Entries Categorized as 'Classroom Notes'

Flowers are “Creepy”

September 11, 2012

My students are researching the organisms they collected from the creek, and I was outlining the types of information I wanted them to find. We were talking about how many animals have seasonal reproductive cycles, and I pointed out that plants flower seasonally as well. One of my students put two and two together and came up with something close to a whole number: “You mean to say that flowers are … some sort of … creepy … sexual things?”

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Flowers are "Creepy", Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Building a Metaphor (Actually a Grill)

April 27, 2012

The grill entering the final stages of construction by Ryan V. and Robert M.. Photograph by Autumn F.

It took us a little more than half a day to build a grill. It’s a simple thing of cinder blocks and sand, located near the soccer field so it’ll be convenient for bbq’s next year.

It took the highschoolers all morning to dig an outline for the base of the grill and lay in the foundation, despite it being a small, three-quarters of a rectangle shape, and only ten centimeters (4 inches) deep at maximum. The local clay is extremely dense and hard.

The foundations took the longest time to build.

But the foundations were firm, secure, and level.

When the base was done, two middle-schoolers — ably documented by a peer photographer — finished all the visible parts of the structure in just half an hour.

The next day, after I’d given them a presentation on cognitive development during the teenage years that I realized how nice a metaphor the grill construction was for the training of the brain during adolescence. The extensive pruning and myelination that typifies adolescence establish neural pathways are the foundation for future mental growth.

Good, strong, level foundations are the basis for a rich and fulfilling life.

Good foundations require some effort, but they're worth it.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. Building a Metaphor (Actually a Grill), Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

How to do Research on the Internet: A Lesson

February 3, 2012

This morning I did a little presentation with the middle school on how to do research on the internet, and we actually had a very good discussion. I focused on two key things: assessing credibility and writing citations (giving credit).


[Henry] Hudson’s main goal as an explorer was to find a northern passage to the Orient. … He started his journey in May of 1607 and returned in September of the same year when his route was blocked by the Great Barrier Reef.

— All About Explorers (accessed Feb. 2012): Henry Hudson

I started by having the students to look up some explorers. If you prefix an explorer’s name with “all about explorers” (e.g. “all about explorers Christopher Columbus) the first link on google leads to the right website.

They were supposed to read the page and recorded three facts that they found interesting, but, in doing so, it pretty quickly becomes apparent that the information might not be very reliable; Columbus did not, after all, have to rely on infomercials to build support for his expedition.

The All About Explorers website was created by a group of teachers to be a tool for teaching about how to do research on the internet.

Having them see the site come up on google is, I think, better than sending them directly to the url. Google is usually their first recourse for researching anything, so it’s nice to see that google does not give information about credibility.

The discussion that ensued ranged pretty widely, but a key question that kept recurring was: how do you judge the credibility of a website. We talked a little bit about the possible biases of commercial .com and .net websites, and about the fact that .org’s may well also have their own biases, since it does not require any credentials to set one up (see montessorimuddle.org for example). On the other hand, while .gov and .edu domains (as well as most U.S. state and other country websites) are restricted to governments and colleges, that improves their credibility, but, in itself, is no guarantee of accuracy or being unbiased.

So much of assessing websites’ credibility comes from experience, which students just don’t have much of yet, so I recommended that checking with teachers and adults might be a good bet. Confirming data from multiple sources also helps, but you have to be careful, since so many websites now use Wikipedia as a source (or even reprint things directly from Wikipedia) that any errors in a Wikipedia page can spread far and wide pretty fast.

We did not get into how to use Wikipedia well (go for the sources at the bottom of the page), but we’ll get to that later.


For the second part of the lesson, I had them look up the same explorers they’d searched on the All About Explorers website. They had free range to search anywhere they wanted, but not only did they have to now collect facts but were to also find a good picture.

I’d wanted the pictures so we could talk about copyright and getting permissions to use media, but we did not get that far.

While they were satisfyingly more skeptical about where they got their information from, they were quite happy to give me the facts they’d found without attribution.

So I took the chance to talk about citing sources: to give credit where it is due; to avoid even the appearance of plagiarism; to give your reader an idea of how credible your sources are (and by extension how credible you are); and to let you readers know how up-to-date your information is.

An example of a citation for a website.


For the next week or so the middle and high school are on an interim. This is our writing interim, so they’ll be working on research projects (including how to do research) and creating publications (I’m in charge of the science journal).

Since more and more research is going online, hopefully this was a good primer to get students started.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. How to do Research on the Internet: A Lesson, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

“Cheat Sheets”

November 25, 2011

A selection of "cheat sheets".

I let my students bring in one page of handwritten notes, a “cheat sheet” if you will, into their last Physics exam. I’d expected to see some very tiny writing, but some of the notes needed scientific-grade magnification equipment to be read. Seen from a distance, the dense writing did have a certain aesthetic appeal.

Of course the primary reason for letting students bring in the cheat sheets into the exam was to get them to practice taking notes. At one extreme, the students who already take good notes benefit from having to condense them. At the other extreme, the students who don’t take notes at all get a strong incentive to practice. The very act of preparing cheat sheets is a good way to study for exams.

And it worked. As they hand in their papers I usually ask them how the test went, and, this time, I also asked a few student if they found their page of notes useful. One student in particular responded, Well I didn’t need to use it after making it.

Cheat sheets laid out according to note-taking style. Two extremes of note taking styles are highlighted. Equations and diagrams to the left, and text-only to the right.

It was also very interesting to see the different styles of note taking: the strategic use of color; densely packed text; equations; diagrams; columnar organization. What all this means, I’m not sure. I’m particularly interested in how their note taking style relates to students’ preferred learning style.

Indeed, it would be interesting to see if the note taking style co-relates in any way with students’ performance on the test. One could hypothesize that, since we know that students learn better when they encounter material from multiple perspectives, then students whose notes have the greatest mix of styles — diagrams, equations, text etc. — should have learned more (and perhaps perform better on the test).

It’s a pretty simple and crude hypothesis, since there are likely many other factors that affect test performance, but it would still be interesting to look at.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. "Cheat Sheets", Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.


October 5, 2011

“I’d like you to do chlorine too.”

“But I shouldn’t have to do chlorine. Chlorine was extra homework last time. I got Argon. I’ll do Argon. I don’t have to do extra homework today, so I shouldn’t have to do chlorine too.”

“It’s true, you didn’t earn extra work today.”

“So I don’t have to do chlorine.”

“If you do chlorine we’ll have the full set of elements.”

“But do I have to do it?”

“I’d like you to do it.”

“But do I have to?”


“OK I’ll do it.”

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Chlorine, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

What does, “Good for the Environment” mean?

September 21, 2011

Recycling rates for drink containers in the United States.

A number of my middle-school students seemed to believe that recycling is the be-all and end-all of environmentalism.

In October, 2010, toxic red mud broke through a holding dam and flooded several towns and flowed into the Mercal River. Red mud is a waste product produced when extremely corosive sodium hydroxide is used to dissolve aluminum out of bauxite. In this picture, "A Hungarian soldier wearing chemical protection gear walks through a street flooded by toxic sludge in the town of Devecser, Hungary on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)" (image via The Boston Globe)

We were trying to determine what type of material would make for the best drink bottles.

I have a deep reluctance to reflexively consider anything, “good for the environment,” considering that the environmental impact of any particular product is a complex thing to assess. My students, on the other hand, seem to think that recycling is good and all the rest of it can go hang.

I’d want to add up all the environmental costs: the raw materials; the energy input; the sources of the energy input; and the emissions to the air and water, especially all the other external costs of pollutants that people tend not to want to pay for. To my students, these things have been invisible.

Perhaps it’s the success of the environmental movement that’s pushed things to the background. We’re not struggling through smog everyday – although we’ve had some bad days this summer – and even big issues, like the BP oil spill, are a bit remote and seem so far away.

So, I tried showing the Story of Stuff today. It’s definitely a piece with a “point-of-view”, but I was hoping it would be provocative.

At least 4 people and many animals were killed. Many of the 120 injuries from the red mud spill were from chemical burns. "Tunde Erdelyi rescues a cat from the toxic sludge in the village of Devecser, Hngary on October 5, 2010. (REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo)" from The Boston Globe.

And it was.

It certainly got a lot of the students agitated, ready to challenge its assertions about just how bad pollution problems really are today, which created a nice opening for me to point out the need for skepticism in the face of any information received. Of course, at that point they were probably a little skeptical about me too, but reasoned skepticism is at the heart of the scientific perspective I’d like them to learn as “apprentice” scientists.

I’d like them to read Orwell too, but that’s another battle.

One student was stimulated enough that, I hope, they’ll actually do a little research into the facts presented in the video and present their findings to the class.

I’ll also have to do a little follow-up on how to argue. In particular I’ll need to post a picture of Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement and point out that it’s better to try to refute the actual argument rather than attack the messenger.

We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.

Paul Graham's Hierachy of Disagreement (image adapted from Wikipedia).

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. What does, "Good for the Environment" mean?, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Mobile Classroom

August 26, 2011

The furniture is starting to move. So far it has just been the couch, which also happens to be the heaviest piece of furniture. Yesterday I helped a couple students rotate it 180 degrees to face the wall, to make quieter, less distracting space. Today we rotated it toward the whiteboard and about half a dozen kids piled onto it for a lesson. I’ve always favored giving students as much control of their environment, and allowing the flexibility of movement, so I’m glad to see that they’re starting to take advantage of that freedom.

Rotating couch.

While I’m not quite sure why the couch has been the first thing to move there are probably a couple of reasons. One is that, compared to the rest of the furniture, the couch is relatively informal. This, in and of itself might have lead the students to consider it a good candidate for rearrangement, but I think it’s also that the couch’s informality meant that no one sat on it on the first day of class; everyone was at one of the desks (bright eyed, bushy tailed and eager to learn). As a result, no one specifically “owned” that space, and negotiating its movement did not involve a large group of people.

The couch also has the space around it so it’s easy to move without having to rearrange a lot of other furniture. It’s not the only piece like that though.

Now, with everyone piling on for today’s lesson, the couch-space has a much more communal feel. Students are becoming more attracted to it when they feel the need for a break, but they tend to go back to the desks when they need to work. Its population shifts over the course of the class.

It’s nice to see that, so far, the students are using the space responsibly. We’ll see how it develops.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Mobile Classroom, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Letting Students Personalize their Grading Scheme

August 18, 2011

How do you know if a student has mastered a subject? How do you get students to better understand how they learn and take more control of their education? I’ve been thinking that giving them more control of their grading might be the answer.

Test grades give some information, but experiments can be just as, if not more, informative. Much depends on the learning style of the student and how they express themselves. Verbally oriented might be good at processing written information and putting what they learned on paper. Kinesthetic-oriented students are likely to do better with practical demonstrations and labs that require movement and coordination.

Since there’s some merit to both exams and laboratory experiments – tests are good for checking the understanding of basic facts, while good labs require application of concepts – they have to be somehow added together to determine if and how well as student has mastered the topic.

Usually, the different types of assessment are combined with different weights. 60% of the total grade for a class might come from exam scores, and 40% from labs. But, given the different talents of different students, might it not make more sense to adjust the weights based on the specific student.

In fact, it would probably be even better to have the students decide for themselves on their own personal grading scheme. It could be part of a classroom contract.

Students would have a strong incentive to come up with their own most beneficial grading system, and, if you gave them a little time to understand the exam and lab requirements (say half a semester) before coming up with the weights, they’d have a lot of incentive to really try to understand how they learn best, and how to demonstrate that knowledge.

Once they’d made a decision on grading weights, they could then focus more energy on the parts of the class they find interesting, which, if we’re lucky, make them more motivated to learn the subject. Then they could set out to acquire the same information and concepts from what is to them a more interesting perspective, without having to worry so much about the stress of struggling through those activities they find difficult and tedious.

A student who is good at experiments might learn the facts in the textbook better if they were looking up information for an experiment – a big picture to little picture perspective – while a student who’s read and understands the text might find the experiments a lot easier to deal with (and so perform better) if they’re less worried about getting the perfect grade.

There would probably have to set some limits as to how much they could play with the weights, say plus or minus 15%, but individualized, self-assigned weights could be a very powerful way of tailoring education, especially in a context where grades are necessary.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Letting Students Personalize their Grading Scheme, Retrieved February 23rd, 2018, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

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