The Very Spring and Root

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

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Updates and Personal

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.

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.

My Classroom!

IMG_20130722_134947The up side of freedom is that I can do whatever I want! The downside of freedom is that now I need to decide what it is that I want. Damn.

I got access to my classroom a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been nerding out on how to set it up. It’s a squarish room with pair tables for 22 students, fixed lab counters and sinks around the outside perimeter and a pair of fixed demo tables at the front. I’ve got old school vertical sliding whiteboards and a small SMART Board off to the side.

I have no idea what to do with the roughly 2 million little drawers and cubbies of the built-in cabinetry in the back room.

Right now, I’ve got it set up in three groups of 6 and one group of 4. I toyed with other arrangements as well. Lecture-style rows had the advantage of order and sight-lines to the board, but I thought it would make things more difficult for group work, collaboration, and discussion. I also tried a round-robin circle of tables to emphasize the importance of discussion in the science class, but I thought that it might be too good for this purpose — meaning that students would be tempted to distract each other across the room. Plus, group work remains hard in that arrangement anyway.

IIMG_20130722_145545 plan to use the vertical sliding whiteboard for objectives and essential questions for the unit / lesson / day, and have it in the “up” position. The board underneath will be for classwork and examples we do in the lesson. The side board near the door will have the agenda for the week and all due items.

Corkboard… I’m thinking exemplary student work, class rules/expectations, and some of the many NASA posters I just got loaded up on thanks to former colleague Kevin back at Dryden.  In the back there is a small table that I will probably use for a little career station, with info on science and engineering as careers, current events in science, and profiles of diverse scientists who are doing awesome work.

As for posters,  in addition to the aforementioned NASA swag, I ordered four more: a “No Whining” sign, “Believe in Yourself: You’re More Capable Than You Think”, “Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone”, and “Think: It’s Not Illegal Yet”. I plan on making a few more for classroom procedures and expectations, as well as (if I have time) a few of my favorite quotes with pictures of the person who said each.

“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life.”  – Jiddu Krishnamurti (philosopher)

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more about the world than I knew yesterday — and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” — Niel deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist)

“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations…If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out … You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.” — Mae Jemison (astronaut)

That’s all for now… I’m sure once I start getting down to the actual setup process much of this will change!

JellyBiologist Turns One!

Congratulations to Rebecca over at JellyBiologist on the first anniversary of her blog! Over the last year she has been dutifully posting all about the weird and wonderful world of jellyfish and other beautifully alien sea life. Her content is interesting and accessible — she is a true warrior for public scientific literacy.

You should definitely go over there and take a look at the picture of the Jelly Fish cake she has posted. Om nom. Oh yes, and read about marine biology.

BTR Cohort X: The Musical

My roommate, Juliet, led several other intrepid members of BTR’s 10th Cohort in producing this cheesy tribute musical to our residency experience. If you’re savvy with some teaching terms, you’ll probably find it funny — though fair warning, it mostly consists of a non-stop stream of inside jokes.

And it probably goes without saying, but this is for fun, not representative of any entity we work for, and definitely very satirical.

And for those of you who can’t get the songs out of your heads (ahem), here is the soundtrack and all the lyrics so that you can sing along!


We’ll Make Teachers Outta You (parody of “Let’s Get Down to Business” from Mulan)

Let’s get down to business
To defeat the odds
Urban schools are awesome
When you got BTR

You’re the brightest bunch we’ve ever seen
But we’ve got some work to do
Somehow we’ll make teachers outta you

Thirteen months before us
You’ve got grades to keep
CTs give their orders
Don’t forget to sleep

You’re the fly-est, most connected lot
Cohort X, it’s up to you
Somehow we’ll make teachers outta you

I’m never gonna catch my breath
Say goodbye to those who knew me
Boy I’m really glad I’m not doing TFA
This rubric’s got us scared to death
Hope that they don’t see right through me
Now I really wish that I knew how to maintain high cognitive demand!

We must be quick as we make decisions
We must force it like a great typhoon
Making content accessible
With backwards planning you know
You’ll get there soon

Time is racing towards us
till the MCAS arrives
Use your data wisely
And you might survive
You’re unsuited for boring test prep
But assessment is near at hand!
Somehow you’ll find a way
To maintain high cognitive demand!



LPD SONG (parody of “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore)

White, white, white, white… (black) white, white, (latina), white white white white

I’m gonna go unpack
we’ve all got privilege from our station
I, I, I’m huntin’ looking for oppression
It’s social location

RESIDENTS (various):
Nah, walk up to the class like, “What up? I got a big diagram!”
I’m so pumped about the Cycle of Liberation, man!
Racism, ableism, it’s so damn costly
And now people always like, “Damn! That’s a sexist comment.”
Rollin’ in, hella deep, teachin’ for democracy
Dressin’ down, ‘cause we’re sweatin’ bullets up in here
Got my ‘Readings for Diversity and Social Justice’ with me
I don’t get what mattress of oppression means,
But shit, she said it ninety nine times! (Map it)

I see that racist code
You can’t target me no more
I feel contextual
Rich white men are in control
I see that racist code
You can’t target me no more
I feel contextual

[Repeat chorus]


BLMB (parody of “P.I.M.P.” by 50-Cent)

I don’t know what you heard about me
But ya can’t get a holla past me
When my students think I can’t see
I got the motha f***in BLMB

Don’t care what you think about me
But I got some tricks up my sleeve
For behavior managing
I got the motha f***in BLMB

Sup? It’s oozing down to the kids’ level
If you gotta call ‘em out, but don’t ever


 TEACHER’S DREAM (parody of “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry)

You think I’m aggie when I try to ask you “why”
You think I’m forcing whenever I make it hard
I know you want to, so I let it all roll off, roll off

Before I met you, teachers weren’t listening
I could BS them, but you think I’m sense-making
Wish you’d tell me when I’m right or wrong
Just right, right or wrong!

STU: Cognitive demand is high.
JULIE: Yeah it’s hard, but it’s love.
STU: When I’m wrong, you still ask why
JULIE: Cuz I know you as a learner!

You make me feel like I’m living a teacher’s dream
The way you turn and talk
I listen in, so I can warm call all your
Thoughts and reasoning your thoughts and reasoning
My heart stops, when you raise your hand
Wait time lifts the cognitive demand
Stop and jot, you guys are learning
Don’t ever look back, don’t ever look back

I’mma get you sense-making with my talk moves on
You’re my teacher’s dream today

Go ahead and turn and talk with your shoulder partner
You’re a teacher’s dream today…

Chorus (fades)


GATEWAY (parody of “Glamorous” by Fergie)

G-A-T-E-W-A-Y it’s the gateway x2

From our first class, back in July
When Jesse said he was white
He said get ready for all your at bats
And the gateway…
The gateway gateway

The gateway…

Goals and Principles I mean
Other things don’t mean a thing
CTEs and planning
Shopping for some grading pens
Get your rubric memorized
Got your at bat on rewind
Get your feedback in your mind
Hope that Marcie don’t come by

I still gotta do mine
At bats all right
Cognitive demand is high
I’ll be stayin’ up tonight
Drama with my CT
Conference with my CTE
All I wanna do is sleep
S’up with this intensity?

G-A-T-E-W-A-Y it’s the gateway x2


Why Teach? – BTR Promo Videos

My teaching residency program, Boston Teacher Residency, has released a series of video interviews about the program and about urban teaching. Including my colleagues Randyl and Malcolm, as well as yours truly! Check them out below:

Randyl Wilkerson giving an introduction to BTR:

Malcolm Jamal King on being a male teacher of color and why he chose to teach:

And here’s me talking about why I chose to change careers from engineering to teaching:

Saddle Up

Today was our last Science Content Methods course, which was a little sad. Not too much though, since I know I will be continuing to work with my classmates as colleagues and friends for quite awhile yet. One thing that was really nice was the opening of our “time capsule” of sorts. Last summer, in the third week of the program (seems like a decade ago), we wrote ourselves letters to be opened at the end of the year.  Here’s mine:



Wherever you find yourself, there you are.

(Live truthfully in your given circumstances.)

Saddle up.


Lehane: Messing With the Wrong City

Dorchester-born and raised author Dennis Lehane has an OpEd in the NYT that helped me think about how Monday’s events fit into the overall story of my new city.

But I do love this city. I love its atrocious accent, its inferiority complex in terms of New York, its nut-job drivers, the insane logic of its street system. I get a perverse pleasure every time I take the T in the winter and the air-conditioning is on in the subway car, or when I take it in the summer and the heat is blasting. Bostonians don’t love easy things, they love hard things — blizzards, the bleachers in Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking space. Two different friends texted me the identical message yesterday: They messed with the wrong city. This wasn’t a macho sentiment. It wasn’t “Bring it on” or a similarly insipid bit of posturing. The point wasn’t how we were going to mass in the coffee shops of the South End to figure out how to retaliate. Law enforcement will take care of that, thank you. No, what a Bostonian means when he or she says “They messed with the wrong city” is “You don’t think this changes anything, do you?”

via Messing With the Wrong City –

It’s strange, but Boston feels like home now. I don’t think it was just this terrible event that did it, but I do think the bombings were a catalyst that made me think about and realize it. I don’t have much more to say right now, so I’ll leave it there.