Making Lessons Memorable: How I plan to take advantage of schedule disruptions to make my classes unforgettable.

We all know that some activities hit and some miss. It seems a great mystery why some more memorable and others. The Anatomy Class Halloween lab when students use their knowledge of tissues to identify mystery organs obtained from the butcher shop, the Physiology Class Health Fair where students research a topic of their choice then plan activities and demonstrations for a public health fair, an exploratory science experiences where kids experience science through crime scenes; these are the ones that my students refer back to with satisfaction and fondness.

As I reflect upon my school year, it occurs to me that I have accidentally developed activities are a blend of specific ingredients that caused them to work. Students remembered them for years to come, referred back to them often as events that helped them to learn, connect with others, and deepen their interest in science. Knowing this, as I plan for next school year, I will use the essential elements of memorable moments. I hope that these scheduled occurrences, although totally intentionally created, will seem like serendipitous moments. I will also remain mindful of impromptu opportunities to harness intrinsic motivation and enthusiasm.

Primarily, I teach Anatomy and Physiology, some people have horrific memories of their experiences in these classes. I absolutely adore teaching them. I love the authenticity of teaching and learning about the body that we inhabit and how it evolved to be the imperfect organism that it is. By the end of a semester in my class, I want students to have an increased appreciation for the value of life and have made connections between their experiences in and out of class.

Stepping back to plan I have identified things that are naturally exciting for students, snow days, holidays, Boston Marathon, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Super Bowl, World Series. These events break the script of ordinary schedules and sometimes cause distractions. Why not use this increased enthusiasm to our advantage? There are certainly things in my content area that relate to these events. Just to name a few;

Snow days: hypothermia, extreme sports, homeostasis

Boston Marathon: heart rate, training, damage to feet and joints

Valentine’s Day: is there a better day to dissect hearts?

Halloween: appeal to students’ curiosity with mystery organs, tissue types

Super Bowl: concussions and prevention

World Series: Rotator cuff injuries, hand-eye coordination

With this new mindset, the schedule disruptions that were such a nuisance now are opportunities to create something unforgettable for students. Why not create a folder of plans to pull out for special occasions? Along the idea of sub plans; things to capture the energy of the room and use the enthusiasm to my advantage rather than trying to “talk students down” and coax them into participating in a lesson that they are not prepared to be engaged in.

Another way that lessons have been memorable for students is when they realize their own potential. When students write blogs to set and reflect on goals, they can visualize their learning. I have learned that this is also a method of teaching resilience in students. While I read their blogs, rather than reading to assess the content and grammar I make suggestions about activities for them to try or ways to meet their goals I began doing this because I was honestly interested in who my students are and what they hope to gain from taking my class. I have found that there are not many other teachers who do this; students are surprised that I am connecting the content to their future plans and they can relate to what they are learning. In the end, students have a feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction of a goal reached and job well done.

When students have this sense of pride it must be captured and shared. Ordinarily, students present reports and other research to their peers; why not have them recap their journey? Surely there is someone in the audience who will identify with their struggle and appreciate the process and resilience it took to accomplish a goal. The more people share their stories the more we see that we are more alike than different and making stories public is a way to validate and reflect upon the journey.


Exercise in Humility

This week I am leading my PLC on a series of experiences to deepen our understanding of the Next Generation Science Standards and how they will impact lesson planning. Up to now, we have worked in groups to “unpack” the standards – I think every district impacted by the NGSS has had some PD devoted to this tedious task. The problem is that there seems to be very little reward for this effort. We painstakingly read each word trying to glean what the authors of the document were thinking, when in actuality the answers are already written in the K-12 Framework….. but enough of this science-specific talk. The point is that there have been many hours spent pouring over unfamiliar documents which didn’t achieve the expected result. Teachers (in general) seem to be difficult to persuade to adopt a totally different method of instruction; that is understandable we are responsible for educating the future leaders and scientists. We can’t screw this up!

All of these PD hours have given us a different understanding of the NGSS. Many of us are ready for the change, looking forward to it, prepared to do things differently. Others are reluctant while some believe that they have already made enough changes. Goal = met. Now it is time to dig deeper, to start sifting through lessons to locate evidence of deeper learning and increased student inquiry, decreased reliance on teacher-experts and more developing and showcasing student expertise.

Without telling the group, I offered-up my prized lesson plan. I spend many hours writing what I felt at the time was the best that I was capable of composing. Watching my colleagues read and honestly critique my work has been a sobering experience. I was afraid that telling them that I wrote it would prejudice them, it would certainly inhibit them from speaking freely. So I sit listening to their unbiased opinions, unable to defend my work.  There are times when I want to clarify what the “author” must have been thinking and others when I am proud of my work. In both cases, it has been an exercise in humility to take the feedback and begin to use it to improve. We have just completed day 2 of what is likely to go on for 3 more.

Each day a new person facilitates the session and determines the focus. I simply love these new perspectives and cannot wait to see how this ends.

Tracking Mastery

Long ago I decided to start teaching students to master skills rather than remember content. Some colleagues do not see the difference in the two; when asked, I enjoy the opportunity to explain how making subtle changes daily has transformed my teaching journey.

The first difference is the lens through which I plan my lessons and units. Of course, I use  UbD backwards design and those who know me would say “of course she goes over the top and customizes even THAT.” While planning I consider how these particular students are going to respond to the activities that I have planned:

What are the special interests of each student?

Are there parents who have experience in this topic?

How can I link this new learning to things that students have already experienced?

In what ways can I make maximize student agency?

Because I am a science teacher, I must now consider 3-dimensional learning. How are students going to interact with this material and how are these interactions going to progress over time. In my mind, this is a cycle where some students get off and progress to the next step while others are given time to reach mastery before being asked to move to the next step. I have found that this is another divergence from conventional thinking; if there are 25 students then there may be 25 different levels of mastery at one time. This is overwhelming for some teachers, but it all goes back to mindset. The students who are farthest ahead support other learners in the class – remember “the best way to learn is to teach.”

The cycles are composed of progressive activities including the hook, gathering basic information from text or an exploratory activity, reading articles or watching videos to gather information to answer student-generated questions, making claims about what they have learned, and generating evidence to support these claims.

None of these activities are graded. These are learning opportunities meant for students to make mistakes, use feedback and try again. I use these to assess student progress and provide feedback, make suggestions for next steps, and encourage them to think deeper. I teach in a traditional grades school so I have to provide grades for progress reports. My solution is to have a summative (graded) assessment after a cycle of formative (ungraded) assessments. Progress on formative assessments is tracked in the electronic grade book by level of mastery and comments about how this mastery was or was not demonstrated. One assignment may include all 3 dimensions NGSS so this individual assignment may have 3 spots in the grade book.

Sound complicated? It was and still can be at times but I cannot see myself treating students’ learning any differently. I have to value every effort that each student makes no matter how small.



Balancing Autonomy with Instruction

Lately, I have been struggling with the balance between student autonomy and instruction. Many students are not ready for complete independence, some feel most comfortable when they have guidance every step of the way. I want to add 1:1 conferencing but have found that students are not ready for self-assessment. I feel as though my biggest challenge is the time crunch of semester classes.  This is the plan to build a supportive scaffold for my dependent learners.

Question Focus Technique- I have begun using the QFT from Right Question Institute. Through this introductory activity, students are introduced to a new topic or concept and develop their own questions to investigate. Specifically, I am using this with my Physiology students; giving them an image of an organ and they develop questions. This has led to some focused investigations around Science and Engineering Practices and Cross-Cutting Concepts. By starting with student questions, students are looking for answers to their own questions. This has resulted in more engagement as students have determined their own focus questions instead of going through the motions of a teacher-appointed task.

Lab(s) – I determine which lab to start with based on the questions that students have asked. I have found that they usually ask the same questions that a planned lab would have answered anyway. The difference is that now students are invested in the activity because they are searching for answers to their own questions. So far I have found it necessary to plan at least two labs to answer all of the students’ questions. In the future, I will make it a point to show students which of their questions will be answered in the lab.

Notes to support (need evidence of reading/review) – This is where I am stumped. There are still students who want the notes, direct from the teacher. I understand this need; they may not be confident that they have reached the objective or the lab activities have sparked a new interest or new questions. Students want confirmation, in addition to my feedback, that they are on the right track. Stand and deliver instruction is not how I want to use precious face time with students. I am considering adding more interactivity like Mentimeter or Poll Everywhere. This will be my focus for this week.

My focus in the coming weeks will be assessment and reflection. How do I prepare students to self-assess and reflect?  As I type this I realize that reflection should be first… Just breath, one step at a time.



Why Do We Start With Training Wheels?

I began my teaching career as a substitute teacher then moved into a position as an instructional assistant in the special education department. Although accidental, this was the perfect progression for me. I was able to see the plans that teachers wrote for me, how students behaved in their absence and the quality of work that was expected. The most valuable experience, by far, was working with a magnificent special education department and being the “wing person” for the regular education teacher. As I assisted in delivering instruction to students across content areas, I saw one technique that universally was more successful than others.

A fellow teacher and influencer, Brian Rozinsky, shared this analogy with me:

I don’t know about you but when I was learning to ride a bike I constantly tripped over the pedals; sometimes I even fell because I could not get my feet past them fast enough. Someone came up with the brilliant idea to just eliminate the pedals and focus on balance. I watched my neighbor learn this way and it was amazing.

This is very much like PBL or inquiry-based instruction. Starting with big ideas and letting students add in the details when they are prepared, at their own pace. My vision of my teaching used to be this:

training wheels

Supporting students until I was able to let them go and be more independent. Providing support (training wheels) so that they did not fail (never had to put their feet down). The problem with this is that when the training wheels are removed they still are not ready to be independent, they still “trip over the pedals”.

My new imagery of my students is this:

Provide the tools and experiences that students need to explore independently. Start with the big ideas, phenomena, concepts and add the details of vocabulary and punctuation gradually. Let the students be independent, just let go. It is a bit of a blow to the ego to admit that they don’t actually need me every step of the way. There is no “big release” only gradual mastery and pride in accomplishment.