What if the next generation of teacher accountability systems simply relied upon assessment of student performances?  You’re thinking: don’t we do that now? No, we don’t. In most cases, our current accountability systems of standardized tests are supposed to measure student learning, which is not the same as assessment.  Attempting to measure learning often leads to limiting ourselves to finding the best statistical models, crafting the best distractors, and determining cut-off scores. We should instead focus on finding ways to figure out what is happening in the classroom and how those learning activities engage students in performances of science and engineering. Isn’t that what taxpayers and parents really want to know: what’s going on in there?

I’m increasingly convinced that it is possible to assess and share a student’s performances of science and engineering without having to put a measurement (number/score/value) on that student’s work. Its pretty simple, and even excellent educational practice, to tell a student how to fix their mistakes rather than simply writing “72%” at the top of their assignment. This kind of assessment without measurement should be happening routinely in classrooms. Its also entirely possible to have this kind of assessment mindset when observing teachers for accountability purposes. Collections of student work, as in a portfolio, could be analyzed and areas of strengths and weaknesses identified and shared with the teacher and, perhaps, the public.

Four years ago I started using digital portfolios to assess student learning as a way to hold myself and my students accountable to a set of science performance standards that I knew my students were not achieving. It is not an amazing stretch of the imagination to picture a system in which such portfolios of student work are examined by the representatives of a state Department of Education to assess how I’m performing as a teacher. Unfortunately, the recent tragic history of accountability practices nationwide would suggest that, at least politically speaking, if an assessment system doesn’t generate numerical measurements of students, no one wants to touch it.

But why does the idea that we can measure  student learning burn so brightly in many Departments of Education?

To answer that, I think we have to look closely at what these so-called measurements of learning (state achievement tests) get us: they provide numbers that stand in for unquantifiable quantities, namely “knowledge” and “ability.” Some of the resulting numbers are bigger than others and thus provide a sense of easy comparisons between whatever the different numbers are attached to. Clearly, if I am buying a car, one that gets 40 mpg is superior to one that only gets 26 mpg. But is it fair or even appropriate to attach certain numbers to students, teachers, schools, school districts, or even states? What do numbers attached to a student even mean? Does a scale score of 400 on a state test mean that a student has learned less than one that earns 500?

Worse yet, what are those measurement comparisons used for? Lets examine my least-favorite use of educational measurement data: the real-estate market. We all know the real estate mantra: location, location, location.  When you look for a new house these days you can quite easily access information about the quality of the neighborhood in which the house is located.  Of course, school ratings are often thrust at potential buyers as a major indicator of the “right” neighborhood. Some of the newer realtor-oriented mobile apps sport new “schools” tabs that are clearly meant to add helpful data to your house-buying experience.

For science, let’s pretend to buy a home here in my town, La Junta, Colorado. In our case the community is composed of one neighborhood so all our school district data applies to the whole town. Here’s what we find out about my school district on some websites that you can easily find on your own (comments mine, but from a prospective buyer’s perspective):

School "rating"

Overall rating: 3 out of 10. Ouch. Better not buy a house here. These schools must suck.Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.50.56 AMWait a minute…this school district was a 3 out of 10. These ACT test scores are right near state average, so shouldn’t the district rating be near a 5 out of 10? Maybe there’s more to it.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.48.50 AM

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 10.46.53 AMHmmm, on second thought, maybe I don’t want to move here after all.  Maybe this educational environment deserves a 3 out of 10 if these are the kind of people my kid would go to school with. Why else would a realtor show me these numbers?

In reality, a combination of “educational environment” (whatever that means) and state testing scores (CSAP/TCAP) are what brings our magic number down to 3/10. Sure, the realtor sites add the caveat that we should check with the individual school districts to look at multiple measures of success, but as a simple, first look, a single measurement is sure easier to produce. And its misleading,  wrong, and easily manipulated.

And that’s just how numbers are used in the real estate business. The business of education sometimes uses those numbers in far more harmful ways. Look at any recent headline with the words “standardized test” and you’ll probably see some of the fallout from decades of so-called measurement of learning.

I don’t have the magic bullet to fix the national obsession with comparing apples and oranges, but if I did, it would look a lot like a portfolio-based collection of student work that could demonstrate not only students’ effort and learning but also the care and planning that teachers invested to help create an environment in which their students can thrive. That’s the kind of accountability system that I can get behind.

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This week I was asked by an administrator if I would like to go observe “some master Science teachers” in one of the big cities here in Colorado. I said yes. I’ll jump at any chance to see other science teachers in action, especially those that are in another school district.

But then I got to wondering about the phrasing of this offer, especially the bit about “master” teachers.

How does one earn the label of Master Teacher? Are these teachers self-identified experts at science teaching or is this a label granted by their administrators? Do their state science test scores blow my students’ scores away so that the state grants this title? What metric are we using here?

Of course, the obvious answer is that these may be National Board Certified folks. That seems to be the only metric that Colorado officially uses to determine if you are a master teacher. The NBCT site claims that “to date, 890 Colorado teachers have achieved National Board Certification.” I guess I find it kind of sad that out of all the teachers to ever teach in Colorado, only 890 of them are master teachers.

The subtext to the offer to visit another school is an interesting one, too. I teach in the only high school in a town of about 8000 people. The master teachers that I would be visiting work in schools in one of the big cities a few hours away. The folks at CDE who made us this offer clearly thought that teachers in the little school districts could benefit from seeing how its done in the cities. But is the teaching and learning that happens in big cities any more masterful than that happening out in the rural schools? Do we not have access to the same academic journals, blogs, and online networks of truly masterful teachers that they do? Shouldn’t they be visiting us instead?

I guess I am obsessing about titles and labels and the rural vs. urban socioeconomic dynamic here since I’ll be presenting at the National Science Teacher’s Association national meeting in Chicago in just a few weeks. I’ll attend sessions led by folks on the National Research Council and Achieve Inc. (the forces behind the NGSS) and surround myself with the high society of the nation’s science educators (and yes some functions at the conference require “evening attire”).

What sort of labels matter when science educators get together? I for one am sorely tempted to only seek out presenters with the label “current teacher” in their bio, because these are the folks who are most obviously trying to do right by their students on a daily basis. Likewise, I strongly suspect that there will be conference attendees who will look for certain credentials or affiliations after my name in the session listing and find them lacking.

In summary, I guess I would have been happier if this offer of a visitation simply asked if we wanted to meet and observe some fellow teachers in another school district. I still would have said yes, but without wondering whether someone was trying to compare my teaching skills with theirs. Who knows, maybe I will get to meet these master teachers and judge for myself. Maybe someday they’ll meet me and do likewise, but I probably still won’t be a Master Teacher, just a darn good one.

Image source: http://juliapopstar.deviantart.com/art/Martin-Freeman-s-Stamp-of-Approval-BADASS-ED-363964666


Previously in this space I wondered about my sanity plans for continuing to allow students to more or less run their physics class as an open workshop or maker-space. As it turns out, I did indeed decide to continue the student-designed format for this class for two main reasons. First of all, this year the physics class got scheduled for 7th hour, which is at the end of the day when students are at their most brain-dead and need to be up and moving around. The second and perhaps more important reason is that I knew most of the students coming in to the class in August and by looking at the roster, I could guess that a traditional math-based physics curriculum was going to flop. That’s no slam on these kids, they’ve got lots of talent, but I recognized that to try to do a more traditional physics prep at the end of the school day with this particular group of students would be a waste of their time.

Fortunately for all concerned, the choice to let students use their time in my class as they see fit has paid off quite well so far this year. The Phun6 students formed teams and have pursued several projects of their own choosing. However, this group has been more private in their sharing of their projects compared to the last two Phunsics classes. Instead of creating a public-facing blog, they chose to make a private Facebook Phun6 group where they’ve been updating each other and myself as to what they have accomplished.

Since there’s a bit of mystery surrounding this year’s Phun6 team, I thought I’d use this post to bring you up to speed on some of the projects that they’ve tackled this year so far:

-We have resurrected and refurbished the potato cannon from Phunsics 2011:


-We have created a pendulum wave machine:

Screenshot 2014-12-20 13.32.25Screenshot 2014-12-20 13.32.54

-We created some conductive and nonconductive squishy circuit dough and built circuits:

Screenshot 2014-12-20 13.36.34

-We built model rockets and tried out a two-stage design:


-We built V2.0 of the Phunsics quadcopter from scratch, got all 4 motors to spin up, and even got it to hop on a short flight before we killed one of the motors and most of the propeller blades:


-Several Phunsics alumni from School of Mines stopped by to check out the quadcopter and lend a hand in determining our next steps to get it flying:


-We built and launched a rocket-powered car (prototype shown):

-We constructed a Reuben’s Tube for visualizing music and sound waves with fire :


Here’s a Vine of some of the pitches tested.

-We modified the flame tube setup to run two tubes simultaneously, one for bass and one for treble. While very impressive, the bass tube pressures kept blowing out our flames:


-We are nearly finished building an air-powered marshmallow gun:

Screenshot 2014-12-20 14.17.40

-We produced a video of the “12 Days of Physics” documenting our adventures (and mishaps) during the class so far:


We might publish the video to YouTube when we get back to school in January or maybe we’ll decide to spare you the exposure to our out-of-tune guitars and amateur singing.

Looking ahead to next semester, one of the groups has plans to help a wheelchair-bound friend of ours by designing an attachment that will make it easier to connect a regular wheelchair to a power-assist Firefly unit. That project is just getting started, but has the potential to be really useful to someone and might even lead to some limited commercialization of the product if we do a decent enough job at it.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for what they manage to dream up next semester!



Free speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom to bear arms. Free access to your school’s WiFi network. We hold these truths to be self-evident.


Until the tech department changes the passwords, that is.

At my school, students had grown used to a very generous Bring Your Own Device atmosphere that had built up over several years. I suppose most students had their phones on the school network and I was starting to see a sprinkling of individually-owned iPad minis, other tablets, and the occasional PC laptop appear in class. This was accomplished by having a Guest network available through the school and most if not all students had the user name and password that the technology department had freely circulated for their use.

But how were they using this access? According to a recent conversation with our tech department folks, the vast majority of traffic on the school-provided WiFi was to YouTube and Facebook. The assumption, and probably an accurate one, is that most of the bandwidth being slurped up by the BYOD crowd was for non-academic purposes. So the tech department decided to do something about it. Their first step was to change the Guest network login username and password and to not give it out to students.

But those crazy kids knew a couple of the other WiFi network passwords too, either through divine intervention or the fact that they were friends with the student tech interns over the past few years. The technology staff report walking into classrooms and seeing some of the not-so-secure network passwords scribbled on teacher whiteboards. See where this is going? If you are a network admin, you do.

If you are a network admin or keep an eye on such things, you know that network (IP) addresses for computers consist of 4 numbers (ex: where the last two numbers are the subnet (11) and the individual device (3). It turns out that each subnet can only dish out 255 addresses, for some arcane reason. This limits the number of devices that can be on one subnet to no more than 255, and usually less.

Now when all of our BYOD devices, which was pretty much every cell phone in the building, hopped on the same WiFi network, what do you suppose happened? Thats right, we ran out of addresses. Now it was personal because the network that everyone had hopped on was one that all my Macs and iPads were on, because Apple stuff like AirPlay and Bonjour loves to be on the same subnet. But having one subnet means only 250 or so devices, and now every kid in the building was snagging those IP addresses. Major network crash, right in the middle of some test prep that my students were trying to do on the Macs. Not pretty.

Our response? Change all the passwords. Quite logical, actually. Now only school-owned devices can connect to the school’s WiFi network. There seem to be no more connection problems and the speed of the network seems faster, but that could be my imagination.

Was this the right call, kicking every BYOD off of the school network? I’m not sure.

I totally understand why it happened the way it did and I get the argument about network connectivity as a limited resource. But if your students are like mine, and like the individual who drew the image above, access to WiFi ranks way up there on the list of basic needs. Lots of the YouTube traffic that I saw from my students was happening in the background as music that played while they worked on school-related stuff. Many teachers in the building report multiple instances of cell phones being used on a routine basis for academic purposes. Is it fair to now force students to use up their data plans for learning activities while school-provided WiFi lurks just out of reach? Is the local coffee shop now a more welcoming place to learn because they provide WiFi?

I think there are some positive aspects of BYOD, but right now we’re clunking around our implementation of it. How’s it work in your school? What solutions have you seen work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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My wondering for the week is this: should I start grading students on their assessment portfolios from the very beginning of the year rather than wait for the 1st quarter marking period? But if assessment by portfolio starts from day one, is it fair to enter an F grade for everyone at the beginning of the year because their portfolio would be empty? Since I strongly suspect that it is not fair to grade an empty portfolio for the first few weeks of school, when is a good time to switch from purely formative assessment of blogs to the more summative assessment of the portfolio?

Currently my students start off the year with a basic technology boot camp and the establishment of their own individual blogs. We spend a good chunk of the first few weeks learning to blog (most haven’t before) and getting used to the new normal that is the blended mashup of learning that is my classroom. I give a speech or two about how we don’t use numerical points towards earning letter grades, but instead will provide evidence of our learning in other ways.

At some point, usually around four weeks into the school year, students finally create their Google Sites assessment portfolio from the template that I’ve given them. They share the portfolio address with me, but that’s usually all that happens with the portfolio for several weeks.

But as the end of the quarter approaches, there is a need to begin to fill the portfolio with artifacts of learning, as that is the assessment tool by which quarter (and semester) grades will be determined. In theory, the portfolio should not be a lot of extra work for students because it involves very little new writing and creating, simply sorting and linking assignments and evidence that have already been completed. Therefore this task should be greeted with joy and happiness.

Hmmm. What I see instead is that a small minority of students grab onto the portfolio concept early on and fill it up as they go along through the class: blog post gets published, blog post gets sorted into the portfolio. But the other 80-90% of students do not touch it. Call it avoidance of failure, call it unfamiliarity, maybe throw in some technophobia, and portfolio building does not happen spontaneously for most students until the portfolio becomes the basis for the course grade.


Now, keep in mind that students have been getting an “eligibility” grade from me from the first weeks of school, so being given a letter grade is nothing new for my classes. At the beginning of the year I tend to grade in a pass/fail manner as I have not yet gathered enough information from just a few assignments to really tell an overall picture about a student’s performance. After a time, probably by the 3rd or 4th week of school, I do start guessing at letter grades besides P and F based on the quality and quantity of work that I am seeing published to their blog.

A more accurate letter grade doesn’t get assigned, however, until I feel that I have provided students with enough chances to be successful in each of the major course standards, and that may not occur until right before the 1st quarter grade (or if we are talking AP Biology, until AFTER the 1st quarter is over). At that point I begin to start looking at what students are putting into their portfolios.

But now we have a perfect storm of factors come together: grades are due in a week or two, many students are behind in their blogging, most students have not bothered to figure out how to operate Google Sites because there has been no need to until now, the portfolio is empty, and I feel the need to (finally) show students what their grades will be like once I apply the published guidelines for assessing the portfolio for midterm and final grades. Ready or not, its portfolio time.

So I devoted around a week of class time for students to work on very clearly specified pages of the portfolio and provided what I thought was very specific and often one-on-one instruction on how to post links to the portfolio in Google Sites. But when I went to grade the portfolios last weekend, a week before grades were due, many were still very incomplete or even empty of evidence.

To say that by grading these empty portfolios I filled up the entire eligibility list would be incorrect, but not far from it. I gave a lot of F’s to a lot of good students.

Then, and only then, with a failing grade in hand, did I have students come to me for help in upgrading their portfolio. It was a very busy, but incredibly productive week after grades based on the portfolio were published.

Now back to my original question: when during the first quarter should I make the transition to summative grading based on the portfolio? Is this the only way to do it, with a week of panic right before the end of the quarter? Should I try picking up a grade from the portfolios somewhere in the middle of the quarter even though many of the lab standards might only have a lab or two as possible proof? How about at the beginning of the quarter even though there have been no chances to publish any work? Yikes. Try explaining initial grades of F to parents and coaches. But I bet I’d see students understand the portfolio concept better if we were using it from Day 1.

I suppose I might try evaluating the portfolio (U, PP, P, A ratings per standard) from the first build onwards without grading the portfolio (A, B, C, etc). I might at least get a few more students interested in working on the portfolio as we go, since parents can see those evaluation ratings on Infinte Campus. The eligibility grade could still be pass/fail for a while at the beginning of the year and then move into a real letter grade based on the portfolio once students have had enough chances to fill it. There might be some questions towards the beginning of the year about how a kid is passing but has all U’s, but that is probably easier to deal with than failing the kid for work they haven’t even been assigned yet.

TL; DR: Kids will procrastinate until a grade is assigned. Start assessment based on portfolios earlier so that students have a better chance of being successful on the first midterm grade.


This is a cautionary tale about what happens when educational technology fails. Of course, tech breaking down is nothing new, but reliance on technology in a 1:1 learning environment introduces some complications that you might not have thought about.

Not so long ago, I would have ranked myself up there on the list of folks who knew how to do educational technology pretty well. I had managed to score a cart of MacBooks so that each student could be guaranteed 1:1 access during class time at least, and I went about implementing some fancy new strategies like student blogging. I even got tagged to write an article in Edutopia about it in 2010, so I was doing something at least marginally interesting with technology at the time.

A year later I was able to convince my tech coordinator and principal that I could really use a class set of iPads since my hardcopy Anatomy textbooks were falling apart and there were some new apps appearing that would let my students get their textbooks electronically. When the district bought some new iPad2’s, I snagged a class set and went on to check them out to students in my own mini version of a 1:1 program for about 40 students at a time. We used the Inkling app to buy 30 copies of Hole’s Anatomy on the iPads and shelved the old textbooks, definitely a win in most #edtech circles.

Fast forward to this school year, 2014-15, in which I’ll need to use the same laptops that’ve been around in my room since 2008, but now add in the fact that our technology coordinator spent the summer closing up shop as he left for a new (less stressful and well deserved) job so no new technology hardware purchases were made nor any older units repaired. This means that several macs that I sent in for a missing key or sticky mousepad are now completely AWOL, as are several iPads that needed minor repairs, as are multiple batteries from the Macs (the removable variety) since I pulled several for disposal at the beginning of the summer.

I should also mention that I have 46 Anatomy students but only 38 working iPads and only 30 Inkling textbook licenses, so the tradition of loaning an iPad to every Anatomy student ended this year.

This is when I realize how spoiled I’ve been. I have always been able to get all the technology that I felt that students needed to learn in a “modern” classroom. But now that a lot of that technology is powerless (literally) to help my students, what’s a tech-nerd to do without technology? How does a very functional 1:1 implementation carry on when it is no longer 1:1?

We’re going old-school, of course. My Juniors and Seniors in the Anatomy class are coloring. ON PAPER (using study guide packets, and, yes, I see some irony in that after slamming packets in a previous post). We’re using a hardcopy textbook again. Its from 2004 and most are falling apart in some way.

But here’s the fun part: I think coloring diagrams of the human body has a place in an anatomy course, and I forgot that in my quest for the latest gadgets. I think students poring over a list of terms and deciding their locations in a particular type of tissue, organ, or system has a lot of merit as a learning tool. Its not that the iPad can’t do that, but I honestly rarely saw my students using the iPads that way. If you give a student a handout to help them learn about the human body, there is pretty much only one use for that handout, but if you give them an iPad, it gets a little more complicated. If you were a student with an iPad, would you choose to read an anatomy text on it instead of using one of the other thousands of apps that it could run? Maybe, if the teacher forced you to, but I never did think that forcing kids into certain apps was the best use of iPads, which meant that our fancy Inkling app textbooks went largely unused, I’m sorry to say.

This year represents a chance to take a much lower-tech approach to teaching Anatomy, a return to how I used to teach it in some ways. Oh, I’ll still use technology for the class. In fact, we’ve already got our blogs set up and will eventually set up our assessment portfolios online too, as we’ve done for the past few years. The only difference might be in the kinds of artifacts we post there. Expect to see some more coloring, and, who knows, maybe some better test scores as well.


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This post about my Physics/Phunsics class has been rattling around in my head for more than half a year now, and its a tough one. The reason it is tough is that it involves failure, and I don’t really enjoy writing about failures. Semi-clever ideas and things that work, yes. Failure, no.

Let me come right out and say it: the Phunsics class just didn’t work well this year. Or did it?


I’ve described this class before but it is one where students have free reign to use my class time and resources to learn and pursue whatever projects they desire. I’ve been pretty intentional in keeping a maker-space approach to this class and most likely it should be labeled an engineering class in terms of what students get to do, but I’ve kept the Physics label for various reasons. If Google has the 80-20 approach, this class is more like 10-90, where 90% of the time is unstructured creative time.

Total freedom is an amazing thing. Except when its not. I received a lot of feedback on my first experiment with this kind of class from other teachers that basically said “that would never work with my students” and “mine need more structure than that.” Well guess what, this year I was the one making these comments. The class started off fine, with our brainstorming sessions and creation of a structure for the course in terms of how we would report what we were doing, but soon I found myself much more in the role of policeman than I would have liked. Many students had a lot of trouble staying dedicated to any kind of project for very long because, and this is painfully obvious to me now, unstructured creative time is self-motivated, self-disciplined time. The nature of this class demands that multiple projects are happening at the same time, often in different locations around the school building (classroom, physics lab, shop, outside) and there is only one of me to be there looking over shoulders at what is happening. If a student doesn’t feel like doing anything on a particular day they don’t have to, but, in all honesty, the occasional day spent goofing around doesn’t bother me. However, when entire weeks, quarters, and even semesters go by with nothing to show for it, that’s when unstructured creative time is clearly not working for that student.

So did I put on the brakes and change the nature of the class? Nope, because not everyone was screwing around.

Some students built a successful duct tape boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mUo4eWEiRk

Another group got very far into building a quadcopter drone before technical challenges got the better of them.

But even with our successes, there were many, MANY, times that I was ready to walk into class with “official” lesson plans. At one point during the second semester I had even gone so far as to dig through my folders of physics worksheets to decide where to begin again with me in total control of what happened in class. But something always held me back. There were just enough students who were thriving with the course format that I felt that I couldn’t yank the rug out from under them.

And that’s how we got the Arduino/Pi Piano project finished, the chemistry mobile built, and the epic Rube Goldberg machine fully operational.

Piano demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8fbXNU01HM
Kool Aid Machine walkthrough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUKQi7Nn5cw

So was it worth it? Does having a few successful projects mean that a student designed course was successful? Did everyone learn something, even through failures and in some cases failure to launch?

These are not just rhetorical questions, as I am teaching the Physics class again this coming school year. I have a couple months this summer to decide whether or not to scrap the student-designed class in favor of a more traditional teacher-led setup. Should my experience with a few unmotivated students be allowed to alter how I run this class? Therein lies my quandary: Physics or Phunsics?

Clearly this is a big “To Be Continued…”


This rant about learning the facts of evolution will make a lot more sense if you realize that I’m a Christian, specifically a Presbyterian, a member of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). I also have degrees in Molecular Biology and Neuroscience and have studied Philosophy of the Biological Sciences at the University of Arizona. You should probably also know that my wife, recently the Moderator of the Presbytery of the West in ECO, graduated with her degree in Physical Anthropology with a minor in Geology before becoming a minister of the Word and Sacrament.

Why start off with a pedigree like this? Because I want my readers to know that I can wholeheartedly share information about the fact of evolution in my science classroom without casting one shred of doubt upon my life of faith. I want you to know that my wife has an equally easy time reconciling her job and her faith with the facts of changed and changing species and a changeable Earth. Its possible to “believe” in both religion and science.

Now to the rant: here’s an observation from 15 years of high school science teaching:

The science teachers that I’ve known seem to fall into three general categories (with apologies for pigeonholing people on a very complex issue):

  1. Classroom Evolutionists: Regardless of/in spite of/because of their personal beliefs about God and science, these folks jump in and teach the facts and theories of evolution with the understanding that evolution is a capital-T Theory and as such that means that there is a massive amount of evidence and philosophy of thought that students should engage with when learning about evolution. These are the teachers who routinely point out that there are state and national standards that support, if not require, that students learn about evolution in school.
  2. Equal Timers: These folks think that science teachers should somehow present “both” sides of the “evolution debate” in their classrooms. These teachers show the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate in class to prove that there is indeed a debate, and that there are exactly two sides to this issue. These teachers often share alternative sources of information that usually paint the scientific community as “Darwinists” that follow “Darwinism” (which does seem to be a real religion, judging by those bumper stickers of fish with legs).
  3. Conflict Avoiders: These folks recognize that evolution is a central idea in biology, but they just don’t feel that they can accurately teach about evolution without betraying their faith or the faith of their students. For these teachers, evolution is recognized as a state standard, it is listed in the curriculum, but at the end of the year, and often the evolution unit simply does not happen as the school year runs out of time.

I’m not going to argue with the Classroom Evolutionist approach, because that’s my style. I’ve been working on the “Argue from Evidence” skill with my classes even before the NGSS appeared. If students don’t leave my biology class with at least a basic understanding of the multiple lines of evidence that the earth has changed, species have changed, and will continue to change, then I haven’t done my job very well.

I’m not even going to argue with the Equal Timers, because I can’t change their minds. Their religious beliefs are so important to them that any challenge to their perceived precepts is met with denial of the facts. I value and share their faith, but I can’t shut out the results from thousands of years of scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe and our place in it.

I am going to take issue with the Conflict Avoiders, however.

Please take the time to get educated about what evolution is and isn’t so you can feel comfortable discussing it with students from a variety of religious (or not) backgrounds. To help you out, here is your summer assignment:

  • Go check out BioLogos to help your students learn that this isn’t a two sided brawl between atheists and Christians.
  • Go read The Language of God by the nearly godlike Francis Collins, Human Genome stud and Director of the NIH.
  • For a little fiber, read Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker to get a sense of why atheists love evolution too.

Conflict Avoiders, it is a terrible thing to let time run out on your biology class without having helped students learn the science behind species change, the “descent with modification” that continues in our lives and in all of God’s creatures. You might as well let time run out on your Earth Science class without having discussed the merits of the evidence for the human impact on global climate change.

Science deniers arise when we deny them the chance to learn about these and other core scientific principles. Let’s please not make any more science deniers. There are plenty in the world already.

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I’ve received some requests recently to share the biology portfolio that I use with my students. Here’s a quick note about how to use my template to set up a Google Sites portfolio for students to use.
  • In experimenting with student-managed portfolios, I’ve found it best to create a Template Site that students can use to create their portfolio. If you have a set of standards for your class that you want students to reflect upon, then a template is the easiest way to make sure that those standards are part of their portfolio.
  • You’ll want to try this yourself first, especially if you want to modify my template site for your own set of standards. I’ll break this up into teacher and student instructions, which might be the same if you don’t use Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

Teacher instructions for creating your own template Site from my biology portfolio template:

The location where you publish your portfolio template depends upon whether you are using GAFE or regular Google Apps. GAFE users: I would make the template within your domain for students to find. Regular Google users need to post the template to Google’s Public templates like I did. You could even just point students to my public template if you don’t want to create your own.

  1. Log in to Google Apps (either a personal account or GAFE) and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first (this is usually the easiest place for you to put a template for students to use).
  5. For now though, you are looking for a public template, so click on Public>Schools and Education in the “Select Site Template” window.
  6. You are looking for a site template called “Skills-Based Biology Portfolio.”  Searching for “Biology” in “Schools and Education” templates will usually find it.
  7. Select the Skills-Based Biology Portfolio template to use for your Site. This will give you an exact copy of the site that I give to my biology students.
  8. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  9. Once you’ve edited the Site to your liking and you are ready to share it with students, go to More Site Options (the gear icon)>Manage Site.
  10. Under Manage Site>General there should be the option to “Publish this site as a template.” Click that.
  11. Give your Template a name and description then click “Submit.”
  12. Done! Now you have a template that students can find either within your GAFE domain or in the Public templates.

Student instructions for creating a portfolio Site from a teacher-created template:

  1. Log in to Google Apps and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first. Find your course’s portfolio template.
  5. Select the portfolio template that you want to use for your Site.
  6. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  7. Share the URL of your site with everyone who will be reviewing your portfolio.

Here’s a little screencast that I whipped up for the portfolio setup from the student’s perspective:

Setting up a student portfolio from a template

Let me know if you want me to post any of my other portfolio templates (Anatomy, Chemistry, AP Biology) to the Public templates.

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Last semester I had to say goodbye to a student who had to move out of town with his family. It happens, but its never fun when a student has to pick up and leave in the middle of a school year. This kid, we’ll call him Beathan, was pretty upset about the whole move and not terribly happy about going to a new school in another state. He’d been moved around already before he came to me.

Beathan really liked science. We’re talking about a kid who spent three hours of his school day in my science classroom, so if ever there was a student who liked science, it would be this guy. He was really thriving in my science classes, too, the kind of student who was earning B’s not because he wasn’t super smart, but because he was too busy exploring different aspects of programming or whatnot and couldn’t always be bothered with the more mundane aspects of turning in every assignment. So, a good kid. The kind of student that drives you crazy because they want to know more than you know and push your limits. The kind of student you want to clone because you know they are going to rule the world someday.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, a group of his friends kept in very close touch with Beathan over the past few months and orchestrated a way to get him back to us during his Spring Break. They pooled their money and bought him a plane ticket to Denver, picked him up, and brought him to school with them for the greater part of a week. He mostly followed his old daily schedule, which meant that he spent most of the day bumming around in my classroom.

One day between classes I asked Beathan how his science classes were going at the new school. Here’s a rough transcript of our conversation:

  • Mr. L: So what are your science classes like?
  • B: Packets. Lots of packets.
  • Mr. L: Packets?
  • B: Packets, as in a reading, then 40 chemistry problems to solve. Then another packet the next day. And the next.
  • Mr L: What about labs?
  • B: Those have packets too.
  • Mr. L: And how about Biology?
  • B: More packets. Except these are about photosynthesis.


Kids need to learn science concepts. Packets are used to teach science concepts. But when I do a completely unscientific Google Search for “science school work” I don’t see a lot of packet completion going on:


If I posted my photo library from my classes it would look something like this random collage as well. Is that just because no one wants to photograph kids working on science packets? Are packets just not sexy enough? Of course they aren’t, but, simply put, pictures of kids staring intently at packets is just not what we want to use to represent our science education programs. I can see the advertising campaign slogans now: “Come learn with us at West Terrence Field High School: our packets are the best way to learn science!” Hopefully this Packet Land scenario is not going to happen, except it apparently is, and Beathan is one of its victims.

I wish I could say that packets are a generational thing, and that its only old science teachers like me that use them, and that they’ll eventually go away as the next generation of younger, more flexible teachers arrives on the scene with fresh new ideas. But, then again, judging by the number of hits for the word “packet” on Teachers-Pay-Teachers, the packet is alive and well amongst the digital generation as well.

My hope for students like Beathan is that we science teachers realize that when we only allow students to learn science practices and concepts from us through a narrow window of packets and simulations, we deny them the real nature of science which, as everyone knows, is to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy (via Mrs. Frizzle, as if I need to remind you).

P.S.— Beathan, although I cannot offer you asylum from your Packet Land, I do fervently hope your teachers let you make as much of a mess at your new school as you’ve made here. BTW, we’ve “repurposed” your claymation kit.

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