Thursday, December 30, 2010

Less Talking (by me), More Learning (by them)

There are many things I learn each day.  One of the many things that have dawned on me since jumping headfirst, no... feet first, no... sideways describes it best, into inquiry based science is that students learn more when I talk less.  When they are given the opportunity to work collaboratively on a problem, project, or inquiry it is their discourse and thinking that leads to new learning.  My facilitating helps, but not from a pulpit at the front of the room.  This is a hard switch to make.  In order to feel control and know what is going on in every corner of the room, I have always felt that need to be in the front.  As this shift has begun to happen, being anywhere in the room has been fine because when the trust has been put in the students' hands. They have been on task and learning.  Probably, no, definitely more than if I was lecturing in the front of the room.

As the students have had opportunities to talk more in smaller groups, they have had more opportunities to think, and thus more opportunities to learn.  Two thousand ten was a great year of learning for me.  I hope 2011 is a year of less talking (by me), and more learning for my students!

Happy 2011!


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Integrating Science and Reading...It isn't that hard.

This post is in response to an article written by George Stockwell in the Newtown Patch.

My response is to the fact that teachers are required to teach more reading and science is always the subject that takes a back seat. 

You are preaching to the choir here! Integrating science and reading can be done at all grade levels. A bit of creativity, open-mindedness, and persistence can make it happen. When push comes to shove, those three things lose out and it is the same old instruction. It isn't that hard. Science is the easiest subject to integrate. Using an inquiry based approach, you use every single skill and more that you would be using in a reading or literacy lesson. You are using the same and at times much more in depth thinking skills. The writing connection is more genuine and connected because it is based on what the kids are actually doing. Unfortunately when science is missing, the kids are the ones that lose out. I think everyone loses out. 

It just makes sense to integrate the two.  The book called The Essentials of Science and Literacy focuses on this very idea.

Here is a testimonial: 

Essentials of Science and Literacy provides classroom teachers with a wealth of classroom tested and research-based best practices designed to engage students. It addresses one of the major shortcomings in many classrooms, providing students with the time and opportunity to make sense and to communicate their understanding of the science investigation they are engaged in.

—Mike Klentschy
Author of Scaffolding Science Inquiry Through Lesson Design

Thanks again for keeping this at the forefront. I heard this type of discussion at our cohort meetings last year. This year I am hearing a much different tone, students are getting more science from the 30 teachers in our group. They are loving it and learning. They read every day too!

As Bill Nye always says..."Science Rules!"

Here is a link to a NSTA article that explains clearly how standards for these the two disciplines mirror one another.  

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Today's Lunch

Can you identify today's lunch?

Blend of 3 Fruit Juices From Concentrate: Apple, Grape, and Cherry Juices From Concentrate , (Water , Apple, Cherry and Grape Juice Concentrates) , With added ingredients & other natural flavor: Apple, Grape, and Cherry Juices From Concentrate , (Water , Apple, Cherry and Grape Juice Concentrates) , Blend of 3 Fruit Juices From Concentrate: Citric Acid , With added ingredients & other natural flavor: Citric Acid , Blend of 3 Fruit Juices From Concentrate: Natural Flavor , With added ingredients & other natural flavor: Natural Flavor , Pizza Crusts: Wheat Flour , (Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour , (Flour , Niacin , Reduced Iron , Thiamine Mononitrate , Riboflavin , Folic Acid) , Whole Wheat Flour) , Water , Soybean Oil , Glycerine , Sugar , Pizza Crusts Contains 2% or Less of: Yeast , Vital Wheat Gluten , Mono and Diglycerides , Salt , Soy Lecithin , Guar Gum , Carboxymethylcellulose , Datem , Calcium Propionate , Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate , Xanthan Gum , Enzyme , Natural and Artificial Flavor , Sorbic Acid , Pizza Sauce: Water , Tomato Paste , Sugar , Pizza Sauce Contains Less Than 2% of: Modified Food Starch , Salt , Garlic Powder , Onion Powder , Spice , Citric Acid , Potassium Sorbate , Xanthan Gum , Natural Flavor , Pasteurized Prepared Mozzarella Cheese Product: Pasteurized Part-Skim Milk , Water , Whey Protein Concentrate , Milk Protein Concentrate , Milkfat , Sodium Citrate , Salt , Sorbic Acid , Enzymes , Cheese Culture , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef: Pork , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Pork , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef: Mechanically Separated Chicken , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Mechanically Separated Chicken , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef: Beef , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Beef , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef: Salt , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Salt , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Pork Stock , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Pork Stock , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Spices , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Spices , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Dextrose , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Dextrose , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Lactic Acid Starter Culture , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Lactic Acid Starter Culture , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Oleoresin of Paprika , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Oleoresin of Paprika , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Flavoring , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Flavoring , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Sodium Ascorbate , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Sodium Ascorbate , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Sodium Nitrite , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Sodium Nitrite , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: BHA , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: BHA , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: BHT , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: BHT , Pepperoni Made With Pork, Chicken and Beef Contains 2% or less of: Citric Acid , BHA, BHT and citric acid added to preserve freshness.: Citric Acid , Artificially Flavored Cherry Candy: Sugar , Corn Syrup , Maltodextrin , Dextrose , Food Starch Modified , Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil , Citric Acid , Water , Artificial Flavor , Red 40

Can you identify this food?  It is a food product that people actually eat.  Many people eat this every day. 
I do not eat it.  It sure is scientific!

It is not an apple.

A Mechanical Meat Separator

Mechanically Separated Chicken

Friday, December 3, 2010

I Will Now Call Every Assignment a Test

The students just finished a reading test. I have not graded them yet.  Based on the handwriting of the students I can see that they took extra time and give their best quality effort.  My theory is that the word "test" conjures some type of trigger in a student's mind.  It makes them focus extra hard on the task at hand.  Normally many of the students do have legible handwriting.  Some don't. Though none of the students on a day to day basis produce the quality that I saw on the test today.

This test handwriting is impeccable.

I will now call everything a test. Classwork-Test.  Homework-Test. Quiz-Test. Test?

No, I will not call everything a test.

But the question is:  How can I hold students accountable on every assignment to get them to produce such quality work?  If you have any suggestions, please share.

In the meantime...I need to grade some tests.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stepping Into Science Formative Assessment...Where Have You Been All of These Years?

It is amazing how excited you get when you are given a tremendous number of curriculum resources. is amazing how overwhelmed you get when you are given a tremendous amount of curriculum resources.  Slowly taking time to go through them to uncover new information takes time and patience.  Getting short, simple assignments for the books is helpful too.

This week I was given assignment along with my cohort colleagues to pour through two books. They are titled Uncovering Student Ideas in Science volumes 1 and 2.  The subtitle is 25 Formative Assessment Probes.

Where have you been all of these years? In science getting an idea of what students know in a clear coherent way is nearly impossible.  Students come into science class more than any other with diverse bits of knowledge that is not standardized or universal.  Science curriculums in elementary schools seem to vary and the amount of time spent in science I'm sure varies as well as a result of the tremendous push for reading instruction in the lower grades.  Kids love science. They have varying depths of knowledge.  This makes it difficult at times to assess what they already know before attempting to build on that prior knowledge.

Welcome Formative Assessment!

These books by Page Keeley, Francis Eberle, and Lynn Farrin, in the preface of the book outline the goal of these types of assessments. They say that formative assessment "when used deliberately and effectively, helps teachers find out what their students think and know at the beginning and throughout the instructional sequence". I love this idea.  Normally we would start a new topic, get a cursory feel for what the students know (because we don't have pre-asessments like in math) and then get to it.  The great thing is that you can get an idea of student pre-conceptions otherwise known as misconceptions. I love the line "they are assessments for learning, not assessments of learning." This makes so much sense.  We want to know what students know.  We don't want to over assess.  We do want the right information to help drive instruction.  These formative assessment probes are the right tool for the job.

Well today I used my first "Formative Assessment Probe".  . The goal was to "elicit students' thinking about specific ideas in science". Well, the ideas were properties of matter and conservation of mass.  The question was basically will the mass of ice in a bag change when it melts.  I had no idea what students would choose.  After going through all of the responses most of the students said that it would not change because there is the same amount of material in the bag.  Some common misconceptions were that "it takes up more room when melted so it has more mass" and "ice floats on water so water is heavier".  Knowing the thoughts of my students will help me to design instruction to help change preconceived ideas.  As the authors claim in the book, conceptions, if not addressed  may "get in the way" of new learning in the classroom.

The beauty of it all is that these assessments are quick, easy to administer, analyze, and discuss with students.  They make teaching and learning more effective in a subject in the elementary school realm has long been ignored.  Students can demonstrate their thinking and learning. Teachers can gain a much better handle on student thinking and understanding.  Another positive aspect of these probes is that they can be used for demonstration, class discussion, pre-assessment, ongoing assessment, or even as a summative assessment when appropriate.

Science is fun. Formative assessments help to make it even more fun to teach because you really delve deep into the ideas.   Through careful instruction, if you can help to turn the preconceptions into new learning and knowledge that students will have for a lifetime, it will lead to better science and scientists in the future.

Look into these tools.  I have five of these books. I can't wait to use them. Ask to borrow them. Thanks again Harry for the fantastic resources.

Here is a link to the website:
Here is another link to science and curriculum:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Social Media and Inferred Meaning...I Think I Get it.
It struck me the other day that I am forced to think a lot when reading my Twitter and Facebook feeds.   Character limits cause writers to be concise and readers to infer lots of information.  Writers need to carefully think about word choice to get the most for their 140.

I am a  Twitter(er) and a Facebooker.  I joined both of these social media outlets a bit later in the game than tech savvy colleagues.  I am looking at my Twitter feed right now and don't fully understand most of the 200 postings by the people I follow.

Ian O'Connor of ESPN tweeted "greatest pass ever in college football?....greater than flutie's?"

Now I have a million questions.  Who threw the pass?  What game was it?  What were the circumstances of the pass?  Does it have BCS bowl implications? Is still don't know after a cursory search.
To answer  these questions I now need to do a bit of research because there were no attached links.  Links are often helpful because you learn exactly what the author is referencing.  This tweet, no link.

In contrast the Newtown Patch usually has clear  Tweets: "New skate park draws reave reviews from youngsters." This post had a link as well.  Very clear.

Typically, I need a bit of time for each one to sift through the minutia in my head to try to find the right context for the information. The re-tweets by the people I follow are even more confusing because I usually don't have a connection to the original source.

My hypothesis is that as students use more social media in the future, they will be forced to think and infer more informaiton.  This could lead to an abundance of misinformation, but also a great deal of thinking and valuable processing and connecting that students of past generations, (Baby Boomers, Gen Xers etc...) have not experienced.  I believe the proliferation of text messages and codes that require guidebooks supports this hypothesis. I think.

We sure will see if the students today are better at inferring information in texts.  They sure do love to read more than when I was in school.  They seem to love to read more than students did even five or six years ago.  They also seem to be better at inferring information in the text.

Maybe one day in the future I will tweet the following:  "Students brain power greater. Twitter, Texts, FB result. Help with reading skills."

By no means do I ever think this should ever take the place of conventional reading instruction. Just something to think about.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Step Back For the Months Ahead 2010

(This is a re-posting of a November 2009 blog. You can exchange the Mayor Bloomberg reference for a Linda McMahon 50 million.)

A Step Back For the Months Ahead

On my way to work together something triggered my thought process.  I don't know if it was an NPR news story or a story from one of the local radio stations in Connecticut.  Whatever it was, my thoughts immediately turned to my kids and how important it is during these difficult economic times and the holiday season coming up to be thankful for what we have.  Whether you have a small chunk of change, a giant portfolio, or the sixteen billion that Mayor Bloomberg (140 million spent on the campaign?!) has, it is important to remember how fortunate we are.

We need to remember to cherish the joy our children and families bring to us and not to get caught up in the holiday cycle that evokes high levels of stress in all of us.  I will do my best to treasure each wonderful moment, show them how much I care for them, and not let any economic, financial or occupational stress get in the way of my most important job, father and husband.

As the calendar turns to November and the ads turn from "Fright" to "Silent Night" sit back, relax, and enjoy the season that is upon us.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

(There will be a lot of great math talk around all of the sales bombarding us for the next two months!)

The Trout are Here...Almost

(Connecticut Council of Trout Unlimited:  Click the link above for more information on this great program.)

Setting up a trout tank was sure an experience.  Last Monday morning I found a filter and various other tools (still trying to figure out what they are) outside of my door (Thank you Mrs. Mancher).  I was so excited to get started.  The plan was to get this thing together on Monday and Tuesday, fill the tank with water, get the chiller going, drop the water temperature to 46 degrees fahrenheit and get those fish eggs in our tank by Wednesday.

The first major question was how to fill this tank.  The sink is about ten feet from the tank.  A five gallon bucket will not fit under the faucet.  A garbage can will not fit either.  I look to the tank and see extra tubing from the filter.  Aha!  The excess tubing became a hose and we could fill five to seven gallons at a time.  Success!  I had some help from a group of students who offered their assistance.

Well, Wednesday morning was sure an experience.  I waited to turn the filter and chiller on until I had expert help from Mr. Stentiford.  We primed the filter, turned it on and...water started pouring out of the sides.  We scrambled to turn the filter off.  Looking at the filter, I realized that I put the "o" ring on in the wrong spot, so there was not a secure seal.  Okay, we got that straightened out.  Now as a famous Connecticut actor once said in his self-proclaimed favorite role of his career,  "We're back in business."

The filter was working with no water pouring out until...water begins to pour down on us from above.  Being partially underneath the table, I had no idea where it was coming from.  My back and head were soaked!  The water level in the tank was not high enough so the part of the filter that puts the water back into the tank started to shoot water over the top of the tank.   At least this was an easy fix, but we were wet for the rest of the day.

I told this story to the students.  All of the action happened before school, but it was important for them to know that this whole production is a brand new learning experience for me.  Mistakes and problems will happen.  The greater learning occurs when you are able to find a problem, reflect on the problem, and work towards a solution.  I had a video to watch to put the filter together.  I watched every step and still made a simple mistake.  Seeking out help from teachers, friends, colleagues, or experts in the field is so important when learning something new.  You cannot rely just on yourself.  Linda Darling-Hammond, in her book Powerful Learning, provides an example of a research study that states:

In one comparison by Zhining Qin, David Johnson, and Roger Johnson, of four types of categories for problems presented to individuals and cooperative teams, researchers found that teams outperformed individuals on all types and across all ages. Results varied by how well defined the problems were (a single right answer versus open-ended solutions, such as writing a story) and how much they relied on language. Several experimental studies have shown that groups outperform individuals on learning tasks and that individuals who work in groups do better on later individual assessments.

Students need a variety of learning methods.  Learning how to work effectively with peers and how to seek out help from adults will greatly increase their learning and knowledge.  I have seen significant student growth in cooperative learning this year.

We all make mistakes. We all learn some kind of lesson when we reflect on those mistakes. We all need to learn strategies to help alleviate or even fix those mistakes.  I continue to learn how everyday. Thank you to my fantastic students and colleagues!

Back to the tank.

The tank was full, the filter was filtering, and the chiller was chilling and set to the correct temperature.

What about the eggs?

Stay tuned.  Their story is next.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Importance of 10 %
Once students understand the importance and significance of 10%, so many other mathematical concepts seem to fall into place.

Before we start a unit on decimals and another on fractions, I like to take a good chunk of time to teach students how to find 10% of a number.  I also like them to understand how and why you are able to convert from fractions to decimals to percents.

We begin this process by building an understanding of what ten percent is.  Ten percent is 1/10th of a number. If you have 20 cookies and you were going to give 10% to your sister, how many cookies are you going to give?

There are a number of ways we can approach this.  I start off by teaching them that you can always just move the decimal point to the left and that is 10%.  So if you do that with this cookie problem, your sister will get 2 cookies.

This still does not help students "get" what 10% is.

So we begin to explore the "10%" itself.  What does the percent sign mean? The students know that it means out of 100 since they have been taking quizzes and tests for a long time.  So 10% means 10 out of 100.  If we simplify that it means 1 out of 10.

Ah, now we are cooking.

Back to the cookie problem.

If students know that 10 percent is 1 out of 10, they can begin to understand that finding percent can be a division process.  Splitting the cookies into 10 equal groups is something students clearly understand whether they like to share or not.   (Once this happens, they understand that 1/8 would lead you to divide by 8,  25% would lead you to divide by 4.)

Taking what you have and breaking it into 10 equal groups makes 10%.  Fortunately, this is a clear, hands-on approach to finding 10 %.  We can take those cookies, split them up equally into 10 groups and find out each person, including your sister will get 2 cookies.  Unfortunately, when you need to do this at a restaurant, you can't do this with a tip, you wont be able to take your money on the table, divide it up into 10 equal groups, find 2 of those groups and then give those groups to your server for a tip.

In class we were able to do this with a large bucket of manipulatives.  Please see a future blog for the estimation of 10 %.

So now students know they can just move the decimal over one place to the left, divide by 10, or split their actual number into 10 equal groups with manipulatives.

The fourth way to find 10% is just to multiply by .1 or .10.  Why does this work?  Because when you multiply by one tenth you are essentially finding 1out of every 10.  The decimal ends up moving over one place to the left after you multiply by .1.

Once students are able to reason and work with 10 %, they are then able to see and find the pattern that follows.

If you can find 10 % of 20 than you can find 20 %.  How?  You just double it.  How would you find 5%?  Cut 10% in half.

Now if you make an organized table, you would have it look something like this:

Percent          of         20

10%                           2
20%                           4

30%                           6

40%                           8

50%                          10

Students are then able to fill in the missing parts.  They can fill in 5%, 15%, 25% all the way up to 100%. Ten percent and 5% put together make 15%.

Percent          of         20
 5%                            1
10%                           2
15%                           3
20%                           4 
25%                           5
30%                           6
35%                           7
40%                           8
45%                           9        
50%                          10

It is a pattern.  Just a pattern once you find the first, most important part...10%
Students can then apply this skill to finding out a 15 or 10% tip at a restaurant.  Than they can figure out how much you spent with the tip in total. They are able to estimate about 10% of an unknown group.

There is much more to this 10% business.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, please help us find another important strategy that we can use and apply in our class.  Leave a comment to let us know.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Trout Are Coming!

I do not know much about trout.  I have never been a fisherman. I have never had a fish tank or a pool to take care of.

I do know that in a few short weeks I will have an entire tank of over 200 trout eggs to care for until the spring thaw, and their subsequent release into the open waters of a serene, slow-moving stream in Bethel, Connecticut.

By a show of hands the more than half of the students in my class have been in charge of taking care of their family fish tank or have lent a hand to their parents while testing the waters of their pool.  That's a relief.  Their body of knowledge will surely be helpful in this process.

There are a great deal of things to learn.  I look forward to learning from my colleagues, students, and anyone else who cares to bestow their knowledge of the "salmo trutta" on us.

Trout Unlimited of Connecticut has provided the supplies for this program.  My great colleagues Mrs. Mancher, Mr. Neeb, Mr. Stentiford, and Mr. Roodhuyzen, have offered their supplies, knowledge, and kindness in helping our cluster get up to speed with this wonderful program.  

My cluster has participated in the past , but as more of an experiential field trip.  Now we will have the opportunity to get our hands dirty (wet) in the real scientific process.  We will be caring for this fish right in the classroom.  We are excited and a bit nervous.  No, the kids are excited. I am nervous. 

Trying something new can be a bit scary.  Isn't that when the best learning happens?  

Bring on the fish!  

Wish us luck.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An Afternoon at the Polo Arena...The Best Kept Secret in Town!

Before today the only things I knew about Polo was that I have a few well worn shirts in my closet with a little polo guy on it.  I have seen still photos of Prince Charles waving a polo stick.  It is a game I assume for the wealthy by the price originally paid for those well worn shirts.

I spent 5 years at UConn (undergraduate and graduate)  and had no idea that a polo team even existed. The women were even national champions three years in a row in the 1990's.  They were also national champions from 2005 through 2008.  The best kept secret in Connecticut!

My kids love horses.  My kids love sports.  My kids love trips to the UConn Dairy Bar.  What a perfect combination!

We took the hour plus ride to the Horsebarn Hill Arena.   Located on a quiet backroad in the picturesque hills of eastern Connecticut surrounded by acres of horse and dairy farm, it is the perfect location for almost anything. I surely did not appreciate this fifteen years ago.

What an event!  Not knowing the first rule of polo, we needed to bide our time to see if we could figure it out.  The announcers to the fifty or so spectators helped us novices by explaining the details quite clearly.

I still had a few unanswered questions a few minutes in, and was helped out by a longtime follower of the team.  A man I'm sure who has never worked a day indoors in his life.  He knew all of the players and horses by name.  He told me there were four periods and they were called "chukkers".

If I was to summarize what a polo match is like, just take a soccer match and pick up the speed about twenty times, add in the contact, stick handling and strategy of hockey, combined with the sheer excitement of a final possession in college basketball.  The only difference is that polo keeps you on the edge of the cold bleacher for the entire thirty minutes (four 7 minute and 30 second chukkers) and not only for the final 2-minute drill of an NFL football game.  My kids did not want to leave for a minute. Not even for the world renowned UConn Dairy Bar ice cream!  That is a testament to this wonderful sport.

Now how is it that you can learn so much from a simple afternoon in the semi-outdoors with an arena full of horses and people you have never met?  Paying close attention, asking questions, doing a bit of research afterward and building connections (aren't these the skills we teach in school?) led my family to learn about a sport we never had acknowledged to exist before today.  We took my son's love of horses and my daughter's love of sport and competition combined it with the love of our alma mater and turned it into a day of fun, excitement and new learning.  My kids learned about how the score was kept.  They monitored the board throughout the match.  They cheered for both teams.  They showed concern for "George"  when he fell off his horse. They asked questions about why the scorekeeper needed to climb the wall and stand in a cage and why the lines were drawn on the ground. They even were able to congratulate the winning Cornell Big Red team afterwards.  What a day for a four year old.  George was even a bedtime topic of conversation.

We spent the day with great friends and turned the cold November winds into a lasting memory that we will never forget.

The day was topped off with a trip to Willington Pizza. The best pizza in northeastern Connecticut.  A must if you are in the UConn vicinity.

UConn vs. Yale  Friday, November 12th. Yale armory.  Just in case you are interested.  We are.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

One Math Period, One Problem, No Problem

How is it possible to spend an entire math period (a shortened one for that matter) on only one math problem?  It is quite simple.

A well designed problem requiring a variety of math skills, allowing the students to collaborate with one another with built in differentiation.  That is how a period can be spent on one problem.

Many times we start off math class with a math message problem to get the students thinking about the lesson of the day or connect to a topic or concept we have already studied.

For the past week we have had 20 minute math periods for early dismissal days.  The problem takes up a good percentage of the period.

The problem posed on Monday was:  My haircut at Supercuts typically costs $14.00.  Yesterday I had a coupon for $2 off a haircut and then Supercuts gave an extra dollar discount for "Football Sunday".  I gave a $5 tip.

The three questions to answer were:  How much was my haircut with the discount?  How much did I pay with the tip?  About what percentage off the regular cost of a haircut did I receive with the coupons?

Now the first two questions were not a problem.  With quick subtraction and addition skills the students realized that the haircut was $11 and the total cost with the tip was $16.  The real discussion and thinking came with the last question.

The students worked with a partner to discuss about what the discount was.  We had already begun discussing last week how to find 10% of a number, a skill not yet mastered, but a very important skill connected with comparing and calculating, fractions, decimals, and percents.

We heard many different responses  ranging from 5% to $3.00.  We were able to then use this information to systematically ask questions to lead to "about" the right answer.

The first question:  Should the answer be in dollars or percent?

The second question:  Is the answer close to 100%?  Why or why not?

The third question: Is the answer close to 0%?  Why or why not?

The fourth question:  Is the answer close to 50%?  Why or why not?

Each of these questions makes the student think about the discount in comparison to the original price.  They knew the discount was $3 in comparison to a $14.00 haircut.  Some of the students at this point had a reasonable estimate.  Some of them had a reasonable estimate before the questioning.  The questioning and ensuing discussion allowed for them to confirm their thinking or change their answer.  It also helped to push their mathematical thinking in new ways.  Listening to the responses of their peers is always valuable.  The important thing I have learned is to make sure I restate and try to show what they say and validate their thinking, or it will be lost on most students accept for the one making the claim.

At this point we are able to then narrow it down to less than 50% and greater than 0%.

What would 50% be?  Half of $14.00 is $7.00.

This is when the best part of the discussion happens.  We know it is less than 50% but then what?

Here is a list of possibilities:

I know 25% is half of 50% and $3.50 is half of $7.00, so it will be close to 25%.
I know 10% would be $1.40 because you move the decimal point once to the left to find 10% of any number.  Double 10% is 20% and double $1.40 is $2.80.  $2.80 is close to $3.00, so the answer is close to 20%
Since $2.80 is 20% and $3.50 is 25%,  the discount must be between 20 and 25%.

Now we have it really narrowed down, but the questioning does not stop.

Would the percent discount be closer to 20% or 25%?

20% of course.


Then more answers are given comparing 20 cents to 50 cents and how much further away $3.50 is than $2.80.  Then the students are able to realize that right between 20%  and 25% is 22.5% and that would be $3.15 because the difference between $2.80 and $3.50 is .70.  Half of 70 cents is 35 cents.

Now they realize that it is between 20% and 22.5%. And that is close enough for now.

I could have just taught them to divide $3.00 by $14.00 to find the answer.  That is an important skill that will be coming soon along with the many ways to break down a problem like this.  Right now the important skill is to learn how to reason and work through a problem through logical steps, discussion, and writing.  This lesson required lots of questioning, thinking aloud, and talking with others.  Learning how to reason and estimate will help the students so much more when they need to apply algebraic skills to solve a problem like  $3.00 is what percentage of $14.00?

There was no need yet to find the exact answer of 21.428571%.

By doing a haircut problem, all of the students could connect in some way.  They all have gotten a haircut either at a shop or by a parent.  Either way they could understand the financial aspect involved and the social part of getting a haircut. They quickly become interested for the most part because it is a  story they understand with a main character they know.   So many book problems are quite unrealistic or do not draw the reader in.  Isn't that what reading or any subject is all about, to draw the student in, to build that bridge, to connect them (yet another future blog topic), to transform their learning?  I was able to tell them how the hairdresser was wearing a Tom Brady jersey, so as a Jets fan I was a bit nervous as  my eyes were glued to the Jets-Packers game on the television in the corner.  I explained that I paid with a $20 bill and we were able to discuss a bit how much change I received and how much of that went toward the tip.  We were able to hear about some haircut stories, and how a girl I know who does cut mens' hair charges almost 5 times my regular haircut.  I needed to go to Trader Joes, get home to mow the lawn and get my kids ready for trick or treating. How much time did I have to get everything done?All of these things help to draw students in.

I did get lots of compliments on my about 22.5% discounted haircut!

The rest of the week centered on finding 10% (sure to be a blog topic in the future) and the patterns that follow.  As we head toward decimals and percentages, the question to ponder this weekend is Why are gas prices expressed to the thousandths place?  Why on the sign do they use both decimals and fractions
(2.99 9/10)?

Now the final question is:  How many math skills were used or brought up in a problem like this?

It took longer than twenty minutes to type this.  Period over.  See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Powerful Learning in Math and Science

(This blog today is part of a school assignment)

The book Powerful Learning by Linda Darling Hammond delves into the area of teaching for real understanding.  Chapters 2 and 3 focus on this understanding in math and in science.  Chapter 3, "Mathematics for Understanding" by Alan H. Schoenfeld explains how math needs to be presented to a learner in order for real understanding to happen.  The first, most important thing to happen is for students to begin to make sense of the information.  Students need time to play and manipulate and explore using the mathematical phenomena in order to begin to make sense of the topic being presented.  Schoenfeld calls this an "interaction with the content"  that is very different from the traditional practices of mathematics teaching.  Discourse and questioning, along with writing and proving what they know is imperative for children to develop deeper mathematical understandings.  Rote learning has its place in mathematics for sure.  Knowing basic facts and how to apply them is of great importance.  Students though need a deeper understanding of the rest of the mathematical concepts.  Not having an understanding of the underlying principles, the how and the why in a math concept is like a house not having a foundation.  There is no strong footing to build upon.  It may stand for a while on top of the soil, but when the rains come, the house, (and the knowledge) will be sure to wash away.  If they do have a firm grasp of the underlying principles, then no matter what type of problem is before them, the student will be able to find a way to make it work.

Schoenfeld cites a TIMSS study that countries who place a "greater focus on the conceptual underpinnings of the mathematics"  were higher achieving.  An emphasis on one or two problems during a class period leads students to more in depth thinking.  I have seen this in my classroom.  Student discussion when faced with a multistep, open-ended problem is richer and more focused than when completing a basic word problem.  Students rise to the challenge and relish the opportunity to try and prove they can succeed.

A strong conceptual understanding and opportunities to communicate those understandings in a variety of ways will lead to more improved, confident math students.  These can be taught in tandem with basic skills.  It is our job as teachers to begin to make this not so subtle shift for the benefit of our students.  As a result our teaching will greatly improve, because we are forced to think and teach in new creative ways.  Having the opportunity to work closely with colleagues to develop and implement these new "topic areas" will lead to better teaching.  Having a "continuity of focus" in workshops or Professional Learning Communities on these areas will lead to better practices.

Teaching Science for Understanding apples many of the same principles as teaching math for understanding.  An inquiry based approach is the best, most effective way to teach science for understanding.

Students come to school with some facts that may be accurate or inaccurate.  The need is to help change those misconceptions.  Then making "connections among the facts"  is vitally important to help student understandings.  Deeper questioning and investigation, along with allowing students the opportunity to explore and find information independently creates opportunities for them to be self-directed, self-motivated learners. Working together with peers in science to develop an inquiry investigation helps to increase their scientific knowledge.

As in math, "understanding any concept requires processing prior knowledge and ideas and incorporating them into a broader knowledge base".  Time and deep, rich activities allowing for discourse and student  interaction help foster this powerful knowledge.

As a teacher, science has been the one area I have feared the most.  Teaching in the traditional fact based manner, followed by quizzes and tests if how the past fourteen years of teaching been conducted.  Students have not been learning.  They  learned for the bit of time they needed the information, but that knowledge often evaporated over time.  Attending inquiry training and beginning to teach in a new way has made teaching science fun and exciting.

The four areas that Zimmerman and Stage see as being most important are:

Making Science Accessible

Making Thinking Visible

Helping Students Learn from Each Other

Promote Lifelong Learning Through Reflection

Science teaching needs to change for these important pieces to happen. Unbelievable things will happen as a result.  Students will be more confident, better thinkers, collaborators, writers, and students.  Teachers will be more confident, better questioners, and more reflective in their practice.  Students will then be able to bring this large knowledge base of skills and concepts, not necessarily facts along with them.  Hopefully the successive teachers they encounter will begin to change their practices as well.

I am excited and hopeful that these changes will happen. I am beginning to see this transformation in my classroom...and I like it!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Science Inquiry...Want to Know? It Sure is Fun!

I never knew science could be so much fun.

In the past it seemed like such a chore with all of the concepts and vocabulary and limited number of resources to try to pull together to make the students understand the world around them.  I tried to force lab reports upon them that didn't allow for any sense of wonder or provide motivation.  I basically spoon fed the information with a pre-determined result in mind.  If the "experiment" if you will, came out with flawed results, I made the students try it again to recreate what was "supposed" to happen.   No fun.

Now they are thinking, learning, and having fun.  They are using their own thoughts and ideas to develop questions, investigations, and procedures.  They are working collaboratively to answer their investigable questions.  There is fantastic discourse.

This is what they need. This is what I need.

I am working collaboratively with my buddy Todd (who comes up with all of these good ideas) to develop some of these meaningful lessons.  We teach down the hall from one another and are able to share every day to make each lesson better.  He helps by asking the right questions.

Harry Rosvally our Math Science Partnership program leader along with Holly Harrick from the Connecticut Science Center have spearheaded all of this "good stuff".

Right now the students are in the midst of writing up a plan and gathering materials. Stay tuned for more fun.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Designing Effective Science Instruction..Making a Change

Oh the things we missed out on in Teacher's College.  I actually can't remember much besides student teaching and learning abstract concepts that were irrelevant to us then and well into the first years of teaching.  I have to imagine the education those undergrads are receiving now is of much higher quality and well organized.  I hope they have the ability to design and teach science lessons that are meaningful to students. They have the time.  I am now learning about designing science lessons that inspire students to think, ask questions, and truly wonder about the world and phenomena around them.

Designing effective science instruction is very similar to designing lessons in other curricular areas.  The only difference is that I and many teachers like me have feared this one area in the past.  We have had the least training and had the least amount of instructional time in this most important subject.  I am now learning to let go, let the science happen, and let the "organized chaos"  (as some of my DESI colleagues call it) unfold.  This is not a "subtle shift".  This is a monumental shift that we need to take for the sake of our students.  Learning in an inquiry based way can only encourage and motivate students to excel.

I was given the book Designing Effective Science Instruction today at our workshop.  This book was written by our presenter Anne Tweed, a leader in the field of science education.  I plan to use this resource, among others, to help design and plan science this year with my colleagues.  If any science educators would like to read it along with me, please comment  and we can have a bit of discourse about the what is happening in our classrooms.

We were also given an awesome "Flip" video camera! What a great tool for instruction.  Can't wait to use this for our experiments. Thank you Harry!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reflecting Back on the First Year of Teaching

I clearly remember 13 years ago preparing for my first group of third graders.  Intermittent sleep with dreams of incompetence and students running amok were nightly occurrences leading up to that dreaded, yet thrilling first day.  I had no direction and no clue of what to do.  I was clearly unprepared for the job that laid ahead of me.  Yes, I did have some kind colleagues who tried to show me the way.  They were very well meaning, but they had experience and knowledge that takes years to acquire.  At that point my mind was too cluttered and unfocused to listen with clarity.  The brain of a 22 year old can only take in so much.  The University of Connecticut tried to prepare me with four years of undergraduate work plus a Master's degree in the fifth.  Unfortunately a teacher is never prepared for that first year no matter their college experience.  The decisions to be made, the relationships that need to be built, the problems that arise, the parent and student issues are all too numerous to accurately calculate.  The factors are endless.  Thinking back, I did the best I could, but surely my best was not good enough.  I sure hope preservice teacher preparation has improved since 1996.

Heading into my 14th year, I feel confident and comfortable beginning the year with a sense of purpose and a greater understanding of what lies ahead.  I know there will be an infinite number of decisions to be made, but each requires much less thought and effort compared with those of a decade ago.  Many decisions are automatic now with no need to belabor the question or situation.  This is what experience brings.  I am no longer endlessly bogged down with the tiny details that need to be thought out and worked out; the thousands of little problems that arise.  I can primarily focus on what is important, teaching and student learning.

The intermittent sleep and the strange dreams still occur, but I am thankful that I now have the experience and the tools to deal with most of the situations and decisions that need to be made daily in the classroom.

That first group of students will be graduating college this year.  The cycle continues.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hooked on Reading. How Did This Happen? The Hunger Games!

I am not a fan of fiction, especially fantasy or novels that take place in time periods or places that are quite unfamiliar.  I have always experienced a disconnect in my brain that would never fully allow for comprehension.  There is a remarkable series of books that has changed my thoughts about this genre.

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins is so well written I found myself up in the middle of the night finding out what happens next.  I have said aloud "Why!"and felt my breathing change in anticipation of the next event.  Now that is something I would have never expected. Yes, the characters have strange names and the setting is in a land once known as North America, but the character development and the pace of the books is just right.  When I find myself saying it's time to move on, the author moves swiftly in a direction so unpredictable the thoughts in your head begin swirling, trying to rationalize and digest what just happened.  By the time you do this, a plot twist will send you for another loop on the proverbial literary roller coaster.  

You will find yourself during your daily activities wondering about Katniss Everdeen and the struggles she is facing.

I highly recommend this book to any adult and any student in grade 7 or above.  There are three books in the series.  The first one is The Hunger Games, the second is Catching Fire, and the third one came out yesterday called Mockingjay.  I have just started this one.  I am only 10 pages in.  I don't want to continue until I can block out a long period of time.

Here is a link about the series from the WSJ:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Mind Opening Approach to Teaching... A Powerful Week of Change

Who knew on Monday what would happen when making my first trek up the Merritt Parkway, paired with an arduous stretch on Interstate 91 north, leading to a tucked away magnet school named "Two Rivers". Who knew that I and many others would find that within four days our entire mindset and approach to teaching and learning would be wholly transformed.

This week I along with 28 other fabulous teachers from Danbury, New Milford, and Newtown are entrenched in a new learning and discovery to help understand how to teach science (and all disciplines) in a more practical, logical, and intrinsically motivating way.  We are instructed by three classroom teachers who have been where we are and still teach in a classroom every day.  They have the knowledge, resources and the "educational toolbox"  to help solve our problems and answer our questions.  

We are learning the process of teaching using inquiry based methods.  I will not outline all of the details, but basically using careful planning, guidance and well executed lessons, you create a framework in your classroom that allows students to dig deeper into subject matter that is highly motivating to them. You create a classroom full of curiosity and wonder, a classroom of discovering, asking more questions, and unearthing new information.  

Tuesday and Wednesday we were exposed to stream tables and did a short guided activity with the flow and slope. Out of this came many questions that we had.  We were then able to pick a question we wanted explore with like-minded individuals who wanted to explore the same question.  There were eight different investigations simultaneously being conducted in a small classroom.  My group of four was so focused on our investigation of the formation of deltas (see our deltas in the picture above), we were oblivious to the flurry of activity around us.  We were given a basic framework, time, materials, and trust to work together to accomplish our goal of making new discoveries. We did.  We collaborated, assigned roles, measured, discussed.  We presented our investigation and the data collected.  Most of all we had fun...and learned.  We learned more than we ever could have in an article about delta formations.  Could an article be helpful to our understanding?   Absolutely!  It does not need to be a front-loading activity for the students.  Much more was gleaned from this cooperative endeavor than could ever be from a text.

Making a shift and leaving your teaching comfort zone is quite a challenge.  My thinking about instruction is beginning to change.  Now I need to jump in, push away the apprehension and doubt swirling about in my mind and get to it.

(We have learned so much more.  I will continue to write about this inquiry approach because we will be working on how to implement this in science all year long.  I am going to be thinking about and trying this approach in reading and math as well.  Our program is a collaborative effort between Danbury, New Milford, Newtown public schools, Western Connecticut State University, The Connecticut Science Center, and the Sate Department of Education.  It is an instructional  coaching academy funded through a Math Science Partnership grant.  I will attach the link at a later date.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Quest for the Perfect (and economical) Cup of Coffee

The only thing that can bring a smile to my face in the morning besides my wife and children is that heavenly smell of fresh brewed coffee; wafts of steam slowly emanating from the stark white cup.  Java, Joe, Brew, whatever you choose to name your morning, afternoon or evening vice, for some late morning and early afternoon vice too, it does not matter.  What matters is the taste and smell, and the feeling that fresh brew invokes in you.  Whether you have some fancy Krups contraption, a regular old Mr. Coffee 10 cup decanter, or you purchase your lot at the local joint by a barista named Johnny Nice,  you know that first sip will dictate most of the rest of your day.  Sweet, delicious, aromatic prepared just your way, the day will be splendid.  Too much cream, not enough sweetener, watered down, way too strong; your day is headed for sheer disaster.

I do not claim to be a coffee expert in any way.  I know little of the fancy terms that litter the caffeine landscape.  Coffee is my drink, iced once in a while, frappuccino type blended drinks more seldom.  I do know a palatable cup from one I would pour out in the parking lot.  At home we make the standard Trader Joe's Classic Blend, the big 32 ounce can for $9.99 in our Wal-Mart purchased Black and Decker standard white 12 cup coffee maker.  The results are usually satisfactory.  Sometimes quite good.  It all depends on dates of the milk or cream in the fridge. Cups on the road have innumerable variables.

Last year I presented my students with a serious mathematical problem.  We were studying decimals, so I laid out the cost of coffee in varying sizes from three different establishments.  They needed to find out which was the most economical cup.  This led us to the belief that this was the best coffee.  Thinking back, many flaws lie in this thinking. The first and most considerable is taste, with cost a close second.  With taste buds, wallet, and an amateur coffee vocabulary in mind I will try to outline some of the fantastic cups I have enjoyed in my limited traveling area in Connecticut.

The Blue Colony Diner in Newtown was my first foray into the caffeine world as a teen.  Late Friday night or heading out after school meant endless refills for one low price.  I have not been there in years, but that is where my taste buds came alive.  I plan on returning soon to experience once again the roots of my daily vice.

Dunkin Donuts
Dunkin Donuts came on the scene and was the second place my addiction spread. A decent cup, but undependable flavor.  You also can not find consistency from one shop to the next.  The price on average $2.20 or so for a large is too high for the quality.  You can have a fantastic cup, one you can't put down on Monday, then at the same establishment you need to walk back in to have them make you a new cup on Tuesday because it is half cream and sicky sweet.  I go there quite often for the convenience, drive through or "thru", and sheer copiousness of this franchise that pervades the Connecticut landscape.

Starbucks is the place I am quite ambivalent about.  I always find myself wanting to love the coffee and the ambience of the setting, but for my tastes, neither is just right.  I find the brew too strong, even the mild.  Inside, the color scheme is much more pleasant than Dunkin Donuts, so the experience sure rates higher.  Being able to control the fixings that go into your cup is a big plus.  I want to put the cream and sugar in.  I know as you do, each customer has a perfect color and sweetness.  The logo laden cups and trinkets for sale on every shelf of the store remind me of a vacation gift shop trying to sell you everything as a reminder of the wonderful time you had on your visit.  My favorite mug at home is a cylindrical heavy, 20 ounce white cup with a simple brown Starbucks label.  They make good products, but the coffee, not so much.  The frappuccino is tasty, but for $4.00, a once in a long while treat.  A venti at $2.10 is on average less expensive than Dunkin Donuts, and the paper cup gives it the edge.  As you can  see...ambivalent.

McDonald's has peeked my interest in the past six months or so.  They serve Green Mountain coffee, which on its own deserves a great deal of print space for the delicious flavors they deliver to many different types of coffee shops around the state.  McDonald's carries Newman's Own organic.  Very good flavor, you can fix it yourself if you wish, but... it's McDonald's with their super corporate and step on everyone for a buck philosophy.  The positive in that, that is the cost of the coffee, one dollar for any size, even a twenty ouncer ".  Now that is economical and it is quite tasty.  Good to the last drop.  Just don't order any food there.  That is their hope. With the java, you order sausage mcsandwiches with bacon and more sausage.  If you can avoid that marketing ploy, be sure to give it a try.

Green Mountain and New England Coffee
Back to Green Mountain.  You can find this coffee at many gas stations, small sandwich shops, cafeterias, banks, and libraries throughout the state.  They have a wide variety of flavors, including my two favorites "wild mountain blueberry" and "maple syrup".  I am not a flavored coffee guy but these two are irresistible when available.  This is my brand for the Kuerig maker in my classroom as well.  For a good cup at any time for a reasonable price where you can control the contents of the cup, you can't beat Green Mountain no matter the establishment.  One of my favorites is a gas station off of the Merritt Parkway.  Twenty-four ounces fixed the way you like for $1.90.  If you can find New England coffee, that is a delicious alternative.

My New Favorite
A small coffee shop with good coffee and atmosphere recently closed in Sandy Hook, Connecticut (a section of Newtown) called Mocha.  This quaint shop overlooks a rambling river called the Pootatuck.  A new place Demitasse took its place, so I thought I would give it a try.  Holy cow, I downed this cup in minutes.  After asking a few questions, I learned they serve Willoughby's roasted coffee out of Branford and New Haven.  This is near my home.  I happened to have an appointment right across the street from the Branford Willoughby's shop a few days later.  Reasonably priced, flavorful, leaving you wanting for more. It is just a bit difficult to get to, not on my ride anywhere.  I will go out of my way for this cup though.

Coffee.  What else can be said.  Other thoughts come to mind, but I will save that for another day.  In the mean time, greet good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, with an unforgettable cup of Joe.

Please feel free to add your favorites to this list!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer Waning...Random Thoughts

In the weeks leading up to the first day of school my mind begins to fill with work that lays ahead.  Two weeks and two days from now I will go to bed with all of the possibilities.  The racing thoughts will begin.   Is my room ready?  What do I do on the first day of school?  Is there enough time to meet about the new schedule and the new students?  I will toss and turn until the alarm awakens my exhausted body.  Once at school, I will chat with buddies, exchange smiles and pleasantries with colleagues, and hear the same old same old same old "How was your summer?" interactions, innumerable times. Meetings will pass by in a blur, information will fail to penetrate my brain because I will have one thought and one thought only.  "I need to work in my room!" All will be on edge. The fear of unpreparedness will flow through everyone's brains.  The best plan of action:  Ignore, ignore, ignore.  It's best to have tunnel vision.  For now,  focus on anything but school.  Once you step on the treadmill you can't get off, so it's best not to step...yet. Two weeks, two days. I will not waste my time calculating that math problem.  We'll wait...and embrace the sweet last days of summer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Back to College and My Brain Hurts!

On May 18, 1996 and 1997 I graduated undergraduate and graduate school at UCONN.  Once leaving those institutional doors I thought there was no chance of ever going back.   "No more teachers, no more books no more teachers dirty looks."  I am a teacher so I see those dirty looks every day.  Well, on May 18, 2010 I went back to college. An opportunity came that I couldn't pass up.  Free college, with a stipulation that I work with fellow teachers at my school to help be a Math and Science coach.  Wish me luck.    The second homework assignment, quite impossible.  I needed help from two colleagues joining me in the program to answer the 5 end of chapter questions.  None of us were sure we were right.  It took us all at least 2 hours to complete. Sitting in class, the ADD sets in immediately.  The fear of being wrong when answering questions creeps back into my head.  Friends do help keep the focus and the fun, thank goodness. 

Yes, my brain does hurt. A good hurt.  

Hopefully it gets easier!