For the LOVE of learning

Griffin, my 9 year old third-grader, came home with an “Animal Research Project” today. I felt this was a perfect assignment for Griffin. He loves animals,  has taken countless trips to multiple zoos, seen Jack Hannah twice, and wants to be a zoologist. If Griffin thought like my middle school students, he would have chosen the easy route for this assignment. He has already written two similar reports as science fair projects. Last year he wrote about his Elephants, since his grandparents adopted in his name at an elephant rescue. This year he created a report about the owls because he had watched born on a webcam. He could have easily chosen to recycle one of these reports.

Instead, Griffin listened to his teacher when she informed the class to choose an animal they did not know much about. Griffin spent time searching through his animal encyclopedia. As classmates choose common zoo animals: Lions, Tigers, Bears and Zebras. Griffin kept searching until he found the Aye-Aye! When he shared this with me, my reply was “The What?” Griffin quickly explained to me that the Aye-Aye is a small nocturnal primate that only lives in Madagascar.

Photo: Aye-aye close-up

He proceeded to run off to the library with his mother to search for reference books and get to work on this research report that is due May 20th, ignoring his friends playing in the street.  My sons actions made me wonder, Why aren’t my students as excited about learning like my son?

I am sure if I asked my students, the answer would be “Because you are a teacher!” I know that it is more than just me being a teacher. Griffin, loves learning. While at the library, he also picked out books about Rome, since it was mentioned in a book he was reading. Griffin has a natural love of learning. Paying attention and getting his work done are priorities in his life. Why? Probably because he is still young and nobody has killed his curiosity. As a middle school teacher I find few students like Griffin. When I talk to parents of middle school aged students, they always say “just wait” and “It will change”. I hope not. Griffin is full of questions, passion for knowledge and a desire to figure things out. I don’t want his love of learning to die.

Students need their passions supported. Adults need to do everything possible to not kill the passion. Schools need to create meaningful assignments that give students choice and help student pursue their LOVE of LEARNING!

Classifying and connecting vocabulary

My goal in teaching is to have my students USE the knowledge that they learn in my classroom. So often, I see the students learn things for a quiz or test then totally forget what they learned. The knowledge was stored in their short-term memory for just as long as they needed it then it flies out of their ears ten times faster than it went in. After frequent discussions with a special education reading specialist, I have decided I need to use the vocabulary in different ways everyday during the unit of study. Forcing the students to see relevance of the vocabulary and use the terms frequently in writing and discussions.

Yesterday, my science classes took 16 of our most frequently used vocabulary terms and classified them into groups. All the terms come from our weather unit. For these assignment there is no correct answer as long as the classification fits all items in the group. As I walked around the classroom, at first it appeared the student really knew what they were doing. I noticed many groupings that seemed to fit the assignment. As I started questioning the students about why and how the terms were grouped, I noticed a lack of deeper understanding. Many stated, “They just go together” or “I saw them on the same page as in the textbook.” I was glad they open the book to try to figure out the answer, but I gave this assignment because the answers aren’t in the book! As I kept questioning students, I noticed frustration creep into my classroom. My students really never thought about WHY terms could be grouped together.

We needed a quick lesson in grouping. I turned on the ELMO and placed a pen and pencil under the camera. I asked, “How can these 2 items be grouped?” Instantly hands shoot up in the classroom. “Writing utensils” was the first answer from the class. “What else could we add to this group?” I inquired. “Paper” was shouted out before I was done asking the question. “Does that fit class?” was followed by a chorus of “NO”. “So why not?” As the class worked through the explanation that paper is not used to write with but to write on, I saw a few light bulbs light up. Groups quickly went back to work on the classifications.  Below are a couple of results from class:

As class wound down, I noticed a few students were still struggling with classifying their terms. I started planning on the fly for the next day. In order for students to classify the terms they need to understand how the terms are connected. Does one concept cause the other? Are they similar? DO they require similar conditions? I decided that the students needed to write about the connections in their  accounts.

Here is the assignment:

I want you to write about how at least 4 words from our vocabulary that  work together to affect/cause/produce our large topic of weather. See the mentor text below for an example:

Mentor Text:

Connected words: Conduction- Convection-Jet Stream – Ocean Currents

The sun transfers energy to the Earth by radiation, conduction and convectionConduction occurs when the sun lights energy is directly transferred by contacting a surface on Earth. Convection occurs due to uneven heating of the surface, which creates movement from warm areas to cooler areas.  Due to these two methods of transferring the sun’s energy, water and air move. The jet stream is a high-altitude wind caused by the suns energy. Ocean currents are steady one directional flows of water also caused by the energy from the sun. Conduction and convection are methods for transferring energy to cause the jet stream and ocean currents.

As we entered the computer lab, I hoped for this assignment to help the students gain a better understanding of their vocabulary. While, I was presenting the task to the class, a couple of students raised their hands and shared how they felt the words are connected. For the second day, I explained that there were no right or wrong answers. All of the words  deal with weather so they are all interconnected in different ways. Students just needed to talk about how the terms go together. Below are a few examples of student work:


Warm fronts and cold fronts can cause warmer or colder temperatures you can use a thermometer to find the exact temperature. Occluded fronts  are also caused which are a form weather. Rain, snow, sleet and hail are all forms precipitation which fall from clouds. You can find the climate by averaging the weather.

The sun gives off energy through radiation throughout the universe. When the radiation nears the Earth, it must first reach the atmosphere. The amount of energy that gets through the atmosphere, winds, clouds (tiny of millions of water droplets or ice crystals), is the weather, (the conditions of the atmosphere in a given place and time). The weather tends to change similarly each year, and can always change whether we can predict it or not. This is the main  difference between weather and climate (the weather in some location averaged over a long period of time). The climate also deals with weather, such as temperatures, precipitation, etc… All of these rely on the sun for energy, the atmosphere to suppress (absorb) some of the energy such as harmful ultraviolet rays, for their ability to do their job and for us to simply be.


The sun transfers its energy to the earth by radiationconduction is when the suns energy s directly hitting a spot on the earth, convection is when the suns energy unevenly hits the earths surface causing that spot to move from cold to hot, do to this it creates wind and ocean currents. The jet stream is a wind in high altitude caused by the suns energy. Ocean currents are flows of water caused by the suns energy that move in one direction due to wind. All of these words are a way of transferring energy. in this case they all transfer energy that’s from the sun.


 As I walked around the room, these responses showed me that the students we finally connecting themselves to understanding their vocabulary. I feel that students benefit from spending time using terms they need to know. Teachers have to get past having student write a definition! Student need to see the terms in context and use them in a connected manner to clearly communicate their learning. I can not be more proud of my students and their learning today.

Why I Teach!

I was born the son of a teacher and doctor. My mother, the teacher, was always fostering learning for her 3 sons. She would constantly find activities to engage us. Frequent trips to the  zoo, museum, park and library were a large part of growing up. Dad, when around, also helped us develop a passion for learning. He would make sure to explain every step when fixing items around the house. He mandated our attendance when he worked on the car or boat, “So you know how to do it!” He always exclaimed when we issued complains.

As I grew older, all three of us developed a passion for figuring things out. This passion often end us up in trouble. I vividly remember, taking apart the lawn mower with my little brother one day because it wasn’t working. We thought we found the problem and put it back together. Then realized we hadn’t used all of the parts. When dad got home, we heard about the need for patience and value of questions. Surprisingly dad, took the time with us to make sure the lawnmower was fixed correctly. Not that we enjoyed the time taking it back apart, going to the store to get a schematic diagram to know where all the parts really belonged. Eventually dad even taught me to fly an airplane, since his grandfather taught him, when he was a teenager.

Unfortunately, my parents pasted away due to a tragic plan accident when I was 17 years old. Lucky for me, I was old enough to remember their teaching and modeling of learning. I remember my mother belong to a literary guild, attending monthly meetings and writing research papers. My father constantly learning new procedures for his medical practice. Turn the VCR on in our house growing up it was either a historic documentary or a medical training film.

My parents placed kindling on my educational career. After their passing, It took a few sparks to light the fire. First it was my grandmother. Seeing that I was not self-motivated. She force me to take an aptitude test. The results of which said I should go into a helping profession. Naturally, I resisted, like any teenager lost in life would do. In college, I ventured into classes that were easy, fun or I found interesting. I fell into a communications major with emphasis in video production. I graduated with not prospects of a job. I floundered around in sales and customer service positions. Finding no passion or satisfaction. About ten years after the aptitude testing, my grandmother brought it up again. This time the kindling started to glow.

As I returned to college, tackling another major, I felt the passion winds begin to blow. School this time had meaning. I did not care about fun, socializing or frat parties. I want to learn and fast. Each class my passion for becoming an educator grew. I remembered how my parents fostered my learning. I began to recall, how they also helped everyone around them learn. Mom would help anyone, at church, at home or at school. Dad stopped to answer every patients questions (party of why he was not home often).  I felt pleasure and joy in help others learn. Sure felt better than selling a person an item or fielding a complaint.

I teach to honor my parents. To share our collective love of learning with others. Teaching is about creating passionate learners. It is about help others find their passion. Making students become the teachers. Creating meaningful relationships between teacher, student and knowledge. I teach to pass along my love of learning and spark others fires.

What is the goal of testing and data?

Data is a key component in education. Schools need to know where students are in their learning so instruction can be designed to meet students learning needs. Schools have always used data. We use data to help determine grades, know reading levels, math levels etc. Recently the government (State and Federal) has arbitrarily decided that the data schools have been collecting should be used to measure the effectiveness of teachers. The test design corporations, such as Pearson, create tests with little teacher input, to sell to states for the purpose of measuring students against a “standard”.  If students don’t achieve the standard, teachers can be deemed ineffective and eventually lead to the loss of their teaching position if low scores persist. Government has mandated this value add measure, with the desire to hold teachers accountable for their student’s learning. All the while placing little to no accountability on the student or parents for learning achievement.

So what is this data really? Is it a summary of everything a student has learned? Does it measure higher level thinking? Quite frequently the data is just a mere snapshot, of where a student is performing at a certain spot in time. Is it right to assume that a picture of a 75 degree sunny day is the norm for a Michigan Winter? No, but it happens. As well as a 30 degree snowy day in April. Like weather student performance can vary from day-to-day. Different events occur in their lives. Sleep and regularity of meals are major factors in student performance. Instead of looking at student day-to-day “Weather” data, schools should take a “climate” approach at looking at data. Look at performance over the long haul. Examine many different data point to see growth, over extended periods of time. Data should not only come from national standardize testing corporations but from locally created common tests as well. This does make it difficult to attribute the results to an individual teacher (current goal of testing) but shouldn’t the results belong to the individual student?

Students ultimately need to be held accountable for their own learning. There are many other ways to evaluate the quality of teaching. Learning is owned by the student. Schools goals are to make life-long learners who have critical thinking skills. These qualities develop at different rates in all learners. Just like all infants learn to walk and talk at different times in their life. To help hold the students more accountable, schools might want to change their structure. Instead of grouping students by age,  schools could group their by their skills and abilities or by their areas of interests or by learning styles.

The goal of testing and the resulting data, needs to remain student learning. Schools need to focus on holding students accountable for their own learning. Without being held accountable student frequently blame others for their results. I hear it often in my classroom, when discussion grades with students. “The teacher gave me a C!” We need to mold the conversation around students earning their scores. Right now, students see no relevance for most standardized tests. These test have little merit towards students’ grades or graduation. Colleges only focus on the FINAL standardized test of the student’s career, ACT or SAT for admittance.

If districts/states are going to mandate so many standardized test for our students, lets remember one thing: Make them focus on student achievement and their individual growth, not the effectiveness of teachers. Testing does not measure teachers, observations of practice and actions does. If teachers, performance is measured on tests we will end up with more cheating scandals like Atlanta!! More questions will arise about cheating in schools than we have had about cheating in baseball during the steroids area!

#MSchat 4-18-13 #CCSS

Tonight we had a lively discussion about the Common Core State Standards. We started off talking about the limited amount of training many teachers have had for the change. I lead to a great debate about teaching reading and writing across the curriculum. Very informative discussion. Below is the link to the archive.


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