Posted in Teaching

What now?

Regardless of the fact that my dream class is one of personalized, self-directed learners, I still work in a very constrained system that doesn’t seem ready for the radical changes that I and my students are so ready for.

Last year our district finished the process of adopting a new science curriculum. They opted for the full online version so that students and teachers work from a platform that contains a scripted, open up the box, follow along with the directions, do the activities, have students at pretty much the same point along the way so they meet the NGSS  (Next Generation Science Standards) style. There are online simulations and canned “problems” for them to investigate by taking claims that were created by the writers and finding evidence which support or refute the claims to come to a pre-determined conclusion. Granted, at least they are not being fed the content along the way and are supposed to be “discovering” it as they go, but still I am not as free as I was last year in creating student-directed lessons that end in projects that show me what the students found out from their own questions that were gleaned at the beginning of the unit during the Question Focus technique that I wrote about earlier.

Because this is a new thing for us, all of us on the  Science PLC are expected to follow the curriculum as is so that we can all discuss and decide how things are going. We will meet to plan together and do the same lessons and assessments, taking data on student learning and deciding how things are going for each one of us.

There are 145 total lessons that are supposed to last 45 -50 minutes so, supposedly we have about 35 leeway days within which we can flex and adjust to teach extra content and possibly take more time on some things. With my 8th graders, about 10 of those days will be taken up in state testing and at least 5 will be for starting out the year. Two days will be end of the semester stuff and 4 will probably be used for before and after winter and spring break. So that only leaves a few days for lessons that go over, make up days and other unforeseen circumstances.

Needless to say I feel kind of trapped. When I first started teaching science I longed for something like this to lean on as I got my feet under me but now that I have been underway enough to have shifted my philosophy to teach with more freedom to express myself and expect the same from my students, it feels like someone clamped a ball and chain to my ankle.

My only consolation for now is the fact that I am one of two dual language  (DL) science teachers in the middle school level of our district program and the canned curriculum isn’t offered in Spanish yet so I can give my DL students the same learning experiences that I was doing last year with my 8th graders. I can use the Google classroom to push experiences out to them that will challenge them to search for the information on their own or in small groups and create products and presentations that demonstrate their learning.

It would be great to hear from anyone who is as frustrated as I am with the way we are being asked to continue in the compliance-based old ways of teaching that continue to keep our students in contrived, four-walls situations. I’d like some encouragement and ideas for how to keep on with a positive attitude when things seem so stuck.

Posted in Teaching

How hyperdocs worked for my dual language classroom

Screenshot 2017-08-07 at 3.29.43 PMThis last winter break I attended Matt Miller’s Ditch that Conference  and learned sooo much!


One of the days he had as guests the Hyperdoc Girls Lisa Highfill, Kelly Hilton, and Sarah Landis, authors of  The Hyperdoc Handbook.

Screenshot 2017-08-07 at 3.36.50 PM.png

So I went out and purchased it on Kindle and got right in to figuring out how to use a hyperdoc in my classroom.

In case you don’t know what a hyperdoc is, I’ll give you a quick description. It is an all-in-one lesson for students to jump into and go through at their own pace. It can be created in Google docs (the ‘doc’ part of the name), or slides. The teacher follows the format of generating interest with a hook like an embeded video or even an in-class live demo, then students are guided with hyperlinks embeded in the hyperdoc (that’s the ‘hyper’ part of the name) to go explore and learn about the topic. They are prompted along the way to answer questions or create a product. At the end of the lesson they are to demonstrate their learning in a concrete way through a presentation, video, blog post or other creative format, preferably then to be shared with the class, school or the world 🙂

So in my class, I went to the website that the Hyperdoc Girls set up for teachers to share their hyperdocs on called Teachers Give Teachers, and chose one that had lots of color and an interesting format and went to town creating a lesson for my students to learn about molecular movement and phase changes. I chose the 5E’s Template because our district has been focusing on this style of lesson planning for science classes.

Screenshot 2017-08-07 at 4.04.06 PM
My first attempt at hyperdocs

I assigned this in Google classroom and sat back to watch the fun… But for many of the students, it was not so fun. There were so many confused looks and questions that I was circulating around the room the whole class period explaining to individuals what they were supposed to do at each step. I learned very quickly that introducing this sort of self-directed lesson to students who didn’t normally read directions all the way through before starting in on something or who hadn’t had access to technology, was too much too soon.

So I had to modify the things that they did after exploring the first two sections of the hyperdoc to accomodate their lack of experience.

I had to teach them to be independent learners again. They had unlearned this between babyhood and 7th grade. It seems that this complicated of a hyperdoc with so many new things to do needed to be broken down into separate parts or given in a simpler format.

My next attempt at a hyperdoc was with an Explore, Explain, Apply doc with a much simpler, but still rigorous process to follow. This one I used for my 7th and 8th graders in four different iterations, as seen below:

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Students performed much better on this format. It was simple and a little more like a worksheet in some aspects. This I didn’t like so much as they tend to copy answers from each other, especially on the What is a theory Apply section. The others had an acutal project to do for the apply section so that made it more individualized.

So what did I learn? For sure, when you introduce hyperdocs you need to take into account whether your students have done some of the things that you are asking them to do in the hyperdoc. Start simple with the explore, explain, apply and then move on to something more complex like the 5E’s one I made. Once your students become familiar with more tools on the web, add these to your hyperdocs and watch them wow you!


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:

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(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.🙄