Supporting Informal Educators Navigating the Currents of NGSS



Over the past two months I have had the pleasure of supporting NSTA’s pivot to a more inclusive “National Science Teaching Association” by assuming the role of editor for the NSTA’s “Next Gen Navigator” monthly e-newsletter. The role provided me the opportunity to connect with several Massachusetts based science institutions, including the WADE Institute, the New England Aquarium’s Teacher Resource Center, and the Christa McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning.

A web version of the October 2019 publication, “Refashioning Informal Education to Support 3-D Learning” can be found here.¬†You’ll find my editorial remarks there as well. ūüôā

Science educators of all kinds interested in making shifts in their practice aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards should consider signing up for the Next Gen Navigator on the NSTA website linked here. Along with three or four articles from NGSS practitioners you’ll find classroom and professional development resources included in each monthly installment, all aligned with a different theme relevant to NGSS curriculum and instruction.

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Seeking Patterns in Workshops: Making a NSTA Conference – Part 2

Roughly a year after our NSTA Boston 2020 arrangements team met for the first time, I was back in DC for our next big step toward making the national conference a reality. With Programming Coordinator, Pam Pelletier and the NSTA conference arrangements team, roughly one-thousand workshop proposals were reviewed and sorted in roughly a day and half’s time. The work cemented the hundreds of hours already put in by 60+ volunteers from the Massachusetts Science Teachers Association and New England more broadly.

While the NSTA team had already sorted proposals by grade level before our arrival, Pam and I took the time to dig a little deeper, using our “human instinct for patterns” to uncover a trove of subtler themes. On several occasions we stopped to take in the descriptions and summations of the great work that will be on display next April. While our conference’s four strands are and will be explicitly highlighted in the months leading up to the conference, NSTA2020 in Boston will also have a number of recognizable undercurrents including:

Human Impact and Student Activism:

After just a few hours on day one it was clear that K-12 science educators have been paying attention to ESS3 in their NGSS standards. What really excited us was the inclusion of opportunities for students to act on their new found understanding of the role humans are playing in changes to our planet. While the spotlight certainly centered on climate data and action, several proposals took on biodiversity conservation, soil, water, air degradation, and even light pollution!

Equity and Social Justice:

Challenges around access and equity in science have been well documented and hold a prominent place in the Framework for K-12 Science Education, so it was great to see just how many educators are working so hard to do something about it! Many workshops highlighted partnerships where urban students and communities connected with scientists to do authentic science work, changing their perceptions and/or doubts about themselves as scientists. Others focused on supporting English Language Learners access and understanding of scientific language while still more centered on research and work being done to improve access to high-quality science education in underserved urban and rural areas alike.

Engineering for all:

Many hands-on workshops and presentations hit on the integration of engineering and use of the engineering design process across the PreK to 12 realm. While there will always be bridges to build, workshops diverged to coastal erosion mitigation, rocketry, polymers for soft-bodied surfaces, and solutions to fairy-tale dilemmas. Some took the extra step of integrating such art in the way of origami, and the beauty in the balance of forces and motion.

Tech Integration:

Makerspaces, programming, robotics, oh my! Lots of workshops, presented by individuals or teams from schools or school districts, will bring to life the interplay between building strong foundations in computer science and three-dimensional learning. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality has also made its own space next to 3D printers, dash-and-dots, LEGO Mindstorms, and other technologies on display at past NSTA conferences. Interested in using NASA, NOAA, and citizen science data sets? NSTA Boston will have that covered for you too.

So why all the fuss? To minimize the amount of overlap among similar workshops of course! Conference regulars know the “FOMO” feeling they inevitably get when having to select between two or more outstanding workshops. While I am 100% certain that you will be unable to avoid this feeling at NSTA2020, we’ve tried our best to give attendees the opportunity to catch similarly-themed presentations at another time.


A quick selfie at NSTA with Program Coordinator, Pam Pelletier and NSTA’s Conferences Director, Delores Howard.

Before we left Pam and I got to sit down with long-time NSTA Conference Coordinator, Delores Howard and layout our favorite recommendations for the conference’s keynote and conference strand speakers. While I can not share who they will be until NSTA finalizes agreements, I am very excited about the possible lineup to be! Before leaving, Pam and I snapped a few pictures in the lobby and with our NSTA colleagues that we are so very grateful for. The grind that the NSTA conference team goes through to host not one, but five conferences over a calendar year can not be understated and I am so appreciative of their work. Thank you, Delores Howard, Beverly Shaw, Dayna Ward, Donna Fletcher, and Linda Crossley!

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How do you “Choose Your Own (PD) Adventure?”


A quick glimpse at the 25 most recent emails in my inbox included three seemingly outstanding upcoming professional development opportunities. A stipended opportunity to learn about engineering design and the physics centered on designing your own hand held vacuum at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering:

Still another was a reminder from my NSTA Professional Learning Community about an upcoming NSTA web conference around STEM instruction and ELs, and still another regarding the summer offerings by the Wade Institute (previously known as MITS) in the local Northeast MA region.

Oh, and how can I forget the Valerie Bang-Jensen and Mark Lubkowitz book, “Sharing Books, Talking Science” I just purchased? When will I take the opportunity to read that? And let’s just forget that Twitter feed (as we’ve already pointed out a few cross posts above, a mere tip of the iceberg…)

“Personalized Learning” is a best practice that gets batted around not only in our students classrooms but among professional development facilitators as well. As educators we don’t always have control around what forms of professional development we need to participate in, but when we do have choice its important to have some framework for decision making.

For me, I try to select around personal needs just as much as professional ones during a time when my children are young and me-time precious! PD needs to be:

  • Timely (flexible or over a day typically)
  • Engaging (stretches me beyond my current strengths and/or into new learning domains)
  • Applicable (I should be able to put this learning to good use in the upcoming academic year, if not sooner!)
  • Credit-worthy (keep moving on that schedule… cost of living in the Boston area isn’t getting any cheaper!)

But despite these seemingly appropriate criteria, opportunities of interest continue to present themselves that are difficult to shy away from. Are they too vague? Probably. But before I go under the deeper reflection hood I’m curious to hear how others approach their own professional development learning adventure? What criteria do you use? What kinds of learning and opportunity have your criteria led you to or how has it held you back? What suggestions can you offer a parent of toddlers still unwilling to give up on that “never stop learning” mindset?

Oh and if you were looking for awesome “Choose Your Own Adventure” references here you are sadly out of luck. But I will share this amazing atlasobscura blog post in which every Choose Your Own Adventure book from the series has been data mapped to show all the possible outcomes.

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#NSTA 2019 Takeaways

NSTA 2019 marks my sixth national conference and the start to a 51-week countdown to NSTA’s 2020 National Conference in Boston! Plenty of personalized learning opportunities and professional networking happens at an NSTA conference, even if you can only attend a day or two! Here are some of my takeaways from this year’s conference in St. Louis.

#1: “Where we start is no indicator of what we can become”

Astronaut and spacewalker, Scott Kelly’s message as the conference keynote did not include instructional takeaways or pedagogical know-how. Instead his reminder that those we do not identify as ‚Äúmodel students‚ÄĚ are still capable of great accomplishments and exceeding our own self-identified potential. His quote, “‚Äúwhere we start is no indicator of what we can become‚ÄĚ is echoed in the K-12 Science Framework’s emphasis on “Science for All Students” and a message I hope will percolate in my mind the next time I find myself doubting my own students‚Äô potential.¬†His acknowledgement of Tom Wolfe‚Äôs 1979 book,¬† ‚ÄúThe Right Stuff‚ÄĚ as his inspiration spoke to the power of a spark that lights a student‚Äôs imagination, and the power of literature to carry ideas and experiences to our audience with perspective and authenticity. Plus, there was this:¬†

#2: “We are all in this together”

While cliche to say “there’s always more to learn” it is powerful to hear this message from noted leaders such as Paul Anderson, creator of the Youtube series Bozeman Science and now his own education consulting business, “The Wonder of Science.” During his packed presentation Andersen shared acknowledgements to those he continues to learn from…

… while sharing his own resources designed to support teachers in bolstering their instructional methods and train their eyes to identify strong, three-dimensional curriculum and assessments. His hat tip to elementary educators as teachers who should be stood with and not over as deliverers of science education spoke to me personally – noting that they are teaching “half the science education in our students’ K-12 schooling.” Putting his message that “we are all in this together” to practice, his fantastic, Creative Commons stamped materials can be found on his website under the resources tab including his SEP and CCC graphic organizers and new three-dimensional “Inquiry Cards”. This reminder, like Scott Kelly’s, was also one shared at NSTA and will aim to keep with me from a science, education, and science education perspective:

#3: Interest and resources for Standards Based Grading is growing across grades K-12

I was both floored and heartened by the number of high school teachers present at the presentation “Standards-Based Grading: Impact on Student Engagement in a Science Classroom” as SBG remains an enigma in our 6-12 Burlington grades. The connection between the SBG criteria and standards they made visible to students through their ‚ÄúI can‚ÄĚ statements (replacing the more traditional ‚Äúobjective‚ÄĚ statement). Time and encouragement of student-to-student support to achieve for mastery was also a shared staple. Room for improvement remains as examples shared centered around parochial school practice-based standards unfamiliar to me and did not explicitly connect with SEPs, DCIs, or CCCs. Admission that their SBG system had yet broken free from the requirements and mindsets of a school’s point scale system also demonstrated work to be done. Nevertheless their willingness to share in front of a packed house and their status as pioneers in this space should be honored!

#4: NSTA’s “Elementary Extravaganza” never disappoints!

Friday’s learning started with the dopamine hit that is the Elementary Extravaganza. Every turn of the head brought about an interest-piquing investigation, new and delightful trade book, or connection with an organization such as CESI or NEAYC leaving me ready to enlist in their membership ranks as well! I loved an ocean-oriented variation on the bird beaks lesson involving fish mouths and a balloon joust requiring clever engineering of a ramp car to both pop and defend. An inheritance variation tree innocently introduced the idea of dominant and recessive traits while a three rope tug-of-war brought about force diagram arrows to kindergarten children!

I hope that others will share their learning from NSTA 2019 and also come to Boston in 2020. Boston is NSTA’s largest national conference and never disappoints with its rich learning and cultural opportunities. See you there!


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What will you share at NSTA 2020?

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The due date for submitting proposals to present at NSTA 2020 in Boston is just one month away. Why not share the great learning do you and your students do everyday with the broader science education community?

The best part about having the National Conference in your backyard is the opportunity to connect with other local educators and share relevant strategies, lessons, units and nearby partnerships. How would I know? Five years ago Burlington teacher, Jane Lynch and I presented a science-social studies interdisciplinary unit on engineering water wheels connected to student learning around the industrial revolution and Lowell mills. We presented alongside three Burlington third-graders, who had a wonderful time exploring the exhibit floor before proudly sharing their learning and expertise in designing, testing, and improving water wheels. They practically ran the workshop for us! Of the several educators who attended, four of them went on to adapt the unit for their own classrooms, sharing their thanks and appreciation with us long after the conference was over.

Students and Mrs. Lynch ready to present and facilitate a water wheels engineering challenge!

There are four learning strands associated with every national conference. While not required, proposal that align with one of these four domains tend to take higher priority when being accepted to present at the conference. 2020’s learning strands are:

  • The Long View: Building a Lifelong Passion for Science
  • Learning Science in All Spaces and Places: Near and Far
  • Thinking, Acting, and Communicating Like Scientists: A Focus on Disciplinary Literacy
  • Aligning the Lenses: Authentic, Three-Dimensional Measurement of Student Learning

Greater detail about what precisely these strand titles are referring to can be found here¬†on this Google Doc developed by the local planning committee. To learn more about proposal guidelines, tips for writing a successful workshop proposal, and to submit a session proposal online visit Remember that the due date is April 15th. It will creep up on you so don’t wait!


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Pathways to Personalization and Science for All Students

Science educators now familiar with the Next Generation Science Standards and the Framework for K-12 Science Education are likely aware of its emphasis on recalibrating science classrooms to be for all students. The NGSS dedicates an entire appendix to this motto, including seven separate case studies on non-dominant student groups to illustrate different models for implementation of effective classroom strategies that meet the specific needs of student subgroups that historically have exhibited persistent gaps in science education proficiency.

This motto was on my mind while participating in a PD short course titled, “Pathways to Personalization.” Highlander Institute facilitators, Shawn Rubin and Cathy Sanford charged us with the need to “update our one size fits all [education] system to meet the specific needs of the students we serve” while recognizing the great challenges that come with making such a shift. Together they presented a roadmap for district and teacher leaders to work together to actualize such goals using a framework that could just as well be a roadmap for many school changes.

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I found several points to be valuable across my work as both a science coach and district improvement committee member, most notably the following:

1: The importance of articulating “the why?”

During our district breakout session, one of the¬†facilitators emphasized the importance of “articulating the why” when and planning and piloting personalized learning models. Why are we pursuing the initiative? What characteristics of the initiative are our priorities? Four domains of change were highlighted in a tool titled the “Walkthrough Tool Domains and Indicators” which included several indicators that overlapped with the Framework vision and goals of the NGSS. Among them just to name a few (with my own science contextualization in parentheses):

  • “Students are engaged in work that is authentic” (phenomena based sense-making, constructing explanations and/or designing solutions to engineering problems)
  • “Teacher uses a variety of techniques to assess student progress toward learning goals” (through explanations supported by modeling, various forms forms of media, etc.)
  • “Teacher uses data to inform instruction” (as done through formative assessment)
  • “Students are given the opportunity to apply learning from one task to another” (as seen when teachers take on a ‘storyline’ approach to curriculum sequencing)
  • “Students present evidence that supports their thinking” (via sense-making approaches to curriculum and instruction)
  • “Students design or create a product to demonstrate their understanding” (such as models, claim arguments, etc)

These indicators were later used to develop a vision statement for what sorts of changes we would come to expect to observe happening in those classrooms piloting our personalized learning programs. To this effect, what we selected as our priorities were to be baked into how we would go about assessing both our students and the new system. Bringing me to my next takeaway…

2: The need for clear goals tied to valid assessments

During one of the workshop’s exercises, we absorbed start-of-year and mid-year datasets for our personalized learning pilot school in the form of qualitative classroom observations, standardized test data aggregates, and then some. The data was overwhelming in part because what our mock-district aimed to achieve had not been articulated outright, leaving us to wonder whether certain data points should be looked up as good, great, outstanding, or short of the mark.

One of the greatest challenges NGSS shifting teachers fess-up to is the need for more formative and authentic assessment of students that require a shift in what kinds of assessments are being used and how. A diversity of methods of assessment allow for a wider range of student scientists to show what they know in different ways, but not without challenges.

Without clear goals and exemplars about what new learning should look like, educators fall back on the methods and strategies traditionally used, methods which likely do not reflect what new student understanding should look like under the NGSS. Disappointing “results” lead educators to feel insecure about their learning path, frustrated with the process, and may lead to teachers abandoning the initiative all together. A February¬†KQED Mind/Shift series on equitable grading practices¬†(thank you, PLN member Cari Williams!) highlighted this fact through a standards based grading expos√©, attributing such an assessment system as one that whittles away at the gap between dominant and non-dominant groups.

A featured teacher quoted in the article noted that,¬†“teacher experiences will drive change — they must have opportunities to try out strategies and see the effects themselves — but district leaders also have to provide the tailwind for this to become a reality. And that‚Äôs where [I see] the biggest challenge to this work.”¬†Such tailwinds include instruction and assessment models to adopt or adapt as well as “cover” from skeptical community members and students familiar and/or successful with the more traditional system. Leading me to my final point:

3: “Bottom-up” research & development with “top-down” support

Boxed curriculums dropped from the heavens marked with well polished NGSS-ready tags may ‘equip’ your classrooms, but with what? For genuine implementation of the shifts necessary to meet all students it will take work from classroom educators and support staff familiar with the strengths and challenges of their specific student bodies. Work that will be need to be done¬†day-in and day-out over several years. Not only will curriculums need to be vetted but classroom instructional strategies and practices will need to be looked at critically to evaluate which will meet the needs of all.

Teacher leaders who innovate and try new approaches will need understanding from administrators and evaluators who may see untraditional learning at work, as well as support in the form of time and resources, commonly resources only administrators have control over. They will also need coaching and time as they recalibrate their own instructional strategies, highlighted in a recent read from the California Science Teachers Association blog titled, “Re-novicing of Science Teachers and the Science Coach”¬†(thank you PLN member, Kristen Rademaker!) Administrators themselves will need to come to more deeply understand the shifts being undertaken in their NGSS classrooms, both the why and the how.

4: “The chasm” is a problem and requires an engineered solution

Even with all this work, it is likely that uptake of these shifts will be slow, with “innovators and early-adopters” taking the lead, before new curriculum, instructional practices, and methods of assessment jump “the chasm” to their school and district colleagues.


The challenge is real (observed in everything from educational initiatives to technology adoptions) and the stakes high, for “pockets of innovation” in a school or district can only go so far while being held to standards like the NGSS that build over time. Without foundational knowledge in elementary and middle grades, high school students will be ill-prepared for classrooms where the shift has been made and calls to return to “what worked” (for historically dominant student groups) will become louder.

“Pathways to Personalization” presents a path under the context of personalized / blended learning, but the idea of¬†paths is important. Like an engineer, failure points will be identified as curriculum, practices, and assessment evolve, leading to refinement, and additional redesign cycles. It’s important that we all share such learning through our PLNs from local to global so that we can bridge the chasm as a collective, pulling ourselves ever upwards to the goal of meeting the needs of all our students.

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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.




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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 ‚Äúdoing science‚ÄĚ 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.

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