Back to School

Well, I couldn’t have the nerd week in August have any different kind of a title, could I? It’s back-to-school season, and the signs are everywhere. I’ve seen parents with kids and lists in Target and Staples. The chalkboard ads are prevalent. My Facebook newsfeed is full of advice on how to finally find work-life balance, new classroom management routines, and memes about teachers being as reluctant as students to dust off the books and get back in the classroom.

I admit, I have these moments. Yesterday I rode my bike around North Table Mesa near Golden, and I was a little sad about not getting to play outside every day anymore. I love eating breakfast in my pajamas – this is the epitome of luxury for me because it never happened when I was a kid! I like getting to wear my favorite ratty t-shirts and wander around barefoot and eat peaches. Oh, the peaches!

And I’m nervous about the upcoming school year. I’m piloting a new biology book, so for the first time I won’t be directly collaborating with anyone in my school on lessons. I have huge hopes and goals for this pilot, and I know I’m going to fall short of some of them. I’m already feeling the pressure of other people’s expectations; the superintendent’s opening speech this year was all about asking us if we were willing to do what it takes to move from being very good to being remarkable. It was a very good speech! But I also remember many moments in the last two years of teaching in which I felt like I was giving more than I had to give, and I was exhausted. For me, anyhow, doing more is not the answer.

But that sentence has two keys phrases in it. First, doing more is not the answer. What I want to do this year is do some of the things I already do better than I’ve done them. It means I want to have resources posted on my website the night before kids need them instead of right before class. It means I want to use absent folders for each block rather than the folders on my desk for each class. It means I want to make mini-to-do lists for my plan periods so I don’t get overwhelmed by the incredible number of things I always have to do. It means I want to use my planner more effectively to remember when meetings are so I’m not surprised by them.

This likely isn’t a new thought for many of you. Lots of my teachers told me to study smarter, not harder. It’s the idea of efficiency, given the resources I already have.

But this isn’t enough. When I have all the normal responsibilities of a teacher, plus all the additional professional projects I get involved in, I will never have enough time to meet everyone’s expectations. I can’t. There simply are not enough hours in the day, even if I was a robot and could work crazy hours and use every one of them at top-level productivity. The second key phrase in that sentence was For me.

At the end of the school year last year, I sat down with one of our assistant principles and asked for advice. I told him about all the pressures I’d been feeling from innumerable different sources. The building goal for freshmen students was focused on literacy. The district goals were to incorporate technology and boost attendance. The building professional development was focused on project-based learning. The 9th grade transition team was focusing on social-emotional skills to help manage behavior. The Knowles Fellowship was focused on incorporating science and math practices and learning about practitioner inquiry. My work with BSCS and HHMI were about making student thinking visible and telling science stories, respectively.

And none of this exactly matched with my own personal goal, which was centered around formative assessment. This goal came out of long conversations with my mom at the end of my first year of teaching. I asked this question; what is one thing I can improve on that will make the biggest difference in my classroom? Formative assessment was the answer we came to. I could rant on and on about why I chose this, but I’ll save that tangent for later.

That’s nine goals, my friends. That’s at least seven too many to do any of them well.

My assistant principle agreed with that logic. He gave me two pieces of advice. First, he asked if there were ways I could weave any of these goals together. Could I use technology to help students work on literacy, for example? And second, he told me to prioritize these goals for myself and communicate my priorities.

This is what I meant by saying that For me was the other key phrase in that sentence. At the end of the day, I’m the one making decisions about my classroom and my life. I’m the one who decides when I leave the building and when I go for a hike. I’m the one who sets up classroom routines and designs assignments. I’m the one who gets to say yes or no to new projects.

This is both a very empowering mindset and a completely terrifying one. It’s much easier if I go along with someone else’s plan. It means I don’t have to expend energy to analyze the situation, figure out what to do, and try to execute it. It also means that if the plan goes wrong, it wasn’t my plan. But taking ownership of my goals and priorities means that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed by having so many things to do. I can choose.

One thing to remember in all of this, however, is that I am not doing this by myself. While the ultimate decision lies with me, all of the thinking and planning up to that point can, and I think should, be a group effort. I have so much to learn about the craft of teaching! Working with other people pushes my thinking in new interesting ways. Taking on someone else’s goal and plan means that I have more brain space to dedicate to executing it, rather than spending all my energy on creating it.

I don’t think any of you will be surprised when I tell you I’m actually really excited to go back to school. I love the chalkboard ads. I love the new supplies and putting my classroom back together. I love trying to spot the excited kids in the aisles at Target. I have new activities I wrote and things I learned over the summer, and I want to see how they work in a real classroom. It’s easy to get sucked into the cultural groan about going back to school, but I’m choosing to ignore it this year.

To all my teacher people who are starting back, you’re about to do incredible things. How cool is that??? And to all my people who aren’t teacher people, you do incredible things all year long. Equally cool!

Your homework this week: (wow, that sounds more natural now that I’ve been back in my classroom…) How do you balance taking advice, learning, and working cooperatively with being the end decision-maker in your life?

Hej då,

Jamie

What Teachers Do All Summer

I might have mentioned, in a mini-rant several blog posts ago, that teachers don’t actually take the summer off. We definitely technically have that option, I suppose, and I can say that I’ve taken the vast majority of June to play outside and visit my wonderful family and friends. The flexibility of summer is amazing!

But tell any teacher that they took the job because they get summers off, and you’ll likely get a snarky response back. It might be a rejection of that idea, and the teacher will outline all of the work they do over the summer. It might be a rant about how summers are entirely needed because of the the crazy hours and lack of flexibility during the school year.

So the question remains: what do teachers do all summer? I can only tell you my own story here, and hope that it helps explain a little bit.

I spent the entire graduation weekend in the little office behind my classroom, getting rid of posters and books and unpacking boxes. It takes me hours to get rid of and organize the documentation and tests and various paperwork that builds up each year. I dusted shelves and cleaned out my classroom and locked cabinets. I love how clean everything looks, and that back room is more organized than it’s ever been!

One of my biggest projects this summer has been familiarizing myself with a new biology textbook. I am part of my district’s pilot process, and next year I’ll be using BSCS’s A Human Approach. I’m a little sad; I just figured out the old curriculum! But the more I work with this new book (everyone calls it AHA for short) the more excited I am about it. The book is designed to give students learning experiences, rather than telling them a lot of facts about biology. It’s built around activities and questions rather than blocks of text. It’s definitely not your traditional textbook, and I think that’s a good thing!

AHA is based on a constructivist theory of learning. Imagine a teacher pouring knowledge into students’ heads, and students automatically remember it. This is the opposite of constructivism, and this kind of learning rarely actually works. Usually, students have to examine an idea, figure out how it fits with other ideas, and figure out how all of that fits in with what they already know about the world. It’s why misconceptions are so hard to uproot; despite learning facts that oppose the misconception, if those facts don’t fit with a student’s world view, the student won’t incorporate them and the facts will be forgotten. There’s a hilarious (but mostly terrifying) documentary which includes some clips of Harvard graduates demonstrating this idea.

Constructivist learning gives students a phenomenon, data set, or scenario and asks students to grapple with the ideas themselves. This gives students an opportunity to incorporate new ideas into their worldview in a much more lasting way than memorizing facts for a test.

(I’ll also include a disclaimer here; constructivist learning can be the topic of an entire master’s degree. I’ve only skimmed the surface, both in my own learning and in my explanation of it here.)

Using a resource like AHA means I’m changing not only my curriculum, but also my style of teaching. It means drafting letters home to parents to explain the change. It means spending hours reading the teacher edition of the textbook and making a year-long calendar so I have an outline of the year. (My year-long calendars definitely change throughout the year, as I move more quickly or slowly through lessons or encounter snow days, assemblies, and testing.) I’ve been meeting with one of the other teachers who is piloting to scaffold two of the later chapters so we can do them first.

These meetings, especially, have been incredible amounts of fun! I get to be creative and thoughtful and really purposeful about how I want to teach. I love lesson planning, especially when I have all the time in the world to come up with something I really like. Here’s a secret; I actually really enjoy grading when I have the time to do it. I like reading what my students have written and trying to figure out how much they know. If I’m doing it right, grading leads right into planning.

In a perfect world, I also would have already made my year-long calendar for anatomy and physiology. I haven’t even thought about it. I also would love to revise some of my project prompts and rubrics so they were ready to go when I needed them. Good thing it’s still July!

The thing I love most about teaching is that really, what I do all day is tell stories. I tell stories about science and life and how humans have played a role in that story. A year-long calendar is one way to view that story; a lesson-plan is a more focused way to view that story. But it requires a lot of deep thinking to take all the facts and principles of a HUGE field like biology and weave them into a coherent content story line. That’s what summer is for.

I’m also going to be doing some learning this summer; I’m headed to Yosemite for a six-day training on water ecology and naturalism. At the end of July I’ll go to Philadelphia for the Knowles Summer Meeting. And on August 10th I go back to school!

So what, exactly, do teachers do all summer? We learn. We prepare. We do the deep thinking and reflecting we don’t have time to do during the year. And in some ways, I love this part just as much as I love my students.

Your homework: What part of your work brings you the most joy? Why is that? Is it what you expected?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

A Mid-Year Accounting

Hej everyone! Today is July 2nd, and it is officially the 26th anniversary of the day you all got stuck with me. I love my birthday for a couple of (completely unrelated) reasons.

My Grandma Gay’s birthday was July 4th. She used to joke and say it was because she was such a firecracker, and she was right! Grandma loved to cook, clean, and sew, and she painted ceramics and porcelain dolls. She loved roses and lace and pink, and I learned a lot about being girly from her. However, she also loved snowmobiling and tubing behind a speedboat, and she even went parasailing in Switzerland one time.

When I was little, Grandma and Grandpa used to come to Steamboat to celebrate our birthdays. But I didn’t totally grasp the whole concept of the 4th of July, and so every year I experienced a powerful wave of jealousy. Every single year, Grandma got fireworks for her birthday, and I didn’t! I have since learned a bit about our national history, but I still find it amusing to imagine six-year-old me getting all worked up about the whole thing.

The second reason I love my birthday is because my mom and I go for birthday hikes, just the two of us, each year. We started this tradition when I turned fifteen, and even though I’m lucky to see my mom far more often than just once a year, I still love that we carve out this time.

But the last reason I love my birthday is because July 2nd is the exact middle day of the year. There are 182 days before it, and 182 days after it (unless Leap Day messes with it). Often people use New Year’s to make goals or resolutions for the coming year. I’m fortunate because I have a ready-made reason to reflect on the other side of the year’s arc.

So what can I say about the last sixth months? What have I learned?

As an adventurer, I got back on my mountain bike and I’ve ridden more this summer than I have in the last three summers combined. I was given many opportunities to remember how much I love being outside, feeling my muscles contract and release, and getting sweaty and dusty. I’ve also learned that I can swing too far into adventure mode and forget the other parts of myself.

As a nerd, I had some incredible learning experiences this spring semester. I got to present for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the National Science Teacher’s Association and work with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study on their STeLLA project. STeLLA is based on instructional strategies to understand student thinking and create a coherent content story line. I’ve really only been focused on three of the eight student thinking strategies, but they’ve changed the way I teach.

But I also struggled with taking on way too many things this spring. In the fall semester I did a good job of limiting my involvement in things outside my everyday teaching job. I was happier and had more energy to be present in my classroom. In the spring, all these fantastic opportunities arose, and I took them! I don’t regret a single one, because they all had hugely positive impacts on my teaching. But I did let my nerdiness, particularly the teaching vein of it, take over everything else.

As for my hobbit-self, I think the thing I’m most happy about is my renewed commitment to my friends and family, especially this summer. I’ve visited Granny (my mom’s mom) more often in these last couple of months, and I’ve done better at staying in contact with with my friends who are far away. Traveling is not a hobbit trait, but finding my people is; I can officially say I’ve spent nine days in Boulder since May 27th. The rest of the time I’ve been with the people I care the most about. I’ve learned a lot about how to share and accept love, and how to really see the people around me.

But in many ways, I neglected the hobbit part of myself in these last six months. Exactly why this happened requires a bit of backstory.

In one of my (far) earlier posts, I described how I had a massive blood clot in my right leg when I was nineteen. I had just been to a cadaver lab, and was feeling incredibly grateful for how well my body works. What I chose not to describe in that post were some of the after-effects of the clot. Most people notice very quickly that I wear one knee-high compression sock on my right leg. The clot destroyed the valves in those veins that help push blood back up, which means the blood will pool in my foot. The compression sock helps ameliorate this problem. What most people didn’t see was the fact that I was on an anticoagulant (blood thinner) for five and a half years.

Being on an anticoagulant meant I had to stop ski racing and mountain bike racing. I had to be careful when I did pretty much anything, because any concussion or internal injury could be very, very bad. Losing the ability to do these activities changed the way I viewed my own identity; I lost my connection with my adventurer. I threw a lot of my energy into nerdy pursuits, and this is also when I developed a lot of my hobbit hobbies.

This past October, I made the decision to stop taking anticoagulants. I feel better and I got all of my adventuring back! It’s been a process of learning how to not hold back and remember all of my love for being outside. But in that process, I lost some of my hobbit-ness, and I started using it as a means to recover instead of loving it for itself.

As I look forward to the next six months, I have a lot of really exciting things coming. I have six more glorious weeks of summer, which includes going to Yosemite National Park for a professional development about naturalism and water ecology, visiting Ogden and Steamboat again, visiting Knowles friends in New York, and going to the Knowles Summer Meeting. I have the fall semester of my third year of teaching, complete with piloting a brand new textbook in biology. I get to attend conferences about teaching and ski race officiating. I have two baby blankets to knit, and some canning to do.

I think my goal for all of these things is balance. I want to express all three parts of me because I can learn from and enjoy each part. I don’t mean to say I’ll create equal time for each thing, but I want to be intentional about how I engage in doing the things I love.

Goals are slippery things. How will I engage in this goal? By writing to you all, of course. This space to reflect will be both part of my process and my measurement.

Your homework: Do your own mid-year review! Write a paragraph about what you want your life to look like for the next six months. How will you engage your goals?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

 

Naturalism

Well I have to admit, this is the first time I haven’t felt like I had a million and three options for a nerd post. So you’ll have to look for the nerdiness woven into stories  about adventuring. I’ve still been spending lots and lots of time outside biking and hiking, but also thinking.

Mom has said for years that she loves being able to go for bike rides and hikes in the summer and just think about teaching. And she’s right! It’s really fun to think about what I want my classroom to look like next year: what systems I want to put in place, the kind of community I want to build, the type of learning activities I want to incorporate. As I’ve been wandering around the mountains of Boulder, Steamboat, and now Ogden, I’ve been thinking about the different parts of biology, how they’re connected, and which ones we give more importance to.

Usually the major units in biology are ecology, molecular biology and biochemistry, genetics, evolution, and…everything else. What this “everything else” consists of depends on state and district standards, the school’s curriculum, and mostly on the knowledge base of the teachers. Mom taught a lot about comparative anatomy and taxonomy, and we also learned quite a lot about plants. Mom’s master’s degree is in arctic and alpine botany, so this makes sense. At Longmont, we’ve had teachers who have believed really strongly in comparative anatomy taught through dissections, so we spend a week every spring taking apart pigs, frogs, and sharks.

I was trained as a molecular biologist, so all that stuff about carbs, proteins, and lipids, cell structure, molecular genetics…I loved it. But it’s interesting to explain to my students, especially in anatomy and physiology, that I will place an emphasis on molecular mechanisms and in exchange, I won’t focus on development. I never took a developmental biology class, so I don’t have the background to teach it. (As a side note: Someday I plan on getting more background in development. But there are only so many class hours, and I have to make choices somewhere!)

Perhaps my background is why I didn’t notice, over the course of the last three years, that there was a part of biology that was really quite sadly lacking from my classroom. In fact, I didn’t realize it until I was standing on the Mesa Trail in Boulder, watching a man identify the local birds, that I figured out what was missing. I don’t teach anything about naturalism.

When I tell the story about why I’m a teacher, I start with how Mom used to teach me the names of the wildflowers on the side of the trail as we hiked. Well, (sorry, Mom!) I only remember about half of what she ever taught me. I don’t know the bugs or the birds, and I can’t identify conifers past deciding if it’s a spruce, fir, or pine. I don’t know much about fish or amphibians. Yesterday, as I was hiking up a trail called Fern Valley in Ogden, I was trying to dig through my memory to explain how ferns have two life forms, haploid and diploid, but I couldn’t remember if mosses were the same (I think they are) or what else went into the category with conifer trees (which reproduce differently than ferns but also aren’t angiosperms, the flowering plants).

At some level, I understand why biology has moved away from naturalism. As the field of molecular biology expands, there is more and more to teach and, as I mentioned before, there are still only so many teaching days. Molecular biology is not only the hot new topic, but it is opening a lot of interesting ethical questions that students are likely going to be voting on in coming years. Also, observational field studies can take years, and science funding emphasizes studies that can give results quickly. Naturalism is highly place-dependent; even between Boulder and Steamboat I can see different ecosystems and local variations. For many students, learning the names of organisms could feel like a list of terms to be memorized.

But in that one day on the Mesa Trail, I chatted with this local man who was identifying birds, and I could see his pleasure in being connected to the world around him. I saw a brother and a sister exclaiming over ants and trying to figure out how they knew where to go and why they followed each other. I eavesdropped on a twenty-something couple as they read an informational sign about the bats in Mallory Cave, exclaiming about how bats have sex in the fall and then the female stores the sperm in her reproductive tract until the spring. (I would really like to know how the sperm stays alive that long, actually.) I laughed out loud as I passed a four or five year old girl who was explaining erosion to her mother.

These were people who were engaged in their world. They were making observations and coming up with explanations. They were curious and asking questions. THIS is science. THIS is biology.

This summer I’m going to a professional development about water ecology in Yosemite National Park. (I’m unbelievably excited about this opportunity!) And in part of doing so, I’m reading some ecological classics (Silent Spring, for one) and also a book called Last Child in the Woods. My background is not in ecology, which is why I chose to spend my summer this way. But even more than that, the ecology we teach is based in principles like the ten percent rule, which applies to ecosystems everywhere. Teaching this way means the knowledge students are learning is widely applicable, true. But how do I connect that to the genuine engagement I saw in those people on the trail?

This is one of my goals for the summer; I feel like there is some inherent value in naturalism, despite all the reasons I listed that make it tricky. I feel like the connection to something that’s physically around us all the time is important for many reasons. I feel like I’m not painting a true picture of biology without naturalism, and I want my students to see the innumerable options biology can give them. But I’m (clearly) not very articulate in explaining how and why I feel this way, and I don’t have a lot of evidence to say that it’s better (or not) for my students. So I want to explore this and start to figure out what it might look like in my classroom.

Your homework: What do you see when you go outside? What value does it have for you? What do you see people getting excited about?

Hej då,

Jamie

Flow

For the last three weeks, I’ve been exploring creativity from the perspective of being an adventurer, a scientist, and a hobbit. I’ve talked about how being creative is amazing because it’s about overcoming challenges, exploring the new and unknown, and being part of a larger conversation about being human. These things are all true, and I’ve loved the responses I’ve gotten from you all.

But there’s something more, I think, to creativity, than just these pieces. Creating something is a really special experience.

Mihály Csíkszentmihály is a Hungarian psychologist who coined the term “flow” to refer to a state where a person is so engrossed in their task they are oblivious to the outside world. There are a lot of brilliant people who have reported this feeling; Newton, for example, regularly forgot to eat for several days at a time when he was working on a little book called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

There are lots of studies out there about how engaging in flow is good for you. It can create a sense of purpose and engagement. It’s energizing and uplifting. It allows a growth in perspective. But the thing I wanted to talk about in all of this was that growth.

In teaching, we talk about something called the zone of proximal development. This is the mental and emotional place where a student is encountering something new and it’s a little outside of their comfort zone. However, it’s also totally possible to push a student beyond the zone of proximal development into the danger zone. When students feel threatened, whether that’s confronting an idea that conflicts with their world view or the fear of looking dumb or too smart, they can’t learn anything at all.

It’s important for teachers to recognize where this is for each student. Students in their comfort zone won’t grow, and students in the danger zone can’t grow. Think about it like a graph, with the level of challenge on the x axis (the bottom) and the level of skill someone has on the y axis (the vertical one). As you move from left to right, the challenge of the task gets harder. As you move from top to bottom, the skill level of the person doing the task increases.

There is a magical line running from bottom left to top right of this graph that balances challenge and skill so learning can happen. If the challenge is too high and the skill too low (bottom right) then the person gets frustrated and gives up. If the skill is too high and the challenge too low (top left) the person is bored. This is a visual I keep constantly in the back of my head as I’m teaching.

But hold on a moment here. I moved from creativity to teaching. How’d I do that?

Learning is creating. It’s not always creating something physical; in fact, it’s usually creating something super abstract. Learning is about constructing a framework of thoughts, ideas, and understandings.

If you think about the zone of proximal development, it’s true for every sport ever played. You don’t throw a beginning skier down the hardest run on the hill. That would be a recipe for injury! Coaches help athletes build skills slowly. It’s also true for every art form. I began practicing piano by playing the five notes under my fingers without moving my hands. The first bread I made was not a yeast bread. As I learned, the pieces I played and the recipes I used grew more complex.

But this isn’t some pathway, where I can complete step 1 and “level up” so I can complete step 2. It’s a constant balancing act of knowing when to push to a challenge I might not totally be ready for, but I’m ready to learn from, and when to practice something I already know. Being creative requires knowing myself, and then getting outside myself to really get into this feeling of flow. And that’s a really cool experience.

Your homework: Have you experienced flow? What were you doing?

Hej då,

Jamie

Creativity and Community

My friends laugh at me when I remind them I’m a hobbit. They know it’s true. I like to stay at home. I don’t like crowds or meeting new people. Sometimes I find myself thinking I just don’t like people in general. This year in particular, however, has made it clear that I do, in fact like people. I’m a teacher, after all. And in my hobbit-ness, I especially like my people.

I wrote a little bit about this in my post about having breakfast with my family. I enjoy the things I enjoy more when I’m doing them with people I love. I like sharing the experience in the moment and reflecting on the shared memories later. And I think this is more true in creativity than I originally thought.

See, when I think about a creative genius I think about someone pouring over a manuscript or music score for hours, forgetting to eat or sleep or generally about the outside world. I think about an inventor in a lab or a baker elbow-deep in flour. But without a community, creativity is like shouting at a mountain. All you get is your echo.

My friend Matt made this especially clear when he wrote me about creativity. Matt is a Knowles Fellow who teaches math in Washington state. We were going back and forth about things we’d stopped doing when we started teaching, and we both mentioned music. I played the flute in middle school band and I took piano lessons through high school. I still have my flute, but a piano is a bit harder to move. I miss practicing and playing and the occasional composing I did. Here’s what Matt had to say:

I miss playing music. I played viola. The other day though I got my hands on a piano and was missing around and really want to get in touch with that part of me again. Especially playing in an orchestra or group. I would always be overwhelmed after a performance thinking, ‘Man. We just made that. We just made music.’ It’s…hard to explain. But I got to feel like I was a part of something great. I miss making things!”

I think he nailed it. One of my favorite parts of middle school band was the feeling that I was a part of something. We were making something way bigger than any one of us could make on our own. I liked imagining I was weaving the sound of my flute into a tapestry that was made of all the sounds of all the instruments.

Once Matt got me thinking about this, I started wondering about my other forms of creativity. One thing I love to do creatively is bake. I like the flour, the way it smells as it’s in the oven. And I also really like sharing my baked goods. (Seriously, any potentially sticky meeting you have? Bring brownies. Or snicker doodles. It is automatically better.) I like making huge batches of things so my people and I can enjoy them together. So baking is also very much a community creative thing for me.

I also like to write. Writing especially seemed individual when I started thinking about it. And it’s true to some extent; the initial act of writing is fairly solitary. But grab the nearest book to hand, and look at the acknowledgements. Depending on the author and type of book, it might be a list of a handful of names or it might be three pages long. Revision and editing is a process that takes a lot of people.

And at its heart, writing is about communicating. It’s about joining a larger conversation about what it means to be human. I’m nerding out a little bit here, but I really think that’s the heart of literature. Reading is a passive way to participate, but writing is actively contributing. That conversation evolves over time and across culture, but there are similarities in every story.

One of the reasons I started writing fanfiction was because I wanted to participate in the conversation. I love the Harry Potter series. I may or may not have broken the bindings of three of my books because I read them so often. And when I found a place where people were joining that conversation, I was delighted. And I wanted to join in too! So I did. I started writing. And more than that, I started getting feedback on my writing. I made friends with some of the other people who write. One person, Gerry, was my beta for my last story. (A beta is like an editor; they read your chapter before you put it up and give you feedback for revisions.) It was incredible to have someone to have a conversation with about my writing. I learned so much about writing styles and language and characterization from this process!

And, like all good thoughts, I took this one to my mom. When I told her I was pleased with myself for figuring out that writing was totally about community, she laughed at me a little bit. She pointed out that I had formatted this blog in such a way as to encourage interaction. After all, don’t I give you all homework? I want to start conversations!

So…yeah, Mom’s always right. I’m definitely ok with this.

I really do believe that being part of something bigger than myself is really important for my sense of purpose and happiness in my life. It’s part of why I love teaching. It’s why yoga class is better than yoga at home. And it is a huge part of what inspired me to start this blog.

This fall I attended the National Association of Biology Teachers annual conference. I got to see some of my Knowles friends, meet a lot of amazing people, and in general get inspired by how many absolutely incredible biology teachers there are. And I decided I wanted to be a part of it. All of it. I wanted to reach out and look for opportunities. I wanted to participate in the conversation.

Sometimes sharing my creative “masterpieces” is scary. When I create something, it’s directly a piece of my heart. But without the sharing, I think the creativity is seriously diminished.

So my homework for you: How do you participate in the human conversation? What is your creative community?

Hej då,

Jamie

Creativity in Science

Take a moment and imagine a stereotypical scientist. Perhaps you’re imagining someone in a white lab coat with goggles and gloves. Maybe they’re holding a flask of some colorful steaming liquid. Maybe they’re measuring something. Maybe their hair is crazy and/or blackened. Likely, if you imagined the background, you visualized lab tables covered in glassware and notebooks. Meet the crazy chemist.

What personality traits would you give this person? Some likely options might include the following: diligent, nerdy, not socially adept, curious, precise.

It’s also possible you imagined someone more along the lines of Jane Goodall, wearing khaki and taking notes in the field. Or maybe you imagined a doctor or an engineer. These are all people who have something to do with science! But likely you ascribed them similar traits to our crazy chemist we first imagined.

Now, imagine someone who’s creative. This person, in my own head, is a painter or musician or writer. They follow inspiration the way a leaf follows a breeze in the fall. They might be wild or carefree in a way that a scientist is serious.

My students often divide themselves into an interesting binary system: math/science people and artsy people. I think, in part, this might come from the right brain and left brain distinction. But wherever it comes from, it always makes me sad when a student with artistic talent tells me they can’t be a scientist because they’re “a creative type.”

I’m here to tell you today that this binary is silly. At one level, it is silly because we are humans and we are complex and we can be good at lots of things! But more importantly, I don’t think the binary itself is based in reality. Science is one of the most creative processes I’ve ever been a part of.

The essence of science involves using evidence to answer questions about how the world works. That means scientists have to be good at lots of different things; asking questions, defining what counts as evidence, gathering evidence, interpreting that evidence using scientific reasoning, and ultimately deciding if they’ve gotten any closer to answering their original question. There is creativity in every single one of these skills, and in how they’re linked together.

You might recognize those skills as something akin to The Scientific Method you learned about in your freshman science class. The Scientific Method is a list of steps that “scientists” go through in order to “do science.” I teach it in my classroom and it is related to the nature of science as a discipline. It’s also, in this form, totally false. It feels linear and prescriptive. It leaves a lot of students thinking that if they do x, y, and z they’ll get the correct result and move on.

In reality, science is a very messy, very iterative process of thinking, observing, questioning, interpreting, questioning, thinking, and more thinking. There is nothing linear about it! I found a great comic describing the scientific process. (It comes with a language warning.) It requires a lot of gut feel and some artistry (as well as patience) to navigate through this process.

Certainly navigating the process of science is an exercise in creativity; but creativity is intertwined into every single step of the process along the way. The best way I can explain this is by telling you a story.

I’ve been fortunate to work on two very different original research projects. The first was a molecular biology project that mostly, for me, illuminated that I had no desire whatsoever to pursue molecular research. The second project was a marine ecology project and it took me to Bocas del Toro, Panama. I was a research assistant for a PhD student named Amber Stubler, and along with learning a lot about marine ecology I learned more about how science happens than at any other point in my education.

Bocas is a small town on an island off the Caribbean coast of Panama. It was a perfect place to work on Amber’s questions, which centered around bio-eroding sponges and corals. We created six different conditions by varying temperatures (warm and normal) and CO2 levels (high, medium, and normal), and tested how much damage the bio-eroding sponges did in each condition. Normally, the sponges erode dead and damaged corals, and that erosion is balanced with coral growth. In elevated temperature and CO2 conditions, however, the corals can’t grow as well and the sponges can do more damage. Or at least, that was Amber’s hypothesis. Our job was to gather data to test this hypothesis. (In the end, the data did support the hypothesis; you can read the paper here if you’re feeling super nerdy on this lovely Sunday afternoon!)

Amber spent hours designing the experiment, thinking about supplies, and getting everything to Bocas. It’s a fairly isolated community, so once we were there we were very limited in our ability to acquire other supplies. I definitely carried down an extra suitcase full of tubing and valves to create the tank system when I flew down!

And once we were there, building the set up was a huge exercise in creativity. Here’s an excerpt from the blog I wrote while I was down there:

“I spent most of the day on Tuesday using a large amount of duct tape and silicon to try sealing all of the broken tanks, some of which had shattered in shipping and had gaping holes in them. I haven’t tested any of them yet, but hopefully they all hold water! While I was busy with that project, Amber and Sarah cut holes in the top of each rain barrel and bought cinder blocks to get them higher than the tables the tanks will sit on…

Thursday we spent setting up the rain barrels, which included drilling holes in them, teflon-taping the nozzles, wrenching them into the valves, and wrenching that whole setup into the holes in the rain barrels. It was an especially exciting job because the drill bit we had was ever so slightly too small, so I had to use a square head hammer to enlarge every single one of the 230 some holes. A lot of sweat, grime, and blisters later, we got is set up and were all quite pleased with ourselves. This is really what it means to do science, especially on a budget; we just kept trying contingency plans until something worked. It’s a great way to stimulate problem-solving, creativity, persistence, and a lot of work ethic, and it makes it even more clear to me how unrealistic labs are in high school, when kits lay everything out for you.”

I rely on this experience whenever I teach students about doing science, because it so beautifully illustrates how necessary it is to be creative. I also like this example because it shows that being creative can require persistence and precision along with inspiration.

In many ways, creativity is about reveling in the unexpected and unexplored. Science, too, lives at the boundary of what we know and what we don’t yet understand. This is why they’re so integral to each other, and why it boggles my mind when students divide them into two separate and opposite things.

Your homework: Go on a search for creativity in a place where you would least expect it! What do you think characterizes creativity? How can that add to or enhance another discipline?

Hej då,

Jamie