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).

Now for something completely different…

November 26, 2013

A simplified model of the ETC, custom built in Mindnode Pro.

I just got back from the NABT (National Association of Biology Teachers) professional development conference in Atalanta, GA, and two things stuck out. One, I love teaching biology (and I love to talk about teaching biology); and, two, I’m on the right track. I may be a bit behind the curve when it comes to generating digital content for a wide audience, but I am ahead of the curve when it comes to engaging my students in fundamental science using a mix of high tech, and high touch, approaches. I’m going to use this post to describe how I do this. Hence, this post’s title. Usually I’m just riffing on how I teach. Here I’ll attempt to walk the reader how I use original content to teach a fundamental concept.

If you know anything about me, it’s that I can’t separate teaching philosophy (or pedagogy) from teaching itself. I’m currently teaching bioenergetics (one of my favorite units), and I am continually reminded of one of the eternal truths of teaching: knowing something is useless, if you can’t communicate the idea. Bioenergetics is one of the best examples of this philosophy. I know this stuff, I’ve spent years thinking about it, wrestling with it, and trying to understand it. I’m equally interested in figuring out how to communicate these complex ideas to students so they  too can understand them. Below, I’ll offer my insights on how I’ve made these complex ideas more digestible for students.

First, take a look at the image at the top of this post. It’s my version of the electron transport chain (highly simplified, of course), with out all the background noise found in many text books. Second, look at the marked up image found at the bottom of this post. I project images like the one featured above and draw all over it with dry erase markers all the while asking students questions about what’s happening within each step.

Today I realized I teach oxidative phosphorylation (or OXYPHOS) as a four part story. Here I take a very complex concept and communicate it in a simple way to increase student understanding. Before I tell the story, you’ve got to realize a couple of things: I expect my students to retain information they learned previously (even years before — in pre-AP Biology), and I expect my students to draw upon their experiences in lab (for more on the daily flow of my class, visit to see what we’re doing).

Now for the story. During Part 1, protein complexes oxidize electron carriers (NADH and FADH2), and then electrons are pulled down the electron transport chain (ETC) in the presence of oxygen. In part 2, electrons flow down the ETC. These reactions release energy, and this energy is used to transport H+ from the matrix into the inter-membrane space. Part 3: when H+ are actively transported across the inner membrane, H+ ions are packed into the inter-membrane space, and a chemo-electric gradient is established along the inner membrane of the mitochondria. In part 4,  ATP synthase taps the  chemo-electric gradient to phosphorylate ADP into ATP. Part 4 has a specific name: chemiosmosis. In this particular case, chemiosmosis is a coupling mechanisms that links the catabolic release of energy from  NADH and FADH2 oxidation to the  anabolic synthesis of ATP from ADP and inorganic Phosphate (Pi).

This is a fairly wordy story, but if students understand it (both in words and pictures), and if students can relate this story to the greater context of cellular respiration, then they understand the fundamentals of heterotrophic metabolism. Below you will see an image of the marked up version of the initial diagram from 25Nov13.

2013-11-25 10.46.09

Simplified ETC with the “Reardon Treatment”

Days like today are quite satisfying. I taught my students something they never knew before. I deepened their understanding of essential, complex, processes. One of my brightest, and most skeptical, students said, “That was a cool lesson.” I continued to optimize a lesson I’ve been teaching for over 12 years.

This is a pivotal moment in my IB Biology class. Today I pushed students to apply lots of related concepts (re-dox, active transport, facilitated diffusion, pH, metabolism), I taught them something new about mitochondria…and I pointed them to the future: our investigation of mitochondrial genetics coming in January 2014.

Control what you can control

November 14, 2013

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s been bubbling up all day: I can only control what happens within the four walls of my classroom/lab. Why this idea has been bubbling up is a little more interesting.

I had to take yesterday off to attend my wife’s grandmother’s funeral. She died of complications of Alzheimer’s last Friday. My in-laws were always so generous to her. They were the primary care givers and kept her independent until…it’s the same old story…she fell and broke her hip…and had to get full time care. Anyway, I was sitting in the funeral home yesterday (the same one I’ve been in 3x over the past 5 years), and the same old thoughts creep up…”What will my funeral be like? My life is basically half-way over, I better make the most of it. My funeral will be a celebration of Life. I picture 100s of students celebrating the things they learned. There will be live music. It will be a celebration. I’m a biology teacher. I’m a biologist. I study Life. I live my life. I want to get as much life out of this finite time as humanly possible.”

I shared these thoughts with my students today. I even went so far as to describe a dry-erase coffin where students could write what they want. I hope they graffiti the coffin with “DETRITUS!” and “REMINERALIZATION!”. Truth be told, I want to be wrapped in a linen shroud and buried beneath a tree so that my body will be remineralized and returned to the biosphere. Anyway…I digress. Funerals always point me back to the present. They point me back to my mantra: BE HERE NOW. I strive to be present in the moment, and I work to make the moments engaging for my students. This brings me back to controlling what I can control.

There’s lots to hate about the education “system”. There’s plenty to be discouraged about. Pessimism, however, gets you no where. I told my students the truth today. I told them despite all the crap occurring in modern public education I am going to be a glimmering point of hope and optimism, and I’m going to make the most of every class. I can only control what happens within the walls of my classroom, and I’m going to make the time count. I have some limited influence in cyber-space via blogs, but that’s so weak and nebulous compared to the daily interactions I have  with my students. What matters? They lessons I plan, and the energy I invest in my students’ understanding of biology matters. That’s why I get out of bed in the morning.

What now?

November 8, 2013

I’m looking for common threads in my classroom/lab this year, and the one thing I keep hanging on to is this: this is the year of change. I’m rethinking everything, and I’m tweaking each lesson and activity to maximize student engagement and to put more work on their shoulders. I want my students to do more inside the classroom, to do less for homework, and to generate products.

Today my IB Environmental Systems and Societies class finished generating reports on human demographics. I had students join into new groups (at random, using Popsicle sticks), and then all 12 groups joined forces to become a think tank. They had one goal: digest human demographic data for two developing (Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs)) and two developed (More Economically Developed Countries (MDECs)). I watched them break out the SMART phones and tablets to do their research. Sounds pretty lame, but if you could hear the questions they asked me, and asked each other,  if you could see the  hand-generated reports they turned in, you would know they were in engaged, interested, and learning. They were learning from the “inside out.” They had to accomplish a task, and because the task was moderately open-ended, they had opportunities to make discoveries in an organic way. 

The next question is the title of this post. What Now? Where do I go from here? How do I use these student-generated reports as a case-study, and what questions do I ask my students next? In other words, how do I use the data my students gathered to give them an opportunity to see patterns in human demographics, to make predictions about the global economy this year, and in a decade from now. How do I get them to find the difference between LEDCs and MEDCs? Will I make the time to come up with five or six killer questions, or will I let this assignment crumble away? I’m thinking about questions that drive at the heart of human demographics; questions that point to the major differences in LEDCs and MEDCs. My students have proved competent at research. Now it’s my turn to give them a chance to analyze and synthesize all the data they collected.



Ever stop to think and forget to start again?

October 29, 2013

Please don’t misinterpret my absence for lack of presence. I’ve been completely present in my classroom/lab pushing and pulling my students to think about ecology and make connections within the content.

The one big mistake I’ve been making this year (so far) is not emphasizing the text. I’m using Campbell’s biology, and it’s a beast. I am always a week late assigning readings by looking into the text to find the essential passages and essential figures. I know this stuff like the back of my hand, and I teach these concepts like I’m introducing my students to my old friends. My students, however, don’t have my eyes and my experience. I need to be more empathetic to their needs. I don’t want to raise a bunch of illiterates. On several occasions during the last four weeks I felt as I though I was keeping information from my students (by obscuring the text) so that I could hold their attention…and hold the power in the classroom.

I’ve emphasized lab work, data analysis “labtivities” (trademark), and discussion almost to the exclusion of reading the text. I have rectified this, you can see my take on the essential ecological concepts for IB/AP Biology by clicking this link. All of this was done a few days too late. My kids will catch up, but I don’t need to place these obstacles in their path.

I will be explicit about the essential reading and essential figures during our next unit (bioenergetics). The point is not to make my course about the reading, but to give my students a more equal footing in my class so our discussions are more meaningful and interesting.






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