Tag Archives: ubiquitous learning

Place-Based, De-Colonized Ecology in Middle School

Natalie Smith, a middle school science educator at Lyndon Town School, in Lyndonville VT, originally presented “Making Science Authentic: Teaching Place-Based, Decolonized Ecology in the Middle School Science Classroom” in January 2021. She presented it as part of the 2021 Middle Grades Conference at the University of Vermont.

Below please find a recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback.

The workshop itself contains a number of prompts for reflection. We encourage you to listen to these materials as a solo practitioner, or with your teaching team. Additionally, we present an annotated transcript of this presentation for your use.



Audio-Only Version


Annotated Transcript

Let’s jump right in to my pet peeve.

For those of you that aren’t familiar? You are lucky. This video is The Wolves and Moose of isle Royale (video), and I’m not going to inflict it on you.

ecology in middle school: "What's wrong with this picture?"

I’m being a little unfair to this video because it’s a really fascinating study in population dynamics. In how a closed ecosystem like Isle Royale —  which for most of the year animals can’t come and go because it’s so far removed from the mainland — how predator and prey relationships are shaped on that island when one of those populations, the wolves, undergoes a drastic decline.

That all sounds really great to me, as a scientist. And it probably sounds really great to you if you are a science teacher. But I have a major problem with this video.

My problem is that for the past six or so years, I’ve been in and out of various science classrooms as an instructional assistant and as an intern, and every time we get into ecology, we show this video.

Every classroom I had been in, and every school that I had been in, this video has come up.

Then, I had the opportunity to start at Lyndon Town School (LTS) this year.

The previous 7th grade science teacher shared with me her old materials. And right there at the top of the unit plan there, they were again: the wolves and moose of Isle Royale. For me, they’re fascinating.

But for the past six years, I have sat there through this video and watched the faces glaze over. Because there are two groups of kids that are really into this video:

  1. the middle school wolf girls are really into this video (because there are wolves in it);
  2. and the kids who already see themselves as scientists are into this video.

And everyone else has no way of accessing science through this video.

I’m going to be honest with you: I’ve seen this video seven or eight or nine times now, and I still could not tell you on a map where Isle Royale is. I think it might be in Michigan or Minnesota or one of those other M States, but going to be honest: not a clue. Plus, I could be making that fact up.

And that’s the problem.

If I, as a science teacher, as someone who spent four years studying biology, have no connection to this video, how am I going to expect my students to connect to the subjects that I’m teaching them? If I start out with something that’s got no relevance to their lives whatsoever (unless they’re the middle school wolf girls).

So, in starting my year out at LTS, my goal was to make a significant change to how we teach ecology.

And I’m kind of fortunate that I am the only 7th grade science teacher. I am the only one in my building that is teaching ecology. So I got to say: you know what? I am not showing the wolves of Isle Royale this year. We are doing something different.

So here was my goal in this unit.

ecology in middle school


My goal was threefold.

First to get them engaged, to get them asking questions and investigating solutions by second, making them see that every single person who walks through my classroom door (or rather in COVID times, every single person who is in the room when I walk through the classroom door) is a scientist.

And to make sure that everyone who is in my classroom can see themselves reflected in the science that we’re learning.

And to do that part three, I wanted to make the science personal. By building a connection for them to the stuff that they were learning.

So here’s my mission statement. It’s beautifully phrased and you are welcome to read it, but what it boils down to is that I wanted my students to engage in the work of thinking like a scientist by making the material relevant to them. And by breaking down the idea that there is any one right way to interact with their ecosystem.

ecology in middle school


Before the unit started. I gathered some data, because I’m a scientist.

So in my traditional start-the-year survey, I snuck in a few extra questions beyond the:

  • Who are you?
  • And what’s your experience with science
  • What are you passionate about?
  • And what do you want me to know about you?

In between those, there were 10 I statements that were related to cognitive engagement, and those were around topics like:

  • whether or not my students ask questions when they’re confused;
  • whether or not they had strategies that they employed for understanding material;
  • and whether or not they have goals for their learning;
  • whether or not they talk about their material outside of my class and make connections between what they’re learning and other topics.

For these questions, I had students rank themselves from one to four, which really irked them. Because middle school students love nothing more than selecting that answer right in the middle. And they couldn’t do that.

They had to scale themselves from one to four, with one being, “Nope, this doesn’t describe me at all” and four being, “Yes, this is me overall.”

What I saw was that my students were willing to ask questions, but they were not at all engaged in making connections between science and the rest of their lives.

And I want to show you two graphs that show what is the most telling for me.

ecology in middle school

The statement that I gave them was, “I talk about what I am learning in my classes outside of school”. And over 60% of my students were in the, “that does not sound like me” range. Only 12.8% — five of my students — talk about what they are learning outside of school.

Or at least did at the start of the school year.

And the other one that was very telling for me was, “I try to make connections between the things I’ve learned.”

ecology in middle school

Again, more than half of them in that one to two range, and only three students saying, “Yes, this sounds like me. I make connections between the ideas that I’m learning.”


The goal is to change those two sets of numbers.

And here’s where we started instead of the wolves of Isle Royale. I started with this book: Tom Wessel’s Forest Forensics, which is based off his longer book, Reading the Forested Landscape. And if you are a science teacher in Vermont, this book was made for you because this is a field guide to figuring out the history of a new England forest.


I took this field guide and broke it down to make it a little more student-friendly. I turned it into some real, yes or no dichotomous keys. Where my students could take them out into the woods around our school and use them to draw a conclusion about what our school’s land was used for before 1991, when our building was built.

We spent a glorious day out, roaming the trails with dichotomous keys, hunting for pillows and cradles and inspecting trees for scar tissue and identifying insect species that we could use to determine how old the forest around us was.  In order to draw a conclusion about *our* place specifically and what the history of it was before we got there.

The conclusion that my students mostly reached was that they are convinced that our school was built on an old growth forest.

Before we came to that spot, this was undisturbed forest land. Rich.

And we built on this unit from that foundation.

ecology in middle school

From saying, “These concepts are relevant to this spot that we are standing on.”

We can get the big vocabulary and we can talk for hours about what abiotic and biotic factors are, and what different types of symbiosis are.

But all of these things are happening here. All of these things are things that you as an individual are a part of.

From there, some of the stuff that we did in this unit?

I built in some time for them to say, here’s what I want to learn about.

Based on that, I built some playlists for them to work through around topics like water use, and agriculture. Because many of my students are farmers, they wanted to investigate that.

One of the topics that I was able to build, with some resources shared with me by Judy Dow of Gedakina, was a playlist that many of my students engaged with around traditional tribal ecological knowledge.

Based off my second book recommendation for you for the day, Low Tech by Julia Watson, we did lab work related specifically to Vermont waterways. I gave my students a map and said,

“Okay, here’s where my parents live. Here’s where we are. I’m driving between the two places. You tell me where to stop. And we’re going to test the water from those places to see, which is the healthiest. “

Lake Willoughby was the winner, and Winooski River was the loser in our lab testing. Make of that what you will.

Students chose what concepts I presented them with under the broad umbrella of ecology and ecosystems. I said, “Okay, what out of this interests you most?”

So we spent a week focused on what makes something alive, anyways. And how do scientists know if something is alive? Including the classic lesson on sewer lice.

For those of you that are about to be concerned, sewer lice are raisins in some kind of carbonated beverage. But because they are paired with this fantastic video from Carolina Biological Supply, I can convince any room of students that sewer lice are a real organism.

And then they get real grossed out when I start eating them out of the test tube.

It really generates a conversation when I finally reveal to them what the sewer lice are.

  • Okay, what fooled you?
  • What made you think that this was alive?
  • And how is this such a hard topic for us to understand?

But the ultimate goal in this unit was to get them to here, to our final project.

Which was to say: you are a member of this ecosystem for better or worse. You are a member of your ecosystem. And because you are a human person, you are capable of making more drastic effects than any other single part of this ecosystem.


You have needs as an individual. You have things that you love. How can we meet those needs? How can we fulfill those passions while still meeting the needs of our ecosystem?

"The final ask for this unit: how can we, as a major part of the Lyndon ecosystem, meet our needs while still meeting the needs of our ecosystem?"


I turned them loose on identifying topics that were important to them, which ranged everywhere from art and art supplies to sports (which was terrifying for me because I am not a sports person), to farming to old cars. You name it, they loved it.

Whatever they came to me with, we worked together to identify how that topic impacted the ecosystem.

So to give one example: one of my students is an artist. And this student really wanted to do something related to art. So what we came up with was looking at art supplies and how those are made. Could we make them with better materials? So that you can still do art while not contributing to the problems of overuse of plastics?

Once they had a topic, I turned them loose on some research.

They had to come back to me with the answers to four questions.

They had to give me some background info just because I can’t be an expert in everything. And they had to tell me:

  1. How does this topic or issue or passion affect our ecosystem?
  2. What changes are possible to make?
  3. What are people doing already?
  4. And if we make these changes on a broader scale, what would the impact be on our ecosystem?

Then finally, once they had those answers, they designed some kind of a multimedia project to share what they learned. And the goal here was that they would be sharing it, not just with me, but with someone out in the community to try to affect change.

Humans in the Ecosystem: three methods


Unfortunately, the last bit of that goal was kind of the stumbling block for this unit.

I learned that 99% of seventh grade students are not willing to have their work shared with anybody but their teacher.

So, the student in this example ended up focusing in on two art supplies: ink and paintbrushes. This student identified that a major problem with art supplies is plastics and how much plastic is used to make the materials that we use to make art. This student also identified how to make their own ink. They identified how to make their own hair for the brushes. And wood-based paintbrushes to use with that ink.

The art that is on this poster was partially accomplished with the ink that this student made to demonstrate me that this was a viable alternative.

They were able to identify that not just the plastic, but the actual materials in the ink itself are bad for the environment. So that making their own ink and making their own brushes would help to mitigate the problem of plastics being tossed into a landfill.

The other outcome?

This question has come back to haunt us from the start of the presentation. I talk about the things we learn outside of school. So when asking them specifically about this unit, we started off with 60% of middle schoolers down in this one to two range  Well, over 60% instead are in the two to three range, moving towards talking more about what they’re learning outside of class.

post-action research data: "I talked about things we learned or did in this unit outside of school"

Unfortunately, this next one didn’t change as much as I would like.

The making connections between what I’m learning and other learning and outside ideas? These numbers stayed fairly consistent from the first survey to the last survey.

ecology in middle school


We had about 50% down in the one to two range when we started, and 50% still down there.

I think a large part of that is two-fold.

Part of that was that they did not want to make a connection to the outside because they did not want to share their work.

But the other part of that, another major stumbling block that I didn’t anticipate with this unit, was a vocal group of students who walked into this final project and informed me that they would only be doing a topic where they could say everything that we as humans are doing is right, and nothing should change.

And we’re starting to see that same group of students in the humanities. Applying those same ideas to their work around politics and history.

So part of my next step for this unit, when I teach it again in the future — I’m going to keep working on this unit – is to find a way to de-center the idea that the way we as white people in the Northeast kingdom are doing things is the right way to do things.

Part of that is that this unit needs more connection to the Wabenaki people, whose land I am teaching on right now.

And part of this unit that would exist if these were not COVID times would have been an excursion into Vermont’s returned tribal forest plains. They’re right up the road from our school, but too far away for us to get to on foot. We were not able to travel to them this year.

And then in the future, I want all of my units to eventually be viewed through this lens.

So all of my science units at someday are going to start with:

  • How do I connect these people that live here to this concept?
  • Why does what I want to teach matter to the people that live here so that I can convince the people that live here, that they are scientists?

Other exemplars from this unit

Wildlife Bridges


Please feel free to take anything you find in my slides and adapt it to the people that are learning science, where you are.

Questions from the Audience

Question on de-colonization: “My question is how many students or more about the demographics of your students? So are you teaching children? Are there Black children, other Indigenous children in your classroom? How does that influence your teaching? And you use the word ‘decolonize’. Can you talk a little more about what you mean about that and how it’s related to anti-racism?”

Thank you.

So yes, my demographics up here in the Northeast Kingdom. It is a very white part of a very white state.

In total, I’ve got 48 students and of those, we’ve got three Black students. We do have some that claim Native heritage, but not that they have talked about to me. So it is a very white part of the world.

For me, when I think about decolonizing, what I’m thinking about is the fact that for most of the science that we teach, what we are teaching is very centered around white male ideas of how the world works.

Most of the history of Western science does not acknowledge ideas outside of the history of Western science. So even like, if I’m teaching space right now, traditional science classes dictate that I should be teaching about Kepler and Galileo. I should teach about all of these people who did phenomenal work in helping us understand how science works right up through the Hubble and Hawking.

And all of those people that I just named are white men.

But we don’t acknowledge in a traditional unit the fact that Arabic astronomers were first people to come up with accurate maps of the sky. That they were first to calculate the size of the planet earth.

We don’t acknowledge Native peoples that keep accurate understandings of the sky. And that tell stories based on the stars that we’re looking at.

So when I talk about decolonizing a science class, what I’m thinking about is this idea that there are in all of the history of science, so many ideas that don’t get acknowledged because they weren’t published through the traditional channels of white male science.

Question on the language of decolonization: “I guess what I wanted to say was do you use words like with middle schoolers, like ‘whiteness’ and ‘white men’ and ‘white supremacy’ and, and things like that?”

I want to give you an example of an easy way to bring that into the science classroom.

In my work group, I have an acknowledgement of birthdays. And part of what I acknowledge every month is a famous scientist birthday.

Now, that has involved things like the fact that we don’t know George Washington Carver’s birthday, because he was born into slavery. And despite all of his great acknowledgements, I can’t say happy birthday to him. I have to acknowledge him on the anniversary of his death. We have no idea when he was born. And other Black scientists have had their work so belittled that they were not able to work in the field of science. They went into other fields, like education.

So, yeah, and I probably don’t do as much work about it as I should because I am still white and sometimes it slips my mind. But I do try to make those acknowledgements and use that specific language with my students.

Question on assessment: “Do you have any strategies for getting students to problems in systems when they think they are doing something perfectly?”

So, I’m not going to promise that this is a perfect strategy, because it did not work with all of my students, but for some of them, what worked really well was to say,

“Okay, this is obviously something that you feel very strongly about. Now go find me the data, because this is science class and we are all about data. You are going to go forth. We did some work at the start of the year on what a reputable source and science looks like. So I know you know how to find those. You’re going to go out, you’re going to find me the data. And you are going to report back on what the data says.”

Question on centering Indigenous history in a science curriculum: “I’m curious because you did such interesting discussions around the Indigenous people. In terms of the Wabenaki, the Indigenous people who started here, I’m wondering how you can, as you go forward with this type of thing,  test to actually kind of center that more? What can you do to incorporate that history as the center? As you’re going out into these beautiful lands and these beautiful places? How can you bring that up and use your science lens?”

Right. So, in thinking about that, here’s one of the things that immediately comes to mind. I had a part in my unit where we were focused on: why does this matter? Why does it matter that we learn about ecology?

And the first thing that I thought of to pull out was John Muir. His essays on the American wilderness, and the importance of keeping wild spaces.

The first thing that comes to mind with that question — and something that is now going to be part of this unit going forward  — is replacing that writing. Because it’s a powerful writing, but it’s also John Muir mostly writing about the Sierras. I know that Judy Dow and other Native American people in this area have written about the beauty and the importance of place.

So that’s the first thing that comes to mind for me: bringing those voices even more into my classroom. Saying: why does it matter? Well, here are the people that have been here since long before. They are going to tell us why it matters.

Question on including Indigenous and Black families in curriculum design: “I’m a student teacher, and I had to write up a lesson plan called the invasion plan. And I chose centering Indigenous people. Before we ever talk about Columbus or anything like that, centering them in the curriculum first. And one of the things, one of the suggestions that I got from the rethinking schools book was if there were any Indigenous children in the classroom, to let them know what you were going to talk about. And I’m wondering also, so how do we include families of Black children and Indigenous children when the majority are white in the classroom? How do we encourage those families and those children to be centered in those conversations?”

Thank you. And good luck with student teaching; I was there last year.

So, normal teaching, I have been told, is not like this year. But yeah, I don’t know if I have an answer so much to that as an agreement. It would be incredibly powerful to bring the voices of those students and those families whose cultural experiences are so very different from the bulk of my classroom into the conversation.

And part of the reason that I’m not sure I have a good answer for that, is that there is really no good way to bring those families into the conversation in my classroom right now. Short of putting them up on screen in Zoom — which for a lot of our families, the access might not be there.

It’s hard to get them involved in the conversation. But I absolutely agree with you that bringing those voices in would be incredibly powerful.

Question on Vermont eugenics & the science curriculum: “I’m thinking a lot, mostly because of work with Judy Dow, about how eugenics has served as a way of erasing Indigenous people in Vermont. And so when I hear folks in especially in the Northeast Kingdom, say that their students are all white? It makes me wonder if part of that is erasure because so many Abenaki families had to assimilate to survive. To avoid sterilization and by the State of Vermont and to avoid being institutionalized by the State of Vermont. And what I’ve been wondering about is if we had a better statewide approach to teaching about the Abenaki and the other Indigenous folks that lived on these lands, whose rightful land, we are living on. Would we have more families feel comfortable sort of owning and claiming their heritage?”

Yeah. I feel like it’s a real disservice that we don’t teach about eugenics in Vermont. We’re gonna lose people who know the meaning of that heritage. So I’m just just thinking about that.

I’ve actually been trying to figure out how far I can push the envelope with my students and my administration. One of the units that I get to hit before the end of the school year, is I get Human Body.

And one of the thoughts that I had around that unit was to spend some time on what makes us look different, and why it is that we perceive these differences in such a negative way and treat these differences so differently, and with such anger and violence. Really pushing them at that notion of how much more alike we are than we are different.

So that was a foundation that I was wondering if I could get away with, for my human body unit. And I may be pushing into that later this year.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Natalie Smith’s slides:




The 2021 Middle Grades Conference was made possible by the Middle Grades Collaborative, a combined project of the University of Vermont, St. Michaels College, Castleton University, and Northern Vermont University.


What can we learn from summer unschooling?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to think and talk about innovative school change.

It’s difficult to see the start of this school year with a heart that’s anything but desperately worried for students, for teachers and for families. We want this school year to be fruitful in terms of learning, but we’re also shocked and dismayed by the physical danger school communities face in re-opening.

It’s difficult to think and talk about innovative school change, but at the same time, right now it’s pretty hard not to think about school.


When schools let out for the summer, it was a relief.

We saw continued creativity from schools around Vermont in celebrating their graduates. We saw educators around the state have a chance to breathe and cry and relax.

Summer’s a weird time for students. In theory, school’s over, so you can do your own thing. But in reality, school’s over, and that can have a huge impact on the structure and support school brings. Freedom only goes so far when you’re under 18.

But sometimes it goes just far enough.

This summer we saw students making their own way through, and were impressed by their tenacity, flexibility and creativity. We saw students pursue learning in ways that made us wonder: what could we learn from students who pursued their own learning outside of school this summer?

Turns out: quite a bit.

Summer interrupts schooling.

For students, schedules and locations become completely different. There could be freedom to launch a yard work business, such as the one by the Warren VT-based Fretz brothers. Some students work at a family or local business, running cash registers, preparing food, balancing books, raising livestock or changing the world.

Other students see a need in the world and craft a project to address it.

After losing her summer internships, student Lia Rubel, of Barre VT, leaned in on a Yale University project that turns unwanted, aged-out tech devices into lifelines to healthcare for elderly Vermonters. Rubel sourced devices and raised funds and coordinated with others in the national network. Vermont is a better place because of her work.

Students in Winooski VT, formed a group called the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism. En masse, they showed up their school board’s July meeting. Over Zoom, one by one, they spoke of their experiences with racism, and the need for urgent change. They looked at the world and stepped forward to make it a better place.

In the summer, community organizations, too, step up their game, opening additional service pathways for students. The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC), for instance, this past summer increased food deliveries around Washington County to alleviate food insecurity this summer. Young adults perform various tasks around the VYCC’s food stand and farms.

Students stay busy in summer, is what.

They stay involved and curious and relaxed and hard-working and loud and energetic. They keep going.

And when pandemic things happen, students stay flexible. They double down.

In Essex, VT, brothers Nathan and Henry Wu had been touring Vermont, performing classical music on cello and violin at libraries around the state. When the pandemic hit, they didn’t want to lose the opportunity to share their passion and proficiency. They’d worked on the library tour for two full years: learning how to communicate and organize events (transferable skill), figuring out a manageable schedule (reflection), determining what to say about the pieces they learned (transferable skill).

And of course, practicing. (Proficiency.)

So, working with the VT Department of Libraries, the Wu brothers put together a Facebook Livestream event for their senior showcase. They taught themselves live-streaming technology. They wrote and published a program to accompany the music. And they had to figure out a comments policy, and learn what Facebook stats mean.

Now, imagine what the Wu brothers’ PLPs look like.

And that’s what we’re asking of ourselves right now, and you too. (Caveat: only if you have the capacity. If you just need to go lie down in the dandelions for a few months and come back? We’ll still be here asking.)

How can a fundamental interruption to the way we have practiced schooling be tied to the way we see students pursuing learning outside the classroom and the school day?

Unlock & encourage Flexible Pathways

When students need to attend school remotely, we naturally ask: what are they doing with the rest of their time? What are they reading, watching, making and learning about? Act 77’s Flexible Pathways mandate creates a way for students who spend their time away from school and screen to “legitimize” self-directed inquiries.

Valid learning experiences can look like:

  • volunteering at the library and developing a new summer reading program
  • teaching Sunday School
  • teaching garlic braiding classes at your family’s farm and producing a video tutorial on it for the farm website
  • building a YouTube channel of PSA remixes you send to local radio stations
  • becoming a published author
  • using a photography drone to map out the species of trees at a planned town development site

Valid learning experiences can look like putting surplus tech devices in the hands of seniors. They can look like developing a series of classical music concerts at local libraries.

And flexible pathways create ways for us to formally recognize those.

They make space for students with big ideas they want to try.

Support PLPs

One of the best parts of working on our blog, our videos, and our podcasts, are hearing stories from students. It’s hard to find an adult who doesn’t enjoy hearing from students — especially when learning is working.

And PLPs are those stories made real.

PLPs with this kind of evidence also can signal to the viewer the expansive skill sets students have mastered. The breadth of skills they can bring to the table. How could we expand the audience for student PLPs? If we think of the PLP as a living, breathing story in motion, what chapters would you want to read? What kinds of stories will captivate students and their families, and make them turn the pages outside of a student-led conference?

Implement robust Proficiency-Based Assessments

A wise old owl (named Susan Hennessey) once told us:

“Systems don’t change until credit systems change.”

We have the power right now to change the way we look at giving credit for learning. Whether it’s via micro-credentials or enhanced transcripts, proficiency-based assessments make it possible for us to design ways of both providing guidance on and pushing students toward skills-based self-directed learning.

And now: a word about equity.

None of this works unless it works for everyone. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

We know that even with Vermont’s progressive Act 77 legislation, we need to keep working on equalizing access to these opportunities for every student. It’s difficult to pursue self-directed learning when you’re struggling with trauma. When you’re crushed by racism. When you’re helping your family put food on the table. Fighting for equity must be part of every conversation on innovative school change.

And right now the best answer we can come up with is to keep fighting.

Put them all together and you get–

You get busy, capable, engaged students pursuing learning outside the classroom and the school day. Students who can show you an array of skills, detailed and accredited. Students who have documented stories to share to back up experience and skills both.

Basically: if we eliminated all the constraints, how could we imagine summer learning opportunities as a blueprint for student engagement?

What are some other keys you’re seeing to unlocking the potential of a disrupted school system during this time?

Increasing student engagement in PLPs at Williston Central

It’s about providing choice in reflection tools

getting started with action researchPersonalized Learning Plans (PLPs) across the state have taken many different forms and serve a few different purposes. One common thread among educators is a wondering of how to increase student engagement in the PLP process. How to make it more meaningful and relevant. Michael Willis, Jared Bailey, and middle grades student Hudson, accepted this challenge and over the course of the year, conducted action research on what might actually work. The three of them presented the results of that research to a packed audience at the Vermont Middle Grades Conference at the University of Vermont, this past January. Below, you’ll find a video recording of the presentation that includes the presenters’ materials. And below that, we’ve laid out that recorded presentation as a text for you to read, again accompanied by the presenters’ materials. A huge thank you to Mr. Willis, Mr. Bailey and Hudson, for sharing this story.


Solving the mystery of PLPs

Mr. Willis: “Last summer was the fourth MGI (Middle Grades Institute) that I’ve been to and I decided that I would do something around student engagement in PLPs. One, I don’t know that much about them. I hadn’t had any practice with the kind of official version using Protean, which we use in Williston. As a third and fourth grade teacher, I had done goal setting and reflecting and using blogs.  But, that was all fine and good until you put the label of “PLP” on it. Then it seems that the attitude, as probably a lot of you know, starts to suddenly change.

I was just texting my daughter (who is now in high school) and she asked what I was presenting on, and I told her and she went, “Oh, that’s boring. PLP is so boring.” I asked her why? She said she didn’t know. So there’s this shroud of mystery around them. So I thought I would try to engage students differently by just giving them some different options of how to reflect.

Putting the pieces together

I did want to try and give students some options of how to reflect. The idea of setting a goal wasn’t brand new. The idea of collecting evidence wasn’t brand new, but the idea of how to reflect? That was kind of a sticky wicket. I thought, well, maybe video, maybe audio, maybe some photos, which they were pretty comfortable doing. Maybe just: how could it be less about writing? So that’s where this came from. I did this survey in the beginning of the year:


What did our data say?

Well, the opinions were all over the map in terms of what students think about PLPs, specifically. But in terms of what they thought about reflecting, the majority of students still prefer written reflections. I thought it was interesting if given the choice, students chose writing, yet nobody’s seemed to like the idea of having to do that writing. It’s a mystery!

"How would you like to show evidence of your learning?" 42% chose writing, 11.5% chose video, 38.5% chose drawing & sketching, 26.9% chose audio and 15.4% chose "Other".                                  

The fifth graders were really my trial group. Two times a week we meet in skills group and we do a number of things. But over the last month or so we’ve been thinking about PLPs.

Enter Sketchnoting!

Can you Hudson, talk a little bit about what your experience has been with goal setting and having to collect evidence?

Hudson: I did start out. I did write a goal but it was just hard because I had to write all the other responses to that goal, like my evidence. Then I did something called sketchnoting and it’s like you basically draw a quick sketch and then you draw and then you write like a few little captions. And it just like helped me out a lot.

Mr. Willis: When I said that they were clear in their opinions about having choice, I wondered if they really believed that they have a choice. It occurred to me after talking to Hudson was that maybe they didn’t know they had all these options. You’re going to find that both the fifth and the sixth grade believe that having choices is important yet… I don’t know if they thought they had choices available.

"How important is having a choice in the way you get to do work?" 53.8% scored it highly important.


Reflection doesn’t have to be museum quality

Last summer, I first heard of sketchnoting. Now, I’m a writer. I communicate better in writing and I’m not a drawer. I told Hudson my sketchnoting would be stick figures and well you said to me—

Hudson:  It doesn’t really have to be like a perfect sketch, like museum or any kind of… quality.

Mr. Willis: That to me? Is perfect news. And I think that’s the message that so I just dove right in. Now, I’m also the kind of person who doesn’t necessarily do all of this reading first, to be honest. I just dive in. We did a month-long integrated unit about trash and waste, relating to content areas. We called it garbology. That’s a new word, Google Docs didn’t recognize it. We piloted it. Thank you. I showed them a video from Brainpop about waste management and said there aren’t a lot of rules here, go for it.  Not every student liked it. Below you can see definitely one of the kind of flashier, more complete versions that I got. But the idea that a student could do this without much instruction, without much guidance really sold me on the idea of, well, maybe it could be used for a reflection on your PLP.

One student’s sketchnote on waste management. Click or tap to enlarge.

Sketchnoting from a student perspective

Hudson, the reason that you’re here is that sketchnoting did appeal to you. Right? You said it doesn’t have to be a museum piece. How does writing make you feel?

Hudson: It gets me a little stressed and I just feel like it’s writing [the same thing] all over again every week.

Mr. Willis: What is it about writing that kind of gives you that feeling?

Hudson:  Just staring at a screen and typing the whole time when you could be drawing and doing quick little like notes just like what I really like to do.

Examples, organizers, and responsibility, oh my…

Mr. Willis: I learned that students would reflect on their PLP after the summative activities in the unit. One of their complaints is that we only do this after summative activities and I thought, well that’s true, but one thing at a time. How can we make that action, that activity perhaps be a bit more engaging, and have this idea of choice? Here’s a student example I thought was interesting:

Mr. Bailey was doing the social studies piece. This idea of this graphic organizers came first and I thought was interesting with this student taking responsibility. They’ve got the goal listed to take initiative and responsibility for learning. This person actually, you see the picture of the house. We don’t always chat. I’m busy teaching the math piece and they’re doing theirs and seeing the student reflect and say, look, I did some of this at home. I did it in class.

That was new for me. I had no idea that student was even doing that. I know the student loves to draw. So, this seemed like a natural choice for this one but the learning that I got from it, I’m not sure would have come out in writing. I appreciated that piece.

An example of visual reflection via sketchnote

"Let's hear from our student guest!"Now, Hudson and his tablemate, Tommy really were two that dove into this idea of being able to use sketchnoting, this idea of visually reflecting. Hudson, what does this show about your work on the integrated unit?

Hudson: Well, this just shows all my classwork that I did on computers and on paper.

Mr. Willis: What made this work for you?

Hudson: Well,  it wasn’t really writing, but it was, so, I used like a cycle WeVideo and it was kind of cool and just like put in like little clips of videos. Then I got good sources. Like what I said, good sources makes for good products. I don’t mean a product like a computer kind of product, I mean a good piece of classwork.

Mr. Willis: I like that you’ve got those visuals. So those people who don’t end up in Washington that have no idea about what we did during our unit, I’m feeling like we look at this graphing shows up in math. What’s this on the left hand side? You said it brought up a genuine problem.

Hudson: It was about how marine animals and animals are getting sick in the oceans

Hudson: Yeah, are getting hurt by that.

Mr. Willis: Then the top left hand one, what does that detail mean? So, you’ve got this drawing, it’s pretty detailed…

Hudson: By detail I mean, I added stuff for like color coding and…

Mr. Willis: Now, was that a goal of yours, detail?

Hudson: Not really.

Student opinions on sketchnotes

Mr. Willis: A couple of the top two students, you can see this idea of what Hudson was saying. “I don’t feel the pressure”, “I don’t feel this idea that has to be perfect when I do it”, “I can see my thinking” and they can communicate visually. The bottom two I thought were interesting because they are people that actually, students that actually do choose the words that they’re feeling like either not a fan of drawing or if it’s notetaking, it’s hard to keep up.

A sign of success: students revisiting their reflections

Mr. Willis: I’ve got to wrestle with this idea of how using it to take notes during learning, which is I think maybe the next step into math as I was saying earlier. But also I think the reflection piece though, there is no real timeline. It isn’t really like you have to be done at the end of the class. Hudson saying it’s something I can revisit. I’ve noticed students want to revisit a sketchnote more than they want to go back and revise the paragraph. I’m sure that that’s not something that I’m sure that’s something you’ve heard before as well.

“Let’s Recap”: A tool for reflection

Mr Willis: I did go back to something that I had used in the past. It’s called Let’s Recap. Let’s Recap is great because it organizes video reflections from students. You can send out a prompt, they get to join code. They with their Chromebooks have the ability to film and record answers to a question you put out there. They get a little window that pops up and they record themselves. Then you can then take this video and embed it in something, or share a link. Students can download it to their own files. My students downloaded their videos and inserted them into their Protean PLPs. That’s what Williston is using; they all have their own Protean accounts.

Video reflections from Let’s Recap

Here are four Williston students reflecting on… reflecting on their PLPs.

We did have them practice off a script here. Some will be just kind of, and this is me and here’s my reflection. You can tell you in practice a bit more. The fact that you get him to talk with those transferrable skills language. We did have them set goals and in the past I believe it was maybe as something as simple as I want to get my spelling homework.

Transferable skills help students see cross-curricular

Mr. Bailey: Now with these transferable skills goals, they’re able to pull evidence from other places. Our district has transferable skills which go on to become graduation standards in grades nine through twelve.

Champlain Valley School District's transferable skills, along with the evidence students provide to show they've achieved them. Click or tap to enlarge.
Champlain Valley School District’s transferable skills, along with the evidence students provide to show they’ve achieved them. Click or tap to enlarge.

We’re having students pick one of those transferable skills as their goal, to really help them see the cross-curricular piece of all the transferable skills. It was much harder to track them last year when a kid had a personal goal of scoring in the soccer season, because then they were like, well, it’s not soccer season right now. So we have no evidence this week. Most importantly, what we’re doing with intentionality is having them take a deeper dive into that transferrable skill, see it spread across their day and outside of their life in school rather than having them pick a personal goal, an academic goal, and trying to juggle the two. Pick one goal and let’s go deeper on that and see it kind of come through in all your classes.

What did we accomplish?

Mr. Willis: If you had to choose now and or say at the end of the work that we’ve done over the last couple of months, do you feel like you have more choice now?

Hudson: Yes, like I said before, I thought it was just writing for a long time. Now, I have like three or four new choices that I can do.

Mr. Willis: What does that feel like, in terms of when the assignment comes now?

Hudson: I can just think into it instead of thinking, oh, I have to write again. Do another sketch here or maybe do a video recording.

Mr. Bailey: You were saying in the lobby that it kind of feels more freeing. That you’re able to think more about what you want to say in the reflection, rather than having to worry about making it fit into a writing piece.

Mr. Willis: Right.

Mr. Bailey: He’s able to focus much more on actually what he wants to say and the quality of the reflection, because he’s not having to try to figure out how to do a high quality reflection and then transfer that as a writing piece. Additionally, I did use Let’s Recap as a way of having students reflect on: how do you feel about the newer choices?

What’s next?

For me, the Protean learning curve is what we all need to keep working on. I think just the micro of it, the minutia of sharing and making it public? Just the pieces of that. As I’ve heard from a lot of workshops, finding more time to do it is tricky, and that’s what makes me think that this evidence collection needs to be able to happen anytime. I’ve yet to really do that as well as I want to.  I do want to give an actual survey using Google Forms, but the video feedback is what I use for now. I don’t know if people are familiar with Protean or if you’re using it, but these videos and sketchnotes can be uploaded right into the evidence of a PLP in Protean.

These are flexible pathways for reflection

Kind of like taking a flexible pathway and putting it in a flexible pathway! It’s that idea of if we’re going to give students flexible pathways for learning, let’s give them flexible pathways for reflecting on their learning. Subsequently, what we found at Sterling and what Michael’s brought to the table and is his year with us, is this idea of giving them multiple cause. We were so text driven in their reflections.  However, that doesn’t really seem to fit with the philosophy of a personalized learning plan.

The idea is to find tools that make you successful and to learn how to play to those strengths. As a result, coming up with a variety of options for reflecting on a personalized learning plan is a light bulb moment for us and the rest of the team. So that’s been great.

Hudson, thank you for coming. I appreciate you presenting with me. Thank you very much.


How ubiquitous learning spaces can spur reflection

Ubiquitous learning at the Sycamore School

ubiquitous learning(Ed Note: Susan Hennessey recently traveled to Malibu, California to check out some innovative schools there and attend Deeper Learning 2016.)

While waiting at the Sycamore School in Malibu, California for our tour guide, my colleagues and I were entertained by a tree full of very talkative wild parrots.

I had never seen parrots in the wild and was intrigued enough to photograph them, search for their origins online, share my curiosity with my colleagues to see what information they might add, and create a quick digital story of this process using the Shadow Puppet app on my phone: all in the 15 minute wait time.

Ah, the power of ubiquitous learning and ready access to a world of knowledge at my fingertips.

Continue reading How ubiquitous learning spaces can spur reflection

Get out! 4 ideas for using iPads outside (and away from Wifi)

Get out there!

It’s spring (unless you’re in the Antipodes) and IT HAS FINALLY STOPPED SNOWING. Yes, all those capital letters are really necessary to announce that fact. The sun is out and if you’re planning on doing some outside work with your students, here are four activity ideas for using iPads outside when there’s no access to Wifi.

1. The Basics: QR code scavenger hunt

Make and print some QR codes, tape them up outside, and have each code lead to an image with directions for an activity. Working on foreign language acquisition? Post the directions in the target language! Are fractions on the agenda? Have the QR codes lead to an equation whose solution equals a number found in the next location of the hunt! Vocab time? How about anagrams that unscramble to reveal the next location or a key part of the instructions! QR codes are simple, powerful and lend themselves to a ton of different activities. What would make it really powerful would be for the students themselves to create the questions…

This online QR Code Treasure Hunt Generator lets you create your hunt quickly and easily beforehand.
This online QR Code Treasure Hunt Generator lets you create your hunt quickly and easily beforehand.


2. App-smash with Dino Defend!

Students break into groups, pick a plastic dinosaur out of a bucket (blind pick) and then have to keep their dinosaur alive to the end of the trail. As they move through the landscape, they’ll need to complete and document 4 challenges related to their dinosaur. Challenges could have math, science and reading comprehension worked in, as well as compelling students to really think about the Gorge and evolutionary geology. So many apps could help answer the following challenges:
  1. Geography: What features of the landscape would prove beneficial/problematic for your dinosaur? Suggested apps: 30Hands, Notability 
  2. Famine/Overpopulation: What does your dinosaur eat? What could they eat in this area? Suggested apps: HaikuDeck, Notability
  3. Predator attack: What are some of your dinosaur’s predators? Are they or were they found in this area? Bonus points for teaming up with another group and enacting a pitched battle scene. Suggested apps: iMovie.
  4. Defamation! An upstart archeologist has written a tract all about how your dinosaur should go extinct already. Each dinosaur has been offered a 30-second video promo spot to respond to the allegations. How does your dinosaur explain its value to the environment? Suggested apps: Touchcast, iMovie

Please note: badgers, bears, frogs or any other type of animal can be substituted for the dinosaurs, as appropriate for your curriculum.

But it just won’t be the same without all those RAR noises.

"Predator Challenge! This diplodocus is about to be eaten by a giant Boston terrier. In 200 words, explain why this situation is implausible."
“Predator Challenge! This diplodocus is about to be eaten by a giant Boston terrier. In 200 words, explain why this situation is implausible.”


3. Collect & Reflect with Picture This

Colorado educator Anne Beninghof came up with the great idea of using the Corkulous app to let students assemble boards that feature audio, video, image and written reflections of their trek. Get creative, assign each group a different theme, area of the landscape or time period to work with. This could also work with LinoIt.


4. For the Math folks: AngleJam!

The FieldProjector app allows you to calculate the angles of objects captured with the iPad camera, as well as determining their scale in relation to other objects. Combine this with the QR codes to create a series of challenges around capturing different types of angles:

“It’s time for the annual AngleJam but sadly, no angles have shown up yet to the party! They’re too busy running wiiiiiiiiiiild. It’s up to you to go out and grab them. Head outside / to the jungle gym / to the trailhead, where you’ll find a QR code specifying how to bring in the first of your math guests.”

Bonus points for having students create the angles out of twigs, rock bridges, their arms, etc exactly like this Australian class did.

"The 90 has been spotted! Repeat: we have a visual on the 90! Invitation delivered!"
“The 90 has been spotted! Repeat: we have a visual on the 90! Invitation delivered!”

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading out into this beautiful sunshine to help a stegosaurus work on using less tail-spike in its rebuttal. Have a great weekend, everyone!


*This post grew from a discussion over on the iPadEd Google+ community. Joyful thanks to Lara Jensen, Karen Redmond, Peggy Matthews, Karie Carpenter, Anne Beninghof, Robert Payne, Lee MacArthur, Laura Mahoney, Jose Luis Gutierrez and Christopher Averill for the brainstorming.