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.

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

December 22, 2014

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 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.

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.





Torpor/artificial boundries

July 1, 2013

11086222-russian-nesting-dollsIt’s July 1, the self-assigned day I start rethinking my approach to my IB classes. I spent June in state of torpor. I didn’t do a whole lot of thinking about biology (which is kind of scary given I led a one-week workshop for LTF, and I also went to IB training). Perhaps “a whole lot of thinking” is a relative term. I did think about about biology some. Especially as I built an 88-foot privacy fence, put a nail through my middle finger with a pneumatic nail gun (the nerve damage isn’t competely repaired yet), built two gardens, germinated several types of seeds, and strategically watered all my plants using collected rain water. I did, however, attempt to put school out of my mind, and just let the synapses lay fallow for a few weeks. I’ve done this before, and the most difficult part is the “re boot” or the restart. Bill Murray once said the hardest part about taking 6 months off from acting is that it takes over a year to get back into the groove. He’s probably right.

it is July, and the school year is forty-nine days away. I’m anxious for a number of reasons. First, I looked back at my school blog (jcibapbiolgy) last week, and I was intimidated by the amount of work my students and I accomplished. Second, I’m slightly worried I’ll fall into a “sophomore slump” at my new school. I had a great debut year at JCIB. It’s going to be a tough act to follow. Thirdly (and I know this will sound incongruous with the former statement), I’m not satisfied with my ability to teach IB or AP biology. I can get better. I can help my students gain a better understanding of biological systems: how they work, how they evolved, and how they interact. The lack of satisfaction equals the need for change. Change equals effort. The beginning of any worthwhile effort inherently leads to anxiety. The fun part about living, is that eventually you’ve just got to get started. Yesterday I did have enough maturity and perspective to realize I don’t have to plan the whole year immediately. If I take things one day at a time, and one unit at a time, then the whole plan will come together. Past experience tells me it will work.

“One unit at a time”…that’s the artificial boundary. It’s also one of the greatest challenges I face each year. “Biology” is too big to teach all at once. Even with good curriculum (AP and IB) in place, figuring out where to start is challenging, knowing how deep to teach a given concept is challenging, and finding (and teaching) the connections between the concepts is challenging. Regardless of the approach, artificial boundaries will exist. For example, where should I teach enzymes? Traditionally I teach enzymes after I teach basic cell biology and before I get into the deep stuff on bioenergetics. The logic being: cells are something students know about, enzymes allow cells to function (therefore enzymes have relevance to students’ prior experience), and enzymes function in concert to allow cells to convert energy from one form to another (applying new knowledge (enzyme structure and function) to new systems (non-membrane bound metabolism and membrane-bound metabolism/mitochondrial and chloroplast function). This year I want to start the year with plants, then bleed into ecology. Where will enzymes fall this year? I think they could easily go inside of a unit on plants which also incorporates photosynthesis in within the context of what plants do. See, it’s already starting to look like a set of Russian dolls.

Personally, the Russian doll approach where once concept is inextricably linked to another, is so much more interesting than a more traditional, linear, approach to AP and IB biology. The nested and nebulous approach is probably confusing to students. Hence, the artificial boundaries. Can you imagine the effort involved in generating an interesting and nebulous IB biology course? Maybe I have good reason to be anxious. Then again, maybe I’m just lazy. Stay tuned.

Know. Think. Do.

May 23, 2013

Careful what you wish for…

I’ve been afraid. Not afraid of what I might say in this final reflection blog for 2012-2013, but afraid of getting started. I knew it would take work and energy to focus all the thoughts clattering around in my head. Fortunately I’ve got Mind Node Pro to help me sort out my ideas. When I got started, the ideas really started to flow, become specific, and connect. As usual, there was really nothing to be afraid of. It was just a matter of getting over the inertia, or the activation energy, (or plug in your science analogy here). Anyway, after a few hours of mapping, I’ve come back to where I started several years ago. Great science teaching, in theory and IN PRACTICE comes down to three things: What I Know. What I Think. What I’m Going To Do About It. The end result of these three things are students who understand science.

What I Know.

Class time constraints and the proliferation of content on the web have changed the way science is taught for the better. Given that virtually all the information contained in a typical science class is available on the Internet, it makes no sense to repeat what students can learn on their own. Therefore class time should be sacred space where students apply their knowledge. By creating opportunities for students to collaborate, and apply what they know, more students will engage in the lesson, and I can assess what my student know more frequently. One of the many upsides to this approach is the classroom/laboratory becomes a much more interesting and fun place to work. This approach works for me because I’m not interested in lecturing and teaching facts. I am, however, interested in teaching students how think.

What I Think (it far exceeds what I know).

Speaking of thinking…I think if I’m interested and passionate about what I teach and how I teach it, then my students will get into it (I could say “respond in a positive manner” but I’m F’ing tired of “eduspeak”). I also think that science education claims to value skills and reasoning, but bloated curricula suggest otherwise. I think there are two solutions to this problem. First, teachers (myself included) have to figure out ways to teach content through lab work and “inquiry”. Secondly, teachers need to be the content filters…and each teacher needs to determine what content (concept, fact, skill, whatever) is essential for developing student understanding of science (insert your discipline here). If it’s not essential, dump it. This is easy for me to say, because I’m much more interested in teaching science concepts as opposed to science facts.

What I’m going to do about it.

I’m going to continue down my path of loosely-guided inquiry within the confines of a typical school day in order develop student understanding of science. I’m going to keep using data to drive the discussions in my classroom. I’m going to put students on the spot more often to present and discuss their findings in hopes of generating higher quality work. I’m going back to my old practice of starting each lesson/lab/whatever with a question. Yes, this increases the time spent on an introduction because students struggle and often don’t know what they’re talking about, but it allows me to develop a shared understanding of the concept/lesson/whatever, and students are immediately invested what we’re doing for the day.

I’ve got lots more to say about What I Know, What I Think, and What I’m Going To Do, and all these ideas have been developed. Perhaps this is the genesis of a book. Regardless, for me it’s all about putting the ideas into practice. I am, after all, a man of action.

Keep it simple…

September 11, 2012

The great Ned Overend.  He wrote something in the 90’s that stuck with me, “Focus on where you want to go. Don’t focus on your obstacles.”

Maybe my glasses are too rosy, but I don’t see why my colleagues feel micromanaged. My new job is so straight forward: meet the kids where they are and push them further. Sure, we have to have lesson plans archived, keep up with paperwork (my achilles heel), and document what we do…but how is that different from any other profession? Think healthcare, finance, law, even food service or retail.

I’m focusing on my job. I’m teaching my kids (not just content, but how to think). I don’t feel like anyone is looking over my shoulder and second-guessing me. If anything, I see administrators in the hallways and popping in my class to check and see how things are going. Not once in three weeks has anyone questioned my methods. Quite the contrary, they see me working, and they let me know my work is appreciated.

I guess what I’m trying to understand is, “Why don’t people focus on what they can control?” More to the point, do your job well, and explain your methods if someone second guesses your practice. My new school is a high pressure school, the kids are pulled in at least 6 directions simultaneously. I can’t control that. What I can control is what happens when I see my kids for 3 or 4 hours a week. We can do science. I can focus my students on the essentials, I can keep the class rigorous — but not back breaking — and I can help them understand some pretty deep biology. That’s simple.

So far, so good.