Good teaching is…good teaching

July 22, 2015

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.

I love it when a “plan” comes together

August 12, 2014

Day 3 at IBI’ve said it time, and time again; however, my experience during first block today make this saying relevant again, “You can only plan so much, and great teaching occurs in the moment…between students and between students and a teacher (or teachers). “

Down here in Jefferson County, Alabama, we started school early. I mean real early. i mean we started with students last week early. The upside to an 8-week summer break is I get a two week jump on where I was last year and I get a four week jump on my competition up North and out West.

I’m using these extra two weeks to develop my classroom culture in a very deliberate way, and developing my students lab skills. So far, so good. I have emphasized “Style Points” (an idea I stole from my buddy John at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science and the Arts). To me “style points” means we will maintain a professional, productive, and purposeful demeanor in my classroom/laboratory. This starts with me, and I expect it (dare I say, demand it) from my students (so much that students must speak with correct grammar, they don’t slouch, they don’t talk with their chin on their hands…but I digress). Anyway, I’m developing a culture of professionalism, and I’m engaging my students in scientific endeavors from the very start. Check it out.

Yesterday I introduced scientific methodology, and today we had an opportunity to process the collected data, and on Thursday we will analyze the data. Doing science in small, thorough steps has captured my students’ interest and kept them engaged. I did not, however, plan — or expect — things to go as smoothly as they have. Yesterday we used PASCO probes to measure temperature at four places along the arm (I slid digiital data collection in already!), we aggregated the class data, and calculated the mean. Today (and this is all true) I taught students how to calculate standard deviation, what standard deviation meant, how to calculate variance, standard error, 95% Confidence Error, and I outlined what I expect from their graphs. On Thursday, they will bring in their graphs. I will help them write captions, and then we will construct scientific arguments using “my” model of Claims, Evidence, and Reasons. I could not have planned for things to work out so well. I can really only execute an idea and work with my students to bring it to fruition.

At the end of first period today, I sat down with my students  and outlined what we had done over the past two days, and where we were headed on Thursday. The outline on the board looks like this: ask a question, construct a hypothesis, collect data, process data, build graphs (visualize data), next…analyze data, construct argument (C. E. R).  What a beautiful start to the year.

I am telling my students we don’t do these things in a vacuum. These methods, this way of organizing our thinking will permeate everything we do this year. This is why I want to be in the classroom.

Wind ’em on down…

May 16, 2014

ImageThe late great Eddie Taylor sang about how he would, “Ride ’em on down”. As a teacher, it’s not quite the “lay by”, but we are definitely winding on down. Currently I’ve got exactly 1 student in my room, make that two (C.J. just walked in). One is studying for late AP Bio, and the other is turning in his book. I’ll be back down to 1 in a moment. This is a great opportunity to focus some of my ideas about this year.

The lead is this: I had an absolute blast working at JCIB for the second year in a row. I worked with a challenging group of students. My first block class was a peculiar group. They were incredibly smart, but quite skeptical about my content knowledge, about my approach to teaching science, and about my ability to prepare them for the IB Biology exam. This wasn’t something we worked out by Thanksgiving. On the contrary, they were fighting with me, or at least resisting my guidance well into March. That being said, they learned a ton, they consistently delivered in lab and on exams, and they were prepared for their end of course exams. Most students came out smiling, giving me thumbs up, and slapping me high fives.

The thing I liked most about this year, and these students in particular, was their constant questions, their ability to engage in the material, the way they made me better at articulating my understanding of biology, and they way they pushed me to continue to refine my thinking.

Looking back at this year, I’m on the right track, but no where near finished figuring out how to teach students born after Kurt Cobain died. My favorite anecdote comes from Jarred, in 4th block. Early in the year, during the root, stem, and leaf investigation of our Plant science unit, I took the students outside, and asked them to pull a few herbs and sapling trees out of the ground. We discussed a little ecology outside, then went back to the lab to use microscopes to look at root structure, draw what we saw, and describe it. Jarred exclaimed, “This is how we’re supposed to learn.” He’s right, and I’m constantly looking for ways to be more organic/more fluid in the classroom and lab.

We’ve all heard “mother is the necessity of invention,” and I think it’s true. 2014-02-05 15.18.35Two challenges this year forced me to change my practice. The first challenge was daunting: organize, read, grade, and provide feedback for 64 independent projects. I had my technician/student aide set up a workflow board similar to something you would see in an emergency room. I used the board to track the workflow for myself and all my students. I dubbed myself the “working class guru.” I have the knowledge and experience, and now I am developing methods (God forbid, procedures) so students can better access my knowledge and experience. It doesn’t do me any good to live in a cave (my head) waiting for someone to come and seek my guidance. I need to be in the world I occupy and work to help my students access what I know.

2014-01-28 12.45.37Snowpocalypse 2014, and weather days finally pushed me from, “I really need to make some videos,” to “go to You Tube and watch these videos.” Let me be the first to say Paul Anderson won’t be losing any sleep, but I have finally stepped up an entered the YouTube-o-sphere. I bought screen flow in December of 2013, but it wasn’t until February 2014 that I actually published something of value for my students. As of now, I’ve had xx hits on You Tube. I’ll be offloading more and more direct instruction (DE) to YouTube next year so I can do even more lab work and more data analysis in class.

As this school year winds down, a splinter is getting wedged in my mind. That splinter is actually a question, and the question is this: “What does a college-bound 17 or 18 year-old really need to know?” Granted, my students are headed to selective colleges. Further, I expect my students to be leaders in their college and university classrooms. Despite those qualifiers, what do these kids really need to know? This question has been stimulated by from my observations of my students as they approach all their high stakes exams, from my conversations with my colleagues in the break room, and from conversartions I’m having with my teaching buddies all over the country.

I sketched up some answers to this question on Mindnode, and I’ll flesh these ideas out over the summer. As I switch gears (turns out there may be no lay by again this year) I’ll think about the following: my students need to know how to explain and justify their answers, they need to articulate their ideas in writing, they need to be able to conduct an independent investigation (and write up the results), and…get ready for it…they need to care about something.

More to come…

A weekend for opportunists

January 13, 2014
Is there anything more important that water? I say, "No."

Is there anything more important that water? I say, “No.”

Less than one week ago, the weather gods smiled down on upon teachers and students in the Birmingham metro area (weather gods?…wasn’t it the Polar Vortex?), and allowed everyone to ease into the school year with 3 days of delayed starts and shortened class periods. Two days ago, following some brief rain showers, the weather turned unseasonably warm and sunny; it was a weekend for opportunists.

I willed myself out of bed by 8am on Saturday and laced up for a brief run at Red Mountain Park. As soon as I made my way of the hill, I saw winter migrant birds working over last fall’s seeds. They made full use of the sunny, arid day, and great sight lines for some optimal foraging. Once up on the ridge, the color palate of red, purple and chocolate brown was continually punctuated by aqua, slate, and emerald green beaming up from the forest floor. Lichens and mosses which inhabit the felled trees were swollen with the recent rain and soaking up the sun streaming through the bare canopy. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the great projects my students could execute at RMP. The challenge is getting them out there and taking ownership of a project. Partnering with local ecology and conservation groups is a priority for 2014.

Even though I probably had one too many Oka Ubas last night, I wasn’t going to miss a great paddling opportunity. January river levels, sunny, and 58 degrees Fahrenheit? You know where I’m going to be. In a boat, catching eddies, and looking to surf.  I didn’t surf as aggressively as I wanted to, but I had a ball in my new boat and I absolutely loved checking out all the moss carpeting the sandstone rising out of the river. Like their cousins at Red Mountain Park, these moss were blazing emerald green, and maximizing their photosynthetic opportunity. Looking around during our lunch stop, I couldn’t help but see epiphytic ferns every where. These plants are characteristic of southeastern forests, but rarely do you see them so lush this early in the season. Looking further, I saw pines soaking up the CO2 and the sunshine, unlimited by water shortages. Again, it was a great weekend for these opportunist photosynthesizers. They can now store some energy for the cloudy days ahead, perhaps allocate some of that energy towards a reproductive boost. Maybe they will manufacture more spores, or maybe they will produce a little more pollen. For the now dormant angiosperms, they might have used this warm break to allow roots to penetrate a little deeper, and a little broader into the soil. The fungi and bacteria on the forest floor likely used these unseasonably warm days to maximize remineralization of the 60-day old detrital pool littering the ground.

Driving home, I was confronted by one question, “How will I maximize opportunities to engage my students and teach them some cool biology?” I want them to see the world as I see it. I know I communicate that passion, and I am continually trying to put the work in their hands and give them a reason to learn this complex material.

Perhaps I’m over thinking it, and I just need to do what I do. This week for instance, I’ll run a P.C.R. lab with one my classes, a bacterial transformation with three other classes, and I’ll present my 9th and 10th graders the opportunity to keep a goldfish alive and learn about aquatic ecosystems. Side note: I would have run the bacterial transformation lab with all my classes…but I didn’t get the opportunity to start my E. coli cultures for the lab (see above).

Now for something completely different…

November 26, 2013

A simplified model of the ETC, custom built in Mindnode Pro.

I just got back from the NABT (National Association of Biology Teachers) professional development conference in Atalanta, GA, and two things stuck out. One, I love teaching biology (and I love to talk about teaching biology); and, two, I’m on the right track. I may be a bit behind the curve when it comes to generating digital content for a wide audience, but I am ahead of the curve when it comes to engaging my students in fundamental science using a mix of high tech, and high touch, approaches. I’m going to use this post to describe how I do this. Hence, this post’s title. Usually I’m just riffing on how I teach. Here I’ll attempt to walk the reader how I use original content to teach a fundamental concept.

If you know anything about me, it’s that I can’t separate teaching philosophy (or pedagogy) from teaching itself. I’m currently teaching bioenergetics (one of my favorite units), and I am continually reminded of one of the eternal truths of teaching: knowing something is useless, if you can’t communicate the idea. Bioenergetics is one of the best examples of this philosophy. I know this stuff, I’ve spent years thinking about it, wrestling with it, and trying to understand it. I’m equally interested in figuring out how to communicate these complex ideas to students so they  too can understand them. Below, I’ll offer my insights on how I’ve made these complex ideas more digestible for students.

First, take a look at the image at the top of this post. It’s my version of the electron transport chain (highly simplified, of course), with out all the background noise found in many text books. Second, look at the marked up image found at the bottom of this post. I project images like the one featured above and draw all over it with dry erase markers all the while asking students questions about what’s happening within each step.

Today I realized I teach oxidative phosphorylation (or OXYPHOS) as a four part story. Here I take a very complex concept and communicate it in a simple way to increase student understanding. Before I tell the story, you’ve got to realize a couple of things: I expect my students to retain information they learned previously (even years before — in pre-AP Biology), and I expect my students to draw upon their experiences in lab (for more on the daily flow of my class, visit to see what we’re doing).

Now for the story. During Part 1, protein complexes oxidize electron carriers (NADH and FADH2), and then electrons are pulled down the electron transport chain (ETC) in the presence of oxygen. In part 2, electrons flow down the ETC. These reactions release energy, and this energy is used to transport H+ from the matrix into the inter-membrane space. Part 3: when H+ are actively transported across the inner membrane, H+ ions are packed into the inter-membrane space, and a chemo-electric gradient is established along the inner membrane of the mitochondria. In part 4,  ATP synthase taps the  chemo-electric gradient to phosphorylate ADP into ATP. Part 4 has a specific name: chemiosmosis. In this particular case, chemiosmosis is a coupling mechanisms that links the catabolic release of energy from  NADH and FADH2 oxidation to the  anabolic synthesis of ATP from ADP and inorganic Phosphate (Pi).

This is a fairly wordy story, but if students understand it (both in words and pictures), and if students can relate this story to the greater context of cellular respiration, then they understand the fundamentals of heterotrophic metabolism. Below you will see an image of the marked up version of the initial diagram from 25Nov13.

2013-11-25 10.46.09

Simplified ETC with the “Reardon Treatment”

Days like today are quite satisfying. I taught my students something they never knew before. I deepened their understanding of essential, complex, processes. One of my brightest, and most skeptical, students said, “That was a cool lesson.” I continued to optimize a lesson I’ve been teaching for over 12 years.

This is a pivotal moment in my IB Biology class. Today I pushed students to apply lots of related concepts (re-dox, active transport, facilitated diffusion, pH, metabolism), I taught them something new about mitochondria…and I pointed them to the future: our investigation of mitochondrial genetics coming in January 2014.

Control what you can control

November 14, 2013

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s been bubbling up all day: I can only control what happens within the four walls of my classroom/lab. Why this idea has been bubbling up is a little more interesting.

I had to take yesterday off to attend my wife’s grandmother’s funeral. She died of complications of Alzheimer’s last Friday. My in-laws were always so generous to her. They were the primary care givers and kept her independent until…it’s the same old story…she fell and broke her hip…and had to get full time care. Anyway, I was sitting in the funeral home yesterday (the same one I’ve been in 3x over the past 5 years), and the same old thoughts creep up…”What will my funeral be like? My life is basically half-way over, I better make the most of it. My funeral will be a celebration of Life. I picture 100s of students celebrating the things they learned. There will be live music. It will be a celebration. I’m a biology teacher. I’m a biologist. I study Life. I live my life. I want to get as much life out of this finite time as humanly possible.”

I shared these thoughts with my students today. I even went so far as to describe a dry-erase coffin where students could write what they want. I hope they graffiti the coffin with “DETRITUS!” and “REMINERALIZATION!”. Truth be told, I want to be wrapped in a linen shroud and buried beneath a tree so that my body will be remineralized and returned to the biosphere. Anyway…I digress. Funerals always point me back to the present. They point me back to my mantra: BE HERE NOW. I strive to be present in the moment, and I work to make the moments engaging for my students. This brings me back to controlling what I can control.

There’s lots to hate about the education “system”. There’s plenty to be discouraged about. Pessimism, however, gets you no where. I told my students the truth today. I told them despite all the crap occurring in modern public education I am going to be a glimmering point of hope and optimism, and I’m going to make the most of every class. I can only control what happens within the walls of my classroom, and I’m going to make the time count. I have some limited influence in cyber-space via blogs, but that’s so weak and nebulous compared to the daily interactions I have  with my students. What matters? They lessons I plan, and the energy I invest in my students’ understanding of biology matters. That’s why I get out of bed in the morning.

Ever stop to think and forget to start again?

October 29, 2013

Please don’t misinterpret my absence for lack of presence. I’ve been completely present in my classroom/lab pushing and pulling my students to think about ecology and make connections within the content.

The one big mistake I’ve been making this year (so far) is not emphasizing the text. I’m using Campbell’s biology, and it’s a beast. I am always a week late assigning readings by looking into the text to find the essential passages and essential figures. I know this stuff like the back of my hand, and I teach these concepts like I’m introducing my students to my old friends. My students, however, don’t have my eyes and my experience. I need to be more empathetic to their needs. I don’t want to raise a bunch of illiterates. On several occasions during the last four weeks I felt as I though I was keeping information from my students (by obscuring the text) so that I could hold their attention…and hold the power in the classroom.

I’ve emphasized lab work, data analysis “labtivities” (trademark), and discussion almost to the exclusion of reading the text. I have rectified this, you can see my take on the essential ecological concepts for IB/AP Biology by clicking this link. All of this was done a few days too late. My kids will catch up, but I don’t need to place these obstacles in their path.

I will be explicit about the essential reading and essential figures during our next unit (bioenergetics). The point is not to make my course about the reading, but to give my students a more equal footing in my class so our discussions are more meaningful and interesting.