Posted in Teaching

Random thoughts

Here is a musing I just had: I want to get to the point where students can delve into their passions by planning investigative projects to pursue with their peers, playing with materials, concepts, speech, tech and the written word. Adults or older students would be delivering mini-lessons for those concepts that they need help with understanding so that they can iterate, making learning the center of school, not grades.

They will share what they made and learned outside the school walls through community presentations, public blogs, podcasts and vlogs. Then they can be guided to decide which standards they met through their process. They  consequently will have the power in their hands to prove what they have learned and see how they did it. It will give them a sense of how marvelous they are and how much each one of them is worth to each other’s learning.

Teachers and students wouldn’t be stuck in the loop of  standards and curriculum schedules. They would be freed to work on what they are interested in with mentor-ship from teachers and other adults from the community to guide their self-reflection and planning for further learning.

Someday my dream will become a reality and I am doing all I can right now to have a little bit of it in my classroom this year, working toward the dream in baby steps but surely working toward it.IMG_3468


Posted in Teaching

My plans to “go grade-less”

What if your high school transcript didn’t include grades? – The Boston Globe

So this idea has been simmering in the back of my mind ever since I did my student teaching at a high school that uses the proficiency system of grading. There, however, students worked to meet expectations for a class and went along working at taking lecture notes, filling out worksheets and passing multiple choice tests just like any other traditional system, to end up with A, B, C, D or F as from time immemorial.

Then I started my first position in a large high school with some of my classes nearing 40 students. The frenetic and often frantic planning and delivering of lessons for three preps in four different classrooms took up most of my time and grading just was a side effect of what I determined that students were doing. I tried to make rubrics to help me show students how I was grading them so they could get the most points possible and get that elusive A. I delivered presentation lectures with guided notes, just as my mentor teacher had. Students robotically wrote down what was required but failed, most of the time, to acquire the knowledge that they needed to pass the tests that were mostly just asking them to regurgitate the information from the notes.

A couple of years went by and I began at my current school. The grading dilemma continued nagging me, but time just didn’t allow for me to really get to the bottom of what was actually bothering me. This winter, however, I purchased the book, Hacking Assessment, by Starr Sackstein and finally this summer, have begun my journey to introducing the concept of the gradeless classroom to my students.

Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School (Hack Learning Series Book 3) by [Sackstein, Starr]

Ms. Sackstein puts into words that nagging feeling I’d been having, stating

  [student’s scores are] “not an accurate representation of their ability” and “students need to see themselves simply as learners”, not as a grade (as in, I’m an A student or a C student)

The scores that I had been giving them, even when guided by a rubric, were usually not telling them what they knew how to do or where they needed to improve. Most of the time, those who wanted that good grade were jumping through the hoops, copying that one kid’s work who turned it in on time and got a good score on it, or, less often, cramming to pass that multiple choice test and promptly forgetting the information the next day.  The focus was on getting it done; getting a grade and not on: what are we learning? or, how can we improve our learning?

Shackstein also writes,

As soon as we put a number on student work, learning stops.”

which tells me that the way I have been doing it, the way I have been trying to do it better by giving students feedback and letting them improve their work, is only part of the change needed.

In Hacking Assessment, the reader is given 10 ways to go gradeless. Each chapter is a “hack” that guides the process of introducing these changes into your classroom and school. Within each chapter the author first explains the hack, then gives ways it can be done right away in a “what you can do tomorrow” section. The next part is a step by step “blueprint for implementation” We all know that there will be naysayers and puzzlement from students, parents, administrators and fellow teachers, so there is an “overcoming pushback” piece in each chapter with common objections and ways to answer effectively. The final part is a peek into a classroom where the teacher has implemented the ‘hack in action’.

As I plan for this year, I have identified five main areas I will need to work on teaching my students about. First of all, I will have to teach them why I have decided to change the way I report their learning. The first chapter has a basic lesson plan for doing this that includes a probe into what students know about learning and how they feel about failure, among other things. During this lesson I will get a feel for how they will respond to the new system. I need to try to anticipate their questions and concerns but I think that the “overcoming pushback” section will be of great help.

Another thing that I know I will need to plan for is teaching them how to dissect the standards and determine the important skills and content that they will be expected to show mastery of. This has always been the teacher’s job but I have a feeling that when the students get involved and they are more aware of what is expected, they will be able to meet the expectations that they have set for themselves.

feedback should always be specific and offer strategies for improvement.”

A third lesson that is necessary for me to teach is how to give feedback and how to utilize the feedback they get for improving their learning. The suggestion is to teach students the art of giving feedback by modeling it to them and then creating expert groups that focus on a particular area of expertise. They will need to know that it is important to remember that feedback includes first of all positive comments and then constructive recommendations for improvement. If I train them to do this then I can be ‘freed up to work with students who need more help than a peer can offer’.


As important as feedback is, reflection is even more necessary for students to learn. Implicated in the quote above is the fact that students who do not reflect on what they are doing in class will not necessarily learn as much as those who do. Sackstein gives a few questions to pose to students to guide their reflection. It is suggested that every day as an exit ticket, students be asked to do a quick-write about what they learned that day and what they need to work on next.

A final and essential thing that I will have to teach students is how to grade themselves. Since I have to report grades as letters, I will be giving the students the authority to decide what letter grade they deserve. They will do this by first looking at the body of work they produced during the grading period and, using their reflection skills, answer a few questions about their learning, with the requirement to point out specific evidence from their work to back up their claims. They will then have a mini conference with me to present their evidence and conclusions. I will give them the grade they decide on. Of course, the author says, there may be some who give themselves a grade that I think they really don’t deserve, whether lower or higher than I would have given them. In these circumstances, it is advised that one ask questions and request that the student provide the evidence to back up their decision. Most of the time, the student will change their mind if they can’t support that grade. However, in the end, the decision needs to lie with them, even if we still disagree. We need to trust the process and “watch in amazement as they skillfully share what they’ve learned”.

Of course there will be a very steep learning curve for this process of changing the mindset of students to realize that what they are expected to be doing in my class is focusing on being learners and not compliant followers of the status quo. By guiding them to set goals, give and receive feedback, reflect, and evaluate themselves, I expect to see them come to realize that they are the ones who are best qualified to report their own outcomes.


Posted in classroom management, dual language teaching, middle school science, student engagement, Teaching

The Question Focus Technique

Last summer I decided to prepare for teaching my students how to ask questions themselves instead of asking all of the questions myself. I got this idea back in January at the Organization for Educational Technology and Curriculum , or, OETC’s IntegrateEd 2016 Conference, when I attended a presentation by Jennie Magiera called, Curiosity Based Learning: Reigniting Students Wonder. In this presentation, Magiera introduced us to the Question Focus Technique taught in a book from The Right Question Instiute.

The book is called, Make Just One Change. I devoured the book once I purchased it and formulated a plan to adapt the presentations that are provided on the website of the institute by translating them to Spanish and creating Google slides presentations: one to introduce the lesson to the students and one to use at the beginning of each unit as a template that I can adapt for the content coming up. Below, you can read about how a lesson goes.


Students work in small groups of 4-6 for this activity. In the introductory lesson for the technique at the beginning of the year, students are taught the rules for how to make their questions. The rules include making as many questions as possible, no discussion, judgement, or answering of the questions is allowed, the scribe of the group is to write all the questions just as they are stated and if anyone makes a statement of observation, it needs to be changed to a question. (I give the example of  someone saying, “the sky is blue” and that this can be changed to “why is the sky blue?” or ‘how can the sky have other colors?”).

I have these rules on laminated sheets on each table so they are present to the students through the whole lesson. I also have question starters on a laminated sheet to help them get the questions going (How, why, where, who, when, etc…).

Students are presented with a whole class presentation of a short, looping video clip with or without sound (depending on whether there is an explanation –do not allow sound if something is explained in the video), a teacher demonstration, a statement, an intriguing picture or a quote. They are given a large piece of flip-chart paper, one marker and the mission to formulate as many questions as possible about what they are seeing.

The teacher circulates and encourages as many questions as are possible, without judging or answering any of their questions, just as is stated in the rules. The teacher also makes sure to draw them back to the rules when they forget, with a gentle reminder.

Once all of the questions are made, students are then asked to mark all of the open questions with an O and the closed questions with a C (they are taught what this means in the initial lesson in the technique at the beginning of the year). They then are asked to choose the three most pressing questions they have about what they have seen. I have found that this takes about a 50 minute class period to do once they have gotten used to how it goes. The introductory lesson usually goes about two 50 minute periods.

The teacher then collects the small piece of paper they have written their three top questions on and later takes the time to read through them and compile them into 8 -10 main questions that are then posted on a poster in the classroom that will guide the whole unit.

When the question focus is chosen well, the students get very curious and interested, making many questions that will be relevant to the work that will be done to meet the standards. I especially like that they are the ones from whom I am guided, not from some curriculum that was made in an office somewhere far from our classroom and neighborhood.

Below are a couple of the question focuses that I have used this year:

Gauss gun loop – play with no sound This one I had them actually take some magnets, rulers and ball bearings and do themselves with no instructions from me except to try to make one of the balls shoot off the end of the table without flicking it themselves. Once the groups accomplished this I had them do the question formulation technique with this loop in there on the question focus slide.

For my 7th graders as an intro to molecular movement in response to changes in temperature I took a flask with some water in it, stretched a balloon over the opening and set in on a hot plate to boil. As they watched, I asked them to think of what they saw and made a list of the observations that they had made on the question focus slide.

For 8th grade evolution intro I used this question focus:

Screenshot 2017-07-15 at 11.20.58 AM

(Descent with modification)

And for the 7th grade intro to cells this was what they saw:

Screenshot 2017-07-15 at 11.20.12 AM

(All living things are made of cells.)

Posted in Teaching

So, what made me decide to start blogging?

Each summer I try to find ways to learn more about teaching. Most of the time it is through books and podcasts. One of the books that caught my eye when I was browsing Amazon was Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth by Aaron Hogan. I read a little bit of the first chapter and was instantly hooked. 

For someone who is a self proclaimed recovering perfectionist, I definitely needed to read this book. It has advice from classroom management to personal enrichment; each chapter ending with a handy self reflection section.

In chapter 7, Inviting Others to Thrive, Mr. Hogan invites teachers to share their experiences, thoughts, failures and successes with the world through blogging. He says, “When we delve into what we’re passionate about, that passion attracts others, and it can inspire them to tackle their own challenges along the way .”

I’m not sure if many will come to read my words but I already feel that I have benefited just from taking the risk and putting my thoughts out there. If you have any doubts about diving into blogging, watch Obvious to You, Amazing to Others and take the leap. 

Posted in personal life, Teaching, time management

Lovin’ summer learnin’

If I could spend all day long learning, I would be the happiest person ever. I wouldn’t stop to eat, or drink or even sleep if my mind, body and family could take it. Planning out my learning is something that I hadn’t thought of doing until last year and haven’t really put into place fully much, but this summer I have used Angela Watson’s 5 Summer Secrets for a Stress-Free Fall and it has been very helpful in guiding me to schedule out the things I want to learn about, projects I need to do at home and preparations that have to get done for the start of school. She guides you through the big picture and then down to the day to day details and even provides you with note-taking organizers and calendar PDF’s to facilitate all of this planning.

I have used my own notebook for re-creating her tables and calendars with my own personal flare. With her guidance I have set a main summer goal to aim for and broken it down into the four categories she has suggested of family, home, work and my personal well-being. Now it’s just a matter of getting my daily tasks well distributed and disciplining myself to stick to the schedule.🙄


Posted in Teaching

Connecting our kids

I teach anywhere from 30 to 36 students every hour for 5 hours each day. I am told that the key to helping my students succeed is to build relationships. Building relationships is very difficult when there are so many of them to reach in such a short amount of time. Some students naturally are drawn to their teacher and others need more time to build those connections.

One fortunate twist of fate for me was the ability to win two grants from two separate sources that funded the purchase of 36 Chromebooks for my science classroom. I have been one of the few teachers in my building to be working on integrating the use of these versatile devices. Through the implementation of what is called a blended classroom, I have been able to have more time to get those connections with individual students that I had a very hard time doing in the past.

Blended classrooms involve the use of technology to introduce topics and give students a chance to explore on their own, going at their own pace and, to an extend, their own interests within a topic. While they are doing this, I can be free to have a demonstration going with a small group or have mini conferences with individuals about a concept they may be struggling with. I am so happy that I have been able to have this ability to get better connected with my students, however, almost all of the rest of the teachers in my building do not.

It is incomprehensible to think that in our day and age, students are still going to classrooms where they sit in rows and read or watch a presentation and do worksheets when they could be taking a trip with Google earth to visit a volcano or see the time lapse of receding glaciers and changing coastlines. They should be able to blog about their experiences and hear back from a fellow learner in Puerto Rico, who they get to talk with on a whole class Skype several times per year. Online simulations of how atoms work or the reason why we have seasons, are all experiences that are available to science students when their teachers have access to technology. Creativity in the online environment is also so much broader and students can have a global audience to shout out their ideas to.

All students in all classrooms need to be connected with their teachers and the whole world through the thoughtful implementation of online experiences, but this cannot happen when the devices aren’t available or are in a separate room and are extremely outdated and keep breaking down. We need increased funding that will support the addition of modern technology to our schools and give our students an equitable experience that will prepare them to be creative, collaborative global citizens that can make a difference for our future.