Friday, October 31, 2014

Facing down the dragon...!

Not all dragons have green scales and great wings for flying... some are the metaphorical type that we each at times face... This is the story of one of mine... I was on the freeway driving north  for my first  BAWP presentation.  Me presenting! – me absolutely scared to death!  I was scheduled for a two-hour presentation to a group of Oakland High School science teachers on using reflective writing to help kids make sense of newly learned  concepts. 

Me in my laboratory at the time with a pond water infusion
The whole sequence of events that led me to this moment just kind of evolved.  I suppose the process began for me when I was selected to attend a series of staff development programs in the local county office on “Critical Thinking”…we had release days once a month to attend and heard a variety of speakers.  This was a powerful learning experience for me!– Up until that time I, like more high school science teachers had assumed that our job was to present the facts of our subject for our students to memorize and then test them on what they had learned.  I saw students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with the knowledge that I had to impart. 

Me lecturing on comparative anatomy - this is a horse skull
In this series I learned a new paradigm – that of putting emphasis on helping students to develop a series of learning skills, in addition to learning the critical concepts and facts.  The goal was to enable students  to become life long learners in this world of rapidly expanding knowledge.    One example of what I mean can be seen in Blooms Taxonomy – a hierarchy of teaching formats that engage higher more complex thinking skills:  Take a look:

Me explaing a fine point of anatomy to a student

Within this new way of thinking– I experimented with my own classes – I tried several ways of helping kids to go beyond mechanical memorization to include more learning skills.  I was also influenced by lunchtime conversations with other teachers in my school– particularly two English teachers who introduced me to the idea of reflective writing. 

Tolman Hall - C Berkeley

Then I received an invitation to go up to Tolman Hall at UC Berkeley for an interview with Bay Area Writing. ( I think my assistant principal was involved ).  BAWP is a grassroots group with the motto “Teachers teaching teachers”.  If there is a school that wants to improve the skills of the teachers, they contract with BAWP  for an 8 or 12 part series – The host school decides what specific skills they want to promote – then the staff of BAWP selects from their group of skilled presenters to provide a once-a-week series at that school site. I took samples of my students work and met with the BAWP staff to explain what I was doing.  Apparently they found it interesting that I as a Biology teacher was experimenting in this area. (Most of their presenters teach English.) 

Non traditional writing activity: Student assignment to make a diagram with explanation to show how the addition on colors is different from the subtraction of colors.  It is not permitted to copy anything from books or internet sources.

So they signed me up for the month long summer training session.  I met with a group of about 20 other “new guys” and we talked and wrote and reflected on the art of using writing as a tool for facilitating concept learning.  It was great fun and I made good friends.

But now the 'rubber was about the meet the road' – and I was being sent out to “do it”…. You have to understand – teaching kids is one thing – but standing up to a group of crusty old experienced Bay Area science teacher peers was daunting.  By nature I was rather shy and happy to be more of an observer than in the center stage.  In short, I was terrified.  I went in well prepared with three hands-on activities. 
Free writing assignment: Write in your own words:  What environmental conditions would be most likely to support the evolution of each type of bird beak? Support your answer with examples.
For each,  I first described a process and then had the group participate. I provided time to ask questions and debrief the experience.  After arrival, I set up the show – and then as I often tell my young teachers - I attempted to take on the identity of someone who had done this 100 times – I projected positive ‘body language’ – I attempted to ‘practice what I preach’ as I connected with each participant with my best confident voice.  I was bluffing.
Using this diagram as an example explain in your own words how a virus infection is different from a bacterial infection.
The session went well – I had good response – and now I felt relief – but more than relief – I experienced a ‘presenters” high… I loved it.
Over the next several years I gave over 80 presentations to teacher groups – and every time I felt a certain positive tension before I began.  A violin does not make beautiful music unless there is a proper tension in the strings. But the satisfaction was also there afterward. 

Cut 6 cells from this diagram ands glue in sequence of cell division - then explain in your own words what events are taking place in each step of the process.

My BAWP involvement was one of the great formative experiences of my life – Overcoming a great fear and moving beyond it was life changing for me.  Now only did it reshape my approach to teaching – but I was the most fortunate one - I learned so much from my participants in each presentation. – and I learned that I not only could – but I enjoyed- speaking to groups of adults.

The Bay Area Writing Project went on to be copied in every state of America – there are similar “Teachers teaching teachers” groups exploring the use of writing in all grade levels and subject areas not only in all states, but the concept has been adapted into thee languages of several European countries… notably the Scandinavian countries, England, Germany, and also in the US Military base schools around the world.    All of this can be traced to the idea of the founder – James Gray – an English teacher at San Leandro High School.
It is gratifying to say that as I visit Bay Area schools today, when I observe my interns and student teachers, that many of the approaches we were advocating in the “early years” are now accepted as accepted widely used classroom teaching methods.
Team of 2 activity:  Given this Venn diagram of the 5 kingdoms in life - write an essay to explain the cell differences in each kingdom.  You can use your textbook as a reference, but all explanations must be in your own words.

This last Saturday was a reunion meeting of the old BAWPers at Tolman hall.  I love a good reunion – lots of hugs and stories… plus good food.  Many of my old friends are now retired from their teaching careers - but many continue to be involved in some aspect of education.  
Student lies on 'butcher paper to trace outline - team of 4 draw in and label bones ( using text as reference).
Each student must explain in his or her own words the sequence of events involved in the transfer of force by a heavy weight held in the arms of a standing person to the feet.

Here is BAWP today:  Here you will see two dates for free Saturday workshops next semester – When you attend , you will find a "smorgasbord" of available workshops to choose between.  Just show up,  and you can experience in one morning two  examples of teacher workshops: “Teachers teaching teachers”.  The presenters will share with you hands on learning opportunities that fit your interests...You will also catch their passion and enthusiasm.

Highly recommended "don't miss" link of the week: