Creating A Teacher Brand So You Can Get Hired

Not too long ago, I met with one of my former graduate-school classmates for coffee. Donica* (name changed for privacy reasons) is a wonderful friend and an optimistic bubbly individual, so I was quite alarmed to note a slump in her shoulders as we exchanged greetings and bits of news. While sipping and sighing over her mug of coffee, Donica related her troubles trying to get into the teacher job market for the past three years.

Donica is a Full Bright scholar who speaks multiple languages; she is extremely smart, and very passionate about teaching languages, and equally passionate about sharing her love for instructional technology. Being the nerdy academic geeks we were back in grad-school, she and I actually competed with one another for the highest grades! We later found out we worked really well together on projects, became good friends, and now continue to attend various teacher conferences together in the Capitol Region. Needless to say, I was blown away by the fact that no one wanted to hire her. However, the teacher job market is what it is—full term positions are very hard to come by, and it’s increasingly becoming more of a networking game. It’s not only about what you have and what you can do, but also about who you know (and it’s even better if that person has the authority to pull a few strings!)

Being a West Coast transplant at the time, I definitely did not know the right people when I began my job search for a science teacher position in New York. That’s how I got into researching using social media to create a brand name for myself, so I could make myself more marketable for hiring managers. It worked; I was hired a month after graduating from grad-school! So, this post is inspired by Donica. I don’t claim to be a job or social media expert, but I’d like to share what worked for me, and hopefully, it can help her and others like her find a teaching job.

Haiku Slideshow

Create a brand name. Be clear about what makes you stand out. Take time to go over your mission statement. Who are you? What can you do? Why should they hire you? If you can come up with a one-statement headline, what would it be? Make your name into a brand!

Go digital. Get creative with your resume. Clean it up, and make sure you have a strong unified message. Then, take it to the Internet! Join LinkedIn. Upload photos and examples of your work and link them to a digital CV. Design an online portfolio– you can use any web tool such as wiki spaces, free website generators, and photo galleries. Create videos, or commercials, about who you are, what you can do, and where you plan to go. Add a friendly face to your name and brand.

Get online. Use social media to learn and share. Create a professional learning network with the help of social media. Avoid informal gravatars and post a well-lit photo of your face! Keep your profiles simple, personable, and professional. Link back to your digital resume. Use social media to connect with others through Twitter #edchats, online discussion forums, and email list serves. Sign up for free online webinars and video conferences. Subscribe to newsletters and blogs. Use Flipboard or Feedly to manage your reads. Pick and experiment with one tool at a time. Don’t forget to share what you know and what you have learned! Comment on others’ blogs. Retweet. Forward interesting and helpful articles to friends and comrades.

Manage your rep. Create a positive digital footprint. If a hiring manager were to Google your name right now, what would he or she find? (If you don’t know the answer to this, I suggest you try this yourself!) Build your brand by creating a positive digital footprint. Then, capitalize on it! Showcase your skills, interests, and experiences. Set automatic alerts to notify you if anything shows up on the Web with your name on it. Manage your privacy settings. Practice online ettiquette, post professional and work-related photos in public spaces, offer advice on LinkedIn’s Q&A section, and reply with positive feedback to teacher email queries on list serves. Start a blog. Offer to write short pieces for other bloggers. Get your work published on various online communities. Make an e-book. Share slide shows. Make sure that whatever you leave behind always reflects you in the best light!

Be personable. Share your interests and hobbies. Remember my second slide? Right now, there are tons of candidates out there with similar degrees, certifications, and work experiences. Stand out of the crowd by sharing more about who you are. Don’t be afraid to let your great personality show! Post those souffles or knitting projects on Instagram. Ask your Twitter friends about what to do with those pesky squash bugs! Volunteering with the local Boy Scouts to clean up trails? Just attended a great Edcamp on flipped classrooms? Be colorful, be personable, and be approachable. Be you!

Share it! If something works for you, share it. :)

(Late) End of Year Reflections

For most teachers and scholars, this post is about two or three months late. However, since I work at a charter school with an extended school year, I’m finally out of school for the next several weeks! At this point, I am just so very, very relieved to have some time off to recharge [physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally]; and to fully reconnect with family, friends, and my social networks.

No school today?
2012-2013 was, overall, a wonderful year for me.  I began my second year of teaching at the same school with a new superintendent, two sets of new administration, and a summer’s worth of training based on the book, “Teach Like A Champion“. The year definitely had its challenges, but it was not as difficult or as overwhelming like my first year of teaching. I have to credit my administration and colleagues for its success. Their constant feedback and support definitely made a large difference this year. The following paragraphs are a compilation of feedback from administration, scholars and my own reflections from the school year.

Major Challenges and Highlights of the Year

  • As shared staff (read: the only 7th grade science teacher), I had to divide my school year between two middle schools. Crammed a year’s worth of 7th Grade Life Science curricula into 5 months. Taught the 5-month curricula twice to 45+ 7th Grade female scholars from September to February, and then to 45+ 7th Grade male scholars from February to July.
  • Was accepted to the National Science Association New Science Teacher Academy in November (NSTA2). Juggled weekly forum discussions, web seminars, and two semester-long action research projects on analyzing student work and designing effective inquiry labs while teaching full-time.
  • Got engaged to my military man in December!
  • Attended the annual NSTA science conference at San Antonio, TX, in April. Saw many wonderful sessions, thanked our DOW sponsors in person for their generous contributions in the NSTA New Science Teacher Academy, and befriended many fantastic science educators during my time there.

Mid-year and End-of-Year Evaluations

  • Received many 3.5′s and 4′s on my teacher evaluations! This meant a lot to me personally because I had a horrible first year, and I took every opportunity to practice this year to strengthen my classroom management. While we received training on many “Teach Like A Champion” (TLAC) techniques year-round, I really focused on 3 main techniques each day–100%, Break the Plane, and No Opt-Out. It is very critical, I found, to insist (and to do it consistently) on having 100% active attention from everyone before teaching or doling out instructions. It sets the tone for learning in class.
  • According to the class surveys, practicing these main techniques every day paid off ! 100% of survey respondents listed my ability to teach difficult concepts in multiple ways  and give instructions clearly as one of my greatest strengths as a teacher.

Positives (these are common phrases that popped up from student surveys)

  • “strong classroom management”
  • “not afraid to let us do stuff [open inquiry labs]“
  • “respectful”
  • “print-rich environment–always has our work posted”
  • “provides clear instructions”
  • “a nice teacher, but strict!”
  • “a loud talker, but rarely yelled”
  • “motivating”
  • “makes it easy to learn because [she] explains a concept in many different ways”
  • “treats us all with same expectations/treats us fairly”
  • “uses lots of examples [so I can understand]“
  • “gives us choices and second chances [if we screw up]“

Deltas (things I’d like to improve on for next year)

  • update the curriculum to more rigorous and challenging materials (thinking of layered curriculum, choice menus, and more true open-inquiry labs)
  • work on incorporating more hands-on labs, especially dissections (even if only virtual!)
  • tie topics of study in with more real-world connections (thinking of “Current Events Day” in the computer lab with articles on current topic)
  •  encourage a more collaborative and productive learning environment (thinking of redoing groupwork roles and using accountable talk)

Summer Reading (books and topics I’d like to read up on during vacation)

  • “First 20 Days” by Fisher and Frey (collaborative work)
  • Experiment design diagram
  • Accountable talk
  • Nunley’s layered curriculum
  • NGSS standards
  • science cafes
  • “STEM Student Research Handbook” by Harland
  • the Genius Hour
  • interactive science notebooks

#NSTA13 Academy: Day 2

Note: These posts were written in April 2013 as I attended the NSTA Annual Conference at San Antonio, Texas, as a New Science Teacher Academy Fellow. Due to standardized testing and a hectic schedule back at home, I am now only able to upload these posts! Sorry for the long delay.

#NSTA2 Series: Day 1

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Hello from #NSTA13, San Antonio!

Receptions and Meet-and-Greets
Thursday was quite busy! As a National Science Teacher Academy (NSTA2) Teacher and DOW Fellow, there were several meet-and-greets and receptions I had to attend. I thoroughly enjoyed the networking opportunities and befriended many passionate and wonderful people. During a breakfast reception, we were introduced to several NSTA2 alumni. It was good to hear about their experiences with the Academy; they talked about how their experiences have helped them with their careers, and where those experiences have led them to where they are now. The importance of building a professional learning community (PLC) during your first years as a teacher was a common message I heard from their discussions. It was a message I definitely agreed with, and certainly passionately talk about with other new teachers.

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NSTA2 Breakfast Reception

Here are some excerpt tweets from those receptions, which I found inspirational and motivating.

Best quote of the night from the Academy Dinner: “You’re among your kind! This is your professional learning tribe!”

Great #PDisms from the NSTA2 Alumni Panel: “Perfect your craft, bring it back, and never stop learning.”

“We have to be model life-long learners. Be a reflective practitioner. Don’t wait for an invitation to do something.”

“Use your passions to find something new. Make it your own! Stay open, go learn!”

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With 3 amazing women: Tiffany, Damaries, and Mary Ann!

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Found my Pinterest social networking card


Sessions attended and Lessons learned

Despite the many mandated events, I was able to make it to 2 different sessions for the day. Based on my reflections from the previous session, I picked the NGSS strand on effectively measuring student learning and resolved to attend as many sessions offered in this genre. The first session was a follow-up from my all-day PD; it was on developing effective formative assessment and was again presented by Anne Tweed. From this session, I was quite surprised to learn that formative assessment was not only a feedback loop between the teacher and a student, but also between the student and his or her peers.

In order to promote feedback among students, it is imperative for the teacher to create a positive and supportive classroom culture. I was glad that the session touched upon this, and I was able to take away some strategies to work more on this component to ensure that I can make formative assessment really work in the classroom.

The second session was on the Common Core and writing in the science classroom. Our ELA and Writing teachers are phenomenal, and I have seen exemplary written work from the students. However, I noticed that when I ask the same students to write in science, the quality of their work is not level with their work from their ELA or writing classes. Many of them do not see science as a “writing” class, so they do not take their writing as seriously as they should. This session was very helpful; it provided me with great ideas on how to introduce and teach academic vocabulary, how to make the science textbook less intimidating and complex through “picture walks” or “text navigations”, and to come up with ways to make writing in science more structured and more motivating for students.

Sadly, I was unable to stay for the whole duration because I had to man a booth in the Exhibit Hall. However, the presenter’s PowerPoint is available through Carolina Biology’s website so I am going to go back and view it when I get home.

The DOW Chemical Booth
In the early afternoon, I was one of the NSTA2 representatives who had to man the DOW Chemical Booth in the Exhibit Hall. This was a great opportunity, because I was able to meet one of the company’s associates and their marketing team and thank them in person for their support of the NSTA New Science Teacher Academy. I honestly did not know a lot about DOW, but after my time spent at their booth, I know now how invested they are in supporting new teachers and STEM education. One of the biggest things I learned was that they are also seeking to connect their scientists and engineers with teachers to promote science literacy, STEM education, and careers in science. I will definitely be taking advantage of that in the future!

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With the DOW fuzzies demonstrating lab safety

Scientist Talk
One of the last receptions I attended on Thursday was the “Scientist Talk”. At this reception, all of the NSTA2 fellows listened and interacted with a panel of scientists and representatives from our respective company sponsors. It was eye-opening; I didn’t realize until then that there is also an entrepreneurial side to teaching. There are actually many science education outreach programs available, and many companies are seeking teachers who can use those programs to supplement their instruction or even provide their students with internships.

The panel members gave some great advice regarding how to reach out to companies and their scientists. “Be specific about your classroom needs. Do your research, and make contact with the companies and organizations. Share your own ideas on how you can use the programs in your classroom. Focus on the scientific processes, problem-solving skills, and applying knowledge and skills to new situations—these will help students be successful beyond school and in life.”

If you have a scientist guest speaker in the classroom, they also recommend asking the following questions: “How do you use the scientific processes in the real world? How do you apply science and technology in the real world? How do you really use science in the real world?”

One of my new PD goals is to spend some time in the summer researching these programs, and trying my hand at writing more grants to secure funding and more equipment for my classroom next year. We have GE and the new College of Nanotechnology here in Albany, and it would amazing to have their scientists come in to our classroom and possibly work with us on collaborative STEM projects…

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Found Alfons, a fellow mentee, at the DOW booth

Thank you, NSTA and DOW
As I was walking around and trying to absorb as much as I could from the conference, I couldn’t help but send out great waves of appreciation and gratitude to NSTA, the DOW Chemical Company, and the world for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Even though I’m more than halfway through with the NSTA2 program, I still find it hard to believe that I am one of the lucky candidates, and that I am here at the conference. I have learned a lot this past year, and I can feel the change within me. I am more aware and more confident about my teaching. There are a lot of resources and materials I can use, but the most beneficial aspect of this experience is the community. I have definitely learned a lot not only from my mentor and colleagues, but also from the other teacher fellows, conference presenters, and other attendees. I met and befriended many science teachers during the conference, and that to me is the most valuable part of this experience. It lets me know that as a new science teacher I am not alone and that there is always help available when I reach out and ask for it.

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Clapp’s mentee group!

#NSTA13 Academy: Day 3

Note: These posts were written in April 2013 as I attended the NSTA Annual Conference at San Antonio, Texas, as a New Science Teacher Academy Fellow. Due to standardized testing and a hectic schedule back at home, I am now only able to upload these posts! Sorry for the long delay.

#NSTA13 Series: Day 1, Day 2

Sessions attended and lessons learned

With only one event to attend on Friday, my schedule was less frantic and overwhelming this day. I was able to take my time and really enjoy the conference on my own. The morning began with a chemistry presentation sponsored by DOW Chemical Company. Several chemists shared hands-on inquiry labs that we teachers can use in the classroom. We rotated among 4 stations– creating goofy putty, cleaning pennies with lemon juice, searching for iron in our cereals, and making tie-dye patches through chromatography with Sharpies and rubbing alcohol. I had tons of fun, and was already brainstorming ways to incorporate some of these labs during the last few weeks of school or for our annual Field Day event in June.

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Playing with goofy putty

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Listening to a chemist explain procedures for the iron-fortified cereal lab

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Making tie-dye art with isopropyl alcohol and markers

 

One of the other sessions I enjoyed today was one on using 3D graphic organizers for formative assessment. This helped me continue my focus on measuring student learning, and it was also a fun break from the countless hours of sitting through PowerPoints and discussions. Originally I tried to get into one of Dinah Zike’s foldable sessions, but after seeing the very long lines, I quickly realized I was better off attending one of her off-shoot sessions. This was a fun session, and I was able to pick up the basic folds and several strategies on how to use foldables for formative assessment. This session taught me that sometimes you have to figure out how to work smarter, not harder!

Focus group survey
As part of their research, NSTA selected me as one of the candidates for a focus group survey regarding NSTA2 and the annual conference. I actually enjoyed this short time with the researchers and the other candidates because it allowed me to provide feedback about what worked and what didn’t work for me throughout the year as I worked as a teacher fellow. It felt good to have an outlet to voice myself, and to provide feedback and suggestions on how to improve the Academy for future candidates. I really hope that NSTA thinks about creating a website and forum for NSTA2 alumni. I would love to come back as a mentor one day, and give back to the professional learning community.

Sightseeing
After spending most of the morning and afternoon in sessions and in the Exhibit Hall, my brain told me I needed to take a break and get away from information overload. One of the best things about this trip was meeting and making new friends who love to eat and try new things like me. After a quick text, a friend and I took off and enjoyed the lovely Texas spring day at one of San Antonio’s botanical gardens. The beautiful flowers, peaceful setting, and a leisurely walk were exactly what we needed!

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View of the waterfalls at the Japanese Tea Gardens

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Strolling through the Japanese Tea Gardens

Making Friends

One of the best things about this conference was meeting other passionate science teachers. I was very lucky to meet this special group of ladies on my trip. Though we all came from different cities and taught different grades and subjects, I felt a great connection to these women. It’s not every day that you meet a stranger, and feel as if you have known them for years! I had a great time  sharing what I learned from the sessions, and exploring San Antonio with them! I wish them the best in all their endeavors, and know that they are out there making a positive change in many lives.

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Science teachers rule!

#NSTA13 Academy: Day 2

Receptions and Meet-and-Greets
Thursday was quite busy! As a National Science Teacher Academy (NSTA2) Teacher and DOW Fellow, there were several meet-and-greets and receptions I had to attend but I enjoyed the networking opportunities and befriended many passionate and wonderful people. During a breakfast reception, we were introduced to several NSTA2 alumni. It was good to hear about their experiences with the Academy; they talked about how their experiences have helped them with their careers, and where they are now. The importance of building a professional learning community (PLC) during your first years as a teacher was a common message I heard from their discussions, and from the general conversations around me.

[insert PD-isms and reception photos]

Sessions attended and Lessons learned

Despite the many mandated events, I was able to make it to 2 different sessions for the day. Based on my reflections from the previous session, I picked the NGSS strand on effectively measuring student learning and resolved to attend as many sessions offered in this genre. The first session was a follow-up from my all-day PD; it was on developing effective formative assessment and was again presented by Anne Tweed. From this session, I was quite surprised to learn that formative assessment was not only a feedback loop between the teacher and a student, but also between the student and his or her peers.

In order to promote feedback among students, it is imperative for the teacher to create a positive and supportive classroom culture. I was glad that the session touched upon this, and I was able to take away some strategies to work more on this component to ensure that I can make formative assessment really work in the classroom.

The second session was on the Common Core and writing in the science classroom. Our ELA and Writing teachers are phenomenal, and I have seen exemplary written work from the students. However, I noticed that when I ask them to write in science, the quality of their work is not level with their work from their ELA or writing classes. Many of them do not see science as a “writing” class, so they do not take their writing as seriously as they should. This session was very helpful; it provided me with great ideas on how to introduce and teach academic vocabulary, make the science textbook less intimidating and complex through “picture walks” or “text navigations”, and come up with ways to make writing in science more structured and more motivating for students.

Sadly, I was unable to stay for the whole duration because I had to man a booth in the Exhibit Hall. However, the presenter’s PowerPoint is available through Carolina Biology’s website so I am going to go back and view it when I get home.

The DOW Chemical Booth
In the early afternoon, I was one of the NSTA2 representatives who had to man the DOW Chemical Booth in the Exhibit Hall. This was a great opportunity, because I was able to meet one of the company’s associates and their marketing team and thank them in person for their support of the NSTA. I honestly did not know a lot about DOW, but after my time spent at their booth, I know now how invested they are in supporting new teachers and STEM education. One of the biggest things I learned was that they are also seeking to connect their scientists and engineers with teachers to promote science literacy, STEM education, and careers in science. I will definitely be taking advantage of that in the future!

[insert DOW photos]

Scientist Talk
One of the last receptions I attended on Thursday was the “Scientist Talk”. At this reception, all of the NSTA2 fellows listened and interacted with a panel of scientists and representatives from our respective company sponsors. It was eye-opening; I didn’t realize until then that there is also an entrepreneurial side to teaching. There are actually many science education outreach programs available, and many companies are seeking teachers who can use those programs to supplement their instruction or even provide their students with internships.

The panel members gave some great advice regarding how to reach out to them. “Be specific about your classroom needs. Do your research, and make contact with the companies and organizations. Share your own ideas on how you can use the programs in your classroom. Focus on the scientific processes, problem-solving skills, and applying knowledge and skills to new situations—these will help students be successful beyond school and in life.

If you have a scientist guest speaker in the classroom, they also recommend asking the following questions: “How do you use the scientific processes in the real world? How do you apply science and technology in the real world? How do you really use science in the real world?”

One of my new PD goals is to spend some time in the summer researching these programs, and trying my hand at writing more grants to secure funding and more equipment for my classroom next year.

Thank you, NSTA and DOW
As I was walking around and trying to absorb as much as I could from the conference, I couldn’t help but send out great waves of appreciation and gratitude to NSTA, the DOW Chemical Company, and the world for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Even though I’m more than halfway through with the NSTA2 program, I still find it hard to believe that I am one of the lucky candidates and that I am here at the conference. I have learned a lot this past year, and I can feel the change within me. I am more aware and more confident about my teaching. There are a lot of resources and materials I can use, but the most beneficial aspect of this experience is the community. I have definitely learned a lot not only from my mentor and colleagues, but also from the other teacher fellows, conference presenters, and other attendees. I met and befriended many science teachers during the conference, and that to me is the most valuable part of this experience. It lets me know that as a new science teacher I am not alone and that there is always help available when I reach out and ask for it.

Post NSTA Conference: Putting Lessons to Use

#NSTA13 Series: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Sense Making and Wrap Up

Wow, I can’t believe it’s been almost a month since attending the NSTA conference in San Antonio! I did learn a lot from my sessions and networking, and definitely did not waste time tweaking my instruction and teaching strategies. One of my PD goals were to spend more class time for sense making and wrap up. I have been using a lot of sticky bar graphs, and poster charts lately to get students thinking about what they know and what they’re learning.

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Vocabulary

Another thing I’ve been working on from my sessions is being more deliberate with academic vocabulary. I used to have visual vocabulary word walls, but now I have gone back to tiered vocabulary and picking  key vocabulary words at a time explained in kid friendly language. I have noted that students seem less overwhelmed this way, and are showing more understanding of core ideas in class.

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We have seven or eight weeks left of the school year, and I still have one more action research project for NSTA. I’m focusing on how to make labs more inquiry based. It is quite difficult trying to explicitly modeling sections of an inquiry lab during the last few weeks of school, but I have noticed that students are more motivated and engaged when they are designing their own experiment than they were when I was using direct-inquiry cookbook labs.

One of the online mentors shared her “design diagram”, which I think will come in very handy next year. I aim to spend the first weeks of school really talking about the scientific process, and introducing them to more student-generated inquiry labs. That will help increase the academic rigor in my instruction, and provide students with more practice on inquiry skills.

Bringing In Speakers

Another thing that I have been working on these past few weeks is inviting more people into the classroom to share how they use science in their careers. Last week, we wrapped up our unit on the Digestive/Excretory systems. In one of our morning conversations, I learned that the cafeteria manager loved talking about nutrition and was looking for ways to introduce students to new foods that will be brought in for next year. I quickly invited her to speak to the students about her work as a nutritionist, and we both came up with the idea of tasting stations. Students were able to try dark leafy vegetables such as kale and Swiss chard, whole grain pasta, exotic fruits such as dragonfruit and lychees, and veggie burgers.

It was a great experience for everyone! The students were able to see her in a different setting and experience new foods; she was able to spend time out of the cafeteria and share her passion for nutrition; and I was able to help students make real-life connections with what we were learning in the classroom.

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New foods spread

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Exploring the nutritional values of kale and Swiss chard

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Trying (and liking!) the lentil salad

Another person who enjoyed her visit to our classroom was our school nurse. On our quest to design our own experiments to find out how physical activities affect heart rate, students needed to learn how to find their pulse and measure heart rate. The school nurse was able to stop by, talk about how to find pulse points, and even demonstrated with a few students on how blood pressure is measured. She loved interacting with the students, and it was a good experience for them to learn from someone else other than me. By bringing in other people to the classroom, I noticed that students are asking a lot more questions these days about what we are learning. They are more curious, and ask more in depth questions about why and how things work. I definitely will have to spend some time over the summer and find more people to come in throughout the year.

 

 

 

#NSTA13 Academy: Day 1

Note: These posts were written in April 2013 as I attended the NSTA Annual Conference at San Antonio, Texas, as a New Science Teacher Academy Fellow. Due to standardized testing and a hectic schedule back at home, I am now only able to upload these posts! Sorry for the long delay.

Arrival at NSTA Conference

Greetings from San Antonio, Texas! I can’t believe that I’m here for the annual NSTA science conference! The past months have been filled with web seminars, weekly check-ins with my mentor, and working with students on mini explorations and projects. It’s quite surprising to see how time has quickly flown by, and that we’re now here for the conference!

Thank you, NSTA New Science Teacher Academy, and our sponsor, DOW Chemical Company, for this exciting opportunity. San Antonio is a beautiful place. I was fortunate to arrive early yesterday afternoon. Once I checked in, I headed back out to explore the lovely sights of San Antonio’s Riverwalk.

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Partial view of the RiverWalk

Wednesday’s PD Session
Today, I attended an all-day session by Anne Tweed and Cynthia Long on effective science instruction, and how to align them with the newly released Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The bulk of the morning was spent on looking at science research and discussing elements of quality NGSS instruction with other teachers, administrators, and policy-makers. Through our discussion, we realized that many of the elements we were sharing were quite similar to four factors or indicators already listed in said research: quality of lesson design, implementation, science content and classroom culture.

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All day PD session on effective science instruction

According to research, lessons that were rated as low-quality had one or more of the following components: activities were done for solely for activities’ sake, scholars were passive learners, and the teachers did all the work. It became clear to a lot of us that for effective science instruction to take place in our classrooms, we needed to place more emphasis on increasing academic rigor, coming up with ways to help students make sense of the content, and improve our questioning strategies.

Lessons learned and PD goals
As I discussed these elements and factors with other teachers, I realized that there were definitely a few things I need to work more on when I return to the classroom. Looking at these indicators of quality instruction, I can see both my strengths and area of improvement as a science teacher. I am strong in lesson design and content, but implementation and classroom culture can use more work.

With a compressed program back at school (read: I’m teaching a year’s worth of curriculum in half a year), I also see now that I haven’t been too strong on sense-making and wrap-ups. There is much pressure to get things done on time, and sometimes I forget the main priority— student learning! With that said, my goal is to make more time and provide more structure in my instruction to help students make sense of our lessons, labs, and activities.

One of the ways I thought about achieving this is to go back and make sure I am teaching key core ideas in a broad way rather than focusing on minute details. Another way is to end class 10-15 minutes early, chuck out those 3-2-1 exit ticket half-slips, and have students go back and free-write their thoughts about the day’s essential questions. What did they understand? What did they struggle with? How can they make connections with today’s lesson to other lessons, or with real-life events?

I think that I can also be more deliberate in my use of labs. There’s a big push to do 2-3 labs a week. Students love the labs, but what are they really taking away from them? Reflecting over the past couple labs we have completed, I realize that they weren’t truly making those vital connections between the text, their lab experiences, and the core ideas. As a new science teacher, I have been relying a lot on cookbook labs this year. I liked the idea of using 10-min or 15 -min “warm-up” or “demo” labs to introduce core ideas, and make abstract concepts more tangible for students. However, now I think deliberately pairing down the labs, and choosing longer and more inquiry-based labs would make better use of our time, and create more of an impact on student learning.

Using Formative Probes in the Classroom

Formative Probes

The second to last web seminar I attended for NSTA’s New Science Teacher Academy this spring was on student inquiry. It was led by one of my secret idols, Page Keeley! (If you have an NSTA account, I suggest you search for that archived seminar from the Learning Center and watch it ASAP!) As a student teacher two years ago, I was very lucky to get copies of the first four or five volumes of her books from one of my Twitter PLN members. They have been very valuable to me in my instruction over the past years.

As a new teacher, I had the opportunity to use several of her formative probes in my instruction. Previously, I used them as warm-ups or bell-ringers before I introduced new units. They were used to quickly assess scholars’ background knowledge, preconceptions and misconceptions about the unit I was about to teach. The warm-ups were paired with think-pair-shares, small group and whole-group discussions. I listened carefully during these discussions, noted key concepts and/or skills I needed to address, and sometimes saved quotes from scholars which I would later refer to during direct instruction and lectures.The seminar, however, taught me that I was barely scratching the surface with these formative probes.Keeley shared many ideas on how to incorporate the probes before, during, and after instruction.

Sticky Bar Graphs

One of the tips I decided to try right away in class were the sticky bar graphs. At the time, I was transitioning from “Characteristics of Life” to ” Cell Division”. (See previous post on inquiry lab, Characteristics of Life). We were going through the major characteristics of life (“MRS. GREN!”), and we were moving onto energy processes and growth. I used the probe, “Sam’s Puppy”, from Keeley’s Volume 1 book to see their thought processes on cell division. Scholars were given the prompt, directed to write a short written response to justify their reasoning, and then anonymously post their results in a bar graph using post-it notes.

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A “before” sticky bar graph on cell division

I loved the sticky bar graph because it allowed me to quickly assess the scholars’ thinking in a glance. As you can see in the picture, the majority of the class picked option A and this taught me that they were already aware of cell division as a way for most organisms to grow, reproduce, and repair damaged structures. Scholars who chose options B and C relied on other background knowledge, which I later was able to expand on during a short class discussion on their choices. Some scholars were reluctant to share at first, so it is important to stress the fact that there is no right or wrong regarding these formative probes. It is simply a way to get scholars thinking about what they already know and believe about science concepts, and for them to articulate these thought processes. For example, 3 scholars chose option B because they thought organisms grew larger as they absorbed more food. 1 scholar chose option C because he thought organisms grew larger as a result of cells increasing in size.

The discussions proved most beneficial because scholars asked each other questions, and each had to defend their reasoning behind their options. The scholar who picked option C later realized a flaw in his reasoning when another scholar asked, “If organisms grew based on the size of their cells, how does that account for short or tall organisms? Do you mean to say that some cells stretch out more than others?” Hmm…

Unfortunately, I was unable to go back to the bar graphs at the end of instruction due to interim testing schedules. If I were to go back, I would give them the same formative probe and a different colored post-it note to see if they have changed their understanding of cell division at the end of the unit. It would be nice to see the before and after graphs!

Card Sorts

The other probe I later used for cell division was a card sorting activity on cell cycle stages and mitosis phases. Scholars really had a hard time with this part of the lesson, despite the acronyms (I make cupcakes, but Pam makes apple turnovers!), hand mnemonics, and the dozens of clips and animations I used in class. After going through my notes from the seminar, I decided to create my own card stock templates and laminated the cards. During the week, scholars spent 20 minutes a day practicing with the card sorts. They were allowed to use their notes at first, but soon they were challenging each other to match the labels, diagrams, and definitions in decreasing time frames. Again, the card sorts were a quick way for me to assess who were at-level, beyond-level, or needed more 1:1 help. I walked around and observed each group, and paired my observations with a simple 3-point checklist for assessment on that day.

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Can you spot the mistakes?

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Stages of cell cycle card sort activity

I really liked the card sort activity because it was a good way for scholars to practice vocabulary, match definitions, and to get them moving around and working with partners or small groups. 2-3 scholars per group would work best, I think, for these sorting activities. In retrospect, I should have used this strategy earlier with cell structures/organelles and functions! I think I will do this probe for that concept next year. Using the probes for formative assessment is definitely a work in progress, but they have taught me a lot about my scholars’ thinking. I will try to work on incorporating more probes in my arsenal, and making sure I go back frequently during and after instruction to tie everything together.

Analyzing Student Work and Inquiry Labs

My first exploration for NSTA New Science Teacher Academy was on analyzing student work in science. In mid-February, I was transitioning from the girls’ school to the boys’ school so it was perfect timing to gather data on new scholars. When I began the exploration, I had one goal: to try to go back and add more inquiry to the lessons I just taught in the beginning of the year with the girls.

Exploration and lesson plans

The first unit was on the major characteristics of life. Previously I taught the unit through direct instruction and then a lab. This time, I decided to take an “activity before content” approach. On Day 1, scholars were pre-assessed with a Page Keeley formative probe, where they worked individually and then in groups on classifying a group of items as living or non-living. They pair-shared their results, and then worked together to generate a list of characteristics they believed all living organisms had in common.

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One of the classes’ brainstorm charts

On Day 2, I set up a rotating lab with 8 stations. (The lab was adapted from STEM Mom’s blog post on the same type of lab.) Scholars were directed to use the list of characteristics they came up with as a checklist to determine if the specimens at each station were living, non-living, or dead. There were obvious specimens—a live bamboo plant, a beaver skull, rocks and minerals. There were also some specimens that scholars had trouble with–germinating but moldy tulip bulbs, terrariums with dead leaves and fungi, a microscope slide of frog blood cells, and a beaker of yeast in warm water. If I had more time to set up the lab, I would have included the resurrection plants, cut flowers in water, and guppy fish. (In retrospect, I should have asked the scholars for their suggestions for  next year’s batch! I’m sure they could have come up with more interesting specimens!)

On Day 3, scholars finished their post-lab questions and had small-group and whole-class discussions on their findings. I asked them which of their characteristics from their checklist were most helpful and least helpful, and which characteristics they would pick if they were to perform the lab a second time. We proceeded with a video and guided notes on the major characteristics of life.

On Day 4, scholars wrote a short written essay in response to a prompt. They used their new knowledge and lab experiences to justify why a specimen of their choice from lab would be considered as a living thing. At the time, it seemed to me that scholars really struggled with this last activity. Next year, I will provide a graphic organizer with the essay prompt so that they can sort out their thoughts and articulate their experience more easily. I think I will ask them to write their essay as if they were trying to explain the concept to a younger sibling, or to an elementary school student.

Another idea for next year’s culminating activity is to have them complete a scenario-based assessment. Previously during my research, I came across a PowerPoint called, “Is Sammy Alive?”, in which a young boy slowly becomes bionic. Scholars have to decide if he is alive, non-living or dead using their new knowledge of the major characteristics of life. I like how the teacher incorporates web 2.0 tools like Wallwishers with this activity, so I think I can try to adapt this lesson to spur discussions in class. I can also mix this PowerPoint with another assessment, where scholars pretend they are a newspaper columnist and they have to defend their reasoning on Sammy’s situation.

Conclusions and lessons learned

My first exploration provided me with an editable PDF tool that allowed me to assess target scholars. From their work, I noticed patterns and trends occurring within the class. For example, analysis of their pre-assessment revealed that many of the scholars’ observations relied on what they “knew” and “felt”. I realized that I needed to take time out and model how to do proper observations for lab. The effect was two-fold because I was also able to model my expectations for proper lab drawings. I also learned that the A-B-C approach was very helpful; when I did the activity first, they had something to connect the academic vocabulary and content to when we finally went over it during direct instruction. They were able to participate more in class discussion because they remembered what they saw and did, and could say that they had “proof” of it instead of it being something they already “knew” or “felt”.

To date, I try to rearrange my instruction to fit the A-B-C approach. One of the downsides is that lab set up can be time consuming. Sometimes it is not easy to get the lab materials ready on time, so I have to forego the activity and do the content (ie. direct instruction) first.

It is interesting to note the differences using the A-B-C approach in single-gender classrooms. When I taught all females, they seemed to have a better grasp of the concepts when I taught content before the activity. They seemed to want to know what they were doing first, and why. In contrast, when I taught all males, they seemed to have a better grasp of the concept after the activity. It was easier for them to understand academic vocabulary when I was able to say, “Remember when…in lab… and this happened? That’s [insert vocabulary here]!”  That’s definitely something I’ll have to research much further, but I think after trying out the A-B-C approach, I will try to do more inquiry labs before direct instruction first.

My Teaching Goals 2013

2012 Reflections

Although I did not write a post about Teaching Goals for 2012, I do want to take some time to reflect over what worked well and what needs improvement in the classroom so far this year.

What Worked Well

• Attended local educational conferences in the city (technology-based, game-based learning)
• Made more use of the classroom wikispace
• Incorporated more student-centered projects via wikispace and computer lab
• Strengthened my instruction through explicit modeling and use of visual anchors
• Encouraged more collaboration via the Groupwork Procedures and Roles
• Cut down on my paperwork by not collecting and grading everything
• Encouraged more reading for science literacy via classroom sets of science magazines
• Increased think-time and interaction through daily journaling and think-pair-shares

What Needs Improvement
• Maintaining consistency on classroom expectations, routines and procedures
• Finding a way to establish and use formative assessment effectively
• Increasing the rigor of science instruction and making it more engaging for ALL scholars
• Finding time to reflect on lessons and to blog more often

My Teaching Goals 2013

    1. Try using layered curriculum to encourage more differentiation for and higher-thinking in scholars for the second semester.
    2. Research and incorporate 1 new strategy in my instruction that encourages more inquiry and collaboration among scholars.
    3. Maintain consistency with classroom expectations, routines and procedures by actively practicing scripts, non-verbal gestures, and taxonomies for a half hour every day.
    4. Incorporate the iPad into teaching routines and instruction by using it at least 2-3x a week.
    5. Blog at least once a week about lessons, or respond to a prompt from the 30-day Blog Challenge.

Numbers 1 and 2 are part of my Learning Plan from the New Science Teacher Academy. This year, my classroom management has greatly improved and I have been able to focus a lot more on teaching. In the classroom, I am at the point where my procedures are solid and there is now room to really challenge the scholars. As I start my explorations in January with the Academy, I hope to learn more about creating more rigorous and engaging science instruction for them.

Number 4 is my attempt to keep up with last year’s goal on technology integration. This year, we no longer have the laptop or iPad carts so it was tough trying to use technology without…well, the technology! I was very lucky though to score one of the work iPads. Trying to maneuver around the large laboratory while teaching AND monitoring behavior at the same time was rough. Using the iPad with the Splashtop Whiteboard app helped alleviate the problem for some time, but then the app flaked out on me and it quickly became more trouble than it was worth. I hope to acquire the VGA adapter when I get back from break and use more free apps for visual aids. Many of the biology apps would be great to use in class, especially as we enter our genetics unit soon.

One of the things I have been thankful for is having complete access to the computer lab. I have been trying to incorporate more web-quests and research projects, so being able to reserve the lab without fighting anyone for it has been great! The writing teacher and I have previously created KidBlog accounts to encourage more writing for both our writing and science classes. That fell by the wayside, but eh, sometimes you win some, and sometimes you lose some.

Number 5 is more of a personal professional goal. Earlier in my first year of teaching, I started a 30-day Blog Challenge. It quickly flared and died after the second post because I soon realized I did not yet have the experience to really respond to some of the prompts. I’m going to try it again in 2013 as a way to get myself back in the habit of reflecting and blogging. I’m dubbing it the 30-Post Blog Challenge, because realistically, I know I can’t do one every day!

What are your Teaching Goals for 2013? Ping me back, or share a link to your blog post. I’d love to read what others are setting for themselves.