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Fourth Year Biology Teacher Sharing My Musings With The World

Archive for the ‘Refiections’ Category

Book Review: Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching (Part I)

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Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robin R. Jackson is the book that has been assigned to our faculty to read.  Normally, I would look at the books with disdain as there really does not seem to be enough hours in the day, but the title of this one has me hooked.

Last year, I felt as if I worked harder than ever before and my students performed at the lowest levels I’ve seen since my teaching career.  I feel like this book may possess the secret to solve all my problems!

One thing I like about this book is that it is interactive.  By that I mean that there was a quiz in the introduction to determine what type of teacher you are and the chapters have sections titled “Try This” where you stop and reflect on what you just read.

Chapter One – Start Where Your Students Are

This chapter is focused on getting to know your students.  Not only in the sense of favorites or family life, but getting to know what their values are and what particular traits they have.  Jackson writes about teaching your students how to take a trait that may be negative and teach them how to use it in a good way.  I’ve seen this first hand, as students that may be very disruptive do a complete 180 once they have a specific role in the class.

Another takeaway from this chapter is the “Activity Bag”.  Students bring in 5 items that represent themselves and place it in a bag.  Throughout the month, randomly select a bag, go through its contents and see if the students can guess who it is.  Then the student comes up and explains why they chose the 5 items.  I feel this is a good way to help instill community in the classroom.

Chapter Two – Know Where Your Students Are Going

This chapter emphasizes focusing on the standards, similar to unwrapping the standards as mentioned in the book by Larry Ainsworth.  Last year I was very overwhelmed by unpacking the first nine weeks and never finished the year.  Reading this chapter has encouraged me to unpack one unit at a time.  That way, the task won’t seem as daunting. One interesting mention in this chapter is to lower your standards for students.  This struck me as odd initially because we want our students to reach for high expectations.  By setting the performance standards lower, students actually have a chance to reach above and beyond what is expected.  Of course, in order for students to excel beyond the given standard, they must KNOW what the standard is.

Chapter Three – Expect to Get Your Students There

This chapter has very little to do with teacher expectations of students and instead focuses on teacher expectations of ourselves.  Do we really believe that we can teach students and move them to proficiency despite their shortcomings.  Are we honest enough to realize the difficulties and weaknesses of our students.  This chapter reminded me of how I felt when my AP Environmental Science Students did not do so well on their test.  I actually wrote about it here.  I mentioned that I felt they should have excelled and that their background should not have influenced their performance based on how they did in my class.  An excerpt from the chapter that really spoke out to me…

Many teachers suffer from the same misplaced optimism.  The same false hope that comes from believing that they and their students will be successful without also confronting the brutal facts of their current reality.  We cannot hold onto high expectations for students without also considering the reality of who they are and what they are able to do.

Another important part of this chapter is the mention of not accepting failure in the classroom.  This reminded me of the NMS (not meeting standards) grading policy of our district.  There were many teachers in an uproar regarding the policy, but I favored slightly because it prompted discussion among teachers, students, and parents.  Parents and students were now concerned and asking about grades where before they would receive an F and accept it as if it was the normal grade to receive.

Written by Ashley Erin

August 15, 2011 at 5:00 am

THEC Workshop Documentary

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I know I’m a little late with this, but I wanted to share the documentary I created at the THEC Non-Fiction Workshop.  I learned so much at that workshop and am excited because now my ThinkShow project is done – in my head anyways.


Written by Ashley Erin

August 3, 2011 at 5:00 am

Reading strategies and Wikipedia good for the classroom?

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This week I am attending a workshop held by UT Chattanooga titled, “Developing Expert Teachers and Students of Nonfiction:  Print, Visual, and Digital”.  This workshop is funded by the THEC (Tennessee Higher Education Commission).  This post serves as a reflection of my learning as well as sharing what I have learned with anyone that may be reading my blog.  Enjoy!  Please feel free to comment and share.

Last night I was asked to read three articles in regards to reading strategies, difficulties and confusion in reading, and the ever so popular Wikipedia.  These articles were very informative and caused me to reflect on past teaching practices and modify some for next year.

I will begin with the first two articles by Leah Straschewski, “Valuing Confusion and Difficulty” and “Best Practices-Reading Strategies”.  From the first mentioned article, there were two main statements that really stuck with me.  The first is that students should be exposed with reading materials in the ‘expressive’ mode, such as “journals, diaries, and personal letters”.  This reinforces my wanting of students to read James Watson’s The Double Helix.  In this book, James Watson describes how him and Frances Crick came to discover the structure of DNA.  While reading, you begin to realize that they were actually pretty normal students, not overly studious, and just stumbled upon the structure.  I think this will be motivating to students as they see that you may have to make many mistakes before you get to the desired outcome.

Also in the article of “Valuing Confusion and Difficulty”, Straschewski mentions that sometimes we will give students a reading assignment for homework, and then WE (teachers) will summarize the material for them in class the next day.  As my facilitator stated today, you have just taught your students that reading is not important.  We must instead guide students to determine their own thoughts and conclusions.

Straskchewski mentions in “Best Practices-Reading Strategies” that it is important for us not only to give students strategies to use, but to also model and practice them in the classroom.  Students should then reflect on the strategy and how well it worked for them and modify if needed.

The strategy of “Glossing” reading is mentioned in the article as well.  In this strategy, students are to underline or highlight any part of the text they choose.  After doing so, they are to write why they feel their marked section is important by utilizing the margin space.  This may be difficult for us, as students have issued textbooks.  As a solution, you could make copies of the text or article and insert them into a sheet protector and have students mark them that way.  You could also cut the sheet protector in half and place it in the textbook.  Students could also use sticky notes to identify parts of text.

Wikipedia good for the instruction?  Whoa.

I never realized that wikipedia could be useful in the classroom until I read the article “Wikipedia Is Good for You?” by James P. Purdy.  In this article, Purdy mentions that wikis can be used as a source and an example of the writing process.

First let’s address wiki’s being used as a source.  When students are initially given a topic, they may be confused or not quite sure how to start.  Wikipedia entries give a good handle on general information on the topic and is usually in an easy to read format.  In some entries, there is an outline of sub-topics that students may use to guide their research.  Each wikipedia entry also has links to other sources and students can use those to begin their research.

Wikipedia serves as a representation of the writing process because the steps to post an entry are very similar: write, review, publish, peer review, edit, publish.  In the workshop, we mentioned how as teachers, we could find an incorrect entry or even create a false entry and challenge students to identify and correct it.  I am thinking of allowing my students to create a wiki page on a topic and have them edit each others pages (with each page being of a different topic).

I’m so excited to have learning so much from just one day!  I can’t wait to learn even more as the week progresses.  I love learning from other teachers as well.  It helps when you can exchange ideas and collaborate.


Written by Ashley Erin

July 12, 2011 at 11:46 am

AP Results – The First Year

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The scores came in this week and I have to admit that I am very disheartened.  You see, I don’t accept what people tell me as fact.  Things I heard prior to teaching AP is:

  • You can expect all 1’s in your first year.
  • Teaching AP Bio and APES together for the first time is insane.
  • “Our” children do not know how to read well, therefore making them not AP material.

…and many more.

When people told me such things I would register it, but would not believe it.  I continued to teach both classes and survived.  My APES class kept up with the reading better than I did.  And I did end up with one score of 2.

I’m a little upset because I KNEW my APES (AP Environmental Science) class would do much better than they did.  We had great class discussions, they kept up with the reading, they learned from one another, completed numerous PBLs, and much more.

I had both my AP Bio and APES classes come in on a Saturday to take a practice test similar testing conditions and the APES class had many students score 2 and 3 and one student was a point or so away from a 4!

My heart broke when I saw that out of that class only one student received a 2 (the same that almost made a 4 on her practice test).  They could have and should have performed much better.

After discussing my scores with colleagues, I have determined the following action plan for next year…

  • Start Friday FRQs earlier in the school year and have them count as tests from the start.
  • Separate class and lab to focus more on inquiry skills and content application.  This will require me breaking the labs into smaller components, but that’s okay with me.
  • More frequent quizzes during the week to ensure material is learned.
  • Building small successes by tiered quizzes.  I will start with level 1 quizzes and build over time for each unit.
  • Tests (besides FRQs and Quizzes) will be few and more dense in content.  I’m hoping this will help to build student stamina for a long test such as AP.  (I will turn into Dr. Shear, Microbiology professor from Southern Miss.  His exams were literally 3 hours long!  Mine won’t be so bad, but they will take up the entire class and lab period.)
  • More lab exams – with students demonstrating understanding of a lab procedure and concepts by walking me through an experiment.
  • More Saturday sessions and practice tests.

I really want the students to be successful but I don’t want to discourage them at the same time.  I was hard enough recruiting for my classes because science is “too hard”.  I want my students to have a true collegial experience, with extra help and guidance from me.  I hope I can reach this balance and that my students score high enough next year to gain college credit.

Written by Ashley Erin

July 8, 2011 at 4:40 pm

2010-11 Reflections

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As I sit here anxiously awaiting my student AP scores, I cannot help but to reflect on the past year.  I felt that the 2010-11 school year was one of my best as far as instructional practices, but was the worst in regards to test scores (based on EOC results only, not AP).  I tried PBLs, Inquiry based lessons, technology incorporation, teacher collaboration, interdisciplinary lessons…and no results.

Now I’m sure that you can imagine how discouraging it was to see that all of my efforts did not produce the desired results.  Maybe some of you have been there yourselves even.  It is so easy to place blame on the students, parents or administration, but in the end it all boils down to the teacher.  I believe that I have made much progress since my first year teaching.  I also believe that I have plenty more to learn and by doing so, my students WILL perform where they need to in order to be successful.

First, I would like to review my accomplishments of the year and strategies that I felt worked really well:

  1. Problem-Based Learning.  I love PBLs because the students are working towards a common goal.  I would like to incorporate many more next year, possibly one for each topic.  There are many out there for use in addition to the ones I have created thus far.  The only issue with PBLs is time, but that should be easier this year with seeing my students daily.
  2. Chunking the text.  I did this a lot in my AP Environmental Science class.  Basically, the students would be divided into groups and be responsible for teaching their section to the class.  I can enhance this activity by giving my students a set of questions that they must address.  I lucked up last year because my students were really engaging and often hit every important point without me stepping in.  I hope that I have students that are just as engaged next year.
  3. Having a routine.  This is a goal that I have been working on for years and have yet to master.  I did notice that every time I followed a routine, my days went by much more smoothly.  One would think that if I had a great day with a routine I would keep it up…yeah I’m a little special sometimes.
  4. Discipline problems way down!!!  During my first year, I had a 1 inch binder packed with infraction forms.  This past year I had so few that I could have kept them in a small folder.  I credit this to adapting my instructional style and coming to terms that I am dealing with teenagers, not robots.
  5. Less PowerPoint usage.  I know technology is a very valuable asset to the classroom when used properly.  On a few occasions, I would write out the notes by hand and the students responded better and gave me positive feed back because they could now keep up and they said that I explained things better when I wrote them down.  I guess no matter how hard you may try not to read from the slide, it still comes through as reading from the slide.

I have already mentioned some things I will change in the list above.  Here are a few more:

  1. Keep it relative.  If the students do not care, they are lost.  I know that the PBLs will help with this.  I am also planning on incorporating more current events and class discussion to assist with this goal.
  2. Plan ahead.  This is really for the labs.  There were so many times last year where I planned to do a lab only to discover that I had to grow plants, bacteria, collect samples, or order living materials.  I don’t like planning too far in advance because I change my mind often, but before the year begins, my labs need to be set in stone and the class schedule needs to work around them – no matter what!
  3. Organization is key.  By being organized I will change my class culture by adding more structure.  I have seen this in action and need to remain consistent.
  4. Keep it simple.  Sometimes I would get overwhelmed by the workload I was placing on my students.  I did not do it intentionally, but there were just so many things to cover and I felt it was all important.  By focusing on QUALITY assignments instead of quantity, I will make gains in my classroom.

I’m very sure that this list can go on and on or that I will think of something else soon as I hit submit, but the key is, I have a lot of work to do.  To sum it all up, I feel that working on being more organized, streamlining my assignments, and focusing on QUALITY 100% of the time, I will see great gains.  I know that I am a great teacher and that I can make a difference in all of my students’ lives.  The year of 2011-12 will be a productive one and I envision great things happening.

Written by Ashley Erin

July 5, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Refiections

10 Questions…

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source (ganesha.isis)

source (ganesha.isis)

1. Why did you create this blog?

This blog originated as a method to reflect on each work day.  The plan was to spend 10 – 15 minutes immediately at the end of each day to reflect on teaching practices and methods.  Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  Once I discovered that my school blocked wordpress (recently), it discouraged me.  Although I do realize now that I could have emailed the post of typed it in evernote to post later.

2. When did you start blogging?

I started blogging about personal finance in 2008 and about beauty/makeup in 2009.  My personal finance blog is very active to this day, with regular posts.  I started this blog in the summer of 2010.

3. What is your most exciting moment as a teacher?

I would have to say that everyday is exciting, which is part of the reason why I love being a teacher.  If I had to choose one moment, I would say that it would be conducting a soil lab with my AP Environmental Science students.  It was so fun and I felt like I went through a time warp and was 10 years old again.

4. Where does your future lie?

My future is very uncertain right now.  There is so much that I want to do!!!  I have considered several things, such as: obtaining my PhD in Education, getting my Master’s in Microbiology, attending Pharmacy school, being an instructional facilitator, attending law school focusing on education policy, and teaching until retire!  I feel that my possibilities are endless and until I can narrow my passion, I will continue to teach and have fun!

5. What is your source of inspiration for teaching?

The most obvious one to me right now is Kim Foglia (  Kim was an AP Biology teacher that recently passed away from pancreatic cancer.  Not only is her website amazing, but she would offer lots of valuable advice on the AP listserv.  She was very knowledgeable in her content area and I only hope that I can reach the level of creativity and expertise that she displayed.

Another source of inspiration would be the former literacy coach at my school, Ms. Johnson.  Ms. Johnson is a very eloquent speaker and I aspire to reach that level one day.

6. What do you hope to achieve with this blog?

With this blog, I hope to strengthen my writing skills, build my PLN, and reflect on my daily practice so that I may become a better educator.

7. If you could write a letter to yourself during your first year teaching, what would you tell yourself?

I would tell myself that it is much better to use disruptions and behavior to your advantage as opposed to letting them stress you out.  For example, don’t go crazy if the students won’t be quiet.  Instead, incorporate group work and monitor the students working collaboratively.

8. What is one goal that you have for this school year?

To leave work at a reasonable time!!!  For me this would be 5 pm.  I have stayed until 6:30 -7 pm for far too long!

9. What do you not like about being a teacher?


10. What do you love most about being a teacher?

Seeing the growth in my students, being able to micro-manage, being accountable for the education of our youth, seeing how excited students get when they learn or get something right

my post in a wordle

Written by Ashley Erin

January 11, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Refiections

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