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.

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.

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).

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.





In the land of the blind…

September 17, 2013

Image…the one-eyed man is king. This statement was etched into a bathroom stall at one of the joints I used play back in my musician/band leader days. It used to annoy the hell out of me, now I get it. I feel like I’ve been stumbling though my IB biology curriculum as we go almost all lab/all hands-on, all inquiry. I might be working with only half my senses, but my students are blind (but they’re beginning to see the light).

We’ve just finished our botany unit, and I used seed germination as an excuse to have students investigate enyzme-catalyzed reactions. Out comes the probe ware, up pop the student mistakes, up goes the student anxiety level. Later I watched (with both eyes) the anxiety go back down again as they got comfortable learning the limitations of their equipment, as they saw how easy it was to collect accurate data, and as they figure out what I want from them.

By and large, this more open/looser approach is working. I know my students are engaged, but I don’t think I’m fully teaching the entire curriculum. I am teaching my students how to do science. More importantly, I’m putting myself in position to help students analyze the data they collect, help my students make fundamental discoveries about how enzymes work, and teach my students that the best learning is earned, not heard.

To be honest, I have my doubts about the efficacy of this approach, but by the end of the year, I think this will work out for the best. There are some pretty significant gaps in my students’ content knowledge right now.  I am, however, teaching my students to think, I’m teaching them to follow their ideas, I’m teaching them to trust me, and how to trust each other. Although the evidence is purely anecdotal at this point, the questions my students are asking, and the insights they make indicate learning is going on.

A couple of signs point out the progress we’ve made during these stumbling and bumping first four weeks. One, my chair came over, looked around, and said, “You’re basically doing nothing but labs now, right?” I replied in the affirmative, and she said, “Good, that’s what we need around here.” Secondly. My students are consistently emailing me data sets, and I’m easily posting them to our class blog. Students are pulling those data sets down and completing their assignments. That’s huge.

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.