Storybird Update

Earlier in the second quarter I decided to try using Storybird as a project for my students.  They had to make an element baby book using Storybird.  This was an attempt to find a replacement for earlier projects where I had students do research projects about an element that had outlived their usefulness (cd covers, Glogster).  As a result of this project I have requested a license for Storybird Pro+ ($99) next year through my district technology budget.

The biggest stumbling blocks for students were not knowing what a baby book is, not knowing enough about the element, and follow through with incomplete work (no surprise there).  I have plenty of examples after this year for next to solve the first problem, and I’ll bring in my daughter’s baby book.  That should be enough to get their creative minds working.  For the second road block I’m not quite sure what to do.  To choose a theme (the pictures) the students need to know something about the element.  I had a few great projects that took a different approach, but overall you need to have not only done the research but KNOW the element.  Basically, if you could meet the element as a person, what would it be like.  Front loading that part of the lesson may be a solution.

Student follow through with long term projects is a continual problem.  Online projects, I find, are more problematic because unlike an unfinished poster or diorama sitting in their room an online project is out-of-site, out-of-mind.  I may provide additional time in the computer lab to get students further.  I’d have to plan it out differently and two days seems long enough with one day for research and one day for Storybird.

The only issues I had were that early on using Storybird they updated the site which threw me off a bit and confused students initially.  We quickly got over it.  The improvements were worth the annoyance but the site has still has a few drawbacks including:  not being able to post grades for assignments, making the Publish button so unassuming, and not getting notification when students do publish.

Next quarter I’ll have them make a short story on simple machines.


Redo, again…

A staple of most physical science curricula is the element research project.  Students get an element and research various facts including properties and history of the element.  I’ve been doing some type of element project for years.  My first year of teaching I came across a project tucked in a file cabinet: Element Album Cover.  The project had students do research and creatively turn the element into a rock band or singer.  I adapted it and turned it into a CD cover project.  Later I used Glogster to have students make a musical group “web-page.”  Glogster became a pay site a few years ago and since then I’ve been stuck.


I also debate the merit of the project at all.  What do students get out of it?  From a standards viewpoint there is little point in doing it at all.  They don’t need to know about any element in detail.  A project like this takes a great deal of time and effort researching and constructing.  That time could be spent doing any number of other things that more directly attack the standards/core.  I’m now at the do or die point with this project.  I either have to revamp the project again or ditch it completely.


I’ve been thinking of doing a writing project.  I’d like to use something like Boomwriter or Storybird, but I’m having trouble getting my mind around what I want students to do and learn.  I want that writing and literacy piece.  Doing internet searches have turned up nothing useful yet.  PowerPoints are over done and mainly involve students just copying and pasting things off the internet.  That and PowerPoint is a visual medium and I want this to involve creative writing.  Here’s hoping something will come up.  If not, though, I’ll just ditch it and move on.


I end every school year wondering if I’ll ever recover enough to be energized by the start of the next year.  I can say that I feel mentally ready.  With new regulations and tougher students I expect that this year will put me under faster than other years.  Thankfully, Science 8 has been expanded to four sections.  That means smaller class sizes and better seating arrangements ans lab groups.

I’ll be making up a to-do list soon to make sure I’m physically and pedagogically as well.  This year I will be focusing on my English language learners and developing interventions (RTI).  Tech will continue to be altered and further implemented.  I’d like to use Edmodo for student work more often.  Computer use may not be on a state assessment, but it is essential for college and career readiness.

NYS Reform Acronyms

At a recent faculty meeting a fellow teacher confessed to not knowing what HEDI meant.  I got to thinking about how new legislation brings with it a new slew of acronyms and terminology.  I’ve attempted below to assemble as many acronyms as I can that a New York State teacher should be familiar with pertaining to current education reform. Some, I admit, may be older than the recent reforms but I feel are still pertinent.

HEDI – Highly Effective, Developing, Ineffective – The “grades” teachers will get.

APPR – Annual Professional Performance Review – This along with testing will account for most of your evaluation for the year.

RTTT – Race to the Top – Misguided federal legislation

TSU – Test Security Unit – They have been put in place to make sure teachers don’t cheat on state tests.

TSDL – Teacher-Student Data Linkages – The students that will be reflected on your evaluation.

SIRS – Student Information Repository System – Where all the student test data is stored.

EDP – Educational Data Portal – This is where you sign in a verify the TSDL.

RTI – Response to Intervention – A student doesn’t learn something the first time; the RTI is what you do about it.

RFP – Request for Proposals – Not really sure here.  I think this is the feds asking for proposals from states for grants (SIF)

RFQ – Request for Qualification – NYS is asking vendors to submit criteria for different things like evaluations.

LEAs – Local Education Agencies – Who these are I don’t know?  A district or BOCES I suppose.

SIF – School Innovation Fund grant – RTTT grants available to states.

SLO – Student Learning Objective – If a course is not state tested (or not part of the CCSS), teachers need to write SLOs.

CCSS – Common Core State Standards – Go here for me info.

DDI – Data Driven Instruction – Teaching is based on the results of quantitative data from assessments under this model.

I did much of my research for this on  Much of this is still nebulous to me.  Please, comment if you have insights into my list or additions.  I can safely predict that the more legislation the government writes the more acronyms we’ll be asked to master.

you WILL participate

Students often have a true lack of background knowledge.  Vocabulary that I used to assume students had mental access to is in fact nonexistent.  Examples at the 8th grade level include words like increase, decrease, and submerge.  Not only do students need to gain exposure to the often tricky content specific science vocabulary1, but other lower level everyday terminology needs to be practiced as well.  To work on that vocabulary piece I’ve finally worked my own version of the “Word Wall” into class.

Wall space in my room is at a premium, particularly at the front off class where most teachers would venture to place their Word Wall.  I merely use a slide with the words on PowerPoint.  This way everyone can see them and working with the wall is part of a routine at the start of class.  We begin with the Daily Thinker (warm-up), review the Key Questions, and then read through the Word Wall.  After the Words I do what I just call “Questioning” for lack of a better term.  To get all of this to work I use a stack of index cards with every students name on it.  For the Word Wall, I pick the top name and have the student read each word with the class repeating after each word.  I lead it the first time the words are introduced (yes, I also have them write definitions, hate me if you must, I have my reasons).  No one is exempt from this.  I could just as likely have an ELL or special education student read them as a regular student.  They should all know how!

I have found this forces students to be accountable for being able to say and read the words.  Students know the expectation is that they can read the words.  The vocabulary students practice isn’t just unit specific content vocabulary, it often includes words frequently used within the topic that is not content specific (like “submerge” for buoyancy).  The cards are used into the “Questioning” session which is a variation of several techniques including Doug Lemov’s Cold Call, No Opt Out, and Stretch2.  I have a set of predetermined questions that I ask students as I go through every card in my class deck.  I make sure I get to EVERY student EVERY day.  What seems to work is to start the questions for a unit at the basic recall level and then work up to (Stretch) higher levels of thinking and complex ideas.  From asking about what volume is to asking how to determine volume of an irregularly shaped object.

The hardest part is keeping the questions flowing quickly as is needed for a good Cold Call session.  In my class of 28 students Questioning goes from a quick romp through predetermined questions to a slog through knee high mud.  I’ve already received positive feedback from students about the Word Wall and Questioning.  Also of import is that I use the cards throughout class.  I infrequently ask for a show of hands for answers to questions or volunteers to read.  Hand raising now is reserved as an assessment technique.

1 Atomic number, mass number, and atomic mass are just one example.  Imagine learning this terminology as an ELL.  Boggles the mind.

2 from Teach Like a Champion

Everybody Writes

This is a ubiquitous technique that I’ve been aching to try on a regular basis.  The technique is in essence exactly as it sounds.  Students are given a prompt and everyone writes about it.  Many teachers use Everybody Writes as a closure piece but it can appear anywhere in a lesson.  I chose to do it after an activity on Newton’s 3rd Law as a type of closure and ticket out.  Each class had at least 5 minutes of writing where most managed 4-5 sentences.

For the activity two students sit on skateboards (criss, cross, applesauce) facing each other.  I borrow both a 4 kg and 10 kg medicine ball from the weight room that they toss to each other.  We vary the mass of students so that a student of little mass throws the ball to one of greater mass.  Students should notice from the activity that as they push the ball to make it accelerate to the other student, they in turn also accelerate in the opposite direction.  They push the ball but the ball also pushes them:  Newton’s 3rd Law.

I put the prompt on the board which read something like, “How did the activity with the skateboards show Newton’s 3rd Law?  When a student threw the large ball what happened?  How did the mass of the student change the results?”

That day I had many great responses and all students turned something in (this is in itself remarkable).  Based on the results of the test on Newton’s Laws this week, though, nothing set in from that activity for most students.  Sorting out how to improve that lesson is the hard part.  Where did it go wrong?  Was it that students were too excited about the throwing/skateboard bit that they failed to glean any of the science from it?  Should I do the Everybody writes the next day for a warm-up and encourage some carry-over from the previous day?  Do I just need more activities and materials for the topic?

I’ll be trying Everybody Writes again this week with gravity.  More of a general “write as much as you can remember about gravity” prompt this time.

Technology TPTs

Our faculty has been reading through the Total Participation Techniques presented by Persida Himmele and William Himmele in the book “Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner.”  After reading through Chapter 7 I came to realize that there was a distinct lack of good technology based TPTs present in the book.  A few good tech TPTs are Google Forms, discussion boards, and the use of clickers.

If you are one of the blessed teachers with a classroom of tablets or laptops you have probably used one of the first two techniques.  They can also easily be done in a computer lab.  Google forms can be used to do a survey of student responses.  It even makes nice graphs for you.  Here is a good starting place for using Forms in the classroom.  I find the data from forms to also be more robust than many of the somewhat subjective and qualitative measures of other TPTs.  You can keep the data and view it later.  I think this enables for better intervention and documentation (think APPR here).

Discussion boards are another great way to document and get student feedback during a lesson.  I will commonly have students watch a video or complete some web-based activity while in the computer lab and have them comment on it in a discussion thread using Edmodo.  Many students are accustomed to doing this via Facebook or other social media and willingly write a blurb.  That’s really all that is needed to see if and what they’ve been thinking.

I have little experience with Clickers.  There are a myriad of types and I feel their short time as being a viable option in the classroom is coming to an end.  For those not familiar with them they are like remotes that each student has where they can enter responses.  Generally, the responses are collected in a program (often via PowerPoint) and then tabulated and reported.  I feel their time is almost over because there is much more versatility with any internet enabled device using Google Forms.

Finally, I’d like to make the point that your computer monitoring program can also track total participation.  We use Insight which shows all computer screens in the room on your teacher computer in the lab or library.  You can push your screen to all computers or push any students screen out as well.  My point here is that you know exactly where students stand in an assignment.  After a lesson on atoms, for example, you can instruct all student to open MS Paint and draw an atom.  You can view and assess their understanding in real time, not after the fact which is often the case.

Thoughts on TPTs

My student teacher has started to incorporate some different Total Participation Techniques into her planning.  She was stuck on using only Cold Call and a few other questioning techniques.  I wanted her to try out some others like Think-Pair-Share and Reader’s Marks.  We were reminded of how the application of these techniques is far more challenging than suggested by the authors who promote them.  There are so many nuances in the classroom that these techniques need to be tweaked for.  For instance, Reader’s Marks are really no good to us as a participation technique if we only discover after the fact that some students weren’t actually reading at all.  She had them complete a reading using Reader’s Marks individually.  In pairs where students take turns reading we can actively tell if they are reading the text or not and students can help identify key words and main ideas together.  It is in combination that these techniques are the most powerful.  The use of literacy strategies WITH a TPT brings out the best in both.  As we work through a few more techniques I’ll post, but overall getting them to work smoothly is still elusive.

No Labs in Science

A bit of discussion has been bubbling up based on this article.  Give it a read and then read on here.  I tried very hard to see it from their perspective but can’t seem to be convinced of their logic in eliminating labs.  I guess that the FCAT doesn’t have a performance (lab) section of their assessment.  NYS has one at each level and I’m glad that it does since it requires teachers to teach lab skills and not skip them to try and raise test scores.  I think more and more people are realizing the effect (often unforeseen) that a high stakes standardized testing environment brings.  Couple this assessment crazy environment with a budget crisis and it’s no wonder teachers ditch labs.  I’ve given up on doing labs in my General Chemistry class for awhile, but only because they couldn’t handle themselves with maturity, not because I wanted to raise test scores.  Science without labs and experiments isn’t science at all.

Keep it Under 27

Like many teachers my class size ballooned over the last 3 years.  Our district had long been blessed with smaller class sizes;  I rarely had a class over 23.  Last year I had a class of over 30 and this year my largest is 28.  Adjustments had to be made.

A lab or activity that had been possible before becomes a safety and/or logistical nightmare with upwards of 27 students.  One of my favorite labs for students is a density column lab (a modified form of this one) which really has them mentally work out comparative densities with a bonus that it’s also colorful and fun.  The number of materials and student participation just aren’t there with over 27 students.

Labs are an obvious casualty of increased class size; however, participation techniques are also negatively affected.  Consider the popular Think, Pair, Share.  In a class of 24 you would have 12 kids whispering to each other throughout the room.  Even in a class of 24 its sometimes difficult to keep this just under a dull roar.  Having 15 students sharing with each other in a class of 30 creates an unreasonable amount of noise and distraction.  Not is the decibel level is higher, but there is a higher concentration of students.  Instead of maybe 5 ft between pairs there is only 3ft.  How is it possible that just a few more students create that much more noise?  I can’t tell you the exact physics other than to say there is a definite carrying capacity for students in a room (and I have a large room) in regards to these types of techniques.

Other techniques such as Take a Stand are possible with specific planning for the larger number of students.  A smaller classroom would be make this technique all but impossible.  There is barely enough room for the teacher to circulate and desks are crammed up to 3 of the 4 walls.  Card showing  techniques are a much better option I feel for a larger class size, but it is harder to guage individual responses and therefore assess what they know.  These card techniques involve having student hold up cards with something written on either side (T or F, Conclusion or Inference, Quant or Qual).  Surveying a room of 27 or more cards and making sure all students have participated can be challenging.

Now I’m not suggesting that all participation techniques can’t be done or even the ones mentioned can’t be done, just that planning for them in a room of 27 or more students requires special attention and accomodations.  The techniques need to be tweaked and training behaviors becomes even more essential.  After speaking with several colleagues we arrived at the number of 27 as the tipping point for class rooms.  Get below that and its not much different than 24.  Get above that and you really need to take a second look at the plans you have.