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.
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.
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?
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.
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.