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.


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).


Habits of mind

April 28, 2010

The only reason I’m postingis to stay in the habit of posting. My mind is so muddled, I can’t sort out my ideas. It’s not to say I’m burned out, I’m not. I’m in a similar position to where I was last year. The semester is winding down, but I’m still pushing my kids and the improvisations I’m making in class are working. For instance, during the past  week in CES I had the kids simulate salt water intrusion into ground water and investigate how salt water intrusion affects the germination rates of seeds likely to be grown in Baldwin County, Alabama. Basically, I dreamed up an idea, figured out how to execute the idea and recruited the kids to make it happen. The good news is…it worked. My students successfully generated a dose response curve salt water on seed germination and calculate an LD-50 for salt water. I know I’m not breaking new ground here, but I’m exposing “arts kids” to inquiry-based science and real-world applications of scientific principles.

In AP Biology, I took my students back to Oak Hill Cemetery to investigate plant clades and plant lifeforms. My students are performing an investigation I published for PASCO last summer, and it’s working well. The bonus was networking with the cemetery director and exchanging ideas with him about how to use the cemetery as a teaching tool. He calls it the best outdoor classroom in Birmingham. That might be overstating things, but it’s definitely top 5, and it’s the best place to teach ecology within walking distance of school. I’m looking forward to using the space and determining tree community diversity next year in APES.

Today I lectured for the first time in about 2 weeks. It was on plant response to the environment. I use the theme that “plants can’t run” and basically have to “suck it up and deal.” I love plants! I feel like I cheated my kids a little. I’ve always struggled with learnign about phytochromes and the whole red/far red shift. Although, I must admit, I think it would be cool to name a kid Far Red Reardon. That just sounds cool. So, while running this morning, I get the idea to “borrow” my son’s marble game from Quadrilla and build a isomer-shift model where one wavelength of light is absorbed, causes the shift in the isomer and sets of a signal transduction pathway. They loved it. By the time I got into work, I had the idea to label all the parts correctly, set up collection dishes (for the marbles) and label them with a cellular response. During the set up, I got the idea to add more marbles to indicate how a wavelength of light causes a shift in proteins that sets up a transduction pathway that leads to a cellular response. It was a rough idea, but it was brilliant. I covered the whole thing in an old cardboard box, and then I did the reveal, the colors popped off the black bench top. I was excellent. I’ll have to set the thing up and YouTube it this summer. Again, my improvisations are working. On On to the AP Exams.


"I think"…just keep reading

April 13, 2010

If anyone out there is reading…check out the latest RSS from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Their post about beliefs regarding evolution and the big bang are neccessary reading. I agree with the NCSE, we need to talk about evolution and origins. The other side of the story has pollsters saying the questions are poor.

The bottom line is people may have knowledge of evolution, but they don’t beleive it. Therefore the National Science Board (NSB) has deleted the questions about belief. I think that is short sighted, and the apparent disconnect between knowledge of evolution and belief in (about?) evolution indicates that the way we (2ndary and post secondary educators) teach evolution is flawed.

I have maintained for years that the evolution/teach the controversy/creationism stuff is a major distraction. A distraction that needs to be addressed and worked around. If educators have to spend time teaching students that evolution is a fundamental natural law, and depend that position, then we have lost class time to teach students the mechanisms, intricacies and beuaty beauty of evolution.

I’ll be wearing one of my Teach Evolution t-shirts tomorrow. Thanks NCSE for allowing me another day without an iron. (BTW…my NCSE bumper sticker gets me recognized around town (and on the running and mt. biking trails), but my admiration for this group of scientists, writers and thinkers goes way deeper than cool t-shirts and stickers.


I finally figured it out (aka "it is a good start)

January 19, 2010

I’ve told anyone who has asked about National Boards that I finally figured it out. It takes about 6 months to figure out what the hell is going on with the portfolio, and that leaves about 3 months to knock it out. At least that’s been my experience. Based on conversations I had last week, I’m not the first person to gain this insight.

So, what am I doing about it? I’m getting after it. I’ve got a draft of Entry 1 in, Entry 4 is rolling along, I have started writing up Entry 2, and I’m planning the learning cycle that I will feature in Entry 3. It’s rolling along.

In related news…I’m also teaching 3 science classes. I’m simultaneously teaching global demographics, fundamental ecosystem principles, and basic microbiology skills. It must be spring at ASFA.

Next week I make my annual trek to McWane Center to give kids a chance to see their incredible fossil collection, and I make my annual trip to Birmingham-Southern College to borrow vertebrate specimens. Yeah, it’s time to Teach Evolution! in the South. Scott Brande, Geologist extraordinare will also be coming to teach my kids. Wait, geology, fossils, homologous structures and vertebrate cladistics? My kids might really learn something. Look out!


I ought to do this more often

November 1, 2009

I might need to remove those time signatures from my blog. I knew I took two weeks off from blogging (and 10 days prior to that), but I didn’t realize I had only posted on one day last month. (I cranked out four posts in the Charlotte Airport coming back from DC.)

That’s not to say I didn’t work; I did.And I damn sure reflected anywhere and everywhere I could. I finished the in-class portion of National Board Portfolio Entry 1. Now it’s time to start writing it up. Our Major Idea was : Bioenergetics. The student work I’m showcasing includes a write up on a kinestheitc model of chemiosmosis, their independent projects on cricket and bean cellular respiration, their photosynthesis labs, and the dreaded “chemmisosms essay exam”. I’ve got a real journal, the backs of manilla folders, and student work crammed with thoughts and ideas. I feel like the kid in Almost Famous (the movie version of Cameron Crowe’s formative years with Rolling Stone) stuck in the bathtub with 10k post-it notes trying to meet a deadline. I’ll get it together.

Our ap biology lab work rolls on. The performed PCR on a non-coding region of DNA called PV92 and then electrophoresed the PCR products. We did all of this in our lab thanks to the surplus money from fiscal 2009 and our new Edvotek Edvocycler. That’s right, we’ve got a PCR machine at ASFA now. It only took a week to arrive…after five years of asking. This week we’ll be performing the pGLO transformation lab (one of my favorites) and learning about mutations and operons. My poor students, they tought we were finished talking about energy…little did they know I can link control of gene expression back to bioenergetics.

This is all occuring between 8:47 and 4:35. Outside of class I’ll be meeting with the Keystone Science School about our proposed Southeastern Water Resources Youth Policy Summit; listeing to Ken Miller speak about evolution at UAB Honors House, and planning my talk on mitochondrial genetics for the NABT Professional Development Conference. (Fortunately I’ve given this talk 2x before.)


Entropy

October 15, 2009

My natural tendency toward entropy is taking over. I’ve got to work to keep mentally organized and work to keep my focus on the blog. The week off from blogging was a stroke of good luck. Last week had some major highs and lows, and after a week away from reflecting, I am now able to reflect on my reflections with greater clarity.

My students are starting to get to a place of insight and understanding. Perhaps loosening the reigns a little bit and giving them time in class to think and reflect isn’t such a bad idea. Check these two gems out from the mouths of teens. From my Core Environmental Science class (link) “I never knew that soil was so important. The whole world is wrapped up in soil.” (This was during a laid-back day when I gave them time to summarize and analyze the important data from a 5-day investigation of soil.
The insight from one of my ap biology students is even more satisfying. “Mr. Reardon,” he said, ““I finally got cellular respiration” I was hungry, cold and shaky. I got some food and felt energized and warmer.” This was after working them int

Had a student in AP Bio come up to me and say, “I finally got cellular respiration” I was hungry, cold and shaky. I got some food and felt energized and warmer.” This was after a tough week teaching the nuts, bolts and details of the chemiosmotic model of oxidative phosphorylation. My kids are starting to “get it”, and they are not afraid to talk to me about it. It looks like my investment in my students is paying off.