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.

Mitochondrial genetics never gets old

November 22, 2009

Although I’m not on the cutting edge anymore, I’m still out there telling folks about my Alternate Approach to AP Lab 6B: Investigating Mitochondrial Genetics. I presented this morning at the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) Professional Development Conference to 16 other teachers. The project was very well received.

I tried to refrain from killing them with Power Point slides and get everyone involved in a discussion of pedigrees, molecular biology and the basic intricacies of mitochondrial genetics. I opened with some of my philosophical arguments for using learning cycles and making connections within the AP Biology curriculum. I said we should always be looping back on big ideas like little Okazaki Fragments. That comment resonated with folks, and got a good laugh. (My “If you do something in a vacuum people will assume it sucks.” comment got a bigger laugh.)

Following my extensive opening remarks, we got into it for real. It was so much fun facilitating an exercise in pedigree analysis, leading a rich discussion on mitochondrial genomes, giving a tour of the major lab activities (pedigree construction and restriction digest analysis), and putting all the data together to make a claim. People really thought about what I was presenting to them. They in turn worked to get the most out of the pedigree analysis activity. By the time we got to the intricacies of the mitochondrial DNA, maternal inheritance, and heteroplasmy we were cooking. I learned the mitochondrial DNA isn’t a plasmid, but a looped chromosome. My mistake created an opportunity for four or five participants to chime in and set the record straight.

I had to rush my overview of the connections between DNA and tRNA and how mutations affect multiple proteins of the electron transport chain. But I clinched the talk with the analysis of the restriction digest products. The Altamont School’s Kurt Kristensen — the hero of the “Modeling Ecosystems” talk — came through again and called out, ‘Heteroplasmy!” He was right. I voiced the alternate view that it could be an incomplete digestion, but rebutted with the fact that a predicted mutation existed and the patient also exhibited a maternal pattern of inheritance. I offered to email everyone a copy of my slides if they gave me their email addresses. I had a line of 14 teachers lined up when the talk was over. I got great feedback, picked up some new ideas. More importantly, several teachers are ready to buy the digested DNAs from PASCO Scientific and run this lab with their students.

If you’re curious, check out the groups that have supported this work: UAB Department of Genetics, my partner in crime, Dan Sharer’s, home page, ASFA Math/Science, The American Society for Human Genetics (ASHG). Now, back to my cave, I mean classroom.

Another great NABT

November 14, 2009

Greatings from Denver. NABT 2009 is in the books, and it was worth the trip. I was ready to be home with my family on Wednesday, but duty called. I lead one PASCO workshop and assisted on two others. We’re trying to get teachers comfortable with technology and get them past the devices and towards asking questions. All the sessions went well. I particularly liked our Modeling Ecosystems with EcoZone lab. We talked briefly about ecosystem science, then built terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. A participant asked if we could share what each group did. Kurt Kristensen from Altamont School in Birmingham stepped up. I really like getting other people involved in what’s going on. That shared responsibility makes the workshop more interesting.

It was great to see my old friend Frank Bell and get him connected with A+ College Ready and PASCO Scientific. It was equally good to get out and drink some beers with all involved and share research stories and our thoughts on teaching. I’ll post on the mitochondrial genetics presentation later. Spoiler alert: It was awesome!

I love the Birmingham Shuttlesworth Airport

November 10, 2009

This is my 3rd work-related trip in 35 days and every time I just leave work and I’m at the airport and in the gate in 10-15 minutes. This is a great town to be a consultant.
I’m off to NABT to work for PASCO. I’m giving two talks: one on ecosystems and one on mitochondrial genetics. I plan to post from Denver.