I began teaching in August of 2000. This year marks my 19th year in the classroom. When 24-year-old me stumbled into room 206 at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in downtown San Francisco, hired to teach chemistry and biology, with no credential, formal training, and only 3 flunked MCATs under my belt, I did not think I would be writing this blog today.
I would be, accordingly to my 24-year-old self, be a practicing physician as my time spent that year in the classroom was only meant to embody the space between my first fourth MCAT (the one I would finally do well on) and my journey to medical school. I didn't know, at the time, that I would absolutely fall in love with the craft of teaching. Head over hells in love.
Today I find myself, for some unknown reason, reflecting deeply on that journey. Why did I fall in love with teaching? Why did I want to be a doctor? Why did I give up on that dream, for another? Why do I still feel like an imposter after 19 years? What if I stuck with it? Did I give up to early? Could I have saved lives? Have I done my students over the years...especially the ones in the first few years, more harm that good? I dunno.
Around 2006, a subtle tipping point occurred. A transition was felt. I became, in my eyes, and the eyes of my colleagues, and my students, a teacher. A teacher! The vocation became who I was...not some strange space between dreams my parents had for me, and those which I struggled to have for myself. I went to graduate school, did research, obtained an EdD, because a teacher of teachers, traveling around the globe, sharing my passion. It just happened.
I didn't mean for it to happen. I didn't try to speak on TED, or deliver Keynotes about my teaching journey, or write books, or the myriad of other things I have been blessed to do. So, as I sit here, 19 years later, absolutely in love with the teaching profession, I find myself reflecting on this journey. How did I stumble on such opportunities, and why, to this day, do I adamantly resist, and reject, opportunities to leave the classroom.
I think I have it figured out. It's not the kids, as much as I love them. It's not the colleagues, as much as they inspire me. It's not the assessments, or scores, or summers off. It's not the feeling I get when I tell somebody "I'm a teacher..." and their face lights up with respect. It's one thing, and one thing only: URGENCY.
It's the feeling I get when I create a lesson, that must be delivered the next day. The urgency of pedagogy. The urgency that comes along with deadlines, and the art of crappy lessons, great lessons, and all things in between that emerge when the bell rings, my mind opens, and I create. Not for some day off in the future when I will deliver a keynote, or share a story about a lesson I plan to deliver.
The urgency associated with the next day. 12 hours later when they will walk in the room, and look at me with a stare that embodies the term "Go ahead dude...try and teach me.". I love that urgency...that creativity...that feeling. I think, for what its worth, this sense of urgency is why I have been blessed with the ability to share my story with others...Teacher can relate to this. We gravitate toward ideas. We feel the urgency. We are artists every freaking day. We empathize with one another.
What a blessing.
I have always been only a chemistry teacher. For 15 years. Only chemistry. When switching schools, from Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Francisco to Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa CA, to be closer to my family in Petaluma CA, I was asked to teach Biology and Robotics in addition to Chemistry. I was scared, but so glad I took the risk and jumped in. Biology, has now morphed in "Medical Biology" a class I have created to embrace my failed, yet nostalgic attempts at getting into medical school (3 MCATS...blah blah blah...), and a class called "Engineering for Social Good" that embraces the appreciation and respects for Social Justice that 15 beautiful years at a Catholic school instilled in me. Moral of the story. Do new stuff.
Below is a video from the final showcase for our 2017 Robotics Showcase. Enjoy.
In her lecture, The Hungry Mind: Origins of Curiosity, Susan Engel of Williams College beautifully explains the benefits of curiosity not only on student motivation, but learning. See Engel's talk below:
Corroborating Engel's conclusions, Min Jeung Kang and his team at Caltech concluded via fMRI, in an article titled The Hunger for Knowledge: Neural Correlates of Curiosity, that when an individual is curious, they are able to negotiate complexity in the content domain they are learning, as well as unrelated content domains! Perhaps it is the Biology teacher in me, however I do not think it is a reach to say that Kang's observations can be extrapolated to a Darwinian hypothesis. That is to say, increased curiosity = amplified awareness = survival fitness.
After reflecting on Engel's video and Kang's research, I slipped into a nerdy state of reflection regarding the relationship between curiosity, health, survival, etc. I have always been a very curious person (to a fault at times...), and was immediately "curious" about any direct experiences with the relationship between curiosity and "fitness" to survive. After reflecting, it was clear that my current obsession with curiosity isn't by accident. Without exaggerating, my curiosity has indeed saved my life. Below is a workflow of thoughts that emerged from this reflection. TMI warning:
As teachers we have an incredible opportunity to engage in Action Research. As a community of practitioners, we have access to a sample size of students that many researchers crave. We have access to a community of colleagues to help revise and reflect on the process, and we have the most powerful research lab at our disposal: our classrooms.
Yes, each time we give a quiz, engage in formative assessment, design and test a new lesson, or observe a colleague we are engage in informal Action Research. However, as I grow as an educator, the desire to formally investigate questions that have been surfacing in my mind, tugging at my pedagogical passions, feels stronger than ever.
How dare I not take advantage of the 100+ students I see each day who can provide honest insight into learning? Why not strategically try to measure a change in my lesson planning, assess the efficacy of a new lab technique, or record my teaching and that of others to view critically in a collaborative setting? How dare I treat the lesson plan as an artifact to be reused rather than an intervention to be tested and revised?
I too have my reservations about the social sciences, and I am not talking about comparing affect as a dependent variable with plant growth, or vaccine response. They cannot be compared in my opinion. What I am talking is how INCREDIBLE it is that we work with human beings. That we can learn from them. That we can be critical and intentional, and careful, and purposeful about the data we gather from them. That we can communicate that data with our colleagues and back to our students.
All this talk about grades, and alternative forms of assessment, and the myriad of other hippie forms of providing feedback are only part of the solution. Grades are important. They are dependent variables that provide us with data to better understand the humans we work with. How we use grades must be changed. Their presence is powerful. The power they play in judging our human students must be changed. The assessments that yield the grades have been designed by artists, teachers, and are powerful.
All of this is to say that I want to be more intentional about the information I gather form my students. I want to investigate more. To use my background in science to conduct more research in my is classroom. To be transparent with that need with my students. To listen to those pressing questions in my head, and try to answer them. To be intentional about it. My students are amazing mediums to seek those answers. They are honest. Really honest. This amazing career I am blessed to have is worth it.
Below are five of the many Action Research questions I want to try to answer in the upcoming semester in partnership with my students. Many of the questions below represent things I assume I know the answer to and/or I am too proud to admit I am wrong.
After a two-week holiday I, and many of you, go back into the classroom on Monday. During this time I find myself getting up early (like right now) nervous and reflecting on how to, once again, reinvent myself in the classroom. The beauty and the torcher of teaching. #cognitivedissonance.
Below are 5 videos I find myself watching when I need reminders about the teacher I want to be. Some are about research, others remind me to delay direct lecture until students crave more information to fill a gap, while other remind me that simple activities can spark powerful realizations about how the world works.
This video reminds me that cheap tools can have a big impact.
This video reminds me to delay direct instruction until and I spark student curiosity first.
This video reminds me of the action research I hope to conduct in my classroom.
This video reminds me to encourage myself and my students to find new perspectives.
This video reminds me of the type of innovation I want from myself and my students.