Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Coolest Thing That Happened This Week

I feel like this should be a new feature here... Actually, it would be really cool to see other people's coolest thing.

Anyway, the coolest thing that happened this week had nothing to do with me. A student asked if he could read a poem in my class and he read it and everybody listened and the other students were very respectful and it was super cool. It was practice for a Forensics thing that he is participating in. It would be amazing if other students asked to do similar things. I think my favorite part was that it was student initiated and it had absolutely nothing to do with anything I requested or even envisioned.

I teach biology, not English. I'm not sure how much I have to do with this class having such a positive learning culture but I'm super excited that it does and I'd like to foster that more in all my classes... so that's what's on my mind today.

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?