The Value of Summer Assignments

Sketchnote practice for AP Bio Summer Assn

I recently read a post on Medium from a teacher, David Knuffke, whom I have never met but have come to respect the opinions of in most topics concerning science education.

How I Killed My Summer Assignment (And Why It Had To Die)

For those too busy/lazy/whatever to read what he has to say, I’ll summarize it, hopefully without harming the integrity of his message: His AP Biology summer assignment  had become an unnecessary hoop for his students to jump through, and he didn’t feel like giving his students an assessment which wasn’t benefiting them personally or as students.  I agree with this idea, by the way. There are few things related to education that I detest more than unnecessary assessments. I cringe whenever I hear someone talk about how they give a school/district/state assessment where the data is kept in a file, just in case the data is ever needed to justify some decision after-the-fact. [Shudder]

But I also think that summer assignments can be important. I will not make some outlandish claim that my students are inadequate, underprivileged, or otherwise unprepared for the rigor of AP classes in general, or even AP Biology specifically. What they tend to be, though, are “memorizers”; they like to be told the “best” way to do something, exactly what they need to “know for the test”, and then they will give you all of that information (often verbatim from the source).  

It is actually quite impressive, and may even be helpful… when I took AP Biology in 2003. “Kids these days” seem to be suffering from the standardized testing that dominated their elementary and middle school education. The creativity and problem solving needed to be successful at the next level has been drill-and-killed out of them. Regardless of the students’ college and/or career plans, those are skills which are found in the best and brightest of any field. This is all just a long-winded way of saying that I use my summer assignment to get students the practice they need building specific skill sets which will make their time in AP Biology a much smoother process.

Assignment Introduction PDF: IsingAPBio_2014SummerAssn 

So what do I do? Each summer I pick a creative nonfiction book (something from the “Science” section of a bookstore/library) that all my students will read. I do my best to make sure that there is an affordable paperback version available on Amazon (or a similar online retailer) or that it can be checked out at the local public library, as I don’t want my students to be unnecessarily burdened. I also try to make the book as interesting as possible because I am subversively trying to get them to enjoy reading about science and start building a library of their own.  From there, they have three basic tasks for their assignment:

        1. Tweet-ups during the summer to talk about themes from one third of the book
        2. Products to make for each chapter in an “active journal”
        3. In-class discussion on the book during our first full day of class

If you want more information about the importance of modeling appropriate social media use, I can point you to some great resources, but I like using Tweet-ups to “meet” my students and let them talk informally about the book with their classmates in a slightly more realistic conversation than you can have on a message board. I like this, too, because I have a relationship with most of these kids the day that class starts, which allows us to get down to business more or less from day one. On the “cons” side of the list, there are some parents that don’t allow their students to have a social media account, but after I share a Storify of one of our past chats, most allow their youngling to participate.

My favorite part of the assignment, though, has to be the products. They are, basically, a series of art projects to complete for each chapter that they wouldn’t normally associate with a science class. I received a number of concerned emails from new students about whether collage, poetry, painting, and story-telling were all products that needed to be done, or if they could “opt-out” by writing an essay (which I, of course, denied).  I am always amazed by what students can do when given the freedom to express themselves in their learning process. And the self-described “non-artsy” students are usually surprised at what they can produce.

The following gallery is an example of last year’s assignment over the book The Universe Within by Neil Shubin.  I chose this book because we were starting the year with biochemistry and biological structures, and Dr. Shubin does an above-average job (in my opinion) of explaining how complex biological systems could have arisen from something as remote and distant as the Big Bang, and of providing interesting anecdotes of the people and discoveries that helped us reach our current understandings. The student that completed the assignment in the gallery, Morgan Johannesen, has also written her own critique of the summer assignment which you can read here on

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Really, summer assignments should be fun. Students should expand their boundaries and try things that they wouldn’t normally. And they should be able to experiment and grow as a student without fear of sabotaging their grade, especially before they even step into a classroom. 

But as LeVar Burton used to say, don’t take my word for it… 😉  


Homework in the Summer?!

[Editor’s Note: This post accompanies my blog post on summer assignments in AP Biology (and other) classes. My student, Morgan Johannesen, offered me this short essay. What follows is her opinion of the assignment). –Ising]

Chapter 10: Freestyle

Chapter 10: Freestyle

Summer assignments are a chore. Reading books for school is a chore. Somehow, compared to other summer assignments, Mr. Ising managed to teach us effectively over the summer without making it feel like nearly as much of a chore. I don’t care if it sounds like I was bribed to say this: it was the most enjoyable and productive summer assignment of my entire high school career.

For starters, The Universe Within by Neil Shubin was a really solid book choice as a precursor to AP Bio. It gave a brief history of the universe from a biology-centric standpoint, encapsulating many of the big ideas and re-familiarizing us with the general biology concepts we may have forgotten since freshman year. Switching from historical pop-science accounts to personal anecdotes from the author’s experiences, it was right up the interest alley of many kids who elected to take this class, myself included. Ising assigned us two pages of notes and a creative “product” for each of the 10 chapters, which when split into the different weeks of summer ended up being a light and bearable workload. Instead of due dates for certain assignments, the several “tweet-ups” held on Twitter periodically throughout the summer helped keep everyone that had (or created a Twitter account for this class at the request of Ising) accountable for at least reading the book by certain dates in the summer. The “tweet-ups” were always lively and achieved Ising’s goal of direct communication between teachers and students about the subject matter as well as some friendly debating of our own opinions (climate change was nearly a hot mess).
The variety and open-endedness of the “product” side is what made it the coolest chore. Chapters 2, 6, 8, and 9 familiarized me with the art and method of sketchnoting which has come in handy every single week of AP Bio class this year. No other teacher had shown us how to take notes this way before. Sketchnotes have even bled into other classes for me (I have a particularly boring physics class this year and sketchnoting helps keep me awake). Chapter 8’s Radiolab Dinopocalypse podcast assignment was another highlight. I did not expect to have feelings about dinosaurs in the way that Radiolab made me.
The more challenging assignments were the painting for chapter 5, writing poetry for chapter 3, and either interpreting an already-existing song or writing our own for chapter 7. I’ve always enjoyed art and language arts, but tying science to a brand new art medium (watercolors) and creative writing formats that AP English curriculum doesn’t require you learn how to create yourself were huge steps into foreign territory. They weren’t impossible steps, though. Especially with the guarantee that the only people who had to see these products were myself and the teacher who assigned us these “hippy-dippy” tasks.
Ising said on my grade card for the assignment that AP Bio would probably disappoint me from here on out, but Ising’s teaching methods are reflected in this assignment and have been all the more challenging and engaging throughout the school year. The summer assignment covered basic introductory ideas without unnecessarily quizzing us, and the content of the book continually reappears as applicable to many of the “Big Ideas” covered in the rest of the year so far. I don’t know what more an AP kid could want out of a summer assignment. Ising should keep doing what he’s doing.

In My Classroom – #7 (Natural Selection Activity)

Welcome to the KABT new blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.

The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms, and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. In this segment, if you are tagged all you need to do is share something you’ve done in your classroom in the last two weeks. It must be recent, but that’s it. If you are tagged, you’ve got two weeks to post your entry. Who knows… your supposedly mundane idea, lesson, or lab might be exactly what someone else really needs. Keep it brief, keep it honest about the time window, and share it out! Here we go:

This year, I tried the bird beak adaptation activity for natural selection for the first time. I looked at several variations of the activity online, and took pieces of some and added in my own. I not only wanted to show adaptation, but also how adaptation might be different in different environments (islands with different food sources). So here is what we did.

All of the “birds” went to the library with their “beaks” (tweezers). This was the mainland, a big continent. We noticed that some beaks were slightly different than others.



We then were swept up in a hurricane and brought to the classroom, where we found refuge on different islands (tables), too far away for any birds to travel back and forth with normal circumstances. Each table had a different environment, and different food source (big beans, little beans, toothpicks, pennies, paper clips, barley).2FoodSource

The students then took turns “eating”. The one who go the most food had 2 offspring. The bird who got the least died before they could reproduce. The one in-between had one offspring. The offspring were exactly like the parents. These rules made it super simple, which was nice for an introduction activity. Throughout the activity we talked about how simplified this model was, and how real life would be different.

Next, I introduced some mutations (a spoon and a test tube clamp). image3mutations

They acted out three generations. Obviously the spoon was very successful with big beans but pretty detrimental with toothpick prey. We had a nice conversation about how mutations are neither good nor bad, it depends on the environment. They also got to see one way geographic isolation can lead to speciation. We followed up with a more real life example using some HHMI Pocket Mouse activities. This activity was done before we really talked about evolution. It was nice way to begin our discussion. I think having the different tweezer beaks at the beginning was confusing, so next year I think I’ll simplify it further and have all the tweezers the same. I would also like to add in a more complex natural selection activity later on. What’s your favorite natural selection activity?


Tag Andrew Taylor, you’re it! Tell us about something you’re doing in your classroom.