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.

What’s in it for them?

This is, so far, the hardest blog prompt I’ve had to respond to.  What, they want to know, does the Roberts Lab get out of this whole thing?  I’ve already written plenty about what it will do for me and for my students, but what about the people giving up significant portions of their day to help me with procedures, and explain new concepts over and over (and over and over….I think now I finally understand microsatellites!)?

I certainly hope they’re getting something out of it, because they are going way out of their way for me.  I knew that I would get to sit in and watch and try out procedures.  I had no idea that they would give up work time to help me play fish paparazzo (thanks, Ashley and Mandy!), or dig out their undergrad notes to help me understand a difficult concept (thanks, Erin!), or review my curriculum work with a fine tooth comb (thanks, Ashley and Reade!), or just generally invite me along for anything interesting that’s happening (thanks, everyone!).  Either these are the nicest people in the world, or there’s some kind of benefit here for them.

Over these four weeks, I suppose they get the opportunity to do what I do most of the year – share things that they find really interesting with someone who hasn’t heard about them before.  But, I think the real payoff comes down the line, because I’m going to take all this stuff back to my classroom and share it with my students and get them really interested.  And from there, as in all things with my students, the options are limitless.  Maybe someday, one of them will go on to study cichlids, and maybe they’ll even do it in the Roberts Lab!