The Battle of the Cell Phones

Every teacher today knows The Battle of the Cell Phones. It starts from the moment the bell rings (if you have bells) and goes until the very. Last. Second. Of class. It happens every day. All year long. No matter what you do.

“But I’m done with what you told me to do.”

“I’m just listening to music.”

“My [mom/dad/grandma/brother/coach] is texting me.”

“I’m looking something up.”

I’m sure you’ve heard them all, teacher friends, and more. My favorite was the kid who had set six different contacts to be named some variation of “Mom” (Mama, Mum, Madre, etc.) so it actually looked like she was texting her mom all the time. Oy.

There are all sorts of interesting studies showing how people might be addicted to their cell phones. The description of this one, from Baylor University and published in 2014, explains how approximately 60% of college students self-identified as being addicted to their cell phones. This is confirmed by a poll given two years later by Common Sense Media, which indicated 50% of teens feel addicted to their cell phones.

Some of the reason for this might be access. These charts show how people who are younger and/or poorer use their cell phone as their only access to the internet. In a world where you need an email account to sign up for…basically everything…it makes sense that smart phones are becoming indispensable.

There’s also really interesting research out there that people who have experienced trauma are more likely to expect traumatic experiences in the future. Many of my students who come from uncertain home lives lose their minds when I take their phones because they’re afraid of an emergency happening while I have it. Last year, when my colleague was killed in a car accident, I experienced some of the same feeling.

One of the most addicting things on the internet is social media. A 2012 Harvard study showed that disclosing personal information activated the same pleasure-reward pathways in the brain as food, money, and sex. A study from the University of Albany, published in 2014, explains other reasons why social media, Facebook in this example, is so addicting:

“New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward. Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently. This uncertainty about when a new reward is available is known as a ‘variable interval schedule of reinforcement’ and is highly effective in establishing habitual behaviors that are resistant to extinction. Facebook is also making it easy for users to continuously be connected to its platform, for example by offering push notifications to mobile devices.”

How is a teacher to compete with all of that? No wonder we face The Battle of the Cell Phones every day.

I start every single class by asking students to put their cell phones in their backpacks. Not under their textbooks, not in their laps, not in their pockets. Backpacks. I feel like Dora the Explorer after a while, as I repeat “Backpack, backpack,” over and over! (On that note, perhaps I should start singing the song…) As they creep back out I’ll drum my foot against chair legs and after a warning (or six, depending on how distracted I am) the cell phone gets to live in my desk drawer.

My mentor teacher (and many teachers in my building) use a cell phone box. I had a hard time with students taking their phone back out of the box without asking me and worse, taking each other’s phones. I eventually settled on my desk drawer (or my pockets) to help keep the phones safer.

I’ve seen teachers fight The Battle of the Cell Phones many ways. Some have pockets or cubbies for them, and take attendance by the presence of the cell phone in the cubby. Some try to embrace the phone and get students to use them for educational reasons instead. If you’ve figured out something that works for you, teacher friends, go for it. And share it!

What’s really horrifying to me, though, is The Other Battle of the Cell Phones. The one that happens at staff meetings. In cars. At customer service counters. Adults (me included, in some situations) aren’t any better at their phones than my students are. It’s flat-out terrible for the attention. If you’re curious about attention, try Googling “cell phones and attention,” “switch-tasking and multi-tasking” and “texting and driving training”.

No one, students included, can pay attention while they have their cell phones out. So how do I create an environment where students can pay attention? By limiting the phones that are out, for sure. But also by creating engaging lessons.

Now, teacher friends, I will tell you that I ABSOLUTELY HATE IT when that’s the solution. In my head, I’m always thinking Oh gee, thanks a lot for that. I never would have thought of that myself. Someone want to show me HOW? And I can tell you that I still haven’t figured it out. Lessons I thought would be terribly boring engage kids, possibly because of the easy opportunity to feel successful. Lessons I thought would be super engaging fall flat. But I do know that when my kids’ hands are full of test tubes of paramecium or markers or their telling each other a story about science, the phones don’t creep out quite as quickly.

It’s not completely on me to make my classroom the most interesting place in the world for every single student every single day. That’s impossible. But by increasing the attention students give to my classroom and decreasing the possible attention they can give their phones, someday I might just win The Battle of the Cell Phones. Maybe. For a day.

Your homework: How does your cell phone or your social media affect your attention? When are you on it the most and/or the least?

Hej då,



Back to School

Well, I couldn’t have the nerd week in August have any different kind of a title, could I? It’s back-to-school season, and the signs are everywhere. I’ve seen parents with kids and lists in Target and Staples. The chalkboard ads are prevalent. My Facebook newsfeed is full of advice on how to finally find work-life balance, new classroom management routines, and memes about teachers being as reluctant as students to dust off the books and get back in the classroom.

I admit, I have these moments. Yesterday I rode my bike around North Table Mesa near Golden, and I was a little sad about not getting to play outside every day anymore. I love eating breakfast in my pajamas – this is the epitome of luxury for me because it never happened when I was a kid! I like getting to wear my favorite ratty t-shirts and wander around barefoot and eat peaches. Oh, the peaches!

And I’m nervous about the upcoming school year. I’m piloting a new biology book, so for the first time I won’t be directly collaborating with anyone in my school on lessons. I have huge hopes and goals for this pilot, and I know I’m going to fall short of some of them. I’m already feeling the pressure of other people’s expectations; the superintendent’s opening speech this year was all about asking us if we were willing to do what it takes to move from being very good to being remarkable. It was a very good speech! But I also remember many moments in the last two years of teaching in which I felt like I was giving more than I had to give, and I was exhausted. For me, anyhow, doing more is not the answer.

But that sentence has two keys phrases in it. First, doing more is not the answer. What I want to do this year is do some of the things I already do better than I’ve done them. It means I want to have resources posted on my website the night before kids need them instead of right before class. It means I want to use absent folders for each block rather than the folders on my desk for each class. It means I want to make mini-to-do lists for my plan periods so I don’t get overwhelmed by the incredible number of things I always have to do. It means I want to use my planner more effectively to remember when meetings are so I’m not surprised by them.

This likely isn’t a new thought for many of you. Lots of my teachers told me to study smarter, not harder. It’s the idea of efficiency, given the resources I already have.

But this isn’t enough. When I have all the normal responsibilities of a teacher, plus all the additional professional projects I get involved in, I will never have enough time to meet everyone’s expectations. I can’t. There simply are not enough hours in the day, even if I was a robot and could work crazy hours and use every one of them at top-level productivity. The second key phrase in that sentence was For me.

At the end of the school year last year, I sat down with one of our assistant principles and asked for advice. I told him about all the pressures I’d been feeling from innumerable different sources. The building goal for freshmen students was focused on literacy. The district goals were to incorporate technology and boost attendance. The building professional development was focused on project-based learning. The 9th grade transition team was focusing on social-emotional skills to help manage behavior. The Knowles Fellowship was focused on incorporating science and math practices and learning about practitioner inquiry. My work with BSCS and HHMI were about making student thinking visible and telling science stories, respectively.

And none of this exactly matched with my own personal goal, which was centered around formative assessment. This goal came out of long conversations with my mom at the end of my first year of teaching. I asked this question; what is one thing I can improve on that will make the biggest difference in my classroom? Formative assessment was the answer we came to. I could rant on and on about why I chose this, but I’ll save that tangent for later.

That’s nine goals, my friends. That’s at least seven too many to do any of them well.

My assistant principle agreed with that logic. He gave me two pieces of advice. First, he asked if there were ways I could weave any of these goals together. Could I use technology to help students work on literacy, for example? And second, he told me to prioritize these goals for myself and communicate my priorities.

This is what I meant by saying that For me was the other key phrase in that sentence. At the end of the day, I’m the one making decisions about my classroom and my life. I’m the one who decides when I leave the building and when I go for a hike. I’m the one who sets up classroom routines and designs assignments. I’m the one who gets to say yes or no to new projects.

This is both a very empowering mindset and a completely terrifying one. It’s much easier if I go along with someone else’s plan. It means I don’t have to expend energy to analyze the situation, figure out what to do, and try to execute it. It also means that if the plan goes wrong, it wasn’t my plan. But taking ownership of my goals and priorities means that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed by having so many things to do. I can choose.

One thing to remember in all of this, however, is that I am not doing this by myself. While the ultimate decision lies with me, all of the thinking and planning up to that point can, and I think should, be a group effort. I have so much to learn about the craft of teaching! Working with other people pushes my thinking in new interesting ways. Taking on someone else’s goal and plan means that I have more brain space to dedicate to executing it, rather than spending all my energy on creating it.

I don’t think any of you will be surprised when I tell you I’m actually really excited to go back to school. I love the chalkboard ads. I love the new supplies and putting my classroom back together. I love trying to spot the excited kids in the aisles at Target. I have new activities I wrote and things I learned over the summer, and I want to see how they work in a real classroom. It’s easy to get sucked into the cultural groan about going back to school, but I’m choosing to ignore it this year.

To all my teacher people who are starting back, you’re about to do incredible things. How cool is that??? And to all my people who aren’t teacher people, you do incredible things all year long. Equally cool!

Your homework this week: (wow, that sounds more natural now that I’ve been back in my classroom…) How do you balance taking advice, learning, and working cooperatively with being the end decision-maker in your life?

Hej då,


What Teachers Do All Summer

I might have mentioned, in a mini-rant several blog posts ago, that teachers don’t actually take the summer off. We definitely technically have that option, I suppose, and I can say that I’ve taken the vast majority of June to play outside and visit my wonderful family and friends. The flexibility of summer is amazing!

But tell any teacher that they took the job because they get summers off, and you’ll likely get a snarky response back. It might be a rejection of that idea, and the teacher will outline all of the work they do over the summer. It might be a rant about how summers are entirely needed because of the the crazy hours and lack of flexibility during the school year.

So the question remains: what do teachers do all summer? I can only tell you my own story here, and hope that it helps explain a little bit.

I spent the entire graduation weekend in the little office behind my classroom, getting rid of posters and books and unpacking boxes. It takes me hours to get rid of and organize the documentation and tests and various paperwork that builds up each year. I dusted shelves and cleaned out my classroom and locked cabinets. I love how clean everything looks, and that back room is more organized than it’s ever been!

One of my biggest projects this summer has been familiarizing myself with a new biology textbook. I am part of my district’s pilot process, and next year I’ll be using BSCS’s A Human Approach. I’m a little sad; I just figured out the old curriculum! But the more I work with this new book (everyone calls it AHA for short) the more excited I am about it. The book is designed to give students learning experiences, rather than telling them a lot of facts about biology. It’s built around activities and questions rather than blocks of text. It’s definitely not your traditional textbook, and I think that’s a good thing!

AHA is based on a constructivist theory of learning. Imagine a teacher pouring knowledge into students’ heads, and students automatically remember it. This is the opposite of constructivism, and this kind of learning rarely actually works. Usually, students have to examine an idea, figure out how it fits with other ideas, and figure out how all of that fits in with what they already know about the world. It’s why misconceptions are so hard to uproot; despite learning facts that oppose the misconception, if those facts don’t fit with a student’s world view, the student won’t incorporate them and the facts will be forgotten. There’s a hilarious (but mostly terrifying) documentary which includes some clips of Harvard graduates demonstrating this idea.

Constructivist learning gives students a phenomenon, data set, or scenario and asks students to grapple with the ideas themselves. This gives students an opportunity to incorporate new ideas into their worldview in a much more lasting way than memorizing facts for a test.

(I’ll also include a disclaimer here; constructivist learning can be the topic of an entire master’s degree. I’ve only skimmed the surface, both in my own learning and in my explanation of it here.)

Using a resource like AHA means I’m changing not only my curriculum, but also my style of teaching. It means drafting letters home to parents to explain the change. It means spending hours reading the teacher edition of the textbook and making a year-long calendar so I have an outline of the year. (My year-long calendars definitely change throughout the year, as I move more quickly or slowly through lessons or encounter snow days, assemblies, and testing.) I’ve been meeting with one of the other teachers who is piloting to scaffold two of the later chapters so we can do them first.

These meetings, especially, have been incredible amounts of fun! I get to be creative and thoughtful and really purposeful about how I want to teach. I love lesson planning, especially when I have all the time in the world to come up with something I really like. Here’s a secret; I actually really enjoy grading when I have the time to do it. I like reading what my students have written and trying to figure out how much they know. If I’m doing it right, grading leads right into planning.

In a perfect world, I also would have already made my year-long calendar for anatomy and physiology. I haven’t even thought about it. I also would love to revise some of my project prompts and rubrics so they were ready to go when I needed them. Good thing it’s still July!

The thing I love most about teaching is that really, what I do all day is tell stories. I tell stories about science and life and how humans have played a role in that story. A year-long calendar is one way to view that story; a lesson-plan is a more focused way to view that story. But it requires a lot of deep thinking to take all the facts and principles of a HUGE field like biology and weave them into a coherent content story line. That’s what summer is for.

I’m also going to be doing some learning this summer; I’m headed to Yosemite for a six-day training on water ecology and naturalism. At the end of July I’ll go to Philadelphia for the Knowles Summer Meeting. And on August 10th I go back to school!

So what, exactly, do teachers do all summer? We learn. We prepare. We do the deep thinking and reflecting we don’t have time to do during the year. And in some ways, I love this part just as much as I love my students.

Your homework: What part of your work brings you the most joy? Why is that? Is it what you expected?

Hej då,




Well I have to admit, this is the first time I haven’t felt like I had a million and three options for a nerd post. So you’ll have to look for the nerdiness woven into stories  about adventuring. I’ve still been spending lots and lots of time outside biking and hiking, but also thinking.

Mom has said for years that she loves being able to go for bike rides and hikes in the summer and just think about teaching. And she’s right! It’s really fun to think about what I want my classroom to look like next year: what systems I want to put in place, the kind of community I want to build, the type of learning activities I want to incorporate. As I’ve been wandering around the mountains of Boulder, Steamboat, and now Ogden, I’ve been thinking about the different parts of biology, how they’re connected, and which ones we give more importance to.

Usually the major units in biology are ecology, molecular biology and biochemistry, genetics, evolution, and…everything else. What this “everything else” consists of depends on state and district standards, the school’s curriculum, and mostly on the knowledge base of the teachers. Mom taught a lot about comparative anatomy and taxonomy, and we also learned quite a lot about plants. Mom’s master’s degree is in arctic and alpine botany, so this makes sense. At Longmont, we’ve had teachers who have believed really strongly in comparative anatomy taught through dissections, so we spend a week every spring taking apart pigs, frogs, and sharks.

I was trained as a molecular biologist, so all that stuff about carbs, proteins, and lipids, cell structure, molecular genetics…I loved it. But it’s interesting to explain to my students, especially in anatomy and physiology, that I will place an emphasis on molecular mechanisms and in exchange, I won’t focus on development. I never took a developmental biology class, so I don’t have the background to teach it. (As a side note: Someday I plan on getting more background in development. But there are only so many class hours, and I have to make choices somewhere!)

Perhaps my background is why I didn’t notice, over the course of the last three years, that there was a part of biology that was really quite sadly lacking from my classroom. In fact, I didn’t realize it until I was standing on the Mesa Trail in Boulder, watching a man identify the local birds, that I figured out what was missing. I don’t teach anything about naturalism.

When I tell the story about why I’m a teacher, I start with how Mom used to teach me the names of the wildflowers on the side of the trail as we hiked. Well, (sorry, Mom!) I only remember about half of what she ever taught me. I don’t know the bugs or the birds, and I can’t identify conifers past deciding if it’s a spruce, fir, or pine. I don’t know much about fish or amphibians. Yesterday, as I was hiking up a trail called Fern Valley in Ogden, I was trying to dig through my memory to explain how ferns have two life forms, haploid and diploid, but I couldn’t remember if mosses were the same (I think they are) or what else went into the category with conifer trees (which reproduce differently than ferns but also aren’t angiosperms, the flowering plants).

At some level, I understand why biology has moved away from naturalism. As the field of molecular biology expands, there is more and more to teach and, as I mentioned before, there are still only so many teaching days. Molecular biology is not only the hot new topic, but it is opening a lot of interesting ethical questions that students are likely going to be voting on in coming years. Also, observational field studies can take years, and science funding emphasizes studies that can give results quickly. Naturalism is highly place-dependent; even between Boulder and Steamboat I can see different ecosystems and local variations. For many students, learning the names of organisms could feel like a list of terms to be memorized.

But in that one day on the Mesa Trail, I chatted with this local man who was identifying birds, and I could see his pleasure in being connected to the world around him. I saw a brother and a sister exclaiming over ants and trying to figure out how they knew where to go and why they followed each other. I eavesdropped on a twenty-something couple as they read an informational sign about the bats in Mallory Cave, exclaiming about how bats have sex in the fall and then the female stores the sperm in her reproductive tract until the spring. (I would really like to know how the sperm stays alive that long, actually.) I laughed out loud as I passed a four or five year old girl who was explaining erosion to her mother.

These were people who were engaged in their world. They were making observations and coming up with explanations. They were curious and asking questions. THIS is science. THIS is biology.

This summer I’m going to a professional development about water ecology in Yosemite National Park. (I’m unbelievably excited about this opportunity!) And in part of doing so, I’m reading some ecological classics (Silent Spring, for one) and also a book called Last Child in the Woods. My background is not in ecology, which is why I chose to spend my summer this way. But even more than that, the ecology we teach is based in principles like the ten percent rule, which applies to ecosystems everywhere. Teaching this way means the knowledge students are learning is widely applicable, true. But how do I connect that to the genuine engagement I saw in those people on the trail?

This is one of my goals for the summer; I feel like there is some inherent value in naturalism, despite all the reasons I listed that make it tricky. I feel like the connection to something that’s physically around us all the time is important for many reasons. I feel like I’m not painting a true picture of biology without naturalism, and I want my students to see the innumerable options biology can give them. But I’m (clearly) not very articulate in explaining how and why I feel this way, and I don’t have a lot of evidence to say that it’s better (or not) for my students. So I want to explore this and start to figure out what it might look like in my classroom.

Your homework: What do you see when you go outside? What value does it have for you? What do you see people getting excited about?

Hej då,


Creativity in Science

Take a moment and imagine a stereotypical scientist. Perhaps you’re imagining someone in a white lab coat with goggles and gloves. Maybe they’re holding a flask of some colorful steaming liquid. Maybe they’re measuring something. Maybe their hair is crazy and/or blackened. Likely, if you imagined the background, you visualized lab tables covered in glassware and notebooks. Meet the crazy chemist.

What personality traits would you give this person? Some likely options might include the following: diligent, nerdy, not socially adept, curious, precise.

It’s also possible you imagined someone more along the lines of Jane Goodall, wearing khaki and taking notes in the field. Or maybe you imagined a doctor or an engineer. These are all people who have something to do with science! But likely you ascribed them similar traits to our crazy chemist we first imagined.

Now, imagine someone who’s creative. This person, in my own head, is a painter or musician or writer. They follow inspiration the way a leaf follows a breeze in the fall. They might be wild or carefree in a way that a scientist is serious.

My students often divide themselves into an interesting binary system: math/science people and artsy people. I think, in part, this might come from the right brain and left brain distinction. But wherever it comes from, it always makes me sad when a student with artistic talent tells me they can’t be a scientist because they’re “a creative type.”

I’m here to tell you today that this binary is silly. At one level, it is silly because we are humans and we are complex and we can be good at lots of things! But more importantly, I don’t think the binary itself is based in reality. Science is one of the most creative processes I’ve ever been a part of.

The essence of science involves using evidence to answer questions about how the world works. That means scientists have to be good at lots of different things; asking questions, defining what counts as evidence, gathering evidence, interpreting that evidence using scientific reasoning, and ultimately deciding if they’ve gotten any closer to answering their original question. There is creativity in every single one of these skills, and in how they’re linked together.

You might recognize those skills as something akin to The Scientific Method you learned about in your freshman science class. The Scientific Method is a list of steps that “scientists” go through in order to “do science.” I teach it in my classroom and it is related to the nature of science as a discipline. It’s also, in this form, totally false. It feels linear and prescriptive. It leaves a lot of students thinking that if they do x, y, and z they’ll get the correct result and move on.

In reality, science is a very messy, very iterative process of thinking, observing, questioning, interpreting, questioning, thinking, and more thinking. There is nothing linear about it! I found a great comic describing the scientific process. (It comes with a language warning.) It requires a lot of gut feel and some artistry (as well as patience) to navigate through this process.

Certainly navigating the process of science is an exercise in creativity; but creativity is intertwined into every single step of the process along the way. The best way I can explain this is by telling you a story.

I’ve been fortunate to work on two very different original research projects. The first was a molecular biology project that mostly, for me, illuminated that I had no desire whatsoever to pursue molecular research. The second project was a marine ecology project and it took me to Bocas del Toro, Panama. I was a research assistant for a PhD student named Amber Stubler, and along with learning a lot about marine ecology I learned more about how science happens than at any other point in my education.

Bocas is a small town on an island off the Caribbean coast of Panama. It was a perfect place to work on Amber’s questions, which centered around bio-eroding sponges and corals. We created six different conditions by varying temperatures (warm and normal) and CO2 levels (high, medium, and normal), and tested how much damage the bio-eroding sponges did in each condition. Normally, the sponges erode dead and damaged corals, and that erosion is balanced with coral growth. In elevated temperature and CO2 conditions, however, the corals can’t grow as well and the sponges can do more damage. Or at least, that was Amber’s hypothesis. Our job was to gather data to test this hypothesis. (In the end, the data did support the hypothesis; you can read the paper here if you’re feeling super nerdy on this lovely Sunday afternoon!)

Amber spent hours designing the experiment, thinking about supplies, and getting everything to Bocas. It’s a fairly isolated community, so once we were there we were very limited in our ability to acquire other supplies. I definitely carried down an extra suitcase full of tubing and valves to create the tank system when I flew down!

And once we were there, building the set up was a huge exercise in creativity. Here’s an excerpt from the blog I wrote while I was down there:

“I spent most of the day on Tuesday using a large amount of duct tape and silicon to try sealing all of the broken tanks, some of which had shattered in shipping and had gaping holes in them. I haven’t tested any of them yet, but hopefully they all hold water! While I was busy with that project, Amber and Sarah cut holes in the top of each rain barrel and bought cinder blocks to get them higher than the tables the tanks will sit on…

Thursday we spent setting up the rain barrels, which included drilling holes in them, teflon-taping the nozzles, wrenching them into the valves, and wrenching that whole setup into the holes in the rain barrels. It was an especially exciting job because the drill bit we had was ever so slightly too small, so I had to use a square head hammer to enlarge every single one of the 230 some holes. A lot of sweat, grime, and blisters later, we got is set up and were all quite pleased with ourselves. This is really what it means to do science, especially on a budget; we just kept trying contingency plans until something worked. It’s a great way to stimulate problem-solving, creativity, persistence, and a lot of work ethic, and it makes it even more clear to me how unrealistic labs are in high school, when kits lay everything out for you.”

I rely on this experience whenever I teach students about doing science, because it so beautifully illustrates how necessary it is to be creative. I also like this example because it shows that being creative can require persistence and precision along with inspiration.

In many ways, creativity is about reveling in the unexpected and unexplored. Science, too, lives at the boundary of what we know and what we don’t yet understand. This is why they’re so integral to each other, and why it boggles my mind when students divide them into two separate and opposite things.

Your homework: Go on a search for creativity in a place where you would least expect it! What do you think characterizes creativity? How can that add to or enhance another discipline?

Hej då,


Blueberry Scones

I love scones. Scones are great for rainy or snowy days, when I curl up with tea (and usually a stack of grading). They’re also great for adventure days, when I want to snag something quick on my way out the door.

I was inspired several springs ago by a shelf full of very on-sale blueberry cartons at the grocery store to make blueberry scones. I snagged a couple of cartons and started scouring the internet for recipes. There were a million and three variations, of course! How was I to pick?

Finally I picked one, mostly at random, and tried it out. I found the scones I made were fluffly and buttery; they were utterly delicious and utterly different from my go-to scone recipe. I make Klassika scones frequently; it’s a recipe I learned in Sweden (and  in Swedish!).

The Klassika scone recipe translates (and the units convert) to this:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 tbsp baking powder
  • 5 tbsp cold butter
  • 1 1/4 cups cold milk

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Chop the butter into small pieces and cut it in (I use my hands). Add the milk and mix until just combined. Divide into four chunks and place on a baking sheet lined with foil (or parchment paper). Bake at 475F (yes, that’s correct, I promise!) for 10-12 minutes, or until they sound hollow when you tap on them.

These scones come out flaky, crumbly, and can be eaten with jam or with soup. I love them because I almost always have all of these ingredients laying around and they’re super easy to make.

But everything from the texture to the flavor were different than the blueberry scones, and I wanted to know why. I tried to compare the recipes, but too many variables were different. Yes, I’m a scientist even in the kitchen. So what did I do? An experiment! Actually, many experiments.

I started pulling out different scone recipes and trying to find similarities. I looked at British current scones, my mom’s oatmeal scones, Starbucks imitation scones…the list went on. I also baked six different blueberry scone recipes (my roommates were delighted!) in order to gather more data.

I compared the amount of flour to the amount of liquid ingredients to the amount of leavening ingredients (baking soda or powder). I compared the temperatures and bake times. And most importantly, I compared the results!

At the end of all of this, I had several interesting trends in my data, a pretty rich understanding of how to bake tasty scones, and my all-time favorite blueberry scone recipe.

First, the trends in the ingredients.

  1. I tried to scale all the recipes so they had two cups of flour. Once I did that, the amount salt was fairly constant, as was the total amount of liquid.
  2. Some scones have sugar in their recipes. This variation really didn’t affect any other ingredients.
  3. The amount of leavening ingredients varied by how much fat there was from the butter and liquids. More fat (especially if there was an egg in the recipe) meant less leavening ingredients.
  4. There was HUGE variation in the liquid ingredients. Some recipes used all milk. Some used half and half or cream. Some used an egg. Some used yogurt or sour cream or buttermilk. But all the recipes came out to between one and 1 1/4 cups of liquid.
  5. The range of butter was between 5 tbsp and 8 tbsp.
  6. Most scones bake hot, between 400F and 475F, for fairly short times (10-25 minutes). The more fat, the cooler the baking

But most important, of course, are the correlations between this and the resultant scone!

  1. Fat content is hugely important for texture. The less fat, the more dense and crumbly the scone. The more fat, the more melt-in-your-mouth kind of a texture. Fat content is controlled by the amount of butter, obviously, but also the fat content of your liquids. Heavy cream, sour cream, and yogurt all increase the fat content, while milk and buttermilk have less fat.
  2. Eggs are the other major player in texture. Adding an egg to your recipe makes scones fluffier and less crumbly. (1 large egg is a little less than 1/4 cup liquid.)
  3. Varying the liquid ingredients changes the flavor of the scones. Yogurt and sour cream give the scone a tangy flavor that I love with blueberries. Milk and cream are the most neutral liquids.

If you’re curious, there are really fascinating science/chemistry reasons for all of these things. They have to do with the gluten protein and how it gets activated by water and conversely protected by fats, why the butter has to be cold, and also with the albumin protein in egg whites.

So after all of that, I finally have my favorite blueberry scone recipe. It’s not at all static. Sometimes it depends on what I have in the kitchen. Sometimes I feel like a slightly different texture or flavor. The ingredients in bold are the ingredients I vary the most. Ingredients that are not bold are the ones I leave alone.

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 3/4 tsp salt (never more than 1/2 tsp, or more than 1 tsp)
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup sugar (sometimes I go a bit less than this, but typically not more)
  • 8 oz (1 stick) cold butter, chopped
  • 1 to 1 1/4 cups blueberries
  • 1 egg
  • Equal parts sour cream and heavy whipping cream, totaling 3/4 cup, plus another 1-2 tbsp cream (I don’t like to go more sour cream than this because then there isn’t enough liquid to hold the dough together. I’ve done all heavy cream, and I’ve used yogurt in place of the sour cream, but this combination is my favorite.)
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp dried orange peel

Mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl and cut in the butter. Mix the blueberries through (check for stems and dried flowers first). In a second bowl, mix the egg, liquid ingredients, and flavorings. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix just until combined. I use my hands so I don’t completely mash the blueberries. The dough sticks as much to me as it does to itself! Divide it into eight parts and place on a lined baking sheet. Bake at 400F for twenty to twenty-five minutes, until the tops are light gold.

Mixing in the liquids is the most do-by-feel part of the whole thing. I know what the finished dough is supposed to look like, so I can figure out if I need to add more or not. The only way to learn that is by practice. Trust me, your roommates/family/colleagues will be more than happy to help you in your pursuit of the perfect scone!

I will also add the disclaimer that I really don’t care what my scones look like. You can shape them to make them more round, or make one giant round and cut it into triangles, if pretty food makes you happy. I’m just not motivated enough for these to make them beautiful.

My blueberry scones are total indulgent decadence. They are moist and fluffy and you can totally tell two of the three main ingredients are heavy cream and butter! There is a time when I want these, and there is a time when I want something different. The thing I enjoyed learning from this escapade was how to vary the scones so I can make nearly exactly what I want. I spent a long time learning the details and intricacies of this particular art, and I appreciate the depth than brings.

My homework for you: What’s your favorite kind of scone (or other baked good)? Why is it your favorite? Have you ever thought about the chemistry behind your baking or cooking?

Hej då,


Spring Meeting: Intersections

Last weekend I told you a story that was really an intersection between me being an adventurer and me being a nerd, though I framed it as an adventure story. This time, I’m going to explore the same intersection (nerd and adventurer) from the other side. This weekend was a super nerdy weekend, and I loved every single minute of it.

Spring meeting, for people who are part of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF), is one of three times each year we all get together to work on being better teachers. KSTF is a teaching fellowship established by Harry Knowles to help young teachers become a system of experienced teachers who can effect positive change on education from within the system. It’s a five year program that focuses on content knowledge, pedagogy (how to teach), and leadership.

My cohort has thirty-four teachers from across the nation who are fascinating, caring, and seriously, awesomely nerdy. We are all first or second year math and/or science teachers in a middle school or high school setting. Teaching is a hard job, and having other people who are learning to do it with me makes it all seem a lot more feasible. This year the spring meeting was in Denver, so everyone came to my hometown! (Or close enough.) It was really fun to have everyone experience at least a tiny sliver of what it feels like to constantly have that wall of mountains to the west.

Teacher meetings are always interesting things. Depending on the group of people, they can degenerate into conversations about how screwed up the system is, how hard it can be to get respect (in and out of a classroom), how overwhelming this job is, and how all we want to do all summer is sleep. But almost every single meeting I’ve attended have been incredibly inspiring and energizing. (Well, emotionally energizing. I find my 9 p.m. bedtime slips by and it’s AT LEAST another two hours after that before I get bed.) KSTF is that kind of community for me. I learn so much about teaching, science, math, and being a good human.

So what did you learn this time, you ask? Awesome question!

The official purpose of the meeting was focused around disciplinary practices. (This is how science practices are described by the Next Generation Science Standards; there are other descriptions of science practices.) These are the skills that scientists and mathematicians use to be scientists and mathematicians. For example, some of the science practices include asking questions, analyzing data, and basing explanations on evidence. (There are also English/Language Arts practices, which are quite interesting to look at.) I love thinking about the practices because it changes science from something you learn into something you do. It helps students see how science is a way of thinking instead of just a body of facts to be memorized. Quite honestly, a lot of high school kids are usually more interested in doing than they are in listening.

This is the end of a whole year of focusing on how to teach practices in my classroom, and it’s amazing both how much I’ve learned and how many questions I still have. I think it’s a really important thing for me to keep pursuing and thinking about as I continue to develop as a teacher.

But that’s not even close to the only thing I learned this weekend. Here are some of the other (some possibly less intended) lessons I took away.

  1. Teachers from across the nation do things differently in their classroom. I got to work with someone from Delaware on our lessons, and we have really different ideas for content stories to tell and pedagogical structures to use despite the fact that we’re both teaching about evolution. I love working at my high school and being on the same page with all the teachers there, but I also love learning about entirely different ways to teach. (I also learned that plants in New Zealand grow in different shapes than plants anywhere else because there are no native mammals in New Zealand, only birds. SO COOL!)
  2. People from other parts of the country also have different ideas about Colorado’s geographic region. I have to tell you all, we are NOT the Midwest. Admittedly, we really are kind of in the middle of the country, and many of my international friends have thought the same thing. But the Midwest is flat. We are the Rocky Mountains!
  3. Changing perspectives on a situation can make all the difference. We read a story about a teacher who was reflecting on her teaching. She was constantly asking herself how she could make physics more accessible to all students and pushing herself to get as much engagement in her classroom as she could, and she focused a lot on how to engage students who were not quite there. When her mentor asked her to reflect on the students who were engaged, her perspective on her teaching changed quite a lot. In a really awesome follow-up to this story, my conversation partner and I talked about how inquiry about teaching isn’t really about finding answers to our questions; it’s about being able to ask questions that shift the perspective and the conversations about teaching.
  4. Focusing on success is extraordinarily important. I got to participate in a protocol (a guided conversation with prompts about who can speak when and for how long) that asked participants to reflect on a story about a success in our classroom. I was surprised by several things: I stared at my paper for a long time before I could come up with something to write, everyone else felt just as much like an imposter as I did, and listening to someone talk about their successes is an amazing feeling. After the protocol, my group took a tangent into a conversation about how to enact something like this with students. I am constantly asking my students to reflect on areas of potential growth. That’s a lovely way to ask that question; but no matter how I phrase it, I’m asking students to think about things they did poorly. What if instead, I asked students to reflect on something they did really well and apply that success to another situation? What if they could learn from other students’ successes and create their own toolbox of ways to be successful? That would be amazing!
  5. There are people who will get up before 6am to squeeze in a two-hour hike in Boulder before getting on a plane to go home. Way more than I expected, actually. And we absolutely identified trees as we went up the trail. Yep. Nerds!

The last thing I learned was something that really shouldn’t have surprised me. The people I get to work with in this cohort are incredibly complex and dimensional. When I originally framed this blog, it felt like I was doing so a little bit in protest. I wanted to show myself and others that it’s ok to be contradictory. It’s ok for me to be a knitter and a skier. It’s ok for me to love molecular biology and stories. I felt pressure to only be one thing at a time. (Now that I’m reflecting on this, I’m not entirely sure where that pressure was coming from; it’s quite possible that it was at least partially in my head. But that’s going to be a different post.) So I created a space where I could authentically explore how all of these things came together.

This weekend, I heard stories from a person who has moments where he loves big crowds and moments where he can’t stand people. I realized THREE PEOPLE in my cohort speak ski racing language! A math teacher from California had worked on a cruise ship and as a TV producer. One of the women who hiked with me this morning is a distance runner and a knitter. I could continue to give you examples for the next hour, but I’ll pause here.

I’m definitely still processing everything I thought about this weekend. But if I could possibly synthesize one thing out of all of this, it would be this: learning is active, it is social, and it is a process. I learn the most when I’m doing something (as scary as that is) and when I’m getting feedback from the people I’m doing it with (which is also really scary).

Your homework comes in two parts this time! (This is what happens when I go to teacher meetings and get ambitious.)

Part 1: What practices are involved in your discipline of choice (be that science or writing or baking or anything else)? How do those practices interface with the knowledge you need about that practice?

Part 2: How do you learn about other people’s dimensionality? How do you share your own dimensionality?

Hej då,