Good teaching is…good teaching

July 22, 2015
Duracell_AA_crop

History, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

Five years ago, I left the classroom to become an, “educational consultant.” In hindsight, it wasn’t the best move for me personally, but it definitely re-ignited my career. I say that because, although I was good in my role, I wasn’t nearly as comfortable in my own skin teaching adults than I am when I’m teaching adolescents. After two years, I went back to the classroom, joining the faculty at the most rigorous high school in Alabama, the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School (JCIB). In addition to getting back to my comfort zone (teaching adolescents), I also realized I was a more effective teacher-trainer when I was working full time as a classroom teacher. (Side note: I have spent the better part of the past 14 years switching between teaching adolescents and adults — see my bio for more information).

I used to think the increased effectiveness I mentioned above stemmed from my credibility with my adult participants, however, after a week of leading fellow AP Biology teachers at the University of Alabama’s AP Summer Institute, I realized the increased effectiveness come from me being a better teacher!

If you’ve followed my previous series, “10,000 hours…” then you know I work to teach science on three levels: in front of a large group, within a small group, and available for individual conversations. Twenty-four contact hours with twenty-nine peers provided ample opportunity to work across all three levels. In fact, I was working across these levels dynamically, with the only barrier being the focus on learning objectives at the beginning of each investigation.

Last week I continued to develop the teacher-trainer style that began to crystallize last summer. I move quickly from didactic teaching to the bench where I ask all the participants to gather around me and move to where they can see me, and see each other. Once we’re gathered together in this more informal, and intimate, setting I provide an overview of techniques, discuss the rationale for using a particular lab set up, describe potential pitfalls for students and limitations of the design, and take time to answer any lingering questions. Once students participants begin work, I am free to move about the room, interject into each group answering questions, encouraging participants, and just being available to participants when they have a content, procedure, or pedagogical question.

If I am doing my job correctly, the questions come frequently. This is where I can be at my most effective as a teacher-trainer. This was happening in Daphne, Alabama, three weeks ago while I was working with middle school science teachers. This group was not as comfortable with my casual approach, but as I gave them more opportunities to work independently, they were able to ask me ore focused questions. After answering their questions, I explained to them that I was teaching them, and they were more focused on what I had to tell them, because I was responding to their questions/their needs. A friend calls this teaching, “on a need to know basis”. I think it is a hallmark of differentiated instruction, and I also think it works equally effectively with adult, adolescent, and child learners.

Perhaps the teachers I worked with in Daphne took a day or two to get used to this approach because they were students in a more traditional/didactic classroom. They are teaching in modern classrooms where students are less willing to sit for didactic instruction, and where students seem to need more individual attention. As I continue to develop my skills as a teacher-trainer, I need to remember to keep doing what works for me and for my students, model these strategies, and explain why they work.


10,000 hours, expertise, and focused on what matters, part 3 (of 3).

July 6, 2015
although scary, connecting one-one-one with students is essential

although scary, connecting one-one-one with students is essential

I have a confession: I have an irrational fear. That fear is talking one-on-one with a student. It scares the hell out of me. Even as I write, I’m starting to get butterflies. This is completely and totally irrational. When ever I talk one-on-one with a student, it is a good experience; and the outcome is almost always positive.

I have been thinking about this fear, the outcomes, and the reasons for my apprehension for the better part of two years. I am writing these ideas down to clear my head, share my experiences, and begin to move on to something more productive (like worrying about the fact that the sun will begin to collapse upon itself within the next few billion years, leading to a increase in heat which will evaporate all the water on this planet, and the star I rely on for food will eventually swallow the only home I’ve ever known); but I digress; as I’m wont to do. I believe there are several reasons for this irrational fear, and I will outline them below.

Much of this fear stems from my in-class persona, “Boss Man”; when a student initiates a conversation, I am no longer in charge. All my copies of our text, my microscope, my pipets, and even my desk are labeled, “Boss Man.” It’s a not-so-subtle indicator that I am in charge of what happens in my classroom/lab. I think it’s fair to say the way I teach, and my behavior in class, is a strong enough indication of how much I value my role within the room; but this little joke helps seal the deal. When I am in a purely didactic mode, or working with small groups, I can set the agenda. I can also hide within the interactions between myself and  hyper-engaged students. These interactions, in turn, provide a buffer between myself and my less accomplished students. When I initiate a one-on-one conversation with a student, it is usually brief, and I am controlling the conversation. Usually I am congratulating a student; or I am pointing out a garish misconception articulated in a student’s work, and helping him or her clear up the misconception. When a student takes a major risk, and initiates a conversation with me, I am no longer in charge. This, I think, is the genesis of my fear.

Students often come to see me about a grade, and they likely disappointed with their score. This automatically puts me a little bit on the defensive, and my anxiety kicks into overdrive (“did I score them fairly?” “were my questions truly on point with my learning objectives?” “do I really know what I’m doing?”). I don’t mind the challenges, in fact, I covet them; however, a poor grade is usually a symptom of a disconnect between a student and I, or between the student and the content. In short, I’ve been called out on not doing my job perfectly. As I stated previously, these fears are soon abated. I have learned to turn these scary interactions into opportunties to coach students, offer advice on study habits, ask them if they are honestly putting in their best efforts (given their busy schedules), how much they priortize my class, and help students understand a concept. Hell, I get to teach.

Students come to see me when they are “lost.” They may have disengaged from the class for a couple of weeks, they may have been out of town for another commitment, or they may have been out sick for an extended period of time. Students are likely to see me at my worst here (hence, the fear). I am always looking forward (reflection is not a natural instinct — notice how few and far between my “weekly” blog posts are–), and when “lost” students derail me from my forward-facing approach to teaching, I tend to be less inclined to help. My first instinct is to tell students to, “Check the blog,” or, “Get notes from another student.” If they missed data collection in lab, they are responsible for getting the data, and doing the best they can to write up their lab report. Now, I must say, a student’s number one priority is be in class, and I am not interested in developing an individual educational plan (IEp) for 70 IB Biology students; however, I can work to become more approachable, more patient, and more empathetic with these lost students.

The one-on-one conversations I’ve had with these “lost” students have turned out to be surprisingly pleasant. perhaps this is best illustrated with an example. Late this spring one of my worst students turned in an unacceptable Internal Assessment for Higher Level IB Biology (my primary teaching assignment). I made copious notes on her final draft so that she could re-work the paper and salvage any hope of securing a passing score in the class (and earn the IB diploma). This student was over her head all year long (and truthfully, for four years in our program), and I resisted wasting my class time (and planning periods) trying to help her. She was, after all, a lost cause. I did extend this life line, and to her credit, she took it, and asked me for help. The ensuing twenty-minute conversation allowed me to understand her thinking, allowed her to better explain how she collected her data, we worked together to find a more appropriate way for her to represent her data, and I encouraged her to redouble her efforts to determine why the animals behaved in a particular way. I also learned this particular student was funny, smart, and generally interesting. She learned that I was actually funny, deeply interested in her project, and that I wanted the best for her. I honestly believe we both left that conversation with a more positive view of the other. I wonder how much more I could have taught this student if I initiated this conversation earlier. In fact, isn’t this the whole point?

This blog post, and the two others in the series, have helped me define who I am as a teacher. These posts have helped me refine my “elevator pitch.” Here it is,”I teach upper level biology to highly motivated high school students. I am trying to be as non-traditional as possible inside the context of a traditional classroom/laboratory. I work to build relationships with my students through the content that I teach. It’s all about connecting to students through the content. At the end of the day, I am their teacher.” In order to live this elevator pitch out, I have to be great on several scales: didactic teaching/direct instruction, facilitating laboratory work, facilitating large group discussions, facilitating small group discussions, and yes, connecting with students in a (scary) one-on-one context where I am not in charge.


10,000 hours, focused on what matters, expertise, part 2…

May 26, 2015
Learning in small groups...highly addictive.

Learning in small groups…highly addictive.

This post is a long time coming, in fact, the ideas I’m about to write down have been in my head so long, I take them for granted. However, I need to get them down on “paper”, if —  for no other reason, to make room for some newer ideas.

Several years ago I was walking into school with our health and wellness instructor (yes, the Alabama School of Fine Arts has a heath and wellness instructor, no mere p.e. coach), and he and I were talking about traditional education. (Author’s note: You can file this under “Be here now”, “Opportunity comes to the prepared mind”, or, “It pays to listen” because what I learned during that brief, seemingly meaningless, conversation stuck with me.) I was telling Will, “I am trying to be as non-traditional as possible in a typical classroom/laboratory setting.” He said, “We need to re-think what ‘traditional’ is. It’s not rows of desks with a teacher up front. Traditional teaching was two people sitting on a hill watching the herds move by, and looking for patterns. The older, more experienced, person would show the younger person what to look for. That’s traditional teaching.” The image Will conjured has stuck with me ever since, and those that know me, and know the culture of my classroom, know that I’m all about conversations and pattern recognition.

I don’t try and make my room conversational and try to get students in small groups because it seems “cool” or “non traditional” (traditional?). I do it because it works; and I do it because, in my experience, some of the best learning happens when I slow things down and work in a small group setting. Below are a couple of key moments from my lab/classroom at JCIB that exemplify this strategy.

During the Fall of 2013 I was teaching population ecology to an entire section of IB Biology. Sitting in the class were two of my brightest math students (Zach and Jagger, both of whom had completed AP Calculus (BC) before their senior year of high school). I was trying to explain the logistic growth curve and how population growth rate decreases as population density reaches its carrying capacity. Jagger piped up, “Well, the growth rate begins to slow during the second half of the exponential phase, that’s the whole point of an inflection.” The air got a little tense, not because I’m not open to student comments (I am), but because things were getting very mathey, very quickly. I knew Jagger had the math right, but I didn’t want the details to get in the way of the concept (growth rate (r) decreases as a population (N) approaches carrying capacity (K). I invited Jagger to discuss it with me after class, and Zack hung around to hear what he had to say. Jagger went on to explain, “The first derivative of the logistic function is r vs. K where r max is half of K.” Zack chimed in his “Amen” at this point. I was struggling with the concept so I went back to my favorite ecology text Ecology by Robert Rickleff’s, and I’ll be damned if the graph Jagger described wasn’t right in the middle of the first chapter on population dynamics. Here, I was the pupil, learning from my students. Being in a small group lowered my defenses, put me more at ease, and allowed me to grasp the concept more fully. I used this strategy to my advantage a year later (Fall, 2014) when two of my more accomplished students were finished with a population ecology activity and looking bored. I pulled them aside, cracked open my copy of Ecology and showed them the aforementioned graph. “Cool,” said one of them, “that’s Calculus.” The other, less enthusiastic, offered a head nod. Regardless of the reaction, I was able to meet these students on their level, gain trust, and build rapport. These “soft skills” are often more important than the content.

Small groups, where students are engaged in a meaningful activity, work just as well for “less accomplished students”. (Author’s second note: “less accomplished” is a new term I picked up to describe kids that just don’t “get” school.) My first year at JCIB I taught a class called “Botany and Zoology.” This class was remedial biology for students who had failed the science portion of the Alabama Graduation Exam (now retired). All of these students had failed the “grad exam” at least once, and many had failed it two or more times.

To give you a flavor of the class, let me provide some insight. During the first week of class, one of my students, Elijah, asked, “What’s this ‘boo-taney’?” “Excuse me?”, I asked, “What’s this  ‘boo-taney’? My schedule says, ‘Boo-taney’.” “Oh,” I said, finally catching on, “You mean, ‘Botany’, it’s the study of plants. Don’t worry about it,” I said, “I’m going to get you ready for the grad exam.” Elijah went on to teach me several things: “postin'” (it’s like “chilling” but when you’re standing up…as in leaning on a post), and, “bougie” (which is urban for bourgeois, or snobbish…the opposite of “ratchet”…Author’s 3rd note: when I finally deciphered bougie, I said, “Oh, like, ‘bourgeois'” Elijah looked at me like I was speaking French, which, I probably was.)

Anyway, I digress, as I often do; the only way to engage these students was to get them into lab groups, and keep them working. Late that Spring, after the grad exam was over, I was doing some simple physical science activities with them. One of my “go to” activities is “Match Graph” (the National Math and Science Initiative calls is “Hiker Lab” or “Walk The Line”). What ever you call it, students are presented with a line on an x,y coordinate plane (a graph), and they have to match the line using their bodies, or an object, and a motion sensor . This is a great inquiry activity for all students and does a great job of teaching rate, team work, and conceptualizing time and space.

It was late in the day on a Thursday, my students were tired (remember, they don’t “get” school” and they have been at school all day for 4 days), and a couple of them were, shall we say, resisting instruction. It didn’t surprise me that Dantaria was not engaged (at least she was consistent), but one of my better students, Bobby, was not working either. He called me over, and said, “Hey man, why we doin’ this?” He wasn’t being disrespectful, quite the contrary, he truly wanted to know why I had him doing the activity. He looked right at me and told me he could tell what the graph was doing and it was kind of pointless to do something when you knew what the result would be.”

I asked him to step aside for a moment, and told him, “Look, I know you know what’s going to happen, but Danteria doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and I need you to help her figure it out.” He paused for a moment, looked at me, and said, “Okay, man,” and he preceded to help Danteria finish the lesson.

The word, in education-ese, is “differentiated learning.” All it is, is breaking students into small, manageable groups, meeting them where they are, and working with them. I have been forging this culture for over a decade; probably because it’s how I learn best, but also because students are much more relaxed, and I can help an individual student learn what he or she needs to know to “get” a concept, analyze a data set, or begin an activity. Although it takes time, and may even slow down a lesson, the relaxed pace makes for a more productive classroom.


Field work matters!

March 16, 2015
Biodiversity can be uncovered in even the most mundane places.

Biodiversity can be uncovered in even the most mundane places.

Check out this article (initially posted on the UK’s TImes Higher Education). It bemoans the lack of field biologists matriculating from undergraduate institutions in the UK. I think the author’s description of the “molecular biology vs. ecology” war is a bit overstated, he does do a nice job of explaining how learning how to analyze and interpret body plans and life forms, and how being able to differentiate between extremely small differences, is a great way to learn. He also claims (correctly, in my opinion), that these abilities exemplify great ways of thinking and knowing. This new-found knowledge and skill development can be transfered to any field of science or other professional activity.

I resisted reading this article for a couple of weeks, because I though it would be the same old-same old. That was stupid. This article reignited one of my big ideas/pie-in-the-sky plans…I’d like to start a center for ecological genetics here at my school. I want my students to learn how to do sustainable agriculture on our small campus, learn how a farm works, learn how the biota in and above the soil interact with the soil (what we call biogeochemistry), and I want to use the tools of molecular biology to better understand the biodiversity we harbor on campus.

Reading this article also reminded me a conversation I had with a geologist from The University of West Alabama at the Alabama Academy of Science meeting last week. He asked, “Do you take your kids (read: students) outside?”

“Yes,” I replied, and went on to describe our milk crate succession experiments inspired by David Haskell’s  “The Forest Unseen”, and I described the milk crate garden we started last Fall. These efforts take time, and that’s the real limiting reagent in my classroom. Ideally, I will continue to get more organized, understand my learning objectives even better, and continue to focus on these types of activities…the ones that engage students mentally and physically, and teach them to make multiple connections within a biology class.

Eventually, I’ll make a list of the things we do outside at JCIB, refine the existing activities, and cut the ones that don’t work as well.


There are no sacred cows…and the myth of scalability (part I)

March 4, 2015
always keep mooving

always keep mooving

First, let me confess, I don’t blog enough because I’m scared of what will come out. More specifically, I don’t think it will be good enough, and I don’t think it really matters. Bottom line, I think, “So What?” (can you hear Miles Davis lines when I ask that question? If so, then good).

But here’s the deal, it does matter. What I think, and what I do matters. I’m a science teacher. I know it matters. I get reinforcement from my students everyday. I have ideas that recirculate in my head, and I need to write them down. That being said, for me, writing within the throws a great week is next to impossible. I’m in it, I think about it, but I don’t make time to reflect when I’m in the moment; to be honest, I don’t have the energy to write about what’s going on, I’m putting all my available energy into teaching and improvising on lessons (hence the lack of sacred cows).

All of that being said, there has been so much cool stuff going on in my room and in my head I have to write it down. In the spirit of my homeboy and compadre, TJ Beitleman’s “Things I Love Right Now” series, I’m going to describe at least things I love about teaching mitochondrial genetics Right Now. Each idea could spawn its own blog post.”

Things I Love right now…

1) Even my best stuff (investigating mitochondrial genetics) has to be changed to fit the students I have right now (there are no sacred cows…everything is fluid).

2) My students help me see old problems in a new light and help me learn even more about concepts I have expert knowledge in.

3) Last week, three students were inspired enough to do research on rare diseases and figured out which mitochondrial disorder we were studying…on their own…they. figured. it. out. and then they came in to talk with me about it and share what they thought…and wanted to know what I thought.

4) One of my most challenging students has a real knack for molecular biology tech work, and was just a natural loading gels and working with gel boxes. It was so cool to watch, and then talk with her about it.

5) I thought this activity was a bit too complex for my student population, but I continually worked to find ways to help them make connections with the content. They are rising to the occasion.

6) I had students arguing (from evidence) about non-mendelian pedigrees and working to figure out how various symptoms related to each other and to maternal patterns of inheritance (and it’s all on DVD!)

7) Just when I thought I was over doing it an spending too much time on one activity, I saw how my mitochondrial genetics investigation uncovered 4 IB Biology Assessment Statements.

8) Scalability in education is a myth. I’m lucky to keep consistent between IB Bio sections. But really, it doesn’t make sense to remain rigid. I know my assessment statements and learning objectives, but how I teach them changes depending on the students I’m working with. Trying to develop something that works for other teachers “right out of the box” is just bullshit. It is. The best thing you can do is do the work, take each class one at a time, and work to be better each class period, and work to be better than you were the day before. That’s not my original idea, but I’ve been trying to live and work to that ideal every day.

At some point I’ll really write about a great picture of the Miles Davis Quintet playing an a high school auditorium. A high school auditorium. During an assembly. These were geniuses. Giants. The venue didn’t matter. It was the work. The music. The artistry. The chance to create something great mattered. That is the vision I have for my classroom and lab, and for my department.

See, I told you this would be sub-par. I’m worn out from teaching, but I needed to get these ideas down before another moment comes along.


I love my room right now

January 29, 2015

I should be grading papers this AM (what’s new), but I wanted to catch a moment before another group of students comes in.

I looked around my room while packing up yesterday afternoon/evening, and I thought, “I love my room, I need to get a picture of this”…alas, my phone was dead. So, here goes 1000 words instead of a picture.

First, my bike is in the room, which is cool, because I’ve been riding to work 2-3x/week. Yesterday it was slightly below freezing all the way in…and it felt great. Today it was 44 degrees F, and it was just gorgeous. Anyway…my room harbours vestiges of my other passions, namely teaching science.

Let’s begin with the white boards. On the front I see what’s left of a modified USGS resource allocation matrix. I didn’t like the old one I had on my computer, so I built one super quick in Excel while my students worked on a project about Natural Capital. On the large back board are dozens of population pyramids my students printed off while researching Less Economically Developed and More Economically Developed Countries. Next to that is a sketch up of a projectile device my students are going to design and build for our upcoming regional Science Olympiad tournament. Unfortunately, it looks a lot like a bong. Oh yeah, below the population pyramids are some sketched out notes about how restriction enzymes work (another Sci Oly thing).

Now…to the projects. The soothing sounds of water trickling down are behind me. One of my best students set up an aquaponics project for his senior Internal Assessment, and he brought it into the lab when he finished. I currently possess a 30 gallon goat trough with 30 gold fish and a pump, connected to a gravel filtration bed (.7 M above) currently containing Elodea (my improvisation). Eventually I’ll add a third chamber to grow some hardy plant. On the side bench, my first year students have their meal worm (T. molitor) growth experiments set up. They are measuring larval growth, time to pupation, and time between pupation and full metamorphosis to adult. They are really taking ownership of the project. Yesterday when they came in (after a week off), the came in, placed their back packs in the cubbies, got their lab notebooks, forceps, and rulers out with out me saying a word.

My desk…to call it organized chaos gives chaos a bad name. However, it’s got various piles of paper, a stack of books I’m using to cull IB Assessment statements, review resource management and “natural income” as well as re-learning electrical conductance in the heart and acid-base balance in the blood. I’d be remiss to leave out the Musical Ruler book a student brought me in response to having my 9th-10th graders playing the meter sticks in class (that’s a blog post in and of itself).

Shit, I almost forgot…we pulled apart the speaker where the announcements come raining down. One of my students (an engineer-to-be) is putting a switch and a potentiometer on it so we can turn the announcements down or off in the AM in order to grab 5-10 more minutes of class time. I’ve earned this autonomy by getting results (and again, that’s whole other story).

Suffice to say, I love spring. I’m starting to see my students take ownership of their studies, and they are beginning to make deep connections within the curricula I teach. I think they’re beginning to understand science.


money in mouths, and triage to treatment

January 13, 2015

Now that school is back in full swing my think time has been restricted, hoFirst-Responder-Triage-Tags-FRTT2-bawever, I have a surplus of creative energy that I’ve channeled into my classes. Hence, If I say, “I’m all about teaching and learning,” then I’m putting my (metaphorical) money where my mouth is. I am currently in the middle of the Higher Level human physiology for IB. Specifically, I’m teaching cardiovascular physiology. Fortunately, this is one of my “love units”, but unfortunately I haven’t taught it in about 5 years…in fact my notes were 9 years old…and none of my old material fits my new students. This dichotomy forced me to digest the IB Assessment statements, internalize them, and find an interesting and engaging way to teach them (see the previous post for my thoughts on “being in the moment”.

The new material I created led to a reorganization of my class blog, which continues the putting my money (time and energy) where my mouth is. I want my students to use the resources I generate and curate, therefre I should make my class blog as student-friendly as possible, right? With the exception of the daily grind, I turned all the chronological lists “backwards”, or most recent to furthest in the past. I can’t have those young fingers scrolling too much. Gawd forbid they put some effort in their studies. I’m kidding of course. I do want them to put in effort, but not towards finding an assignment. I would much rather them put effort into thinking about and responding to the assignment.

The second thing I’ve discovered this semester is how poorly prepared many of my students are for their IB and AP exams in May. I know I discussed this below, but I feel like I’m in triage mode this week and last week. I’ve devoted some class time with each section to triage…diagnosing what they remember from last year (their Junior year), and last semester. I can tell they have not reached that point of understanding where concepts connect and recall becomes easier. As we uncover this new material on cardiovascular physiology I’ll be re-teaching and reviewing basic cell biology, cell communication, and feedback loops. My goal is to get out of triage mode by the end of January so I can begin teaching forward and working to deepen my students’ understanding of biology. I consider this treatment as opposed to triage, with the result being mentally and physically healthy students ready to excel on their cumulative exams in May.


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