The Nature of Inquiry: Reflection

THE NATURE OF INQUIRY Reflection

By Sara Krauskopf

A key component to any project is reflection.  Teaching students metacognitive skills so they become aware of their own learning process is where some of the most meaningful growth occurs during the course of a unit.  Reflection helps them become critical thinkers and problem  solvers–skills we all value for the long term and want to build in our students. There are a number of points during a project where it may be appropriate to ask students to stop and reflect.  Longer projects may require multiple reflections, whereas shorter projects just one. This blog entry will provide some examples of ways to have students reflect.

1:  Improve group work. Group dynamics are some of the biggest challenges to project completion.  This is an early intervention which asks students to pause and consider problems with their team.  What obstacles do we already see with our group dynamic and how can we overcome it?  I usually share these reflections with the class so students see multiple ways they can improve their process.

Group Question

2:  Daily check-ins.  Mentioned in my previous blog entry, this is a way for students to examine daily progress within their team.  They can celebrate success, think of what took their work off course that day (positive or negative developments), and decide what adjustments they should make as a result.


Sample Daily Check-in

  • Did we meet our responsibilities for today? Why or why not?
  • What do we need for tomorrow?
  • Do we have homework?

 

3:  Mid-project reflections.  This is a more formal way to consider progress towards the project goal and make mid-course modifications.  Again, this should provide an opportunity for positive reinforcement of current systems and behaviors; or time to make adjustments to get back on track.  This individual writing assignment is turned in, helping me understand where individual students may be having trouble so I can jump in to facilitate changes where they are most needed.  


Sample Mid-project Reflection

Students were challenged to design, build and test a solar box cooker to melt chocolate during a Wisconsin winter.  We stopped to reflect after students tested the first iteration of the cooker.

  • What went well with our design stage?
  • What went well with construction and testing?
  • How well did our team work together?
  • What specific improvements need to be made?

 

4:  Final project reflections.  Never skip this type of reflection.  It is the most important part of the project and helps students review what they learned: not only related to the content of their project, but also about how to plan and implement a complex activity.  This is a formal individual writing assignment given after all of the products are constructed and presentations are given.

If this were a straightforward science experiment I might ask students to reflect on experimental error and to suggest additional investigations they would try to further their understanding of the processes involved.  However, in project-based learning, I ask them to think beyond what they learned from the content.  They consider the impact of their work on others; and most importantly think back on what it took to complete this project and assess what they learned about navigating a complex process.


Sample Final Project Reflection.

For the waste management project discussed in my last blog, students were given this prompt along with a detailed outline of questions to consider.

You just finished an intensive group project to create a solution to the question, “How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?”

  • What did you do?
  • Why was your project important?
  • How could this project be changed?

 

One of the reasons students at PBL schools get better and better at conducting projects is because of this reflective process.  They learn the importance of planning, the value of good partnerships, the need to stay organized and on task, and myriad other skills.  They are able to transfer those new skills to the next project and to their daily lives; and develop the ability to design more complex projects and solve more involved problems.  

As teachers, we always run out of time on units and need to cut out certain activities, but I strongly believe that you should leave time for reflection.  It is better to cut the project short and ask students, If you had more time what would you have done?  Without giving them time to reflect they will not develop critical thinking and other lifelong metacognitive skills that will help them successfully navigate the world as adults.

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

 

The Nature of Inquiry: Scaffolding Projects

By Sara Krauskopf

If you have never led an open-ended inquiry or project-based learning (PBL) unit before, it can be an intimidating experience. Diving into the unknown in terms of exactly what students will be working on and what they will produce creates a certain amount of anxiety and presents new challenges to the teacher as a facilitator of learning.  In my last blog entry, I described ways to get students to ask questions and narrow them down to that one “good question” that they will focus on for their project.  Now you are faced with helping a room full of students with different inquiries move through the process of answering their questions. This requires a series of steps and a certain shift in mindset as an instructor.  In this entry I will try to provide some tips and resources for working through facilitation of the planning and implementation of a set of projects.

It is important to model project design for students and build independence over time.  I often walk students through a behind-the-scenes look at how I planned a unit or set of experiences for them.  Who did I call?  What resources did I gather?  What did I have to test out in advance?  How long did it take me to do each of these steps?  Where did I run into stumbling blocks?  Did everything go smoothly or did I have to make adjustments?  This type of transparency in the teaching process not only helps students gain a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into lesson planning , but more importantly demonstrates that they need to plan out their strategy and be prepared for it to change.  No projects ever go exactly as planned, and hurdles, failures and re-adjustments are par for the course.

For your first open-ended inquiry, I would suggest restricting the range of projects students choose.  This will help you anticipate the types of resources students will need to complete projects, making it easier to provide a certain set of equipment, limited list of experts and vetted starter informational resources.  Allowing them to work in teams of 2-4 also provides students with built-in support and gives you fewer projects to facilitate as you navigate the changed work load with this type of learning.  With science experiments it is fairly straight-forward to guide students to a narrow, yet original set of project questions (eg.  How can we speed up rates of seed germination?).  As I mentioned in my first blog, my class investigated the question What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?, and then students designed their own projects focused on the question How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?  This was a broad inquiry, but narrow enough for me to anticipate a set of community education campaigns, composting experiments, and sewing projects to repurpose fabric.  I did have one group that chose to refurbish an old computer, which I had not anticipated, but they were so motivated that they got all of their own equipment and did not require my assistance very often.

I scaffold my planning process using the attached resource, based on one I received from Valley New School, which does all learning through a PBL model.  Students can complete this individually or in teams.  The planning stage will be the loudest, least organized, scariest part of the process.  Some students won’t know exactly what to do, will argue with one another and beg for your attention.  A few will plunge in, creating a product without planning anything and will need to be held back; others will struggle to come up with a viable idea; some will need help formulating the wording of their problem.  As a facilitator and not a lead teacher, you need to let students struggle.  Many times the groups that have the most trouble at the beginning have the best projects in the end.  They wind up taking more time in the planning phase and therefore everything else proceeds more smoothly.  Certain students also need reassurance that if their original plan does not work out, they will not be penalized.  A project that does not produce the desired results is not a failure, but rather a learning experience and an opportunity to try it another way.

I require students to get my approval of the planning document before they can proceed. Because of this, I expect to be pulled in ten different directions at once as everyone vies for my time and attention.  This is exhausting, but good!  I steel myself for these days and know things will settle down as projects are chosen and planned out.  Once students have created their plan and a tentative calendar, your days will run more smoothly.

Students learn time and task management through PBL.  Once we are in the actual research and action phases of the process, I ask students to do a self check-in and check-out process every day.  What are my responsibilities for the day?  What do we need?  And then, Did we meet those responsibilities? Why or why not?  What do we need for tomorrow?  Do we have homework?  The Buck Institute also provides an excellent set of student handouts to help teams set up their process and keep track of their work.

The hard work now falls to the students, and your job is to check in regularly to monitor progress and help facilitate overcoming challenges as they arise. You are now on your way to open-ended student inquiry!  Next topic, reflection.

Suggested Resources:

  • Short stories about real projects you could analyze with students from beginning to end as an example of PBL:  
    • (2007). Heroes of the Environment!. Harriet Rohmer.  
    • (2004) Voices of Hope (Heroes’ Stories for Challenging Times) (Readings from the Giraffe Heroes Project)

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

The Nature of Inquiry: Asking Good Questions

questions

by Sara Krauskopf

“There are no bad questions.”  I hear educators say this all the time, but do we really mean it?   What is the nature of a “good question?”  How do we lead students through quality inquiry?  As someone trained in science education, I spent a great deal of time helping students develop “good” scientific questions.  When I formally began teaching with project-based learning (PBL), similar challenges emerged.  How do we help students develop and recognize good questions for inquiry and how do we facilitate them as they investigate the answer to that question?

Designing an inquiry project varies surprisingly little from subject to subject when you consider the skills and scaffolding needed for all of the steps of the process.  Obviously, investigating an inquiry into comparisons of insect diversity in different local habitats may require a different set of equipment and data analysis in comparison with a PBL project to start an after school program to keep students out of trouble if noone is at home. But the guidance and skills we would lead students through to design, plan and complete a true inquiry project in either case is very similar.  In this entry I will focus more on developing good questions, in the next installment we will look more to the process of answering the questions.

In science, a “good” scientific question is one that has never been asked before.  It should not be one you can look up the answer to online (What is the melting point of silver?); it should not (generally) be one that someone else has already researched (Do Sandhill Cranes mate for life?).  The question should be creative, yet explorable with realistic constraints.  Ideally, it can be answered through a series of focused experiments or observations.  Of course, as instructors we may still present students with a question with a known response because we want them to figure out how to find the pattern, or we recognize that they will understand the concept better if they run an experiment themselves and analyze the results (How does adding salt to water change the freezing point of the solution?). This is still inquiry and a valuable question to investigate.  It leads the students to discover new knowledge (to them) to discuss the scientific principles behind why something occurs.

Students in the field

The goal, however, of this narrowly-guided inquiry with a known outcome should be to lead students to more open-ended, original inquiries.  For example, after learning that salt water reduces the freezing point of water my students walked to Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin for some water quality testing in winter when the air temperature was below freezing (yes, I’m a bit crazy).  We happened to pick a dock near the outlet where a creek empties into the lake.  Students who had wandered over to the creek noticed that while most of the lake was frozen, the creek was not.  They began to wonder why the creek stayed open and why certain parts of the lake were not solid at this time.  The observation, subsequent questions and possible explanations originated from the students.  They suggested many possible explanations for this:  the water was moving quickly and therefore the molecules could not attract one another, get close enough and solidify; perhaps there was warmer groundwater seeping into this site; or maybe there were contaminants dissolved in the water that were keeping it from freezing.  Testing the validity of any of these ideas is good scientific inquiry.  It is unlikely anyone had tested the chemical composition of the water at that location on that day and an investigation of the water might reveal contamination with road salt, phosphorus, soil or other substances that would prevent freezing.  Did I set students up to ask these specific questions?  Not exactly, but I provided them with enough background knowledge to inquire about what they were seeing and ask good questions to seek new knowledge and understanding.

In my experience, teachers need to ask good questions to get students to ask good questions.  Providing a set of experiences, asking students to make observations of a situation that is somehow out of balance, or the presentation of a troubling scenario via video, guest speaker, or newspaper article are some of my favorite ways to lead students to write good questions for PBL or scientific inquiry.  If students perceive an injustice to a group of people or to a habitat it is easier for them to get involved and ask more questions.  Our students watched “Frogs: The Thin Green Line” from Nature on PBS about research into declining frog populations around the globe.  After seeing in the video that Minnesota students found frogs in a pond with three legs due to pesticide pollution, they wanted to learn more about the situation in Wisconsin.  Groups of students chose to research the status of frog populations in our local area, contacted researchers at the University of Wisconsin and read up on the situation here.

As a teacher at Badger Rock Middle School, we used essential questions to guide students over the course of a quarter or semester.  For example:  What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?  How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?   Using that broad, overarching theme, we ran a series of guided field trips and investigations of recycling centers, landfills, compost methods, repurposing waste, e-waste and other topics.  At the end of the unit, students designed their own projects to reduce the amount of waste going to a landfill.  Because they were exposed to such a broad range of topics, they could develop many original ideas to address our unique situation.

Leading students through a “think, pair, share” brainstorming process brings out a plethora of ideas for student projects.  To accomplish this I will either present a scaffolded set of open-ended questions or create a Frayer model. This will help students summarize what they already know about a topic and sets them up to generate questions they still want answered or describe possible solutions to the problems they encountered during the first part of the unit.  The Frayer model divides the paper into four boxes with a central theme.  In one box I might ask them to list the locations we visited and activities we did in our waste unit, in another list all the types of waste generated in our community; in the third box, describe the weaknesses in the systems we investigated, and in the fourth, write down ideas they have to reduce waste going to a landfill in our community.   I always ask students to complete a Frayer model or answer brainstorm questions on their own first or in pairs rather than completing it as a group right away.  It takes more time to do a “think, pair, share”, but you get many more ideas and the activity becomes far more inclusive.   Students spend time writing on their own with no restrictions.  I assured them there were no wrong answers for final suggestion question, and for the most part, the ideas pour out without hesitation.

Frayer Model

Adapted from the Frayer Model of Concept Learning
Dr. Dorothy A. Frayer

The next hurdle was whittling down ideas.  Students shared ideas in a small group, round-robin style.  They were only allowed to listen or ask clarifying questions, not comment on the plausibility of any idea.  From there we asked them to choose an idea that they might want to tackle.  Each group chose their favorite two or three ideas and shared them with the larger group while I kept a running list on the board.  Again, no critiques were allowed during brainstorming, only clarifying questions.

At this point I asked the students to list and consider some constraints.  What is their time frame for conducting the project?  What types of resources will they have at their disposal (money, space, human capital, equipment, etc)?  Can they complete this activity at school?  If they want to leave campus, do they have an adult available who can help them?  This helps them decide if this is a “good question” to investigate.  They came to realize there are practical constraints that make for a good question.  Their job then was to frame the actual problem they wanted to solve.  A few sample questions our middle schoolers decided to investigate included:  How can we help students at our school put waste in the correct bins?,  What would it take to refurbish a computer to reduce e-waste?  How do we make new items with old clothes to repurpose the fabric?

As an educator, do you have to plan in advance to have good inquiry?  No! Be spontaneous.  Sometimes the best questions arise from the news, a student experience on the way to school or something discovered on the playground.  Are you abandoning your curriculum if you let students pursue this spur-of-the-moment question?  Perhaps.  But will students learn and retain more if you let them investigate what they find engaging? Yes. It’s important to find the right balance.  It is our job as educators to champion good questions, but also to help students focus on taking the time to uncover the answers to their inquiries.  We can let them investigate whatever they want, or we can narrow the focus and target their inquiries within topics of our choosing.  It depends on your comfort level as a facilitator how far “off the mark” you are willing to go.  Be honest with them about what makes a good question and what constraints guide your decisions, and that will help students guide their own.  Encourage curiosity and creativity and those “good questions” should start emerging in your classroom.

Suggested resources:

  • NSTA Statement on Scientific Inquiry  
  • Galileo network:  A good explanation of inquiry with classroom examples in many K-12 subjects
  • Unboxed” A journal containing reflections and project ideas primarily from teachers at High Tech High, the school featured in “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

Guest Blogger: Matthew Scott

Matthew Scott

My name is Matthew Scott. I’m a teacher and writer from the UK. I currently live in the US and decided to explore some of the innovative work taking place here in education. This was mainly done in the hope of being able to take a few ideas home with me when I go back to Britain. Then I got carried away. This blog will chart that journey.

One: The Storm Before The Calm

I’d never driven through a tornado before. It was a Wednesday morning and I was on my way to Monona, Wisconsin, a town just over an hour west of where I live. My destination was the Project Based Learning Un-Conference organized by WISN and Project Foundry. It was a gathering of educators with varying degrees of expertise in the field of PBL. I’d been in touch via email with Sarah from WISN who had been extremely positive and helpful, but I was still nervous. You see, I’ve been in the US for a couple of years and (apart from volunteer work at a downtown Milwaukee city literacy center) haven’t set foot in a classroom for a while. My wife assured me I’d be fine – teaching was like riding a bike. Yes, I thought. Or driving a car. On the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Through a tornado…

Okay, perhaps this is a little over-dramatic. There was no twister that morning but the warnings were out and judging by the number of cars with hazards lining the highway or hiding under bridges, the likelihood of one touching down wasn’t altogether unreasonable. And my nervousness was extremely real. Apart from a vague outline, I had no real idea about PBL. It did actually feel a little like the first day at high school again.

I needn’t have worried. The Un-Conference was hosted by the wonderful people of MG21 Liberal Arts Charter School and as I pulled into the parking lot I was relieved to see the WISN and Project Foundry signage pointing me in the right direction (again, read the symbolism there as far as cliché will allow). After signing in, I headed into a large computer lab for the welcome speeches and breakdown of the sessions for the next few days. The room was already buzzing with conversation and it was clear that a lot of people knew each other or had come as part of teams. At that time I was still absolutely convinced I was the most clueless person there. Everyone had laptops – really nice ones. I had a legal pad and two pens in case one ran out of ink. But despite the diverse range of experience and experiences in the room, it was clear that this conference was designed with the goal of exploration in mind, and what’s the good of exploring if you already know exactly where you are going?

My own meandering began with a session on Advisory. It was run by the Valley New School from Appleton, WI and after circling-up for a few ice-breaking games, people began to explain why they were there and what they hoped to take out of the session. I will admit now that although I was taking in a great deal of information much of it swirled about like the weather on the way in that morning – the odd tree branch might flash by in the wind, something recognizable, but nothing for me to grab hold of with any confidence. This had nothing to do with the excellently led session and more that so much of the terminology and language – the basic jargon of US education – was so alien to me. Imagine a US educator visiting a similar event in Britain and having to work out what Key Stages, or Pupil Premium, or even GCSE meant before they’d even had a chance to think about the topic being discussed? Luckily, for one activity, I found myself partnered with Steven Rippe from WISN and, as I’m sure any of you who have spent any period of time in Steven’s company will attest, things suddenly got a whole lot cooler.

Having worked out what I was actually doing there, it was Steven who came up with what this whole blog is going to be about: It’s a project. ‘If your aim is to find out as much as you can about PBL, treat it as a project’ – that was his suggestion. Suddenly all the anxiety about not knowing anything became a driving force: I could just learn. Need-to-knows, making real-world connections, linking back to standards: all of this went from being the content of the learning to the actual process. I was going to do a project on finding out as much as I could about PBL and the product, tentatively, would be this blog.

So, this is the first post: an introduction. Forgive me for not going into detail about the rest of the terrific Un-Conference: the sessions on building a culture for PBL in a traditional school environment; how to integrate PBL into core subjects; examples from educators actually doing PBL in teacher-led settings, student-led settings and everything else in between; PLPs; assessment; Project Foundry; and the inspirational key note address from Joe Bower – no, all of these matters and more will, I’m sure, be discussed in more detail in later posts.

Nor am I going to write too much just now about the quick realization that although the jargon might be slightly different, this infamous shared language, which is often ironically said to separate us on either side of the Atlantic, actually speaks of exactly the same concerns, challenges and, most importantly, passion I hear when talking to teachers back home. Sometimes it’s buried deep beneath warranted frustrations but it’s still there.

For now I’m just saying hello.

Before I go though, I should mention that a week after the UnConference, I drove to the WISN office in Madison to discuss this whole adventure. The weather that day? Glorious sunshine.

2014 WISN Conference on Innovation – What’s Your Plan?

On behalf of the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am about our upcoming Conference on Innovation. If you’re reading this, I sure hope you’ll be there, too, since beginning on March 26, you’ll join nearly 500 educators who will gather for three days of networking, problem solving, and collaboration with colleagues from all across the state—and with some of the most inspiring thought leaders in education today. Personally, I can’t wait to hear Alfie Kohn talk about high stakes testing and the discussion I KNOW will ensue!

As I’ve learned throughout my career, conferences can be overwhelming with opportunities and possibilities. Want to get the most of this conference? Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful:

Begin with (realistic) goals. Before you get to the conference, ask yourself: What goals can I realistically attend to during this short time? If I could only do three things what would they be? How can you keep those goals fresh in your mind while staying open to the unexpected?

Plan ahead for how you will take your learning home. If you’re attending the conference with a team, you’re in the best position to strategize about how to implement your learning. But even on your own, identify specific actions you’ll take when you leave the conference. How will you share new knowledge with others? How will you continue your learning and collaborative efforts?

Remember, experts are everywhere. Your most significant insights may come from conversation with someone at your lunch table or from the person sitting next to you who’s gone through the a similar challenge and found a great solution. Don’t be shy! Introduce yourself. Ask people for e-mail addresses and put them in a safe place so you really can stay in touch.

Find time to reflect every day. Allow yourself the time and space to review what you’ve heard. Find a reflection partner if discussion helps you process new information. Take advantage of social media to put a new idea out into the world. Perhaps take a brief moment to journal after sessions to track first impressions and identify questions.

Schedule a conference follow up. Whether you set a Blue Jeans Network or Skype date with a new peer or volunteer to present to your local school board, you’ll reinforce your learning and find new ways to apply your knowledge with intentional follow up that extends beyond your first couple of weeks back at home.

We’ve designed incredible learning experiences led by some of the best leaders in education. Our great hope is that you’ll discover new ways of thinking about your school or your own teaching practice and through modeling and coaching build capacity in others. I’m looking forward to welcoming all returning attendees from last year’s inaugural conference—and hope to see many new faces, too. Remember: Don’t be shy. Please introduce yourself as the leader that you are!

WISN will tweet throughout the conference and invites you to do the same. Follow the conference and attendees as they share their learning with #WISN2014 or at our official Twitter page. Don’t forget to check out the conference app for more up to the minute info.  Just go to eventmobi.com/wisn2014 on any device.

Leaves are falling and high-stakes testing is rising.

Our family made the decision recently to have our 3rd and 7th grade children opted-out of the WKCE testing that started this week in their district.  I have, for years, as a teacher and principal, felt deeply that these tests do little to inform our instruction yet the time taken to administer them is overwhelming.  The question of standardized testing is everywhere in the news. Articles about massive testing have become a regular occurrence in the media and organizations like United Opt-Out National are taking this issue to a whole new level.

There are many pros and cons on this issue. Within the last week or so, parents from my daughter’s elementary school have been debating the issue over an email listserv. A parent from the school, Brian Lavendel, recently shared his thoughts about this topic after writing his own opt-out letter for his daughter. Here is an excerpt from his post:

You simply can’t tell much about what a person can do or how they will perform either in high school or college by administering multiple-choice tests. Nor have I seen good evidence that standardized tests tell you what a child needs in the classroom. (What you can do is predict who will do well on the tests–those whose experiences fall most within the cultural norms—i.e. white, middle class–and those who have learned how to take tests.)

 Some say you need standardized tests so that we can compare how kids from Wisconsin are doing with kids from Kansas or from Korea. But I wonder about the usefulness of measurements that can be made so simple that they can compare across broad swaths of humanity. I can’t think of a metric that could be that broad and still be useful.

Add to that the fact that these tests take precious time from classroom instruction. Is that really what we want teachers and students to be focusing on? I don’t. I think in part where I am coming from is that I have much more confidence in our daughter’s teacher to teach and assess my daughter than any standardized test.

It is difficult to know the impact of such testing on our children. A 2010 College of William & Mary study found Americans’ scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking have been dropping since 1990, and researcher Kyung-Hee Kim lays part of the blame on the increase in standardized testing: “If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement… then they become underachievers.”  Looking around the globe, Finland topped the international education (PISA) rankings from 2001-2008, yet has “no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools,” according to Stanford University researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Laura McCloskey.  Success has been achieved using “assessments that encourage students to be active learners who can find, analyze, and use information to solve problems in novel situations.”

I believe that there are many ways of assessing students’ learning which don’t involve the time and energy being spent on standardized tests that tell us very little about our children’s capacities in life. I welcome your comments.

 

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

 

Dr. Brian Lavendel studied standardized writing assessment for his PhD, served on the National Council of Teachers of English Testing Committee and the Conference on College Composition and Communication Assessment committee on this topic, and was brought in to consult with ACT on their assessments. Through this work, he concluded that large-scale metrics are inappropriate and invalid for measuring the type of higher-order learning we really want our kids to be experiencing in today’s classrooms. 

Creating KTEC: Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum

Creating KTEC: Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum

The mission of Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC), a preschool – eighth grade charter school that engages all students in an innovative learning environment, is to prepare students through academic excellence by the use of 21st Century skills and technology integration. Students at KTEC are participants and collaborators in engaging lessons that integrate technology into all curriculum areas to ensure learning and higher order thinking skills.

The Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC) serves the needs of students in preschool through eighth grade.  KTEC opened with 325 students in the fall of 2007 and now is at capacity with 471 students and over 300 on a waiting list.

We all know that technology has revolutionized how people around the world work, play, and communicate.  Studies show that the meaningful integration of technology into the curriculum can enhance student learning.  Integrating technology in the curriculum also helps students improve the skills that are necessary to succeed in a future dominated by technology.

The IES (Institute of Education Sciences) Practice Guide, published by the U.S. Department of Education, presents evidence-based advice to practitioners working to encourage girls in mathematics and science. The Guide provides five recommendations for encouraging girls in mathematics and science, including the level of evidence to support each recommendation and guidance for carrying out each recommendation. These recommendations include the following:

  1. Teachers should explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls’ beliefs about their abilities.
  2. Teachers should provide students with prescriptive, informational feedback regarding their performance.
  3. Teachers should expose girls to female role models who have achieved in math or science in order to promote positive beliefs regarding women’s abilities in math and science.
  4. Teachers can foster girls’ long-term interest in math and science by choosing activities connecting math and science activities to careers in ways that do not reinforce existing gender stereotypes and choosing activities that spark initial curiosity about math and science content.
  5. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to engage in spatial skills training.

KTEC is headed in the right direction, utilizing the IES recommendations for the future of their students. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, in the next five years, STEM jobs are projected to grow twice as quickly as jobs in other fields. While all jobs are expected to grow by 10%, STEM jobs are expected to increase by 21%. Similarly, 80% of jobs in the next decade will require technical skills. The US Department of Labor claims that out of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected to 2014, fifteen of them require significant mathematics or science preparation. The U.S. will have over one million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2018; yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, only 16% of U.S. bachelor’s degrees will specialize in STEM. As a nation, we are not graduating nearly enough STEM majors to supply the demand. To put these numbers into perspective, of the 3.8 million 9th graders in the US, only 233,000 end up choosing a STEM degree in college (National Center for Education Statistics).

One of the major tenets of KTEC is that staff members need to have training that fits the school’s mission as well as their own professional needs and interests. Dr. Angela Andersson, Principal of KTEC, is a leader who believes in shared governance and empowering staff members and parents to take the necessary steps to continue forward progress. As an example, staff members Michelle Zazula and Sarah McMillian have had ongoing national training in STEM practices and Project Lead the Way and are now training not only staff members in their own building but educators across the state and nation.  Scott Hodges has also been trained in myriad STEM approaches as well as Lego Robotics and uses his expertise to offer training across the nation as well.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network, KTEC staff have been sharing their practices with educators across the state and continue to do so with planned visitations and collaboration days throughout the 2013-14 school year. You can find out more by visiting InnovativeSchoolsNetwork.com or KTEC.kusd.edu.

Welcome to the 2013-14 School Year with WISN

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction announced the recipients of charter school grants to support the opening of 19 new charter schools for the 2013-14 school year.  These new schools are among those included in a new round of federally funded charter school grants for the state totaling $12.8 million. WISN will be partnering with almost all of those grantees.  We look forward to the experience and enthusiasm they will bring to the WISN, a new and growing network that works best with educators willing to engage in a give and take of ideas, seeking and sharing at the same time.

Collaboration is at the heart of WISN’s success because schools in general, and charter schools in particular, face many challenges as they operate in a public environment that is often uninformed or sometimes hostile. We believe committed educators are key to changing this environment, and that by working together we can realize the innovation and school improvements we dream of for our students.

WISN is an organization built on these dreams, but it is also built with a deep understanding of the day-to-day needs of educators like you. Our team knows what it takes to implement technology, examine pedagogy, build community, deal with budgeting, planning, and governance—and a host of other subjects crucial for successful charter schools. This is perhaps our greatest value: To offer expertise, consultation, and services on topics such as these, while we expand our own pool of experts from our partners.

To help them choose the services right for their schools, we’re delighted to present our brand new online Marketplace where partners will be able to browse and “shop” for WISN events, workshops, etc. Partners will gather the decision-makers for their school, explore the Marketplace together, and create their WISN School Profile and Service Agreement by following the instructions in the Marketplace.

You can join with us by heading to our online Marketplace to register for WISN workshops, online sessions, visitation days, or just browse our website to learn about other partner schools. Above all, we are a network of resources. If we don’t know the answer to your question, we can point you to someone who does. We’re confident that partnering with the network will make your school stronger, and we are also confident that other schools will be stronger for your contributions.

Welcome to an exciting upcoming school year. We look forward to working with you.

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

Conquering the Testing Monster

Testing. Take off the -ing at the end and you have a dreaded “4 letter word”. We shouldn’t feel that way about testing as, of course, as educators, we know that the collection of relevant data helps us inform instructional practices.  However, the phrase “relevant data” is really important here.  This is talked about everywhere and I love this piece below that addresses this very issue.

The following is a post from Diane Ravitch’s Blog on June 17, 2013 titled First Grade Teacher: How I Conquered the Testing Monster 

In response to the question, “Can You Do the Wrong Thing in the Right Way?,” this teacher responded with a fascinating account of how she conquered the testing monster in her first-grade classroom.

She writes:

I’ve been thinking about testing too. A lot. I teach first grade. My students arrive at the tender age of 5 or 6 and exit at 6 or 7. I give my students 6 benchmark tests a year, 3 in literacy and 3 in math. This past year, 4 more tests were added to the roster – this time on computer. That adds up to 10 – yes 10 -multiple choice tests every year for children who still cry for their moms, pee on the carpet, fall asleep spread eagle on the floor, and poke, prod, tease, and growl at each other. Oh –did I say that the children can’t read, at least for the first third of the year –the first 3 or 4 tests?

I am told the tests are to help inform my instruction. But I know the truth. The tests are there in first grade to get the kids ready for the tests in second grade –the tests that really matter – the tests that will count on the schools’ API and AYP reports. (California tests 2nd grade).

As a pragmatist, I’m efficient, organized, hold traditional values, and like rules and order. I know how to do what is expected of me and how to show results. So I reasoned I could use these structural strengths to get the tests over with, show the expected results, meet the smart goals, so that I could move on to the creative part of teaching –the part that cannot be quantified– the part of teaching where I get to interact with the children I am charged with developing academically, I get to know their passions, fears, ideas, the part of teaching that educates children – where there are no borders between painting and reading and playing basketball and building towers and writing , the part of teaching that is magical, that combines knowledge of standards, expertise, and passion on the part of the teacher with excitement, willingness, surprise, and vision from children.

But that is not what happened. Every breathing space I created for myself and my students by my efficiency got filled up with another expectation. More students – 18 one year, 20 the next, 24 for a few years, then 26; a new policy of all-day, full inclusion of special needs children in the general education classroom; a neighborhood impacted by the housing market decline and its resultant mobile population – causing more to move in and out of my classroom during the year; a school in program improvement – in effect designated as failing, and the resultant punishments – more administrative scrutiny, narrowing of curriculum to math and reading, canceling of arts programs during the school day; flight of families to school with better scores; and noisy classrooms in buildings without connecting walls.

So I got tired. I got beaten down. I got discouraged. And if you think I had it bad, think of the kids. Imagine a teacher for them who is always cross, always serious, harps about the test, never takes the time to ask them how they are doing, is too busy to tie a shoe lace or rub a boo-boo. That is me. I cringe as I write this.

Standardized tests don’t just stop my students from thinking, they teach them not to think. Imagine a 5 year old child who doesn’t read, and may not even speak English. They look at an 8 by 11 inch white paper devoid of all but one or two sketches. They listen as I read the question to them. Then I read the 3 or 4 choices. They pick the choice and fill in the bubble. Imagine the time I spend teaching them how to find the question, scroll with their eyes through the 4 choices, all while listening to me drone on and repeat the question and the choices until all 26 of them have bubbled something in. Imagine that this one test has 8 pages of questions – 15 or 20 questions in all. No wonder I’m cross. No wonder their eyes are glazed and they are growling.

But it gets worse. I am complicit in this next part. Standardized tests actually make students stupid. Yes, stupid. Not only are the kids not thinking, they are losing the ability to think. In my zeal to get administrative scrutiny off me and my students, I mistakenly thought that if I give them the test results they want, then I could do what I know was best for my students. To that end I trained my students to do well in these tests. I taught them to look for loopholes; to eliminate and guess; to find key words; to look for clues; in short, to exchange the process of thinking for the process of manipulation. I capitalized on my knowledge of young children, and the fact that they want to please adults and like to get the answer “right”. I justified my actions by saying that I had no choice, that the consequences of low test scores at my school were too dire to contemplate, and I wasn’t willing to put myself in professional or financial jeopardy. Clearly, testing made me stupid too.

I can’t speak for all my fellow teachers at my school, but I suspect many of them would, at the very least, recognize similar behaviors in their test-teaching practices. So, when despite our best collective efforts at raising test scores failed and my school entered 2nd year program improvement, I surrendered my stupidity and started speaking up, and eventually speaking out. I read research, blogs, government publications, and journals. I read widely from educational, historical, economic, pediatric, and psychological literature. I challenged administrative authority at my school to do the same – read, think, debate, discuss, and much to my surprise, did not get rebuffed. Astonishingly, I got ignored.

At about the same time I woke up out of my testing-induced nightmare , I started to notice the monster I had helped create. My students were only happy when they got the answer right. For many years my collegues and I had noticed a trend in young children – a trend toward passivity in learning. We had theories – all the kids had TV’s in the bedrooms, they had far too much screen time – computer, games, cells, TV’s in cars, lack of adult supervision and interaction, lack of conversational models at home, lack of social models at home, the list went on. But what wasn’t on the list was what I was culpable for – I had become about the right answer. They wanted to please me. They knew that if they waited long enough I would help them find the right answer. And I did.

One day, during small group math rotation, I put up privacy boards during the practice part of a lesson on math reasoning. The story problem went like this: There are 10 buttons on my coat. 6 are red and the rest are blue. How many are blue? We have worked on these kind of problems frequently, and the children have seen them in test format. Using connecting cubes as buttons, the children had to make a model of the problem. Three kids cried that day. The stress of thinking for and by themselves got to them. You see, many of the children had become expert at copying – watching what other children did in the group to get an answer and then providing “their” answer a nanosecond later. The children did not trust themselves enough to even attempt an answer. Their discomfort was palpable, and I was appalled.

Crying notwithstanding, I continued to use privacy boards. I also started to coach the kids about my belief in their abilities. I found that as they worked out a math problem using manipulatives to represent objects, I could lean in and coach them, one to one. Then, when they all had their answers, we pushed down the privacy boards to explore what we had all done. Ever so slowly, over many weeks, they started to regain their confidence.

You might wonder why I had not been doing this kind of teaching all along. I had, 11 years ago, pre-NCLB. Testing, along with the breadth of the standards and the resulting mountain of material to cover, much of it developmentally inappropriate, slowly eroded my professional judgement. Pressure to produce results through collaboration and mind-numbing analysis sapped my energy. A constant barrage of media stories about the ineffectiveness of teachers, some of it supported by leaders at my own school, drowned my spirit. Then I heard you, Diane, speak as a guest of my district and union. I started to read your work and have never looked back.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are truly brave. You inspire me to speak up and speak out. You remind me that knowledge is power –I had forgotten. Now I get my ducks in a row, collect my facts, back up my intuition and experience with research, and speak up without fear or rancor. And in the process of speaking up for myself, I speak up for my students. And ever so slowly I start to rebuild my confidence too.