What I Did this Summer

I had fun this summer–a few good hikes, some good runs. It also, without a doubt, was the most intense summer of professional development I’ve ever had, and as this blog is about education, that is what I’ll talk about here. I was challenged, I felt uncomfortable, I was out of my element–more so than I have been in a long time. Clearly, learning was happening. Here’s what I did:

New Media Bootcamp
The summer started with a bang, literally, with fireworks at the Whitehouse and New Media Bootcamp in Washington DC along with three great Washington state teachers. The amazing trainers at the New Organizing Institute put a group of about 45 of us from every corner of the nation through eight days of learning about politics, technology, and engagement organizing.

This wasn’t the type of training where we just sat and listened to speakers–we were there to work collaboratively, and work as a team we did, at all hours of the day and night. My six-member team included a graphic designer, a campaign manager, a geocoding whiz kid, a slow food activist, a SEIU organizer, and of course, me, school marm from Washington state. My teammates were talented, tumultuous and wonderful: we went from the lowest of lows in terms of a team dynamic to actually sending sentimental group texts to each other long after the training.

What did we do? We studied theory of change based on the work of Marshall Ganz. We then applied this theory of change to develop an integrated new media campaign: there was a governor’s race in the mythical state of Columbia, and Alice Paul, author of the Equal Rights Amendment, was running. We were her campaign team: you can see us over to the left riding in her campaign bus tour across the state. You may notice Alice looks a bit ghostly; then again, she has been dead for 34 years, but was still able to garner an amazing number of Twitter followers in just a short period of time.

Stiff competition from other gubernatorial candidates including Cesar Chavez and Harvey Milk were no match for the progressive platform my team developed and presented through Twitter, a website, Facebook, and of course, email. It was old-fashioned writers’ workshop meets the latest technology as we learned to do chi square analysis on click-through and conversion rates. The peer feedback, by the way, could be fairly hard core: it was not appreciative inquiry, and it was not “two stars and a wish.” This was no teachers’ conference.

We heard “Bootcamp will change your life” from alumni. I was skeptical, but in retrospect, I think it may actually be true. Theory of change and the other concepts and skills we learned were powerful. I can’t think of another training I’ve been to where I so highly valued so many of the contacts I made; wanted to read and reread the training materials LONG after I had finished with the training; and, though I wasn’t feeling this when it was time to leave, I wished it could have lasted longer so I could have had the chance to learn more. The training, the participants, and the work we did was amazing–looking at current political races, I think we would be competitive! Are these skills transferable to issue efforts? Oh yes.

I look back at the experience with both delight at our teamwork, and awe at what we accomplished. Working together, I think we really could turn the world upside down!

Simian retroviruses. Yes, that’s right…Monkey Herpes.
Next is was off to Seattle for the Science Education Partnership with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. I spent time developing a curriculum project along with some fellow teachers, and then five days with a senior research scientist working on projects in his lab. What did he study? Well, monkey herpes, of course. Herpes in macaques, for the most part. It turns out that 9 different types of herpes have been discovered in every single non-human primate, no exception. Only 8 different types of herpes have been discovered in humans. The goal? You guessed it–find that ninth type of herpes in humans.

My mentor scientist asked me at the beginning of the week, “What do you want to learn?” I listed a few techniques, and that is what we did–it was like having a personal lab tutor in biotechnology along with access to all the equipment. Truly a unique opportunity. He also challenged me, telling me at a few key points, “Your students NEED to learn this.” Alright, there will be bioinformatics this school year!

Educator input into education policy
Near the end of the summer I was part of a work group to develop a process to get educator input into education policy, on issues like the implementation of Common Core standards and teacher evaluation. We were trying to put together a sort of guide that would work for getting input on whatever the issue at hand might be, and then transmit that information to policy makers and policy implementers.

There were ten of us working on this, nine teachers and a principal. We had HIGHLY disparate views on some major issues in education. These were not just people who talked about their views, these were people who had acted on them, so opinions were strongly held.

The challenge? We were placed in situations early in our time together which highlighted our differences, and after that we needed to work together productively. It was our work together that made me realize, in general, how great teachers and educators are at working in groups. Despite our differences, a core value we all held was the prime importance of educator voice in forming education policy, and this helped guide our work.

What did I learn from all this?
Well, I learned that How People Learn is how people actually learn. Not that I doubted it before, but the three key findings from this document: engaging preconceptions, organizing knowledge into a conceptual framework, and reflection, were clearly incorporated into each of the events I attended. This made a difference: the pre- and post activities associated with these events have been, or sound as if they will be, as valuable as the events themselves!

Here’s to a great school year!

Thinking about National Board Certification? Now’s the time!

The state legislature is supportive, OSPI has opened up applications for their conditional loan (closes May 18), and the WEA is now registering people for Jump Start, their fabulous summer seminar that will get you on your way! If National Board certification has been in the back of your mind, now might be the time to pursue it. National Board Certification is a rigorous professional development program which focuses on making a positive impact on student learning.

Why do it?

Teaching and Learning Benefits:

  • Positive impact on student learning
  • Improved professional practice
  • Personal challenge
  • Backed by extensive independent research

Certification Benefits:

  • Replaces state teaching certificate (no clock hour requirement!)
  • Can be done instead of ProCert/ProTeach
  • If you have a residency certificate, that certificate can be renewed for the full three years you may be a National Board candidate to allow for retakes
  • 45 clock hours for completing process; 45 more upon certification; many more for attending support programs

Financial Benefits:

  • $5090 annual stipend for 10 years and can be renewed
  • The stipend is $3054 the first year a teacher certifies–it is prorated because certification happens partway through the school year
  • Pensionable: $1527 extra annually (depending on years of service) in defined benefit portion of the Teachers’ Retirement System for duration of retirement
    (1 percent X $5090 X 30 years service credit = $1527)

What is it?

4 entries, April 1-March 31 timeline:

  • One entry on assessment practice and analyzing student work
  • Two video based entries—usually one small group and one whole class
  • One entry documenting impact on student learning by the teacher as a learner, the teacher as a collaborator/leader, and the teacher as communicator with parents and community
  • 6 assessment exercises. These are 30 minutes each and are completed in one day at an assessment center.
  • Take One! Program. You have the option of completing one portfolio entry a year before you complete the rest, allowing you to spread the work over more time and make sure the process is right for you before you do the whole thing.

What support is available?

  • District/University support programs: get feedback on papers/videos from a trained facilitator, give and receive peer feedback, required by state loan.
  • Conditional loan from OSPI. Applications are due May 18. This is a no interest loan that is paid back out of the first year’s stipend. It is for $2000. The candidate is responsible for the other $500 of the NBPTS registration fee.
  • OSPI will pay (as a scholarship) for two retakes; priority given to state loan recipients
  • National scholarships.
  • WEA Jump Start and Home Stretch. Need based scholarships are available. Great seminars from our state teachers’ union to help you through the process.

What are the next steps?

  • Choose a certificate area.
  • Read the “Assessment at a Glance” document for an overview of requirements and sample questions
  • Look at the National Board teaching standards and see how they are reflected in your own classroom!

Building a Stinkin’ Community

I’m going to start out my first post on this blog by looking back to one of my most vivid classroom lab experiences ever.  One year ago in my chemistry class, we were making soap.  This was the real deal–we started from scratch and used nothing but fat and lye to make soap the way people around the world have been making it for thousands of years.

It was right before Mother’s Day, and many of the students had high hopes of presenting their mothers with a handcrafted gift of soap.  They spent several days working on cardboard soap molds shaped like stars, hearts, and even a guitar mold made by a talented student musician.

Anticipation was high the day of the soap making itself.  Students bring in their own sources of fat–most bring in things like Crisco, coconut oil or lard.  Last year, however, the vast majority of students brought in butter. After the butter was melted, it was time to add the sodium hydroxide (lye).  Students pour the soft soap into their molds, and it hardens over a few days.

The trouble started quite quickly.  A student working with my personal favorite hot plate was a bit impatient and turned the thing up to high.  This hot plate really cooks, so the “high” setting led to boiling over of the fatty sodium hydroxide solution onto the hot plate surface.  Students at nearby lab stations noticed an acrid burning odor.

The acrid burning odor got worse–it turned into one of the most foul scents there has ever been in my chemistry lab.  It was like rancid butter, but far worse.  The sticky mess continued to bubble on the hot plate surface, and over the control knobs.   I grabbed a hot mitt to turn it off–I got the hot plate turned off, but now the mitt was covered with the putrid substance.  We opened windows and turned on exhaust fans.  Let’s admit it–this smell was bad.  When organic chemistry goes wrong, it is not pleasant on the nose. Amid the colorful student comments concerning the odor, one student said, “I feel like I might vomit.” Another student noted, “I wish someone would vomit–that might actually make it smell better in here.”

Meanwhile, a few lab stations over, the aspiring musician was pouring his solution into his guitar mold.  His mold was not well constructed, and the weight of the solution caused the whole thing to collapse, spilling the greasy smelly mess all over the counter and the floor.   Wanting to be helpful, the student grabbed a pile of hot mitts and used them to soak up the liquid–we now had a pile of stinky hot mitts.

I was getting out the chemical spill kit to deal with the rest of the mess when the door opened.  Perfect–it’s the assistant principal in my room for an unannounced walk through!  I mumbled a few words of explanation, a bit chagrinned by the three ring circus of chaos that was unfolding.  “But looking at classrooms is much more authentic this way!” he assured me as he sidestepped a mess on the floor.

Some students had actually filled their molds with solution and were putting them away in a cabinet. I went back to see how they looked.  Much to my consternation, one student had clearly made a bar of soap shaped and colored like a psychedelic mushroom.  This was completely inappropriate for school and I would not tolerate something like this in my classroom.  I went about trying to find the perpetrator.  After a few inquiries, I had a suspect.  It wasn’t a student who I would normally associate with such nefarious behavior, but one never knows.  I asked the student what he thought he was doing making such a thing at school.  He protested his innocence.  Holding the alleged magic mushroom up to himself, he said, “But Ms. Johnson, I was just trying to make a piece of soap that looked like the sweater I was wearing today!”

I examined the sweater.  I examined the soap.  Sure enough, they were a close match.  How was I supposed to know the sides of the mushroom were actually sweater sleeves?  This student’s collection of sweaters was a standing joke at school, and he had decided that the especially colorful and fuzzy sweater he had on today was worth memorializing in soap. 
The lab ended and we got most of the place cleaned up.

Lessons learned?  Well, we won’t be making soap from butter again!  Sodium hydroxide breaks down the fats, the triglycerides, into three fatty acids.  A sodium ion then combines with a fatty acid to form a soap molecule.  When you use butter as the source of fat, and then apply too much heat, the fatty acid is broken down even further to butyric acid, the chemical providing the odor in both rancid butter and vomit.

Did we actually have any product to show for our efforts? No–instead we had a stinking mess!   What did we get?  Well, hopefully the students got a vivid mental hook to hang some of their ideas on both about lab safety and the chemical reactions involved.

More than that, we had a strong shared experience in chemistry class.  Maybe we all stank, but at least we stank together!  The most well-designed lesson ever will go nowhere unless it is built on a positive classroom climate, and common experiences provide that.  The social media project that this blog is a part of is all about expanding our community beyond our school.  To do that well, we first need to make sure that we have strong relationships with the people we see every day.

It’s a tough time in our state.  It’s a tough time in our district.  Let’s make sure we capitalize on our shared experiences to build that sense of community.