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Mar 25 14

What Am I Missing Here?

by Alfonso Gonzalez

HELPI need a fresh perspective on something I’ve been struggling with this school year. My reason for gamifying my courses was to motivate and engage more of my students whether they are gamers or not. Last week I reiterated something in blog post that I’ve learned in over 22 years of teaching, that no ONE thing will work for ALL learners.

Knowing that no one thing works for all learners I’ve done what I always do by offering my students choice in how they learn, the content we are studying is presented in different ways, and how they show learning. Admittedly, my courses are high tech but I’ve slowly let loose of requiring the use of technology for everything and truly offered my students more choices. This school year I was so excited to structure my course using a ROLE (Results Only Learning Environment) where students are given autonomy and chances to show and attain mastery as well as choice – the three things Dan Pink wrote that motivate people. I was also very excited as I prepared my courses using 3D GameLab, which fully gamifies my course with personalized feedback for each student, for each assignment, experience points built in, and badges for successfully completing certain assignments to show learning of different science concepts.

With my three 6th grade classes things are going as expected. Not all learners are showing success in the same ways. Some students struggle with using their class time to complete tasks but many are doing well with being able to work at their own pace.

My two 8th grade classes have more students who are struggling with getting work done. I’m not sure what more I can do. I have students who are doing well in other classes but have convinced themselves that they can’t learn science in my class. Here are the things they’ve complained about and/or used as excuses to “tune out” as one parent told me:
-too much technology
-not enough structure
-videos are too difficult

All of the upcoming sentences start with I. I realize that. I am focusing on what I have control over and those are the things that I can do as the adult in the classroom, as the educator, as the professional to help make my classes a great learning environment for all my students:
-I’ve tried using inquiry to get 8th graders motivated about the topics we are studying. I start with questions, especially when they don’t come up with any of their own.
-I start each class period excitedly sharing what they should be working on (to help those who need more structure).
-I’ve taught them how to do the activities they are being asked to do.
-I’ve videotaped some of the lessons I’ve taught using different tech tools so kids can watch it if they forget or didn’t get what I taught.
-I use different scaffolds such as providing alternate resources or modifying “difficult” assignments so that the learning is available to ALL.
-I communicate with parents who reach out to me as quickly as I can to help them understand what we’re doing in Science.
-I send out weekly updates to what is going on in Science and I have a daily work/homework webpage.

What am I missing? What else should I be doing to engage more of my 8th graders? I’d love to engage them all, all the time, but that only happens once in a while. For example, when we played World of Warcraft every single 8th grader was totally engaged and questing with the group and even helping each other and working together. Certain labs we do get everyone excited, or almost everyone, and engaged. In June when we do dissections that typically engages almost all 8th graders. So right now I just want to motivate and engage MORE of my 8th graders.

We are approaching the midterm of the final semester of the year, April 10, right after Spring Break, and only three of my 49 8th graders have enough experience points to meet with winning conditions of our gamified classroom. See, in a game to be successful you need to complete certain task and beat or defeat foes or get a certain amount of experience points. We have been using experience points to determine the winning condition of the class and very few have met them. In order to get experience points students have to successfully complete assignments (quests). So if students aren’t getting enough experience points, then they aren’t completing enough quests. And the thing of it is that there are WAY more quests than are necessary to reach the minimum experience points. That means that there are multiple pathways to success (giving students choices of how they learn the topics). And for those who struggle with that choice I do start class by pointing out which assignments/quests they should be working on each day to keep up.

Sure, they’d rather be socializing. It’s middle school. I get that. But they still need to learn certain things and be productive. Whether they choose to do work at home, on their own time, or not they still need to produce things to show me what they are learning. I even give tests sometimes to help them provide me with evidence of learning.

I feel as though I lost many of my 8th graders early on in the school year because I asked them to create tech products. I have them use 3D GameLab, a class blog, a class discussion forum, and the first project of the year was to make a biome commercial video. That caused a lot frustration for many of my 8th graders and it’s been uphill since then.

Any ideas of what else I could be or should be doing? Help!

Mar 24 14

My #NCCE2014 Takeaways #csd49

by Alfonso Gonzalez

I put together this Prezi with my thoughts and takeaways from this year’s NCCE Conference. I will be sharing this with my District Tech team as we work to make a new district tech plan. The conference was a great experience full of great learning and great people.

Here’s a link in case the embed doesn’t show up.

Mar 17 14

One Size Does NOT Fit All

by Alfonso Gonzalez

One SIze?I have to keep reminding myself that one size, of anything, does not fit all. I have to remind myself of this when not all my students come to me loving Science. When not all my students want to make a video to show what they are learning. When not all my students want to learn Prezi. When not all my students learn well working independently. When not all my students are motivated by having choice. Get the idea?

But I also have to remind myself of this when I’m sitting in a keynote and something is presented as the next best things. We all say that there are no silver bullets that will solve all problems that arise in the classroom but when we present great things that are happening I see that often ideas are presented as being good for everyone. It kind of comes across as being so good that we should all do it. NOW! Very few things work for 100% of all students in all my classes.

Hearing that something is so good that I have to do it NOW (or my impression of it) makes me nervous because then I feel like I HAVE TO DO THAT in my classes right away!! I start to think furiously about what I need to give up or move around to make way for the next best thing. At one of the keynotes from this year’s NCCE conference and at the exhibit floor and during one of the events the whole Maker Movement, DIY, idea was being shared and presented. I have to admit, I’m much more comfortable creating things on a computer than I am with physical tools. Honestly, I would rather pay a professional to fix things in my house than fiddling around myself and possibly messing it up. It’s not something I enjoy. So when I have students make things I provide emotional support more than helpful support because I’m truly a side-by-side learner with them when it comes to making things with my hands.

As with anything though I have learned that even something as cool as making things by hands isn’t motivating or easy for everyone. In a ROLE classroom, where kids are given ch0ice as to how they show learning or even how they learn, isn’t it okay for some to choose to do only things they are comfortable at or good at? I do encourage my students to do things that aren’t easy for them or that take them out of their comfort zone. I don’t want to force them though. That is 0ne of the balancing acts teachers have to do, encourage kids to do things they don’t want to do without forcing them (even though sometimes I’m sure kids will see it as forcing them).

So I’m going to give myself the okay to not stress over having my kids make things that I haven’t already included in this year’s plan of activities. I’m not going to say we won’t be making things, I’m just going to give myself time to think about what fits with what we’re learning. Besides, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) include engineering so we’ll be incorporating more and more building and making as we re-think our existing curricula.

Mar 15 14

#NCCE2014 and #csd49

by Alfonso Gonzalez

I haven’t been to a conference in a while. I haven’t entirely isolated as I have able to attend trainings outside my school with the North Cascades and Olympic Science Partnership (NCOSP) and the Olympic Math and Science Partnership (OMSP) and West Sound GreenSTEMs and Washington STEM as well as working with my Science PLC, but I haven’t been to a conference with people from all over the world, or at least US, in 12 years. The last time I attended a conference like that was the 2002 NCCE conference. I’ve been on Twitter for almost five years now and have “met” and interacted with hundreds of great educators of all types from superintendents to teachers and librarians and yet in all that time I’ve only met one of my PLN tweeps face to face, Tyler Rice – @MrTRice_Science, at a Washington STEM event! (Which was cool btw.) I read tweets of people meeting face to face at events and I’ve been hoping to meet more some day and this week I got my chance to meet a few more tweeps!

Our superintendent, @Rich_Stewart1, sent our district tech committee to this years NCCE Conference in Seattle! My second one! We used a hashtag to keep our thoughts altogether, #csd49, because that’s our school district, Chimacum School District #49.

At the conference I had the pleasure of finally meeting Eric Sheninger, @NMHS_Principal, face to face after his keynote and we even got to sit together at a Minecraft session, and I got to see Gary Stager’s keynote, @garystager, but I didn’t get to meet him. I did meet or attend workshops and sessions with some incredible people and have added them to my PLN but I never got to meet or attend sessions of a few people I wanted to meet from that I’ve followed for sometimes years, I saw Janet Avery, @averyteach, tweeting but I never ran into her, and I missed all the sessions by Jeff Utecht, @jutecht, Jeremy Macdonald, @MrMacnology, and Sylvia LibowMartinez @smartinez! I never even saw them! Maybe someday I’ll run into them and get to say hi and shake hands. I am excited with all the people I met and all the people who led the sessions and workshops I attended! They made this conference absolutely a great experience for me. :) Here are some that I tweeted with, learned from (either directly or indirectly): @brownron, @agcsschool, @crewsertech, @mikegusto, @HollyClarkEdu, @EHS_Cochran, @brookster29, @mrdeniston, @mrsnyderman73, @techsavvyteach, @kentbrooks, @caddiscaster, @TEACHheartSOUL, @DaveGuymon. Yeah, I got their Twitter handles easily because they were all over the #NCCE2014 hashtag! There were more so who did I forget?

As I process through all the stuff I learned I hope to write more but in the meantime I’m going to share our tech team’s tweets and retweets with this Storify. So much to learn, so little time.

Mar 11 14

I’m going to #NCCE2014 !

by Alfonso Gonzalez

I haven’t been to a conference in sooooo looong. And tomorrow I get to go to the NCCE 2014 Conference in Seattle! Just two hours away, and a ferry ride, from where I live and I’ll be there! Tomorrow morning! I’m so excited!

Our new Superintendent, @Rich_Stewart1 , is sending our District Tech Committee to learn all that we can as we plan our district’s tech future and write our new tech plan. Eric Sheninger and Gary Stager are giving the Keynotes! People I’ve been following on Twitter for years and I have a chance at meeting them face-to-face! I’ve only ever met one Tweep face-to-face since I started tweeting years ago! This is so exciting!

So if you’re going tomorrow maybe I’ll see you there!! :)

Mar 11 14

The Tao of Blogging

by Alfonso Gonzalez

Oh I fall into the trap. I spend every morning and every evening checking my Feedly RSS feeds and reading many awesome blogs. Lately I’ve been reading a few who apologize for not having blogged in a while and I start to feel it. Holy cow! I haven’t blogged in a while! I need to write a blog post!

But you know what? If I have nothing to say, or more accurately, if all I’m going through hasn’t coalesced into words then I don’t push it. It isn’t going to work anyway.

I call that the Tao of Blogging. I write a post when it’s time. Not before and not after. So when I feel that I need to blog or should write another blog I have to stop and ask myself, “is it because it’s time or is it because of some external pressure?” If it’s because of some external pressure then I’m working on being okay not forcing myself to write a new post.

If it’s because it’s time, then the blog post flows freely. Sometimes a post flows freely then I stop and have to finish it later. That tends to feel more productive. Sometimes I have a few posts come out and then I do that cool things of scheduling them to come out in a few days! That’s so hard to do because I want to publish them all now.

But when it’s not time to publish, I have to stop sweating it. It’ll come when it’s time and when I’m ready. :)

Feb 10 14

Are Students Learning?

by Alfonso Gonzalez

In our last round of training on our new WA State evaluation system, Teacher/Principal Evaluation Project (TPEP), many of our small group discussions came back to the question of student learning (as it should!). I became fixated on one particular core idea from the CEL 1 Foundational Ideas Applied to Instructional Frameworks that read: “If students are not learning, they are not being afforded powerful learning opportunities.

Now I’m not shirking my responsibility as the adult in my classroom and as the professional educator/teacher but I have observed many an occasion where the above statement is just not true. Are we saying that students will never willingly choose to ignore or disengage with powerful learning opportunities?

You can argue that A. I’m not affording my students powerful learning opportunities and that’s why they aren’t learning, or B. the learning opportunities I’m affording my students are not powerful and that’s why they aren’t learning. But what if the learning opportunities in my classroom are being afforded to ALL my students? And what if I have evidence, from reading and learning from educators all over the world, that the learning opportunities I’m affording ALL my students are indeed powerful? If I am truly affording ALL my students powerful learning opportunities AND some of them still aren’t learning, what else could be the reason?

Could it be that some students just aren’t interested in Science?
Could it be that some students are MORE interested in socializing and goofing around sometimes?
Could it be that some students are getting some kind of reinforcement or attention for NOT engaging or learning?
Could it be that some students just don’t care about grades, marks, rewards, or passing tests but they still are learning?
Could it be that some students don’t know they are learning even when they learn something new?
Could it be that some students don’t test well?
Could it be that some students learn at a different pace and they need a little, or a lot, more time?
Could it be that some students have other interests that are taking up most of their motivation to learn or most of their time?
Could it be that some students don’t value education or school?
Could it be a combination of the above or something else that I didn’t think of?

The statement, “If students are not learning, they are not being afforded powerful learning opportunities,” that my evaluation as a teacher/educator is based on seems limited and assumes too much. The statement assumes that the only reason students in my classes aren’t learning is because I am NOT affording them powerful learning opportunities.

In our training we also came across this core idea from the CEL 1 Foundational Ideas Applied to Instructional Frameworks: “Student role in their own learning: agency and ownership,” where agency is defined as, “Students developing a learning mindset, which includes identifying strategies and habits that make their own learning effective. Students understanding that they can have an effect on their own learning.

That makes me think that if we want our children to take more and more responsibility, agency, and ownership for their own learning then maybe we shouldn’t say that if they aren’t learning then they aren’t being afforded powerful learning opportunities. Maybe we should say that they need to be able to explain why they aren’t learning. If the reason is that the learning opportunities being afforded them are NOT powerful, then that’s something I can fix. If, on the other hand, we find that the reason they aren’t learning is because of some reason out of MY, the educator/teacher’s, control but fully in their, the student’s, control then they will be empowered to fix it (or not) as they see fit. And if that means reaching out for help, then we as a educators can better provide them help without having to do so much guesswork.

At what age can a child start to have such agency and ownership over his or her own learning? And will that happen earlier and earlier if children are taught and given opportunities to have agency and ownership over their own learning?


1. The CEL Framework is, “An evaluation system that truly builds the capacity of our teachers will lead to better practice, which ultimately will result in greater learning for all students. Stephen Fink, Executive Director” CEL refers to University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership.

Feb 9 14

Inquiry in Science

by Alfonso Gonzalez

In response to my questions on the Inquiry Dry Spell post I wrote Edna (@whatedsaid) posed some questions to get me thinking about inquiry in my Science classes. She wrote the following on her post, Response to the dry spell…

Inquiry encourages students to be actively involved in and to take responsibility for their own learning. Inquiry learning allows each student’s understanding of the world to develop in a manner and at a rate  unique to that student. The starting point is students’ current understanding, and the goal is the active construction of meaning through:

  • exploring, wondering and questioning

  • experimenting and playing with possibilities

  • making connections between previous learning and current learning

  • making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens

  • collecting data and reporting findings

  • clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events

  • deepening understanding through the application of a concept

  • making and testing theories

  • researching and seeking information

  • taking and defending a position

  • solving problems in a variety of ways.    (Making the PYP Happen)

Here are some questions Edna posted to help me think this through (my responses are included):

1. Do you think the learning in your science classes includes some of the elements mentioned above?

Yes, we definitely have some of the elements list above. Students are encouraged to explore, wonder and question but as that is left up to them it happens sporadically as different students get excited with different topics (which makes sense). We do experiments and students collect data and write conclusions based on their data and their hypotheses (which is exactly making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens). Conducting an experiment also involves applying concepts especially when doing a follow-up experiment if results don’t come out as expected. When learning new concepts students get to research and seek information, which includes asking their questions. A lot of the questions we investigate and research are posed by me regarding the topics we are studying. I task students with asking their own follow up questions and seek answers to those questions that naturally arise. I also teach students that research includes reading through the results of a search leading to either better or different questions as you learn more about the topic/concepts. Some concepts we study connect together so previous learning connects to future learning.

2. Have you considered beginning a new unit with a hook or provocation to stimulate curiosity, rather than introducing the topic yourself?

I think I do that, if I understand the question correctly. Using the 3D GameLab each assignment/task/activity/quest starts with some kind of a hook usually in the form of a question. Since all my students have the choice as to which quest to work on at any given time that hook has to be good enough to get them to start the quest instead of skipping it or saving it for later. If it’s an activity or project that I want everyone to work on at a given point in time I introduce it either with a question or by “selling” it and making it look really cool. For example, when I introduced the classification project to students I posed the questions, “why do scientists classify living things?” “How do scientists classify living things?” “How would you classify living things?” Then instead of figuring out how scientists classify living things students tried it themselves and then had to compare their classification schemes with the ways biologists do it. They found out that some of the ways they classified living things was very similar to how biologists did it!

So I’m not sure if that’s what you meant because I still introduce the topic even though I do try to start with a question or provocation.

3. Are you willing to shift from ‘delivering curriculum’ and, rather than covering, provide opportunities for discovering and uncovering by the learners?

That’s how my class runs, I don’t often deliver curriculum. I put the learning in the hands of my students. I’ve been using Mark Barnes’s Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE) methods to provide my students with autonomy, choice, and with multiple opportunities to master concepts before moving on. What I need to do better is provide more scaffolding for the students who aren’t used to this. I’ve had students leave me feedback on surveys that they are lost without direct instruction and without me telling them what to do.

4. Can you think of ways you might use the model below? (Or rather, ways the learners might use it…)
The Scientific Inquiry Cycle

We follow this cycle often in Science, especially when we do labs/experiments. I use Inquiry Boards to scaffold and help my students develop an inquiry cycle for conducting experiments. It’s not the only method but it’s a helpful one for providing some structure. By 8th grade our students are expected to develop and design their own experiments to questions or problems without the use of the Inquiry Boards. By 8th grade I also have my students write their conclusions using the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) method.

I guess I am providing my students with opportunities to inquire, explore and wonder. It just seems like it should be happening in my classes more often. I get few students who ask questions and fewer still who actually seek answers to their questions. Often I am the one looking up answers to questions they come up with so at least I’m modeling what I want them to do. Maybe what I need to do is a better job of encouraging questioning and seeking answers. Maybe my assignments are to closed and not open-ended enough or don’t leave much room for students own questions. I’ll have to work on that. I find that if I don’t ask the questions then they don’t get answered so I will need to find a balance.

Thanks, Edna! :)

Your questions really helped. I hope I have given you some insights into how inquiry works in a Science class.

Feb 9 14

Adding Inquiry

by Alfonso Gonzalez

I use Carolina’s STC/MS Energy, Machines, and Motion kit (EMM) with my 6th graders. The lessons in this kit are well structured to take advantage of how people learn by making sure every lesson starts by eliciting prior knowledge of students with questions that students investigate through different labs. The procedures are laid out, step by step, in the lesson for each lab. Then each lab ends with reflection questions for students to ponder and help them figure out what they learned. Eliciting prior knowledge and reflecting on what you’ve learned is especially helpful in Science because in order to become scientifically literate you need to challenge your misconceptions with true science concepts until your misconceptions are replaced with the truth.

While following a step-by-step procedure is helpful for learning specific concepts it is also necessary to let the students design their own investigations and experiment including writing their own step-by-step instructions.

We started an inquiry on the Force of a Motor (Lesson 7 for those familiar with the kit) with the question, “How strong is your motor?” I showed the motors we would be using, pictured below.

Electric Motor

How strong is this motor?

Then I showed them the materials we would be using and I said that to be able to compare results all teams would have access to the same materials. Based on the materials shown below (not including string, a large paper clip to be used as a hook, large washers for the motor to lift, and rechargeable D-cell batteries) students brainstormed different ways they could arrange the peg board with all the materials to get the motors to lift as many washers as they can.

Peg Board Assembly

Peg Board Assembly

With 6th graders I use Inquiry Boards to help them plan the whole experiment for the lesson (Lesson 7, The Force of a Motor). That is a perfect lesson to let the students design their own investigations. When it comes time to think up different variables we could change to affect a change on the amount of washers the motor can lift each class came up with six or seven different things we could try whereas in the book they only used three (and frankly, two of the three in the book I had to share with students because they don’t usually come up with those on their own). So right from the start we get to try out different ways of arranging the equipment to see if it helps the motor lift more washers. Each table group then picked one of the variables to use as their one manipulated variable so that by the end of one or two rounds of experimenting each table presents which of their manipulated variable was the best one. With six different tables running different experiments we end up finding six different ways to optimize the lifting capacity of the motor!

So event though this EMM kit is really good at using inquiry to help students learn about energy, machines, and motion, putting the book away for one or more labs and letting students design the investigation from start to finish, with the help and guidance of the teacher and Inquiry Boards, adds another layer by having students wrestle with different ways to answer questions scientifically. It’s also great practice writing steps in a way that makes sense and can be followed by any reader.

Here’s a quick video I shot of one of my 6th grade classes testing their hypotheses out to see how many washers they can get their motors to lift depending on what their manipulated variable was:

Feb 7 14

Test Remediation

by Alfonso Gonzalez

I have question about standardized test remediation courses. I know the answer to my question but I still have a strong, almost masochistic, desire to ask it. So let me start with the answer to my question.

“You’re right, Al, and I agree with everything you say but (yes, I, Al, know there is a but – come on, you saw this coming) the REALITY is that WE HAVE TO PREPARE our students to pass (enter your number here) standardized or end of course exams in high school in order to graduate. They can have straight A’s, be in sports, participate in every club and after school activity ever imagined, have a part-time job, do community service, present an incredible senior project, have actual experience doing things that could land them a job right now, maybe even start their own company right now, BUT if they do NOT pass even one of those high school  standardized or end of course tests they WILL NOT GRADUATE.”

Did I get the answer right? And if that answer is correct do we see what’s wrong with it?!? How can WE FIX THAT????

So here’s my question:

If our goal as a middle school is to help our students become independent life-long learners who will have a growth mindset and value working hard to learn does it make sense to take away a class they enjoy to give them more of a class in which they struggle?

Shouldn’t the purpose of the remediation be to have students work on activities that will lead to a love of the subject by using high interest, relevant, rewarding tasks will that make the class more appealing, and thereby increase learning in that subject? Or should the goal of the class be to teach kids how to prepare for or pass a test? I mean, one test?? And if the goal is or should be to lead to a love of the subject by using high interest, relevant, rewarding tasks do you even need another, remediation class for that? Shouldn’t’ the original class offer that? (That’s a different subject altogether because what if the original class doesn’t offer that because the focus, or even part of the focus, is on preparing kids for a one-day-a-year test?!?)

Let’s put that one test into perspective:

Our 7th and 8th graders take three standardized tests each year, spending approximately 9 to 12 hours bubbling in some multiple choice questions and writing some short answers to questions that may or may not have anything to do with what we teach here all year long.
By contrast a student who comes to school on time every day of the school year will spend 1,080 hours engaging in activities that are more involved than just answering multiple choice and short answer questions. Out of those 1,080 hours, 720 of them are spent in core classes. That leaves 360 hours a school year to develop their love of music and art, to learn about health and to stay or get fit or learn other skills not learned in core classes (meaning language arts and social studies or humanities, math and science).

If a student is struggling in a core class for 180 hours a year does it make sense to add another 90 or 45 hours to help them pass a test? Is that going to revitalize their love of that subject or galvanize their desire to work harder at learning that subject? By putting them in a remediation course their time to develop their love of music or art, learn about health, stay or get fit, and learn other skills will decrease to anywhere from 315 to 270 hours a year from the original 360 hours.

Does nine hours of testing (really three to four hours because that is how long they typically spend on one subject area) warrant 45 to 90 additional hours of test prep? Or, as research (Google Dr. Jo Boaler) shows, is it better to prepare kids to pass the test by engaging them in learning instead of teaching them how to take a test?

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