“Big” Teaching

In the movie Big Tom Hanks has his wish granted to become overnight an adult. This happens through the fortune telling machine Zoltar granting him his wish. Tom Hanks character, Josh, then goes on to success at the Toy company while eventually starting to realize he needs and wants to be a kid again. There is something special about being a child that the rest of us adults just miss out on. I think one of the best parts of being a teacher is being able to enjoy the students coming to discoveries year after year.

Sometimes we as teachers start to feel like Josh and we start losing our joy or we get so focused on other things that we forget what it is that made us want to be teachers in the first place. We have all the little things which have to be done everyday and we start to get pressed into a mold. The mold might be good for us but it brings pressure none the less. This year those feelings are most certainly magnified. The unknown is probably chief among the pressures. Questions about How, When, Where, and What fill our minds while we are trying to figure out Why we are even doing this.

The answer is figuring out where your Joy is being centered. If you haven’t figured that out then the questions will drive you nuts. Once you figure out the center point of your Joy then you will be able to find success in our classrooms. Yes there will be hard days and probably some hard to reach kids, but seeing the light bulb go off while discovery being made and understood is something that most careers never get to enjoy. Don’t forget like Josh did for a while what it means to be a kid!

Fast and the Curious


We all know there is just some information students just need to know. There is also information that we would like students to just know. Think Times Tables or maybe the 20 key dates in a Social Studies class. The question that comes up is what is the best use of my time and my students time in getting these things ingrained in my students’ brains?

The best way to get it into the students heads is through retrieval practices. If you haven’t heard about retrieval practices the basic ideas is that repeated low/no stakes “assessment” that is spread out over time will help the kids remember better in the long run. This is because of the nature of the way our brains work. If we are forced to on a regular basis recall (retrieve) a piece of information it will become quicker and more likely to be recalled over time since it is more ingrained into the memory.

Here is the example from my class. I am a Bio teacher and for many years we talked about in class the “weird” science language. It was confusing to the kids trying to learn and they just memorized what the word meant, but they wouldn’t be able to figure out new words since they didn’t have understanding of the word roots. That led me to search the web for examples of common science root words. I found several different lists out on the web many with overlap. I combined those lists into one doc which you can see here.

Each week we do a “quiz” on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The students know that we will do it twice on Monday and Wednesday for no grade. We are just trying to learn together and then on Friday we take it once for a grade. The #eduprotocols portion of this is accomplished by using Quizizz. It allows for them to play in a gamified learning arena. The key here is the immediately feedback the students get. The students take the “quiz” and as soon as they get done we go through the words they missed. You then ask them if they want to do it again. They always say yes! They see what they need to fix, have a chance to fix it right there, and they succeed. It creates a confidence in them. They know they are going to learn it. Here is an example. This is the first time they had ever seen these words before and they got a 58% as a class

Then we went through the words and we did again. You can see the results below.

They had a jump of 33%!! Then we did the second set of 2 attempts on Wednesday and the first round was an 88%. It shows they not only learned a lot of the words but also retained them after they were given a chance to forget about it. The second attempt was a 98%!

If you have a set of material you want the kids to just know, than you really need to check out the Fast and the Curious to see if it will fit your needs in your class!

Smart Start



Most of us start the beginning of school year with going through to be honest some rather mundane issues. The issues are important no doubt. We will need to go through where things are located, due dates, projects, and rules/procedure. But do we need to do that first out of the shoot? What if you could start creating a classroom culture right away? Wouldn’t that make it easier to do the other issues later since you have established a rapport with the kids?

I decided to start off my year a little bit differently this year. Today is day 3. We had a 1/2 day and now 2 full days. I have done something a little bit different each day. I haven’t done any official Biology stuff yet and I’m ok with that. Its going to different this year with Covid and that will make working closely with groups difficult to do. I wanted the students to learn how to #1 make a claim with evidence and #2 communicate to others what they were thinking.

In order to do that I am using some ideas from Jon Corripo and Marlena Hebern. They have written two books called The Eduprotocol Field Guide. You can see the books on amazon here and here. They do a fantastic job at giving you a “framework” for you to use tech to help our students learn and display their learning.

One of the things they talk about is the Smart Start. You can find information in their first book as well as well as here and here. I decided to do Things that Rock which I turned into Awesome or Not Awesome. I created a google slides preso with “dots” off to the side

The students then placed their initials into their “number” and moved them around the screen.

Then I would ask them a question about the topic and they would have to click on their “partner’s” bubble and leave a comment. In this case I asked them to say what the worst book they ever read and why. I want them to get used to stating a claim and giving a reason so it made sense to me to have them talk about something they didn’t like about the topic on some slides and something they did like about the topic on others.

We spent a whole hour not doing “biology” stuff while they were learning key parts of how to do science. They were learning how to make claims with evidence and responding to others. There was no grade associated with this so that limited anxiety. The kids like talking about things they like and dislike so why not use that to launch into a way to develop the Science and Engineering Practices that we want our kids to learn anyways.

Did you start off the year doing anything different?

First Day 2020

Today I went back and taught in a classroom with students for the first time in what seems like forever. It was definitely the most unique first day of school I have ever had. Its usually a day of great joy full of laughter, smiles, and high fives. However, today was subdued. It will be difficult to adjust to the new realities of F2F instruction in the COVID era, but for our school community we deemed it worth it to do it. I’m under no illusions that everything will be smooth and we won’t ever have to modify our plans, but I am hopeful that the plans we have put into place are as good as we can do with what we have available to us.

It will be an interesting year in Biology this year. I hope this post will be a kick start to get me back blogging some of my failures and some of my successes (hopefully!!) as well.

1 day down…

Practical NGSS: An Assessment Example

I have been trying to think about what exactly an assessment in a NGSS environment would look like.  NGSS should of course cause us not only to be rethinking the how we teach and what we teach, but it should also cause a similar rethink on assessment.  What follows is an example of what NGSS assessment looks like in my class.  Its a first attempt so I would welcome any feedback!


In my 8th grade Life Science class we have been trying to answer the following big question: “How can my knowledge of genetics help feed the world?” We have already answered questions such as “What is rice?” (our model organism for the unit) and “How are traits passed down from generation to generation?”.  We are currently researching how to answer the question from this  mini unit  which is “How do traits and the environment interact?”.  We started off by asking the students what do they think they know about the question and they didn’t know much, but that is OK. This allowed us to generate some questions we should investigate which you can see the image below.

Genetics Project Board Example

ABC (Activity Before Content)

We started off by investigating how the environment might change the frequency of a trait in the environment.  We did a simple activity using a bingo set.  The groups got to pick 4 different colors of chips, but they could only pick up a total of 10 chips.  I would turn the drum so that 5 balls would come out of the shoot and allow a student to pick a number between 1-5.  If the number on the ball they choose was an odd number they lost 1 bingo chip of each color however, if the number was even they were to add a bingo chip of each color.  The goal of this simple activity was twofold.  The first was to introduce the idea that certain traits are more or less frequent in the environment. The second idea is the  frequency of those traits can change. From this very simple model we were able to introduce the ideas of selection, selection pressure, and extinction.  Now that my students had a very basic understanding of how the environment and traits interact we moved on to a more robust model.

The Model

Here is a short animated GIF showing the Bug Hunt Speeds NetLogo model


Net Logo is a program that can be downloaded or run in a browser (the browser is still in Beta and it runs very slowly).  We used the Bug Hunt Speeds Net Logo Model for our investigation. The students played with the model to get used to how it works and the options there are for changes. We worked through some general questions like “What happens if we attack the blue bugs?”.  This allowed the students to see how the data changed.  One of the SEP is data analysis and that is foundational to being able to create proper explanations. I moved around the room asking questions to individual students and group and then we had a class discussion.  This created the opportunities for me to do formative assessment of both students and the class.  However, I want to know what exactly each student knows and whether or not they can be given a scenario, collect data, and make explanations.  In order to do this I created a Google Form.

The Assessment

Here is a link to the Google Form.  Below you can see an image that shows a selection of the type of questions I used.

Example BugHunt Google Form


Because of the go to section option in Google Forms, you can set up a single assessment that will take each member of the group to a different set of instructions and questions.  This allowed me to put my students into groups of 3, each student choose a number, and then when it was there turn to use the computer (we didn’t have enough to go 1:1) they would get “their” questions without seeing the other questions.  This also allows me to compare the answers from all the “1’s” to all the other “1’s”.  My goal in doing this little assessment exercise is to get my students using a model, analyzing data, and creating explanations from data.  I was also able to assess DCIs MS-LS4-4 and  MS-LS4-6.  I would love to have feedback and what you think of my attempt at a 3D assessment.


Final Question

What are you doing different in your assessment to meet the ideals and expectations of NGSS?



Driving Questions Practical NGSS #3

This is the third post in a series on how to break down the Life Science section of NGSS to create a unit.You can read part 1 and part 2 to see previous posts in this series.

As we move on from getting an overview and understanding of the big questions, we need to start thinking of the design of the unit and not just how NGSS is designed.  The questions that are tied to each of the questions are helpful and they can be used, but I wish to suggest a different approach.  I like the idea of having these questions up around the room as the “BIG” Questions of the year.  It will allow you to have a visual to point the students (and yourself) to throughout the year.  We constantly need to be reminding them and ourselves of what we are trying to answer.  However, I’m not sure the questions will really drive a group of students into researching an answer.  That does not mean the questions aren’t important or bad questions, but rather we need to use those to create driving questions.

Driving questions are types of questions that are on the surface very simple questions and yet at the same time are are very complex.  These questions cannot be answered with a yes or a no and they cannot be Googled.  We should be modeling the type of questions we want our students to be asking.  The driving question provides us with a platform to do just that.

Driving questions should cover multiple DCIs and create an environment where the SEP and CCC are an integral part of the unit as opposed to an add-on lab at the end.  These aren’t always easy to come up with so how would you go about creating one?  The first thing you should do when thinking about designing a unit is what do I want the students to understand? The immediate next question should be how will they show their understanding?  This is another strength of the NGSS.  The NGSS gives us our guide both in what they should understand and how they are going to show their understanding!

You can see in the picture below the statement of what the student who demonstrate understanding can do.  This is followed by a 3 pillar (SEP, DCI, and CCC) or 3D approach to support that understanding.

Unnamed image

You will need to collect the individual pieces to make your puzzle.  The NGSS is not designed to be a silo.  In other words just because something isn’t in the Heredity section doesn’t mean you can’t cover it in your unit.  The NGSS is not a curriculum to be followed blindly.  It is a map to learning.  One can get to all the points on a map in any number of ways.

So back to the driving question.  Lets say you want to do a unit on Genetics.  When you open up your NGSS you will notice there isn’t a single section called Genetics. As you do your searching you realize that you have multiple puzzle pieces which all interact with each other and are specifically tied to Genetics.  You have just answered the first question of what do I want my students to understand.  This doesn’t mean you can’t do more than these, but it does mean these are the minimum standard or the ground floor for ALL of your students. As an added bonus NGSS has also given you what counts as evidence for your students understanding.  Now you just need a question that is going to drive the unit.  I like simple questions. Here are a few different ones that I have used in smaller units.  What makes me…me?  This was the driving question for dealing with cell division (mitosis) and sexual reproduction (meiosis).  Why do I look like me? This was the driving question for discussing DNA, replication, transcription, and translation.  My middle school curriculum uses a much larger question: How can a knowledge of genetics help feed the world.  Their question is better than my own because it allows for a larger area of research of interconnected units.

The driving question is going to be key in your new NGSS units.  Take the time to gather the DCIs, plan how the student is going to show understanding(assessment), and put together your learning plan so that you can create a question broad enough to cover all you are trying to teach.  I will leave you with a question for you to think about:

What is your favorite topic to teach and what driving question do you use with that?

The Big Questions Practical NGSS (Part 2)


This is the second post in a series on how to break down the Life Science section of NGSS to create a unit. You can read Part 1 here.

These 4(MS) or 5 (HS) core questions [there seems to be some difference whether you are looking in the print guide or the online version perhaps someone can clarify?? For our purposes here we will be using the 4 core questions found in  Volume 1 The Standards on pgs 103-104.] are the guiding questions we should be using in our planning.  It can’t just be in our planning, because our students perform best when they know what the starting line is and where the finish line is going to be.  The questions not only guide our planning, but when used effectively they become questions our students need to know the answers to.  In future posts I will discuss how to use the questions throughout the unit to help the class stay on track toward their goal, however that is not the goal for today’s post.  The purpose of today’s post is to look at the questions themselves.

The questions

There is of course a progressive unfolding of the Life Science Standards so it makes sense to have slightly different questions as we move up the ladder.  This is another secret strength of the NGSS which I don’t believe gets played up enough.  NGSS is a way for our students to build on their knowledge not for us to rebuild each year.  Since the core practices are the same from K-12, our students over time will come to our classes with a better understanding of how science works, what real science looks like, and therefore have a better conceptual frameworks to hang new information on.  Take a look at the questions for MS and HS and you will see what I mean.

Life Science DCI

As students advance through school the questions become more abstract and general.  This doesn’t limit our teaching to the “new” standards, but rather gives us greater flexibility to meet our students where they are and design lessons and units to allow them to answer the questions.

A Danger Lurking

When any new standards are introduced the rumbling sounds of book presses start up, and books are suddenly “NGSS” aligned almost overnight.  It might only be a new sticker showing up on the book and no significant changes are made either to the planning of units or organization of the book. The appearance given is the publisher has got it all figured out so don’t worry about it.  Because of this tendency, we need to have a better understanding of the questions themselves so we can evaluate materials more effectively. So what exactly are these core questions?

The core questions are just that core questions, but they are not a curriculum.  I believe this is an area where teachers who are expected to teach science according to NGSS without adequate training are almost doomed right from the get go.  These questions can’t be looked at as the “stuff” we talk about in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters while hoping to squeeze in the last little bit in May.  The NGSS is not a national curriculum.  It is the guide however to what, when, and how we should be teaching.  So if these questions are guides, but not curriculum how should we view them?  I believe the answer is in how we create our units.  The core questions are not silos to be kept separate.  They are interconnected like an ecosystem.  If one question is discussed without regards to the others we are at best missing part of the picture , and at worst we are hiding part of the picture from our students.  Our students need to know there are 4 big questions we will be discussing throughout the year, and the questions all impact each other.  Perhaps one way you can do this in your classroom is to have up posters or signs that list out the major questions for your teaching area.  The 4 core questions help us battle the appearance that science is a disjointed series of facts as opposed to a flowing narrative where intersections between “topics” happen all the time.

Next Up

You might be thinking “OK OK I think I understand the vision of progressive unfolding of information, wisdom in keeping our information organized, and having 4 core questions, but I need to plan my next unit.”  That is what I hope to tackle in the next post.  How do we take a topic like Genetics and in light of the core questions start to create a NGSS unit?


Practical NGSS (part 1)

One of the best parts about NGSS is simultaneously its simplicity and complexity.  For example as a Life Science teacher there are only 4 questions (or 5 for HS) that a student in my classroom should be able to answer.  When you first look at the HS Life Science Standards section you might be tempted to say “Is that it? Where are all the standards about my [fill in the blank with your favorite topic]?” This is the genius of the Framework.  We no longer have bits and pieces and individual units, but rather we have unifying questions that link with each other as we seek to develop our students understanding of Life Science concepts.  We know from both research and best practices that starting units off with big questions about our topic instead of stating the topic creates more engagement.  This structure would allow a teacher to have up in their room or on their board these 4 questions all year long and constantly return to them.  It would be a mistake to structure your class so that we answer 1 question at a time.  These questions all work together and therefore we should be able to take our new units and cause our students to see the connections between them.

The 4 questions give us a framework for our students to hang their hats on.  They should be able to tell a classroom visitor what question the class is answering.  Students may not know the full answer right then and there, but they should be able to state the data collected, what they think it means, and a preliminary argument from evidence.  I believe a great check on whether or not the Scientific Practices are being embedded into our students thinking is when a visitor shows up to your class.  What would happen in your classroom if a visitor popped into your class?  Could your students describe the question(s) they are trying to answer, what they have done to answer it, what they are going to do next, and state their answer in  such a way that gives priority to the evidence?

My goal in this series is to describe how a teacher can take a general Life Science topic like Genetics and have NGSS inform us on how to create an NGSS unit.

That time when most of my students failed …


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I think we have probably all been there at some point in our teaching career or if perhaps you are like me you are there at least one time a year.  The saying goes “if the student hasn’t learned than the teacher hasn’t taught.”  I think there is a lot of wisdom in the statement.  Our position as the teacher puts out in front.  We decide when things are brought up, taught, or investigated.  As such then we have a responsibility to create and/or use assessments that accurately test our students knowledge.  If we design faulty assessment then we will get fault results.  However, I don’t want to talk about the design of the assessment.  Perhaps that can be a post for a future time, but I do want to discuss the lead up to the assessment.  One of the most important parts of teaching is formative assessment.  I need to know when my students know something and when they know it.  If I don’t know those basic things than I won’t know when to deliver that summative assessment that allows me to see not only how many terms they have memorized but the use of those terms in action.  The question then is how does that work together in the real life of the classroom.  I would like to give you a “not example.”  I love not examples because it gives us a warning of what to avoid like the sign on the side of the freeway warning us to slow down because there is a sharp turn ahead.

I have been leading my Advanced Biology class through some information about cellular membranes.  We discussed their structure, how things are moved through them via proteins, types of transport, and finally osmosis.  I was moving pretty quickly and the students seem to be able to answer questions and deal with the content, but when we got to the test well the title says it all.  I was disappointed not in my students but how I had failed them. You see one of the core things that the NGSS calls us to do is make and manipulate models.  We did not do this and well the results speak for themselves.  Membranes are hard to pictures. Sure we can use dialysis tubing and discover what affects the rate of diffusion on the solution inside the dialysis tubing or we can show animations of active transport, but those are a far cry from designing and manipulating models.  Those are much more passive activities then the design and manipulation of models.

Here is what I did to attempt to rectify the situation.  First, own the failure. I think its important for those of us in the teaching profession to admit mistakes.  We expect our students to do it so we should to.  Second, I designed a simple modeling activity for them to complete.  Here is a link to the Google Doc that I gave to my students.  The students were given the supplies and asked to describe what each part means.  Once they established for example the marshmallows as the hydrophillic heads w/ 2 toothpicks representing the hydrophobic tails they started designing their membrane model.

Models in development

Models in development

You will notice the pipe cleaners are sitting there but aren’t be used yet.  They needed to use them in a way that will illustrate their shape and function.  I was impressed by the way they were able to design them to meet the expectations.  I did very little talking and my students did most of the talking.  This is what models do.  They start and sustain conversation that leads to better and better models.  When they finished building their models I had them pull out their phones and record how it works together. If you click on this link you can watch an example of one of the groups explanation.

NGSS calls us to act more like scientists in our classrooms and less like traditional students.  Using effective NGSS models creates opportunities for identifying misconceptions, probing understanding, and creating of explanations.

I learned my lesson. Models make a huge difference for my formative assessment process as well as for my students understanding.   We will be adding more modeling activities as we go along.  As for the test well the retake went really well.  The students did a far superior job and mentioned how the modeling helped them get a hold of the concepts.

3 Reasons You Should Not Talk Rules, Policies, or Syllabus on the First Day

Its back to school time all across the country and so begins an annual ritual I would like you to think about… the traditional first day rules, policies, and syllabus being handed out. I think its time to change the tradition.  I know I know but what about the “we have to start out the year on the right foot”, “no smiling until Thanksgiving so they know you are serious”, and all other types of advice you have received over the years? As my wife tells me all the time “just because you have always done it that way doesn’t mean that is the way it should be done.”  Here are 3 reasons I hope will cause you to reflect on your first day practices.

Reason #1

Who says we can’t start the learning until we have given them the rules and regulations for your class.  Jump right in and do something the first day so your students know what to expect in your classroom and then start setting the rules as they come up in the activity.  You want to create credibility and relationships as soon as possible.  Do you think that is best accomplished by giving out a piece(s) of paper?

Reason #2

Students learn and remember better when they are actively involved with an engaging well designed task.  Lets create an environment immediately where students come expecting to do something not expect to have something given to them.  Where is the motivation to get into the learning which will take place in your classroom?

Reason #3

The students have been listening to rules and policies all day or will listen to them the rest of the day why not be different?  Have you seen this blog post? The amount of time our students sit and get is unbelievably high! Why add to culture of passivity? We all want to start with a blast, but is this the way to accomplish that goal?  I don’t believe it is.

So now what?  How can I start my year off differently while still creating the proper culture of learning and simultaneously creating interest and credibility?  Let me suggest using something called Smart Start.  I learned about it a few years ago from Jon Corippo at CUERockstar camp.  I think it is a great way to get the school year off on the right foot.

We did the marshmallow challenge today and it was a great opportunity for my students to work on their Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication skills.  It gave me the opportunity to work on skills that will help us throughout the year as we dive into NGSS and UbD.

How do you handle your first day of school?