I’m standing knee deep in a Down East Maine stream, turning over rocks to peer at caddisflies cases and watching my beloved dog, Mary Bailey, ferry herself across the current; I think to myself, “Well, how did I get here?” How do I, an underachieving benthic ecologist turned award-winning Alabama science teacher, find myself making the same predictions and observing the same patterns that kicked off my career twenty-three summers ago? The next several posts will explore answers to these questions and explain lessons I’ve learned along the way. But first, I’ve got to go ride my bike.
I have a confession: I have an irrational fear. That fear is talking one-on-one with a student. It scares the hell out of me. Even as I write, I’m starting to get butterflies. This is completely and totally irrational. When ever I talk one-on-one with a student, it is a good experience; and the outcome is almost always positive.
I have been thinking about this fear, the outcomes, and the reasons for my apprehension for the better part of two years. I am writing these ideas down to clear my head, share my experiences, and begin to move on to something more productive (like worrying about the fact that the sun will begin to collapse upon itself within the next few billion years, leading to a increase in heat which will evaporate all the water on this planet, and the star I rely on for food will eventually swallow the only home I’ve ever known); but I digress; as I’m wont to do. I believe there are several reasons for this irrational fear, and I will outline them below.
Much of this fear stems from my in-class persona, “Boss Man”; when a student initiates a conversation, I am no longer in charge. All my copies of our text, my microscope, my pipets, and even my desk are labeled, “Boss Man.” It’s a not-so-subtle indicator that I am in charge of what happens in my classroom/lab. I think it’s fair to say the way I teach, and my behavior in class, is a strong enough indication of how much I value my role within the room; but this little joke helps seal the deal. When I am in a purely didactic mode, or working with small groups, I can set the agenda. I can also hide within the interactions between myself and hyper-engaged students. These interactions, in turn, provide a buffer between myself and my less accomplished students. When I initiate a one-on-one conversation with a student, it is usually brief, and I am controlling the conversation. Usually I am congratulating a student; or I am pointing out a garish misconception articulated in a student’s work, and helping him or her clear up the misconception. When a student takes a major risk, and initiates a conversation with me, I am no longer in charge. This, I think, is the genesis of my fear.
Students often come to see me about a grade, and they likely disappointed with their score. This automatically puts me a little bit on the defensive, and my anxiety kicks into overdrive (“did I score them fairly?” “were my questions truly on point with my learning objectives?” “do I really know what I’m doing?”). I don’t mind the challenges, in fact, I covet them; however, a poor grade is usually a symptom of a disconnect between a student and I, or between the student and the content. In short, I’ve been called out on not doing my job perfectly. As I stated previously, these fears are soon abated. I have learned to turn these scary interactions into opportunties to coach students, offer advice on study habits, ask them if they are honestly putting in their best efforts (given their busy schedules), how much they priortize my class, and help students understand a concept. Hell, I get to teach.
Students come to see me when they are “lost.” They may have disengaged from the class for a couple of weeks, they may have been out of town for another commitment, or they may have been out sick for an extended period of time. Students are likely to see me at my worst here (hence, the fear). I am always looking forward (reflection is not a natural instinct — notice how few and far between my “weekly” blog posts are–), and when “lost” students derail me from my forward-facing approach to teaching, I tend to be less inclined to help. My first instinct is to tell students to, “Check the blog,” or, “Get notes from another student.” If they missed data collection in lab, they are responsible for getting the data, and doing the best they can to write up their lab report. Now, I must say, a student’s number one priority is be in class, and I am not interested in developing an individual educational plan (IEp) for 70 IB Biology students; however, I can work to become more approachable, more patient, and more empathetic with these lost students.
The one-on-one conversations I’ve had with these “lost” students have turned out to be surprisingly pleasant. perhaps this is best illustrated with an example. Late this spring one of my worst students turned in an unacceptable Internal Assessment for Higher Level IB Biology (my primary teaching assignment). I made copious notes on her final draft so that she could re-work the paper and salvage any hope of securing a passing score in the class (and earn the IB diploma). This student was over her head all year long (and truthfully, for four years in our program), and I resisted wasting my class time (and planning periods) trying to help her. She was, after all, a lost cause. I did extend this life line, and to her credit, she took it, and asked me for help. The ensuing twenty-minute conversation allowed me to understand her thinking, allowed her to better explain how she collected her data, we worked together to find a more appropriate way for her to represent her data, and I encouraged her to redouble her efforts to determine why the animals behaved in a particular way. I also learned this particular student was funny, smart, and generally interesting. She learned that I was actually funny, deeply interested in her project, and that I wanted the best for her. I honestly believe we both left that conversation with a more positive view of the other. I wonder how much more I could have taught this student if I initiated this conversation earlier. In fact, isn’t this the whole point?
This blog post, and the two others in the series, have helped me define who I am as a teacher. These posts have helped me refine my “elevator pitch.” Here it is,”I teach upper level biology to highly motivated high school students. I am trying to be as non-traditional as possible inside the context of a traditional classroom/laboratory. I work to build relationships with my students through the content that I teach. It’s all about connecting to students through the content. At the end of the day, I am their teacher.” In order to live this elevator pitch out, I have to be great on several scales: didactic teaching/direct instruction, facilitating laboratory work, facilitating large group discussions, facilitating small group discussions, and yes, connecting with students in a (scary) one-on-one context where I am not in charge.
Check out this article (initially posted on the UK’s TImes Higher Education). It bemoans the lack of field biologists matriculating from undergraduate institutions in the UK. I think the author’s description of the “molecular biology vs. ecology” war is a bit overstated, he does do a nice job of explaining how learning how to analyze and interpret body plans and life forms, and how being able to differentiate between extremely small differences, is a great way to learn. He also claims (correctly, in my opinion), that these abilities exemplify great ways of thinking and knowing. This new-found knowledge and skill development can be transfered to any field of science or other professional activity.
I resisted reading this article for a couple of weeks, because I though it would be the same old-same old. That was stupid. This article reignited one of my big ideas/pie-in-the-sky plans…I’d like to start a center for ecological genetics here at my school. I want my students to learn how to do sustainable agriculture on our small campus, learn how a farm works, learn how the biota in and above the soil interact with the soil (what we call biogeochemistry), and I want to use the tools of molecular biology to better understand the biodiversity we harbor on campus.
Reading this article also reminded me a conversation I had with a geologist from The University of West Alabama at the Alabama Academy of Science meeting last week. He asked, “Do you take your kids (read: students) outside?”
“Yes,” I replied, and went on to describe our milk crate succession experiments inspired by David Haskell’s “The Forest Unseen”, and I described the milk crate garden we started last Fall. These efforts take time, and that’s the real limiting reagent in my classroom. Ideally, I will continue to get more organized, understand my learning objectives even better, and continue to focus on these types of activities…the ones that engage students mentally and physically, and teach them to make multiple connections within a biology class.
Eventually, I’ll make a list of the things we do outside at JCIB, refine the existing activities, and cut the ones that don’t work as well.
First, let me confess, I don’t blog enough because I’m scared of what will come out. More specifically, I don’t think it will be good enough, and I don’t think it really matters. Bottom line, I think, “So What?” (can you hear Miles Davis lines when I ask that question? If so, then good).
But here’s the deal, it does matter. What I think, and what I do matters. I’m a science teacher. I know it matters. I get reinforcement from my students everyday. I have ideas that recirculate in my head, and I need to write them down. That being said, for me, writing within the throws a great week is next to impossible. I’m in it, I think about it, but I don’t make time to reflect when I’m in the moment; to be honest, I don’t have the energy to write about what’s going on, I’m putting all my available energy into teaching and improvising on lessons (hence the lack of sacred cows).
All of that being said, there has been so much cool stuff going on in my room and in my head I have to write it down. In the spirit of my homeboy and compadre, TJ Beitleman’s “Things I Love Right Now” series, I’m going to describe at least things I love about teaching mitochondrial genetics Right Now. Each idea could spawn its own blog post.”
Things I Love right now…
1) Even my best stuff (investigating mitochondrial genetics) has to be changed to fit the students I have right now (there are no sacred cows…everything is fluid).
2) My students help me see old problems in a new light and help me learn even more about concepts I have expert knowledge in.
3) Last week, three students were inspired enough to do research on rare diseases and figured out which mitochondrial disorder we were studying…on their own…they. figured. it. out. and then they came in to talk with me about it and share what they thought…and wanted to know what I thought.
4) One of my most challenging students has a real knack for molecular biology tech work, and was just a natural loading gels and working with gel boxes. It was so cool to watch, and then talk with her about it.
5) I thought this activity was a bit too complex for my student population, but I continually worked to find ways to help them make connections with the content. They are rising to the occasion.
6) I had students arguing (from evidence) about non-mendelian pedigrees and working to figure out how various symptoms related to each other and to maternal patterns of inheritance (and it’s all on DVD!)
7) Just when I thought I was over doing it an spending too much time on one activity, I saw how my mitochondrial genetics investigation uncovered 4 IB Biology Assessment Statements.
8) Scalability in education is a myth. I’m lucky to keep consistent between IB Bio sections. But really, it doesn’t make sense to remain rigid. I know my assessment statements and learning objectives, but how I teach them changes depending on the students I’m working with. Trying to develop something that works for other teachers “right out of the box” is just bullshit. It is. The best thing you can do is do the work, take each class one at a time, and work to be better each class period, and work to be better than you were the day before. That’s not my original idea, but I’ve been trying to live and work to that ideal every day.
At some point I’ll really write about a great picture of the Miles Davis Quintet playing an a high school auditorium. A high school auditorium. During an assembly. These were geniuses. Giants. The venue didn’t matter. It was the work. The music. The artistry. The chance to create something great mattered. That is the vision I have for my classroom and lab, and for my department.
See, I told you this would be sub-par. I’m worn out from teaching, but I needed to get these ideas down before another moment comes along.
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.
Had the pleasure of working with 20 middle school science teachers from jefferson county schools, in Jefferson County, Alabama (funny, that). The challenge was to drop a barbie doll 17.25 feet and get her as close as possible to the ground without having her head hit. They estimated the length of the bungee cord comprised of rubber bands based on a formula they derived from an experiment with only 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 rubber bands. Most impressive.