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.