Why be educated? Part 1: Show me the money

“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” Every teacher has heard that countless times. Once in a while a student will ask that question and I always say the same thing: “Likely never, but that’s not the point.” Usually, they stare at me dumbfounded.

It’s true though isn’t it? When will they need to know how to factor a polynomial, or name the third president of the United States, or write the chemical formula for hydrochloric acid from memory? Likely never! But as I said, that’s not the point. We can’t blame students for wondering because we sure do spend a pile of time asking them to memorize stuff and recite it back to us. I think back to my early days of teaching and shudder when I recognize how much of what I wanted students to do was simple memorization. A typical lesson plan found me standing at the front talking while the students sat in rows trying to copy down what I was saying. A typical evaluation had them all sitting quietly for an hour answering test questions that demonstrated how well they had memorized a bunch of terms and definitions. It’s embarrassing really.

We’ve allowed public education to be a collection of facts to be memorized and assessment to be based on recall and low level thinking skills. Students are understandably tired of it and, frankly, so am I. How can we ever be surprised when students struggle to see the relevance of the curriculum? Most of the time I do too.

That brings us back to our question: why be educated? Well for one, with education comes higher earning potential. The United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics released some telling data (http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm) in 2011 showing the dramatic difference education makes in weekly earnings and unemployment rate (check out the figure). They show that unemployment rates vary inversely with education while earning potential varies directly with it.

The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reports that people holding bachelor’s degrees earn about $2.27 million over their lifetime, while those with master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees earn $2.67 million, $3.25 million, and $3.65 million, respectively. By comparison, having some college or university education will earn you $1.55 million in lifetime earnings while a high school diploma earns you $1.3 million in your lifetime. What does this tell us? All other things being equal and no matter what your field of study, simply earning a four-year degree makes a big contribution to financial success in life. You can read the report at http://cew.georgetown.edu/collegepayoff/.

Education can’t be the only way can it? To answer that, just check out the Forbes list (http://www.forbes.com/wealth/celebrities/list ) of wealthy celebrities. While some of them do have an education, many do not. With her bachelor’s degree Oprah earned $315 M between June, 2009 and June 2010 and has accumulated a net worth of $2.7 B. Lady Gaga dropped out of New York University and at 25 years old she earns about $90 M a year. At just a year older, LeBron James earns $48 M a year and he never even started university or college. We certainly can’t point to education in the case of Justin Bieber. Although his career prevents him from attending, he chose to continue high school with the help of a tutor but is at least “thinking” about going to college. At 17 he earns $53 M per year. Then again, he’s Canadian so maybe that’s his secret.

In fairness, Stefani (aka Lady Gaga), LeBron, and Justin may be poor examples because those three are exceptionally talented (you might argue about the later). We can’t expect many of our students to be able to follow that path. Ryan Seacrest has demonstrated that you don’t need talent or education to make money. The 36 year old University of Georgia dropout earns $61 M every year for doing . . . well, I’m not sure what he does. Finally, Charlie Sheen is a beacon of hope for every student who struggles with attendance, academics, or *ahem* self-medication. He was expelled from Santa Monica High School for poor grades and attendance a few weeks before graduation and never looked back. He now earns $45 M a year despite his ongoing battles with drugs and alcohol.

Celebrity, winning the lottery or inventing the iPad can certainly lead to great wealth but for most of us the best, most reliable, sure-fire way of increasing our financial success is to get an education and to get as much of it as we can. If you’re like me, you find equating the value of education with the ability to earn more money pretty depressing. I mean, I’m a teacher so you know I didn’t choose my career for the money. There must be something inherently valuable about education isn’t there? Why do teachers spend so much effort trying to reach students? Why do we get so invested in our student’s success? Why are we so passionate about our own subject? Why spend so many hours volunteering with extra-curricular activities? It can’t be to help students earn more money or simply to earn money ourselves. Next week, I’ll share what I think is the inherent value of education and why I value it.

What do you think? Should money be a motivator to pursue education?

What makes a good student?

I have a sign on the wall in my classroom with a heading that reads: “How to Pass.” Most students don’t follow the advice because most of them don’t even know the sign is there. Oh I’ve pointed it out – believe me – but as with everything the teacher says, it’s only the good students that hear me and they’re the ones who already do what the sign tells them anyway. Sound familiar?

So what is written on that little sign? Four statements:
Show up
Pay attention
Do your work

Simple. Let’s face it – public education is, by definition, designed so that nearly all students can make it. It’s an easy game! Adopt those four principles and you’ll be successful. Is it as easy as simply reading the sign and Shazaam! you’re a good student? Lots of students read those four statements and don’t really know exactly what they mean or where to start. Fine. Let’s get specific.

#1 Show up. We would hope that coming to class would make a big difference in student achievement. If coming to your class doesn’t make a big difference in student success, you need to take a hard look at how you’re spending your class time. If your presence is not adding value to class time, why are you there? The student could just learn from home. Struggling students often don’t like school and so they skip classes. Don’t we all sometimes try to avoid things we don’t like? The trouble is skipping classes negatively affects their outcome, which contributes to their dislike of school, and the cycle continues. Attendance policies and incentive programs help but they tend to target students who care about consequences and these are generally not the students we’re concerned about. Our school has a particularly powerful attendance policy which has the consequence of expelling students from school if they miss too many classes. It works very well, although the irony of kicking a kid out of school for missing too many classes has not escaped my attention. Nevertheless, it does send the message that we believe attending class is important.

#2 Pay attention. Easier said than done. Hands up if you’ve ever caught yourself day dreaming during a staff meeting. If you raised your hand don’t you dare get angry at students for doing the same thing. I tell my students straight up that I know some of them don’t care about biology (hard to imagine!) but they have to find a way to stay alert because the grade on their report card doesn’t depend on whether they enjoyed the class. They need to recognize when they’re drifting away and snap themselves back. I let them know that asking and answering questions can help them stay focused. Of course, we already know asking questions improves understanding too. Thus, asking questions helps them stay alert and strengthens understanding in a powerful synergy.

#3 Do your work. It’s discouraging that I even have to say anything about this one but some students simply don’t recognize the value in practicing what they’ve learned and completing assignments. I can’t blame them completely. When I first began teaching many of my assignments were poorly designed, didn’t relate well to the material, and probably seemed irrelevant. Many of them had pretty low learning outcomes. I’ll stop short of saying they were merely busy work. Why should I expect a student to become invested in an assignment that seems pointless? If the work we give students is meaningful and perceived as being beneficial they will be far more likely to complete it. If they have choice in the assignments they are required to do they are more likely to do them. Finally, whether we like it or not, giving students time in class also increases the likelihood of them actually doing it. Part of completing assignments might be getting help when they need it. Students need to be consistently reminded to ask for help and to make sure they are confident in their mastery of the skills and the material.

#4 Behave. I’ve already written about my thoughts on classroom rules so I won’t get into that here. Essentially, school is a pretty easy game to play. Follow a few simple rules and you’ll get along just fine. Keep your head down. Back away from a fight. Be respectful. I know that’s easy to say as someone who’s not an adolescent with a reputation to protect but I try to help my students see that if they just try to get along, life is much easier. Students who manage to stay out of trouble (and that’s the vast majority of students at my school) generally have more success than those who break the rules.
So there. It ain’t that difficult. All it takes is a little effort. Most students are lucky to have teachers who care about them and their future. If we encourage them to take advantage of what we offer them – resources, expertise, attention, compassion, understanding – they’ve got a recipe for success.

What do you think?

Why won’t students ask for help?

Picture it: you pop into Best Buy for a new SD card for your camera. Now, where are they? You wander around reading the signs: “TV and Home Theatre,” “Audio and MP3,” “Computers and Tablets”! That one sounds promising. You head that way and start scanning the shelves. “Desktop memory,” “Laptop Memory,” “Flash Memory.” Flash Memory? Is that it? Oh. Wait! “Memory cards”! There they are.

HelpThat scenario sounds all too familiar to me and I’m NOT a fan! Wandering around the store searching the shelves for something really bugs me, so a few years ago I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Now, when I go into a store and I’m not familiar with the layout or not sure where to find what I’m looking for I ask an employee right away. I don’t look by myself for even a second. In short – I ask for help.

Why don’t more students do the same? I’ve asked myself that question many, many times. And I’m not talking about trying to find the AA batteries in the dollar store. After school help sessions are notoriously poorly attended – usually only have two or three students at any given session. And those sessions are nearly always for math, chemistry and physics while it’s rare for a student to ask for help in biology. I’ve even seen assignments submitted in which students wrote “We didn’t understand question 4.”  As if it never occurred to them to ask for help before they actually handed it in. Furthermore, it seems to be the students who need help the most are the ones least likely to ask.

Most students are really nice kids who truly want to please the teacher. They look up to teachers and they think they might disappoint us if they don’t understand something. Students see the teacher as the “authority” on the subject so they just pretend instead of admitting when they don’t understand. Now take those concerns and multiply them by infinity! That’s the fear of looking stupid in front of their peers. The result? Students very often sit quietly when they should be asking questions.

I’d like to suggest that this problem is at least party (if not mostly) the fault of we teachers. Asking for help takes courage and it’s important for us to remember that. We need to constantly remind students that we’re all learning and the only way we can improve is by admitting we don’t know everything. When I ask them, students say they are afraid to ask questions in class or to ask for help after class because they think they will look stupid. And when they do ask for help, they say it often makes them feel stupid. Worse still, the more stupid they feel or the more confused they are the more difficult it is to ask. I can remember many times when a student asked a question and, after I answered, they said “Oh right. Wow do I feel stupid.” That’s my cue to say “You shouldn’t feel stupid. You just forgot” or “Nah, I didn’t really do much. You just needed a little nudge.” When I fail to say something to a student who claims to feel stupid I’m basically confirming their belief!

Sometimes, I can get students to appreciate the irony of not asking questions.

“Hey guys,” I say, “what’s one way to identify the strongest students in the class?”

“Good students always ask questions,” they reply.

“So if you ever feel a bit stupid and want to seem smart, what should you do?” I continue.

“Ask questions!” They get it.

Of course, I’m teasing them a little but there’s a nugget of truth there. One thing I have noticed is that as my classroom moves more and more toward skills and application students are more likely to ask for help. As the classroom environment becomes less about the “right” answer and more about “process,” students are less timid about asking questions. As I try to build an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competition, students become more at ease. When students are answering questions, I’ve also strived to use language like “That’s a good start – keep going” or “Great! Now who can add to that?” or “Not exactly but you’re on the right track” or “That’s a great question!” By letting students know it’s ok to try, I believe they are more likely to do just that.

So how do I handle the problem? I don’t offer extra help. Simple. Students know I’m always in my classroom every morning from 8-8:40 and anyone can drop in but I also encourage them to stop in anytime before or after class. That way, nobody has to actually admit in public that they need help or feel like they’re going to a formal extra help session. Students get the idea that extra help might be good for everyone. I think it makes it much more casual. It’s more like stopping in for a chat than extra help so students find it a little more relaxing and less intimidating. Of course, it’s still our responsibility to suggest to struggling students that they might need help but that can be done quietly in private.

I guess when I feel frustrated that students don’t want to ask for help I have to remind myself how long it took me to realize I should ask for help in a store instead of wandering around aimlessly (by the way, the same goes for asking for directions when I’m lost). Nobody likes to be the only one who doesn’t understand something. Nobody wants to be the last to “get it.” The classroom can be a scary place. Things are happening fast, questions and answers are flying, and there are plenty of distractions. It’s not always the easiest place to learn, especially for a struggling or shy student. Like all of us, students have different personalities and they learn in different ways and at different paces.

Let’s agree to never use cliché statements like “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Instead, let’s build a supportive atmosphere in which students are comfortable enough to ask questions without being made to feel dumb. What do you think? Don’t be afraid to speak up. 😉

I love Wikipedia!

“But my teacher says I can’t use Wikipedia!” I’ve heard it so many times. The internet has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives and its importance is ever-growing. Just think about how heavily we rely on it. I thought about listing a few things I use the internet for but then realized it would be completely pointless. Where would I even begin? How could I even begin to capture how huge a role it plays in my life every single day?  I can’t. Period. So I won’t try.

And that brings me back to Wikipedia. I think it’s well past the time that teachers start to recognize the value in Wikipedia and toss aside the misgivings they once held. Sure, some of their concerns were justified back in the day, but Wikipedia has grown into something barely recognizable compared to what it was in the early days. In trying to understand why teachers resist (some have even said “hate”) Wikipedia I’ve heard things like “I require students to use several sources, not just one” or “I want students to use recent sources” or “Well, anyone can write anything on there.” I’m sure there are other arguments but these are the ones I hear most often and they always make me cringe. Let’s examine Wikipedia on all three of these charges using the article on DNA as an example.

When I talk to teachers, they usually say they want students to include 3-5 references and I agree. We should be teaching students to use a critical eye when researching any topic and to not rely solely on the opinion of one source. The article on DNA contains 156 references. Point: Wikipedia.

I agree that we should insist students use recent references. It’s important for students to realize that the material we teach is not static. Human knowledge continues to progress and expand. What was once considered accurate can be proved inaccurate over time as our understanding grows. What’s reasonable to demand of students? Trying to have sources that are no more than 5 years old? This might not be possible in all cases but we’d like them to be as current as they can. The article on DNA cites 4 references from 2011, 3 from 2010, 3 from 2009 and nearly 60% of all the references are more recent than 2000. Point: Wikipedia.

Most people are easily convinced on these points because the evidence is right there. The last complaint is a little tougher because it involves looking at parts of Wikipedia that very few users even know about. If I click the “View source” link (on some articles this might be “Edit” instead of “View source,” a difference that speaks volumes in itself) I learn that parts of the article are protected and cannot be edited. Specifically, if I try this from my school network, I learn that my IP address has been blocked to prevent students form changing the article. The article can be edited only by registered users.

Can anyone edit Wikipedia? Not always and not always easily. Point: Wikipedia.

You might accuse me of having cherry-picked my DNA example to meet all my criteria. Fair enough. If you’re not convinced go try it yourself in your own subject area with a topic of your choice. Evaluate the resource objectively before you judge it.

If you’re still not convinced, we can go further. The protection log for any article shows you the reasons why the article (or parts of it) has been protected. You can also click the “View history” link to gets loads of information including the history of all edits, the users who made the edits, and how many people are watching the page for changes. Watchers are notified of any edits so, although anyone can edit any article, those edits are usually quickly discovered and checked or corrected as needed. If you click the “Talk” link you can look at the discussions that happen between editors about ways to improve the article.

Also, notice the little star underneath the search box which tells us that the article is a featured article. That means it has been reviewed for accuracy, neutrality, completeness, and style according to the featured article criteria which you can also read about on Wikipedia. Fewer than 1 in 1000 articles are good enough to make this cut.

But we’re not finished there. When articles don’t make the cut we’re told about it. If you search “dark matter” you find this warning:

Once you begin to take notice, you’ll see lots of “citation needed” warnings scattered throughout articles which warn us of unsupported claims.

When an article does not contain sufficient references, we’re warned:

So maybe we need to be telling students how to use Wikipedia appropriately rather than trying to ban them from making use of a powerful resource and a great time saver. They always have the option of citing a reference directly rather than citing Wikipedia.

At the risk of sounding cliché, I want to students to work smart not hard. Why should I ask them to go look up individual sources on their own if someone (the contributors to Wikipedia) have already done that for them? Now send me a comment to throw your two cents worth into the discussion.

Does iBooks textbooks iChange everything?

I think so!

Does it make me a nerd if I’m excited that I can now read textbooks on iPad? I suppose, to be most accurate, I should say I can now “use” textbooks on iPad. On January 19, Apple announced the release of iBooks textbooks for iPad. Now I have to begin with a disclaimer: “I love technology.” I watched the demo video and was amazed. Absolutely. Surprised? No. I mean, COME ON! This is Apple we’re talking about. When have they ever done anything that wasn’t amazing? And I’m not alone. There were 350,000 textbooks downloaded in the first three days.

So what’s the big deal? If you haven’t seen the video let me hit the highlights for you. The text can have video and audio embedded right in it. Images are interactive, allowing students to pan and zoom. Entire photo galleries can be included. 3D objects can be rotated. Students can add digital highlighting, underlining and notes to the text. Finally, and maybe most importantly, students can take as many textbooks as they want wherever they take iPad.

We know that textbooks have some HUGE limitations. They’re expensive, they’re static, and they’re heavy. Not any more. Publishers can update textbooks continuously and instantly. Heavy? All a student’s books weigh only as much as their iPad. What about cost? Apple claims they want the cost for major titles to stay at $15 or less! Users have already recognized these advantages and they’re acting on it. Of course some of this is novelty and I’m sure it will slow down. Time will tell.

Now I’m not paid by Apple (although I wouldn’t turn it down if they offered). Heck, I don’t even own Apple stock. So I have to be honest and recognize the huge elephant in the room. The one key ingredient in the recipe for success here is, you guessed it, having an iPad. Cut through all the noble talk about helping students learn and giving teachers better tools to teach. Get past all those teachers in the promo video saying they just aren’t reaching students like they want to and try to put aside all the images of students everywhere glued to their iPads reading about photosynthesis or the French Revolution. Basically, this is a way to sell iPads. Plain and simple.

So what does it mean for us? Let’s do some simple math. Students at our school take 10 courses a year and let’s assume they need a textbook for only 8 of those (they might not need a text for some classes). Now let’s imagine a typical textbook costs $100 and lasts for five years (if you could see some of ours you’d know we try to make them last much longer). This means, on average, it costs us $160 per student per year to provide textbooks. iPad starts at $499. Yikes! You don’t need a calculator app to figure out that iBooks textbooks is a cheaper option only if students have iPads already. Of course, long term the iPad would be a cheaper option.

So where does that leave us? To be honest, I don’t know. This technology is super cool and I honestly think students would be engaged by it. I don’t know how we get an iPad into the hands of every student. Is there an app for that?

So does inquiry mean starting from scratch?

When I first tried inquiry I had a horrible experience. You can read about my disaster with inquiry labs if you want. After a few more years of being dissatisfied with the poor learning outcomes from my lab activities, I decided I had to either quit going to the lab, or change the way I did things. That’s when I decided to try inquiry again. The goal was to have students take the lead more and more in their own learning.

As I learned more about inquiry I began to panic thinking that I had to throw out all my activities and start from scratch! I had hundreds of hours investigated in those activities! Are you thinking something similar? If you are – relax. Don’t toss all those activities that have served you well for so long. The secret is to make some simple changes to those activities to move them in the direction of greater inquiry.

So how do we do that? For any given activity, think about what the student is expected to demonstrate or discover. Now, simply phrase that as a question and ask the student to figure out how to answer it. For example, some kind of diffusion lab is pretty standard in most biology courses. Consider a simple lab investigating the effect of temperature on diffusion. Rather than giving the students a procedure and telling them what to watch for and what to measure, why not give them a question? We could say something like “What kinds of things do you think might affect the rate of diffusion of this food coloring?” After they’ve had some time to think and talk about it, have them write a hypothesis and then make up and perform a procedure to test it. That’s inquiry! No need to reinvent the wheel. Of course, you can decide how complex you expect the procedure to be based on their grade and ability level. Remember that the students will be really timid at first and will need help getting started. If this is their first exposure to inquiry learning you might want to help them out by giving them a list of materials. You might say “You can use water, beakers, thermometers, a microwave oven, and ice.” That way, you can lead them in the right direction while still letting them do most of the thinking.

Remember that there is no right or wrong here. That’s the point! Students have to feel free to approach the problem with creativity in the way they choose. We have to help our students realize that it’s not about what is “supposed” to happen. We need to encourage them to take risks and to not be afraid to fail. Nobel Prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi said “There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery. “

Changing my activities to be more inquiry-based is going to be a big job and I know I won’t get them all done right away but I’m okay with that. As with all things in teaching, it’s a work in progress and the journey is at least as interesting as the destination. What do you think about inquiry learning? Are you thinking about trying it? Have you already started? Please tell me about it.

Ok, how do I DO inquiry learning?

I’m sure I could never say it any better than Carl Sagan, who wrote in The Demon-Haunted World “When you make the finding yourself – even if you are the last person on Earth to see the light – you will never forget it.” That’s what makes inquiry-learning so powerful: it gets students involved in the learning process. It encourages them to come up with a question and, at higher levels of inquiry, figure out how to answer that question.

In “The nature of scientific enquiry” (Educational Psychologist 79 (2): 171–212) Marshal Herron proposed that we think in terms of four levels of inquiry. The most basic level of inquiry would have students simply confirming something they already knew going into the lab. They are investigating a question we provide using a procedure we provide. In other words, they know what to expect. Put that way, it seems a bit silly to even be doing such lab activities. I have to admit this was the level of ALL my labs when I started thinking about inquiry. Mind you most of the students didn’t realize they knew the answer (and it certainly didn’t show in their lab reports!).

 At level two the students don’t know the answer to the question we’ve provided but they are given a procedure to use to get the answer. This level offers some discovery at least but the students are still following a procedure we have provided and, so, aren’t really doing science. We’re still telling them that science is simply following a set of instructions.

At the next level of inquiry students would investigate a question we’ve presented using a procedure they’ve designed. Here, the students have to really think about what is practical. They have to consider variables to control and what control group to use in the investigation. They have to consider what kind of data to collect and how they might collect it. This level gives them a much better idea of what it means to perform scientific investigations. Personally, this is what I’m shooting for and if I manage to get most of my lab activities to this level I would be really pleased with myself!

Our dream might be to have students investigate questions that arise from procedures they’ve designed or maybe selected from choices we’ve provided. That’s Herron’s fourth level but is way beyond my scope right now.

You might be thinking “Yeah, right! How am I going to get MY students to do THAT?!” That was my first reaction when I started thinking about inquiry. What I found was that it was actually easier than I expected. Most of the activities I was already using could be easily modified to move them a little further along the inquiry scale. In my next post, I’ll talk about how I’m changing some of my activities.

Although I teach high school biology, inquiry is important at all grades. I think all kids start out being really curious but that sense of curiosity is slowly smothered by the nature of our education system. If we give kids a little freedom to explore the world I think we’ll continually be surprised at the questions they’ll ask and the things they’ll discover. I’d love to hear your thoughts on inquiry. How can we do it at younger grades? What have you done to make use of inquiry learning?

So what IS inquiry anyway?

Remember when you were a kid and you wondered what would happen if you buried that toy in the backyard and dug it up the next summer? Or when you caught the fireflies in the jar to see what made them light up? Or when you wondered just how long you could hold your breath? That’s inquiry! You had a question and you performed a little investigation to try to answer it. You were a little scientist.

At all levels of science education, we’re all too familiar with traditional, or “cookbook,” lab investigations. You know the ones:
Step 1, do this
Step 2, do that
Step 3, measure the difference
Step 4, write it in the data table

Grade 2 students sort seedsOn this point, I have to say we high school teachers have LOADS to learn from those teaching the elementary grades. A few times, my AP Biology class has arranged for some grade 2 students to come into our lab so that my students could do a little lab activity with them. I’ve learned from that experience that those young kids know what inquiry is. In last year’s activity, the kids were given some seeds from a few different plants and had to sort them into groups. Then they had to make some observations about the seeds. I couldn’t believe it! They were excited and curious and had lots of questions they weren’t afraid to ask! They were “doing” science. But then they just lose it somewhere along the way. By the time they reach high school, most of them have lost their interest in science. I’m convinced we science teachers have to take the blame.

Most of my labs have students confirming something they already know. They know what to expect going into it. I pose some question to be investigated, give them a procedure and tell them how to collect data. Usually, the lab handout even has a data table to fill in. Can I really wonder why so many students think science is just a matter of following some steps? That’s why my students so often ask “Is this supposed to happen?” and “Did I do this right?”

A few years ago I tried inquiry-based labs because I realized it was the best way to teach and learn science. My idea of inquiry meant putting the students in the lab with a problem, a rough procedure, and some materials and turning them loose. The result? Disaster. The students had absolutely no idea what they were doing and learned even less. My reaction? I quit doing inquiry-based labs.

I realize now that failure was my fault. I wasn’t doing inquiry at a level my students were prepared to handle. I learned from that experience that students need LOTS of guidance to do an inquiry lab. In fact, they need lots of guidance to do any lab. Inquiry instruction means using teaching methods that encourage students to develop and build their knowledge in a way that models the way scientists do it in “the real world.” Your individual method of inquiry teaching will depend partly on how ready your students are to learn that way.

In my next post I’m going to talk more about how I’m changing some of my current lab activities to be more inquiry-based.

I’m not trying to say that everyone should be nuts for science. I’m a science guy and if everyone were like me, well . . . well, let’s not even think about that. But science can show us how to be curious. It can teach us a way to explore the world around us. Inquiry learning is certainly not limited to science classes. What do you think about inquiry learning?

Finding balance

My very good friend is an Occupational Therapist and a large part of the philosophy of that profession is helping people find balance. Over the last couple of years I’ve not only grown to trust her professional opinion and ability, but also to deeply respect her as a person, confidante and guide. I’m a science guy and I tend to approach life with a somewhat rigid, matter of fact worldview but I’ve seen some pretty big changes in myself since she entered my life. Since meeting her I’ve learned a great deal about seeing people for who they are inside, stopping to appreciate all of life’s little moments, and true kindness and gentleness. I’ve also learned so much about the importance of finding balance in life.

I’ve always been a busy guy and I like to have lots of projects on the go. Basically, I like to be productive and don’t like “wasting” time. I’m a borderline perfectionist (some who know me might say there’s nothing borderline about it) so I tend to really focus on my pet project at any given time. When I decided to build TheLessonLocker.com I worked on it CONSTANTLY for weeks. When I wanted to update my Environmental Studies course I used every spare minute to look for new content and improve the course materials. What I’ve noticed about this approach is that I tend to get a little tired of the project before it’s finished – maybe even a little resentful. I always felt like there were so many things in life I wanted to do but never had time. Reading, photography, hiking, camping, volunteering – the list goes on.

And that’s how my friend has been (and continues to be) a huge help and inspiration to me. She has helped me see that happiness comes from seeking balance in all things. Even as I write that I realize it sounds a little spiritual which is not AT ALL like me and yet I can’t deny the truth of it. I don’t mean balance in a “may the force be with you” kind of way. Rather, it’s more recognizing that we draw strength from different things in life and so have to foster those very things. Not being “productive” in the traditional sense is not the same was “wasting” time. That’s been a hard lesson to learn for me. Part of the trick has been recognizing the things that are important to me and then committing to nurturing those things. For me, those things include life-long learning, outdoor activities, photography, and my career. The most important one for me is relationship – romantic, friend, and family. I have mostly done a pretty poor job nurturing relationships in the past and I know I have lots of work to do in that area, but I’m improving.

I’m really excited about this new journey I’ve begun and I hope I can keep learning from my dear friend. She has been a role model and inspiration in many ways (perhaps more than she may ever know) and I will be forever grateful for her patience, tolerance, and understanding. Learning to value each moment in life is hard in our fast-paced world and will take constant effort until it finally becomes part of my nature. I’m a long way from being there right now and I’m sure it will end up being a journey that continues all my life. Right now I feel like a novice and I don’t have many answers. What I do know is that facing ourselves and others with honesty isn’t always easy but is a vital part of finding balance, peace, and happiness.

I’d love to hear about your own experience in finding balance.

Now I’m supposed to visit my students’ homes?!?!

An article by Stephen Sawchuk appeared in Education Week on December 13, 2011 discussed the growing movement of having teachers make visits to the homes of their students. The goal is to “improve outcomes for students and sustain engagement by parents in their children’s academics.” Originally begun in 1998 in the Sacramento, California area, the idea is that parents are more likely to be engaged in their son or daughter’s progress through school if they feel that the teacher is a real partner and not a distant authority figure. Basically, teachers make two visits to the home. The first visit is to establish a relationship with the parents and to discover factors that may be affecting the student’s performance. The second is intended to be like a parent-teacher conference to help identify strategies the parent might employ at home to help increase the student’s success.

Over the last several years of teaching we have seen a long list of duties added to the expectations of our job. We have become technology trouble-shooters as SMART Boards have arrived in our classrooms; we modify curricula for students with modifications as students with special needs are now integrated into general classes; we run advisory classes for students; we deal with 18 year old students forced to stay in school since the school age was raised from 16; we deal with cell phones in classrooms; we police cyber bullying on our campuses. The list goes on. Let’s remember that this has all been jammed into our regular school day schedule by the way. Little did I know that some teachers have also been visiting the homes of their students!

To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about that. My first reaction was complete rejection. “Forget about it!” I thought. “There’s no way I would EVER be going to the home of ANY of my students.” Most teachers I work with try to avoid seeing their students at the shopping mall and the grocery store. Can you imagine seeing them across the coffee table?! I find any excuse to not even call home for any reason, let alone visit it!

Then, after “gut” had his say, “head” chimed in with his two cents. I thought maybe it would be helpful to get a glimpse into the home life of some students. I’ve always been quick to blame laziness when students don’t complete assignments and it’s easy to blame video games and Facebook when students are too tired to stay awake in class. But maybe there’s more to it.

My sister teaches kindergarten and grade one and she taught for a few years at an inner city school whose student population was from poor, uneducated families. She saw it all – kids with no winter coats, kids coming to school having not eaten breakfast and without a lunch, kids who didn’t want to go home at the end of the day because they were afraid and school was a safe place for them. I remember her telling me about a little one who timidly asked to go home with her for the weekend. We can only imagine what that child was facing at home.

Maybe if parents felt they were part of a team, maybe if they didn’t feel alone in the issues they and their children deal with, maybe they would maintain hope that things can get better. Let’s be honest, many struggling students are children of parents who struggled and, for those parents, school has never been a place they felt comfortable. Maybe we can break down some of those barriers by going to them to show them we really do care and want to help.

Still, I’m undecided. I really don’t know how I feel about it. I hesitate to use the term “burden” but maybe that’s how I would feel about it. The science guy in me would want to see the research before I could get behind it but Sawchuk admits in his article that the data are sketchy at best and absent at worst. And yet, somehow, it just feels right. Trust me – I’m not a touchy feely person so for me to say is really saying something! What do you think?