Getting Started in Your PLC

September 11, 2012

Meeting with your PLC
At the beginning of the year, which now seems so far away, we talked about PLCs meeting regularly. Specifically, we identified the second Wednesday of each month (knowing that you might choose to meet more frequently or at different times), early release days, and teacher work days as times for PLCs to meet, collaborate, and produce. Tomorrow is the second Wednesday in September, so PLCs, unless you have identified a different time, should be meeting this week.

Remember that you should participate in a PLC for every course you teach that is taught by another teacher on campus. Each course, and not each course area, should work as a PLC. Those who are involved in PLCs with teachers in other schools, esp. CTE and arts, meet according to Ms. Trueblood’s or Ms. Behan’s instructions.

Goal Setting
PLCs should be actively and collaboratively engaged in pursuit of a limited number of SMART goals, focused on student performance.

S = specific
M = measurable
A = attainable
R = relevant
T = time bound

If you haven’t set goals for student performance, take care of that this week. You will also want to enter your goals into My Learning Plan. I made a Jing video to show you how to do that. Here’s the link: PLC Proposal. Call me if you need any help, or invite me to attend your PLC meeting, so I can work with the group the process. It’s pretty simple, and it should help you keep an eye on the goals you want to achieve and your tools for measuring that achievement.

Where we’re going with this...
Our end goal is to make sure every student learns what they need to learn in our classes, no matter who the teacher is, no matter what the class is. Ideally, a common set of goals and collaboration toward the accomplishment of those goals, will teachers succeed with every student. Our tools for doing this: 1) some form of common assessment, 2) data from those assessments, 3) analysis of and response to that data.

So, for example, every biology teacher gives a common assessment at the end of week five. That assessment shows which students can explain how cells reproduce, can make safe decisions about lab work, and can explain how plants make food. They chart the data, reteach the kids who weren’t proficient on any of the established goals, modify instructional strategies, adapt, improvise, overcome…or something like that. The idea is that the data guides that collaboration because it shows PLCs and individual teachers the gaps that exist in the development of students’ learning.

This semester–in fact very soon–PLCs should be developing assessment tools to measure whether students can do what they need to do. These tools–call them benchmarks or common assessments–should tie in directly to the goals set by the PLC, and will, most likely, focus on the five essential skills you identified at the beginning of the year. For now, take one step at a time. Meet. Set your goals. Discuss the pursuit of those goals.

The Math of Khan (Academy, and Other Subjects)

June 4, 2012

You might have heard of Khan Academy on 60 minutes. Or CNN. Or from your cool teacher friend. And you might have said, “Eh.” But if you said, “Eh,” then you probably haven’t actually looked at the website. Do it now. Yes, now: I know it’s exam time, but do it anyway, and consider some of the many ways you might incorporate Khan into your instruction next year. I offer several suggestions at the end of this blog.

Before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story,
Khan Academy started with one dude, Salman Khan (seen here on, creating a mini tutorial on his computer for his cousin, who was having difficulty in her math class. Not everyone has a cool uncle who can create computer tutorials, so Khan’s little videos became popular, and then good old Bill Gates wrote him a check and said, “Make  7 billion video tutorials so all the world can learn stuff for free.” He didn’t really say that, but the site hosts a lot of videos, and they are all free.

You can see the result on the website. Endless videos in math: pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, statistics, trigonometry, calculus. But Khan has branched out into the sciences: physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, computer science. And social studies: civics, economics, finance, banking. It has lessons for SAT, art history, and health care. It even explains the Geithner Plan!

The brilliance of these lessons is that they are short, simple, and amazingly clear. And they are FREE (have I mentioned that?) and accessible online or by iPhone app. I know you are irreplaceable; I promise to punch anyone in the nose who claims otherwise. I also know that Khan Academy is a useful tool that many of us can, and should, make available to our students. Here are some ideas:

Post links to your Website/Edmodo Page
Wouldn’t it be nice to know that kids could receive nightly tutoring on their homework assignments? Try posting to your website or Edmodo page a link to a Khan Academy tutorial that matches the day’s instruction. That way, if students get stuck, they can watch an explanation until they get it.

I Learn from an iPod
Khan Academy apps can be downloaded to iPads, iPods and iPhones. It is a good tool for the students to put on their phones, but we can also add the app to the class set of iPods available in the library. That way, students can watch lessons independently in your class. More on this idea below.

A Substitute for the Substitute
It is difficult to find a substitute who can teach about home equity loans or plate tectonics when you are stuck at home with a feverish child. Try having your substitute teacher play a Khan Academy video off the computer in your absence.

Heal the Sick (and Suspended)
Ok, so you won’t actually heal them, but you can try to keep them from falling behind. Khan can’t replace your explanation of absolute value equations or Punnett squares, but it’s the next best thing. Try referring students to a specific Khan Academy video to make up what they miss.

Differentiate Lessons for Depth
Every teacher struggles with pacing when some students are ready to move forward after 30 minutes of instruction and practice, while others need to hear the same lesson 17 more times. Khan Academy provides so many videos, especially in math, that it might just become a useful tool for differentiating instruction. While you provide a group of students extra attention on a basic concept, those who have already mastered it might explore the topic in greater depth by watching a Khan video on a computer. Or, while the you push the rest of the class deeper, those requiring remediation might watch Khan videos on iPods. That way your class can stay on the same topic while each student maximizes growth.

Respond to Benchmarks
Benchmark assessments frequently reveal that students have different weaknesses. Some might struggle with the branches of government while others fail to grasp supply and demand. Teachers don’t have time to re-teach evertudent every topic, but we can become more efficient by differentiating review lessons according to students’ weaknesses. As students begin to review for tests or exams, or after benchmarks reveal their needs, try assigning each student a sequence of Khan videos, along with a simple assessment to check for understanding.

Practice Makes…
Click on the Practice tab on and explore the web of practice choices. Each one presents questions, offers hints, and links to videos that might help. They become self-guided and self-paced opportunities to learn, and they might just be a useful way to help students advance at their own pace. Could it be classwork? Could it be homework? I think so.

Khan for You
I’m not too proud to borrow from a colleague. Khan’s explanations are lucid enough, that, were I to teach a lesson on sp3 Hybridized Orbital and Sigma Bonds, I might just watch the video as I prepare my own lesson. And some of the lessons are interesting just for the sake of watching. Try this one on the Fibonacci Sequence.

As we head dreamily toward summer break, I wish I could offer you a vacation to Hawaii or French Guiana instead of a website. Forgive me.


Sacred Places

May 25, 2012
“I made a frickin’ logo!” So says an excited student in a video he posted in a class project concocted by Robert Puckett. The Sacred Places project brings together the work of over 50 students in a Google Map that can be shared and viewed by anyone. Look, I’ll share it with you:

The idea is to get students to think about themselves through the lens of place, and consider how they might represent themselves through visual and written texts. Their ideas manifested in several components of the larger project:


Sacred Places Essays
I had the opportunity to co-teach this portion of the project with Puckett. After brainstorming topics using and drawing maps, students wrote narratives about places that are important to them. The essays were written in Google Docs, which allowed them to collaborate with teachers and student partners during the composing process. It also made them easy to link to the Google Map.

Students used the text of their essays to create Wordles, which make art out of words.

Self Portraits
Many of these are still in the works, but students learned a process for integrating the text of their essays with photographs of themselves. The resulting images look like grayscale portraits of the students, but they are made up entirely of twisted, darkened, repeated words.

Early in this process, students were asked to think about themselves metaphorically. Puckett had them visualize themselves as animals, which then became the inspirations for logos the students designed to represent themselves.These logos then became the students’ pins, which mark their “sacred places” on the Google map.

Reflection Videos
Students recorded videos of themselves reflecting on the project and the work they completed. It is their chance to pull their thoughts and their learning together and reflect on what they gained from it.

How It All Comes Together
When you look at the Google Map initially, all you see is the world cluttered with overlapping icons. Zoom in and you begin to discover that each icon is pinned to an exact location–the same location the student wrote about in his Sacred Places essay. Click on the icon to open a window with a photograph of the student and links to wordles, essays, portraits and videos. In a way, the map allows students to say, “HERE I am.”

Why It Works
One student stopped me in the cafeteria yesterday to ask if I had looked at the Google Map. He was excited about sharing his work through this digital tool; I was equally excited about the effect digital publishing had on his writing. He said that when he went back to his essay, he realized it didn’t quite make sense–not for a public audience. So? So he rewrote it. Publishing motivated the process of reflection and revision. It prompted critical thinking and genuine effort.

In part this project is just cool; however, it goes beyond cool. It allows Puckett to teach his graphics curriculum and draw the best he can out of his students. At the same time, his students learn web tools–specifically Google Docs and Google Maps–and writing skills. It’s 21st century. It’s WAC. It’s Common Core. It’s everything it should be.

It’s also wonderfully imperfect. You won’t see cookie cutter essays. You won’t see many perfectly edited essays. You won’t see flawless icons. What you will see are a series of works that show where students are in their own learning. And that’s a pretty sacred place, too.

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