Foster Learning by Making it Personal

A seemingly daunting task lay before me: teaching my chemistry students about the nature of light. That light behaves like a wave and is made up of particles, or photons. The textbook offers the example of the photoelectric effect as proof of the particle nature of light. Which, is cool, but not really imaginable. I wondered, “Could I make my own photoelectric cell and be able to demonstrate the effect in class?” That would make it so much more real to them. Thanks to Google, there were several examples and descriptions online as to how to make, with simple supplies, a photoelectric cell and demonstrate the photoelectric effect. It took a trip to the souks in search of a black light and several attempts of messing around with my materials before I had a functioning device.  I couldn’t wait to show my students.  

The class note-taking sheet was handed out and we began our series of demonstrations and discussions regarding light. The students were engaged with the slinky demonstration and discussion of the wave-like behavior of light. They were wowed by the power of the hand-held spectroscopes to distinguish different wavelengths of visible light. In fact, we lingered here a bit because they really thought this was “cool” and ended up conducting a small exploration by comparing sunlight with fluorescent light in the classroom. Then it was time to talk about photons. 

My little flimsy can with aluminum strips stood on the table. Students gathered in close as they were warned they needed to be looking carefully because what they would be viewing is subtle (the movement of the small pieces of aluminum foil). After charging the pieces of aluminum foil with electrons so that they repelled each other (of course a discussion centered on that!), I held the black light to the can. The students waited skeptically with baited breath for something to happen. Then, the pieces of aluminum foil jumped around a bit and fell side-by-side, no longer repelling each other. Excited outbursts followed. “Can we see that again?” Then we talked our way through what was happening and suddenly they realized they had just seen proof regarding the particle nature of light. One girl’s exclammation, “That is actually really cool” was followed by the others nodding and emitting little sounds of agreement.

Their next task was to explain the photoelectric effect in their own words. In their class notes they found images of the very can they had viewed that day. “Is this here?” a student asks in disbelief. “Yes, I thought having the picture of what you saw would help you make the needed connections.” Several grins spread across the room and soon they are all smiling. I’ll admit, sometimes I’m still never sure if they are laughing at me or with me. I run my tongue over my teeth searching for leftover parsley pieces from lunch and probe, “What is it?”

“Nothing. It’s just that we’ve never had a teacher take pictures for us before.”

Suddenly it hits me, they are appreciative, perhaps even touched, by my effort. They immediately sit down to complete the written task. They question, they ponder, they write. Granted not every student is swept away by my demonstrations but the majority are.

 A personal connection with the content has been made. The students that skeptically hung around the fringe of the group, unwilling to kneel down and see the effect never “got it.” One student actually said to the others, “There’s nothing happening. This isn’t real.” However, those who were on their knees studying the pieces of aluminum foil vehemently defended what they saw and countered the skeptic with scientific explanations.  These are also the students who were able to describe the photoelectric effect and later make connections in a flame test lab, being able to discuss the role of photons in the excitation of electrons and subsequent emissions spectrums while the skeptic remained somewhat lost throughout the unit.

I advocate the effort to “make it personal.” In this case a hands-on experience was provided coupled with the personal touch of the images in the class-note taking sheet. While a small subset of students remained uninvolved despite all efforts on my part, never mastering the concepts of the unit, the rest of the class become involved at different stages. Some students were riveted by only the can, foil strips and black light. Another set was drawn in following discovery of the photographs that related to the class experience. Still another set became interested by the “witnessing” of their peers. All of these students demonstrated learning in subsequent formative and summative assessment.

If even just a handful of students respond to our efforts to “make it personal” and to “make it real”, it’s worth it. The “aha” moments in the classroom, the joy in learning, and the success in assessment are the rewards.   


Classroom Management: Challenge Them

I’ll admit, for the first time in my teaching career I have struggled with classroom management.  It has come as a complete shock to me. Granted my experience isn't happening in every classroom every day.

Here are a few of the issues I have dealt (or didn’t) with:

  1. Students breaking out in outbursts of strange guttural noises, sounding like wild animals. Seriously, I thought one of the boys had Turrets syndrome.
  2.  In the middle of a discussion a student gets up to borrow the hole puncher, a stapler, or get some hand sanitizer, completely oblivious to the fact that I am talking or the timing is just inappropriate
  3. Laughter, background talking, and side conversations
  4. Cross-communication, literally, in the middle of the class between students on opposite sides of the room (“Hey, are you trying out for basketball?”)
  5.  Students not showing up for class or, in particular, tests.
  6. Cheating and plagiarism.
  7. Students doing no work. I mean no work. Seriously, how can you earn 8% in a class?

It’s like the very last item on the agenda was about learning. And actually I don’t even think learning was on the agenda. Have you seen the movie “Dangerous Minds”? A few of those classroom scenes remind me of some of the experiences I have had with some of the students here. However, these students are pampered and spoiled as compared to those economically depraved individuals depicted in the film.

My instinct has been to turn to the literature and to reflect on inspiring movies like “Stand and Deliver.” But I’m no Jaime Escalante.

So, my inspiration was to challenge my students beyond what any of my colleagues thought the students “were ready for.” It was time for my apathetic, singing, distracted students to attempt a legitimate scientific experiment: “What is the effect on the temperature of lauric acid as it is immersed in warm and cold water baths?” (in other words, the heating and cooling curvesfor lauric acid) in the context of studying changes of state.

I’ve loaded my portable lab station with all the necessary supplies. My planning has to be meticulous, trouble-shooting all the pitfalls and challenges the students will face and setting up the experiment in such a way that students can focus on what is happening without being burdened by too much manipulation of equipment. Because these students have, unfortunately, not had much time in the lab. Thus, their skills are not developed.


The students are questioned as to what they think will happen to the temperature of the solid lauric acid when it is heated. With white boards and markers in front of them, they make predictions. None of them are even close.

“You all have an idea of what might happen. Now you get to do the experiment and discover the truth.” Their eyes widen. The silence is broken with, “Is this the right answer?” as a student points to his white board.

“You will determine that for yourselves.  Your challenge is to keep your mind open as you do your experiment. Be careful so that you obtain accurate data. If you do it correctly, I predict that all of you will be surprised with the results.”

With their enlarged eyes they smile and look around the room at the prepared experimental set-up they will be using. Anticipation settles in and it is clear they are eager to get started. They actually want discover the truth!

After reading through the purpose and procedure, it’s time to begin. The students approach the lab bench with hushed respect like small children who have just been handed a “grown-up” task. Pride exudes from their teenage frames. Serious business is underway as the students operate the temperature probes, record data and make observations.

“The temperature isn’t lowering!”

“Why isn’t the temperature falling?”

And thus the discovery begins.  “Is it the equipment?”  “How is my prediction wrong?” “What is going on?” “Does this have to do with energy?”

And thus they begin their discovery of the role of energy in changes of states of matter. Graphing their data is energizing and clearly they enjoy seeing the visual of their own work. The curves are perfect. Their results demonstrate they are making the connections.

And, I realize that they are learning and that we have had several classes without management problems. Others thought these students couldn’t do it. But I thought otherwise.

My thought for today? Take students to higher levels: they will rise to the challenge and classroom management issues will diminish.

3-Dimensional Learning with the History of Atomic Theory

Simple supplies

It’s Thursday afternoon (the equivalent of Friday to the rest of the world). They’re tired. They would rather go to the volleyball tournament but our team isn’t currently playing. And we are discussing the history of the atomic theory. They clearly are not convinced this is going to be an interesting lesson.

In an effort to help them appreciate the study of the unseen world, practice conducting an investigation, collaborate to produce data to serve as a basis for evidence, to see that different patters observed can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena all in the context of studying the history of the development of atomic theory, I set up a little activity for them that I had modified (by making it simpler, of course!) from one I found on the Internet (1).

A board, some textbooks, a marble, butcher paper, and they’re intrigued. On the floor and pencils in hand, they are intent on the task. Mental gymnastics begin to take place as they try to figure out the shape and placement of the unknown object under the board. Inadvertently my students find themselves in observation, recording of data, and discussion.  

It was intense. And, it was also the last school day before Halloween.

“If it bounces off in that direction, what does it mean?”

“Wait, does that mean a rounded or straight edge?”

“What do you think?”

“Should we mark it here or there?”

“What is another way we can approach this?”

They also make connections to the documentary film, “Clash of the Titans” on the development of atomic theory they were to have viewed before coming to class. The gold-foil experiment of Ernest Rutherford is suddenly appreciated. The students wonder at the determination, the intuition, the ideas, the experimentation of great scientists. More importantly they see how different and conflicting perspectives work together to come up with more accurate results. They perceive 

I concur that “Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world..."  President Obama (2)

Furthermore, “The National Research Council's (NRC) Framework describes a vision of what it means to be proficient in science; it rests on a view of science as both a body of knowledge and an evidence-based, model and theory building enterprise that continually extends, refines, and revises knowledge.” (3)  Thus, students must be immersed in practices that connect them with this vision.

Even a discussion of the history of atomic theory can take students on a three dimensional journey that covers not only content but involves them in practices fostering connections with the world and broader ideas found therein.

  1. Muller, Eric. "READ: RUTHERFORD ROLLER - EXPLORATORIUM | THE MUSEUM - AWED.BIZ." AWED.BIZ. N.p., 2003. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
  2. "Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership." <i>Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
  3. "Three Dimensions | Next Generation Science Standards." <i>Three Dimensions | Next Generation Science Standards</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: How does Middle Eastern Life present itself in my classroom?

Map courtesy of used with permission

“It’s like texting your grandmother on Eid instead of calling”  one student explains to the class. There is a unanimous hum of agreement as he continues, “you just wouldn’t do that. It’s wrong”. 

They are debating the plan for Facebook to introduce six new emojis in order to “rope in even more members” by providing users with more ways to interact with each other. These tech savvy youngsters are very critical of the insincere component of these new emojiis. While they have all had fb, Instagram, and snapchat accounts, many claim it isn’t worth their time. They agree that it gives users a false sense of security and well-being. They agree that the new emojis won’t entice them to use Facebook more as they perceive the use of these emojis to be fake engagement.

I must admit, I’m stunned by the fact that only a handful of students actively use social media and that most of them are very critical of it. So far, my experience in the U.S.A., China, and Europe has left me believing that teenagers are, indeed, the same all over the world. However, despite some universals, I am seeing differences in my arabic students as compared to their western counterparts.

It’s all about Getting someone else to do it

To get things done in this country, it’s easiest when one has connections. You want the Internet installed? It’s much faster if you have a friend that works for the company. To get a mobile phone account set up it will be much smoother if you take someone who knows someone who works at the phone store. You find someone to do it for you. Of course if something goes wrong, you find someone to blame.

In the robotics class when a robot doesn’t run the course properly, a student will insist on running the course over and over again claiming, “This stupid robot won’t do what I want.” It is much more logical to them to blame the robot rather than review for error in their own programming. Over and over again I encourage them to return to their program and make adjustments. Over and over again they finally realise that it IS the programming and NOT the robot!

Recently, a student came in to review an assignment on which he received a low grade. We examined the rubric together and as we discussed the first aspect of the rubric he put his finger up to indicate he’d be a minute as he dialed a number on his phone, “I’m with Miss Nina right now and she’s telling me we did something wrong.”

Apparently, it’s not uncommon for a maid, tutor, or parent to complete homework.

Different Educational Expectations

With disbelief a student stares at his poster lying in front of us on the table. A few days prior we had studied the rubric together and he took his project home to rework it for an improved grade. He can’t fathom that the grade has not changed despite his “improvements” to the poster, none of which reflect the expectations of the rubric.

“Then why did I do all that work? I should get some points for redoing it.” Of course secretly I want to ask him why he did all that work without consulting the rubric again! “Miss, can’t you at least give him some more points for making it better?” his pal queries while another pipes in, “Yes, Miss. He is a good kid. He should have an ‘A’.”

And they are serious.

On another occasion, a student points to her lab observations, “Miss, is this correct?” When informed that “there is no correct” as she is the scientist and her observations are real, her face scrunches up, she pouts, and jumps a bit. With near desperation and exasperation she pleads, “Please, Miss. Just tell me if it’s right”

The world of “right and wrong” and rote memorisation is very much a major component of the educational history of some of my new students.


On several occasions students or parents have approached me in a somewhat condescending tone, however, as soon as they realise I have a “Dr.” title, the tune changes dramatically.

In this part of the world, a simple title reduces reproof.

High School Sweethearts

Though I’ve been told that if I look carefully, I’ll see “pairing off”. However, there are no entwined couples. No back massages. No lap sitting. No hugging. Not even hand-holding.

The culture keeps men and women segregated to such an extreme that it permeates even the habits of teenagers attending our school offering a traditional American High School education.

Unique Life Experiences

The large printed words “Innocent kids during war in Syria” loom before us on the screen. As this young woman stands before the class her dark curls jostle gently as she turns from her slide and tells us that she chose this topic because her country, Syria, was “one of the safest countries in the world” but now 5 years of war has changed everything. She claims that most of the children in Syria have had their childhood taken away from them because they live in fear of being killed or bombed. She proceeds to share stunning and touching images of children at play in war-torn Syria and adds, “You can see that the kids are fighting for their childhood in these pictures, and they are much wiser than most of the children you’ll ever know…” The entire class, filled with students from Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, and other countries in the region, is listening, respectful, and sympathetic. 

Most of these 14-17 year olds all have first hand experience with war, unrest, and/or revolution.

Universal but Different

My students laugh, joke, study, and learn. They try to persuade me to to tell them what’s on the test or to make the test easy for them. Hormonal changes affect them. The relentless heat tires them. An exam makes them nervous. Playing sports is important to them. They debate who the best players are in football (soccer). They watch T.V. shows and have favorite movies (even though there are no movie theatres in this country). 

So, they are similar to teenagers throughout the world but they also bring to the table new dimensions that will enrich our classroom experience together. As I look forward to this year, I’m eager for what they will teach me.

From Bio to Bots: Summer Training and First Triumphs

Part of my identity has always been about Science and especially Biology. However, as part of my new assignment this year I have been given a robotics course. After receiving that initial email my heart sank as I began a mourning process for Biology and a frantic search for a robotics training program. My biggest question was, "Can I be as passionate about robotics as I am about Biology?" Because if not, justice will not be done for my students. 

The Course

A small group of people have assembled at the curb. “Are you here for the robotics academy?” I probe. Nods in affirmative are directed towards me. The shuttle arrives and we all climb aboard. We are off to the Carnegie Melon Engineering and Robotics Centre.

Our EV3 robot with some of our programming later in the course.

An EV3 robot awaits my attention. Two PCs sit behind it. We are instructed to look at the robot and find the input and output ports. Really? What in the world are those? The robot is awkward in my hands and my lego partner is equally baffled at our task. We fumble around with the robot and then set it back on the table. Opening the software and instructional videos, we begin our journey of becoming instructors of robotics.

Feeling Triumphant

Over the next 4.5 days we spend intense and concentrated time with our little EV3 robot. Immediate satisfaction is ours when it performs the first, simple tasks that we have programmed it to complete. As the week progresses our programming challenges become more complex and we find ourselves, along with the other participants rejoicing with each successful program. Entwined with our programming adventure are robotics pedagogy and incorporation of STEM. We engage in great discussions and brainstorming on teaching robotics to 4th graders as well as to university students taking introductory computer science classes.

We end the week with a battery of information, added confidence, 36 hours of professional development and a chance to take the instructor certification exam within the month.

After reviewing the course materials, I face the exam. Once again satisfaction was mine as I earned the EV3 Instructor Certification. And what a benefit it’s been as I embark on teaching a robotics course through a distance learning set-up! 

I’m officially excited about this new adventure! And cheers to all teachers out there facing a new class this year and to anyone learning something new! It stretches the mind, increases awareness of what it means to be a student, and keeps the brain young!

The Triumphs

The first submission I received. And others have followed!!!!!!!!!!!!

From 13100 km and 9 hours in times zones, my students have successfully built their robots and engaged in discussions with me regarding robots and programming. Each mini-challenge has resulted in students sharing their programs as well as their reflections regarding their learning and their challenges. For their first major challenge of each unit I have decided to have them send me a video of their robot completing the challenge, especially since I can't be there to actually see it. This week the first group sent me their video and I realized three important things:

  1. The distance learning is actually working and students are making progress (and it clearly helps that there is a fantastic substitute in the classroom facilitating progress)!
  2. I AM passionate about robotics! The thrill and joy that rushed through me when I viewed their simple video nearly resulted in me jumping from my chair rejoicing. Immediately I gathered those in the room to see. And how I longed to be there to celebrate my students' success in person. It was, indeed, as thrilling as waiting for my biology students to recognise the stomata under a microscope.  
  3. Just like I have, for years, said to my science students, "Isn't science AMAZING", I'll be saying to my robotics students, "Isn't robotics SO COOL?!"

I guess we can become passionate in nearly anything if we invest and commit ourselves. What a great relief this comes to me! Again, kudos to all of you out there embarking in something new and here's wishing you the discovery of passion for what you do!

P.S. I'm still teaching Science (Chemistry and Physical Science) as well as a Basic Apps course which is also really fun!

Delayed Visas, Culture Shock, and Distance Learning: The beginning of a new adventure

Delayed Visas

My husband, in Saudi Arabia, with his Iqama. The aquisition of this document is a significant step in getting us there.

We were supposed to be in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia by August 12. However, it’s early September and I remain at home with our 13-year old son awaiting visas. A week ago my husband departed for Saudi Arabia to secure proper documentation to bring us over. We have no idea when we will be able to fly.

The 24th of August marked the first day of our new school in Jeddah while schools locally began two weeks prior. Since the time-line of our visas was unknown, we made the decision to enroll our 13-year old in a local middle school.

Culture Shock (In the U.S.A.)

My son looks up at me with wide eyes in disbelief. He holds in his hand a bright orange piece of paper titled “Weapons Agreement." “It even tells you what items are considered to be weapons, like a pen!” he muses.  As we’re processing the contents of this friendly coloured paper, a 7th grade boy, eyes brimming with tears, walks into the office with his skateboard: all four wheels have been stolen. Our son looks at us with a look that clearly questions our judgment of bringing him here.

He adds his signature to the orange piece of paper and then flounders as everyone rises to say the pledge of allegiance. An 8th grader appears and escorts our son to his classes.

Skyler comes home with questions like “What is a quart and is the plural of it spelled with a ‘z’? And why aren’t they using the metric system?” His mechanical pencil is stolen the first day he uses it. He is stunned by a heated conversation between a boy and a girl and even more shocked when, following the departure of the girl, the boy says, “Yeah, she’s my ex”. 

Skyler’s accustomed to playing a full soccer game with this peers after lunch. However, here no one does that. They rush to eat and than hang out for a few minutes before returning to class.

Our son manages but he’s eager for the processing of our visas and the return to what he considers “normal education” 

Distance Learning

So where does this leave me as a teacher of Chemistry, Physical Science, Robotics, and Basic Applications? Well, I’m engaging in a “distance learning” experience. All of my lesson plans are submitted to a substitute. Instructions, discussion, and assignments for the students are posted on Schoology, a “learning management system” that works quite well. Each day I post daily activities and students upload their assignments as well as responses to the discussions.

Thus, I manage my classes from afar and it’s going as well as it could, I guess. I can't worry too much about it because I'm doing all I can do.  Being 13000 km and 9 hours in time difference away is, indeed, interesting. My thoughts and posts and classes are taking place on a Thursday while I'm living in Wednesday. It's a bit brain bungling. I wake up to read what my students have done and there's nothing I can do to rectify any problems that occurred during the school day. I just have to work with what happened. For example, I woke up one Friday and all the robotics students posted that they couldn't begin building their robots as planned because there weren't enough parts. In fact, they couldn't even build ONE ROBOT for the entire class because there weren't enough parts. So, I momentarily panicked thinking that there aren't robot kits as promised (supposedly one per student) and that the robot program couldn't work. However, after communicating with my sub (who taught the class last year) it became apparent that he had been sick and HIS sub didn't look in the closet to find the robot kits and the students were trying to build robots from the spare parts bin!!! Oh well. So, they began building on Monday instead of Thursday. I did have a good laugh about that one though!

Through their discussions and posts I’m slowly getting to know my students a little bit.  I Skype regularly with a colleague with whom I share a course with. Thankfully she’s a collaborator and we’re already working as a team despite our distance! I can’t wait to meet her, other colleges, and my students in person.

Thus begins our adventure! We are looking forward to the arrival of visas, flight arrangements, and meeting our new school family in Jeddah!

The Climb of Education (or life).

A young mother recently said to me after dropping her oldest son off at Kindergarten, “I stayed and waited for the bell to ring to see if he’d’ get in line. Then I went to look at him through the classroom door. He hung up his backpack and seemed just fine.” Many parents are sending their children off to school at this time of year. Whether it’s preschool, elementary, middle, high school, or even college each parent hopes their children will do well, be happy, and succeed.

Many different types of parents have passed through my classroom over the years. As a secondary school teacher I often have wanted (but have refrained) to say to the more concerned parents “It’s OK. Give your child some space to make his/her own decisions. Allow your child more independence. Allow your child to self-advocate. Everything will be OK.”

Recently, an experience with a couple of my children and a friend became an analogy to me of this universal life-experience of needing to “let go” and allow our children the freedom to discover and act independently.

We visited the tallest outdoor climbing wall in the world. It towered ominously up into the sky and our three climbers approached it each uniquely. The youngest raced ahead, unaware of the dangers. The older girls went with trepidation and even fear. However, they all faced the tower.  Each climber worked with a “belayer”, the team member who is responsible for maintaining tension in the rope to ensure that the climber doesn’t fall far in the event he/she slips. Additionally, there was a climbing coach giving tips and advice and suggestions for alternate routes when a climber became stuck.

Our youngest, taking the easiest pathway, scampered to the top of the tower with no problem. When challenged with more difficult climbing routes, he slowed down, required some guidance, and learned some new techniques that would help him on later climbs. The older two, gripped by fear during initial climbs took a bit longer and required more coaxing to get to the top, however, they gained confidence and skills that allowed them to ascend at a faster rate later in the day.

Triumphant climbers!

Triumphant climbers!

They strengthened muscles. They developed skills. They enjoyed the climb. They thrilled in arriving at the top. But even once at the top, they weren’t “done” - there are more challenging routes to try, more ways to develop oneself.

The students are the climbers. They must decide the route and perform the climb. In secondary school, students should make decisions about how to study, when to study, and eventually in high school what classes interest them and in college what major to choose and what career to pursue. Teachers are the climbing coaches. They facilitate learning and give tips and advice to help students find the best path to acquiring the understandings they need to progress in their education. And parents, along with the teachers, are the belayers. It is their responsibility to be there, in the background, ready to advise and offer help when it is needed. Both teachers and parents need to allow students to choose the more challenging routes so that they can learn the most.

Sometimes, however, parents think they must make the climb with their child or perform the climb for the child. And, in so thinking, become too involved, preventing the child the opportunity to grow and become strong in good decision making. A belayer who “hoists” the climber to the top is not allowing the climber to gain necessary decision making, troubleshooting, and muscle building skills to master more difficult climbs. A parent who becomes over involved with his/her child also prevents that child from gaining important communication skills and the ability to self-advocate (how many adults do you know who are afraid to ask for a much deserved pay raise). They also inhibit the child’s opportunities to learn how to make good decisions regarding study habits, balancing pleasure and work, and enacting good behaviours in school. 

It is OK for students to “slip” or make mistakes. It is during these moments that lessons are learned and the ability to make better decisions in the future is increased. As both teacher and parent, I speak to all parents: Keep that belaying rope in your hand but keep it loose. Allow your children to learn and grow by giving them more independence. They will find their route, they will find their passion, and they will thrill in reaching the top on their own.

Smiles come with Self-attained Success

Smiles come with Self-attained Success

The Gap Year: A Mother’s Perspective.

ACTs, SATs finished. College applications filled out and submitted. IB exam enrollment completed. The final year of high school was underway for my two seniors. However, despite the fact that plans were in motion for college, it wasn’t clear that the next step should be university, especially for my young 17-year old daughter.

A few of my students had elected to do a gap year following high school graduation and I was intrigued by their experiences, particularly that of one student who did volunteer work with human-trafficking victims in Thailand. She returned from her year full of vigor and experience and the glow of having done some good in the world. She then commenced with full force on her university career.

This example prompted me to encourage my daughter to consider a gap year. At first she was highly resistant fearing she’d “get behind” or “miss out” on something by not plunging forward with university plans. That drive to push ahead, get ahead, move on, “succeed”, and “follow the program” nagged at her. However, she slowly became interested in the idea of a gap year.

My daughter took this photo of black rhinos during a standard data collection event. The picture was taken just after the rhinos charged the research group.

Her inherent interest in wildlife and conservation led her down a path of doing volunteer work towards conservation efforts. Together we researched several organizations. She was clear that she didn’t want a “travel” experience as she already had that from her 6 years living abroad. She wanted to do real work that would make a difference in the world.

My daughter rode in the back of the truck to hold one of the lion's heads during the journey in order to prevent injury due to jostling of the truck.

A hand-raised cheetah that couldn't be successfully released into the wild and was traded with the rehab center for a cheetah that needed to be released and was successfully reintroduced into the wild. 

She embarked on a conservation journey in South Africa working in the bush. Her experience involved 7-day work weeks (at a wild-life rehabilitation center the animals must be fed every day!) without any time off or weekend excursions. She worked hard and she loved every minute of it. She participated in incredible conservation work, including darting and tagging rhinoceros in anti-poaching measures, transporting lions between reserves to increase genetic diversity within prides, tracking wildlife on horseback to record numbers of specific endangered species for scientific research, and caring for injured wildlife (often by poachers). In addition to rhinos and lions, she personally handled leopards, cheetahs, birds of prey, mongoose, and countless others. It was truly an amazing and life-changing experience.

She learned more about conservation, conservation efforts, and wildlife than any year in college would yield her. Furthermore, she developed into a fiercely independent thinker with a real passion for conservation. And importantly, she gained confidence in herself as an individual and knowledge of who she is, what she believes, and what she wants to do in life. I wish I had that when I was 17!

Now she is preparing to begin her university journey studying conservation ecology.  She has already signed up for the sustainability efforts at the school and is looking into research labs she might be interested in becoming a part of. She knows where she is headed.

Interestingly, my other graduating senior was ready to head to university. However, his top choice for this endeavor was a state school where he did not qualify for in-state tuition. After much deliberation, he chose to move to Michigan and reside there for one year to earn residency. Thus, he proceeded forth with an inadvertent gap year. Because his interests lie in the medical field he decided to earn his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) license.

To support himself he hit the pavement searching for a job as an 18-year old with no work experience and no education.  After many rejections he walked into a Pizza Hut with a sign in the window advertising for employment with the added large letters, “No experience necessary”.  He got the job.

My son's facebook picture once the license arrived in his post box.

During his “gap year” he earned an EMT license, paid bills, held down a job, learned about good vs. bad management, and gained important insight about working with people successfully. Most importantly, during his EMT training he confirmed his passion in life. He absolutely LOVED his rotations both in the ambulance and in the hospital. He realized his strengths and is definite place in the medical field. He will begin his university career this fall studying molecular biology and biochemistry/biotechnology. And he knows what he wants.

So, I’ve had two children complete a gap year. I see new skills, maturity, and a deep development of intellectual and practical awareness. Both of them, on two very different tracks, have found a true passion in life. Both of them are self-confident as they enter their freshman year. Both of them are committed to working hard towards clearly formed goals.

Many parents seem afraid to allow their children such an opportunity, perhaps fearful that the child won’t continue on with higher education? Perhaps concerned that the child will be “behind” in the pursuit of that degree or that important high-paying job? A 17 or 18-year old still has an entire life ahead. And I ask, what is the rush? There is so much to be gained from life experience itself. 

Permission to write this post and include photographs provided by them was granted by my children.

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip: Reflections and Was it Worth it?

Heads tip in wonder and discovery. Voices rise in heated debate over issues of sustainability. Fingers point and cries of excitement are uttered. Hushed awe. Quiet reflection is offered about humankind’s stewardship of earth. Friendships develop over nonelectronic games, shared experiences, and coping with humidity and insects. “Let’s save the world optimism” bubbles out of teenage minds and mouths.

That’s what Eva and I have seen. However, we also wonder what the students actually take away from an experience such as this. So, we asked them.

What was the best part of this trip and why?

  • “Watching baby turtles go into the sea”
  • “White water rafting”
  • “The night hiking”
  • “Playing soccer with the locals”
  • “I strengthened old friendships and built new ones”
  • “The places that we saw”

Every student experienced an aspect of this trip that struck a chord with him/her.


What difficulties did you experience on this trip and what did you gain from facing them”

  • “We did not have electronics…I faced it by playing games with my friends”
  • “Constantly being drenched in sweat and running out of clean clothes”
  • “Dangerous animals…I figured out that they are actually really cool” 
  • “The darkness…I gained that if I just face my fear I will get to see amazing things like an owl eating its prey (a mouse)”
  • “I had quite a hard time with giving up my phone, since I’m used to talking to my parents when I get scared…I learned that sometimes I   can deal with things myself”
  • “Facing my fear during the night hike…I gained the wonderful experience of seeing really cool animals”

Every student faced challenges and they all grew personally from them.



What have you learned from this trip?

  • “I learned to work in a team”
  • “I learned a lot about different animals species and how to conduct different types of scientific research” 
  • “I learned how to get good data for a good question”
  • “How to adapt to new living conditions”
  • “I learned to spend my money wisely”
  • “I learned about biology and ecology”
  • “The reason why certain species exist and how they function” 
  • “A surprise is always good!”
  • “That the rainforest is really important to the environment”
  • “The smallest things can have the greatest impact, for example, turning off our lights”
  • “The culture of Costa Rica”
  • “I learned a lot about sea turtles”
  • “I learned about rainforests and leatherback turtles”
  • “I learned a lot about conservation and about how we can make the world a more sustainable place like by reducing our water usage and only preparing what we can eat” 
  • “I have learned that electricity and clean running water should be used carefully…and they are luxuries that many people don’t have”
  • “I have learned about sustainability a lot. I did not even have a clue before I came here” 
  • “I learned that if people care more about sustainability then the nature can be saved”

Every student learned from this experience: socially, culturally, scientifically, and environmentally.

Are there any personal practices in your life that you might change as a result of this trip?

  • “I will take shorter showers” (the most common answer, several times over!)
  • “I won’t waste food” (the second most common answer, several times over!) 
  • “I will also take cold showers to reduce energy usage” 
  • “Support local economies”
  • “I will also tell my parents to cook less so we don’t waste as much food” 
  • I will try to become more sustainable: recycle more, turn off lights and I have some ideas to propose in school"


Would you recommend this trip to other students? Why or Why not?

100% of our participants recommend this trip to others and here’s why:

  • “It is a great learning experience”
  • “This trip is really an eye-opener”
  •  “It teaches a lot about the environment and about the animals and sea turtles”
  • “It is an amazing experience and a once in a life-time opportunity”
  • “It teaches people the importance of preserving our planet” 
  • “It also opens the minds of people to see how adaptable we really are to our environment. Conserve adapt, and be the change”
  • “An amazing opportunity to focus on what is actually important: face to face interaction with friends, laughter through sound instead of emojis, conserving and practicing sustainability, and becoming more aware of the world around us”
  • “You gain an appreciation of nature”

As Eva and I peruse through the student reflections on the plane ride home, we look at each other and say, “What more could we ask for?” Additionally, EPI has provided us with a wonderful curriculum, excellent instructors, an amazing program/itinerary, and an incredible support system in the country.

Indeed, this trip was worth it and we are already thinking of ideas, using EPI again, for next year!


If you're interested in knowing more about Ecology Project International (EPI), the group that organized our trip, click here.

leaf cutter ants at work

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART TWO: Turtle Reserve

The rainforest has been hot and humid for us. Seriously, I’ve never been so permanently wet in my life. Nothing dried, not even our hair.  As we leave La Suerte we are hoping the sea might bring us refreshment. We endure a long bus ride and then boat ride before we arrive at Pacuare, a Nature Reserve on the Caribbean.  We lug our baggage from the boat along a forested trail to quaint cabins situated right where rainforest meets beach. Though there is no electricity and the fresh water is limited, we settle right into what we find to be cozy accommodations.

And, most importantly, the beach does afford us a refreshing breeze and we feel the sticky hot sliding from our skin. That evening we begin our night patrols: under a full moon, beautiful breezy weather with the water lapping at our ankles. “This is perfect. How hard can this be?” we ask. Well, the next night yields a different experience.

Eva grips my hand with the iron-man clasp prompting my comment, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve done in my life.” We can’t even see each other it’s so dark. Each step we take is into a black abyss leaving us completely reliant on the pair in front of us to give warning of any obstacles they encounter (i.e. dips in the sand, drift wood, logs, washed up coconuts, etc.). The rain drenches every part of my lower body and raindrops slide down my back as rain penetrates my jacket. The downpour pelts us ferociously and we stumble forward over sticks and other debris.

Unusually wet conditions and flooding of the beach has prevented many leatherback turtles from accessing the beach and has destroyed the nests of many who did make it ashore. Thus, our night patrols yield no sightings of mother leatherback turtles or hatchlings. Were any of our groups to spot either mothers or hatchlings they would have participated in taking measurements and recording important data relevant to the conservation of this magnificent species. We did, however, get lucky one day…

Part of the work at Pacuare involves monitoring known nesting sights (those that were observed being created on night patrols). Once a nest has passed it’s “due date” researchers dig up the eggs to determine whether there are survivors or whether the nests have succumbed to fungi or bacteria rendering undeveloped eggs.  Students were interrupted from their research projects with news that a nest of survivors had been discovered.! We ran to the beach to watch the nest-investigation process.

Baby leatherbacks exit their shells and begin the 1 m (more or less) dig to the surface, with the leaders resting while others take the lead. They work in shifts until the entire hatchling group makes it to the surface. However, if most of the nest doesn’t hatch (as in the case of the one uncovered), the survivors have no chance to get to the surface as they don’t have the energy to do it alone.

The woman in the green kerchief to the right is researching the correlation between fungus and bacteria growth on and in the eggs with survival of the hatchlings. She collects data on each egg and then saves the survivors in a bucket of sand until they are ready to make their “run” for the ocean (a process critical for their ultimate survival).  Another nest unveils even more survivors. We are fortunate to be invited to the release of these babies later in the afternoon.

At the given time we all meet on the beach and the bucket is turned over to allow the babies to begin their journey to the sea. Together we share in this amazing experience under beautiful blue skies with sunrays warming our skin. It’s perfect and I’m so glad the students (and teachers!) are fortunate enough to get this experience.

Data collection and turtle observation is coupled to real-life research experience for the students.  Now the students are working on their comparative studies. Heads are bent with intensity. Hands are holding measuring devices, recording data, or pointed at interested parts of the experiment. 

Their topics include:

  1. Do members of our group throw a coconut further over or underhanded?
  2. Is there a difference between two species of ants’ time to run through a maze?
  3. What is the difference in time between a leaf cutter ant’s walk over 1 m with and without a leaf?
  4. What is the difference in time between a leaf cutter’s ascent vs. descent on the particular stem of a plant?

Discussions on sustainability and conservation continue throughout our time there. Students sample Costa Rican fruits and play a football (soccer) game with local youth. Our experience is fully rounded with conservation, science, and culture.

During what was supposed to be our last day a Pacuare, we are evacuated due to extreme rain and possible flooding of the area. Though our time there is cut short, we leave fulfilled with what we experienced.  Our remaining time in Costa Rica includes a visit to the Botanical Gardens and a day of rafting.

We compare the food waste from our first days to our last days. We’ve reduced our food waste from over I kg down to fewer than 200g. WOW- habits have changed. Students are also masters of the 2 min (or less) showers. They are thinking sustainably. For their last activity, students engage in an activity that involves ‘building’ sustainable towns. They realize how difficult it is to communicate and bring people together towards one goal. They are humbled with the task of making the world more aware of the importance of conservation and living sustainably. They know they’ll start with their families.

Eva and I reflect  on this experience and whether it was worth it and whether we would consider doing another trip (I'll write about that next). We hope none of us will return home and forget about the lessons we have learned here. Cleansed from a warm shower and feeling fulfilled, Eva and I slip into slumber anticipating our long flight journey home.

NEXT POST: Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip: Reflections and Was it Worth it?

A baby leatherback turtle entering the water

To learn more about Ecology Project International (EPI), click here.

Unplugged Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART ONE: The Rain Forest

It all begins at the beginning of the school year with the question, “Should I take some of my summertime and chaperone students on a ecology conservation trip next summer?” Really I don’t have to think too hard to answer that question because I already know that it is incredibly fulfilling to be part of an exploration service-learning trip with students. Then, the decision must be made as to which organization to choose. Research and experience lead me to settle with Ecology Project International (EPI- click here to look at their site)

Announcements, posters, and parent evenings follow.  Sign-ups, emails, and reminders continue. There is more interest than expected so another chaperone, my dear friend and colleague, Eva, is added to the group. Coordination with EPI is paramount.  As our date approaches we schedule another parent meeting and review the packing list and the anticipated schedule. It’s real! We’re heading to Costa Rica for a leatherback turtle ecology experience.

June 28 is our departure date. Parents, students, and teachers meet with giddy excitement at the red and white cube in Schiphol airport. The 14- hour journey to San Jose, Costa Rica is relatively smooth and we meet up with our EPI guide, David. Later we are joined by Stanley, who the students affectionately nick-name “Sally” due to an initial misunderstanding of David’s pronunciation of the name.

The first item on the agenda is to surrender all electronics, teachers included. Students reluctantly hand in their devices, not sure if they’ll be able to survive without them

In addition to some sites near San Jose (Poaz volcano and the Turrialba Botanic Garden) our adventure includes time at the La Suerte Rainforest Reserve. The students are introduced to issues of sustainability, Costa Rican Ecology, and carrying out proper scientific investigations (descriptive, comparative, and correlative). They begin individual research on a specific species and plan descriptive investigations. Juxtaposed to these activities are hikes in the rainforest and lectures by scientists working in the field at La Suerte.

We are constantly serenaded by the cicadas. Presentations are interrupted in order to observe a mother sloth with infant traversing the trees flanking our camp or to snatch a peek at a woodpecker at work behind us or to watch a lizard passing through. Monkeys are seen jumping through the trees and their vocalizations ring out throughout the forest. The multiple and diverse noises of the rainforest fluctuate all day and penetrate into the night.

The students are enjoying and reflecting on the wonder of earth on a daily basis. “Wait a minute, look at this!” or “What is that?” are common outbursts coupled with “That is so cool” or “Amazing”. They appreciate the lush vegetation that surrounds them and the important ecosystems that it holds. They recognize the need to preserve these parts of our world if humanity is to continue to exist.

The students are becoming aware of reducing food waste and the need to save fresh water. The cumulative left-over food on their plates is dropping drastically and they are learning the art of the 2-minute (or less) shower. They spontaneously offer reflection on how amazing it would be if the entire world were to become so acutely aware of the need to conserve. They discuss how they would like to incorporate these changes in their lives back home. They evaluate practices of companies in Costa Rica, such as the banana and pineapple plantations and determine to be more selective in finding companies that practice sustainability when making future purchases.

The students are both enthralled and slightly appalled by a scientist’s lecture on his research into the homing patterns of the whipspider at La Suerte. He describes the capture of and the insertion of the GPS device onto the spider, the spider’s movements, and the different experimental approaches taken with the spiders. In fact the mention of the spider’s speed and danger deters three students from joining us on the night hike! It’s just too creepy for them.  However, they appreciate that his studies lead to understandings and advancements in the real world, including the field of bionics. The primatologist on site gives great insight into her experience as a field scientist that began with studies of the vocalization patterns of Lemurs in Madagascar.  She is at La Suerte leading primate field school studies for university students. On our hikes we have run into the student groups observing and collecting data on the howler monkeys, the white-faced capuchin monkeys, and the spider monkeys.

Our students are easily identifying heliconia species, ferns, epiphytes, strangler fig trees and more! They spot the red as well as the black and green poison dart frogs regularly. A pause to observe the leaf cutter ants is frequent. Anticipation of lizard and snake sightings is high. Unusual spiders, lizards, and creatures of all sorts result in squeals of delight and intrigue. Not only does each hike in the rainforest yield amazing sightings but our walks to and from the main cabin are equally interesting!

Before we leave La Suerte the students finish and report on their descriptive studies. As they observe they are intent on their work, fully engaged in discovery. Here are the topics they chose:


  1. What is the average number of coconuts on the tress in the La Suerte camp area?
  2. What is the typical shape of the leaves cut by the leaf cutter ants at the La Suerte camp site?
  3. What is the average number of mosquito bites obtained by members of our group thus far on the trip?
  4. What is the average number of veins on the leaves of the Aphelandra scraba plant (and is there a correlation to leaf size) at the edge of our La Suerte campsite.
  5.  How many poison dart frog sightings are there during our walks to and from the main cabin?
  6. How many centipedes can be found on the walkways around our camp?

At the end of PART ONE of our trip, my colleague, Eva and I are pleased with what has been gained thus far.  A noticeable change amongst the students has evolved: discussions, playing games, and interacting. The absence of electronic devices is a gift and a major feature of allowing students to fully engage themselves in this experience. The immersion in the rain forest is incredible. Students are duly awed, as are we, at the magnificent diversity found on earth. Awareness of the connection between humans and earth is heightened. Personal habits are being evaluated. The idea of sustainable living is beginning to form. At our last night at La Suarte we happily fall asleep to the chirps, tweets, and calls of the jungle outside our cabin as we anticipate the leatherback turtle ecology portion of our trip.

NEXT POST: Costa Rica Ecology Service Learning Trip PART TWO

One of our serenading cicadas: their cumulative chirping could almost be deafening at times.

Sometimes, in the moment, it’s just too much. So, take a break!

It is the end of the day. It’s Friday. There are 30 minutes of school remaining. The entire class is a bit late, probably because of some other IB deadlines. They literally straggle in and plop down in their seats. An atmosphere of exhaustion hangs in the air. I know one student is operating on 20 minutes of sleep from the night before.

Making mug racks for part of a CAS project

Earlier in the day these four delivered their CAS presentations. Each presentation was full of activities that the student participated for their Community Action and Service (CAS) portion of their IB program. Impressive was the volume of activities each individual participated in over the past two years. Noteworthy was each individual reflection on his/her involvement, struggles, and what was learned from the experiences. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable, not necessarily an easy task for 16-18 year olds.

In addition to the CAS presentations, the day had been filled with final submissions for internal assessments, Extended Essays, and Theory of Knowledge essays for the IB.  I had perused the Extended Essay titles that morning: what an impressive stack of work. This pile of papers was evidence of what these students have recently produced. It represents long hours, late nights, and commitment to their studies.

IA work

I know the quality of the Biology Internal Assessments. My class has exceeded my expectation by actually heeding my advice over the last two years! They accepted and applied feedback throughout the course. Then, as they prepared their final internal assessments, they helped each other out, pouring over the rubrics and giving feedback to each other as they each finalized their work.  With pride those papers will be put in the mail to be sent off for moderation. Having worked with the students closely, it is clear they put forth their best effort, challenged themselves, struggled, and stretched themselves. And, they thereby grew from the process.

Here they sit. Wiped out. Without a doubt, the plans I have for review are, in this moment, too much. I suggest they can just go home and rest (especially the one with only 20 minutes of sleep) or they can relax for a couple of minutes. The 20-minute guy, who lives literally across the street from the school, replies, “I think I’ll just chill here for a few minutes” and then I realize he’s too tired to even cross the street right now!

I think it was this time last year, when my own children were going through the IB, that I wrote a post questioning whether the IB is worth it.  Right now, all over the world IB students are feeling the crunch and pressure of the rigor of the program.

So, we just take a step back. They share their hopes for university, their favorite form of exercise, and their summer plans. And it feels really good. Their curved shoulders straighten a bit. They smile. And in 30 minutes they are ready to move again. Their homework for the weekend? To relax and to rest. We’ll begin serious review next week.

I stepped back by taking a day for walking around Rotterdam and taking photographs.

Having also succumbed to over exertion, my Saturday was spent on a little “time-out” as well just taking photographs and spending some time with friends.

Over the weekend I received an email from a friend in which she wrote, “So I decided that on Friday I NEEDED to rest. I couldn't not rest. I hit a wall. Mentally, Emotionally. Physically. Spiritually. So, I decided to take some time and actually rest and not give myself guilt for it.” It reminded me of my IB students and many who are pushing themselves to their limits.  To all I say, it’s OK to stop and take a step back. Rest and reflect. In the end, this is what will make you stronger and more able to carry on.

Getting dirty, service learning, and more inspiration

Garbage Audit #2 

Once again the space is scheduled and the supplies are stacked. Pupils have planned and prepared for this proceeding.

We meet at 15:15 in my room and the plan is put into motion. The students split up into groups collecting trash, spreading tarps, and organizing bins.

Finally it is time to don the gloves, open the bags and start sorting! The goal is to compare the results to last year’s audit and see if any improvements can be observed based on the implementation of the team’s proposals. Additionally, the students are focusing this year on the organic waste to determine how much of it is compostable

The most unusual discoveries? How about an entire briefcase with two phones in it? The bag of perfectly usable clothes? The intact mugs? The functioning umbrella?

The students are having fun. The sorted contents are analyzed. Data is recorded. Ideas for the proposals are formulating. They are disgusted, especially as they tackle the cafeteria waste, but they are still laughing. It’s 18:20 and we are nearly done.  We clean up and store a huge container to be wheeled off to the recycling station in the morning.

The next day data analysis begins. The data from last year is retrieved and comparisons begin to form. Have we made a change? An initial look suggests that there has been change! However, we’re still waiting for the final results.

One thing is for sure: there is satisfaction for the involved students. They feel ownership in the environmental status of their school. They are absolutely intrigued with the outcomes of the audit. They are eager to determine how to further reduce waste and energy usage at the school. The act of physically being involved makes the concept of Going Green so much more real. It spawns ideas. It inspires.

Oh yes, and it’s messy! Allow the students (and yourself) to get dirty. It will provide new inspiration and further ideas for service learning!


Last night I found myself sitting next to an elegant woman dressed in white.  Her delicate hands rested on her lap highlighting a perfect French manicure. It was quite clear that her hands would never find themselves where mine had been that day. I glanced down at my appendages hoping were no remains of dried blood under or around my nails.

That morning our lab assistant appeared in my classroom doorway with a heavy plastic bag and a huge grin on his face: his mission had been successful. He handed off the bag and I immediately took it to a lab bench. The items inside were contained within a series of thick plastic bags. As I removed each layer it became apparent why. The mounds of pig tissue within were dripping with blood. Untangling entwined trachea and esophagi, I lifted the first set of lungs from the bag and placed them on a work area on the lab bench. Dabbing off blood as I worked, I arranged the bright pink lungs so that the trachea and esophagi extended neatly from the top.

Then I covered them hoping to mask the rawness of the scene from those entering my classroom and giving myself some mental preparation time with the students before they had to handle the organs.

Some students literally fled the room upon the unveiling of the lungs. However, they quickly realized there was no threat and succumbed to their curiousity which was heightened by the “ooh”s and “aahs” of their peers within.

With gloved hands they carefully handled and explored the tissues. Eventually EVERYONE touched the lungs, followed the trachea to the bronchi, studied the pathway of the esophagus, and made observations on the differences between the structures. Several students were brave enough to insert a straw into the trachea, squeeze down and blow air into the lungs.  The inflating lungs were indeed an impressive sight drawing exclamations of amazement from all observers!

My Grade 10 Bio class was the intended recipient of this lab activity as they have just started a unit on the Respiratory System. However, my grade 11 General Science class studying the human body also benefitted from those lungs. Then, my Year 2 IB Biology students were able to review some of their assessment statements from last year as they investigated the organs. As one of them said following her time with the lungs, “That was a really good class”.  The bottom line? The Respiratory System became real to them.  Now they can imagine it. Now they can discuss it. Now they will remember it.

I’d much rather be part of this kind of journey than sporting beautifully manicured nails!  And as always, I advocate to all, risk the mess and find every opportunity to bring learning to the realest level possible.



Overcoming the Gross Factor


“Do we have to touch it?”

“Do we get gloves?”


The mounds of pink flesh silently wait as the students conquer the “gross factor” in preparing to approach the lab benches. Admittedly, the subtle stench of death doesn’t help.

Some students are loud and adamant about the disgusting task in front of them while others silently observe in quiet dread.

We read through the procedure and then the pairs are assigned. Students reluctantly line up to receive an organ. My handling of the hearts without gloves awes them. These hearts came straight from the slaughterhouse and there is nothing to fear.

One of the loudest opponents snaps on the latex gloves and, with attitude, approaches the heart, assuring me this is the grossest thing she will ever do in her life. However, as she wraps her gloved hands around that pig heart a transformation takes place. With sudden tenderness she exclaims, “Oh, it’s soft” followed by, “…this is actually cool” and before she knows it she is completely immersed in a pig heart dissection, her nose nearly touching the raw flesh that moments earlier had repulsed her.  Eagerly she identifies the vena cava and pokes her finger through the opening explaining how the deoxygenated blood enters the heart at this point. She easily follows the flow of the blood through the heart,  her hands becoming more and more familiar with the organ. At the end of the lab she claims, “I think I want to be a heart surgeon”. And from that day forth she becomes a serious student of science evolving from a laissez-faire B/C student to a straight A engaged, conscientious pupil. The metamorphosis is both dramatic and inspiring.

Recently, my IB students did a similar lab. This time the hearts came from the local butcher but these students also had the moment of “overcoming the gross factor”. However, they quickly immersed themselves in the dissection. Carefully they drew and labeled diagrams of their observations really trying to understand the function of the heart as they proceeded. Following the lab each one remarked how helpful that was and how clear their understanding had become.

Why do I bother tromping around trying to find pig hearts for my students? Why do I encourage them to touch the heart, get dirty, and “go for it”? Because I know there’s value in seeing and handling the real thing. Students become excited, they learn, they gain deeper appreciation for their own amazing body and all its functions. In stepping out of their comfort zone they discover that they can tolerate more “gross” than they originally anticipated, new interests are unearthed, and they receive a deep satisfaction in learning.

It’s always worth the effort to provide hands-on learning, even for IB students. Also, lets follow the example of our students and take on something new to learn! We might discover hidden talents and new passions. So, go for it!

A short word on Gratitude

“Thanks for the lesson, Miss” is a sentence that often rings sweet to my ears. It amazes me that teenagers manage to find and show gratitude within the institution that they readily file so many complaints against. It’s wonderful that even though my class has challenged them, not allowed them to be lazy, ‘forced’ them to think, and insisted on attention to details, some of them are actually grateful, and it’s not necessarily the top students!

One student, in particular, is definitely struggling this year. Struggling academically, personally, and socially and yet without fail, after every lesson, remarks, “Thanks for the lesson, Miss” and will often add, “I really learned a lot” , “That was really good”, “That was really interesting” or “I finally understand now”. It is so sweet and it touches my heart every time.

Even though they are expected to clean up, they are thankful!

The second year IB biology students are in such a stressful time right now and the pressure from my class is mounting as we collect data and prepare to submit their internal assessments to the IB.  Despite the intensity of our classes and the volumes of workload, these students depart from my classroom with a ripple of “thank-you” exclamations rippling back to me. It is a beautiful way to end my day.

Being grateful is not part of the IB Learner profile (IB learners strive to be inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled) so we’re probably not addressing it at school; at least I’m not!

Parents, find comfort in knowing that lessons you teach your children at home are, indeed, being received and acted upon! Today I’m feeling thankful for grateful students and the parents who have set examples of gratitude and who have taught their children to be grateful. Thank you, students and parents!

My home country has been celebrating “Thanksgiving”, this past weekend, a holiday focused on family, feasting, and feeling grateful. Let’s carry the spirit of gratitude with us throughout the year, searching daily for things to be grateful for. If teenagers can do it during school, a place that, in their minds, on occasion “oppresses and limits them”, then we certainly can thankful for something each day of our lives, right?

Dead Last

Why play if the odds of winning are not in your favor?

It seems Facebook is flooded with endless posts of State Champions, 1st place this and 1st place that as we are very much a winner driven society.  It is so important to be first, to be at the top, and to be a “winner”.

However, not everyone can be the winner. Our little school is very often not the winner and often is fighting to not be last place. There are a number of reasons for this, mainly being that we are small in numbers. There are no try-outs and there are no cuts when assembling a sports team. It’s more of a recruitment event as each new sport’s season begins.

Our first year at the school we had two teenage sons with us. One of which was more the athlete while the other one was more the academic. So, the athlete son ends up convincing the academic son to try to join the boy’s varsity soccer team. Our academic son approaches the soccer coach and proclaims an interest in joining the team.  The coach begins to question him.

“So, have you played soccer before?”


“Do you know the rules of soccer?”


“Have you even been on a soccer field?”


“Do you know what a soccer ball looks like?”

“Um, I think so”

“We can use you”

And thus, our academic son joined the boys’ varsity soccer team, having never kicked a soccer ball in his life.

All of the sports’ teams end up recruiting students from below the average playing age. The U12 teams often need to recruit down to 5th and 4th grade. They are operating with anywhere from zero to three or four subs so everyone gets a lot of playing time, even the weakest of players. The combination of young team members, low team numbers, land lack of subs means that each team battles hard for every win and loss on the courts and playing fields.

Sometimes there seems to be more losses than wins. On the last day of the NECIS tournament this past weekend I was substitute coaching again for the U14 boys’ soccer team. During the third of four quarters it was clear there would be no win for us. So, a new tactic came into play. It was the last game of the season and I wanted to make sure each boy had a chance to play where he wished. A new goalie went it and those who desired to shuffle positions did. Everyone played as much as they wanted. The loss was heavy and they knew that the loss meant they were dead last in the tournament but they heartily congratulated the other team and came off of that field with huge smiles on their faces.

Instead of moping around with glum faces they clambered into the stadium seats in the gymnasium to cheer the U12 volleyball team. And, they were truly thrilled and happy for the girls who could enjoy a 2nd place victory.

So, none of the soccer parents will be proudly posting pictures but they should. Their children know how to not become overwhelmed by the goliath opponents they face but rather to focus on personal and team best.. They have learned to gallantly lose and rejoice in the victory of others. A love of the game of soccer exudes from them. As a team they’ve learned and grown together.  The discipline of practice, team commitment, and never giving up are engrained within them. They met all their team goals for the season. These students know, really know, that playing sports isn’t just about winning. They’ve learned that you can still be happy when things don’t go the way you wish. And that is why, when the odds are against you, you still go for it and you still play!

Cheers to all the teams who experienced losses this season! I hope everyone can recover from loss and gain from lessons learned as our U14 soccer players have.

More brains, more ideas and best practices.

“Do you think we could have a sheet with all the definitions explained?”

My internal demons attempted to take control of my thoughts “Oh but that’s so much more work for me!...and I haven’t needed it in years past!" But, she was right. This year’s class is, shall we say, very “neuro-diverse”! And, her suggestion was, in the end, simply a “best practice” that would benefit the entire class. So, heeding her advice and attempting to incorporate the ideas of a brainstorming session she, another colleague, and I had,  I spent an evening preparing some new resources for this lesson.

First came the vocabulary cards. Following the cards was a diagram with application of all the usages of the vocabulary words. Finally a “vocabulary in action” activity culminated the process. It flowed. Excitement welled within as I anticipated success with this new plan of action.

The students were grouped according to strengths then they were turned loose to work through each activity at their own pace, with the option to move ahead of their partner or to remain at an activity while the partner moved on. To my surprise several students chose to stay behind on an activity while the partner moved on and it was a relief to realize that students did not feel pressure by what their partners were doing. As the lesson progressed new partnerships were formed. There was intense silence interspersed with discussion. It was a new kind of energy. As students progressed they still referred back to work they had previously completed. It was thrilling to see how they deemed each resource useful in subsequent activities.

Because everyone was moving at different speeds, I was able to, at several points during the lesson, meet individually with each student and assess their progress. Immediate feedback followed by corrections followed by more feedback followed by additional correction on the “vocabulary in action” activity left every student with a mastered piece of work that will be a valuable resource as we continue with the content.

With ten minutes left of the class students were asked to put everything away and think about what they had learned. Names were randomly drawn from the deck of cards we created on the first day and students were required to say one thing they learned. No repeats were allowed and names were returned to the pile so no one could sit back and relax after being called on. Next, two names would be drawn. One person had to think of a question from the day’s work and the second student was expected to answer the question. Oh were they attentive and planning and thinking with each draw of a card. It was so fun!

I’m so glad the Learning Support teacher made the suggestion for her student. Of course the entire class benefitted and we will probably move forward more quickly as a result. Though this class has a lot of need, we’re fortunate to have two learning support representatives to assist. They have amazing ideas and are constantly reviewing my lessons, plans and assessments through a different lens. They are an incredible resource for me.

What was the result of heeding the advice of my colleague? A fully differentiated lesson interspersed with formative assessment. A great lesson closure. Most importantly, student engagement and student learning. And the benefit for me? Just plain FUN and being able to experience teaching at its best.

Two heads are always better than one! Look around. Who can you work with to become even more successful at what you do? Find people to bounce ideas off of and to collaborate with. Remember, a good practice can always get better. Don't be afraid of trying something new or adding a new idea. Collaboration and new ideas will yield increased achievement and happiness for all involved so just go for it!



Let Go of Control

It has been 2 months. We’ve spoken once. We’ve instant messaged three times. My daughter is completing volunteer work in South Africa out in the Bush working in conservation for part of a gap year post high school graduation. During our short exchanges she radiates increased confidence and a fierce sense of independence. I rejoice yet I also feel a sense of loss. It’s our goal, as parents, isn’t it? To help our children go out on their own and become productive, independent citizens of the world. However, it’s also heartbreaking to let go.

Walking the dog at night just isn’t the same without my daughter. The heart-to-heart talks and shared secrets are a thing of the past. And I’ll forever miss that. But, more importantly, my daughter is developing into an amazing human being with thoughts, opinions, and passions of her own. She doesn’t parrot me. She is her own person and that is wonderful to see.

Recently, on the playground at school a parent told me her daughter has been resisting the overseeing parental eye claiming, “Mom, I’ve got this. I’m doing it. I know what to do” and to the mother’s surprise, her daughter has been completing homework successfully. This Mother finds it difficult to “let go” though and truly allow her daughter the freedom both to succeed and fail on her own. This Mom still insists on reviewing that essay and forcing her daughter to make changes even though she realizes it’s time for her daughter to take responsibility of her assignments and accept consequences for her imperfect submissions.

Several students are sitting casually in my classroom during a break. We’re chatting about life and they ask me how my daughter is doing in South Africa. I share what I know. They are somewhat in awe and the majority expresses a desire to do something similar when they graduate. Except for one high school pupil whose shoulders droop and smile wanes, “Even if I wanted to do a gap year, my parents would never let me”.  I admit, I was a bit stunned. I wondered, “At what point will this student be permitted to make decisions independently? At what point will the path of choice as an adult be granted?”

That preparation for my children began long before high school graduation. We attempted to give them as much say as possible and within reason with regard to the direction their lives went. And yes, they made decisions sometimes that we weren’t exactly keen on, however, in the end; their lives have been their unique journey. They have developed into remarkable and interesting adults with their own tastes, views, and interests. None of them are products of our wishes or projections of our hopes. They have forged their own paths and have discovered talents and passions that have formed their careers and who they are as adults that could have only happened by them pursuing their dreams instead of ones we might have imposed on them.

As teachers we face the same need to “let go." The Fun Night my Going Green Group hosted a few weeks ago is a classic example. As I previously wrote, it was a night organized by students. And believe me, there were times I wanted to just take over! However, my colleagues and I restrained ourselves. We gave the guidance and let the students choose whether to follow our lead or to do it “their way”. Fortunately, despite the imperfections of the evening, those who attended had a fun time and the night was successful. When our student organizers were asked to reflect on the evening and how to make it better they all commented, “We should have been more prepared” and then they outlined how they would do it differently next time. And there will be a next time! – in April. So we’ll see if they did, indeed, learn. In listening to them reflect and outline the changes they’d make, I realized how important it was to let them get to this point on their own. It was so much more productive than had we become more controlling and insistent at the front end in our desperation to make the night a “perfect event”.  Yes, “letting go” was, indeed, the correct choice.

In the classroom as well, “letting go” has its place. In letting go of rigid expectations with regard to homework, more learning might take place. Recently, in one of my high school classes, I decided to give the students more freedom in how they manage outside preparations for class. Instead of homework assignments I gave suggestions for managing reading and studying from their text following class activities on the topic. Their “homework” was not graded nor would it be the same assignment for everyone, as they would each select their own method and their own focus of study. I decided to give a “reading quiz” that wouldn’t count towards their grade (as it was a surprise) but would help them assess how well they processed information from the text and give me an idea of how well they were learning the material. I made the quiz quite tricky; with the intent to expose any oversights and weaknesses in their approach. To my surprise, they all exceeded my expectations! They each then shared with the group their study techniques and then spontaneously reflected and assessed their own approach. Each one indicated how they could do it even better, without any prompting from me. They were taking ownership for their learning.

Today I challenge us all to discover areas in our lives where we can or maybe should “let go.” I think we will find that the children we are worried about will thrive.




Benefits of Recording Formative Assessment

It’s our Open House night. Parents pour through hoping for insight on how their child’s school experience is going. However, this isn’t a night to talk about students. It’s a night to talk about curriculum, general class structure, and possibly specifics about projects or assignments currently underway or coming up.

My fallback is my web site because everything is there. Parents respond positively to the web site as it is very informative and it’s not only a way for students to know what is going on but parents as well.

However, the big surprise came when a few parents added,

“Oh, and I love how you monitor their progress”

“…she looks at Power School and sees improvement and it makes her feels so good about herself”

“I like how you can see how they are learning.”

And I’m surprised and pleased that they’re following Power School that closely and that they recognize my attempt to monitor and follow progress.

There is definitely a train of thought that supports not recording or reporting on formative assessments. However, my policy is to record and report on as many formative assessments as possible.

But not checking this box in Power School, the number will not be included in the students' grade.

But not checking this box in Power School, the number will not be included in the students' grade.

For example, with my Entry Tickets I can actually quantitatively determine how much a student knows at a given time. This number then gets recorded in Power School as a non-counted Test/Quiz score (it is removed from impacting their final grade). Thus, students (and parents) can see different “progress reports” throughout the unit. The content of these entry tickets will ultimately be the content of the unit test so the progression should directly be reflected in their test score at the end.

At a glance I can determine who is progressing and I can target struggling learners, especially during group and individual work. Currently, my 8th graders are working on a lab that contains negative and positive controls and for some reason they are really having a difficult time wrapping their heads around this concept.  However, many are grasping it and I can see it. There are a handful who remain very unsure and today during the lab I spent time with all lab teams but was able to linger longer with those students who I know, based on their entry tickets,  are really struggling more than the others. My goal was to help them visualize the concept with their experiment.

Tomorrow’s Entry Tick will, indeed, tell me if the visualization helped!

The practice of reporting on formative assessment has yielded some surprising results:

  • In the time it takes students to prepare for our first activity, I know who needs help and I know exactly what I need to focus on that day (and isn't that the entire purpose of formative assessment?).
  • Students become more focused on learning specifics.
  • Students ask more questions.
  • Students arrive more prepared to class, knowing I’m going to probe their knowledge.
  • Student know they will get more chances to learn the topic, and have hope if they still 'don't get it'.
  • Students seem happier and more motivated to tackle difficult topics.
  • Being questioned in a quiz format de-stresses the entire experience of “being tested”. It’s just part of learning now.
  • No time is wasted at the beginning of class because students are engaged as they walk through the door, already reading through their entry tickets.
  • Oh, and parents are happier.

My entry ticket assessments and the recording of them is spreading to all of my classes!