Georgia College 2013 Paper Bridge Building Contest


Build a Paper Bridge Engineering Design Competition, February 23, 2013

This is a STEM competition with divisions for upper elementary, middle and high school students, to be held on Saturday February 23, 2013 at Georgia College.

Contest rules and entry instructions to be found at Schools are invited to enter as many teams of 4 students as wish to compete. Entries will be judged by weight and documentation of and understanding of the engineering design process. Application deadline is February 1, 2013.

Code-Switching Presentation

On Monday, March 5, 2012, Dr. Rebecca McMullen and myself, both of Georgia College, made a presentation at the Third Annual Middle Georgia Diversity Conference at the High Museum in Atlanta. The PowerPoint presentation, bibliography and literature review, as well as links to lesson plans and relevant websites, are available for download here.

Teaching Science through Conversation/What is Inquiry? What are productive ways to use students’ ideas for instruction?

In recent months I’ve thinking about Rosebery & Warren’s (2008) concept of science talks. In addition to modeling science talk for my own students by doing it with kids, I’ve been trying it out in an undergraduate physical science course I co-teach with a chemist. The students had been given the assignment to come up with an inquiry lesson plan, which was troubling many who were unsure as to what that meant. My colleague asked me to talk with the students about what inquiry teaching is. My mind raced as I thought about finding a way not to lecture. “How about if I gave you a lecture on how to teach through inquiry?” I asked the class, trying to buy time. “That would be an oxymoron,” someone said.

I don’t usually teach off the cuff. I knew I was committed to science talk, and decided to see what would happen, and hoped it wouldn’t be too boring. I remember worrying, “Oh my God, more talk. Will they stand for it?” I should have known students would be interested. I often tell future teachers that students are always eager to talk about their thinking when the listener is genuinely interested.

I really started thinking about this approach to teaching last summer, when one of my new MAT students asked, “Well how can students learn through discussion?” The kind of discussion we were considering at that time was not teacher-led, but based on expansive consideration of students’ ideas. Reading Rosebery and Warren’s book this fall cemented those ideas.

The principle that students actually know and are able to contribute something flies in the face of the standards-based nonsense that is prevalent in education. Since open-ended discussion is unpredictable, the teacher cannot guarantee that conversation will not stray from the standard posted on the board. Limiting instruction to one a day was never the intention of those who wrote broad, rich (although flawed) standards such as the National Science Education Standards. However, since tests focus on de-contextualized minutiae and facts, this original vision has been trampled in the mud.

An episode of instructional conversation. Which brings me back to inquiry. In physical science class I posed the question, Is hands-on the same as inquiry? Can something be inquiry without being hands on? My goal in posing these questions was for students to develop a public, shared understanding that inquiry is a way of looking at the world.

Many students offered opinions, and Michael (a pseudonym) brought me to a halt by saying, Yes, it’s like what we did the first day of class (when students wrote and shared science learning autobiographies). When I started the conversation I didn’t know where it might go, but I had an instinct, based on experience, that this might be a valuable contribution. I myself didn’t fully understand what he meant, and asked whether everyone had understood Michael’s idea. I asked him to elaborate a little, and it became clear that what he was talking about was important. Others picked up on Michael’s conversational thread, and the discussion became a way for the class to look back over the semester and start making sense of what had been to some degree, disconnected episodes of hands-on activities.

After about 20 minutes I felt it was right to introduce the idea I was aiming for. “So I’ll give you my opinion of what inquiry is—it’s a very broad definition.” Anna jumped up and got ready to write my definition on the board. “I think inquiry is the position that the facts of science are the result of previously asked questions.” I actually wanted to say “stance,” but thought it might be too much jargon, one of those split-second decisions teaching requires. In spite of the somewhat awkward phrasing, we talked about what that might mean.

During the course of the instructional conversation ( See Tharp & Gallimore’s  1988 book) someone brought up our previous discussion, from earlier in the semester, about why the idea of Pluto no longer being classified as a planet had been so very upsetting to many in the class.

“What is the question to which ‘Pluto is a planet’ would be the answer? What do you think Clyde Tombaugh was asking when he proposed Pluto as a planet?… I wonder whether, if the idea that Pluto is a planet had been presented to you when you were young as the answer to a question, whether you would now be so upset?” There was a generalized murmur of “No.”

I ended saying, “There are many ways to teaching using inquiry. I can’t tell you a formula. But does that help?” The course of yeses sounded genuine.

There is a lot more to think about here: why this decision or that was made based on what instinct and experience, how this was a “just in time” kind of instruction, since the students were eager to have enough information to complete an assignment they considered at least somewhat interesting and “fun.” There are also things I could have said better or differently in responding to students’ conversational moves. I raise the issue of teaching through conversation however because I am convinced it is crucial to helping students understand science.


Rosebery, A.S. & Ballenger, C. (2008). Creating a foundation through student conversation. In A. Rosebery and B. Warren (Eds.). Teaching science to English language learners, pp. 1 – 12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Tharp, R.G & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: teaching, learning and schooling in social context. London: Cambridge University Press.

Standards-Based Education is a Scam

There is no research basis for so-called standards-based education. There is not one shred of evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of many of the practices which I see in schools as I visit student teachers, not one study of the benefits of students knowing which standard they are “on.” Yet every teacher I talk with is being harassed to 1) post the standard they are covering (up) that day; 2) have the students write the standard on the papers they turn in; and 3) refer explicitly to the standard every 10 minutes. This latter practice insures that, when an administrator enters the room and quizzes students on what standard they are “studying,” the student is able to respond. If the student fails this quiz, the teacher is “written up.”

This is a colossal waste of instructional time.

I have had a student teacher explain to me how her school required the science lesson to include 10 minutes for the students to copy the standard verbatim into their notebooks. An additional 30 minutes was allotted so the students could “put the standard into their own words.” Since the decontextualized academic vocabulary of standards is meaningless to 12 year olds, a half hour was required for a vocabulary lesson. This is 40 minutes that could have been spent actually learning something. Since the class period was 50 minutes long, and since the last 5 minutes were required for “review of the standard,” actual instruction was 15 minutes or less. (Class did not start immediately and there were inevitable discipline problems during this excruciatingly boring “lesson.”) Is it any wonder that students in the U.S. are at the bottom of the industrialized world?

Ah, but hasn’t the standards and accountability focus raised test scores? Only on watered-down tests which are prepped for at the expense of learning. Districts in my area end all instruction in March, and have two or three weeks of “Boot Camp” during which students spend the entire school day practicing multiple choice tests which are amazingly, but not exactly, similar to the actual achievement test, which is administered in mid-April. Schools can point to improved scores and lessening of the achievement gap. It’s all a sham.

There’s a big test cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools. The truth is, many states in the US are in the midst of a cheating scandal. They’re cheating students out of education.

In the 1990’s, progressive education, teacher governance of schools and other reforms actually began showing promising results. You might recall that test scores on NAEP (a national test which measures students’ ability to reason) rose in that decade. However, as standards and accountability gained political momentum, progressive reforms were swept aside. NAEP scores sank back to 1980’s levels, where they remain. I predict that if we continue with curriculum composed of testing rather than teaching, NAEP scores will actually begin to fall, as have SAT scores.

How could this happen? I have always avoided conspiracy theories, but there’s pretty good evidence that the right-wing goal is to destroy public education. On the road to that end, the intermediate aim appears to be to prevent the sort of critical thinking which might challenge conservative dominance of the textbook industry, the media and the political process.

Planning a 7th Grade Lesson on Cells

© 2010 Victoria Deneroff PhD. May be used by K-12 educators, but not republished in any form.

This is part of an unfinished essay I wrote in response to a student teacher’s question, “Well how would you teach about cells?”

The context of the conversation is a curriculum class. Teacher candidates were debriefing their experiences during field placement. One of them described to me his host teacher’s lesson on parts of the cell. What he described was a vocabulary lesson. Since I had observed a different host teacher on the same topic a few days previously, the teachers having co-planned, I had a pretty good idea what had occurred. I waited for the student teacher to critique the lesson. I asked how he thought the lesson was structured. “Fine,” he said. I purposely brought forth a little emotion. “That was a horrible lesson,” I said. “What you described is not the learning of science, but a vocabulary lesson.” He responded that he didn’t know any other way to teach about parts of a cell, and asked, “Well how would you teach about cells?”

What follows is a description of how I would start teaching about cells in a manner consistent with best practices in teaching science.

Before starting, I always spend time considering what I, as an expert, know about the topic. My goal in this essay is to make my thinking available to students (that is, student teachers).

  1. Start with my principles. ALWAYS. It might seem like a lot of work, but with practice, it becomes second nature. If you are going to take short cuts, show a video or pass out worksheets, but never plan without reviewing your principles.
    1. Learning cycle

i. Brain structure determines what experiences students need in order to create meaning.

ii. All learning must start with concrete experience.

iii. Learning must be connected with experience and connections between new knowledge and old is the first concern.

iv. New knowledge will be retained if it is connected in a way that makes sense.

    1. Social constructivism – Vygotsky & Tharp & Gallimore (you read Tharp’s article this week)

i. All higher order learning (such as happens in school, what Vygotsky calls “scientific”) is mediated through language.

ii. The more students speak about the learning task, the more they will learn.

iii. One of the goals of instruction is to take students’ disparate prior knowledge and turn it into the group’s common knowledge.

iv. If students could do the tasks completely on their own, they are not in the zone of proximal development and don’t need a teacher. On the other hand, if they cannot do the tasks with help, it is beyond their competence and instruction is useless.

v. Forcing students to publicly display incompetence prevents their full participation in classroom processes.

vi. Students are constantly using the public space to assess their own and others’ competence.

vii. Young adolescents are particularly concerned with learning about their place in the social world, which means that social learning is developmentally appropriate.

    1. Inquiry

i. Science is the process of asking questions and finding explanations in a disciplined and structured way. This is the generation of new knowledge.

ii. “Known facts” of science are answers to previous questions.

iii. Providing students with opportunities to think like scientists is the goal of science instruction.

iv. All instruction is about the generation of new knowledge—even if it is “old” to science, it is new to students.

  1. Distill these principles into pedagogical heuristics. (Heuristics in this case means rules of thumb, a framework for all instruction, something to fall back on as a check of whether I am on track.)
    1. Learning cycle

i. I have to make sure I am going to allow students many opportunities to experience all 4 stages.

ii. I want to start with children interacting with materials and phenomena. In other words, I must have something concrete, hopefully as close to the real thing as possible, to start off with.

iii. I must spend much time helping students investigate their prior knowledge. It is not always obvious to students what they already know. Ideally, the boundary between old and new knowledge will be invisible to students. That is, the investigation of prior knowledge will slip over into generation of new knowledge seamlessly.

iv. I will focus continuously on making sense, on the big concepts, on tying details back to the overarching big ideas.

    1. Social constructivism

i. The environment will be “language rich” with talk, reading and writing.

ii. It doesn’t matter how much I explain things, what matters is that children can explain them. I want to arrange instruction so children must make explanations to each other as much of the time as possible. The goal is 80% student talk, 20% teacher talk.

iii. In order to have the group develop common knowledge, we must get important ideas onto the public floor.

iv. It is impossible to tailor instruction to every child’s ZPD. I must choose and design activities that have multiple entry points so all children can find a ZPD. The small group can scaffold when I can’t get to every child. This does not mean the brighter children teach the less bright. It means there are conversations in which every student can participate and learn.

v. Children need to have control over their participation so that they do not have to embarrass themselves. I need to create an atmosphere of safety.

vi. Children are going to make judgments about their own and others’ competence and I may need to intervene so that everyone has an opportunity to publicly display competence.

vii. Cooperation, team-building and social skills are part of science as well as young adolescents’ developmental needs.

    1. Inquiry

i. I will position myself as an inquirer and not an authority figure who knows the answers.

ii. I will engage students with the history of science so they can see where science comes from.

iii. I will not answer many of students’ questions, but think with them about how to find out.

iv. I will provide a framework of big ideas so that students can generate knowledge of their own.

  1. Concepts. I have to think about the big science ideas. There is no shortcut to doing this, and it takes time. It might mean reading, or watching an Annenberg video.
    1. Big ideas about cells

i. Living organisms obtain energy from their environment, remove wastes, maintain inner stability (equilibrium), respond to environmental conditions, reproduce.

ii. Cells vary in complexity, with some having more organelles than others. However complex they are, cells must have ways to perform the functions of living things.

iii. Cells are chemical factories, and are the result of self-assembly of molecules. The intelligence behind cells is innate in the atoms, not the product of a self-aware director of activities.

iv. Cell theory – All cells alive today came from other cells. Things that do not have cells are not alive, although viruses are a gray area.

  1. Consider participation structures and tasks for students. This next section I do not do necessarily in order, although I usually think of tasks, and then review my resources and choose participation structures.
    1. Standards. I will look at National and GPS. These tell me what some of my assessment goals will be.

i. Gaps

1. The GPS are particularly troubling here, because they do not ask students to understand anything much about macromolecules, and certainly nothing about molecular structure. I know from my own experience that 7th graders are capable of learning this, and the absence here is extremely problematic for getting the big picture. This means that understanding structure and function of cells is difficult for students to understand. Here I will consider whether I will need to talk about that is not REQUIRED by the standards.

2. Chemistry of 3 basic macromolecules

a. proteins

b. carbohydrates

c. nucleic acids

    1. Likely misconceptions and cognitive difficulties.

i. How do plants and animals use these 3 basic molecules? I know this is a major misconception area. Cells are structures made mostly of proteins, some lipids, some sugars, a few odds and ends of other chemicals. Animals use calcium carbonate in bones, shells and exoskeletons in order to provide shape and leverage for muscles (when they have them). Plants use sugars (cellulose) to make structures such as stems and leaves. The various types of animal and plant support structures are outside of cells, not part of them.

ii. The most obvious cognitive issue is one of scale. Cells mostly (except for eggs) are invisible to the naked eye.

    1. Assessment.

i. Multiple choice test about cell structure and function. I think a well-designed multiple choice test is quite appropriate here.

ii. Reports of investigations in notebooks.

iii. Responses in journal narratives (self-assessment).

iv. Creative cell structure and function project. Could be a skit, a poster, a short-story, a song, or…

1. This task will require deeper understanding and assess whether students have created new knowledge.

2. Also will assess problem-solving, collaboration and social skills.

v. Ongoing formative self-assessment.

    1. Tasks

i. Students must look at cells under the microscope.

ii. Students must understand the scale of things under the microscope.

iii. Students must tie the idea of cell organelles to functions of living things.

    1. Development of ideas. Now I’m starting to bubble with ideas—when they occurred to me before, I purposely ignored them. I’m going to think about how ideas will build into a big picture for students.

i. Start with an activity about defining characteristics of living things.

ii. Do an inquiry about scale

iii. Do an inquiry about looking at cells in living things.

iv. Tie functions of cells to characteristics of living things.

v. Children’s book project

vi. Multiple choice test.

    1. Participation structures. What is the benefit of using each, and how will this advance my goal of all students inquiring and learning?

i. Whole group

1. Purpose

a. Get students’ thinking onto public floor.

b. Create shared new knowledge.

2. Format

a. Students’ talk not teacher talk. Teacher’s role is facilitator of the conversation, making sure everyone’s voice is heard, and that important contributions are noticed.

b. Record all contributions and post in room.

ii. Small group

1. Purpose

a. Every student talks and is listened to.

b. Groups provide ZPD for all members.

c. Each student contributes important skills.

2. Format

a. Students given open-ended task, with defined responsibilities and roles.

b. Self-assessment of group interactions, sense of responsibility for functioning.

c. Ideally, groups will have slightly different task, so that task becomes more important.

iii. Individual

1. Purpose

a. Private time for reflection, writing

b. Assessment of individual learning

2. Format

a. Seatwork

b. Multiple-choice test.

    1. Resources

i. I will consider what resources I have available.

ii. I will figure out how to get what I need if I don’t have it.

Task 1: More than meets the eye. All living things are made of cells.

Part A: Day Before

I: Give NSTA pre-assessment task on living versus nonliving. T collects and reads through Ss’ responses. Decides on groupings of 4 for the next day. Goal for groupings is to put Ss with similar status but different answers together, may not be completely possible.

Part B:

Purpose: Uncover prior knowledge about living and non-living, allow Ss ample opportunity to talk about and revise their understanding. Derive definition of living and non-living.

Learning goals: Ss will be able to describe characteristics and functions of living things.

WG: Tell Ss you have read their pre-assessments and see that there are differences of opinion. Tell Ss you think it will be useful for them to talk in the small groups about their answers, and they are free to revise their opinions after the conversation. Remind Ss if you tell them the “right answer” they might forget, but if they figure it out in the group, they are more likely to remember. Also tell them you think they are “good thinkers” and will be able to come to the right conclusions. Remind Ss it is ok to change their minds, and that scientists revise their conclusions when they see new evidence. If Ss want to revise their opinions, they must give a good rationale.

SG: Give the groups written directions. Assign roles: Facilitator, Recorder, Reporter, Timekeeper. Facilitator will make sure every person is heard, recorder will make a record of what the group said, the reporter will report to the class, and the timekeeper will have a stopwatch and let the group know when time limits are up. The task will have time limits per question. Groups must report if there were any questions on which everyone agreed right away, questions on which nobody agreed, and questions on which people revised their opinions. The recorder will have a worksheet to record this information.

WG: T will make a chart Definitely Living, Definitely Non-Living, Not Sure. These will be on cardboard and can be moved around. If there are errors, T will leave it for now. Assign pairs for think-aloud, and hand out reading. Make sure weaker readers have support of stronger reader.

SG: T will have grade-level reading handouts about living and non-living. One will be shared by all groups, and a second will contain information about one of the Not Sure organisms, or one of the erroneous classifications. This means thinking in advance about likely wrong or unsure categorizations, and being ready with information. Ss will do a think-aloud with a partner.

I: Ss will write a paragraph about whether they have changed their minds about where to put any of the items, and why this did or did not happen.

WG: Ss will report any proposed changes to the chart. T will ask class if anyone can make generalizations about functions and characteristics of living things.

I: Writing prompt in journal: What did we do in class today? Why did we do it? What do you still not understand?

Part C:

Purpose: Introduce microscope skills, introduce idea of small scale invisible to the human eye. Tap into prior knowledge about objects.

Learning goals: Ss will be able to name several items that have lenses. SS will describe how microscopes are scientific tools for looking at very small objects, and what kind of information they provide. Ss will begin thinking about scale. Ss will develop scientific drawing skills. Ss will reflect on how their everyday world might not be what they thought it was. Ss will ask questions about the structure of the living things they observe under the microscope.

Organization of Groups: We will use the 4-2-1 system from SEPUP. 4 students are a group, 2 students work in pairs, each pair with own equipment. 4 responsibilities in the group: Reporter, Materials Manager, Questioner (only one of the 4 allowed to ask T for help), Recorder. The “1” in 4-2-1 refers to each individual being responsible for writing in their lab notebook as instructed. Ss will already be familiar with the 4-2-1 system and will not require instruction for this activity.

Rules for Notebooks: The notebook is the individual creation of each S and they may use whatever format they like. T passes out handout of what must appear in write-up, which is pasted into notebook, and reminds Ss s/he must be able to find everything or they will lose points on their grade. The lab notebook is essentially a record of everything that happened in class and includes whatever Ss think is important, probably including social interactions. T corrects notebook using sticky notes and does not write in Ss’ notebooks. If documentation is necessary, T Xeroxes notebook.

WG: Ask Ss what a lens does. Where have they seen lenses? What types of things in their lives have lenses?

SG: After two examples, ask Ss to pair up and make a list of anything else they can think of that has a lens. 1 or 2 minutes. Pairs come together in quads and make a combined list. Spokesperson for each quad reports to class. Teacher compiles class list, writes on computer, to later be transferred to poster paper.

IND: Ss write in lab notebook three or more objects in their experience that have lenses, and what each does.

WG: T shows Ss how to carry a microscope. Asks Ss to get one microscope per pair. Asks Ss to examine microscope and find lenses. Asks Ss what the numbers might mean.

IND: T holds up a piece of Elodea leaf and asks Ss to predict what it would look like under a microscope. Ss write and draw prediction in notebook/journal.

WG: T tells class how to put specimens on a slide, where to put the slide, how to turn on the light. This is also on the handout. T asks Ss to suggest important special safety rules for this lab. (General rules will be posted in the room, and it might be good to revisit them.) Writes down safety rules on poster paper with name of person who contributed rule. E.g., “Angel suggests, ‘Don’t fool around so you don’t knock the microscope on the floor.’” “Be careful with glass so you don’t cut yourself. (Marc).” Ss write special safety rules in their lab notebook. Teacher gives page of directions for making drawings and using the microscope.

SG: Pairs of Ss get piece of Elodea, place on slides, and look at it under microscope. Teacher circulates and assists as necessary. If Ss ask questions which are in the written instructions, directs them to read it to each other. Teacher will look at what Ss are seeing, adjust focus as necessary, point out groups that have interesting things to look at, including air bubbles and pieces of dirt. No one may ask a question of the T unless everyone in the group has the same question. Ss may look at other groups’ specimens if there is time. Ss must produce a drawing of their own specimen in their notebooks. If some Ss finish early, T will have several different small objects available for viewing and drawing.

I: When all are finished viewing, each S looks at prediction and compares with what s/he actually saw.

SG: Discuss what each person saw, and the difference between the prediction and the observed.

WG: Reporters share what the difference between the prediction and the observed was in their groups. T writes observations on poster paper, e.g., “Shaun says he predicted he would just see green, but what he saw was like little bricks with green circles in it.”

I: Teacher asks each S to write in notebook what questions he has about looking at cells under the microscope, or questions about what s/he saw.

SG: Ss compile list of questions on post-its. Recorder writes each one on sentence strip. Other Ss answer writing prompt.

WG: Reporter comes to front of room and reads the group’s questions to the class. T posts questions. End of 90 minute class session (or beginning of next day) with discussion, what do you think the parts of the leaf were? Were the Elodea leaves living? What is the evidence for this, including what you saw under the microscope?

I: Writing prompt in journal: What did we do in class today? Why did we do it? What surprised you about looking at leaves under the microscope? What do you still not understand?

Homework: Ss will bring to next class any items they want to look at under the microscope.

FUTURE LESSONS (not written yet):

1. Review of questions. T gets the following question onto the table: Does everything have smaller parts when you look under the microscope. Inquiry for 1 class period, open-ended, Ss will examine objects they brought under the microscope, can trade. WG: T will develop the idea of cells.

2. Review of questions. Day devoted to idea that all living things have cells. Ss will read history of cell theory using literacy strategy. Ss will decide whether objects they brought are living. Compare to NSTA pre-assessment, discuss.

3. Review of questions. SG activity to develop a list of characteristics of living things. WG discussion.

4. Review of questions. Review of SG activity on characteristics of living things. WG Show picture of plant cell, diagrams. Relate labeled parts to characteristics of living things. Animal cell diagram, relate to difference in characteristics of plants and animals. Provide list of cell organelles. IND (could be pairs) give Ss list of cell functions, they design a cell with the structures that will allow the cell to carry out these functions.

5. Start creative project, 3 days.

© 2010 Victoria Deneroff PhD. May be used by K-12 educators, but not republished in any form.