Digging Deeper


Night of the Museum

As I reminisce over my experience at the natural science museum, I truly feel like I’ve had a “Night at the Museum” experience.  In other words, a “behind the scenes” look at a totally different world.  Much of that experience is thanks to my mentor, Dr. Julia Stevens.  My internship was much more than a tourist’s walkthrough of the museum.  In fact, I feel like I am now part of the family of the museum.  That is the way I was treated on a daily basis, and I continue to experience this support system.  It’s truly humbling that my mentor chose a Language Arts teacher to take on the challenges of a microbiology lab, and I learned so much about teamwork and collaboration.  To be honest, I feel like Dr. Stevens took a chance on me, and I hope that I was able to meet the challenge.  It was a very special experience to contribute my Language Arts ideas to many experiments that we were working on in the lab.  What an “Aha” moment when I was able to start seeing these connections between two totally different worlds and to have my mentor also excited was a great reward.  I look forwarding to sharing the completion of my efforts with my mentor and to continue communicating with her to further bridge a connection between the Language Arts and Science worlds and to be able to show my students the value of building meaningful relationships with the community.

Tech Tools Galore

I’ve never been one to search out the latest and greatest in technological gadgets.  In fact, I was kinda always proud of the fact that I hadn’t submitted to the allure and addictions of the technology savvy world.  That is until this school year.  Interestingly enough, I find myself part of a BYOD cohort tasked with the challenge of bringing 21st century skills and tools to our school.  And oddly enough, I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything in terms of the art of teaching.  And, I even think that the technology I have implemented is teaching my students to become more responsible and more socially respectful- how in the world???

Well, let me take a step back to the very beginning of my internship… all the way back to our professional development over the summer.  It was there in the mountains of NC, that I started to really desire to “up” my technology game.  Because all of a sudden, the games and programs that were presented had a purpose- a purpose to make my students into better students and better members of society.  I thought, “How could a computer or a phone possibly increase communication and increase student participation?”  Then, all of a sudden I was rather overwhelmed at the amount of programs and strategies and games and resources and apps that I had never heard of.  I nodded my head as people presented in an attempt to hide my lack of knowledge.  I was excited and scared about all I had to implement.  But, I’ve realized something in these first few months of school.  I will never know it all.  Wow.  What a relief.  And, that’s not my job anyway.

My job will always be to teach students- no matter the tools that come my way.  So, I picked a few tools, and there is one that has really changed the way I teach.  It’s call backchannel chat.  Essentially this website is a simple online chat room, but it has changed the way I do classroom discussions.  This technology tool has aided me in class participation and also has helped my students to gain confidence in communicating with classmates.  AND, I still have to teach them valuable communication skills about listening and providing meaningful comments because there is still a level of respect that is needed while communicating in the chat room.  Students are also given plenty of “think time” so that they can write more meaningful comments to questions.  It’s these discussions that really push students into the highest levels of thinking and creativity.  And, I know that soon this tool might be replaced with the “latest and greatest,” but I already learned the secret of these Tech Tools- it’s still about the students and whatever helps them to learn to become a responsible citizen, that is the tool for me!

My School Year Goals

As my summer draws to a close, my brain is completely packed full of curriculum ideas.  My goal is to continue to create more authentic and engaging lessons for my students.  I feel refreshed and have a new perspective on how to create my “dream” curriculum.

My kenan fellows team is in the process of creating some pretty great modules for our citizen science projects.  The key to our “real science” projects has to do with questions.  Our first module involves students creating mazes in petri dishes in order to watch the growth of bacteria and to test the effectiveness of different food sources.  Students will actually develop their own questions in this experiment and explore the answers to these questions.  A huge part of the success of this lesson depends on questioning skills.  As a teacher, I am reminded over and over that good teaching begins with the questions that I ask.  But, even better, my students will have the opportunity to create their own questions.  The student autonomy that this lesson will create is so exciting.

Our second module really emphasizes the significance of 21st century skills.  Students will have the opportunity to research DNA sequences of certain bacteria in order to discover the diversity of their locations and environments.  The data they discover will actually help scientists to interact with the research of other scientists around the world.  What is more authentic than that?

So, school year 2016-17, here’s to more authentic lessons full of questions, student autonomy, and 21st century skills!


I love teaching students about “theme.”

It’s such a great way to incorporate so many aspects of life in the classroom.  Even better- our unit themes include words like: Identity, Belonging, Survival.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  These words give me such a great springboard to have my students discuss and debate about things that really matter to them.

And, that’s why I’m so excited to incorporate what I’ve learned at my internship into my classroom.  In particular, we learned a lot about DNA sequencing in the lab and the vast amount of research that has helped to advance this process.  What a perfect connection to discuss identity and belonging!  In addition, I think that it will be important for me to emphasize that these themes don’t just impact human lives.  I think that it’s important that my students also realize that if they pick up a clump of soil, there are microbes within that soil that also have an identity.  They also have a job to perform and a certain function.  My goal this year is to make sure that students can see these connections in all their subjects and further their excitement of the world around them!

Dragonfly Catching

On the first day of my internship, we spent some time outdoors catching dragonflies.  I caught a beautiful one, and while I don’t remember the name, I remember feeling such a sense of awe at its intricate design.File_000 (3)

This awe continued throughout my internship at the NC Natural Science Museum.  I kept telling everyone that I had the opportunity of a lifetime.  It’s definitely true.  It was such a powerful experience to be working in a microbiology lab- learning about equipment and practicing how to use it.  I am so thankful that we had the opportunity to work with Dr. Julia Stevens.  I was so impressed by her talents but also her ability to convey the science we were learning.

One of my greatest fears was that I would be inadequate or unable to understand the science.  You see, I’ve been thinking from a language art’s perspective for so long.  I had to reach back into the recesses of my mind to remember the terms, measurements, etc.  But, I am thankful for the many encouragers on my team and in the lab.  I found myself growing in confidence and excitement.  I was reminded that learning is more about awe and excitement and less about having every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed.

This internship reminded me that there are so many things about our world that I don’t know yet.  There is the world of soil and the world of ants and the world of mammals and the world of dinosaurs and it goes on and on.  After this summer, I’m ready to keep exploring!

The art of a lesson plan

People keep looking at me funny when I tell them I have an internship that involves science and science education.  “Wait… don’t you teach language arts?”  Is the usual question I get.  And, when I proceed to tell them that I’m incorporating the science into language arts lessons, they continue to stare and ask how that might be possible.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how “possible” it might be to take lab science and create an authentic language arts lesson.  But, I like challenges.

The funny thing is, I’ve really found some great ways to connect science and language arts.  As I write my lessons, I’m waiting to hit a road block, but I really haven’t hit any.  Believe it or not, I really think science and language arts go hand in hand.  I’m not saying that this whole process was too easy- no, I still had to brainstorm a lot, but I really loved every second of it.

One of the citizen science lessons my group had to include involved investigating DNA sequences.  That made me a little nervous.  Because I didn’t want to just throw an article or a writing assignment at my students- boring… and too easy.  Instead, I started to think about poetry- kids really struggle with poetry, but I think once they get it, it’s all the more meaningful.  I started to think about the way poetry is woven together and how that mimics the way DNA is woven together.  If you change pieces of a poem, you get something totally new.  Similarly, if you change the sequence of DNA, you get something totally new.  Fascinating!  Poems are like DNA!  That led me to a lesson on “sequencing” poetry- chopping it apart to creating something new… Tada!  I have a connection to science.

This experience has shown me how much I love finding these connections and making them meaningful to students.  I might not be good at drawing or painting, but I truly think that writing lessons requires the same finesse.  And once all your ideas click, it truly becomes a masterpiece!

Thank You

As I sit here, moments away from leaving my fellowship in the Natural Science Museum, I can’t help but think of how refreshed I feel and how grateful I am.  Numerous times today I shared that I finally feel as if I have had an authentic interaction with science.  For me, that is huge.  It’s huge because I haven’t always had the best relationship with science.  In school, I thought science class was trying to decipher a textbook, and many times I didn’t understand it.

But, here I am, typing this post in a research lab.  I’m surrounded by microscopes, autoclaves, pipettes, and petri dishes.  I look through the glass windows and see dinosaur bones and glowing fish and a giant double helix model of DNA.  What an authentic, hands-on experience!

I’ve gained so much that it’s hard to feel like I’m giving much back.  But, then I remember this feeling that I am starting to have about science is the same feeling that my students should be having in the classroom.  I guess the most authentic way that I can say thank you to my favorite scientist, Dr. Julia Stevens, is by creating excitement and joy for learning in my classroom.  She has given me the ability to give my students the power to be anything that they want to be.  They have the opportunity to help her with research that will further inspect the DNA of microbes.  This research will show the diversity of microbes and where they have been located.  By analyzing this data, students will be able to link the vast research of many scientists all over the world!

I never got to be a part of something so unique and so important when I was in school, but my students will have that opportunity.  They don’t have to wait until they “grow up” to make a difference.

So, thank you Dr. Julia Stevens for giving me the opportunity to show my students how big the world is and what an exciting place it is!

3-D Vocabulary

I’m always telling my students that words have power and purpose.  One word can completely change a sentence.  Throughout my fellowship in the Natural Sciences museum in Raleigh, I believe this all the more.  But, I’m starting to realize that these words will lose their meaning unless I make them 3-D.  In other words, I need to link vocabulary to hands-on experiences.  I remember reading about DNA sequencing in school- I even remember where I was sitting when I read about it in my textbook.  But… I could never have told you much about the science behind it.  That is, until the past two weeks.  I actually made a gel so that we could analyze DNA through gel electrophoresis.  I’m not going to forget that experience any time soon, and what a cool vocabulary word to throw around!

I guess it’s a pretty big undertaking to try to restore the power of words in my classroom, but as a language arts teacher, I feel that it is my duty.  Again, giving my students ownership of their learning is a huge part of this.  I want them to at least learn to respect the intricacy and uniqueness of the English language even if they don’t like my class.  I’ve come to respect science so much more over the past weeks, and as an educator, I’m learning that each subject should be honored and students should understand that life really includes aspects of every subject taught.

To recap, this school year is going to be all about leadership, ownership, respect, and wonder. IMG_8438 (1) (Above, the team is setting up gel electrophoresis!)

Back to the Basics

My brain never stops.  Ever.

I guess that’s what happens when you become a teacher.  Endless lesson plan ideas, endless tasks to complete, endless goals to achieve.

And, in the midst of all that endlessness, sometimes I lose myself as a teacher.  We are encouraged to always keep progressing, but sometimes it’s a good idea to get back to the basics.

That’s why I was so grateful for a week in the mountains of North Carolina attending sessions with other Kenan Fellows at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT).  First of all, there is something about mountain air that encourages simplicity and stillness.

I needed that calm.

But, it’s kinda funny at the same time because so many of my colleagues kept talking about information overload.  We had so many professional development sessions and so many inspirational chats and so many new types of technology to learn about.  I am overwhelmed too, but somehow I also feel like I got some clarity.  I came up with a list of the basics I was reminded of:

  1. Hope- Hope in the integrity of my profession and hope that there are teachers who really do care about making their classrooms better.
  2. Confidence- This is a huge one for me.  I feel like sometimes looking at all the things I could improve overshadows what I am doing.  White water rafting definitely helped me to remember to be confident.  Also, interacting with 40-50 professionals forced me to be courageous and confident and affirmed what I am doing.
  3. Passion- I found myself listening most of the time this week.  Everyone has such great stories and such passion for the work they are doing.  I just wanted to soak it all up.  It also renewed that passion in my own heart and reminded me why I love teaching so much.

One of my favorite professional development sessions was called “Marketing Yourself as an Educator.”  In this session, I was able to come up with my own positioning statement/my own brand.  This is kinda like my mission statement for teaching.  We were asked to develop a statement that exemplified what we value as teachers.  To me, it was getting back to the basics.  I’m so glad that I attended this session on Tuesday, because it gave me a lens to filter the rest of the week.

And since you’re probably wondering, I came up with this statement, “Passionately instilling a community of value.”  (I can talk more about why I picked this in another post.)  Anyway, I think this was my biggest takeaway, because now I can weigh educational knowledge against my value statement.  Even before I try to incorporate cross-curricular lessons and project-based lessons (some other incredible sessions), I can start with whether or not my plans align with the goals I have for my classroom.

This vision statement is another great way to interact with colleagues, and I think it will be the only way that I can forge ahead to collaborate with other subjects and grade levels.  Let’s be honest, we are all kinda skeptical when someone brings their “great idea” to us.  And, that’s what makes collaboration difficult.  But, my plan is to use each educator’s strengths- focus on what they are good at, and use them in that capacity.  Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as teachers anyway?  We see a kid’s strengths and exemplify them- use them to their greatest potential.  But, often, we get bogged down.  I don’t want to get bogged down this year.  I’m hoping that my vision will help me to look beyond what is good to what is best, and that’s how I plan to get back to the basics.



Teaching by Example

At the beginning of every school year, I share the following quote with my students, “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”  It’s the most important thing I say them.  I want my kids to know that courage is way more important than anything I teach them about language arts.  Because really, I think it’s a building block of learning.  I’ve met so many brilliant students who have so many abilities, but they don’t have anyone to offer them the gift of confidence- the ability to step out into the unknown.

But, it’s easy for me to ramble on to them about courage and then continue on with my normal routine.  And perhaps they are thinking the same thing- “That’s easy for you to say, Mrs. Derstine.  You are already doing what you want with your life.”

Then, a colleague tells me about the opportunity to become a Kenan Fellow… enter an opportunity to “lose sight of the shore.”  Here is my opportunity to become a better teacher.  And, it has everything to do with stepping outside my comfort zone.  I mean, after all I’m a language arts teacher jumping into a STEM fellowship.

In the midst of all the “unknowns,”  I’m trying to focus on the ocean of opportunity in front of me.  And, while that might sound cheesy, it’s true.  I’m hoping to become a more well-rounded individual and teacher.  To me, science is the perfect way to do this.

Sometimes I feel like my kids get so excited about the hands-on experience in their science labs, and I wonder about the “draw” that science holds on so many people.  Why do they get so excited?  I’m determined to find out and apply that excitement to the classroom.  Maybe in some way it will help me to reach at least one of my students in a new way.  Even further, maybe if I can just touch these new waters, I’ll be encouraging another teacher to do the same.  Yes, I’m terrified to fail or maybe even more terrified of being mediocre… but, don’t my students have the same fears?  If I can’t put myself out there, they never will.

So I guess, here’s to taking one step forward and leaving the shore…