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

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.

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.

The "Core" offers more…

October 15, 2009

I complain a lot about my extra class, Core Environemntal Science. I love working with the kids, but the extra prep time (it’s all project-based) and the grading is kicking my ass. My energy should be focused on my specialty math-science kids. Last week, however, that class produced a real gem. We were working on soils, and I had to do a little longer pre-lab presentation that I like. But it got everyone focused. I let them work, then I brought them all back together to talk reflect on two results (soil porosity and soil moisture content) and prep them for the hardest test: soil percolation rate (it involves team work, geometry and an understanding of soil structure). Anyway, by pulling them together, letting them go, then pulling them back in and guiding them more closely, I was able to teach more effectively. Bascially, I was able to complete a mini-learning cycle into a 47 minute class. Here’s my pedagogical insight: kids need structure, a pre-lab intro, and a little guidance, let them work, come back together, talk and reflect. If my leadership is stronger and more concise, their inquiry will be more productive..


October 15, 2009

My natural tendency toward entropy is taking over. I’ve got to work to keep mentally organized and work to keep my focus on the blog. The week off from blogging was a stroke of good luck. Last week had some major highs and lows, and after a week away from reflecting, I am now able to reflect on my reflections with greater clarity.

My students are starting to get to a place of insight and understanding. Perhaps loosening the reigns a little bit and giving them time in class to think and reflect isn’t such a bad idea. Check these two gems out from the mouths of teens. From my Core Environmental Science class (link) “I never knew that soil was so important. The whole world is wrapped up in soil.” (This was during a laid-back day when I gave them time to summarize and analyze the important data from a 5-day investigation of soil.
The insight from one of my ap biology students is even more satisfying. “Mr. Reardon,” he said, ““I finally got cellular respiration” I was hungry, cold and shaky. I got some food and felt energized and warmer.” This was after working them int

Had a student in AP Bio come up to me and say, “I finally got cellular respiration” I was hungry, cold and shaky. I got some food and felt energized and warmer.” This was after a tough week teaching the nuts, bolts and details of the chemiosmotic model of oxidative phosphorylation. My kids are starting to “get it”, and they are not afraid to talk to me about it. It looks like my investment in my students is paying off.

1/3 of the way through the 1st 9-weeks

September 1, 2009

No, I’m not counting the days; but one thing is certain about the school year, it has a built-in countdown. Monday to Friday. Friday to Sunday. 1st period, 2nd period, afternoon specialty.

Perhaps it’s better to think about the rhythms of a school week or a school day. Sundays are good for planning. Monday nights are great for catching up on grading and reflecting. Tuesday and Wednesday are great days for lab because the kids have awoken from the weekend. Fridays are great for previews, reflection, or wrapping up loose ends. For a more detailed look at my courses week in and week out, check out my class blogs at asfaapbio.wordpress.com and asfaenvironmentalscience.wordpress.com.

The rhythm of the past few days has been conducive to teaching and learning. I’m intentionally backing off on some of the content from years past. I’m keeping the pace moving forward but it’s not relentless pace. I’m laying more groundwork and foundation; getting kids to think about big ideas like surface area to volume ratios, why cells, bioenergetic conversions, and emergent properties. I’m leaving more room for conversations.

I’ve had some good conversations with students in all my classes. My Core Environmental Science kids have been talking to me about. “How do we know what we know?” We’ve been learning to sample the world around us and learned to analyze the data to answer questions. My AP Biology students and I have been talking about enzymes and their role in metabolism. Today we got to talk about cells while they learned to use microscopes to see their own cheek cells. Last Saturday I talked to my APES kids about the role of riparian vegetation in controlling stream flow and stage height while standing calf deep in the Little Cahaba River.