Practice Makes Perfect: Pedagogical ramblings from your Science Curriculum Specialist

  • Emulating Scientists in the Science Classroom

    Posted by Dan Yablonsky on 3/11/2019

    Recently I attended the Illinois Life Science Institute, hosted by the Brookfield Zoo.  This was a conference for K-12 science teachers intended to help participants reflect on teaching practices aligned with the NGSS and explore strategies for bringing them to life in their own classrooms.  As is typical of such conferences, the day kicked off with a keynote speech.

    This, however, was not your ordinary teacher-conference keynote.  The speaker was not a teacher or an administrator; he was not a renowned educational consultant; nor was he a denizen of academia itching to share the latest research on how students learn.  As far as I could tell, he had no formal credentials in the realm of K-12 education. No, our keynote speaker was, in fact, the Curator of Birds for the Brookfield Zoo, and he was there to talk to us about...penguins.

    Now I must confess that, as a wannabe ornithologist myself, I could gladly listen to what the Curator of Birds has to say regardless of whether or not it has any connection to the classroom.  Indeed, I found his discussion of the the zoo’s efforts to conserve the Humboldt penguin to be quite interesting (who knew harvesting guano was a big enough industry to threaten an entire species?).  At the same time, part of me couldn’t help but wonder if dedicating an hour to the ins and outs of penguin conservation was really the most impactful use of time from a teacher perspective. Surely there were matters of three-dimensional assessment and instructional coherence that were far more pressing to the majority of the audience—right?

    It wasn’t until the second presentation immediately following the keynote—about storylining—that I began to appreciate the value of this insider’s look at the protocols of wildlife conservation.  Members of the ISTA Storylining Working Group had constructed an entire unit of study predicated on penguin conservation.  While seemingly a very narrow topic, their Penguin Storyline is a means to an end that facilitates the application of a host of scientific practices and disciplinary core ideas.  The storyline is merely the context that gives meaning to the learning, and this meaning is derived from the fact that students are ultimately doing what scientists do.

    Penguin Storyline

    As students navigate the storyline, they map the distributions of penguin populations, analyze DNA fingerprints, evaluate pertinent human impacts on the environment, and perform many other practices germane to science.  Ultimately, students are asked to create a “species survival plan” and use data to justify decisions for a captive breeding program that will help preserve the Humboldt penguin population for future generations. In short, students are asked to do the same sorts of science that real scientists do in the field and in the lab.

    In that light, the day’s keynote took on a whole new significance—as an authentic model for the types of experiences teachers should be orchestrating for their students according to the NGSS.  While it lacked the jargon and other trappings typically associated with pedagogical presentations, the relevance of the keynote was made stark in the context of the storyline built to emulate the work it highlighted.  I could readily see how everything students were being asked to do over the course of the unit would translate to an authentic setting. Even for students not inclined to become professional scientists later in life, they’d still be left with an engaging premise to motivate their participation beyond what any decontextualized sequence of study typically would.

    While this was not my first experience with the concept of storylining or phenomenon-driven instruction, as is often the case, a firsthand examination of an authentic model for the process brought storylining to life in a way that is difficult to do by simply reading or hearing about it.  It also served as a reminder that we as science teachers have a powerful resource in the form of practicing scientists that goes untapped far more frequently than it should. The next time you’re wondering how to design more coherent units of study that will motivate students to meaningfully engage with science practices and content, consider looking to actual scientists for inspiration. At the very least, scientists can provide us with a fresh perspective from which to view the important work we as teachers do every day.

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  • A Reflection on My First ISTA Conference

    Posted by Dan Yablonsky on 10/26/2018

    I must confess that during my career as a classroom teacher my forays into the realm of professional conferences were rather few and far between.  Teaching had always afforded me more than enough to do on weekends without making a pilgrimage to hear other science teachers talk about teaching science.

    As I’ve come to better appreciate the nuances of the Next Generation Science Standards, however, I’ve felt more compelled to seek out other practitioners to better understand how they’re bringing those next gen science experiences to life for their students.  This led me to my first ISTA conference this past weekend, my reflection on which serves as the basis for this particular blog post.

    One of the speakers pointed out on day one that there is something to be said for being surrounded by “your people”, whether “your people” be science teachers, math teachers, or otherwise.  Obviously there are a slew of best practices that are applicable across disciplines, and learning about them is important in their own right, however there is something uniquely satisfying about engaging with science teachers about science issues.  Listening to peers grapple with some of the same disciplinary dilemmas you’ve dealt with elicits a feeling of kinship you don’t necessarily get to experience in your daily practice, particularly if the bulk of your collaborative time is spent as part of an interdisciplinary team, as is usually the case in middle school.

    Whether it be sharing modeling protocols, sequencing thoughtful instructional storylines, or designing three-dimensional assessment, it was cool to hear teachers who teach disparate grade levels in disparate communities converse in a common language about common values and our shared journey to hone our craft.  It was at once humbling to know how much I have yet to learn and reassuring to know there is an extensive support network of fellow science educators eager to support each other along the way.

    As I’ve grown into my current role, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that there is a real sense of pride among the science teaching community in the quality of our standards and the philosophical shifts they embody.  Groups like Achieve have published an abundance of tools to help science teachers create and identify high quality instructional pieces, and the number of online resources that align with those goals continues to grow with each passing year.  As these resources and support networks become increasingly robust, so too will the expectations and learning experiences for our students—students who will all to soon be the (hopefully) scientifically literate stewards of our society and our planet.

    If you haven’t recently had the first-hand experience of being a part of this process, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to take advantage of the next science conference that comes across your inbox.  If you find it’s not all it’s cracked upped to be, that’s fair enough, but you may very well find that you’ve been missing out on an exciting movement that can lend an additional dose of invigoration to your own instructional practice—invigoration that can trickle down to your students and their own perceptions and attitudes toward science.  I’m certainly glad I made the effort myself, and I look forward to taking advantage of similar opportunities in the future.

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  • Applying a Modeling Mindset Across Content Areas

    Posted by Daniel Yablonsky on 4/24/2018

    When it comes to having students construct models in school, it’s natural to envision scale reconstructions of some unwieldy, more profound structure—perhaps the solar system, a famous landmark, or even the cell.  While these certainly qualify as models in the traditional sense, the concept of modeling extends well beyond that incarnation. Indeed, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) identify modeling as one of the foundational Science & Engineering Practices to be embedded throughout scientific units of study.  So what exactly is a scientific model, and need we really restrict ourselves to applying the requisite skills for creating them to the science classroom?

    At its heart, a scientific model is an evidence-based explanation for how or why a phenomenon occurs.  What causes lightning? Why do offspring tend to resemble their parents? How do leaves change color with the seasons?  Behind each of these highly visible phenomena lies a less obvious mechanism that explains how they operate. There is some array of components, related to each other by physical orientation or temporal sequencing (or both), that must be deduced in order to fully understand the event in question.  Modeling is the essence of organizing evidence and generating hypotheses to reveal this underlying mechanism.

    Evidence, either in the form of background knowledge, research, or hands-on experimentation, provides the foundation that supports a student’s proposed model.  Hypothesis generation provides avenues for confirming that future events conform with the model. This dynamic reflects the flexible nature of models and the modeling process—models change as additional evidence is discovered and hypotheses fail.  This process of continual revision and refinement in the pursuit of knowledge is the foundation of scientific practice, so it’s no surprise that it should find a prominent place within NGSS.

    As I’ve reflected on the nuts and bolts of modeling, however, it occurred to me that this same skill set finds itself at home in other content areas as well.  Take social studies for instance, where students are asked to contemplate the complex causes of major historical events like wars or social and economic calamities.  How easily could students be asked to apply their ostensibly scientific modeling practices to propose explanations for such events? Let’s take the U.S. Civil War as an example.

    If students are expected to be able to explain a mechanism, or model, for what precipitated the U.S. Civil War, they must be prepared to gather and interpret evidence in support of their explanation.  A student could postulate whatever mechanism they choose, realistic or otherwise, but it won’t pass muster without the evidence to support it. Want to invoke economic factors? Then refer to historical documents that support this claim.  What about slavery, perhaps? The same burden of proof applies. Maybe there’s a more avant garde proposal that defies conventional wisdom—that’s fine, so long as you can rally the evidence for it. Debating different models is part and parcel of scientific practice, just as it is in social studies.  In both cases, the final arbiter should be the strength of the evidence provided in support of each model.

    Similarly, just as scientific models can be used to generate testable hypotheses, so can models for the causes of social, political, and economic events, though perhaps not quite so concretely.  While we may not be able to conduct a controlled lab experiment on a society (at least not ethically!), there is an abundance of case studies over the course of thousands of years of civilization that allows us to examine precursors and outcomes for parallel situations.  The U.S. Civil War is hardly the only civil war in human history. By examining the circumstances surrounding the civil wars of other countries at other points in time, we can deduce trends and commonalities that can lend credence to our model for the onset of the U.S. Civil War.  One could even go so far as to look for the relevant circumstances around the globe today in an attempt to anticipate where the next civil war is likely to occur. As with science proper, the ultimate test of sociological and political theory lies in their ability to reliably predict future events.

    With that said, now might be a good time to take a step back and keep things in perspective.  Hard science has some luxuries that social science is rarely afforded, such as more robust experimental control and quantifiability, as well as ease of replicability.  Even so, the skills involved in developing models in science and social studies are strikingly similar, and it would behoove us as teachers to reinforce those skills across content areas in order to make them the modus operandi for how citizens interpret and explain reality.  The alternative is a world where “reality” is defined by the most vehement, assuaging, or perhaps merely the loudest voices, which doesn’t necessarily promote understanding or meaningful progress as a society.

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  • Turn Your Students into Citizen Scientists

    Posted by Dan Yablonsky on 3/15/2018

    While the crux of a rigorous science curriculum involves having students generate and investigate their own authentic questions, there is also something to be said for collaborating with actual scientists to support ongoing research, and the citizen science model is intended to allow students to do just that.  By leveraging the collective power of legions of volunteers, including students, scientists are able to interpret and analyze data much more efficiently than they could ever hope to if left to their own devices.  Citizen science can also leverage the wisdom of the crowd to more accurately estimate measurement error and gain a sense of precision that would be otherwise impossible.

    With the help of the World Wide Web, students today can participate in research intended to do everything from preserve endangered species and understand climate change to explore the farthest reaches of space.  A significant amount of research necessitates sifting through vast quantities of data to make observations, comparisons, and classifications, and while computers and machine learning have made great strides toward that end, the acuity of human perception is still the gold standard for now.  By assisting with tasks such as these, students can partake in the scientific process and enjoy in the experience of discovery in a way that benefits the scientific community at large. A more in depth survey of the goals and benefits of citizen science is offered by the Citizen Science Alliance.

    A few examples of citizen science projects in which students can participate are included below:

    Snapshot Ruaha

    “Help us mitigate human-wildlife conflict by classifying photos that are used to assess communities' contributions to conservation efforts.”

    Fossil Atmospheres

    “Count cells of modern & fossil leaves. Help us track climate change over millions of years!”

    Bash the Bug

    “We need you to help us fight antibiotic resistance and tuberculosis!”

    These projects and more can be found on some of the following citizen science collections:




    Journey North

    GLOBE Observer

    Citizen Science Day 2018 is being held on April 18th.  Consider offering your students the chance to participate in the collaborative effort that is citizen science and help make a real contribution to ongoing scientific research!

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  • MAP Reports User Guide

    Posted by Daniel Yablonsky on 1/26/2018

    By user request, I've created a convenient guide to help teachers navigate some of the most actionable reports available in the NWEA MAP portal.  If you're looking for guidance on setting goals or differentiating instruction using MAP results, this is the tool for you!

    User Guide Screenshot

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  • Reassessing Reassessment Practices

    Posted by Daniel Yablonsky on 12/1/2017

    One of the hallmarks of Standards-Based Learning is reassessmentbeing able to take an assessment multiple times until mastery has been demonstrated. This is a natural corollary to SBL’s emphasis on mastery regardless of when it occurs. If the standard for the marking period is for students to be able explain what causes seasons, then it doesn’t matter how long it takes for a student to do so, as long as it is achieved by the end of the marking period. If a student has to revise their understanding multiple times and make multiple attempts until they can demonstrate mastery, so be it; the important thing is that they learned the skill that they were intended to learn.

    Allowing students to reassess certainly makes sense in the context of SBL. However, not all stakeholders may be viewing reassessment through the lens of SBL (or at least, not as the only lens), especially if it represents a broad departure from past experience. Some students may not interpret reassessment in the spirit in which it was intended, seeing it as more of a get-out-of-jail-free card rather than an opportunity to remedy misconceptions. One could be forgiven for wondering whether the benefits of expanding opportunities to demonstrate mastery might be counterbalanced by the perceived diminution of responsibility inherent with moving away from a high stakes, one-and-done assessment model to a reassessment model.

    The challenge, then, lies in implementing reassessment in such a way that accountability and responsibility can be leveraged in support of SBL’s focus on mastery. Depending on students’ understanding of SBL and their individual levels of motivation, it may be appropriate to put in place parameters that reinforce the additional effort and responsibility required to truly take advantage of the opportunity for reassessment. What follows is a list of practices that can be used to help you do just that!

    1. Require students to create and implement an action plan prior to reassessment. In order to get the most out of reassessment, students should have a clear understanding of the areas in which they were deficient and what steps they are going to take to remediate those deficiencies. Action steps may include doing additional work, coming in for extra help, or analyzing the errors on the original assessment. This holds students accountable and makes sure they are invested in the process before taking advantage of reassessment.

    2. Conference with the student. Sit down with them and ask them to explain where they went wrong, what they need help with, and what they’re going to do between now and the reassessment in order to ensure the process is worthwhile.

    3. Define a window for reassessment. If the goal of reassessment is to allow students to correct misunderstandings and demonstrate mastery, identify what a reasonable window of time would be to remediate those misunderstandings, and specify that reassessment must take place during that window of time. This reinforces the purpose of reassessment and dissuades procrastination, lest a student wait so long to reassess that concepts no longer feel timely or relevant.

    4. Limit the reassessment to only the strands that were not mastered. If an assessment addressed three standards, two of which were mastered, there’s no need to have the student retake the entire assessment. This not only saves time and energy, it also reinforces the purpose of reassessment.

    5. Reserve the right to reassess for students who have been regularly involved in the formative assessment process. If a student is chronically choosing not to take advantage of daily learning opportunities and teacher feedback, one could argue that it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to reassess (or even assess!) if they haven’t completed the prerequisite tasks for achieving mastery in the first place. All students still have the right to reassess, just with some reasonable preconditions.

    Hopefully these practices can help demonstrate how reassessment and accountability don’t have to be at odds, even if they can sometimes seem so at first blush. To learn more about these and other practices, please visit the very excellent resources provided by Brian Stack and Kettle Moraine Middle School.

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  • Differentiated Differentiation Templates

    Posted by Daniel Yablonsky on 11/1/2017
    Looking for a convenient way to differentiate based on product, interest, or need? Then you've come to the right place. To help expedite the process, I've prepared a handful of editable templates for Google Drive based on tried and true differentiation protocols. Feel free to modify as needed--these are intended merely as a solid starting point. If you have any feedback, please don't hesitate to share! 

    Learning Menu

    This Learning Menu Template can be used to provide students with a combination of required, optional, and extension activities for a given week or unit. Appetizers can include introductory and/or pre-teaching resources; entrees are the most substantive assessments; sides can support and reinforce the standards being addressed; and desserts are optional extension activities for students who have satisfied the main requirements.
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    This RAFT Template helps construct products according to role, audience, format, and topic. Lists of sample items are included in the table below the empty template, but there's no need to restrict yourself to those options if there are other possibilities that suit your needs. For a further exploration of how RAFTs can be used to differentiate according to interest, readiness, or learning profile, see here. Credit goes to Saskatoon Public Schools for the lists of sample items.
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    Must Do, May Do

    The Must Do, May Do Template can be used to organize assignments by what's mandatory and what's optional. Students who finish their learning obligations ahead of schedule can use the additional time to pursue some of the optional extension choices. See here for more information on implementing the "Must Do, May Do" format in your classroom.
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    Tic-Tac-Toe Board

    This Tic-Tac-Toe Board Template can be used to present students with a variety of product choices, optionally organized according to skill, standard, etc. The template is adapted from Caitlin Tucker's template. Check out her web page for tips on using Tic-Tac-Toe Boards in your classroom.
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    Learning Centers/Stations

    This Learning Centers/Stations Template can be used to help structure student learning as they move through organized activity stations. It allows you to specify the learning objective, product, and time frame for each activity. It also includes an optional column for you to check off that a student has satisfactorily completed one station before proceeding to the next. This editable template is adapted from Ted Malefyt's Learning Center roadmap.
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  • Scrambling to create seating charts by the first day of school? Maybe you don’t need to be...

    Posted by Daniel Yablonsky on 8/28/2017

    For many teachers, being super-prepared for the first day of school means having seating charts for all their classes set up and ready to go before students first step foot in their classroom. This has the advantage of lending some structure to that crucial first day and makes taking attendance quick and easy. However, there are some advantages to NOT preparing seating charts in advance (and I’m not just talking about having one less thing to do, which is tempting enough in its own right).

    I don’t recall exactly when, but at some point in my career I adopted the habit of letting students sit wherever their hearts desired on the first day. While this comes with an added degree of risk and uncertainty (like having your most adept instigator surrounded by his or her most adoring audience), there are some benefits which, I believe, justify the practice:

    1. You will know from Day 1 which combinations of students are not conducive to a focused, productive learning environment. If Johnny and Steven spend most of the period making faces and giggling at each other that first day, not only does this give you immediate feedback regarding what your finalized seating chart should or should not look like, it also gives you a sense of who may need a little SEL coaching to start off the year.

    2. It can help you identify students who may be socially isolated from their peers. If the tables in your classroom have clusters of three to four students at each, plus one student sitting completely alone without a friend in sight, you may want to pay closer attention as to why that is. Is the student new to the district? A social outcast? Or perhaps simply an introvert who is happy to have their space? Either way, that information is meaningful to you as a teacher.

    3. It shows students that you are flexible and open to letting them make their own choices, especially if they can do so responsibly. Often times I would reward students who made prudent choices and modeled good behavior on the first day by keeping them with one of their self-selected peers once I created my own seating chart. Regardless of what changes you choose to make, it demonstrates intentionality on your part and lets students know there is reasoning and consideration behind your actions, which is definitely a good tone to set at the start of the year.

    Whether or not such a system is right for your classroom is for you to decide. Some teachers prefer having the utmost structure to set a certain tone that first day, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For me, I found that I could gain some insight into my students by letting them choose their seats the first day of school, so it was worth it. Ultimately, the choice you make depends on your teaching style and comfort level.

    And one last tip: make sure you keep a record of who sat where when you take attendance so you can actually act on your observations. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck trying to remember who exactly was that boy in the green shirt who can’t handle sitting next to his best friend… you know… the one with the spiky hair… or was it purple hair??

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