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This is where we share thoughts and ideas regarding inquiry, STEM education, and teaching in general.  If you are looking for more about the Biology Rocks family of teaching resources, visit our website at


Don’t Be Grateful, Be Supportive

Students don’t do their work for you. Teaching is such a personal endeavor and we get so invested in the success of our students that it can be easy to forget they aren’t doing the work for us. Sure they are motivated by us, they may feel responsibility to us and might even say they are doing it for us. But they’re not.


The purpose of our students’ work is to grow their own skills. They work in and for our class to engage in productive struggle which leads to an increase in ability. The reward of their own improvement develops an internal motivation that will drive our students to continue to achieve long after they have left our course. A simple thank you can undo all of that.

There is an alternative. We should not disregard or disparage the effort of our students. I’m not saying their labor should be ignored. Instead our goal as teachers, leaders and managers should be to empower the effort of those who work under us so that their endeavors have maximum impact. When a student practices we should remark on their improvement and offer our own efforts to augment their investment.

The difference between gratitude and actualization is subtle. The effects are not immediately apparent. But hard work to satisfy an authority figure will only be enough for so long. If students only work for a thank you, they will encounter work that is too costly to be worth it. When someone does you a favor you are grateful, but you don’t expect someone to do you the same favor consistently every day. Eventually they will tire of the imposition and at a point they will refuse.


So play the long game with those you oversee. Intrinsic motivation is difficult to grow, but even more difficult to stamp out once it takes root. An employee works to realize his or her potential as a contributing member of society. Focus on bringing out and maximizing the potential of those you lead, rather than treating their efforts as a personal favor. Because thankfully, it isn’t.

Join us at NSTA 2016

We’re packing our bags to head to Nashville next week! NSTA is one of our favorite events each year and I am certain it is going to be anther fantastic year working with teachers from around the country to improve our practice.

Presenting in Boston in 2014.

Presenting in Boston in 2014.

Differentiated learning opportunities are a big part of effectively creating an inquiry learning environment. Each student comes to a concept with different background knowledge and concrete experiences. Allowing each student to access a single concept from their own unique perspective while they struggle to reach the next step along the path to authentic understanding (whatever that step may be) is the focus of our presentation next week.


How does practice, abstraction and differentiation look when we try to develop competency in math in our students? This math literacy, or numeracy, is more than simply asking them to calculate a mean each time they conduct an experiment. We’ll consider what it takes, how we as teachers can support our students in the process and hopefully see a cool way to run an experiment while we’re at it.


Looking forward to seeing you all in Nashville! We’ll be presenting Friday afternoon at 12:30 in Cumberland Meeting Room 3.

5 Teacher Tips To Survive The Week After Winter Break

For many of us, it’s been a long, cold, pie-filled few weeks since our classrooms were packed with students. Just before finals, they were studying hard and full of anticipation for an extended break. Now that the hiatus is behind us, it’s time to get back to business. Reddit collected tips for new teachers returning from their first winter break, and we’ve gathered the best of them.


Accept failures from the term before… and keep an eye out for the ones ahead.

We mean both literal and figurative failures. We’ve written quite a bit (because it’s one of our favorite educational, professional and life philosophies) about the importance of failure in the classroom. Students who earned failing grades last semester should have a chance to learn the material they missed. If you could have done more to help a student learn and they’re invested now, use this chance to do so. There will be opportunities for improvement (we sure hope) in the future as well, so work on recognizing them!


Use the beginning of the year as a chance to reevaluate how you’re teaching.

Reddit user PaHotoSynthesis takes this part of the year to look at the teacher-student relationship. Have you done the best job possible helping your students understand the content? What can you do better? The kids themselves may be able to help you decide on that: “I’ve had pretty good luck just leveling with the kids… They usually appreciate that – even if they claim to be apathetic it shows them that you care… Sometimes it isn’t as bad as you think.”



Jump right back in.

Many of the popular comments featured teachers who shared their actual content-specific plans for the first day of the semester. Most said they would take at least a few minutes to get students back in the swing of things: reviewing procedures and schedule reminders, but then, it’s on to the learning. Don’t waste any precious classroom time: get the students going right away!



Reddit User lewormhole



Show your class it’s a new semester with new opportunities.

Even if your grade book doesn’t refresh with the new term, students can use the date on the calendar as a new start in your class. It’s hard for younger people (or really anyone) to be motivated by an event 16 weeks into the future, but they have all spring to turn things around, if need be.

This is also a good opportunity to remind students what your classroom procedures and expectations are, since they’ve had a lot of freedom over the break and may need to rehash the structure of a well-functioning classroom.



You’re fresh off a break, but beware burnout.

Teachers hear it all the time: you have to take time away from the classroom to avoid it consuming your life. Even if you’ve just had weeks out of the classroom, make it happen. A few minutes here and there and one weekend day without school on your mind will save a lot of stress just a few days down the road. Redditors agreed with User __solid: the key to avoiding teacher burnout is taking time for yourself here and there, and it’s a strategy to pass on to your students as well.



Courtesy The Daily Frenchie




One more word of advice, from Reddit User ThreePenny, who says it’s always easier with one semester under your belt: “You’re going to be fine! You’ve made it through the hardest part already!”



Reddit teachers have many more back-to-class tips here! Veteran teachers, what did we miss?

Let’s Talk About the Forest

The new year marks the time for another important milestone in professional development. The 2015 submission deadline for the Unity and Diversity just passed. U&D is a national group of teachers that has decided we should write about education topics once a year. As the final revisions and editor’s notes come and go I’m finding it is time to reflect upon why I spend time writing essays during my very precious vacation days.

So much of a teacher’s time gets allocated to the myriad of demands of our profession. Lesson plans, grading, paperwork, and mandated professional development activities tend to suck up the few extra moments a teacher has to be creative. Professional development means more than signing a number of attendance sheets and sitting through a lecture until the clock strikes “go home”. Not every PD day is a valuable use of our time, but professional development does matter.

Education is a tremendously challenging career that requires continuous improvement to approach maximum effectiveness. All the trees of our numerous demands day after day can easily lead us to never stop to think about the forest of education we attempt to navigate as a professional community. All of our work to keep moving forward each day doesn’t often leave time to think about the direction in which we are headed.

So Unity and Diversity is an important opportunity to spend time with colleagues around the country thinking about the biggest ideas in our field. Ask questions without a mandated outcome. Start a debate we may not be able to finish by 3:00 pm. It is a gratifying reminder of why we do what we do as educators. So check out our work from 2014 and follow the project in the coming months to see the newest work when it releases in early next year.

NSTA Kansas City – Quantified Plant Behavior

We might be in the middle of a serious icing here in Kansas City, but that doesn’t mean we’re not prepping our plants for their big day next week. Next Friday, Shannon and I will be presenting at the regional NSTA conference here in Kansas City. We’ll be looking at how the NGSS framework is changing the way we should approach behavior, how plant water management can be a model system for observing adaptive behaviors, ways for students to quantify plant water conservation strategies and how the whole process will lead to student competency in both science practice and biological understanding.

Hope to see you there!

Hope to see you in KC!

It will be a busy hour for sure, but we’re up for the challenge. Join us at 12:30 p.m. on Friday for a look at how to get your students outside and engaging with the natural world in a meaningful and authentic way. See you there!

Making is Applied Inquiry

I had the opportunity to attend the Mini Maker Faire in Rochester, New York this past weekend. I was excited to be able to schedule the trip because it gave me a chance to get well outside my usual sphere of experience and see what another region of the country is doing in the field of creative making. I was not disappointed!

From my first steps on the convention floor I could see that I was among my kind of people. The welcome booth was designed explicitly to give kids in attendance a chance to begin inquiring. It was a series of tables with interesting problems and materials for kids to try to solve those problems. And the booth was busy. All around me were people, young and old, interested in finding the most compelling problem and trying to solve it, simply for the joy of struggling with something challenging.

Walk through door, start inquiry. Nothing better!


What I found most compelling as I walked the floor was the unabashed way people were exploring things with no clear end goal. There was a 3D printer making pictures with coffee stains. I asked the creator at the station why he made the device and he gave me a funny look. It’s a great way to introduce students to the intersection of technology, making and art. Who knows where the technology and techniques will lead… but what a strange thought to imagine needing an answer to “why” before one starts the problem-solving…


Got a signed print too!


So I have accumulated a number of great new ideas to put into action in my new maker space in my school. I’ve also got a renewed passion for letting students explore a space with only creative expression as the motivation. I feel full of youth and zeal again, and want to just jump into the ball pit and splash around. Or perhaps even better, I would like to jump into this maker-pit:


I wanted to dive in like a ball pit. It looked like so much fun!


and splash around. Let’s not forget that inquiry is its own reward.

See more photos and stories of Michael’s visit to the Rochester Mini Maker Faire on his Twitter feed and at the event hashtag.

You’ve Got It Backward: Hard Is Learning

Now is the point in the year when classroom culture really starts to take root. Students in all of my classes have heard my rhetoric on mindset and revision so much that they’ve finally started to see it working. Students have endured struggle, experienced growth and are now internalizing their perception of the process and re-expressing their own interpretation of what our class is about. It’s a beautiful and compelling process.

What is most interesting to me is when students identify questions or uncertainties within our growth model that prompt nuanced and challenging debate regarding how they learn. This week a student asked me why I love to see them struggle. Many teachers likely hear this question in some form from students, but this time it was different. The student wasn’t seeking laziness or escape, she was honestly asking why her struggle was preferable to just telling her the “answer”. We dropped everything and had that discussion right then and there! (If you’re not familiar with why struggle in the classroom is so important, here’s the data.)


Students should struggle! But in a significant way.

My student was finally ready to consider how school fit into her life in a meaningful way. Her learning in class wasn’t a task that must happen, but was instead something that might fit into what she actually wanted to do with her life. She had questions. We didn’t resolve her existential conflict in that period, but we did validate her consideration of her own life path in a way she likely had never gotten before.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review has given a fresh summary of why students should struggle in the classroom, and I share it because they’ve given some concrete examples of how Harvard implements the philosophy of a growth mindset into specific learning opportunities for students in specific classes.

The way our classroom feels and runs is solidifying at this point in the year. My classroom is one of glorious struggle! How does student challenge fit into your daily operation? Can you improve the perception of students struggling, before it’s too late?

Interested in reading more about making your classroom a little more challenging? Michael wrote this post about adopting struggle in your classroom culture.

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