I have the daunting task of wrapping my experiences of this week into a single blog post.
On Thursday (6/08), we presented our Lake Ontario projects to a class of 6th grade scientists at East School in Rochester. Science involves not only gathering the research, but it also involves communicating that information. I thoroughly believe our identities as scientists and as educators are shaped through the ways in which we choose to convey our understanding of science to others. Our intonations, our movements, our language, our emotions – all can connote the passion we exude for this special field of knowledge. The task of communicating our relationship with science, then, is not only a formative experience, it is a necessary one.
Given that, I would like to try something a little different for this blog post. I want to make a list. I first wanted to frame it as “things I wish someone told me before going to speak in front of 6th graders”, but I realize how ridiculous that sounds. Part of this necessary identity work comes with realizing that there is a certain extent to what our educators can teach us – the rest is up to us to figure out for ourselves. This title also invalidates that, as educators, we are ourselves students. As cliche as it sounds, we are truly never done learning. There will always be a new student, a new standard, a new idea that flips our thinking completely on its side. We must be receptive to that and model this spirit of “meliora” for our students. (“Meliora” is not only a latin phrase meaning “ever better”; it is also the motto of the University of Rochester, and this experience has made me connect with this phrase not only as a theme, but as a way of life.) With that, I present: My Meliora “Teaching Top Ten”.
1. Educators and meteorologists have a lot in common.
ESPECIALLY in Rochester – the weather changes every 5 minutes! The amount of times I’ve checked my weather app only to look outside and see the exact opposite would astound some people. But I think this analogy has a lot to say about preparedness of teachers for lessons. We can have a lesson that we’ve spent HOURS crafting, planning every second, pouring our soul into a few pages outlining how we will construct an entire classroom of scholars. But there is always an exciting (and sometimes intimidating) understanding that we never know for certain exactly how every variable will come together. Balancing time constraints, lesson plans, student input – it’s hard! Prediction and speculation can only get us so far, and especially with this project, my cohort member and I did not get to present on almost half the material we had prepared because the students were so engaged with the first part of our presentation. In realizing this, we shifted focus from the data we wanted to present and instead honed in on the equipment we used. We put our tools their hands, we let them pull strings and hold dirty samples of water. Rather than tell them what we did like we had planned to do, we let them do what we did. Don’t get me wrong, it was hectic – but it went far better than anything I could have planned.
Lesson: Always bring an umbrella. Contingency plans are never a bad thing, and sometimes desperately needed on the fly. Hell, sometimes they’re even better than what you planned initially.
2. Diversity is NECESSARY to science.
And I mean this in all forms. When we embrace diversity in our classrooms, we open the discussion up to different perspectives with unique funds of knowledge. Our major goal for this science talk, beyond communicating our data, was to further open the door for marginalized identities in science. (And if you do not believe this kind of work is necessary, consider clicking this link here to watch a female physicist having her own theory mansplained to her until an audience member advocates for her to speak.) We wanted to demonstrate that science isn’t just white men in lab coats doing chemistry experiments – everyone can do science. In the short minute-long discussions we had about a scientist with a marginalized identity, the students’ eyes lit up. From Rosalind Franklin, the scientist that discovered the structure of DNA yet received none of the recognition, to Katherine Johnson, an African American woman who calculated the trajectories for many NASA spacecraft launches, we made it a point to discuss the people who have been excluded or discriminated against for so long and continue to be discriminated against within the scientific community. Through emphasizing that we idolize these women for their scientific work as well as their commitment to social justice, we demonstrated that we need people who look, talk, and think differently in order to advance scientific research.
Lesson: Call on the student in the back row. Talk about people with marginalized identities that have contributed something to the discourse in your field. Pictures are always more accurate when you color with more than a few crayons in the box.
3. Remind yourself of why you went into teaching in the first place.
I say this because, as I was about to go up to present, I was struck with what our advisor’s daughter fondly calls the state of being “nerve-cited” (a combination of “nervous” and “excited”). Yet some part through the presentation, I locked eyes with a girl in the front row who was engaged beyond belief with our presentation (she will remain anonymous). Afterwards, she came up to me and asked me why I decided to become a science teacher. I told her it was because I wanted to share my passion for science with my own students one day, much like I shared this project with her and her class. She said I looked really excited the entire time, thanked me for answering her question, and walked away. That was it. While incredibly simple, I think it is in these pure moments, regardless of teaching experience, that we remind ourselves what education means to us. For me, it means sharing my passion for science with others in every way, shape, and form that I possibly can. Regardless of whether this program gets extremely hectic, or when I have been teaching for 30+ years, I will always remember her smile when she told me that my excitement for science showed.
Lesson: Remembering your best moments will be important to remind you, even on your hardest days, that teaching is where you belong. Like running a marathon, thinking of why you started running in the first place helps to get you through mile 20 when you can’t even catch your breath. A smile when thinking of your personal highlight reel can really help you to persist.
4. Teaching is risky!
This was something that I struggled with in particular. As teachers, what we say, how we behave, our every action is under scrutiny from our students. We put our identities in front of a class of students in the hopes that they connect with us, but our actions and words have much more of an impact than we ever set out to imagine. Students remember the fun mnemonics we use to help them remember the 7 diatomic elements (BrINClHOF), but they also remember when we mispronounce their names or fail to recognize their different perspectives in the classroom. These have much more of a profound impact than we recognize in the moment, but in reflecting on it further, I am humbled by the teachers that have mastered this skill. When we make mistakes, when we fail to live up to our students’ expectations, they remember. Teaching comes with a lot more responsibility than most give credit to the profession because we are not only teachers, we are role models, we are mentors, we are friends, we can be everything to these scholars. But that pressure should never make us afraid to be who we are, to take risks in our profession. Hell, science and innovation are birthed from risk. In taking a step back to reflect, I never truly appreciated the risk this profession shoulders until I lived it for myself.
Lesson: Be bold. Teaching is risky, and oftentimes our innovative methods of teaching proliferate learning ten fold. But always reflect on the following question, especially when things get crazy in the classroom: what impact will ___ (insert comment) have on my students?
5. Metacognition is the lifeblood of development.
Metacognition: thinking about thinking. Reflection. A process necessary to our development through our professional and personal identity, one that is particularly relevant in the field of teaching. This point was inspired by my cohort member Kristy when discussing students’ roles in self-evaluation. We were tasked with grading ourselves on our science talks because our opinions of how it went matter just as much as that of our evaluator. In assigning grades to each aspect of our science talk, we can compare how our assessment matched that of someone professionally trained to evaluate our presentations. This helps us to further refine our evaluative skills and notice when discrepancies exist between an objective view and our view. Most importantly, however, it enables us to reflect on our own experience and troubleshoot how we can improve upon our planning, skills, and evaluation measures in the future.
Lesson: We are not and can never truly be perfect. Critically analyzing our own experiences helps us to reflect on what we can do better in the future. Much like the coach of any team will ask players how they can improve, so we too can evaluate how our skills are developing over time and what “plays” may need more work.
6. Evaluations and rubrics are not one-sided.
And they are ESPECIALLY not stagnant. This was a point inspired by my cohort member Patrick. This point goes along with metacognition – in evaluating ourselves, we are enabled to metacognitively reflect on our engagement with a task and evaluate how we can improve. This means that evaluation measures should include some sort of student column where they can self-evaluate their success at a particular project, presentation, or learning activity. Learning is a process – as students develop greater skills, so we too can develop our methods of evaluating them. We can modify our evaluations over time in such a way that they require greater skills as time passes and as instructional scaffolds are removed. On a scale of 1–5, a score of “4” in September might become the minimum requirements for a “3” in January. In modifying our evaluative methods as students improve, we convey to them the importance of their input while demonstrating flexibility in our instruction by not demanding too much at the beginning of their academic year. They can first practice and develop their individual skills before their teachers and their grading scales expect more from the students.
Lesson: Student input on evaluation measures is of the utmost importance to establishing transparency in the grading process. Scaffolding evaluation measures enables students the chance to work on particular skills over time without being graded too harshly as these skills are still developing. You have to run a mile before you can run a marathon!
7. Everyone deserves to be nurtured. That includes teachers and adults, not just students.
Just as students need to be nurtured to grow and develop, so must the students and individuals in the room do the same for the teacher. Education is a symbiotic process whereby all parties should benefit from its establishment, not just the students and certainly not just the teacher. Constant and open communication between the teacher and their students helps to open the door between what either party wants/needs to succeed, grow, and learn. That can involve anything from the students requesting more/less challenging material to the teacher admitting being overwhelmed and requesting 3 minutes of silent work to regroup and engage with the class. As long as both parties are honest with each other about what they need, we can all adapt and adjust accordingly to ensure everybody gets what they deserve.
Lesson: Learning does not occur in a vacuum; life and experiences exist outside the classroom that can influence how we engage with the classroom on a daily basis. Being honest and open about what we need to succeed helps keep communication open so that we may all get what we need out of our educational experiences. It is always easier to adjust and modify our practice when we know what the other person(s) is(are) feeling.
8. Listen and Write.
One of the most useful tips I learned from our GR!S advisor April is to write things down that you don’t want to forget. From things the students say to insightful quotes our cohort members provide during seminar, I have found the practice of writing to not only help remember what they say, but to reflect on their words in my own time. Often, school is fast-paced and there is not much time to take a step back to think about everything that happens on a daily basis. This blog has been instrumental in helping me to remember things that happen throughout the course of this program. This blog has enabled me to reflect on this entire process from the comfort of my own home, outside of the hustle and bustle of everything that happens during the course of a normal hectic day in the life of an educator, and to record them in one place for future reflection. Especially in the classroom, though, it is important to jot down “notes and quotes” of what is discussed because you are not going to remember everything, no matter how hard you try. A few insightful points written down from the entire class period helps to spark your memory of the most important themes that you want to remember in the future.
Lesson: Keep a journal of the most important events that happen during a class, an event, or experience that means something to you. It is important not only to keep a written record, but it also helps to go back later on and reflect after some separation from the event. Memory is unreliable; that’s why we have pens and paper.
9. Have fun.
I do not wish to belabor this point because I feel it is relatively self-explanatory. It is easy to get swept up by the language of standardization and accountability, novice and veteran teachers alike. When we feel overwhelmed by the language of the ever-changing field of education, we can often forget to enjoy the short amount of time we have with our students. Oftentimes, when we simply have fun in our classrooms and demonstrate our passions to our students, they learn so much more than if we were to simply teach them how to take a test. Focus on turning students toward being life-long learners, show them how knowledge relates to the real world; we can always tailor the practice of fostering a lifelong love of learning into the language that academic standards utilize.
Lesson: Take the time to go beyond the lesson and find ways to make it more universally engaging. There are always methods to making learning more fun and engaging than what we traditionally view as “education” (such as rote memorization or teaching to the test), and these are sometimes written into the language of standards (for example, the Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS] idea of science and engineering practices). Having fun and being engaged in a classroom demonstrates to students that education and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive.
10. “Science provides an understanding of a universal experience. Arts provide a universal understanding of a personal experience.”
I decided to end on this quote by Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to orbit space. Part of this project involved sharing the identities of scientists from marginalized backgrounds, as I discussed earlier; when I encountered this quotation, I thought it was of the utmost importance to include in this post. As a participant in theater since I was 9, I understand the benefit of demonstrating one’s passions through art. Teachers have a unique vantage point to incorporate art and science into a cohesive entity; bringing students’ individual identity into their education establishes a unique relationship to and with science. One example of this can be found on my cohort member Kaitlin’s blog through a “Dance Your Ph.D Contest”. Identity is essential to education, it motivates what we do and how we do it – formulating lessons that enable students to physically put themselves into the course content creates a deeper understanding beyond the knowledge that we simply impose upon them.
Lesson: Sing about the bones of the body, create a dance to understand gravity, perform a scene in class that demonstrates how reactions occur. Teaching from a multimodal perspective enables students to formulate knowledge according to what makes sense to them. In the wise words of Lin-Manuel Miranda in the musical Hamilton, “Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came.”.
I hope this has been as informative for you as it has been reflective for me. A main goal in crafting this post is for me to have my thoughts written somewhere; I wish to re-visit this post and evaluate how I have attained some of these in my future classrooms.