It’s Not About the Lure

ELECTROFishing

  • Aquarium net
  • Transparent plastic containers
  • Plastic buckets
  • Golf balls
  • Magnifying glass
  • Ice cube tray
  • Parametric software
  • 3-D printers

and

  • Students in Honors 9 Biology, AP Biology, and Principles of Engineering

Put them all together and what do you get?

Fishing lures!

Except, it wasn’t about the lures.

Teacher Zach McKeever supervises as students float golf balls in tin foil boats to understand buoyancy

Teams of students from these three classes at McCutcheon High School joined forces to learn about the fish that swim in Wea Creek, the insects that attract them, and the design process engineers use to create any new product. The standards addressed by this bioengineering module pulled from biology, physics, math, technology literacy, and environmental systems. The students spent time at the creek in waders, capturing and identifying fish through electrofishing techniques guest instructors from Purdue University showed them. They identified aquatic insects–also caught in the creek that runs behind our school–and preserved them in transparent containers to learn about biomimicry. Using a decision matrix to guide their design choices, the student teams created fishing lures that looked and moved like the insects they’d observed. They floated golf balls in tin foil “boats” and used their math skills to determine the buoyancy of their designs. Ultimately, the students used Inventor, a parametric modeling software program, to visualize a prototype. The most promising prototypes were printed using a 3-D printer.

20180911_121840When they weren’t outdoors, the teams met together in the Media Center where large round tables and lots of space facilitated consultation and collaboration. The four teachers, whose schedules had been specifically arranged to accommodate this project-based learning endeavor, floated among the groups. The large space also improved the efficiency of the project. “It was much easier to walk between tables to answer a question than to send an email from one classroom to another,” commented engineering teacher Zach McKeever.

Finally, each team made a PowerPoint presentation of their experience, including a reflection on their performance in terms of communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and computational thinking. An expert angler was present for some of the final presentations and inspected the lures close-up. The students listened intently to his critiques.  One group was surprised when he told them, “You could market this if you’d make just this one little change.” 

And then, on a warmish October Saturday, they tried out their lures. Total catch: a few nibbles.

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But that’s all right. It wasn’t about the lure.

In their wrap-up discussion, students (predictably) commented that they liked going outside and enjoyed the fishing expedition at the end. They wished they’d spent more time at the creek! They appreciated the hands-on learning and real-world application of their learning. They enjoyed the guest lecturers from Purdue who opened their eyes not only to a new way of fishing, but to the presence of specific species of fish as an indication of water cleanliness, to the connection between bioindicators and our own drinking water, and to watershed ecosystems in general.

Students test their hypotheses about the number of golf balls their vessels will hold as teacher Amanda Cox looks on

Some students did say they prefer a more traditional approach to learning: They wanted textbook learning first, then the application. However, the majority of students said they liked putting the pieces together even though they experienced some anxiety at first when they weren’t sure what was going to happen, how they would get from the assignment “Create a Lure” to the final product without the familiar front-loaded vocabulary lessons, textbook assignments, and the quizzes and tests that usually accompany traditional classroom instruction.

Other students had suggestions for their teachers for improving the unit’s design. The project had been set up to differentiate for experience (Honors 9 Bio and AP Bio) and course credit (Engineering vs. Biology). The AP Bio students, for instance, experienced the electrofishing and were responsible for conveying that information to the rest of their team. The engineering students used Inventor–and explained it to the others. The Honors 9 students did the insect study and relayed what they learned to the rest of their team. That structure led to some problems of communication, so the students suggested ways to ensure better communication and more accountability for each team member. 

Many students commented at length on the communication and collaboration skills they had needed to develop in order to be successful. Some teams reported, quite frankly, that they hadn’t started out working together well–but they overcame those obstacles because they had to. That admission–and the ultimate resolution of the problem–brought smiles to the faces of the teachers because, of course, learning to work together as a team was one of their goals. 

The principles of design apply across the board and collaborative problem-solving among individuals with different areas of expertise and different perspectives will always be the case. For example, Mr. McKeever explained, civil engineers may be commissioned to create a dam. That will certainly disrupt the ecology of a river, so the goal will be to design a structure that minimizes impact but still does the job of holding back the water. Chemical engineers may develop vaccines and the packing materials for those medications. They’ll need to take the impact of chemical emissions, waste, and the product itself into account as they develop the product.

“The biggest takeaway for me,” Mr. McKeever continued, “was the relevancy. The biology part helped the students create lures for a specific fish in a specific environment, making the whole project much more authentic. Without the biology component, the assignment would have been ‘Design a lure you think will catch a fish’.”  Not nearly so relevant and not nearly as challenging. 

For students who have never experienced project-based learning, the first venture into this way of learning can be intimidating.  But in the end, biology teacher Abi Bymaster asserts, “This project forced students to feel uncomfortable, to ‘not know the answer,’ and they couldn’t just look the answers up on Google. However, it is because of this discomfort that they learn; this is what I love about PBL.”

“Learning ‘this way’ made the learning real,” many biology students said in summary. They liked the independence, the taking charge of their own learning, the creativity expected and allowed. The students clearly saw that while the biomimicry and the buoyancy achieved by the unique anatomy of fish were concepts important to understanding predator/prey relationships, understanding the whole ecological system–and the ability to generalize that to other systems–was the greater lesson. 

Teacher Mike McKee watches as his student tries out a lure

No one misunderstood the real learning goals of this endeavor. It wasn’t about the fishing lures. It was about the interdisciplinary nature of learning and the teamwork needed to pull a project together, hallmarks of project-based learning: authentic experiences that reflect real-life problem-solving and decision-making.

This project-based learning experience has a formal name: Designing Bugs and Innovative Technology (D-Bait). It is one unit in the TRAILS curriculum designed by Jeffrey Holland, Todd R. Kelley, Euisuk Sung, and Nathaniel W. Cool at Purdue University and supported with funding from a National Science Foundation grant. The project was new this year to two of the four collaborating McCutcheon teachers, all of whom were trained during previous summers. All four of the high school teachers are looking forward to doing the project again next year–and implementing lesson design modifications suggested by their students, the bioengineers.

 

 

 

 

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Under Discussion: Reciprocal Teaching

In time for this week’s workshops on Reciprocal Teaching, here’s a post from two years ago that spells out the basic strategy and offers some variations that you might like.

In an American Classroom

Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article.  What to do to move forward?

The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.

RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool.  Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next.  Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk…

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Summertime, Summertime

We are almost here! Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Here are 50 ways to do that and a few professional things to do as well.

In an American Classroom

A few of the new teachers I’ve coached this year approached me when school was ending to ask what they should do over the summer to prepare for next year. I started this list with suggestions for their professional task lists…and then I just couldn’t stop thinking about what else I’d recommend. Maybe I was dreaming about what I plan to do?

So first, the professional:

1. Assess your challenges and spend some time learning about these areas of instruction.  Is it an aspect of your curriculum—say, grammar—that you’re weak on?  Study up on that.  Is your repertoire of instructional strategies slim? Learn about some new ones.  Try Jennifer Gonzales’ The Cult of Pedagogy blog. Do you need to sharpen  your classroom procedures?  Read The First Days of School or THE Classroom Management Book by Harry and Rosemary Wong.  Polish the procedures you already have in place or think through…

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National Treasure

Never out of date, especially important on this date: Teacher Appreciation Week!

In an American Classroom

To and for all the amazing teachers I know during this, Teacher Appreciation Week: Our world is better and our students’ lives are richer because you have been a classroom teacher. Thank you for all you do every single day.

It’s fashionable right now to blast educators, to focus on data-specific measures of effectiveness, and to prescribe corporate take-overs for failing schools. The critics say “failing schools,” but that’s code for failing teachers. The critics ought to come with me when I am in a school in my role as an instructional coach.

When I enter my colleagues’ classrooms, I am quickly swept up by the lesson—enthralled by the teacher, captivated by the content, and excited to be on the other side of the desk, learning.

In the past month, here are some of the places these fabulous teachers have taken me:

  • To Austria in 1877 when two men stole Haydn’s head from his grave…

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An Uncommon Interface: Little Kids, Big Kids, and Computer Technology

A few weeks ago,  the children who attend McCutcheon High School’s pre-school class (Creative Corral) and the high school students in Computer Repair and Maintenance (CRAM)–the students who fix the computers for everyone else in the school–came together for a morning of activities the teenaged students called “Pre-TECH.”

Mrs. Arrika Yoder’s Early Childhood Education class at MHS meets every day. In the morning, the students work in the pre-school that is housed in the high school building. In the afternoon, they learn about careers in education, plan lessons, discuss issues, and gain as much exposure to the world of education as they can. These students are on track for careers as educators, day care providers, pediatric nurses, and child psychologists. Some will retake the lab portion of the class next year; some will become cadet teachers in our elementary and middle schools.

Mrs. Christina Bennett’s CRAM class meets every day in a classroom that, years ago, was the school’s only computer lab. Hers are the students who repair the Chromebooks and laptops that students at MHS carry with them from class to class and take home at night. The CRAM students are exploring careers in the computer technology industry: They will become our programmers, technicians, and web designers. They will be the individuals the rest of us will rely on to stay connected, current, and cybersafe.

The collaboration between these two groups really began a year ago when Mrs. Yoder asked the CRAM students to show the pre-schoolers how to use the apps on the iPads in the pre-K classroom. This year, the CRAM students, under Mrs. Bennett’s direction, decided to go giant steps farther and set up learning stations—a format the pre-schoolers would understand—to show the children more about technology.  Just like teachers would, the CRAM students spent one day each week for three weeks clarifying their learning goals and then designing and setting up their stations.

On the appointed morning, the preschoolers, accompanied by Mrs. Yoder and the Educational Careers students who are their teachers, filed into the CRAM room.  Tables had been set up for snacks, and various computer parts—a motherboard, a flash drive, a keyboard, a chip—were used as table decorations. As the children munched on their snacks, one boy explained the function of each computer part. “The motherboard is the heart of the computer,” he told them, and encouraged the preschoolers to play with the decorations. They immediately picked the items up and began manipulating them. 

One boy transferred the keyboard directly to his lap right away. He began moving his fingers across the keys in imitation of what he’d undoubted seen adults do. “What are you typing?” I asked him. 

“My password, “ he replied knowingly.

He didn’t share it with me.

After snacks, the students rotated through the five stations: Coding, Virtual Reality, Fiber Optic Cabling, Repair, and Customer Service.

At the Virtual Reality station, students donned 3-D viewers to experience 360 degree vision. The CRAM students in charge of this station had found a Virtual Reality roller coaster game for the students to view and play.

At the Repair Station, the pre-schoolers used screwdrivers to remove the computer cases. At Customer Service, they learned how to check in a computer for repair and then to check it out again. 

 

For the Coding Station, the CRAM students had gone to Code Academy to find a game that was user-friendly for pre-schoolers, age appropriate, and still would teach the children the fundamentals of coding. What they found was a game that used blocks. Using a simple set of instructions, the children moved the blocks around on the computer screens.

Most complex of all, though, was the Fiber Optic Cabling Station. There, the pre-schoolers encountered plates of jello squares with cookie cutters beside them.  The CRAM students illustrated the way light travels through a cable by directing a laser light through the jello. When the pre-schoolers cut the jello squares, the light was trapped by the twists and turns of the shapes. Even a knife mark on the jello altered the line of light. The effect was even more pronounced when the youngsters entered a tent set up under the table. The pre-schoolers were intrigued. They understood that a straight, stable cable with no impurities or kinks was needed to transmit information. They also noted that the orange jello worked the best, the green not so well.

Before the morning was over, the CRAM students conducted a mini-evaluation of their learning stations, asking the pre-schoolers to rank order the Pre-Tech learning stations. The Virtual Reality Station came in first: The pre-schoolers thought it was the most fun. The jello station came in second; Computer Repair, third.

During their time in the CRAM room, Mrs. Bennett took a Polaroid photograph of each pre-schooler in a photo booth that was decorated with discarded CDs. As they were leaving at the end of the morning, each child received a bag of favors.  Mrs. Bennett had saved the anti-static bags in which computer parts are transported; these became the treat bags. Inside, each pre-schooler found his or her photo glued to a discarded floppy disc, a computer coloring page, 1 big marshmallow and 8 little ones (1 byte = 8 bits), licorice ropes to remind them of cabling, and a few other clever souvenirs of all they had learned that morning. Undoubtedly, computer talk dominated dinner table conversations that evening! 

Later, when I interviewed the CRAM students, I asked what they had learned from the experience.

Zach told me that he was surprised by how much the pre-schoolers already knew about technology. I smiled, remembering the boy who had so quickly put the keyboard in his lap.  

Nikaya was amazed at the children’s reactions to the laser light. “They were so excited,” she said. “I was not expecting that.”

Malachi said he had learned how to interact with kids, and that prompted a discussion about the emphasis Mrs. Bennett has put on learning how to talk to people with different levels of understanding of technology and with people of different ages. “Your audience could be anyone,” she tells her students. “You have to be able to communicate with people with all different levels of experience in ways they’ll understand.”

Mrs. Yoder said that her high school students, who spend a lot of time designing and sequencing instruction themselves, were impressed with the lesson planning the CRAM students had done.  

Mrs. Bennett confirmed that and summarized the experience for the CRAM students this way: “They had a great time because the kids did.”

That’s the wonderful thing about this uncommon interdisciplinary collaboration: Not only was this a great learning opportunity for all of the students–the Educational Careers students, the CRAM students, and the pre-schoolers–it was a whole lot of fun as well!

At the Customer Service counter

 

This is not a Drill

• Lesson planner
• Gradebook (or PowerSchool)
• Google Suite
• Pencils, markers, pens, and paper
• Whiteboards and dry erase markers
• Access to a copy machine
• Books—classroom sets and single copies
• Tables and desks and chairs
• Bulletin boards, construction paper, thumbtacks
• Instructions for what to do in the case of a fire, a tornado, a lockout or a lockdown

Here’s the drill:

Begin with the objective: What is it you want your students to know or be able to do? To write an objective, start with a verb provided by Bloom (6 levels) or DOK (4) and follow the verb with a direct object. Think about what the students will be doing to demonstrate understanding of the objective. So, for example,

• Analyze a story
• Solve an equation
• Perform an experiment
• Write an essay
• Move the nation

Consider what the students need to know before you begin the lesson and what prior knowledge they may have that will inform the ease with which they will grasp and be able to complete the task. (You may have to scaffold the lesson for some students; for others, you may need to let go.)

Of course, assessment is required, so you need to be clear in advance (for yourself and for the students) just how you will assess their work, what will constitute attainment of the objective, and to what level of attainment they may strive.

• Emma Gonzales
• Yolanda King
• The 11-year-old with the haunting eyes and the wisdom of age
• The boy from Parkland with his Marco Rubio tag: $1.05
• The girl from South LA who learned to dodge bullets before she learned to read

Now think about the instructional methods you will use so that students will be able to demonstrate their understanding of the objective. Perhaps you will organize group work such as a jigsaw activity; that is, the students each share a piece of the story, together creating a whole understanding. Or you might design a reciprocal teaching task, where together a group will read a text and puzzle out its meaning from individual perspectives.

Maybe you will set the students to an independent task, one in which they’ll rely upon what they have read, what they have experienced, and their own wits, should they still have them.

• Their passion
• Their voices
• Their vision
• Their presence
• Their command
• Their poise
• Their resolve

Unafraid and unowned.

We can no longer shield them. They have learned too much.
We cannot restrain them. They have too much strength.
We should not impede them. Their promise is too great.

They do not need rubber bands, paper clips, staplers, scotch tape, glue sticks, meditation, long walks in the early morning light or summers to renew and refresh.

Or instructions on writing objectives.

What they need are not the lessons of the classroom. These they have learned.

But they do need us: Behind them, not before them. Supporting them, not instructing them. Letting them go and letting them lead.

This is not a drill.

Honor the Process

I’m not an artist myself, but I’ve always been drawn to the colors and textures and weave of fabrics from around the world. I like designs on cloth and clothing design. I used to quilt, and once upon a time, I sewed my own clothes. So, on a recent trip to Philadelphia, when I learned about The Fabric Workshop and Museum, I was eager to visit. What I stumbled upon there was a retrospective exhibition of 40 years of fabric art, all works completed on the premises by visiting artists.  Some of them—like Faith Ringgold and Louise Nevelson—I recognized; the others were new to me. The exhibition—which runs until March 25, 2018, if you happen to live in Philadelphia—is named: Process and Practice: 40 Years of Experimentation.

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The first “piece” I encountered was a box of loosely arranged fabric, raw on the edges; pencil drawings; a map; two kinds of cord; a color wheel made of fabric bits, lengths of watercolor on silk; color swatches drawn as tiny skeins–all of it arranged pleasingly, invitingly, in a glass display case. The assemblage was striking, beautiful all by itself.

I came upon another box, and another, and then some finished pieces on the wall.  

And then I saw that the finished pieces were composed of the items in the box; that is, each box contained the working material of the art on the wall.  

Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach II

A colleague was with me, and together we spent quite a bit of time matching the items in the boxes to the creations on the wall. It was like working through a puzzle or deciphering clues to solve a mystery. We saw, in the notes and drawings and material, each artist’s mind at work—their ingenuity, the choices they made, the juxtapositions that, by chance or design, resulted in the finished piece.

In some cases, photographs and artifacts from the original installation, impossible to recreate, were mounted on the wall above the corresponding box.

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The pieces on the wall–or on the floor, or suspended from the ceiling–were stunning.

But so were the boxes.

And then, because we are teachers, my colleague and I began to imagine what could be done with this concept in the classroom, what kind of curation task we could set our students to.

Clothing design, interior design, art itself—these are obvious. But what about these:

A social studies box: Choose a period in history and assemble or recreate artifacts that helped you understand significant events or persons or issues during that time. Include, perhaps, excerpts from texts you read, photographs, maps, timetables, music, art pieces, the bits from your research that informed your impression of that time period.  The project could culminate in a poster or a Powerpoint.

A literature box: Choose an author and a characteristic work. Include for the box a picture of the author, of course, and the text itself. But also slip in pictures or reproductions or even real objects that inspired the writer. If they’re available—as they sometimes are online—earlier drafts of the story or poem you selected, the writing utensils likely used, the correspondence between the writer and his or her muse or spouse or editor. Into the box with whatever informs your understanding of the author and the text you selected. And then, how about a book (or story or poetry) talk for the class?

A science box: Choose a disease for which a cure needs to be found, or an environmental issue, or a specific engineering problem that needs to be solved. Find or create the elements that inform the search. Include drawings of cells or elements or photographs of physical locations, maybe a picture of the lab where the work is being done.  Add in printouts of data, tables, charts, diagrams, journal articles you consulted, Petri dishes, microscopes or other lab equipment—or photographs of same—relevant to the search and then create a poster or prepare a Ted Talk synthesizing what you learned.

I am not talking about random artifacts collected to symbolize a writer or a time period or a scientific inquiry. I am not talking about the sort of project students are often asked to do because they are hands-on learners–like, say, a diorama. I am not even talking about “finished” boxes in the way that the artist Joseph Cornell created art inside of a box.

I am talking about an assemblage of items that informs a conclusion, a final product, an enduring understanding (to use Grant Wiggins’ term), or a final takeaway.  

I’m talking about, well, a tangible bibliography.  

The box would represent the student’s choices along his journey to understanding:  “Here are the items I consulted when I did my research. I may not have ‘used’ all of them in my presentation, but all of them were a part of my research.” Indeed, it seemed to me, residing in some of the boxes at the Fabric Museum’s gallery were items that the artist did not incorporate into the final piece but that had, at some point and in some way, suggested themselves as possibilities. The artist made a conscious decision not to use that particular item, but the item was as important as a discard as other items were as selections.

What the box did was make thinking visible.

So, we might say to the student, expose your peers to your process as well as your product. Let them see what you investigated and how you learned and how your final product came into being.  

Because, recreating the process of thinking will help them understand how you came to your conclusions.  (In fact, this act of metacognition will help you understand your own thinking!)

Because, recreating the progress of your thought will also help me, the teacher,  understand how you got from here to there.

Because, jumbled and messy and fragmented as it is, the process of learning is as intriguing—and as beautiful—as the final product.

Because, process deserves as much space—and as much attention—as product.

As educators, we need to make sure we honor the process. That’s how our students learn.

Without process, there is no product. Without process, there is no art.

Without the journey, we can’t reach the destination.

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