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.

Professional Development in Real Time

June 14, 2010

This has been an interesting morning. My students (along with students from 9 other science and technology high schools) have spent the morning learning about mediation and the constructs the Keystone Center uses to get students engaged in policy discussions.

It snowed for about an hour, and now the sun is out. Yeah, the, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes” is holding true. I’ve got a kind of slightly sioggy, slightly cold feeling that reminds me of home.

Right now, I am learning that my beloved PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal and Environmental) approach to environmental issues has been changed to STEEPLE (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, Political, Legal and Educational). The point is not to prioritize one sector over another, the idea is to add the longitudinal aspect of education to any problem. Hmmm…we don’t grind things out with a PESTLE. We build a STEEPLE and then come back to look at it. Very cool.

Listos? Let's begin…

May 16, 2010

The line above is one my most salient memories from high school spanish. We heard it everytime we took an oral quiz. Tomorrow, I head  to the Assessment Center  finish my National Board work for the year. In true “skin of my teeth” fashion, I am starting to study the day before. Not a month before, as I had initially intended. No worries, I am indeed, listo. Yo soy listo.

What’s in store tomorrow morning? A computer based test that tests my skilz in the following…

Data Analysis


Fundamental Concepts

Change over Time

Connections in Science

Breadth of Knowledge.

I will take a moment to link these test subjects to phrases I use in my AP Biology or AP Environmental Science, or Biotechnology classes…

Data Analysis…go forth and quantify/data analysis is the fun part

Interrelationships…four connected learning cycles that include cell biology, molecular genetics, plant and animal structure and function, ecology

Fundamental Concepts…the basic information is usually the most importnat…surface area to volume relationships matter,

Change over Time…uhh…this is really a class in evolution disguised as a biology class

Connections in Science…everything’s connected

Breadth of Knowledge…well, to be honest, I don’t have a quote here, but given the span of my course load (molecules to ecosystems, to earth systems) I think I’ll be alright. To be honest, I have uncovered a gap in my knowlege here, I will work on this area first today.

When it all comes down, though, Yo soy listo.

and the beat(down) goes on…

April 6, 2010

so, I just said I’m burned out…but look what’s on the front burner.

I’ve got four more Saturday sessions with the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) A+ college ready. Next up is a 90-minute session on mendelian genetics and biotechnolgy. I’m going to engage the students in an activity and analysis of a polygenic trait for the genetics thing, and I’m going to have the kids build masking tape plasmids as an intro into biotech.  Now, if I can only write these activities up…

I also got invited to the AP Environmental Science (APES) reading. I had plans of resting in June. Let’s make it July.

I know i bitch and bitch, but the truth is I’m getting better at what I do, and all these opportunities give me an opportunity to think about biology, think about teaching science, try new stuff, meet new kids, and learn what works.

NSTA Recap

March 26, 2010

Another successful NSTA. My workshop style is pretty loose. I guess I could spend a little more time preparing, but what I really need to do is get the central idea for the workshop in my head and then work with the crowd I’ve got.

If I’ve got a hands-on workshop then the participants need to be completing one activity. That activity should focus on a question and a predicted result. I also need to build time in for data analysis and communication of results. I’m getting close to that model, but I’m still a little loose on the construct.

This weekend (really, yesterday) I led two workshops, and I assisted on three others. I led an ecosystem modeling activity with Korey’s EcoZone and I also led an activity on reaction time. The former workshop was pretty good. We needed more critters, more soil (2x as much biologicals), and a little more time. I think my intro was good, but I could have moved into set up and using probe ware more smoothly. Again, I need to be a little more regimented in how I set these sessions up. The reaction time lab could have been way better. It should have gone right to set up, and then into the experimental design portion immediately. The other PASCO PTEs in the room were very helpful in assisting with set up and brainstorming ideas for experiments. Our PASCO workshops definitely have that collaborative, loose feel. Everyone (leaders, assistants, and participants) seems comfortable with that.

This morning I presented my mitochondrial genetics lab again. This was the fourth national conference, and it’s time for that presentation to evolve. Next time I’ll dispense with the pedagogy and intro (maybe two slides, max), and get more into the genetics and diagnosis. Clearly, teachers who come to this session want more info on the genetics and less on the pedagogy. Most of the folks are high functioning anyway, and they are ready to engage in the conversation. I’m striking a nerve with my colleagues, and other teachers see the connections inherent in this lab. I need a new workshop flowchart.

Oh, did I mention the National Board Portofolio is in the mail? It should be in San Antonio on Monday (March 22) a whopping 9 days before the deadline. I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I felt great on Wednesday when I dropped it off, but I started to 2nd guess myself when I read Nassim’s after-the-fact comments AND I met a teacher who failed to certify 3 times.  It’s out of my hands…for a reason. I did it. I gave it my best effort, I analyzed, I described, I reflected as best I could. If I don’t certify, I’ll tighten up…next year.

249 grams

March 14, 2010

That’s how much my National Board Portofolio Entry 1 wieghed before I quadruple checked it and put it in its envelope. How much weight is off my chest? Well, some things are unknowable.

This makes 2 Entries out of my hands and in the box. Entry 1 (the biggest bastard of them all) and Entry 4 (the favorite) are in their envelopes. With their stickers, and all the appropriate boxes have been checked off, and the form has been checked and placed in the forms envelope…Give me a break, man. Let me teach.

It’s time for two days off to celebrate my son’s 5th birthday. It’s hard to imagine he was a little 3 month old bean pod when I interviewed for this job. We’ve both grown a ton in the intervening years. He weighs about 330% more. I weigh about 2.42% less.

It's not skin of my teeth for nothin'

December 11, 2009

So, I get an email from my department chair yesterday at around 3 pm. “Have you finished that application?”, she asked. Oh yeah, that application for the Siemen’s AP Teacher award she gave me about 2 months ago. I started it last week, stopped to write my AP Biology semester exam, and forgot to pick it up. Today my resume was updated and I spent the afternoon writing a 3-page summary of my teaching accomplishments. I gave myself a 3pm deadline and finished around 4pm. The entire application will be faxed tomorrow, 11Dec09. According to the College Board it can be received no later than 11Dec09.

We’ll see if my last ditch attempt is good enough for a state-wide award. Check your USA Today in late February to find out.