Several days ago, Larry Ferlazzo posted on his blog: “What Are You Going To Do Differently Next Year?” I still have about a week to go before I start packing up my classroom, but his question has been rattling around in my head since I came across his post. What exactly would I do differently?
I think a particular sentence from the book, “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, best sums up the gist of my thoughts: Think less. Do more. Be authentic.
Here are some of my thoughts:
1. I will focus more on being in the present with my students. Sometimes as a teacher, you get inundated with so much stuff that you forget to slow down, and really think about why you’re doing it in the first place. Will a meticulously written ten-page scripted lesson plan really matter in the long run? It won’t if it means missing out on making vital connections with my students, and being able to meet them where they are, instead of pushing them along to where they’re not yet ready to be.
2. I will encourage students to take on more responsibility in the classroom. Middle-schoolers are messy; learning is messy. I have to be willing to let go of some control, and let them take over with classroom jobs to clean up the classroom, and to take over classroom routines. I can’t do everything and be everywhere at once; I need to be able to trust that they can do things safely on their own once I model for them the appropriate procedures. I also need to be patient and willing enough to guide them through it multiple times, instead of wanting to take over and do it all by myself instead.
3. I will encourage hard work, effort, and perseverance through positive praise instead of physical incentives. Not everyone in the real world gets a gold medal. I think I do my students a disservice when I’m asked to provide classroom incentives and rewards for something they’re expected to do, and for mediocrity. These rewards should be reserved for work that shows improvement, or something exceptional. I believe that it means more to students when they are able to experience the effects of hard work. However, I am aware that I’m dealing with middle-schoolers, and they do need that little extrinsic motivation once in awhile. I’m not quite sure how I’ll revamp this next year, but I definitely will think about how to get around those incentives.
4. I will speak up more often for myself. Once caught in a very stressful situation, I found myself in tears just seconds before the bell for homeroom rang. I thought I would find guidance and assurance from a mentor, but was instead told to “not get so emotional” and “man up”. It was at that moment that I realized that as much as I love my work and its adult culture, work is work. Work does not take care of me.
I was, and still am, an introvert; the thought of having to speak up in meetings, or seek out my principal for 1:1 conferences, gives me heart palpitations. Other coworkers interrupted and spoke over me. As a result, they were seen as more competent and were offered more lucrative positions. I learned this year that I have to take care of myself. I could do that next year by letting go of my fears and hesitations, and by giving myself a stronger and louder voice.
What would you do differently?
Hello, dear readers! I apologize for being an awful blogger; obviously I have not yet mastered the balance of work, home and posts! I do hope you are well, and thanks for sticking around! Can you believe that it’s mid-June already? Most of my teacher-friends are already out of school! In fact, my own kid is out this week, but here I am, with still approximately seven (torturous–oops, did I type that out loud?) days left on our extended school year calendar. What’s that sound? Ah, it’s me hissing in envy as I imagine my peers frolicking on the beach, while I sit in a hot second-story classroom, trying to teach.
To take my mind off those lovely beach scenes, I am posting my favorite highlights of the school year. If this post was a scrapbook, it would have glittery stickers with “super star” and “awesome” all over it. Don’t get me wrong; this year definitely posed a lot of challenges, but I believe I experienced more highs than lows. A lot of my professional growth this year centered on my decision to put my fears aside and just do something different. I did exactly that, and boy, was it a lot of fun!
My Top 7 Favorite Highlights of the Year:
1. Acquiring classroom pets through PetCo grants. (Watch out for Max’s stinky poops!)
2. Setting up more (free) field trips throughout the year. (Thanks, Field Trip Factory!)
3. Helping my students make real-life connections with science instruction, application, and careers in science through multiple guest-speaker visits and field trips to local colleges. (Thanks to our service women at Stratton Air National Guard Base!)
4. Setting up and supervising a year-long all-girls after school STEM mentoring program. (Go #STEMGirls!)
5. Focusing more on hands-on activities and engineering design practices to help students learn science concepts. (It doesn’t hurt to indulge in our sweet tooth once in awhile!)
6. Incorporating more long-term collaborative problem-based unit projects in my instruction (The following photos show students in various stages of research, design, and presentation during our month-long Code Blue Human Body Systems Unit. Many thanks to the pediatricians from The Children’s Hospital, Albany Medical Center, for listening to and assessing our Grand Rounds presentations!)
7. Attending the NSTA Boston Conference as a conference speaker, and getting to talk about the uses of social media in the science classroom with some awesome kick-butt people!
Two weeks ago over spring break, I came across @coolcatteacher’s blog post, “How To Make it to the End of the School Year”. I loved her message about having only one chance at this life, and making each day count in the classroom.
“The magic always happens outside of your comfort zone, so don’t get comfortable. Get better and better and end in amazing ways.” – Vicki Davis
Jumping In With Code Blue
Early on in the school year, I had already decided to take risks at work and enjoy myself. So true to fashion, right after break, I embarked on another project. With less than 43 science classes left in the school year, I wanted to find a way to…
1) Encourage more positive student teamwork through a collaborative problem-based project
2) Merge the last two units on human body systems and diseases into one cohesive unit
3) Strengthen community relationships by having students interact with local doctors and medical residents
With the help of the wonderful people over at the NSTA Biology list-serve, I came across Teach Interact’s Code Blue Unit. It was a 15-day simulation where students worked in jigsaw groups to learn about the major six human body systems and public health issues. I decided right before school started again to just jump into it.
Code Blue Overview
I tweaked the Code Blue Unit so that it spanned 5 weeks. Students were given a tentative calendar with daily tasks and due dates for the month of May.
- To work in teams to research a mystery ER problem and figure out a solution
- To create a board presentation representing their problem and solution
- To present solutions to a team of real-life physicians and medical residents
- Introduction of Code Blue Unit, Collaborative Group-work rubric, and Q&A session
- Students selected their first group and worked to design their Medical Clinics
- Students selected their medical specialties
- Students worked in their second group according to specialties to research their body systems
- Students continued their research and created posters of their body systems
- Students shared what they learned about their specialties with their first group
- Students were assessed through short quizzes to earn their medical speciality licenses
- Students were assessed through a comprehensive exam to officially open their medical clinics
- Students will be presented with their mystery ER patient
- Students will work with their first group to brainstorm diagnosis and solutions
- Students will research public health issues
- Students will begin work on their tri-fold presentations and rehearse presentation scripts
- Students will share their results through a tri-fold board and 5-minute oral presentation to a team of pediatricians and medical residents from Albany Medical Hospital
- Guests will provide feedback to their solutions and grade their work with rubrics
- Guests will talk about their careers in the medical field, how students can prepare now in high school and college to be successful in these careers, and answer student questions in a Q&A session
- Surgery Week! Students will work in the computer lab on various virtual lab dissections.
Some great things about the project
Naturally, the students were both excited and terrified when I first introduced the Code Blue Unit two weeks ago. Most were excited because they were able to interact more with their classmates. There was a daily task that needed to be completed each day, and it required them to move around and interact with different peers. It also required them to perform various tasks, such as reading through different primary sources, practicing their oral skills, or creating a product within a limited time-frame. Above-level and at-level students seemed to really thrive with the challenge, and pushed themselves to meet deadlines. Below-level students loved the different options; they were able to show what they were learning and participate more fully with their peers through different kinesthetic and interpersonal activities. The volume of noise increased in the classroom, but the conversations focused on brainstorming, problem-solving, and discussions about what they were learning. Of course, I also loved that I now was able to spend a majority of my time facilitating and checking in with various groups. They were no longer dependent on me dispensing information; they had to go find it on their own.
Some not-so great things about the project
Of course, putting all accountability on students for their learning was bound to get some push back. In the first few days, the common thread from their exit ticket feedback forms was that “there was too much work to do”. Each day, I spent a few minutes going over the daily agenda and what they were expected to do and turn in by the end of class. They were reminded of group work roles and responsibilities, referred to a visual anchor chart on conflict resolution in teams, and were given a visual reminder of how much time was left in class through a projected online timer. Some at-level and below-level students who were used to skating along before now couldn’t do that because each person had a specific job to do each day. They had the rubrics in front of them, and they knew their effort earned them their final quarter grade. That made them anxious, and act out in disruptive ways in their groups.
To help solve some of these problems, I maneuvered some of the low-level students and grouped them together. This way, they did not feel pressured by their above-level peers and they were able to work together at their own pace. I paired high-low students with low-low students, so that they were able to teach and learn from each other. With all of my low-level students in one group, I was also able to check in on all of them at one time and provide them with more 1:1 feedback. I also made sure to super-chunk the activities in this group, and had one student work on one task for 1-2 days at a time so that they did not feel overwhelmed with the project. Once these changes were made, I saw less disruption and more students working on task in class.
Another problem we came across during the first two weeks was bickering among the groups. There are some very strong personalities in each class, which really skews the group dynamics. Students fought with each other because they had different ideas and couldn’t come to a compromise. Some students fought because their peers were often off-task and weren’t putting in as much effort as they should.
To address this problem, I took some time in each class period for one day to show a video clip of Mystery ER and talk about their observations. They were asked to observe how many people were working in the hospital, what their professions were, and to describe what was going on in the scene. Students shared out that they saw different doctors, nurses, and EMTS working together. One student shared a quote from a doctor, “We all work as a team to achieve one common goal: to save a life.”
Through our class discussion, students were able to make connections with the video clip and why they were working in teams on this Code Blue Project. Another student shared, “We are working together in teams to pass science class and get to 8th grade by helping each other learn about the human body.” I reminded them that in real life, not everyone is going to get along. However, they have to learn how to put aside their personal differences and work together as a team to get the job done. Once students made the connections ,they were able to work together on their posters without bickering.
In some cases where students really couldn’t get along with their peers, I held conferences with them to talk through the problems. Some students were given the option to switch to a group, but they had to approach the new group first and ask for permission. Some students who insisted on working alone were given the option to do so, but they were firmly reminded that if they chose to do so, they would not earn full credit as it was a group work project. After the conference, some students did opt to switch and managed to work well and catch up with their groups. Those who wanted to be isolated chose to work with their groups instead.
Next week, I plan to take some time in each class to explicitly model conflict resolution. I reached to our school guidance counselor for some resources, and was able to put together a visual anchor chart that students can refer to when working on their next round of challenges in teams. For low-level students who get easily frustrated, I’m putting together a toolkit where they can opt to take a 3-minute break from the task, get a drink of water, or move around provided that they do not disrupt other groups.
Some more personal thoughts
Jumping in with this unit has been an awesome experience so far. At first I did not mention it to administrators or colleagues because I did not have a lot of things in place. I was working on the fly, and I was scared that it would not work out. However, the change in the class atmosphere has been very positive and students have been sharing their experiences in other classes. This has finally allowed me to share it with colleagues. If I had not, my colleague probably would not have reached out to her pediatrician and hooked me up with a group of very excited and willing physicians and medical residents who want to come in and learn more about this project.
I wake up energized every morning because I can’t wait to see what the students will do each day. If there’s one thing I want students to remember from this experience, I want them to remember that they took a risk. They stepped out of their comfort zone, like I did, and did their best. I want them to remember that even though they were terrified about the enormity of the task at first, they jumped in head first and that they were amazing.