Home » Teaching

Category Archives: Teaching

Teaching protein translation

Teaching how DNA gets turned into mRNA, and then hooks up to tRNA with amino acids, and forms proteins. It’s not easy for everyone, and especially difficult for many ELL and SPED students. Solution? Make it tactile – use manipulatives. I use a large student table as a cell, and pieces on the table represent organelles and molecules.

I spent a long time finding the right graphics to represent the nucleus, chromosomes, DNA, RNA, mitochondria, and of course the rough ER and Golgi (I always try and reinforce the idea that cells are simultaneously full of many organelles, even if we’re only using a few of them.)

Then I printed them out on heavy stock paper. (I need to laminate it next time, but this was a trial run.) Cut out all the pieces.

The trick is to have many nucleotides, so they can get practice with multiple combinations. Here 27 bases, for 9 codons, making an 8 amino acid peptide (plus one STOP codon.)

Here is the PDF file with the graphics (DNA to mRNA to ribosome to tRNA)

And here is what it looks like on a table top, when students use them.

DNA protein translation manipulative

DNA protein translation manipulative 2

Learning Standards

HS-LS1-1. Construct a model of transcription and translation to explain the roles of DNA and RNA that code for proteins that regulate and carry out essential functions of life.



Tier I, II and III vocabulary

Tier Vocabulary

Tier One – everyday words usually learned in the early grades.

Tier Two – High frequency words, used across content areas, key to understanding directions, relationships, and for making inferences.

Tier II Words list

Academic language from resources.successforall.org

Tier Three – Domain-specific words

Tier III Words list


Declining Student Resilience

Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges
By Peter Gray, Psychology Researcher at Boston College, Author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 7th edition)
Psychology Today, September 22, 2015

Psychology Today: Declining student resilience, by Peter Gray

A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services at a major university to join faculty and administrators for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a [bad name] and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.

Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world.

Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively.

Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of handholding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?

Two weeks ago, that head of Counseling sent us all a follow-up email, announcing a new set of meetings. His email included this sobering paragraph:

“I have done a considerable amount of reading and research in recent months on the topic of resilience in college students. Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood. There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-today basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”

The full article is available here Psychology Today: Declining student resilience, by Peter Gray


Internal reflection

Physics is a deeply conceptual class. Its not like English class, where everyone already knows what English is. People enter an English classroom already knowing what a story is, what characters are, what a theme is, and what a moral is. In stark contrast, students generally start physics from scratch.

The human themes discussed by Shakespeare or Homer are universal, and intuitively understood by even the least prepared of readers. Students may not know much about Elizabethan England, or ancient Greece, but they know what it means to be happy, sad, angry, jealous. This is not so, however, with concepts in physics. Student entering a physics class often have no meaningful understanding of conservation laws, or Newton’s laws of motion. Outside of AP Physics we usually are teaching from the ground level upwards.

No teaching method, homework assignment, or pedagogical technique has much effect on student performance – unless that student takes time to engage in internal mental reflection.

When students review at home what we learned in class,

When students think about what happened, and why it happened,

When students compare their preconceptions to what they have observed

only they are engaging in internal mental reflection.

If a student chooses not do this, then there is little a teacher can add. We can explain it for you, but we can’t understand it for you.

This is one reason why some students struggle. Doing classwork has only limited usefulness, unless one internally reflects on the subject.

Chapter 12. Learning Through Reflection, by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick

Learning Through Reflection

Teaching coding

coding-snippetTeaching coding:3 Steps to Becoming a Coding Teacher, By Grant Smith


2. Prepare Yourself and Your Classroom

Notice how I included resources above for adults to learn coding. That means you! I recommend that you first review your selected curriculum and then move on to the more complicated stuff. I highly recommend the Intro to CS and Intro to Programming courses on Udacity. You should also prepare for your class by answering the following questions:

  • What are your learning expectations for the students? (Check out these learning outcomes for the Khan Academy course as an example.)
  • Are your students learning computational thinking, computer science, or computer programming? (There is a difference. Check out Harvard research on computational thinking.)
  • What’s your classroom layout? (See my post for ideas.)
  • Will your students work at their own pace or at your pace?
  • Will students work through a curriculum, or will it be project based?
  • How will students collaborate?
  • How will students share their work with you, their peers, and the world?
  • How will student accounts be managed? Will you create them? Do you need parent or administrator permission?
  • Why should your students learn to code? (Students are more excited to learn when you are excited to teach. Check out the Top Ten Reasons to Code.)
  • How will you assess your students? (This PDF details some research on assessing computational thinking.)

3. Get Support

Just because anyone can learn to code online doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it. Code.org’s research found that “students who are learning with the support of their teacher in a classroom setting complete courses more than those learning on their own” (Teachers Matter). We all know that for teachers to be successful, we need support. So rally the troops!

  1. Find a champion for your coding crusade. The higher level the champion is, the easier it will be for you to gain access to resources and spread the word about your 21st-century class.
  2. Get the community involved. Host an Hour of Codecommunity event. Last year, the Avondale Elementary School District held an Hour of Code event where the students taught their parents how to program.
  3. Build your PLN. Follow people on your favorite social network and ask for help. Some great hashtags are#CSK8, #KidsCanCode, and #AllKidsCode.
  4. Present to your governing board. Show them how your curriculum aligns to CCSS and builds 21st-century skills.

Jump Into 21st-Century Learning!

If you’ve already had successful experiences coding in your class, share them in the comments section of this post or on your PLN. If not, you may be asking the following questions:

  1. Will you know the answer to every question that your students will have?
  2. Will you feel well rested, prepared, and in control at all times?
  3. Will every class run without a hitch?

Answers: 1) No. 2) You wish. 3) In your dreams!

Will it be worth it? You better believe it! Now go make it happen!


15+ Ways of Teaching Every Student to Code
(Even Without a Computer)

Vicki Davis, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/15-ways-teaching-students-coding-vicki-davis

…While the Hour of Code is in December, Code.org hassuggested resources for educators, unplugged lessons (those not requiring computers), and tutorials to help you teach computer science to kids of all ages any time of the year….

  • Scratch is a programming game that can be downloaded or used on the Web and is supported by MIT. They’ve got a powerful Hour of Code tutorial where students can program a holiday card in their web browser.
  • Or, if you want options for other times of the year, use the one-hour “Speed Racer” activity to teach your students Scratch. Teachers can watch this tutorial video to learn how, visit ScratchED’s Hour of Code Ideas forum to ask questions, or search “Hour of Code” on the forum for lesson plans using everything from coordinate geometry to Latin. Scratch is considered acceptable for beginners. (Some educators use Snap, originally a version of Scratch but now written in Javascript that is supported by University of California at Berkeley. There are several alternatives to Scratch with a similar interface. Give this list to your IT department if there are technical reasons why you can’t run Scratch or Snap.)
  • Lightbot has a version on just about any platform and even has an online one-hour version. This puzzle game has a free version which lasts an hour but sells full versions on iTunes and Google Play. It teaches planning, testing, debugging, procedures, and loops.
  • Kodu is another programming tool that can be easily used on a PC or XBOX to create a simple game. There’s also a math curriculum. This is one method that Pat Yongpradit, Code.org’s Director of Education, used in his computer science classroom. (I’ve used it as well.)
  • Gamestar Mechanic offers a free version that you might want to use for your hour, but if you fall in love with it, the educational package allows teachers to track student progress, among other features. The company supports educators, and there’s also an Edmodo community that shares lesson plans and ideas for the tool, along withvideos and a must-see teacher’s guide.
  • GameMaker is an option if you want to make games that can be played in any web browser. The resources aren’t as comprehensive and the community isn’t vibrant, but this one has been around for a while and might be fun for a more tech-savvy teacher.
  • My Robot Friend is a highly-rated app according toCommon Sense Media. It costs $3.99, but no in-app purchases are required to go to higher levels.
  • SpaceChem is an interesting mix of chemistry, reading, and programming for age 12 and up. As students read the 10,000-word novelette, they have to solve puzzles by assembling molecules. SpaceChem created a helpful guide for educators. This tool is available for download on Steam and installation on Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu. (Download a free demo.)
  • CodeCombat is a multiplayer game that teaches coding. It’s free to play at the basic level, and students don’t have to sign up. This has the advantage that teachers don’t have to know computer science to empower learning in this programming. It’s recommended for age 9 and up. See theteacher guide for the information and standards covered in this game.
  • Minecraft.edu is an option that lets you install and use Minecraft in the classroom. While this does require some purchase and setup, Minecraft seems to be gaining in popularity among educators as an in-house, 3D world-programming environment that kids love. Minecraft.edu has a Google group and best practices wiki. (My son took a course at Youth Digital that taught him Java to mod Minecraft — while pricey, it was a great course.)
  • Do you want a board game for older children? Code Monkey Island is designed for children age 9 and up. This is a great addition to your game corner.


Tutorials Point

Tutorials Point originated from the idea that there exists a class of readers who respond better to online content and prefer to learn new skills at their own pace from the comforts of their drawing rooms. The journey commenced with a single tutorial on HTML in 2006 and elated by the response it generated, we worked our way to adding fresh tutorials to our repository which now proudly flaunts a wealth of tutorials and allied articles on topics ranging from programming languages to web designing to academics and much more.


Programming Lego NXT robots

EV3Lessons.com by Seshan Brothers

Intro to programming Lego Mindstorms

nxtprograms.com By Dave Parker

The Writing Revolution

The Atlantic, October 2012

By Peg Tyre

in 2009, when Monica DiBella entered New Dorp, a notorious public high school on Staten Island, her academic future was cloudy. Monica had struggled to read in early childhood, and had repeated first grade. During her elementary-school years, she got more than 100 hours of tutoring, but by fourth grade, she’d fallen behind her classmates again. In the years that followed, Monica became comfortable with math and learned to read passably well, but never seemed able to express her thoughts in writing. During her freshman year at New Dorp, a ’70s-style brick behemoth near a grimy beach, her history teacher asked her to write an essay on Alexander the Great. At a loss, she jotted down her opinion of the Macedonian ruler: “I think Alexander the Great was one of the best military leaders.” An essay? “Basically, that wasn’t going to happen,” she says, sweeping her blunt-cut brown hair from her brown eyes. “It was like, well, I got a sentence down. What now?” Monica’s mother, Santa, looked over her daughter’s answer—six simple sentences, one of which didn’t make sense—with a mixture of fear and frustration. Even a coherent, well-turned paragraph seemed beyond her daughter’s ability. An essay? “It just didn’t seem like something Monica could ever do.”

For decades, no one at New Dorp seemed to know how to help low-performing students like Monica, and unfortunately, this troubled population made up most of the school, which caters primarily to students from poor and working-class families. In 2006, 82 percent of freshmen entered the school reading below grade level. Students routinely scored poorly on the English and history Regents exams, a New York State graduation requirement: the essay questions were just too difficult. Many would simply write a sentence or two and shut the test booklet. In the spring of 2007, when administrators calculated graduation rates, they found that four out of 10 students who had started New Dorp as freshmen had dropped out, making it one of the 2,000 or so lowest-performing high schools in the nation. City officials, who had been closing comprehensive high schools all over New York and opening smaller, specialized ones in their stead, signaled that New Dorp was in the crosshairs.

And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page.

If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. “When they told me about the writing program,” Monica says, “well, I was skeptical.” With disarming candor, sharp-edged humor, and a shy smile, Monica occupies the middle ground between child and adult—she can be both naive and knowing. “On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I go to high school. I figured I’d give it a try.”

New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.

…[Why were the students previously failing?]

…. New Dorp students were simply not smart enough to write at the high-school level. You just had to listen to the way the students talked, one teacher pointed out—they rarely communicated in full sentences, much less expressed complex thoughts… Scharff, a lecturer at Baruch College, a part of the City University of New York, kept pushing, asking: “What skills that lead to good writing did struggling students lack?” …

Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher.

A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

Some teachers wanted to know how this could happen. “We spent a lot of time wondering how our students had been taught,” said English teacher Stevie D’Arbanville. “How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?”

…The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

…Within months, Hochman became a frequent visitor to Staten Island. Under her supervision, the teachers at New Dorp began revamping their curriculum. By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.

Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”

If … This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”

As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

Classroom discussion became an opportunity to push Monica and her classmates to listen to each other, think more carefully, and speak more precisely, in ways they could then echo in persuasive writing.

PEG TYRE is the director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation and the author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.

Interactive lecture demonstrations

from Interactive Lecture Demonstrations:

Created by Dorothy Merritts, Robert Walter (Franklin & Marshall College), Bob MacKay (Clark College). Enhanced by Mark Maier with assistance from Rochelle Ruffer, Sue Stockly and Ronald Thornton

What is an Interactive Lecture Demonstration?

Interactive Lecture Demonstrations introduce a carefully scripted activity, creating a “time for telling” in a traditional lecture format. Because the activity causes students to confront their prior understanding of a core concept, students are ready to learn in a follow-up lecture. Interactive Lecture Demonstrations use three steps in which students:

  1. Predict the outcome of the demonstration. Individually, and then with a partner, students explain to each other which of a set of possible outcomes is most likely to occur.
  2. Experience the demonstration. Working in small groups, students conduct an experiment, take a survey, or work with data to determine whether their initial beliefs were confirmed (or not).
  3. Reflect on the outcome. Students think about why they held their initial belief and in what ways the demonstration confirmed or contradicted this belief. After comparing these thoughts with other students, students individually prepare a written product on what was learned.

Why Use Interactive Lecture Demonstrations

Research shows that students acquire significantly greater understanding of course material when traditional lectures are combined with interactive demonstrations. Each step in Interactive Demonstrations – Predict, Experience, Reflect – contributes to student learning.

Prediction links new learning to prior understanding. The experience engages the student with compelling evidence. Reflection helps students identify and consolidate that they have learned.

More on why use interactive demonstrations

How to Use Interactive Lecture Demonstrations in Class

Effective interactive lecture demonstrations require that instructors:

  • Identify a core concept that students will learn.
  • Chose a demonstration that will illustrate the core concept, ideally with an outcome different from student expectations.
  • Prepare written materials so that students can easily follow the prediction, experience and reflection steps.

More on how to use Interactive Demonstrations in class


Using PhET interactive labs with interactive lecture demonstrations

Using PhET as an (Interactive) Lecture Demonstration