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.


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.


national board update

January 13, 2010

All the certified teachers I talk to and glean information from say things like, “This is a great start.” or, “Congratulations on starting your journey.” This isn’t the first time I’ve heard national boards dubbed a “journey”. That doesn’t bother me. What’s irritating is the whole, “…good start…” stuff. My mom used to tell me that. All the time. When I was doing chores.

“Mom, I finished sweeping the back porch,” I would say.

“Mom, I finished cleaning the bathroom,” I would claim.

“That’s a good start.” She would say. Ugh. (Full disclosure: I tell my daugther the same thing in regards to her chores.) Genetics. You can’t escape them.

The bottom line is I’m on my way, but the clock is ticking. I’ve got 8 weeks to finish three more entries and clean up my first entry. I must admit, the process is transformative. I understand students better now than I did 6 months ago. I’m a better listener now than I was 6 months ago. I recognize student insights better now, and I try to give those insights more room to breathe in class. I’m not perfect by any means, but I am more in tune with what’s going on in my classes.

In a perfect world every class would be guided by students’ questions. Then again, I don’t buy that. I firmly believe teachers should guide the class. We set up the Driving Questions. We lead the class. What we shoudl do is create opportunities for students to explore their ideas based on the central ideas of the lesson. They can explore their ideas and their specific questions based on the Driving Question.

I can be better at training students to ask good questions. I can be more organized in my approach. I can plan what I say, and I can plan the quesitons I ask better. I think I’ll still be working on these core principles long after my National Board Portfolio is boxed up and sent to San Antonio.


"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.


The beginning of the middle's end

December 7, 2009

It’s time for finals at ASFA and we’re rolling right along. Check out the parallel  blogs asfaapbio and asfaenvironmentalscience to see what we’re up to in the classroom. I’ve been very please with the work my students and I are doing. I had an insight at NABT about inquiry. To me, Inquiry is more nebulous, more networked, and more integrated into a class culture than I first realized. When inquiry is working, it’s like Darwin’s view of the world: unfurling and constantly changing, unfurling even more. The class is the organism, and the questions are a population with one individual question driving the direction of the class, while other questions feeding back on that question.The class’s direction may move more swiftly, more focused in one direction; or it may move in a different direction thanks to different questions. Unlike  evolution, there is a driver/a guide, me. But like evolution, the system is dynamic, governed by laws, and underlying mechanisms exist.

My class room moves through units and I challenge students to make connections between units. My goal is that their content knowledge grows, but more importantly their ability to think…to think synthetically…to make connections gets more sophisticated. The way we look at a biological system is not rigid, but there is a process. This process  allows for a creative approach to the material, and open up opportunities for student insights. I am changing, my students are changing. We’re all growing.


The driving questions meet the driving principles

October 15, 2009

I’ve got a million thoughts banging around in my head, and as I try to sort them out while running. I’ve come back to two ideals that link into my two driving questions. I want to increase play in my science classroom, and I want to increase risk-taking in my science classroom. I know these aren’t new ideas. I already incorporate them. But I need to bring that culture of play, and of risk-taking into every lab. Further I need to back it up with rigorous and comprehensive evaluation.