The Intersection of Kinematics…

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Should you slow for that yellow light, or should you go through?

From my gauzy past, I recall the pedantic drivers’ ed instructor harping on this:  “A yellow light means CLEAR THE INTERSECTION. It does not mean ‘slow down’. It does not mean ‘speed up’. You have to make that judgement call.”     What a dilemma! My teenage male brain said, “Sweet! I can SPEED UP!”, while the rational part of me wondered how the heck was I supposed to know whether to speed up or slow down?  Do I just guess?  (at the time: yes, as it turns out)

Thirty years later, my son, after taking driver’s ed, told me something very interesting: his instructors told him that the city has strategically painted the solid line, that separates the lanes, before an intersection (pointed out with the arrow in the image above), to help resolve this dilemma.  Supposedly, the solid lines are painted a very specific length, based upon the speed limit, and the time for a yellow light.  If you are driving the speed limit, and the light turns yellow BEFORE you reach the solid lane line, then you should slow down.  If you see the light turn yellow and you are already past the beginning of the solid line, then you should continue on.

Brilliant, right? But I’m skeptical, and that skepticism has nurtured a project idea for a physics class, dealing equations of motion.

equations of motion

You have ∆x = length of lane line, or depending upon the calc,  = (length of lane-line + length of intersection + length of car, possibly)

t = time for the yellow light

V0 = speed limit

That should be enough to check the continue on scenario, where a person has just reached the solid line when the light turns yellow, because you can assume that there should be no acceleration in a law-abiding driver.  (Yes, big assumption, I know)

If you want to check the slow down scenario, then you’re going to need to know things like average stopping distance for cars at certain speeds, which would allow you to approximate accelerations for the cars…so that you can use some of the equations that have acceleration in them.  The kinematics equations require the assumption of constant acceleration, which might be a reasonable first-approximation in this scenario, and would certainly create a great conversation with your students to help reinforce the requirements for those equations.

So many lab and community possibilities!  Students can travel to various intersections around the city, and safely measure, along the sidewalk, the length of the solid lane lines.   They can carry out calculations.  They determine whether the lines are the length promised by this scheme.  They present to either city officials, or to local driver’s ed teachers with a map of intersections that DO work, and intersections that don’t.

What if your city hasn’t hatched this sort of scheme?  Wouldn’t it be cool to get your city to repaint those lines?  Students could still visit intersections and measure, and tell the city that they could add just the right amount of solid line, or take away just the right amount, and there you have it!  Physics makes your life safer.


Blogs in lieu of portfolios

“When are we going to use this?”

Oh, that phrase.  It has haunted many teachers, but those of us in PBL schools often pride ourselves in not hearing that phrase very much at all.  In good projects, we hear it almost never, because the kids see the wherewithal of the ideas in a truly authentic learning experience.

Perhaps, however, I have been too smug in my self-congratulating, because there is one piece of work that keeps on generating that phrase in my classroom: Portfolios.

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“Are we going to use this sort of thing in college?”  “Do colleges actually look at your portfolios?”   Ugh.  As much as I want colleges to look at my students’ work in sum, as much as I want colleges to have students maintain portfolios, neither has happened with the ubiquity that could justify any claim on my part about a portfolio’s utility outside the classroom, in the post-secondary world.

So why do we keep on doing them?  I think there remains a reasonable justification for the use of portfolios, particularly at the lower grades:  it helps parents understand the depth and breadth of the work at school, and those of us receiving students from the previous year gain a deeper understanding of the student by looking at their portfolios.  However, I teach seniors, and those two reasons become much less of a factor compared with work that aids the transition out of high school.  For that reason, I was coming to dread the notion of revisiting the portfolio this coming year with my students.

Then I attended  a workshop at the New Tech Annual Conference, about, well, portfolios.  A group of teachers pitched an idea to the participants:  What about a Blog-as-portfolio?   They gave some justification, and we at nex+Gen jumped at the idea, and immediately started embellishing and elaborating.  Here is our plan:

  • Students don’t create a “blog-as-portfolio”. They create a blog. The blog is about learning, and they can post some of their work on it, but it is, at its heart, really a blog.  This answers the question: “When am I going to use this?”    Our answer – it has use immediately, because it immediately starts to create a positive internet footprint for the students.   Two of the senior teachers have professional blogs, and we maintain them to help establish ourselves in the world of education and authorship.  Employers might not ask for a digital portfolio, but they certainly look up people on the web, and if there is a blog with your name on it that indicates that you are a thoughtful, engaged learner, then you are much more likely to create a positive impression.
  • The blog will serve as the turn-in destination for certain assignments this year. Over the course of the year, students will turn in their work not to our learning management system, but to the blog.  In our LMS, students will just provide a link to their work-in-the-blog.  That way, if the students wish the blog to serve the function of a portfolio, work will already be there.  No extra step of transferring work from the LMS to a portfolio, no extra layer of effort for which the students see little return.

We’ll be using WordPress, because you can password-protect certain entries, because they have robust commenting features, and lastly because the blog is their own, not tied to any school domain or control.

Suggested Reading (Articles)

MLK Reading a Paper

This will be a dynamic post, because I want to keep a running list of articles that I’ve come across lately, and ways that I think that they might be useful in the classroom.  They’ll be in the order that I come across them.   Hence, I have two recommendations:

  1. Please feel free to comment, and add any readings you’ve come across that are worth sharing – that can relate to classroom practice.
  2. Come back to this post now and then, because I will continue to add to it.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 May 2014. Web. 09 Aug. 2015.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been creating a bit of an uproar since last year, starting with the article above, particularly in light of the many recent conversations about equality around police treatment. Whether or not you agree with his thesis, the article could be particularly powerful for US History teachers addressing the legacy of Jim Crow.

Wu, Tim. “The Case for Less.The New Republic. N.p., 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 09 Aug. 2015.

While this article first appears to be a book review, it turns out that the author is using the book as a launching off point to discuss some perils of “abundance”, with particular attention to an abundance of information given to us as a result of the web and our many devices to access it. I want to use this in my advisory class to help students navigate a world thick with technology and temptations for addiction. Our school’s faculty has been wrestling with the best way to manage our 1:1 environment, and I see this article as a possible tool. It is among the very few voices out that says, “More of something is not necessarily better”.

Murphy Hall, Annie. “Bigger Gains for Students Who Don’t Get Help Solving Problems.MindShift. KQED News25, 25 Feb. 014. Web. 09 Aug. 2015.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. As a constructivist teacher of math, I want my students to face problems, and have to think about the solution, not merely react with a pat algorithm. Of course, we have to find the balance between an allowance of struggle, and too much frustration…but we will never build up tolerance for frustration in our students if we never expose them to this sort of approach. If you are a math teacher, please read this.

Strauss, Valerie. “Why Young Kids Need Less Class Time — and More Play Time — at School.Washington Post. The Washington Post, 21 Aug. 2015. Web. 23 Aug. 2015.

Honestly, this is a no-brainer. I post it because I think the same philosophy holds for adolescents. In the 2014-2105 school year, I had a group of very, very active young men, who, at the age of 17, looked very much like a group of 2nd graders if they didn’t get a chance to move around.  My and their lives became much better when I required that they take a lap (walking or running) around the field before we started 5th period.  Call it “recess”, call it a break, whatever. It worked.

A New Blog Host

If you have read my blog Intrepid Ed, then you should know that I am changing hosts.  Two reasons:

REASON 1: After too many failed attempts by readers to comment on my last blog (, I have decided to switch over to a site that can actually accept comments.

REASON 2: At our school, we will have students (specifically, seniors) create their own professional blogs, and WordPress seems like a good candidate. I figured I’d better model the work.

Note the slight change in the name. It turns out that was ‘reserved’, whatever that means, so this is .

The Role of Labs in PBL

A couple years ago, I wrote this piece for other science teachers in the New Tech Network.  I believe that it still holds true, but it is interesting, because all the examples are scenario-based projects, reflecting a moment in time regarding my practice, and my view of PBL.

While building and planning labs into projects might seem to be a challenge, I believe it crucial that labs are part of teaching science, whether you use PBL or not, for all sorts of reasons.  Here is a list of some of those reasons: 
  1. It’s just good science teaching practice.   Students in science classes should act as scientists, making observations, hypotheses, and generating experiments.  The best way to do this is through labs.
  2. Particularly through inquiry-style labs, interaction with physical things affords opportunity for critical thinking that is different than other group work.
  3. Labs provide an opportunity for face-to-face collaboration, and a chance for the teacher to assess collaboration.
  4. Students in science classes typically identify labs as their favorite part – hence labs are a way to increase engagement.
  5. Many districts mandate that science courses must spend as much as 40% of class time doing lab-based activities.

In projects, lab activities should play a crucial role in scaffolding student understanding of the scientific concepts, and you can do it in a variety of ways.  Here are three different approaches, with illustrative examples, using some projects I’ve developed, and others that colleagues of mine have developed and run.

Again – the examples are scenario-based projects, because I wrote this some time ago, when scenarios were the bulk of my repertoire. Not sure what I mean when I say “scenario based”? Here’s a pretty good description.  In comparison, here’s something about scenario-based vs reality based, and here is something on the other end of the spectrum.  I think I may create a Part II to this posting.

Approach 1:  Labs Are Required for Final Product

This is the most sophisticated and elegant way of integrating labs.   The project design, often times in the entry document (or early in the project), prompts students to explore something in the lab, so that the data that they collect will be used directly in the final presentation or product.
Example Physics Project:  Gothos Ex Machina
In this slightly fantastical scenario-based project, students play the role of engineers in Gothic Europe, trying to understand how the Romans lift heavy things.  There is a picture of a pulley in the entry document. The end presentation is trade-show style, where teams of students set up their pulley systems and explain to wandering assessors their understanding of pulleys.
Lab:  Students must experiment with pulley systems, and figure out how to make them, which allows them to construct an understanding of conservation of energy (Energy as Work, in this case).   Work on the pulley system with measurements takes up about two thirds of the class time for this project.
Example Chemistry Project:  The Case of Toxic Waste
Students as consultants to the EPA must determine how much pollution three different sources are dumping into a local river and whether the sources are in compliance with law.  They are given data from the river; however, it is not all complete, as you can see from the column entitled “pH”. 

Lab:  Students must measure the pH of “river samples” gathered each day that the instructor provides.   The instructor concocts the samples such that the sample from one day is more acidic than the others, which will indicate that the polluter at Source 3 is out of compliance with the law on one particular day.

Approach 2:  Labs Address the Same Standards as Project, but data isn’t used directly in final product.

In this approach, a project creates a need to know a standard, but it might have been too difficult to integrate a lab seamlessly like the above examples.   However, if there is a lab that illustrates the same standard as the project addresses, it is perfectly ok to run that lab in the project, even if the data won’t be used directly in the final product.   In fact, it is better to run the lab than not.  
Example Chemistry Project:  Element Speed Dating
In this project, students play the role of an anthropomorphic element looking for another element with which it is compatible.  The final performance is a “speed dating” session where students-as-elements interview each other to find possible partners.   This project addresses periodicity and chemical & physical properties.

Lab:  The entry video for this project does not call for a lab or data specifically.   However, a teacher running this could use any number of standard labs that illustrate periodicity; a classic version has students observing properties in common between Li, Na, and K, (all group 1 elements) and then properties in common between Ca and Mg (group 2 elements).
Example Physics Project:  Moongames
Students play the role of game designers, charged with inventing a game to be played on the moon by colonists.  In their game design, they need to take into account the behavior of objects as described by Newton’s three laws.  The final presentation has them presenting their game to a panel.

Lab:  In order to illustrate Newton’s 2ndLaw (a a F/m) a teacher might use a classic lab where students attach a string to a cart, and place weights on the end of the string, so that the cart gets pulled along a track with a constant force.  Students can then experiment with the effect of mass on acceleration, and force on acceleration.  Results from this lab are probably not used directly in the final presentation, but they know from the lab what mass and force will do to acceleration, and then can apply that knowledge to their work on the final product.

Approach 3:  Lab As Mini Project or Problem-based Unit

Sometimes the standards for a class are ripe for illustration with a lab, but are difficult to fit into a standard multi-week project.   In this case, teachers have found it propitious to create a narrative around the lab that provides a connection to the world outside the classroom, and/or creates a need-to-know the ideas of the lab.    In this case, the execution of the lab can be the performance or final product, or the teacher can add a follow-up activity to complete the solution of the problem.

Example Chemistry Lab/Mini Project:  Bag the Tagger

In this mini-project, students play the role of school detective, who must determine the identity of a culprit who has tagged several rooms and textbooks at the school.  Students receive a group of black markers, and pieces of paper with samples of the tagging.   This project is meant to deal with separation techniques (chromatography) and properties of water (polarity, hydrogen bonding, solubility).   Students present their findings to the class in a mock trial.   This mini-project would take about 4-5 days.

Lab:  As a scaffold, students first carry out a recipe-style lab where they learn techniques of Chromatography with both water and acetone.    As a second lab, students are given pens gathered from a variety of “suspects”, and “samples” from the text book, with writing from one of the pens on them.  Students must create their own test to determine which pen did the writing.

Example Physics Lab/Mini Project:  Me Tarzan, You Jane

A great lab to demonstrate Conservation of Mechanical Energy includes a set-up with a weight swinging on a thread, which is cut during the swing by a razor blade, resulting in the washer free-falling to the ground.   Students place a target on the ground, based upon their measurements of the apparatus and subsequent calculations, then release the weight to see if it lands on the target. 

The narrative:  The weight is Tarzan, the thread the vine.   Tarzan must successfully swing on the vine, which, in mid-swing, is cut by a razor sharp Tucan’s beak – which will send Tarzan flying and hopefully land on an island (target) where Jane is marooned.  Of course, the island is surrounded by piranha. 

In this case, students perform the lab, and submit their derivations and calculations as a lab write up, and the project is over.  No, not terribly authentic, but extraordinarily engaging to the students.

Ascension: How Far Do They Go?

I just discovered the SyFy Channel’s mini-series Ascension.  In it, a spaceship (pictured above), the size of the Empire State Building, carries 600 people from Earth to another star in order to colonize a new world.  The premise of the show holds that the ship must travel 100 years to its destination.  Neat!

Now, on the ship, people are operating as though there is Earth-like gravity.  Look! In the photo below, from the first episode, they’re standing around, talking about a dead person, as though they were on Earth, standing around, talking about a dead person.

As you watch the show, you soon understand that the living quarters are arranged so that people perceive “up” to be the top of the ship, and “down” to be the bottom, as though they were standing in a skyscraper.  In the photo at the top of the blog, people would be standing, and their heads would be pointing left, their feet pointing right.

This gives us a clue how the show designers imagine creating gravity. TASK 1: Read about general relativity, and describe: what should be the motion of the spaceship?  Should it move at constant speed, or some acceleration? What speed, or acceleration?

TASK 2: Once you have answered the above, use one of the kinematics equations to determine – how far do they go? You’ll need to list assumptions that you make, but keep this first calculation simple, just assuming a single value for the velocity or acceleration you determined.

To help out, here are the kinematics equations:

Remember that the kinematics equations assume something about the acceleration.

If you make the same assumptions as me, then you will determine that the ship went a distance of somewhere around 4.9 x 1019 meters, assuming that we know the time of the travel to the nearest 1 year, giving the number 100 years 3 significant digits.  (We might say 100. years)

TASK 3: If the spaceship actually went that distance, then how many light years is that?   How does that compare to some of the closest stars to our own?

TASK 4:  Uh oh.  You know what happens when you make assumptions, don’t you?  There’s a problem.  Well, there are several, but let’s address just one in this task.  Use an equation of motion to determine the final speed of the space ship after 100 years.   Then compare that to the speed of light.  Then look up special relativity, and discuss: what is the problem here?

TASK 5:  Ok – here’s another problem: how does the spaceship stop? Many space-travel theorists suggest that an interstellar trip should have two halves.  The first half is an acceleration to a top speed, at which point the spaceship turns itself around, while its momentum continues to carry it in the original direction of travel.  Once it is turned around, it fires its engines directly at its (far away) target, to slow it down.  So let’s say that the Ascension turns around at 50 years.  Does this resolve the problem in Task 4?  Explain.

TASK 6: Use the relativistic rocket equations to determine how far the spaceship ACTUALLY  would go in that 50 years.  Ha ha!  Not really.  It’s already been done by someone much more knowledgeable than me.  But reading might lead to some insight about the issue.

The real TASK 6: Discuss how realistic it is for the show’s creators to generate gravity in the way they seem to in the show.

Ok, my physics-teaching or physics-knowing peeps, here are my questions about the problem:
1) What do you think of breaking it up into tasks like the above?
2) Questions too vague? I intended to be fairly cagey about particularly task 1, because I want them to relate the motion of the ship to their reading of the relativity.
3) Anyone have some particular favorite online explanations of special and general relativity that would support students in this problem?
4) Anything I should add?  Did I get anything wrong?

EDIT – 6/25/15
As I re-read this, there are a couple of items to point out:

1) I can see this being used to introduce relativity to high school Physics 1 students who have already done some work with 1-dimensional motion. It could also be done in a typical kinematics project (as an embedded problem) or unit.

2) I like the idea of rolling this out with just the introduction that ends with the sentence, “In the photo at the top of the blog, people would be standing, and their heads would be pointing left, their feet pointing right,” and no tasks enumerated.  Rather, give small groups of students the opportunity to inquire.   Perhaps a prompt of,

“What questions does this raise for you?  As a practitioner of physics, what kinds of information might you be able to calculate from the given information?”

That would create a bit more of an organic start, but you could still hold a list of tasks for students who seem to flounder.

The Interactive Lecture

I’m not going to lie: I like to lecture. This might seem like a problem, since I teach at a school where Project Based Learning is the norm, and a lot of the students seem to think that they signed up for a school where there won’t be the typical stand-and-deliver sort of teacher-to-student interaction.

First of all, I remind them, just because it is PBL doesn’t mean that you can’t have lectures, and second, you ASKED for the instruction when you said you needed a refresher or lecture on (…whatever they needed to know).  That said, as much as I might enjoy standing and delivering, I still want the students more engaged, and less, well, plaintive.

As I considered WHY I like to lecture – it’s fun to share ideas that I know something about – I came to an idea. Could I get the students to experience that same kind of fun as I do, sharing ideas, being the center of attention, etc? Could I make it so that students engage more completely in a lecture format?

Hence was born something that I have been working on for the last two years, and I call it (rather prosaically, I know) the “Interactive Lecture”.

Here is the idea: I create a series of slides (with mostly images rather than text) that invoke students’ previous knowledge, and then build upon that knowledge to create some new knowledge.  I then tell the students that I am not going to lecture to them – they must lecture. Of course, what they say will probably not be correct at first, but if the whole class pitches in, then together they should be able to come up with the right idea for a given set of images, and thus the ideas those images represent.

Once students have done their best to describe a particular slide, then I can augment with any commentary necessary to complete the ideas the slide is supposed to represent.  Then we start the process over with the next slide.

Check out the video. It shows only one slide from a deck I was using to teach about energy production in cells, so that you can see the cycle: students come up, they speak to it, and at the end, I add anything that I need/want to add.

This sort of practice can be a bit intimidating for students who don’t feel as confident about the material, so there are a couple of tricks that help out:

  1. I set expectations that people are going to say lots of different things, and that’s fine.  This process requires some risk-taking.  I tell students that if they disagree with someone’s interpretation, the only way they can disagree is to go up and offer an alternative interpretation – and then we as a class can decide on the explanation that seems to make the most sense, without telling anyone that they are wrong.
  2. I give a handout with the slides printed with some room for notes.  That way, students can look ahead to see what slides they might be able to address.
  3. Sometimes I have them talk to each other in pairs about a slide before we have anyone go to the front – so that the engagement hits 100%, and I can listen to conversations.  If one of the less-confident says something good, I can send them to the front so that he/she can publicly show competence.
  4. I give them room to be funny.  Sometimes a student wants to go up and just say something goofy, and honestly, it provides a welcome break from all the cognitive-heavy-lifting they might be doing as they decode the imagery.

The handouts (Trick number 2 mentioned above) provide a nice form of assessment as well; they serve as part of the two prompts that I typically follow up with this experience, where I give the students a sort of differentiated follow-up assignment.  Here are a couple of possibilities:

Level 1 Prompt: Now that you have participated in the lecture, write out detailed descriptions of the slides and the ideas the images are meant to represent. One to two sentences per slide, please.

Level 2 Prompt: Now that you have participated in the lecture, provide a description of the last slide, then explore in the textbook the “Electron Transport Chain”.  You may want to refer as well to the Crash Course Video on cellular respiration as well.  Then provide a detailed description of the electron transport chain, and its role in generating ATP.

Students choose one or the other.  Note that the Level 2 prompt actually requires less writing, but is more complex, so that the kids who want to go for deeper understanding aren’t just saddled with more writing.

I teach seniors, and this works very well with them, but I’ve also shared the technique with our freshman biology teacher, and she has used it with great success.  She reports increased engagement and students having more fun with the content that might otherwise be a bit dry with a teacher-stand-and-deliver model.

Here are links to two ppts for which I have used this technique.  The first is the ppt I used in the video, dealing with ATP and bioremediation.  The second has to do with Natural Selection.


The Anatomy of an End-of-Year Faculty Reflection


This has been one of my most difficult years in the classroom, not because of the kids or the school, but a million other factors. Others on the Nex+Gen Academy staff would probably agree that it was a hard one.  However, instead of leaving the school with a whimper, our faculty stayed on for a day of reflection and planning for next year, and saw some of the best collaboration I’ve ever seen. I left the building ebullient.


I post this (extraordinarily long) piece to document what went into the planning and execution of the session for two reasons; first, because it will be helpful for me next year, and second, because faculty from other schools might find it useful.


Our staff always allocates a day or two after the students leave so that we can reflect upon the year, and if possible, come up with a theme or a focus for our PD in the coming year.  The focus is usually the result of looking at the past year, and saying, “What can we do better? How can we improve learning for students?”  Three years ago, it was “Collaboration”.  The next year, we changed our learning outcomes, and so we made it a bit more broad – “Teaching and Assessing of the Learning Outcomes through a lens of growth mindset”  We did that two years in a row, and the general sentiment was that it was time to assess whether that theme would continue to serve us and our students, or if we needed to change it.
The time we planned for our reflection was 5 hrs, including breaks…so it was kind of like planning for a week of a class.  Below is a sort of description of the day, but I have organized it by the guiding principles we used in planning the meeting. 
Collaborate in the planning
I am the “Teacher Leader” on campus, which I took to mean in this instance that I would serve as point on the planning – I didn’t want to do it all by myself, because that doesn’t create as much buy-in, and honestly, by myself, I can’t come up with a plan nearly as well as our collaboration can.  I asked different people to do different things: our drama teacher helped plan some of the fun stuff; our language teacher helped with overall design; two of our English teachers helped brainstorm, and served as critical friends for a couple of the activities. I also wrote to our NTN coach, and a few others at New Tech to get some help with ideas.
Plan ahead, and share plans
Adults tend to dislike surprises about their work, so I wanted to help the faculty accurately anticipate what was going to happen on our PD day.  I sent out this email before our meeting:
Friday, we start our PD at 11:30 in room 112.  LUNCH IS PROVIDED.
We’ll go until 4:30.  In that time, we will
·  Do some fun stuff, quarterbacked by Ryil
·  Address our learning from last year’s focus
·  Consider the Youth Truth, our Planning document, and an overall reflection
·  Use that information to decide upon a yearlong focus for next year
·  Decide about beginning of the year schedule (when do we come in before the start of school?)
·  Plan on committee work moving forward
·  Hug and kiss goodbye for the summer
See  you then!
But even before this email, I sent them some of the data we would be analyzing:  the “Youth Truth”, which teachers would have to read, and the “Planning document,” into which teachers wrote.  More about those below.  In general, I started the planning process at least a week before the actual day.
Allow time for sense-making and pattern-finding
Because one of our primary goals for the day was to come up with a focus for the coming year, it was certainly tempting to just start the day with the question, “What do you want to focus on next year?”  However, that likely would have yielded 23 different answers from our 23 staff members, and those answers may or may not have been as informed as they could be.
We resisted that temptation to start with the question of focus, because we knew we had to be patient.  In “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”, author Ron Heifetz points out that when considering a system, you need to spend lots (and lots, and lots) of time diagnosing problems before attempting to come up with a fix.   While our work was not necessarily about ferreting out a particular problem, it was about examining the system in many different ways, and looking for patterns that might emerge from the data.  Those patterns would then inform decision-making about our year-long focus.
Our day was 5 hours.  4 were spent in looking at data, discussing learning, and making sense of it.  1 hour was allocated for coming up with a focus. 
Consider several sorts of data
Our French teacher had the idea that before we have teachers discuss ideas together, they should ground themselves in their own observations.  Our first reflection was an individual silent quick-write, considering the year.  Teachers were asked to not necessarily share this when done, but to keep it in mind as a data source.
Second, we looked at student responses from the Youth Truth survey.  The results of the survey create a lot of graphs like this…
…as well as narrative responses from the students.  We have used this survey in the past, and it has been a major factor in our decision-making for the school.  A few things came out with this: students were looking for rigor.  Engagement wasn’t as high as it has been in the past.  
As part of the data gathering, we wanted to make sure that teachers were getting their individual voices heard regarding issues that they needed to talk about.  We asked teachers to fill out a chart out on a Google doc – one row for each staff member, with the headers as you see below.   So that you get the gist, I’ve included my own entry.  Some of mine have stars after them, because other faculty members agreed with the question.  So our third examination of data had us looking for patterns in conversations the staff wanted to have.  
Faculty Member
Summer Work that needs to be addressed
Conversations about teaching and learning
Conversations about Culture (both student and staff)
Conversations about logistics (tech, policies, etc)
Other notes?  Other needs?
Train New Teachers
 Integrate new principal
New teaching
partnerships develop
curriculum/ set norms / establish routines etc.**
What have we learned from the year-long focus?**
How do we teach the students about use of technology and how do we use the tech that best matches our content? *
How do we connect the work from one grade level to the next, so that we build upon student performance?*
Does the staff have enough fun together?***
How do we promote not just good culture, but good community?
How are PLC memberships determined?  What should be our criteria?**
Is there a tardy policy that can actually work?*
Fourth, we wanted to collect the learning from our focus from the past two years.  Much of that learning had been captured because teachers had presented to the staff over the year, but we had not collected all of our thoughts in one place.  Because most of the conversations about the focus over the year were done within PLCs, we got together in the PLCs, and answered these 3 questions:
1.       What did you learn?
2.       How did it affect or change your practice?
3.       How did it affect your students’ performance?
People answered this set of questions as many as 4 times – because we had four learning outcomes (Agency, Collaboration, Inquiry & Analysis, Communication) that we considered over the past two years.


And here is a close-up of the part about Inquiry and Analysis



Again, this afforded an opportunity to look for patterns, and get a sense of the overall work that we had been doing.  You might notice that there was a lot of attention paid to collaboration (which has been a challenge with varied skill sets in the classroom), and inquiry & analysis, as we push our students to write and think analytically.
Use Benchmarks
We used only one, actually.  Before we looked at the school wide focus from the previous year (the learning wall), we did a sort of mid-way synthesis, using the 4-2-q Protocol.   This has groups identifying 4 celebrations, 2 areas of growth, and 2 questions.   Below is a sampling from different groups of some of the items we saw:
Spokes & Electives, including five dual-credit CNM courses will be offered here at nex+Gen next year
Electives Work!!
Leveraging student choice
Senior Projects
Areas for Growth
Chronic absences and PBL – a match made in hell
Differentiation & supports for Q1 students
What is the nex+Gen student actually looking for when they go to our school? We increasingly lose kids at the top as well as the bottom.
Are we meeting the needs of our q1 and q4 students (the students on the edges)?
How can we serve both without sacrificing either?
This “benchmark” analysis served as yet another form of data from which to glean our instructional focus later in the day.
Have Fun
Throughout the day, we hit upon a common activity that was meant to lighten the mood, and remind us that we like being around each other.  In this case, our principal was retiring, so we did a sort of combined “Newlywed Game” and Roast.   A few of us created some multiple choice questions about our principal.  Each question was meant to be a bit of a mini-roast, based upon his idiosyncrasies, so even before anyone answered them, the questions were funny.   The principal would answer, but keep his answer private.  Teams would answer, then we’d compare.   Points were kept.  Good times were had.   
We also had a celebration of “Teacher of the Year”, which was brilliancy of our drama teacher.   His contention: our factuly is so great that we can choose a Teacher of the Year randomly, and in less then 5 minutes, come up with a meaningful speech that highlights how awesome that teacher is.  So we did it: we pulled a name out of a hat, sent that person away to the bathroom (we asked her to walk kind of slowly), then everyone brainstormed why that person deserved to be “Teacher of the Year”.  Our recipient returned, her teaching partner made a (fantastic) speech, and she received a standing ovation.  Every staff should do this.
By the way, the last thing we did was to finish off the day with the last “roast” questions about our principal.  As George Costanza would say – “END ON A HIGH NOTE!”
Strategize grouping
In any kind of cooperative classroom, teachers think carefully about grouping.  In my own class, I’ll group differently, according to a project, and the goals of an activity.
For this day, there were different goals at different times.  To begin with, we thought that people should be comfortable, and willing to discuss right away, so we put people into their PLCs, where they were used to carrying on conversations all year.   Other times, we thought that people discussing in departments might get us further when considering specifics about instruction.
Finally, when we wanted to have people generate a whole-school focus, we wanted people to avoid “groupthink”, and instead do some synthesis based upon a varied set of perspectives, so we grouped people randomly, using Excel.   It worked.
The result of all of this?  Our last planned activity was the most ambitious: synthesize all of this, and generate a focus for next school year.   We broke up into 4 groups to discuss.  I offered criteria for a yearlong focus, which were developed with some great minds at New Tech Network.   We suggested that the focus…
  •  Should address the instructional core
  • Should have potential for rich conversation in PLC
  • Results of our learning (from focus) should be observable in the students  
  • Should not be so broad that effort would be too diffuse
  • Will be accessible/understandable to new staff
We also stated that each group must back up the need for their suggested focus with evidence…using any of the data or observations from the day.
Our plan was to have each group brainstorm, then share out.  Anticipating some differences from table to table, we planned to then coalesce 4 groups into two, and have the two super-groups synthesize the ideas from the initial share-out.
At the initial share out, this is what came to be:
group 1: Differentiation
group 2: World Citizenship, or Differentiation
group 3: Differentiation
group 4: Differentiation
It was a moment of beauty.  Literally, I fought back tears at the synchronicity of it all.
Of course, one might say that we didn’t meet one of the criteria, because hoo boy – “Differentiation” a broad topic.  However, despite the fact that we have been using the word “focus”, I think what we really mean is “theme”.  When one of the groups reported out their thinking, they said, “A focus on differentiation would allow teachers to make experiments in their classroom, and report out the outcomes to their PLC and the broader faculty group,” which met with many nodding heads around the room.   So in this way, individual teachers, or PLCs can discuss the ideas of differentiation, generate their own “theories of action”, and then examine the effects.  This can inform the broader work of the school, so that we can ultimately point to and document best practices.
After our share out, it was just a matter of putting some wording into it, and identifying some “sub-themes” to accommodate some of the minor differences from group to group.  Our final focus (or theme):
Differentiation in PBL
With special attention to:
Appropriate and effective use of technology
Addressing needs of the first and fourth quartiles
Assessment techniques
The relative ease with which we came to this decision certainly reinforced the careful planning that went into the affair. If there was a “special sauce” that made the day particularly delicious, I think that the ingredients are written above, (collaboration, fun, adequate time, etc) but in choosing the ingredients, I keep thinking back to a few questions that drove design:  “How can we engage all stakeholders in both design and execution?”    “How do we foster and capture learning?”   “How do we make it enjoyable AND useful?” … which are exactly the questions I ask myself in designing robust learning experiences for kids. 
And behold! Much of what works for kids works with an adult learning community – with the theme written on the board, and one last roast of our principal, everyone left patting each other on the back, looking forward to next year.

Student Work in National Spotlight

Last fall, my students did a project with the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (you can read about it here), creating two vital partnerships; one with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the other with Nature’s Notebook.  In addition to studying the natural history of the Middle Rio Grande Valley, and the water chemistry of the refuge, students chose a variety of sub-projects, one of which was the creation of a field guide to help observers at VdO, so that they can upload data into a national database. The photos above were used in that field guide.

The following email just got sent from the national office at NPN, which operates Nature’s Notebook, to volunteers that make citizen-observations at Valle de Oro:

Hi All, 

I’m excited to tell you about a new resource developed by a group of senior students at Nex+Gen Academy! The students have put together a Field Guide for the birds of Valle de Oro, complete with life history information, photos, and videos that include some of the birds calls and songs for each of our focal species! 

You can view the field guide here:

Many thanks to Samantha, Rickey, Patrick and Michael for creating this wonderful resource!

We have people signed up for observations through June – thanks Laurel and Kathy! – but there is still availability in July. If you are new, consider contacting an experienced volunteer about joining them on a future visit! 

Thanks for all of your efforts! Happy phenology observing! 



Erin Posthumus

Outreach Associate
USA-NPN Liaison to the US Fish & Wildlife Service
USA National Phenology Network
National Coordinating Office

What Should Educators Have in Our Heads?

Several of my colleagues, who are definitely 21stcentury educators, have posted or shared the diagram below:


There is much to be lauded about this diagram – its focus on mindset, its push towards risk-taking, and its embrace of collaboration among all stakeholders in a school.  These are in fact behaviors that we at nex+Gen try to model for and encourage in our students.
Nonetheless, upon finishing reading the diagram, I found that it did not quite sit well, perhaps because I perceived that it was incomplete.   The head that is missing?
Illustration by Kevin Gant, using his not-so-deep drawing-with-microsoft-word skills
Teaching isn’t just meta.  Sure, I can help students understand the power of mindset. Yes, I can navigate the world of videos and blogs and twitter etc etc etc reasonably well, all in an effort to avail my students of a variety of resources… but I am a resource too, and not just of attitude or mindset.    The great educators that I know, and know of, work extremely hard learning content, not necessarily to the point of being “expert” but certainly to the point of being “well versed”. There are good reasons for this:
  1. It is very, very hard to develop curriculum and projects unless you understand the content and its interconnectedness to other disciplines.  With deep content knowledge, we can translate the work of the world into the work of the classroom in such a way that there is meaningful overlap.   Otherwise, the work of the world is often inaccessible to students because of its complexity, and curricula developed only for the classroom is uninteresting or overly simplistic or both.
  2. Students need to see the value-add in having a teacher.  If all we can do is refer students to other resources without being a resource ourselves, then their view of the classroom experience can quickly become jaded. Students know when a teacher has deep content knowledge or not. In this world where resources are so available, having a foundational content knowledge and the concomitant ability to parse various resources is exactly the sort of value-add that can aid student learning, and help kids appreciate the need for human interaction when learning.
  3. Modeling. Perhaps my favorite head on the diagram is the one that states “Model resiliency and perseverance”, because those are exactly the behaviors that I wish to see in my students as they are faced with challenging material.  But I’m still having them engage in material.  As Bandura might say, modeling is everything. It is just as important to model deep engagement with love of, and acquisition of, content. Students often come to love science or math because they see that it can be loved, from observing their teachers.
To be fair, I don’t suggest that the author/illustrator is claiming that content knowledge is not important. But the omission, whether conscious or not, is worrisome, particularly when there’s a bevy of critics out there ready to say that 21C education is without substance, citing the notable gaps in diagrams like this. Those of us who believe those behaviors important must prove the critics wrong by generating learners who know things deeply AND love learning.
And in the author’s defense, it is that second part – “and love learning” – that makes this diagram and 21C education compelling, and worth commenting upon in the first place. Without the risk-taking, compassion, and attending to attitude, we land upon education that is frequently bereft of joy.
I also love the fact that the author asks, “what needs to be in an educator’s head?”, in a similar way that we as educators ask ourselves what students need.  To that end, I’ve often said that engagement is not enough.  Students must also emerge from my classroom with some tangible knowledge and skills that they value.  In math and science parlance: engagement is necessary, but not sufficient.
While it might be a bit of a contrived dichotomy, on the one hand there are the characteristics described in the diagram, and on the other hand, deep content knowledge.  Either hand, taken by itself, is not sufficient.  Both, however, are necessary.