Sunday, June 11, 2017

Wow! What a year! 2020 Rocks!

My head is exploding! The school year is finally over and I feel like overall it was wildly successful. First of all, I am compelled to say that this year's group of students was by far the best set of kids I have ever had the pleasure to teach. That is saying something! In my 27 year career, I have had plenty of memorable students- but I have never had a better class overall. Every one of my sections was my favorite for some reason or another. Each class had a "vibe" that made it unique from the others. I sincerely looked forward to every class, every day. I teach freshmen. So this group of students will graduate in the spring of 2020.

I started each day with a great group of quietly high achieving students. They were my guinea pig class. I would try something new and they would go along and then help me figure out if things were right or not. My next class was friendly and respectful with me and fiercely competitive with one another. My 4th period was a social group who asked great questions and wanted to engage more frequently in the side topics. My next class had some interesting personalities. There were many athletes in this section. Some of the students needed to develop confidence in their ability to learn and make connections, so they came to me a bit insecure. My last class of the day was my most endearing group.  In this class, were my most devoted helpers. They cared about one another and about me- they were my huggers. They had a great sense humor and camaraderie. I loved ending the day this way!

One of the things that made this year's classes so great is they would go with me when I wanted to try something new- I will explain in another blog post about all the new things we worked on together this year. They taught me by being willing to learn new technology and ask probing deep questions about the content we were covering. I knew they were engaged in the subject because of the work they did in class and the questions they asked after hours. For many who were used to memorizing information to get a good grade, it was a departure for them to be more concerned over the way they understood the information and their ability to apply it to the projects and writing. I still had plenty of students who were concerned about their points and grades, but the point grubbing was kept to a minimum this year.

Why is this year so special? To what/whom do I owe a debt of gratitude for such an incredible teaching year? Honestly, I am not sure. I think there was an interesting nexus of contributing factors.

Part one of the nexus is my comfort level with my content. This is my third year teaching this particular course. I was originally intimidated when the administrators asked me to teach Honors Biology. My environmental biology degree (class of '87) did not include deep levels of the biochemistry and cellular biology needed to teach this level. I had a great deal of learning to do in order to teach the content in a competent way. We have been transitioning our classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, we have had the opportunity to be creative with our unit structure and projects. I had a smart new teaching partner who patiently walked me through some of the most difficult content. He appreciated my creativity and I leaned on him for different ways to explain information.

The next factor is my ability to work in the technology. I elected to be part of a cohort of teachers to receive
a class set of chromebooks. So my students started using their chromebooks very early in the school year. We had the tools to do some of the most creative work and produce some excellent projects right from the beginning. Many of the students also came in with a set of technology skills. So they could teach each other and me if necessary. I felt comfortable having my students show me new things and share ideas related to the content. After I created my google classroom and the first time I assigned work, one of my students walked me through how to publish it correctly. I wanted to learn new skills and different ways to connect the learning, so I was happy to try new things and was ecstatic when my students could teach me some different ways to use the tools in my room. I had some excellent support from our tech coaches and from my twitter PLN for further ways to engage my students using the tools.

The last factor in this nexus is the students themselves. I cannot explain it, but you know when you have a great connection to a class and if feels like they just want to learn more and more. I had that feeling all year long. We started off with lots of memorable activities and just kept the pace up throughout the entire year. At the end of the first semester, we did a reflection project describing some things they learned. As I was reviewing the projects to score them, I could not believe how much the things we did mattered to them. The routines were important. The technology was important. The information about biological processes was important. They explained it all so eloquently. I cried through many of those projects because my teaching goals seemed to align with the things they were learning.

At the end of the year, after all the content was complete, I asked them to do research on a topic they were passionate about that was related to the content we learned this year. The assignment was to connect and apply their learning to develop a novel approach to an existing problem. The variety of projects was astounding. They personalized the content from our class and found a way to communicate their new ideas in a relevant context.

Now I ask you, does it get any better than that? I am still flying high with pride and wonder at how this year could have even happened. In the final analysis, I think it was an unbelievable
synergy between factors that all came together to produce one of my most memorable teaching years.