I’m back!

I recently realized its been about a year and a half since I last posted. Yikes.

Why you may ask? Last school year, 2012-2013, I started teaching AP Biology and ever since it’s been a whirlwind of fast paced, in-depth content on top of keeping up with the planning, grading, etc… of my other classes. So, needless to say I’ve spent the past year, well teaching. Oh, yeah, not to mention coaching cross-country and track while trying to have a bit of a life too…

I have had many great experiences and have grown as an educator and a person. This growth has occurred in many facets. First, developing my ability to teach a high level of content while holding a pace to be prepared for the AP test in May. Secondly, I have a better understanding of my content area, which allows me to break it down to its key points to; being more successfully reaching out and teaching all students. Finally, for this post, I feel more confident as an educational leader in my school.

I’m not saying the whirlwind is gone, not by far, but I am keeping my head slightly higher above the water. With this extra breathing room I plan to revitalize Is This Science? and continue to share my lessons learned, project and assessment ideas, and some of the fun and ever entertaining stories of being a high school Biology teacher. The ones that make you ask: is this science?


Let them struggle, so they can learn.

Let me begin by saying 100% believe that all students are different. Each and every student has a variety of strengths and weaknesses as unique as their genetic sequence.

As educators our job is to provide instruction in a variety of ways to play to our students strengths, while also improving upon their weaknesses. This is done in countless ways starting with differentiated instruction, accommodations determined necessary by IEP and 504 teams, or something as simple as spending a few extra minutes at the end of class double checking a student wrote down his/ her homework. Recognizing these differences and solving the puzzle of how to connect with, and help each student learn are crucial aspects of the educational process.

The most important part of learning is learning how to learn. Developing critical thinking, judgement, and problem solving skills only comes through practice. These types of skills do not come easy, and they certainly do not spontaneously develop. They are learned by struggling, getting frustrated, confused until you have your “ah ha!” moment.

A fear I have at times as I see students working with assistants or tutors as part of their accommodations is that they no longer are given the opportunity to surpass a roadblock and celebrate an ah ha. Instead they’ve been conditioned to give up when they get stuck and get the answer given to them “help”.

This is not our students’ fault, Pavlov would proud of what we’ve accomplished. When a paragraph of text isn’t understood, instead of rereading it a few times, practicing reading comprehension, students can easily find someone to tell them what they need to write, as long as they look frustrated or confused enough.(who’s been conditioned anyway?) Oftentimes, when a problem gets tough the towel is thrown and the battle to solve it is over; instead someone around can “help” me solve it.

The best successes are those that come from a hard fight. In the end students are more proud of an accomplishment they worked for than of anything that is simply handed to them, even if it was hard,

We need to rethink how we support students. Re-train the staff that provide the support. Student should be allowed to struggle, get frustrated with hard work. Our role should be to facilitate or prompt how to get over a hurdle. It should not be to carry them over the hurdle, or put them on a track without hurdle all together, for fear they won’t clear it.

A student who difficulty with reading comprehension will never develop those skills if she never has to grapple with informational text. If she is simply told what to write based on the ability of someone else to read and understand the text for her she will not grow.

This is a monumental system wide change, but equally in magnitude is its importance. The first step starts at home. My goal for next year is to help more directly model, for those assistants I work with, how to facilitate problem solving without solving the problem.

Happy Birthday!

Today marks the 1st birthday of Is This Science?! What a great year it’s been. First and foremost I want to thank all of my faithful readers. Your responses and opinions truly mean a lot; providing inspiration to continue to write the next post.

It’s been a busy year with just under 5,500 views, due in part to being freshly pressed in April. I am pleased and amazed!  Knowing that my thoughts have been read by so many* far exceeds any expectations I had going into this endeavor a year ago.

*Don’t worry, I am a scientist, I realize those are not 5,500 individual people. I’m thankful for the repeat offenders.

To honor the 1 year anniversary of ITS? I’ve put together a collection of my personal favorite posts from 2011. Enjoy!

Bang!: The post that kicked off ITS? an introduction of me and my goals.

Man vs. Chicken: A Battle in the Name of Science: My reflection on a great activity I use in my Human Biology class, featured by WordPress, being freshly pressed.

We’re All People: A reminder to teachers to keep in mind our students are people too. And like all people, have lots of distractions, turmoil, chaos in their lives. So, let’s treat them accordingly.

What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing: The trouble with standardized testing, my take.

“Is that a clip on?” and Teaching: A Community Approach two examples of how I put a strong emphasis on building community in my classroom. Nothing says community like tie tying and grilled cheese.

Cheers to another great year! Stay tuned for what’s to come!

Another Face of Ambition

I’ve been part of a few conversations lately regarding professional ambition. Most of  these conversations have been from the business perspective. In business someone puts in long hours, works hard to impress the ‘powers that be’ and hopefully you get a new, better job, a dream job. Better because it’s more interesting, engaging, exciting, or pays you more money. This person would probably be labeled as ambitious.  In the business would it’s a lot easier to see ambition, and see goals as they are achieved and new goals are made. You climb the corporate ladder, beating out the other man or woman, and you become more and more successful; the goal of the ambitious.

I believe that because this same ladder climbing doesn’t occur in education people have the misconception that teacher’s aren’t ambitious. Especially when they are portrayed in the media and then in peoples’ minds as simply wanting to find a good school to teach in and ride it out until retirement. This is false. Just because in education we as teachers are not pitted against each other (hopefully) to get ‘better’ jobs, or to compete for success in the same way as the business world, does not mean that we are not ambitious.

Some may say that part of climbing the ladder in education is getting seniority so that you can teach the ‘good’ classes, the honors or the AP. For some teachers this may be their ambition, but for me it isn’t. I currently teach students that have a huge variety of learning styles and academic skills, and that’s what I love about teaching: the variation. I love the challenge of finding ways to reach out to, connect with, and teach all students because all students deserve to have their lives enriched by science, by Biology.

Though it sounds corny and cliché this is my ambition: to make as many students lives better, as I can. To know that I played a role in providing them with knowledge and opportunities that would not have had otherwise. As I have thought about writing this post for the past few weeks, I’ve rolled my thoughts over and over in my head and realized it is not a ladder I wish to climb that marks my ambition, but a web I hope to build; a web of people. People, who I have taught, connected with and had an impact on their lives.

Being in my forth year this web has begun to form. In June, 2011, the sophomores I taught during my first year graduated, some moved on to college, other to careers. The seniors I taught in my first year of teaching are now juniors in college or into their third year of their job, volunteering or other post-high school options. In this short time my ambition has started to bear fruit, as I have several instances that I mark as achievements.

  1. December 2010: A ’09 graduate came back to visit me after completing her first semester at Maine Maritime Academy, where she is studying Marine Biology. She thanked me for everything she learned in my Marine Biology class, and told me it solidified her desire to be a Marine Biologist.
  2. October 2011: A ’11 graduate stopped by, just say ‘Hi’. He graduated last June and has been working at a heavy machinery repair shop. He was excited to tell me about all the different jobs and responsibilities he has in that job and reminisce about the class he took with me two years ago.
  3. October 2011: Two students, ’10 and ’11 graduates saw me from across the mall and came over to fill me in about the apartment hunt they were on, as well as the classes and nursing program they are enrolled in at UVM.
  4. November 2011: A ’10 grad, sophomore in college now, sent me a message wondering if I could send her a couple of the articles we had read in Marine Biology about the great Pacific Garbage Patch. She was studying it in one of her college courses and remember we had used to informative articles and websites.
  5. November 2011: I ran into a student who is now a freshman in college. She thanked me for making her work so hard in Human Biology because her Anatomy & Physiology class is a lot easier in college because she knows a lot of it already.

Each of these small occasions, plus many more, which occur day to day, mark times where I knew that I had impacted these people. My ambition to build a web of those who I have helped, taught, or made a difference to is progressing. At these times I am equally excited to hear specifically what the individual took from the class content, as I am to know that they have a connection with me that makes them want to share their life successes.

I invite educators to think about the web they are building and what qualities are you being remembered for. Is that the web you hope to leave behind? Finally, I urge non-educators to remember that just because our ambition has a different face, it is still there, and just as valuable.

Be The Light

As some of my more consistent readers may have noticed, it’s been a while since I’ve last put my thoughts to paper, or keyboard as it may be.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the end of the school year as any teacher will tell you is crazy, a fury of trying to wrap up final units, review, give and grade exams, and clean up a classroom that has a years worth of materials piled up.

Second, with the plethora of initiatives presented by our administration to conclude our year and begin preparations for next, as well as reductions in force there has been a lot of turbulence within the faculty.

Factions of sorts have formed based on positive and negative reactions to these changes. Factions that do not necessarily agree, get along, or are always as nice as they could be to others with different perspectives.

I choose to live my life being nice to people (a ground breaking philosophy I know). I do my best everyday to be as consistently nice as I can. However, I discovered an unfortunate side effect of this philosophy.

I am nice to and spend time with people on both sides of the fence. Which means I often experienced, we will say, less than nice discussion, gossip even, of members in other divisions of the faculty, people who I also spend time with. The oppoiste would then occur when spending time with the other group of people.

Needless to say, I found myself consistently being surrounded by negativity, no matter where or with whom I spent time with at school. As anyone who has experienced such constant negativity could tell you, it’s draining, and makes it hard to find the positive. Even when it is there.

Thus, due to my cynical and frustrated mindset towards the end of the year I took a break from writing until I could adequately present the positive and successful stories of the conclusion of my third year teaching.

Summer vacation has come just in time, allowing me the opportunity to surround myself with the positive and good aspects of my life and in a way recharge my deflector shields for next year. I do have positive words, thoughts and insights from the end of the year and I will share them with you over the next weeks of summer.

Finally, to anyone out there experiencing a similar overwhelming and what seems at times to be all encompassing negativity; do your best to find positive outlets. Exercise, read, listen to music. Do something for you to help stay in the positive mind set you want to be in. Do not succumb to the darkness, be a light for positive thought.

I Brake For Respect

Recently, I’ve had a class with an overall classroom environment trending towards disrespect and unkind behavior. Behavior directed both peer to peer and towards me. This class has always been a bit energetic and a bit wild. However, progressively over the last few weeks I have seen a downward spiral leaving me exasperated, stressed and frustrated at the end of each class, which happens to be the last block of the day, making everything seem magnified after an already long day.

One of the hardest parts, and most emotionally draining aspects of teaching for me is trying to get students to stop being mean to each other. Even through my best efforts to redirect this student energy, model, and explain why language is hurtful, I have found myself unsuccessful. Not to mention the damage is already done once I am correcting a student on a comment.

This spiral downward ended with a crash, burn and explosion during a 80 minute lab block last Thursday, which ended 2 students having to leave to meet with the assistant principal for unsafe lab behavior.

So, in response to this I knew I had to go back to basics if there was going to be an improvement.

On Friday as students walked in I handed them a piece of paper with three questions on it.

1. How do I want to be treated in Biology class?

2. How should I treat my peers in Biology class?

3. How should I treat Mr. Reid in Biology class?

For almost 15 minutes I had them answer these questions. As I walked around I noticed each student said they wanted to be treated with respect in one form or another. I then prompted them to think about and write: “What does respect mean to you?”. Two students tried to turn the activity into a joke, so I asked them to leave, and having told the assistant principal I was doing this, sent them to have the conversation with him, and work on their own without an audience.

After the independent write, we brainstormed ideas on the board. To do this, one at a time I called on students to share a thought they had for each of the questions. I then emphasized that each person wrote that they wanted to be treated with respect, and went over the list of things we came up with to describe what respect meant (listening, indoor voices, appropriate language, speaking one person at a time, to name a few). Then through continued conversation we came to the conclusion that the best way to get respect is give to respect, and tied this into the “golden rule” treat others how you want to be treated.

Finally, I had one student write down all the ideas from the board, which I then typed up and handed out on Monday during class. At which point we reviewed our class expectations. After reviewing on Monday we moved into the class activity and I saw a huge change in behavior. Even one of the students who left Fridays activity came in with more appropriate responses typed to give to me. During class students were accepting of the new class norm to raise hands (quietly) if you have something to add, the popcorn style had not been working, and there was  a clear decrease in picking at each other, trying to instigate controversy. This pattern continued into Tuesday and I have my fingers crossed for tomorrow’s long lab block.

I hope that this 40 minute break from Biology will be the stimulus for the much needed long term changes in classroom environment. I plan on returning to, and reviewing our new class expectations from time to time. It is certainly a lesson learned to have such an intervention much sooner at the signs of similar downward trend.

Sometimes we all need a reminder of what it means to Respect others.

We’re All People

I think one of the biggest misunderstandings that occurs between a student and a teacher is that one forgets the other is a person too. Students want instant gratification and feedback. Expecting all assignments to be graded over night, the weekend, or even sometimes the same day. While teacher’s on the other hand, myself included of course, oftentimes forget that our course is only 1 of any range from 4 to 8 classes that they are taking, and place demands on them sometimes forgetting that they have demands coming from other courses as well.

These academic demands don’t even come close to the demands of surviving in high school’s society. Balancing the choices you want for your life with how you will look, will you be cool, will you have friends. Add this to sports teams, musics, theater and art groups and the endless list of other extracurriculars. And finally, top that off with all the demands the come from home and family; because lets face it, less and less kids are growing up in the Cleaver household these days.

As I’ve mentioned before, building healthy, trusting and respectful relationships with my students is my prime goal throughout the year. Building these relationships allows me to connect with and in the end guide my students though the educational process.

My strongest recommendation to facilitate the formation of these relationships is to remember where students are coming from. Remember all the demands that are pushing and pulling them in every direction and give them the benefit of the doubt. Remember we can never truly know 100% what else is going on in their lives.

The two weeks leading up to the exam I had a section of my whiteboard dedicated to telling the days and times that each class would have its exam. Almost everyday as I would go over assignments I would remind students of the date of their exam. The last Friday before the exams I had a student ask “so what day is our exam?” In my head I am thinking “are you serious?” (There may have been an expletive in there, I don’t quite remember).

Now, it helps that I am a patient guy, like brake pads it takes long sustained wear, over a period of time for my patience to wear out and reach the end of my fuse.  Just to set the stage with this student there have been chronic missed assignments because he was unclear on what it was, when it was due, or consistently asks “so what are we doing?” after probably 10 minutes or more of going over directions multiple times for a task.

So, let me tell you there has been gradual and sustained wear on my patience, yet I  was still able to muster it. I waited a second, took  a deep breath and drew his attention to the board and reminded him that his exam would be on Wednesday of the following week. I even instructed him it might be a good idea to write it down.

Wednesday rolls around and he’s a no show. As I’m proctoring the exam I’m on the edge of fuming. Thinking about how he’s probably going to come in the next day, put on his confused “oh I didn’t know” act that he has used so many times in the past, not this time I decided.

I went to bed  still kind of mad about the situation. I woke up Thursday, and as I sat in my classroom waiting for students to come in for their exam, still thinking about this student, I realized getting mad at this guy isn’t going to help him get organized. Its definitely not going to put him in a good place in his head to take my exam. I know I wouldn’t put too much effort into an exam for teacher who I’m pissed at for getting mad at me.

So, sure enough he walked in Thursday, and had been confused about the day of the exam. I smiled, said “good morning, don’t worry about it” and gave him his exam to take. As he was leaving he thanked me for letting him take his exam.

“Thank you” simple words melted my frustration. It was a much better outcome than even the best results of me getting mad at this student. Even though maybe getting upset would have made me feel better when he first didn’t show, it certainly wouldn’t have helped him, and it wouldn’t have been the same as receiving his gratitude for cutting him some slack.

I found out last week that his mother has recently been diagnosed with cancer, it has metastasized throughout her entire body and into her brain.

We never know where our students are coming from, never have all the variables. Sometimes Biology, English, history, and math just can’t compete with what life throws at our students, and it would be a mistake to force them  to. Try to remember that so you don’t make one the biggest mistakes of your teaching career.

I know I will never regret smiling that morning.