3 Reasons We Hate Science Fair–And How to Fix It

The day my school decided to move science fair to sixth grade instead of fifth, we all cheered–students, teachers, and parents alike. Years later, I’m reflecting on the root of our mutual animosity toward the project. And it seems to come down to three problems–and solutions!

Lack of Teacher Modeling

We ask students to dig deep. To ask questions that don’t have an answer yet. In short, to go beyond comparing popcorn brands. But how often do we model how we develop our own original questions? Share our honest, raw wonderings? Demonstrate our process of Googling to refine an idea?

Creativity and innovation are skills, and science fair projects are an advanced exercise of these skills. If we expect our students to suddenly showcase skills we’ve never helped them cultivate (or worse, that we’ve never cultivated ourselves), we are setting them up for failure–or just another diaper absorbency project.

  • SOLUTION → Metacognition: MindShift recently wrote about 5 inquiry tools to help students “learn how to learn.” These metacognitive strategies encourage students to honestly reflect on their own learning processes and emotions when facing challenges (see also “Smart Strategies that Help Students Learn How to Learn”).
  • SOLUTION → Teach questioning: If you want students to ask “measureable questions,” teach them how to do so long before introducing science fair. Strategies like frequent use of Visible Thinking protocols trains students how to develop and refine their questions. (see also Tubric).
Lack of Existing Student-Driven Project-Based Learning

The science fair should not be an isolated experience of students taking ownership over and driving their own learning process. If it is, it’s unlikely that many will rise to the freedom in ways that will fuel their passion and motivation.

  • SOLUTION → Project-Based Learning: Make it your next weekend project to create one new PBL opportunity. Guides like this one found on Edutopia can help you get started.
  • SOLUTION → Student Voice & Choice: Mindfully consider your students’ choice and voice in their day-to-day learning. When we gradually let go of control and allow our students to steer the learning, they will grow in confidence and self-understanding.
Lack of Engaged and Authentic Audience

Even if students do manage to find a passion-driven project, how often does their work ever go beyond a cardboard trifold display in the gymnasium (unless they happen to move on to regionals)? Too often, we only allow our students small sips from locally limited audiences–when we could lead them to the very fountain of global conversation with our fingertips. It’s time to throw open the floodgates and watch what happens when our students swap ideas with peers, scientists, and experts across the world.

  • SOLUTION → Student Blogging: Encourage your students to blog not only the final presentation, but their entire process along the way. Then, teach them how to ask for feedback to fine-tune their ideas.
  • SOLUTION → The Wonderment: This is an especially wonderful platform for younger students to collaborate safely online.  They can upload photos, videos, and text, asking questions and getting inspiration from kids around the world (see other excellent blogging alternatives here).

Let’s break the mold of hating science fair this year. What are some of your strategies to do so?

Featured Image: Andria via Flickr

6 Thoughts on What’s Wrong With Compliance

In “An Open Letter to Pinterest from a Teacher,” I wrote about worrisome pins, including those that circulate around compliance. One commenter responded with her perspective:
Compliance Comment

 

There seems to be differing views on what compliance really entails. When we are concerned about students’ disregard of rules and respect, where do we look for answers? I would assert that turning to compliance is treating the symptom and not the cause. This thoughtful comment has inspired me to further expound on my thoughts. Below are six issues with compliance that come to mind. 

Lack of compliance does not mean lack of rules

Creating rules is always an important strategy for forming positive learning environments. But if we approach the rule-making process from a teacher-centered “here-are-my-rules;-now-follow-them” mindset, we are unnecessarily centering that environment on a top-down compliance system. We can achieve a more positive–and accountable–environment when we share this process, asking students what they need to be able to learn.

Compliance does not equal respect

The very definition of compliance conflicts with building respectful relationships. Synonyms on Thesaurus.com include:

  • don’t make waves
  • fit in
  • satisfy
  • submit
  • give in
  • give up

If our primary interest is to build mutually respectful relationships with our students, plastering our walls with things like “blurt out” charts detracts from that message.

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Compliance is often counterproductive for cooperation

Principal David Geurin discusses the problems that arise when we value compliance over commitment from our teachers. This principle equally applies to our students. As Geurin says, “[Compliance] may result in some change in behavior, but it may only get the appearance of a change in behavior.” If we instead shift our focus on truly connecting with our students, I believe we would cultivate deeper understanding of and commitment to a shared vision for a positive learning environment.

Compliance diminishes learning

I shared this example in a response to the comment and I’ll share it here, too. During the first few of weeks of kindergarten, my daughter came home chatting and singing all about nothing but following instructions and sitting at the carpet. And that seemed natural, because most teachers focus on classroom procedures and rules during the first part of school. But the unfortunate result was that she was trained from the get-go what school is about–and it wasn’t learning. It was compliance. Not anticipation for the wonderings they’d explore. Not hope that their curiosity and abilities would be cultivated. Not even simple joy for discovering the world around them. Compliance. And when compliance is the tone of a classroom environment, when it is valued above all else, at best, learning is diminished. After all, how can we expect students to branch out, take risks, and explore the possibilities when they are continually waiting to be told where to be, what to say, and how to sit?

Compliance sacrifices creativity for control

Educator Michael Niehoff distinguishes between two “camps:” compliance/control vs. creativity/innovation. He finds that when it comes down to a challenge, we often have a choice to make between the two sides, and that those who stubbornly stick with compliance can miss out on unexpected learning opportunities. If we want our students to think outside the box, we need to actively model that as well by sometimes letting go of our preconceived biases and attitudes toward how school “should” be done.

Compliance can silence student voice

One of the ugliest consequences of compliance is when our students leave their contributions at the door because they know that their voices won’t really be heard anyway. But it’s difficult to spot because teachers, administrators, and a parents alike sometimes confuse it with good discipline. This issue was recently documented by Inquiry Partners when a perceived top-rate classroom was observed and filmed. Most everyone came away with glowing reviews, but as the author states, “what none of them knew…was that what we were actually filming was a prime (and common) example of student disengagement.” They found that 86 of the 90 minutes, the students were sitting and listening. These are clearly students who have been groomed for years for compliance. And it happens in even the best teachers’ classrooms.


 

None of this is to discount the need for individual behavior contracts or similar measures on occasion. But even in those circumstances, we should be careful to ask ourselves if we care more about the students simply complying with the rules, or working to help them take steps toward meaningful change for themselves. What about you? What does compliance mean to you? And what has happened in your classroom when you begin to let go of control?

featured image: Jesse Moore

3 Reasons High School’s Too Late to Teach Digital Citizenship

As we read yet another news article about a high school paralyzed by a student’s social media threat, or a student pushed to the brink by cyberbullying, it makes us question. Are these just anomalies? Kids acting out despite all the support they’d received in digital participation? Perhaps.

But we still can’t help but wonder whether there’s a pattern here. A pattern rooted in the neglect of one essential 21st century principle: digital citizenship.

When high schools experience online-related trauma, they sometimes turn to programs advertised as prevention measures. And maybe such programs prove helpful. But we contend that if we’re waiting around until high school to cultivate meaningful digital citizenship, we have waited far too long. Here are three reasons that lead us to this conclusion:

The Digital Age is Their Birthright.

One of our favorite definitions of digital citizenship is as follows, “The quality of habits, actions, and consumption patterns that impact the ecology of digital content and communities.” And it is every bit as relevant to our kindergartners as those units on traditional citizenship. 

As Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach explains,

“…things have changed. We don’t only want students to be good citizens of their physical spaces and geographic regions, but now we’re all global citizens, connecting with people all over the world through digital means.”

Most teachers already value and teach citizenship from the youngest ages, which helps students understand that they belong to a community. But we must expand this priority in helping them realize how they belong to a digital community, too. Because Will Richardson reminds us, “If you think that your kids won’t be interacting with strangers on the Internet the rest of their learning lives, you’re crazy!” We must teach safety, etiquette, literacy, and responsibility–both online and offline.

Waiting until high school gives kids more time to cement the idea that tech is just a toy.

Encouraging deep understanding of the multifaceted nature of technology is no one-time lesson. It takes authentic modeling. It takes opportunity for exploration. And it takes continual in-depth discussion. Only then will our students gradually discover that resources like Youtube can be incredible learning tools–not just entertainment.

But the issue with neglecting digital citizenship reaches beyond just shallow personal amusement. As we mentioned earlier, cyberbullying and threats of violence crop up in news feeds on a regular basis, and each time, administrators and policymakers ask how it can be prevented. Introducing and cultivating digital citizenship from a young age can curb this kind of abuse. After all, when students have been encouraged to see themselves as members of a real global community, they are less likely to see themselves as anonymous outsiders, and more likely to recognize the impact of their online actions.  

Kids are capable of positive online social interaction much earlier.

We’ll let recent tweets from hashtags like #Comments4Kids, #HourOfCode, and #MysterySkype speak for this point.

Above Tweet via Orchard Place Elementary at Des Plaines School District 62.


What difference does digital citizenship make at your school? What are some of your favorite ways to help students become better digital citizens?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

3 Timeless Lessons From “The Yellow Star” About Cyberbullying

The “Yellow Star” by Carmen Agra Deedy beautifully illustrates the legend of King Christian X standing with his Jewish people by wearing a yellow star during Nazi occupation.

And while the Danish Jews were never actually forced to wear the star, confirmation of the king’s support for his Jewish people have surfaced, including “substantial evidence that the King actually suggested the idea of everyone wearing the yellow star should the Danish Jews be forced to wear it.” (source)

Legend or not, this 20th century story highlights timeless lessons of humanity that we find especially applicable to the 21st century subject of cyberbullying.

  1. Teach Solidarity

“Early in the year 1940…there were only Danes. Tall Danes, stout Danes, cranky Danes, even Great Danes.”

We must actively teach our students that what we have in common outweighs our differences. Cyberbullying offers a shroud of anonymity that can tempt some people to forget that a living, feeling human being is on the other side of that unkind post or dehumanizing poll. We can bring that shroud out of obscurity by directly talking about it. About digital citizenship. About the human experience. And about whether it’s really worth making someone else feel like they don’t belong.

  1. Teach Courage

“If you wished to hide a star,” wondered the king to himself, “where would you place it?” His eyes searched the heavens. “Of course!” he thought. The answer was so simple. “You would hide it among its sisters.”

I recently came across a disturbing article about a poll for the ugliest girl at a high school. And though the young woman who was targeted responded courageously, I was left wondering how each kid involved in that poll could have acted with more courage, too. How can we teach them to take initiative and take a stand, even if it isn’t very popular? I believe it starts with us. We need to model the courage to stand up and say no, even in a society that often turns “cruelty into entertainment and sport.”  

  1. Teach Empathy

“What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying,’ You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.’ What if?”

Empathy requires us to truly reach other people. It rejects in-group/out-group. It embraces vulnerability and imperfections. It places genuine value on every human being. Cyberbullying creates in-group/out-groups. It exploits people’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. And it tears apart the self-worth of everyone it can. We need teachers who will dare to voice exactly what cyberbullying is all about, “Go[ing] beyond praising the right behaviors — proactively counteract[ing] the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.” (“Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply”).

King Christian X’s Jewish people may never have been forced to wear the yellow star, but his solidarity, courage, and empathy are likely what prevented that unjust mandate to begin with. What could these three qualities do for your students, your school, and your community?

Image credit: the lost gallery

An Open Letter: To Pinterest, from a Teacher

http://honorsgradu.com/an-open-letter-to-pinterest-from-a-teacher/

First, I want to thank you. I’ve loved your many ideas for organizing my pantry, throwing my five year-old’s princess party, and introducing the blue-Dawn-and-vinegar trick to my shower.  Not to mention the hilarious memes and marshmallow treats.

Your resourcefulness has carried over into my classroom through the years, too:

Like the sponge of glue,

glue

the hand sanitizer bathroom passes,

pass

the visually-appealing display of learning objectives,

objectives

oh, and that fantastic example of comma use that had my whole class giggling.

commas

And of course, you know you’re my go-to for holiday art crafts and kid-made decorations.

 

ornaments

But I have to tell you, I’m worried. I’m worried about those ultra popular pins that circulate because they have all the glitz and appearance of learning, but that really promote something…else.

Like micromanagement,

ticket

compliance,

bbbfd9ad4c4b14cba518ffc0c92d3710

or perfectionism–

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–all with an adorable flair.

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Of course, you and I both know that truly inspiring, learning-based pins are out there. Why, I recently came across a whole slew of fabulous self-assessments to help students become more metacognitively aware. But as I searched out those pins, I waded through what felt like an endless supply of teacher-centered fluff.

I must say, I’m not blaming you. After all, I’m the one who sometimes gets mesmerized by all things color-coded and lovely. But “it’s not you, it’s me” aside, now that I’ve identified the problem, I can move forward. I can reflect. I can ask why. I can rethink even some of the most commonly accepted practices. And I can guide my future curative efforts with questions based on what matters most, including:

  • Will this help me better understand and reach my students?
  • Will this enhance student ownership over learning?
  • Will this encourage the 4 C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, or creativity)?
  • Will this help me personalize student learning?
  • Will this help me pursue greater challenges as a professional?
  • Will this help my students better understand their own thinking and learning processes? (metacognition)
  • Will this help all my students to better access resources in and out of the classroom?
  • Will this help my students investigate concepts?
  • Is this centered more on empowering student-directed learning, or on getting students to sit still and listen?
  • Is this trying to solve a problem that I could actually just open up to my students for discussion instead?
  • Will this help my students grow as leaders?
  • Will this help my students build an authentic audience and/or community?
  • Will this help me reinforce my core values as a professional?

So thanks for everything, and I look forward to richer pins to come on my education board!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

10 Meaningful Student Self-Assessments: A Pinterest Curation

 

With an abundance of clever crafts, cute bulletin boards, and coordinated decor, Pinterest generates much that is adorable in classrooms. But the meatier stuff is out there, too–if you dig a little deeper. Below are 10 Pins to brainstorm better self-assessments for your students.

#1: Create a hard working turn-in system:

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 (also, a file folder version)

#2: Practice Visible Thinking Routines together:

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#3: Evaluate Personal peer teaching level: 

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#4: Take exit tickets to a new level: 

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#5: Reflect on IB Learner Portfolios for End of Unit: 

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#6: Cultivate networking & smart peer tutoring:

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#7: Structure Authentic Student Analysis of Reading Fluency: 

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#8: Lend words for reflecting on personal emotional well-being:

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#9: Lay out guidelines for a Writing journal snapshot assessment: 

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#10: Design a Student led conference survey:

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(after all, you know how we feel about student-led conferences…)

And WHATEVER you do, PLEASE don’t let your assessments ever resemble this: 

9984dc650cd83745344fb0ae41333706

What are your favorite self-assessments? How about your most outstanding Pinterest boards on teaching? We’d love to hear them!

Featured image: DeathtotheStockPhoto

4 Outstanding Alternatives to Private Student Blogging

An authentic and global audience of peers and professionals–what could be more exciting when it comes to students pursuing meaningful collaboration?  Yet in the name of safety, many schools still choose to keep student blogs private, viewable only to students and their families. And while safety is an essential priority, these schools must understand the importance of digital citizenship, and its role in enhancing students’ online safety.

Meanwhile, for those teaching under such restrictions, the good news is that there are a growing number of alternatives available to still foster global connections. Here are four we’re sure your students will love!

Quadblogging

Meet the digital version of pen pals. This is a great compromise with an administration that is wary of public blogging–ask for permission to connect with just 3 other classes so they can learn about their peers in other places. Your class will become part of a Quad of four classes. You each take week-long turns as the focus class, meaning the other 3 classes visit and comment on your students’ blogs. The year I did this with my fifth graders, our quad included fifth grade classes from the U.S., the U.K., and China, and our students couldn’t get enough of seeing comments on their work from their quad friends across the globe.

The Wonderment

The Wonderment is a new creativity-sharing platform that makes me want to be a kid again. It allows students to share and connect with kids around the world using their WonderBots. Students can share their work, participate in creative challenges, and participate in discussions with other kids–all while filling up a WonderMeter that opens up the Wonderment to new locations in the world. “When we create things together, good things happen.”

 

Class Twitter Account

Twitter allows teachers to easily share snippets of student learning throughout the day in just 140 characters. A group just brainstormed phenomenal questions for a project? Just snap a photo and share on your classroom Twitter account with hashtags that will help their ideas reach beyond just the walls of your classroom (ie, #comments4kids, grade level chat like #5thchat, etc.).  Invite parents to follow your class account to give them a window into your classroom, too! To see it this in action, check out Mrs. Cassidy’s first grade class account. (For more inspiration, check out “Unlocking Twitter’s Classroom Potential“).

MysterySkype

Can your class guess the location of another over Skype?  Not only does MysterySkype give your students an opportunity to connect with kids around the world, but it allows them to cultivate communication, problem solving, collaboration, and organization.  Before you launch a session, be sure to check out how other teachers have set it up, like fifth grade teacher, Paul Solarz.

Though none of these options allow students to create individual and flexible digital portfolios like student blogging does, they are a start. Meanwhile, maintain forward-moving conversations with your administration and/or parents by making the case for public blogging, addressing safety concerns, showing them how beneficial digital connections are for us all.

What are ways you help your students build an authentic audience?

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto