Monday, December 31, 2012

Rethinking Math Class

Just came across this one via Twitter. (Thanks, @grantwiggins!) I had to watch it twice. You might too.


Whoa, right? Makes me wonder what else we should rethink from math class? As a former middle school math teacher, I'm a little shaken up. (Though I hope I would be a much better math teacher today--I sometimes feel bad for the kids I taught way back when...)

Philosophy of Education

It was near the end of the semester. Students were busy--and ready for Christmas break. And in Intro to Education, we broke out the heavy stuff: Philosophy of Education. I think it's fair to say that they were not very excited about this topic when they saw it on the syllabus. But also I'm happy to say that their interest increased pretty quickly as we got started.

To begin, I asked them list as many "-ism"s as they could think of. There were a lot:

- Pragmatism
- Constructivism
- Feminism
- Environmentalism
- Modernism
- Postmodernism
- Calvinism
- Catholicism
- Secularism
- Futurism
- Relativism
- Capitalism
- Communism
- Socialism
- Marxism
- Darwinism
- Existentialism
- Realism
- Transcendentalism
- Rationalism
- Polytheism
- Monotheism
- Theism
- Atheism
- Deism
- Dualism
- Stoicism
- Buddhism
- Hinduism
- Humanism
- Terrorism
- Cannibalism (Wait...what?)
- Elitism
- Feudalism
- Paganism
- Intellectualism
- Anti-intellectualism
- Essentialism
- Perennialism
- Reconstructionism
- Progressivism

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Playing with Philosophy

The past few Saturday mornings I've been following an education Twitterchat as I have a cup of coffee.  If you're an educator and on Twitter, I'd really recommend you follow along. The hashtag is #rechat, and we're talking about "rethinking educational practices." (Kudos to John T. Spencer for starting this one.)

Anyway, this week the topic was the importance of "play" in education. The conversation was fairly wide-ranging. I had several things to share...and I sort of surprised my self with how philosophical I was about things. (To be fair, I had been working on a post about philosophy of education the day before. But still...) We got talking about how important it is for students to play--and not just elementary school recess, but all the way on up, and in class as well as out of class. Really thoughtful stuff people were sharing.

Photo gratuitously pilfered from
http://www.moogk-soulis.com/2012/09/its-all-about-play/
I have this picture hanging on my office door. I love this quote. Mr. Rogers is--as always--right. Play is serious learning. Play is the work of childhood. 

I think the opposite should also be true: serious learning should always have an element of playfulness present as well. Playfulness is not the opposite of serious work. Play can be a useful element in the midst of hard work. My "create an album" assignment might be a good example--full of playfulness, but also a valid way for students to clarify their own understanding, as well as allow me to assess their thinking at the moment.

(Here's the really philosophical bit:) 
As we chatted, I shared some of my own thinking about how different philosophies of education will probably think about the value of play. Essentialism sees the primary reason for education to ground students in "the essentials," so essentialist teachers will likely have a less playful teaching practice. Constructivism sees education more about students developing their own understandings, so constructivist teachers would likely embrace a lot more play in their teaching: students playing with ideas, playing with materials, etc. 

As I'm reflecting on my own teaching experience--and recognizing the role constructivist thinking has in my own classroom practice--maybe it's not surprising that I'm apt to tell stories, assign my students to build weird contraptions, encourage them to share their thinking, experiment with alternative strategies, and...well...play around myself. I believe each teacher's personal philosophy of education shapes his or her classroom practice.

The chat was stimulating. I'm still thinking about it more than 24-hours later. I was challenged to think about (and rethink--ha!) the role of play in my own teaching practice. Fellow teachers, what do you think? How do you incorporate "play" into your classroom? What sorts of playful assignments do you give? And if you can't think of playful ways to engage your students, why is that?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Apps for Education in Higher Ed: 1:1 Goes to College

I'm thinking a lot lately about a 1:1 environment in higher ed. I'm going to be teaching in a high tech classroom this spring, and I'm working on rethinking my pedagogy accordingly. I'm debating about whether I should expect my students to come to class with a device every time we meet. At this point, I don't think I'll require it (it won't say so in the syllabus, anyway), but I'm curious to see how many will start to bring a laptop or tablet along anyway on a regular basis.

Photo courtesy Sean MacEntee (CC BY 2.0)
At any rate, I think the day is coming--and probably soon--when a tablet will be as commonplace in higher ed classrooms as they are becoming in elementary classrooms. MacFan that I am, I'm thinking especially about iPads right now. I'm wondering about the mindshift that will have to happen for professors to embrace tablets as a pedagogical tool? Because I'm convinced that tech tools should be able to transform teaching, and not just replace old assignments with newer, shinier versions of the old.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"That Was Easy!"


"Teaching is not for the faint of heart."

I think I said this at least half a dozen times this past semester to my freshmen in EDUC 101. We spent significant time looking at the challenges of teaching: the requirements for licensure, our culture's view of the teaching profession, the curricular demands, the challenges presented by working with a diverse student population, the difficulties of consistently applying a faith-informed philosophy of education. Teaching is not for the faint of heart.

On their final exam for Intro to Education, I asked the following question: "Are you still planning on being a teacher? Why or why not?" (To be fair I should note that this was really just for the interest of our department, and they couldn't get it wrong, per se.) Very interesting to read their responses to this. Most indicated that in spite of the challenges and potential downsides, they still feel called to teach. Others were less optimistic, but still sticking with a major in Education...for now. Several who came to the conclusion throughout the semester that teaching might not be for them even quoted my line above.

Teaching is hard work. Teaching isn't for everyone.

I've been in this profession for almost 15 years. I can admit it: there was a time when I thought teaching wasn't for me either.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Game to Make You Think

In case you are running stuck with things for your middle schooler (or high schooler, or yourself...) to do over Christmas Break, let me encourage you to play a computer game. But this game is serious. It's a serious game--one intended not only to entertain, but also to educate.

The name of the game is Third World Farmer. The goal: survive as long as possible.

On the Importance of Taking Breaks

Ah...Christmas Break! I still have a couple things to wrap up for the fall semester, but I'm looking forward to a week of downtime before I start planning for the spring.

My students furiously finished things up in a hectic week of projects and papers and exams. They are now safely home for a few weeks too. My own kids are enjoying a week and a half away from school right now too.

Teachers need breaks. Students need breaks.

I think breaks can actually help learning happen. In a school culture that is increasingly focused on time-on-task and other measurable inputs for education this might sound outrageous. But breaks are important, and provide times for new learning to "stick."

Breaks within the school day are very important for learning to happen. That's what recess is for, in part. (Of course, teachers will also say it's good for letting kids burn off some extra energy, which might be true, especially if they are keeping their kids chained to their desks "on task" the rest of the time. That's probably another whole post in the making...sorry to digress.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tips for Better Searching with Google

Who doesn't use Google when conducting research these days? (Yeah, I know...there are a few die-hard Bing-ers out there yet...but humor me here...)

I just repinned this from my friend Dawn on Pinterest, but I thought so highly of it I'm sharing it here too. I'm especially thinking of elementary and middle school teachers who need to teach their students how to conduct research. (Okay, and high school teachers, and probably even college professors. Let's just call a spade a spade and admit that many of our students at most grade levels are just not very good at conducting research.)

Dawn shared this great infographic from How-To Geek. It's worth bookmarking, or pinning, or Diigoing, or whatever tool you use to keep track of great resources.

Here's to improving research skills!


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Penguin Sex, and Faith amidst Doubt

I went through a really rough patch in my faith-life a few years ago. We were having all sorts of trouble and in-fighting in our church at the time, and it all weighed on me greatly. I was struggling to see God's plan--absolutely bewildered and frustrated and feeling like nothing was going the way it should have been. I felt a little lost, to be honest. Not far from God, exactly, but unsure of whether He cared what was happening.

As much a crisis of faith as I've ever gone through, I think.

I read a LOT during that time. The Bible, of course, but lots of other books too. I read classics by Oswald Chambers and C.S. Lewis.  I read things from emergent folks like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. Much of it was affirming and helpful. Some of it was schlocky.

A friend recommended Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. Wow, that was a help--just the sort of encouraging thing I needed. So many questions raised in that book about what faithful Christian living really looks like. I love the subtitle: Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality. That was what I needed at that time. I needed to rethink my faith walk without using all the usual "Christianese."

I listened to a lot of music at that time too. Relient K's "Getting Into You" was popular for me--I think I hit 200 plays in my iTunes for that song in one year's time. Another with a high play count was a pretty powerful song by Andrew Peterson on the City on a Hill album, The Gathering. The song is entitled "Holy is the Lord" and it basically tells the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, the child of the promise. That song really resonated with me; I felt like I was being asked to sacrifice so much of what I loved and knew and understood about the church during that time.

I was still hurting. I was still confused. And, of course, it was my turn to lead staff devotions at school in the midst of all this heartache.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Another Gem from Sir Ken

Here's another brilliant bit from creativity expert and educational theorist Sir Ken Robinson. (See this prior post for another great piece of Sir Ken's work...)


What do you think? Are students ambivalent about technology in education? 

Monday, December 10, 2012

How Has the Internet Changed Education?

Just came across this infographic via Twitter...thanks to @K12Learn for the tip.

Pretty interesting to note the statistics they include. The one that really stood out to me is that "90% of faculty are using social media in courses they are teaching." Frankly, that number seems a little high to me. Of course, I suppose it depends on what you call "social media." My mind immediately jumped to Facebook, Twitter, and the like. But blogging is social by nature, as are wikis and moodles...and I've used all of these in my teaching. So I guess I'm in their 90%.

And I definitely agree with the basic principle exhibited in this infographic: I know that my own teaching practice has evolved over the 15 years I've been in the profession as internet access has grown more dependable and online tools become more flexible and varied.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Raising Standards, and Other Ridiculousness

I regularly read of the impending doom of public education in the U.S. if we don't raise standards. As Sir Ken Robinson says, "Of course we want to raise standards. Doesn't do much good to lower them!" But Sir Ken is also a proponent of tapping into students' innate creativity and curiosity and not making them march through school in lockstep. (See my previous post, A Gem from Sir Ken for some more of his thoughts--pretty thought-provoking stuff, in my humble opinion.)

Basically, I don't think "raising standards" is a real solution to the many things happening in schools that ought to be addressed. "Raising standards" is rhetoric--something that politicians and school boards like to say, but one not many people have a real handle on.

What do we really mean by "raising standards?" Do we want teachers to teach better? Students to learn more? Grades to improve? Harder standardized tests? Do we just want everyone to work harder? What are we really talking about here anyway?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Shifting from "Digital Natives" to "Digital Citizens"


I just read this blog post from Education Week...and I agree. I'm quick to label my students as "Digital Natives." This term comes from a now-classic 2001 article by Marc Prensky. I've been using the term digital natives to describe my students for at least the past seven or eight years since I encountered Prensky's piece, because it is a helpful metaphor.

Even more helpful is his idea of digital immigrants. In my previous role as Technology Coordinator, I sometimes thought of myself as a translator--perhaps an "immigrant" by age, but one well-integrated into the culture and with very little lingering accent. Interesting to see how some teachers--like other immigrants--can cling to the old ways and long for the old country. Their accent can be very, very pronounced.

I worry a little, as I get older that this may happen to me as well.

That's why I like the idea in this piece: all of us, students and teachers alike, are digital citizens. All of us--regardless of our level of comfort working with technology for teaching and learning--have a responsibility as citizens in this culture, whether native or immigrant. And for teachers (even immigrant teachers), we have a responsibility to teach students to be thoughtful, productive, law-abiding, constructive, self-aware citizens.

At my last school, as I served as Technology Coordinator, I took very seriously the role of teaching students to become good digital citizens. From my predecessors I had inherited a great project: the Internet Driver's License. Clever analogy, but one that the students got excited about. And the basic idea is sound, I think. They need to learn the "rules of the road": How to be safe, how to be responsible, how to play well with others online.

Just because they have a natural facility with the technology does not mean they automatically know how to be wise. And that's the point of digital citizenship, right?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ghoti, and the Treasures of the English Language

Whenever an oddity of English spelling or grammar comes up in class, I have a mini-lesson in my back pocket about "Why I Hate the English Language." (I don't, of course...but English does have some twisted spelling, grammar, and conventions...which can make it difficult to learn the rules.)

I happened again this week...I can't remember the exact context anymore, but off I went on my rant...

"How do you pronounce this part of a word?" as I write -ough on the board. The students usually respond in chorus:

"Uff." "Ooo." "Owe." "Off."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Outbreak at Watersedge: An Interactive Health and Science Simulation

When I was a middle school science teacher, I regularly used online simulations to enhance understanding of the topics we were studying. While a simulation can't (and shouldn't) replace hands-on activities in science class, there are some topics that are just too dangerous, or impractical, or on the wrong scale (too big or too small) for students to manipulate first hand. Other topics are too complex, and a simulation might help simplify the situation.

The Outbreak at Watersedge is a great simulation in this sense. It is an interactive game that simulates a public health crisis in the fictional town of Watersedge. The player takes on a role as an intern in the Watersedge Department of Health. The director of the Department sends the player on errands to take pictures, collect water samples, interview people, and map out incidents of illness to try and figure out why people are getting sick. It's a pretty well-developed simulation, and since it is narrative-based, it is fairly immersive. I'd say it would work well for the middle school crowd in particular, but it could be used for precocious upper elementary students as well.


Of course, no simulation is going to be a perfect fit for every classroom or curriculum. This simulation is a great way to understand how diseases are spread, and what causes epidemics, so it would probably fit best in a unit on disease and immunity or perhaps a science-and-society unit. It gives some practice in thinking scientifically, eliminating possibilities, and basing inferences on data and observations. This could be a great supplement to a science unit you teach!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Get Your Kids A-Bloggin'!

Are you an elementary or middle school teacher who would like your students to blog for school, but you're worried about privacy and safety? Kidblog.org might be the answer for you. A twitter-friend recently mentioned this resource, and it looks pretty fantastic. (Thanks to @wfryer for the tip!)


Basically, Kidblog lets you create a safe classroom blog for each of your students for free. It's super-easy to get started; I had signed up and created my first post in about five minutes. Great controls--it's clear that the folks behind this tool get it in terms of what teachers and students need:
  • No student email addresses required--just a teacher email to create an account for your class.
  • Ad-free, so you don't need to worry about offensive or questionable content.
  • You can determine the level of privacy: public, just your class, or just the author and his/her teacher. (Student blogs are set to class-only by default.)
  • You can determine who may leave comments (same options as above).
  • Teachers can create password-protected parent or guest accounts to allow people outside the class access without making the blogs open to the whole world.
  • Teachers can moderate posts and comments, if you want to set it that way.
  • It's easy to create individual student accounts, or you can create them in bulk for a whole class at once.
  • Individual students can be given permissions to customize the look of their blog to some degree.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pieces of String

I have started several posts in the past couple days that just haven't come together. Writer's block stinks.

I really enjoy writing. But there are times where it just feels like work. Blogging is supposed to be fun, right? And it is--if it weren't, I wouldn't keep doing this.

It's a good reminder for me that students probably feel this way sometimes. We want them to write right now! But for some, the process of writing is...a process. Some students can just jot things down on the fly and they come out great. Others need to map the whole thing out ahead of time before putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard.)

I had a middle school English teacher (Hi, Mrs. Slegers!) who once encouraged us to keep a folder of "pieces of string." I don't know why she used that analogy. All the little snippets of writing that we would start--maybe without ever intending to finish them--were "pieces of string." Some of them were too short to save, but she said things like, "You never know when that little piece of string will come in handy."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wikipedia for School Work?

Oh, Wikipedia...what shall we do with you?

I'm so torn. I use Wikipedia myself regularly. But...not for academic work. What is a teacher to do?

This piece came up in my Twitter feed yesterday. It's a pretty thoughtfully written piece, though I'm not thoroughly convinced by his arguments.

Of course, I had a piece published back in the Spring of 2011 that basically makes the same argument (you can read it on pp12-15), but I was thinking more of elementary, middle, and high schools here.

Why does it feel different in Higher Ed? Because I clearly advised my freshmen in Intro to Education to not use Wikipedia as a source for a recent research project.

Do I need to get over myself here? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this...


Monday, November 19, 2012

Alternatives to PowerPoint

If you are the teacher who assigns students to create PowerPoint presentations to show what they have learned, consider a few alternatives. This is on my mind because my students in Intro to Education are  giving presentations on school reform and some historical topics in education, and one of the requirements is to use technology to create visual aids...and I'm encouraging them to try something other than the PowerPoint they've always used.

So here they are: three alternative technologies you might consider:


1. Prezi

You must at least check out Prezi. It's a zooming, swooping alternative to PowerPoint. You can check out a sample presentation I created as an exemplar for my Intro to Education students here.

A couple things I love about Prezi:

Monday, November 12, 2012

13 Chapter Books All Kids Should Read

Earlier this fall, I ranted about reading incentive programs. (I have some pretty strong negative feelings about such programs.) In that earlier post, I referenced one of my favorite books, Twenty and Ten. A friend reported that after reading my post, she picked up a copy for her kids, who loved it (hooray!) She asked me for further recommendations...so here they are, my bakers-dozen of chapter books that all kids should read. In my mind, these would make great read-alouds for the 2nd-4th graders (with a few exceptions that I'll note), or independent readers for the 5th-8th grade crowd. They are presented in no particular order.



1. Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliet

Chasing Vermeer is a fantastic mystery-adventure--think of it as The DaVinci Code for the tween set. Here you meet Petra and Calder, unlikely 6th grade friends who are swept up in an investigation of art theft. You'll learn a lot about the famous renaissance painter, Jan Vermeer and some of the controversies related to his work, but it's wrapped up in hidden pictures, secret codes, and a quirky storyline that will capture the interest of pretty much every child to whom I've recommended this book. One of my very favorite books all around--not just kids' books!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Discrepant Events: A Science Magic Show!

Have you ever heard of Nikola Tesla? His story is fascinating, and sad. Suffice to say, the man was a scientific genius ahead of his time. I've read that scientists are still trying to figure out how he did some of the things he was able to do with electricity. Check out this picture of him sitting calmly in his laboratory while man-made lightning bolts crackle around him! The guy was a science magician.

Nikola Tesla, Science Magician


I should have had my camera in class for my Science Methods class this past Wednesday night. I had assigned my students to come up with discrepant events--science "magic tricks" you might say--and present them in class. No Nikola Tesla in our class, but they were pretty amazing demonstrations none-the-less...and definitely great for getting their future students interested and curious in science concepts!

Warning: the following paragraph includes a lot of educational jargon. If you don't care about educational jargon, skip down a paragraph. :-)

Discrepant events are a pretty powerful way to engage students in the processes of doing science. The basic idea is that you will demonstrate some sort of phenomenon that has a surprising or unexpected outcome. Educational psychologists would say these sort of events "prompt cognitive dissonance." In other words, they make your brain say, "Wait...what just happened?" and cause you to start asking questions and trying to infer what might be causing the phenomenon. This gets at all kinds of promising practices for teaching science, including identifying misconceptions, tapping students prior knowledge, and engaging in authentic inquiry.

Okay, enough of the education mumbo-jumbo...on to the fun! In class this week, all 26 of my students came with a crazy discrepant even prepared. No lie, we had people setting dollars dipped in rubbing alcohol ablaze, people standing on egg shells, and--the show-stealer of the night--grapes in a microwave...which arced with energy and burst into flame. (Okay, maybe we do have a Tesla!)

It was a lot of fun, and the students seemed genuinely excited and impressed with each other's work. Most indicated that after practicing an presenting a discrepant event of their own--not to mention seeing 25 others performed for them!--they would be much more likely to use these sorts of things in their own classroom. That swells me with joy!

Then, this morning, my friend Josh shared this link to the Exploratorium with me. Here you can find a whole bunch of great ideas for possible discrepant events! Definitely one I'll share with my students next semester.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Shooting Star is Not a Star

Do you teach an astronomy unit? Curious about meteors? Are you just interested with stuff crashing into Earth? If so, check out this simulation:


It allows you to simulate the impact of a meteor slamming into the 3rd rock from the sun. You can adjust the size of the meteor, its composition, the speed at which it collides with Earth, the angle of impact, and more. Pretty neat interactive site!

And then, you should give this song a listen...


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Gem from Sir Ken


This video is old enough (2010!) to be considered a classic now...but in case you haven't seen it, you must. Great explanation of the current situation in education--including some history of what brought us to this point--and some pretty brilliant thinking about what could be changed for the future.

Thank you, Sir Ken Robinson, for sharing your wisdom with us.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

After the Politics: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

I saw this picture a while ago and I'll confess, I laughed out loud...


"Spotten!" my grandma would say. (I think that's an old Dutch word for being irreverent or even sacrilegious...) But I needed the laugh. I still need the laugh.

Truth be told, I'm a little worried about the Church in this political season. Seems like a great many people are very, very politicized. I've heard some pretty powerful rhetoric over the past few days and weeks and months. I'm tired of it. Tired.

I'm still very torn about this election. There are things I like about both President Obama and Governor Romney's respective platforms. There are things about the stances of both men that I find reprehensible.

But I believe that God is sovereign, and His will is going to be done.

And that's true whether Obama is re-elected, or if Romney gets a shot at turning things around.

So here's my challenge, Church: take Christ's words to heart. When Jesus is asked by the religious leaders what the most important commandment is, he turns them on their ears:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

I think we need to hear this clearly. What is our greatest commandment, from the Lord himself? Love God. And the second greatest? Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.

Yep. Even if you vote Republican, love up on your Democratic sister. And vice-versa: even if you take the Democratic party line, love your Republican brother as much as you love yourself.

I believe that Jesus is bigger than our political squabble. Let our love be bigger as well. After all, we are also admonished in Scripture:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7,8)

So, of course we may disagree. In fact, it's likely that we will. But love nonetheless.

I'm going to wrap up with a graphic my friend Nick shared a couple weeks ago on Facebook. I've shared it before, but I think it's good advice:




Blessings to you, my friends, as you vote today. 

Give thanks to God for the freedoms you have as you do so.

And then love your neighbor as yourself.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Practicing What I Preach

I'm very aware of my own hypocrisy in terms of the gap between my educational philosophy and my classroom practice. I'm working on shrinking this gap, but let's just be honest: on this side of glory, I'm never going to make this happen perfectly.

This has taken on even more gravity for me lately though, since I'm teaching future teachers. They are pretty critical of the teaching they are observing--some have come right out and said so to me (which is hard, but good in a way)--they want to see the message match the methods. Basically, I'm striving to be more and more deliberate in practicing what I preach. (For an example from earlier in the semester, read this.)

For example, I just finished marking a test for my science methods class. But it wasn't a typical test. In fact, to call it a test is a little misleading. Over the past decade or so, I've become a big fan of differentiated instruction. At it's core, differentiated instruction is about giving students choices; providing different options in the content they learn, in how they learn the content, and/or how they demonstrate what they have learned. (I got to hear Carol Ann Tomlinson--the "guru" of differentiated instruction--present at a National Middle School Association conference back in 2004 or so--really changed my thinking about teaching!) To me, differentiation is a very "Christian" way to teach: it acknowledges that students are created as unique individuals, and allows a teacher to tailor instruction to the needs, preferences, and gifts present in his or her class. When I was a middle school science teacher, I sought to do this as much as was practicable--to be honest, it is more work at first...but the more you do it, the easier it gets.

And now that I'm teaching future teachers, we talk about how differentiation is a great way to teach. But until this semester, I haven't done too much of it myself with the college students.

But I'm trying to be deliberate here, right? Practice what I preach? So, here goes...

I always put a test on the syllabus about halfway through the semester; it's a check-up to see that they understand the theories we've been learning, that they have a solid grasp of the vocabulary, that they are pulling the big ideas together.

Its just that...I realized that a pencil-and-paper test might not be the best way to do that. So I brought it up in class with my students. And they agreed, mostly...but they pointed out that studying for a test is "easier" in some ways than alternative forms of assessment. Because I made it pretty clear to them that I do want to know what they know, and understand what they understand.

So we talked about alternatives to a traditional pencil-and-paper test. I entertained any options they would offer, at least for the discussion. A few floated to the top: an interview, a group project of some sort, and writing an essay instead. After a little more conversation, we decided on three options. They could have their choice of how they would show what they have learned so far from among these:
  1. A traditional pencil-and-paper test, made up of multiple choice and constructed response questions. (Some of them felt quite strongly that this was their preferred mode for showing what they have learned.)
  2. A "creative writing" project, in which I would give them a prompt that would give them a context in which to write about what they are learning in class.
  3. An interview, either individually or as part of a group.
Care to guess how many students picked each option? I have 26 students in this course this semester. Of those:
  • 5 chose the pencil-and-paper option.
  • 2 chose the creative writing option.
  • 3 chose an individual interview.
  • 16 chose to be part of a group for an interview.
All of them reported feeling like the choice they made provided the best opportunity for them to show what they had learned. That's a pretty powerful statement, if you think about it!

This was not a challenge-free process for me. The seven students who chose one of the written options were "easy"--we had a regularly scheduled class time that they could use for writing their test. For the other 19, I had to schedule times for them to visit with me. This took a lot more time, of course. Individual interviews lasted about 15 minutes on average; group interviews were more like 30 minutes, so all together I spent several hours in these interviews with students. And of course there was extra time invested on my part for creating the different testing options.

I noticed a few other things about these different choices that I think were interesting. An observation: the students who took the pencil-and-paper version were actually more likely to get a poorer grade over all, though no one got anything lower a "B+." I think that the nature of a multiple-choice test is such that we tend to focus on which ones students get wrong. (Side note: I always encourage my students to justify their answers for objective questions like multiple-choice or true-or-false--this helps me understand what they are thinking as they mark their answer. But this takes a lot more writing on their part, which they are probably less likely to do, unless they are feeling tentative about the answer they have selected.)

The students who chose more open-ended options tended to do better overall, because they could tailor their responses to specifically what they had learned. Those who chose the creative writing version were given a prompt to provide some context for their writing, but then they could basically choose from all of the content of the course as they synthesized an answer. And the interview was probably the most "authentic" of all: I had a half-dozen prompts to get conversation started, but then we really just had a discussion about what they had learned. (Interesting to note how deliberate most students were at using vocabulary we had studied, explaining the different theories we had explored, and integrating  ideas to describe what "good" science teaching looks like.)

I asked the students who chose the non-traditional options if they prepared for the test differently than they normally would. Their answers varied: some said they reviewed their notes and went through the class activities pretty much as they normally would; others (especially those who did the group interviews) tended to talk more with their group ahead of time and work more collaboratively. One duo--one of the last interviews I had--said that they thought preparing for the interview was pretty rigorous, but ultimately it made the interview a pretty "easy" test.

And all together, they did really, really well: students discussed the nature of science and how best to teach it, they described different approaches for planning and presenting science activities, they were able to articulate the different philosophies of education underlying contemporary views of science education. The thing that got me so excited was how they were able to integrate their new knowledge from this course with things they had learned in other courses to describe their ideas of what a distinctively Christian approach to teaching science looks like.

So was the test "easy" for them? I think this might be the wrong question. We focus so much on grades--even in higher education--that we sometimes forget that tests are NOT really about generating a grade. At least, I don't believe they should be. The test should be about finding out what students know, understand, and are able to do as a result of their learning. And if I want to know what they've learned, why not give them the chance to tell me in the mode of their choice?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Emails to the Future!

This is such a neat idea: Send your future self email!

You can do it for free using FutureMe.org. Give them an email address (spam-free!) and type your future-self an email. Specify the delivery date, and hit send. They'll send you a confirmation email to be sure you typed your address correctly, and then it's hidden until the future.

I'm thinking this could be pretty cool if you would have your students (assuming they have their own school email account) send their future selves an email during the first week of the school year, to have it delivered in the last week of school. Or at the beginning of middle school to be delivered at the end of middle school. Or to yourself, so you'd get an encouraging email from your past self delivered right in the middle of parent-teacher conference week...

Caveat: you'd obviously want to use an email account that will be there in a year or two or 20...so that you'll actually get the mail you send...

A Quick and Easy Way to Create a Webpage

Great resource here for a quick and easy way to create a great looking website. Check out tackk.com. No understanding of programming languages required; just add your text and images and customize colors, fonts, backgrounds, etc.

Here's a quickie I threw together in about 10 minutes as an example. The photos and text on the page are from a lab I used to do with my 7th grade science students. (What a great way to write a lab report!)

I'm envisioning all kinds of possibilities for school use here--you can make a tackk for free without any login or sign up required. Of course, if you want to keep your tackk for more than a week, you'll want to create the free account. Even in that case, I'm thinking a teacher could create a class account for younger students, or older students could probably create their own.

One thing I wish was part of it was a better means of commenting. As it stands, I think the only way you can comment is with a Facebook account, which isn't ideal in most schools today. But this short-coming aside, this might be a really, really useful tool for your classroom!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dry Bones

There are days when I feel completely spent. Dried up. Dead.

I think Ezekiel could identify.

Ezekiel is one of my favorite Old Testament prophets. This guy has a lot going on--he's an exile from Judah, taken forcibly to live in Bablyon. Far from home. Far from the center of his religion's worship in Jerusalem. And that's a big deal, because he was from a priestly family: he was big time in the religious culture around him. And now that's all gone for him; he's miles from home, probably feeling far from God.

And then God gets a hold of him. In chapter 1 of his book he tells the story--the first of many crazy visions--of how God calls him to be a prophet. It's wild: wings, and wheels, and a windstorm, and a sovereign God watching and ruling over it all. What a comfort that must have been for him, given his surroundings!

But...

That didn't mean life was easy for him. He's still living in exile. And being called to be a prophet wasn't exactly a picnic. God called Ezekiel to preach bizarre "sermons"--acting out the siege of Jerusalem with toy war machines and an iron frying pan, shaving all the hair off his body with a sword and scattering then it to the wind, camping out in his front yard for weeks on end. And then, in the midst of all of this going on in his life, his wife dies, and God tells him he can't even grieve her loss.

I can only imagine that he was feeling spent. Dried up. Dead.

The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones by Gustave DorĂ©
Public Domain, accessed via Wikipedia
And then, in chapter 37, God shows him another vision--one perfect for the way the world celebrates October 31st today...

God takes Ezekiel to a valley full of bones. In my mind, I'm picturing miles and miles of dried up, dead bodies. A mountain of human remains. The Book says these bones were dry--they've been lifeless for a long time.

And God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, telling them that they will come to life again.

So he does.

And as he's speaking, there's a rattling as the bones come clattering out of the chaotic jumble and join up to form skeletons. Standing on their feet.

And in a scene right out of a horror movie, tendons begin to appear, muscles develop, skin grows in. In my mind I see hollow sockets filling in with glassy eyes, hair sprouting.

But no movement; no life. An army of the dead standing at the ready.

And God tells Ezekiel to call on the Breath of
Life to enter these corpses. And he does, and in comes the Spirit, and the dead are alive again.

What an amazing picture of hope! God has not left His people alone in exile. He is with them. Ezekiel is not alone. God is filling him with the Spirit, even now as he speaks.

Now, I'm no Ezekiel, but this givs me tremendous hope. On the days that I'm feeling dead and dried up, I need to read Ezekiel 37 again. And again. Or at least listen to this song by Gungor. I hope you'll give it a listen--especially if you're feeling spiritually dead today. May you feel brought back to life in the Spirit!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Caffeine Addiction, or "Who Needs Sleep?"

My name is Dave, and I'm addicted to caffeine.

So many teachers are, aren't they? I like coffee. I like coffee a lot. When I was a newbie teacher, I often drank five or six cups a day. You can imagine that by the end of the day, my hands would be twitching. That much caffeine just isn't healthy.

After the first few years I cut back to two cups a day: a cup first thing when I get up (love my coffee-pot timer...) and one more when I get to school. That's usually still my plan these days...usually. There are days where I'll have a third cup in the middle of the afternoon. Some days I just need the pick-me-up.

You too?

I wonder about the phenomenon of teachers and their coffee. Did you have that teacher who was always puffing coffee breath when you asked for help? The one who had a mug that never really got washed out, and so the inside was stained? The one who passed back papers adorned with coffee-cup rings?

A few years ago, there was some discussion of whether we should make our school a caffeine-free zone. Many teachers were opposed, and I was one of the loudest--and probably most obnoxious--voices against this idea. I love my coffee. Don't try to take it away from me...you will regret it.

About a decade ago, I actually tried giving up coffee for Lent one Spring. About two weeks in, a couple of very sweet 7th grade girls came to me with a serious request:

"Mr. Mulder? We know you gave up coffee for Lent. But...would you think about starting to drink it again? You're kind of scary in the morning without your coffee..."

Ouch.

Okay, so I'm an addict. I'll confess it. And I'm not exactly making great strides at avoiding caffeine either. I like having a warm drink in the morning, and one that wakes me up a bit is an added benefit.

I would even say there are days I need the caffeine to get me going. The thing is, I sometimes stay up late marking papers, and I need the go-juice to get me moving in the morning. Other times, I'm troubled by insomnia. This seems to be seasonal, but I do have a hard time falling asleep when I have a lot on my mind. Because I often do have a lot on my mind.

Okay, so the band has an unfortunate name, but there's a great song by my favorite Canadian group, Barenaked Ladies. The song is called "Who Needs Sleep?" and it sums this idea up with their typical, quirky, witty lyrics. The second verse goes:

       My hands are locked up tight in fists
       My mind is racing, filled with lists
       Of things to do and things I've done
       Another sleepless night's begun

Here's one of my favorite recordings of the song, from part of their "Bathroom Sessions" series on YouTube:


I wonder how many teachers might agree with me? Those of us who throw ourselves into our work with such vigor and passion that you think we'd be bone tired by the end of the day (and we usually are...), but we care so much about our teaching practice--or maybe worry so much about our teaching practice?--that sleep eludes us? Maybe we aren't trusting enough that the weight of the world isn't really on our shoulders...that we don't really have to do it all and be perfect in every way. Maybe we're trying to hard to meet other people's expectations.

Hmmmm...

Maybe I need another cup of coffee...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Great Resource for Professional Development

I know, I know...you're a teacher, and you've experienced "professional development by video"...and you were less than impressed. Hold your horses--you need to check this one out! Yesterday, my friend Ed mentioned a great resource for teachers' professional development...and I'm hooked!

You should go and check out teachingchannel.org. But I should warn you, you might want to block off a chunk of time before you get started--you might wind up spending a lot of time here...

The site has hundreds of videos of great teaching happening. You can search by subject (math, reading, etc.) or by topic (differentiated instruction, Common Core, etc.) or by grade band (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). There are a great variety of professionally produced videos from classrooms all over the country, with teachers demonstrating best practices and doing "think alouds" in talking-heads segments to explain why they are doing what they are doing. Really valuable stuff! (Where was this resource when I was a beginning teacher?)

Here's one I just watched about classroom climate that might give you the idea. Great, because it's just a 2-minute video, with a couple questions for you to think about as you watch. Whether you agree with her approach or not, this teacher is going to challenge you to reflect on your own teaching practice--and that's what professional development is all about.

Here's another example I loved--a middle school physics lesson to drive home the idea that wearing a bike helmet is a good idea. Again, some thought questions are given--which would be great for a department meeting or professional learning community--but also the lesson plan and some other tips for incorporating vocabulary instruction, assuming you might want to use this lesson in your own classroom.

Teaching Channel is a non-profit organization, and according to their About Us page, "Our videos are produced by a unique team of professionals—a collaborative effort between video production experts, education advisors, and the classroom teachers themselves. We should point out that Teaching Channel does not determine or influence the content taught in our videos."

I hope you'll take some time to check this site out!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Faith, Politics, and Social Media

It's creeping ever closer to Election Day here. With the debates being televised lately and all the ensuing chatter in the Twitterverse and on Facebook (which is almost more entertaining for me than the debates themselves!) this is very much on my mind.

I wish we could have more civil conversations about politics. I'm a moderate. I don't respond well to people bellowing the party line--of either party--without also expressing a willingness to listen to viewpoints other than their own, and reason a bit about how faith impacts their view of politics.

I have a conviction that dealing with the intersection of faith and politics requires conversation. A willingness to share your thoughts, sure, but also a willingness to listen to what other people have to say. You would think that social media would be a great venue for this then wouldn't you? I think it's safe to say that social media is shifting the way political discourse happens. If you spend much time at all on social media sites you'll know what I mean. In fact, I'll probably share this post with friends and followers via Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, hoping to encourage more discussion. That said, I'm not entirely sure social media is the best way to have this kind of "conversation." Which, I recognize, makes this post a little ironic...

The trouble is, it's hard to be reasonable in the realm of social media. Most of the time, it's soundbites--you only get 140 characters on Twitter, right?--or links or images. It's pretty easy to spread things quickly and with low demand on your thinking. Which, I think, means we tend to shoot things out there that simply affirm our thinking, rather than open us up to conversation. (And I recognize that I have been guilty of this in the past too, lest you think I feel I'm above the fray--I'm not.)

Most of the political stuff I see on social media sites isn't really about having a conversation. Most of it is more aimed at either:
a) affirming what you already believe, or
b) trying to pick a fight with someone who thinks differently.

I think this is pretty insidious behavior for Christians. Most of my friends on social media sites are fellow believers, and I'm increasingly disappointed by the behavior of some--not all--who seem to be seeking division, rather than unity. I worry that disagreement about politics might drive a wedge between believers. I worry that we're judgmental of each other and harsh with each other. Too much of what I'm seeing online is divisive rather than unifying.

But there are exceptions.

Last week, my friend Jane posted this image on Facebook. I shared it:



I shared it, because on the day I saw this, I felt it was necessary. Many of my social media friends were lamenting one politician's views or another's, or filibustering about healthcare or taxes or a dozen other issues of the day--and usually in ways that alienated others, rather than bringing people together. It must have struck a chord with other people too, because 47 more people downstream from me have shared this image since then.

On the same day I shared the above image, my friend Ron posted this thought:

There is a false notion that speaking up for the unborn is a Republican issue. Or speaking up for the poor is a Democrat issue. Or marriage is a Republican issue and caring for the sick is a Democrat issue. First and foremost, they are gospel issues. And no political party has a corner on the gospel.

#thereisonlyonegovernmentthatisholy

This too rings true for me, and put into words the feeling in my heart. I think people are quick to paint their personal political beliefs with a patina of religiosity--and this isn't just a Republican issue, lest my Republican friends get huffy too quickly. I think Christians on both the right and the left need to examine their political beliefs in the light of the Gospel.

Republican ≠ Christian.
Democrat ≠ Christian.
Faithfully following Jesus = Christian.

This is why 
I was greatly encouraged when my friend Nick shared the following quote from John Wesley on Facebook yesterday:




This is the heart of the issue for me. 

In the past few weeks of politicking, with so many of my social-media-using friends posting images or links or rhetoric in favor of one candidate or against another, these three stood out as examples of:

1. Recognizing who is really in control,
2. Seeking middle ground and striving to be peacemakers, and 
3. Working out our faith with fear and trembling--even in the realm of politics. 

I'm a moderate, after all. I'm looking for common ground.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Required Reading for Christian Schools

Last school year I was privileged to be part of a small group of teachers at my school who met together monthly to read and discuss things that would challenge or affirm our thinking about schooling, and Christian education in particular. We read a variety of things on different topics related to education: assessment, instructional practices, faith development...but there is one slim volume we read and discussed that I think should be required reading for all Christian teachers. (And administrators, board members, and parents, for that matter.)

My friend Dan Beerens, who writes and curates Christian Schools International's Nurturing Faith blog first turned me on to this one. The book is entitled 12 Affirmations 2.0: Christian Schooling for a Changing World, by Steven Vryhof. It's a short, digestible read designed for discussion with a group. In the book, Vryhof (with the support of other Christian educators) provides a dozen "affirmations" for Christian education in contemporary society. At the same time, he challenges his readers to evaluate how well their schools are in fact meeting the mission of Christian education.


If you are a Christian teacher, or a part of a Christian school, you really owe it to yourself and your school community to take the time to read and discuss the book. I hope and pray that it will be a challenge and encouragement to you as it was to me and my colleagues!

Monday, October 15, 2012

3 R's...or 21st Century Skills?


Since my last post on 21st Century Skills, I've really been thinking about the current state of American school culture. Pardon the history lesson that's coming, but I recently had an epiphany I want to share, and I hope that thinking through the history will help me make my point.


Back in the 1800's, school was pretty much dominated by the 3 R's: readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic. If you could read, write, and compute, you were considered educated.

By the early 1900's, John Dewey at the University of Chicago was advocating for a more holistic view of education. Dewey (among others) argued for experiential education--that students should experience a great many things first hand, and this would provide a more well-rounded and comprehensive education. (Side note: Dewey is also usually cited as one of the forebears of Progressivism...maybe another history and philosophy lesson there sometime.) This was the beginnings of more student-centered educational practices as well as arts education, experiential science education, inclusion of social sciences, etc. Probably not very similar to our view of these subjects today, but it helps to illustrate.

Enter Sputnik in 1957. The beginning of the Space Race also sparked a shift back toward an emphasis on basic skills--math and science, especially--lest the American Dream fall prey to the communists.

Along came the hippy-dippy 1970's. Here we see another swing towards the experiential, culminating in the far-out idea of Open Schooling. Imagine a school without interior walls and you get the basic idea: a whole passel of kids with a group of teachers, all in one large room. "Who wants to learn some math? Come this way? Want to work on writing stories today? Right over there..." (I'm picturing some of my former students with a diagnosis of ADHD in this setting...whoa...)

In 1983, an extremely influential report was issued by the National Commission on Educational Excellence. The report was entitled, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. It outlined  the likely failure of the American educational system--unless dramatic reforms were enacted. This prompted a turn back towards the basics. By the early 1990's, the Standards-based Education movement was underway, with national education standards being set forth by different educational groups: the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics produced Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences generated Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the National Council of Teachers of English created the Standards for the English Language Arts, etc.

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was signed into law (this was actually a reauthorization of the earlier Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but with new requirements for schools.) This solidified the Standards-Based Education movement and tied it to high-stakes testing as the primary means for assessment of students' mastery of the standards.

And now, my epiphany: with the Common Core State Standards (not a national standards document, by the way) adopted in principal at least by 45 states as I write this, it seems we have come back to whence we began. The Common Core State Standards really only emphasize two subject areas: language arts and mathematics. So...our focus once again is on...the 3 R's.

Sort of like it was in the 1800's.

Seriously.

The pendulum-swing of American education between these two poles (3-R's-back-to-basics and wide-open-experiential-education) has continued its back and forth for at least the past 100 years. I'm not advocating that we need to swing the pendulum all the way back to the experiential side of things, but I do think we're pretty far to the 3 R's side currently. Certainly we need students to know how to read, write, and compute. The trouble is that there seems to be a growing over-emphasis on these elements of education in contemporary school culture. I predict that we'll swing even further toward the "just the basics" side before a cultural shift back towards a more balanced, central position might take hold.

Not that there aren't already advocates for such a shift in our school culture. The 21st Century Skills movement represents one of these. I'm not a member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, but the more I read their stuff, the more I think I agree with it. (My biggest hang-up is the corporate sponsorship of this group--not a huge fan of having the major textbook publishers behind this... You can see the list of "strategic council members" here.)

The more I think about what have been dubbed "21st Century Skills"--things like teamwork, critical thinking, creativity, global perspective, initiative, integrity, risk-taking, and personal accountability--the more I think this is what I want my own kids to learn and practice. Of course I want them to be able to read and write and compute...but I don't want their education to be reduced to these things. And I fear, in our assessment-crazy culture, that this might be just what will happen. Because if this is what is deemed important, this is what will be tested; and if this is what is going to be tested, this is what will be taught.

What do you think? Is this an either-or proposition? Or is there some room in the middle for both "the basics" as well as the higher-order thinking present in 21st Century Skills?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

21st Century Skills...Now!

Back in 2008 or so, I was asked to serve on my schools' Iowa Core Curriculum implementation team. It was a really interesting team to be a part of, and as I worked to become more familiar with the Iowa Core, I found nothing objectionable in it, and much to celebrate.

As you might expect, the standards include information about teaching math, and language arts, and even science and social studies (which are notably absent from the Common Core State Standards), but the part that I found most interesting--and still find interesting--is the part about 21st Century Skills.

What skills are critical for students at the beginning of the 21st Century? The State of Iowa would say:
  • Civic Literacy
  • Employability Skills
  • Financial Literacy
  • Health Literacy
  • Technology Literacy
I'm in favor of these! And I think they should be woven into the rest of the curriculum.

As a former Technology Coordinator, I'm especially interested in technology literacy. I'd love to see more schools embrace technology literacy not as a subject unto itself, but as a tool to enhance learning in all the disciplines. I've blogged some about this before here and here.

At the teachers' convention I attended last week, I was part of several sessions that were about teaching technology skills--developing technology literacy--in ways that embed the learning within the "regular" disciplines.

Best quote of the convention:

"It's 2012, people. We need to stop talking about 'planning for teaching 21st Century Skills' and start teaching them! That's like saying, 'It's October 1...what am I going to teach this year?'"

(Thanks to my friend, Mr. Glenn Vos, Superintendent of Holland Christian Schools for this gem.)

So, teachers, how are you teaching 21st Century Skills, right now? Specifically, where are you incorporating technology literacy into your classroom practice?

Students, how could your teachers do a better job of this?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Distinctively Christian Approach to Teaching Science?

I'm thinking a lot lately about how we teach science in Christian schools.

I teach a Science Methods course ("how do we teach science?") for elementary education majors. Being a Christian institution, we talk about being "distinctively Christian" in our approach to teaching...everything! In our department, "distinctively Christian" means more than slapping on Scripture to Christianize a lesson, and more than teaching Bible classes or holding chapel services in school. We want students to think deeply about their faith and how it intersects with lesson planning, with assessment, with classroom management, with school culture, with how they interact with students and colleagues...basically with every part of their teaching practice. As I've said it to my students: "Where do you want your students to end up? That's the point you should start teaching from."

So it's fundamentally a question of religious orientation: Who owns your heart? And how does that influence your "moves" in the classroom?

The problem with this: my students hear about "distinctively Christian teaching"--in general, at least--in practically every education course they take.

I've done this too--speak about teaching Christianly in very general terms. My friend John Van Dyk has developed a pretty useful organizing methodology for thinking about teaching Christianly, which has informed my own teaching practice. I, in turn, share this with my students as a means of getting them to think about a distinctively Christian approach to teaching. In his way of thinking (I'm paraphrasing here) the teacher has three roles to play:
  • Guiding - The teacher is an experienced fellow-traveler on the road. Just as a guide on the hiking trail is able to draw attention to both points of interest and possible pitfalls, the teacher seeks to point way on the trail to understanding.
  • Unfolding - The teacher is charged with making choices about what parts of the curriculum to "uncover" along the way. Just as unfolding the whole map all at once might prove overwhelming--and not always useful--the teacher may decide to "uncover" just small sections of the terrain at a given time.
  • Enabling - The teacher provides opportunities for students to use what they have learned to love God and serve others on the journey. Students aren't just learning for learning's sake, but to make them more faithful disciples.
(Side note: if you like the sound of this and would like to find out more, I'd heartily recommend Dr. Van Dyk's book The Craft of Christian Teaching: A Classroom Journey. You can find out more information here.)

How does this apply to teaching science? As we think about teaching science Christianly, I've made the argument with my students that this might mean:
  • Guiding students into inquiry-infused learning situations. You aren't going to just tell them...but you also are going to ensure that the things they are trying are safe, and wise, and will result in understanding science content. As an experienced fellow traveler, you can both give suggestions, and prevent disasters before they happen.
  • Making curriculum decisions about what you choose to unfold at a given time. Maybe 3rd graders aren't ready to learn about particle physics just yet. Maybe middle schoolers really should spend some time examining Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Maybe Kindergartners need time to just play with magnets to get some working understanding of how magnetic force works. Maybe senior Anatomy and Physiology students should dissect fetal pigs to help them see the interrelatedness of mammalian body systems. 
  • Enabling students to think about how their faith affects the way they think about the world around them. This allows for conversations about ethics and stewardship and wisdom (not just knowledge.)
But here's the thing...my students see where I'm coming from...and they basically agree that this all sounds good, and they would like to do this sort of teaching. But...there's usually some level of dissatisfaction, a feeling of "This isn't enough, Mr. Mulder! I mean, you're describing good teaching in general! Of course we're going to do this stuff. What makes this a distinctively Christian approach to teaching science?"

They've got me there. I can't argue with that--I would hope that all science teachers are going to use inquiry-infused approaches, and wisely ensure that the curriculum topics they teach are developmentally appropriate, and that they would engage their students in discussing ethical situations and stewardship of the world's resources. Does Van Dyk's methodology fall short then?

This has been bothering me for a while, because Van Dyk's methodology makes so much sense to me as an organizing framework for applying my worldview--my "ground rules"--for how I approach my classroom practice, my interactions with students, my thinking about assessment and curriculum and marking papers and the rest. So why doesn't it feel like enough for my students when we talk applying this methodology to teaching science in particular?

I've started thinking about how I can better articulate my perspective for what a distinctively Christian approach to teaching science might look like. I'm still working out all the details of what this might look like, but here I'll share my thinking so far. I'd love to hear your feedback about this.


A Distinctively Christian Approach to Teaching Science

1. Distinctively Christian teachers will begin with a biblical worldview comprised of Scripture-based convictions about the nature of creation. For example, I believe:
  • "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)
  • "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it." (Psalm 24:1)
  • "For in him [that is, Christ,] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:16-17)
The way in which we teach our students about the creation should point them toward the Creator!

2. Distinctively Christian science teachers will allow for--and even plan for--opportunities for their students to simply stand in awe at the way the Lord has created the cosmos. I believe that God has revealed aspects of himself to all people through the creation. (This idea is clearly expressed in the Belgic Confession. Also, I love Psalm 19:1-4 as a poetic description of this reality.) While we won't come to saving faith in Christ simply through studying the creation, we can clearly stand in amazement when we consider the way God has designed things to work together, and we can see his providential hand sustaining the order of the world he has made.

3. Distinctively Christian teachers will embrace questions. While our knowledge is imperfect and our understanding incomplete, questions are good! We should wonder about the world we live in--I believe God has created us with a curiosity planted in us--and we should give students the freedom and latitude to pursue their own inquiries, and support them in looking for answers to their questions. We should help our students to understand that some questions are "scientific" questions, that can be answered by scientific methods--observation, measurement, experimentation, data collection, inference, and the like.

4. At the same time, distinctively Christian teachers will recognize that not all questions are "scientific" in nature--they can't all be answered via scientific inquiry. Some questions are fundamentally religious in nature, and while they should be asked and wrestled through (even in science class), we should recognize them as questions that are not fundamentally "scientific." An example might include: "How old is the Earth?" This question has a scientific flavor to it, and scientifically-derived data might help us answer this question, but the way we interpret the data will be influenced by our "ground-rules," our faith commitments. [I picked this question deliberately, as there are a range of perspectives on this topic, even within the realm of Christendom.] Challenging as controversial topics like these can be, distinctively Christian teachers should embrace controversy as a means of engaging with students in faith development.

5. Much of the current literature about science education seems to indicate that students best learn science when it is taught in "Hands-on and Minds-on." Hands-on implies that students should be actively manipulating materials and conducting investigations, and minds-on implies that they should be engaged in thinking their investigations, making connections, and developing understanding. This comes largely from a Constructivist educational philosophy. While I don't wholly embrace Constructivism--carried out to it's conclusion, Constructivism reduces the Truth to each student's own experiences and the knowledge they build for themselves--I do think there is some merit to this sort of approach to teaching science. So I would advocate that distinctively Christian science teachers should also teach science in a way that is "Hearts-on": that we should evaluate the ideas we encounter about the way the world works in light of the truth of Scripture. "Hearts-on" science would acknowledge that God has called us to understand the world around us, not simply for the sake of having that knowledge, but rather so we can better take care of the world. (See Genesis 1:26-28, which is sometimes called the Creation Mandate--God's command to humankind to "rule" over the creation by learning to take care of it.)

--

So that's where my thinking is at this point. What did I leave out? What needs firming up? Where am I way out in left field? Could a Christian teacher in a public school still use this framework?