on trust

It’s the Sunday before classes start, and I’m feeling both ok and doubtful of myself and my teaching practice this year. The past two school years have been strange and chaotic in ways that I could not have predicted, and I’m bracing for another year of chaos. I find myself emotionally depleted in ways I have not been before at the end of the summer, and I am trying very intentionally to not utterly flame out this year. I am slowly learning to hold myself with more grace and compassion, and I am learning how to genuinely extend that grace and compassion to those around me.

In the midst of all of this, I find myself thinking a lot about trust. How to build trust with my students, the trust that does or doesn’t exist among my colleagues, with our administration, with the district, the trust between families and the school, between families and the district…

I am realizing that just because I want my students, their families, and my colleagues to trust me, to know that I am doing my best to be compassionate and still maintaining high standards (the “Warm Demander” that Zaretta Hammond talks about in “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain”), that doesn’t mean that I will automatically get anyone’s trust. (There is also a lot to unpack with the term “high standards”, but that’s for another day.) That trust is not automatic seems like an obvious statement, but some things happened at our school last week (that I’m not going to get into here) really made me think about how sometimes we assume a level of trust that isn’t there, and it can be upsetting or offensive when we realize that other folks just… don’t trust us.

I’m currently reading Elena Aguilar’s book “Onward”, and the chapter for September is on “Building Community” and how vital trust is to community in any setting. It was a timely read this weekend, and Aguilar defines trust as this:

Trust is an emotional state. It is the feeling of confidence we have in another’s character and competence… Distrust, therefore, is suspicion of integrity and capabilities.

Elena Aguilar, “Onward”, p 101

Trust, and correspondingly, community, is built over time. Sometimes it seems to me that trust was quickly eroded, and I’ve felt astonished at how quickly trust disappeared, but now I think perhaps there wasn’t any genuine trust there to begin with. Perhaps what I thought of as “trust” was really a series of assumptions based on hierarchical roles and visible identity markers and the accompanying biases. In the classroom, I am an Asian American woman teaching science – my Asian identity may take precedence over my female identity when it comes to the competence that my students and their families ascribe to me in terms of science teaching. I am also in the positional role of teacher – surely someone evaluated my competence and decide that I was “good enough” to teach. But have I demonstrated any competence the minute my students walk into the room? What might a colleague with different identity markers experience when it comes to assumed trust in the classroom or in the school building?

Someone said to us this week “when students walk into your classroom, they’re asking, Can I trust you?” – which I think is true and not true. I don’t think students walk into my classroom wanting or needing to share their deepest selves with me, and that’s ok. I don’t need to be a trauma detective (thanks to Alex Shervin Venet for introducing me to that term, and I’d encourage all teachers to reflect on her blog post about setting up trust at the start of the year, What I wish teachers knew about “what I wish my teachers knew”). But I think my students are watching me, to see if I am competent and have integrity, to see if they can learn from me, how I will treat them, and whether what I say I value actually lines up with what I do. There are many different decision points throughout the school year that will build or erode the trust that my students have in me, and simply saying “trust me!” is not enough. (In fact, I think if I were to say that and not follow through, that would do more harm than not saying “trust me” to begin with.) All of this brings to mind the James Baldwin quote, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

I want my students and colleagues to trust me, and I want to trust them in return. I want to be a part of the resilient communities that Elena Aguilar describes in “Onward.” I want school to look different than the same old, same old that we had pre-pandemic (which honestly feels like a lifetime ago- this is now the third class of students I am teaching in this on-going global health crisis). But that level of trust takes demonstrated actions, consistent behaviors, and – figuring out how to deal with conflict in healthy ways. My hope for what school could/should be is not the same as that of others, and to work toward a goal we have to first agree on what the goal will be.

I feel like building trust in my classroom space is doable, but I honestly don’t know if I will be able to move the needle very much in some of the other (adult) spaces I’m in this year – I already know going into things that I am emotionally depleted, and teaching in any circumstances is an emotionally heavy lift. I’m learning how to set boundaries in my personal and professional life, and some of that means accepting that things will not be “perfect” in all the ways that I want them to be. It can be frustrating when I feel like that there’s a better way that things could go, and not seeing that outcome in reality. But I’m hoping that by working on my own resilience as an educator, and unpacking my own behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being (also from Aguilar’s work, this time from Coaching for Equity), it’s a start to building more trust in the spaces that I inhabit. And we all must start somewhere.

The fear in dilemma

Day 3 of this Critical Friends Group coach’s training and again, so much to think about.

We spent a fair amount of time today talking about professional dilemmas. I was able to workshop a dilemma of my own, and help some colleagues workshop their dilemmas. In this context, a dilemma is “a puzzle, a problem seemingly without any desirable outcomes.” It’s something that keeps you up at night, that you have some power to solve (if you knew what to do!) and is important enough to keep at it.

Going through the dilemma protocols, we asked and were asked probing questions. Questions that pushed our thinking, that made us consider what might really be going on here. And at some point or another, the presenter of the dilemma was asked to share one or two probing questions that really resonated with them. And I noticed something.

The question “What do you fear about…” came up in every single round I participated in. (Ok, so that question stem was listed in the stems for probing questions that we were given.) But also, every single round, the question “What do you fear about…” was one of the questions that the presenter wanted to think about more deeply. (Caveat: I only have four data points right now.)

So I wonder.

How big of a role does fear play in our dilemmas? I don’t think that this is limited to my professional dilemmas. If I think about all the different things that bother me and keep me up at night, how many of them have a component of fear embedded somewhere in that frustration and worry? And how many of those fears are really the fear that this dilemma has the potential to reveal to me that I am not who I thought I was?

From my current perspective, dilemmas seem to threaten identity. If my students really aren’t learning, then does that make me a bad teacher? If what that person said is true, does that make me a bad person? Did they treat me like this because I am not likable? And perhaps, on some level, we already know what we should do to address our dilemmas, but the risk associated with unearthing a threat to identity make us run in the other direction (and spend a lot of time/energy in that running).

I want to think more about identity and the impact it has on our interactions. (Really, right now I should be sleeping, because these days are maxing me out mentally.) This past year, I read through the book “Difficult Conversations” with some other KSTF fellows because we wanted the tools to have those difficult conversations at work. The authors point out that one of the main reasons that conversations are difficult is because they threaten our identity – I don’t want to talk about that because it makes me seem like a jerk and I believe I’m a good person. I don’t want to talk about this because it makes me look incompetent and I believe I’m more than competent. What is the impact of this situation on my self-image, my self-esteem?

I think we react viscerally to threats to identity. Which might be why dilemmas are dilemmas. If this situation threatens my identity in some way (even if I’m not conscious about it), then I’m definitely going to stew about it. So I guess, if I find myself in a dilemma, I need to ask myself – is there something that I fear about this situation? How might that threaten my identity? And then, how do I acknowledge that threat, accept the disruption, and find a way to move forward?

The risk in reflection

Reflecting can be risky.

I’m on Day 2 of a Critical Friends Group coaches training (sponsored by the Knowles Teaching Initiative, formerly KSTF, with a trainer from the National School Reform Faculty. I’ll be here for three more days and I’ve already had plenty of think about. (What’s a Critical Friends Group? NSRF has an answer to that.)

Day 1 we did an activity around quotes, and this was the one that I picked:

I like this quote because it captures how growth is not easy. There’s plenty of talk in education about teaching students to struggle and teaching them to embrace mistakes as growth opportunities, but mistakes are risky to make. Particularly if they are made publicly. But a part of making mistakes and struggle worthwhile to the learning process is examining them and reflecting on them, and I’m realizing that this reflection piece can feel just as (or perhaps more) risky than just making the mistake itself. How many times have I made a mistake or had a difficult experience and just wanted to get past it, rather than thinking through what happened in that scenario and how I can learn from it?

Today, we read an excerpt from Margaret Wheatley’s book “Turning to One Another” that spoke about the willingness to be disturbed in conversations that we have with one another. There were many parts of this piece that resonated with me, but for right now, a quote:

Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new.

Although the whole excerpt is about how we should be willing to really listen to someone else’s view and let that disturb us so that we can think well together, I also think that the willingness to be disturbed is essential when we reflect on mistakes and difficult experiences. We need to be willing to be disturbed in our assumptions and beliefs about ourselves. And that’s risky. Because what if I reflect on a difficult experience and find that there are so many places in which I can grow? What if I reflect on that difficult experience and find that it makes me question my beliefs and assumptions about who I am? Am I willing to risk having my very identity disturbed?

In teaching, everything is personal. Being a teacher is a core part of my identity; in particular, believing that I’m a reasonably good teacher is a core part of my identity. Reflecting on experiences that could expose this belief as untrue (or at least, not as true as I thought it was) is risky. But if I don’t reflect on my difficult experiences teaching, how will I grow as a teacher? I have many thoughts about the importance of reflection, and I want to promote more reflection in my students, so I need to be willing to take the risk in reflecting on my practice and be willing to face whatever disruptions to my beliefs and assumptions that might come out of that. I need to be willing to dive into the confusion that accompanies having my beliefs and assumptions disrupted, so that I can continue to grow and change.

I don’t think that, as a society, we’re good at acknowledging the importance of mistakes in the growth process or rewarding mistakes. I don’t think that we’re good at recognizing the importance of reflecting on our experiences and really learning from them, growing from them. Rather, we tend to highlight the successes and gloss over the reality that those successes required us to get through many, many difficult situations. But I want to be more willing to acknowledge my mistakes, acknowledge my difficult experiences, and use those to grow. I want to encourage my students to have this attitude, and I want to encourage my colleagues to have this attitude. I’m still not completely sure how to do this (and I’m hoping that the rest of this workshop will help me clarify some next steps for next year), but I’m just trying to remind myself of the importance of this kind of work. Even when it’s hard, messy, and uncomfortable.

ignorance and failure

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the Right Question Institute’s Midwest Conference as a guest, and I was able to bring a colleague from work with me. This was the first out-of-district PD that I’ve attended with a colleague, and it was really nice to have someone along with me to talk about how we might incorporate the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) more into our classrooms.

Since yesterday, I’ve been musing over some ideas/quotes about questioning, ignorance, failure, class culture, and mindset (of the teacher and the student).

One is this idea that I tweeted out yesterday:

Another idea my colleague and I discussed is the possibility of using QFT to get students asking questions and thinking about classroom norms at the beginning of the year, and I’m considering this quote from author Jasper Fforde as a QFocus:

Failure concentrates the mind wonderfully. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.

– Jasper Fforde, “The Well of Lost Plots”

(Side note: if you like British literature and fantasy, Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series is highly recommended. You’ll see another side of Miss Havisham, among others.)

I think these two things – allowing room for ignorance and failure in the classroom – are intertwined. QFT and student questions can honor these two things as part of the learning process (but are by no means the only way of honoring these pieces of learning). Several speakers mentioned that QFT allows for a safe space for students to ask questions and become more comfortable/confident in their ability to not only ask the questions but find the answers. And I think this is an essential part of my classroom that I try to cultivate, but I wonder how easily this kind of thing could be undermined by subtle things we do as teachers. If I want a question-asking, try-fail-try-again mentality to be the basis of my classroom, how do I promote such a culture? How do I inadvertently undermine it? How do I model failure for my students?

I’ve tried QFT a few times in my classroom, and it went ok, but I need to do more thinking about what the goal of those questions are and how to use them in an authentic way. Because otherwise, it becomes just another hoop for students to jump through, just another part of the game of school that they play. I want to use QFT more, and I want to take more advantage of the student reflection, the metacognitive thinking, that it has the potential to promote, but I want to do this intentionally.

Last week, I had the opportunity to join a class on online tools and collaboration in education and talk about the tech tools that I’ve used in my classroom. I use Google Classroom and Google Docs all over the place in my classes, and one of the participants asked if I’ve gone completely paperless. The short answer is no, the longer answer is no, because the online/computer-based tools don’t lend themselves well to everything I want to do in my classroom (also, we’re not 1:1 and not all of my students have reliable access to devices and/or internet from outside of school). One of the skills that I’m trying to develop as a teacher is the ability to evaluate different tools and see when they’re most appropriate for what I’m trying to do in the classroom.

So right now, I see QFT as another tool to promote student thinking, student agency, student reasoning. It is one tool of many that I try to implement in my curriculum, which is evolving and dynamic and I hope that it stays that way. But it’s hard, sometimes, to implement a new technique or a new tool in the classroom. It’s hard even to implement a tool I’ve tried before in a different way than I used it last time. I’m finding this to be true even after only 4 years in the classroom. There’s a risk involved – what if it flops? And when I work on course teams and share this tool/resource with my colleagues, there’s a bigger risk – what if it flops for everyone? Then they won’t want to use this thing (that I think is actually a pretty cool tool) again!

But teaching is a process, just as learning is a process. If I believe that failure and mistakes are ways that my students will learn, I need to accept that these things will also help me learn how to teach, how to be better. Kelly O’Shea has a Samuel Beckett quote as her blog’s tagline:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

–  Samuel Beckett

Next year, I want to be better about fostering an environment where mistakes are expected and valued, where student questions are valued by everyone. In aiming for this, I also want ignorance and failure to have space in my teaching practice too – acknowledging what I don’t know, what I want to know, what I tried and will need to try again differently.

mindset, smarts, and strengths

I’m finally getting around to reading “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler, a book I’m reading with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation fellows for our summer meeting, and it’s prompting a lot of reflection on how I have or haven’t fostered a growth mindset about science with my students this year. I’ve read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” and over the years, I’ve tried different things to more consciously foster a growth mindset in my students but I’ll be honest- I don’t think I do a good job of this and I don’t think I spend the time addressing it (explicitly or implicitly) that is really needed in the classroom. But I’m trying.

At the start of the spring semester, inspired by Kelly O’Shea and a conversation about being “smart” in science class, I switched up the way I do peer feedback and asked students to comment on their groupmates’ strengths in science class. At the end of each unit, I asked students to pick a science skill that they saw as a strength for each of their groupmates and explain why they chose that skill or when they saw that skill. I pulled the list of skills from a blog post by Ilana Horn on auditing your classroom for competencies and status. Here’s the list that students could pick from:

  • Extending on the ideas of others
  • Representing ideas clearly
  • Making connections between ideas
  • Asking interesting questions
  • Asking questions to clarify misunderstandings
  • Coming up with logical explanations
  • Working systematically
  • Working without giving up

It’s been a busy year and I didn’t revisit this mid-semester, but I compiled all of the peer feedback (which was collected via Google Forms) and printed a sheet for each student with their unique anonymous feedback. (I would love an easier way to do this and may need to do a mail merge type thing next year, but that’s another story.) I then had the students go through a series of reflection questions. As we were doing this in class, one student remarked that it felt like the end of summer camp, where you read all the nice things that other people say about you. Another student asked where the feedback about his weaknesses was, and I told him that I had only asked students to give feedback on strengths.

I thought about asking students to give feedback to each other on areas of improvement, but I’ve found that students can be almost too brutally honest with one another and I wonder if it’s helpful. Cacia Steensen, another KSTF fellow, wrote about her experiences looking for strengths in her colleagues and how it improved teacher morale in her department. I wonder what the effect of asking students to focus on strengths in science class has on their morale, particularly for students who don’t necessarily see themselves as smart in science. I hope that it improves their morale and helps them see that they are contributing to the classroom and their learning, although I think I need to do a better job of communicating and reinforcing this message throughout the school year. I also hope that it helps the students who do see themselves as competent and smart in science also see the value in their peers and how that helps their learning. A goal for next year is to revisit the idea of skills and strengths multiple times in the school year, although it can be hard because this seems to fall into the “important but not urgent” category of things.

I didn’t go through all of my student responses as in-depth as I could have, but I noticed that while most students weren’t surprised to see that their classmates thought they asked good questions (either interesting questions or questions to clarify understanding), some of them were surprised that their classmates thought they had skills related to explanations – coming up with logical explanations, extending on the ideas of others, representing ideas clearly, making connections between ideas. Some of them also thought they asked too many questions and slowed down their classmates too much. I think next year, I’d like to spend more time talking about what these skills actually look like and how they can be helpful to learning. I also need to be better about publicly highlighting these skills when they show up, particularly at the start of the year.

I compiled their answers to the last question (“What advice would you give to an incoming sophomore[freshman] at the start of next year on how to best succeed in chemistry[physics]?”) and made quick videos to show to them. I’ve asked students to give advice for incoming students before but I’ve never shared that with either the current class or the incoming class. This time though, I thought they had a lot of good advice and I’m hoping that seeing this from students who’ve gone through the course will help new students get started on the right foot. I’m also hoping that seeing what everyone said (I chose not to censor any comments) that the current students will see the value in asking questions and getting help. Not all of the comments are things that I would necessarily agree with (such as “memorize procedures” and “make sure you make a good notecard” [they are allowed a 3×5 notecard on unit tests but not quizzes, they can have a full sheet of paper for the final]). So I’m still wondering how to shift their thinking about what science is, just as Jo Boaler wants teachers to shift students’ thinking about what mathematics is: “At its core, mathematics is about patterns. We can lay a mathematical lens upon the world, and when we do, we see patterns everywhere; and it is through our understanding of the pattern, developed through mathematical study, that new and powerful knowledge is created.” (Boaler, Mathematical Mindsets, pg 23) I do think that a lot of science is also about finding patterns and applying them. A few of my students said that science class is “kind of like math” – probably not coming from the pattern-finding view and rather thinking of the rote application of a procedure instead. I’d like to disrupt that kind of thinking about science for my students.

So there’s work that I need to do. I’d like to assess more conceptually rather than just whether students can apply an equation. On assessments, I probably ask too many basic application/rote questions and too few conceptual questions that get at their thinking. Basic application/rote questions are easier to answer and easier to grade, but I know it doesn’t necessarily help their learning. I commented to one of my physics classes this year when they complained that a problem was hard that “you just want to apply an equation indiscriminately and I want you to think about it!” I then had to explain what the word “indiscriminately” meant, but once they understood they said “yes, because that’s easier!” It was a moment born out of frustration for me- that class in particular didn’t seem to really enjoy talking about physics, they just wanted to get it done, and I was getting frustrated by that attitude. However, I have to think about what I did or didn’t do to foster that attitude- why didn’t I address it earlier in the school year? I had students in my other physics class who were brave and willing to ask questions  when we were going over the homework and I took care to highlight that, but I don’t think I did that in my other classes. And looking back on it, my two physics classes had very different dynamics this year. Some of that is probably due to the personalities in each class, but I know a lot of that is on me for not doing more to foster a growth mindset, a “learn  from your mistakes” mindset and “ask the questions because surely you’re not the only one who is lost” mindset. There’s too much in my teaching that rewards just getting the right answer and not the process, and I’m still looking to change that. It’s uncomfortable and it’s messy, but is that a bad thing?

I also need to recognize where I am exhibiting a fixed mindset about student learning – When and why do I think “oh, they’ll never get it” and give myself a pass? I don’t think I do these things overtly, but sometimes the subconscious messages are the most damaging. I’d like to communicate to my students that my classroom is a place where I expect everyone to grow – you don’t come in knowing everything but everyone does and can grow and the growth is more important than memorizing equations.

A student asked me if teaching doesn’t get boring- aren’t we just doing the same thing, year after year? And I told him no, because the students are different and I change how I teach a little bit every year. (He still seemed skeptical that teaching could continue to be interesting.) I forgot to mention that I’m not just changing how I teach content (adjusting handouts and labs, etc.) but I’m also constantly looking for ways to better build up students’ competence. So I’m excited to think more deeply about how to better address student mindset in science next year, and the little to not-so-little changes I can make to address that. And I’m excited to see how it affects their learning (although, as I’ve said before, education isn’t a controlled experiment).

And here are the students’ advice to the next class, mostly unfiltered:

curriculum dynamics

Someone once, when attempting to complement me on a lesson, told me that it was the kind of lesson that “you put in a can and put on a shelf, and then take it down for next year, it’s that good.” I may or may not have given him an incredulous look, because that isn’t what I aim to do – that particular lab has gone through a different iteration every year since I first tried it three years ago.

Since then, I’ve been noticing when people around me say things that imply that very thing – that at some point, curriculum design is “done”.

A non-teaching friend, when I told her the above story, basically said “Oh- I thought that’s what teachers did. I had no idea that wasn’t the case.”

Last week, my chemistry students complained about how much work their bond energy homework was (keep in mind that they had 20 min in class to start it and it was a total of 4 bond energy/reaction enthalpy calculations). When I said that I didn’t think it was that bad, they responded with “well, you don’t have to do it!” And I gave them that incredulous look (and let me tell you, I have a great incredulous look) and said “you guys know I write the assignments I give you, right?” They thought that I got the worksheets out of a workbook or something and just gave them the photocopied pages.

The next day, my physics students commented that we kill a lot of trees for freshman physics, and one girl said “well, that makes sense because we don’t have a textbook.” Then we got into a discussion of if there are freshman physics textbooks (they know they’re in the minority of having physics first, though I think it’s becoming more common) and I commented how I don’t really like textbooks. Another student responded with “oh, so Ms. Park just thinks she’s better than a textbook”, to which I gave a snarky “well, yeah” but then mentioned how we piece together curriculum from a variety of sources for the physics class and go in a different order than most textbooks, which again, they had no idea about. (We then got into a sidetrack of plagiarism vs. educational copyrights and attribution.)

I find this interesting because even my students don’t realize that the materials I give them are not things that I just “got” from somewhere. And I hate using curricular materials “as-is” because there’s always something I want to change about it – often things go either too far in depth into a certain topic or not in depth enough, they spend more time or not enough time on a subtopic than I’d like. I’ve heard complaints about Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) activities because the written assignments are very reading-heavy, which may be hard for students with lower reading abilities to access, and the files that you get from POGIL when you purchase the materials are all PDFs. The American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) sent out a survey earlier this school year asking if modeling teachers were interested in a pre-printed “course pak” with all of the worksheets in a single bundle that could be ordered per student. I’m not going to lie, I’ve re-typed the POGIL activities I use into Word or Google Docs so that I could modify the materials to my liking. And the AMTA materials are given as Word docs for that very reason, so I have no interest in a pre-printed course pak for my students (also I don’t use every worksheet in either the Modeling Physics or Modeling Chemistry curricular materials, because they don’t fit our school’s curriculum exactly). I also don’t always trust “canned” curriculum, even from respected sources such as POGIL and AMTA, because they don’t know my particular student body and I know they’re designing curriculum that can work as broadly as possible. I kind of hope to never be one of those “edu-proselytizers” for any one curricular resource, because I like to see as many different ideas as possible and I want to keep that open mind. I actually love thinking about curriculum,  developing concepts across a unit, and learning progressions. I get jazzed up about finding a new activity that will work better to help students learn a certain concept, or supplementing existing activities, or presenting existing activities in a new way.

So the curriculum is constantly evolving, but we don’t start each year from complete scratch. We have folders upon folders stored in the Google Drive from previous years, and we pull and copy and modify and add to the folders for this year. There’s probably too much repetition in the Drive, but there’s something nice too about having that historical record- maybe the thing I tried this year doesn’t work as well as the thing I tried the previous year, so next year I’ll start from the previous version. Maybe we take a topic out of the curriculum this year but decide to put it back for next year. (The challenge is keeping the Drive organized in a way to make it easy to find things, which can be rough. Things are a little scary in there, as they would be in any real filing cabinet.)

The physics curriculum I work with was started 12 years ago by my colleagues, and it’s continuously changed every year. Some units change more than others, and I think that’s natural- we only have so much time and energy, and some units we have more ideas for changing than for others. But I’m wondering – is there ever a time when a curriculum is “done”? If I believe I have an awesome curriculum, why should I change it? Should I aim to be “done”?

My gut reaction is that curriculum should always be dynamic and evolving, because we keep learning more about how students learn and how to help them learn better, because new ideas and new technologies come out (although I believe in taking technologies with a grain of salt and not just using something because it’s shiny and new). I also believe that our curriculum, while I like it, has so many places where it can be better. And I think that there’s probably always ways to make teaching and learning better (but that gets into the discussion of “what does ‘better’ look like?”).

I take a lot of pride in the work I’ve done with the curriculum that I currently teach, because I think I’ve put in a lot of (hopefully good) work in making things better every year. And I do think that curriculum should be continually evolving, and I’m always keeping an eye out for a better way to teach what I teach. But it’s hard to give up a way of teaching that seems to work reasonably well for a different idea that may or may not work or that I may or may not be comfortable with. So I’m reminding myself to keep an open mind about things and to take a critical eye to my own work as well as to other people’s work, to cull the bad, keep the good, and make it better. And I’m ok with it never ending – otherwise, I think teaching might become boring and that it never is.

assumptions

Before teaching, I spent about 6 years studying chemical engineering, and one of the first things I learned in my engineering classes was to list all of the assumptions we were making in our calculations. Things like 100% yield, perfect insulation, the gases are ideal. In some situations, the assumptions make perfect sense; in other situations we’re at the limit and the assumptions no longer hold. I still remember being horrified in one of my design classes because we were told to include a 30% safety factor (i.e., make all vessels 30% larger to account for any crazy expansions/explosions). I was left wondering if there wasn’t a way to get the safety factor smaller- with better assumptions, perhaps?

As I get ready I start my fourth year teaching, I’m thinking about my assumptions about teaching, learning, and collaborating, and wondering- where are my assumptions valid, and where do they break down?

In some ways, I started unpacking my assumptions about teaching and learning about 4 years ago, when I joined the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) as a teaching fellow. With the help of my colleagues at KSTF, I’ve explored a variety of questions about my teaching practice over the past four years via teacher inquiry (but I by no means have clear cut answers to any of these questions):

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As I’ve been reflecting on my teacher inquiry (meta-reflecting?), I’ve realized how large a role my own assumptions about teaching and learning have played in this process. Through the help of my many thoughtful colleagues at KSTF, I’ve unearthed some of my own assumptions. I started with the question of “How do I foster a safe, effective learning environment in my classroom?” Then I got the (very gentle and well-intentioned) pushback about “What does it even mean for students to learn? Do my students and I agree on what learning looks like?” There were assumptions there about what learning is and isn’t. For me: Learning is conceptual understanding, demonstrated by an ability to apply concepts to new situations. Learning isn’t just a rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. I tried giving a survey to get at what students thought about learning, but I realize that my assumptions about what learning is and isn’t influenced the questions that were asked. After some frustrating class discussions, I moved into the question of “good class discussions” and had to first unpack some assumptions about what a good class discussion is and isn’t. (Good: everyone talks, students come to scientific conclusions on their own. Bad: Few people talk/same voices over and over, pulling teeth to come to conclusions, or students come to “wrong” conclusions.) I’ve tried to step back from the assumptions inherent in my questions to just get a snapshot of what’s happening in my classroom (questions like “What does discussion actually look like in my classroom?” and “Who is and isn’t participating in my classroom?”) but there was the inherent assumption that class discussions should lead to student learning. I found myself thinking about whether there are points in the curriculum where lecture is appropriate and/or necessary and when class discussions are beneficial to student learning. I shifted my focus to small group discussions, but ran into the similar assumption that small group discussions and interactions should lead to student learning.

Throughout this whole process, I realized that I am heavily invested in the idea that students should be constructing content knowledge for themselves, and that this construction of knowledge is best facilitated by small group interactions and discussions, as well as student-led class discussions. And there were assumptions about teaching and learning embedded in all of this, such as:

  • Groupwork is better than lecture (is it always better than lecture?).
  • Student-directed inquiry is better than teacher-led classrooms (again, always? How much scaffolding should I give? When is it appropriate to step in and when should I step back? What does a student-directed classroom actually look like? When is the chaos more detrimental than helpful?)
  • Struggle is necessary for learning (when is struggle productive and when is it counterproductive? How do my students view struggle? Should I be more explicit with them about why I let them struggle? When does too much struggle lead to students viewing themselves as failures in science?)

My assumptions about teaching and learning have affected my classroom on a daily basis (what activities I choose, how I introduce and go over content, even how I assign homework), and have affected the kinds of questions I’ve been asking and reflecting on for the past four years. I will tell you that I hate lecture- but I do lecture. I give a bellringer every day. Yes, I give the students time to work on it individually and in groups before we go over it, and yes, I ask the class for their answers, but I’m still the one directing the conversation and writing on the board. Isn’t that a lecture, albeit a short one? And I’ve definitely given other short lectures on material such as how to balance equations, what a dissolved ionic solid looks like, etc. My assumptions about what good teaching is led to mini-crises in my teacher identity. When I found that class discussions weren’t really working (the way that I wanted) and when I found myself lecturing more in my chemistry class than I did in my physics class (I didn’t want to be a lecturing teacher), when my students asked me for more lecture, I was left wondering if I’m just a bad teacher. I’ve had the fortune of having people I know and trust gently push back and help me unpack my assumptions about good teaching when I’ve struggled with these things.

I’m also realizing that my assumptions about the “best” ways to teach and for students to learn also influence my interactions with my colleagues. I have to remember to step back and think whenever I have a gut negative reaction against something that another teacher has proposed. How are my assumptions about teaching and learning affecting my reaction? I realize again and again how personal teaching is, and how invested we all are in our own practice, so I need to remember to be vulnerable and honest about my practice, even as I have strong feelings about why I teach the way that I teach. To be truly reflective (and to really grow as a teacher), I need to examine when and how my teaching strategies are working, and how to adjust them when necessary. Unfortunately, there’s no “magic bullet” to education (although many education reformers will tell you that their way will do it), and I know this. I want to be more reflective and flexible and cognizant of my own assumptions as I work with others, because teaching doesn’t happen in a bubble, and these conversations, even the hard, uncomfortable conversations where I feel slightly defensive, are how I’m growing as a teacher.

Assumptions are a starting point. I don’t think assumptions are bad, because without them we wouldn’t get very far. Trying to model all gases as real gases is unnecessarily complicated if you’re operating within temperature/pressures where the gases behave more or less ideally. But I always had to be aware of my assumptions in my engineering calculations, and I usually had to double check at the end that they held up. In the same way, as I approach Year 4 of my teaching career, I want to be aware of my assumptions and how my assumptions are influencing my teaching decisions. Hopefully, this awareness will lead me to more reflective decision-making in my classroom.

Year 3- reflections

Tuesday was the last day of classes, so I’ve been spending the past two days just kind of recovering mentally, physically, and emotionally from this past year. It’s been a long and kind of exhausting year, but in looking back I can still say it’s been a good year, and I’m thankful to be able to say that still.

I started this year with a list of things I was going to try in my classroom and I was able to implement most things, though I’m already thinking of how to change things for next year.

Here’s how some of the structures I implemented this year in my classroom went:

  • Group roles were mostly successful first semester but definitely fell by the wayside by second semester. One student asked me the last few weeks of school why they didn’t have group roles anymore, and my reply was “because you don’t need them.” They acknowledged that, but one student also said “the only thing group roles did was let ___ boss us around”. So there’s that. It was the “Team Captain” role that students (mis)used to boss each other around… I’d like to keep with group roles, particularly for the start of the year, but it’s challenging when my groups have 4-5 students and I only have about 3 roles that I really find useful (facilitator, resource manager, and recorder/reporter). So I’m going to have to rethink this for next year.
  • Pseudo standards-based grading and spiraling quizzes were… honestly a lot of work. And I don’t know that their grades were that much different than if I had just averaged all of their quiz grades together because of all of the ups and downs. But, I did give each student an end-of-year printout with each standard listed and their quiz score on each standard. Most of them groaned when I passed this out, but I did hear some of them talking about how “ok, I need to focus on 5.4 and 4.1 for the final…” I think I’d like to bring them back to their quiz grades more often during the year (maybe before every unit exam? Although there was a brief discussion of not having unit exams at all next year if we continue to spiral quizzes). I did get my coworkers to spiral quizzes as well, and we agree that it’s nice to “force” students to revisit the content. (Some students disagreed and vocalized that on an end-of-year feedback form.) I will probably continue to grade quizzes by standard if possible next year, because it gives the opportunity for students to better assess their understanding of specific topics (if they’re given the opportunity/space to really look at their scores and interpret them).
  • Interactive(-ish) notebooks – need to structure this better. I think the end of class reflections I had students do was not useful because it was so rushed. I’m thinking of perhaps having them look at the list of learning objectives and figure out which one we’re one (which shouldn’t be hard because I go in order). I also need to rethink how to give students better access to work that is posted online but done in their notebooks, because I found some students didn’t ever do homework that had an online component.
  • Google Classroom Again, I found several students didn’t ever do their online homework, and the lack of turning in labs severely penalized them (not to mention that they also then didn’t get practice or feedback on their understanding, which led to low quiz/test scores as well). So I’m rethinking this. I’m thinking about having labs done in the notebooks only, but having students submit written lab application/extension questions in paragraph form. I got this idea from another colleague (join us in our Twitter/google doc conversation on chemistry stuff!). But Google Classroom integrates pretty seamlessly with Goobric and Doctopus and makes grading written work way faster, so I would like to keep this while still being mindful of making sure students have access (and not penalizing or embarrassing them in front of peers because they don’t).
  • POGILs– my colleagues and I worked to put a hands-on component to several POGIL activities (and I realize that whenever students have a hands-on portion, they think they’re doing a lab- are they wrong?), which lays a good foundation for next year and further modifications. I love POGIL but my students don’t, mostly because they struggle sometimes with seeing this as learning (I’m still getting the “please lecture more” and “please actually teach us” feedback at the end of the year…)
  • Whiteboards and class discussions- I still want to figure out better ways to run whiteboard discussions (and class discussions in general). I’m attending a conference by the Right Question Institute this summer so I’m hoping to come back with some good ideas of how to get students to generate the questions and lead the discussions.

There’s a lot of room for improvement for next year. And I was frustrated a lot this year- by my students, by my colleagues, by myself. It was exhausting working with the chemistry team to overhaul what I did last year to make it work better and for all of our different teaching styles. And it was strange to find myself in a leadership role among our co-planning team as a 3rd year teacher (our veteran chem teachers did not join us- one was only teaching AP chem so it didn’t apply and the other was focused on a new forensics course so didn’t have the time to co-plan, so I had the most years of experience among our group). I also started a 3 min observation club among my department, and we’re thinking of how to expand it to other departments (maybe math and engineering to start?), and it was again strange to be in a leadership/organizing role among more veteran teachers. I wanted to teach my students how to be self-competent, and I could have done a better job of this, both implicitly and explicitly this year. But a lot happened this year, and I believe despite the struggles, the frustrations, the venting sessions I had with friends to keep me sane, it was a good year. I want to keep all of these things in mind as I recharge this summer, so that I can start next year ready to change things up again to continue to improve.

And I will say (again) that the thing I love most about teaching is that it’s never the same. The students are certainly not the same, but I am also not the same teacher this year as I was last year, because I’m (hopefully) using these experiences to adjust my practice and grow. And growing (literally or figuratively) is a sometimes painful process, but so so worth it. So the exhaustion, the frustration is worth it (though I’m still trying to figure out how to balance my life so that maybe I’m just a little less tired and stressed during the school year…) I’ll just have to remember this post when I’m drowning in a sea of grading next fall…

New Unit, New Groups

I’ve already talked about how it takes me forever to put together groups for my classes. And this time, it’s particularly hard, because I think I’ve found reasonably functional groups for most students for this past unit (there are, of course, the one or two groups in every class that are desperately ready for a change). How do I switch the groups up so that they are equally or more functional than before? How do I scaffold student interactions to help them rather than stifle them?

It’s interesting because NYTimes Magazine recently published an article about what Google found about productive teams. And long story short, it seems to come down to two things: 1) team members speak in roughly the same proportions (either everyone speaking on all tasks, or leadership shifting from task to task) and 2) team members have good “social sensitivity” where they can tell how others are feeling based on nonverbal cues.

My 3-min observation club also had a discussion around this. One of our members admitted that, when grouping students, she doesn’t consider academic ability as much as she considers how well personalities will work together. Her goal is to make her students feel comfortable working in their groups (and she wonders if it’s something she emphasizes too much- is she emphasizing social comfort to the point where it is detrimental to learning?) and ends up with mostly heterogenous ability groups. Another member said he found groups with similar abilities worked better, because the high academic status students were able to push each other more and the lower academic students were comfortable asking questions of one another (and he could spend more time working with those groups). In either case, I think the end result is the same- groups where students feel comfortable talking to one another.

This weekend, I’m at Spring Meeting with the 2012 Cohort of Teaching Fellows with KSTF. And I love this community because they push me in my thinking. One of the things that came up was the idea of lecture vs. groupwork. So many of us believe in groupwork, in student-led classrooms and student-led discussions. But one person asked- why? Why do we believe so strongly in these ideas, even if our groups and student-centered activities seem to fail? I still believe that generally, active learning/groupwork/student-centered learning is more effective than lecture (and I’m pretty sure that there’s research to back this up). But is a well-designed lecture more effective than a poorly designed/dysfunctional group? And that leads me back to what started this post- what makes a group functional?

I’m starting to think more about the social/emotional aspects of my groups more explicitly. It’s always been an implicit consideration- these two students are friends, does that mean they’ll work together well or distract each other? This student is quiet but has good ideas, will seating her with this other student draw her out or shut her down? Another student is great at drawing out the others that she’s seated with- how can I leverage that?

I wonder also if I can leverage some of the ideas from the NYTimes Mag article in my classes. Should I be explicit that groups can be more functional when everyone talks equally, and institute structures that facilitate that? (Does ‘forced’ equal air-time also work?) How can I teach my students to be more aware of non-verbal cues, when they’re 15-16 years old and often more concerned about how others view them than how others might be feeling in that moment?

I have a pile of tests to grade and new seating charts to make on Sunday afternoon, so it’s going to be a long weekend still. But I’m still thankful for a weekend to think more deeply about teaching and learning, and hopefully the end result is a better learning experience for my students.

velocity, vectors, and vocabulary

Let me start off with this- I don’t think that vocabulary and conceptual understanding are mutually exclusive. But a friend’s facebook post asking why freshmen need to know velocity and vectors got me thinking about vocabulary vs conceptual understanding. When is the vocabulary essential and when is it, well, not?

A student can conceptually understand the difference between speed and velocity without ever knowing the term “vector”. When I’ve taught physics, it’s just been “velocity is speed and direction”, and we used designators such as “5 m/s north” or “10 m/s south”. We did also use positive vs. negative, but always specified (“left is the negative direction” or “south is the negative direction”). We did also talk about magnitude and direction with forces, but I rarely used the term “vector” with my freshman physics classes. (I might have mentioned “vector” in passing once or twice. And maybe a student even brought it up, because my students like to use science-y words to sound “smart” in class.)

In chemistry, we’ve recently been working on electron configuration and the quantum model of the atom. But I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned the term “quantum model” with my students (we did introduce “Bohr model” to have a handle on what that thing with the electrons in rings is called). This year, we also explicitly took out vocabulary such as “Aufbau principal”, “Hund’s rule”, and “Pauli exclusion principal”, because our team agreed that we didn’t care that students could use the correct names for the rules but rather wanted to focus on whether students could shown how an orbital diagram (Aufbau diagram, apparently) is filled correctly. I actually don’t know exactly what the Aufbau principal or Hund’s rule refer to specifically, but I can draw an orbital diagram and explain what it’s showing. Why would I expect my students to know exactly what these rules are? And does it tell me anything about their conceptual understanding if they can recite the rule? My experience from teaching physics was that students could often refer to Newton’s laws (from their middle school science classes) but still had some naive conceptions about how forces and motion work (e.g., that there must be a force on an object to keep it moving, despite being able to cite Newton’s first law).

So I’m wondering. What does the vocabulary add to the understanding? Am I doing my students a disservice by not using the “official” terms with them, when if they take a college chemistry course their professors will almost certainly refer to the Aufbau principal, Hund’s rule, and the Pauli exclusion principal? Often, principals, rules, and laws in particular are named after the men (almost always men) who are attributed with discovering them, but then what message does that convey about science and discovery? Science in particular is heavy with white male names, and I wonder what that tells my non-white, non-male students about whether they are welcome in science. (Also, I’m sure there are instances where non-white and/or non-male scientists made the same discoveries in parallel, but the discovery is attributed to the white, male scientist. I wish I knew more about these instances, because it would be nice to bring up in class sometime.) Is my class somehow less rigorous because I don’t often include names of rules? When we were working on gas relationships, I never used the terms Boyle’s Law, Charles’s Law, or Gay-Lussac’s Law (and apparently the P-T relationship shouldn’t be called Gay-Lussac’s law anyway, and is rather Amontons’ Law? ). And even now, I have to think a little carefully about which relationship goes with which name, even though I know that pressure/volume are inversely related and volume/temperature and pressure/temperature are directly related. (Of course, we didn’t ask them to do any calculations with the gas laws, so maybe that’s another reason why I never bothered giving the names to each of these laws.) So if I, as someone who is fairly well-versed in chemistry, don’t remember all the names of all of the laws, but I can figure out the relationships, do I need to teach my students the names of these things too?

Is it ok to not hold students accountable for vocabulary terms as long as they can demonstrate understanding of the concepts? When is vocabulary important and when is it not? I still make sure my students can use terms like protons, neutrons, electrons, and ionization energy, electronegativity, atomic radius correctly (can you tell we’re working on periodic trends soon?). I don’t necessarily care if they know the terms “Coulombic attraction” or “effective nuclear charge” as long as they can explain the reason for the trend accurately.

Vocabulary is something that I find myself conflicted about as a relatively new teacher. I had to learn all these terms, so they must be important! But do they tell me anything about student understanding? Does it help the student communicate their understanding? Or is it just “one more thing” that students have to wrap their brains around and spit back at me? And if they just cram in all the vocabulary, does that mean they know what’s happening?

I realize that my blog posts tend to have a lot of unanswered questions. But that’s just because these are the things that I’m wondering about as I go through my planning, teaching, reflecting. And I have a lot of wonderings and very few answers, but I think that’s ok. It took me a long time to be ok with unanswered questions (graduate level research did not agree with me when I could not find the answer to the research question), but I think this is a stance I need to be able to process the world of teaching.