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.

My strangest insight of the year

December 7, 2009

On mitochondrial genetics (after 9 hours of contact with students…and sitting in church for the first time in a while)…Here’s what I know now. Watching this lab (mitochondrial genetics) unfold. Seeing the Novagen DNAs glow brightly on the gel box. This thing is bigger than me now. I am apart from it. Now understanding it as an outsider, not as the creator. My questions now are: how can it be improved? And what will others do with it?

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.


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.