Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What does responsive professional development look like?

If we want our teachers to engage students in inquiry in the classroom, they need to experience inquiry through the same activities they would use with their students. If we want them to use technology, we need to consider their beliefs, needs, fears, and interest as they pertain to using technology in the classroom. Professional development should be differentiated based on the needs of the teachers that attend!

What would this look like in action? It begins with identifying where teachers are with relation to the topic of the workshop. For example, if teacher have signed up for a technology workshop, then the assessment should try to identify the entry point for teachers with regard to their belief about the use of technology in the classroom, their comfort level with technology, and which forms of technology (probes, blogs, or other forms) they have used or not used before the workshop.

Next, using the data, workshop sessions could be tailored to meet the needs of the teachers attending. This does not mean 25 different learning plans, but rather means looking for where the data forms groups of teachers that are similar. For example, in a recent technology workshop we held though the Martinson Center; almost all the teachers who attended were novices with regard to the use and design of blogs, wikis, and photostory. We did have one teacher who reported she had been using blogs for a while. To ensure she was continually learning and being stretched, we developed an activity that mirrored what the other teachers would be doing, but its design was a little more complex. Instead of just creating a blog, we asked this teacher to mix blogging with what she learned about voice threads. Not only did this keep her engaged during the course, it also kept her learning as it provided a challenge for her. The workshop leader provided support through coaching in order to ensure she was successful. While it would have been easier to develop a session that had the same activities for everyone, this would not have met all of the needs of the teachers participating. With a little bit of effort, we created activities that met the needs of all teachers participating in the course.

Long story short: If we expect teachers to differentiate instruction for students, then professional development should be differentiated for the teachers.

Monday, October 5, 2009

When I work with teachers, it always comes up. It's sort of like the proverbial elephant in the room-science is expensive and I don't have time to get materials.
Research from the National Research Council articulates that new understandings are constructed upon on a foundation of existing understandings and experiences. Without experiences, children are less likely to remember science or math content for very long.
So, if research shows children learn best through experiences, why is it some teachers choose not to do hands-on science. Is it really that expensive or hard to put together? No, not if you believe in the power of hands-on instruction with regard to student learning. Science does not have to be about glass test tubes and beakers. All you need is about 5$ per lesson and many of the materials can be found at stores located right around the corner.

Here is a quick and simple example to articulate my point. My daughter had been studying matter and while she could rattle off the definitions with ease, I wanted to see if she could use what she knew to explain whether or not a substance was a liquid or a solid or both. The materials for the activity were corn starch, water, a bowl, and a spoon. Before we started, I put some corn starch in the bowl and asked her to describe it using words. Next, she began to add the water very slowly while stirring. Eventually the corn starch became like thick gravy.
Gak, oobleck, or whatever you might know it as, is really cool to play with. If you get the consistency of water to corn starch right, you create a substance that seems like a solid, but then moves like a liquid. I think my daughter's face says it all! We had a blast playing with our matter and watching it go from a solid to a liquid. Could she explain whether she thought the substance was a solid or liquid, yes! Was she able to describe the physical properties using words associated with size, shape, and texture? Yes! More importantly, she remembers that experience and is now comparing things to the Gak. Now I know all you science buffs out there will say it is a non-Newtonian fluid and you would be right-but try to explaining that to a 3rd grader!
Long story short: Science doesn't have to be hard or expensive! But the time spent doing science is worth it!

National Research Council. (2005) How students learn: Science in the classroom. National Academy Press: Washington D.C.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Differentiating Professional Development

The other day I took the plunge and upgraded my phone. I have to admit, learning how to use this new device is far more complicated than the one I got four years ago. As I have struggled to learn all the new features, I did not like the feeling of being a complete novice all over again! Of course it did not help when my 9 year old took my old phone and without directions from me, found the camera and began snapping pictures!

In his book “Closing the Global Achievement Gap” Tony Wagner discusses how different kids are today. In fact, this “net generation” is accustomed to instant gratification and being “always-on” with respect to connection. They love creating and multitasking in our multimedia world. They learn from their peers, want adults who don’t talk down to them and their work needs to be worthwhile and interesting.

With all the differences in children today, how does the teacher keep up? It begins with continuous learning and is dependent upon professional development meeting the needs of the teachers who attend. Although professional development has come a long way, many sessions are still sit and get sessions. In fact, just last year I attended a session at a national conference in which the presenter read through his paper on the topic! The description of the session described we would be doing activities we could use in the classroom. How is reading the same as doing?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Oh No-the Science Fair Must Go!

It’s that time of year again-time for your student to complete a science fair project! Here is how you can help your child create a project they will want to complete!

To begin, ask your child topic interestes them. If you know they like baseball or skateboarding, start there. If you know they like plants or have said they wonder what would happen if they dropped a piece of candy in water, you have a starting point.

Whatever they pick, start with the topic and then use the following four questions to help them design a question that will serve as the foundation for their experiment:

1. What does __________________ do or how does it act?

2. What materials do you need to design an experiment on ____________?

3. What could you change about the following materials to see if they affect _______________?

4. What will you observe or measure to tell if changing ________________ affects ______________?

Let me model the process for you using my experience last year with my friend’s daughter.

My friend’s daughter, who I will call Beth, is a typical 13 year old. More interested in her friends than doing science, I knew her experiment had to deal with something that interested her. So I began by asking her what she was interested in doing. Her reply: shopping.

Great! So we began with the action of going shopping. What do you do when you shop? (I had to modify the first question to fit with her topic!)

· Buy things-like clothes

· Spend money

Now at this point I have to admit I think she thought I was crazy, but as I said to her-hang with me! From questio one, we picked the action of spending money.

Then using question 2, I asked her-Beth, if we are going to design an experiment around the action of spending money when shopping, what materials would you need? In other words, what would you need, besides money, to go shopping?

Her response:

· a car, a store, a parent to drive you, your friends.

I then asked her if we could use store and friends for the next part of the brainstorming process. So in question three I listed the materials a store and friends and asked Beth if these were the materials we were going to use for our experiment, how we could change them to see if they had any effect on spending money while shopping. She said:
store: change the type of store (department store/chain story (like Wal-Mart),

price range of the store, location of the store (near home or far away)

With regards to friends and what could be changed: gender of her friends (boys or girls)

I stopper her right there and asked her if she wanted to design her question picking gender as what she was going to change in her experiment. I then pointed out to her that she had just identified the independent variable for her experiment. Since we were only going to look at gender, we would have to keep everything else the same-which she recognized were the constants of the experiment.

Lastly I asked her if she was going to design her question for her experiment around gender, what could she observe or measure to see if gender had any affect on spending money when shopping? Her response, after some thought, was to measure the number of times they went shopping or even measure the amount of money they spent.

Cool! When given the choice, she selected the amount of money spent. After about 15 minutes, she had her question for her science fair experiment: What was the affect of gender on the amount of money spent shopping? So in other words, do girls spend more money than boys?

All we had to do was to try and create as fair of a test as possible which meant she had to have equal numbers of boys and girls and preferably around 25 cases each. She decided to track their spending habits as they pertained to shopping-we chose for clothes for three to four months. Because she was doing an experiment that involved human subjects, we talked about getting approval from the school’s review board and having parents sign a release form acknowledging they were aware their child was participating in her study.

Now I know this may not be the most scientific of a study. But was my friend’s daughter excited? Did she learn the concept of designing a fair test? Yes! Could she identify the variables in her study? Did she understand how math was going to be used to communicate her findings?

Try using these four questions to help your child develop their experiment!

Another Year Begins!

Each August when the crape myrtles begin to change, I know it is time for school to start once again. This year was another milestone in our household-our youngest started kindergarten. His excitement mirrored that of my daughter when she started. And just like her, the questions inquiring about objects, organisms, and how things work have increased over the last five years. Children are naturally curious about the world. Their curiosity can become a natural springboard to get them excited about learning. Unfortunately, all too often, children lose their curiosity as they get older.

So how can we keep children curious? It starts with getting children hooked into learning and sometimes this takes a little magic! Now I am not saying we all have to be trained magicians in the classroom. Instead we need to act like magicians. Magicians don’t begin their act by saying-now for my first trick I would like to show you a trick that is based on Newton’s First Law of Motion which is Physical Science Standard of Learning 8.9. Forget that! If they began their who like that we would all be asleep or asking for our money back! I learned early on in my teaching career that if I started my lesson with an activity instead of jumping into a lecture, my students remembered more and learned more. Although I knew this, my children reminded me of this just recently.

This past summer I spent three days attending a workshop in order to learn some new ideas to use to teach science. My flight back to Virginia Beach arrived late-can you say at 1 a.m.! But my children didn’t care what time I arrived home. They were just happy to have me home. After only five hours of sleep, my children bounded in the room to get me up so we could play. As I wondered downstairs with sleep still on my mind, I began to wonder what I could do to entertain them without turning on the T.V. Thankfully I had remembered to pack one of the activities in the only bag I had remembered to bring inside when I arrived home. So-with sleep still in my eyes, I pulled out this jar of beads and simply said “do you think I can make these beads jump out of this container?” Of course my children said no and from that moment-they were hooked. See when I pulled the end of this ordinary strand of beads that you might find on your tree at Christmas or in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, and ‘magically’ they seemed to leap from the container, all my kids could say (in their loudest voice)-do it again Mom! This one little jar filled with ordinary beads became my life savor and a learning opportunity for my children. After I had managed to have two cups of coffee, my children had slowed down enough to ask me the question any teacher longs for-“how does this work mom?” And while I make no conscious effort to launch into lectures about science topics each time my children ask me a question, I do try to simply answer their questions. Even today, three months after they first played with the beads, they still remember the basic idea of the second half of Newton’s First Law of Motion-an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an outside force. Or as my son says-the beads go crazy falling out of the jar until the floor stops them.

Long story short: instead of launching into content or reading the text book, why not try getting the children doing something. Allow them to ask the questions and you will find their questions will lead you into the content you need to teach!