20% Time and The Launch Cycle

I have been doing 20% Time (AKA Genius Hour) projects for about three years.  As with many of my lessons, it often takes me a few iterations of an activity to get it to fit well with me and my classes.  I wanted to share two activities and practices that seem to help my students first determine what it is they want to do for their projects and also help them maintain focus throughout the long time frame of the project.  I would like to thank Nancy McDowell (@CGCoach), Chelsea Fleming (@fleming_mrs), John Spencer (@spencerideasand Troy Cockrum (@tcockrum) for all their help and guidance.

qf6jyyqomz_1401664675200My introduction to the idea of 20% Time came from Troy Cockrum when I attend the first GAFE conference in Indiana in 2014.  What is Genius Hour?  In its simplest terms, a 20% Time project is a project where students are allowed to work on something or learn something they are interested in.  I was interested in starting this concept with my own students and Troy shared many examples his students have done in the past.  When I started doing projects with my own students, what I found was there were two main challenges for my students:  #1 They found it hard to determine what they were really interested in and what to do about it.  #2 Students found it hard to maintain focus on the same topic over the entire project timeline.

After several years, and with help from instruction coaches Nancy McDowell and Chelsea Fleming, here is the process I have students follow to help them identify their topics and develop their driving question.  Students begin with a question brainstorm on anything.  The questions can be “big” or “small”.  They only need to write down three questions on topic(s) they are interested in.  After writing down their three questions, students watch 3 Questions That Could Change the World video from Kid President.  After watching, student answer the three questions:

  •         What are you not okay with?
  •         What do you have?
  •         What can we do about it?

final-version-alternate-e1463477404277Answering these three questions helps to narrow their own questions.  They will then share this out with their table or table partner and get feedback.  John Spencer describes these steps as the first steps of The Launch Cycle.  I share these steps with my students so they can begin to see the direction we are going with our time.

To help keep track of my students progress, I use Google forms.  Basically, Google forms allows me to easily keep an eye on what kids are doing and make sure I provide a reflection component at each step along the process.  A shown in this YouTube video Google forms allows students to maintain a process log and also provides me a “living” spreadsheet of each class period and student.  This helps ensure that students are accountable for their progress and I can help address specific needs each of them might have if they fall behind.

I have found that following the Launch Cycle and using this framework to help narrow students ideas, my students are much better at developing effective driving questions.


The Nature and Process of Science

Like many science teachers, I start the year with a quick review of what is science and how science works.  Many of my students think they know science when they see it yet many lack a sophisticated, conceptual understanding of these topics and often mistake pseudoscience as “real” science.  This can often lead to some perceived conflict between science and faith.  In addition, since we do several projects throughout the year, being able to work through the process of science including forming writing testable questions is an essential learning goal for my science class.  Students also need to be able to identify patterns and trends in their data and observations to help them support (or not support their hypotheses).  There are several key lessons I use to help address these essential science process standards.

– Student Objectives –

Students will…

…define science.

…identify topics that are NOT science.

…describe the relationship between amount of evidence and strength of an idea.

…create testable questions/ideas that can be reliably answered with evidence and data.

So we can…

… use problem-solving and decision-making benefits from a scientific approach to life.

We will know we have it when…

… we can formulate testable questions and use the process of science to answer them.

We begin with a visit to Understanding Science, how science really works from University of California, Berkeley.  Students complete a guided reading page that begins to outline what science is and what it is not.  They record their notes and answers into their science notebook to be used later.  I also have the students create a diagram page to discuss the role technology and faith play in the process of science as well as the idea of testable questions.

Science is limited to investigations of the observable and measureable natural world.  Faith is a belief in something that is hidden from view and is not measureable.  These are like opposite ends of a line.  Technology is moving on that line as new technology makes things that were once hidden, visible.  The example I like to use is cells and infectious diseases since this is a 7th grade science standard that my 8th graders know from last year.  Prior to the invention of the microscope, cell theory and germ theory, there were many superstitions about the cause of illness.  Ideas like voodoo spells, witchcraft, punishment from a wrathful god were common explanations for disease.  We now understand that microscopic bacteria and viruses are the cause of infectious diseases.  An idea that was once based on faith or hidden explanations of the supernatural were now science explanations built on observations and data from the natural world.  I share with students my excitement about our future and new technologies like the CERN Large Hadron Collider and future NASA missions the Mars that might help us answer questions of the origin of the universe or how life started on Earth.

I share my “science checklist” to help summarize what is real-science:

  • Knowledge and process to explain the natural universe (observable and measureable)
  • Uses testable ideas and questions
  • Relies on evidence
  • Involves scientific community
  • Leads to ongoing research

We then begin practicing writing testable questions.  A good testable, scientific question is “why is the sky blue?” or “how do rocks form?”  Questions that science will never be able to answer are “why am I here?” or “is there a God?”  This leads us right into our PBL project on testing various product claims.  We diagram the differences between objective/subjective and quantitative/qualitative observations.  

Like with the “science checklist”, I provide students a “checklist for testable questions” to help them begin to investigate product claims:

  • Has variables that can be observed and measured
  • Can be answered with materials and time available
  • Cannot be completely answered by a book or internet search
  • Does not contain opinion words (like best or better)
  • Can help you understand how or why something works

These lessons and examples help students move from looking at science as something they learn to looking as science as something they do.  Science is more than just a subject.  Science is something we practice.  Science is a noun AND a verb.  We are North and we do science!

Tech Tips for Parents

“[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves” – Socrates, The Phaedrus.  Socrates belief was that the best learning came from talking and that writing was a bad thing.  Many of us in education hear the same thing about the use of technology.  Bill Keller, the head of the New York Times, for wrote that technology will make people dumber because we won’t have to think for ourselves — that we are “outsourcing our brains to the cloud”.  Other writers at Gizmodo, take the other side that Socrates was wrong and writing didn’t make us dumber, ergo Twitter and Google won’t make us dumber either.  

The outcome depends a lot on how we use the technology and that is the key to effective use of educational technology.  Teaching with technology is as much about how to use technology as it is about the process of learning.  For too many of my students, parents and ineffective teachers have taken the stance that “kids will figure out the technology”.  This is irresponsible and has lead to many young adults who lack many skills necessary to be successful in the modern world.  “Our kids are growing up on a digital playground and no one is on recess duty.” @KevinHoneycut


The fact is no one knows a child better than a parent.  I would like to provide some simple resources and tech tips for parents as their children enter my 8th grade science class.  It is a very complicated time to be a child and parent with technology addiction, screen time, haters, trolls, bullies, social media, body image, violence to name just a few of the parent concerns.

The best parent resource I have found is Common Sense Media.  They have many excellent family guides to help parents get answers to many of their parent concerns.  The needs of children change over time and so many of their recommendations are broken down into different age groups.  They also include help with movies, apps, music, books and other media.

My first recommendation to parents is to not allow kids to sleep with their devices.  I even go so far as to recommend a screen embargo about 30 minutes before going to bed.  This has shown to improve student sleep habits.  I have found that many of my kids have trouble with school because they have poor sleep habits often compounded by night screen time.  They have increased impulsivity, increased irritability, loss of short term memory, and loss of focus.  Add that to the normal adolescent behaviors and you have a situation that is hard for most kids to overcome.


My second recommendation to parents is to work with their kids to setup some other limits on the use of technology.  We have limits in place at school.  No iPads in the bathrooms.  No iPads at the lunch tables.  In the classroom, there are tech-free times.  I encourage parents to do the same at home.  Establishing good device manners is something we all can benefit from.

The Center Grove Technology Department has pulled together many helpful resources for parents.  “Parenting students who are digital natives can prove to be quite challenging for any parent.  At Center Grove, we understand that learning begins in the home and at times parents may have questions or concerns.  In addition, students will be bringing home iPads in grades 6-12 to extend their learning beyond the school day.”

Development of an Educational Greenspace

I am excited to share about the planning of an educational green-space project starting at Center Grove Middle School North.  Students and staff at Center Grove Middle School North have started working in collaboration with our local community, environmental scientists, and design/construction engineers to develop an educational green-space and restore Indiana native species to an area behind the school.  We seek to design a wetland and climate change mitigation project that will allow our students to work alongside wildlife biologist, environmental scientists, ecologist and other experts.  Our students will conduct regular inventory surveys of flora and fauna to track the long term progress of the project as they learn about Indiana’s native species and wetland habitats.

Over the past several months, Jacob Burskey and I were able to make several important contacts and contributors to this project.  Staff from MSN were able to meet with Robert Winebrinner, Environmental Planner and Summer O’Brien, Senior Environmental Scientist from CHA Companies, Inc. to look over the planned site.  Summer and Robert were able to visit the site behind the school and provide some feedback on our project ideas.  We were also able to consult with Donna Jo Smithers, President/Owner of Northpointe Engineering & Surveying, Inc to provide a Phase “A” topographical survey of the desired area.

The existing conditions of the area is a dry detention basin that holds water for several days during high rain events and is dry for extended periods of time. The basin is currently a mowed lawn/grassy area and is flat. There are several storm water pipe inlets from parking lots and roof drains that drain into the area. The basin outlet consists of a large pipe inset with a weir and smaller pipe, allowing a certain quantity of water to be retained for longer periods while larger storm events pass through.7-29-2016 3-09-42 PM

I was also able to make contact with Jim Poyser, Executive Director Earth Charter Indiana and Director of Youth Power Indiana.  Jim  was able to provided some great ideas to increase the student impact on the educational green-space project.  Jim has worked with many students in IPS and Camel Green Initiative to empower kids who want to do more to educate people about global climate change and discover their own voice.  It is our hope to provide our students the opportunity to work together with our community to create significant and lasting change to this area.  We hope to have Jim visit our school to present to our students with an authentic audience and provide some examples of what youth are going around Indiana to grapple with the challenges of climate change.  This will connect perfectly to the new PBL unit on Climate Change we created with Andrea McCoy at the Center Grove Innovation Academy in June.

We hope to have most of the planning done during the 2016 – 2017 school year.  We would like to begin “breaking ground” on Phase “A” in the spring of 2017.  

CHA will provide the following for use in the develop of Phase “A”:

  • Native Restoration Concept design
    • Base Map using GIS Lidar
    • Concept Plan Overview Exhibit
    • Water Control Structure(s) Detail
    • Planting Plan Exhibit
    • Water Budget (depth, duration, frequency)
    • Coordination
  • Specifications
    • Water Control Structure(s)
    • Removal of existing vegetation
    • Soil Amendments/preparation
    • Seed Mixes
    • Tree Species
    • Planting Specs
    • Monitoring well
  • Estimates
    • Quantities of materials
    • Cost of materials and construction of water control structure improvements

Center Grove Middle School North will document existing conditions utilizing students (vegetation composition for mowed lawn and after mowing cessation, hydrology, soil, wildlife, etc.) in the fall. Students will plant material in spring and conduct monitoring and maintenance.  MSN will also develop curriculum for class activities using this educational green-space.  It is our hope with even these small changes to how that area is managed, that area will grow into a area where native Indiana species thrive for class activities and student lead projects.  An example of this can be seen below from Souteastway Park near my house.

It is very exciting to see this project beginning to come together.  I am continuously looking for grant opportunities and hope to share some news soon on that as well.  Please do not hesitate to forward ideas on sources for additional assistance with this project.  For example, we are searching for a local excavation company that might be able to assist with some minor excavation or tilling up the soil to promote wildflower growth.  More to come as we start to change the world starting in our own backyard!

Center Grove Innovation Academy – PBL is great PD

CluXI4xUsAAOpdlLast week I got to attend the Center Grove Innovation Academy at the new Innovation Center.  During the three day academy,  teachers were able to create an inquiry-based PBL unit for their students.  The academy included grade levels from K to HS and all subjects which provided a wealth of like-minded professionals from around the district to assist each other with the lesson development and curriculum planning.  I am not overstating it when I say the Innovation Academy was the best professional development I have had in my 13 years of teaching.

The Time

It is really hard to create effective, PBL units during the school year.  It is not impossible but I have found PBL units that I create “on the fly” usually are not very good.  They might become great over time but I just do not have the time during the school year to process all the moving parts on a big project.  My time is often spent thinking about parent/student communication, coaching assignments, extracurricular tasks, department meeting agendas, consumable orders, and any of the other countless details teachers have to juggle during a typical school day.  Providing teachers time in the summer to develop effective PDL units communicates to the entire school community this is something we as a district think is valuable and important.  It is not a 50 minute “chalk and talk” early release day or “unfunded mandate” from people outside my classroom.  This is me being proved everything I need to try that “moon shot” unit I have always dreamed of.

The People

There were many people who made the Innovation Academy a success.  The first is the leadership team that found the funds to pay teachers, coordinators and instructional coaches for their time.  The Academy was planned by our STEM Coach, Matt Ehresman, an Instructional Coach, Nancy McDowell, and the Coordinator or Connected Learning, Jenna Cooper.  All three of these coaches embraced the PBL culture and process.  They would provide some simple framework outlines of the process or task, then allowed each group of teachers to set up in different places around the room to get the job done.  They put themselves into the role of a resource, the THE Source.  They modeled the PBL process and demonstrated the authentic, collaborative learning that this process facilitates.  Each were able to provide their own experience and guidance.

I also greatly benefited from the opportunity with work with other teachers.  It can be difficult to develop a diverse professional learning network in a district of our size.  It is rare I have the chance to plan a lesson together with others.  I cherish the chance to work with other teachers from different schools and subjects.

The Resources

Center Grove is a resource rich environment.  I have access to countless edtech tools, web pages and media types.  While creating my PBL unit, I was able to work in the new Center Grove Innovation Center.  This learning space was developed with the PBL process in mind and despite some power and display glitches, the Innovation Center did not disappoint.  We were also provided a copy of The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros about a month before the Innovation Academy began. This insightful book helped to “set the mood” and gave us a good launch pad for our ideas.

After my three days at the Innovation Academy, I have a great start on a PBL unit on Climate Change.  I was able to contact several authentic community members to help me review the projects.  My curriculum is stronger and will provide my students better learning opportunities.  My hope is that the Innovation Academy will be a yearly event where teachers from across Center Grove will be provided the same chance to have a “inspirational and innovative learning opportunity.”

Time to Reflect

There are very few teachers who do not love summer.  It is a break from the chaotic daily schedule of bells and grades.  It is also an important time to reflect on what worked, and did not work in the classroom.  I have found myself reflecting a lot this summer on improving my classes process of student reflection.

One of the biggest changes I made last year was to allow students to redo all homework and labs.  I did this with great reservation as I feared I would be buried in a mountain of work to grade and then regrade.  What I actually found was that too often, kids were content with that 3 out of 5.  It was done.  When I would as something like,  “What have I (or we) learned from doing this activity?”  I would get a shrug and an “I don’t know but it is done.”  I want to be more purposeful at helping my students make connections to why we are doing what we are doing.

Donald Finkel writes about how teaching should be thought of as “providing experience, provoking reflection.”

He goes on to write:6a00d8341d880253ef0120a7a4dd53970b-pi

… to reflectively experience is to make connections within the details of the work of the problem, to see it through the lens of abstraction or theory, to generate one’s own questions about it, to take more active and conscious control over understanding.
~ From Teaching With Your Mouth Shut

I feel like I do a good job of providing my students experiences.  Where I struggle is then also provoking reflection.  Reflection is a time to allow students to describe what they saw in their own work that changed, needs to change, or might need to be described so another person might understand its meaning.  I would like to begin this reflective process using an activity page in the students science notebooks.


  • What is the main idea or topic from this week?
  • What are three important details to remember about this topic?
  • Where could I use this again?
  • How well did I do?
  • What should I do next?

After getting some examples and advice from Mari Venturino (@MsVenturino) , I also decided to add a parent or adult reflection piece.  That lead me to develop the following reflections science notebook questions.


  • The notebook page we found most interesting this week was…
  • What is the most valuable or interesting idea or topic my student is learning this week?
  • The information my student is learning is important because….

My current plan is to try to alternate between these two weekly reflections.  I will do the student reflection one week and then the adult reflection the following week.  Goal is to have some reflection happening on a consistent basis to keep kids thinking about what we are doing and why we might be doing it.

Social Media in my Classroom

Social media allows me to quickly communicate information and maintain a more transparent classroom culture.  I use social media with my students, parents and peers.   The entire process helps me stay connected as an educator by becoming a creator of content and sharing with others.  I currently maintain a web page, Facebook page, YouTube channel, Flickr page, Twitter feed, Instagram feed, and this blog on WordPress.  I know, it seems like a lot of work but it provides a digital window into my classroom and helps me connect to my learning community and classroom collaborators.  To put it into simple terms, the benefits are well worth the efforts.  There are also digital tools that help with the maintenance of these accounts so the work is minimized and automated without losing authenticity.

2016-05-24_05-09-48My web page is more or less a static page (not much changes).  This page is located on my school’s web page and contains my basic contact information.  It also has a few links to my other media pages like online textbook, course/content management system (CMS), homework calendar and some others.  I only update this page about once or twice a year but it provides a useful common access point for people looking for more information on my class.

My Facebook page is my most neglected page right now.  I used it a lot a few years ago but have found it difficult to maintain that momentum.  Recently I have heard from several parents and former students that have requested I post more to it.  I stopped posting to my Mr. Peterson Page when Facebook changed their profile settings to allow people to “follow” my personal Facebook page without me having to “friend” them.  The line between my private life and professional life is very blurry and I share many classroom happenings to my Facebook profile.  That said, there are things I would like to share with my students parents that I might not want to share with my college friends.  I need to make a decision on how to proceed with this page.  I either need to delete it or resolve to add content in a more timely manner.

It could be argued that YouTube is not a social media site but with the number of people who are vlogging, I could make a case it is.  I use my YouTube channel to share “flipped” lessons videos and create playlists.  YouTube is the best place to store video content as there is no limit on storage space.  Several of the video apps and creation tools I use allow me to export video directly to YouTube which is very helpful.  YouTube is easy to embed into many other web pages including my CMS and is well support on almost all devices.  There are also some video editing tools and sharing options I can change to optimize my content for students.

As an avid classroom photographer, I prefer to upload my photos to Flickr or Instagram instead of creating an album in Facebook and are more formal photos from my classroom and school.  The intended audience with my Flickr page are parents and peers.  Like with my YouTube page, my photo editing software (Adobe Lightroom) allows me to export images directly to my Flickr page and easily embed a photo feed into other web pages.  These two tasks, help streamline my workflow to allow simple management of these sites.  When I export the files, they are automatically updated on multiple pages.  My Instagram page are for more casual images for a student centered audience.  These images are typically shared right from my phone and not taken with my DSLR.  In short, I see my Flickr page as photo albums collections while Instagram is more of a photo log.

I view my Twitter as a micro blog where I can also follow individuals who make up my PLN.  I use it to keep up with current trends in education and learning while sharing what is happening in my classroom.  I use an app called “IFTTT” to help connect my Instagram account to my Twitter.  Every time I post to Instagram, that post is then also shared to my Twitter account.  I feel it is essential I do everything I can do to optimize my workflow and optimize my productivity.  I also recommend you avoid the use of “robots” to auto reply to tweets or messages.  These are not hard to spot and reduce your authenticity.

These social media accounts provide a digital window into my classroom.  I find it useful to think of my target audience when I consider what I post and where to post it.  Parents can see their children doing science and be connected to what is happening in their learning.  My students get to know more about me and feel more connected to my interests.  I feel the use of social media is important to provide a transparent and timely view into what is happening in my class and be able to articulate why it is happening in the specific way.  The process keeps me connected as an educator and something I recommend to all teachers.