The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Working toward Science Literacy

Science literacy has been a hot topic of conversation in education for several years now. As part of the national push for more STEM focus, science literacy encompasses a number of skills (as opposed to content) that are essential for STEM and other professions in the 21st century workforce.

Our science team centered its goal this year around science literacy:

Based on the fact that students currently score below the state and national averages on MCAS, AP, & SATII exams, our goal is to increase scientific literacy across grade levels. We will develop monthly assessments that measure proficiency in scientific literacy skills. We will review student performance on these monthly assessments and if 70% of the class does not receive a 75% or higher, we will reteach and reassess.

We made this year’s goal in response to the fact that our data shows our students are consistent unprepared for the level of rigor of high-level assessment, most of the time not due to lack of content knowledge but lack of skills in breaking down and interpreting complex texts, graphs, data, etc. The skill deficiency was also noticed by 12th grade teachers who get wave after wave of students who lack the skills for researching, writing, and defending their senior thesis.

The need for these skills is more urgent now for us as well because of the Common Core standards, and the accompanying PARCC exam.  Last year, students struggled with both the ELA and Math PARCC pilot tests, again not due to content knowledge, but due to being unable to parse the question and figure out what was even being asked.

So our administration basically said, top-down from the skills we know they are missing in 12 grade AP, PARCC, and senior defense, everybody align all the way down in every grade, every content, every student.

Over the summer, we used two references as guidelines to construct a draft vertical alignment. Both are attached. The first is a pdf of the pages relevant to Scientific and Technical Literacy from the Common Core ELA standards, which are obviously PARCC aligned. These will serve as classroom-level guides on constructing tasks, assessments, projects, etc. All major projects and assessments should include components from this rubric.

The second is the NMSI Process Skills Progression chart, which is based on the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. The nine skills are broken down into three levels of increasing abstraction: Factual Knowledge, Conceptual Understanding, and Reasoning & Analysis. We have loosely decided to base the assessments we will use to measure our Science Team goal on these skills. We will assess one of the nine skills per month, and try to establish a baseline set of data for what level our students are at on the progression in each skill by grade level. Then next year, we will use the baseline data as the starting point to construct a full vertical alignment of what needs to be taught by grade level and in what depth.

Both of these overlap very well with what we’ve been using to design projects until now, the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrix (also attached). We will continue to measure our major projects against the Hess rubric.

That’s about all I really know at the moment, since we are just starting this initiative. I’ll try and update with any significant developments throughout the year as we continue to take a look at it.

The Food Album

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I realized that my phone’s SD card was getting full, and so went on a photo purge. I realized that a good number of my photos appear to be of food, more than of people. Say what you will about my priorities, but I didn’t want to lose this delicious collection.

So I’m uploading selected food related photos on my phone to one album. It’s a blend of Sri Lankan (my family), Puerto Rican (my girlfriend’s family) and any delectable moments at home we felt like capturing. Enjoy!


Debrief from the NSTA National Conference

Thanks to the BTR Avengers team, I was able to attend the National Science Teachers of America national conference here in Boston last April. I was floored by how large the conference was — taking up three hotels in South Boston, beyond the large Convention Center itself. NSTA was easily eight times the size of even the largest conference I ever attended in my former profession, the annual AIAA Aerospace Science Meeting. I suppose there are far more science teachers and vendors to same than aerospace engineers.


I got some great ideas for project-based learning around sustainable energy from KidWind. They have complete lesson plans and materials online for FREE, as well as awesome turbine kits available for purchase. Though I did conclude this school year with a unit on sustainable energy, I was not able to plan enough in advance to incorporate any of their materials. Maybe next year. I’m particularly interested in their equipment that would allow me to do wind turbine blade design competition.

I sat in on a session about the DuPont Challenge science and technology essay competition. Students write 700-1000 word essays about any of the following four challenges:

  • Together, we can feed the world.
  • Together, we can build a secure energy future.
  • Together, we can protect people and the environment.
  • Together, we can be innovative anywhere.

I’m seriously considering incorporating the essay into my 11th grade Physics classes.

I’m also excited about the Toshiba Exploravision competition, which I am planning to implement with a colleague as a joint Honors Physics / Honors ELA interdisciplinary project for next year’s 9th grade Honors cohort. The competition asks students to envision how a particular technology might change 20 years from now, research the technology, and propose/present their persuasive argument. The task combines many of the 21st Century Skills while simultaneously addressing several NGSS and Common Core standards in a creative way.

Finally, though I think I’ve been pretty good about using technology in the classroom so far, I will be ramping it up next year. Science reflective journals? Hit me up on Vine now, students. Show me what you learned and why its important. Six seconds of clips… go.

Moving to Jackson

Stairway from the T tracks up to Jackson Square. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.
Stairway from the T tracks up to Jackson Square. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.

“I’m moving to Jackson Square,” I said in the break room.

“Oh my word, why?” my colleague replied.

Jackson Square doesn’t have the best reputation. Finding itself directly in the path of a proposed new freeway in the 1970’s, the intersection of Columbus Ave and Centre St suffered demolitions that tore a barren strip down lower Boston, parallel to the T tracks. Though neighborhood advocates successfully fought off the freeway, the neighborhood was largely neglected for the next four decades. During that time, the area has become associated primarily with the nearby BHA Bromley-Heath low-income ousing projects and a rash of violent crime, often in the same breath.

Now a $250 million effort at redevelopment is well underway. The new fine residential building at 225 Centre St is the first of a planned 14 new developments. While a big step up in the standard of housing for the area, the building has also maintained one-third of its units as affordable housing. Subsequent developments are slated to add many more affordable units as well.

The T station sits between 225 and the Bromley-Heath. The station is a microcosm of the larger forces around it. Jackson Square itself is the bridge between the rapidly gentrifying (and mostly affluent white) pond-side of Jamaica Plain to the west and the generally lower-income (and mostly black) neighborhood of Roxbury to the east of Columbus Ave. In between is what some are trying to brand as “Boston’s Latin Quarter”, a diverse neighborhood that includes many locally-owned Latin American restaurants and businesses of Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican origin.

Change is coming to Jackson Square, along economic, social, and ethnic lines.

Will the community steer itself in a direction that preserves the neighborhood’s character while advancing quality of life and economic opportunity for all? Or is Jackson Square doomed to be another chapter in the ongoing gentrification of urban America, pushing the working class out to make room for the luxury condos of the rich?

225 Centre St and the Jackson Square T station, taken from Lamartine and Centre. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.
225 Centre St and the Jackson Square T station, taken from Lamartine and Centre. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.

Jackson Square has a chance to become the model of new urban living: community-driven, environmentally responsible, diverse, and, most importantly, mixed-income residences — built around public transit and strengthened by an array of nearby local small businesses.  Boston has a chance to show the country what urban development done right looks like.

The next few years will be telling.

This blog post is the first in a year-long series that aims to explore the Hyde Jackson neighborhood and the issues surrounding it. My friend (and soon-to-be roommate) Larissa agreed to join me on this project, and together we will be posting photography and essays from and about Hyde-Jackson.

We invite comments, questions, and feedback on the series as we go. The most direct way of joining the discussion is by leaving a reply on a relevant blog post. You can also comment on a specific photo in the gallery or send us a general message from the Hyde-Jackson project page.

Subha aluth aurudha

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My mother and I drive into a run-down neighborhood of the river-port city of West Sacramento, and find parking on the side of the street. A yard for freight truck cabs is next door, and across the street I can see a dilapidated motel and an industrial warehouse. But in the rough is a diamond of spirituality and community.

Two small houses share a large strip of property that carves a long rectangle out of this blue collar suburb. Small Buddhist flags hang from the awnings, and the garage door of one of the houses is emblazoned with a dharma wheel. Monks trapse between the houses in their orange robes. Two scents combine to extend a powerful sensory welcome — I associate both incense and curry with home, family, and tradition.

I had never been to my parents’ temple before today.

American Buddhist Seminary in Sacramento serves as the spiritual and social center for the Sri Lankan community living around California’s capitol. I would consider myself fairly well connected to the community through family functions, dinner parties, camping trips, and a few lay Buddhist ceremonies. However, visiting the temple was a new experience.

ABS was founded in 1996 as center for Buddhist study and practice in Sacramento. It also serves to train Therevada monks from Sri Lanka and Thailand for seminary work here in the United States; teaching the dhamma here in American can present significant linguistic and cultural challenges for foreign-born monks.

The Seminary is expanding. Recent architectural drawings are on the wall for a new temple — complete with a meditation garden and community room — that will expand into the now largely vacant ground behind the houses.

These photographs were taken during the New Year blessings (puja) ceremony. As the Sinhalese say: subha aluth aurudha… have a blessed new year!

All photos are copyright Nalin A. Ratnayake. Please request permission to use them.

Holding my nose

The national war over American public education is playing out right in our backyards. A recent article in the Boston Globe reveals that the last surge of spending in what was a ridiculously expensive mayoral race here in Hub was from the AFT.

The American Federation of Teachers confirmed Friday that it was the donor behind One Boston, a mysterious political action committee that paid for a $480,000 television commercial supporting Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh during the final days of the Boston mayoral race.

The national teachers’ union exploited discrepancies in state-by-state campaign spending disclosure laws to anonymously fund nearly a half million dollars worth of advertising on behalf of Walsh.

Full disclosure: I am a member of AFT Local 66, the Boston Teachers Union. In the mayoral race, I absolutely supported Walsh over Connolly. It wasn’t so much that I liked Walsh and his policies, but that I was vehemently opposed to Connolly’s corporate-influenced agenda for education reform.

Better the “able steward of the status quo” as the Globe painted Walsh, than a pro-charter, pro-standardization, “reform” candidate like Connolly. So, in the absence of any of my preferred candidates (Arroyo, Barros, and Golar-Richie all lost in the preliminaries), I decided to hold my nose and vote for Walsh.

Part of me wonders if I actually managed to pick the lesser of two evils. I am adamantly opposed to money having an outsized influence on politics, especially national money on local politics, and especially especially money that forces a false choice between two distasteful alternatives.

No single entity — union or corporate — should be able to unilaterally influence public policy in this way, especially with such a lack of transparency.

And at least Connolly called for a moratorium on outside money (an offer that Walsh refused).  So I can’t say I approve of where my dues are going or how I am being represented (not that I really have a choice… membership is mandatory).

On the other hand, what is AFT to do? Since Citizens United, so much money is now flowing into races around the country, much of it from sources that are seeking to control public policy for private (and corporate) gain. Should the defenders of public education, flawed as they may be, simply stand by and watch as Boston becomes the next bloody front in the national reform war… like Chicago, New York, DC, and New Orleans? I reluctantly see ground for AFT to argue “how could we not”.

As a broad generalization, I think I’d rather have union (ergo middle/working class) control over policy than corporate (ergo wealthy) control over policy. But what kind of choice is that?  At the root, I think what most disgusts me is the frustration of knowing that political process, from local to federal, is no longer truly accountable to the people. Why should I have to hold my nose when voting between two ugly alternatives in the first place?

Restoring faith in government, and by extension faith in the social contract, is going to be a long road if we are to recover ourselves. I’m for making that long march, but it’s not going to be easy.

Chiles Secos

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Dried chiles for sale in Grand Central Market, Los Angeles. (C)2013 Nalin A. Ratnayake
Dried chiles for sale in Grand Central Market, Los Angeles. (C)2013 Nalin A. Ratnayake

Many people claim to have seen LA, when they think of Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Newport, Malibu, Hollywood, and Disneyland — none of which are actually in Los Angeles.

The real heart of LA, I think, is in places like the old Jewelry District, Union Station, the Bradbury Building, fifties diners that never changed the decor, the La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora, $3 margaritas from a guy who doesn’t speak English, and, like this photo, Grand Central Market.

Earlier this week, I found myself unexpectedly back in Los Angeles. My brother had been waitlisted for a west coast location to take his clinical board exam for medical school, and the LA opportunity came up on two days notice. While he was in his day-long clinical, I got a chance to show my parents around my favorite places in Los Angeles, including Grand Central.

Grand Central Market is a place of fresh produce, specialty merchants, and the tantalizing mix of smells from a diverse array of Latin and Asian food vendors.

I chose to share the dried chili stand because I think it captures the vibrancy of color, mercantile feel, and earthy mix of the familiar and exotic that epitomize how I feel about the Market.

Resolutions Unresolved

So much for last year’s resolutions. Let’s check in one-by-one.


Write something everyday. I gave myself the options of journal, letter, blog, or fiction. This was going very well actually, until a mysterious event in late August seems to have thrown me off track. My journal entries are regular until August 17th, after which the next entry is… November 18th. And my letters fell off the map, and I didn’t update this blog at all (or even tweet really), and yeah I didn’t write any fiction after the first day of school.

Meditate regularly. I set a target of 20 minutes per day, at least three days a week. My Meditation Helper app shows a great record until, oh, mid-August. The record doesn’t pick up again until early December. FAIL.

Become conversant in Spanish. I have made lot of progress on this front, though I would rate myself short of “conversant.” The need is huge. Not only for my work in a public school (I wish I knew Spanish roughly once a week at least), but also my side interests in politics and community engagement. Ongoing, but short of the goal. FAIL.

Deactivate my Facebook account. I reactivated my Facebook account on April 15th, in the immediate wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. Once I made sure all of my friends and colleagues had checked in ok, I deleted the account permanently. (I did make a new account with zero friends, likes, or apps, solely to remain in the BTR Cohort X Facebook group for social event notifications.) I call that a win. SUCCESS.


Jamaica Pond, Month by Month. Now this would have been cool. A photo diary, month by month, of Jamaica Pond as it changed throughout the year. Too bad the project was mysteriously aborted in… August. (Actually, to be fair, finishing up my BTR residency year took a toll on this one too… late spring was sketchy). FAIL.

Complete a First Draft Novel. This one could still be possible… I made it up to 36,o00 words over the summer before the school year hit. The word count hasn’t moved up a single word since. However, now that I am back home and rested, with a full week and a half left of break… could I hit 50,000 words and cross into novel territory? PENDING.

Yeah so, lesson learned: Don’t assume you can do anything else but try to stay alive during your first fall teaching. It seems better now, but I am still very busy. I’ll have to think about my next steps before posting 2014’s goals…

Feeling Teachery

I have survived.

September and October were pretty grim months. After a honeymoon period that lasted a little less than a week, I began a steady slide into some of the hardest weeks of my life. As my freshmen felt their high school jitters wear off and my juniors had finished scoping out my weaknesses, the real battle for sanity began.

It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks before the winter recess that I truly felt like things were approaching a modicum of stability. I’m still tired, but I think that’s normal. I have no idea how the rest of the year is going to go, but I can at least reflect on the last four months.

Looking back on it, I think I can reconstruct a few lessons learned for any future new teachers.

1. Nothing else matters if you cannot control your classroom.

I know, you’re a stubborn idealist and waiting to get started reforming education for a future enlightened democracy. But take the high-minded ideals about liberating education and democratic classrooms, the bold plans for discussion-based inquiry, and your folder brimming with ideas for weekly project-based learning, and set it aside. At least for the first few months of teaching full time.

Instead, attend to the basics and make sure you have them down pat: Clear rules and expectations, with ready short responses for the inevitable “why?”. A posted chain of consequences that you will stick to with no exceptions. A plan for how you will hit your educator evaluation targets. The first two weeks of lessons planned (not just bulleted, PLANNED TO THE DETAIL) in advance.

And, critically, an airtight system for organizing paperwork by graded/not-graded, which block, handout-and-keep, handout-and-return, late work (and associated penalties), late work due to excused absence, makeup work, makeup exams, answer keys, advisory, notices to students from administration, extra credit, extracurriculars, and every other type of document you can think of… because the paperwork will come in a flood and it will never let up. Ever.

Once you have a consistently safe environment for learning that doesn’t make you feel like you are drowning, then you can move on to bigger and better things like those inquiry-based project discussions.

My residency year was spent at a great school with great students that taught me a lot about many things except what I now believe is the single most important skill: solo classroom management under constantly adversarial circumstances, all day every day week after week.

If you are unsure how to get started, I recommend Rick Smith’s Conscious Classroom Management as a reference that helped me out immensely.

I’ll say again: NOTHING ELSE WILL WORK if you cannot control your classroom. It has only been quite recently that I’ve felt confident enough to move much beyond making sure that basic goal is met.

2. Steal everything.

I still haven’t quite internalized that I really do not need to homeroll every little part of my curriculum and logistics. Stop reinventing the wheel, use what’s already out there, and ramp up your own style slowly over time. I’ve got years and years to hone my own style and invent my own methods. I don’t need to do that in the hardest phase of my teaching career.

As a first year teacher, it will not be resources you need. There are hundreds, if not thousands of great resources on teaching, education, science, inquiry, labs, etc. People still keep trying to give me workbooks, websites, curricula, and lab equipment that I will put in my back closet and not look at again until next summer. What you will really need is time, which is the one thing no one can give you more of. You need to make more of it yourself (where possible) by choosing how you will approach your work.

3. Families are your best allies.

Even my most difficult alpha-males, the ones who seemed to be hell-bent on locking horns day after day, were just looking for evidence that I will provide a safe and secure environment. Getting families on board with that plan is a good way to convince those students that a) you care, and b) you will not be letting them off the hook. Further, calling home with compliments gives them positive incentive to perform well. Deep down, all kids want to succeed and be seen as successful, even if they do not want to admit it.

4. Make time for your support network.

They say the first year of teaching is the hardest year, and the first quarter of any teaching year is the hardest quarter. It stands to reason then, that the first quarter of the first year of teaching is a double dose of difficult. There is absolutely no reason to go it alone.

I went through Boston Teacher Residency. Its cohort model of training meant that I went into teaching with a strong corps of friends and colleagues that I could call on for support and collaboration, which is one of the great benefits of the residency model. Even if you didn’t go through such a program and feel like you don’t have allies, find them. In your school, in other schools, or on the web.

5. A supportive administration and staff change everything. My colleagues at my school have been amazing — offering ideas, support, solid backup on discipline, and even offering to help grade. Compared to the horror stories I have heard from some other schools, I count myself very lucky in this regard. Teachers don’t often have much of a choice in the character of their colleagues and supervisors, but if it is at all possible, trade whatever you can for good people on your side.

That’s the top five reflections so far. I definitely don’t have it all figured out yet — in fact, one thing I enjoy about this profession is that the opportunities to improve seem endless. But it’s getting better. Especially now that I’ve had a few days to rest, I am looking forward to seeing how the rest of the year plays out.

I’ve Got Friends in This Game (BTR Blog)

Though I’m now all gradumacated, I will be continuing to blog for BTR as an alumnus. My latest post is about the excitement and anxiety that comes with seeing the first days of school approach.  Eeep!

I’ve got units and community building to plan, department and grade-level teams with whom to coordinate, disciplinary procedures to figure out, lab equipment to move in and test, and a classroom to arrange and accouter from scratch. Do I want a lecture hall focused on individual work? Table groups for collaborative learning? Or a roundtable setup for greater ease of whole-class discussion? What is my plan for universal access to content, especially for my students with learning disabilities or those who are still learning English? How much time do I want to spend building up our classroom identity as collaborative investigators? What do I do if my students resist my efforts at establishing community? Am I going to make an ass of myself on the first day? What the hell does the copier error PC LOAD LETTER mean anyway?

In other words, my brain is well along on an anxiety-soaked quest to discover every permutation of OH MY GOD WHAT IF I SUCK AT THIS.

You can read the whole post on BTR’s site.