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 If I were a grad student, I might feel like it's out of date, but as a high school teacher, it's perfect.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.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Overwhelmed, but Otherwie Fine.

It's Monday and my plan was to post on Sundays... but, well, life.

I have half of tomorrow's lesson planned at 6:16 in the evening and I'm posting to my blog. I just got home from meetings. Also, grades are due tomorrow morning. So... it's going to be a work late kind of a day.

I have had awesome lessons and less than awesome lessons and I still feel like I can be a great teacher but there's a vague sense of anxiety that hang over most days. It's a feeling like I'm not doing something I'm supposed to have done. It's not horrible and I do still feel like this is where I'm supposed to be, but goodness... this is a BIG job.

Next week maybe I'll do one of those 'day in the life' posts where I break it down for you. There are lots more holidays, teaching, than there ever were in retail, but I pay for those days off with days like this where it feels like it's all "on".

Now, excuse me while I find the perfect resources for a lesson about community ecology that won't require a last minute trip to the store or three hours worth of prep time. Tomorrow's going to be great, and I'm not even being sarcastic... I just don't really know what it's going to look like yet.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

My First Year Teacher's Week in Review

This week comes to you in three acts.

Act One: The Desolation of Smaug

I don't want to overstate it... but my week started out poorly. I was feeling rotten, physically, for reasons I'll get into later. I'm pretty good at soldiering through that, but you know I'd also become a bit lax with things like, "bell to bell instruction". Meaning that I had things for the students to do on Monday and Tuesday and they were pretty good things but they weren't really big enough things. We have block scheduling and 80 minutes is a long time. I have alternated between planning too much and planning not enough. Too much is definitely better by all accounts. Classroom management has not been a huge problem for me, but it's definitely easier when we are busy.

Also, they mowed down our prairie restoration project this week. I knew it was coming. I just didn't think it would be so soon. I had stuff planned for us to do there this week, and it threw me for a loop. I don't want to make administration out to be the bad guy here. They had reasons. I disagree with them, but they know more about the project than I do and they've lived with it longer than I have. The thing is, I've worked kind of hard on it. One of my colleagues has worked even harder, and the students have done a lot of work on it also. It was a blow and downplaying it with the students has been kind of hard. Even the students who weren't fond of it are irritated that they spent that time removing invasive species only to have the whole thing mowed down...

So anyway, the week started out poorly but I had big plans for Wednesday, and that brings me to-

Act Two: Greener Pastures

The photosynthesis lesson I've been planning since before I got this job happened on Wednesday. I hyped it up for weeks. My seminar kids helped me decorate the classroom. We hung green streamers made from cheap plastic table cloths. We pasted color photographs of plant cells and cross sections of leaves all over the classroom. We put up balloons. One student made a lovely sign on one of the whiteboards that read "Happy Photosynthesis Day". The stage was set for my attempt to make one of the most borring lessons of the whole year into the most fun.

I dressed up as "Photosynthesis Woman" in a green wig with a green cape and a large P painted on my chest. When the students got to class I passed out green index cards that had their names on them and said, "Happy Photosynthesis Day". Each one had an Andes mint taped to it.

We worked through the light reactions on paper and then the students took turns being the protein complexes in the electron transport chain and handing around tennis balls and ping pong balls for hydrogen ions and electrons.

Then we watched a short video about the calvin cycle and worked through that on paper also... By the end of class we were all exhausted.

I don't think I succeeded entirely in making it fun, but the rigor was definitely there.

It should be noted also that my Thursday and Friday lessons were pretty good also. So the week ended on a much better note than it started on.

Act Three: A Leg Up

I don't think I've mentioned here that I broke my leg at the beginning of the month (of October). I was at work, walking my class from an assembly to the classroom and a couple of students got into an argument. I turned around backward to try and mediate. There's a short stairway in one of the halls near my classroom. I fell down it.

I ended up in an ambulance and it was a huge embarrassing mess. Not to mention that I'm sure it cost the district a ridiculous amount of money. I broke my fibula, which it turns out isn't a bad bone to break. It hurts but it heals quickly and it's not the weight bearing bone. Unfortunately, I tore up my knee also, though, and that is going to possibly be something I'm dealing with the rest of my life.

I don't mean that I'll be in pain my whole life or that I'll be unable to walk or anything... but I'm in a position of deciding in the next six weeks if I want to have surgery or not. If I opt out, I may have to avoid tennis and basketball the whole rest of my life. I'm 43 and I've never played tennis or basketball, so it's probably a non-issue, really. It just feels like a monumental decision to make for Future Me.

On the bright side, I am now able to be independent. I can get everything I need to do done without extra help. My leg is stronger every day and I'm starting to ditch the crutches. Still, I recommend not walking backwards... not even when you are trying to watch your students.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

My First Few Months of Teaching : Some things I think I know

So, I haven't posted here since I was substitute teaching. I had some things I thought I knew and some of them were true. I am not that teacher who has it all together. I'm not sure you can be in your first year. Here are some things I'm learning.

There are two views that I go into each day with. How do I get through this day as smoothly as possible? How does it fit into a bigger picture? Planning isn't anything like I thought it would be and absolutely nothing like planning a college level lecture. At the college level my syllabus laid out everything in a tidy way and each lecture led to another and I knew what the whole semester would look like. But this isn't college... this is so much harder than that. The bigger picture is easy to lose sight of in the day to day.

I teach two classes. One is Biology and the other Field Biology. Biology is easier in some ways, especially because lots of my colleagues are teaching it also. THEY already have a grasp on the bigger picture and I can muddle along in their wake, content in the knowledge that it will all make sense in the end. Field biology is a mess in this sense because figuring out how each lesson fits with the next is not always smooth. Sometimes we have a day that, afterward, doesn't seem to fit in with our unit very well. My students are awesome though and they roll with things and we are learning all this together.

Lets see, as long as we are talking about the difference between high school and college, here's another. I have TIME. I hear other teachers complaining that we don't have enough time to cover everything that we're supposed to, but when your view of a learning environment goes from college to high school, things expand exponentially. Don't get me wrong- I don't want to drag my feet and waste learning time, but if we get sidetracked on a conversation that's off topic but still educational in some way... it's all good. I'm no longer teaching Biology 101. Now I'm teaching kids and these people will remember these sidetracked conversations long after they've forgotten what a mitochondria is.

And one last thing I learned in my transition from teaching college to (with a long hiatus in between) substituting at all grade levels, and finally to teaching high school is that the difficulty level of teaching is inversely proportional to the experience level of the student. Kindergarten is HARD. Those students don't know how to be in a classroom at all. Third grade is much easier but those teachers are doing everything from math and reading to art and science and those students are still learning how to be people. Middle school is chaotic because those students are still going through puberty and they are in the emotional turmoil that causes. High school is easier than all of those.

My students know how to be people and they have some idea of what to expect in a classroom environment. I mean, it's not like they want to be there, but they understand the fundamentals.

Finally, college is teaching at its easiest. It's a level where you can step back and assume that students will learn the material without a lot of prodding from you. We put college professors up on a pedestal because they are experts in the content, but when it comes to teaching, content is only one piece of the puzzle. I think that college professors would benefit from an internship at a public school. I know we would benefit from them too. The pedagogy that they are missing and the content expertise that they have could close some of the gap between these levels.

Anyway, those are my thoughts about my job today. Maybe I'll come back next Sunday with some more musings from my first year of teaching.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What I've Learned about Teaching as a Substitute

I'm not an expert about any of this. I'm just trying to learn and this is my current hypothesis. I can walk into any room and, using volume and attitude, get a measure of control of the situation in a few minutes, but volume and attitude get you only so far, even as a substitute. I actually like teenagers and I feel like this works in my favor quite a bit too... but after about twenty minutes, whatever the kids are used to is pretty much the way things are going to go.

I have been in the same schools enough to have had the same students in various classrooms and there are a lot of things that determine how a class is going to go, both for me and for the kids. The same student can be a joy or a pain, and as a substitute I've noticed that the experience varies widely in different classrooms. What seems to make the biggest difference, is how 'together' the teacher is. The teacher's expectations and the routine that the students get into in that class make a difference even when the teacher isn't there. Habit is very strong.

Some teachers have it together and some don't. I'm not a 'have it together' kind of person generally speaking, but I can get it together in aspects of my life. I want to be the teacher who is on top of things.

Teachers who have it together seem to have a few things in common. First, they are teaching something, even when it's just me in the classroom. They have a plan that's not about filling the time and keeping the students busy but about learning something. The best experience I've had as a substitute so far has been in a math classroom at the middle-school level. Middle-school is a challenging age group, so that's saying something. The teacher's plan wasn't for me to review something the students already knew or just keep the students busy. We were learning factoring which was new territory for the kids and forgotten territory for me. He had me show two videos on the subject and then gave me two examples to work on the board, which I understood well because of the examples in the video. Then the students did the practice from a worksheet. There was plenty to do and none of it was busy work, and even better, in the process I learned the material well enough to trouble-shoot for the kids who ran into problems. It was an awesome day for me and a productive day for the kids.

Teachers who have it together have a consistent procedure to deal with things like bathroom breaks and visiting other classrooms. Students expect the consistency to carry over to the substitute and tend not to push the boundaries too much. Together teachers leave instructions like, "students are not to leave the classroom without a pass and only one student should be out of the classroom at any given time". Because the teacher is consistent with this procedure, the students follow it much more gracefully with the substitute. They expect things to work a certain way because that's how the day-to-day in that classroom goes.

These teachers tend not to have empty bulletin boards. I'm not positive that this has a huge impact because I have had good days in generic looking rooms but most teachers who have it together have interesting things up on the walls that I, as a visitor, learn something from. Things are organized. You can walk into most of these classrooms and feel like the day is going to go well because the environment looks like someplace you would want to spend time in.

I'm worse than a rookie. I'm not even in the game yet, but I'll revisit these observations on down the line and let you know if I'm onto something or full of it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My Life: The Musical

I just thought it would be fun to pretend I'm singing this. Actually though, that would only be fun for me. Here are just some things that have been going on and have kept me busy and distracted.

I'm dating a guy. I like him. He likes me. I think we're both a little gun-shy and figuring the other shoe is going to drop. It's okay.

I'm working most days. I've been substitute teaching in a couple of districts and I get up every morning and suit up and look for a job and most days I find one. I enjoy my work. I like high school best but an occasional day with the adorable little ones is good too. I have been in some of the same classes enough that the kids know me and I kind of know them... though I seriously have to figure out how to get better at learning everybody's name.

I've been reading a lot about teaching and I'm going to take a couple of classes this summer so I can get my license again. I feel like I could be a really good teacher and that I would enjoy it and have something to offer... so I feel pretty good about my professional options. In any case, I feel a lot better than I did a few months ago.

Jasmine is about to graduate and prom is next weekend and she's taking the ACT again on the same day as prom and with all the craziness we haven't really planned well for things like hair and nails and all that girly prom stuff that we were very much on top of last year. She's planning on going to Emporia State and I'm very proud of her, but at the moment she's understandably a huge ball of anxiety and excitement.

 Oh, also, we have to move. My landlord needs this house for her son who is graduating college. I found a place and my new landlords seem like a good guys... so I won't be homeless. The new place is nicer and bigger than where we are now, so that's good. Moving in the middle of all this craziness is not so great but it will all work out.