Coded Communications Thanks to Teacher Collaboration

Time is tight in the elementary schools to meet all the expectations of our state’s science standards. So when opportunities knocks for collaboration with teachers who have face time with students outside of their allotted science time – I answer! Recently, Francis Wyman library and media specialists, Michelle Ardizonni and Megan Carney sat down with me to develop some station experiences for our fourth and fifth grade students to explore some different ways humans communicate through code, a learning expectation that overlaps Computer Science objectives as well as MA STE standard 4-PS4-3: Develop and compare multiple ways to transfer information through encoding, sending, receiving, and decoding a pattern.


Student investigate how the cable transmits light signals from one end to the other before encoding a three letter word, and sending it to a partner to receive and decode via morse code. Francis Wyman fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Janis looks on.

Building on the existing structure of table stations around their elementary school’s library, we selected four different methods of communication that required students to encode and/or decode a pattern shared with them by a fellow classmate with the help of a key.

After some brainstorming, research, and materials gathering we settled on four coding models outside of the “coding” realm students have come to expect through their hour-of-code / LEGO robotics experiences. In each instance, we reinforced the language of the standard “encode, send, receive, and decode” when introducing the materials and in the on-site reference sheets students could consult at each station.


Mrs. Ardizonni introduces the key vocabulary posted at each station: encode, send, receive, and decode.

Before exploring the stations, students were read a simple book from EPIC sharing different methods of using light and sound to convey a message. Written for first graders, Meg and Michelle used the imagery and simple text to probe students current understanding of signals such as stoplights, light houses, tornado sirens, and emergency vehicles of how all these technologies send coded messages received and decoded by humans to help us make smart, safe decisions.


Along with the read-aloud of the text, “Light, Sound, and Communication” on EPIC, Mrs. Carney had a wide selection of sound and light non-fiction texts on display and for check-out.

Students were sorted and told to move to four different stations with the expectation that students would likely only spend their time at that one station. Over the course of four sessions (after book selection and check-out of course) students used…

Morse code to encode, send, receive, and decode” a beam of light sent through a fiber optic cable using flashlights…


Fiber Optic Wire / Morse Code Station

Bells to represent signals on boats, indicating which sides they would be passing fellow seafarers in harbors on…


Bells and Boating Station


Bit bracelets demonstrating how binary codes can be used to communicate letters…


Bit Bracelet Station

And 0’s and 1’s to fill grids and generate pixelated images of letters as well as illustrations.


Pixelation Station

After a few days Michelle and Meg tweaked the experiences to make them easier for students to execute and complete in the amount of time available (only about 15 minutes!) The stations stayed out for one month while the students rotated through each station, roughly one a week for three-four weeks.


Students decoding the numerical pattern to construct their pixelated Saturn. The pattern was later modified by Michelle Ardizonni to be completed in a shorter amount of time and with a larger grid which improved student decoding success rates.

We are freely sharing these resources in a Google Folder accessible here for use and/or adaptation by other educators. For more resources produced through the Burlington Science Center visit our website and the K-5 curriculum tab.




Posted in 3-5, Classroom Activities, Curriculum, Digital Tools, NGSS, Professional Reflections | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Leading through Celebration of Successes Big and Small

There are many successes that can go unnoticed in our lives everyday. This afternoon I cheered in jubilation upon confirming that, after research via online discussion boards, measuring, catalog flipping, and web browsing… the 36 plastic plastic tubs I purchased for our district’s wade into FIRST Lego League Junior were a bonefied perfect fit for the after-school program’s materials to be distributed after break! My colleagues and a few Science Center high school volunteers were bewildered by my hooting, fist-pumping, and immediate move to share the discovery/victory via Twitter with FIRST and those that follow their hashtag:

Eyerolls and raised eyebrows withstanding, I felt my reactions were vindicated this evening while watching this TED Talk by Drew Dudley titled, “Everyday Leadership” as part of the NSTA’s Professional Development Cadre Team own PD. In it he talks about the reluctance for many to embrace the title, “leader” in part because of its association with the misconception that leaders are only those who have accomplished world-changing achievements most would never dare to undertake. Dudley noted that “when we convince ourselves that these are the only things worth celebrating we devalue the things we can do every day, We take moments where we truly are a leader and we don’t let ourselves take credit for it, or feel good about it.”


Plastic bins are not going to be seen to most as a big deal. In fact, I’ll likely forget about this tweet and the reply to the forum post I previously checked out during my own research sharing my solution as time marches on. But for those out there mentoring an FLL Junior team for the first time, trying to figure things out through their own forum and Twitterverse investigations, this share is going to move the needle. It’s going to save them time so they can focus on the more important aspects of mentoring. It is also most likely going to go unnoticed by me. It’s a moment that takes on the spirit of what Dudley defines through his own personal vignette as a “lollipop moment“: A moment in which we make someone’s life better through something we say or did. Sometimes you catch it, and sometimes it happens in what would otherwise be a forgettable moment to ourselves.

This past November NSTA received tremendous positive feedback on a workshop co-facilitated by me, Ted Willard, and several other outstanding cadre members from across the country. Feedback wins for me included comments about the facilitator “doing a great job of delivering the material.” One evaluator expressed gratitude for the instructor’s “kindness” and another the “ability to justify and reinforce key points through classroom experiences.” Empathy and authenticity matters!

The blended work environment I live puts me in the spaces that do this kind of professional development with my Burlington colleagues almost everyday. Their  recognition and move to a student-oriented, “sense-making” space is what drives me. Gratitude is never expected… after all we don’t expect our younger students to thank us when they have their own “a-ha” moments… though as in Drew’s story when they do share it hits home.

I can continue to grow by explicitly “celebrating” more successes I observe, instilling others with the mindset that they can lead this kind of learning in their classroom, and be a leader themselves amongst their fellow faculty. By acknowledging and supporting a fellow educator’s efforts and growth toward the preparation, instructional practices, and shifts in assessment needed we can instill greater confidence in those that find the New Vision for Science Education intimidating or even unattainable.

I’d also like to practice what I preach by thanking my table-facilitators, Rachel Manzer, Aaron Mueller, and Shannon Kenyon. They also received explicit praise for the support, feedback, and insights they provided to the participants they stuck with through the entire two-day experience. Having expert eyes and ears in a large ‘classroom’ clearly made all the difference to the participants and they are well on their way to sharing their own expertise with larger audiences as well.

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Community Building through Curriculum Mapping

“Bundling” core ideas from multiple science domains. Saving class time and bringing our faculty domain experts together!

“It takes a village” can be used in several contexts, particularly when it comes to education. While overhauling the Burlington elementary science curriculum the saying has only been reinforced as Wendy Pavlicek and I have leaned on classroom teachers, curriculum coaches, language specialists, and our own professional networks to bring together Burlington’s (mostly) open source K-5 STE curriculum.

So with my middle school colleagues at the precipice of undertaking their own curriculum journey I had the pleasure of dusting off some old PD experiences that helped move our elementary thinking forward. Both lessons were adapted from NSTA Press’ title, “Introducing Teachers and Administrators to the NGSS: A Professional Development Facilitator’s Guide.”

One of my favorite staff experiences from this PD facilitation tool is the Course Mapping lesson found toward the tail-end of the book. It first connects the facilitator with NGSS’ Appendix K, a primer on the three frameworks for course mapping middle school and high school pathways for students. The text then details an experience meant to give teachers some creative, non-binding licensure to freely explore the possibilities of bundling two or more Disciplinary Core Idea elements while generating creative topics that might come together with others to form a course or courses for students.

Graciously, all participants put their personal allegiances toward a “layered” or “spiral” curriculum aside and dug into the challenge, reading Disciplinary Core Idea elements ranging from the unfamiliar to almost second nature. More importantly, the faculty reveled in the opportunity to engage with their peers they rarely connect with due to the all-too-common grade level divides persistent in many schools and departments across the country.

The split squad of grade 6-8 educators managed several delightful and creative associations between physical, life, and earth/space science standards (easily distinguished as such by color.) Many group innocently enough stumbled upon several of the crosscutting concepts (the ‘implicitly’ included third dimension of NGSS-MA) such as matter & energy and natural systems. All groups honored the process, even when I told them to “jumble their hard work all up and try again… possibly by building on the DCIs left behind in the first round.”

As time wound down we taped down each groups “preferred” arrangements for future reference and consideration. The experience not only brought colleagues together, but even conjured some novel models of thinking around the plausibility of breaking away some DCIs from their traditional domains. “Maybe trade the layer cake for a marble cake?” mulled a small group before departing. Such decisions were appropriately left for another day.

If you’d like to run your own mapping and bundling workshop using the Massachusetts middle school disciplinary core idea elements, simply follow this link to my google doc which can be printed, then cut and pasted to fit standard size index cards. Be sure to share with me how it goes via email or the comments below.

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Incremental Improvement through Student Discourse

Over the summer I took in a rebroadcast of the Freakonomics podcast episode titled, “In Praise of Incrementalism”. The featured authors, economists, and guests of the show touted the power of incremental changes in a world where our attention is often yanked in the direction of “moonshots” and other eye-catching initiatives. The episode and its co-conspirator, “In Praise of Maintenance” resonated with me because of their relevance to my work (though my connections to the maintenance episode will need to be saved for another day!)

Incremental changes are at the heart of curriculum and instruction improvement in the Burlington Public Schools this year. All of the subject coaches have committed to centering their council work around lifting classroom discourse, using an adapted version of the table developed by Hufford-Ackles, Fuson, and Sherin (2014) to support Burlington educators exploration of student discourse in its many forms and levels.

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Burlington’s modified “Levels of Classroom Discourse” table

During our one-hour gathering with representatives from each grade level from each school we asked educators to first, independently reflect and share on Post-it Notes how “doing science” and our science curriculum as it stands supports each of the five facets of classroom discourse.

From here teachers contributed each of their stickies to five posters (one for each facet) before working collaboratively to organize the stickies into groups or patterns as they saw fit. This strategy was one we stole from John Antonetti who used a similar format to engage administrators during their own professional development around Learning Walks. After the groupings were completed teachers were given the second task of reflecting on how they and their colleagues supported their particular facet in their classroom and schools. Their groupings and strategies were ultimately shared out to the entire council.

For veteran science curriculum council members, our attention to student discourse isn’t novel or completely out of the blue. Before curriculum councils were temporarily disrupted last year our science council had explored Page Keeley’s Science Probes and the “science talk moves” necessary to effectively facilitate their use. With our science council’s ship steadied we will be honing in on the updated science curriculum we have been incrementally introducing to our K-5 educators over the past three years.

Teams of grade band teachers will meet in separate, afternoon meetings to systemically revisit our units and lessons. Teams of teachers will 1) Identify the level of classroom discourse being asked of the teacher and students and 2) consider and tweak lessons and units that are lower on the spectrum incrementally forward, preferably to levels 3 or 4 on our table.

The work won’t be worthy of click-baiting, head-turning headlines in our news outlets, but presumably the work will improve classroom discourse forward, supporting new teachers using the curriculum for the first time and veteran teachers refreshing their memory on desired lesson level outcomes and strategies to meet those expectations.

To empower our teachers with some tools and strategies they may use right away to drive their classroom discourse forward we are also providing our teachers with resources freely available online that have proven themselves in moving student discourse forward in classrooms at a wide range of grade levels. These include:

To wrap-up our time, teachers composed an exit ticket, answering two questions:

  • Which of these facets of classroom discourse do you aspire to develop this year personally or collaboratively?
  • How do you plan to develop this form of discourse and/or how can the Science Center support you in meeting your aspirations?

Our teachers responses will help inform the directions we take during our grade level curriculum council meetings later this year to move the needle forward and deepen the level of classroom discourse. Such aspirations may not sound much like a rally cry, and will not solve all of society’s ails, but it will almost certainly raise our capacity to engage our students, deepen their thinking, and improve their own capacity to communicate with each other and the world.

If you are interested in facilitating a similar conversation in your school or district, you may access a view only version of our presentation and make a copy for your own records and modifications here.

Posted in Curriculum, Professional Development, Professional Reflections | Tagged | 1 Comment

Developing Learning Strands: The Making of a NSTA National Conference – Part 1

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A crude rendition of our title and theme for the #NSTA2020 National Conference

It can be a surprise to many (including me!) but a conference as big as the NSTA’s National Conference takes more than two full years to develop. As the chairperson for the upcoming 2020 NSTA National Conference in Boston I joined a half-dozen New England educators and NSTA brass this week hammering out the focus strands on which many of the conference’s workshops, presentations, and guest speakers will be aligned with.

strand b-storm

Taking the results of our peer input request and turning them into strands.

Blessed with some advance notice of this volunteer assignment and great leadership in our state’s science teacher organizations our team of educators and administrators was able to draw on a diverse set of voices with the help of Google Forms and the list servers of MAST, MSELA, NSSSA, and MITS. Despite only about a week of advanced warning we received 44 thoughtful responses to our call for suggestions in building out the four learning strands that would dominate our conference. Suggestions ranged from engineering to computational thinking, to human impact, to three dimensional learning and assessment, all of which we were determined to weave into our strands.

Almost two days of conceptualization, revision, and peer feedback reviews sessions with our Area Conference planning colleagues formulated the goals of these strands. With the added touch of a “20/20 vision” theme they boiled to the surface as:

  • The Long View: Building a Lifelong Passion for Science 

  • Aligning the lenses: Authentic, Three-Dimensional Measurement of Student Learning

  • Thinking, Acting, and Communicating like Scientists: A Focus on Disciplinary Literacy

  • Learning Science in all Spaces and Places: Near and Far

Exciting, right?! Though flights needed to be caught and over a dozen hours of work had already been put into place, I left our table in a poorly ventilated conference room with team members still chattering about possible speakers and potential educators to recruit for future conference development stages.

Speaking of which… are you interested? The draft threads have been completed, but you can still share your interest in volunteering your time and support for the conference by adding your contact information to our NSTA Boston 2020 Google Form. Be a part of NSTA Boston 2020 and help us expand our vision of what this conference will offer and be to its participants!

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My New Favorite Way to Say “Stop Using the Scientific Method”

For generations human civilization presented the model of Earth as flat. Sure, it seemed to work under specific scenarios, like when you stood at a high point and looked out to the horizon. No curve? Must be flat. Model works.

But students developing their understanding of science use and develop models regularly in their classrooms. Before leaving elementary school, they understand that while models are used to describe phenomena or a process (like answering a question about our world) they also have limits. These limits lead to some models being better suited than others to explain the world around them.

So while the Scientific Method might fit into this neat little box to define for students how scientists and engineers do their work, it is a severely limited model that undercuts the amazing amount of community collaboration and non-linear ways scientists go about their business.

Take this outstanding example of the announcement of a new species and family of spiders with the discovery of the Trogloraptor, produced by the California Academy of Sciences:

This video uses a “scientific process” analogous to a pinball machine, with the process pinging between different modes of discourse. The static image below has been modified to use elementary-appropriate language, but before you go printing a giant version of this model to plaster up in your classroom, ask yourself…



What do I really want my students to know?

Do I want them to memorize this model, like they might memorize the parts of a cell in a traditional biology class or the sequence of planets in our solar system?

Or do I want to focus on the bigger ideas?

Scientists and Engineers…

  • Ask Questions and Identify Problems
  • Use and Develop Models
  • Plan and Conduct Investigations
  • Analyze and Interpret Data
  • Use Math and Computational Thinking
  • Construct Explanations and Design Solutions
  • Engage in Arguments from Evidence
  • Obtain, Evaluate, and Communicate Information



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‘Unoriginal Ideas’ that Improve our “Ability to Share a Message”

In the midst of holiday merry making and Christmas cleanup I was able to take a bite out of my podcast backlog; including several episodes of the “Innovator’s Mindset” MOOC series currently being chewed on by teachers and administrators in Burlington. And while the word “innovation” can be defined as “a new method, idea, or product,” synonymous with buzzwords like “breakthrough” it was episode 4’s guest and Burlington’s own Patrick Larkin who bluntly admitted, “I don’t think I’ve ever had an original idea.”

That said, author and podcast host, George Couros’s 12 minute #thoughtsfromthecar episode “The Ability to Share a Message” kept reverberating in the back of my mind, connecting with the work that I do as a science specialist and professional development facilitator and leading me to reflect on ideas not originally my own…

Unoriginal Idea #1: Learn how to present by watching other presenters

We can become better presenters of anything we venture to share our thinking on by watching excellent presenters share their own.  For me this has included over 100 TED Talks on ideas not necessarily of high intrigue to me, but shared by those who are passionate about it themselves and often excellent at sharing that passion with others. The ones I came to appreciate the most often displayed only pictures (or sound) while they shared their message in the form of a story. Participating in local #edcamps and becoming acquainted with teacher-famous PD innovators like MTA’s Dan Callahan didn’t hurt either. I’ve also stolen my fair share of analogies to better communicate the paradigm-shifting Next Generation Science Standards from presenters at national and regional NSTA conferences featuring cutting edge science education researchers and lead standard-writers.

Unoriginal Idea #2: Recognize and be able to respond to multiple perspectives on your message

Format matters but just as important is to develop what Couros calls, “a 360 view” of what it is you’re presenting. In my field that includes knowing and being able to respond to the “sticking points” preventing others from acting on the shifts NGSS requires to clear the bar they have set. Having an understanding of the several perspectives one might be examining our messages through leaves us prepared to respond to them while further refining our own understanding and message. Fellow science education PD designer, Eric Brunsell outlines several of these sticking points in Chapter 3 of his Facilitators Guide, which guided me early on in sharing the Massachusetts revised Science Standards. Equally important to developing my message was listening to my fellow Burlington educators and their own classroom or school level concerns, bringing us to…

Unoriginal Idea #3: Take the time to build repoir and connect with your audience

Whether a room of teachers at the Boxboro Regency or reflecting on a lesson with a  teacher in the hall, talking in ways that build rapport can be the difference between our message planting root or being lost among many other messages rushing past our educators via email, intercom, or broader initiatives. At national and regional conferences, it can be easy for presenters to want to launch forward, fearful that they may not have enough time to deliver everything they want to share or possibly losing their audience’ engagement. But failing to first connect with one’s audience means we don’t know where our audience is and what they hope to gain from us. Making efforts to get to know our audience pay dividends when we can connect our message with common experiences that we share.

Talk that puts our audience on the defensive can also leave our audience disconnected and our message unheard. Couros’s separation between “arguments vs. discussions” stuck with me most, laying out how arguments suggest an inevitable winner and loser with the idea or message going no further. Discussions on the other hand “go back and forth,” in which case the “idea is the winner” as perspectives are shared, the idea or message becomes more deeply understood by both parties, and the idea and its potential for implementation moves forward. By staying open-minded to others perspectives and empathetic to their experiences keeps our audience open to our message, and respects the often shared but not always genuine, “we are all here learning together.”

I am a believer in the ideas (100% not my own) I deliver to audiences and understand the power they can have, particularly on pre-service teachers and others willing to adapt their craft and classroom. Keeping these ideas in mind and putting them into practice will help me continue to improve my craft as a professional developer and move our community and country toward an increasingly scientifically literate society.

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