General Interest

This place is for posts that don’t fall under any specific category.

Metablog: A blog about a blog

February 24, 2012

Last year we began receiving evaluations based on the new NC teacher evaluation instrument, a process that looks at the whole teacher, not just classroom performance. Teachers comfortable with years of “Above Standard” evaluations were forced to come to grips with the realization that they might be merely proficient, or even accomplished, in many areas of the new tool.

The “Distinguished” box might just be empty.

Although it does not clearly state it in the evaluation instrument, teachers were frequently told that being distinguished meant demonstrating leadership in a particular category beyond the classroom and beyond the walls of the school. What that means in concrete terms is sometimes elusive, but I want to share what I think is one terrific example.

History teacher Steve Hill is a collector of artifacts, of the genuine stuff of history, and he thrives on telling the stories behind his artifacts. Hill recently made the decision to share his artifact- and primary source-based approach with his colleagues within and beyond the walls of Rose High by writing a blog: History Teacher: Things Military and Artistic. The site is filled with images and explanations of how he uses the images–usually actual artifacts from his own collection–to teach concepts and promote analytical thinking about art and history. It even includes images of student-created graphic organizers.

Even if you aren’t a history teacher, Hill’s site is definitely worth your time.

It seems that this is the sort of leading and sharing, the sort of promotion of quality instruction that engages learners, that separates the distinguished teacher from the accomplished. It seems like a distinction worth making.

Annotating Texts to Teach Analysis

February 16, 2012
You won’t find a better collaboration partner than high-energy art teacher Randall Leach. He is full of ideas and always open to more. For one period a day, Leach has to shift gears from his studio art classes to his more lecture-based AP Art History class. It is a class heavy with content that requires students to analyze works of art. I had the opportunity to collaborate with him recently on a project we called The Greene Family Sculpture Commission Competition.

Students “sculpted” each other by positioning the limbs of one group member–the model–in a manner they believed would depict the values our culture considers good and beautiful. Their end goal was to win the hypothetical Greene family sculpture commission, which was really just a box of Transformer cupcakes from Harris Teeter. But the project was not all fluff and icing.

Not Just Fluff
Using Leach’s iPad, students photographed their “sculptures” from several angles; then, using an app called Educreations (also available for your computer free online) they annotated their sculptures with digital ink and explained how specific features reflected beauty or other values admired in our culture. We projected their work from the iPad for the whole class to see and for the panel of judges–Mr. Leach, Mr. Greene, and me–to evaluate using a rubric.

What was immediately evident was that these students had, for the past three weeks, been learning quite a bit from Mr. Leach about how artists represent values through the physical form. They were learning how to analyze works of art. Using the annotation strategy through Educreations allowed them to both demonstrate and develop that skill further. And it was fun.

Not Just Art
Ashley Hutchinson has used the same app for the same purpose, almost. Instead of analyzing works of art, her students analyze written texts. English teachers put tremendous effort into teaching students to reference specific words and phrases when they explain the meaning of a text, and this activity helps, and perhaps forces, Hutchinson’s students to do that. They literally layer their own voice and their own interpretation on top of an existing text, and the result can be impressive.

Not Just on the iPad
Of course an iPad is far from necessary for implementing annotation strategies. Hutchinson’s students could also have used a printed text and some markers under a document camera. Or they could have used the computer lab to access the Educreations app online, or used, as Mrs. Haynes’s Spanish students have,

But annotation hardly requires a high tech solution. Students could have glued a photocopy on top of a large sheet of paper, and used pens and highlighters to annotate and add their analysis by writing in the margins of the large paper. And, fad of the 1980s or not, sticky notes are as useful a tool as any for annotating texts. The effect is the same–layer student voices and student interpretations on top of an existing text.

Whether it happens in ink or digital ink, spoken text or written text, annotation is a phenomenal way for students to develop their analytical skills and demonstrate their ability to interpret a text. It is a useful tool for assessment, and it can be used in almost any subject: primary documents and tangible artifacts in history, graphs and geometric structures in mathematics, diagrams and sheep brains in science, and the casserole I burned last night in foods.

Give it a try.

Want help? Ask me.

A Wild Pitch

January 30, 2012

I seldom follow what’s going on with the State Board of Education or the Department of Public Instruction. I leave that to my friend Preston Bowers at Ayden Grifton, who filters the glut of stuff they produce. Preston recently discovered this presentation for Designing Measures of Student Learning (MSL), which appears to have been delivered to the BOE on January 5. It doesn’t answer many questions, but it does suggest DPI’s frame of mind in terms of measuring teacher effectiveness and student learning. Check it out.

Designing NC’s Measures of Student Learning

For fear of misinterpreting some of the information, I won’t analyze or fully summarize the presentation; I will share a couple basic points and encourage you to read the presentation yourself.

  • The proposed MSLs appear to be DPI’s answer to that elusive sixth teaching standard about teachers demonstrating growth in student performance.
  • MSLs are not EOCs. The presentation uses the term “performance based” to describe the assessments.
  • MSLs would apply to all content areas, presumably in non-tested (EOC/VOCAT) courses.

I can’t say what shape these Measures of Student Learning will ultimately take. I do know this. As teachers, if we focus some of our attention on analyzing standards, particularly the Common Core and Essential Standards, and creating common, performance-based assessments for those standards, and if we work in professional learning communities to pursue success together, then we can build a bat big enough to hit whatever DPI throws at us next.

Wednesday Walk and Talk: Problem Based Learning

January 26, 2012

We had a great turnout for the first Wednesday Walk and Talk. A big thanks to all the dedicated teachers who were able to participate.

What We Walked About
About a mile. No great feat, but better than sitting still for sixty minutes.

What We Talked About
After watching Dan Meyer’s TED talk (check it out at we discussed how teachers might devise compelling problems that prompt deeper, more meaningful learning in our classrooms. The speaker focuses on math problems, but they idea reaches beyond the math classroom. Meyer suggests that if we start instruction with a problem that is relevant and tangible, we might motivate learners to develop both “patient problem solving” skills and the content knowledge essential to the courses we teach.

One example that arose from a walk and talk conversation regards infectious diseases. Students in the health sciences learn about an abundance of diseases, but if they were to be given a stripped-down case study and perhaps a few graphic images with the simple instruction to diagnose the disease, then their learning, whether through research or lecture will have added meaning. That is to say, instead of gathering facts about diseases for the purpose of passing a test–hardly a compelling motivator during instruction–students become motivated learners discovering diseases to determine which one solves the case. They become Dr. House.

This approach to learning requires teachers to understand the relevance of their curriculum in the real world. It asks them to give students time to think, to use their intuition to solve problems, even to figure out what problems they are solving and what information they require to reach a solution. But above all, it gives students an opportunity to develop as critical thinkers while they learn course content, and that’s a solution worth seeking.

Feel free to share your ideas using the comments link above. Thanks for reading. See you at the next walk and talk on Feb. 15.

Geometry Project

December 6, 2011

Your geometry project presents a substantial challenge in the form of a complex research problem. Think of that problem as a puzzle. The research you conduct will provide you with the pieces you need to assemble your solution. You won’t find one piece of research that solves the whole puzzle for you, and you can’t just throw any old collection of pieces on the table and pretend it makes a pretty picture. So here are a couple suggestions:

  • Think for yourself.
  • Break your topic into pieces and research each of those pieces separately.
  • Ignore information that does not help you solve your problem.
  • Read for understanding. You will know you’ve got it if you can explain it to your partner.
  • Keep good records of your research.

Here’s a video that might help you think about researching your problem:

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And don’t forget, you must also create a bibliography page listing all the sources you used in MLA format. I like to use Watch this video for a brief demonstration of the site.

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Good luck with your project.

This I Believe Voice Threads

October 31, 2011

Mr. Dowless’s students recently completed This I Believe essays and recorded voice threads to share them with you. Check them out. Click “Comments” (above in blue); then, scroll down and click links.

We also want your feedback in two ways:
1. If you create a voice thread account, you can share your reaction to students’ essays by recording your comments.
2. If you listen to at least five, vote for your favorite by completing the ballot below. (Vote only once.)

Shortest Blog Ever

September 28, 2011

Today in Brian Callahan’s AP Psychology class.

  • Hold hands
  • Go to the bathroom (together)
  • Understand neurons


Common Core Questions

August 24, 2011

Thank you for your participation in Common Core training and for submitting questions. For answers to some of the county’s most commonly asked questions, please check out Race to the Top Coordinator Tom Feller’s blog post:

Here are answers to some of your questions:

What are crosswalk and unpacking documents?

The crosswalk documents show the intersection between the new standards and the existing NCSCOS. They provide a brief commentary for most of the standards. The unpacking documents show the connections between College and Career Readiness Standards and each discipline-specific Common Core or Essential Standard. These documents also provide commentary on scaffolding, strategy and assessment.

You might also encounter the phrase, “unpacking standards,” or something like it. This phrase seems to suggest the process of interpreting what each standard means, what essential questions, content, objectives, assessments, and resources might be contained within that standard.

Several PLCs asked variations of a question about the focus on “core” subjects: English, social studies, math, and science. Here is my best effort at a response.

In some ways, non-core disciplines are one step ahead of the core areas. CTE has already moved most of its courses to Revised Blooms (RBT), and essential standards appear to have been adopted and are available in a massive document available online. Foreign languages have adopted an assessment tool in the Lingua Portfolio that aligns well to essential standards thinking. The DPI website links to adopted standards for almost every area, including foreign language, health, and even guidance. EC is definitely incomplete. Sorry JROTC: I didn’t see anything for you yet. Check out:

Assuming we handle training properly, all disciplines should have adequate opportunity to interpret the standards that relate to the subjects they teach. The technology and language arts standards will apply in every discipline, as technology and reading/writing skills are necessary in almost every major and career our children might choose.

Will the websites be accessible?

Yes. And you should be able to access the documents immediately. If you cannot, please ask me for help. We will figure it out.

How will this change improve learning?

I will respond optimistically here, as I do believe these new standards have tremendous potential. The standards I reviewed give teachers and school systems the flexibility to determine how best to ensure that students develop the skills and knowledge they need. Whereas the old standards in subjects like civics and econ and biology required such extensive memorization of terms and facts, the new standards focus more on conceptual understanding in such a manner that knowledge works in support of the concepts. I believe the essential standards allow for a greater depth of study, a more reasonable and meaningful base of factual knowledge, and an increased school/teacher/student flexibility (i.e. if Rob Miller wants to go loco with dung beetles, he can, as long as it helps his students acquire the essential standards).

What are the trainings going to be like, regarding structure, etc.?

I cannot say for certain, as it has not yet been decided by the RttT team. Some of the training will require group sessions to disseminate information and strategy, but I will push for and make every effort to incorporate substantial time dedicated to PLC work, where teachers of a common course or area of study (Algebra I, Healthful Living) can develop their curriculum, assessments, pacing and resources together. In my mind,  teacher- and PLC-centered training sessions will be essential to the success of this SCOS transition.

Will we get lessons/templates to aid in transition and planning?

“Yes.  We are being told that sample plans will be developed at the State level.  Additionally, there are many sample plans already available through resources such as the Common Core website.  Teachers in PCS will also be developing and sharing sample plans as the year goes on.” (Tom Feller,

Several people asked about provision of resources and technology…

At this point, no money has been guaranteed for purchase of new text books. I am not certain how this lack of resources will hinder us, though the state is developing resources in every content area. Regarding technology, we probably need to understand that using technology does not mean that you necessarily use a Smart Board instead of a chalk board, or that all of your quizzes are done on CPS. Incorporating technology might mean that students conduct research online, present their learning through web tools like prezi or glogster, participate in an online forum, use educational apps on iPod Touches, or build rockets out of soda bottles. Technology isn’t going to be an every-room-equal deal, but we will need to identify our technology needs—the ones that will enhance student learning—and dedicate a portion of our 411 money to filling those needs.

Sorry I couldn’t answer everyone’s question. We shall learn more as we go, and by the time we hit August 2012, we will all be experts, I’m sure.

Geocaching as an Instructional Activity

May 26, 2011

Routine is good. Routine is necessary. But perhaps the best part of having routines is breaking them. Novelty, it seems, is just as important as routine. I think it was the novelty of geocaching that led me to collaborate with Spanish teachers Sara Dunham and Ashley Watson, world history teacher Steph Noles, and AP Human Geography teacher Brian Callahan.

In familiar terms geocaching is like a scavenger hunt with a GPS device. It has become a popular activity. Check and you will probably discover that several caches (hidden containers of various sorts) are located within a few miles of your home. Typically, a person would record coordinates of a hidden cache into a GPS device, navigate to that location, and then use clues to locate the cache, which might contain a slip of paper to sign or a trinket to take.

Ms. Dunham and Ms. Watson
My geocaching collaboration began with Sara Dunham and Ashley Watson, who are always willing to take risks to keep their students engaged. The Spanish II students were learning to give commands in Spanish, and one of their goals was to give directions to a location using proper verb tenses and prepositions.  On the day of the activity, students received the following:

  • Instructions for the activity
  • A GPS device with five preset locations to which they would navigate
  • Instructions for working the GPS device
  • A set of hint sheets to help them locate each hidden cache
  • Rules for behavior, like stay away from roads and don’t cut through the school building

Groups of students scrambled around campus, locating each cache and signing sheets at each location. When they returned to the end of the 200 hall, they received a popsicle (all I got was a sunburn on my dome, but that’s my fault) and an assignment. Each group was charged with the task of writing directions that would help an unfamiliar visitor—one navigating without GPS—make his way to each position they had visited. The tough part: they had to write it in Spanish.

Ms. Noles
Stephanie Noles heard about the activity our Spanish teachers had developed and, having used similar activities to help her freshmen understand the challenges European explorers experienced, jumped at the opportunity to use GPS with her classes. Her students embarked on a similar activity, navigating from one location to another using the coordinates I recorded in their GPS devices. At each location the group withdrew a slip of paper describing an event their party experienced: “Your food supply has spoiled,” or “You found gold.”

These student explorers were charged with a different task—to create an explorer’s journal, a notebook that would help future explorers navigate an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar buildings, flora and fauna. It had to include what Ms. Noles dubbed the three Ds: distance, direction and description. Students sketched and wrote about what they saw, what happened to their team, and how they got from one location to the next.

Brian Callahan
Mr. Callahan teaches AP Human Geography. We asked his students to view the Rose High campus through their geography goggles, recording site information (latitude and longitude) and situation information (observations of surroundings) about each of three locations. As with the other classes, their locations were determined by coordinates preset into their GPS devices. At each location, they also searched for a cache and removed a poker chip, which they traded for a popsicle. While they ate, they collaborated on a one-paragraph analysis of the campus, employing several of the terms and concepts they studies throughout the semester.

Time is precious to teachers, so taking a day for this sort of activity must pay off. Geocaching is not the sort of activity that allows students to learn more information faster. It does allow them to learn better. Why?

Novelty: it’s not every day students get to lose themselves walking around campus searching for hidden caches. It’s new and different—it breaks the routine—and so it awakens the brain. It says to the brain (which retrieves semantic or language learning more efficiently when it is paired with an episodic memory): “you should remember this day.”

Physical activity: The part of the brain that controls movement works closely with the part of the brain that controls cognition. A physically active student has increased activity in her brain, and increased brain activity directed toward an academic objective equals better learning. In other words, geocaching gets the body moving, the blood pumping, the oxygen flowing, the brain grooving, and the learner learning.

Problem solving: When students (most of them, anyway) are passive recipients of information, they must perceive the information you teach as truly important to succeed in learning it. When their brains are involved in a problem solving activity like geocaching, however, they become active learners, seeking the information necessary to solve the problem and prioritizing that information—ideas, terms, skills—as useful for survival.

Best of all, geocaching has been fun. Students and teachers have enjoyed going outside, challenging their minds, and doing something new. I would enjoy collaborating with you on a geocaching activity next year.

Worth Buzzing About

April 10, 2011

Education is a field of ever-changing acronyms and buzz words, in and out of the hive like so many bees. In some capacity most of them make at least a little bit of sense, even if it is the new word for something we stopped talking about a decade ago. One promise our politicians and bureaucratic offices can keep: the buzz words won’t stop buzzing.

Data Driven
Perhaps the most common, worthwhile buzz word—the queen bee?—in our profession is “data-driven instruction.” To say that our instruction is driven by data seems a mistake. Many factors shape our instruction; no single driver–and certainly not a set of data–both paces and steers our teaching; however, using data to inform the decisions we make about braking, accelerating, throwing the car into reverse, or pulling a U-turn has advantages.

The question is, what constitutes useful data in your class?

Self-Assessment Polls
I don’t think test and quiz grades are the answer here, though they are part of it. I teach a night class at Pitt Community College, and final paper grades provide an abundance of information about what my students have learned. Unfortunately, delaying data analysis until Sunday afternoon, when I usually grade papers, always means extra work for me in the long run. Most of the data I use in this class is informal and immediate. For example, before, or even in the middle, of class I like to poll students (I do it on

A. I’ve got it. Move on.
B.  Almost there.
C. I don’t get it.

If a majority is ready to move on, we keep rolling. I leave conference/writing time at the end of class to target specific students’ needs. If enough students report confusion, we back up and start answering questions to find out what they don’t comprehend.  You can’t keep driving when you can’t even find where you are on the map.

Benchmarks (because one buzz word begets another)
Our English I students have been using data in a different way to guide their instruction this year. They benchmark student and class performance using CPS clickers and released EOCs each six weeks. They also use Study Island data and classwork to help them determine the needs of their students. One English I teacher told me last week, “So what my data is telling me is that, basically, my students need help with reading comprehension.” It was no major breakthrough—he probably could have guessed as much in January—but it was enough to urge him off his defined course and onto a new one, one that includes more time and strategies for comprehending informational texts. Another teacher created partially individualized Study Island activities to intervene where students were weakest.

Algebra II and civics and economics teachers are beginning to use similar data-driven strategies, but few teachers have access to released EOCs and prepared Study Island question banks to facilitate this strategy. So what strategies do non-EOC teachers use for gathering and reacting to data? Let’s find out from the teachers themselves.

Panera Drawing (Now THAT’S a buzz word):

Tell us how you use data-driven instruction. Submit a comment (click “comments” at the top of the blog) answering three questions to enter a drawing for a free sandwich at Panera!

-What data do you collect in your classes?
-How do you collect it?
-How do you use that data to guide instruction?

Submit your response by Thursday at 4:00 p.m. Winners will be announced Friday morning.