Working Toward Classroom Relevance With Video

Ok-  for those of us wondering about the “educational” value of Animoto…  I bring you a Martin Luther King Day trailer from Stacy Baker:


Stacy is a cyper-pal of mine and one of our growing group of inspiring collaborators on The Synapse.  She is also a blogger herself and a teacher whose class blog entitled “Extreme Biology” was nominated and won a 2008 Edublogs Award for “Best Class Blog.”  She has recently taken the newly-released features on Animoto (adding text overlays and altering slide pacing) and really ran with them.  She is now becoming quite adept at using Animoto to deliver motivating “trailers” to introduce new topics of study for her biology classes.

One of the things I respect Stacy for the most  -is not only being willing to immerse herself in the latest technology-  but for taking the professional “second look” at any of these technologies for their real educational value at the classroom level.  I think her blog is a really good example of how one does this.  If you see what I see throughout her archives, you will notice time and time again a willingness to experiment, reflect and evaluate.

Several of us in our spontaneous little web community, including Erin, have been experimenting with this sparkly video tool since its debut.  Like most people, we all fell in love with the cinema quality of the transitions, its ability to match action to the music you select, and the overall ease of use.  This post of mine from last June was all about the tool itself.  That was pretty much prior to any attempts at classroom use.  To be honest, most of us quickly gave up on Animoto as an “instructional” tool.  That is, until we all pretty much seemed to spontaneously remember that there is a ton of value in grounding our course concepts in relevance.

Settling in

I think this follows a natural progression with the adoption of any shiny new technology.  The early adopters among us seem to dive in, feel out the parameters, see what it can do, and then spread the news quickly.  The next step then seems to be true evaluation on the front lines  The MLK day trailer above is a perfect example of a multidisciplinary look at one topic in biology.  If this video doesn’t make a brief case for the relevance of the study of genetics, then I’m not sure what does.  The biology of race is not one often examined in biology classes and I applaud the energy Miss Baker is putting behind this issue.

If you have read much of this blog you also know I am a huge proponent of front-loading any conceptual heavy-lifting with tons of attempts to engage and motivate.  It seems as if I am coming onboard with Animoto being another good tool to “hook” student interest.  From my first attempt at Animoto:


…until recently, I saw Animoto as a really slick little marketing tool for education.  The fast-paced and pretty videos work really well to show off something that has already happened.  With a few new features, and a switch in thought from marketing to motivation, I am now seeing Animoto in a very positive light for classroom use.  Actually-  my wife, Erin just beat me to a post on this topic.  What is this- competition?  Wow.  In fact, notice the title of her blog.  Perhaps this is what happens when firstborns marry.  But yeah-  please feel free to welcome her into the blogosphere with some feedback as this is her first post on an individual blog.  Also be sure to check out her video there introducing “mollusks” to her zoology students!

Have you used Animoto yet?  Feel free to comment with examples…

Saving the world… with my iPhone?

No, seriously

Is it possible to make a claim that your iPhone application can help to save the world?  In this one case, I think it might be justified.  Honestly, I never thought I would be the type of person to do a write up on the latest “cool app” for the iPhone.  That all quickly changed with the new year’s eve release of “Seafood Guide” for the iPhone.  Seafood Guide is a product of Seafood Watch.  According to the website, Seafood Watch is…

A program of Monterey Bay Aquarium designed to raise consumer awareness about the importance of buying seafood from sustainable sources. We recommend which seafood to buy or avoid, helping consumers to become advocates for environmentally friendly seafood. We’re also partners of the Seafood Choices Alliance where, along with other seafood awareness campaigns, we provide seafood purveyors with recommendations on seafood choices.

Seafood Guide

So what if you say, “Sean, I don’t own an iPhone”, or how about “I don’t even like seafood, so…?”  If this is you, then stay with me another minute.  There is a little something for everyone here.  There is something for the geek, the teacher, and the conscious consumer in us all.  Before we go any further, click here if you want to download the app straight away.  You hyper-connected geeks will love how the iPhone platform allows for easy access to a ton of information about the seafood available to you at local restaurants and markets.

Teaching “sustainability”

It is always been really easy for my Marine Biology students to appreciate the intrinsic beauty and fragility of coral reefs.  Spending seven days snorkeling remote reefs of the Bahamas in the month of April will do that to you.  However, I have always wanted my students to do more.  I want them to know that what happens back home matters as well.  We have only recently attempted to study conservation of ocean resources from our home near the center of the continent.  In fact, Missouri does a super job of conservation of regional natural resources at the state level.  Anyone who has ever been hunting, fishing, etc. in Missouri for a long time would know that we have a very proactive and effective Department of Conservation.  Learning Marine Biology in Missouri is a different story, however.  How can you convince teenagers that something they do at home can directly affect natural resources in an ocean so many miles away?

Kynslie snorkeling on Andros Island

Those of us in the know realize that the very air we breathe is filled with many oxygen molecules that originated in the sea.  The facts are simple, but abstract.  The challenge: find a concrete example of how a local teen can touch the ocean on a Tuesday in Missouri.  My attempt at a solution:  a project-based approach to protecting oceanic resources that includes social action.  To make a much longer story quite shorter here, download my documents for the lesson series which includes: 1) a beginning presentation making the case for action to students, 2) exploring what we know, don’t know, and can find out about local usage of seafood resources, and 3) the actual “call to action” in the form of a performance task, minimal sample solution, and the associated scoring guide.  Please feel free to ask questions, or offer suggestions about any element of this project.  We would certainly appreciate the help!

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: marine biology ecology)

Conscientious consumption

For several years now, we have distributed booklets in one way or another as an approach to a public awareness and education program.  This year’s project will be opened up considerably with regard to the ways in which students can attack the problem.  For the first two years, we used the free resources available from the Blue Ocean Institute.  The very first day I laid eyes on the “Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood,” I knew it could be a valuable tool to not only learn about these issues, but also to publicly inform others.  The newest product available for download as well, is a sushi guide.  Yum.  You can order a single free wallet-sized guide here, or ask for a class-sized volume.  I have always requested enough for widespread distribution by students.

This year, we also began using resources made available by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.  You can download a copy of the guide for your region, order a large number for a project such as the one described here, or get it on your fancy phone.  In fact, you don’t honestly need an iPhone to get the guide digitally while trolling through your favorite fish market or restaurant.  Simply navigate to and choose the guide you need.  In the end, consumers need not remember all of the gory details of why farmed salmon are relatively damaging to marine ecosystems….  or why wild-caught Alaska salmon are a good choice due to abundance by careful management.  Many differences such as this one are not readily intuitive to consumers.  Many casual seafood buyers who are conscientious people would assume that anything “farmed” would be better than continuing to pull organisms from wild habitats.  This application can help average phone jockeys negotiate the subtleties of the situation.

Seafood Guide icon


Go get it.  I’m sure you have far sillier apps taking up space on your phone.  I know you paid money for the Koi Pond…  my daughter thinks those little fishies are actually in there!  Do our children a favor and check out Seafood Guide available for iPhone from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  We could all carry around the nifty little pamphlet, but why would you with a computer in your pocket?  Bringing this useful guide to the finger-scrolling pleasure of the iPhone is a significant milestone in this mission.  Not only do you get the “score” for each species in your region, you can also learn a lot of the supporting details as well.

This app is a perfect compromise between paper and lugging a laptop to the grocery store.  Navigating your way through the nuances of research, conservation, environmental impact, and sustainability are not easy.  This guide is a real solution toward putting solid scientific data and decision-making into the hands of an increasingly large public.  This app makes caring simple and science palatable.

Help us to save the planet… one fish at a time.

Connecting Biology Educators Worldwide

I have a brand-spanking new site to share with you and your colleagues who might teach biology/life science. The new site is a worldwide professional network I created with the help of five super collaborators from across the country. This new public network is called: The Synapse.

header for: The Synapse

For my non biology-geek readers (the majority) please allow a quick define of both a synapse and the site itself:

A SYNAPSE is a minute gap between nerve cells which transmits crucial information through the nervous system. The goal of this network is to perform a similar “synaptic” function between biology instructors of all levels and locations.

The Synapse is a science content-focused site on the Ning platform. Though it is managed by six people who are all relatively well versed in educational technology, it is not the primary focus of the network. It was designed primarily as a site for life science educators to connect with others without any geographical barriers.  In fact, the site owes its origin directly from a frustrating discussion in the Twittersphere between biology instructors of many levels.  On that day, it was decided that we needed a central place to meet, share and support one another from afar.

“What’s in it for me?”

Here, teachers can sign in to create a free profile to begin commenting, sharing, etc.  The Synapse is a professional social network that features a discussion forum, blogs, event listings, images, videos, chat, etc. This is a perfect place to troll for ideas on an upcoming unit, a new strategy or approach you’d like to attempt in the classroom, etc. On The Synapse, teachers can log requests for ideas, tips or suggestions for teaching those most challenging topics or using new strategies. Teachers will also notice the ability to join or form their own subgroups within the network based on region, content focus, instructional strategy, etc.

Admins of The Synapse

The facilitators of this network represent different regions across the country, varying grade levels, varying approaches, varying years of experience.  In fact, diversity within the network will certainly grow quickly even more over time. As this new network begins to expand, the power of numbers will work to produce results in an even more timely fashion.  I look forward here to what James Surowiecki quite simply called The Wisdom of Crowds.”

The real potential beauty of this network is its goal of decentralized intelligence. Online social networks such as this one harness the power of asynchronous communication to allow teachers to collaborate when and where possible within our increasingly busy lives.  Sure, your brain has a ton of neurons…  on the order of about 10 billion.  However, it also contains around 100 billion synapses.  That is, connections between neurons.  It could thus be said that the connections between these brain cells are in some ways a larger factor than the brain cells themselves.  Play that metaphor out in terms of this project.  The connections we make here are potentially larger than any of us as individuals.

Sign in

The first step is to join. The second: poke around. See what this site can do for you as a teacher who is constantly looking to improve his or her practice. The final step: share. If everyone adds that minimum of one or two special things they have to share, this site will quickly be a huge part of your personal learning network.  In fact, in the words of Dr. Geoffrey Hinton:

Learning occurs as a result of changing the effectiveness of synapses so that their influence on other neurons also changes… Learning is a function of the effectiveness of synapses to propagate signals and initiate new signals along connecting neurons. Learning and experience change the structure of the neural networks. (Geoffrey Hinton, “How Neural Networks Learn from Experience,” Scientific American, 267:3, September 1992, 145.)

Experience affects efficacy when it comes to your brain.  Aren’t we magnificently plastic creatures?  (Check out the related discussion between Dr. Doyle & I on this post.)  The fact that you could alter the structure (and thus the function) of the only brain you’ll likely ever own, is a really powerful idea.  So what on Earth are you waiting for?  Jump in.  Become one of the collaborators (neurotransmitters) within this newly-forming network.  If you aren’t one who teaches life science…  forward this post to a colleague who does.  They might just thank you.

Outpost Motel

So welcome to another outpost on the rapidly expanding web that potentially connects professional educators worldwide. With a bit of help, this tiny outpost could turn into a metropolis. We think the infrastructure is ready. What do you think?

Artwork thanks:

Outpost Motel” by Allen “Roadsidepictures” on Flickr.
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Leadoff bunt in the first inning? Not this guy.

The goal in baseball is to just get by. Finishing the ninth inning with one more run than your opponent lands you with a win, and in the right game- a title. The goal in teaching should be quite different.*


Swing for the fences
Teach like you have something to prove. Because, in fact, you do. When a new year begins, you have a ton to prove to your students- and in a very short time. If inside the four walls of your room on that first week -it feels like a classroom– then you will have your work cut out for you even more than you would have otherwise.

Ask Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink) how quickly your students will size you up on that first day.
The only thing you have that, say -an interviewee for a job doesn’t- is about 179 more days with your captive audience to make amends. New teachers should hear loud and clear that with integrity and persistence you really can make up for a rocky start over time. In my opinion, the “first day” gurus such as Harry Wong, overlook this fact.


Rookie season
A teacher who has never stood in front of a group of high school students can be pretty intimidated with everything that must go off without a hitch on those first days. I have seen this several times during these last three years as an instructional coach. I mean seriously… look at this. You are pulling down a whopping thirty grand for mastering that in addition to everything else NCLB throws your way. Even the word mastering can be frustrating here. As a teacher, you won’t make a penny more or less whether you nail it, or fail it. It is one of those sad realities of the profession. Perhaps Mr. Duncan will have a thing or two to say about that. One thing we do know for sure is that he never had to spend a day worrying about that first week. For all of his extensive experience administrating schools, he’s never actually been a classroom teacher.

So how do you do just that –swing for the fences– in a classroom? Step one: care. Care about all of it, and care about it deeply. If you try to pull down something in that first week that you don’t deeply care about, then you will derail the train at the station. Your students don’t care so much that you are deeply knowledgeable about science yourself. They also do not care that you may be steeped in all of the latest instructional strategies… though this will certainly help. What they really care about is whether or not you do. I mean, I’m not a big fan of street mimes, but I’m also not about to walk by someone that committed without a kind smile lighting up my face. Bottom line- if you don’t care deeply about your mission, and it is a noble one, you might want to think about trying to get out of that contract before it is too late. Yes, I’m serious.

Is it worth swinging at?
Since you’re still reading, you can likely pass muster on step one. Step two is far easier. Step two is to identify something deep to begin with. Pick something that might typically be thought of as culminating. Don’t lay out all of the vector-physics wisdom involved with every step of arm wrestling. Beat a kid at arm wrestling… or lose… it matters little here. What does matter is that your students get a glimpse of what the end looks like. What are the culminating processes, skills, and concepts you want your kids to leave your room with in May? Pick one. Start with that. The natural world is an interesting, puzzling, or beautiful thing to all humans at some level. Where is the beauty in your subject? Where is the mystery? Where is the debate? Don’t wait until Spring to drop the really good stuff on a bunch of chronically bored kids. Don’t do that.

I know, I know… “but what about the pacing guide?” The pacing guide is a very well-intentioned piece of accountability hardware. I get it. It is all about making sure a teacher doesn’t stay with the “leaf unit” -insert other easy favorite here- all semester long. It is also about making a daunting management task a bit more manageable for a school’s administrators. I’d personally rather see a school hire a VP in charge of curriculum & instruction than to lay out anal pacing guides that make teachers feel unable to innovate with sequencing, alternate approaches, etc. I’m starting to believe that no amount of well-intentioned talk about how the pacing guide isn’t your boss will change that. Teachers are generally people who will do as they are asked. If it is in writing, hey- it’s in writing. If you had a knowledgeable VP in charge of C&I in a building, they could have real bi-directional conversations with teachers on a very regular basis about how they are going about the business of delivering the curriculum to students. This would have to be an administrator freed from the overwhelming glut of management of discipline duties a VP job normally comes with. Of course, you could argue that a strategy like this could just be trading one evil for another potential evil, and you’d probably be right in many cases.

Rethink your role
OK, back to the plan. Simply show kids where you are going. If you introduce them to atomic structure yet again to begin the year, you are asking for it. I’m not saying not to do it… just do it next week. Take week one to show them why any of those gruesome details might matter at a later date. Allow me to switch the metaphor. Essentially speaking, if your classroom were a restaurant, you might think of it as assuming the role of host or maitre d’ as opposed to the chef. Control the atmosphere. Greet them at the door, lead them to their table, introduce the menu, highlight the really good stuff, even bring the ingredients to the table… but then leave the cooking to them. I didn’t say walk away. Stay. Help out when you’re really needed. Hey- you’ve cooked a steak once or twice before, they haven’t. But let it be their steak. Don’t cook it for them. Small variations make a meal interesting, but a truly burned steak is a shame. Right?


Biology: the study of life
“What is life?” -sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? It is a typical question-led topic found in the introductory chapter of almost any Biology text. Tons of folks probably lead off with some analytic version of this lesson already. This year, like many in the past eighteen, I kicked things off in Principles of Biology by stirring up a bit of classroom discourse concerning a definition of “life.” No- I’m not talking about the one where we review a litany of characteristics like growth, metabolism, ability to reproduce, etc. Like most things, those fall dead flat without a rich context. If you’re just there for the diploma, you don’t care what a cell is or isn’t at this point. I like to ask that very same question from a more comprehensive vantage point that has relevance to all students by the time they are sitting in my class as a junior or senior.


I like to start this period with a short reading directly from “One Minute Readings: Issues in Science, Technology, and Society” by Richard Brinckerhoff. This is one of the few inspiring resources I have obtained via a textbook company in the past eighteen years. Check it out: at the time of writing this little essay, you can even score a copy for 37 cents. What are you waiting for? Check for the sample reading I have at Scribd. I wouldn’t normally re-type this much of a work like this, but since it is currently out of print and out of stock (new) most places, perhaps this will drum a small bit of interest. This book has 80 readings similar to that one. All were very current in 1992. Of course now you can only use about 40% of them straight-up. But really, you should use the others as inspiration to find your own sources and write your own questions.

The Emeril report
Here’s what I did this time around. I passed out the attached sheet while taking roll with explicit instructions for a silent, solo read. After reading, I asked my students to scribble their current thoughts onto a scrap of paper -scribbles that no one else would see. While trolling through the students seated at tables, (want a visual of the space?) I waited for a good moment to stop them for the next step. Now let me say that if your words, as well as your non-verbals, have done an adequate job of making students feel like they can speak up, then look out. This one can be amazing. Let me also say this… if you really are 22, and feel that you aren’t ready to facilitate a large group discussion that can get spirited from time to time, then might be something to observe the first time.

That being said drag this one out if you are up for it. As long as you don’t see yourself (or anyone else in the classroom) as having the “answer” to complex issues such as this, you are probably fine as long as you require people to simply be nice to one another. I have honestly had not a single issue with this lesson that transpired out of the classroom in any negative way. On the other hand, I have heard tons of thank you’s over the years for “allowing us to discuss such real things,” or for “treating us like what we say matters,” etc. Just stay on top of things with a gentle hand, and I think you’ll like the results of this one.


I usually end up reading the entire text to the class myself, aloud, as an expert reader. Of course, with this distilled little piece of text, you will end up stopping every other line and asking for input, asking for someone who can speak to the opposite viewpoint, and largely allowing the discussion to bend and twist to the needs of your kids. I also tend to follow this wonderful little quote that resides in my “stickies” file on the Mac:

“It should be the chief aim of a university professor to exhibit himself in his own true character — that is, as an ignorant man thinking, actively utilizing his small share of knowledge.” ~ Alfred North Whitehead

Be a facilitator, not an authority figure. That is a good rule of thumb in general. It makes you a real authority when you choose to actually play that role. But in the context of this lesson, it is honestly required to in order to keep the phone lines quiet in the days after the lesson. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you think. It really doesn’t. If you take the tack of an authority on any viewpoint in this lesson, you will likely deal with a kickback you don’t want.

So this year, I developed what I think is an ideal forum for the final stage of this lesson. I had already set up a classroom learning network on the Ning platform. Before class I created the discussion forum topic for student responses. I wouldn’t see them again for two days. So I asked them to visit the site in that time, and post a reflection based on the reading, our discussion, their overall reaction, their reaction to one specific element, the response they didn’t feel like verbalizing in class, whatever… their choice. I wanted a forum thread that would not only reflect the discussion of that one class period, but one that would also extend the discussion beyond the classroom. Check it out. I think you’ll see that we didn’t answer many things, but we sure engaged a few folks in the questions.


You’ll have to judge for yourself on how this worked for us. Keep in mind that this was the first online work they had ever done for a high school class… ever. That variable certainly changes the discussion in some interesting ways. I am open to discuss any of the other variables of this class in general, our curriculum, details of the setting, etc. The devil in all classroom adventures is in the details.

Let’s be real. I played baseball for years. I know that there are certain situations where squeezing a run in the first inning is appropriate. There are certain educational situations where scoring a small but easy victory early on is preferable as well. However, in my experience, more often than not I tend to step to the plate with any new concept ready swing really hard at least three times. That bravado is even more pronounced at the beginning of the school year. Hey if I strike out in the first, at least they’ll know what kind of a team they’ll be facing for the next eight innings…

*This post was originally published at The Synapse, a new professional development network for life science educators.  I collaborate there with some very inspiring educators.  More on that site later… check it out.

Artwork thanks:

*”Schilling” by mandolux on Flickr.
*”Eye” by Michele Catania on Flickr.
*”Rebirth” by James Jordan on Flickr.
*”That’s life that what all the people say.” by mohammadali on Flickr.
*”a brand new human” by Ben McLeod on Flickr.
*”unfolding” by p a p i l l i o n on Flickr.