Twittering Away

notebooktwitterI think I’m finally beginning to understand Twitter.  It’s taken me over a year….I admit, I’m a slow learner.  But, confound it, when I first started using it, I just didn’t get why this application would be necessary.  Why would I want to hear that “Kadee” is “finally going to bed at midnight.”  or that “Lawer” is “having lunch – ham on rye”?   The last thing I need is more useless information and another feed to follow.  Besides which, couldn’t this effect be obtained using email?

Since many of the thought leaders I respect seemed entranced by it, I persevered.  It was really only after I had honed the list of people I was following that the value of Twitter started to sink in.  You see, with Twitter, you choose people to “follow”.  Every time someone you’re following posts an update to Twitter (referred to as a “tweet”), you receive it in your Twitter stream.  If you’re following 15 people, you receive “tweets” from them in a stream, as they post them (reverse-chronologically, with the most recent at the top).  Similarly, other people (or maybe some of the same people) follow you.  As often as you like, you can post short, text-only messages (140 characters or less is the rule) and the people who are following you receive them.  It’s as simple as that.

What I’m beginning to understand about Twitter is something that Gardner Campbell refers to as the network effect. That is, as I fine-tune the network of people I’m following, the information coming into me is increasingly worthwhile and exponentially useful.

Example #1.   I was looking for a good article on people’s attitudes toward their avatars in virtual worlds.  I Googled the phrases “avatar personalization” and “avatar embodiment” and got back about 500,000 hits.  Oy.  Then I put the question out to my Twitter network and got back three, extremely useful and targeted replies within 15 minutes.  Because the people I follow on Twitter are very carefully selected (thought leaders in the field of applying new media technology to education), they are extremely useful to me.  Because I nurture and feed my twitter stream, some of them are now following me.  When I put out a request like that, they know exactly what I’m looking for and we can speak a kind of “short hand” with each other.  None of the responses I received were off the mark (say about gaming and avatars); they were all right on the money and just what I needed.  So, would I rather sift through 500k Google hits to find an article or look at the three, highly qualified suggestions I received from my Twitter network?  It’s like a fine-meshed sieve.

Example #2.  I follow Will Richardson on Twitter.  Will is a prolific author and blogger on the topic of new media and education.  Last week he tweeted about a blog entry he’d just written on transparency and leadership.  He included the link to his blog in the tweet because he wanted to alert his followers to an interesting conversation forming around the blog post.  I followed the link and read through the 30-some odd comments – it was a very interesting conversation.  The comments led me to two other thoughtful bloggers I’d never heard of before (and am now following) and sparked a phone call with another friend of mind who has been grappling with the same issues.  Because I indicated that I wanted to receive updates on that conversation, I continued to follow it all week (it’s now up to 71 coments).  As result of what I read there, I’ve revised a professional development talk I’m scheduled to give next month and I purchased a copy of Howard Gardner’s, Five Minds for the Future (which was quoted in the blog post).  That’s a lot of cream from one, short tweet.

twecipesExample #3.  To venture from the topic of my own professional development, here’s a more whimsical, food-related Twitter example.  Maureen Evans has honed the fine art of communicating recipes via Twitter (twecipes?).  Lovely, precise, miniature instructions for creating delicious dishes.  Here’s a NYTimes article about her, along with some of her tweeted recipes.  Wonderful!

So – all of this to say, I think this application is worth your time.  My specific examples might not be relevant to your world but insert your own specifics there and imagine the resulting network effect.  What might your students twitter about in biology?  But forward the challenge, perhaps, of summarizing a key concept in 140 characters or less for the class?  (as usual, with this tools, I recommend using it yourself first, before you bring it into the classroom).

Here are a few tips to get you started.  Sign up at Twitter (signing up and building your profile will take about five minutes).  I suggest choosing a Twitter ID that is pretty similar to your own name.  I made the mistake of picking something silly the first time (amoj) and regret it as people don’t have a clue who I am.  Once you’re up and running, you might want to consider a few of specialty extension sites for augmenting your twitter experience. The first tool you’ll need is a url-shortening site.  If you’re going to share a web link in a tweet, you’ll use up most of your allotted 140 characters if you don’t shorten those big, hanging urls.  I use tinyurl but there are others.  TweetDeck is a sort of browser for Twitter – you can post from there, manage who you are following, arrange groupings of people, and access tinyurl right from there.  TwitterKarma allows you to see, on one handy page, who you are following and who is following you.  Twittervision is a real-time display of tweets around the world, as they are happening.  Addictive.  Many Eyes has a fabulous visualization of tweets that begin with the phrase “I need to…” intriguing way to take the pulse of the twittering world.  Quitter is a tool that allows you to see who has dropped you (stopped following you) – ouch. Tweetscan is an efficient way to search the twitter universe for subjects of interest to you.  Since the twitter search engine doesn’t work very reliably you can use Search.Twitter to find people or topics. Twitterbuzz lists, in descending order, the sites that people link to most often in Twitter – a sort of index to what’s hot in the twitterverse. Twitpic allows you to share photos on Twitter. And here’s a very handy link to a printable sheet of twitter commands that will make your tweeting life easier.

Whew.  So there you have it in a nutshell.  A rather big nutshell. Certainly longer than a 140-character nutshell, but then, as Mark Twain would have said, I would have needed more time to write you a shorter blog post.

I would love to hear what you think of Twitter – does it work for you?  What are your examples? How are you using it?


Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags:

Reframing Biology

biologyIt’s a perennial discussion… in what order do you teach the biology units.

Like many of you, when I started teaching AP Biology years ago I organized it by domains of scale:

  • The Domain of BioMolecules
  • The Domain of Cells
  • The Domain of Organisms
  • The Domain of Populations
  • The Domain of Communities & Ecosystems

I did it that way because I was taught that way and the textbooks were organized that way. But I became disenchanted with it because I felt like I was merely marching through the material instead of making connections between domains. So I started mixing it up — teaching principles and then teaching a unit that highlights a body’s application of that principle (form and function) — like teaching osmosis and then teaching kidney function as an example of osmosis.

But over the last couple of years, I have been brewing on a re-framing of the course that takes this idea further. I have started to view the material as being divided up between (1) large-scale interactions and (2) cellular processes.

Under LARGE-SCALE interactions I place evolution and ecology, because these are built on long term processes or interactions between organisms or groups of organisms. And I start my course with these because (1) evolution is my guiding principle for the rest of the year and (2) interactions between organisms and populations are easier for students to grasp this early in the year of their intellectual development.

SideNote: Many people have asked me how I teach evolution before teaching genetics. That always makes me laugh because if you think about it, Darwin developed the principles of evolution by natural selection without having been taught genetics himself!

I teach evolution before genetics, because you don’t have to know the nitty gritty of genetics to understand evolution. You only have to know that inheritance happens — and every high school kid knows that s/he looks like one or other of their parents.

Specifically for population genetics, you get to introduce/review some concepts and vocab early on in the course this way too, like you can introduce them to allele, heterozygote, homozygote… but each can be explained in one sentence and I consider that an advantage instead of a disadvantage.
I leave evolution by segueing from speciation into phylogenetics/taxonomy (who has evolved on this earth) and then into ecology (how they all interact).

Then I introduce CELLULAR PROCESSES by discussing that organisms are coordinated masses of cells that must perform a set of shared tasks. And I now organize this unit within the framework that cells have 3 main jobs: (1) to make energy, (2) to make more cells, (3) to make proteins. And for me everything else in the course falls under those functions.

First you have to discuss cell structure to lay the foundation — that includes biomolecules & their behavior, cell organelles, cell membrane, and movement across the membrane. Then we discuss making energy and all the animal & plant systems that have evolved to support that in one way or another:

    • Respiration
      • Digestion — taking in fuel
      • Gas exchange — taking in O2 & releasing CO2
      • Circulation — moving raw materials to & wastes from cells
      • Excretion — removing intracellular waste
      • Immune System — protecting an interconnected mass of cells & tissues
      • Motor System — using the energy produced in respiration
      • Nervous & Endocrine Systems — coordinating an interconnected mass of cells & tissues to make it an organism
    • Photosynthesis
      • Gas exchange — taking in CO2 & releasing O2
      • Plant Structure & Growth — highlighting the differences & similarities between plants & animals but how each structure supports making energy or using products

Then we discuss making new cells both for asexual reproduction and for the special case of sexual reproduction & all that extends from those topics:

    • Mitosis
      • DNA replication
    • Meiosis
      • Genetics

Then we discuss making proteins & that opens the topics that have come from the new DNA-centric world that we live in:

    • Protein Synthesis — transcription & translation
      • Gene Regulation
      • Biotechnology

And that’s where I end the course.

I hope this offers you another perspective than the one dictated by your textbook. I strongly believe that students get a more integrated view of the biological world this way. I feel like it tells a story that both holds their attention and makes sense, rather than marching through a mass of vocabulary as if we are teaching a foreign language.

Maybe someday there will be a textbook that breaks the mold of domains of scale.

Kim Foglia

Kim Foglia


Community Involvement

kbrown2In an era when science changes on a daily basis, it is so important to have opportunities for the involement of the community in the explorations made by our students.  When so much focus has been placed upon the mastery of content standards, sometimes educators tend to swing right along with the pendulum.  There are many ways in which we can involve our local community.  In doing so, we engage them in the on-going learning that we all do as passionate teachers.  One way that we can engage them is to ask for their help in mentoring our students as they conduct original research projects.  These forays into true inquiry by our students are truly engaging for the teacher, student, and community mentor.  Sometimes we assume that mentors need to be university professors, or scientific idustrial partners, but local business can also be utilized in any part of the country.  Where I live, I have utilized local dairy farmers, partnering students as they explored protein content in milk from cows at various stages of lactation, or as they explored the evolution of bacteria in the guts of such bovines.  Even the local Bee Keepers can be a great resource.


These partnerships are not onlybeneficial for the individuals involved, but are wonderful opportunities for much needed public relations opportunties.  Eventhough I got a couple of bee stings out of the outing, the student’s comments after seeing drones, queen cells, and larvae make it all worth while.  I just took this picture yesterday.  Exploring the production of Defensin by Bees is a great partnership between these two people.  The bee keeper is very interesting in organic farming practice, and the student is looking at the bee’s natural responses to infection.  A match made in heaven.


Blogs? …Wikis? …Social Networking?

One of the most challenging things to grok in this wacky, new, web 2.0 world is when to use what tool for which thing.  When is a blog the right tool for you to use with your students?  Or is that something you should just do yourself?  What about wikis – when do I use them?  And what’s the right time or place to use social networking tools like Facebook?  Here’s my stab at a few distinctions:

Blogs: A blog typically has an author.  It is usually one person, posting their opinions on a semi-regular basis (like this one!). Others chime in (in the form of comments) and the blogger comments back.   The result is a thoughtful and considered conversation, but the blogger is the boss.  She determines the topic to be discussed, steers the commentators, and guides the conversation. Now having said that, you could start a class blog where the person blogging each day (or each week) rotates from one student to the next.

Wikis: While a blog is about the conversation, a wiki is more about the product.  A wiki is a good tool to use when you want to get a bunch of people, who aren’t very used to technology, to collaborate together on a project .  You can think of a wiki as a sand box of sorts – a place for the group to contribute collectively to an emerging product.  The basic wiki application (which can be accessed for free at wikifarms like wetpaint or pbwiki) allows you to quickly (the word “wiki” is the Hawaiin word for “quick”) put up a wiki site, build pages, make links, trick it out with photos, add documents, and invite people to participate.  You can make your wiki site public or private (by invitation only). Here’s a short (4 minute) common craft video that explains how a wiki works.

Social Networking Tools: So where do social networking tools like FacebookNingTwitter, or Linked-In fit in? Social networking tools are good for helping people in dispirate locations keep up with each other. You can think of them as web-based tools that help to connect people with shared activities or interests. Each person on a social network has a profile (with a photo and some basic information about them) and the network facilitates quick, short and steady communication.

Email: Well why not just use email to collaborate on a project or to stay in touch with friends?  Well, you could. Everyone could email in their contributions or their opinions to a collaboration but the result would look something like this (comparing creating with a wiki vs. email):


And while emailing certainly works for keeping friends in touch with each other, these social networking services provide so many more tools (the ability to post photos, add music, send “gifts”, map your network, and connect to others with like interests).

But the best way to get a “feel” for the differences among these tools is to try them yourselves.  There just is no substitute for experience.  Once you’ve mucked around with them a bit, you’ll have a much better understanding of how you can best make use of them.

How else would you characterize the differences?


Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools |

A New Meeting Place for Biology Teachers

Welcome to the newly launched NABT BioBlog–a meeting place in for biology teachers,  a place to share ideas, methods, experiences, and hopes about teaching biology.  This blog is a multiple author blog modeled after the successful KABT BioBlog of the Kansas Association of Biology Teachers.  I’ve asked/recruited a number of distinguished biology teachers to be a part of the beginning of this NABT blog.   These teachers/biologists/authors share a passion for biology and students.  Each will introduce themselves as they make a first post to the blog.  Blogs work when posting is frequent and relevant.  To that end our authors have committed to contributing on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.  That commitment along with the diverisity of authors should assure a quality, go-to resource for the biology teaching community.  We are starting with a small group of authors and will bring a few more on but if you or someone you know wants to have a presence here, shoot me an email and we’ll see what can be worked out.  Feel free to comment–that is the other thing that helps a blog develop into a community.

As you can see this community is already up and posting and commenting—please feel free to come on board.

As far as rules on this blog….

I didn’t like explicit “rules” in my classroom so we will try that here as well.  NABT is a professional society and as such we expect professional posting and comments here on this blog–just common sense.  Since one of the primary goals for this site is to serve as a resource for biology teachers we certainly do not want anything on the blog that would not allow a biology teacher to access this blog from school.  So keep that in mind–your posts and comments should pass school filters.  We don’t want this blog blocked by school IT departments like some group blogs are.  Partly for that reason I’m requiring that commenters register as subscribers to the site before they can comment.

Again–welcome to the journey.

Brad Williamson

Photo:  Brad Williamson, aka--ksbioteacher


National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and Biology Eduation?

Kevin L. Lindauer

Kevin L. Lindauer

I want the world to know I work hard to teach my students the principles of biology.  Moreover, I want the world to reinforce the necessity of continued professional development and collaboration among teaching professionals.

Does being national board certified actually make you a better biology teacher?  That is something each individual must answer for themselves.

I am in the middle of renewing my National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS.org) certification as a teacher of biology.  So, my answer is, apparently, ”yes.”  But what IS the value of reflection in teaching?  Should we really take time to self-evaluate?

In my case, I have never given up the good fight of pursuing excellence like Dr. Richard Kimble’s pursuit of the “One Armed Man.”  The strange part is, like the fugitive himself, I often feel like I am the one being pursued.  Educational stakeholders–our students, parents, and communities–have every right to demand excellence in education.

But are they the ones pursuing me?  No.  Typically, they are the ones supporting our efforts to educate America’s youth.

Those in pursuit are those who fail to understand the actual rigor to which professionals hold THEMSELVES.  If we want to regain the respect professional educators once held, we must make it obvious that we DO monitor ourselves, that we DO pursue difficult tasks because they are good for all, and that we DO intend our students to make positive progress in a complicated world.  This is why I am renewing my National Board Certification.

Make no mistake…this is a difficult, reflective process.  The process forces me to look inward at how I really spend my energy, and outward at the results attained.  It WILL make me a better teacher.

Because biology education is more critical than ever in a world moving ever faster, can we rely on professionals to self-reflect and improve on their own?  Outside of rigorous processes like the NBPTS, we are the ones who encourage each other to improve, and the NABT is our rally point.

How do we involve more professionals in the NABT?

This is the question that we need to answer….


Web 2.0 Tools: Animoto


In my posts on this BioBlog, I will talk about various web 2.0 tools that I hope you all might use with your students.  The tools that interest me the most are the ones that encourage a participatory culture – that is, tools that, when used, just might get the students further engaged with the biology and motivated to dig deeper.

So, here’s a first one to try:  Animoto.  I selected this one mostly because it is so darned easy to use and the results are pretty fun to watch. Nothing to download, no complex interface to master. You just upload your photos, choose some appropriate music, and the site mixes your assets into a high-production-value video clip that looks a lot like a movie trailer. The resulting video can be emailed to people, posted on your web site, or downloaded to your computer for use in other settings.  It’s an easy way to get a professional quality “short” to use on your site, in a blog, or to dress up a PPT presentation.  Students could use the tool to create projects of their own and embed them on your course web site or wiki. This is mostly for fun and engagement (other, more flexible and extendable tools will come later).

The service for short (30-second) animotos, is free.  You just sign up, upload your pictures, pick a song and away you go.  I assembled this Darwin Animoto in about five minutes (using Flickr Creative Commons images).  If you want to build a longer animoto (with more pictures and a downloadable high resolution version), there is a small fee.  But the 30-second free versions work well too.   Give it a whirl and tell me what you think.