The Battle of the Cell Phones

Every teacher today knows The Battle of the Cell Phones. It starts from the moment the bell rings (if you have bells) and goes until the very. Last. Second. Of class. It happens every day. All year long. No matter what you do.

“But I’m done with what you told me to do.”

“I’m just listening to music.”

“My [mom/dad/grandma/brother/coach] is texting me.”

“I’m looking something up.”

I’m sure you’ve heard them all, teacher friends, and more. My favorite was the kid who had set six different contacts to be named some variation of “Mom” (Mama, Mum, Madre, etc.) so it actually looked like she was texting her mom all the time. Oy.

There are all sorts of interesting studies showing how people might be addicted to their cell phones. The description of this one, from Baylor University and published in 2014, explains how approximately 60% of college students self-identified as being addicted to their cell phones. This is confirmed by a poll given two years later by Common Sense Media, which indicated 50% of teens feel addicted to their cell phones.

Some of the reason for this might be access. These charts show how people who are younger and/or poorer use their cell phone as their only access to the internet. In a world where you need an email account to sign up for…basically everything…it makes sense that smart phones are becoming indispensable.

There’s also really interesting research out there that people who have experienced trauma are more likely to expect traumatic experiences in the future. Many of my students who come from uncertain home lives lose their minds when I take their phones because they’re afraid of an emergency happening while I have it. Last year, when my colleague was killed in a car accident, I experienced some of the same feeling.

One of the most addicting things on the internet is social media. A 2012 Harvard study showed that disclosing personal information activated the same pleasure-reward pathways in the brain as food, money, and sex. A study from the University of Albany, published in 2014, explains other reasons why social media, Facebook in this example, is so addicting:

“New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward. Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently. This uncertainty about when a new reward is available is known as a ‘variable interval schedule of reinforcement’ and is highly effective in establishing habitual behaviors that are resistant to extinction. Facebook is also making it easy for users to continuously be connected to its platform, for example by offering push notifications to mobile devices.”

How is a teacher to compete with all of that? No wonder we face The Battle of the Cell Phones every day.

I start every single class by asking students to put their cell phones in their backpacks. Not under their textbooks, not in their laps, not in their pockets. Backpacks. I feel like Dora the Explorer after a while, as I repeat “Backpack, backpack,” over and over! (On that note, perhaps I should start singing the song…) As they creep back out I’ll drum my foot against chair legs and after a warning (or six, depending on how distracted I am) the cell phone gets to live in my desk drawer.

My mentor teacher (and many teachers in my building) use a cell phone box. I had a hard time with students taking their phone back out of the box without asking me and worse, taking each other’s phones. I eventually settled on my desk drawer (or my pockets) to help keep the phones safer.

I’ve seen teachers fight The Battle of the Cell Phones many ways. Some have pockets or cubbies for them, and take attendance by the presence of the cell phone in the cubby. Some try to embrace the phone and get students to use them for educational reasons instead. If you’ve figured out something that works for you, teacher friends, go for it. And share it!

What’s really horrifying to me, though, is The Other Battle of the Cell Phones. The one that happens at staff meetings. In cars. At customer service counters. Adults (me included, in some situations) aren’t any better at their phones than my students are. It’s flat-out terrible for the attention. If you’re curious about attention, try Googling “cell phones and attention,” “switch-tasking and multi-tasking” and “texting and driving training”.

No one, students included, can pay attention while they have their cell phones out. So how do I create an environment where students can pay attention? By limiting the phones that are out, for sure. But also by creating engaging lessons.

Now, teacher friends, I will tell you that I ABSOLUTELY HATE IT when that’s the solution. In my head, I’m always thinking Oh gee, thanks a lot for that. I never would have thought of that myself. Someone want to show me HOW? And I can tell you that I still haven’t figured it out. Lessons I thought would be terribly boring engage kids, possibly because of the easy opportunity to feel successful. Lessons I thought would be super engaging fall flat. But I do know that when my kids’ hands are full of test tubes of paramecium or markers or their telling each other a story about science, the phones don’t creep out quite as quickly.

It’s not completely on me to make my classroom the most interesting place in the world for every single student every single day. That’s impossible. But by increasing the attention students give to my classroom and decreasing the possible attention they can give their phones, someday I might just win The Battle of the Cell Phones. Maybe. For a day.

Your homework: How does your cell phone or your social media affect your attention? When are you on it the most and/or the least?

Hej då,

Jamie

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Transparency

With a title like transparency, I could be writing about almost anything. I could tell you stories about my colleague David, who still uses his overhead projector to (very effectively) teach biology and AP Environmental Science. We make fun of him constantly, until the day when we need transparencies and wet erase markers and he has everything we need.

I could also be telling you a story about house-cleaning, which is something that makes me oddly happy. Marilyn had the annual window-cleaning done last week, and it makes the whole house sparkle.

But this week, I’m going to tackle something a little bit more, and talk about emotional transparency, honesty and vulnerability.

My mom has told me for as long as I can remember that I am entirely too transparent for my own good. Literally everyone around me knows exactly what I’m feeling because it’s written all over my face. Sometimes this is a good thing; people know I’m genuine and I never surprise anyone with sudden bursts of seemingly random emotions. I’ve been told I wear my heart on my sleeve, I inspire people to tell me their stories, and that my caring is infectious.

I’ve also been told that I’m overemotional, that I care too much, that I’ll be taken advantage of. I’ve been told that I have to be professional, to not let my students so close, to set up some boundaries already. I’ve embarrassed others by the ready emotions that play across my face.

At various times in my life, I’ve tried to learn to hide what I’m feeling. It is unprofessional to over-share. There are people who have taken advantage. Feeling too many things is exhausting. And in one of my early college lectures about leadership ethics, I learned about “emotional flashing,” which is sharing too much too quickly with someone with the desire to make a real connection. The lecturer was a professor of engineering who lived in the honors dorm with his freshmen, and he saw it frequently among his students who were, for the first time usually, displaced from their support systems and trying to find their place in their new worlds.

But despite my many attempts, I remain transparent to those around me. And rather than trying to change that about myself, I think it’s time I embrace it.

In her first TED talk, Brené Brown talked about vulnerability, empathy, and human connection. It was, like emotional flashing, an idea I didn’t really ponder until my freshman year of college. Likely many of you have watched it, or part of it, at some point in your life. I rewatch it on a regular basis because, like many true things, it’s really hard for me to remember. The Cliffs Notes version is that in order to have any true connection, we have to have empathy. And in order to have empathy, we have to be able to be vulnerable. Unless I can show you what’s really going on in my head and in my heart, you won’t be able to show me and we’ll be stuck in this metaphorical walking-past-each-other-wihtout-seeing-each-other forever.

A lot of the time, being so open and honest that it feels brutal is the best thing that can happen in a relationship. Unspoken expectations and half-remembered old hurts spring up at the most inopportune moments and cause all sorts of havoc. I’m always scared to have super honest conversations; I like to think up all the ways the person I’m talking to could react and most of the time I don’t imagine good things. But usually it goes incredibly well. Usually the other person is honored to listen and sees the courage in being vulnerable. Often one person’s vulnerability inspires others to some level of honesty, and the relationship becomes more grounded in reality.

And then there are the painful awful moments where the other person doesn’t reciprocate, or refuses to see the story I’m telling. These are the moments when I share something and I’m told that I’m wrong, that what I’m feeling or thinking isn’t real or isn’t valuable. These are the moments when the other person refuses to see me or hear my story. Or worse, when the other person misinterprets what I said so badly that we end up in a worse place than when we started. Conversations like this have ended multiple friendships in my life. Being transparent in a world of people who don’t have to be can leave me feeling always-on, always exposed, always judged.

But I think those moments are worth it. The friendships that I have are stronger for how honest I’ve been. My relationships with my family are stronger for our ability to talk to each other. In my classroom, my students know when I’m frustrated and trying not to show it, and I find it much more successful to be honest with my kids. So, as I have before in the past, I’m recommitting to accepting my transparency and trying to see it as a benefit rather than a hindrance.

In an effort to be transparent with you all, I think you can tell that I’ve had a hard time posting on Sundays this semester. This is, in part, because I’ve been committed to using my weekends to balance out the overwhelming nerd-ness of being a teacher. This weekend I spent the whole weekend knitting with my mom and Granny, and we went school shopping together (something which happens about every three years). I’ve been hiking and biking and camping and visiting all over, and I’ve loved it. But I always hate getting in to bed on Sunday evening and realizing I didn’t post anything for you all.

In light of this, I’m going to change my official posting day to Mondays. Usually it won’t be Monday before school like this, but after school. So when you’re winding down from whatever your Monday entails, you can come here and read. If you have thoughts about this new schedule, by all means let me know!

Your homework for this week (you didn’t think you were off the hook, did you?): Who do you feel safe being vulnerable with? How transparent are you normally? Do you think that’s a help or a hindrance?

Hej då,

Jamie

Teaching with Conviction

Taylor Mali might be one of my favorite slam poets. Honestly, this isn’t saying a whole lot, because I’m not really familiar with slam poetry. Mostly I see what pops up on my Facebook feed. But I regularly watch his poem about “What Teachers Make” when I’m getting frustrated with my job.

It’s here, if you need a pick-me-up at the end of the back-to-school rush.

And I also really like this one, about “Speaking with Conviction.” For one thing, his delivery is hilarious and I always get a giggle out of it. But I’m finding it more and more relevant to my life as I continue being a teacher.

There are a million and three decisions a teacher makes during the course of a school day. How do I phrase this concept? Do my kids really need two more minutes to finish this up? How long will this take kids to do? What’s the best way to support learning in this instant? Which kid with their hand up needs help first? Do I redirect that group in the back or give them a minute to see if they can pull it together? Do I answer that question or get the kids to think about it? I am constantly gauging my class and comparing the reality of my room to the lesson plan I made.

Sometimes my decisions have nothing to do with my lesson plan. Let’s take last Thursday as an example. I had a student say some really nasty inappropriate things two minutes into my ninety-minute block. When I asked this student to take a break, the student swore again and stomped out.

At this point, I had options. I could try to go after the student myself. I could send another teacher. I could email and/or call the assistant principle in charge of freshmen, or the campus supervisor. I could go talk to the other students involved in the situation. I could let the rest of my class keep working on their warm up. I could cut the warm up off and get the whole class focused on something different. And along with all these options, I had twenty-three eyes watching me, ready to learn from the way I reacted.

I chose to shoot off that email and move the class along. But when I did that, I couldn’t question my decision. I had to make it, and though I wasn’t speaking it, I had to act with conviction.

I’ve noticed this more with my classes of students who don’t trust or don’t feel successful in school. The more conviction I have in what I’m teaching and how I’m managing my class, the more they trust me and go along with me. When I hesitate, they wonder why. Kids are incredibly observant.

This is true of adults, as well, and in writing. When I’m trying to give someone new information, whether that’s biology facts or a story, I need to be clear in my own thinking before I can convey it clearly to another person. Teaching really is a year-long persuasive speech; I’m working with people who have their own conceptions of the world and how it works and I’m asking them to see the world in a different way.

Having conviction is incredibly important. It’s also incredibly exhausting! It means I need to know my own content backwards and forwards. It means I need to know my values and my chaos tolerance level so I can choose how to react in my classroom.

Outside my classroom, conviction is just as important. There are a million different narratives about public education, and what’s successful and what’s not. Knowing what I’m doing in my classroom and being able to explain that to others is critical for my department, my school, and my community to all be on the same page to support students.

Your homework: Where do you need conviction in your life? How do you generate the self-knowledge to stand in your conviction?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

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