Saturday, January 29, 2011

It's Global Climate Change, Not Just Global Warming...

Okay, I don't want this to be my second straight posting on snow.... I'll say that up front. But I want to share some random thoughts that have been floating in my head since our last snow storm a couple of days ago. Call it the science teacher in me.

During our last snow day on Thursday morning, I was sitting on my family room sofa, drinking my third cup of coffee and watching the Today show while waiting to get plowed out. Per usual, they featured the latest storm, having field reporters in various northeast cities comment on snowfall totals, school and mass transit cancellations, etc. etc.... I found it interesting that Matt Lauer then turned the show's attention to one simple question: Why? Why are we in the northeast seemingly in this pattern where we're getting socked with so much snow? For that answer Lauer turned to physicist Dr. Michio Kaku of the City College of New York, who theorizes that global warming could be behind this weather pattern. Here's the clip:


We can talk about "global swings" as Kaku refers to them, but one fact is irrefutable: our planet is getting warmer. In fact, 2010 was tied as one of the hottest on record since records have been kept since the 1880's. I for one believe it is due to human consumption of carbon, not merely natural ebbs and flows of climate. Kaku's theory of the increased moisture in the atmosphere due to the increased temperature of the Gulf of Mexico certainly is an interesting one. It makes you wonder when you piece these recent snowstorms together with the other weather "aberrations," i.e., floods in Australia, mudslides in Brazil and California, and hurricane seasons that seem to expand in duration and intensity each year. Are they all by products of global warming? Are they our new norm?

All of this made me have flashbacks to 21 years ago when I began teaching. I taught an Integrated Science class to high school freshmen where one of our major units was on climate. One of the the topics we covered was "the greenhouse effect," where we studied the effects of carbon dioxide, CFCs, methane, et. al. on the atmosphere. I showed my kids this fascinating video I taped from Channel 2 entitled "After the Warming". The premise was interesting: British broadcaster James Burke was presenting a documentary fictitiously recorded in the year 2050. In it, he reviews how climate change has affected human history for centuries. The second part is the most fascinating, as he "recalls" was has happened from the 1990's to 2050 to address global warming. In turns out that this part of the video (which was shot in 1989) is downright prophetic, as Burke tells of such stories as $5.00 a gallon gasoline, oil spills in the Gulf, American wars in the Middle East due to oil, cap and trade legislation, and massive refugee displacement due to climate changes such as drought and flooding. The film also paints a negative picture of the governments of industrialized countries (including the US) during the early 21st century for the failure to take meaningful action to control carbon emissions and proliferate alternative energy sources. Sound familiar?

A key part of After the Warming that I distinctly remember is a section where Burke describes potential changes to the Atlantic Conveyor, the convection flow of the Atlantic Ocean that carries warm waters northward and cold waters southward. Most importantly, this "conveyor belt" is a key influence on the weather patterns for the northeast states. As Burke (and many other climate scientists) postulates, as polar ice caps melt due to global warming, the ocean waters are less salinated, thus the slowing the flow of the conveyor. Such a circumstance could bring strange weather patterns to us. Here is a clip from After the Warming:

Right now the data from NASA suggest that this is indeed not the case, but the recent weather does make you think about these global climate change theories.... and how much evidence we must see before there is a true call to action.

Interestingly enough, the After the Warming video is available for free in its entire 2 hr format on on a YouTube page dedicated to all of the scientific videos of James Burke. It's wonderfully educational and I strongly recommend it.

Watch it on our next snow day!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Real Snow Job

It wasn't a good week.

First, our beloved New England Patriots sleepwalk through a playoff game against the hated NY Jets. Then we have another three-day school week due to a holiday and another snow day yesterday. That's three snow days in two weeks! With 50" of the white stuff already fallen in Mansfield this winter, I think we're all starting to get a bit snow fatigued.

In the past week I've had both teachers and students comment to me how challenging it can be when the school week starts up and then shuts down due to a snow day. There's a certain disconnect, where the momentum of learning can be lost. That certainly can be frustrating.

Plus, now we are looking at June 27 as our last day of the school year.... yikes! I have received an e-mail or two inquiring about that one. In the likely event we have another snow day before the end of the second semester (which is March 18), we will extend the trimester so there is an equitable amount of instructional days for third trimester.

I say "likely event" seeing that today is only January 22 and there's a full two months of winter joy left. Then in perusing the online edition of the Mansfield News, I see this wonderful article where Accuweather Chief Long Range Forecaster Joe Bastardi is forecasting that the remainder of our winter will be colder and stormier than usual. This graphic basically sums it up:

Ugggh! That La Nina pattern certainly is not helping us this year. We're in a bit of a rut.... and now they're telling us that there could be yet another big storm this coming Wednesday!

As my late grandmother always told me, there's no sense in worrying about anything we have no control over. So we'll take it one day at a time, keep warm, and pour another cup of coffee...

Think happy thoughts: 22 days until pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers. : )

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Walking Through the PARCC

Now that Massachusetts has adopted the Common Core Standards, what’s next? What is going to happen to the MCAS? I have had many teachers and parents ask me this question for the past few months. Now the picture is starting to become clearer…

Massachusetts is governing state in a new initiative known as the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers), a state-led assessment consortium with 11 governing states and 26 member states (see above graphic) all together. In fact, Massachusetts’ Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mitchell Chester, is the chair of the committee of governing states. The U.S. Department of Education awarded some $170 million in Race to the Top funds to the PARCC for the development of a K-12 assessment system aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics.

The emphasis of the PARCC will be beyond the 10th grade MCAS, which establishes minimum competency in ELA and math. PARCC’s goal is to dramatically increase the number of students graduating from high school college-and career-ready by creating a next generation assessment system to help meet that goal. PARCC states are committed to building an assessment system that is internationally benchmarked and anchored in what it takes to be college- and career-ready; scoring “proficient” on the assessments will mean students are on track for the next steps in their education, including postsecondary education and training after high school. Thus, with the PARCC parents will receive results that state how well their child is progressing toward college readiness.

Administered in every grade from 3 to 11, the PARCC will be designed to test students' ability to read complex text, solve complex problems, complete research projects, excel at classroom speaking and listening assignments, and work with digital media. PARCC will also replace the one end-of-year high stakes accountability test with a series of assessments at key points throughout the school year. (For a schematic of that schedule, click here.) The mindset behind this is two-fold: 1) to reduce the weight given to a single assessment given over a day or two, and 2) to incorporate more formative assessment, i.e., giving teachers more ability to access useful information on how well their students are learning. So the turn around time of the PARCC results is shortened, students in the middle and high schools will take these shorter but more periodic assessments online.

Some timelines that have been established for districts: 2012- all ELA and mathematics curriculum should be aligned with the Common Core Standards, and the 2014-15 school year- the administering of the PARCC in Massachusetts and all consortium states. The consortium plans to start the piloting the PARCC during the 2012-13, but it has not yet been determined in which states and with which grade levels. Seeing that Commissioner Chester is chairing the governing states, it wouldn't exactly be shocking to see a pilot in several districts or perhaps even statewide during the 2012-13 school year.

Much work lies ahead for us at MHS. It will be challenging but also exciting, as it all has implications for improving our curriculum, our assessments, and how we design and deliver them. More on this to come...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different: The Finnish Approach

During the holiday break, two different colleagues e-mailed me a link to an editorial piece in the Boston Globe regarding the most recent PISA (Program for International School Assessment) results. The PISA is a standardized test in reading, mathematics, and science literacy that is administered every 3 years to 15-year old students in 65 nations worldwide by the OEDC (Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation). There has been more national hue and cry since the most recent results (from 2009 testing) were released last November. Below are the results from the NY Times:

As you can see, the US results (23rd in science, 17th in reading, and 32nd in math) aren't quite exactly stellar, and in the case of math, are below the average international score. But something also stands out about these results. Notice that Finland is near the top of the list for each test. Why is this? What can we learn from this Scandinavian nation of 8 million people?

For starters, the educational system is structured slightly differently, as compulsory education is mandated for all children from the ages of 7 to 16, as nearly all public school students spend 6 years in primary school and 3 years in secondary school. Their school day and year is very similar to those in the US (approx. 6 hours, 180 days). It should be noted that 97% of school-age children attend public schools, and Finland has 5th highest high school graduation rate in the world at 91%. Furthermore, 95% of these students go on to post-secondary study, many of whom go on to a state-supported university system. A world-high 30% of Finnish college students major in a science-related field.

The above statistics- enviable by most nations- were not always the case. In fact, a mere 25 years ago Finland lagged behind most nations on most international benchmarks.

So how was the change made? The Finns carefully studied other nations' accountability systems (including our own) and adopted what works. The heart of the Finnish system is not based upon a philosophy of choice and competition that is in vogue today in the US. In contrast, Finnish students never take a standardized test such as the MCAS while in school. There are no rewards or punishments for schools and teachers based upon the results of testing. There are some sample-based tests that are administered to students. Those results are shared with parents, teachers, and researchers to refine the curriculum and improve instruction.

The key is in the cultural mindset. According to a 2008 report from the McKinsey Global Institute the Finns recognize first and foremost: there is nothing more important than teacher quality. Only the best and brightest university students are allowed into the teaching profession, as credential standards require that prospective teachers be at the top of their classes in content knowledge and pedagogical skill.

Finnish teachers are immersed in a professional culture that supports better teaching and learning. There is very little, if any, teaching in isolation. Teachers typically visit each other's classrooms and plan lessons together in a system called "lesson study" that includes "rounds" just like the medical profession. Teachers also get an afternoon off per week for professional development. During these regular and ongoing sessions teachers collaboratively improve the curriculum and refine their assessments. As a result, the professional skills of teachers may grow.

The bottom line is that teaching is a highly respected profession in Finland, much like the medical profession. Finns trust the public schools more than any public institution with the except of the police. As a result, going into the teaching profession is highly desirable to young, talented people.

Couldn't the US take some lessons from Finland?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Beyond the Lab Report

First off, Happy New Year! May 2011 be a year filled with happiness, good health, and prosperity for you and your family!

I'd like to highlight some of the fine work that is presently being done by members of the MHS Science and English Departments. Their interdisciplinary collaboration is so timely and relevant that they had the opportunity to present it at the annual National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) National Convention in Baltimore a few weeks ago.

Here's the rub: Most science educators will tell you that the biology MCAS test is largely a reading and writing test. To be sure, students must have content knowledge. However, equally important is the ability to critically read a passage, analyze the facts, and then structure a reasonable written argument based upon analysis for an open response test item. Thus, the challenge is to ensure that all students have sufficient opportunities in their coursework to engage with this type of writing.

With this mindset, science department chair Janet Hogan started to brainstorm with her colleague, English teacher Bill Sheehan. Bill, who teaches AP Language and Composition, is particularly passionate about the teaching of writing. He teaches his students the classic rhetorical triangle (pictured above) as the framework for structuring a written argument. Simply put, a rhetorical analysis is a written explanation about how a writer attempts to change the mind of his or her audience. An effective rhetorical analysis demonstrates a full understanding of the interplay of the rhetorical triangle. The writer must be cognizant of the purpose, audience, and most effective strategy to be employed to convince the audience of his/her argument. As Janet Hogan points out, "This is the perfect model for the type of writing we need to be asking kids to do- where they have to defend the way you think, as you must present your data to back up your thoughts."

Thus the science department has set out to create more assessments where the writing goes beyond the typical lab report and the rhetorical analysis is employed. With these new assignments, the teachers are aiming to cultivate students' higher order thinking skills where they explore, analyze, and evaluate concepts. Furthermore, the required writing demands that they apply the new skills and concepts in other contexts.

For example, in Debbie Fournier's biology classes, students perform a classic lab on dialysis where a plastic bag containing glucose and starch is placed in a beaker of distilled water and Lugol's solution. Students get their data, then apply their understanding in a writing assignment where they must write a letter to a local grocery store and make an argument about things such as produce bags and fold-top sandwich bags: do they have integrity and can they keep our food safe?

As another example, in Anne Carroll's classes the students read the work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Sloot. The recent work tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an an African-American woman who 60 years ago was the unwitting donor of cells from her cancerous tumor, which were cultured to create an immortal cell line for medical research, research that has saved thousands of lives. This topic creates a rich forum for students to argue the bioethics of this situation. Again, the rhetorical analysis method is used, where students in groups start by brainstorming interests, experiences, previous knowledge and questions. They rank the list according to interest, expand the list to two or three topics, expand each topic by listing knowledge, terms to be defined, questions about topic, contrary opinions, journalist’s questions, causes and effects, etc. and then research by reading, generating questions, finding answers, generating new questions, synthesizing and developing a position.

The science department will be working to implement this type of writing not only in biology classes but in all classes. It is certainly timely work as the newly adopted Common Core Standards in English language arts detail specific literacy skills that all students in grades 6-12 should possess as a result of their study in other core subjects such as science and social studies. In other words, the teaching of reading and writing should not solely be the responsibility of English teachers: it should be taught and reinforced across the curriculum.

This work is challenging, but the science department is off to a great start!