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“What do you do?”

I’m a cognition and neurological engineer. People come to me who need or want to know about something that I happen to be passionate about. I excite them about what they are about to learn and demonstrate why it’s important to them and everyone they know. Along the way they learn the most interesting things the human race has discovered and the strangely-simple-complexity of the universe. They also practice habits of mind necessary to teach themselves even more, experiment with skills they find interesting, connect knowledge in unique or useful ways, discover the values of perseverance and integrity, and recognize that problem solving and gaining wisdom are the only things the human mind needs in order to thrive.

I’m a 9th grade science teacher.

…but it still felt pretty good when one of my students visited me after school just to tell me that she loves my class, the way I teach has – for the first time – made her excited about science, that she’s excited about science classes in her future, and she’s even thinking about science as a career.


Job done.

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Blogging Initiative Post: Week 4

Almost two weeks ago my students wrote commitments for themselves.  Not goals.  Commitments.

I nearly had this idea come up in my head a couple times last year but it didn’t fully click until I read John Spencer’s From Goals to Commitments on his blog Education Rethink (recommended reading, by the way).

Over the years I’ve come to realize that for my 9th graders, long term goals are as abstract and meaningless as protein synthesis (until I teach it to them, of course).  I now know that my students need to be taught how to reach short term goals by actually committing to actions.  Therefore, my students wrote two commitments for science class this semester: things they will actually do, on a regular basis, to perform well.

No outcomes.  No goals.  No grades allowed in their sentences.  Students need to learn that actions result in what they desire, not simply writing down “I will get a 90% or better in class this year.”  How does that guide behavior, habits, and improvement?

Here’s the instructions my students used on the assignment:


I’ve been pretty happy with the outcome so far.  The students wrote their commitments in a shared document on My Big Campus (if you’re not familiar with that, it’s like Edmodo and Schoology).  Because they shared the document with me, I’m able to read their commitments and even type messages to them that other students can’t see.  It’ll be a place for the students to learn how to reflect and follow through as the semester rolls on, and be a foundational springboard for my students’ slowly developing growth mindsets.

I hope with these actions my kids will reach real goals.

Blogging Initiative Post: Week 3

The science classroom is rife with misconceptions and I believe most science teachers are taught in teacher school various strategies to overcome misconceptions. I see them nearly every single day: scientific process as a set of facts, the word theory, almost anything regarding evolution, geologic time scale, humans as animals, etc.

One of my favorites to confront and teach in a whole-class setting is photosynthesis, or what I like to call “Where’s All this Stuff Come From?” It hinges on the misconception that student don’t know where plant material originates, and therefore, have a misunderstanding of how the sun powers life on earth and can’t, then, begin the food web without knowing how it all started.

I begin with a short National Geographic video about how the photographers were able to take a giant photo one of the world’s tallest trees (it’s worth watching for it’s own sake). I then lead in to a quick slide show of giant trees and plants, and then present the students with a tiny seed (I tell them it’s a seed from a giant redwood, but it’s actually just from a pine cone a pried apart somewhere. It’s pretty close to the correct size, though).

And I ask the students, “So, it started out this big…so, where’s all the stuff come from?” Picture in your head 38 blank stares and blown minds.

The students record their thoughts for a couple minutes and they share as a class and I write their responses on the board. I’ve been doing this for 5 years with freshman and I’ve never had one student say the correct answer…not that I’m actually looking for them to know.  It’s a misconception after all!

Do you know the correct answer? Feel free to look it up if you need to. I’ll wait.

I don’t tell the students the answer right away, but begin by showing them a few clips from the classic misconception video called A Private Universe, specifically a section on photosynthesis. If you’re a science teacher, you’ve likely seen this video. It’s the one where they interview Harvard grads just after their graduation and ask them questions about what causes the seasons and where does the wood come from in a tree. A quick search on the YouTubes will take you straight to some clips.

To make a long post short, the students learn that even some of the brightest students in our country don’t know something as fundamental as where plant material comes from, and ultimately their food, and themselves!

It’s an introductory lesson that leads in to the lab activities where the original misconceptions eventually get teased out. It’s one of my favorite quick, introductory lessons of the year.

I Wish I Had Known…

Blogging Initiative Post: Week 2

Sitting in evening classes learning how to teach wasn’t the best environment for learning how to teach.  Looking back at my “teacher school” some five years later, it’s obvious that my coursework wasn’t ideal.  But apart from having all teacher preparation in a real classroom, I’m not sure how much it can be improved.  Years in the classroom seems to be the only real way to prepare for being a teacher.  It’s kinda like how the only way to get better at reading is simply to read.

But it’s more than that I suppose.  A teacher also needs to learn how to try new things, grow professionally, and challenge him or herself in order to gain that experience.  I know some a lot of teachers who have been teaching for years but have not challenged themselves to become better at their craft.  They don’t have 20 years of teaching experience, growth, and improvement.  They have one year of experience 20 times.

I wish I had learned many things in my teacher preparation:

  • How to manage large classrooms – No vainglorious professor who ever showed me how to prepare for teaching a lab science to 40 students at a time.  They always made it look so easy and sugar-coated.
  • The value of relationships with students – I knew that load of BS about not smiling until Thanksgiving was just a cliche, but I why do I see plenty of new teachers coming into the profession with that “strategy” and then wonder why “the kids are still talking during my lecture?”  Who’s out there teaching that farce!
  • The value of time set aside for reflection – A Hemingway-esque style of journaling does wonders when dealing with the next thing I wished I had learned.
  • How to handle stress and manage school with home life – If you’re teaching for the right reasons, you probably take your struggles, worries, and lesson ideas home with you.  They’re at your dinner table, they watch movies with you, they sleep on your pillow, and drink coffee with you in the morning before taking them back to school riding shotgun in your car.  If you care, that’s going to be hard to avoid.  But how do you keep it from becoming an all-encompassing force in your life?

But I mostly wished I had learned how to grow professionally and continue to challenge myself.  It was easy my first couple years because I was teaching at a small school with an active group of professionals and administrators who continually walked the halls and classrooms  making it known that our building was a place for a growth mindset.  Support was everywhere.  But then I moved to a giant school that lacked any community feel or support.  It’s one of those places where you’re laughed at because you take your job seriously. I hope you don’t believe what I’m writing  because that means you’re probably pretty happy with where you teach.  But some of you are probably thinking “that’s me too.”

And that’s unfortunate.

So, how do you continue to grow without that avuncular mentor or principal at your school to prod you along?  Or how do you do it when you want to hide your attempts at being a professional because you’re sick of the looks you get from down the hall from the jaded ones?  It took me a few years, but I’ve finally found it elsewhere.  It’s found by:

But I eventually ran in to a problem, one that I touched on a little bit last week and can be found in “The Point” section on my home page: I realized that I was beginning to collect a pile of underpants.  Seriously.

I collected, piled, filed, refiled, bookmarked, and shared hundreds of blog posts, tweets, ideas, tips, apps, lessons, and labs for months.  Finally, I realized that I had created nothing new.  I have been entering the classroom with too many ideas, starts of new projects, beginnings of new methods, attempts of new tools…none fully implemented or taken to completion.  I learned and learned and learned, but I did not do.

This year for me is about the do.  How do I know flipping the classroom will work or fail until I create a plan and actually try it?  Then try it again?  How do I know the student reflections will teach students about their potential growth mindsets if I only do it for a couple weeks?  It’s like knowing about and forming and opinion on some strange food, like head cheese or fried okra, without actually trying it…multiple times just to make sure.

This year for me is about that.  I will pare down my pile of underwear to a realistic load and try each one (I hope you’re still with my analogy, otherwise this might be getting weird).  New teachers need to know that they cannot try everything at once.  They need to know that they should learn, plan, attempt, and complete just a few methods until they know from actual experience that they either don’t work for them, or they (or the students) become really good at them and see benefit.  Then, with experience and success under their belts, new teachers can begin adding or changing things to promote even better teaching and learning.

In 20 years I hope to look back on continued change and improvement, not 20 copies of my first year.  And not a pile of underpants.

Blogging Initiative Post: Week 1

The good people putting together this blogging initiative aimed to get many, many math teachers up and blogging asked,

Where does the name of your blog originate? Why did you choose that? (Bonus follow up: Why did you decide to blog?)

Never mind how a science teacher was able to squeeze into the mix, but I’m grateful for the opportunity and motivation that will come by from weekly prompts.  This question is easy for me and ,and  as you can see by the comic that heads my blog’s page, fairly simple to explain.

During my first year of teaching (five years ago) I wore a new plaid shirt to school.  A student kindly raised his hand and asked me if I was aware that my shirt looked like graph paper (freshman!).  One of my fellow teachers confirmed that, indeed, I looked like I was wearing paper and it became a bit of a joke as the year progressed and always stuck with me.  Last summer I decided that I wanted to give blogging a shot, @graphpapershirt was available on the Twitter, and I went with it.  I wanted a name for my site that was short and stuck in peoples’ memories…I hope I hit the mark.

Follow up: I started blogging because I was reading so many great blogs from other teachers I was meeting on Twitter and coming across during my summer break last year.  Many of these people were putting up multiple posts a week about the very same topics I was thinking/stressing over/creating and they made it look so easy.  I can come up with the ideas easy enough, it’s just the motivation once I’m home to put the ideas down on my site that’s the hard part.  It’s so easy to get sucked in to my RRS reader instead of actually contributing to the conversation myself.

Furthermore, professional development at my current school has left me wanting, and I have craved opportunities to grow as a teacher alongside other professionals.  Reading other teachers’ blogs, reading comments on posts, and having short conversations on Twitter provided me with more growth in a few short weeks over the summer than I was able to obtain during two years at my school.  I wanted to become a part of that…something I’ve seen called guerrilla professional development.

So…here’s to contributing.


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