Sunday, February 7, 2016


I have kicked off units with a 'holiday' twice now and it has been overwhelmingly positive. It's not something I could or even should do frequently, but it is very effective and the students have rected very positively.

For DNA Day I got my seminar students to help me decorate the room ahead of time. I put table cloths over the lab benches and we taped balloons to the sink faucets and we hung copies of Rosalind's photograph 51 up.

I dressed up as much like Rosalind as I could manage. I brushed my hair to the side and wore lipstick and fake pearls and a skirt and lab jacket and I practiced my British accent for weeks. Then, on the day, I met the students at the door with little bags of twisted fritos and asked them if they would like some "twisty crisps".

I pretended Rosalind was our substitute and the students played along, asking where Mrs. G was and correcting my mispronunciation of my own name. It was great fun. We started with a kind of boring worksheet, answering questions about DNA and when we got to the question about who discovered the structure of DNA, Rosalind got to spill the whole story.

Then we did a modeling activity that I picked up at a conference, where each student used her body and arms to represent a nucleotide and we went into the hall and built a strand of DNA out of student nucleotides. Since then, on several occasions I've been able to refer back to that activity when they ask about some part of the DNA molecule. I'm not positive that they will know the particulars of the DNA molecule ten years from now, but they probably will remember the big concepts and I'm pretty happy about that. Together we created an experience that they aren't likely to forget any time soon.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Famous Last Words...

Superstitious First Year Teacher Rule #1: Never say you don't have classroom management problems.

Good thing I'm a woman of science, huh?

Anyway, it was a rough week this week but I'm still standing and I think it's all going to be fine. I learned some things and strengthened some relationships and today was amazing. Next week is always a new opportunity.

When I worked retail I was always amazed at how a crummy job was transformed by the really great people I knew. Now I'm doing this and when things look a little bleak, there are always really great people to help me figure it out. So, anyway, I wish you the same luck I've had. When you feel a little lost, may you have amazing colleagues surrounding you to help you figure out your course.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Classroom Management Means Self Management

I have had very few classroom management problems. That's not to say I have had none but my first year teaching (this time around) has been devoid of most of the power struggles that I experienced when I tried this in my twenties and a lot of that is just me being a lot calmer and less volatile than I was in my twenties. I just don't get upset often... but I do get upset. I even sometimes get angry. I am, after all, a human being and I am spending all day every day with other human beings and they tend to be at a point in their lives where they are a little bit reactionary.

I don't know where this idea comes from. I am sure I read it in a blog somewhere or saw it in a video. If you know, I'm happy to give credit. What I do when I am angry is pull out a composition book and write the date and then write down the particulars of the incident. That means I stop teaching for a moment. I stop interacting with the student I'm mad at and I record the situation on paper.

This serves two functions. First, it stops me from reacting to the student and saying something mean, dumb, or counterproductive. Second, it serves as a record of the incident. My biggest and most successful strategy for dealing with management problems is to delay dealing with them till I am calm. Then, just a minute or two later, I am able to offer up a delay tactic. "Ma'am, why don't you get your notebook and get started on the assignment." Or "You've made some progress but we're running out of time. Maybe you can finish this problem before I get back around to your group?" The point here is to diffuse the situation and give myself time to gain perspective. Then, after class or at the beginning of the next class I can pull that student aside and chat with them if I need to. Often, I don't really need to.

All year I have used this book only six or seven times and looking back on the things that were irritating or angering me at the beginning of the year, it wasn't them, it was me. There have been episodes that needed a referral to the office, but mostly what I needed was to build a relationship with that student and understand where they were coming from. I wrote twice at the beginning of the year that a student refused to turn his music down when I asked... now I know that same student consistently does his work, he just needs his music to concentrate and also that he probably couldn't hear me ask. By the time I got his attention I was being a little abrupt with him and he needed to look cool in front of his peers.

If a teacher enters a public power struggle, the only person that HAS to win it is the student. They have to save face. Best to avoid the struggle and figure out why the issue is even an issue in the first place.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Some Random Thoughts on the Week Before Finals

I missed the blog last week in part because I went to a conference for science teachers on Saturday. The last day of a conference is not the best day, but I did come away with some great ideas for teaching DNA and I've started planning "DNA Day" in the same vein as our photosynthesis lesson. I may dress up as Rosalind Franklin. So, that's something to look forward to next semester.


One thing I've done that I'm really happy about is the semester concept map. When I decided to do interactive notebooks I planned the first page of the notebook for a concept map of everything we learned. I had the students write the name of the class (either Biology or Field Biology) in the middle of the page and told them to leave the rest of the page blank and we'd come back to it. They completely forgot about it, of course, but this last week I had them open their notebooks and as a class we looked back on everything we've done and learned while we built a concept map. It was a great way to review before finals and also a really great visual to show all of us what we've accomplished in the semester.

Even though we covered the same stuff in each class, each concept map turned out slightly different because some classes remembered things slightly differently. All the same concepts were there, but sometimes students named them slightly differently or put them at different places on the map. It was interesting from my perspective and I heard several students say something along the lines of, "we've learned a lot," which is nice.


I'm happy with the first half of our school year but the next semester there are several things I want to do differently and now is the time to start planning.

1. Missing assignments should be put in the system as zeros the day they are missing. Students will make up work a lot faster if they see how their grade is effected. I was too nice this semester and it worked to the detriment of both me and the students.

2. Parents need to be e-mailed about grades before the six weeks. Some students who aren't motivated get suddenly motivated when parents are contacted.

3. I need to ask the students more questions and better questions when we are doing whole class instruction. I need to work this into my planning... I also need to get the students to ask me questions.

4. More free writing and at least one formal writing assignment. They need to do a research paper... especially my higher level students. I remember how much I hated research papers but I also remember how much I learned from them.

5. Math. My main goal for next semester is literacy with graphs. They need this for the ACT but it's also just a darned useful skill to have.


Anyway, we are cruising on up to Christmas and at this point both the students and I are more than ready for the break. I'm planning on being much more prepared for my second semester. I love my job, and I'm honestly surprised that it's still a source for satisfaction and joy. I knew teaching would be hard, and it is, but it's also very much worth it.

Monday, November 30, 2015

What makes a good teacher?

I have a couple of cheerleaders who tell me regularly that I AM a good teacher. I am very thankful for these people. I'm not sure first year teachers get to feel like good teachers very often... or maybe it's just me. I'm confronted on the daily with things I was supposed to know that I don't know, or things that I'm not doing as well as I could. Still, my students are mostly engaged and they seem to be learning things.

The teacher evaluation process is not really great at helping pin these things down. I mean, I know what I need to do to get a better (not that it was bad) evaluation next cycle and I also know that those things translate to a better classroom, but I'm not positive that those things are the same as being a 'good teacher'. In fact, though I doubt a really bad teacher could pass evaluation, I'm not sure a really good teacher would necessarily get a great evaluation. It's nobody's fault really... it's just that it's hard to pin down and there's a lot of bureaucracy aimed at keeping mediocrity at bay that doesn't necessarily identify things like sincerity.

So I thought that maybe thanksgiving would be a good time to pin these things down for myself, personally. Holidays are great placeholders for that kind of thing. Next year I can reread this post and see if I've changed my mind. What ten things do I think make a good teacher... and do I have them?

1. Sincerity: Students don't buy what you're selling (education) if you don't buy it yourself. Do I think what I'm teaching is important and can I tell them why?

Hmmm... most of the time I do.

2. Knowledge: Do I know what I'm talking about?


3. Organization: Can I find a paper when it's needed? Do I know where each student is at in the grading process?

I'm adequate. I can do better. I've been instituting a new filing system... need to finish that.

4. Timely feedback: How quick is the turnaround on grading? Do students know how they are doing?

Again, I'm pretty good but I can do better. It's easy to get bogged down in paperwork.

5. Listening: Do I pay attention to student concerns?

Yes. I think I got this one.

6. Engagement: Do I care about engagement and am I achieving it?

Yes, and mostly. I have one class who loves everything I do and a few students in every class who dislike everything I do. Engagement isn't 100% but it's maybe 90% and that's not terrible. And you know, few students are 100% engaged all of the time but every student is engaged some of the time. As always, there's room for improvement.

7. Rigor: Are we learning the hard stuff?

Yes. I think I may need to scale back on some things and up on other things... it's a process but I don't feel like I'm skimping on content and I have taught college level classes.

8. Long Term Learning: Are kids just learning things to pass the test and then forgetting all about them or am I helping them aquire knowledge and skills that they'll still have after they leave me?

I have no idea. I need to assess this.

9. Am I helping everybody grow? Is the whole bell curve of kids getting something from my class?

This needs serious consideration in my classroom. I think they are all getting something, but some aren't challenged much and some are struggling too hard. Does a kid need a special designation to get a modified assessment or assignment? Shouldn't I engage with students wherever they are at even if they don't have a special piece of paper that tells me to? I can't see anybody thanking me for upping the level of an assignment for them just because I know they can do it. I'd like to work game theory into my classes... you know, in my free time, I'll work on that.

10. Am I happy? : A grumpy teacher is a bad teacher... I know this from my days as a student.

I am. I think I can do this.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Primary Literature in the High School Classroom

Let me tell you about the lesson I'm proudest of from last week. Of course, I'm sure there are things I'll tweak about this process in the future, but we've had some amazing academic rigor this week and good participation from my field bio students in spite of the difficulty of the lesson. To set the stage, you should know that I've been trying to bring the primary literature into the classroom at least once per unit and that it hasn't always been entirely successful. This is hard stuff for high school students. Heck, this is hard stuff for most people.

I went to the KABT conference a while back and came away with some potato-dextrose agar plates and some knowledge about the mutualistic relationship between plant roots and fungus. Also, in the planning stages of this lesson, I had access to our prairie restoration project (which has since gone away...mostly).

After playing with the few plates they gave me, I looked into the process of making my own and I came up with an idea for a lab where we would compare the fungus at the roots of prairie plants with the fungus at the roots of other grasses on campus. It really isn't hugely important that we actually find a difference, just that we know there's a question to answer. Then I found a paper on the subject. It's freely available on the internet and includes lots of background information as well as some new research. If I were a grad student, I might feel like it's out of date, but as a high school teacher, it's perfect.

 We've been studying ecology with a particular eye on Kansas natural history (because of the prairie restoration project that made such an emphasis seem even more desirable). The students have an understanding of various symbiotic relationships. The problem was linking the paper to the lab and then scaffolding our interactions with the text of the paper in such a way as to help the students get maximum understanding without completely taking away the benefits of bumping up against some really hard text.

On day one I passed out the paper and the initial lab write-up which included procedures for our own lab. I read the abstract aloud and had the students follow along, identifying important words and vocabulary that they didn't understand. Each class compiled a vocabulary list that the individual students then completed Avid vocabulary awareness charts for.(These are basically charts that allow the students to identify how familiar they are with a word and then define it.)

After we had read the abstract and defined our new words, we began our own lab and collected roots from our former restoration area and elsewhere. The area hasn't been mowed down that long and the plants are still there... might as well get as much benefit from that as we can.

Day two involved cloze notes from the paper and combing through it as a class, digging out the information paragraph by paragraph. Cloze notes are a cousin of Cornell notes. Basically I read through the paper carefully, taking notes myself, and then I typed them up and removed many of the important words. The students had to go through and find the words to complete my notes. When that's done they interact with them in various ways.

Some paragraphs I read aloud and they found the information they needed as I read. Some paragraphs I had them read on their own and find the information. We slogged through it together, identifying even more vocabulary words as we went. We'll finish this reading on Tuesday and then finish the lab and do some final analysis of it. It's not easy but they are participating and I'm kind of proud that nobody has thrown up their hands and said, "Mrs. G this is just too hard". Well, actually, the first class did have a student say that but we backed up and started over and got past that.

How do I know I've got engagement? They've stopped me mid-sentence, in every class, with, "Mrs. G. I have a word for your list." The vocabulary for this isn't coming from me. They are picking it out on their own and they really do want to understand it. They are slogging through it with me. Nobody's dancing in their seats with anticipation for this activity but I'm really proud of how the focus easily shifted from, "What are you going to grade?" to "What does this mean?"... it's almost like learning is the focus for everybody in the room. How cool is that?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Day In The Life: First Year Biology Teacher

The alarm goes off at 5:00 AM but I hit snooze at least twice. There's nobody else in the house that I'll bother or wake up, but it still feels silly because I don't really get any extra sleep. The goal is to be out of the door by 6:30. On a good day I actually make it to the school by 6:30. Hooray for easy to deal with hair!

There are two times of day that nobody is competing for the copy machine. One is late in the evening and the other is early in the morning. When I started I was a late in the evening kind of person, but since I hurt my leg I've switched. It's harder to go back and forth between my house and the school than it used to be and I've streamlined things so that I'm not making multiple trips.

Thursday I didn't need lots of copies but I did make a few for students that missed or lost papers from the class before. After making copies I set up my classroom for the day. There is always a long list of things to do but I prioritize the things that will make that day better for the students. Longer term thinking and less urgent things can be done on my planning period or after school.

We were doing three different things in class on Thursday and they were all loosely related but it felt messy because some of them were left over from the previous unit. Three is a magic number. If something takes about twenty-five minutes (give  or take), and that's about the right amount of time before students get antsy, then you can fit three of them in one 80 minute class. This is a good way to plan because it helps keep students moving and it's less boring, but sometimes it backfires and then you are left with bits of things to finish the next class period, which is really what was going on Thursday. We had three bits of unfinished business.

I usually write the essential question on the top left hand side of the board. The question is the thing that pulls the unit together... but some of our stuff for Thursday was a recap of things we were studying in the previous unit so I wrote both questions. This school uses the words "do" and "know" as prompts for the objectives. I haven't decided if I like this better or not but it's what we do so I put, "Investigate Osmosis" for our do and "How the cell uses ATP" for our know. I spent entirely too much time Thursday morning worrying about this detail.

They start class with a vocabulary activity from the website and I write those activities in the morning before class. For a while after I hurt myself we skipped quia because I was having a hard time getting them done but the students missed it and asked me to bring it back. Now I make a point of having one every day, even if it's only a few words of hangman. Vocabulary is super important to the subject and if the kids actually WANT to work with vocabulary, it would be dumb to skip it.

One of our three things was finishing up a lab that we'd started the class period before and we needed the balances for it, so I set up for the lab. Getting to school really early makes the whole day go more smoothly. I had the class set up before school AND blue days are days that I have first period plan, so I could spend time thinking about Friday's lessons on my planning period. Actually getting to plan on my planning period is nice.

So, I stood in the hall for a few minutes before the bell rang and then I returned to my classroom and got to work on the next lesson, which I could write a book about but I'll spare you the details. I am trying to bring the primary literature into my field bio classes and it's NOT easy. I spent my time finding a perfect article that illustrated the relationship between fungus and plant roots and then brainstorming ways to make it accessible to the students.

Then it was showtime. My B3 class loves everything I do and that's great because they are the first class of the day and it's inevitable that they get the most unpolished version of my lessons. We watched this great animation of cell processes and talked about it while we watched.

There's a narrated version but it's really dry and awful. Asking the students what they thought was going on and explaining things myself went really well. It was a great way to recap our review of the previous unit and show the students the same material from a new perspective.

Then I went over diffusion and osmosis briefly to jog the student's memory. Instead of covering transport in one big chunk after we covered cells, I've been covering it in lessons along the way. The students seemed to have a firm grasp of osmosis and what we were trying to find in the lab. I was purposely going at this from a deductive perspective because inductive has backfired a couple of times. I set them loose to finish the lab and collect their data.

It's inevitable that some students finish before others. I directed them to look at the ATP energy handout that we'd begun a couple of class periods before. When all the groups had finished collecting data and cleaned up, we put the data into a table on the front white board and discussed it. I had the students find averages and we determined that we'd confirmed our hypothesis. Everything worked out really well with this lab in that everybody seemed to understand why we did it and what happened and why it was important.

Then I had them work on the energy handout. This was a resource I'd adapted from one found online that asked a lot of higher order questions about cell energy and ATP. I had the students work in groups to try and answer a couple of questions at a time and then we discussed them as a class. It went well, but not as well as I would have liked and I made mental notes for changing up my questioning process in the next class.

After that class was over and I did it all again for B3, which is one of my more challenging classes. They didn't like the video as well as my first class had. I had lunch and repeated the whole thing again with my B4 class... which is a very high energy class. They require a lot more redirection to stay on task because they are tired of being in school by the time B4 rolls around. Class discussions go really well in this class though, once I get them started.

Then there's seminar which I run a lot less strictly than I probably should. The atmosphere is really relaxed and, since I see these students every day, we know each other really well. One of my informal long-term goals is to figure out engaging ways to use this little chunk of time at the end of the day. Another thing that happens in seminar though is that my students from other classes come in for help and I tend to spend a lot of this time helping them figure out what they need to do to improve their grade or what assignments they are missing.

After school on Thursday I visited the classrooms of a couple of my colleagues so I could bounce ideas off of them about the primary literature thing. They were really awesome and I came away with some new strategies to try. I think it was 4:30 or 5:00 when I left the school but my work-day wasn't really over.

At home I watched an episode of Once Upon a Time (my current obsession) and then I finished making the potato-dextrose agar plates for the next day. This involved petri dishes and potatoes and powders and a pressure cooker.

I ate a couple of hot pockets, answered some personal e-mail, and then I wrote up a lab sheet to get us started on a multi-day lab related to the primary literature thing I'd been mulling over all day long. Field Biology also had loose ends from previous classes to tie up, so there was plenty for us to work on the next day.

It was after ten (really late for me these days) when I got to bed. I slept very well.