Is This a Sluggish Strategy?

The following verse was created in response to and in reflection on the following mass-media story:  Sea Slug Surprise: It’s half-plant, half-animal.  Overall, this post starts with a bit of participation and play, continues with the story of how the “Sci-Po” fun began, how I gave it a shot in the classroom, and why this sort of thinking matters.  It then ends with a few specific resources for biology teachers.

Elysia chlorotica

Is this a sluggish strategy?

Thieving genes seems crazy to me
When seeking food in the mighty sea.
It doesn’t take a Phd
To locate a parcel of green algae.

And yet this shell-free busy bee,
A sea slug with a far lesser degree,
Attempts to boost his MPG
By somehow producing chlorophyll b.

My thoughts on this: In harmony.
I appreciate getting food for free.
Many beasts have green devotees
With sugar secretion their docking fee.

It isn’t merely charity
This molluskan peculiarity,
For algae ultimately die in this
Symbiotic irregularity.

This may seem like barbarity:
Genetic coup of the highest degree.
But I’d bet when we search we’ll see
Biological regularity.

Though no degree from MIT,
I know a fair bit of biology.
I’m nowhere near insanity,
This twist: a slant I just I failed to foresee.

Perhaps we’ll get some new study
That changes the rules for you and for me.
Starvation ebbs, but we shall see:
Would we submit to our skin being green?

What is a “Sci-Po”

Sci-Po.  You read it correctly.  A digital (thus far) friend of mine, Dr. Punya Mishra (who is an associate professor of Educational Technology at Michigan State University), recently wrote a post on his blog about a little project that his daughter had been working on. Shreya is ten years old and writes at Uniquely Mine, her blog. Give it a look- I think you’ll like it.

Punya wrote about the blog and the “Sci-Po’s” within it as a comment on this blog post of mine about some truly ugly mathematical poetry within Mother Goose.  Everything up to and including these two blog posts was completely unrelated.  Months later, another comment to this post was made by Sue VanHattum, a community-college math teacher in California. She then wrote a blog post challenging her readers to write a positive poem about either the beauty or significance of math. Even her first comment by a reader named John is rather impressive.

Punya then responded to this whole woven set of communications by people from all over…  and of very diverse ages. His post on this emerging phenomenon: “Poetry, Science & Math, OR why I love the web.” He was then inspired enough to write a few Math-Po’s of his own.

What’s a guy to do?

At this point, I had to shift my personal involvement in this issue over to my teacher identity and present this little instructional sub-genre of poetry to my students.  By this point in the year, they are likely rather comfy with new.  Be sure to check out the developing thread on our classroom network regarding SciPo’s.  At our last meeting, I invited my students to play along.  I suggested finding any single reading from this past semester as a starting point.  Below is what I personally see as the anatomy of a “Sci-Po” (or a “Math-Po” for that matter).  Allow me to suggest a protocol:

  • Read an interesting article in a field of science (I teach biology, thus the more specific origin of our work).
  • Re-tell the article in your head.  This is summarizing folks.  It is not an autonomic reaction.  Many have published this fact.  At the very least, demonstrate this for your students before you assign it.
  • Reflect on why the article matters.  If it doesn’t have lasting impact, then don’t use it.
  • Retell the main ideas from the article in poetic verse.  You may choose to go back to the original Mother Goose verse and spin yours as well with a sing-songish rhyme.  Somehow I think this even adds a step in the challenge direction.  Try it yourself, you’ll see what I mean.  The poem above is my shot at a Sci-Po.  It came from an article we used for a read aloud earlier in the week.  I cannot imagine expecting students to do something you aren’t doing along with them.  You shouldn’t either.
  • Link back to the article in your post.  My students seem to have taken to creating this link within the text of their poem.
  • Publish in some open Internet forum.
  • Reflect.
  • Communicate.
  • Rinse.
  • Repeat.

The other thing you must understand at this point is that as a classroom project, this one was thus far done in a vacuum.  During this first trial, my students were provided virtually zero instruction toward composing poetry.  Several remarked that they had never actually been required to author their own work in a related genre.  I say this to be fair to those students.  This is experimentation out loud.  As a science teacher, I feel that it is imperative that I give my students the opportunity to explore biology through many other lenses that carry the potential for personal engagement.  I say this because, as of now, that thread includes scientific poetry that is the result of 100% inspiration and 0% instruction in terms of constructing poetic verse.

Let’s get this straight:  I’d love to provide this instruction.  Time is always the issue here.  Even students who feel comfortable with this genre could learn from content instructors with differing vantage points.  However, our current NCLB-influenced curricula almost inhibit such a crossover approach.  Disclaimer:  My Dual-Credit Biology curriculum currently permits experimentation.  My students earn one-university-semester worth of work (5 credit-hours) in an entire high school year.  We have time to enhance and explore.

Personally, I’d find a way to make something this rich work in my classroom at some point regardless.  However, as an instructional coach who has worked with many teachers in the course of the past four years, I would understand the hesitation to do so.  Since NCLB, our core curricula have become more broad, and yet more screwed-down to specifics.  This tends to inhibit innovation.  And yet we must push through that somehow.  The more these content goals are lasered, the more rich pedagogy gets clipped in a vain attempt to meet such specific goals.  The more pedagogy gets clipped, the more student engagement is allowed to plummet.  Lack of student engagement is the first step toward disaster.  Anyone care to talk graduation rates with me?  How did we get to this topic from…  scientific poetry?

simplicity is hard

At this point in my life as an 18 year educator with two toddlers, I seem to see fewer silos and restraints on what we do during the day as teachers than many folks do.  I realize that perhaps the best thing I can contribute to education (outside of what I do in the classroom) is to show folks that there is an alternative to shooting disparate facts into the heads of kids.  In writing that sentence I realize that I intend to stand up for a philosophy of education that pushes beyond segmented practice and into a space where students can find something that inspires them to thinking deeply about new things… whatever those are determined to be.

I believe in and I am certainly analytical enough to help teachers hone in on specific curricular goals with laser precision.  However, I somehow seem to find myself more frequently asking, “why wouldn’t you consider connecting this to that?”  I hope our national system doesn’t soon drive us all to the point where those connections go the way of the dinosaur.

If you are still rather rigidly delivering disconnected lectures in secondary science and mathematics…  find a way out.  If doing anything else feels too fluffy or out-of-sorts, grab a constructivist colleague by the sleeve.  Sit with someone doing things differently.  Find a consultant.  Give another approach a try.  If you really are that traditional, then I certainly recognize the potential for this blog to annoy the daylights out of you.  For another… since you are still reading, I wish you’d have seen the faces of my kids during the 30 minutes of class time I allowed them to explore this on Friday.  I am accustomed to engaged kids, but these were the furrowed brows of surgeons in a pinch.  I love it.  I plan to continue working on it.  I’d love to do so inclusively.  Anyone want to play along?

Content matters?

For the biology educators:  this blog post is a rather nice outline (more content than MSNBC above) of the ecology of the aforementioned little critter.  New Scientist does this one nicely as well.  Even better, Dr. Mary Rumpho, at the University of Maine has a nice little website advocating, as well as supporting, the use of Elysia chlorotica as a model classroom organism for study.  There seem to be a ton of positives to this.  I once had a student keep a colony of hundreds of Hydra viridissima alive and thriving for months (until Christmas break) for an independent research project… and those are some delicate beasts to keep.  Biology teachers: (and perhaps many elementary educators) I suggest giving them a try.


*Image of Elysia chlorotica.  This one is now all over the web, and sadly, it is tough to nail down the origin.  Therefore, no citation, nor linky.  Anyone?
*”simplicity is hard” by Will Lion on Flickr


Making Friends With Failure


So here’s the setup… today’s Daily Shoot challenge was to capture a silhouette of some sort.  My plan from the warm confines of my living room this afternoon? =>  Turn it around a bit.  Grab that copper likeness of the sun from a nearby wall, take it to the river with me and my little girl, and have her hold it out at arm’s length, directly in front of the sun… thereby creating a silhouette of the sun… by the sun.

I’m here to tell you that it didn’t work out as smoothly as I had thought it might.  My near-three-year old quickly found the “sun” too heavy to hold in such a way.  “It’s too heavy daddy.”  Well, of course I wasn’t disappointed in the least, but since I got her all fired up for the shot on the drive down to the snowy shore of the Missouri River…  she certainly was.

my little perfectionist

So I stepped back, stuck the sun into the snow, and snapped off a shot to remind us of the attempt.   Even though I didn’t take the time to adjust the setup (and so you see the sun “blown out” and over-exposed), I really did capture a moment in time.   After scooping her up and telling her how she is the most precious thing to me-  followed by some intense tickling, we climbed inside the toasty car.

The bottom line:  she’s a bit too much like me at the core.  I’m glad I know that while she’s only two years old.  It took me a long time to make friends with failure.  I’m comforted that she has parents who are now quite fond of the messiness of learning.  Being the first-born daughter of two first-born parents might just otherwise carry some potential stress, if you subscribe to that sort of thing.

her eyes

Education is life, is…

So in typing an outline of this little story into Flickr, where I am ten days into my first image-a-day “Project 365,” it hit me how close this comes to the classroom at times.  You see, I knew exactly what I wanted out of that shot.  I have stood behind an SLR with an excited neuron enough times to know what I can and cannot do at this point.  And right here is the rub.  How many times have you envisioned a classroom task where the student work failed miserably to meet your expectations?

I don’t think I have to say “if so” here, do I?  We’ve all been there.  My question is…  what did you do about it?  Hopefully, you finally got around to looking inward at your own expectations, approaches, and scaffolding.  We all jump too fast along the continuum of gradual release from time to time.  It’s hard to slip your brain inside those of a hundred others to see what the best “next step” is every time.  And if you’re an innovator?  Well, if you’re prone to innovation, you often swim in unfamiliar waters… continually using your teacher senses to lead your students through the rip-currents of failure.

Jumping too early and expecting more autonomy than is warranted at a given moment in the educational spectrum is commonplace.  What I would suggest isn’t so routine is tapping on the brakes for a moment, stopping the classroom bus and saying:  “hold on a sec…  I took something for granted…  let’s go back and try it this way.” It is far easier to push the blame onto our students.  We get into that, “well when are they going to learn responsibility and independence?” …sort of thing.  I’m certainly not saying that students can’t be lazy from time to time.  I could write the book on that.  Yet, I would suggest that our teacher energy is best channeled into what we can realistically control.  The only things we can 100% control within the classroom on a daily basis are the choices we make.

successes and failures

I think we need to create little microcosms where failure is frequent.  Not because failing is magical, but because stopping short leaves potential learning on the table.  I advocate the creation of zones where we actively engage failure as some sort of pushing-back-against-boundaries sort of thing.  Our classrooms can be this.  Allowing  -even pushing kids-  to “safe” failures teaches us all something about what we can and cannot do any any given point in time.  We have to get to the point where that isn’t scary.  Especially for our most talented children.  If you are so accustomed to winning, and have forgotten feels like to fail, after a while you teach yourself to avoid it at all costs. Our kids suck a bit of water up their noses while learning to swim, right?  In our protective arms, this sort of failure builds confidence.  Should it really be that different in the classroom?

Prevent the big fail.  Rub elbows with your students.  Sit side by side with them as they work and watch them interact with…  whatever it is you’re asking them to interact with.  Find out what makes each kid tick.  Put out sparks before they become fires.  Teach.  Teach along the way.  And pay close attention:  if you didn’t already attempt the student project yourself, then you should be sued for malpractice.

And really, if you’re still didactically preaching along from the pulpit on most days, you’ll likely not even run into this little snag.  I bet this job looks easy from behind a podium.


*”my little perfectionist” by me on Flickr.
*”her eyes” by me on Flickr.
*”successes and failures” by Will Lion on Flickr.