legible) on a website took over a month of continued collaboration remotely (and a little bit of arm twisting on my part!)

I’m happy to announce that these exemplar science units are now published and freely available on our website www.AERO-Science.org. The seven units are:

Please take a look and let me know what you think of our work! Each of the units was designed using the Understanding by Design approach and was a collaborative effort between teachers from different schools.

Next fall we will be holding a follow-up workshop at the NESA Fall Training Institute to continue and expand this collaborative project, so if you also teach at an AERO school, please join us!

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I know I’ve failed to blog much of anything the second half of this school year- but at least recently I’ve had a good excuse! Last weekend I organized a Science Collaborative Workshop at my school, which brought together 21 science teachers (elementary and middle school) from 5 international schools. For 3 days we shared ideas, exchanged resources, and collaborated on science units we had in common. It was an invigorating and intense experience, but when the dust settled we had collaboratively created seven standards-based units that we will be able use ourselves and share with other international schools on our website (still under construction, but you can check out the Electricity unit for a preview of what’s to come). 

I blogged about the preparations back in December, mostly to think out-loud about my ideas for the workshop. Now that the workshop has come and gone (and I have my life back!) I’d like to share a few of my reflections on organizing a professional development experience for my fellow teachers:

If you build it, they will come

Not only is this true for magical baseball fields, it’s also true for teacher collaboration. Too often in education we teachers toil alone behind closed doors, when a conversation with a colleague would make all the difference. But collaborating can be challenging- you need to find the time to do it, you need to find the right person with something to offer, and it needs to be mutually beneficial to make the collaboration last. For our workshop we gathered teachers from 5 select schools where we knew they were experienced with aligning to the AERO science standards and also shared a similar philosophy for designing units with backwards design. So we all shared a common language about teaching and unit planning, and everyone had something to offer. We also put teachers in teams where they all taught similar grades and had a unit in common that they could work on together. So everyone was invested in the work because it was something they could actually use with their own students. Just getting this right group of people together in the same room was probably the most significant factor for the workshop’s success- with the right playing field set up the game happens naturally.

Throw away your ice breakers

One of my main goals for the workshop was to build collaborative relationships between teachers and schools, in other words I wanted to make sure people hit it off with teachers from other schools. So why not start off the workshop with a couple “ice breaker” activities? Because ice breakers have always annoyed me- I don’t know why exactly- but something about their contrived content and obvious purpose always makes me want to rebel and complete the silly activity without actually getting to know anyone. Can you tell I’m an introvert?? 🙂 However, I knew I couldn’t expect teams to dive into curriculum design work comfortably with complete strangers, so the compromise we came up with was science conversation starters. These were based on one of the best PD experiences I’ve ever had: the Summer Science Workshop at Dana Hall. The entire week of that workshop basically consisted of teachers engaging in hands-on inquiry activities with other teachers, and then reflecting on how the activities could be used with students. It was incredibly fun and thought-provoking, and the experience seeing through the eyes of a student and working side-by-side with my peers made a huge impression on me. (Side note- their brochure still has a picture of me in it, so maybe I made an impression on them too!) So each time we began work with a new group of teachers, we had them first do a short hands-on activity for about 30 minutes with minimal instructions: build a sail car powered by a fan from recycled materials, figure out how much water a carrot is made of, investigate whether ice melts faster in tap water or salt water. These activities sparked discussion, demanded creative thinking, and were just plain fun. By the end of the 30 minutes the mood was lively and the ice was broken- but best of all we were doing and thinking about science the whole time.

Sustainability is not just for the Earth

How many times have you gone to a great presentation at a conference, filled up pages of notes with new ideas that you’re excited about trying with your students, and then promptly forgotten them all when Real Life runs you over like a truck when you get home? It happens all the time for me- if I don’t have a concrete plan or reason for using something immediately, it usually gets buried in the pile of good intentions. To avoid this fate for our collaborative workshop, we made sustaining collaboration one of our key goals and spent time during the workshop brainstorming and discussing ways to keep it going. Wheels are already in motion planning a second collaborative workshop for next fall, and each unit team is continuing to work together remotely to finish and publish their units online. Of course it remains to be seen how successful we are at this, but having a sustainability plan of action gives us a fighting chance.

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The discussion about educational value from my previous post has me thinking like a teacher-economist lately, analyzing the cost benefit of all the kinds of choices teachers have to make every day. One of the most important choices we make is what to include (and exclude) in the curriculum (although the amount of choice teachers have in this matter varies greatly depending on the school system!). Since today I held a kick-off event for our 5th grade science fair, I’d like to put that classic bastion of science education on the chopping block, and explain why, for all its flaws, I think it should be saved.

“Science fair” conjures up many familiar images: tri-fold posters, plants grown in different kinds of light, judges peering over clipboards, and anxious students (and parents) milling about a gymnasium. Science fairs have been around for ages (according to a science fair poster manufacturer, since 1921!) and in a lot of schools I bet today’s students’ science fairs look strikingly similar to their parents’ science fairs (except with fewer experiments about nuclear radiation). In other words, the traditional science fair has become too… traditional, and as teachers we know we shouldn’t just keep on doing something because that’s the way we did it last year. What’s wrong with the good ‘ole science fair? Here are a few of the faults the pose the most trouble:

  • Conflict with the standards-based shift: Since students in a traditional science fair have the choice to pursue all different kinds of experiments, doing the science fair as a unit doesn’t check off any content from your standards. And in our age of bloated science standards, we barely have enough time as it is to “cover” everything, so how can time be wasted on something devoid of content?
  • Competition gets ugly : The student’s main goal in the classic science fair is to win, and often there’s a big deal made of the winners: ribbons, trophies, going on to regionals, etc. With that kind of competition, the pressure to succeed is high, causing stress for students and causing some parents to become  way too involved in their “child’s” project.
  • Same experiments every year: I’m willing to bet money that if I went back in time and attended a 1950’s science fair the experiments would be nearly identical to the experiments kids come up with today. Why so uncreative? Because conducting original research is hard for students who have been told what to do year after year. So they turn to books and websites for guidance and end up shopping around for something to do from the same tired list of experiments.

With these flaws, why bother doing a science fair at all? Does a science fair have enough education value to justify the large amount of time teachers and students must invest in it? I think it does, and here’s why:

  • Open-ended inquiry opportunity: You can’t pick up a current book on science education without being bombarded with the word “inquiry”. And yet, for all the talk about inquiry, from what I can tell, the amount of actual inquiry taking place in science classrooms today is pretty small. When inquiry does occur in the classroom, it’s almost always on the “guided” or “structure” end of the spectrum. Truly open-ended inquiry is a scary prospect for most teachers- because God knows what the students will do! How will I plan my lessons every day? What does a lesson even look like with open-ended inquiry? This is one of the saving graces of the science fair: in their ideal form, science fairs are meant to be open-ended, a chance for students to decide to investigate something that they are curious about, and figure out how to do it. Of cours it takes work to avoid the temptations of http://www.LameScienceFairProjects.com, but with the right amount of support and emphasis on creativity, student can come up with something better than moldy bread. As long as the teacher makes sure to stay true to the ideal of student choice and originality, science fairs can be the perfect piece of open-ended inquiry that’s missing from so many current curricula.
  • Scientific skills, the long lost standard: If your science standards document is like mine used to be, you will find at the end of it something like a “scientific inquiry skills” standard, along with a few generalities about drawing conclusions and thinking critically. One unfortunate side-effect of the standards-based movement was a hyper focus on content knowledge, to the detriment of skills. As I discussed earlier, scientific skills are in some ways more important than factual content. When my students are 40 they may not remember that carbon dioxide insulates the earth by trapping radiated heat, but if they can weigh the evidence presented in a scientific piece of journalism and draw a reasonable conclusion, I’m a happy teacher. This is another plus for science fairs, they offer teachers and students a chance to focus on these often-ignored skills. Even if everyone in your class is experimenting with different content, the scientific skills will be the same. So a science fair allows us the freedom to actually put content aside for the moment and emphasize skills.
  • Collaboration, not competition: Science fairs don’t have to become an ugly my-kid-is-smarter-than-yours fest. There are many ways to save the science fair from this terrible fate by emphasizing collaboration instead of competition. Have students work in teams instead of on their own. Have teams create a website for their project, so others can collaborate virtually like high school student mentors, or even students from another school. If you do things like this, your student’s experience will be a lot more like real scientific research, and they will learn more of the kinds of collaborative skills they will need in the future.

This post is hopefully the first of many as I navigate the waters of what will be now my 8th science fair as a teacher. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about the opportunities and pitfalls of doing a science fair, but I’m always eager to learn more. If you have experience with science fairs- bad or good, please join in the discussion, I’d love to hear from you!

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You know how you always think teaching is somehow going to get easier each year? I fell for that folly of an idea all over again this summer, thinking that because it’s my fourth year as science coordinator it would somehow be less work because I have it all planned out already. HA! Obviously I was forgetting that deep inside my soul resides a gnawing and persistant little bugger: Mr. Isn’t-there-a-better-way. And just when I thought I was getting set to cruise through the year, he had rear his ugly but inspirational head and get me off my metaphorical couch.

So here it is December and I find myself embroiled in several wonderful but seriously extracurricular projects that I’d love to blog about if I can  add a 25th hour to the day. Well, here’s on such project: The AERO Science Collaborative Workshop! Ok, I know it doesn’t roll off the tongue very well, so if anyone can come up with some sort of nifty acronym involving those words or similar, I’d be much obliged.

A little background: Project AERO is an educational arm of the U.S. State Department created to assist American schools abroad in implementing standards-based curricula. My school, along with most in the NESA region have adopted the AERO standards, in particular the K-8 science standards which were released two years ago. However, as international schools are by their nature isolated, we have very little opportunity to work together with each other and share what’s working with this standards-based shift. Yes, there are conferences set up by NESA and AERO which allow for some collaboration- but as with most conferences the focus is mostly on professional developments (aka listen to the expert at the front of the room).

So basically we’ve got several schools toiling with their heads down in the sand (quite literally in the Middle East), trying to complete this science curriculum overhaul with occasional  support from consultants here and there, but mostly going it alone. Which of course means a lot of work for everyone and not a lot of feedback or second-opinions on the best way to go about it. Why not get together and get our collaboration on?

This April we are attempting to do just that. With the help of my ASD colleagues and NESA science ed guru Erma Anderson, I’ve drafted a proposal to bring together K-8 science educators from five school (ASDubai, ACS Beirut, TASIM Oman, and ACS Amman) for three days of peace, love, and music…. whoops– wrong workshop– I mean three days of intense science curriculum collaboration. We’re hoping for around 20 teachers, with representation from lower elementary, upper elementary, and middle school. So far the response has been very favorable, and it seems I’m not the only one out there who sees the benefit in teachers teaching teachers for a change.

Now that my good idea is actually coming true though- I’ve got to figure out how to pull this off. So I’m eager to hear if anyone reading this has ever worked in such a collaborative cross-school setting before:

  1. What’s the best way to kick-start collaboration with a group of unfamiliar people?
  2. What organisation or set-up helped (or hindered) collaboration?
  3. What tools or technology did you use to facilitate collaborative work?
  4. What follow-up helped the collaboration continue after the workshop and build lasting collaborative relationships?

Here are some of my nascent thoughts on these matters:

  1. I’m thinking of starting with something called “Share Your Strengths” where each school briefly presents some of the curriculum work they’ve done that they think is good stuff. This will not only get our best ideas out there quickly, it should also give us a chance to build a little rapport and trust so we respect each other’s opinion when we dive into collaborative work.
  2. In my experience small group work (about 3 people) seems to be the most productive. You get a variety of opinions but don’t get weighed down by too many. So depending on numbers I’m thinking of breaking us up into teams of similar grade-level and possibly subject interest (so for example, a team of MS teachers working on a physical science unit). I don’t want to over-structure the workshop since I want it to be tailored to school’s needs, so the goal for each team’s work may even be left up to them.
  3. I really want to make sure the work that’s done is easily accessible to all after the workshop, and that whatever platform we use encourages further long-distance collaboration. I’m very familiar with GoogleDocs and GoogleSites, so I’m leaning that way. We also may have some teachers attending virtually, so we’ll need to figure out how to accommodate that (maybe Skype them in for certain parts?)
  4. I know how it is after a conference. You have all this stuff you’re excited about, but then you slip back into your daily grind and never get around to all those good ideas you had. I know 3 days isn’t much time to build “lasting collaborative relationships”, but I’d like to try to nurture the collaboration to the point where it’s self-sustaining. I’ve been blown away by the high level of collaboration going on in the blogosphere, so maybe I’ll even try to turn teachers on to that. The secret ingredient seems to be that blend of the personal and the professional- both intellectually and relationally stimulating.

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