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.

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.

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.


May 29, 2010

For me, the school year is never “over”. Summer marks the beginning of new challenges and new learning opportunities. This summer is no exception. I leave for the AP Environmental Science reading in about 72 hours, and upon my return, I pack for a 7-day trip to Colorado. Four of my best students will be participating in a national Youth Policy Summit on Energy Efficiency at the Keystone Science School. This will be my third trip to Keystone in three years, and I’m really looking forward to it. When I return from Colorado, I’ve got 24 hours to re-pack my bag for a trip to Auburn to observe their AP Summer Institute in Biology, Chemisty and Physics. Like I told my students, June isn’t really a good time for me to wind down, it’s a good time to gear up. I’ll rest in July. My wife rented a cabin right on the Tuckaseegee River for our family.

Speaking of rivers…please read the next post.

Back in the saddle

January 6, 2010

Great. Another song lyric. Is anything left unwritten? Great. Another song lyric. When will the circle be unbroken. Great. Another song lyric. STOP.

Okay. Sorry about that. School’s back in. I’ve reunited with my AP Biology students and my Core Environmental Science Students. I met a whole new crop of biotechnology students. Of the several questions I asked them, two were about they knew and what they wanted to learn. In terms of biotechnology and molecular genetics, they are indeed empty vessels. They were insightful enough to know that they did not know. Heck, they may have already reached enlightenment.

I’m going “soft sell” with my AP Bio crew. They know I’m knee deep into national boards.  I put the responsibility on them to do the reading and to keep up. I also let them know that our discussions would be a bit more open, and the class would be more workshop-esque and less formal this semester. They responded fairly well. We’re starting with climate and biomes today. Just playing with a globe and fooling with some data. Later this week we’ll play with some elementary survivorship data, generate some survivorship curves and talk about life histories. This soft cell and ecological overview serves three purposes. First, it leaves me with more energy to work on my National Boards. Second, it gives them some context for what Darwin and Wallace saw during their explorations before they wrote their theories of Evolution by natural selection. Third, it makes the class more conversational and more like a workshop. My students respond well to this mode of teaching and the laid-back environment fosters more learning.