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

 

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

Seeing and Being Seen

Last fall I decided to do an experiment; I wanted to see if I could bias my Facebook feed towards showing me positive things. I liked pages like Love What Matters, People are Awesome, and Drawing the Soul. I found people who posted awesome heartfelt things like Liz Gilbert, who wrote that bit about being a crone I liked so much, Maggie Boissard, my yoga teacher, and Malinda Kathleen Reese, who is the hilariously talented creator of Google Translate Sings. (This was one of the best things I ever did on social media, as a side note. I would highly recommend it.  I prefer to get my news from the BBC and NY Times anyway.)

I particularly like the Love What Matters page. They post stories of kindness, good deeds, and hope. They post stories about families being reunited, random acts of giving, overcoming difficulty, and finding human connection across differences. This page reminds me to believe in the goodness of other people and to do random acts of kindness when I can.

Sometimes I’ll tape a candy bar to a colleague’s door, or I’ll “cookie” the science department by leaving treats on everyone’s desk. One of the history teachers returns the favors by leaving sticky notes on my car window or notes on my board. Kelly, who teaches next door, freely shares her chocolate with me. These little things can bring a smile (and sometimes a much-needed sugar rush!) when we’re tired.

But I had an experience this week that made me reevaluate my thoughts on random acts of kindness. They’re awesome, to be sure. But I think it’s the act of kindness that ISN’T random that is the most powerful.

Last Tuesday I was having a day reminiscent of poor Alexander’s in the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I woke up not feeling very good, forgot to pack my thermos for tea, had a weird schedule because of state standardized testing that meant I saw five classes instead of my normal four, forgot I was seeing the fifth class and didn’t really have a lesson plan for them, proctored through my planning period, and had a lunch meeting AND a meeting after school that shouldn’t have been a surprise (but it was). My kids were squirrely because the schedule was odd, and I was exhausted and didn’t have much patience.

But the beautiful thing about terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days is that the people who love you come through. One colleague offered to cover my proctoring. Kelly was also having a similar day and we laughed about it together. And one of my students did one of those little acts of kindness that completely brought me to tears.

This girl is my aide for the last class I saw that day. She found me hiding in my back office in the ten minute break before her class started; I was slouched in my chair staring out the window. Our conversation went something like this.

“Whatcha doing, miss?” she asked.

“Absolutely nothing, and it’s glorious,” I informed her.

She cocked an eyebrow and smirked. “Long day?”

“Yeah, I don’t feel very good today. I’d really rather be in bed,” I admitted.

She nodded knowingly. “I feel that,” she said.

I sat there for a moment more and sighed. “But there is one more class, and it’s time to get to it,” I said, more to myself to her.

I checked with her to see what she was working on, and then went back into my classroom and got my class started. Partway through the period, she came out of my office, grabbed the pass, and waved at me. I gave her a thumbs up and let her go without pausing my current conversation. I barely noticed her come back in, and she ducked out at the end of class with a quick wave.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in my car that I figured out where she’d gone when she’d left my class. I was looking for my sunglasses when I noticed a wrapper of something in my bag. I didn’t remember putting anything in my bag that had a wrapper, so I pulled it out. I found two Hershey’s bars with a sticky note on top. In six different colors, it said “This is for you, for being the BEST even at your WORST.”

I cried. Like, hand over mouth, it’s a good thing the car wasn’t moving yet or I would’ve had to pull over, cried.

It wasn’t a huge gesture. It was some chocolate and a sticky note. But for me, there was so much more than that tied up in it.

It was a reminder that people are good. High schoolers (anyone, actually) can be snarky and mean and nasty. But in the ~500 students I’ve worked with so far in my career, every single one of them has had moments of genuine goodness and curiosity. Sometimes it can feel hard to find those moments; sometimes it takes all year to get past the layers of defense some of these kids have built up. But this is possibly the most important part of my job. If I can see the value in a kid, then I can start to help them see it too.

Even more than that, I think it was so powerful because this girl had seen me. She saw that I was struggling and that I was still there trying. Being seen like that made me feel valued. It made me feel important to her. It made all the effort I was putting in feel worth it. And that’s what brought me to tears. This wasn’t a random act of kindness. It was purposeful. My aide saw a need and she did something about it. It was a pretty incredible lesson about kindness and caring.

The chocolate is long gone, but that sticky note will be in a small box on top of my desk for a very, very long time. It’s a reminder of when someone cared about me, and of how even the sassiest students, sometimes especially the sassiest students, have value. And it’s also a reminder of a new commitment I’m making; I want to keep my eyes open. I want to learn from my students as much as I teach them. And I want to see my students, and everyone I care about in my life.

Your homework this week: When was the last time you were really seen? When is the last time you really saw someone else, and acted on what you saw? Will you join me in my commitment to keeping my eyes open?

Hej då,

Jamie

Spring Meeting: Intersections

Last weekend I told you a story that was really an intersection between me being an adventurer and me being a nerd, though I framed it as an adventure story. This time, I’m going to explore the same intersection (nerd and adventurer) from the other side. This weekend was a super nerdy weekend, and I loved every single minute of it.

Spring meeting, for people who are part of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF), is one of three times each year we all get together to work on being better teachers. KSTF is a teaching fellowship established by Harry Knowles to help young teachers become a system of experienced teachers who can effect positive change on education from within the system. It’s a five year program that focuses on content knowledge, pedagogy (how to teach), and leadership.

My cohort has thirty-four teachers from across the nation who are fascinating, caring, and seriously, awesomely nerdy. We are all first or second year math and/or science teachers in a middle school or high school setting. Teaching is a hard job, and having other people who are learning to do it with me makes it all seem a lot more feasible. This year the spring meeting was in Denver, so everyone came to my hometown! (Or close enough.) It was really fun to have everyone experience at least a tiny sliver of what it feels like to constantly have that wall of mountains to the west.

Teacher meetings are always interesting things. Depending on the group of people, they can degenerate into conversations about how screwed up the system is, how hard it can be to get respect (in and out of a classroom), how overwhelming this job is, and how all we want to do all summer is sleep. But almost every single meeting I’ve attended have been incredibly inspiring and energizing. (Well, emotionally energizing. I find my 9 p.m. bedtime slips by and it’s AT LEAST another two hours after that before I get bed.) KSTF is that kind of community for me. I learn so much about teaching, science, math, and being a good human.

So what did you learn this time, you ask? Awesome question!

The official purpose of the meeting was focused around disciplinary practices. (This is how science practices are described by the Next Generation Science Standards; there are other descriptions of science practices.) These are the skills that scientists and mathematicians use to be scientists and mathematicians. For example, some of the science practices include asking questions, analyzing data, and basing explanations on evidence. (There are also English/Language Arts practices, which are quite interesting to look at.) I love thinking about the practices because it changes science from something you learn into something you do. It helps students see how science is a way of thinking instead of just a body of facts to be memorized. Quite honestly, a lot of high school kids are usually more interested in doing than they are in listening.

This is the end of a whole year of focusing on how to teach practices in my classroom, and it’s amazing both how much I’ve learned and how many questions I still have. I think it’s a really important thing for me to keep pursuing and thinking about as I continue to develop as a teacher.

But that’s not even close to the only thing I learned this weekend. Here are some of the other (some possibly less intended) lessons I took away.

  1. Teachers from across the nation do things differently in their classroom. I got to work with someone from Delaware on our lessons, and we have really different ideas for content stories to tell and pedagogical structures to use despite the fact that we’re both teaching about evolution. I love working at my high school and being on the same page with all the teachers there, but I also love learning about entirely different ways to teach. (I also learned that plants in New Zealand grow in different shapes than plants anywhere else because there are no native mammals in New Zealand, only birds. SO COOL!)
  2. People from other parts of the country also have different ideas about Colorado’s geographic region. I have to tell you all, we are NOT the Midwest. Admittedly, we really are kind of in the middle of the country, and many of my international friends have thought the same thing. But the Midwest is flat. We are the Rocky Mountains!
  3. Changing perspectives on a situation can make all the difference. We read a story about a teacher who was reflecting on her teaching. She was constantly asking herself how she could make physics more accessible to all students and pushing herself to get as much engagement in her classroom as she could, and she focused a lot on how to engage students who were not quite there. When her mentor asked her to reflect on the students who were engaged, her perspective on her teaching changed quite a lot. In a really awesome follow-up to this story, my conversation partner and I talked about how inquiry about teaching isn’t really about finding answers to our questions; it’s about being able to ask questions that shift the perspective and the conversations about teaching.
  4. Focusing on success is extraordinarily important. I got to participate in a protocol (a guided conversation with prompts about who can speak when and for how long) that asked participants to reflect on a story about a success in our classroom. I was surprised by several things: I stared at my paper for a long time before I could come up with something to write, everyone else felt just as much like an imposter as I did, and listening to someone talk about their successes is an amazing feeling. After the protocol, my group took a tangent into a conversation about how to enact something like this with students. I am constantly asking my students to reflect on areas of potential growth. That’s a lovely way to ask that question; but no matter how I phrase it, I’m asking students to think about things they did poorly. What if instead, I asked students to reflect on something they did really well and apply that success to another situation? What if they could learn from other students’ successes and create their own toolbox of ways to be successful? That would be amazing!
  5. There are people who will get up before 6am to squeeze in a two-hour hike in Boulder before getting on a plane to go home. Way more than I expected, actually. And we absolutely identified trees as we went up the trail. Yep. Nerds!

The last thing I learned was something that really shouldn’t have surprised me. The people I get to work with in this cohort are incredibly complex and dimensional. When I originally framed this blog, it felt like I was doing so a little bit in protest. I wanted to show myself and others that it’s ok to be contradictory. It’s ok for me to be a knitter and a skier. It’s ok for me to love molecular biology and stories. I felt pressure to only be one thing at a time. (Now that I’m reflecting on this, I’m not entirely sure where that pressure was coming from; it’s quite possible that it was at least partially in my head. But that’s going to be a different post.) So I created a space where I could authentically explore how all of these things came together.

This weekend, I heard stories from a person who has moments where he loves big crowds and moments where he can’t stand people. I realized THREE PEOPLE in my cohort speak ski racing language! A math teacher from California had worked on a cruise ship and as a TV producer. One of the women who hiked with me this morning is a distance runner and a knitter. I could continue to give you examples for the next hour, but I’ll pause here.

I’m definitely still processing everything I thought about this weekend. But if I could possibly synthesize one thing out of all of this, it would be this: learning is active, it is social, and it is a process. I learn the most when I’m doing something (as scary as that is) and when I’m getting feedback from the people I’m doing it with (which is also really scary).

Your homework comes in two parts this time! (This is what happens when I go to teacher meetings and get ambitious.)

Part 1: What practices are involved in your discipline of choice (be that science or writing or baking or anything else)? How do those practices interface with the knowledge you need about that practice?

Part 2: How do you learn about other people’s dimensionality? How do you share your own dimensionality?

Hej då,

Jamie

Seeking the Summit

In my life thus far, I’ve had quite a bit of experience with goal setting. I had meetings with my ski coaches every fall  (and bike coaches every spring) to set goals. I had strength and agility standards to meet. I had race series I wanted to qualify for and top speed records to break. In school, I had sporadic G-T (gifted and talented) meetings to talk about my academic potential. I wanted to be good enough for top scholarships and universities.

When I went to college and learned a bit about writing grants, I encountered a whole different way to think about goals and measuring progress. I learned about SMART goals – goals that were Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Action-oriented), Realistic (or Relevant), and Time-bound. I learned to laugh at the girl who had eagerly told her coaches she wanted to ski in the Olympics. That wasn’t a realistic goal. I had no benchmarks between where I was and that end point.

And then I became a teacher. Teaching is FULL of goals. Standardized test score goals. Building-wide goals, department goals, individual goals. Goals driven by data, by current trends, by whoever your evaluator might be. Goals born out of professional development and dreams of what my classroom could (should) look like.

This is the first weekend of my spring break and I’m finding myself looking back at a lot of goals I made in September, shaking my head, and laughing ruefully. Maybe it’s because it’s March and I’m exhausted, but those goals seem completely ridiculous to me right now. I feel a bit like I’m looking at the girl who wanted to go to the Olympics. You wanted to have every assessment planned before you started the unit? Yeah right. You wanted to call parents once a week, ha ha. You wanted to incorporate formative assessment into your classroom on a regular basis and put learning in the hands of the students; what a sweet thought.

For this first weekend I packed up and came home to Steamboat. I’ve written a bit before about how absolutely wonderful it is to come home; Mom cooks, Jeffrey teases the life out of me, I play my piano and laze around in my Hufflepuff sweatpants. (What, you don’t have Hufflepuff sweatpants?) And I knit. Mom and I sit on the couches across from each other and duel with our knitting needles. And while we do this, we spend hours talking about anything and everything.

Last night we talked about my dream classroom. We were talking about all those goals at I had in September – students being meta-cognitive about their learning, awesome leveled assessments, and about differentiation. Especially in Anatomy and Physiology, I have students with completely different purposes for learning in my room. Some kids need another science credit to graduate or had too many free blocks. Some kids want to be neurosurgeons and are applying for pre-med programs. Some want to be personal trainers or dieticians, and some are just curious about why they get hiccups.

So we started building this dream-classroom, with strong class culture and student choice and opportunities for everyone to learn and grow. But instead of being inspiring, this felt crushing. How on earth was I supposed to create something like this?

For one thing, I trained to be a MOLECULAR biologist. I can tell you a bit about proteins and biochemistry. I can’t name even half the bones in the body. I don’t know what most hormones do. I reread the textbook before every unit so I know what on earth I’m talking about. For another thing, I’m already overwhelmed just trying to make sure I have a lesson every day for them, let alone an awesome lesson or a creative project or multiple options for them to explore. If I’m struggling to meet the normal expectations of a teacher, how do I ask myself to do more?

I know a lot of this feeling is because it’s March, and like I mentioned earlier, I’m fried. In my rant, I snapped out that I don’t need to be looking at a dream classroom. I need to be figuring out something that’s realistic for me to do for the rest of the year. Mom came back with equally valid logic; in order to move forward I need something to shoot for. It was past my bedtime and I was cranky (and I knew it), so I subsided with a grumble and took myself to bed.

This morning, we got up early and snowshoed up to the top of the gondola. It’s not an easy hike; it’s only just about two miles but over 2000 feet of elevation gain. This morning it started warm – about 36o F – and spitting corn snow. We hit the cloud ceiling about a third of the way up and it started snowing harder, with a gentle wind. My right eyelashes kept collecting ice crystals and my ponytail was completely stiff. The trees, lift towers, and other hikers were ghost-like in the fog.

I was delighted at the return of nearly-proper winter! It’s fun to pit myself against the elements and see how far I can go. I love the feeling of my hamstrings and quads contracting and releasing, moving me one step higher. I love the stingy feeling of blood pumping through my cold hands and cheeks. I think it’s hilarious how my hair turns into a demented Christmas ornament, all twisted and frosted.

One thing we definitely couldn’t see was the summit. Normally the lodge that also houses the top of the gondola looms over Heavenly Daze, the ski run we climb up. It can be a bit daunting, looking up at it and knowing exactly how far away I am. I tend to take tiny steps when I’m hiking up something steep, so it’s A LOT of steps for me to get to the top.

As Mom and I paused to catch our breaths, a woman on skins came up behind us. She stopped for a moment too, and looked over at us. “Crazy weather,” she announced. “It’s way harder to do this when I don’t know how far up I am!”

“We’re on the last steep pitch,” I offered. I’ve basically lived on this hill my whole life, so I was certain I was right. The other lady nodded and continued on with a cheery farewell. Mom and I started trudging up behind her.

I was wrong, in case you were curious. I thought we were a pitch higher than we were. Don’t be overconfident in low visibility, friends. My dad can tell an awesome story about how he got 180turned around in a snowstorm while hunting one time. He thought his compass was broken!

The symbolism of all of this was not lost on me. I told Mom wryly that this sounded an awful lot like a conversation we’d had last night. She laughed at me and just continued hiking.

I like reading mountaineering stories, of climbers on Everest and K2 (that’s the picture at the top this time) and other famous peaks. It’s interesting to see how the summit captures their whole focus, how that goal can become consuming. Mountaineers are incredible because they allow their desire to get to that goal to carry them through huge difficulties, sometimes past when it would be smart to turn back. Often the writers or the people who watch them climb wonder what it is about the summit that drives the climbers to try superhuman feats.

Now, the top of the gondola is in no way comparable to the summit of K2, but it is still  satisfying to get up there. It is much easier to sit around in my aforementioned sweatpants and drink tea. (Trust me, that’s what I’m currently doing, and I’m deeply enjoying it.) But I also enjoyed pushing myself past physical discomfort in order to reach that summit.

Mom (and the lady skinning up) is right – it’s easier when we can see the top. Just the same as it’s easier to practice a piano piece when I know what it’s supposed to sound like. It’s easier to attempt a new bread recipe when I know what it’s supposed to taste like. And it is easier to become a better teacher when I know what good teaching looks like.

So what I’m left with is a lot of questions. Why are goals sometimes motivating and sometimes not? When are expectations something to rise to and when are they a burden to carry? Where is the line between challenge and struggle? Is there a difference between a goal and a dream?

That’s your homework and mine, this time.

Hej då,

Jamie