Thursday, August 4, 2016

How to Make Your Science Classroom More Equitable: Know Your Implicit Bias

Difficult Steps

Image courtesy of NAPE
I have written and re-written this post a number of times, but have hesitated to post anything. Why? Because this topic is messy and difficult. My hesitancy to post this entry uncovers a very important aspect about the topic of race and equity in the classroom: it can be a very uncomfortable topic. However when this topic does not get addressed, inequities can persist so it is crucial to think and talk about equity in the classroom!

Although I have kept a foot in the science teaching world, I have spent the past year as an educational equity consultant for NAPE – theNational Alliance for Partnerships in Equity. In this position, I have learned a lot about my own white privilege and ways in which I may have misjudged students in the past, as well as ways I could create a more equitable classroom. (*Please note the statements in this blog are my own and do not represent NAPE)

A large reason for my hesitancy in posting this is because learning how to break down invisible barriers in your classroom is not a blog-friendly topic. It takes lots of time to process and learn about the ways in which inequities persist as well as lots of self-reflection and discovery – something you won’t find in a “5 tips” kind of blog (of course that didn’t stop me from including some steps here!).  The good news is that the hard work pays off. The recommendations below can help every student in your class!

This is the first of five posts about small steps you can take to help create a more equitable learning environment. However, the most powerful change you can make will require thousands of little steps into reading, reflecting and learning about equity in education. Stay tuned for recommended resources for those harder, less tangible steps at the end of this post.

Step 1: Become Aware of Your Implicit Bias

We are all biased about many things. Our brain naturally judges the world around us and makes assumptions—it’s a survival mechanism! Although biases are natural, implicit biases are hidden judgements which can result in treating some people negatively while other people are treated positively. We may be completely unaware that we have these biases and be sending negative messages to people without even realizing it. As educators who have a lot of power, it is especially important to be aware of our implicit biases so that we can work to treat every student in a positive way. But how do you become aware of something that you don’t even know you have? Luckily, psychologists out of Harvard University devised a test! The IAT test uses response times to identify your implicit biases for a number of groups: race, gender, and more.  To learn more about the IAT test and get the link to take the test, go to:

If you’ve taken the IAT test, you now know some of your implicit biases, and yes—these will play out in the classroom. So how do you change this? Stay tuned for the next step: analyzing your patterns.

To continue the conversation, please follow me on facebook and twitter.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Wise Feedback: A Recommended Resolution for Grading Papers

To Consider During your End-of-Holiday Grading 


As the holiday break dwindles to a final few days, you may finally be thinking about grading all those papers you brought home. With a resolution to be a better teacher, I thought I would share one small way to help students improve their work, and perhaps instill some self-efficacy and a growth mindset
Before you start marking up papers, consider the following: students who receive “wise” feedback, particularly African American students with low trust of their teachers, are more likely to edit drafts and work towards improving their work. (You can read the academic paper to learn more.) 


How to Give Wise Feedback

Giving wise feedback involves two key components:

  1. Stating you have high standards for quality work 
  2. Stating that you believe the student can improve and eventually meet your high standards with effort 

Photo courtesy of Jenny Kaczorowski,
If possible, providing ways for the student to get support to meet the standards is also helpful.

Why is wise feedback important? A lot of it has to do with something called stereotype threat. You can also learn more about wise feedback at this blog.

I hope you consider including this in your practice in the new year!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

4 Ways to Keep Science Engaging in the Classroom

I haven't written a new post lately because I'm in Antarctica, working with a research team and communicating the science back to classrooms through PolarTREC journals. This reminds me of a key aspect of teaching science which is hard to remember in the day to day standards, tests and curriculum mandates: keeping science engaging!  Below are four ways to help keep (or get) students interested in science, which might significantly change the way they look at the discipline!

1. Connect Students with Exciting and Current Science

One of the hardest things to do is to include the cutting edge and often most exciting aspects of science into your lesson plans. I often struggled with this since I had to cover so much content. A way I learned to manage this was to include Science Pictures of the Day in my classroom. 

Here in Antarctica, I am posting "Ice Pictures of the Day" every weekday on my PolarTREC journals. You can download PowerPoint Slides with notes describing each picture. I try to align them to NGSS standards as well.

An example of an Ice POD. You can download the PPT slide from the 11/12/2015 PolarTREC journal page.

2. Connecting with Real Scientists
Michelle and the science team waiting to deploy to Antarctica

Another way to keep science engaging in the classroom is to connect students to scientists. Programs like GK12 are an excellent way to do this, but those opportunities are limited. You also can share students with the Cool Careers books from Sally Ride Science

I am happy to connect teachers and students with scientists while I am here in Antarctica. My journals have a section on each page where you can "Ask the Team" research questions. I also have access to geologists, glaciologists, chemists, biologists, physicists, astronomers, and meteorologists here who I am happy to feature on my journal or send a video to a teacher for. Email me at if you would like to collaborate!

3. Personal Stories Behind Science

One way to keep science interesting is to have a good human story behind it. The story of how Alfred Wallace was close to being as famous as Charles Darwin, but because he did not promote himself as well, his name is unknown.  Other stories I enjoy to tell are about Marie Curie and how she sacrificed her life for science due to the radiation she was exposed to. I also like to talk about Rosalind Franklin, the dark lady of DNA whose name is not often remembered along with Watson and Crick.  I also like to talk about current scientists, like Tyrone Hayes, a very charismatic biologist who studies how frogs are affected by pollutants. He also has become a political figure, speaking out against companies like Monsanto. Seeking out stories about scientists who model the demographics in your classroom (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) is a great way to keep science interesting and relevant to your students.

4. Push Your Own Boundaries as a Science Teacher
Michelle peers down an Ob Tube outside McMurdo Station

I think the one of the best ways to keep students engaged in science is if you are as well. When I start to forget why I want to teach science, I find engaging programs that re-ignite my love of learning. The GK12 program, NASA's Galileo Educator Network, the Radiation Belt Storm Probe educator workshops, and the PolarTREC program are the more influential programs I have joined to stay enthused. Not only do these programs educate you and connect you with scientists, but it also helps you find a community of engaged, committed science educators who you can lean on for support.

For the time being, please join me virtually in Antarctica to keep your students engaged in science!  Here are the biggest ways you can get your class involved:

  • Read daily journals about science and life in Antarctica:  
  • Write questions or answer questions posted in the journals in the "Ask the Team" section of the journals. I often write postcards and send them from Antarctica to participants who respond!
  • Register here to participate in a live webinar on December 1st, where my research team will talk about our work while we are in Antarctica and classes can ask questions in real time
  • Email me at: if there are other ways I can collaborate with you while I am in Antarctica--I am eager to make connections with as many science teachers as possible!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Productive Ways to Respond When a Student Refuses to Leave the Classroom

The recent Spring Valley High School incident has made me reflect on what I would have done if a student using a cell phone refused to put it away and refused to leave class.  Like many teachers, I have been faced with similar (if not exactly the same) situations. I never once thought to force the student out of his/her seat.

I have had to learn over time how to react and control my emotions when a student is defiant.  Early in my teaching, my anger would boil up when a student openly defied me. Over time, however, I have learned that reacting with anger and yelling is unproductive.

Steps to Handle Defiance:


  1. Move On (Secretly Wait & Take Deep Breaths)

    After asking a student to do something, such as leave the room, I don't stand there stopping the whole class in a stalemate. I move on with the lesson. Now really I am giving some wait time to the situation. Some students need more time to process what is happening and comply to the directive. I also am calming myself down. No matter how many times a student is defiant to me in front of a class, it triggers a fight or flight mechanism in me, and usually the "fight" mechanism. If I give in to anger, then I've lost control of myself and the class. I will get nowhere with the student and will most likely lose respect from the class. One way I've learned to pacify this response is to meditate or breath. I have gotten to the point where I don't even try to hide it in front of students--I hope they see it as a positive way to regain control.

  2.  Think

    While I'm continuing with class, I am really trying to figure out what happened and decide how necessary it is to follow through with a class removal. If a student has done something very disruptive and the student's presence is still a disruption to the learning environment (and all my other management tricks are not working), I may call the Dean's office or principal and ask for an administrator to come get the student. However, if it is something like a student refusing to put away his/her phone and he/she is sitting quietly in class, there is no need for class removal. After nine years in the classroom, I have seen plenty of disruption. I have seen many students storm out of the classroom and many others refuse to leave their seat. I have never seen a student refuse to leave their seat and continue to disrupt the class. Although the defiance is something that needs to be discussed eventually, there is no need to remove a student by force if he/she is not disrupting the class or causing harm to themselves or others.

  3.  Discuss Privately

    If it seems as though the student has calmed down and there is a moment where students are working and I can talk to the defiant student privately, I may go over to discuss the issue with him/her. It is often the case that the student is not ready to talk to me. I may write a note or give distance until the next class period (if someone is too angry to talk to me later in the class period, they will probably not be calmed down for a while). If they refuse to interact with me and sit quietly for the rest of class, even if they continue to disobey the cell phone rule, I let it go. I have confidence that my other students know that I will work with that student and that using your phone in class is not acceptable.

    When I do talk to the student, I do not discuss the incident right away or speak to them with anger in my voice. I ask them how they are doing, if they've had a bad day or if something has gone on that upset them. If a student is furious because you want them to put away their phone, there's probably a deeper issue going on.
  4.  Think Again and Investigate

    After my class has ended, I'll have more time to try to better understand what happened. I'll check in with the student's advisor, other teachers (particularly those right before my class) and the Dean. I may or may not contact the student's parents that night--depending on how that would make the student react. I also may email the student. A lot of what I do depends on what I think will work with that individual student--getting to know students ahead of time, therefore, is key!
  5. Make a Plan

    Typically by the next day, the student has calmed down and can talk. Again, I don't address the situation in terms of what the student has done wrong, but more about what is going on and why the student was so upset. If the problem is something that re-occurs, I would work out a system so the student and I can deal with the issues in a proactive manner. 

    For example, I once had a student who would storm out of class angrily, yelling at me and the co-teacher. After eating lunch with her and talking, it became clear that sometimes she had a bad day and my redirection was the last straw. We came up with a plan that when she felt like storming out, she would ask permission and I would always say yes. We continued to develop a plan where she would go visit the Dean and give her a candy or cookie (yes, this was our plan--I was pregnant and always had cookies at my desk!). Over time, the student gained control of her reactions and our relationship improved instead of deteriorated.
The big point I want to make here is to not respond immediately with anger. Losing control in front of the class is bound to happen, but using strategies like cooling down (yes, you too!), meditating and trying to understand the trigger for the behavior is far more productive than proving your power in front of the class.

Read Your Students

A recent New York Times article mirrors many of the ideas above. The teacher interviewed also brings up an important preventative measure: read the students as they enter the class.  Pedro Noguera, author of "The Trouble with Black Boys:...And Other Reflections of Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education", discusses the importance of understanding the root of the defiance. Next time a student is defiant in your class, pause and remember how easily things can escalate into a situation you didn't intend for. De-escalating situations should be at the forefront, which may mean letting something go until everyone is calmed down.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Tips for Handling Tough Middle Schoolers

Every teacher has their own philosophies and strategies for classroom management. Some say not to smile until January, others insist that engaging lessons curtail any misbehavior. When managing students, teachers need to find a management systems that align to their own philosophies and personalities. That being said, it never hurts to hear tricks other teachers use to build relationships and keep class focused on learning.

Below are some of the ways I stay ahead of mutiny in the classroom and work with individual students who might need a little extra TLC.

Class Roles

It may feel scary to put a student who typically disrupts class or barely keeps his/her head up in a classroom leadership role, but I have found this to be exactly what some students need (note: I said some, this might not work for every student!). It is important to say, I NEVER force a student to participate in a role--it is strictly voluntary. I do try to persuade them to try it out first. Also, I make sure it doesn't go against any IEPs. Here are some classroom roles and the students I have found they are best suited for:

Document Camera Worker

I often flip between a document camera and powerpoint slides while teaching.  The document camera is at the front of the room, with a desk area and seat next to it. I especially like to put students who have low self-esteem about learning science in this role. These students take notes under the document camera or record answers as they are reviewed with the class. If possible, I also have them model how to record entries in the science notebook. Many students are afraid they will make a mistake in this role at first. To help boost confidence, I initially give the student a cheat sheet with the correct notes or composition book entry or answers. I have noticed students change their demeanor in the class as they begin to be an expert and leader.

Powerpoint/Computer Worker

I like to use powerpoint slides to stay on task and organize lessons. I put my computer near a student's desk and when we use powerpoint slides, I have the student closest to the computer forward slides for me, change to videos, and do other work. I intentionally seat a student who I think needs a positive role in class to the spot closest to the computer. Often times there are students who are hard to keep on task in class. For some of these students, the powerpoint role works great. For others, it may exacerbate them (especially if they have ADHD). I also like to teach the student hotkey tricks (e.g., ALT or Command  and Tab let you quickly switch to another app), so they move fast and learn something new.

Lights & Doors Worker

I always have a few antsy students who just can't stay in their seats. For these students, I have standing tables at the back of the room. When it is time to shut the door, turn on or off lights, or do anything near the back of the room, I ask them to do it.  The standing tables have been an amazing improvement for the focus and behavior management of some of my students!  It is important not to use standing tables at the back of the room as a punishment. I never force a student to work there--it is voluntary. If my room has little space, I'll put taller stools there, so there's an option of sitting.  Also, it's important to check IEPs and make sure students who need this accommodation are not required to be at the front of the room.

Building Strong Relationships

Many teachers will tell you that the students they know the best were once their toughest. When you start to clash with a student and find that he/she is pushing your buttons, although it is the one person you may not want to interact with, that is the best solution. Getting to know tough students is often the solution to their disruption in your class. Here are some ways I've gotten closer to students who need a stronger relationship:

Buy a Book

First talk to the student--what are their hobbies? What do they want to do when they grow up? Once you know an interest, hobby or future career that a student has, buy them a book on the topic. I like to write a note on the inside. If it starts to get expensive or you want to maximize the effort, I often keep the book in my library and lend the student the book, with a note inside.  If it's hard to get a conversation off the ground, you can always lend them a book that other students like. For example, "Wonder" is a great book, so is "The Hunger Games" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." I write my name on the bottom of the book to ensure it gets returned. Not only does it show the student you care about him/her, but it also starts a conversation. You can ask if they liked the book or if they've read it yet!

Start with a Positive

Some students seek out negative attention because they simply want attention. When co-teachers and I believe a student has this tendency, we try to counter-act it by giving them positive attention from the start. This often requires two teachers in the room. When that student comes in and starts class, one of us will sit with him/her and check in with them about their day (or other interests) while they work on the Do Now.  Throughout class we sit down and check in, giving them positive attention before they seek out negative attention.

Lunch Buddy

When a tough student is really tough and has me completely stuck in building a relationship, I will resort to buying them lunch--or atleast a snack.  I'll ask them what they like to eat for lunch (trying to stay on the healthy side of options) and invite them to join me for lunch one day in my room (NOTE: Keep doors open and have a colleague somewhere in the room. You should never be alone with a student with the doors closed) or in the cafeteria. If they refuse because they want to eat with a certain friend, I'll invite that person too (or if there is a group of students I'm really struggling with, I'll invite 2 - 3 of them). When they come to eat, I do not address any of the misbehaviors that I'm frustrated with. Instead we play UNO or talk about stuff that is positive. Playing UNO (or another game) has been especially helpful. Students often will open up to me and share personal stories that help me better understand their situation and reasons for misbehavior. Often once I know their story, it is a lot easier to conference with them when misbehavior occurs later in class.

Managing Meltdowns

If you are like me, despite every attempt to run a smooth class, you will have students with meltdowns in your room which completely disrupt your lesson plans. We often forget that students have lives outside of our class--if a student loses his/her cool in class, it's important to remember that you don't know what triggered it. The sooner that student can be calmed down, the less time your class can be derailed. Never argue with a student in class and call for assistance if the situation is serious.

What may start as a minor disturbance can escalate into a meltdown if you are not careful. When a misbehavior disrupts class and a warning doesn't change anything, I like to conference with a student privately. Here are some tips I use when conferencing with a student.

Be Random and Be Kind

When you walk outside or to the back of a room with a student, they are expecting you to talk about their misbehavior. They may be embarrassed of being singled out and your redirection speech could trigger a bigger outburst. I've noticed that not starting with the behavior works best. I like to start with a random observation or by saying something nice to the student.

Take a walk

If there is a co-teacher in my classroom who can take over, I often like to do a little loop around the building with the student. If I can't leave the area, I like to stand or sit next to the student, looking outward and not at them. I've found that not forcing a student to look at you while you discuss behavior works best for many.

Anger Workbook Book for Teens

Some of my students have so much anger that despite my best strategies, they still have to get their anger out. I like to have copies of the Anger Workbook for Teens in my classroom for students to work through. One strategy is to write out what is bothering you and then rip it out. If an outburst is due to an incident outside my class, I'll often have a student write out what they're feeling and rip it up, so they can get back to class.

The Takeaway: Respect Them

In the end, if you want to work well with students, respect them as people. Do not humiliate them. Do not make them feel ashamed or point out their weaknesses in front of the class. Do not assume you know why they are acting the way they are--in fact, assume the best. I truly believe that every child wants to succeed in my class and some of them have just lost their way at some point (often because of how a teacher had made them feel.)

What are your management strategies? Please share below!

Also, please follow me on facebook and twitter.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Connect Your Students to Polar Science

Send Me Your Penguins

Here is a fun way to connect your class to Antarctica: decorate the flat penguin template, decorate it however you like, and send it to the address in the directions by October 23rd, 2015. I will be joining a team of scientists on November 1st to study human impacts at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Aside from posting journals about the science and life in Antarctica on my PolarTREC page, I will also take photos of your flat penguins at the station and email them back to you!

Adaptation Lesson: Blubber Gloves

While you wait for your flat penguin to make it to Antarctica, you can teach students about the interesting life at the bottom of the world, and the adaptations they have to keep warm.  My favorite fun hands-on activity is Blubber Gloves.  Here is a sample lesson using the Blubber Gloves.

Making Your Own Blubber Gloves

You may feel overwhelmed by the process of making blubber gloves, but it's really quite simple. To start you need Crisco (or any kind of shortening), freezer bags and duct tape.  A 48 ounce canister of Crisco typically makes 3 gallon-size gloves.

  1. Lay out 2 freezer bags.  Turn one of them inside out and fit it inside the other one.
  2.  Scoop Crisco in between the freezer bag layers on one side.  I typically use 10-12 spoonfuls, about 1/3rd of the container.
  3.  Seal the inner bag to the outer bag on that side. Turn the bags over.
  4. Put 2 - 3 scoops of Crisco in between the outer and inner bags on the second side.  Seal the bags together.
  5. You  now should have lots of Crisco between the bags on one side, and a little bit of Crisco on the other side.  Keeping most of the Crisco on one side, smooth out the lumps so that the sides are smooth.
  6. Place the bag on the table so the thicker side is facing down.  Place your hand in the "glove" and fold over the bag so that the thick layer covers most if not all of your hand.  Crease or leave the bag folded.

  7. Making sure the bag is completely sealed, tape along the outer edges and down the crease of the fold. I also tape the very end of the "glove".
  8. Lastly, create a similar glove using just one plastic bag.  This can be a control to compare the blubber glove with.  

You now have blubber gloves!  I like to have students make hypotheses, then use them in ice water to make observations, and lastly inferences about penguins!

I will be posting pictures of the day and journals/videos about life and science in Antarctica on my PolarTREC page. I am happy to make connections between what you are learning and life at the bottom of the world, so stay tuned!

You can also stay updated from my facebook page or on twitter (@MsBrownTeacher)

I'll resume posts about general science teaching when I return in December.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Science Picture of the Day: A Small Way to Make a Big Difference

When I read end of year surveys I’ve given to my students (see the second page of this survey for an example), they often site the picture of the day as the thing they liked most about my class.  Yes—it stings a little that all of my efforts to create meaningful labs, carefully aligned assignments and field trip opportunities are trumped by a 1-minute discussions after our Do Nows. However, they have provided me with a way to incorporate the current events of science into my class and build strong relationships with students by allowing them to create some of the curriculum. 

How I Create the Picture of the Day

Initially, I found Pictures of the Day to present to students myself. As an Earth Science teacher, I used the Earth Science Picture of the Day website to pull interesting pictures connected to the content I was teaching. Any subject matter teacher can easily find pictures connected to their field: ChemistryBiology, and  Physics (well, Astronomy).

I would quickly copy and paste the picture into my PowerPoint template, including a sentence or two and, to stay true to my plagiarism rules, the link (sometimes correctly cited when I had the time!) I often started a timer to ensure I did not spend the whole class period in a discussion about the content and on very busy days, I did not entertain questions about the slide. Students were excited by the photos and it took self-control to limit time discussing these events. Occasionally I allowed us to get side-tracked for some time, but wasn’t that the point of teaching science?   

One day a student emailed me a picture she had seen connected to Earth Science, suggesting I put it up as a picture of the day.  I did, crediting her for finding it.  Soon, students started sending me pictures of the day all the time! When there was a lunar eclipse or other event connected to class, I asked students to take pictures and send them in. Eventually students sent in their own pictures and videos connecting Earth Science to all aspects of their lives (I got a lot of sunset pics!). Students also sent in news clips and photos they had seen online. I did not offer extra credit or any other incentive for participating, simply a credit to that student. Of course, not every student participated, but it was a fast, easy way to have students make meaningful connections between their world and my class. Also, many of the most active contributors surprised me—students who showed little signs of interest in class would send me pictures and videos. Providing these students a safe way to participate in class greatly helped our relationship and hopefully their love of science.


To jump-start students sending you pictures, you can start by including your own pictures of science. My co-teacher and I include pictures we have taken over the summer of us with something science-related (i.e., anything, since you can make lots of connections to science), and then I’ll include a great picture of the day from a former student. I started receiving pictures of the day by the end of the first week of class!


Freezing Friday: A Way to Incorporate a Science Narrative Over Time
In 2011, I applied to be a PolarTREC teacher (for the third time) and was finally accepted. I was invited to go to Antarctica for two months to work with researchers.  This experience was life-changing and I wanted to find a meaningful way to share such cool science (literally) with my students. However, like many of you, I was overwhelmed by content standards and could only devote a day or two to the topic. My solution was to slowly tell the story of my research in Antarctica one day a week through the picture of the day. I called these pictures: “Freezing Friday”.


If you are passionate about a topic that you can’t afford too much class time for, I strongly recommend devoting one picture a week to the idea. Trying to post a picture every day might be too much, so I recommend starting with one.


I’m Going Back to Antarctica—Let’s Share the Experience Together!

Or, better yet, let me involve you and your students in some cool, real-time science!  I have been invited back to Antarctica in November to work with my old research team (I will be posting journals about my experience).  I will be sending out “picture of the day” slides (with explanations) through my Twitter account: @MsBrownTeacher and Facebook page. You can post pictures daily or weekly.  Also, we will be conducting a live webinar from the ice on December 1st, and I will be sharing more ways I can interact with your class in future posts!

Below are some more sample Earth Science Pictures of the Day slides:

Students would sometimes write out the description for me too!

Teachers sometimes shared pictures of the day with me too!

Sometime I would receive pictures that don't connect, but I always posted them to connect with students.