Tag Archives: teaching

Science Wednesday

Time for science in the time of pandemic

Of the challenges that face us during this pandemic, balancing a full time job with young children at home has to be right up there on the difficult list. Listening to my friends and colleagues, bravely managing that tight-rope act, I looked for something I could do to help.  I remembered an idea that arose out of frustration over the thin science in our sons’ elementary curriculum – Science Wednesday.  We did small scale science projects at home on Wednesdays, after school.  Little experiments and kitchen sink inquiries designed to spark my sons’ interest and get them thinking about the natural world around them. I dug through an old hard drive and, miraculously found the ideas and notes for it, recorded way back.

The Zoom session

With the help of my friend, Beth Wilbur, we put together a rough plan. We’d invite the children of our friends, colleagues, and family to join us, once a week (on Wednesday mornings) for a live Zoom session.  During that time, we’d review their results from the previous week and introduce the next activity to come. We’d begin with the experiments I’d used in the past, since I knew they were do-able and didn’t require fancy tools. As a test, Beth and I ran the experiments ourselves, taking notes on potential problems and photos to document our results. We came up with a template for a “Grown-up Guide” (for the parents), which included a list of required items, an outline of the plan, and a few guidance photos for each experiment.

Once we were confident we had two, easy-to-reproduce experiments, we started outreach. Very quickly, our “class” size numbered over ten – enough to get started. It was gratifying to hear the parents’ response to the idea – a bit of excitement, mixed in with a large portion of relief.

The group consisted of ages ranging from 5 to 13. Quite the spread and quite the challenge. After the first two sessions (“Water Transport in Celery” and “The Naked Egg”), it became clear that, if we aimed for the 8-10 year olds, the older kids would figure out their own extensions and adaptations, while the younger kids were happy to come along for the ride.

Two weeks into things, with 20 kids signed up, I decided to reach out to my biology-teacher friends. After all, they could do a much better job than I ever could and they’d have even more creative ideas. My request came right at the time most of them were trying to figure out how to teach their own classes online, so I kept the ask to just one session and I’d manage all the technology, handouts, and communication. Biology educators are the most generous souls and this was no exception. Soon we had a group of some of the best high school, AP, and college biology teachers in the country thinking about at-home experiments the kids could try. Here’s our star-studded line-up:

  • Nancy Monson, Opposable Thumbs (How your hand works)
  • Eric J. Simon, Amazing Red Cabbage Juice (pH)
  • Peggy O’Neill Skinner, Seed Germination (A closer look at beans)
  • Diane Sweeney, The Blubber Glove (Hot or Not?)
  • Brad Williamson, Marine Microfossils (from Iowa!)
  • Carol Williamson, Pollinators in Your Backyard
  • Alyssa Wood, Penny Dirt (Copper oxide and malachite)

The kids were terrific and their results impressive. With each experiment, they caught onto the question and came up with their own answers, often extending their effort to include artful drawings, short video clips of their observations, and added investigations into something new that occurred to them. For example, a few of the kids planted the seedlings they sprouted on damp paper towels and then proceeded to watch them grow over weeks. They brought new tools to the table – digital thermometers, ziplock bags, flashlights, new ways to label, and methods to align a small magnifying glass to their iPhones in order to get a better look at the microfossils. Click on the photo gallery below to see these young scientists at work!



Eric J. Simon

The educators were pretty darned creative too.  Not only did they devise fabulous inquiry ideas, but they experimented themselves and found refinements or adaptations that saved time-pressed parents from extra trips to the grocery store. Their educator superpowers were on prime display and each week I’d be impressed all over again by a new innovation or a creative way to inspire enthusiasm from a Zoom window.  Carol Williamson encouraged the kids to hold up their pollinator grid to the camera if they had something they wanted to share. Peggy Skinner suggested taping their seed germination bags to the wall, at eye-level, so that they could easily

Alyssa Wood

check in on progress each day. Eric Simon drew acid-base analogies that brought home the concept of pH. Brad Williamson tickled their imagination by showing the original site of the marine microfossils samples we sent to them by mail – in Iowa!  Alyssa Wood brought home the concept of penny dirt (aka copper oxide) and brilliant blue malachite by showing photos of the statue of liberty and wearing a lady

Peggy O’Neill Skinner

liberty head dress during the Zoom session. Nancy Monson upped their investment in the question of opposable thumbs by showing delightful photos of chimpanzees, pandas, and possums. Carol Williamson urged the kids to explore gardens, playgrounds and nearby parks looking for pollinators and then document what they found.

We decided to end the sessions with the arrival of summer – always better to leave them wanting more, right? A few good lesson emerged from all of this:

  • Keep the live sessions short and punchy (attention spans and enough Zoom already…)
  • It was helpful to begin each session the same way, with a familiar patter, and a map with red stars to indicate where in the world the students lived (Luca lives in Sweden!)
  • Activities with an end-product seem to foster creative flourishes (those models of the human hand!)
  • It’s helpful to have a few experiments that continue, beyond a week (e.g. germinating seeds) to give the students headroom for more exploration
  • Even though the plan here was to give parents a break, most of the parents stayed nearby during the Zoom sessions and got involved in the investigations themselves, which only added richness
  • Flexibility was key – you can’t get your hands on dried beans? No problem, try pumpkin or sunflower seeds!  No white vinegar in the house? Cider vinegar will work!
  • It took kids awhile to warm up to speaking in the Zoom sessions, but by the end, they all wanted to share and many of them brought other, related items to show to the teachers and to each other

And can I just say again how fabulously creative these teachers are?  I’ve had the good fortune to work with biology educators for my entire professional career and they never cease to amaze me.

Thanks, everyone.  That was fun.

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Filed under Interesting Science, Reflections on Teaching

Retrieval Practice and Ed Tech

From July 18,2014 NYT, Sunday Review

From July 18,2014 NYT, Sunday Review

Last month, the NYTimes ran an education article entitled How Tests Make Us Smarter, by Henry Roedigger [July 18, 2014]. The basic idea put forth in the article was that frequent testing begets frequent retrieval of the tested information; the more often we attempt to retrieve information as we learn it, the more sophisticated mental structures we create around it, the better it sticks.

Roedigger’s piece sent me off on a hunt for the original research cited in the article.  That led me to this article authored by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt (Purdue University):

Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping, [January 2011]

Their research points to the conclusion that testing provides retrieval practice and, as such, works as a memory modifier – it strengths the information in the learner’s brain, making it more likely to be recalled later. In their article, Karpicke and Blunt cite the researcher, Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist at UCLA who has, hands-down, the best lab name I’ve ever heard, “The Learning and Forgetting Lab”. Bjork is well-known in education circles for coining the phrase “desirable difficulties”. His cog psych research points to the conclusion that roughening up the learning path (“desirable difficulties”) leads to greater retention and comprehension. The practice conditions that produce desirable difficulties are spacing (distributing practice over time), interleaving (for example, mixing in equal parts tutorials and practice problems), and testing (retrieval).  Bjork talks about the “study-study-study-TEST” model versus the (preferred) “study-test-test-test” model. I’ve blogged about Bjork’s work previously.  Here is a good explanation of his research, When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction, Courtney Clark and Robert Bjork (UCLA)

The key take-home in both Bjork’s and Karpicke’s work is the importance of using testing as a learning tool instead of just as an assessment tool. Frequent, low-stakes, formative testing, companioned with timely feedback, allows learners to strengthen their retrieval and rehearse the correct information.

With this research base in mind, the next natural step is to address the practical question of how best to provide regular retrieval practice? How to encourage practice that enhances learning in the classroom and doesn’t add to the feeling of being tested to death. To my mind, that’s where educational technology comes in. With tablets or laptops in the hands of each student in a wired classroom, educators can construct lesson plans around frequent, low-stake performances that provide regular feedback.  For instance, reflective blog posts, short student presentations, practice problems, and peer-to-peer teaching in small groups.

The interesting thing about this way of looking at educational technology, is that it doesn’t drive the change – it becomes a facilitating tool.  First you want to improve teaching/learning, next you examine what the educational literature tells us about what works, and then you look for the tools to help drive that change.


Filed under Reflections on Teaching

An Irrigation System Comes with a Teaching/Learning Lesson

New garden installation.

New garden installation.

We’ve recently installed a new front garden – a nice bevy of native and drought-tolerant plants, along with a bit of functional hardscape (I’m learning the landscaping terminology) in the form of a meandering pathway to the front door. In addition to improving the patches on all sides of our home, it’s turned out that this garden project has awarded other benefits – useful lessons in teaching and learning and a well-timed reminder of how incredibly difficult it is to do this education stuff right.

Our guide on this project, Liz Simpson, is an experienced landscape designer, who specializes in native plants.  I’ve worked with her on and off for the last six months, planning, sketching, preparing the soil, etc. and have found her delightful to work with – flexible, clear-thinking, and imaginative. In an attempt to marshall the budget on this project, I volunteered to be the laborer, along with my husband. That meant that we did the sheet mulching (see earlier post), the soil preparation, the digging and planting, and, eventually, the installation of a drip irrigation system.  Needless to say, there was a lot to learn.

The actual installation took place over a three-day period – 197 plants and lots of mulch.  Liz was there the whole time, overseeing the work, making sure we plopped the plants in the right places and heaving the flagstones into place herself, with the help of two, strong-backed helpers. It was all hard work, no doubt about it, but we got it done and were very happy with the results.

Irrigation system parts.

Irrigation system parts.

Then came the irrigation system.  These are drought-tolerant plants, but they do need some water, and given our current complete lack of rainfall in California, the drip system was called for. Liz brought over all the gear – tubing, emitters, brackets, couplers, goof plugs (my personal favorite) – and gave me a thorough tutorial on how to assemble the bits and pieces into a working system.  It’s a bit like a tinker toy operation.  The parts are designed to fit together, snap in place, and be flexibly positioned so that each plant has its own wee stream of water delivered right to its root ball.

Paper plan.

Paper plan.

Liz had carefully assembled all of the components of a productive teaching and learning experience for me.  She would explain, demonstrate, and give me resources – then I would be on my own for the ultimate assessment – a properly installed system.  I listened carefully to Liz’s “lecture”, watched her as she “demonstrated”, consulted the overall irrigation paper plan (“textbook”), and felt confident in my ability to complete the job.

Sound familiar?  Bet you know where I’m going with this.

Two days later, we set out to install the thing. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be harder than I’d thought.  There were elements that weren’t covered in my “lesson”, nuances to the execution that were eluding me. For one thing, the black, mainline hose turned into a serpent creature, taking on unforetold behaviors, roiling in unexpected directions and just generally being a pain in the ass. Furthermore, in what order should we work – should I lay out the hose first, stake it down, and then punch holes for the emitters?  Or is it better to install each emitter as you worked, laying out the hose in small segments? Complicating the whole enterprise was the fact that the “punch and insert” action required to add the emitters was extremely difficult – first, you have to get the hole just right (straight on, not at an angle) and then, when you push in the emitter, the hose sort of collapses on you, failing in the face of all that pressure and pushing (I distinctly heard it mocking me).  What’s more, everything has a proper orientation that must be remembered – right side in, path of water to plant, uphill versus downhill. What had, at first, sounded like a pretty straight-up affair was quickly turning into a Herculian task that I felt less and less qualified to complete. My fingers and hands fatigued quickly and we opted for a tag-team approach, I’d punch the hole, my husband would come along behind and land the emitter (later, it became apparent that was a very bad plan).

By hook or by crook, we finished the first half of the system and decided to call it a day.  Not only were we both wiped out, I thought it wise to ask Liz to review our work, just to make sure we were on track, before starting the second half.

When she arrived to check out our progress, I could tell by the look on her face that our performance had not met the grade. We failed the assessment. In fact, we were destined for remedial work. In addition to improper hose placement, incorrect distances (emitter to plant) we had installed every single emitter backwards. Yup, you heard me, backwards.

Good grief.  Ok, let’s just review for a minute.  Liz had done everything that a teacher should do with a naive student:

1.  Explanation. She explained the content, using language the learner understood, giving clear examples, making helpful analogies.

2.  Demonstrate.  She demonstrated the method for me, then had me do one with her watching (“watch one, do one”).

3.  Reference.  She left me with a detailed description in print for reference, should I need it.

So, what went wrong?  A dissection of this mess-up is kind of interesting, actually (that is, when I can get over the humiliation of being so colossally mistaken).  First, let’s take a look at the emitter:

Drip system emitter.

Drip system emitter.

Liz’s description was to insert the red side into the hose and the black side would face out.  Couldn’t be easier, right? Not only that, but if you look at the structure of the beast, you can clearly see that the red side is fashioned to accept the water flow and the black side is crafted to “emit” water. But somehow, I got it in my head that the black side would go in to the mainline hose …it matched with the black of the hose, it made a continuous color whole, whatever.  That was the model I had in my head.  And even though she left me a correctly completed example and it was written down on the printed irrigation plan (in words, not pictures, I should point out), my misconception was firmly established and I proceeded to install each and every emitter with the black side in and the red side out. Wow.

I suspect that a picture might have made a difference for me.  Either a photograph or a colored diagram, showing insert A to B here, in this way.  Why the actual physical model of a properly completed one didn’t serve that purpose completely baffles me.

It’s also worth taking a moment to ponder why I didn’t more carefully scrutinize the structure of the emitter itself. If I’d studied its functional design and reasoned my way toward a complete understanding of why the red side goes in, I suspect that would have helped. I suspect that understanding the orientation – as opposed to memorizing the color scheme in a garanimals approach – might have worked. But it did not occur to me to do that. Does that have to do with my lack of experience in building/assembling? Or is is a lack of native how-to sensibility?

What’s more, I suspect the number of details to keep track of got in the way; as if my brain could only hold onto so much information and just plowed ahead with its own managerial method. As we worked the logic of my approach felt more and more rationalized.  Of course, this is the way to do it!

Interestingly, when Liz came to inspect the work, undoubtedly taking pity on us, she stayed for the rest of the morning and we finished the remaining circuit all together. This allowed lots of ongoing observation and regular check ins.  “Do you mean, like this?”  “How deep exactly should the hose be buried?”  “Where do you put your thumb when you punch the hole?” The opportunity to watch her in action over a sustained period made a significant difference – wrestling with the main line hose, tapping in the brackets, how she kept her tools nearby, the way she positioned her body in relation to the hose when punching the emitter hole. I gained a much deeper and more practical insight into the proper method, not to mention the hard-to-explain-in-words nuances of the approach. It also allowed me to ask context-specific questions and get the answers when I needed them.

So, bottom line, our little exercise in irrigation underscores a couple of important education reminders:

  • Pictures really make a difference.
  • We hang onto our misconceptions with a death-grip.
  • The apprentice model really works.

Now.  If I can just remember….red in.  black out.

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Learning Feels Different

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI grew up surrounded by music teachers. My mother was a piano teacher and her father, my grandfather, taught violin, guitar, and piano. They both taught students in their living quarters so my own home and my grandparent-visits were woven through with the sounds and sights of music lessons. The line up of nervous children waiting their turn, the dissonant sound of songs not quite mastered, the ritual tones of fitful tuning, the repetition and nervous laughter. If you’ve ever heard “Tuna Fish” pounded out on the piano keyboard by a well-meaning eight-year-old, well, you’ll know just what I mean.

Though I lacked the native talent of my matriarchal lineage, growing up without learning to play an instrument just wasn’t an option. I started with the piano, but my instrument of choice was guitar. I learned mostly by imitating others and through sporadic lessons. Once I’d left home my guitar stayed with me but it mostly hung out under my bed, collecting dust. Occasionally I’d feel the itch to play, pick it up and quickly put it back when I realized how rusty I’d become and how little I remembered.

Recently I decided to pick up the thread. By luck I found a very good guitar teacher, Wayne Anderson, who is a perfect match to my ambition (gentle, non-intimidating, and relaxed). We meet once a week for 30 minutes.

It didn’t take long for it to feel familiar again – the comfort of the instrument’s wooden swell on my lap, the companionship of working a pattern out in my head, and the dull ache on the fingertips of my left hand.

But what was completely unfamiliar and a delightful surprise is how guitar teaching has changed.  Wayne’s approach to my lessons, as facilitated by digital tools, is a completely different animal to the way my mother and my grandfather taught.

Pitch Lab's tuner screen shot.

Pitch Lab’s tuner screen shot.

The differences begin with the most commonplace of lesson openers – tuning the instrument. Wayne introduced me to a number of apps for my iPhone. After looking them over, I downloaded a free, easy-to-use app from Pitch Labs. Flawless, no-sweat tuning, every time.

Next up, there are no books. Gone are the color-coded Schwann’s piano books, clutched nervously in sweaty fingers with scribbled annotations in the margins as the lesson proceeds. Wayne has a laptop and printer in our small cubicle of a practice room. When we’re working on a new piece, he finds the guitar tabs or sheet music online and prints it out for me. Voila.

As we work together to figure out the piece, assess the timing, and decipher the picking technique he searches for a YouTube video of the song, as played by the songwriter. Bob Dylan, Antje Duvekot, Leonard Cohen, the Avett Brothers, and Joan Baez regularly visit my practice cubicle.

When we’re working on a particularly tricky element we make use of the recording option on my cell phone. Last week, for example, I was struggling with Travis picking. After many failed attempts, I was finally getting it. Wayne gestured to my phone, suggesting I might want to capture this, while the going was good. I propped the phone up on the music stand, pressed record, and did my bit. Back at home, practicing, if I fumbled (which I did regularly), I could just pull out my phone and hear myself picking the right way. I can also recorded Wayne playing and, and in so doing, take my teacher home with me.

On my own I’ve found countless (and I mean thousands and thousands) of excellent instructional videos.  Really good guitar teachers, showing you step-by-step, how to play non-trivial songs on the guitar like Blackbird or Freight Train (seriously, do a search). Often the video production values are so good they’ll show you the right and left hand on a split screen or the musical tabbing along with playing top-to-bottom. Videos are, of course, endlessly patient. I play, stop, rewind, and fast-forward them as needed.

My teacher also makes use of software called Scorch as a teaching device. He bought the software, I have the free plug-in. Wayne will create a scorch file from a piece of sheet music and share it with me. With my plug-in, I can play the song on my laptop and control the speed, slowing it down to match my learner’s pace, and play along with it. Huge.

I haven’t even touched on the various ways to record tracks, edit sound recordings, and write music (I’m so not there yet), but even at my amateur state I can see that teaching and learning music has fundamentally changed.






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A Tech Support Parable (With a Happy Ending)

Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 9.56.34 AMMy 74- year old mother is my most reliable barometer for how difficult learning new technology can be. For those of us immersed in new media and online tools everyday, we tend to forget how overly complicated the world can feel.  I offer you this tale, from last night, a tech support parable.

My mom has a new iPad (Christmas gift) that she’s trying to master.  We’ve had a few sessions together with it where she’s mastered the basics – email, searching on the web, and using the camera. She likes her new iPad very much and, for the most part has found it pretty easy.  Up until last night, I’d say that her two main challenges have been understanding the language around the computer (techy jargon) and using her finger to “touch” – she tends to use her nail or not get her finger in just the right place.  But she’s been mostly quite successful due to her good cheer, native smarts, typing ability, and persistence.

Mom has an in-home Comcast connection, with a recently upgraded modem to give her wireless for her new iPad. Yesterday she responded to a message on the iPad asking her to update her system software, which she dutifully followed.  In true Apple fashion, it led her through the steps, screen by screen. When she got to the “almost done” part, her iPad asked her to identify the network to which she would like to connect.  Full stop.  Before she headed out to the Apple Store (which has become a life-line for her, though she says that she always looks for the “Genius” who is patient with older people), she called me (90 miles away).  Given what she told me I explained that the problem she was having was a connection problem, not an iPad problem, and that the Apple store folks would not be able to help her. Oh.

So then we began to troubleshoot together.  We quickly arrived at the limitations of her understanding – what is a network? why does it have a name? what is a wireless signal? why are there other networks in the list (who owns those?), why does it need a password?  I don’t have that password.  If I were to pull out the most common theme to technology problems I encounter it would be the whole access management/password confusion thing.  Passwords for your network, your computer, your Apple ID, the individual sites you visit – which ID and password for what, etc.

After retrieving the paperwork from the Comcast technician’s recent visit we determined that there was no network password to be found. Comcast had thoughtfully provided a brochure with a to-be-filled in worksheet for the technician to write in the name of the home network and the password – both of which were blank.

Hokay, we need to call Comcast.  But I knew I couldn’t do it for her; it was unlikely that Comcast would talk with me about her account.  So, I set up a three-way call on the telephone.  I asked Mom to find her latest Comcast bill, as we would need the information therein.  She gave me the number, I placed the call, and looped her in, and we worked through the (formidable) phone tree (that kept urging us to go to the web site to solve our problems…as if!) and finally got a live person (roughly 10 minutes).  Meet Paul.

I explained the situation to Paul, who was extremely kind and patient. Only problem, Paul has a very heavy accent.  I knew that my mother could not understand him.  So, we played out a hilarious kabuki where Paul would ask a question, I would repeat it to her slowly and loudly, and my mom would answer. Finally we got to the meat: she needed to locate and read off the WEP code on the bottom of the modem.  “The what?!”  I urged her to put her phone on speaker, while she located the modem and studied it to find the code.  It took a few minutes to find the speaker button on the phone (“why do they make these buttons SO small?!”). Paul and I waited patiently, listening to her rummage around, “Oh, my! Those numbers are so small! I can’t read that!”  I suggested she find her magnifying glass.  More rummaging.  “Here it is!”  Now she read off the code….H21247323bA556…..I wrote it down and read it back to her.  Check.

Now, says Paul, we need to type that code into the network password blank to join the network.  I translated: “Get to the screen with the blue Join button, Mom.”   She’s still got the phone on speaker, so she can have her hands free, but that means I have to shout.  “H!!!”  “212!!!!”  “Wait, wait!” she says in a panic, “There are no numbers on this keyboard!”  Oh, right.  The iPad has multiple keyboards.  So I explain that she’ll have to access the “number keyboard” and then go back to the “letter keyboard” – that long access code had no less than five switches between keyboards, each one painstaking at her end.  “But I can’t check to see if it’s right since what I’m typing is just dots.”  Riiiight.  Oy.  She finally typed it all in and clicked “Join”.  “Unable to join the network, ” she announces proudly.  Paul and I sigh.  Let’s try it again, just in case there was a mistake.  Paul reminds her about caps/lower case.

“Ok,” says Paul.  “Maybe the technician did assign a password, but didn’t write it down.  I’m going to ping your modem from here and zero it back to the Access code, just to be sure..”  “What’s that?”  asks my Mom.  She’s still hanging in there but I can tell that Paul might as well be speaking Greek and she’s getting tired.

Paul puts us on hold (extremely annoying music) while he does his bit.  She and I try to talk, shouting at each other over the ridiculous music and end up laughing hysterically.  Then, suddenly, my mom is no longer there.  Oh, right!  When Paul pinged her network from Comcast, the phone cut out.  Oh, Paul, you should have thought of that.  Now it’s just me and Paul.  On our own.  He comes back and walks me through what to do.  I also ask him to walk me through how to change her network name and password to something a bit more memorable.  He does, and of course, those steps are even more arcane than the shenanigans we’ve been up to so far.   I’ll have to be hard-wired on her network, with a laptop, type an IP address in, get to her SSID, change the network administration settings…yaddha, yaddha….I’ll figure it out, eventually, I’ve got to run since I’m sure my mother is wondering what the heck happened.

I call Mom back.  As I feared, she’s mystified as to what happened.  “Why did you hang up on me?!”  I explained what happened when Paul sent his signal from home base.  “But that was the internet, not the phone!”  Right.  Let’s let that one go for now.  So, she gets back in position and we go through the gymnastics of typing in the WEP code again, this time I remember to pause in the shift between letters and numbers to give her time to change keyboards.  “This is crazy!”  says my mom and we both laugh, realizing we’ve now been working on this for nearly an hour. And, amazingly, we get it right on the second try!  BAM!  She’s online.

I explain to her that when I’m there visiting next, I will get in and rename her network and assign a new password.  My Mom helpfully suggests that perhaps we could choose a shorter password, something with only letters.  “How about ‘shit’?”  she offers.

So, a couple of things here….

1.  I can’t say enough good things about my Mom’s persistence.  Lesser people would have given up much earlier.  I’m not sure what motivates her to hang in there, but hang in there she does.  And, I think that persistence is the key.

2. Do modem and computer manufacturers have to name everything in such confusing ways?  WEP, ping, router, IP address…it’s all just gobbledygook to most people.

3. When technicians come to your home to set up your network, could they please write everything down?  Fill out the darned paperwork provided, please.

4.  Can’t we come up with something more workable with this whole password management thing?

5.  The importance of holding tight to your sense of humor.


Filed under Teaching with Technology

A Network Effect Case Study: #organellewars

Here’s a really good network effect story for you – out of Brad Graba‘s Illinois high school biology classroom.  Mr. Graba decided to modify an oft-used student project for his unit on the cell.  In the typical “organelle project”, students pick a cell organelle (the nucleus, the mitochondrian, etc) to promote and (working in teams or as individuals) they wage a campaign for their organelle to be elected President.  Their stump speeches contain the rationale for the organelle’s importance to the cell – what their “job” is, what happens to the cell if they are out of action, how they relate to the other organelles, etc. The project culminates in an “election” where the class votes to choose a “President Organelle”.  Teachers typically do this activity in the fall (around election time).

Example Storify from the Organelle Presidential campaign.

Mr. Graba decided to add a social media twist to the project and encouraged his students to use Twitter to get their organelle’s stump speeches out there.  Students signed up for Twitter accounts in the names of their organelles (e.g. MightyMito), with identifying photos (many used iconic micrographs) and started posting their messages.  Students composed some really interesting and funny messages, adding to their posts with images, drawings, and links. Within 12 hours the Twitter stream caught the attention of a couple of cell biology researchers, including Anne Osterrieder, from Oxford Brookes University in the UK.  She blogged about the student project here and suggested that the students use Storify (a site that facilitates storytelling through the curation of social media) to assemble their various tweets, images, and other resources for each organelle. Check out this one on the Revenge of the Nucleus (“May the Nuc be with you, young eukaryote”).

More scientists tuned in, adding to the tweets, giving students suggestions, articles to read, other sources of information, and actually weighed in on the vote.  John Runions (@JohnRunions), aka Dr. Molecule in the weekly BBC Radio show, caught wind of the project and suggested the hashtag #organellewars, to make it easier to find all the posts. The interest of the scientists and the BBC, of course, spurred the students on.  Bam.  Network effect.

What great work.  This teacher did it right.  He picked a meaningful assignment, selected the right tools for the job, made the expectations/goals clear, provided all the necessary scaffolding, and then turned it over to the students so that they were the producers – not passive consumers.  Once they caught fire and started producing good material, others noticed.  The students now have pride of ownership, a sense of what real, working scientists do, a deeper understanding of cell structure/function, and a compelling record of their work – and Mr. Graba has a few new tools in his tool box.



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Experimenting with Participatory Media: Mike Gaines at University of Miami

Mike Gaines teaches general biology to undergraduates at University of Miami. He’s one of those incredible educators who is always trying something new – regularly reinventing his course and his approach in order to keep it fresh, alive, and interesting (for his students and for him!).

Mike Gaines' wiki page

Mike Gaines' wiki page

Recently he decided to introduce participatory media to his course (BIL 150).  For some time he’d been looking for a good way to turn a critical analysis of science in the movies into a workable course assignment and a wiki site seemed like a good way to organize it. He built a course wiki site, using Wikispaces, and gave his freshmen biology students the assignment to watch two movies, Contagion and 50/50, and then post their analysis of the biology in those movies (misconceptions?  inaccuracies?  controversies?)  as wiki entries. The student posts are very revealing. You can almost hear their wheels turning as they apply the course concepts (cell division, genetic mutations, viruses) to the science plot twists of the movie (cancer treatment, infection, and disease management).

Following success with that, he started a new page on the wiki site where students would record their observations and reactions to the Richard Dawkins lecture, The Magic of Reality.

Now he was up and running, he decided to experiment further.  Twitter, Wordle and Pixton quickly came next.  He used Twitter to keep in touch with his students, conducting virtual office hours to answer questions and take the “pulse” of the course. After each exam, he asked students to create Wordles (word maps) of their reactions to the exam so that the students could easily (at a glance) check in with each other on their sense of it (really hard?  how’d you do? what concepts were confusing?  how much and how did you study?) and how their own reactions compared to those of their peers. I thought this was a particularly ingenious use of a simple media tool. It was so interesting to read their potent relief as their calibrated themselves to their peers on terms other than test scores.

What I think Mike has done particularly well here is to design his teaching approach so that he’s engaged his students in an authentic experience, where the representation of his students’ knowledge is absolutely essential to the ongoing flow of the course.  There is no busy work here, no tack-ons – everything the students are doing feels important and part of the fabric of the course.

Cleverly, Mikes also used that course wiki site to get final feedback on the course from his students. He set up a new wiki page for student feedback and asked them all to post their comments, suggestions, gripes, and concerns on that page.  From the looks of it, almost all of his students posted something and many of them wrote a quite detailed and useful analysis of their experience.  There are some excellent insights there, but if you don’t have time to read them all, here are a few of my favorite student remarks:

“Because our audience was middle schoolers, critical thinking was required to help express technological and biological in an understandable manner to a general audience.”

“I enjoyed having the opportunity to provide my own input (through Twitter especially) because it gave me a chance to actually think about things more thoroughly. For example, by simply asking us to tweet you about what we found most hard about the test, you are asking us to rethink the test and try to figure out what went wrong. Tweeting is such an easy way to provide input but it really helps spark thinking.”

“Throughout this course twitter has been used as a useful tool to communicate with the professor. Although it may seem informal, it is an effective means of communication because a student can ask the professor a question as soon as they think of it. The comments from twitter were then converted to Wordles, this was exciting because as a student I got to see that other students had the similar concerns and comments on the course.”

“In particular, I thought the use of twitter was a fantastic way to connect with Dr. Gaines and make you stand out in a large class. The same goes for the Wordles, which allowed you to have some valuable input on the tests. It really showed that Dr. Gaines cared about us as students, and didn’t view us all as just one gigantic class that blended together.”

Pretty darned impressive.

And here’s what Mike, himself, had to say about the experience,

“My advice to teachers who want to try this is that once you become familiar with different aspects of Web 2.0 technology, it will be a useful addition to your pedagogical tool kit. It’s how todays students communicate. I had some fears at first because I felt my students were “digital natives” while I was a “digital immigrant” and I would know less than they do.  But this did not turn out to be the case. This teacher and his students became partners sharing their different expertise in the digital world to make my large lecture class more interactive and exciting.  So go for it!”


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Listening with Big Ears

I’ve been thinking a lot about listening these days. Mostly because I’ve had to do quite a bit of it. I’m working on a new project that involves a number of stakeholders with very different opinions about the planned outcomes. Wending our way to agreement involves some pretty serious listening.

So, I’ve been asking myself, what makes for good listening?  When you think about good listeners you’ve come across, what qualities do they have?  What makes them a good listener and how do they do it?  (please add your thoughts to the comments here, as I would love to expand this topic). As I usually do when chewing on something, I ask my trusted friends and colleagues what they think (they always come up with much savvier ideas than I can on my own).

Sure enough, they came up with all kinds of good stuff. And, as with any big, meaty question there is never one tidy answer. There are a number of listening approaches that work and a range of qualities that make different people good listeners. But it seems to me that a prime quality is the importance of listening without an agenda. As my friend, Chalon Bridges, told me listening is all about genuine curiosity, an interest in understanding others, a willingness to absorb new information, and a desire to grapple with colliding ideas and ambiguity – to not know the answer. 

Hmm…yes.  I think that “not knowing the answer” part is really important. I would refer to that as listening without an agenda. In conversations I often find that the listeners are not really listening, rather they are trolling for a shard of information that just might support their own point which they are so eager to make. They are listening, with an agenda, expecting (and then finding!) what they need to torque the conversation their way. Unfortunately this kind of listening ignores all the other information that comes in. When we listen this way, we filter and prevent ourselves from learning anything new or surprising. Listening well, without anticipating the answer, or when we’re careful to not creative ourselves too specific a map, we can leave ourselves open to new interpretations and information.

My friend, Ilona Miko (who is a neuroscientist) reminded me that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, of course, is a sensory process and listening is a cognitive translation of those hearing sensations.  She assures me that both are quite active processes, physiologically, but she went on to say that, for her, listening is also an active process consciously.  As in, when she listens, she finds that she needs to ask a lot of questions.  The questions help to clarify what is being said and adds to the information exchange. I know from being listened to by Ilona that her questions have the added benefit of reassuring the speaker that they are being carefully attended.

I also asked my friend, Josh Frost what he thinks and he came back with a favorite quote of his, from the movie, Pulp Fiction which I thought summed it all up beautifully.  It’s this exchange between Uma Thurman and John Travolta:

Pulp Fiction


UT:  “Do you listen, or do you wait to talk?”

JT, after thinking for a moment: “I have to confess that I wait to talk. But I’m working on it.”

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Painting by Robin Remick

This week I came across a terrific piece in the Huffington Post by Brian Cohen (who is the President of Idyllwild Arts Academy) about teaching creativity.  In it, Cohen talks about the importance of giving students room to figure things out for themselves – allowing them to struggle a bit and discover on their own. He quotes the artist Paul Klee in the opener to his essay, “Genius is the error in the system.”

Which made me think of my good friend, Robin Remick, who is an abstract painter. I recently went to an Open Studio of hers and, much to my delight, she walked me through the work she had on display. There, in the studio where she created her stunning paintings, she talked to me about each piece.  Where she was when she painted in, what she was trying to accomplish, how the colors and materials she used worked together.  While listening to her, I was particularly struck by the role of error in her work. More than once she talked about “not knowing what would happen” and just rolling with it.  For instance, on one recent painting she had experimented with applying a coat of resin to the finished painting.  The resin bubbled up in an unexpected way which she, at first, saw as a problem. To correct it, she poured lavish amounts of resin on the bubbled up places and, in the process, created these thick dollops of resin that gave the painting an interesting textured look with unexpected visual dimension – which she ended up liking very much (me too).  She explained that it’s often that way with her work. That the so-called “mistakes” lead to unexpected discoveries, that working with new materials that she doesn’t yet fully understand leads to intriguing results. This, she told me, has become a familiar theme to her.

Of course, you must have confidence to let that happen. For Robin, who is a thoroughly trained painter, with an MFA and years of experience to guide her journeys and experiments, she has the confidence to roll with her “mistakes” and venture into new territory. But surely there is something to be captured from what she’s discovered – and what Brian Cohen recommends –  that could and should be applied to education? That we need to find room in our fervent curriculum planning to allow learners of all stripes to make mistakes, to take risks, to wander a bit and see where those foibles and flounderings lead? To spend time in that unsafe place of not-knowingness and get comfortable there?

As Cohen explains to the faculty in his academy, your first answer might not be your best and your last answer may well help you to get to the next, but it won’t be the next answer. Modeling that sort of not-knowingness and comfort with errors and unpredictable results feels incredibly right-headed to my ear.

“Creativity involves understanding and, paradoxically and simultaneously, not knowing; entering a process where ready answers are inadequate to the task, and where the resolution at first uncertain. You can know a lot about something and be thought to be good at it, yet not know for sure where things are going to come out.”

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Learning in Action: Interview #4 with Ruth Gleicher

The Dunes project with Niles West High School

For about a month now, I’ve been blogging about an ongoing project with Ruth Gleicher, a high school biology teacher at Niles West High School, just outside Chicago.  You can read the first two posts here and here. Bascially, I’ve been riding along while Ruth has re-invented an ecological succession project, that she normally does with her AP Biology students. She wanted to give the project some new juice, incorporate web 2.0 tools into, and weave some formative assessment into the plan. With each major step in the project, I’ve interviewed Ruth to find out how it went, what she’s learned, and how the students have responded.  Here are the recorded interviews:

And here are the documents she refers to in the interviews:

The storyboarding guide:  storyboardfordunesproject.

The project’s RAFT rubric:  DunesRAFTrubric.

The reading guide:  readingguideindianadunes.

Ruth’s Posterous space

Her students went on their field trip to the Indiana Dunes in September and have now completed their projects. The assignment was to tell the succession story of the Indiana Dunes to an audience of your choosing (making a connection between you, as the narrator, and your audience).  The students had multiple web 2.0 tools to choose from when creating their story – some created digital books, some shot video, some created comics, and still others did VoiceThreads.  You can find the students’ posted projects on their class blog site (pictured above). Without exception, they are creative and wonderful expressions of the students’ understanding of succession.  I was truly impressed by how much time and effort the students put into their work.

One of Ruth’s observations, now that the project is complete, is that she feels she has a much better handle on what her students know (and do not know) about succession.  In other words, their projects were deeper, authentic expressions of what they knew and understood.

Unfortunately, the formative assessment part of the plan didn’t go so well.  The students had two weeks between posting their project and the point at which Ruth would grade them. She encouraged them to comment on each other’s work and recruited a few other biology teachers to post comments.  Most of the students got 2 or 3 comments but, unfortunately, they didn’t respond to them nor did they opt to revise their project in light of the feedback (even though there were some specific issues to address). Ruth’s take is that this formative assessment loop is not a familiar path for her students – once an assignment is turned in, that’s the end of it. She’s eager for ideas to help encourage this important aspect of the project so if any of you have suggestions, please comment below – we’d love to hear them.

I also wanted to reflect on the way that Ruth and I have been working together. It’s interesting to tally up the many ways Ruth we productively used new media tools as we worked.

Skype:  Ruth and I used Skype for our planning conversations and for the interviews.  Since the voice were coming through my computer, I could easily record the conversation and then post the recordings online.

WireTap:  I use this regularly to record audio – it’s a wonderful, versatile, and fool-proof piece of recording software.

Google Docs:  Ruth posted all of her student worksheets and rubrics as Google Docs which made it easy for me to edit and add suggestions. It also made it easy for the students to access them – they could either save and then print them as PDFs or Word docs, or they could save a copy and create their own version of the original, also a Google Doc, so they could modify it, write in their answers, online.  Having the activity’s documents online will also make it easy for Ruth to share her work with other teachers.

VoiceThread:  A few of the students used VoiceThread for their projects.  They uploaded digital images taken on the field trip and added their own narration to the images to tell their succession story.

Issuu.  Quite few of the students used Issuu for their projects to make online books – Ruth’s speculation was that this was the easiest of the tools for the students to use and required much less work.

Pixton.  A few of the students created comic books, using Pixton, for their projects. This was the tool that Ruth was first drawn to.  She particularly liked the way you could add comic drawings to real photos to tell a story.

Posterous.  Ruth used this free application to create a publicly accessible blog site where her students could post their finished projects – all in one online spot – so that others could see them and comment. By posting the projects and specifically marking out time for peer review, Ruth is emphasizing important elements of the scientific process (as well as good writing) – multiple drafts, reshaping one’s ideas based on the meaningful input of peers and outside experts, editing, proofreading, and refinement. And since the projects are all online, and easily accessible, she’s erased the boundaries of the 50-minute class and the limits of getting feedback from those in attendance at Niles West HS.

Thanks, Ruth – it’s been a really good learning experience and great fun as well!


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