About Michelle

I am a PhD candidate in Environmental Sciences at Oregon State University, focusing on research in informal education settings. I regularly post about my experiences as an external evaluator for museums and a local school district as well as stories or ideas that catch my attention. Research for my doctorate focuses on how aquarium staff and volunteer environmental identities have formed over time.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been reading about communities of practice (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002) for our Friday theory meetings. In that time, I have been busy with Project SEAL. The Model Classroom Team and I were going out to the schools to check in on the teachers and hear about their projects. There are some wonderful teachers doing wonderful projects with their students. Teachers and students are creating a thought-provoking, interactive play space, learning about beach pollution and its impact on the environment, and building a school garden.

While it was exciting to hear about how teachers and students were using the iPad minis available with the grant and to see differences students were making in their school environment, there was something that seemed to be mentioned in each meeting: the teachers needed a community. A community to share and learn within. A community where they could figure out which apps to download, how to download them, and how to use them. A community to collaborate with.

Having this experience came at a great time with reading the book. All of a sudden, I had a framework in which to think about communities of practice. Something that I’ve struggled with as the evaluator of Project SEAL is how I (and the project team) can encourage teachers to develop a community of practice without it seeming like a top-down approach.

To help me think my problem through, I turn to the part in the book about the challenge of distributed communities. Project SEAL is a distributed community – teachers are at 9 different schools throughout Lincoln County. We have a webpage, where teachers post assignments and can find resources, but as the authors write,

“Members cannot see how many other people are reading – and benefiting from – a threaded discussion. Unlike in-person meetings, teleconferences and Web sites don’t offer easy opportunities for informal networking. Because of these barriers, it takes more intentional effort for members to consult the community for help, spontaneously share ideas, or network with other members” (p. 117).

I think the key word there is easy. It can be done but needs to be encouraged and supported. As an evaluator I would recommend the project team, including the Model Classroom Team, to act as coordinators and facilitators on the Web site “to shepherd the process of connecting, passing on the request to people in the network who are likely to have helpful information or insight… Once they have found each other, members talk by phone, in person, via email, or through the community bulletin board…” (p. 127).

Hopefully, we can help build a community of practice over the second year of the project.


Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W.M. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

On Tuesday night I made the hour-long drive from Corvallis to Newport to cover an important event: Newport Intermediate School’s Family Literacy Night. In the past couple of months I’ve written about Project SEAL and the Family Literacy Nights schools are supposed to host as part of the project. I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw at Newport Intermediate School.


The principal (who also goes through Project SEAL training) brought in Roland Smith. Roland was an enthusiastic speaker, talking to both adults and kids and sharing his life experiences that led him to be an author. One of the best parts of his presentation was when he said he’d take 4 minutes to teach us how to write a book. His first step was to write about something that interests you. He travels a lot but when he gets home he still has research to do, so he asked, “where do you go to do more research?” The library of course! His next big step was to create a storyboard, attempting to map out as much of the book as possible. Then you have to write a rough draft. The final step he shared with us is relevant to all of us who write, including us graduate students. This was Roland’s secret of writing (shhh!): writing is revision. No matter how many times you make edits, the editors find something and your final product looks different from your first product. It’s not something to be scared of, it’s the process of writing.


After Roland’s talk, the parents and students were released to purchase books – many of them did – and to go to sessions taking place throughout the school, including poetry reading, student writer share-outs, and guest readers. I was casually observing each room and standing in the hall watching the flow of traffic when all of a sudden I noticed something… groups of students were walking around with iPad minis. Before I knew it, one 4th grader and her mom were standing in front of me and the girl asked, “Can I ask you a few questions?” When I responded “yes” she said, “you will be recorded, if that’s ok”. What a researcher! I gave consent and the student looked at the sheet in front of her (which had four questions that she came up with herself – I asked later on) and asked, “what do you know about the Japanese tsunami?” She asked me three other questions on the topic, specifically about marine debris and the dock that came on shore in Newport.


At the end of my interview, I saw one of the teachers whose student interviewed me and praised her on getting her students so involved and for using the iPads! I later found out that this is only a portion of the student project for Project SEAL.

Last month I wrote about Literacy in the 21st Century and the wonderful new project evaluation I’m working on, Project SEAL. I first want to share a blog post that the Model Classroom team wrote about their time with the Project SEAL teachers during the professional development in February. http://www.modelclassroom.org/blog/2013/03/projectsealoregonpd-intro.html. It has a wonderful synopsis of the two days as well as some teacher reflections.

Since the February professional development, I have turned my attention to the family literacy nights. I have never attended a family literacy night. They were not part of my K-12 experience and I have never heard of or seen them as a researcher/evaluator. The Project SEAL team told me that literacy nights can differ greatly and they did not have standards for the schools to follow for these events. This presented some troubles with me as an evaluator. How can you standardize an evaluation tool for something that looks different each time?

After having some conversations with the Project SEAL team, we decided on a short and sweet survey. Something parents would be willing to fill out throughout the night and something that would focus on literacy, ocean science resource use, as well as structure of the event. We hope that these literacy nights 1) lead to families checking out ocean-related books (purchased for the libraries through the grant), 2) give parents an opportunity to see technology that is being incorporated into literacy (the grant also bought a classroom set of iPad mini’s for each school), and 3) give teachers and students time to present on learning experiences they’ve had with the iPads and new reading material available in the library. Here are the questions on the Family Literacy Night survey.

1) What was your (or your child’s) favorite part of this Family Literacy Night?

2) What went well during this Family Literacy Night?

3) What suggestions for improvement do you have for future Family Literacy Nights?

4)What did you hope to take away from tonight’s Family Literacy Night?  (check all that apply)

More activities and games to do at home

Information on what is being done in my child’s classroom

Information on assessment in reading and writing

Information about how children learn to read and write

Information on how to work with the school and my child’s teacher

New resources available in the library

Ways to use technology with my child at home

How my child’s class has been using library resources

5)You or your child have checked out ocean science resources to read together at home.

6) Your child presented or talked about a class project at this Family Literacy Night.

7) You learned what you wanted to learn tonight.      Agree / Neutral / Disagree

8)Tonight I gained new information about ocean science resources available to my child through his/her school library.     Agree / Neutral / Disagree

Hopefully the data can be useful in proving the effectiveness of this project but also give the schools some ideas for future family literacy nights.

Last October, Lincoln County School District received news that they were awarded an Innovative Approaches to Literacy Grant to fund Project SEAL (Students Engaging in Authentic Literacy). Dr. Rowe and I, representing Oregon Sea Grant, are the evaluators for this project.  What I enjoy most about working on the evaluation is that it continues to push my understanding of learning, focusing not only on museums but also on the classroom and continually thinking about bridging the gap between the two in new ways.

Project SEAL has so many components to it, including buying new ocean-related books for school libraries, stocking each library with a classroom set of handheld devices such as iPads, and family literacy nights. I am sure these will come up in future blog posts, but today I want to focus on the teacher professional development part of Project SEAL. On February 8th and 9th Project SEAL hosted a Model Classroom (modelclassroom.org) training for around 60 teachers, principals, and media assistants. The Model Classroom has “teachers participate in a set of missions that take them out into the community… [where they will] develop and document project ideas to take back to the classroom.”

We started the training at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the first mission was for teachers to go around the aquarium to look at exhibits and talk to people (anyone they could find including visitors, educators and volunteers) about a global issue that has a local impact. One group of teachers was contacting local grocery stores and talking to the aquarium gift store about plastic bags while another group was asking visitors questions like “what would you do if you found tsunami debris on the beach?” Yet another group ended up on a research vessel docked nearby. The second mission was to use their mobile devices to create a hook to draw their students into the topic, with an end goal of thinking of ways their students could use these devices to communicate ideas and projects from the field. One group of teachers used iMovie to create a trailer about picking up and properly reporting tsunami debris.

The second day of training was spent in a library of a local school. The day started with an in-depth conversation of what literacy was (when the teachers were in school) versus was literacy is now (in the 21st century). The Model Classroom leaders, project staff and I agreed this was a conversation we’d have to continually come back to because it is so BIG. For most of the rest of the day teachers divided into groups and explored the school, looking at different spaces and the learning opportunities that can occur. They took pictures, wrote descriptions and some groups came up with ideas for improvement.

Project SEAL is in its infancy but it’s such a wonderful project with so many key components. Keep your eyes out for future posts with the ongoing evaluation and tools developed. In the meantime, learn more about Project SEAL and read the teacher’s blog posts at https://sites.google.com/site/oregontestsite/home.

It was our last day in Glacier National Park, Montana.  My dad, sister, husband & I entered the park at the Saint Mary entrance for the third time and this time we committed to stopping at the visitor center.  The four of us walked inside to see ceiling-high windows with mountain views, a movie playing in a dark room, a large timeline with the history of the area, a small room with exhibits, and, of course, a bookstore.  Our party dissipated and I headed straight for the exhibits.

The room wasn’t that large, maybe 30’x20’.  There was a teepee set up in the corner that you could go in to.  Arranged along the walls of the room were six-foot-high signs covering topics of land use, creating a park, creation and animals. Along the back wall were taxidermied animals of species common within the park: a bear, wolf, and moose. I started at the animals.  Each animal had a sign in front of it that was fairly ordinary.  There was the animal’s common name, a picture, cast of its track, and a button and phone to hear a sound of the animal.  But what caught my eye was the animal’s common name printed in three native languages with translations.

Source: Uploaded by user via Free-Choice on Pinterest

I moved on to look at the signage that took up the majority of this small area and I started recognizing a pattern.  I read about creation beliefs, oral histories, place names and place meanings from the point of view of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille, Kootenai, and Blackfeet, the same three native languages I saw on the animal signs.  It seemed that these signs, because of how they read, were co-created with tribe members.


Source: Uploaded by user via Free-Choice on Pinterest

I spent a good portion of my time at the sign about oral histories because of both personal and professional interests.  How do we tell stories? What do they mean to us?  To others? I think the Blackfeet said it well,

“Oral history is our culture.  Our oral history holds the key to who we are.  Our language is spiritual because it is taken from nature, and nature is spiritual.  Our language doesn’t need a verb to move the noun; it is in constant motion like the earth.”

 I met the rest of my group by the windows, looking out at the mountains.  We left Montana the next day with a lot of new stories to tell.

Informal educators, scientists, science education faculty, and science institutions worked with the Lincoln County (Oregon) School District to develop and implement professional development for K-12 teachers around ocean literacy and aquatic & marine science.  Oregon Coast Aquatic and Marine science Partnership (OCAMP) ran from 2009-2012 and offered teachers scientific presentations on topics ranging from estuaries to climate change.  Project teachers were also given opportunities to attend and present at national conferences, learn about different aquatic & marine curriculum and materials (including lab materials) available, work in a professional learning community where they had to complete an action research project, and so much more.

For this post, however, I want to focus on lesson plans written by project teachers.  Each OCAMP teacher was encouraged to submit an original lesson plan or a lesson plan that used a pre-existing material either in a new way or over a series of days.  The lesson plans cover a broad range of topics, from plankton to tsunamis.  There is now a wonderful selection of teacher-written (and approved!) lesson plans available on the OCAMP website, http://ocampmsp.webs.com, under the tab OCAMP Developed Lessons. The lesson plans have been organized by Ocean Literacy Principle and by grade level. Hopefully these lesson plans (and other available information) are helpful to both formal and informal educators.