Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Teachers of the Classroom

Today I handed over the control of the course curriculum to my IB Biology students.  Did I feel compelled to justify my decision?  Of course I did.  After listening to my 90 minute lectures and/or participating in laboratory experiments or tutorials every period the entire school year, attending a 6 hour LAB DAY on a Saturday as well as evening and weekend tutorials, submitting their lab portfolios for internal assessment in a timely manner, and surviving a two day IB exam, I felt that they had proven themselves as dedicated students.  Now it was time to give them some autonomy.  I know that I stand in the minority in my way of thinking, but I contend that we underestimate the ability of our students to self-regulate.   Clearly students are not accustomed to the teacher saying, “Go ahead, you figure this out.”  It then leads to some uncertainty.  But within minutes the tone of the group changed and I sat back while my students became the teachers of the classroom.
The group quickly agreed that they would like to do presentations on scientific areas of interest during the remainder of the semester.  This could have gotten tricky since there are a limited number of periods remaining in which we will meet, and one is only two days away.  Collaborators that they are, however, one bright student immediately offered to take that early slot.  Another followed suit.  Amazing.  I wish I had been videotaping this scenario play out.  Corporate America could learn some valuable insights from my I.S. teens. 
The issue of grades was then brought to the table.  Again, I told my students that I entrusted them to define this aspect of the assignment.  Two students volunteered to create a rubric for the class and post it on Facebook (as well as send it to me).  Expectations.  They understand the importance of knowing that the standards should be clearly set from the onset so that everyone will have the maximum opportunity for success.  They can perceive what it means to be fair, and that their grades cannot be gifted, but must be earned.
What purpose does this approach to learning serve?  My students are savvy and will know exactly how much work to do in order to earn the maximum allotted points.  But in researching an area of interest, knowing that their “A” is basically guaranteed, some may find that they enjoy learning more when the work isn’t thrust upon them.  Some will figure out how to connect Biology to other academic disciplines, such as History or Psychology.  Some will decide to make their presentations fun and/or funny to please their peers.  And if for even one student, this is his/her finest memory of IB Biology, then this decision will have been worth it.  The intrinsic value of learning was lost for most students somewhere along with their days of hopscotch.  I look forward to seeing what they come up with when empowered to become the teachers of the classroom.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the Class of 2013
Sometimes I give my high school science students a five minute break during the 90 minute class period.  I call it “recess.”  Every time I say this, someone chuckles.  I choose this word intentionally, as it defines the mood I am trying to capture… a time in their lives when things were more carefree, when play was a natural part of their day, when they didn’t sit in classrooms for three consecutive 90 minute periods.  As an I.S. alumnus currently attending Yale recently said, “If a college student were to sign up for three classes back to back, everyone would think they were crazy!  I can’t believe I used to do this!”  And yet, of course, she did… just one year ago.  So if I feel that my students need/deserve a brief break in the monotony of the day, I am going to give it to them.

However, this is what I have observed…. Before recess, the students are lethargic, sometimes disengaged, and exhibiting a loss of enthusiasm.  After all, it is almost the end of the school year and everyone is exhausted.  Afterwards, however, after the students have either gotten out of their seats to chat with their peers or gone outside to toss a ball or blow bubbles, they return to their work energized and more on task.  As much as they hate to see recess come to an end, I only have to ask them once to get back to work.  Despite what one might expect, they do not take advantage of this opportunity, but rather are just grateful to have it at all.  They are undoubtedly more efficient. 

So that leads me to the following questions: Why don’t we have more time for play built into the daily curriculum, even at the high school level?  When did we decide that school could no longer be fun?  Who is making these rules that are impacting the lives of millions of teenagers across the nation and why am I caving to them? 
As an educator I do have a professional responsibility to complete mandated standards and assure that my students are prepared for future courses of instruction.  I then ask myself what is my moral responsibility to see that my students are prepared for life, and how can I best assure their success in that?  As simplistic as it may sound, unstructured playtime is one of the biggest gifts that I can offer them.  Many students were stripped of this way too early in their development and are thus craving the simple pleasures and activities associated with early childhood education, such as coloring, tossing a rubber ball, and making silly putty.  But my contention is that it is never too late to enjoy “playtime” and that I am equally obligated to offer my students a well-rounded classroom experience in order to slow down the societal accelerated push to adulthood.  With overwhelmingly large class sizes and the constant flux of the district that has tainted this academic year, I haven’t had sufficient time to focus upon this issue.  Regardless, I believe that every educator should aim to improve his/her teaching style each year, or quit the profession. 

Thus, I will return next fall renewed.  I will think of new ways to integrate fun activities into my lessons.  I will draw from the creative minds of my students.  Standards will be taught, but life will be experienced.  This is my commitment to my students.  My classes will still be rigorous.  Tests will be administered.  Labs write ups will be done in the IB format. Simultaneously, however, I will emphasize the importance of play, exploration, creativity, and just having fun.  I will continue to offer my students recess.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Attitude is like a Virus

Written by Ms. Berman
Attitude is like a virus.  Just as a virus cannot exist without hijacking a host cell and taking over its machinery, attitude cannot exist without entering a person’s mind and becoming a part of his or her thought processes.  Some viruses are innocuous and don’t have a significant impact on our immune system, just as some thoughts have little effect on our way of thinking.  In addition, some viruses remain dormant within the body for years before rapidly invading a multitude of host cells and increasing at an exponential rate.  These viruses, the ones left unchecked, are often the most serious, just as the negative messages cast into a person’s mind can crop up years later, creating an outburst of insecurity and self-doubt. 
All of us hear negative messages spoken on a daily basis.  The decision we have to make is how to respond to such messages.  Useful questions to ask are “What are the odds that there is validity to this information?” and “How does this information benefit me?”  It is critical to take the emotion out of the intellectual processing of such situations in order to properly assess the value of the many incoming messages that are flung upon us each day.  We, as humans with the ability to reason, get to choose which statements we are willing to process and integrate as a part of our stream of consciousness (or subconscious mind).  In addition, we choose which messages we will reinforce by either repeating such messages to our peers or ignoring them.   The relatively recent emergence of the internet and smartphones has made it easier for “attitude networking” to occur.  Thus, a simple statement, initially based upon opinion, can quickly start to appear as a fact as it is transmitted through a network of people in a short period of time.  As humans, it is easy to forgo control over our cognitive processing center, and react on an emotional level to such statements as they typically elicit such a response. 
The old clichés “thick-skinned” and “let that roll off your back” are applicable to the concept of attitudinal responses.  Those who tend to be less reactive to the attitude networking that typically occurs in any group environment, will usually end up with fewer negative messages cluttering their brain.  This requires filtering fact from fiction, but enhances autonomy and self-empowerment when it comes to decision-making down the road.  There are enough things in life that are beyond our control.  Attitude, however, is within our control and drives everything that we do in life.  In fact, self-esteem and attitude have been proven to be more essential than raw intelligence when evaluating whether an individual will achieve success, happiness, and contentment in life.  At the very least, if we listen with discretion and take control over what we are willing to internalize, then we can aim to develop more positive thought processes.  Over time, the mind will be freed up of the influx of negative messages, just as the aim for a healthy body is to be virus-free.