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Its all about the questions

The most dramatic shift I noticed moving to high school from 5th and 6th grade was that the students struggled with asking questions.  Since we are teachers and “supposed to” (my yoga teacher says there are no shoulds), provide answers this was an odd conundrum.  By the end of the year I also noticed that the students who struggled to ask questions also struggled in science in general.  Then I did what teachers often do not have time to do, I Googled and I started to read.  Not shockingly because this always happens, I was not the first person to make this observation and think asking questions was really important.  I felt better and got really excited.  Then April, May and June came.  I tried a few things but didn’t get very far but in glorious summer it started to come together.

I found http://rightquestion.org and their book Make Just One Change, Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  I found Ewan McIntosh on Twitter and changed my entire planning method based on their lab at http://notosh.com.  They had lessons and ideas on Googleable and Nongoogleable questions and September has come and I am back (and better than ever I hope).  Simply just asking students to differentiate between Googleable and Nongoogleable questions has been invaluable already and we are only in week 2.  Googleable questions are lead to the background for our lab reports and students are eager to find the answers.  They love that a teacher is giving them permission to “Google it”.  Students who are developing self-directed projects in our “genius period” are using it to help them find essential questions to guide their project.  Nothing seems more valuable to me that a students struggling to identify what she is passionate about and then what she might want to know more about that topic.  Isn’t that what learning is all about.

Now before any assumes that this is smooth sailing, its not.  In my focus on student directed questions I have started from scratch on how I plan (7 years of UBD is hard to walk away from).  I am constantly struggling with the balance between being well prepared and open to student inquiry.  I still buy into Daniel Willingham’s (not his but he shared the cognitive science data in my favorite book Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answer Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom) notion that higher order thinking is not accessible without a base of factual knowledge and so I do not want to abandon that.  Having done project/product/design-based learning for a long time I know student-directed doesn’t mean free and demands scaffolding especially with those who it is new for (most of my students).  I am still struggling with this.  I think I am getting better by picking better immersion opportunities that lead where we want to go.

We made paper airplanes in 12th grade physics.  There are an endless list of sources of errors and maybe it will not reveal the best position over time graphs but we got some great questions about force, position and motion and its all about the questions, right?


Learning science will be the easy part

Today I started all my classes asking students “What do you expect from class today?” It was interesting to see what they expected and that the younger the student, (I teach 9th-12th graders) the less they were sure about what they expected. We were going to spend the day getting to know each other but I was curious what THEY thought the first day should be. This year I hope I lean more toward following student direction and worry less about planning. My strength is planning and organization so there is some room for exploring. I will choose more interesting questions because I really want to know what they have to say. I hope if I give them enough chances and really listen they will feel their thoughts and their voices matter. Although I did not identify Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by name I described how their personal lives impacted their schooling so I never can ignore that. Learning how to overcome personal adversity is an important life skill. We can’t learn much science without having thoughts and voices and overcoming when the going gets tough.

We finished with generating ideas on the roles and responsibilities of teachers students and parents/guardians. I have done this activity before in elementary and middle-school and think it might be part of Responsive Classroom (I am level I and II certified). Last year I abandoned the “foundation week(s)” so common in elementary school probably because in my first year teaching high school, I was insecure about being a “serious high school teacher” who spent the first day going over the syllabus then jumps right in. Not so this year. We are laying the foundation now. Tomorrow we discuss being social, communication and social thinking. It might have been called classroom rules and expectations at one point in my classroom. Tomorrow I want to describe why certain behavior gives other students and teachers good thoughts and feelings and how your behavior influences what people think your intentions are.

Right now all is rosy, everyone is happy to be back in school but our foundation week(s) will hopefully be what gets us through when things are not going so well. When we are tired, grouchy and sick of each other we will hopefully remember why we are here. The syllabus will come, grading and units of study will be next but for a few days we are going to remember we are all people first and students and teachers second. If we treat people well, learning science will be the easy part.

General HS Syllabus: Grading, missed work and class rules

Below is my new general syllabus for the school year. This is for all my high-school science classes in an alternative program within a regional high school. I would love feedback on grading practices, class rules and especially on making up missed work. At the end of last year I felt I had enabled my students a bit so am trying to tighten up the requirements while not shutting down the opportunity for learning and starting fresh.



The goal of assessment and the grades that result is to provide feedback for students, me the teacher and your parents on your evidence of understanding of the learning objectives.  This feedback can be used to help guide adjustments needed to your learning.  Each quarter the grade breakdown will be slightly different depending upon the number and types of assignments.  I interpret numerical grades to reflect the following:


  • 0-59: Assignment not attempted or no understanding of objectives shown

  • 60-69: Assignment attempted and little understanding of objectives shown

  • 70-79: Assignment completed and some understanding of objectives shown

  • 80-89: Assignment completed and expectations met

  • 90-100: Assignment completed and expectations met and exceeded


During a given quarter you will have multiple chances and contexts to show evidence of understanding for each objectives.  Types of assignments will be:

  • Classwork

  • Projects

  • Tests

  • Labs

  • Homework (see note below)


All collected and scored assignment will be given a percentage out of 100 that aligns with the definitions provided above.  For each assignment you will know the expectations, point breakdown related to expectations and matching objectives.  At the end of the quarter your grade will be a simple average of the amount of points you have earned versus the maximum points possible.




I give homework to help reinforce and extend concepts covered in class.  Evidence suggests that completion of homework in high school is directly correlated to academic achievement; “The average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement was substantial for secondary school students” (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006).  Knowing this I assign and encourage homework completion.  However since your grade is a reflection on your evidence of understanding and through the course there are multiple other methods of showing evidence for your understanding homework will only be scored if completed.  This means that homework can only help your score each quarter since you will add 100 points to your total possible points each time a homework is completed.  



  • 20% Per quarter x 4 quarters = 80%

  • 10% for Midterm and 10% for Final = 20%



Class participation is key to student success.  A student is participating when he or she comes prepared for class, maintains work in an organized and efficient way, speaks voluntarily, pays attention, listens actively, and works on daily assignments as directed in class.   With the grading system described above class participation is necessary for success in class work, projects and labs so a separate class participation grade is not given.  




The goal of this class is for everyone to have mastery over the topics listed and a chance to explore their own interests related to these topics.  To accomplish this everyone is expected to be able to abide by the golden classroom rule:  


We share a common learning space.  Your words and actions should support your own learning and the learning of your peers.


This rule covers a lot of the classroom expectations that will be discussed in more detail the first days of school but some basic expectations are:


  1. Be in the classroom starting your “do now” when the bell rings.  Any student not physically in the room when the bell rings will be considered tardy.

  2. Try new things and put out your best effort.  Participate in class discussions and completing your classwork and homework.  If you struggle then go to #3.

  3. Be an advocate for your own learning.  Ask for help of your teacher or your classmates you need it.  Develop strategies that work for you and share with your teacher the ones that work or do not work so I can make the classroom experience better for you.  

  4. Plan ahead and anticipate times you will not be able to complete work so we can make an alternate plan.  If something unanticipated is going on so you cannot complete your work let me know so we can make another plan.  


Late work Attendance and Make Up Policy


If you are absent you will be missing important learning activities and will not be able to contribute to the class.  You can always make up worksheets and assignments but you can not replicate classroom discussion and activities.  If you are late or absent (unexcused) your attendance grade will suffer. School rules dictate that students that have more than 3 unexcused absences in a quarter will automatically fail that quarter!  It is the responsibility of the students to make a plan with Ms. Cotton to make-up work due to absences.


All work is to be turned in on time. Any assignments turned in late for reasons other than an excused absence will be lowered for each school day late. Students will have advanced notice of when the summative (final) assessment will be given for a particular topic.  All corresponding class work, projects, labs and homework for that topic can be made up BEFORE that assessment but will not be accepted after the summative assessment.  All quizzes, tests and assignments can be made up but should be timed in conjunction with corresponding class work, projects, labs, homework and summative assessments.  

Challenges change you

At the CrossFit gym the trainers have t-shirt that say “If it doesn’t challenge you it doesn’t change you.” I like these shirts from a vanity perspective since when a workout is kicking my butt I can imagine the impact it will have on my waist size. I started doing CrossFit this spring. With the encouragement of a colleague I did a Tough Mudder race with the CrossFit team before I really went to the “box” much. Originally I signed up for the race to keep myself motivated to work out and it worked. I worked out regularly (though I still would have liked to do more), stayed in pretty good shape and ran longer than I usually do. Come race week I was petrified. I had not done any sort of competition for at least a few years since I had my son and wasn’t riding horses anymore. There was a pit in my stomach and I realized I was not sure I could do it.

I did it, slowly, very slowly but I did it. At the tunnel with water where you couldn’t see the end I paused and needed a teammate to help me overcome my claustrophobia and crawl through. I finished muddy, with blisters, sore and tired and felt like I could take on the world. I signed up for a half marathon I will be running this fall before the high wore off.

Its funny that I did not make a connection to the Tough Mudder and my new love for CrossFit with my change in jobs until just now. After 6 years in a very lovely job as a 5th and 6th grade math and science teacher at a small, progressive Charter School, I too a new job as an alternative education science teacher at a Regional non-charter public high school. It was scary to leave my comfort zone, my colleagues, my friends, my students and all I had built but I knew it was a valuable move. I was not feeling challenged anymore in my old job and was not continuing to evolve and improve as a teacher. There was too much whining and complaining about things I couldn’t change. I was focused heavily on math and missed my time on science, my original focus in education.

About to return to my 2nd year I could not be happier I made the move. It was very hard and a lot of work to start all over again. Many times I worried I was not smart enough, not clear enough with my students, not organized enough, not good enough; it challenged me and it changed me. My teaching is better, my planning is better, my grading is better, my projects are better and I think my classes will be better this year. It is not a coincidence that this change coincided with my exploration of Twitter as a tool for professional development. I have a professional account now and tons of resources and information from amazing educators and professionals in all areas of education from around the world. That Professional Learning Network (PLN) continues to challenge me and hopefully change me for the better. So I guess it reminds me as I start a new year to keep challenging myself and keep changing. I would hope all educators ask themselves once in awhile, when was the last time I felt challenged? Hopefully it wasn’t too long ago.


No teacher wants to say their students are unmotivated or unengaged but I will. Sometimes my students are unengaged and unmotivated. I teach in a small program that includes a higher ratio of these students so maybe I encounter it more but based on discussion with my colleagues I think it can be true in any class.

I have been wondering lately what the role of curiosity is in engagement and motivation. What are the roots of curiosity? Can we foster it and how? Can we use it to help students persevere when they want to stop? Will it help with work production, performance and achievement? If so, and I think it will, what role does curiosity play in our planning? What role does it play in our decisions? Where does it fit on the totem pole of priorities? Too often I have sacrificed engagement for covering material or have I? Maybe there does not need to be a sacrifice; maybe I just need to do a better job of weaving it into my teaching. I designed a web explore that played out more like an outline that I had hoped. Should I have kept it as an outline to guide students who often struggle with organization or left it more open ended? Am I confusing curiosity with interest and enjoyment? If everything is engaging is that good preparation for life? How we as teachers keep curiosity in our vision is a challenge but a good challenge and one I want to work on more. How can we scaffold curiosity? How can we get students in the proximal zone of curiosity development?

For Students Who Hate School

Funny that a Google search for Willingham’s book on how teachers can better reach and teach students led me to this:


A site for students who do not like school. Lots of interesting reading. I would love to have some of those students comment here. I especially like the very goth theme on their site. I think a lot of kids hate school not just goth, outsiders. Might isolate the regular kids. Seems to be only addressing one type of student who doesn’t like school and a bit limited.


After attending the Learning and the Brain Conference I was so wound about where to go with my teaching. I have a baby, not the time to get a pH.D. I guess I will write a blog.

Hello world!

Hoping some teachers also interested in using cognitive science to help improve their instruction will read and comment. I often feel frustrated that as a teacher I do not get a chance to voice what I think should be done to “reform” or improve education. Here is my chance. I put “reform” in quotes since most educational reforms have been tried, thrown out and tried again. Cognitive science does give us a new way to reflect on observations about teaching and learning in new ways. After 9 years of teaching I think I have figured some things out. I learn new things all the time. Part of why I like my job.