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.


There are no sacred cows…and the myth of scalability (part I)

March 4, 2015
always keep mooving

always keep mooving

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.


I finally figured it out (aka "it is a good start)

January 19, 2010

I’ve told anyone who has asked about National Boards that I finally figured it out. It takes about 6 months to figure out what the hell is going on with the portfolio, and that leaves about 3 months to knock it out. At least that’s been my experience. Based on conversations I had last week, I’m not the first person to gain this insight.

So, what am I doing about it? I’m getting after it. I’ve got a draft of Entry 1 in, Entry 4 is rolling along, I have started writing up Entry 2, and I’m planning the learning cycle that I will feature in Entry 3. It’s rolling along.

In related news…I’m also teaching 3 science classes. I’m simultaneously teaching global demographics, fundamental ecosystem principles, and basic microbiology skills. It must be spring at ASFA.

Next week I make my annual trek to McWane Center to give kids a chance to see their incredible fossil collection, and I make my annual trip to Birmingham-Southern College to borrow vertebrate specimens. Yeah, it’s time to Teach Evolution! in the South. Scott Brande, Geologist extraordinare will also be coming to teach my kids. Wait, geology, fossils, homologous structures and vertebrate cladistics? My kids might really learn something. Look out!


"Closing" The Learning Cycle

December 14, 2009

In an effort to make exams less punative and more about learning I implemented two changes this year. First, I set up a system where the worst the students could do was an average of their 1st and 2nd quarter grades. Second, I got exams and essays graded within 48 hour of adminsitration and had everythign tabulated and back to students within 3 school days. I wanted to take the stress out of the exam. I also want kids to take my comments to heart, and know that I am on their side.

I have several reasons for setting nI don’t see why a solid “C” on an exam should bring my borderline “B” student down. Especially seeing as how they come in, bust their butts in lab, and work as hard as their time permits studying for unit tests. (My “gunner” students with the solid A averages still worked to outcompete eachother on the exam, so they didn’t slack off.) I had a few students whose final exam grade was a solid 10% lower than their actual grade, but they maintained their Bs. A student with a solid B on the exam (but had high “A” average averages on each quarter) might have seen his whole grade go down 1 or 2 percentage points if I used a traditional policy, but what’s the justification for that? These kids are under enough stress. They put the work in day-in and day-out. They’re talented, and they work to live up to thier potential. I say, “reward them.” I’ve pushed them enough; and I’ll  push them when we get back from Winter Holidays!

I have ulterior motive for the quick return on their exams. Yes, I want to “close” the learning cycle. Yes, I use Summative Assesment as a way to reinforce the concepts and ideas we discovered this year. The secondary motive, however,  is more pragamatic…and sincere. This immediate, thoughtful feedback will likely keep them engaged when we dive back into AP Bio when the spring semester starts.


Mitochondrial Genetics, Take 3

November 29, 2009

This is going to be an exciting week. While most classes are winding down and getting ready for final exams, I will be cranking all my classes up and leading students through their last major labs.

In ap biology we will be working through our mitochondrial genetics lab. I’m psyched becuase this is the first year we will be using the published PASCO protocols and the new, commercially available DNA products from Novagen. Here’s the scoop: I came up with an idea, developed it with Dan Sharer, tried it, presented it to a national audience, tweeked it, pitched it to PASCO, published it, tried it again, presented it again, got the DNAs ordered (thanks PASCO), presented it a third time (see below), and now we’re running it a 3rd time.

In APES we’ll begin our final project this week. The students will be using the PESTLE approach I experienced at the Keystone Youth Policy Summit  to write a policy document about Birmingham air quality and economic development. This is uncharted water for me. It will mean strong coffee and intense focus.

To add to the pressure I’ve picked both these activities to showcase in my national Board portfolio. Like I said, it’s going to be an exciting week.