Teaching Teachers: Professional Developments that Work!

I am a PD junkie. No, correction: I am a good PD junkie. There is nothing better than coming together with teachers from different schools, backgrounds, and views on education to improve our craft. These great PDs encourage me to continue learning new content. They make me excited to try new methods and ideas in my classroom. They make me want to be a better teacher.

And there is nothing worse than a one-size-fits-all required PD. If I have to sit in an auditorium with hundreds of other teachers and get a “pep-talk” from one more person (with no background in education), I just might lose my mind. And those online, mandated videos…. They are the worst.

But let’s keep this positive and focus on the good PDs. The ones that make my heart do little cartwheels…. Data shows that teachers need PD that is tailored to their specific situation (whether that be grade level, content, student demographics, etc.). Think of all the changes we as educators are facing today: new standards galore across multiple content areas, technology out the wazoo, and new information (climate change, anyone?) just to name a few. So teachers should be allowed (and encouraged) to choose the PDs that they need. Depending on the size of the district, some teachers might have great PD opportunities in their building. Others might have to go off campus- neither has been shown to be more effective, so don’t stress over that. However, many teachers have expressed that either way, they don’t want their PD run by their own administrators. Many do not see them as experts and the stress of evaluations takes away from the sense of “just try this and see how it goes”. There are also tons of great online opportunities for PD, allowing teachers to work at their own pace and tailor it to their personal needs and interests. But there are also some less than wonderful online options.

The beauty of PDs is that they really depend on teachers to make them better. Bouwma-Gearhart explained that “quality increases future involvement” and vice-versa. If there are great PDs out there, we need to make sure that other teachers know about them. And the more teachers that attend the PDs they want to, the more encouraged these organizations will be to improve what they are providing. That’s why I’m writing this post; to share quality PDs.


I have been so lucky to have had some amazing PD opportunities, but it was definitely work on my part to find them. And every time I return and tell my colleagues about these amazing experiences, they always ask the same thing. “How did you find out about this?” Like I said, I’m a junkie. I am on a ton of email listservs and social media sites and apply for any PD that involves travel (my other weakness). So here are some great PDs that you should check out!

CDC Science Ambassador   

This one is seriously amazing. I attended this week long PD in the summer of 2015. You spend 5 days at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta working with other teachers and CDC scientists to develop curriculum you (and any other teacher) can use in your own classroom. You also have the chance to sit in on training for the EIS officers (some of which truly changed to way I teach!). This program is open to 6th-12th grade teachers and the application deadline (for the 2017 program) is February 15, 2017!

Wells Fargo Regional Sustainability Teachers’ Academy (with Arizona State University)

This program comes highly recommended from a fellow teacher! These two-day workshops are open to teachers in grades 5-9 who are looking to implement improved curriculum in sustainability that can impact not only their schools, but the entire community. Workshops are held multiple times a year in different locations throughout the country and participating teachers are eligible to receive up to $300 to get the program started at their school. Application dates vary depending on the location and date of the workshop.

Teacher Classes at Brookfield Zoo

Another highly recommended program from several teachers I know in the Chicagoland area. These 2 day programs are aligned to NGSS and offered twice a month. They cover a variety of topics and grade levels. Each program is $160, with the option of grad credit for an additional $100. However, they run several discounts throughout the year. I haven’t attended one of these… yet. But they are definitely on my to-do list! They sound like an amazing way to get content knowledge from the experts, plus I’m sure your students will think you’re some kind of rock star when you share your experience with them!

Teacher Courses at the Museum of Science and Industry

Are you ready for this? FREE PD! I know some of us are fortunate enough to have PDs paid for, or at least get reimbursed for them. I also know some teachers have to use their sick days to attend PDs (not to mention pay for it themselves). MSI Chicago is so teacher friendly. These free programs are aimed at teachers in grades 4-8 and are aligned to NGSS. Courses are offered year round, and application due dates are in May and August.

I hope this gives you a place to start (or continue) your great PD search. I would love to expand out to other topics and locations. So if you have other suggestions for PDs that you’d recommend, please leave them in the comments!

Refuse to be another “burned out” teacher.

I’m not going to say that I’m burned out, but I feel myself moving in that direction. And it breaks my heart. I’ve been hearing and reading about teacher burn out since I started teaching 8 years ago. I said to myself, “That won’t be me. I love teaching. I love my kids. I love the people I work with .” And all of that is still true, yet I feel myself getting sucked into the angry mob of burned out teachers.

Statistics show this issue is not getting better. In fact, according to a study discussed in NPR’s recent Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It’s Time to Address the National Teacher Shortage”, nearly 8 percent of all working teachers (over 100,000 teachers nationwide) are leaving the profession every year. And less than a third of them are retiring. The US Department of Education also recently released a study showing that 17 percent of new teachers do not make it more than 5 years in the profession. This particular study tried to put a positive spin on the numbers, saying that the percentage is significantly less than previously quoted. But the down side is that the number is increasing every year (as shown in their data).

I’m sure that any of you reading this post (I’m assuming mostly current teachers) are aware of all the causes of teacher burn out. Things like budgets (or lack there of), mandates and standards, and administration from the federal to state to local levels that are unsupportive and not properly trained. I don’t want to go into them here…. because they bum me out. I don’t have the answer to those problems. What I want to focus on is how we, as teachers, can keep our candles burning a little bit longer in spite of all those problems.


My first recommendation is to take of charge of what you have control over: yourself. So many teachers get so caught up in everything we are doing for our students, our families, our schools, and our communities that we forget about or just don’t have time for ourselves. There’s a reason I haven’t posted here in 4 months. I’m literally just too busy. I’m a mother of two little ones, I’m in grad school, I’m teaching, and I’m attempting to be a good wife, friend, and daughter. And I know I’m not the only one in this chaotic boat. A few weeks ago, I told my husband that I just literally couldn’t keep this pace up anymore. I needed a night off. Thankfully, he’s a wonderfully understanding human. I booked a room at a local hotel on a Friday night a few weeks later and spent the night with… myself. It was PERFECT. I ordered pizza, drank wine, and watched two whole uninterrupted movies. In the morning (after sleeping a solid 9 hours) I drank coffee and read my book. I went home a much more rested, happy, and patient person. And that carried into my teaching on Monday. It let me clear my mind and just unplug for a while. Maybe just a night at home will work for you. Or go out to dinner with friends. Find whatever YOU love to do, and do it. You deserve it.

My second recommendation is to be friends with the people you work with. And do things that friends do. Go out to eat. Let your kids hang out together. Meet up for drinks. There have been some big changes in staff and administration in my building over the last few years. With so many new faces coming in, it can be hard to find someone to turn to when I’m having one of THOSE days. And when you just bottle it up (even just until you get home), it’s never good. Teachers need to work as a team in order for a school to be successful. Being friends with your colleagues, not just “the teacher down the hall” goes a long way in reducing stress levels. And maybe even more importantly, the kids pick up on it. When you are standing in the hall talking and laughing like friends, the kids see the teachers are a team. I think it goes a long way towards building that sense of “community” that we all want in our buildings.

Lastly, you’ve got to keep the kids as the top priority. Seems simple enough. I spend 7 hours a day looking at them. But you have to find the good in them and remind yourself how awesome/funny/creative/amazing they are. This year I have started pushing myself to write down the little things. I have a clipboard with all 7 rosters (including my study hall) that I keep in my top desk drawer. When I see them do something good (ie. asked for help, brought in supplies for a lab when no one else did, pushed themselves in class), I jot it down. Then on Friday, I go through my list and email their parents with what I saw. Sometimes I get a response, sometimes I don’t. That’s not what’s important. It’s really about being more conscious of the good things and sometimes that means I have to look really closely. But it’s there. I’ve also had a LOT more one on one after class chats with students this year. I want them to see I’m on their side and that I believe in them. It also gives me the chance to see them as people, not just students, and remember why I’m doing what I’m doing.

It’s really easy… REALLY EASY to get lost in this burn out spiral. And it seems, from personal experience, that the more you let yourself focus on the problems (especially the ones that we don’t have direct control over) the harder it gets to stop. This isn’t me saying “get over it”. There are legitimate problems educators are facing today. And I have lots of thoughts on those… maybe another post. But while we are dealing with those problems, we have to keep our candles burning.

I hope these tips are helpful to someone out there. If you have other suggestions, by all means share it in the comments. Thanks for stopping by!

To Give Full Credit, or Not to Give Full Credit…

…That is the question.

I realize that late work is a touchy subject for some teachers. We all have various policies, and some schools have a blanket policy for all teachers. But this is my policy that I have adapted and changed over the years. I finally have a plan that I really like, so I want to share it with you.

Until a few years ago, my policy was any homework turned in late was worth 60% of the total points (our lowest D is a 70). So I would grade it, and as long as they got a 60% or higher, that was their grade. If they got 59% or lower, then I gave them that grade. What I did not like about this policy was that when I (or a parent, administrator, or student) looked back at the gradebook, you couldn’t tell if the low score was the result of incomplete work, the student not comprehending the task, or just that it was late. And then I had a group of students that forced me to change (so looking back, thanks kids). Their mindset was that it was better to turn in work incomplete (and I’m talking REALLY incomplete) than to get points off for being late. I’ve gone to great efforts to make sure that any homework I assign is enrichment and will help the students deepen their understanding. It’s never busy work or just because I feel the need to take up every free moment they have. So because they weren’t completing the work, they weren’t getting the information. And everything else they were doing in class was suffering as well.

So I had two big issues here; getting kids to complete the work and being able to tell if students were getting the knowledge and skills. Here’s what I now use: I will accept all late work until the day of the test for full credit (see, controversial… I warned you), but I will not accept ANY incomplete work. If a student hands in an incomplete assignment, I hand it back to them and explain the value of the work and that it’s worth more complete and late than the other way around. I rarely have a student hand in incomplete work more than once.

Now before you go thinking I’ve lost my mind, yes, I do know that turning work in on time is an important life skill. So when I say they get full credit for late work, that’s a tiny bit untrue. I keep a separate grade in the gradebook for “on-time” points. They get 15 points per quarter. Any time they turn in something late (or without a name), they lose one of those points. So there is an incentive for turning your work in on time, but turning in one or two late won’t trash your grade. It also makes it super easy to look at the gradebook and see if a student’s grade is low because they aren’t doing well on the assignment (which was complete, of course) or because they turned work in late.


This policy has been working really well for me and my students. I know that in a perfect world, students would do their work well, on time, and completely finished. But this isn’t a perfect world. So for me, it is about choosing which skills are the most important (and realistic) for my kids and putting my emphasis there. I hope this is helpful to some of you. I’d love to hear your class policies in the comments!

Science Literacy for Modern Students

When I look back at my own education, I had no intention of studying science (let alone teaching it). But what I always have loved is reading and writing. I can remember writing stories on my parents type writer, and I have no idea where they found the patience to read draft after draft after draft of these stories. I used to read next to my nightlight when I was supposed to be sleeping (huge rebel, I know). And as I got older and went through high school and college, I still loved to read and writing continued to be a strength of mine. But somewhere along the road, I ended up in science land. I wanted to know why and how the world worked. But as any science teacher can tell you, reading about science (whether a fictional story or informational texts) is tough. And it is even tougher the first few times you do it. But it does get easier as you learn to do it. And so here I am, teaching science classes but emphasizing the importance of literacy.

Science literacy has kind of become a soapbox of mine. I’ve written a few grad papers on its importance and ways to improve it. Most of the research focuses on reading, and understandably so. That’s how scientists have shared their information for centuries. I have written several posts here on different techniques I use (“But this isn’t english class.”, Updates to Biology Reading DaysMaking Biology Real) to improve students’ reading skills in science, so I won’t repeat that information here. I want to focus this post on how science literacy is different (and in some ways easier) than it was in the past and how we, teachers, can help our students.

More and more people are getting their scientific information from videos and podcasts. It’s just so easy to access. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to understand. Giving kids a link to a video and expecting them to be able to make sense of and analyze it is pretty unrealistic in most cases. It’d be the same as giving them a science text as saying “see you at the end”. So I created these note sheets that my students use when watching videos. It gives them a structure to follow and tells them what to look and listen for. Depending on the video, sometimes I change “Dates, People, & Places” to “Important Information”.

video notes 2

After they finish the video, they write a one paragraph response. They have to include details from the video, not just address it as a whole (“this is confusing/great/dumb/interesting”). Having details right in front of them on their sheet makes this task much easier. I’ve also found that they like watching the videos individually (I’m lucky enough to teach in a 1-to-1 school) as opposed to as a class because they can pause whenever they need to.

video notes 3

Sometimes I assign these as homework, sometimes I give them time in class. But either way, there’s one more important step if you truly want to improve science literacy and not just have them recite dates/events/facts. They need to discuss the video with their peers. What I have experienced is that students are much more comfortable discussing if they have their thoughts and questions written in front of them. Sometimes we do this as a class, sometimes I group them based on the questions they wrote. You could also use this discussion as a way to start or enhance a research project.

video notes 1

And then there’s podcasts. I use the note sheets for those as well, but they’re a whole other beast. I will write a follow up post about that!

So  what I have found is that just like we have to teach them to read science, we also have to teach kids to listen to science. We have to give them structures and guide them on what to listen for, but they are more than capable. And most kids prefer getting their information from the videos instead of a reading (which has increased effort and work completion).  Give it a shot.

Here are some of the videos that I love to use. If you have suggestions of video or podcasts, I’d love to hear them!

Bad Blood (PBS)

In the Shadow of Ebola

Ted: The Case for Engineering our Food

Ted: Let’s Talk Crap. Seriously.

Updates to Biology Reading Days


A while back, I wrote a blog post about my Biology Reading Days. When I started this project, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going with it. I now love it. You can read the original post here.

I will admit, not all my students share my enthusiasm for scientific literature. And that’s fine. What I really want them to get out of it is an exposure to this type of writing. Some of the books on the list are fictional stories (that are scientifically accurate). Some of the books are non-fiction explaining scientific ideas and events. Some of the higher level students actually struggle because they have never read something like this before. I don’t need them to have a Ph.D after reading the book, but just want them to come away with a greater understanding of the concept than they went in with.

So here are my updates:

1. Updated Book Lists: I now use this project with my freshmen bio and my jr/sr A&P….so two lists. I am always looking for new books to add, and taking off any I feel are too hard/boring based on student feedback. I post this for the students as a GoogleDoc, so I put positive student reviews in the comments.  AandPReadingList      BiologyBookList

2. Final Project: I still use the weekly reading sheets (found in the original post), but at the end they have to choose one of the following projects. This is a great way for me to see what their take on the book really was.  FinalBookProject

My final word of caution when doing this project: it is very much about you. This school year, I had a baby. I left reading days as a project for my sub thinking it’d be the easiest one. They pick a book, read it, and answer questions. Easy, peasy…. WRONG. I didn’t realize how important the conversations I was having with the students along the way were. When I returned the last week of the project, a lot of them were so confused, frustrated and bored with their books. They didn’t see the real world connections. And this is not a slam on my sub; she was great! But she hadn’t chosen and read the books (I’ve read about half). Those discussions about how awesome the author/story/concept is weren’t happening. Students weren’t getting productive feedback. And so a lot them felt lost. My point is don’t use reading days as a chance to catch up on grading/paperwork/endless other tasks we have to do. At least not the whole period. This is a chance to make real connections with your kids and get them excited about science (and maybe even reading!). I hope you AND your students love it as much as I (and most of my students) do.

Questions? Suggestions? I’d love to hear them n the comments! And don’t forget to Like me on Facebook!

Collaboration Concept Maps

We just finished final exams at my school (though my grading is far from done….). I usually dread the days leading up to exams because I find that the kids are as bored with reviewing as I am, though it is a necessary evil. I’ve tried review games, but find that the kids don’t really get as much out of them as I’d like. But this year I found an activity that I really like!

I’m always shooting for the application end of my content, not just memorization of facts. So on those review days, I handed each student an index card as the walked in. I had marked each card with a colored line (I had 4 or 5 colors). Then each student chose 5 words to write on their card. They had to choose words from the section of the study guide that was due that day (I had not collected the study guide yet). I advised them to choose words they understood since they were going to have to use them.

Then the students were grouped according to the colors of their card. They compared their lists and replaced any repeats. Then each group was given a posterboard and created a concept map using their words. Creating the map itself is tough for them when it’s from scratch and there are no bubbles to fill in. But the struggle is worth it.

poster 1

The next day we started the same way with new cards for everyone. This time they were in different groups, so when it came time for the concept map they had to choose a random one that was started the day before and figure out how to fit today’s words in it. This was a lot harder for them since they may not totally understand the words that were already on the poster, but it was beneficial for them to see what they really did and did not understand. They also had to not only know the meaning of the words (memorization), but be able to relate those words to other words (application).

poster 2

The third day was the same routine; card, 5 words, groups, concept maps. By the end, students were comfortable explaining words or concepts they understood to their group members that didn’t. And I always feel like they’re more willing to learn from their peers than from a teacher. This was, in my opinion, a much better use of review time!

poster 3

How do you review for finals?

By Popular Demand!

A while back I wrote about turning my classroom into bakery. Here’s the original post: Let Them Eat Bread  Since then, I’ve had a lot of people ask for the document I used for the yeast lab. I apologize that it took me forever to post it, but better late than never. So here it is: YeastLab. I have my students do a formal lab report with this one. Their initial hypotheses are usually all over the place, and someone always says the salt will kill the yeast.

This year I used both the yeast tube lab and the bread baking in our cellular respiration unit. I started the unit by having them write in their journals in response to “Why does bread dough rise?”. It was important to emphasize to them to just write whatever they thought. This gave me a good idea what their pre-conceptions were, but also allowed me to show growth throughout the unit. After baking the bread, they had a one question quiz. “Write one paragraph explaining why bread dough rises.” They had to include the words cellular respiration, yeast, glucose, and carbon dioxide. I graded them not by marking their answers right or wrong, but by asking questions. Then I put them into pairs based on their scores and had them revise together to raise their scores. I feel like they got a lot more out of it this year.

If you try it out, let me know what works and what doesn’t. I really appreciate your feedback!  Happy Baking!!


Political Biology

Source: josiahandfriends.wordpress.com

Source: josiahandfriends.wordpress.com

Today I’m sharing another one of my quarter projects, meaning my kids work on it once a week for 9 weeks. I really like this one because it gives the students the freedom to dive into a topic that they really are interested in. It requires them to find out what is happening in the real world and decide for themselves what the best solution is.

Each student chooses a biological topic (ie. global warming, animal conservation, organic foods) and then researches political connections. The end product is a letter to a politician explaining what the problem is and what they feel the government should (or should not) do about it. In some cases, the government is not involved at all but the students can take the side that it should be! They can disagree or agree with what is already being done (which means they have to actually know what is going on). Here’s the student instructions and research questions: Politician letter   I’ve done this project with my freshmen bio and with my upperclassmen bio 2, so there are modifications for both levels. My freshmen all write to President Obama. My upperclassmen have to choose their own politician (anyone but Obama).  They edit each other’s letters, and then I edit again if needed. I do actually mail their letters (well, the ones that meet all the criteria). We always get a response from the White House (though it takes a few months). I post the letter in my room, and the kids really get a kick out of it. Some of the other politicians will respond as well, and I give those letters to the student who wrote them.

Here’s what’s great about this project:

-They have to think for themselves. They can’t defend their solution with “my parents say”. We also do a discussion day where they tell the class their problem and solution, and then the class gets to ask questions to make them strengthen their defense.

-Writing a letter that will actually be sent gets them to put in more effort. It gives the whole project a purpose beyond “it’s good to know”. It does make them feel important and show them their opinion is valued.

-It’s great way to teach about credible sources and even bring in primary literature if your students are ready for it!

Teachers Travel, Too!


This summer seems to be flying by… even faster than most! I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot and visit places I’ve never seen before. But the highlight happened at a professional development last week. That’s right, a SUMMER PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT.

I spent five days at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for their Science Ambassador program. I joined 31 other high school and middle school teachers from around the country (and 1 from Canada) to build curriculum aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. The curriculum will be published (after revisions and the final clearance by the “powers that be” at the CDC) sometime in the future, but in the mean time feel free to check out the work that previous Science Ambassadors have done here.

We worked in teams of 4 and each team had a CDC Subject Matter Expert (SME, the CDC is huge on acronyms). My team is working on a lesson on radon and its link to lung cancer. We had an incredible expert from the CDC Comprehensive Cancer Control Branch.

While the curriculum building was the main goal, here are some of the other highlights from my week:

Dr. Harold Jaffe and Dr. Jim Curran reliving the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Have you seen "And the Band Played On"? These tw are the real life CDC guys!

Dr. Harold Jaffe and Dr. Jim Curran reliving the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Have you seen “And the Band Played On”? These two are the real life CDC guys!

Dinner and downtime with teachers from around the country. Not only are they brilliant, creative teachers but fun humans too!

Dinner and downtime with teachers from around the country. Not only are they brilliant, creative teachers but fun humans too!

Public Health Panel of Experts: The CDC includes such a variety of career fields. It's so much more than M.D.s and lab researchers.

Public Health Panel of Experts: The CDC includes such a variety of career fields. It’s so much more than M.D.s and lab researchers.

Tour of the CDC Emergency Operations Center with my teacher team. CDC is really strict about no pictures on campus, so we were thrilled to get a pic with the sign!

Tour of the CDC Emergency Operations Center with my teacher team. CDC is really strict about no pictures on campus, so we were thrilled to get a pic with the sign!

My team's presentation of our lesson at the end of the week. Pretty cool to be able to say I've presented at the CDC!

My team’s presentation of our lesson at the end of the week. Pretty cool to be able to say I’ve presented at the CDC!

Closing remarks from Dr. Josh Mott, Chief of the Epidemiology Workforce Branch.

Closing remarks from Dr. Josh Mott, Chief of the Epidemiology Workforce Branch.

Nothing's official without a certificate, right? Seriously, cannot wait to hang this one up in my classroom!

Nothing’s official without a certificate, right? Seriously, cannot wait to hang this one up in my classroom!

All of us Ambassadors!

All of us Ambassadors!

The whole week was a lot of work, and at the end of it my brain was exhausted (as were my feet, Atlanta is hilly!). But this was such an inspirational experience. Everyone we met there is so passionate about their work and you truly get the feeling that they are in it for the greater good. It also made me realize the influence that us lowly teachers have when it comes to public health. We really have a chance to make a positive change. My very strong suggestion to you is to keep an eye on this program and when applications open for next summer, APPLY! Here’s the info: CDC Science Ambassador Program