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.


10,000 hours, expertise, and focused on what matters…part I

December 22, 2014
wells1

Hey, lawdy mama. It’s the late, great, Junior Wells.

Have you ever thought about how bending a note on a harmonica and science education are similar? I think about it all the time. I distinctly remember playing at the 1048 Club in Montgomery over a decade ago, I was in the middle of a harmonica solo on a Junior Wells tune and I was thinking, “The only thing that matters right now is this note. If I don’t feel it, there’s no way the audience is going to feel it.” At that moment I realized how to truly live in a moment, and I learned how to make a tiny interaction a big deal. Friends of mine have called that “expert thinking”. I was well on my way to 10,000 hours of gigging and rehearsing, so according to Malcolm Gladwell, I was developing my expertise. I don’t think about that stuff occasionally, I think about it constantly. When I’m working with students one-on-one, or having a conversation with a small group, or presenting a concept to an entire class, I am working to live in the moment and working to make these tiny interactions a big deal.

In this series of posts, I will focus on three examples of my teaching, each at a different scale, and I will use these examples as justification for why I teach the way I do. I’ve spent the fall semester of 2014 focusing on the students I have in front of me, and I haven’t saved any energy to broadcast my ideas on-line. That may be counter cultural, but again, the little interactions I’ve had all year are a big deal, and I don’t really care about being the, “Next big thing” in education. That being said my class blog has been the recent repository for my ideas.

An inner conflict is brewing almost every time I am presenting to an entire class. I’ve got to be in my head, thinking about what matters, but I’ve also got to have a foot in the classroom, I’ve got to be in my students’ heads, otherwise I’m just talking, not teaching. This conflict has several iterations. The most prominent conflict is between the modern, dare I say, “watered down” pedagogy of, “Meet the students where they are,” and the harsh reality of, “This is the standard, and I expect you to rise to my level and learn this stuff.

Working one level down, a conflict arises between my responsibility and my students’ responsibility. I get to figure out what is essential for my students to know, and I get to figure out how to make these concepts meaningful, however, I also need to create some cognitive dissonance for my students so they have a reason to dig in and construct some understanding on their own. As my friend, Tammy Dunn says, “Great science teaching is front loaded as hell.” She means, “We plan like crazy so when we plant cognitive dissonance it is intentional. Just like a bent note within a solo is intentional so too are the methods I use in my classroom. With students however, I’m not using a melody to tell a story, I’m presenting a series of related ideas to deepen my students’ understanding of a concept.

Back to standards and to rising to my level. I’m currently teaching IB Biology (HL), and we finished our first higher level unit before Winter break. The standards, or Assessment Statements, for the higher level options are really tough. Not only are there a ton of them (check out my Weekly Learning Objectives, Week 17 for a taste), but they require lots of fundamental prerequisite knowledge. In short, to be successful at HL concepts, a student has to have learned something and, Gawd forbid, remember something, and even integrate several concepts. I digested the content, pun intended, built several graphic organizers, posted them to our class blog, and then brought the caffeine-fueled presentation/free-wheeling discussion I’m known for. My students were quite engaged during class, but very few of them…roughly 18% based on the exam grades…took the next step and made the deep connections between digestion and bioenergetics.

The exam results were frustrating, but they also revealed something about the teaching process. Something I have taken for granted, but something I need to be more aware of.  First off, my students weren’t prepared for my exam. What I mean is, they studied, but they didn’t push to make connections between the content pieces and think about the digestive system as a coordinated system adapted to assimilating nutrients to fuel our metabolism. I reinforced that idea multiple times, but it only got through to my top students. That’s a problem. The second thing I realized is my students still don’t trust their instincts, and they aren’t confident in their knowledge. You could argue this is a symptom stemming from the first problem (lack of preparation), but I think it’s more than that. I don’t think the majority my students have been trained to think for themselves, and the majority of my students are super uncomfortable when presented with new and interesting problems.

Given the information coming back from this exam, I have an exciting challenge before me, but I also have a conflict. I enjoy spending time and interacting with that 18% who rocked my exam and enjoyed the ambiguity of it. Those are my people. I can teach them at an extremely high level and push them to even greater understanding of biological systems. That’s not the point of teaching, though, is it? I need to create opportunities for the next 60% or so to meet me where I am. I’ve got to find a way for them to achieve my standards. That leaves about 22% out of the equation right? These are the students who are so far behind the IB standard that they won’t catch up. It doesn’t mean I don’t value them as people, but as students they’re not ready for this level of learning. Some day, maybe they will be. But they aren’t ready now, and it doesn’t make sense for me to sacrifice the time and energy of others to save the poorest performers. That statement goes against modern pedagogy…at least the stuff I get my my district…but I believe it to be true, and it will guide my practice as the 2nd semester unfolds.

In the next post I’ll discuss how I work with small groups of students. Again, I’m thinking about scale, living in the moment, and teaching with intentionality on different scales.


I promise I’m still “working”

September 17, 2014

Check this out https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=818772261476625&set=vb.100000315767225&type=2&theater

 

Had the pleasure of working with 20 middle school science teachers from jefferson county schools, in Jefferson County, Alabama (funny, that). The challenge was to drop a barbie doll 17.25 feet and get her as close as possible to the ground without having her head hit. They estimated the length of the bungee cord comprised of rubber bands based on a formula they derived from an experiment with only 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 rubber bands. Most impressive.


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