Good teaching is…good teaching

July 22, 2015
Duracell_AA_crop

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.


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

December 22, 2014
wells1

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.


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).


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.


Know. Think. Do.

May 23, 2013
Image

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.