Thursday, March 26, 2009


Yesterday I was talking with a friend that made an astute observation. While I talk a lot, mostly about what I think, I very rarely talk about myself. This can make one look shady, apparently. This truly took me by surprise and I've decided to make an honest effort and improving this.

So it begins.

For those of you that don't know, I've relocated back to the "motherland" that is Milwaukee, and am teaching high school science (my Wisconsin pirate tattoo that says "homeward bound" has finally been fulfilled). If you're reading this, chances are you know that my background is not in K-12 education and that I've been tucked away on the island that is private higher ed for about two years. This change may seem drastic, but if you know me, you know my passion for education extends to the far reaches of my life and psyche.

Before I elaborate any further I wanted to make sure that I documented a few of the practices I've been using. There's a definite advantage to not having gone through the "typical" teacher training; I have yet to be indoctrinated into a way of thinking and doing things that follows convention. While trial and error may play a larger role in my teaching than most who have the formal K-12 training, I'd like to believe that this lack of exposure has helped to drive innovation and versatility. The biggest issue, at least that I've noticed, for new teachers fresh out of college, is that they totally lack versatility and flexibility. Urban classrooms demand this, and many teaching programs demand strict rigor and programmatic indoctrination. I'll talk more about this later.

Here are a few successful activities I've used with my science students.

1. Group Testing Scenarios. This isn't a group taking a test, instead, a question or two is used to get the students up, moving around and relying on one another. The overall goal of these activities is to create group cohesion and accountability. If a student knows they have a support system in his or her peers, they're more likely to feel a sense of ownership in that group. Also, if a student knows he or she will be held accountable with peers, they're more likely to prepare ahead of time. These two ideas work beautifully together, and help the class create a genuine sense of community. Also, they allow for peer to peer learning opportunities that wouldn't normally happen.

I usually start this portion with about half the block time left, that way the activity might trigger some memory through priming, and in turn (hopefully), allow them to do better on the exam. This group testing allows the tactile students to get up and move around, and it allows the EBD/LD students to move beyond the typical testing focus and regain some concentration. The is that these ideas will combine the learning style with the testing style.

The Heart: My first try at this was with the human heart. I tapped a four section/square area onto the floor, indicating chambers, and two x's indicating AV nodes. Each student was given a card with a different part of the circulatory that corresponded to what was on the floor (L/R ven, L/R atr, AV nodes, and multiple blood cells). Once each student was given his or her cards, they were first told to place the portions of the heart. After, the blood cells would have to walk through the heart, starting at the lungs and coming back, the way blood flows. Students were allowed to ask each other questions and were given an overall group grade.

This activity went particularly well, and it allowed them to really help one another out. The only downside was the less social/reclusive students felt a little put on the spot. The interesting offset to this was that the more vocal students had to turn to the less vocal students for help, so it really developed the classroom dynamic.

The Periodic Table: People always talk about the achievement gap, and I don't think I really understood it until teaching chemistry. Reading, writing and math were all areas my students struggle with greatly. Interestingly, these struggles are to a certain degree simply a product of low self esteem, and not an inability to do the work. I digress. When teaching valence electrons, I thought it might be cool to test them as a group. On the floor in the science room I made a huge periodic table by simply putting a paper down for groups 1 -6 and periods 1 - 7. Each student was given a number of valance electrons and a number of electron shells. From there, the group had to position themselves on the table according to their numbers. After they were positioned, the group was given a periodic table and asked what element each of them was.

This was successful, but needs some modification. In the future I'd use the life size table to teach the concept first, and then test on it with a little more complexity. It was cool to see the students help position one another on the table and then get really excited when they knew what elements they were without looking. In fact, my favorite part was watching a student say before I even asked..."I'm Potassium!"

2. Environmental Identification

I've spent quite a bit of my time this quarter on chemistry, given the huge deficiency our students seem to be experiencing. With urban students it's imperative to create real world applicability with material that is otherwise considered abstract. My goal is to create a very pragmatic, real world understanding of science and scientific themes. I've experimented with a few activities to foster this understanding. Some of these ideas are "Reggio" in nature given it involves self expression, development of learning through experience and relationship development. Here's a little about Reggio:

A Living Periodic Table: My hope was to connect common elements to the everyday lives of my students, and to make the more "abstract" elements look awesome and mysterious. I had each student put two elements into elemental notation on construction paper (to review elemental notation) and then as a group we walked around the school, exploring places where these elements may exist. I intentionally picked common elements that could be easily identified. Each student was asked where they think that particular element may exist and we discussed it as a class. When we found a place it existed, we posted the elemental card on or near that object. The school was for a time covered in these cool element cards. The other goal was to passively engage the rest of the school in chemistry, so they can hopefully start thinking about these things and identifying them before they take the class.

This was relatively successful, but if I were to do it again (which I will) I'd encourage more creative emphasis on the element cards they created. Also, I'd have each of them do a greater number of the cards, and probably attach it to some kind of project regarding those elements. The goal there would be to created "elemental experts" in class about specific elements. Students have a much easier time identifying these elements now, but I feel like we could have also reached out more with the peer education.

The Periodic Table - A Family Affair: Working into the concept of self authoring the environment, a student in my chemistry class has been charged with coordinating the creation of a massive periodic table to be painted on the wall. My vision is that each student in the school will choose an element and be given a chance to paint that on the table however they'd like (so long as it is in elemental notation, of course!). While I'm still planning this out, my hope is that we create something large, public and scientific to engage the entire school in a discussion of science. Because the art teacher has created a pretty far reaching curriculum we've been forced to adapt to the art instruction. This is both positive and negative. If you know me, you know I'm an academic with not much of a creative side, so the challenge is good. The downside is that you simply can't learn everything in that style of instruction and students need to know that.

I'll let you know how this goes and post pictures.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cue the band...

I don't fully understand why Bon Jovi went unplugged for this particular performance, but really, who I am to judge? It almost feels like all classic rock acts have to inevitably go acoustic to validate age and experience - what a joke. Look at Dee Snider, that guy knows how to rock no matter his age or place in life. There's credibility in that. The rock revival that has taken place, ostensibly, over the last few years is worth noting. Like them or not, bands like The Strokes, or the The White Stripes, etc. have created an environment suitable to basic guitar rock. The rap metal movement, pop punk craze and obsession with pop-metal managed to bury what rock and roll could have, or should have been. These distractions simply served to take attention away from what was already established and well received. Rock and roll just WORKS. Redefinition is entirely unnecessary.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"let this be my writ of misinthropy to a thankless world of men, who have perfected nothing - save the art of accusation"

Congruency and follow through can be difficult -  often times these concepts are uncomfortable and difficult. They involve decisions that can be quite unpopular and create a certain amount of discomfort; people are angry when they're held accountable. It's easy to preach and say that we need to live a life that embraces our values but when the "rubber meets the road" very few make a concerted, dedicated effort. 

Someone, much wiser than myself, once said that talking about the word integrity, or any other concept that reflects congruent living, is why most won't get there. It's easy to talk integrity, honesty, etc, but living that life is an entirely different concept. It means strictly living. It's not about talking. Preaching, is dangerous. Soap boxes are treacherous. Nobody likes a martyr. 

"But that's not it. You love your work. God help you, you love it! And that's the curse. That's the brand on your forehead for all of them to see. You love it, and they know it, and they know they have you. Do you ever look at people in the street? Aren't you afraid of them? I am. They move past you and they wear hats and carry bundles. But that's not the substance of them. The stubstance of them is the hatred for any man that loves his work. That's the only kind they fear."

-Ayn Rand, the Fountainhead 

Howard Roark talks little of his work, his talent or his passion in The Fountainhead - that's what makes him such a menacing character to Peter Keating. There's such a sense of authenticity in Howard that Peter is enraged at the very core of his being. 

It's how you someone carries themselves - Roark carries himself so intensely and honestly that it scares people. The world loves to say that they would rather know what they're getting from relationships but I don't quite believe that. We want those around us to play roles - roles are far more predictable that authenticity. I would argue that authenticity is not volatile but instead intimidating. 

The point Ayn Rand makes is so timeless and human it's almost sickening. Humanity desires to embrace passion but so naturally pushes it away. We've been socialized to resist following that which excites us, pulls us in, creates love, hope and audacity. We are socialized to do so because we fear those who are in that state so effortlessly. It reminds us of what we once wanted, once had or once failed in acquiring. 

Roark is what every man fears because he is so intrinsically and organically talented. 

I think there's a balance to be struck - approaching what you love with grace, compassion and authenticity is everything. When you love what you do I think you are more engaged in the moment, living for what is happening now. It's almost a higher form of consciousness. 

Where  I struggle with this is when that's still not good enough (see previous post title). My mentors assure me that this will never change, you will never make everybody happy all of the time. I'd like to believe that this is not the case - it's simply a case of surrender. 

Monday, April 14, 2008

"I keep telling myself it'll be fine, you can't make everybody happy all of time"

Ah, behold, the musings of a neophyte student affairs professional. I can make absolutely no promises about the content of this blog other than to say that it will contain no less than the honesty and authenticity internet blogging strictly demands! There's a certain amount of integrity in public discourse, then again, there's a certain amount of hesitation in being genuine.

 "Men hate passion, any great passion. Henry Cameron made a mistake: he loved his work. That was why he fought. That was why he lost."

-Ayn Rand, "The Fountainhead"

I really do believe there is a certain amount of truth in that statement. Passion can be the most infectious agent for change, while simultaneously acting as a barrier to achievement in the traditional sense of the word. American ideals of achievement leave little room for passion and truth! The American Achiever is a strong, masculine, steadfast and professional. Kimmel calls this the "heroic artisan" or, the individual that is self assured, ruggedly independent and self made. When have we ever imagined this ideal to be passionate, engaged and heartfelt? Never!

Passion is too often misunderstood as misdirection, immaturity and idealism. 

Passion and engagement will forever be a double edged sword. We're all too worried about "turf" and "what is ours" - I'm absolutely no exception to this and own it entirely. This is very literally my ego at work. Ego is powerful. I firmly believe that ego exists between our head and our heart - it is the constant interruption of how our head and heart communicate (note that our mouth falls directly in-between both). 

How does one make passion, engagement and authenticity palatable? Great question