Teachable Moments, for all of us

On Friday, when discussing the earthquake and tsunami that had just struck Japan, I remember saying to students, "It looks like the death toll will be in the hundreds, which is horrible, but considering the size of the earthquake is pretty low." Well...as I write this,1 the official death toll is at 2,414 and expected to rise to perhaps as high as 10,000.2

Still image from a 1st person view of the tsunami
Still image from a 1st person view of the tsunami

We've been discussing the earthquake and tsunami in class, though I haven't done much "educationalizing" of the disaster at this point. So far my M.O. has been to show some videos or pictures, give news updates of what's going on, and then have time for students to ask questions or just talk about what's going on. At some level I feel like trying to craft organized lessons about subduction zones, Moment Magnitude scales, tsunami generation, or nuclear power generation would be taking advantage of the disaster.

I want students to know what's going on in Japan. I want students to understand the details. That's why I show the videos, why I spent a big chunk of time searching for video and images that seemed to capture the disaster. And the fact is, students want to know about the earthquake and tsunami and potential meltdowns at nuclear power plants. They want to know why tsunamis are so dangerous ("I don't get it, it's just water, right?"), what causes earthquakes ("I heard it was caused by the 'super moon.'3"), and how nuclear power plants work ("If there's an explosion at a nuclear power plan, how can it not be a nuclear explosion?").

The general public wants to know what's happening and why. Our students want to know what's happening and why. I want to know what's happening and why. However, I want student interest to drive our classroom learning about the disaster. I don't want to use the disaster to drag out a month of earthquake & tsunami lessons if the students aren't interested in learning more.4

I have been pleasantly surprised with the number of more "mainstream" media outlets doing some exemplary explaining about earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear reactors. I've especially been impressed with the time given to explain how nuclear reactors work and then what's going on at the Fukushima Nuclear Plants. Boing Boing did an excellent job describing how nuclear power plants work and NHK World explained simply yet thoroughly what was happening at Fukushima.

These are the times when it seems very clear to me that a little scientific literacy (or at least a healthy dose of skepticism) is an extremely useful skill. There are quite a few bits of misinformation out there, but there are also a lot of quality explanations of the science behind the disaster.


  1. at 10:10pm EDT, March 14, 2011       (back)
  2. via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Sendai_earthquake_and_tsunami#Casualties (back)
  3. FYI, it wasn't. See here for a in-depth take down of the super moon myth     (back)
  4. Yes, I get following the state curriculum means I'm essentially forcing this same thing most of the school year with students. My especially guilty feeling on these topics most likely derives from the fact that I'd feel like I'd be taking advantage people's suffering simply as an educational hook.    (back)

Tim Gunn & the role of a teacher

As mentioned in previous posts, I've been spending a lot of time reading research and thinking about my Master's Project. I'm working on a self-directed learning1 unit in which students choose their own specific topics of study within a broad category (i.e. climate change) and follow their interests and passions while documenting and publishing their learning as they go.

Through all of this, my biggest struggle has been working out exactly what the ideal teacher's role should be in this type of environment. There needs to be guidance, scaffolding, and assessment, but how does a teacher do those things effectively in a self-directed learning environment?

I knew regularly talking to students and discussing their progress and understanding of their topic and learning was a must, but I was struggling to picture how that looks.

Then it hit me.

I've watched a few episodes of Project Runway2, and though I'm not really big into fashion design, I did realize there was something relevant going on here. For each episode, contestants are given some design challenge (i.e., make a more fashionable postal uniform) and given a limited time frame in which to complete their outfit. After working for awhile, Tim Gunn (one of the hosts) goes around and talks to each of the contestants about their designs. It's brilliant.

Conversation, questioning, and critique: Clip 1

Tim Gunn goes around to the contestants asking them how they're doing and to explain their design. He'll point out things that don't look right, offer suggestions for improving the design, praise designs that are well-developed, and overall do what he can to help and support the designers without interfering too much with their particular senses of fashion. Tim Gunn doesn't force his will on them but he does learn a great deal about who they are as a designer and their ideas behind the design. The best part? At 1 min 25 sec: "I don't want you to ask me that. I want you to ask yourself that." Pushing for self-assessment. Nice.

Joining a community of practice: Clip 2

In this clip Tim is more forceful. Wendy (a contestant) designs clothes for lower-end/more practical uses. However, the focus of the show (and that of the judges) is definitely "high fashion." Tim takes her aside, validates her viewpoint as being important and necessary, but goes on to suggest that if she wants to be successful on Project Runway that she rethink her viewpoint. In essence, Tim is trying to help Wendy join the "high fashion" community of practice.

Notable differences

The designers on the show are already members of a community of practice. They want to be fashion designers and, for the most part, they are familiar with what it means to be a designer and are motivated to pursue that route. In my 9th grade science class not all students will be as interested in the material. Those that are interested in the material are probably not familiar with what it means to be a scientist or act scientifically. Fix? More support. Tim Gunn stops by once or twice in a 4-6 hour design session. I'll have to be constantly circulating and talking to my students. Giving them stronger nudges than he does & providing more guidance.


Teaching students to be able to regulate their own learning and follow their own interests will probably be more challenging than it should be in our schools. Students have been trained to expect the teacher to tell them what to study, how to study it, and when to study it. It will take time and support to help students begin to take control of their own learning. To do that, the teacher is going to have to step back from the lead role, and start a role similar to Tim Gunn's. Talk to individual students or groups. Give feedback, offer suggestions, but allow students to express their personality and follow their interests.


  1. hat tip to @msansonetti for helping me discover that name (self-directed learning). I found lots of great research using those search terms.  (back)
  2. Wikipedia article for Project Runway if you're unfamiliar.   (back)

Communities of reformers & learners (great posts 2 & 3)

Communities of reformers

Some posts hit you exactly when and where you need to be hit. Dina over at The Line wrote a post that did just that recently. In a new school where I'm not exactly enthralled with the existing culture, I've found myself frustrated often. I haven't been posting as much in part because I felt like most of what I wanted to write about would be negative and complain-y. I'm not one to be content with school culture that needs some work so I've tried pushing some things here and there with very limited success. That's frustrating. Add that to teaching brand new classes and I'm frustrated knowing that this isn't my best year as a teacher, even if its simply because it's all new

In the midst of frustration the providencial interWebz sent Dina's post my direction. Frustrated working to change a school while working in that school she pulls in advice from several of my favorite names in education (featuring Deborah Meier and Chris Lehmann) who advise reforming with a posse (for support) and giving yourself a break when things don't work out they way you'd like. Check out this gem of a quote from Chris:

Trying to be Rafe Esquith or Debbie Meier is a good goal, but only if we don’t beat ourselves up when we fall short… teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. We desperately need wise, kind, thoughtful people who make this a career and a life.

And we need to forgive ourselves when we aren’t perfect or awesome or “A-game” every day. When the people who care leave because we cannot measure up to our ideal version of ourselves, in the end, that’s bad for our schools and our kids.

I have been in the habit of beating myself up for falling short this year, and Dina's post helped me remember that it's okay. I can fail without being a failure (and that I need to start forming a reform posse 😉 ).

Communities of learners

Michael Wesch teaches his college classes as if they were research groups. He does this to great effect and has received quite a bit of notoriety for his unique teaching style and the products of his students' research (some examples). In the post Our class on how we run our class, Wesch details how the class is organized and what the students are responsible for generating.

Wesch has effectively created and implemented a teaching style that I've been slowly working towards in my last several years as an educator. It's basically the definition of student-centered, authentic, active learning (I know that's a lot a buzz words in one sentence, but if they're ever applicable, it's here).

This post gave me a lot to unpack and think about in relation to my own teaching. I haven't had the time to sit down and decompress all the information he's slammed into this one post quite yet, but it'll definitely be something I spend time on this summer (if not sooner).

Michael Wesch was a guest on a recent Seedlings Podcast (#60) where he gives a little more insight into his philosophy of teaching. An interesting tidbit: he uses Eric Fromm's The Art of Loving to stay focused on what how he should think about his students. The whole show is worth a listen.

When frustration is a good thing

I keep waiting for that day when I look at my curriculum and am happy with what I see. You know, that point where it's really good and perhaps only needs a few minor changes each year.  After years of constant tweaking, improving, and overhaul it seems like that day should be right around the corner.

Instead, the more I learn, the more I tweak, the more I realize how imperfect my curriculum really is. To be sure, it has improved dramatically from my first year teaching, and I'd even say it's gotten better every time I teach. Yet I'm still discontent. I'm still frustrated that the level of student engagement and rigor I'd like to have doesn't match the engagement and rigor that actually exists.

The last two weeks my frustration level has been pretty high. We're not doing enough work in groups. We're not doing enough meaningful projects. We're doing too much question answering. I'm talking in front of the class too often and not spending enough time talking with students. I critically tear apart my teaching technique and the way I present the content.

I'm confident that the curriculum I'm using and the way I'm presenting it is at least "good." My frustration comes from knowing that it's not the best. It's the difference between completing a marathon and winning a marathon. Completing a marathon can be pretty a pretty major accomplishment for a recreational runner like myself. However, if you're an elite runner with the talent and training to be able to win a marathon simply finishing isn't a major achievement.

While I don't mind my status as a recreational runner I'm not happy being a "recreational teacher." I have access to the knowledge and skills required to be an "elite teacher." As such I expect myself to constantly strive for "elite" status.  I analyze my teaching and curriculum like that elite runner watching a video of herself in slow motion; trying to find inefficiencies in her stride that can be eliminated.

My frustration (I've only recently come to realize) is simply a manifestation of my desire to improve.


Image Credits

Better teachers make better schools

Teachers are the key. To be more precise, highly effective teachers are the key. Putting high quality educators in every classroom would increase student performance more than any other reform movements. This isn't just my opinion, it's also the opinion of Professor Edward L. Glaeser according to his op-ed in the Boston Globe.

Dr. Glaeser proposes that step one to getting high quality teachers into the classroom is getting highly capable people into teaching. He suggests increasing teacher compensation as well as making the certification process less of a bureaucratic nightmare. I think both ideas are promising. I've certainly had to (and continue to) deal with the mess of getting certification and keeping it current.

Step two involves keeping these high quality teachers in the classroom. Teacher burn-out is a serious problem, especially among highly motivated, highly effective teachers who spend countless hours planning and prepping for those pivotal few minutes actually spent in contact with their students. People who are highly motivated and very capable also tend to have no problem adapting to careers outside of education.

Step two is where I'd really like to agree with Dr. Glaeser, but perhaps I'm just too cynical to really think things would work out as well as he hopes. Glaeser says, "Perhaps teachers unions could start endorsing the use of test scores to evaluate their members and determine tenure."  Look, I totally agree the current seniority based pay scale is not helping our education system. There's simply no incentive to work hard. I get a raise next year whether I bust my behind or just slide through the year. However, tieing test scores to salary gives me the willies.

Why basing teacher pay off student test scores scares me

  1. Test validity. Most state sanctioned standardized tests have a better correlation with socio-economic status than a students ability to think critically, scientifically, or those other skills that actually matter. If a standardized test could be shown to reliably measure the ability to think scientifically, mathematically, critically, etc. then I'd be much closer to liking this idea.
  2. The measurement of instruction affects instruction. Once you pick an instrument, that instrument determines what and how instruction will occur. If my salary is tied to successful test taking, I'm much more likely to focus on test taking skills or knowledge that students need for that one test. Gone is the focus on life-long learning.
  3. Local policies. What happens if my students don't do so hot on the test one year? Or a couple years? Who determines that policy, and how fluid is it? Perhaps it's just my cynicism, but I can envision too many ways this type of system could be used to keep the "good ol' boys" employed while pushing out innovation.

Things my salary should be based on

  • Classroom observation. Watch me at work. If you're paying me to interact directly with students, my salary better be based upon you watching me do that.
  • Student improvement in the areas of critical thinking, literacy, numeracy, and scientific thinking. I realize the standards say students need to know the difference between an element and a compound, but isn't it more important that my students know how interact with scientific information? We need to be teaching students more than facts.
  • My role as a professional educator. Am I a leader in the school? Can I be counted on to work for what's best for the school community?
  • Personal improvement. Am I reflective about my practice? Can I effectively target when things have gone poorly and change things to improve my weaknesses?

I'm unaware of any instrument that measures all the variables above. I'm not sure if that instrument existed if that would be the solution to our educational woes.

What things should your salary be based upon? Discuss.

Welcome to my wiki

My last school required that all teachers have web pages in order to (at minimum) communicate the daily schedule to students and parents. I used it for my schedule, but also as a jump-off for online assignments.

My new school does not require all teachers to have web pages. Yet I enjoyed the benefits of having an online space for my class. I just had to have some online space for this year too. After a bit a research into what was and wasn't blocked by the school filter, what sites other educators have used, what features various services offer, etc., I settled on using Wikispaces for my new class website.

I began using my class wiki for the same things as my old static website: weekly agendas and a jump-off for online assignments.  Since then I've slowly been increasing the level of involvement my students have with the wiki.

I'll go into specifics about how students are using the wiki in later posts. For now, I want to focus on a few observations and issues that have come up.

The good

  • Messaging

    • Students realized quickly they could send messages to each other (and to me) through their Wikispaces accounts. Students send me messages asking for clarification. Students send each other messages asking for help or information.
  • Creating & Publishing

    • I've only had one assignment that required students to create a wiki page (details in a future post), but we like that it's being published for everyone in the world to see. They like they can work on it directly from any computer in the world (though usually just the computer at their house).
  • Saving

    • The scourge of digital assignments: lost files. My freshmen have next to zero experience saving files to a network drive. I can't tell you how many times students have saved a file to a computer's hard drive instead of their network drive, thus losing access to the file as soon as they log off that machine. The wiki creates a record of the page after each save. If somehow the contents of the entire page gets deleted (which has happened- thrice) they can simply revert back to the last version.
  • RSS

    • I was a little nervous letting my students loose on the wiki. I really didn't think anyone would do something inappropriate, but I still worried. Luckily, Wikispaces (and many other wiki sites) create RSS feeds for page edits and discussion postings- both for individual pages and for the entire space. I subscribe to the feeds for all page edits and all discussion postings. It's an easy way for me to keep track of what's happening on the wiki. I don't want to be a wiki-dictator (wikitator?), but I want to be able to catch anything inappropriate before half the world sees it.

The not so good

  • Messaging

    • There's definitely plenty of personal messaging going back and forth in addition to the academic-related messages. I don't have a problem with this- if it's done in moderation. For 95% of my students it's not a problem. 5% would message people all hour if I didn't get after them for it.
  • What's the point?

    • Roughly paraphrased, the student asked why we couldn't just do this on paper- wouldn't it be way faster? Sheesh. I wasn't ready for that one. I figured the relevance of publishing content online for parents, peers, and the world to see would clear that up. I figured the increasingly digital world we live in would make the point obvious. Obviously I didn't explain what wikis are or why we're using this particular tool very well. In classes with students who have very little computer experience (I had to show some students how to use Google), this stuff isn't obvious. They don't know what a wiki is, what it does, or why they would ever want to use one.
  • Quirkiness

    • Let's face it: Editing a wiki- even one that has a visual editor like Wikispaces- isn't always inuitive and striaght forward. There are certain quirks to it that take time to adjust to. It's trickier and less flexible than editing a Word document. Students who aren't tech savvy can quickly get frustrated with these quirks. I'm constantly finding myself saying, "Just be patient, everyone is running into similar issues, I promise it'll get easier the more experienced you become." These first few uses can be a bit trying.

Exemplars, tips, suggestions?

I'm coming to the realization that I really don't have good examples of wiki usage in a science classroom. I've done my research checking out several classroom wikis, yet I can't recall finding a single high school-ish science class' wiki. Anyone know of any?

I'm feeling a little frustrated that my curriculum doesn't seem to mesh extremely well with the use of a wiki. I could make the wiki a more prominent part of assignments and projects, but I'm wary of forcing the wiki into situations it really doesn't belong. However, I can't help but feel my lack of experience using a wiki in a science classroom and of exemplar science class wikis means that I'm missing some really powerful and obvious things that would mesh perfectly. I'm hoping when I revamp the curriculum next year to facilitate more project-based assessments these uses may spring up and smack me in the face like a garden rake.

Any tips, suggestions, or examples would be greatly appreciated. 😉

Oh, snap!

It's been a frustrating week or so.

Since misery loves company, I found it interesting to read a post by Darren Draper in which he says:

Google 2001 is nice, but what some teachers really need is more like Google 1983. That way their experience on the Internet would better coincide with the experience they are providing for their students.

Shortly after this post, Dan Meyer's post on the efficacy of textbooks was pushed my direction:

[Textbooks are] perfect for below-average teachers with limited imagination and limited love for their own content areas, the sort that need a pick axe, a shovel, and a map to the goldmine handed to them before it'll occur to them to start digging.

It's kind of an indictment that this has been such a profitable business model for so long.

Once again the network has pushed in my direction my thoughts, but more eloquent, punchier, and- dare I say- ballsier (is that even a word?) than I might dare to write myself¹.

And then, just as I was starting to feel good about my situation today, the entire staff gets this email:

'nuff said.


¹Perhaps why they have thousands of readers and technorati "authority" of 165 and 191 while I have tens of readers and an authority of 11.

Caught on YouTube

The NEA recently posted an article about teachers who have been unknowingly taped digitally recorded by their students who then posted the videos online. The article mentions some cases where teachers are clearly acting inappropriately. However, it also mentions a few cases in which the video clip was taken out of context or edited in a manner that created the appearance of unprofessional behavior.

The article goes on to describe how one might go about requesting videos be taken off of YouTube, and right near the end it states:

Problem is, kids aren't always responsible. That's why cell phones and other digital media should be banned in classrooms, advises NEA General Counsel Michael Simpson. He also suggests that schools make it a punishable offense to post a video of another student or teacher without that person's permission.

But the safest course of action is to prevent students from capturing humiliating or damning video in the first place.


  • Why is the first reaction to this "ban 'em all?" Shouldn't we recommend first that teachers not go on mad rampages, call students hateful names, or physically assault students?
  • How do you teach students to use digital cameras responsibly?
  • Is it inherently a bad thing to record a teacher in their classroom without their permission?
  • Is it ever OK to post video of a person online without their permission?


  • The suggestion to ban cell phones based upon these instances seems lacking to me. There seems to be two classifications of video recording according to this article: (1) students purposely trying to get teachers fired, and (2) students recording honest-to-goodness atrocities committed by teachers. The first group of students aren't going to be affected by a ban. They're clearly looking to create trouble. I doubt a ban on cell phones would prevent their mischief. As for the second group, I have a hard time believing that what they're doing is all that wrong. It's very likely that when students make serious accusations of teacher misconduct their complaints are fully believed. So to prove their point, they get hard evidence.
  • This is a tough issue. Take five 30-second clips of my worst teaching moments throughout a year and play it back to me. I'd be horribly embarrassed, feel like a terrible person, and anyone you'd show it to would believe that as well.
  • I don't think teachers should live in fear of being taped. I think teachers should be comfortable with anyone see them teach at anytime. What's to hide? I realize we all have bad moments, but as a profession we should be striving for transparency and professionalism. Teachers should be managing their classrooms in such a manner that being covertly video taped won't turn up any dirt.

What do you think?

Check out the NEA article. Is my thinking on track? Or am I a certified wacko? Have you ever been caught on tape (for good or ill)? Is banning cell phones the way to handle this issue? Am I wrong to not be very sympathetic towards many of these teachers being taped?

Desks of the future?

A recent education-related post from an unlikely source was pushed my way this week regarding new touchscreen desks designed to be used in educational settings.

"Multi-touch smart desks" could be used to authentically improve instruction. However, is it the best way? The most cost-effective method? The most relevant to our students' future technology usage?

Some researcher needs to create a metric that compares the cost of an instructional tool with it's effectiveness at increasing student engagement and learning. I realize that'd be a tricky thing to measure, but I think you'd find these multi-touch student desks to be pretty cost-ineffective at improving instruction. Perhaps even moreso than the "interactive whiteboard" hailed as a god-send by PR conscious school boards around the nation.  I could rant about the ridiculous amounts of money schools spend on interactive whiteboards without (1) providing training for teachers on how to use them, (2) thinking about anything other than PR, and (3) considering if there are more effective tools to improve teaching and learning.

Why use paper worksheets when you can drill & grill with a $10,000 multi-touch computer built into the students' desks?

On a totally unrelated note: If you know of anyone giving away multi-touch smart desks for the classroom, I'll take 30.


For info on the multi-touch smart desks:

Don't worry (Just fake it)

New school, new district, new state, new region. I was hired at the end of May and moved to Connecticut the end of June. In mid to late July, I started my attempts to contact my new high school to get information about my new position. What is the curriculum? Who am I teaching it with? What are the school's expectations?

My first teaching job saw me getting hired only one week before students rears hit chairs in my classroom. As a rookie teacher lacking in experience, I found that extremely intimidating and overwhelming. I was excited that for my new position, not only would I be bringing six years of experience, but also that I would have most of the summer to prepare.

Brick wallMy calls to the high school rang without being answered. I stopped by the high school once to seek out someone who would help me. Upon entering the building, I felt I should've been wearing a hard hat. There was heavy construction throughout much of the building. The offices were gutted. Besides the gruff looking workers, I couldn't find any administrators or anyone else in the building to help.

This week I started the "Teacher Academy" for new hires. School starts next week Thursday, and I was excited to get in and finally get some information on my curriculum and who I'll be teaching with. As a fairly experienced¹ teacher this time around, I felt I still had plenty of time to effectively prepare for the school year. Arriving at the "academy" on Wednesday, I was dismayed to find no time set aside to find our rooms, go over our curriculum, or meet the colleagues we'll be teaching with. In fact, there was no official plan at all for getting the new teachers access to our rooms, curriculum, or colleagues.

Red tapeWe were all told all about the district improvement plans, the data teams that meet to help improve instruction, and on, and on. The district's plans for improvement sound really good. I'm excited that they've made a serious commitment to make their schools highly effective for the students. But...how could they possibly overlook the fact that we haven't even seen the curriculum yet? I've seen my room once. I have a textbook for the classes I'm teaching only because one happened to be laying around and I took the initiative to snag it. The only reason I've accomplished either of these things is because a few of the high school new hires got together and more or less "demanded" a meeting with someone at the high school to give us a clue what was going on.

My favorite quote of the entire teacher academy, in response to my (and others) inquiries into what scope and sequence the teachers teaching the same class as me use:

Don't worry, take some deep breaths. All you need to do is make it through the first two days of school, then you have the long weekend to figure out what to do next. Remember, whatever happens, you'll get paid every two weeks in American dollars.

O.K. I've ranted enough, and I'm sure you've gotten the point by now. I am excited to work in this district (really!). I'm excited that this time around in a new position I have skills to bring to the table. I sincerely hope the lack of foresight I've seen so far is localized in the central administration and isn't systemic. To look for the positive in the situation, I've already overcome my fear of questioning the status quo and have learned that I may need to make a more conscious effort to push for change in this district. All I want to do is be the best teacher I can be for my students, my colleagues, my school, and my district. I sincerely hope that desire doesn't fly in the face of the professional culture here.

I just want to be like Akeelah, an achiever.

- Common, "The Game"


¹ If you consider six years as having much experience

Image sources:
Brickage by Asten
Challenge by amsterdamfan