Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Disease Detectives

Students love to solve problems, and sometimes the simplest of activities can create excitement about an entire unit.  In sixth grade, we study infectious diseases and finding an interesting way to introduce the topic without scaring them about deadly diseases has been challenging for me.  However, we've created a disease detective activity that involves the whole sixth grade class, and it most definitely gets students excited about the upcoming unit.

The activity begins with a short introduction about the difference between infectious diseases vs. genetic diseases.  Then students are brought together and each student obtains a clear plastic cup containing an unknown clear liquid.  We ask the students to simultaneously exchange liquid using a dropper with another student to simulate having direct contact with another person.  We complete this for three round while the students carefully collect information about the order and person with whom they exchanged.  When the activity is complete we announce that unbeknownst to them, one student was infected with the deadly virus.  In reality, one cup contained a highly basic solution.  As that student exchanges the liquids with other students, they are altering the pH of their victim's solutions.  In dramatic fashion, we add "virus detector" (which in reality is simply phenolphthalein--a pH indicator) that makes their solutions turn bright pink to reveal if they've been infected.

The fun part comes in as students enter their data into the shared class data spreadsheet and try use logic to determine who was patient zero.  Below is a sampling of our class data:

This data generates lots of great discussion as well as a great introduction to epidemiology and infectious diseases.  I am always impressed at the level of thinking that many of these sixth graders do to solve this problem, and it definitely gets them excited to learn more about infectious diseases!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

It's not all about the kids

Many people upon hearing I'm a teacher say things like "You must love working with kids" or "I can imagine how rewarding it must be."  But if I am being totally honest, it isn't all about the kids.  I am really fortunate to be working in an environment of amazing professionals and intellectuals.  Additionally, these awesome people are also my friends.

So on those mornings when I am overworked and overtired, it isn't always the kids that get me out of bed.  I look forward to seeing my colleagues and know that they will support me, stimulate me intellectually, and above all make me laugh.  The type of camaraderie that develops amongst a great group of teachers is unmatched in almost any profession.  In higher education, where I worked for nearly 15 years, the environment was a lot more cut-throat and self-absorbed and I didn't have the same sense that we were in it together.  Here, everyday I know I am surrounded by people who have a real interest in seeing each other succeed.  And we take care of each other.

So while I wouldn't do this job without the sense of purpose I feel and the joy of helping kids discover new things, my colleagues are the real reason I continue to work here.

Hanging out on Halloween with this fun bunch.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

One of Those Good Days When Things Don't Go As Planned

I think good teaching is messy.  Highly structured teacher-driven classes are actually easier to teach, but they're not that engaging for students.  The best teachers I know are the ones that are responsive to what's happening in the classroom and are willing to go with a "teachable moment" when it strikes.  These moments can be scary, however, especially if they aren't part of the lesson plan.  Today in math class, I had one of those days.

My math class has been working on unit conversions and just started a unit on ratios and unit rates.  The worksheet I had assigned for last night's homework reviewed the concept of ratios in possibly one of the most boring ways--showing pictures of random items and asking kids to write the ratios in simplest form.  While it certainly helped them practice the concept, I couldn't help putting myself in their shoes thinking, "when would I ever need to know the ratio of flowers to pliers?"

To counter the worksheet, I decided to make sure we had some real world applications in class today.  Using a "Dan Meyer-style" format (See this link for more information--Dan Meyer--Ted Talk), I told the kids to watch as I ran back and forth across the classroom.  I then asked them to figure out what the question was I wanted them to answer.  Hands shot up (high level of engagement).  This is always the scary part for me as a teacher.  You never quite know what will come out of the mouths of 12 year-old boys.  The first questions were somewhat lame.  I was a little nervous.  I started writing their questions on the board.  As they progressed, the questions got more detailed and more sophisticated until finally someone asked "How fast am I going?"  Bingo!

Now that we had established the question, I asked what would we need to know to answer the question.  Lots of hands went up.  We easily established that the distance traveled was required to solve the problem. One student suggested how important it was for us to know how many steps I took.  And many agreed.  But several students insisted it wasn't.  Now came the great unplanned debate.  We spent a huge amount of time as students argued their cases passionately.  While much of their logic was flawed, I got to sit back and watch my boys argue about math.  Everyone got in on it.  It was one of those moments.  With a little help from me as a class we finally agreed that only the distance and time was needed to solve the problem.

I couldn't have planned this better if I had tried.  Seeing students so engaged, forming arguments and debating math was a little slice of heaven for this math teacher.  It would have been so much easier to simply teach a lesson on unit rates and then give them a worksheet, but tonight they have one problem--figuring out how fast I was going.  As I passed kids in the hallway heading down to lunch, I heard some of them still talking excitedly about how to solve it.  I can't wait to hear our discussion tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Challenge/Exhilaration of Teaching Digital Natives

Let's face it.  Kids these days are raised on technology.  Expose them to a new program, game, or application and they run with it.  Take the same new technology to a group of adults and there is often fear, trepidation, and sometimes revolt.  I consider myself strongly average when it comes to learning and dealing with new technology, yet I've seen how valuable some of the technology tools are in the classroom.  So what's a teacher to do?  Do I devote countless hours learning a new technology so I can be an expert?  How will I find time to do that in my busy day?

That's me "faking" my way through technology.

The issue was forced on me a number of years ago when I was assigned to teach a 6th grade computer class.  My initial reaction was one of fear (or to be more honest more like horror).  How in the world was I going to teach a technology class when I myself struggled, at times, with technology?  As part of an assignment during the first few weeks of school, students were asked to create an autobiographical PowerPoint presentation in an attempt for students to learn how to use the technology and for us to get to know them better.  In the course of their work a student asked me how to insert some audio into the presentation.  I trembled with the fear of being discovered as an imposter, as I wasn't very familiar with the program at the time and didn't know what to do.

What I didn't realize, however, was that my room was full of "digital natives," and one of those heroes came to my rescue.  "Let's try this," said one student to the other.  "Or you can try this," said another.  "I think you can do it like this."  Their willingness to just get in there, roll up their sleeves, and assist each other was amazing.  At that point I realized that my approach to teaching technology was all wrong.  One does not have to be an expert with technology to use technology or even teach technology.  Working with technology is all about attitude.  You have to be open-minded and willing to put yourself out there.  You can't always be the expert and have to be willing to ask for help.  I see it as the perfect way to model lifelong learning for students and to allow students to see how to handle a situation when you don't know how to do something.  It empowers students to know that they can sometimes figure things out on their own and that even the "technology teacher" doesn't know everything.

From that point forward, I was much more welcoming of technology in my classroom.  My digital natives can figure things out ten times faster than I can.  All I have to do is to be generally familiar with what I am doing, and the students will help me and each other figure things out.  While being in that unfamiliar territory can be scary for many teachers, it's often a place where much learning by trial and error occurs.  And that's a place I like to be.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What I've Learned from Student-Athletes

Competitive sports were a big part of my upbringing.  Much of my identify and self-confidence came from participating in organized sports.  For that reason, it isn't surprising that I would find my way to coaching middle school and upper school athletes.  Now in my ninth year as varsity swimming coach, I've learned so much about coaching.  What has surprised me most, however, is what I have learned about students.

1.  Students and athletes are very different people.

I will admit to having looked depressingly at the sign-up list for the swim team and feeling a wave of panic at a name on the list.  Rarely, however, has this turned into an issue on the swimming team.  A pool or sports field is a completely different environment than the classroom, and my experience is that students will rarely exhibit the same behaviors in both places.  I have learned to put aside my prejudices and give everyone a chance.  A student who is challenging in the classroom is often a hard-working athlete and fierce competitor.  And surprisingly, sometimes those top-notch students do not know how to push themselves physically and are afraid to take risks.

2.   Students respond differently to coaches than they do teachers.

For many students, being a coach gives you elevated status.  Perhaps it is because you are seen as an expert in something beyond the classroom, and it makes you more human.  That is, students believe you to be more than just a teacher and an actual person.  I get to see students at their best and their worst.  There's nothing like a tough workout or triumphant swim at a meet to reveal their character.  At those times, I take great care to provide the right encouragement or criticism that will help to move them forward.  You have students' full attention in those moments and you don't always get those raw character-building opportunities in the classroom.  It is a huge responsibility, and I take it very seriously.

3.  All students benefit from competitive sports.

I've often heard parents say, "My child just isn't competitive or athletic."  I say you haven't found the right sport.  Intrinsic motivation and being the best you can be is the key to participating successfully in any competitive sport.  In life and sports, someone will always be better than you.  It's important for kids to learn this at young age. What's most important is always trying to be better than you were the day before and putting forth your best effort.  It's the epitome of the growth mindset.  It's easier to achieve this in some sports (like swimming, track or cross country) compared with others, but the lesson is incredibly valuable.  Success isn't measured by wins but by putting yourself out there, doing your best, and finding ways to get better.  It's the reason why I put as much effort into coaching my top athletes as I do my less talented swimmers.  They all can be successful by this measure.

Monday, November 30, 2015

That Beautiful Intersection of Math and Art (Beyond the Classroom)

I know that I am very fortunate to work in a highly collaborative environment, and I know it helps to make me a better teacher.  This year when my colleague came to me with the idea that we should incorporate some art into math class, I was a bit skeptical.  I am so thankful for the nudge she gave me that helped us to create one of my favorite math units of all time.

We began the unit by introducing the idea of fractals in both the natural world and in design.  Students were fascinated by the concept, and I began to hear conversations outside of the classroom about fractals and patterns in nature.  Surprisingly students took their ideas well beyond the classroom, which was a pleasant side effect and demonstrated their enthusiasm for the topic.  Suddenly, students who usually trudged their way through math class were excited to discover more and to create their own fractal artwork.  (See examples below of students' work).  I was stunned to see how clearly they were able to demonstrate their understanding.


We followed our fractal unit with an activity in which students discovered the Fibonacci sequence.  I was also shocked to see how determined my students were to discover the pattern and how often it was worked out by students who by traditional standards weren't my strongest students.  Clearly we had touched on something that engaged all students in a way I had not seen before in my class.  Students were then tasked with creating a piece of art that was inspired by the Fibonacci sequence, and again they did not disappoint me.  (See the examples below).

The capstone of our unit was when we invited a successful local artist, who uses a lot of fractals and draws inspiration from the Fibonacci series, and he shared with us his process and the beauty of pattern and repetition.  It was magical to watch our students be inspired by math!