Last week, on Wednesday, I sadly explained to my students that I was going to be missing Thursday and, for the second week in a row, Friday. I had missed November 3rd to go to Chicago for the fall Knowles meeting. Needless to say, my students were not pleased. Finally one asked, “where are you going this time?”
“It’s the National Association of Biology Teachers annual conference!” I exclaimed. “It’s 700-800 biology teachers from all across the nation, getting together to talk about biology and teaching and teaching biology…it’s pretty much the best nerd-fest on the planet!”
Depending on the student, this was met with varying levels of groans, eye rolls, laughter, and a little genuine excitement. My tiny class of fifteen demanded to know why we weren’t going on a field trip! “Well, bring us back something good,” one finally called. And indeed, I think I did.
It’s hard to describe exactly how meaningful NABT is to biology educators. It’s like going to an intensive class, going home to see family, and having a sleepover with your friends, all at the same time. Even though I sleep far less at the conference than I would like, I come home reinvigorated and ready to start again in my profession.
This is the third time I’ve been to NABT, and it was a particularly special trip for me because my mom and I co-presented one of the sessions! I was completely honored to be chosen to present, and it was so much fun to present with Mom. Everyone tells us we sound the same, and it was very easy to bounce back and forth as we presented. We presented about a project we worked on together last spring called STeLLA, or science teachers learning through lesson analysis. (Because everything in education must have an acronym…)
STeLLA is a project that focuses on using video analysis to help teachers analyze their practice through two frameworks. The first framework is about having a content story line through the lesson and throughout the year, and the second framework is about making student thinking visible so the teacher knows where the students are in their understanding. I was filmed twice last spring as a model teacher, using three of the strategies about making student thinking visible. The three strategies I focused on were questioning strategies. Elicit questions are designed to bring lots of student thinking out onto the floor, probe questions are designed to deepen student thinking or make it more specific, and challenge questions are designed to change student thinking or help them make connections to other ideas.
Our presentation at NABT focused on these three questioning strategies and their impact on me as an early-career teacher. We were shocked and honored by the number of people who came – forty-eight! – and the positive responses we got. Could we have done some things better? Absolutely. But overall, I’ll call that experience a success!
I also attended some amazing sessions. The University of Utah puts out incredible education materials, and I spent all day on Friday stalking their sessions. I learned a new way to connect the story about genetics – to go from biochemistry to DNA to molecular genetics to Mendelian genetics to natural selection – and experienced some really cool new apps about the neuroscience of senses! They’re still somewhat in development, and mostly are only available on iPads right now, but they’re called “See Neuroscience,” “Touch Neuroscience,” “Smell Neuroscience,” “Taste Neuroscience,” and “Hear Neuroscience.”
A highlight of every NABT is HHMI’s movie night. HHMI is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and their collection of resources at BioInteractive is one of my favorite sources of good science stories ever. I’ve presented for BioInteractive before and I will again this Friday at the Colorado Science Conference. At movie night, they preview their newest short film (sometimes several of them) and invite the scientists to talk about their work. This year we watched two videos with Ed Yong based on his book I Contain Multitudes, and the new release of a video called Gene Doctor. This movie tells the story of how gene therapy research, over the course of thirty or so years, was successful in treating a congenital blindness.
But NABT isn’t all about nerd-vana. The last night, many of us went on a field trip (yes, we actually call it a field trip) to the City Museum in St. Louis. If you ever get the chance to go, DO IT. I seriously cannot recommend this place highly enough! It’s an old shoe factory building that’s eleven stories high. Everything is built of reclaimed or recycled materials, and it’s basically the biggest adult playground I’ve ever seen! You can climb on everything, sometimes many stories in the air. There’s a Ferris wheel on the roof, two ten-story slides, and so many nooks and crannies that after four hours, I still feel like we saw a fraction of the place. Beyond that, everything is incredibly beautiful and detailed. It many ways, it reminded me of the style of Gaudí, the Spanish architect who designed La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, among other things.
And most importantly, going to NABT is about seeing the friends and the people who support me in this crazy profession. It’s about being surrounded by people who care as much as I do, who are as unabashedly nerdy as I am, and who are the people who are changing biology education for the better. NABT erases the feeling of being powerless in a system that fails kids and reminds me that the work we do every day matters.
Your homework: What rejuvenates you? What community do you turn to to support you?