A Reflection on Valuing the Process

(I posted this on my other NGSS focused site, but wanted to post an extended version here as well)

While the change to the Next Generation Science Standards is one I have been enthusiastic about from the start, I have been apprehensive at times as well in questing whether I am doing things right. For one, I am not used to spending so much class topic on a single research project. Usually I would introduce the project, give them a couple of days spread out in class over the course of the timeline to work, and then expect it turned in completed and perfect on the due date. I never would have spend a total of almost 3 weeks in class (about 10 full days of class time with the supplemental activities subtracted) working on a research project like this. However, in reflecting back on this time I truly see the value.
A large part of this change to NGSS, in my eyes at least, is in valuing the process. This might be the process of truly understanding a concept (not just having a teacher convey information to you), but it is also the process of creating something, like the research project. This whole activity has students finding a question they are passionate about, discovering the answer on their own, and working to figure out how to convey that information to others. A useful skill for all; but the truth of the matter is not all students will even get there.
In the past when a student didn’t finish a project like this they would get a zero, an F, a hole they had to fight to climb out of. Maybe they would turn in a late and incomplete paper, lifting them up to a higher F or maybe even a D. But, here’s the thing, that final paper only represents a fraction of the process and what they accomplished. They had to acquire background knowledge, collect research, and organize that research. Shouldn’t we be valuing this whole process and not just the end result. In really evaluating each part of the task it lets me do that. I think of some of my students who struggle, whether it is with motivation or ability, by valuing the whole process it makes it much harder for them to fail. That’s a great thing because there is nothing less motivating to succeed than being sure there is no way for you to not fail.

I will also say that as a teacher, I need to also value this process in myself. Yes, I need think critically about how I can improve my teaching, but I should also value the whole process that goes into each lesson I plan. This change to NGSS involves a process of learning for us all, one we may not succeed at 100% each and every day with each and every lesson, but one that we continue to work with and improve upon.

A second blog!

To sort of separate out my personal reflections and my reflections about transitioning to NGSS I have made a separate blog to focus on that transition. This also will allow for some consistency between the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teachers that are posting about this change. You can find it here. I will continue to use this blog for my general personal reflections.

NGSS Week 1 (and Some Background)

[The start of this school year has meant a move to the Next Generation Science Standards, a move that I, as a science teacher, heartily embrace. As the curriculum changes this blog is changing as well and I am moving to focus on blogging about how I incorporate these new standards and lessons into my classroom. Before I go further I should mention that what I am doing heavily incorporates the work that all of us science teachers, and especially Cari Williams, at Tustin Unified School District put in last spring and this summer, as well as work that continues today. This is available online at http://msngss.weebly.com/. Each week I am going to blog about what I am doing and will revise that blog with reflection and revision after the week is over.]

The first NGSS Unit in 8th Grade Science is about how objects move and collide and as an overarching topic looks at asteroids. It is a fun unit as the connections between Earth Science, Life Science, Space, and Physics flow easily.

Before the unit itself I incorporated two activities. The first was a pre-assessment. This pre-assessment, while it could be used for grouping students, was primarily designed to determine which topics my students overwhelmingly knew or didn’t know going in to the unit. Since, the first performance task for this unit was a student guided research paper I assessed only about topics that will come up in later weeks and will discuss the impact of the assessment at that point.

The second introduction activity was an article on Actively Learn. (Our district moved to this literacy tool this year, as someone that used NewsELA extensively in the past and was well used to it, I was a bit frustrated to have to learn a new tool. Now that I’ve used it I take it back. It took only one article for me to be a huge fan.) The articles I used were from an amazing site called Understanding Science and an article in particular about Walter Alvarez’s work in understanding the extinction of the dinosaurs. Since Actively Learn works best uploading Doc files I converted them to upload with questions.

This first performance task, as mentioned before, is a student guided research paper on any topic about the fossil record, asteroids, or extinctions. This assessment (as are all) is broken down into 4 parts, each of which the students will need to master to move onto the next. This means that in the classroom there will be students a different points in the project. My main aim these year is working on how to manage this effectively and support all student needs.

This performance task introduces DCI LS4.A: Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity (this DCI will also be addressed in the third unit of this year which focuses on evolution), SEPs on Analyzing and Interpreting Data and Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence, and lastly CCCs on Patterns and Order and Consistency in Natural Systems.)

Below is what I envision this week looking like, I will go back and revise this with reflection when the week is done. (Many performance tasks may have additional, non-assessment, lessons built in. With the structure of this assessment no additional lessons were necessary this week.)


Monday: The aim today is two fold, introduce the topic and introduce the assessment and the structure of these NGSS performance tasks (since it is our first one of the year).

First the students will look at this phenomena about Jupiter. As a table group they students will discuss, what the model shows them (what patterns they see), what they think asteroids and comets are, and what they think would happen if Jupiter wasn’t there.

Then the students will be given a digital copy of the assessment instructions. The students will read through the document and highlight/underline what is expected for each part of the task. And then explain to their partner what they need to do in each part.

Lastly I will explain the general expectations for these assessments (i.e., mastery is needed to move on, how the tracking and monitoring sheet will work,…).


Tuesday: Today the aim is to work on student questions using the Question Formulation Technique. There will be an essential question posted, “How have asteroid collisions influenced the evolution of life on Earth and Earth’s history? How might a modern day impact have an effect on life on Earth?

First, the students will look at the facts on the QFT slideshow and start to ask questions as a group either about those facts or the topic in general. To facilitate collecting these questions I will use a class Google Sheets document. Each group will be adding questions to the same document, but on a different page.

Once they have written down all the questions they can think of their group will work on classifying the questions as open or closed (after a brief discussion of each type) and work on rewriting one open and one close question.

Lastly the students will work on picking a couple questions to focus on for their research topic. (I will approve the questions to make sure they are satisfactory and that there is enough variety in the class).

Note: I have some students with a modified curriculum, for these students we will work as a small group to come up with a group question.


Wednesday: The students will begin working on part 1 of the assessment, the Defining Key Terms worksheet. At this point the whole class will still be at the same point in the performance task. (As they are working I will use this time to both support the students and to form a general idea of how each student is progressing with and understanding the content.)


Thursday: The students will continue working on the Key Terms worksheet for most of the class period. At the end of the class period they will complete an initial peer evaluation of the document. I am still determining how this will look, but my thought is a modified rubric where they are looking at how many questions are answered as well as if the answer is detailed enough/seems correct. (These peer evaluations will be turned in to me on Friday and I will use them to help me assess the worksheet.)


Friday: The teacher will go over the worksheet so the students can check their answers. If the peer evaluation suggested they missed answers or didn’t have enough detail this would be a chance to improve their answers (and leave a comment on the rubric discussing how they improved it).

At this point I should already have a rough idea of who was successfully completing this assignment and who wasn’t from my notes while they were working. Those who seemed like they needed support in understanding the background material or students who I know need differentiated instruction on key terms (such as some of my English Language Learners) will work as a small group with me on understanding these ideas. This small group could involve breaking down one of the articles on the worksheet or working on focusing on key terms and picture representations as student need requires.

The rest of the class will begin the next part of the assignment, collecting research. (I will be working on completing my evaluations of the students work on part 1 and will give them an mark of mastered or not at that time. As such it is possible that some students beginning the research may have to return to this worksheet Monday.)

Hacking Assessment, a Slightly Off Topic Review

While it is great to read books that help cement your beliefs about teaching, it is if anything more beneficial to read those you disagree with. I went into Hacking Assessment with that thought. I have no complaints with the Starr Sackstein or the Hacking Learning Series in general, but I went in knowing that going gradeless wouldn’t work for me and left feeling the same way.

I should backtrack. I teach 6 periods a day of 8th grade Physical Science, trust me, I am a pro at my demos by the end of the day. Those classes have between 28 to 39 students and class periods are 44 minutes long. There isn’t much time to reach each of my students every day. While I am not thrilled with the idea of just popping a “87% – B” on a project or lab that the students spent days or weeks working on, when that grade goes into the online grade book there is also a more detailed comment left for them on Google Classroom. Ultimately, there is not enough time for me to give verbal feedback to each student. From what I’d heard previously that sounded like a key aspect on going gradeless – conferences.

As I read the book the author lamented how untimely grades are with progress report and quarter grades being outdated by the time they reach home. That’s never been my issue. Sure, those are outdated, but since I began teaching my schools have used Aeries which give the parents up to date grades (or at least as up to date as the teacher’s grading).

My issue is the obsession with grades online grade systems cause. I’ve had parents and students focus only on those red boxes, the missing assignments, neglecting to focus on the progress in the class as a whole. And I get that from the parents’ side for sure, they want to do all they can to help their students’ succeed and those red boxes mark a big red issue. In there is my big problem with grades. No, not the parents’ desires to support their kids, but the focus on completion and score rather than understanding that often arises from those red boxes and online grades as a whole.

There can be this focus on finishing late work to remove that missing score over understanding of the current task. How to deal with that is what I want to change. I want to change the focus to emphasize understanding over a grade. I feel that the author has the same aim. I hoped this book would give me a fix for that, but for me it didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there were awesome thing about the book. In particular I loved the recommendations for peer evaluations. Plus, the personal accounts from teachers implementing the various practices were informative. And if you really want to go gradeless or are trying to convince your school/district to go gradeless I highly recommend the book.

Although I finished the book still determined that going gradeless would not work for me (because if nothing else I believe it is too big of a change to implement as a single teacher rather than as a school wide initiative), I also finished it full of ideas about what I do want to do differently.

It made me realize that I need to implement more student choice in assignments and ways to demonstrate their understanding. And I need to somehow reflect this in the gradebook in a way that gives appropriate information on progress to the parents.

I want to expand my use of peer evaluation.

And I do want to incorporate more face to face discussions of grades with my students, though I am unsure what that would look like logistically.

I finished the book with a lot of thoughts and questions and that is never a bad thing. Although I am not dropping grades next week or next year, the book at least made me consider it. I just wish I somehow left with more answers.

Losing my Fear through Teaching

Growing up I hated the idea of standing in front of people and speaking. The moment adrenaline pumped through my system my normally shaky hands would vibrate out of control. In high school I learned that I couldn’t hold note cards in my hand as they would shake too much to be read.

Teaching sounds like an odd career choice for someone who was terrified in standing up and speaking. I was worried I might say something wrong. Insult someone accidentally. Invite laughter. As a kid I was weird and fat and not much has changed there.

I was a fine teacher my first three full years teaching, not fabulous, but few are at the start. But I wasn’t me. Once, years ago, teaching 7th grade students one of them tried to friend my on Facebook. Not recognizing the name as they used a nickname and generic picture I clicked through to see who the person was, on the top of their feed was a picture of me standing in front of the board with the words “The whale teaching” as the caption. It wasn’t even one of my difficult students. I never mentioned it, but had trouble looking at them in class the remaining couple of months that year.

During my first four years of teaching I moved from school to school due to budget cuts and declining enrollment. It was during my fourth year of teaching I started to really be me in front of my students. My fifth year teaching was the first time I got to teach the same subject and grade level twice, 9th grade Earth Science. And that was my year I decided I just didn’t care. If my fourth year was dipping my toe in the water, this was taking a full plunge. I didn’t care if my students thought I was weird, I just wanted my students to know that I loved science and I was there to support them however I could. It worked.

I was no longer afraid.

I have no grand advice for fear or magical cure for nerves other than for me it took a conscious decision. I made a leap into no worrying about being weird or silly in front of my students. And I realized that, that authentic enthusiasm worked. My students responded positively. I went to a new school and new grade level (8th) this year with that fear of judgement banished away…well most of the time. My hands still shake when I stand in front of the whole school presenting awards.

Letting go of the fear of being me was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. I am still weird. And yes, I am still fat. But, most importantly I am me.

Scientific Modeling

Last year my fellow Earth Science teacher and I set off into the dark (or at least it felt like it) to figure out how to really move towards the aims in the Next Generation Science Standards. We accomplished a lot, but were at a loss with scientific modeling.

When we reached this standard (NGSS HS-ESS1-1) we were completely stumped:

Develop a model based on evidence to illustrate the life span of the sun and the role of nuclear fusion in the sun’s core to release energy that eventually reaches Earth in the form of radiation. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the energy transfer mechanisms that allow energy from nuclear fusion in the sun’s core to reach Earth. Examples of evidence for the model include observations of the masses and lifetimes of other stars, as well as the way s that the sun’s radiation varies due to sudden solar flares (“space weather”), the 11- year sunspot cycle, and non-cyclic variations over centuries.] [Assessment Boundary : Assessment does not include details of the atomic and sub-atomic processes involved with the sun’s nuclear fusion.]

We didn’t know what such a model would look like, especially in a freshmen Earth Science class. While the life span of a the sun and nuclear fusion and its resulting energy are directly related we couldn’t wrap out heads around how to make a single model (illustrated, mathematical, or otherwise) around that.

While we were trying to plow ahead we lacked the support to do so. What was really expected out of a scientific model? How should we use them and have the students create them? What depth were these things looking for? While we tried to move forward in considering the aims and depth of the standards, the cross cutting concepts, the science and engineering practices, this was a big conceptual change in how we taught.

Our district wanted us to start to make this change with no support and no guidance. We did what we could and I am proud of how much we did accomplish and how much we learned.

I am thankful of the NSTA articles about incorporating modeling that gave me guidance in the first place. I am still thankful that my current district had a training session just about scientific modeling over the summer which gave me better expectations of what these models should look like and the confidence to incorporate this into my classroom.

Today I confidently have my students create models of concepts with little specific guidance on what those models should look like (i.e. no just copying down the water cycle here).

Before Spring Break we were discussing thermal energy looking at two blocks, one aluminum and one plastic foam. If you haven’t seen this the ice on the aluminum lets in minutes while the one on plastic foam has little to no change.

The students worked in groups to model what was going on with thermal energy for the two blocks.

We’ve done modeling before and my main guidance is “it doesn’t need to look pretty, your only aim is to explain it the best you can.” And they did an awesome job with that.

Even better than the models themselves or the students going around to ‘grade’ and comment on the other groups, is that it let me really easily see where the remaining misconceptions were. If you look closely one of those examples has the energy movement going the wrong way, this issue came up in a few groups throughout the day along with some other misconceptions.

I learned that the importance to the activity is the modeling itself. It involves taking ideas and generalizing them. It involves connecting concepts. And in this case it involved collaboration within their groups. While not all the models are perfect, the students left not only having had practice in making models, but in interpreting models given to them (when viewing the other groups.)

While I still have a lot to learn about scientific modeling and steps to take in implementing the aims of NGSS I remain happy with my progress.

Authentic Inquiry? Great, but How?

Three-year-olds are great. They are still exploring and learning basic things about the world around them, but have the skills to begin to communicate their findings. This break I went down to our local creek with my nephew who discovered the joy of throwing rocks into the water.

As he tossed them in he noticed they made patterns, something he observed on his own and shared with us excitedly, commenting that we didn’t know until he told us. It was new to him, it must be new to us as well. As he explored more he came up with the second observation that the circles got bigger.

It was authentic inquiry. He discovered it, shared it with those around him, and explored more (what happened if the rock were dropped into algae, what if you drop rocks of different sizes).

As a science teacher I strive for authentic inquiry in what we do in class, but it can be a huge challenge. Even in fairly open ended inquiry labs, they are centered around a set topic the students are exploring. I’ve given research projects based off of an article or story, but still then I am the one setting the focus.

In an ideal world our school science fair would lead to authentic inquiry, but for many students it doesn’t. The internet is a great thing, you can google “science fair ideas” and find thousands of ideas; however, too many students gravitate to those rather than exploring something they truly care about. And I get that. It can be hard to come up with a question you care to explore and develop for months on the spot. You need to be inspired.

And I do see that in class. Students will discuss their interests with me, projects they are working on at home or things they are researching independently. And it is not just outside of school, I have demos that engage them enough that they want to explore more. Questions and connections they make with the material that goes beyond what we would have discussed in class. Even random times, such as the time when a student who used some of her class time to help me fix the little motor I was building in between classes.

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Next year I am looking towards incorporating my version of the genius hour, likely more structured than the ideal, as an option instead of the science fair. My hope is that less structure leads to more authentic interests and more authentic inquiry. I want them to see what their interests are important. That their questions about the world matter. I want them to see that what they discover and learn is worth sharing with others. But achieving that to the extent I want remains one of my biggest challenges.