My Main Strength and Weakness in the K-12 Setting

My biggest strength in teaching at the middle school level came from my training as a scientist: being able to find any concept that can be demonstrated empirically and then convert that into an experiment or activity. Coming up with a hypothesis that can be tested and evaluated quantitatively, gathering, tabulating and visualizing data and making conclusions are all skills that have been ingrained in me through years of research. When an experiment didn’t work, I could easily think through the various steps and troubleshoot it, or at least come up with reasons as to why it could have failed. I didn’t realize that this would be harder for science teachers. I always took these skills for granted because that’s what I do day in and day out as a researcher.

My biggest weakness was in the way in which I delivered the content I wanted to teach to the students. When I started teaching — in September — I would just give the information to the students, without setting up too much background context, sort of the way it is given in college-level classes. Continue reading

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Re-evaluating Expectations

When I started teaching I expected to have a lot of trouble maintaining order in the classroom. I expected to be dealing with disruptive and uninterested pre-teenagers.

Initially, the students didn’t know what to make of me: I wasn’t a teacher, or an administrator, or a student teacher, or a parent. I didn’t quite fit into their world view of adults inside the school building. They were shy and wary at first. But soon we were doing fun experiments and activities and they grew to trust that things I made them do would be interesting and fun and that they would learn something new.

For my own part, I was surprised to find that the students were, in fact, very interested in everything I told them about science as long as I made sure to not overwhelm them with technical jargon. I did fun activities with them in the form of experiments so they started looking forward to my visits and complained about me abandoning them when I had to attend a conference in a different state and missed a week.

And as far as being disruptive pre-teens, the students were everything but. They tried to be all grown up but really are just little children. The slightest hint of stickers or gummy candy or even strawberries made them revert into little children pleading and cajoling.

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My Best Lesson Plan

The students enjoyed the hands-on activities the most — the ones in which they could participate actively. One of my most successful lessons was my “Introduction to DNA and Extracting DNA from strawberries” lab. I had shown the students using string that each human cell has 6.5 feet of DNA wrapped up very tightly into a microscopic structure within a microscopic cell. So, when I promised them that if we broke up enough cells that we could actually see DNA, they were skeptical. But as the experiment progressed and they pulled up long, wispy strands on DNA using tweezers, the looks on their faces was as if they had done magic.

They have asked me if I could do that experiment again with them. And since then, a few students have expressed an interest in studying more about DNA “later, when they grow up.”

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Teaching New Things Without Overwhelming

When I first set out to teach 7th grade biology as a NSF-GLACIER fellow, I had elaborate lesson plans with multiple goals and many different activities. However, I soon learned that there was a very fine line between introducing 12-13 year-olds to new concepts and overwhelming them to the point where they are no longer interested in anything you have to say.

Things that I thought were silly and irrelevant often turned into my most fun lessons. One day, I off-handedly mentioned in class that I sprouted my own seeds and grew my own microgreens for my salads and sandwiches. Next thing I knew, there were twenty 12 year-olds pleading me to bring in seeds so they could sprout seeds as a class too. So I set up a jar of sprouts per class and snuck into the activity a discussion on the differences between dicot and monocot plants; the students named their class’ sprout jar and took turns to change the water and a week later, we enjoyed a snack of sprouts in class before moving on to the day’s lesson.

When I asked them which one of my lessons they found the most fun, students consistently say that the seed sprouting was one of their favourites.

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Week 2: I start teaching!

Climate Change Wordle Oak Hill 7th Grade

Marianne encouraged me to start teaching right away so I did…right in my second week. And I taught all four of her sections two days in a row. I was so nervous; I was shaky for my first lesson, but I found my stride for my second lesson and it was like doing a performance on stage.

The students at Oak Hill Middle School were great and helped too. They accepted my authority right away and although there were some naughty ones that had to be reminded to not talk while the teacher (aka, me) was talking, they were curious, they listened carefully, were engaged and participated very thoroughly in the lesson.

For my first day of teaching I did 3 activities in a 45 min teaching period:

1. Fact vs Opinion (Objective vs Subjective)

I gave the students a list of 12 statements. For each one, they had to decide whether the statement was a fact or an opinion. Later, we discussed why. Continue reading

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Week 1: Off to a Great Start!

The students of Oak Hill Middle School started a new school year on September 2. I got to meet each of the four sections I will be teaching on my very first day. There were a lot of introductions and logistics to get through on the first day, but, Ms Marks still had a great first lesson planned.

She has posters on the walls of the various topics she will cover in the coming school year — cells, forest ecosystems, leaves, the digestive system (and a brand new one on climate change) among others — and of character traits that are crucial to being successful — kindness, collaboration, setting goals — which I think is a great way to start a year off. Students had to look at all the posters and write down what each one was about. Finally, they had to pick their two favorite posters and write down why.

On the second day, teaching began. Ms Marks’ first lesson was “What makes something alive?” Continue reading

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