On Being a Public Educator, or: Once Again, Why I Love The Web

Transforming by connection

In my time as a teacher, I have tried purposefully to connect my students to experts beyond the walls of our classroom. When I began as a teacher in 1991, this was a pretty difficult task compared to today. Contacting local experts in biology or conservation took going out of the way to recruit the efforts of kind, caring professionals who were willing to share their experience with my students and I. Today, it can happen almost accidentally. Today, a few extra steps can flip the equation to a reality where talented individuals can find you. While balancing a myriad of responsibilities in the classroom of today, this shift in reality can be a transformational one… helping to bring relevance and authenticity to the lives of students.

Allow me to quickly switch to the issue at hand, and then wrap up my case by the end. Today, I bring you yet another opportunity to assist the education of students in Missouri, from wherever you may be. Cutting to the chase, a talented and giving artist from the state of Florida recently contacted my students and I with the offer to contribute an a work of art to help my students pay for the fees of a field study on the coral reefs of Andros Island, in the Bahamas.

Connecting to art

Cheryl Ferrari is a passionate artist and a giving person. My students and I are quite happy tonight to announce an opportunity for you to own an amazing piece of art while making a donation to hardworking students who are doing extra work on their own time to learn about something they are interested in. On Friday, I will be able to add an actual photo of the actual work. It is an beautiful and massive 36×24 inch print on canvas. Not only was the work donated at an approximate value of from $2000 to $3000… but the framing was donated by a local company. J. Franklin Gallery of St. Joseph donated the $400 framing.



Clicking the “buy now” button above will allow you to enter a credit card via PayPal from wherever you may be… to an SJSD account to earn a chance to win the print. This is essentially a donation where 100% of the funds go toward a rich educational experience for my students. We are offering each chance at $5, and three chances for $10. The raffle will take place on the night of March 28th, the eve of our upcoming field study in The Exuma Cays.

Yes, public

You see, I take the idea of being a public educator rather literally. In short: whenever and wherever possible, I pull open a window of transparency allowing a peek into the work we are doing. Softening the walls of the classroom in this way has brought us many powerful connections over time. Cheryl Ferrari is a Florida resident who grew up snorkeling and diving on Florida’s coral reefs when they were vibrant and healthy. She no longer dives today, and relies on photographs from those who do as inspiration for her work.

Cheryl messaged me via Flickr in April complimenting the work we are doing in chronicling the life (and sadly, death) of coral reefs today. She kindly asked permission to reference our work, and three months later, she messaged again with the image you see above. We could clearly see the elements of the painting that were inspired by photographs we have taken and shared. After more conversation on the details of our program, she offered to donate a limited-edition print to help student offset the costs of the field study portion of the course. And really, though you can’t quite tell it here, this connection has almost left me speechless at times.

Connecting to science

Since 2000, we have had authors join our discussions of their works. We have had the Center for Biological Diversity request photos for use in a formal federal petition to list two Caribbean corals as threatened, and eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. (it worked, by the way) We have had a former student of this program now with a Ph.D. and working on national marine policy, rejoin our community from time to time, as one of our informal teachers. We have had students live blog hurricane landfalls from the gulf, and report back from their work in fisheries from Dutch Harbor, Maine. And on and on. I’m certain I’d leave someone out if I tried to name them all.

These connections have transformed our classroom time and time again. It is this sort of real transformation that makes expenditures of modern technology worth the cost. Join us in some way. Take a chance on owning a bit of our story, and thanks so much in advance, from all of my students and I, for donating to such a relevant and authentic cause in the lives of kids.

Artwork thanks

Turtle Flirts” by Cheryl Ferrari… photograph of oil on canvas

Massive Sea Fan” is one of ours. See the connection?

Mike Westfall – Thumbs Up” is also one of ours

Another Thousand “Whoa” Moments

Defining whoa

A whoa moment is somewhat akin to the recently ubiquitous aha moment. And yet, there are important differences. Trolling online definitions of the “aha” moment generally returns descriptions of sudden comprehension or the “flash of insight related to a problem.” If I could be trusted to launch my own five-cent definition, I’d loft the “whoa” moment for your consideration. Allow me to stitch together a few words in defense (offense?) of such an idea…

whoa moment |wō|

Informal in usage. Used to indicate a scope of reactions to a learning experience ranging from basic cognitive connection and mild surprise to profound respect and awe. Often uttered momentarily due to a lack of ability to define an experience at the time. Whoa moments often spur deeper future connections and learning along the original topic.

Some of these moments are certainly cerebral, but many others seem to originate deep within the limbic system. I challenge you to justify that sort of experience in today’s rather narrow description of learning. Benjamin Bloom roughly hammered out the Affective Domain of learning over fifty years ago. The affective domain is the domain of attitudes, motivation, and valuation of learning. As we move toward a more “national” definition of what should be learned, we rarely ever touch on anything beyond the cognitive domain. Even within the cognitive domain, consensus is tough to find. But really, when you can stuff so much of the cognitive domain into multiple guess questions, why bother with the rest? Characterizing the rest is just so… hard.

I’d suggest that whoa moments (beyond those of Bill & Ted fame) put the fringes of the affective domain, the elements of valuing… into something we can touch, taste, and marvel over. I’m not here today to hammer out a treatise on the whoa moment, and the value of immersion and authenticity in education. While that might be a worthwhile future endeavor, today I came here to share a bit of our recent Marine Biology field study on Andros Island in The Bahamas. This program was conceived back in 1999 and I have written about it here several times in the recent past. This was our seventeenth field study over the past twelve years, and like each of them, taught us all more than our share for one week.


Finding a rare snow white hermit crab married to a bleached out mollusk shell, watching a lowly flatworm attack and kill a nimble crab, exploring a multitude of minute creatures in a natural reef nursery, finding a completely new and hidden crack into the chilly belly of the Earth (the locale of which is too good to mention in detail here)…  are all just a few of the subtly epic moments that were experienced during a week abroad and in the field this past April.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you aim for whoa in every single granular learning objective that falls within your curriculum. And I’m certainly not suggesting that learning out-of-doors, in the field, suits every academic pursuit. I don’t think it has to happen everywhere, but I do believe it has to happen. Somewhere.


The world is an amazing place, and we live in amazing times. Big moments are all around us. Get on it.


When A Screen Is No Longer Just A Screen

Ever find yourself beginning a blog post in an atypical place? Ever write an email to a friend only to later complete the reflection on your blog? Ever tap out the seeds of an essay while posting a photo online? I’ve done both many times. What about while tagging something to read later in a social bookmarking site? No? I hadn’t either… until quite recently.

Yesterday this little bit of text floated by in the stream and caught my eye on a very busy day. It was a nod toward an article by Bethe Almeras via the Twitter:

Bethe Almeras tweet

The piece in question is an interesting one. Perhaps it is even more than interesting for a parent of two little girls. Give it a read. To cut to the chase, the author points to the debate emerging among pediatricians, parents and others about how much “screen time” is healthy and wise for toddlers.

For the love of screens

This issue has been around as long as television itself. Smart doctors and smart parents alike soon recognized that staring passively at moving pictures could quite possibly do some rather unfavorable things to the emerging brains of children. That argument soon became bastardized by those who believed Wile E. Coyote being bashed by a fleet-footed bird would create a wave of violent adolescents. Still, there is little doubt that our brains weren’t wired for such rapidly-blinking stimuli, especially during crucial formative stages. Perhaps most importantly, when little ones should be acquiring the foundations of literacy skills, an imagination,  and, well… the roots of real interaction with other warm, mushy humans in the household… TV gets in the way. The small bit I know about biology leads me to that understanding almost immediately.


The article asserts that while these realities no doubt exist, very recent advances in technology that allow child-paced interaction via the touch of a finger, might change this “screen time” equation. This is something one of my favorite board-certified pediatricians and I have batted back and forth before. The comment thread on this related post was a fun retro read today.

From my notes in Delicious:

Much as I have long-suspected, even careful folks will eventually warm to the idea that 80% of the problem with TV or computer use by toddlers is the mind-numbing passivity of it all. True interaction, where children are pointing the way and making independent choices -particularly within experiences designed to boost pre-literacy skills- can be positive time for even young children. We’re very judicious about how our daughters actually use a computer. We wouldn’t dream of employing one as digital babysitter.

I’m betting there is a significant correlation between toddler time in front of television and a litany of anomalies such as ADHD. The intensity of such rapidly changing imagery coming in at a speed the developing brain has likely not evolved to handle is, in a word, scary. And yet, from where I sit,  there seems to be something fundamentally different about a child touching a screen to make choices and to learn cause/effect on their own. Though quite different from the 3D real-world wrangling of stacking blocks or poking tadpoles in a shallow pond, it can allow child-paced hand-eye coordination while developing pre-literacy skills, etc.

The Spiders Create Tightropes from Bulb to Bulb

The final qualifier

Life is complex. The key word here is balance. The electric lightbulb has caused almost immeasurable changes in the course of human history. Some of these are desirable, some are not. The development of that technology was an arguably inevitable event in the annals of our species. Television happened later on down the line, as did computers, video games, and now touch screens. At some point this new technology will do the same as artificial light; reach ubiquity and fade into the fabric of who we are. There will be good in that. There will be bad in that. It seems to be the way of things.

“Technology is us. There is no separation. It’s a pure expression of human creative will.”  ~David Cronenberg

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of kids being pacified by handheld computer screens as you read this. Let it be clear that this is absolutely not what I’m advocating. Whether it’s a plastic nipple, an iPhone, or a wall-sized television, isn’t too much of just about anything detrimental?

I dont have a formula for this. I don’t have a formula for most things I do as a parent. It’s tough to choke something as complex as parenting into a set of bullet points declaring what to do or not to do. I tend to agree with the Minnesota parent in the aforementioned article who suggests screen time limits are “an easy out for parents.” This is not to say that I don’t make decisions based on research and the wisdom of those who have gone before me. It just means that I’m a rather right-brained chap who tends to focus on the big picture and make informed decisions as they are needed when and where along the way. Therefore, in the course of providing a warm, caring, and appropriately-stimulating environment for my children, I sometimes allow them to engage in self-directed play on magically-glowing touchscreens from time to time. I think I’m doing right by them. Time will tell, but hey, it’s an uncontrolled experiment. Isn’t life in general?

So yes, the bottom line as I see it… is balance. Our oldest girl reads almost frighteningly fluently as a three year old. She’d rather be outside digging in the soil of our garden. She loves the tickle of caterpillar’s feet upon her fingers. She’s funny. She’s compassionate. We haven’t damaged her too badly just yet. It’s still early. Balance.

Delaney before naptime during a Summer vacation trip.

before naptime during a summer vacation trip...


*Image of Wile E. from Wikipedia. I might be a tad bit off on fair use of this one, but I like the rationale they list here. Surely I’m as solid as Wikipedia, right?
*”The Spiders Create Tightropes from Bulb to Bulb” by Nicki Varkevisser on Flickr.
*Image of adorable child + iPad is all mine. However, I credit most of the genes for that beautiful face to her mother.

Online Learning Networks in Science – An Interview

In keeping with the concept of using this blog as not only a synthesis of what I think, but also of what I do, I add this post. Last week I recorded a telephone interview with the folks at natureEDUCATION on the topic of online learning networks in science education. The time I spent on the phone with Ilona Miko, Senior Scientific Editor for Life Sciences, made me realize why it is that she is doing the podcast and I typically stick to the printed (digitally) word. She’s a pro from the word go.

You wouldn’t think I have a fear of publishing or sharing in any way. And yet, I’ve always had a distaste for the sound of my own voice. I cherish real human communication. I thrive on face to face chats…  even virtual versions via Skype, etc. However, hearing a recorded version of my voice always reminds of of Kermit the frog with laryngitis. Perhaps even share-junkies have their Achilles heel. Now that I think about it, considering my avatar, some of you might even see the first image of my mug where I appear sane.

Nature EdCast

Scitable is an open online collaborative learning space within the nature publishing group. If you are a science teacher, or you know one, you’d be doing a favor by forwarding the link to a friend or colleague. NatureEdCast is a podcast featuring some interesting folks from many perspectives.  If you get a chance, check out some of the previous twelve episodes here.  I’m honored to have been selected to share a few minutes on this program. I think I sound like I’m having a phone conversation (complete with near giggles a couple of times), but hey… I guess I actually was. By the end I think we hit on some issues that are important to the world of education, and even science education in particular.  See what you think.

If I had to pick the one thing from the episode I’m most proud of, it would be the fact that although the title features the text “Online Learning Networks,” a significant portion of the program is about students being outdoors, on-site, in nature, and learning with all five senses. Living online is not my style. I’d never want to build a name for that. Although, if done well, extending our classrooms through space and time into the digital world can enhance learning for all students. For that, I’ll sign my name.


Biology Educators Network Builds Partnership

The need arises

A couple of years ago a few of my digital friends and I brought this space to life: The Synapse. A week later I wrote about it here.  The site derives its origin directly from a frustrating discussion in the Twittersphere between biology instructors of many levels. The topic one particular night centered around the very real challenges of addressing evolution on the ground level in our classrooms – a topic that is this challenging likely only in the United States of today. Twitter repurposed away from purely social banter is a fantastic way for professionals to connect and share resources. However, the 140 character limit falls terribly short for the sort of deep back and forth required for anything as rigorous as what we were discussing that night.

On that day, it was decided that we needed a central place to meet, share, and support one another from afar. We needed a place for busy professionals to meet asynchronously and discuss strategies to become better at what we do on a daily basis. During winter break that year, I sat down and established the roots of The Synapse. The design now needs a clean refresh in my opinion, but hey, it was custom and “ours” for the time being.

The Synapse

Ning in education

Enter the Ning debacle that left educator-created networks in a very uncertain place: a switch in business model (read: the need to find a business model) meant that free now meant freemium and anything above the bare essentials would now come at a cost for educators — even with Pearson’s general sponsorship. Unlike many, this didn’t come as a shock to me. And really, considering the cost of one outdated paper biology textbook, $199 per year is a rather easy reach.

I still love the features of this platform. I have still not found a single platform that allows full html replies within threaded discussions. What this means is that the replies to a topic (when done well) carry more weight than the original prompt itself. This fact meets many of my instructional goals in that my words are meant more to empower students to seek resources in building their own understandings and those of their classmates. It’s a small thing technically, but a big one in terms of learning. I still maintain a network there for my Marine Biology classroom, as well as one for our entire district.

Enter: Biocollage

The problem with The Synapse was that it was a true collaboration of weak ties from across the country and beyond. It seems odd to associate any of that with a problem, but I digress. The bottom line: who was going to foot the bill? None of the collaborators could pay for the site from their own budgets or pockets. At one point, I wondered if we’d just fade away and move to other avenues of sharing. At that point I thought it might be worth a shot to just ask. I crafted a letter describing the situation and tossed it out to what I saw were the dominant supporters of biology education in America. Synapse member Susan Musante, Education Programs Manager at AIBS responded and what follows here is the rest of the story. Or rather, the beginning of the next phase of the story…


If you are a biology teacher, you owe it to yourself to be aware of the work done by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), and the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology (UCMP). All three in collaboration offer some of the best resources for biology teachers to be found. BioCollage is now the synthesis of the three organizations. If these were the first three batters in the lineup of a biology teacher’s arsenal, the need for a steroid-pumping cleanup hitter would be lessened. Or something like that.

In fact, UCMP’s (@ Berkeley) Understanding Evolution is one of the best resources on the topic I’ve ever used to date. The content here contains some of the only web “tutorials” that I’ve had kids walk through step by step. For those folks stuck on the idea that vetted resources must come from textbooks…  think again. One I remember off the top of my head is “The Arthropod Story.” This little self-paced experience is one that my zoology students of day past found more than useful. Fast forward to today, and if bedbugs have got you down, check out this page from September 2010 on the topic. An evolutionary perspective on this issue will help to bring sense to the media mayhem.

The Arthropod Story

The future

Whatever the future of this collaboration may bring, we can be more than happy to be holding hands virtually with BioCollage. In fact, I’m more excited than ever about The Synapse.  Even though my day to day work has changed since that initial creation, one truth still remains: building a district-level site for biology collaboration didn’t make sense when available digital tools had essentially collapsed space and time. I thought it more apropos to bring the full diversity of the globe to what we do.

We hope you’ll join us.