Summer time blues

June 11, 2014

“ain’t no cure, y’all”

Back in 1995, when I started graduate school, I remember being really bummed out. It wasn’t just because I knew I would be living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (I learned a valuable life skill during my time in T-town: if you can be happy in Tuscaloosa, you can be happy anywhere). Sure Tuscaloosa is a horrible place, but that’s not the point. The point is, the UA department of Biology had just built a new building complete with state-of-the-art labs, mesocosm space, offices, and conference rooms. I was worried I would blow it. What if I wasted the opportunity. I know that kind of thinking is completely worthless, but that kind of thinking comes completely natural to me.

It’s now 2014. It’s summer. I’ve got 6.5 weeks remaining, and I’ve got several opportunities on the horizon. Here’s the short version: I’m leading two workshops for middle school science teachers, I’m working with AP biology teachers for PASCO scientific, I’m helping edit some e-books, and I’m coauthoring a teachers manual for new and experienced AP Biology teachers. On top of all that, I’m supposed to help hire a director for the Cahaba Environmental Center. I also need to find some time to do quality planning for my classes, work out like I’m in my thirties again, paddle, play with my kids, and enjoy my yard.

Yep, I’m freaking out. Time to go for a bike ride.

The lingering thought…

June 11, 2014

I can’t remember if I’ve blogged about the following idea or not (Lord knows, I’ve talked about it with anyone who will listen — including my department chair and principal). Here goes, “I try to develop a relationship with students through the content I teach.”

If you know me at all, you know I consider content the utmost priority, but the people matter just as much. The longer I teach, I see teaching as a human endeavor (I’ve blogged about this for sure). The baggage students bring with them (physically and mentally) matters, and my baggage matters too. A room containing anywhere from 11 to 27 people will have a different dynamic everyday. How do I deal with this hyper-variable environment? I deal with it by being a content expert. I deal with it by being accessible and available to my students. I’m available for their questions, I’m available to help them develop their strengths, and to shore up weaknesses. Is every class I teach the same? Absolutely not. Have I reached that pinnacle of pinnacle: simultaneous differentiated instruction for all students? Hell no. What I have done this year is set a professional tone, where biology matters, and where something interesting occurs every day. I don’t try and be my students’ friend. I do try and be a significant adult in their lives. I do give them a reason to show up everyday and get to work.

When people ask me how it’s going at JCIB, I tell them, “I’m having a blast”, or, “We have so much fun.” It’s true. I’m excited to go to work everyday during the school year because I get to teach what I love, and I get to help students develop a better understanding of the world around them.

It’s summer vacation…and I’m on the computer.

June 2, 2014

My goal for today is to finish a lab for PASCO scientific, but I’ve already been sidetracked by Science Magazine. Since opening the laptop today, I’ve seen video of a wasp using it’s Zinc-encrusted ovipositor to drill into an unripe fig, I’ve read about mega-boneyards of Mammoth’s (likely old hunting grounds of our ancestors), looked a CGI of a rat synapse, read about 40 million year old avian pollenators, and read about blind cave fish that can “count” (differentiate between 2 and 4 objects). How am I supposed to get any work done?

Wind ‘em on down…

May 16, 2014

ImageThe late great Eddie Taylor sang about how he would, “Ride ‘em on down”. As a teacher, it’s not quite the “lay by”, but we are definitely winding on down. Currently I’ve got exactly 1 student in my room, make that two (C.J. just walked in). One is studying for late AP Bio, and the other is turning in his book. I’ll be back down to 1 in a moment. This is a great opportunity to focus some of my ideas about this year.

The lead is this: I had an absolute blast working at JCIB for the second year in a row. I worked with a challenging group of students. My first block class was a peculiar group. They were incredibly smart, but quite skeptical about my content knowledge, about my approach to teaching science, and about my ability to prepare them for the IB Biology exam. This wasn’t something we worked out by Thanksgiving. On the contrary, they were fighting with me, or at least resisting my guidance well into March. That being said, they learned a ton, they consistently delivered in lab and on exams, and they were prepared for their end of course exams. Most students came out smiling, giving me thumbs up, and slapping me high fives.

The thing I liked most about this year, and these students in particular, was their constant questions, their ability to engage in the material, the way they made me better at articulating my understanding of biology, and they way they pushed me to continue to refine my thinking.

Looking back at this year, I’m on the right track, but no where near finished figuring out how to teach students born after Kurt Cobain died. My favorite anecdote comes from Jarred, in 4th block. Early in the year, during the root, stem, and leaf investigation of our Plant science unit, I took the students outside, and asked them to pull a few herbs and sapling trees out of the ground. We discussed a little ecology outside, then went back to the lab to use microscopes to look at root structure, draw what we saw, and describe it. Jarred exclaimed, “This is how we’re supposed to learn.” He’s right, and I’m constantly looking for ways to be more organic/more fluid in the classroom and lab.

We’ve all heard “mother is the necessity of invention,” and I think it’s true. 2014-02-05 15.18.35Two challenges this year forced me to change my practice. The first challenge was daunting: organize, read, grade, and provide feedback for 64 independent projects. I had my technician/student aide set up a workflow board similar to something you would see in an emergency room. I used the board to track the workflow for myself and all my students. I dubbed myself the “working class guru.” I have the knowledge and experience, and now I am developing methods (God forbid, procedures) so students can better access my knowledge and experience. It doesn’t do me any good to live in a cave (my head) waiting for someone to come and seek my guidance. I need to be in the world I occupy and work to help my students access what I know.

2014-01-28 12.45.37Snowpocalypse 2014, and weather days finally pushed me from, “I really need to make some videos,” to “go to You Tube and watch these videos.” Let me be the first to say Paul Anderson won’t be losing any sleep, but I have finally stepped up an entered the YouTube-o-sphere. I bought screen flow in December of 2013, but it wasn’t until February 2014 that I actually published something of value for my students. As of now, I’ve had xx hits on You Tube. I’ll be offloading more and more direct instruction (DE) to YouTube next year so I can do even more lab work and more data analysis in class.

As this school year winds down, a splinter is getting wedged in my mind. That splinter is actually a question, and the question is this: “What does a college-bound 17 or 18 year-old really need to know?” Granted, my students are headed to selective colleges. Further, I expect my students to be leaders in their college and university classrooms. Despite those qualifiers, what do these kids really need to know? This question has been stimulated by from my observations of my students as they approach all their high stakes exams, from my conversations with my colleagues in the break room, and from conversartions I’m having with my teaching buddies all over the country.

I sketched up some answers to this question on Mindnode, and I’ll flesh these ideas out over the summer. As I switch gears (turns out there may be no lay by again this year) I’ll think about the following: my students need to know how to explain and justify their answers, they need to articulate their ideas in writing, they need to be able to conduct an independent investigation (and write up the results), and…get ready for it…they need to care about something.

More to come…

April 9, 2014


I promise i haven’t been neglecting my thinking, I’ve just been concentrating all my energy on my classroom and on my students. Oh what a year we’ve had! Oh how much my students have grown. Take a peak at what we’ve been doing at the link above. As I was teaching today, I looked out at my students and something I learned as a sophomore or junior in college popped into my head, “As you deepen your understanding of something, you sacrifice your knowledge of the periphery.” Then, as now, I accepted that truth, and I was willing to make the sacrifice so I could dig deeper into Biology. As I looked upon my incredibly gifted students, I thought, “Are they willing to make that sacrifice? Do they know joy that comes with the pursuit of knowledge?” I wonder how I can open their worlds, and how I can inspire them to dig into something.

It’s the little things

January 28, 2014

I know I’ve posted this idea before, but it bubbling up to the surface, and I want to get it back down on electrons: I’m trying to do big things in science education by focusing on small interactions. I have a vision of building a nation-wide presence in science education, but I’m going to do it by focusing on the students in my room. Everything I profess must stem from the small, meaningful, content-driven interactions I have with my students each day.

I’ve really been pushing my kids as of late. We’ve executed two molecular genetics labs (PCR and DNA-mediated transformation) already this semester, and we’re about to embark on my original mitochondrial genetics module. It’s an interesting time. I’m working them on these projects, I’m not lecturing, and I’m giving them a reason to dig into their reading at night…but it’s up to them to do it. I’m not going home and reading for them, and I’m not spoon feeding them any content. I am giving them targeted, short writing assignments that get to the heart of each lab, force students to do some research (even if it is only in their text books), and I’m getting them to learn the necessary content for the IB  and AP exams. The test however, is just an end, not a means to an end. As I’ve always maintained, I’m aiming for student understanding. The end of course tests will take care of themselves.

I think this approach is working. My students are very engaged, and they’re asking great questions. The conversations and discussions in lab have a very organic feel, and the concepts are increasing in complexity. I think this is what school is supposed to look like. I did a little formative assessment today by presenting 5 questions on genetic transformation from the redesigned AP biology practice test. My students got all 5 correct. This is good information, but I think the anecdotal evidence is equally important.

In closing, if these small interactions, and organic/fluid classes are scalable, then so be it. That’s great. I hope to scale this “temporally.” Meaning, I hope I can continue to find avenues to create a true culture of inquiry in my classroom through out the year. If I can be a model for other teachers, then perhaps this idea/this approach can scale up. In the mean time, I’m focusing on what’s in front of me. This is the only way I know to add value to my students’ lives, while advancing my career.

A weekend for opportunists

January 13, 2014
Is there anything more important that water? I say, "No."

Is there anything more important that water? I say, “No.”

Less than one week ago, the weather gods smiled down on upon teachers and students in the Birmingham metro area (weather gods?…wasn’t it the Polar Vortex?), and allowed everyone to ease into the school year with 3 days of delayed starts and shortened class periods. Two days ago, following some brief rain showers, the weather turned unseasonably warm and sunny; it was a weekend for opportunists.

I willed myself out of bed by 8am on Saturday and laced up for a brief run at Red Mountain Park. As soon as I made my way of the hill, I saw winter migrant birds working over last fall’s seeds. They made full use of the sunny, arid day, and great sight lines for some optimal foraging. Once up on the ridge, the color palate of red, purple and chocolate brown was continually punctuated by aqua, slate, and emerald green beaming up from the forest floor. Lichens and mosses which inhabit the felled trees were swollen with the recent rain and soaking up the sun streaming through the bare canopy. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the great projects my students could execute at RMP. The challenge is getting them out there and taking ownership of a project. Partnering with local ecology and conservation groups is a priority for 2014.

Even though I probably had one too many Oka Ubas last night, I wasn’t going to miss a great paddling opportunity. January river levels, sunny, and 58 degrees Fahrenheit? You know where I’m going to be. In a boat, catching eddies, and looking to surf.  I didn’t surf as aggressively as I wanted to, but I had a ball in my new boat and I absolutely loved checking out all the moss carpeting the sandstone rising out of the river. Like their cousins at Red Mountain Park, these moss were blazing emerald green, and maximizing their photosynthetic opportunity. Looking around during our lunch stop, I couldn’t help but see epiphytic ferns every where. These plants are characteristic of southeastern forests, but rarely do you see them so lush this early in the season. Looking further, I saw pines soaking up the CO2 and the sunshine, unlimited by water shortages. Again, it was a great weekend for these opportunist photosynthesizers. They can now store some energy for the cloudy days ahead, perhaps allocate some of that energy towards a reproductive boost. Maybe they will manufacture more spores, or maybe they will produce a little more pollen. For the now dormant angiosperms, they might have used this warm break to allow roots to penetrate a little deeper, and a little broader into the soil. The fungi and bacteria on the forest floor likely used these unseasonably warm days to maximize remineralization of the 60-day old detrital pool littering the ground.

Driving home, I was confronted by one question, “How will I maximize opportunities to engage my students and teach them some cool biology?” I want them to see the world as I see it. I know I communicate that passion, and I am continually trying to put the work in their hands and give them a reason to learn this complex material.

Perhaps I’m over thinking it, and I just need to do what I do. This week for instance, I’ll run a P.C.R. lab with one my classes, a bacterial transformation with three other classes, and I’ll present my 9th and 10th graders the opportunity to keep a goldfish alive and learn about aquatic ecosystems. Side note: I would have run the bacterial transformation lab with all my classes…but I didn’t get the opportunity to start my E. coli cultures for the lab (see above).


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