Goodbye to the Science Fair

When I started my current position one of the projects being worked on was a redesign of the district science fair. It seemed everyone was frustrated with the status quo- a collection of cardboard tri-folds and volcano models. Not much had changed in decades, and no one felt it was a good example of what our kids are capable of. An emphasis seemed to be placed on quantity over quality. I joined the team and we all started coming up with ideas of what an engaging science fair could look like. We took a field trip to the Google Science Fair in Mountain View, CA. It was amazing. It was what we want our kids to do.

To get rid of the cardboard tri-folds we need to change the mindset, so we started with the name.  Everyone knew what to do for the “old” science fair: the same thing they did last year and the year before. So the Science Fair became the Science and Engineering Expo. No one knew what to do- they had never heard of one! Including us. We needed to figure this out. We would have a number of “events.” The science exploration event would consist of individuals or teams of students (depending on age) presenting their science exploration, similar to what we saw in Mountain View. Kids would submit a digital presentation rather than the traditional cardboard product. They would then bring artifacts of their project, and present to judges and whoever else happened to be there to watch.

We built the day around 4 sessions, each with up to 10 presentations. The young scientists would come in and set up their work in a relaxed, casual atmosphere, and deliver their presentations to judges and whoever else happened by and was interested. Each student repeated their presentation 3 or 4 times, each time to a different audience. Then, after an hour or so, those students would pack up and the next group would come in. It was fun to watch the students revise and improve their presentations with each retelling. Even in their final presentation they were refining their learning. It was amazing.

In addition to the science presentations, we had a Minecraft challenge, our first ever Vex Robotics demonstration, and even a paper airplane competition. One of the comprehensive high schools sent a student video crew to record the day. It was fun to see these kids interact with the competitors. Just like the world of work! And another school had their CTE kids use a laser cutter to make awesome awards!
It was a huge success. The kids were amazing. The projects were wonderful. There was only one cardboard trifold, and it disappeared quickly!  Kids talked about their learning, and it was genuine learning, not memorized stuff, or stuff copied from a book! Mission accomplished! In the words of one of the judges, “This was amazing. It was a science teacher’s dream. I am so glad I participated!” Or the words of one of the younger scientists “This is the best day in my whole life!” OK, she is only 8, but still.

*Featured image Goodbye 261/365 by  Dennis SkleySome rights reserved

Top Chef: Minecraft Edition

ward
Hanging the banner.

Today my district ditched the Science Fair. We turned it into the Science and Engineering Expo. It was a blast. It took a whole crew of people to pull off, and it was a huge success. The part I was most involved in though was what we called Top Chef: Minecraft Edition, with a tip of the hat to Jon Corippo for the Top Chef idea. The idea was kids would work in groups of three to create an environment in Minecraft that would support the fictional “Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.” Every now and then in the two-hour event a new “secret ingredient” was to be announced that teams needed to add to their environment in a meaningful way. It was a great idea, but I had no idea how to actually pull it off. I have dabbled in Minecraft, but I don’t even rate the novice level. I am a total newb.

 

I turned to social media, and my friend Diane Main connected me with Shane Asselstine, in Hawaii,  who provided us with the perfect Minecraft world to work in. One of the tech guys in the office, Darin,  built a Lynux server for the event and repurposed some old laptops. He actually knew what to do with the world that Shane provided us! On the day of the event we had 7 teams of three kids each, and a whole big cheering section of family, friends, and teachers for each team. It was a whole thing!

I started to explain the event to the crowd; what the world was and how it worked when I was interrupted.

“Each block is 1-meter square. You should not say the area is 100 blocks by 150 blocks. You should say it is 100 meters by 150 meters.”

And that is how we started our first ever Minecraft Showcase, me being schooled by a 6th grader.

I corrected myself and continued explaining how the Minecraft challenge was going to work. To be honest, I had no idea how it was going to work, I was just hoping it didn’t end in disaster. It didn’t.

The first “Secret Ingredient” was an easy one: sand. I noticed that everyone had a lot of water in their area, and figured they would put the sand along the edges of the water, but I would trip them up by asking them WHY they put the sand there. The first time I did, the kid looked at me like I was a total scientific newb, and gave me my second schooling of the day “Sand is eroded rock. That is what it is. It flows into rivers and is deposited on the banks. It’s what sand does. That is where it goes. It’s natural.”

Excuse me.

One of the high school video crew suggested the second secret ingredient: paintings. How was a bunch of middle schoolers going to use paintings in an environment for the tree octopus in a meaningful way? No problem.

The first group put their paintings in a cave. You know cave paintings. Since the tree octopus prefers to hang out in caves, this team had a cave from “an ancient civilization whose population had mysteriously disappeared. These paintings are artifacts from that civilization” the 8th grader told me. That led to the discussion about the fallen tree that was just outside the cave. It was decomposing, providing a home for the frogs. Then they discussed the water lilies that attract the insects that the frogs eat. Because, you know, the tree octopus eats frogs. It said so right in the middle of the two solid pages of small text that I had given them explaining the tree octopus. You can’t have a tree octopus without frogs to eat, and you can’t have frogs without insects to eat. You see, they actually read the material. All of it. Then they discussed it among themselves. And made a plan.

It was awesome.

Why Maps?

We all know about maps, right? You know, Google Maps. We all use Maps to figure out how to get somewhere, what’s the best route, or how long it will take. I remember that first time, at a Cue Conference, when a collegue showed me that if you type “nearby pizza” into Google on a phone, you would get a map to a nearby pizza place! I have been hooked ever since. But do you use Google Maps in the classroom?

Last week I was working with some high school Social Science teachers in a professional development session on integrating technology into the classroom. The subject of Maps came up. “Why would you use Google Maps in the classroom? Where is the curricular standard in finding the quickest route to San Jose?” The teacher raised a legitimate question.

I had a simple answer. Social Science teachers are concerned with events that happened in the past. Every event that ever occurred, since the beginning of time, happened someplace. Every event had a location, and that location can be displayed on a map. And maps that show where events occurred tell stories. Why not have kids write these stories, collaboratively? Why not have kids share these maps with each other and the world? When kids make their own maps of events they can then see trends and relationships between the events, acquiring a deeper understanding of the events, and having an opportunity to write also!

We then spent some time collaboratively building some maps. We started with a Google sheet. Whoa there Mr. Hall you may say, I thought you said maps, now you are talking about spreadsheets! Yeah, we built a spreadsheet, one column was the name of a WWI event, the next column had the coordinates of that event, and the third contained a description of the event. This is where the students do their writing. Directly in the spreadsheet. All of the teachers were writing in the spreadsheet at the same time. It worked wonderfully. Then I imported the spreadsheet into Maps, and boom, we had a map!

I can’t wait to see the maps these teachers students create!

My Edu-Hero

This last week I was invited to attend some presentations in one of our elementary schools. The invitation was an opportunity to go and see how technology is being used in schools. On Tuesday morning I made my way over to the Primary Years Academy, pushed my way through a crowd of proud parents outside Ms. Matty’s first grade class, and was amazed. Kids were grouped around their little tables, in teams of two or three. Each table had a bunch of props representing aspects of the country the kids had researched. The kids were in costumes, respectfully representing the traditional clothing of that culture. Each team had a Chromebook the kids were going to use for their presentations. They were getting ready.

20160301_082656
As the kids were getting logged in to the Chromebooks, the problems started. Something had changed on the network the night before, and kids were presented with a screen they had never seen before. They didn’t know what to do. With a crowd of parents outside the room waiting to get in, and Ms. Matty busy with all the details involved in a day like this,  I watched a boy and girl interact:

“Hmmm, That’s not right” the boy said.

“Try clicking here.” said the little girl.

“That didn’t work. I’m going to log out and try again.”

This went on for a few minutes before word spread among the kids on how to solve the problem. It was really impressive. Remember, these were first graders! Six year old kids!  They had run into an unexpected problem, and were doing a fantastic job of problem solving. The kids solved the problem, and went on and gave their presentations to a room full of parents, and then repeated the performance for classes of older kids.

The kids did a great job. I saw really wonderful presentations. Kids were using technology in an authentic way, blended with realia to make a meaningful learning experience. I just wish everyone could see what is happening in Ms. Matty’s room. Great things are happening in that class.  Ms. Matty is my Edu-hero.

 

 

Passion

Now that I have been in my new job for a half of a year, it is time to start getting back to the blog. One of the things that bothered me about being a classroom teacher was the isolation. A teacher never gets to go out and see what other teachers are doing. Sure you can go to conferences – I did that often- but that is not the same as going to other schools and seeing what is actually happening, what are teachers doing, and what are kids doing. So it is really difficult to have a sense of where you are at in the bigger picture. I thought I was a rather innovative teacher, but really, I had no idea. I had nothing to compare what I was doing with.

Now that I am out of the classroom I have the opportunity to go and see what is happening in the schools throughout the district. With some 2,000 teachers spread out over 53 schools I have some opportunities in front of me.  I  have seen some cool stuff so far. I loved seeing some second graders using Google Slides to give a career awareness presentation.  It was a blast watching some 8th grade kids work on building a prosthetic arm. I got to see a bunch of high school kids pound on the door to get back into school – on a Friday afternoon, on a holiday weekend! They had work they wanted to get done. It wasn’t “due.” They just wanted to work. They didn’t see how school being over had anything to do with it. They wanted the dang door unlocked.

In reflecting back on these experiences, there was a common element in all of these, and it was the teacher. In all of these experiences, the responsible teacher was visibly passionate about what his or her students were doing. In thinking back on what I know about learning, what we know about high performing- high poverty schools, it is the role of the teacher that is most important. The teacher must believe in the kids; they must be passionate about the kids and learning. They must do whatever it takes to bring an interesting and engaging lesson to the kids. When this is done, the kids respond. They pound on the doors to get them open.

I am looking forward to seeing more passionate teachers, and helping others to rekindle their passion.

Learning is not quiet. 

“It should be quiet in here. You should be studying for the quiz!”

“Sit down and do your work, I want it quiet in here!”

I have heard these directions, and others like them many, many times through the years, and I just do not get it. When I am trying to learn something, especially something difficult to understand, I need to talk to people. I need to compare my understanding with another’s understanding. I think we all do. That’s why we have meetings! Can you imagine a staff meeting where the trainer said “I want you all to read this article, and study it. Tomorrow you are going to implement this new procedure, so study! Quiet!”

It doesn’t work like that. When we teachers are learning something new, we talk about it. A lot. We compare understandings. We argue about understandings. We challenge each other. We draw diagrams. We discuss. We get excited! So why don’t we let kids do that? It seems to me when kids are studying for a test the room should be noisy. Kids should be talking about the topic. They should be challenging each others understandings. They should be helping each other with clues. They should be giving high fives to each other. The room should not be quiet. Quiet is not the same as engaged. Quiet does not mean on task, and quite does not mean learning is happening.

 

Ditch the Points

This year I am doing it, I am ditching the points. After years of pretending that giving points for assignments was an objective way of giving grades, I am finally admitting that all those points really do is keep track of how many assignments a student does. Points do not measure what a student knows or can do. They measure what the teacher wants measured, which is too often not the standards the class is supposed to be focused on. They measure compliance, not competence, and certainly not mastery. And don’t get me started about “Extra Credit.”

So no points this year. Students get a ‘P’ or an ‘N’ for each project. ‘P’ means the student did a proficient job at what they were asked to do. An ‘N’ means the work needs more attention. So far students have a lot of ‘N’s. And they keep redoing things, and the work keeps getting better. Eventually the project gets the ‘P’. And no one is complaining, it is amazing. The students share work with me, I give feedback, they consider the feedback and make a decision as to what to do about it, and keep going. We are only a month into the year and everyone is at a different level, doing different work. Every student has an individual learning goal for each day. And best of all, as I walk around the room I see more actual engagement than I have ever seen. I know it is only a month into the year, but I am really liking what I see so far.

Why Can’t They Start Now?

It was one of the last days of the school year and Alex, one of our seniors, said it: “I just can’t wait to graduate high school, go to college and finally work on what I want to be in life.” He was so excited. As he talked to his friends it became apparent that he viewed high school graduation as the end of learning the things he was told  to know, the end of jumping through pointless hoops, and college was where he could take control and do the things he felt relevant.

While I was happy for him and the rest of the graduates, I felt like a failure. Why can’t we have a school where kids can work on their passions? Where kids know the connections between their courses and the rest of their lives? Sure the state dictates what courses students need to take. But there is really no reason school can’t be a place where kids are preparing for their future, the future they see for themselves.

It has been done before, we have examples of how to do it.  There are schools where kids are excited to go to school, where kids are in control of there learning, and it works. It is hard to break the paradigm, but it is not impossible- it’s just difficult. We have the chance for a new beginning with the transition to CCSS. So lets make it so. This year.

You Want Me to Teach Like a What?

A few summers ago I learned about teaching like a rock star. I took a drive down Highway 49 and spent a couple days at Minarets High School, met some amazing people, and continued to change the way I think about what I do in the classroom. If you have never gone to one of these camps, I highly recommend them. They sell out fast, so you have to sign up quickly.  About a year ago I read the book Teach Like a Pirate. I love that book. It really takes what I try to do to another level. No, I do not dress up in costume like the author does, but I do try to make the day interesting, relevant, and even fun for the students in the class. School should not be boring. Really, it shouldn’t.

Now there is a new movement taking shape: Teach Like A Feral Pig.  I have never met a real rock star or pirate that I know of. But we have feral pigs in the area I live. They are not considered good things. But then, neither are pirates. I surely do not want to live next to a real rock star- I have heard about those parties! But back to the pigs, they are usually big- real big. They like to dig things up. We have a friend whose yard is constantly being ripped up by feral pigs. He can’t stop these things. They know what they want and they don’t let pesky things like fences keep them from their goal. They are downright disruptive!

We teachers should be like that. We should be disruptive. We shouldn’t do things just because that is how it’s done. Rock stars are rock stars because they don’t do things like its always been done. Pirates were pirates because they were rebelling against the establishment. (OK history peeps, don’t jump me on that one, I’m making a point here.) And feral pigs are feral because, well, at some point they busted out of the fences the farmer had them in!

I am going to spend my summer planning on how to be a feral rock star pirate pig! Whose with me?

Image

Breaking Stuff and Other Problems

I have a problem. My students are doing great work. So great they are working on projects and doing things none of my classes have ever done before. They are taking the projects we do  to places I have not seen high school students do before. It is a great problem to have, but I am not sure what we are going to do next week, let alone later in the quarter. I will have to come up with more advanced projects, or at least ask better questions.

When I ask myself why this year is so much more productive I can only come up with a few ideas. The students have not changed much. Sure they are older because I do not have freshmen anymore, but I do have a lot of sophomores. So they are older, but not by much. My classes are a lot smaller. In some past years I literally had to step over kids who were sitting on the floor for lack of anywhere else to sit. All the seats were taken, and if there was an empty space on a table you can be sure a kid was sitting there too.  Now I generally have an empty seat or two, and that counts for a lot.

But I think the biggest reason for the change is that I stopped focusing on the end product and instead focus on the process. More specifically, I began encouraging kids to to “do it wrong.”  I encouraged them to “see what happens if…” When they asked “should I click this” instead of a yes or no I respond with “if ya want.” I asked them to turn in not only the finished project, but evidence of all the mistakes and problems they had. I no longer hear “my computer broke, I can’t do it. You better not give me a bad grade ’cause its not my fault.” I get “Hey let me take a screen shot, no one got THAT error message before.” I even had a student ask a friend record a video so she would have evidence of what was going wrong. She thought it would be better that way than taking a series of screen shots. It is really fun to hear them talk about problems they are having and come up with theories as to why.

So what’s the problem?

I have been taught to think that all of the students in the class should be getting the same education, they should be learning the same things. I remember early  in my teaching career having “terminal measurable objectives” drilled into my head. At the end of the semester all students will be able to (fill in the blank with some task students will learn to do.) I can’t do that anymore. In this new environment, where I am expecting students to take risks, to make mistakes, and to even break stuff, I can’t say all students will be learning the same things. Some students are not finishing anything, but are learning tons! Other students churn out finished products, but are learning very little.  Finishing a project or assignment is not necessarily synonymous with learning. Similarly, not finishing an assignment or project does not mean no standards were learned. It might mean we ran out of time. Or it could also mean the idea/project was a bad idea to begin with! It doesn’t mean we didn’t learn!

I have a team of students right now working on building a Remotely Operated Vehicle; an underwater robot, as their SkillsUSA project. They decided they would design it on the computer then print out all of the parts on the 3D printer and assemble them. Yesterday they thought they had some parts designed just right, the first one came out perfect, so they sent five of the parts to the printer and went home. This morning they came in to find the parts done, but it was clear there was a problem, something had gone wrong and the parts did not fit in the housing they were designed to go in. There was some discussion as to what went wrong and why, and they set about to solve the problem- redesign the parts. One of the kids was gathering the defective parts and I asked what he was going to do with them. He said “I am keeping these. They are evidence that we redesigned them!” I had to smile, but I still have a problem.

I really like what is happening in room 17 this year. I see lots and lots of learning. Lots of really cool stuff. But how do I sustain it? How do I replicate it next year, and the year after? Projects we do this year aren’t going to work next year. There will be different kids, different interests, and different times. Tools we use now will be obsolete. There will be websites that easily do things we now spend lots of time on. I guess that is one way teaching is different now than it was, say 20 years ago; you have to move a lot faster just to keep up with the times!