Author Archive

Test corrections

A now-retired teacher once said “I have the kids do test corrections, because I want the last time they see a concept to be right.” The challenge is – how can we have students revisit concepts in a meaningful way? What doesn’t work is to have a student take home the test, and make corrections as homework. The learning task is to re-write a multiple choice question as a full, correct statement with the ‘right answer’.

I sometimes do a two part test, and it works well. Part 1, the student writes down what they know. Part 2, the student evaluates another student’s response for accuracy, compared with a ‘guide sheet’ supplied by the teacher. Here’s how it works:

  1. Student 123 puts their student ID on their paper, not their name (so they are anonymous)
  2. The student responds to short response questions.
  3. When finished with the test, they hand the test to the teacher.
  4. The teacher waits until 3-4 students are finished with the test.
  5. Then, the teacher begins handing back tests. Student 123 gets a test completed by Student 456, and a ‘guide sheet’ (not an ‘answer key’. The guide sheet provides support information that relates to the question.)
  6. Student 123 puts their student ID at the bottom of the paper they are evaluating, to stay anonymous.
  7. The 123 is asked to make corrections to 456’s paper, based on their knowledge, and their interpretation of the guide sheet.
  8. Scoring is as follows:
  • If the student makes an accurate correction, that’s 3 bonus points added to their Part 1 score.
  • If the students marks “No correction needed”, but the response wasn’t accurate, that’s -1 point.
  • If the students makes a correction, but it was right, that’s 0 points,
  • If the student marks “No correction needed”, and they are right, that’s 1 point.

The students then turned in their evaluation of the other student’s test. I, as the teacher,

Once the students got the system, I think it was good in several ways:

  1. Students stayed anonymous
  2. Students who ‘answered’ question 1 correctly, but didn’t understand it, needed to consider what another student wrote. This is a higher level of thinking.
  3. Students immediately had the chance to reevaluate their own response, when comparing with the ‘guide sheet’. There was no need to wait until I corrected their paper.
  4. The guide sheet provided support to students who needed it, without just giving them the answer.

A drawback to this system is that the teacher must do more thinking. Also, and keeping track of the two scores on two tests is challenging. If a student finishes very fast, there’s a time lag when they eventually get a test to correct. Lastly, I’ve given student’s their own test back from time to time to correct- but kids have always brought that up to me.

Do you have a test correction strategy? Leave a comment and let me know!



Meteorology and Astronomy in one video clip


What follows is a fantastic compilation video, edited by Michael König ( It’s a time-lapse view of Earth from The International Space Station, 350km above Earth’s surface. If you got creative, you could teach a lot of meteorology and astronomy, just from the phenomenon shown here.

I made an attempt of posing some questions, and posted it here:

In addition, I created a version of the video where I attempt to annotate features to which I want students pay attention. (It’s my first time, and I hope to get better)

Here are a few examples:

0:20: Fly over the Midwestern US at night. Using approximate distances between known US cities, estimate the depth of the atmosphere where aurora borealis can be seen, and discuss that phenomena, complete with observations of their relationship to the poles.

1:04: Observe and discuss the stars/constellations seen in the background. Discuss rotation of Earth on axis, and velocity/path needed for the ISS to maintain course.

1:35: Observe and explain cloud formations seen over land and water in this coastal region. Discuss sea level rise and the total estimates for population impacted near water as estimated by nighttime illumination. Discuss wildlife impact from such nighttime lighting, and why lights appear similar in color.

——and so on, and so forth——

Let me know what you think!



Merit pay for teachers versus competitive salary

Imagine this conversation:

Administrative team: “If you try twice as hard, we’ll pay you twice as much!”

Teacher: “But… I’m CURRENTLY doing about as much I’m able!”

A great horse, but not a race horse

The concept of ‘merit pay’, or awarding teachers financially for their students ‘results’ (what are we truly measuring?) is certainly a hot topic. Teachers are like jockeys (bear with me here):

  • a great jockey may push their top-notch horse to win The Triple Crown
  • a terrible jockey may break their top-notch horse, through poor guidance, not knowing when to push and when to save their horses strength
  • a great jockey cannot win any races riding a Clydesdale, a horse bred for strength, or with a 1 year old “thoroughbred- to-be”
 (note that the Clydesdale and the thoroughbred-to-be are wonderful horses – but either the task is not right, or the timing is not right.)

I follow Chris Lehmann’s blog, and his post about Making Teachers Rich suggested that being rich, is not the point for teacher. I agree with this. Apparently, so do teachers, because we start this career knowing full well that the salary will never be as high as an engineering salary.

And THAT, is the problem. I always wanted to teach, but I got my degree and first jobs in engineering because the pay offered more stability. When I left engineering, my mentors and the VP of operations called me to say “Listen, I want to teach tooo when I have some money saved up. Right now, you should think of your financial future.” These people WERE great teachers for me, although we diverged on this final point(they were family men – I have no wife or kids).

I contend that if starting engineering salaries are $50,000/yr, starting teacher salaries should be $55,000/yr. Let undergraduates compete like crazy to get teaching jobs, just like we did for engineering jobs.  I’m afraid that the teaching profession loses great teachers because they fear the comparable hardship of a low paying salary. Particularly with rising college tuition costs, the degree needs to pay off.

I agree with Mr. Lehmann, that we shouldn’t just make teachers rich. I also think that paying teachers for student performance will not lead to REAL performance improvements for teacher and student. However, let’s put teaching on an equal playing field with other professions, and let education compete with other careers that traditionally pay more money.

Using Google Reader to keep up with blogs and current events

Using Google Reader to keep up with blogs

Blogs are a great way to include more current events in class discussions. They have provided me with a way to get the news I want, and leave out all the topics that can really waste my time!

It took me a while to learn how to incorporate reading blogs into my daily routine. I stopped thinking of blogs as websites, and started using Google Reader to make them seem like emails to my inbox to be read. This really helped me get into the habit.

Here’s how I started doing it so it makes sense to me:

  1. In the internet browser of choice, open a new tab and click-drag it to the tab next to your email
  2. Visit Google Reader and create an account, if you don’t already have one
  3. Find a blog that you want to read (I love Wired Science)
  4. Copy the url for that blog
  5. In Reader, click “Subscribe”, paste in the url of the blog, and click ‘Add’

Now that you are subscribed to a blog, Reader will indicate when you have new content waiting for you. Check out the picture to see what I see now (I use the Chrome browser):

  1. Tab 1 is my email box, showing how many unread emails I have
  2. Tab 2 is my Reader feed, showing any unread blog posts

I leave these tabs open all day long. If you haven’t yet tied blogs into your routines, I hope this gives you something to try!

Best wishes to everyone,


Why we aren’t doomed

My holiday conversations with family and friends often involve “the state of American education”. There’s some doom and gloom surrounding the performance of US students when compared with other nations in math and science. It’s understandable to be nervous about the future when so much is changing so quickly, and that we want to prepare as well as we can.

I am not nervous. I know that things will change for the worse in some ways. I also know that technology and the ‘global intelligence’ provides an accelerating capacity to make changes for the better. Predictions of these changes would not be accurate, even if we tried really hard.

Three things in which I believe:

1. People are resilient and resourceful, and this diminishes with age. Young people adapt better than old folks – like myself.

2. The principles that provide the foundation for success do not change with time. It has been, and always will be some combination of these traits:

  • the mental practice of searching for and evaluating information,
  • the maturity to create an appropriate response to that information, and
  • the motivation and drive to execute the chosen response

3. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Point #1 won’t change. Point #3 unfolds on its own – it’s hard to ‘force’ necessity. Point #2 are things that can be learned in school, out of school, out in “the wild” (playgrounds, streets, etc), or (most likely) some combination of the the three. They aren’t easy lessons, but they can be learned anywhere. With them, everything is possible, ESPECIALLY in the face of change. Without them, our communities don’t really flourish – it’s more survival. In both scenarios, the “safety value” is Point #3. If things get REALLY bad, people need to make amazing things happen, and they will do it.

Point #2 is a part of US culture to some degree, and part of human nature. In American educational systems, we focus on Point #2 to some degree. For this reason, other countries still look to US education to see what we do. Also, while there’s focus, fear, and mania on standards, we continue to create better educational methods. The efforts to create national standards (Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS), even if you disagree with them, seem like they are being developed with the intent to incorporate wisdom and democracy with these latest methods. I’ll elaborate on NGSS in another post.

For now, I’m satisfied knowing that educational methods are making good progress. Teachers may not adopt new skills overnight, but students are constantly learning new things outside of school too. I know that a clever person will always be able to enter a job and begin to make a difference by learning the needed skills.

In summary, my forecast for my personal holiday vignettes about education is “mostly sunny”. Happy winter, everyone!


The future of textbooks

Using textbooks in the contemporary physics classroom

I follow Frank Noschese’s blog Action-Reaction because he records thoughtful reflections on his inquiry and non-cookie cutter teaching efforts. In his post about visualizing average velocity, he alludes (offhand) how textbooks are utilized in his classroom. I love it.

Uses of Textbooks:

Textbooks make wonderful reference tools. They provide well-worded explanations to revisit after the lesson is over. Using the teacher edition carefully can give great insights on how to structure learning, and provide ideas on differentiation for more students.

They can also provide good, stable blocks to hold up a table.

Why is this OK

To a good teacher, a textbook is one of many tools we can use to create meaningful learning experiences. Used creatively, a textbook brings images and enrichment opportunities. Teachers who proudly do NOT use a textbook are missing the point and missing out on a great resource.

In 1912, the textbook was an invaluable tool for education, for the following reasons:

  • students leaving the 1912 classroom with out skills in memorization and execution would not go on to be contributing members of society
  • teachers did not have the opportunities for ongoing education. Paying a teacher to leave on a 5 day trip to a far away college to continue learning every few years would be impractical.

Why we must do more than only textbooks today

The spinning pumps water from the well

You really have to grind the good out of people – it doesn’t just vanish quietly. Kids are attracted to the idea of accomplishing important things, and they only stop trying if they think that it’s unlikely that the effort will pay off. Using stale textbooks can grind people down.

It’s unlikely that teachers can give a world-class education using just a textbook these days. Their pedagogy may be good, but students are inspired by bigger audiences. Current events are presented freely in a myriad of media formats. The product of a lesson on torque can be more than just 20 problems repeating the concept. It can be creating a better water well for people in a far-away land.

In conclusion – Frank has done a great thing. A teacher must do miracles with limited resources. We should all use books, the internet, a student’s cell phone, relationships with other schools, private and commercial funding in creative ways to keep our students thinking, learning, and loving the entire process.


Exploring the 5E model

The exact definition of the 5E model varies from place to place. Some have expanded the model to include 6Es or 7Es and standards. Let’s accept the variations and avoid symantics, for the sake of a short post. The common intent is to provide a (mostly) sequential path for student learning that engages the student and lets them explore a concept before getting into vocabulary or the textbook.

Before my lengthier definitions, here’s an overview of the Es:

Engage the student, allow the student to Explore the concept in some way, ask the student to Explain what they’ve experienced, Elaborate on what was learned to apply to other applications and Evaluate the learning, and Extend the acquired knowledge to new situations.

One teacher I know is curious about this model of instruction, but is reluctant to jump in with both feet. He has explored his own version by doing his lab activity first, THEN going through the lecture experience and notes as needed.

Here’s a more in depth discussion of each stage, primarily distilled from a introduction by the Miami Science Museum that I think explains it nicely:

Engage (sometimes “excite”). The teacher grabs the learner’s attention and outlines why the learning is important and why the student should be interested in the concepts to be learned. The teacher provides opportunities for the student to makevery clear connections with past and present learning experiences.

Explore. Learners explore the concept that will be taught, and all students will now have a minimum level of experience with the concept shown. They have the opportunity to use materials or refer to phenomenon that show some of the interactions that result from this concept. This is a good place for students to ask questions “what happen if…” and then try it out to see the relationship.

Explain (sometimes or “expand”). Learners start to form explanations for the relationships they have just witnessed. Effort is made to sequence events into a logical format, and communication occurs between peers, the facilitator, or within the learner himself. The teacher can start to introduce vocabulary for the concepts that the students are attempting to explain. The teacher can also clearly and methodically use the experiences to help students overcome misconceptions. Learners make apply their generalizations to situations outside of the classroom.

Evaluate (sometimes “elaborate” or “exchange”). The teacher and learner evaluate the progress made towards learning goals. These assessments should include student reflection, informal teacher observations, rubrics, small group discussions, checklists, student interviews, portfolios designed with specific purposes, project and problem-based learning products, and embedded assessments.

Extend (sometimes “enrich”). The student takes the learning and applies it to a new set of circumstances or a more challenging situation. Students propose investigations that permit further exploration and inquiry into the topic at hand. Applications may include collaboration with other students locally or globally, investigating a local or global issue – current or historical – that relates to the concept, creating artwork, media, or writings connected to the concept.

The Miami Science Museum goes on to say “the learning process is open-ended and open to change. There is an on going loop where questions lead to answers but more questions and instruction is driven by both predetermined lesson design and the inquiry process.”

I hope that gives you something to think about. I hope you’ll share comments about your experiences with 5E.