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18 Articles Categorized in "Science"

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, National Board Certification, Science, Teacher Leadership | March 16, 2014

Want innovation in the classroom? Get teachers involved in Policy

image from


by Maren Johnson

I spent the weekend in Washington DC at the Teaching and Learning 2014 Conference. It was dazzling. Famous and thought provoking speakers, incorporation of art and music, huge diversity in education viewpoints and experience.

With all the hubbub over the big names at the conference, what I'm heading home thinking about is a session led by a middle school science teacher from Washington state. From the small town of Cheney, no less.

Teacher Tammie Schrader's session was titled, "Coding in the Classroom." I went into the session expecting to learn a bit about coding itself, and perhaps a bit about how to use coding to teach concepts in life science. I came out of the session thinking about innovation and education policy.

Tammie started out the session by introducing herself and her classroom programs. She has been facilitating student coding in her science classes for several years now. That, itself, is innovative, but not extraordinarily unusual.

Then Tammie started talking about education policy. My ears perked up. What was going to be the tie-in here? I've been to sessions on innnovative instructional methods. I've been to sessions on education policy. I have rarely been to a session incorporating both.

Tammie's point? She wanted to do cutting edge things in her classroom. In order to be free to do these things, she needed to be released from some of the usual considerations of what might be expected in a classroom. There were a few non-negotiables, however. She would still need to assess; she would still need to show student growth. She wanted to assess and show student growth in a way that would fit her classroom. The solution? Get involved in policy. Tammie has done this, in a big way, at state and national levels.

I thought to myself, "This woman's message needs to get out there." So there I was, like the paparazzi, taking photos and tweeting. Not that Tammie isn't already well known in many education circles, but I wanted to do my part!

image from

The policy involvment has allowed Tammie's innovative classroom work to become systemic. Tammie has worked on state assessment committees and on designing frameworks for Career and Technical Education. She helped write the state science test. Because she knows what students are expected to do, she's not ignoring the state science standards or the Next Generation Science Standards. She's not letting all of that go. She's just helping to shape policy and then use it in a way that helps herself and other teachers be innovative in their classrooms.

Tammie has spent time talking to policy makers at all levels. Having a teacher involved in these areas allows education policy to encourage innovation as opposed to stifling it. Want innovation in the classroom? Get teachers involved in policy.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Science | January 11, 2014

Speed Dating and Student Work: Half Days and a Senate Bill


Stopwatchby Maren Johnson

We sat down at a table in the science classroom at 2:30, just 10 minutes after the bell rang at the end of the school day.  We were ready to go: three teachers looking at student work.  Oh wait, there’s a student at the door who needs an assignment—one of us went to help him, the rest continued on.  What were we up to?  We were trying to collaborate, and we only had twenty minutes.  One of our members had volunteered to facilitate, and we even had an informal agenda: 5 minutes—introduce the lesson and provide background.  10 minutes—follow a simplified high-medium-low protocol for finding characteristics of the student work.  5 minutes—debrief.  

Partway through the high-medium-low protocol, a recently graduated student appeared at the door with a big grin, coming back to our high school to say hello.  We were happy to see him (he was a very jolly student)—we wished him well and sent him on to visit the math teacher.  Then we continued looking at the student work!  2:50 rolled around—we got up and left the room.  None of us usually leave the school at 2:50, the end of the contracted day, but on that day, I had another appointment, and needed to go, meaning that our collaboration time truly was limited to twenty minutes.  Twenty minutes is the length of time collaboration would have to be if it were to fit within the normal school day, with no early release, late start, or other modified schedule.

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Science | November 3, 2013

Zombie Brains, Talk Moves, and the Next Generation Science Standards!


Brain in hand
By Maren Johnson

The zombies' odd, shambling gait, and their need to hold their arms straight out in front in order to maintain balance?  That's indicative of damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor coordination.  The zombies' hunger, and thus their unrelenting urge to chase and eat humans?  Clearly a problem with the hypothalamus, the appetite control center of the brain—the zombies just don't know when they are full! And all that zombie rage? Oh yeah, that's originating in the amygdala, apparently overactive in the case of zombies.

I started the lesson by giving students a chance to surface their prior knowledge: students wrote answers to the questions, "How do zombies look different from humans?" and "How do zombies behave differently from humans?" We then discussed their answers as a group. I was a bit floored by the response. Students who rarely participated were eager to share, and these students knew A LOT about zombies. All that zombie knowledge gathered over the years from movies, TV shows, books, and video games? Now the students had a chance to share it in an academic setting. They also wanted to know more about the biology involved!

Many of the students were wildly excited about this science lesson.  My choice of words here is deliberate--in one of my class periods, it was a bit, well....wild. Students talking all at once, to me and to each other—they were on topic but almost no one could hear anyone. How to contain the chaos yet still direct that positive energy towards learning?

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Science | October 12, 2013

Little Red Marbles and the Next Generation Science Standards

Photo Oct 11, 2013, 11:09 AM

by Maren Johnson

"Atoms are little red marbles too small to see," responded one of my students when I asked what he knew about atoms. I teach biology, so while atoms are important, we don't talk about them every day, and it was near the beginning of the school year. I asked a few clarifying questions to figure out what he actually meant.

No, he didn't think atoms were LIKE little red marbles, he actually thought they WERE little red marbles, that is to say, little round hard things colored red. Where did he get this idea? Well, to be honest, probably right here at school! We frequently use models at my school to teach about atoms. There's a few demonstration models up to the left created by the crafty physical science teacher at my school. Down to the right you can see a model of a neon atom constructed by one of my chemistry students.

While use of those models results in a lot of understanding, it can also can result in some misconceptions, especially when taken too literally!

Maren Johnson | Education Policy, Science, Social Issues | May 26, 2013

Ambitious Teaching = Rigor + Equity

Photo May 19, 2013, 12:32 PM

by Maren Johnson

"Ambitious teaching = rigor + equity. What does this mean for the Next Generation Science Standards?" This provocative question, posed at a conference last week by Mark Windschitl of the University of Washington, has been a framework for me for the last few days not just for thinking about science standards, but also for thinking about teaching in general.

First off, I like the term "ambitious teaching." Ambitious teaching sounds accessible, because, well, that means we as teachers can all aspire to high goals--and if we don't succeed, we can always try again! It's kind of like a "growth mindset" for teaching. Ambitious implies continuous growth, as opposed to reaching an endpoint.

Ambitious teaching in the context of the Next Generation Science Standards? That means rigor for both the teachers and the students--the new standards marry science practices, disciplinary ideas, and cross-cutting concepts in a way we haven't seen before. This will challenge our teaching, and it will also challenge our students. How to get the students to achieve this level of rigor? Growth mindset might again be part of the answer: Ann Renker, principal of Neah Bay Middle and High School, serving the Makah Indian reservation, has had remarkable results with growth mindset and incorporating the ideas of “hard work, not natural intelligence” throughout the school.

The Next Generation Science Standards have been designed from the ground up with equity in mind. Previous national science standards were based overtly, explicitly and almost exclusively on European tradition: Science for All Americans, basis of the National Science Education Standards, stated, "The sciences accounted for in this book are largely part of a tradition of thought that happened to develop in Europe during the last 500 years – a tradition to which most people from all cultures contribute today."

Maren Johnson | Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Science | May 13, 2013

Student (and teacher) Engagement: Increase the drama!

Photo May 11, 2013, 4:04 PM
by Maren Johnson

The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in — and stay tuned in — to watch drama.

~David Mamet, playwright and screenwriter

I don't usually get my teaching tips from television screenwriters, but I thought the above quote was worth some thought. If drama has a wide definition--let's say drama is a story resulting from human interactions--then adding drama to our teaching is definitely a way increase student engagement--the "tuning in" that David Mamet talks about above.

Our students often aren't here for the information, they're here for the drama. The students frequently find that drama in the actions of their peers. One of our jobs as teachers? Try to create that drama in our subject matter and class activities. Is drama necessary for learning? No, but it sure can help. Some ways to create that drama? Building teacher-student relationships, and including stories about content matter and school.

Last week at my school, a teacher sent out a link to an inspiring (and dramatic) Rita Pierson video on teacher-student relationships. Some teachers discussed it at lunch, a few other teachers commented by email. Teachers engaging other teachers, all right.  Another example: also last week at my school, a teacher announced "Staff Spirit Day" with the theme of "Hey, I went to college!" We were to wear our college sweatshirts and tell students positive stories about our college experiences.

No college sweatshirt being handy, I donned my high school FFA jacket--yeah, that's right, vocational agriculture all the way. I was part of an amazing high school FFA team--we competed in nursery landscape contests across the state and even made our way to nationals in Kansas City.

The FFA jacket I wore last Friday prominently featured the name of my high school, a neighboring school district to the one in which I now teach. As I was sharing stories of high school and college, one of my current students reminded me, "Ms. Johnson, my grandpa was your high school biology teacher!" Sure enough, which meant that my teacher-student-teacher relationship with this family now spanned two school districts and several generations! Good, we've got some human drama.

This high school biology teacher, as I described to my class, was a colorful character, a former Marine who was able to do push-ups with one arm while suspending himself between two student desks. He brewed coffee in his science prep room and gave us worms to dissect. He retired with the graduating class: the students proclaimed him the "Senior senior."

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Science | March 6, 2013

Let’s Hijack that Spaceship: The Next Generation Science Standards


Mars Roverby Maren Johnson

The Next Generation Science Standards, like the Mars Rover or even some new and strange space ship hovering above a farmer’s cornfield, are about to land here in Washington and in many states across our country.  Our job as educators? Let’s hijack that spaceship. I mean that in a positive way: let’s grab those standards, make them our own, and use them to improve student learning and our science education system.

The final version of the standards will likely be released this month, and probably be adopted soon thereafter by our state.  Some changes from the earlier drafts many are hoping to see? Hopefully, some increased clarity in language and a reduction in the overall scope of the standards, avoiding the “mile-wide and inch-deep” problem.  As one reviewer said, “We're here to produce learners, not people who have been exposed to a lot of content."  Possible opposition to reduced scope in standards? One person mentioned the “Julie Andrews” curriculum problem: what does an individual want to include? “These are a few of my favorite things”—and it is not possible to include everyone’s favorite things.

Why do I say the Next Generation Science Standards resemble a new and strange spaceship?

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Life in the Classroom, Science | February 11, 2013

Double your fun with dual credit! Your Brain on Drugs

Photo Feb 9, 2013, 10:42 AM
by Maren Johnson


I'm excited about a new class I'm teaching next year. Yes, it's the honeymoon period--I haven't started teaching the class yet, so I'm still in the thinking, dreaming, imagining period--but hey, it's a good place to be--I'm going to enjoy it while I can.

The new class? It's a "college in the high school" biology class--a partnership between my high school and a state university to offer students dual credit. Students will be able to earn both high school and college credit while taking a class right here in their own school.

The class itself is fascinating. We are going to study the fundamentals of biology while looking through the lens of addiction, psychoactive drugs, and the human brain. We're going to do a series of cool labs, there's an online component, and even an interesting text. The biology of cells, organs, systems, and behavior--it's all there, we're just using a specific, high interest focus--the brain and addiction--to study it.

And why do I have time to think, dream, imagine about a new class? It's because I have a student teacher.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Science | January 17, 2013

The Kids want to Learn about Ducks! Time to review the Next Generation Science Standards


Duckby Maren Johnson

You've never seen science standards like these before. There's a big change coming to science education in Washington state and in much of the rest of the country, and if you want to have a say in it, the time is now. The final public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards is now open for review and will close on January 29, so give those standards a glance! Read as much or as little of it as you want--all feedback welcome. With a strong integration of science and engineering practices with traditional science content, these new standards are challenging and thought provoking. Washington state is very likely to adopt these later this spring, possibly in March, so now's your chance to weigh in.

I've had a few different opportunities to discuss this draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): once in a charming rural cafe with a group composed mainly of local science teachers; once in an urban conference room with science education professionals who were primarily not teachers; and on Twitter at #NGSS and #NGSSchat--check out those hashtags!

So what did people have to say about these standards which are radically different from what we have now in both form and content?

Maren Johnson | National Board Certification, Professional Development, Science, Weblogs | January 6, 2013

Writing about Teaching


Way back, when I signed up to be a teacher, and a science teacher at that, I never imagined the amount of writing I was going to be doing. Yes, I expected to write some curriculum, student assessments, and the like, but I never really contemplated writing about teaching.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Science | January 2, 2013

A New Proposal

Photo Dec 30, 2012, 9:54 PM

By Maren Johnson

A press release, an op-ed, and a television interview—what’s up with all the media on Washington state assessment? Our Superintendent of Public Instruction just released a new proposal: reduce the number of exit exams required for high school graduation from five to three. This proposal shows concern for mitigating some of the negative effects of large amounts of testing on the Class of 2015, sophomores I currently have as students. Specifically, the number of math exams would be reduced from two to one, and reading and writing would be combined into a single exam. In science, however, the proposal would still move forward with a brand new graduation requirement this year focusing on biology. This means that not only will our state’s sole high school science exam be in biology, but the emphasis on biology will also be increased by making that exam high stakes.

Randy Dorn cited some excellent reasons for the overall reduction in assessments, saying “too much classroom time is devoted to preparing for tests, taking tests and preparing to retake tests.” He also noted the high cost of Washington’s assessment system.

However, there is another factor besides cost and time that comes into play here: assessment drives instruction. When there is a single high stakes science assessment, and that assessment is in biology, then chemistry, physics, and earth science will be neglected. An alternate idea: we could keep administering our existing biology EOC, which would satisfy federal requirements, but delink the biology EOC from graduation. Eliminating the graduation requirement would relieve the current pressure on schools, which, in many cases, is distorting high school science education to emphasize biology. Delinking the biology exam from graduation would also save a considerable amount of money in remediation, retakes, and rescoring. Most expenditures in education hold out some promise of benefit: this expenditure is actually detrimental to science education in our state by marginalizing chemistry, physics, earth science, and STEM.

Maren Johnson | Education, Life in the Classroom, Science | December 13, 2012

Should I sharpen up my Teaching Points?


by Maren Johnson Sharp pencil

In my district, we adopted a new framework for teacher evaluation, UW CEL, and I learned a new phrase: Teaching point.  What's that, you ask?  Learning target, learning goal, performance expectation, lesson objective, power standard: while they each have an important nuance of meaning, they all refer to what students should understand or be able to do by the end of a certain period of time.

Posting those learning targets every day so they are visible to all?  Yeah, I've never done that, for a variety of reasons.  However, I have repeatedly heard that all three frameworks in our state are based on research, and hey, I want my students to learn, so when I read in our district’s framework rubric about daily posting as one possible way of communicating learning targets, I figured--I'm game, I'll give it a try—and I have been posting these in class for the last two weeks.

I shared what I was doing with a fellow teacher—and we had a very animated discussion (raised voices in the copy room!) about the pros and cons of posting learning targets and how this might or might not fit into teacher evaluation.  I will say I put some thought into how and when during my lessons I was going to post these targets and discuss them with the students.  I knew that for many lessons, about the last thing that would be helpful would be to have a posted learning target at the beginning of a lesson. 

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Books, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Science, Travel | November 15, 2012

What’s that standard? Excellence in Washington State and Finland


by Maren Johnson

Pasi Sahlberg 1I attended an amazing conference in Seattle this week, Excellence in Education: Washington State and Finland. We learned about some great things going on in Finland, we learned about some great things going on in Washington, and I experienced some culture shock.  Was it the differences between Finland and the United States that struck me?  Well yes, there was that, and that is what got me started thinking about culture.  However, instead of international differences, I was thinking about some of the cultural as well as philosophical differences between education groups in our own Washington state: differences between people who are in the classroom and those making policy decisions guiding classroom work; differences between policy makers and those doing education research. How to overcome those differences and build on them?  Keynote speaker Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of Finland’s Education Ministry, said, “So much of what we do in Finland, we have learned from American researchers and educators.”  He then very provocatively said the difference is that in Finland, they actually implement that research!  Here in Washington, we need to get those research<—>policy<—> implementation links tightened up, and yes, those are double-headed arrows: information needs to flow each way!

There are some vast historical and social differences between Finland and Washington—an education system cannot just be transplanted.  However, Finland has not always been an education high performer—it languished in the mid twentieth century—but over the past several decades, as Pasi Sahlberg said, “Finland has improved a lot, while the rest of the world has improved a little bit.”  This improvement can be traced to policy decisions.  What are a few of the Finnish Lessons we might learn?

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Science | October 24, 2012

Unfortunately, it's not invisible: The Equipment


3_Industrial_Hazardsby Maren Johnson

This month on Stories from School, we are trying to expose some of the "invisible" work that teachers do--the things in teaching that may go unseen by others.  Unfortunately, what I have to write about is not at all invisible--rather, it is all too often in our way!  Science teachers, Career and Tech Ed teachers, and other teachers of project and lab based classes spend much of our time functioning as equipment managers--not the most glamorous duty, but a duty, indeed, it is.  You can see a few of us in the photo off to the left, and yes, we are hamming it up for a Homecoming spirit day dressed as Industrial Hazards, but you get the idea--our equipment is large and can be hard to handle.

What are some of the “invisibles” that come with all this equipment?

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Science | August 15, 2012

Accountability at What Cost? The Biology End of Course exam


Focus on BiologyIt's a new school year.  I'm teaching biology and chemistry, classes I have taught for years.  This year, however, there is something new--this year, for the first time, my tenth graders are required to pass the Washington state biology end-of-course exam in order to graduate.

My concern is that a high stakes exam that focuses only on biology narrows the curriculum to the detriment of chemistry, physics, and earth science.  The problem? 

Brian | Assessment, Education, Mathematics, Science | September 30, 2010

Would Value-Added be More Fair?


by Brian TestFestLogo

About a year ago I wrote a post on the idea of using "value-added" as a tool in teacher evaluation.  The Seattle Times weighed in recently with an editorial endorsing it, and encouraging "retrograde union leaders" to quit opposing attempts to link teacher evaluations to student learning.  As a local union leader I cringe at being called retrograde, but I'm getting used to the Times anti-union bias.  I am not opposed to looking at student progress as part of an evaluation system. That makes sense. What I do think is important is that the weight placed on any test score used for evaluative purposes must be commensurate with our confidence in the reliability of the test.  In my high school last year 84% of the students met standard on the Reading HSPE, 91% passed Writing, 42% passed the Math portion, and 43% passed in Science.  In Reading and Writing our students did significantly better than the state average; in Math and Science we did slightly worse.  But look at those numbers.  Is it really reasonable to believe that the same students that do so well in Reading and Writing are so terrible in Math and Science?  Or to believe that somehow the language arts teachers in the state are far and away better teachers than their colleagues in math and science?  Is it possible that the tests might not be fair?  Isn't it possible that the bar has been set at the right level for Reading and Writing, and far too high for Math and Science? 

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Mathematics, Science | August 19, 2010

Should Math and Science Teachers be Paid More?


CSX8EhBy Mark

An article in this week's Tacoma News Tribune points out that in the state of Washington, high school math and science teachers get paid less, on average, than teachers of other disciplines. The assumption--not backed up by research or widespread observation--is that math and science teachers are lured away to more lucrative careers in the high tech industry and therefore do not stay in teaching as long.

Besides that, this study by Jim Simpkins, Marguerite Roza, and Cristina Sepe and produced by the University of Washington's Center for Reinventing Public Education raises several valid points about teacher compensation. However, it is what the study does not include that concerns me most.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Religion, Science, Social Issues | September 5, 2009

The Obama Speech: How Should Schools Handle Hot Politics?


Campfire_j By Mark

Let me be clear from the outset: I'm not here to argue about whether Obama's speech is good, bad, ugly; propaganda, motivation, or mind control. There are too many unproductive shouting matches going on about that elsewhere on the web. Missing from those shouting matches is reasoned discussion of what I think is a more important question with a much larger impact on what I do as a teacher.

The controversy about the broadcast of Obama's "work hard" speech has precipitated some interesting responses from school districts across the country, ranging from the superintendent of schools in Tempe saying all teachers shall show the address and parents are "not allowed" to opt out, to districts like mine who instructed teachers to get parent permission before showing the speech. These policies have an impact on classroom instruction--much more of an impact than the speech itself--because it brings up the question about how schools should handle politically charged and divisive content, and what the school's role is in mediating that content for students.

Many an educator who attempts to make content relevant will want to connect to current events. Whether its genetic engineering, military endeavors, alternative energies or health care, it is easy for a curriculum to turn into a volatile tinderbox, because these topics and others have clear political implications.

How should schools handle hot political topics?