"A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's tortoises all the way down!"
If you're very attentive, you noticed last week that I obliquely referenced our participation in a local protein modeling competition. This is an annual affair at Stony Brook University, somewhat aligned with science olympiad, and closely aligned to the Milwaukee School of Engineering. During the competition, students submit a pre-built physical model of a target protein, and then spend a period of time on-site at the University building another, smaller model, and taking an exam on protein structure, and the specific roles played by the target molecule.
This is the seventh year that Stony Brook has run the event. During year one, our team took second place, but this year was our first time back to the event since the second year. Every year I ask AP Biology if there is enough interest for us to field a team of three students, but I just haven't gotten an interest since our last appearance. I really enjoy the event, as it requires students to interact with a 3D computer model of a protein in a very in-depth manner, along with having them really dive in to one particular protein. This year, the target protein was RAS (specifically H-RAS), and our team decided to focus on it's use of GTP in signal transduction. Our model was pretty darn cool:
We didn't place. Apparently we came in 13th place according to the ranking that I received today. I couldn't care less, and neither could my team members. Generally, I take the position that all I want to do with these types of extracurricular activities is to have as much fun as possible with them. I actively try to minimize the importance of the extrinsic "rewards", and maximize student engagement for the sake of learning about whatever it is that is worth learning about. It was a super fun time, and it was a great way to learn about the structure of a protein. The best part of the day was the hour that my student's were able to spend with a research scientists during lunch, talking about what is involved in a career as a PhD in molecular microbiology. For the $30 it cost us to participate in the day, that alone was worth the price of admission.
I thought I might write a bit about how we handle media here in the Knuffke household. For the past two years, we have been successfully "cord-cut", in that we do not pay for monthly cable television service or phone. I'm amazed that, two years on, so many folks I know still pay for cable. To me, this is a major example of wasting obvious money. With that in mind, I'll explain what we do, so that anyone who hasn't really figured out how to make this work for themselves can get an understanding of a working model.
President Obama cracking geeky jokes. I think this is my favorite version of the President, and not one that I see all that often.
This clip is making the rounds currently. It's a covert video of one minute of Professional Development in Chicago Public Schools. It's pretty ugly:
I've had some less-than-stellar PD experiences in my career, but nothing quite like this.
Let's acknowledge that the trainer in the clip is modeling a particular instructional method, and that the minute of video shown in the clip is completely devoid of context. That said, I'm still not quite sure what the point of this PD is, or why CPS decided it was worth paying for. Surely there are more effective strategies to teach students context-appropriate vocabulary...
I'd like to think that were I a participant in the session, I'd have wisdom enough to "go to the bathroom," and never return.
I am on a bit of a molecular kick right now. This is mostly due to this year's protein folding team, who are "competing" in the local competition today with their Ras model. Protein modeling has been a relatively constant theme in my courses for almost as long as I've been teaching them, and I find that it provides a really nice intersection of science, art, and technology that resonates with a particularly interesting group of students.
When you get in to protein modeling, you get in to the Protein Data Bank, and when you get in to the Protein Data Bank, you start to notice their rather impressive collection of "Molecule of the Month" features. From there, it's a quick jump to the work of David Goodsell, a PhD scientist, and molecular artist. Dr. Goodsell creates the beautiful watercolored models of the proteins featured in the PDB, a body of work that can't help but pique your interest if you are even remotely interested in the biological realm.
I've known for a while that Dr. Goodsell makes some larger efforts available outside of the work he does for the PDB and other organizations. At NSTA last year, I treated myself to the "panorama" version of his "Tour of a Human Cell" cross-section poster, which is one of two pieces of non-student-created work that adorns the walls of my classroom this year (the piece in question is so large at 2 feet x 11 feet, that it stands in for at least a half-dozen smaller items that I may have used in past years). I also knew that Dr. Goodsell has a book or two available for purchase. But it wasn't until this most recent protein structure jag, that I actually realized that the most popular book, "The Machinery of Life", is available at Amazon for a very low price. So I bought myself a copy.
The first thing I noticed about the book is that it is a lot smaller, physically, than I thought it would be. For whatever reason, I thought the book would approximate the dimensions of some of the other art books that are on my shelves, but I was wrong. The book is the size of a small hardcover novel. Still, don't be fooled by the size. While it may be small, the work is a marvel. My only regret is that I didn't buy it sooner.
Anyone who has spent time training as a biologist has an academic understanding of how cells are organized. The smallest systems of life are astoundingly complex, and fantastically baroque. Still, it's one thing to hold such concepts in the mind. To see them rendered in physical space is an entirely different affair. Dr. Goodsell's book is replete with illustrations that move the viewer from the atomic level, through the molecular, and into the cellular. The images that are provided are some of the finest examples of biological illustration that I have seen. The panoramas on display in this work are renderings of a world far removed from the one that we inhabit, but they present a vision that is so striking, and so exact, that the viewer comes away with a deeper, more cohesive understanding of processes and structures that could not even have been analyzed 50 years ago, much less presented as an integrated, functioning, whole. It was not uncommon while reading the book that I found myself thinking things like "Wow, look at how much hemoglobin is in that erythrocyte!". I can't imagine that anyone who is interested in these things can look at the images presented in "The Machinery of Life", and not feel richer for having done so. Even casual fans of aesthetics will enjoy the lovingly illustrated tension between chaos and order that is an integral aspect of the molecular world. My personal favorite series in the book is a nested series of illustrations that successively magnify a region of an E. coli bacterium, culminating with an illustration of a several-hundred-nanometer intercellular square, shown both with and without water and other biological molecules filling the interstices between larger proteins, ribosomes, and a region of the tangled chromosome. It is easily the best representation of the economy of space in cellular systems that I have had the good fortune to be able to view.
One after the next, the breathtaking illustrations in this work are presented to the viewer, and one after the next they serve Dr. Goodsell's emergent narrative, and meditation on the smallest units of living systems and their relationships to the larger systems they are both a part of, and allow for. Once through, the reader will want to return to the beginning, and start all over again. This is what makes "The Machinery of Life" such a great book. In a world of large, comprehensive, tomes on all aspects of the Biological world, this tiny, beautiful book demonstrates the truism that a picture will often succeed where language can not. I give it a firm recommendation to anyone who is interested in a bit of wonder in their lives.
Note: Major thanks to Dr. Goodsell for allowing so much of his work to be used by the public (including the images shown in this post). I look forward to seeing what the larger AP Bio Community might think about doing with his work.
Due to a few vagaries of circumstance, I've been involved in more Standards Based Grading discussions during the past three months, than I have been previously. Which is fine. I really like the philosophy, and while I am not an SBG purist, I do think that the process that I use in my own courses is one that is working well for my students, and the courses that I'm teaching. Like any other aspects of my course, I like talking about what I'm doing when it consists of things that I'm proud of.
A few months ago ago, a colleague with whom I have really enjoyed discussing AP Bio asked me to explain what it was, exactly, that I did with SBG in my courses. I replied with a long, descriptive, email, which I have since forwarded on to a the other teachers who have written in with similar questions. It was after my most recent forwarding that I realized that most of the teachers who contact me with SBG questions are in the process of working through wholesale building-level, or even district-level SBG implementations. I also realized that the concept of a large-scale SBG implementation is one that I am very uneasy with. This unease has not been assuaged by the discussions I've had with these colleagues, as it seems that on the whole, these large-scale implementations are not being done in a manner that I would describe as well-considered on the part of the districts engaged in them.
Here is a recent email that I received (permission for posting granted, identifying details removed, emphasis mine), which is exemplary of many of the problems that I see in these implementations:
Hi, I tried doing some aspects of what my district says is SBG last semester and it was a disaster.
This is an immediate red flag. The minute SBG moves from a system that a teacher is interested in implementing to one that is being pushed from on high, teachers lose a good part of the autonomy they might have brought in to the process. My SBG system is useful because I built it myself, with my colleagues. No one in a position of power twisted my arm, or proscribed what could or could not be done. It's not surprising that I love my SBG system, and this teacher does not love theirs (though it's not really all that fair to call it "theirs").
Just how proscribed is the system that this teacher is dealing with? The email continues:
They want re-takes and re-do's of everything. I have to post learning targets now and I'm supposed to assess it at the end of every class. Well, we have 90 minute blocks and I may go through a number of learning objectives in one day. I also tend to spiral the learning as that is the only way I know how to teach biology so I am failing miserably at what they want me to do.
Why don't they just cut to the chase at this point, and tell the teacher in question what to teach and how to teach it? I'm sure the district thinks that these types of mandates are ensuring a uniform transition, but I would suggest that such a perspective is missing the philosophical forest for the administrative trees. Mandating these types of policies is not fostering progressive pedagogy as much as it is fostering confusion and resentment among the teacher corps. This teacher can point to specific issues that the mandatory implementation is causing in his/her course, and he/she doesn't feel like he/she has the understanding or support needed to address these problems. That's highly unfortunate.
Outside of the toxic effect that these types of misguided policies have on staff perspectives, my major issue is that these policies promote an extremely myopic view of what SBG entails. At its heart, SBG is a reaction to particular perceptions of what grades represent. In making these types of large-scale mandates when pursuing SBG policies, a district is taking the best aspects of SBG, and turning them in to an analog of the same old thing. Global reassessment policies are a good example of this issue. The notion of reassessment has become a somewhat dogmatic aspect of many SBG systems (including my own Honors Chemistry system), but the notion that it is something that must be present in all SBG courses is laughable (see my own AP Biology system as a reassessment-free example of an SBG system).
I didn't ask to use this particular email because it was special, but because it is similar to most of the ones that I have been receiving about SBG lately. Various teachers involved in various stages of mandated SBG systems, unclear on the details, and largely unaware that there are many roads to travel in making this transition, are eager to find people outside of their district who can shed some light on the process. It seems to me that this type of "mandate thinking" on the part of districts is something that the larger SBG community needs to take note of, and take issue with. The desire to connect assessment to student understanding is a universal desire of all teachers who I would consider to be philosophically aligned to the larger SBG thought process. By transmogrifying SBG into these types of "one-size-fits-all" mandates, the power of the philosophy is diminished to the point where it risks being seen as just another district mandate, one whose time will pass when the next hot thing comes along. That, it seems to me, is a shame, and one that can be easily avoided with a bit of thought, respect, and encouragement of teachers.
Generally, I don't write a lot about parenting here. There are a few reasons for this. On one hand, I'm aware of the panoply of "writing about parenting" places that exist. On the other hand, generally consider what I do as a parent to be anything special, or all that "write-worthy." This may, in fact, be the first post I've ever written that comes close to a post about parenting.
I'm comfortable with who I am as the parent of a 21-month-old. I think I do a pretty solid job, and I think that my wife does an amazing one. I consider myself to be a pretty typical "modern" parent, in that I don't really give any thought to any of the more reactionary parenting styles that may have been common in the past. For a first-time parent, I'm doing good, in that I am doing my best. By all measures, Connor has been an "easy baby". His health is generally excellent, and he is the definition of developmentally appropriate. We haven't really had to struggle with too much in terms of his behavior, and he has seemed to sync up with us as naturally as can be expected from a new person. The whole endeavor has been an exercise in good fortune.
I found this podcast because it is a part of the new "Radiotopia" collective out of PRX. It's pretty good, at least as far as the one that I listened to, which was on twitter bots, and buying thousands of followers.
I have occasionally been followed by the obvious "busty bot" (so named for their profile photos), but it never occurred to me that folks would actually want fake followers. I can't keep track of all my real ones (at least, I think they're all real...)
Check it out:
I was glad to see that yesterday's post was well-recieved by a lot of the people I like talking to these days. My twittering has increased the size of my "Professional Learning Network" by several orders of magnitude, and it was nice to see that I could spend a good portion of a lazy Saturday afternoon having casual, tangential, conversations with quite a few folks:
One person who was less impressed was my father, who left me this comment on Facebook:
This was followed shortly with
I truly do not understand this. And I thought that Cosmology was obscure.
Full Disclosure: My father is a super-great guy, who spent his professional career teaching science to teenaged children. We don't tend to talk job specifics, which is all the more reason why I respect his opinions on education wherever and whenever they are offered.
He didn't dig the post. I can respect that. Still, I think he probably agrees with the underlying point, which is that teachers often fall into patterns, and assumptions for no other particular reason than their frequency of use, and that a process for evaluating these habits is useful in determining if they should be changed, and how to go about making those changes.
I agree that the language we use to talk about these things is frequently difficult. And I'll cop to being a bit overdone in the peice. I was going for a certain style that is not one of natural comfort. This venue exists to provide me with an arena of "warts and all" compositional practice as much as it serves any other purpose. In that capacity, I'm not sorry for trying new things, even if they are only half-successful.
I suppose I'll just have to redeem myself the next time. At the very least, I'm glad to know that if I don't, he'll tell me so.
We are really good at putting limits on ourselves. It’s human nature to think that the way we’ve always done something is the way it should be done. The brain loves a pattern, and it establishes them very quickly. Anyone who's ever tried to break a habit, or modify an existing one should be well aware of just how ingrained, how fast, things become.
There are all sorts of habits. Some have to do with how we live our lives, others have to do with how we think about things. Some are bad for us, most are good (or at least neutral). Teachers are not removed from this. We all have patterns of expectations, procedures, attitudes, ways to filter and deliver content, and all of the other aspects of the job. These are our preferences, and we prefer them mostly because they are how we, personally, do the things we do. They are the habits of our job.
Connor puts on his best outfit, so as to play you a song.
On some level, I think this is probably what most Guns N' Roses concerts were like.
I have to imagine it won't be too long until a several-hours-long version of this shows up.
Hat tip to Tim Sostrin for sending this one my way.
So, we've finally landed here.
I know that we've moved around quite a bit over the past few years. That's more because of my continuing discomfort with the various platforms on which I've hosted the site.
I don't think that's going to be a problem anymore.
After much consideration, I've moved this whole bag of wax to SquareSpace. I have a few reasons for doing this:
I want to take a bigger picture view of my web presence. I have a bifurcated web-life. There's school, and there's me. For a few reasons, I don't want to join these two spheres entirely. At the same time, I do want to present a web presence that's a bit more unified. This place is going to let me do that.
Planning for the future. I don't imagine that my toddler is going to start wanting a website anytime soon, but when he does (an inevitability), I'd like to provide him with a space that we have total control over. I also would love to have the ability to provide my other family members with a friendly webspace to showcase their thoughts, creations, and all the rest of it.
I'd want to unify my blogging. With all of the types of content that I have been cramming in to Pseudopodia up to this point, the structure of my blog is a bit ecclectic. I'd like to change that. To that end, I'll be breaking off a lot of the things that I used to jam into this blogging space into various other spaces on this website. It's already started
I want a site that is clean and responsive. This is a major one for me. I spend more time than is healthy thinking about the aesthetics of this space. Squarespace has a great design ethic, and it makes my life considerably easier as a result.
As for how this will affect anyone who comes here to read what I write, it basically won't. I've set this week as the cutoff week for moving to this new site, and I have archived the past five years of blogging at this archival space. It's all just thrown in there, so various platform-specific features of wordpress, and tumblr, will not work in the posts at that site. Still, it's super-nice to have a total record of what I've written about, and shared with folks for the last long time. Who knows, I may even pull out the best gems and do something nice with them (once I find the extra time in my life that I have misplaced).
So that's it. I hope you enjoy this new space, and I look forward to seeing what it becomes.
As always, thanks for visiting.
A little time spent in the world of professional educational YouTubers will quickly bring you to the work of CGP Grey and Brady Haran. I think they are doing great stuff. So I was particularly pleased to learn that they have decided to start podcasting.
Check it out. Out of the first three episodes, the third one has been the most resonant for me, as I also find my work:life balance to be a bit of a struggle at times.
Weekend Writing is an iterative cyclical process. I’ve done three-week, and four-week cycles, and they both are useful. Here is the process:
Week 1: First Draft. In week one, students write a response to an AP exam prompt. I choose the prompt, and try to make it loosely aligned to the content that we are dealing with in class at the moment. Students post their response to the course forum (a private webspace that only the members of the class can see). I require that students write a “full credit” response, as dictated by an overt statement of how many points should be earned in each section. Students are also required to parenthetically indicate where they think they are recieving the points in their response. The completed First Draft response is due by midnight Sunday of the week on which it is assigned (hence Weekend Writing, a toungue-in-cheek nod to the reality that most of these responses are going to be written at the end of the working timeframe).
Week 2: Peer Feedback. In week two, every student in class is both peer-editor and peer-editee for another student. This is a non-reciprocal, rotating relationship (every student edits and is edited by a different student in the class each week), so as to prevent any grudges from forming. We have already had a long history of peer review in the course, and students are well aware of what constitutes constructive feedback, and what doesn’t. The open nature of the process also helps to prevent any ugliness from occurring. Editors are required to leave feedback about what they like, and what they think could be improved. Their editing is due by the end of the second week in the cycle.
Week 3: Revision. In week three, students revise their original response, incorporating the feedback left by their peers, along with any other revisions they feel are important. Along with the revisions, students are also required to write a concluding paragraph explaining what they have changed in their original response, and why they have changed it. A complete revised response with included analysis paragraph is due by the end of the third week in the cycle.
INSTRUCTOR FEEDBACK: The end of week three is the moment where I leave feedback on any and all responses that I feel warrant such things. It is my opportunity to leave comments to clean up any lingering misconceptions, and spotlight anything that I think is really great, or shows really great growth from the first week through the third. I’ll also leave global comments on the trends that I see in the group’s writing as a whole.
Week 4: Bonus week. I’ve only used week 4 once so far, but I could see it being used again. In week 4, students are asked to ape the format of the AP exam as much as possible in rewriting the response again from the ground up. I have students spend 3 minutes outlining their response and then time themselves at a firm 20 minutes totally rewriting their response knowing what they know now. I could also see a place in week 4 to post the actual scoring rubric and have students use that to frame their new answer, but I would really only do this if students were totally struggling, and mine haven’t been there yet. Actually, after the first Weekend Writing cycle, I haven’t even seen the need to use week four at all, since the lingering errors at the end of week three were pretty insignificant (and let’s be honest, a third rewrite of a response is a pretty heroic measure).
This is the Weekend Writing Cycle, quite possibly the most original idea I’ve had all year. I was interested in how well it would work with my class, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. In our mid-year conferences, multiple students told me how much they appreciated the process, and how much they felt it was helping them frame their responses for the course. I was glad to hear it. Interestingly, in my conversations with my ELA colleagues, they have all mentioned that the same issues I have with my students writing are the ones that they are having, too. Turns out that ELA teacher have just as little use for overwritten rhetorical navel-gazing as we do in the sciences. This process gives me a way to help students shed that urge as much as possible, while still almost leaving me out of it entirely. Could I get similar effects by editing every student response? Maybe, but that would only encourage students to view this process as one that teaches them to write how I want them to because I'm telling them how, not because they are coming to it on their own, with a little help from their friends. I'm sure it won't surprise anyone that I have a distinct preference for the latter.