Your ideal writing space?

Snow falls.  My fireplace coats one half of me in cozy radiance.  Across the room, Erin animates a book for my curious babe.  School is still a solid day and a half away.  As I sit here inspired by the art of Vladislav Gerasimov’s studio, I ponder physical space.

I catch myself in full muse about the spaces in which I usually write and how they might influence tone, mood, volume, and mission.  Of course, I am sometimes sitting in my office at 3:00pm pecking keys that reflect the day.  Other times still, I am stuck to a conference hall wall -hugging an outlet- allowing my laptop to drink while I scribble electronically.

Though given my choice, it would look much like today.  The mission-inspired rocker where my butt is planted-  was meant for a nursing mother just two years ago.  Since this chair didn’t seem to inspire her “mission” after all, it has lately become my writing chair.  Her lack of love for this spot has become my pirate’s loot.  Here I sit feet up -gliding in the golden glow of flames- tapping on letters for fun.

The more serious posts in waiting:  our school’s use of the Ning platform, tech strategies for increasing writing fluency, etc…  well, they’ll just have to wait.

Actually, there is a plenty about our artistic stick blogger friend that doesn’t concretely resemble me.  My head isn’t that big, I’m not a big fan of Digg, and far more than letters fill my head.  A conversation with my Communication Arts department the other day revealed a multitude of mental strategies for writing.  Most seemed to rely heavily on a stepped-draft approach.  I thought it interesting that my pal Kelly Lock and I both tend to compose in mental spaces before encoding onto the page.  You can thus imagine the stress we felt while fabricating those incremental “rough draft” assignments in high school.  I bet the little fella above would create his “outline” assignment after-the-fact as well.

Come to think of it, there might be many similarities between he and I.  He does have a slender build.  He does lean intently into his superthin laptop.  He does love dim lighting, and his silly feet seem to be less than planted on terra firma at times.  Hey, you can’t always be practical, right?

So where do you write?  Not when you have to…  but when you can.  What is there with you?  Where does it take place when you get to choose?  Tell it.  Draw it.  Photograph it.  Blog it.  Come back and share it.  You know you want to.

ps- If you care that your screen is beautiful and creative, then check out the art at Vlad Studio.  With the Holiday season fast approaching, I think Christmas Volcano is my current fave.  Wow.  No one on Earth would care enough to pay for an ad on this site, so consider this merely a nod in a cool direction.  Image above is entitled:  Blogger (digg it digg it digg it).

Giving Thanks

Ok, so I am caught up in it.  I am now caught up in celebration of a holiday that my youth taught me was little more than a gorgefest.  A gorgefest with football.  A gorgefest with football, oh-  and did I mention, pretty little turkeys everywhere?  In an attempt to create a blogosphere-infinite-loop of sorts, I give you MD’s last post.

Tonight, in the interest of hugging my beautiful girls (two alive and one unborn), I bring you a strangely succinct post.  I bring you a description of what I am most thankful for.  I bring you my love(s) and I bring them to you in a Demboesque “image means a thousand words” -type format.  I might have been hesitant to do this a year ago.  Tell me I am too open if you think I am.  I know, I teach web-weirdness informally and weekly, and here I am still trying to figure this out.  Anyway, here we go…

What am I most thankful for?

momma and babe

…uh huh, that’s it.

How about we try one that is a bit more abstract?  Here is one from above:

daddy\'s legs

And really…  how can we celebrate mommy & babe and leave daddy out?

baby & daddy

And one last one for Michael…  of my “tadpole” (i love it, and so will she someday) as she was swimming in botanical monoculture this past July 4th:

triticum vs. homo

So-  happy thanksgiving day.  As my girls and I wait for another genetic gift… I ask you:

What are you thankful for?  I mean really thankful for?

Where are the seeds in an orange?

I will never forget my second year as a teacher when a student asked:  “Who is George Brett?” …in reference to a signed photograph on my wall.  So, mark 1992 as the first time I was blown away by the fact that my students were in some ways “not from my world.”  At the time, just two years removed from his third of three batting titles, I thought I had just experienced a travesty of justice.


I can drop a name here because I have cool kids who are quite open to learning.  So on Friday, when Chris asked, “where are the seeds in an orange?,” I was at first taken aback.  However, it didn’t take long to snap my brain back to the reality that today’s students do not come equipped with our experiences.  For those of you who have yet to an experience such a moment:  it is coming.  Honestly, the sooner, the better.  Perhaps the biggest mistake we can make as educators is to assume that our students have background knowledge and experiences anywhere in the neighborhood of ours.

This post  -really-  could go anywhere from here.  However, it is late and today I choose to cut to the chase and deliver the succinct message.  Chris thought oranges didn’t contain seeds.  Chris -and a ton of the kids in that class- had never seen an orange (or any other citrus fruit for that matter) with seeds.  As much as I think I know-  this hit me upside the head.  He said neverThey said never.  It seems that the preponderance of seedless fruits has all but overtaken the market since I last checked.  Who knows-  perhaps I just haven’t noticed because I understand how plants are born.

For the moment:  forget that “oranges” are fruits.  Forget that “fruits” are swollen ovaries that protect and deliver the next generation in the form of seeds.  Forget that seeds are structures that deliver the next generation unto the world.  Do remember that this kid…  and probably 70% of his classmates report that they have never seen…  never seen seeds within an orange.

So, though most of you reading this may be surprised, most Americans the age of our students are so distanced from the food they ingest, that it is:  you pick the astonished noun.

As a longtime instructor of a high school level botany class, I have seen this one coming.  Still, it smacked me in the face.  These were some of our best, brightest and most observant students, and they were clueless as to the origin of those orange-colored orbs of goodness.

This post is about detachment.  Though a detachment that has little to do with technology as it related to information and communications technology (of which I so often write).  This has more to do with botanical knowledge, selective breeding technology, and just technology of planet Earth combined.  The bottom line?  Our kids are distanced from the natural world we (most of us reading this) grew up in.  This is perhaps the first generation of children that are so distanced from the food they consume.  Our kids think their food comes from an aisle in the local HyVee…  or perhaps a Price Chopper.

processed food night

How do we fix this shortcoming?  Fellow science blogger (if I can lift myself to this level), Michael Doyle suggests this lesson plan that will likely never be delivered.  I agree.  However, it would likely do tons of good in the year 2008 for many many reasons.

I will never forget sitting in for an address by Richard Louv at the 2007 NSTA in St. Louis.  What is funny is that my wife (also a biology teacher) purchased a copy of Louv’s Last Child In the Woods earlier that same day without realizing it.  In this book, Louv proposes the idea of nature deficit disorder.  In extreme summary, Louv proposes that we are the first species that has raised its young almost totally dismissed from nature.  By this generation, at least.  Kids don’t venture outdoors.  Kids don’t play away from their parents.  Kids don’t know anyone…  or currently have relation that still farm…  anything.  His keynote that day can still be found on video here.

The quest for calories is equal to a walk down the aisle of the local grocery superstore.  The living organisms that gave their lives to nourish us are so far removed that we are clueless as to their connections to our daily lives.  For the first time, instead of battling through boredom by lying still beneath a neighborhood tree and staring up to watch the leaves blow in the wind, we plug up the Xbox and be-still their brains.

I am a huge proponent of technology as a positive force in the lives of our kids.  This, however, is a different story.  In teaching biochemistry and it’s relation to human nutrition in my Dual-Credit Biology class, I have learned where to focus the future springtime explorations into ecology.

Our kids are the leaders of our brave new world.  They are also the first who are so drastically distanced from the planet which nurtures us all, and are the ones who will make all future environmental decisions.

Our botany class did not “make” for the second year in a row due to an NCLB focus on “basics”.  My previous botany students are urban kids who at least get the basics.  What are the basics?  What should we teach?  Do we face a “brave new world” unprepared?  Yikes.  Where are the seeds in an orange?

And in a really odd conclusion… and to answer Dembo’s question…  Why do I blog? It is actually quite simple.  For synthesis.  I read things from talented and amazing people.  I work with amazing kids.  I have seen amazing things.  I put them together.  I blog.

Artwork thanks:

Weil, Gyorgy. “wguri’s photostream.” oranges. 17 MAY 2007. Flickr. 24 Nov 2008 <>.

Duke, Jenifer. “dukeofnyc’s photostream.” Processed Food Night. 12 MAY 2008. Flickr. 24 Nov 2008 <>.

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Goal Directed Exhaustion is OK

Michael Doyle is the name.  I’m sorry if you aren’t following this blog.  I really mean that.  If you haven’t read this guy, you are missing out.  Stop doing that.  Read it today.  Then make sure you come back often.  I can’t continue to dig deep reading the blogs of influential educators without stopping today to make sure a few more people are reading what I am.

Perhaps it is because Mr. Doyle, the “Science Teacher” as his blog is entitled, is deeply creative.  Perhaps it is because he seems to have the integrity to follow his philosophy as a mission statement.  Or maybe it is more about the fact that he too, is a science teacher.  That is the easy connection for me.

I thought about linking to this blog a few weeks back, and instead aimed my comments directly to the author on the pages of the blog.  After reading today’s post, What I know now… I decided that’s it:  time to share with my readers once and for all.

shells and sand

Honestly, I needed this post today.  After the end of yesterday, I needed to be reminded once again why I work as hard as I do.  I have always attacked every aspect of my job as a teacher or coach as if it were my 170lb. opponent standing two feet away from me on the mat.  While teaching my third period Dual-Credit Biology course, I felt like a king.  It was one of those 80-minute slices of life that remind you of why you work so terribly hard. (the online “after-discussion“)  As an instructional coach, I get those rewarding slices of time less often than I did when I was in the classroom full time.

When I am able to design an event on the scale of a classroom…  twenty-five kids, four walls and me…  I more-often-than-not-feel like a maestro.  When I scale up any endeavor to include the building level, it feels less powerful, less connected.  However, those events are still frequently very rewarding.  When it is then scaled up to some district-level event, it too often feels less savory.

Perhaps this is just an indication of a lack of intimacy.  This morning while writing this, I think maybe I now understand yet another facet of my own personality.  I think I need intimacy.  Sharing new things with 100 people in a room can be really fun.  Working on a district level committee toward enhancing instruction can be quite rewarding.  However, when there are too many strong personalities in one room it gets tough.  Too many chiefs and too few indians perhaps.  Too little social intimacy for sure.

One thing I learned in the classroom years ago is that often the most valuable thing I can do as a leader is to listen.  How do I help steer the discussion in a way so that students can make their own meaning?  How is it that I can lead by doing less and end up achieving more?  I listen.  I’ve become fairly good at it.  I get it now.

I wish listening were a universal skill.  Not “letting someone else talk,” not “allowing someone to state their opinion,” but listening.  Really listening.  How about that one, folks?  How about we all decide as a group from the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top…  from the students to the teachers and the teachers to the administrators…  how about we focus on listening?  The valuable practice of listening to other people is not “wait time.”  Think about it, and get back to me.  I wonder if we can find a book published by ASCD, worthy of a book study, sailing along by the succinct title:  “Listening:  No subtitle- because it just doesn’t need one.”

So after this run-on mess of jabbering, you are probably going to look for someone other than me to follow.  You are probably going to need to read something a bit less “cathartic.”

Allow me to suggest a surrogate.  Read Michael Doyle.  From a careful case made about the disconnect between science and language, to the near poetry of November Light, or the grounding thoughts of Clamming and Competency.  Poke around the site for a bit, you’ll find something you personally like even better.

What do I find here?  I find nothing short of inspiration in the creativity and thoughtfulness of the author.  I find reminders that “goal directed exhaustion is OK.”  Sometimes when I can barely even sleep due to professional fatigue… I really need that reminder.

This doctor-turned-science teacher deserves a wider audience.  I hereby nominate Mr. Doyle’s Science Teacher as the “Best Teacher Blog” in the 2008 Edublogs Awards.  I am now off to fill out the nomination form…….

Artwork Thanks:

Aguiar, Leonardo. “Sea Shells 4.” articotropical’s photostream. 31 MAY 2007. Flickr. 22 Nov 2008<>.

Audet, Rick. “Collaborate & Listen.” rick’s photostream. 07 OCT 2006. Flickr. 22 Nov 2008 <>.

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How do you spell constructivism?

Which letters to use?

Call it what you like: “problem-based learning”, “project-based learning”, “project-based science”, etc. Heck, use an acronym if you want to come off as in-the-know (or snooty depending on who you ask). Regardless of your fondness for the names or symbols, they all surround a solid educational tenet: learning should be experiential. If you cannot provide kids with a particularly valuable experience, then engineer one. Allow virtual experience. Create experience by proxy. Ideas experienced are far better than ideas discussed.

Bottom line in naming almost anything: in order to market something, you can’t just market “something”. Simple enough? I thought so.


In my district, an administrative push toward constructivism in our secondary schools has come complete with labels. It is important to note that I do understand the need to possess a common language. Getting to the heart of any issue is simpler if the involved parties do not have to talk the long way around issues. Get a common set of terms, figure out what they mean, inform all parties, stick with them. I get it.

However, I would assert the thing that gets lost in translation here is the commonality. Science inquiry, reading and writing workshop models, math investigations, and problem or project-based approaches in social studies…  are all learner-centered constructivist approaches. In reforming curricula for school toward the 21st Century, it is important -in my opinion- to focus on student ownership and engagement. Omission of these facets risks an educational system that is even more disconnected for future students than it is for so many today.

The rub

However, there are arguments that fly in from both sides on this issue and they can be quite direct at times. Even a quick search will net individuals and groups who contend that constructivist practices are the hope for the future, and at the same time, the bane of the current day.  Both sides of this argument hold merit.  How can this be, you ask?  Usually when pure arguments fall flat either way, it is due to the fact that the reality is far more complex.  I would go so far as to say that the only people likely failing our children today are delivering instruction in a completely laissez-faire or purely direct way.

If you could just sign the dotted line on your teacher contract and follow one or the other school of thought until the day you retire with little thought, then you could argue that teachers might be paid too much.  In reality, those reading this blog likely know that this is simply not the case.  Learning, and thus teaching, is an incredibly difficult and nuanced endeavor.  My biology background allows me to see human beings as the complex entities that they really are.  Perhaps that is part of my personal angle into charting a path for my students.

My personal approach

I would suggest that my classroom is as constructivist-leaning as possible in secondary science in my corner of the world.  We try to focus on process over content.  As a generalist instructional coach in a high school, I have been perhaps able to more quickly make a move further down the constructivist pipeline considering I have to prep for far fewer classes.  In fact, all you have to do for a glimpse of this reality is peek into a classroom reflection from October 24th.  To be perfectly honest, October 24th of this year marked the first day where what most would refer to as “direct instruction” was utilized in my classroom.

My students are “big kids” and I tend to let them in on these decisions.  It is interesting here to see how many of my students were huge advocates for the “direct instruction” approach to biological molecules.  Even kids who had been brought along this year with nary a hint of teacher-driven content still harbored a longing for it.  However, perhaps they just inherently knew that this was a curricular piece where they would have floundered at first on their own.  We talk about scaffolding in class.  They get it.  They also get those instances where the gap between the curricular goal and background knowledge is just too large to scaffold in an appropriate time period.

Speeding Bullet.

I would have to say that has been building for some time.  A favorite friend and coach (Jincy Trotter) and I, years ago, would lament how our practices at the beginning of the year would leave us “behind” most of our colleagues.  Though we knew we were bringing our kids into the fold the best way we collaboratively knew how, we still felt pressure to “keep up” with the curricular bullet train.

In a constructivist classroom

*The following suggestions are from In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms by Brooks & Brooks, 1993, and were adapted by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in 1995:

Student autonomy and initiative are accepted and encouraged.
By respecting students’ ideas and encouraging independent thinking, teachers help students attain their own intellectual identity. Students who frame questions and issues and then go about analyzing and answering them take responsibility for their own learning and become problem solvers.
The teacher asks open-ended questions and allows wait time for responses.
Reflective thought takes time and is often built on others’ ideas and comments. The ways teachers ask questions and the ways students respond will structure the success of student inquiry.
Higher-level thinking is encouraged.
The constructivist teacher challenges students to reach beyond the simple factual response. He encourages students to connect and summarize concepts by analyzing, predicting, justifying, and defending their ideas.
Students are engaged in dialogue with the teacher and with each other.
Social discourse helps students change or reinforce their ideas. If they have the chance to present what they think and hear others’ ideas, students can build a personal knowledge base that they understand. Only when they feel comfortable enough to express their ideas will meaningful classroom dialogue occur.
Students are engaged in experiences that challenge hypotheses and encourage discussion.
When allowed to make predictions, students often generate varying hypotheses about natural phenomena. The constructivist teacher provides ample opportunities for students to test their hypotheses, especially through group discussion of concrete experiences.
The class uses raw data, primary sources, manipulatives, physical, and interactive materials. The constructivist approach involves students in real-world possibilities, then helps them generate the abstractions that bind phenomena together

While Jincy & I were busy turning kids on to the beauty of science, assessing their prior knowledge and experiences, engaging them in collaborative situations to teach classroom procedures, and building rapport, our friends nearby were blazing ahead on the prescribed pathway.  Though we mostly caught up by year’s end, we preferred to err on the side of deep student engagement and learning as opposed to curricular coverage.

Original purpose

So perhaps the real bottom line here is that I suck as an educational blogger.  I have been doing this for so little time that whenever I want to drop a cool link on my readers, I end up attaching 18 years of experiential baggage.  Honestly, once again while I read the GenYES blog by Sylvia Martinez, I felt moved to write.  Her post entitled:  What Makes a Good Project inspired me to scribble a few lines in the direction of project-based learning.  Look at what that got me. I guess succinct is just not my style

So to cut to my original goal, the document Sylvia refers to is located here in .pdf format.  This document outlines “eight elements to guide great project design.”  I would have to agree that these are all solid things to consider when planning a project or problem-based learning experience.  The article references Seymour Papert’s constructionism.  This is a very closely-aligned idea in many ways.  The “questions worth asking” is also an important section, especially from the perspective of a coach.  Outside consultation is always a valuable commodity in any worthwhile undertaking.

The important thing to keep in mind here, which is one of the criticisms of “project”-based learning, is that often in these classrooms, the approach means less than the “product”.  If this is your hang-up, then be sure to key in on this quote while you take this article in:

“…artifacts are commonly thought of as projects, even though the project development process is where the learning occurs.”

To me, the bottom line is that this type of learning is often deeper, richer and more memorable than other approaches.  It takes longer to develop.  Even with a thorough understanding of the ways in which a curriculum can contain both coverage as well as depth, this is no easy task.  Our secondary schools largely contain content experts with a smattering of pedagogical input throughout their brief teacher certification experience.

fog birds telephone wire close


So to the millions of content experts without a background in curriculum, hang in there.  Creating a learning environment where the prior knowledge of students is honored is a big step.  Respect of student autonomy and initiative should be encouraged, as well as higher-level thinking and rich student dialogue about content and understanding.  If you are feeling frustrated about a curricular piece that doesn’t seem to fit this approach, it very well may not.  Our curricula have input from many outside influences and implementing one approach to solve all issues rarely works.

If you wonder where, when and how constructivist practices should be implemented into your classroom, find a consultant.  Find someone to help you reflect along the way.  Grab the shirtsleeve of your coach, call your curriculum coordinator, bug an experienced colleague.  Whatever you do, find someone.  Implementing engaging and rich experiences for our kids deserves the best collaboration and reflection you can get your hands on.

What do you call constructivism in your corner of the world?  How do you manage student vs. teacher generated elements of your practice?  Weigh in if you dare…


Schleisinger, Ariel. “”untitled”.” ariel.chico’s photostream. 15 AUG 2007. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008
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Barnieh, Edward. “Speeding Bullet..” Edward B’s photostream. 03 JUL 2007. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008
Sutherland, Zen. “fog birds telephone wire close.” Zen’s photostream. 01 NOV 2004. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008