No longer the turning point

No longer the turning point

It’s here. The end of sophomore year in high school for my youngest son. I know, it is usually not a milestone that is marked. For our family, it has become one.

Yesterday, we attended parent – teacher conferences at our high school. Never again will we have a sophomore aged high school student. A couple of his teachers were not there. One was his art teacher. We saved talking to her for last because she likes to show off the student work and chat about their progress, so you might end up wandering the halls of the building to view their creations. But, she was off setting up at a student art show at local vineyard, where his paintings will be displayed with his peers. His social studies teacher was also absent. But, he’s doing fine in both of those courses, so all is well. We spent the most time with his AP calculus teacher – hearing how he is preparing them for the AP exam later this month and visiting, as this teacher has had all three of our boys.

The conferences were good, as they always are, and we go mainly to keep the lines of communication open with the teachers, since we do not really have concerns.  But, the end of this sophomore for our youngest child is significant. The goal I had for him this year was to finish it still being happy with going to school and enjoying what it has to offer.

This might seem like an odd goal but there is some history behind it that will explain more. In the late winter of our eldest son’s sophomore year, he was so disenchanted with being under-challenged, he ended up going through the open-enrollment process that  allows students to attend school in a district in which they do not live. He enrolled, with our permission, in a virtual high school within another public school district three hours away. Sophomore year, seven years ago, was his last year as an official student at our resident high school, the same school his brothers now attend. It was a good choice for him. He ended up not only being more challenged but also being the Valedictorian of his class at the school he attended virtually for his junior and senior year.

Two years ago, our middle son experienced his sophomore year. This is when somewhat of a pattern emerged. By the end of his sophomore year, he was experiencing difficulty with a teacher who had been unprofessional and callous by telling him he was “stupid” in front of his peers. I am really not sure how anyone who is taking pre-calculus sophomore year in high school can be categorized as stupid, but that is what was said. Two years later, I can honestly say that event was a turning point for him in his educational process. Staying in that class, knowing what the teacher thought of him, prevented from getting any kind of help with the material (why would you go to someone for help who spoke in such a way to embarrass you), led him to questioning his self-confidence and his abilities. His motivation has suffered. It was an awful experience, one I do not think he has fully recovered from yet. It happened during second semester, sophomore year.

Thus, I began to see late winter and early spring (February – March) of the sophomore year in high school for our boys as a turning point. So, when this year began for our youngest,  I had a sense of trepidation. I hoped that he could get through the year without any major event that would alter his course or change his feelings about school. Like our other two, he has a fairly heavy load with an AP class, playing two varsity level sports, and furthering his artistic abilities.

And, here we are. The last PT conferences of the year and he still likes (I could even say loves) going to school. He loves being challenged both academically and with his sports participation and art projects. He’s had a great year. No, he doesn’t have straight A’s. I learned that doesn’t really matter. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great if you have them, but does not really mean all that much if you don’t. Our grading processes need an overhaul – but that is a subject for another post. Happiness is what matters. A sense of belonging and being understood matters. Being challenged matters. Knowing you are respected by your peers AND by your teachers matters.  I think we are over the hump. Our third, and last sophomore will make it through the year still with a love for school. And, I think that is priceless!

You say Potato, I say Potato. I say Interdisciplinary, You say Transdisciplinary. Do we understand each other?

You say Potato, I say Potato. I say Interdisciplinary, You say Transdisciplinary. Do we understand each other?

Staff Meetings

While presenting at a staff meeting the other day, I explained that in the after school club I led I used an interdisciplinary approach to my teaching. Going on to explain, I told how one unit in garden club will have all subjects interwoven into it – Science, ELA, Social Studies, and yes, even Math. Now, I think that maybe I should have given some specific examples. For instance, when corn is our topic, the history and origin of the plant is covered, along with lore and legend (there are many from Native American histories), the horticultural and botanical aspects of the plant including number of types (4),  new, rich vocabulary and/or stories to support language arts, and even math calculations that involve calculating kernels per ear or ears per acre were all part of the lesson.

This revelation occurred to me as I stared out at a crowd of teachers I barely knew and recognized their blank stares coming back at me!  As my friend MJ, who is a special education teacher for the vision impaired says, “I know that look.” It either says I don’t know what you’re talking about or I don’t care what you are talking about. Okay – it was 7:30 in the morning, on a Tuesday.  But, still! Surely, they knew what I was getting at. Right?

It dawned on me, as I sat through the remainder of the staff meeting out of politeness, and listened to two third grade teachers talk about developing standards for their new inquiry based curriculum (they are becoming an international baccalaureate school), that they were using the word transdisciplinary and I had used the word interdisciplinary.

Everyone in the room was exposed to, and surely had, similar pedagogy. Surely, they had understood what I meant when I used interdisciplinary. Right?! I am not so sure. So, I set out to see if the words can be used interchangeably or not. refers to transdisciplinary as an adjective meaning; pertaining to or involving more than one discipline; interdisciplinary.  HA! There it is interdisciplinary is a synonym for transdisciplinary!  Still, I was doubting.  So, what does Merriam say? This source is even more brief, just listing “interdisciplinary” on the page for the definition of transdisciplinary.  I went on to dig up some research on the terms, because I do think some confusion exists with these terms.

What’s the Difference?

Carleton College offers an explanation of how interdisciplinary teaching “differs from cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary teaching in that it involves integration and synthesis of different perspectives rather than just including those different views.”  It involves the use and integration of methods, theory and analysis from more than one academic area to examine a theme, issue, question, or topic ( It is, in fact, the elimination of silos in learning. Although, the article from Carleton defines cross disciplinary and multi-disciplinary, it does not address anything about transdisciplinary learning.

So, on to another source. For several years I was a member of the ASCD or The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. This group offers many timely and relevant publications for the educational community. They also publish the journal Educational Leadership in which I found many useful articles. You can find them by clicking the link above, if you choose. (This is not a paid promotion, just a recommendation for a source of educational publications – I am not currently a member, but considering signing up again.)  In any case, in an online chapter from the book Interdisciplinary Curriculum by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, the word transdisciplinary is finally defined as “beyond the scope of the disciplines.”  Huh? As a lover of words, that makes sense, but I am almost positive that is not how it is being applied to this school’s new approach.

Connections not Deletions

By sitting in the meeting, I learned how this staff is trying to combine social studies and science topics and address standards and content from both areas within the topics. The important point is that interdisciplinary instruction reinforces connections between disciplines or subject areas, not disparities. Commonalities are stressed, not disparaged.

Still, it is hard to tell the difference between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary if there is one. Finally, I found a source that more thoroughly discussed transdisciplinary approaches to instruction,  explaining it as learning relevant to real world. Okay, I’m on board with that. Again, sounds like interdisciplinary learning – after all, the world is not fragmented, our experiences are woven together with strands of fabric from many disciplines or “fields” of knowledge.  Perhaps, as I read further, it is what the learner is left with after the learning takes place is what differentiates it from interdisciplinary learning. Supposedly, the explorations and inquiry that take place with a transdisciplinary approach lead to a greater, and deeper understanding of humanity, not merely content.  Okay, again that sounds good. But, I am still left not really understanding the difference between the too methods. And, maybe, if I pressed I would discover that part of the quizzical faces I saw when I used the work interdisciplinary was part of a lack of thorough understanding on the staff’s part as well.

Do Semantics Matter?

All I know is that I am not so sure that the semantics matter. The fact that we are trying, as educators, to provide our students with the most comprehensive and useful ways to know, survive in, contribute to, and maybe improve our world is what is important. Right? Lately, I find that both courses and departments are being renamed both at the district and state level. Why is that? Are we reinventing the wheel? How much time is being spent changing course, re-labeling, and re-packaging as opposed to real teaching and becoming the best educators we can be?

As I looked around the room, I was inspired by the degree of energy some of the staff exhibited. Thoughtful, clarifying questions were being asked by those individuals. And, I also had concern because along with the high energy, optimistic, forward thinkers in the room, there were those who looked at me and looked upon those who were part of their own staff trying to provide structure for the new teaching model, as if we had four heads. I know which teacher and which class I would want my own child to be a part of.

Don’t you?!

So, while I am not sure the staff understood my use of the word interdisciplinary, I know what they are trying to accomplish with a move towards inquiry based, transdisciplinary teaching and learning. I hope they understood that we are trying to accomplish the same things, semantics aside.  Time will tell.




The Intangibles of an After-School Garden Club

The Intangibles of an After-School Garden Club

For thirteen years I ran an after school garden club at our local elementary school. From 2004-2017, I met with students once or twice a month to delve into the world of plants, garden based organisms, and our local environment.  Through my recent graduate work, I am starting to put this whole experience into a conceptual and theoretical context.

In mid-December, I sent a survey I constructed and had approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University I attend, to 115 participants. My sample was drawn from a population of about twice that size who were members of the garden club during the first five years, 2004-2009.

By mid-January, the digital survey response window had closed. I ended up with a fairly good response rate. This morning I finished my first analysis of the data, looking for themes and commonalities in the answers I received. Having done quantitative research before, this is my first experience with qualitative research, and I feel a little bit like a fish out of water.

But, one of the most interesting aspects of my study is the question that asked: Did being part of Evergreen Garden Club effect any of the following developmental traits?  (Check all that apply). MemoryStudyQ25graphicresultsqualtrics.jpg

Knowledge Level regarding local environments/habitats = 28.26%

Confidence Level = 4.35%

Comfort Level in working with multi-grade level peers = 19.57%

Sense of Belonging = 17.39%

Sense of Accomplishment = 19.57%

Sense of Pride = 10.87%

Given that I know the content of my lessons, it makes sense that the former garden club students thought their knowledge level had increased and that they considered this a benefit (considering the constant testing that takes place in today’s educational climate.)  But, what I find most interesting is the three intangible benefits of being in a multi-aged, after-school garden club. I highlighted these in orange.

In today’s educational climate, making sure each student feels connected and a sense of belonging is essential.  It appears this was an unintentional benefit from being in this club. Second graders worked with fifth graders – as well as third and fourth graders. High schooler’s came to assist with our lessons.  Students returned year after year for continued engagement with this group. They might not have been able to put what they felt into words at the time they were members, but as young adults, they now can! Evergreen Garden Club students felt like they belonged! They felt they were part of a community, working together to improve our little spot in the school yard on the edge of town.

Although I had a few students drop out over the years, I am proud that I was able to provide a long lasting group that fostered belonging and a sense of community as well as the accomplishment of beautifying the school grounds and providing habitat for butterflies. So, I ask you – how do you foster a sense of belonging for your students? From previous experience, I know what doesn’t work.  Now, I am starting to provide some evidence as to what can work to ensure students feel connected to their school community.

As I analyze more of the data, I am sure I will share more of my findings with you.  But, for now, it is very heartwarming to know that yes – together, we made a difference!

My Silent Sunday Photographic posts will return on 4/1/18, as the Slice of Life Challenge (described below) will be concluded at that time. Thank you!

I am participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge hosted by TwoWritingTeachers. This challenge involves blogging daily in the month of March, as well as commenting on the posts of other bloggers. It is my second year of participation. Thank you for the opportunity to connect with others through this supportive community!




Videotaped! A Garden Club Lesson

Videotaped! A Garden Club Lesson

Yesterday, I led my new group of garden club students through a lesson in which they had to videotape me. One of my graduate courses is requiring that I be recorded while conducting a micro lesson on place as part of an assignment. The course is Place Based Education – Strategies for Teaching. For the last 14 years, I have conducted my lessons using Place Based Education. I was so looking forward to actually having a course on something I felt I knew and was already doing. Unfortunately, the course has been more of a chore than a source of enlightenment. One credit packed into four weeks. I considered dropping it more than once. But, now we are in week three and last week, as I struggled to complete another assignment, I decided I just should finish the course and be done with it.

The final assignment is to create a micro lesson using place based education, implement the lesson, and be taped doing so. Many ideas for my lesson have come and gone. I even reserved a room at our public library thinking I could conduct a session on one of our local natural treasures like the sand prairie, our grasslands, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, or even the buildings in our rapidly growing town. But, I realized I was blowing the assignment up to be much larger than it had to be. I needed to scale down.

When I considered all things, I settled on our own garden beds at the internationally themed elementary school where I am the garden club advisor. Along with plants representing France, Germany, Russia, China, Norway, and others, we have a certified Monarch Way Station. We have common milkweed. This is a plant native to our area of the country and one about which I am very knowledgable. Since I was new to this school in October, I was unsure as to how much knowledge the students at this school have about the large gardens that grace over 200 feet along one side of the building. I knew that I was unsure about what plants were in the gardens and why they were there. I was given a folder of “garden information” when I was hired. There were maps of the garden beds but they are 10 years old – the original renderings.  I thought that having the children measure and map the beds with me would be a good activity to start our place based lesson.  I could have one of the students record me. I sought permission from all the students’ parents for the taping.  And then,  it snowed. I mean, really snowed! We got at least six inches over night – more snowfall from one storm than we’ve had in a while!

My lesson changed. As I made adjustments to it yesterday, I decided to focus on the milkweed as a native prairie plant.  I had milkweed seeds. We planted them. We talked about the gardens at our school. As I thought, the students did not know much about them, nor had they spent a great deal of time in the garden. Still, they acknowledged its importance. At the end, I gave an assignment for them each to research one plant I know to be in the gardens at this school. I saw the plants I assigned growing in the gardens this fall. The major piece of information to be gleaned, was not growing requirements, but nativity. I have two third graders, a second grader, and two fifth graders in the group this year. It will be interesting to see how they do with the assignment.

As far as my place based lesson, it went fine. It was not ideal, and nowhere near my best.  I will be able to reflect on that as part of my assignment. But, today I am looking forward to checking out how they did as videographers.  They all enjoyed it and demanded to have a turn.  I am sure I will laugh as I look at myself through a rare lens – that of the camera.

One thing is certain and it is that we need to utilize the gardens at this internationally themed elementary school more than they are now. Yes, they are very pretty. But, they need to be useful too. The students need to know more about the plants, the themes, and how to care for the space. One of my goals is to make that happen.



An Enrichment Post: Those Amazingly Awe- Inspiring Carnivorous Plants!

An Enrichment Post: Those Amazingly Awe- Inspiring Carnivorous Plants!

One of the best gifts I received this holiday season was a PBS documentary video called, “Plants Behaving Badly”, in which two types of amazing plants – orchids and carnivorous plants –  are described in detail. I am lucky that my husband indulged me with this item on my wish list.

Plants Behaving Badly

Home alone on Saturday afternoon, I sat mesmerized by this DVD. Well, I did not really sit; I was working on making some jewelry. But, the video kept pulling my attention to it!  Wow! I was thrilled with this gift!  The first part, carnivorous plants, offered a lot of material on this group of diverse plants that share the process of evolving in different ways in order to survive in poor, nutrient – lacking soil.  For the last 10 years, I have taught a carnivorous plant unit to my garden club students at the school my boys all attended as elementary students. This year, I am leading a new group of students in a new, larger school district, about 20 minutes from my home. This week, I will introduce them to the amazingly awesome world of carnivorous plants!  Although I knew much of the content in the video from my own research and reading over the years, it was still very informative, entertaining, and awe-inspiring! Although the school district is larger, my group is much smaller. So I have spend some time this week re-vamping my unit. I was pleased to find that the video offers a few clips via You Tube that I will share with the students later today.


A Summary of Carnivorous Plant Types

There are four main types of carnivorous plants.  Snap traps like the Venus Fly Trap are active plants that actually have developed the ability to move to catch their prey.  Another group, Pitcher Plants, are passive traps. This means they do not move, but their prey is attracted by the scent of sweet nectar and gorgeous colors to come closer and closer to the rim of the “vessel” or pitcher part of the plant. There, the unsuspecting ant, fly, or even occasional frog or mouse, slips and falls into the bottom part of the pitcher. Big deal, you say, they could just climb out!  But, no!  Nature has designed this plant to have slippery insides, many with a fatal reservoir of acidic, digestive enzymes, and downward pointing hairs to prevent the insect’s crawl up to the opening where they fell from and into the plant, in the first place! They are trapped, drown, and are digested by the fluid in the plant’s vessel. The third type of carnivorous plant is the sundew. Sundews are also tricky, luring their prey in with  “beads” of fluid that appear AND smell like nectar globules glistening in the sun, inviting a hungry insect with the false promise of a tasty meal. Once the insect steps onto the globules, he is stuck! It is not nectar at all, but a sticky glue type substance! What is even more fascinating is that some of the sundew plants are active traps and move their tentacle-type structures to encircle the prey once it is stuck. From there forward – well, you know what happens! The insect dies and the nutrients are absorbed into the plant to sustain it. Respectively, the pitcher plant is a pit fall trap and sundew plants are sticky traps. The video did not really cover Bladderworts, which are an example of a fourth type of carnivorous plant that lives underwater, sucking into it like a vacuum any tiny, unsuspecting aquatic organism that happens by.  Most likely, footage of the gorgeous Nepenthes pitcher plants in Borneo, a variety of which is known to be the largest pitcher plant in the world, displaced coverage of the small, underwater carnivorous plant that literally sucks!

Using Awe as a Teacher

I am, and have been, awed by these plants for many years. And, my experience is that students are awed by them as well.   The sense of awe is a great teacher! I try to use it as often as possible when I am teaching students about our natural world.  Many students have heard of the Venus Fly Trap, but might not have seen one.  I always try to bring an actual plant to share during our lesson. Luckily, I found a local store on Saturday with some in stock. Unfortunately, the two plants I have currently do not have traps. I think they are in their period of dormancy induced by cooler weather and shorter days. Venus Fly Traps are indigenous to only one place in the world, and that is the sandy forests of North Carolina, near the coast.  It is here that I introduce students to an uglier side of human nature – the activity of poaching and those who poach. Unfortunately, since carnivorous plants are so cool, people do strange things, like steal and sell the stolen plants.  In the U.S., the Venus Fly Trap is protected, so I let my students know that if they ever visit North Carolina, they cannot just pick up a plant and bring it home to Wisconsin! There are more protected varieties of carnivorous plants in other parts of the world, too.


Plants are amazing living entities! I know my former group of students could see how passionate I was about plants and our earth during my lessons, I hope the same for this new group! Only, time will tell! But, a large slice of my life is spent on lessons like today  – those Amazingly Awe-Inspiring Carnivorous Plants!

Post written for Slice of Life Tuesday sponsored by blog.

Thank you!

How Do You Invest?

How Do You Invest?

We are at the start of a new year, but the middle of a school year, nearing the end of the first semester, or second quarter, in most places. I would like to ask if you think you are investing in your students? Research has shown that teachers who show their students they care about them as people enjoy greater success for their students. This makes so much sense to me. When I look back on who I felt made a difference in my life as a student or who has made a difference in my boys’ lives as students, I find the answer in teachers who invested in me or my boys as people. This meant they did not treat us as numbers, or test grades, or a “brain”, or a “problem”, or someone who already “gets it”, or someone who is “struggling to get it”, but as people – with all the complexities of being a person, just like those who are doing the teaching.

I have experienced much success in my student groups – over thirteen years of a garden club and seven years of writer’s circle – largely due to the fact that I really, and I mean really, care about my students. Students are savvy. They can easily pick up on who really cares for them and who doesn’t give a rat’s ass – and it is just putting in time between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon. Now, I have a new student group at a new school. I am only there once, possibly twice a month as an after school co-curricular club advisor.  I am happy to be there, but am struggling to connect with the students and their families.  I want them to know that I am willing and able to invest in them.

So, in what ways are you showing your students that you care? How are you investing in them? This requires some thought because what might be seen as an investment by the teacher sometimes is not recognized as such by their students. I really think to contribute to the success of the students, the teacher has to be seen by their students as someone who really cares.


For example, a teacher might feel they are investing in their students by being available to them before school two days a week and after school two days a week. This action is admirable and one can perceive why the teacher thinks this time is an investment in their students. However, if the teacher is only there because they are required to be (often students do not realize what is required of teachers and what is not), and not because he/she wants to be and shows this attitude through their interactions with the students who come for help before or after school, then it is really not an investment. And, the students will be able to tell! I assure you!

One of my greatest suggestions is that teachers who have children of their own need to think about how they would want to have their children treated by those who are educating them. This is how the children in your class should be treated; as if they are your own.  Students spend a large part of their waking hours with you. They deserve someone who is invested in their future.

So, as we start a new year and soon, a new semester, I ask: how are you investing in your students? I would love to know. Happy New Year!

A Positive Example of Differentiation

A Positive Example of Differentiation

Although I have recently received what I would call flack for writing about local educational issues, I know it is important to continue to raise community awareness about both the things we can work on and the things that are working well for our students.

So, today, I offer an encouraging, down right positive, story.  My high school senior is taking an elective class that has recently been focusing on belief and value systems, as well as other “adult” topics such as the stock markets, and career choices. It has been a great fit for my student who is enjoying the class immensely.  He is also doing extremely well, which is decidedly a bonus for him, and a relief for me, after watching him struggle last year.

Recently, his teacher asked him, “why are you taking this class? You seem to already know the material.”

My son replied, “I am taking it for you. I like you as a teacher and enjoy how you teach us.” This statement was in reference to him having this same teacher last year, for a required 11th grade class.  His reply was meant as a compliment, and I believe, also received as one.

The teacher then replied, “Well, then, I have a goal for the rest of the semester. I will try to teach you one new thing each day in this class.”  I think my son got a kick out of this, but when he relayed it to me, I told him – “this is an example of what differentiation looks, like. You have not had much of it before and lucky to have this teacher.”

Differentiation means many different things to people, even among educators.  To me, in part, it means having your child’s educational needs met, whether they are above, below, or at benchmark. It means not teaching to the test, but teaching what they are ready to be exposed to and hopefully, learn. Differentiation means supporting the individual’s learning needs.

Now, some of you might try to put a negative spin on this by saying – well, your son is not being challenged in this class. Why did he take it if he already knew he would do well? I would argue that this is no different from taking AP Language if you are already good at language arts, or be in an accelerated mathematics class if you already understand the basic mathematical concepts. He is well versed, and already competent in this course content, in part because we have previously talked at home about the issues now being covered in this class. As humans, we all gravitate toward that of which we excel. This is a student who has worked hard throughout his high school experience. His transcript screams rigor.  In part, that is what frustrates him.

I need to regularly remind him that while he might not have straight A’s, he has worked hard. I wish that all his teachers had differentiated course material. My wish applies to not only course content and pacing, but also learning style. He is not a student that fits well into the “box.”  I am very grateful that some of his current teachers recognize that you can be “outside” of the box and still be successful as a learner.  All students deserve that flexibility, recognition, and being offered that “one new thing” a day to learn!  He is lucky this year, indeed! PIXABAYvolunteers-2729695_1920