Thank You, Kenan Fellows!

As I approach the end of my Kenan Fellow year, I am surprised to realize how many ways it has impacted my practice.  I knew that I would make contacts in the research world, and that I would write some new curriculum.  What I didn’t realize is how much of a confidence boost I would gain.  In the time since I completed my internship, I have taken on and completed a rigorous professional development experience, taken steps towards becoming a professional development trainer, volunteered to present some of my work to my colleagues, and am even considering applying for a new job that will use some of my newfound skills in curriculum design and mentoring.  I’m not sure where I’m going next, but I know it’s going to be great, thanks to Kenan Fellows.

The Fellow/Mentor Relationship – A True Partnership

One of the things that has surprised me most about the Kenan Fellows program is my relationship with my mentor.  My initial expectation was that it would be a pretty one-sided relationship.  He would do the giving – lab access, information, instructions, supervision.  I would be the taker; I’d get in the way, ask questions, take up time.  I felt, to a certain extent, as if I was going into the Fellowship blind.  There was a lot I didn’t understand about the expectations, and I assumed that my mentor would clarify those things, give me a schedule, and so forth.

As it turned out, though I certainly wouldn’t say it was an equal relationship, it was a lot closer than I had expected.  All those things that were fuzzy to me about the program expectations?  Also fuzzy to my mentor.  Initially, this was sort of terrifying.  I like order and structure.  I often affectionately refer to myself as pathologically conscientious.  How was I supposed to know if I was meeting expectations if no one knew what the expectations were?!  Ultimately, of course, we figured it out together, and that turned out to be a much better arrangement than just being told what to do.

Over the course of the summer, I found that the lack of structure allowed me freedom to work with almost every member of the lab, from undergraduates to my mentor himself, and to organize my time to best suit my curriculum development.  This was a huge benefit because everyone in the lab amazed me with both how willing they were to teach me, and how good they were at it.  When I struggled to understand something, they happily went over it time and time again, sought out other resources for me, and helped me keep a positive attitude until I got it.  In short, they confirmed for me everything I have told my students about how important communication and collaboration are in science.

The PRL – Putting Me in the Driver’s Seat, for Better or for Worse

One of the aspects of the Kenan Fellowship that I wasn’t aware of until it happened was the PRL – my Personal Remote Learning plan.  The idea was simple.  As part of my program, I was committed to a set number of hours of professional development, but I got to choose what a large portion of it would be.  My choice was simple.  During the first Professional Advancement Institute, I heard about a course in Data Literacy.  I was immediately sold.  I love data.  It almost doesn’t matter what it relates to.  I get super nerdy when data is involved.  Educational data is even better.  So, taking a course where I got even better at interpreting and responding to educational data, and then becoming certified to teach the course myself?  Total no brainer.

It wasn’t until a couple months into the school year that I realized the danger of letting me choose for myself.  I had chosen something that entailed significantly more hours than was required, and signed up for it in addition to the professional development course my district was requiring of me, which was even more hours.  I have yet to add up the professional development hours I am completing this year, because I am afraid to see the total and realize how insane I am for actually choosing to do this to myself.

Of course, I know that I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I am getting some phenomenal professional development, which wouldn’t have been open to me if not for the Kenan Fellows.  What’s a few (dozen) late nights of work when you consider the outcome, right?

Pausing to Catch my Breath

I’ve been a bit neglectful of my blog lately.  This semester has been, so far, a lot more intense than I anticipated.  It seems like it’s just more of everything…more planning, more parent meetings, more professional development.  More of everything except time to take care of my own to do list.  But, now, finally Fall Break has arrived.  It has been truly wonderful to have a week of downtime, to catch up, and to reflect.  I know that when I start back to school next week, I’ll be ready for the rest of the semester.

The big thing to report on is that my students finished their grant proposals.  Reading them was a really positive experience.  They were not, overall, perfect.  But, they showed a lot of effort and thought, while also giving me a better understanding of the scaffolding I need to do to get better products next time.

The little but also awesome thing to report is that it is so much fun to play music in my class!  I never did it before because I couldn’t settle on what to play, what would be appropriate that students would actually like.  Now that I’ve been introduced to some awesome resources like DJ Earworm, I love to pop on some music while students are doing an activity, especially one where I’m trying to get them to work quickly.  It changes the whole energy in the room, and reminds me that we can do serious work without having to be serious all the time.

Test Run

Well, it has been quite a month since my last post.  School started and I got swept up into the whirlwind that is initiating 9th graders into Early College.  As of today, we are more than halfway through first quarter, and I think I can finally catch my breath, at least a little bit.

Probably the most exciting part of this month has been giving the unit I wrote this summer a test run.  Dr. Roberts helped me launch my DNA unit by coming to give a talk about the research he’s doing right now and how he decides what research is worth doing next.  This was a great opening because the next thing my students learned was that, as their project for the unit, they would be taking on the role of researchers and writing mock grant proposals.  In other words, they would need to come up with an idea for new, worthwhile, and relevant research about DNA, then plan how that research could be done, and figure out how to convince a grant funding organization to give them money to do it.

It sounded, I am willing to bet, a little bit daunting.  Fortunately, the POGIL I had written fit really well into their work.  As we bounced back and forth between the two assignments, I heard more and more of my students making reference to what they had learned from the POGIL as they planned their experimental procedures.  The final results aren’t in yet, but from my observations, I think my students found the unit challenging but interesting.

Before my internship experience, I really shied away from teaching students about microbiology procedures.  I didn’t have a solid understanding of them, and I thought they would be too confusing for my students.  Now that I’ve taken the plunge, I’ve learned that teaching the procedures actually may help my students understand the basics.

I’ll report back after I’ve looked at the final products!

Preparing for Reentry

Boy, it has been quite a week.  I finished the internship portion of my fellowship on Friday, and then on Tuesday I started back at school.  I spent a really great four days with my coworkers, planning, discussing, preparing, and now I’m in the last minute scramble to get everything ready before the students arrive on Tuesday!

To be honest, I wondered at first if my fellowship experience would sort of fade into the background amidst the craziness of the school year.  Of course I would teach my planned lesson, but beyond that, would it matter?

School hasn’t even started yet, and I can already say: Yes, it matters.  The number of times this week that I’ve said, “I learned a cool thing at my professional development this summer,” has probably become obnoxious already.  I am luckier than a lot of teacher because I belong to a school filled with great teachers who are committed to growing and improving together.  That said, there are not even a dozen of us.  This summer I got to expand that professional network five-fold and I am already feeling the benefits.

Some of the things I’m excited about bringing into my classroom, other than my new curriculum product: interesting classroom friendly music, infographics, Trello, and a renewed sense of how scientists really work.  Thank you for everything so far, Kenan Fellows!

Time to Leave Already?

Today is officially the last day of my internship.  Of course, my fellowship is far from over.  I’ll be continuing to work on my curriculum and pilot it throughout the year (and continuing to write blog posts).  But, after today, no more trips to the Roberts Lab.  It is amazing how quickly four weeks have passed.  At the beginning of the summer, four weeks sounded like plenty of time, and now I’m realizing that I could have used four more (and probably four more after that).

I have had a lot of fun here at the lab, but also had some struggles along the way.  It was interesting, and hard, to step into the student role when I’m so used to being the teacher.  I had to get really comfortable with asking for help, and with saying, “I don’t get it.”  I was lucky that I was able to do that because I was surrounded by such good teachers.  Everyone from the undergrads to Dr. Roberts made the time to show me what they were doing and help me understand, and help me find the resources I needed.

It was also great that I was able to somewhat make my own plan.  Because I’m the first Kenan Fellow in this lab, there was no set schedule of what I would do when.  We started with a plan this first week, but as my curriculum developed, and because people were so willing to share their work, I was able to say that I needed to see more of this, but that that didn’t fit in so well with what I needed.

The thing that was most surprising to me, I think, was seeing how much coordination and collaboration are needed in a busy lab like this one.  There are so many different projects going on, and different combinations of people working on each one.  All of the fish share one space, so there are negotiations about who needs what room where.  There are schedules for using different equipment and workspaces.  And all of that doesn’t even take into account the challenges of sharing equipment with another lab.  Of course, it doesn’t always go smoothly, but it is amazing how much can get done with limited time and resources when the communication is clear and thoughtful.

After a year of teaching in which I heard a lot of complaints about group work, and how students should just be able to do their own projects all the time, this is a good reminder that there really are strong reasons for forcing students past that comfort zone so that they can build the skills they’ll need to work with other people in the future.

Victory is Mine!

You guys.  I did it!  (With lots and lots of help.)  I dissected out gonads and fixed them and sectioned them and made slides and stained them and here they are!  The one on the left is a testis and it looks like a testis.  The one on the right is an ovary and you can see eggs at all different levels of maturity.  And, most importantly, I made them.  (A million thank yous to Mandy for all her help.)

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Frustration, thy name is microtome

Bonus post because I’m feeling thoughtful.

I talked in my last post about how well my curriculum writing has gone.  This wasn’t a big surprise for me.  I really like writing curriculum, and it generally comes easy to me.  What has surprised me is how well the hands on lab stuff has gone.  Labs have never been my strong suit.  My first college chemistry professor told me that I didn’t have “lab hands” and that thought has always really stuck with me.  I do not, in any circumstances, consider myself a paragon of grace.  So, it has been a pleasant surprise to find that I was able to manage the techniques I needed relatively easily.

Until today.

Today, we determined, I was going to do some histology work.  Histology, for those who are unfamiliar, means “working with terrifyingly small samples in very precise ways.”  At least that’s how I define it.  Someone else might tell you that it involves taking tissue samples, preserving and dehydrating them, embedding them into wax, slicing the wax into extremely thin slices with a microtome, then mounting them on slides for staining.

Things started off well.  A machine prepares the samples, and embedding them in the wax is actually fun.  Then we got to the slicing part.  This was the part that was going to require those lab hands I don’t have.  I will spare you the litany of things that went wrong, but suffice it to say it did not go well.  After lots and lots of trial and error and frustration, I ended up making one slide that was okay, sort of.  I would be thrilled to never see the microtome again, but today was just practice.  On Monday I have to make slides that actually matter.

It’s been an hour since we stopped for lunch, and I’m still physically tense from it.  But, I’m not writing this to complain.  Actually, this was a great learning experience for me as a teacher.  Because, of course, my students have this same experience all the time.  They try to do a task that someone else makes look easy (my teacher is a pro sectioner) and they just. can’t. do it.  So, rather than just wallow in my frustration, I’m going to try to take some lessons away from this.

  1. When students get frustrated, teachers need to stay calm.  My teacher today was a great model for this.  She never showed any frustration, even when I did EXACTLY WHAT SHE JUST TOLD ME NOT TO DO.
  2. Give lots of opportunities for low stakes practice.  I was stressed when my slices wouldn’t come out smooth, but it would have been exponentially worse if I hadn’t know that it was just practice.
  3. Know as much about your student’s background and abilities as possible.  At one point, I complained about how I was having trouble keeping one hand moving steadily while the other did something totally different.  My teacher mentioned that there is also an option to use a foot pedal to replace the job of one hand, much like a sewing machine.  She didn’t know, of course, that I had been using a sewing machine for many years, and would likely have found that option a lot simpler.
  4. Know when to take a break, but don’t give up.  I really (really really really) like to get things right, so it would have been tempting for me to say that I wasn’t quitting until I mastered the machine, or that I was walking away and never trying again.  Instead, we decided it was lunchtime and quit for the day, knowing that we’ll be back to try again on Monday.

Making Connections

It’s amazing how quickly four weeks goes.  I was shocked to realize that I only have six days left in the lab.  Fortunately, my work is coming along well.  My task over these four weeks has been to create a curriculum product (lesson, unit, etc) that brings the research happening in Roberts Lab into my classroom, and hopefully, eventually into other high school classrooms.

Of course, this task does not come without challenges.  Given that I teach biology and am interning in a genetics lab, the curriculum alignment is easy.  What is difficult is finding ways to make work done by graduate students, post-docs, and faculty comprehensible to 9th graders.

One thing that I had in my favor was a very clear vision, from essentially day one, of what I wanted students to get out of the lesson.  I want them to have a solid understanding of DNA, get an introduction to a variety of lab techniques (even if they can’t do them hands on), and get a sense of how scientists think.  I also decided very quickly on the format I wanted to use….POGIL.

POGIL, which stands for Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, is a great tool because it walks students through the thinking a scientist does.  They are given some sort of a model, then answer questions to help them analyze it and draw conclusions, then move onto another model to expand their thinking.

Using this structure, all I had to do was figure out what I wanted my models to be, and how to simplify them enough for my students to work with.  Of course, first that meant I had to have a really solid understanding myself of not only what I was doing, but why.  A lot of lab work is like a recipe.  Add 3 microliters of chemical A, vortex for 10 seconds, incubate at 52 degrees overnight, etc.  I realized very quickly that my students don’t need the recipes.  What they need to know is the function of chemical A, why vortexing is important, and what happens during incubation.  Those answers are, it turns out, not always easy to find.  But, with a little digging, and a lot of questioning (and requestioning and requestioning) I was able to find what I needed.

Now, with only one section left to write, I have models to show my students the importance of studying DNA, how it is stored in a cell, how its structure allows it to replicate, and (coming soon) how changes in DNA result in changes in observable traits.  Along the way, they’ll be exposed, to some extent, to dissection, DNA extraction, PCR, and histology.  Not bad for a month’s work.