Spring Cleaning: Reflecting to Clear the Clutter


Isn’t there something about Spring that drives us to streamline? Take a deep breath – out with the old and in with the new! We made it through winter, the sun is shining, the plants and animals around us are alive and flourishing. Our cells even “declutter” old, stagnant cells. This is one of the things that’s so incredible about biology – the systems that resonate on multiple levels – from how our cells function up to entire biospheres. Spring cleaning improves efficiency biologically, it’s in line with our natural systems!

This is a great time of year to do some spring cleaning of our space in the classroom, of course, but also of our habits and curriculum. Decluttering usually involves a 2-step approach: What should I keep? What should I get rid of? After decluttering, we may notice space for something new. I like to use a Google Doc labeled simply with the year that I can pull up during my planning time.

Step 1: What Should I Get Rid Of?

I use 2 questions when while sorting material things – if there’s not a yes to one, it goes: Is it functional? Is it beautiful?

We can apply this to education as well, but different qualifiers for the “keep” pile: Does it result in student growth on the learning targets I’ve set? Does it improve my capacity as a dynamic educator? If there’s not a clear “yes” to one of these questions, time to trash it.

Are there unhealthy habits clogging up your productivity and wellness? Maybe staying up until 11pm on the computer has become a habit, and you’re recognizing you’ve felt tired. Maybe rushing out the door without breakfast has become the norm, and you’re finding your patience is short.

What about any negative thought patterns? How do you start the day – what’s the story when you’re on the way into the classroom? Do you want to hold onto that personal narrative – is it empowering, energizing, positive? How might walking in thinking “I love each of my students!” or “My kindness and curiosity make a difference” influence the way you interact with those around you? Sometimes we inadvertently walk around with negative messages and can feel the tension…”I don’t have enough time.”, “(Students) won’t stop talking”, etc. How can I rephrase that into a more empowering positive? “I have a lot of important things to do and I have the autonomy to prioritize – what’s most important?”, “My students care a lot about their social connections – how can I utilize that in my plans?” This doesn’t mean we can’t have boundaries and expectations, we should, it just helps us walk in with a feeling of personal empowerment and collaboration.

In channeling our focus toward positive outcomes with others or in our own thinking – questions to find more clarity or direct conversation toward problem solving can help generate productive momentum. “What can we do about that?”, “What is that getting in the way of?”, “How should we approach this with (person)?” The dialogue over shortcomings is a professional must – it’s part of the messy work. Educational pruning. The peers (students and staff) I respect most on a professional level are those willing to engage in dialogue about how we can do better. How we engage in that dialogue makes a big difference in whether or not it influences our ability to better meet our collective goals, or takes the wind out of our sails.

Of course, we also need to reflect on our draining classroom practices. Maybe you’re spending a lot of time on transitions quieting the class down, you’ve run a project that most students didn’t find engaging, you’re spending a lot of time and energy focusing on getting one very disruptive student to comply, have a very high attention-need student, or spending a great deal of time and effort using a tool in the classroom.

Write it all down. 

Step 2: What Should I Keep?


What worked well this year in improving my students’ skills and understanding? –> Useful project, scaffolding, and/or teaching strategies to note.

How do I know? –> Useful assessment practices to note.


Which students did I best connect with? How did I do that?

Professional Growth:

What were learning experiences that resulted in changes in my classroom practice?

When did I find myself challenging my assumptions?

Personal Wellness:

What got me through some difficult times this year?

When did I feel the best?

Write it all down, above the “toss” pile items in step 1. 

Step 3: What Should I Bring In?

Now we can look at what to get rid of. Sometimes it’s as simple as deciding not to run a project the same way, but to revise it. Or, deciding to email community partners and potential panelists sooner in the project planning process.

This is a great opportunity in reflection to strategize with other adults you respect, or students you have time to talk with.

For instance, with classroom practices – I like to eliminate waste and also get clear on what I need to stay firm on. Doing this gives me more comfort and reassurance being flexible with things that aren’t on the list. We can’t do everything perfectly – but we can do what we intend to close to that. Focus standards, formative assessment commitments, and classroom norms that are essential to safety (physical and emotional) should be on the stay firm list.

Write the strategies down and bring them out during your planning, and periodically throughout the implementation of the new systems/strategies to revise as needed. I like to set up a table with any of the “toss” items I can’t really toss, but have to re-frame and re-strategize on. For instance, with a high-attention need student, I recognize there are extra roles I can give – maybe this student (if one emerges next year) could help redirect the class when needed during transitions?

After Spring Cleaning, we need to make sure there’s time to package and store for the fall – after reflection is the best time for planning.

A reminder: It’s messy, and it’s not a linear process. We’ll stretch toward our values and back to student interests, weave into focused skills and wind into graphic organizers. We’ll look at the calendar and brace ourselves, and have to prune and move around. We’ll take in new data and re-focus. Meet with one student and then with 60. This will continue through our planning, and the year, and the career.

This is messy, dynamic work. This is learning.


Home Learning: Think Big, Think Local, Think Global

Here we are, March 17th, amidst a pandemic. School sites have closed and children and teens are spread through homes all across the world. I see all flavors of humor and somber reminders on social media about what it is like to parent or care for children through this experience, and trying to grasp a sense what lies ahead. One thing is clear, learning has changed for at least the immediate future. Classroom learning, rows of students in their desks, and even standardized tests are all disrupted.

I and many educators around the world have spent my career trying to break learning outside of the classroom, jumbling them out of rows, and giving standardized testing about as much of my thought time as I do the circumference of my calves. School site closure presents real challenges in our communities that we must creatively address, but “how do we keep kids learning?” is the most fun of the challenges, and I’m going to write about something fun today.

Think Big, Think Local, Think Global

Stop thinking of learning in minutes, or even hours. A daily schedule is great to keep a rhythm, but be sure to think beyond one day for deep, enjoyable learning. What are real questions that actually matter, or drive exploration and creative thinking? We often over-estimate what we can accomplish in hours and under estimate what we can accomplish in weeks or months. Think big! We have the opportunity to learn deeply and have fun too, so let’s do it! This is what you should aim for. Here are some examples:

  • What was my grandparent’s best learning experience ever?
  • Where does weather come from and how does it change?
  • How can I use stop animation to make a short film?
  • How does the stock market work, and why are there peaks and valleys?
  • Where does my food come from, and where does it go?
  • How can I beat a world record?
  • If I were to make a COVID-19 vaccine, how would I make it, and how would I make sure that it is safe as other vaccines are?
  • Why is the game “Pokemon” so successful, and where did the ideas come from? If I were to create the next big game, what would it be and where would I look for inspiration?
Farmer Maya picking broccoli leaves to feed to our tortoise.

Questions are not limiting to age, you can explore any question with any age on their level. One of my 4th grade children, Eli, loves the I Survived series, and is writing a book: How can I tell my story about the pandemic I am experiencing? Jacob, also in 4th grade, loves theater and dressing up. They are drafting a play for our family to put on and film. They are planning to make a comedy.: How can I use theater to tell an engaging story? My preschooler loves to get their hands in the mud. What should we plant, and what should we let go of as the seasons change? Once you have a big question, you can parse out the rest using the resources linked below.

Yeah, yeah, that’s all great, lady. I’ll just let my kid find out how legos are made and then they’ll be behind everyone else. Comparison is the thief of joy. If there were ever a time to aim for joyful learning, this is it. Encourage your child to compare to only to theirself so they can be partners in the charting of their growth and goal setting.

But…what about math and reading? Show me one big question where there is not math and reading, and I will help you find math and reading there. This is where you can lean on, if your district provides, the teacher who is assigned your student. You could email with a question such as “My child wants to find out how legos are made, and try making their own at home. Do you have any ideas about how I could use grade level math or reading in this?” Think Local! Don’t underestimate the wealth of resources in your community, or what a fresh question it will be when you reach out to a friend or grandparent with a question about a child’s exploration. Make use of resources online or provided by a teacher to help a child build the skills that they are needing to truly explore their topic in depth. When you think of learning in this way, as an exploring and storytelling, you don’t need to be so worried about separating out all of the different pieces of learning, because they are interwoven. Keep a learner and creator mindset yourself as you dive in with the children you guide.

Where do I start? I like this page on Edutopia’s free resources. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll find a variety of examples that you can draw some inspiration from. Here is a template that I use with my own students for charting a scientific inquiry. You could make a copy and change it to suit your needs or age group. You can check out my post on “finding a cliffhanger” to see some tips on forming big questions to ask, or this blog post with question frames to help you and your student build their own. When reflecting with your child, think global. How does my child’s interest or curiosity connect with the rest of the world outside of our home?

Remember, there’s no one right way to learn, or to guide learning. Pick a trail and go. Thinking that there is one right way is thinking like a consumer – I must be given knowledge that already exists. Put on an explorer or creator’s mind – I must discover knowledge that does not already exist, and I can use the knowledge that does to get there. Be a support and guide, but don’t do their project for them and don’t make you the only reason they are doing this! Tip: If you have a public audience, even just a family member who lives outside of the home, they will surprise you. Run into some dead ends, make some messes, stop for a picnic and to enjoy the view when you find surprises. Focus on skills such as forming questions, explaining, overcoming challenges, setting and achieving small goals and celebrating small wins on longer paths.

I hope that this puts some wind in your sails to think of outside of the classroom learning in a new way. Bon Voyage!

Making Space for Deeper Learning

In the digital age of easy to find already-known answers to easy to list already-known questions, we strive for something more substantial and more human: deeper learning. What is it about a space that cultivates deeper learning? I think of deeper learning as learning that burns along an edge between the known and unknown, twists and curves its way bright and alive. I think that this is the type of learning that makes you feel awake, mind open. That engaged learning that dances with curiosity and stumbles upon novelty. That learning that enables us to try something new and meander along the jumbled edge of change.

It’s easiest to spot in young children, their faces ignited. We know, sadly, that school often unknowingly extinguishes this type of fervor, even with the best of intentions. When standardization and school socialization take priority, it can be difficult to cultivate this type of deeper learning on a regular basis. However, we do see it, all of us in education see it at least on occasion. We all strive for it. So, what is it about those times when deeper learning ignites and smolders along the edge of known and unknown, and how can we set the conditions for it more purposefully?

This year I have had the opportunity to work with students from all across our county through a community group that was co-founded by students, staff and community members: Schools for Climate Action. We come together weekly to continue work toward a common goal of elevating student voice on environmental action, with special attention on climate change action. Thanks to The Oxbow Art School of Napa population, this group also includes students from across the country and globe. Zwena Gray is such a student who came to us from Detroit, Michigan through a semester at Oxbow.

A few weeks ago, Zwena wrote the group with an invitation:

“I am writing to a select group of varied people and would like to invite you to the first of two conversations engaging with the community. This is for my Oxbow Final Project…The topic is ‘Education in Relation to our Personal Identities’, this event will be at…there will be light refreshments and the event will be about an hour…I am going to attempt to create a space where we can talk openly about our feelings in regards to the education system…Much Gratitude Zwena”

I accepted the invitation, as Zwena had consistently attended our meetings and given so much of her time. I was also very interested in how Zwena would engage in her chosen topic of education through her art project.

The evening of the conversation, I let myself into the house, a stark old Victorian with tall ceilings, antique doorknobs and lucent wooden floors. The kitchen called out and invited in with the sounds of dishes being stacked and students helping Zwena with set up. The dining room had been converted into a sitting space with no chairs, but a variety of pillows were placed around the room as cushions for a circle. We learned that evening that Zwena had hand stitched the pillows from used denim and fabric for this conversation around education. A camera was set up and maintained by a fellow student in a discreet place, and visitors were invited to leave shoes at the door.

As people entered the room, voices mingled in the air with a comfortable buzz. Zwena urged us to help ourselves to food. Persimmon, pomegranate, and green salad all grown on the grounds were shared. Zwena and her fellow student helpers had harvested and prepared the food. In the corner, an earthy sourdough loaf that I learned Zwena had made by hand using wheat grown on site. I plated up and chose a comfortable pillow. I noticed more folks entering, some I knew and some I knew of. All here because of Zwena’s invitation.

This was an alien break from google docs, excel spreadsheets and online learning platforms that I am used to at school. There was no rubric in sight. The teacher (assessor?), Alex, was dispensing deep belly laughs, standing barefoot in the room. Was I at school? If so, who was I? Student or teacher? I decided to just be an authentic learner, and that would be just right.

Zwena started us off by thanking us for joining. Just like her bread, substantial and true, Zwena’s sincerity set a tone for generosity. She led us through a variety of prompts through the conversation with a consistent thread of identity, school, and true learning. Zwena was an artisan of powerful moments, and she had successfully, as she sought to do, created “a space where we can talk openly about our feelings in regards to the education system”.

“Do you feel seen for all parts of your identity in school?”

At the end of the evening, Zwena shared some of the background of her project. She shared that she had read a lot about education, and found that learning together happens when there is a sense of community. Zwena let us know that the handmade items were made for us, she described them as acts of gratitude. She wanted us to feel appreciated and to understand that she had put time and effort into making space to hear us and bring us together for learning. Zwena established community very affectively and deliberately with craft, gratitude, and the pace of human.

When I left that night and returned home, I noticed how calm I felt. Grounded and peaceful. Connected. These feelings are fleeting in most hurried schools, but not in the lesson established by student and teacher, Zwena Gray. Zwena took such care to craft a living, evolving experience where open dialogue and deeper listening, questioning, and learning could take place.

A week and a half later at our Schools for Climate Action meeting, a student shared concern over how to address those who might think in opposition of the group’s goals. Ideas floated in the room for the best course of action. Zwena chimed in, calm and grounded – “Maybe they know something that we don’t know, and we can learn from each other. I think that we should be asking ourselves how we can make a space to encourage that, to invite them in, to encourage us to learn from each other.” Make space for learning.

A few days later at the final Oxbow student art show, Zwena brought all of the materials from her event in an attempt to re-create that space for deeper connection. The hand sewn pillows, a fresh loaf (she said her best yet) of sourdough, the questions she had prompted, the post-its we had written on, and of course her invitation to visitors to engage. Zwena shared, though, that it was different here. At school, there’s a formality. She mentioned that children know to grab the bread, and are told to wait. She wanted learners to grab the bread, to be comfortable being curious, in a space for learning. Zwena described building the community needed for deep, connected learning to be like thread going back and forth, that it is giving and taking and must be attended to. It is the opposite, she says, of leaving a legacy.

So, as a teacher who strives to get my students thinking beyond our school walls and to inspire deeper learning in this digital age, I learned a whole lot about making space for deeper learning from student artist, Zwena Gray. Zwena demonstrated that making space for deeper learning is craft. Understanding and community involve invitation, gratitude, and slowing to the pace of human. In this digital age, I appreciated the hand sewn reminder from a fellow learner.

Zwena Gray’s learning and sharing continues at her Oxbow student art showcase.

A special thank you to artist Zwena Gray for permission to share my experience of her work, and for having woven herself into a community of learners in our little corner of the world.

How to Dissect a Frog and The Privilege of Putting off Climate Science

What if climate science were as integral to biology courses as frog-filleting 101? What if we used our privilege to bring climate science forward, instead of using our privilege to put it off? What would that take?

“I learned that formaldehyde stinks. I already knew that frogs had hearts and stuff.” – Lao, year irrelevant, future unknown

Isn’t frog dissection the traditional picture of a formative biology class experience? It’s almost Rockwellesque. Movies told us how it was supposed to be in high school biology, our parents, and of course, our own biology teachers reinforced it.

Happy Birthday Miss Jones by Normal Rockwell, 1956.

I haven’t taught students how to dissect a frog in years in the high school biology classroom where I teach and learn with students. For some, that would be an outrage. Sadly, when timely science is left out of our curriculum, the same outrage is not presented.

My school district, Napa Valley Unified School District, provided all biology teachers and I with a Next Generation Science Standards training last year through the Lawrence Hall of Science. One of the slides they shared was a big picture flow of the “Living Earth” (life science) segments in the relatively new science standards. I’m still calling the Next Generation Science standards “new” because many people are still working on adopting them, but they were adopted and released as our national science standards six years ago.

Slide from NGSS Training, the Lawrence Hall of Science

Taking a look at the flow – it’s apparent that climate science is a major thread in the national Next Generation Science Standards. If teaching a standards-based curriculum is not reason enough to prioritize the teaching of climate science, maybe that is a global and local health issue, or that the United Nations refers to the climate crisis as “the defining issue of our time” (United Nations, Climate Change 2019) is reason enough. Shockingly, climate science continues to be avoided by many adults in education, or worse, treated as though it is a philosophical or political topic:

“NSTA recognizes that because of confusion and misinformation, many Americans do not think that the scientific basis for climate change is established and well-grounded (Leiserowitz 2005; van der Linden et al. 2015). This belief, coupled with political efforts to actively promote the inclusion of non-scientific ideas in science classrooms (Plutzer et al. 2016), is negatively affecting science instruction in some schools. Active opposition to and the anticipation of opposition to climate change science from students, parents, other subject-area teachers, and/or school leadership is having a documented negative impact on science teachers in some states and local school districts (Plutzer et al. 2016).”

(NSTA, The Teaching of Climate Science, 2018)

During this school year, the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) published a declaration in support of teaching and supporting education systems on climate science. (NSTA, The Teaching of Climate Science, 2018) They call upon what they call “necessary support structures” to increase climate literacy across the curriculum:

“To support the work of teachers of science, NSTA recommends that school administrators, school boards, and school and district leaders…ensure teachers have adequate time, guidance, and resources to learn about climate science and have continued access to these resources”

(NSTA, The Teaching of Climate Science, 2018)

I was the presented the opportunity to join a grassroots community of students, parents, educators, and a local climate action advocacy group (Napa Climate Now) called Schools for Climate Action. The most difficult question I am asked by students is “Why didn’t we do more, sooner?”. It haunts me, drives me, and reminds me that I’m not too busy to do more today. They are, after all, why we are here – why our school district exists: to provide the opportunity that a thorough education brings forth. Local Napa Climate Now activist and retired chemist Jim Wilson is a persistent, committed voice – I appreciate the dedication he brings to this work in my own practice as an educator and in our broader community. He has shared pivotal resources such as this site by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Society which makes visible the dramatic rise and continued growth of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that traps heat) in our atmosphere with my students and I. The purpose of the Schools for Climate Action movement, which began in our neighboring county of Sonoma, is:

“We help school boards, student councils, PTA’s, teachers’ unions, and school support organizations to pass resolutions that do 3 things:

  1. Drive a paradigm shift so people recognize climate change as a generational justice issue.
  2. Clearly articulate the political will for all elected leaders, especially Members of Congress, to support or enact common-sense climate policies (such as national carbon pricing, 100% clean energy policies, green infrastructure investments, and just transition plans).
  3. Celebrate and expand school district responses to climate change.” (Schools for Climate Action)

To say that our school district has a full plate would be an understatement. School systems are challenged during these times in many ways. We are fortunate to teach in a district where goals include “Equity-Centered Leadership and Inclusive Organizational Culture”, and “Strategic, Impactful Governance and Policy Implementation”, and at the top of the list “Student Learning, Achievement, and Access”. Sadly, many districts believe that they do not have the bandwidth to engage in conversation around our changing climate – thus leaving they and the families they serve in the dark on “the defining issue of our time”. (Napa Valley Unified School District Goals)

Climate science is here and has been here for decades. Knocking slightly, then loudly. Burning down the doors of my students, freezing the door of my cousin. Closing doors of opportunity for children who are taught that the world will stay the same, and opening doors of opportunity for those who are taught how to navigate our changing world.

Climate science came knocking at my door when we had new science standards six years ago.

Climate science came knocking at my door, and the doors of my students and their families in the 2017 fire season – which has now expanded to June through December where we live.

Climate science knocks on the doors of my students who can’t afford to skip town when hazardous smoke fills our valley during those months, or who walk to school in these conditions inhaling toxic fumes from burning homes, burning plastics, burning batteries, burning tires.

Climate science knocks on the doors of my students whose families depend upon agriculture for income… or for food.

Climate science knocks on the doors of my students who increasingly suffer from asthma and allergies.

Climate science knocks on the doors of the elderly, the sick, the farmers, the traders, the wealthy, the lost, the found, the left, the right – climate science belongs to all of us. Climate science is all around us, but have we learned to recognize it, or how to navigate with it resonating through our lives?

On the other hand…maybe I can put all of that off. Forget about it for a little while, while my children are young. Maybe I can enjoy the privilege of focusing on something traditional, time-honored…like dissecting frogs.

“I learned that cutting frogs feels like cutting chicken.” – Pat, year irrelevant, future uncertain

I can see it now: Ecology of frogs, physiology of frogs, biochemistry and frogs, evolution of frogs, frog fossils and frog genetics, population dynamics of frogs…and of course, cutting open frogs. Maybe if we go so far backwards that we make the whole year a symbol of “old school science” – Frog Dissection – it will inspire conversation about how absurd it is to ignore or put off decades-long research and an issue that affects all of us – an issue that is in our K-12 national standards and is defined by the United Nations to be “the defining issue of our time”, especially our children and future generations.

Or…how about how to dissect data? How to dissect an issue – do science, interpret science, and inform policy on human health issues? How to dissect academic research, and put it back together into visuals that pulse and resonate with others? How to dissect a large problem? How can I repair an electric vehicle? How can I design landscapes that will stay put in extreme weather conditions? How can I build a back up electrical grid? How can I manage asthma? How can I cope with increasing natural disasters in my home town, or home loss? Or…if I am a leader who is looking at systems…how can I do my part in this project of our generation, and the generations to come – anthropogenic climate change?

I will prepare my students for this dynamic period in history to the best of my ability, but I will not put this issue at their feet, for them to solve alone “some day”. I will not pass along the time-honored phrase “This is for your generation to solve…”. No. This challenge takes action on all levels, especially those who have chosen the responsibility of leadership positions. This challenge takes creativity, commitment, work, and above all – courage.

Lastly, I leave this major address from the United Nations convention in 2018.

“What makes all of this even more disturbing is that we were warned. 
Scientists have been telling us for decades. Over and over again.
Far too many leaders have refused to listen.
Far too few have acted with the vision the science demands.
We see the results.”

Secretary-General’s remarks on Climate Change, United Nations, 2018

Q: Do you have the leadership and ambition to do what is needed, as called for in this video? Do you have the privilege to put off this issue, if you choose to? Will current and future generations see and be influenced by your action or inaction today?

A: Yes.

Non-Compliance Based Grading

Yesterday, students were preparing for their second formal presentations at New Technology High School. I love the pre-presentation buzz!

This year, we are expanding projects beyond one or two content silos and providing a multi-disciplinary experience for our learners. In this project, students are addressing the driving questions:

“How can we best use information from recent wildfires to heal and repair in California?”

“Where and how should we rebuild after recent wildfires in California?”

“How can we use public art to grieve and accept the changes to our environment?”


“How can we help our families and community be prepared for emergency in the event of wildfire?”


“Ms.Wolf – do you have notecards?”

–> I got ‘chu. They’re right here.

“Ms.Wolf – I’m not ready.”

–> You are ready, you’ve been studying this for a month. You will be the expert in the room. We are all here to learn from you. Do you think that rehearsing or adding more detail will help you feel better prepared?

“Ms.Wolf – seriously, I’m not ready.”

–> Ok, where can you start? Oh, I see you wrote your report draft. What did you learn from that? How can you share that in a presentation to the leaders you will present to?

“Who are we presenting to again?”

–> County leaders, an arts director, parents, and fire fighters. These are people who make decisions that may save lives – and they’re here to learn from you.

“Ms.Wolf – I didn’t get to this part…”

–> We are not assessing compliance. Take a closer look at the rubric…knowledge, thinking, and presentation skills. We want to see your thinking, using your knowledge, and sharing your learning. What did you learn? What’s important for these leaders to understand? These people make decisions that may save lives (not exaggerating here, this is true)…what should they know? You had the time to study this, they may not have. Let’s move out from there.

“Ms.Wolf – is this related to the oak trees we planted? Is that an example of helping secondary succession?”

**I stand dumbfounded for a moment.** –> Yes, Josh, that’s correct. That is an excellent connection you  made to our oak restoration. Deforestation for ranching, and now you are facilitating the regeneration of the oak savannah that historically existed in this area. (tries to hide tears in eyes) 


Our team agreed to support practice presentations. Since we are collaborating beyond one teacher or two teachers (we are at a team of 8 right now…which is a lot and in a future blog post I’ll reflect on that), we were able to accomplish viewing and providing written and verbal feedback to our entire freshman class of 104 students on their presentations in in a 1.5 hour time block.
This week, we were also able to:
– provide 8 perspectives to students on how to approach a project (which is a rich learning experience in itself)
– strategize on students with special needs
– plan the following week’s objectives for the entire freshman class (yeah, that’s a major feat!)
– progress on planning our next integrated project which is focused on life in the ocean 
(after a month of fire, we are ready for the ocean!)
My biggest take-away from viewing student presentations and hearing the feedback from fellow teachers on the team, was that students are overly-concerned with compliance.
I shudder..we’re in this to raise rebels with a cause!
When I see that my students’ responses are all coming out to similar conclusions when there are many potential paths to take, it’s time to urge them to take some risks. Many students are still, understandably, bound by concern over grades. I announced today that the grade in presentations was not dependent on compliance. These presentations are one indicator of their skills and understanding, it’s an opportunity to show what they know and can do, and not the only opportunity. The panel and I would be assessing their depth of knowledge, thinking, and presentation skills. I have provided scaffolds with tips and advice, the assessment of their ability and understanding was not dependent on the students having made use of every piece of that advice.
So, how do you assess, if not by compliance? This is where leaning on the rubric (here’s ours) is very helpful. A list is useful for clarifying potential artifacts that may be used as indicators of understanding and skill, but a rubric allows for reflection on a gradient toward mastery. Depending on where the scale is set, students may be beginners and still earn the grade that they hope for.

Students should have a regular hum in the background that reminds them that they are on a path of growth, not perfection.

They will be a winding vine climbing and twisting, and will emerge with deeper understanding and more vibrant vision of connections than before. Rubrics are a tool that students can be taught to see as a measure of their own academic growth.
Screen Shot 2019-02-09 at 12.21.44 AM.png
So we have a seed who won’t start? Let’s try extra water, warming the soil, or cold stratification.
We have a quick sprouter? Let’s encourage their curiosity, and connect them with the resources they need to continue to grow at such a quick pace.
If your student work is coming out to sound very similar to one another’s, all growing in rows at the same pace…ask yourself – how can I re-focus on the purpose of this learning, and de-emphasize compliance? 
Sometimes it’s as simple as giving your students permission to be unusual, branch out, and to bloom in an unexpected direction in a project…sometimes it’s as complicated as giving yourself the same.

Questions – The Gifts That Keep Giving


Each year, we plant acorns with the students under the guidance of the Napa Resource Conservation District’s Acorns to Oaks program. Some of the acorns aren’t successful, and some will still be living well beyond the lifespan of the one who planted them. This is true of projects as well. There are some projects that take root in ways that last and resonate well beyond the project span. These are the projects that are ecologically successful – they go on to produce more positive influence beyond the classroom. The acorns that we plant and go on only to decay were not a waste, but lack the resonant impact of those that take root and grow into twisted, meandering gnarly branches that will one day become loaded with acorns of their own.

Local relevance is a key piece to that difference. I might have a well packaged acorn, but if I set it on the concrete it will not succeed – even if I yell at it, wave a stick at it, or give it stickers. I might take that same well packaged acorn and plant it in a pot in the classroom. The roots will emerge, but we may never enjoy the shade of that oak. They only grow to maturity outside of the classroom, where they’re connected to the clay that holds the winter rain into the high-energy summer. I may try to replicate those nuanced conditions in the classroom, but then I just exhaust myself with the time and resources it takes to do that…why not just use the perfect conditions right outside, and time it right?

Ask the right question at the right time, and it will take root.

A caveat to this analogy is that in inquiry based learning, you do allow those branches to gnarl in any which direction. With project based learning, we have specific learning (growth) targets, so we prune, guide, and provide structures or resources to influence the growth toward those targets with intention.

There are also the projects that change me. They sweep me along and push me further than I have gone along where I know we need to go. Our last project, with driving question “How can we affect change with regard to overconsumption?” tugs at my sleeve. One student’s project convinced us to switch to Biobags. Did it end there? I wonder if the students are nudged by their past project as well at this time of year, and if their chosen movements to address overconsumption will enact change in their own behaviors this season, even while steeping in our current American culture.

Following our last project focused on overconsumption, and how to build a movement to address it, is our fire season. Smoke and ash sit on our state, thick and heavy. We’ve kept the kids mostly indoors all week due to some of the worst air quality in the world. We are thankful to have that problem, though, in comparison to our neighbors up north and down south who have no shelter at all. I wake up in the middle of the night and think of the climate refugees in our state, in the cold of the night. Their socks, blankets, walls, sense of safety gone. Meanwhile, alongside n95 respirators which have become household essentials are plastic Santas who poop jelly beans. Our relationship with the ecosystem on which we depend, and the true joy of celebrating seasonal shifts, is imbalanced.

We change the world with our choices, for better or worse.

‘Tis the Season

I used to get frustrated when I was younger and I’d ask my Dad the question I’d learned from my favorite movies and marketing is the question of the season: “What do you want for Christmas?” He would always reply the same way, he couldn’t just make it easy and tell me what to buy: Nothing, he had everything he needed. No Thing. I have every thing I need, and my happiness is not attached to excess of those needs. That has resonated and stuck with me, now I appreciate it more than ever – thanks Dad! 

Today, I asked my kids what they wanted for Christmas. Our three year old replied “a guitar”, the older boys hadn’t thought of it yet. I asked them if they would be willing to share this year, and explained it would be their choice. “Would you be willing to ask for half of whatever anyone would have given you – us, your grandparents, anyone – and for the other half to be fundraising for donations?” Enthusiastic YES! “Are you sure? How do you feel about that?” Without hesitation, “Like a hero” and “I feel really good, it makes me happy.”

Excitement and happiness are two different things. What do our children really want? What do we really want for our children? We’re raising them, we’re teaching them, we’re leaving this planet for them – we have a say.


Ask the right question at the right time, and it will take root:

What do you want for Christmas?

Which acorns will you plant?

Bottlenecks & Breakthroughs – New Content Standards

The land is speaking to us. The air, the water, the trees, the children, and in your own body – you can feel it if you pause and pay close attention.

We are alive during a period of dramatic environmental, social, and technological change.

Under our feet, all around us and within us – can you see it happening? Can you feel the upset? We’re primates, and just like the trees, the bees, and the orcas…we are connected with our environment.

One lesson I don’t want to teach my students is to count on stagnation.

Next Generation Science, Life Science Standard LS4:

Humans depend on the living world for the resources and other benefits provided by biodiversity. But human activity is also having adverse impacts on biodiversity through overpopulation, overexploitation, habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, and climate change. Thus sustaining biodiversity so that ecosystem functioning and productivity are maintained is essential to supporting and enhancing life on Earth. Sustaining biodiversity also aids humanity by preserving landscapes of recreational or inspirational value.”

How do we best teach that?

How do students best learn that?

This is a standard thread that now starts in kindergarten.

Carbon dioxide concentrations continue to stack up exponentially in the atmosphere, leading to systemic changes from shifting the chemistry of the world’s oceans, to when in the year one small seed will have the conditions to germinate…or not. Where we are in Napa, California, we grew up kidding about “earthquake weather” and our dogs rustling in the yard before a rumble of the earth. Now, through living climate change, we all know what “fire weather” feels like. We felt it deeply, and we won’t forget. It’s a certain rustle of the trees, a certain temp in the air, a certain tinge of the fields. Life all over the world is feeling the shifts.

Next Generation Science Earth & Space Science Standard ESS2.D:

“Current models predict that, although future regional climate changes will be complex and varied, average global temperatures will continue to rise. The outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year and by the ways in which these gases are absorbed by the ocean and biosphere.”

So, what’s it like to be primate during a period of dramatic systemic shift?

Maybe it’s something like this orangutan, fighting a bulldozer:

A bulldozer is cutting down a tree in the rainforest, and an orangutan holds on fast to the branches. Maybe the tree will stay put, and will continue to be a source of abundant refuge and nourishment?

As the tree slowly begins to come down toward the ground, he paces, he is visibly unsettled and anxious. He moves back into the branches, even when the tree has reached the ground, swinging from the branches as though the tree were still towering above the Earth.

Then, there’s a shift. He seems to accept that the tree has changed, that it has been harmed. He moves from denial, to fear, to anger. Focused, he stalks down the trunk to identify the threat. Identifying the bulldozer, he and attacks.

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Unfortunately, this orangutan is unable to take down the aggressor. But who is the aggressor? Is it the logging crew taking down his home, likely to produce a monoculture-farm for rapid, cheap palm oil? Is it the poverty leading the local community to consume the very resources on which they rely? Is the aggressor the foreign consumer, unwittingly demanding the palm oil through everyday purchases?

Anger moves to apathy. He retreats, out of sight.

I feel like this fellow primate, at times, pacing on the log. I haven’t reached the point of apathy – have you? I don’t think so. I see changes and revolutions all around us, I know you do, too.

Do we look at these types of challenges with a glass-half-full perspective? A glass-half-empty perspective? A scientific perspective? One of my favorite things about science is that it can bring into our field of vision phenomena that are, without science, beyond our vision – so the glass is always full – liquid, gas, or some combination of the two – no judgement, just is.

So, science enables us to “see” what isn’t apparently there. What happens, though, when this wealth of cold, hard, non-judgemental data sits in an expensive journal database?

This is the bottleneck we face today, the ghost of content silos. Scientists marching in the streets, stepping outside of the lab, their field, with a plea for action. But who is listening, if only they speak the language…and they don’t know how to resonate with their leaders, consumers, voters?

English Language Arts Common Core Standard, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.7:

“Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words.”

Next Generation Science Standards to Common Core – content standards have changed.

All of this change…has school changed?

Something we want our students to understand is how to maintain hope in the face of major adaptive challenges. Even better, how to see opportunity where there is a problem. How can we look at an issue, conflict, or need that speaks to us, be it as large as social justice challenges, greenhouse gas emissions, hunger, systemic racial injustice, mixing cultures and holding onto heritage, illness, poverty or as focused as how to help a local business owner find footing, starting a school sports team, or planning a financial path – and see the nexts steps? How can we recognize and embrace the silver lining of opportunity – diving deep into the arts to tell a story only one person can tell, how to challenge assumptions about what it means to be (fill in the blank), how to embrace and thrive in a richly-diverse society, how to see through the noise and make a deliberate, empowered move?

What keeps us up at night? What gets us out of bed in the morning? These are the seeds of profound projects. 

This is where we embrace our students as they are, we acknowledge what they are seeing and feeling, we teach them how to see the glass full, and to help others see it, too.

These are the new standards, and these are the new challenges and opportunities.


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Collaboration, Imagination, and Not Giving Up

This year, we’ve embarked on a journey into the unknown – the highest quality teaching we can do. Teaching that’s not humanly possible for one, or even two people to pull off on their own. We agreed to leave behind classes to embark on projects around complex, interdisciplinary and standards based phenomena, and to do so as one collaborative team of educators. We agreed to build a system that will enable our students to have a more streamlined and profoundly impactful learning experience.

I have the deepest respect for the teachers who have embarked on this journey. These are teachers who sacrificed autonomy and control of their classrooms for students to experience a more meaningful, connected education. These are teachers who sacrificed familiar systems for their students to have a more cohesive experience.

These are teachers who sacrificed the known path to take on something different, because the world is different.

I had the honor of serving as a finalist in the Napa County Teacher of the Year ceremony this week. The honoree, Ron Eick, spoke of this phenomena articulating that teachers are like candles, burning themselves down to bring light to others. The selflessness of teaching may not always be apparent to outside eyes, after all, those darn teachers aren’t doing what they’re supposed to! They aren’t hitting the mark! But behind the scenes, those teachers are spending hours on one student who needs it most. Those teachers are at times brought to tears over the disconnect between what we want for our kids and having the time, resources, and energy to bring it to fruition. Those teachers are ever-seeking creative ways to bring the content to life so that every student, not just the historically well-served, accesses the learning. Those teachers keep showing up.

Sometimes what’s needed for success are specific skills, or the willingness to find them. Sometimes achieving success means making the right decisions at the right times.

Sometimes success just means you don’t give up.

Our collaborative teaching team has agreed to build a project around the challenge of consumerism, and to do so with more personalization than we have been able to offer in the past. Sure, there are simple fixes to address consumerism surface-level. Approaching consumerism and the degradation of our natural resources as a technical challenge quickly solved by a tool is misguided. After all, there are tools abound. The challenge of consumerism is adaptive – it’s a complex, societal challenge. How is it that a movement drives corporations to swear off straws, while styrofoam remains untouched? Here’s our project launch slide deck with an overview of the context for this project. Students, with guidance, will define their focus.


A community partner, sustainability consultant for Recolte Energy in Napa, Gopal Shanker recently presented to students on changing a system. In his talk, he was focused on the shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. He shared insight with students that “It’s not limited resources that are our problem, it’s limited human collaboration and imagination.” This struck me. Collaboration and imagination. 

“It’s not limited resources that are the problem, it’s limited human collaboration and imagination.” – Gopal Shanker, Sustainability Consultant and President of Recolte Energy

Our teaching team ended a meeting on a difficult note today, we were all done. I have no doubt that the pioneers, the delirious optimist teachers who have set out on this, though, will continue to show up, and that we will get there. This is the human work of collaboration and imagination, and there’s nothing more worthwhile or needed in today’s world.

Building Projects #4: Find a Cliffhanger

It’s 7:38am, you had intended to be to work sooner to set up for the day. You get inside and hear it – “Help!”. Where is it coming from? You move quickly to the center of the room, then toward the storage room. Your hands fumble with your keys as you attempt to quickly open the storage room’s door. “HELP!” The cries intensify…

It’s 7:38am, you had intended to be to work sooner to set up for the day. You get inside and see that your coteacher already got there, and set the activity materials up for you. You open the blinds. You sit down and enjoy your coffee, running through the plan of the day together…

Which story was more interesting? A story that grips you with conflict – something to figure out or over come – is more engaging. My kids have the most engaged play IMG_0520when there is an element of danger, some problem to solve, or an element of the unknown.

We left off with Building Projects #3: Rethinking Content as Stories and Skills. This brings us to Step 4: identify a timely, relevant cliffhanger.  By the way…I’m having a hard time right about now saying that these steps are in sequential order. They aren’t. It’s more like an average order, but there’s a lot of going back and forth and overlap.

Great projects have a cliffhanger, and the best projects are nonfiction. Even better, there’s a local setting. A great project is a story the students are living and experiencing, connecting new insight to their own stories in ways that are meaningful and lasting.

In my experience, students are most engaged in a project when there is a clear and immediate need for their effort. This could be a need of their own, or of someone they care about. That’s pretty broad, right? There are so many ways to do this!

Student Life

You can look for stories that your students are already grappling with by asking them. This might happen through surveys, interviews, sitting and having lunch and chatting with one student, or chats when walking around the block in PE. Here are some questions you might ask:

  • What’s the age you’re working with? Do they have something approaching that will impact their lives? Driving? College applications? Interviewing for jobs?
  • Where do the students live? How do they get to school?
  • What are their goals? Short term & long term?
  • What are the issues facing their family members?
  • How do students spend their time?
  • What are their worries?
  • What makes them angry?
  • What do they wish was different about their education?
  • What do they enjoy doing most, but don’t have much time for?

Community Partners

There have been times that I have sent an email with stories and skills listed to a community partner and said “do you guys use this stuff?” only to have them lead me down a great direction.

Some of our community partners for Biofitness include Napa Resource Conservation District employees (Eric McKee, Chino Yip), Friends of the Napa River ecologist (Shari Gardner), Kaiser doctors, Queen of the Valley Hospital health educator (Kristen Polakiewicz), Community College professor, my own Grad Program professor, a Personal Trainer, a Marriage and Family Therapist, local nonprofit Napa Learns (which helps me form new partnerships) a well-known Napa Artist (Gordon Huether), a local Mining Company (Syar), an Engineer (ZFA’s Chris Warner), owner of a Sustainability Consulting Firm (Gopal Shanker), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Intern and NTHS Alumni (Gia Peralta) local Master Gardeners, a Culinary Institute Teacher & Chocolatier, and more.

Other questions to ask community partners might include:

  • What are you working on right now?
  • What’s been challenging for you?
  • What do you wish other people understood about your line of work?
  • What are your worries?
  • What’s something you wish you could do better/more of/over again?
  • What’s something you need help with?

I can’t emphasize enough how thankful I am as a teacher that I have had these partners throughout the years!

An example of a project that was designed in this fashion is the Recipe for Health project in Biofitness. We worked in partnership with Kaiser Health Educator Kristen Polakiewicz to better understand and articulate a challenge facing Napa’s community health that relates to nutrition. Kristen helped us narrow the focus to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease – two preventable diseases that are costing local families years of their lifespans, and that many student families are affected by. Students designed a community education cookbook for Kristen to make available to her clients.

Local News

The local news, in particular, provides a current event that impacts stakeholders in your local community. This type of project makes finding community partners who are invested in the issue much more streamlined.

Here’s an example we used in Biofitness and Environmental Science around a local land use conflict regarding a well known community-owned park and a local mining company.  This project was designed in our PLC – Professional Learning Community – the collaborative effort of 4 science teachers around one news paper article.

Sometimes, the Cliffhanger Finds You

I want to acknowledge, sometimes you don’t even have to go looking for these cliffhangers that are locally impactful, authentic and relevant. The project cliffhanger might come in an email from a colleague, or at best when students see a need.

For instance, a few years ago I had a group of students who said they wanted to garden. They had so many great ideas – we met, planned, gathered materials, and went to it. The garden struggled and failed to thrive, and the students became disengaged in the process. I asked the students what happened, in their perspective.

The students (there were three, all high achieving and responsible students) said that they just didn’t feel they had time to do it, there was always something else that came up. They still wanted a garden at school badly, in particular one that they could work on from time to time and one that had flowers and berries.

The next year, I designed a project around this in my Environmental Science class. The students used the design process outlined by Stanford’s d.School to design the student garden, starting with an interview. The students found that every empathy interview had a common thread – a desire to feel connected with others through the garden. Some of the interviewed students wanted to be engaged in the gardening and growing, some wanted to just hang out in a garden, some wanted a beautiful outdoor place they could work on projects with team members, surrounded by natural beauty. The project yielded learning focused on food sovereignty, water conservation, and soil. This year (the following), two of the Environmental Science students who had engaged in the Garden Project decided to focus on the garden for their senior projects and took leadership of it – one with a focus on gardening and mental health and the other with a focus on the growing food aspect.

So, what’s a problem, design challenge, decision to be made? How will you engage your students in the story? Is it a true story? Does it have local implications?




To the Earth



I realized today, that 10 years of teaching means I’ve had over 1,500 students in my classes. I told this to one of my students in the gym, and she replied “OH MY GOD, haven’t you gotten bored?!” I replied “No way, every day is new.” It’s the students who keep it new. Every single one of them has had an impact on me…and so my teaching, and so each other, and so their communities. It blows my mind how amazing that is! Still, students say things on a near-daily basis that impact me.

For instance, today in Biofitness, students had an option to help out in the school garden. When I said I needed a team to water, several volunteered. When I said I needed seed planters, again, no problem – several volunteers. When I said I needed someone to pull weeds, a few kids stepped forward. After having pulled weeds for about 10 minutes, one student, I’ll call her “I”, said “Do we get to keep pulling weeds? I really like it, it makes me feel good. I feel relaxed.” Jet fuel for the high school Health/Environmental Science teacher’s soul!


I feel a deep need to be outside, to be around living things, in particular plants. I don’t know if this is just me, or if everyone else is happy with being primarily around cars, computers, and walls and I’m just in the wrong environment for my personality type. I suspect that other people long to be connected with the Earth too, though. To be breathing clean, fresh air, in natural light, and in the company of green thriving things.


Tomorrow is Earth Day.

I’ll be marching for science to downtown Napa with my family a few hours before the city’s Earth Day celebration to help Environmental Science students set up a booth – a booth they organized and initiated completely on their own. I’m doing the momteacher jobs of bringing the canopy, table & cloth, and proudly taking photos.

We anticipate Earth Day with enthusiasm in the Wolf household. It’s a chance to celebrate the unique planet of which we are a part, and revisit the things we can do to better live in tune with the beautiful web of which we are a part. Tonight, tucking my oldest son (7 years) into bed, I  said “Tomorrow’s Earth Party Downtown!”, he replied “Can we bring gloves and pick up some trash?”. That’s my boy.


This semester has been a challenging one to teach Environmental Science. The beginning of the year had great positive momentum – there was a feeling of being a part of a collective understanding that our long-used strategy of “burn stuff” for energy isn’t working out so well for our species, let alone the ecosystems on which we depend. The Paris Climate Agreement (albeit largely symbolic) gave us something to look to as we recognized the Tragedy of the Commons unfolding in many aspects of modern society around us.

Of course, in our own country, there’s been a shift since then. As a teacher, I abstain from sharing my own perspective on political matters. Science, however, has become increasingly political. How can I teach Environmental Science and NOT be political? I can’t. I gave that up. I decided to re-focus in on the power and impact of local government and grassroots movements. Where in the life science standards is this? It’s not. The standards are the “what”. The ethics are the “why”. I’m not a teacher of the “what” without the “how” and “why” – I call that a shallow concept tutorial. I’m a human, so I teach human stuff to humans.


In the PBL classroom we’re trying new things, basing projects on big questions with no clear answers, looking the scariest problems of the world square in the face and saying “I’m taking you on”.

We’re getting our hands dirty and tearing down the walls, one day at a time.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.
John Muir