High Hopes for the Semester, Part 3

“Can you set up the practical for me next week?  I’m just not ready for it this week.”

Come a little closer and let me explain it to you.
Come a little closer and let me explain it to you.

I slowly unclench my fingers from the mouse as I read this email from a student the evening before our first lab practical of the semester.  Four weeks into the semester, it does seem about time for these kind of desperate requests.  Nonetheless, it is so hard to not be riled up by the request.  I breathe for a few moments, compose a response, delete it (too biting), breathe a little more, compose a new response (better), and send it.  The gist of my reply is “no”.  I elaborate that it would be unfair to do that for one student over all of the others.  I drop their lowest exam or lab practical, so if he bombs this, it will just be his lowest score and not affect his overall course grade.  Later that evening, I get a reply.

“Okay, I can see that reasoning.  I was just stressed with work and wanting to do well.  I’ll crack down on the books tonight and be as prepared for tomorrow as possible.”

Wow…maturity.  Who woulda guessed?  That kicks up my “high hopes” level for the semester by one notch.

Next student:

“I’m sorry that I haven’t completed the syllabus quiz – which was assigned the first day and due the end of the second week – but I was bedridden this past week and the internet where I live is too spotty to get email and I was called into work several times this past week and…”

Where do we begin with how wrong this is?
Not impressed with his focus.

A little background for you.  I assign the syllabus quiz – found online in a test bank – the first day of class.  The students need to get a perfect 10 out of 10 on it by the end of the second week (they can take it as many times as they want).  If they haven’t gotten the 10 by the deadline, they lose 1% of their overall course grade for each day late.

This student is now two weeks late.  I’ve reminded him in person and sent him email reminders.  He’s shown up for half of the classes, usually just long enough to take the exam and disappear before I can catch him to chat.  He has not done well in the exams but did fair in the lab practical (so, I don’t want to give up on him entirely).  Having said that, I’m not thrilled with his inability to complete a simple assignment.  If he’s having such trouble with this one assignment, what does that say about the rest of the semester?  This one drops down the “high hopes” level for the semester by one notch.  We’ll see how/if he progresses.

Next student:

“I’d like to re-enter the class.  After the first week, I had to drop when my work changed my shift schedule.  Now, I’ve got it back into check and wonder if you’ll let me back in and catch up on what I missed.”

How much can you learn in a few nights?
How much can you learn in a few nights?

Breathe.  Re-read the email.  Unclench the fingers.  Breathe.  Look at the schedule.  She attended for the first week and a half, doing fair in the chapter quizzes.  She’s been a student in two previous courses and is stable, solid “B” student usually.  She’s missed a week and a half, which includes two quizzes (which is doable as I drop the two lowest quizzes out of seventeen).  The first major exam is in a few days.  In her email, she mentions that she’s already talked to some classmates, gotten notes, downloaded my PowerPoints, and is reviewing for the exam.  I decide to take a gamble and allow her back into the class.

That was a week ago.  She took the exam and scored a high “C”, which isn’t bad considering how much she had to catch up to get there.  We have two quizzes this next week and the next exam the week after that.  We’ll see how she does.  My “high hopes” indicator is “pending” for this one so far.  Cross your fingers.

Overall, so far:

This semester is a mixed bag of stories and students.  You’ve had students like these.  You can appreciate how easy it can be to become jaded and not have hope.  By the same token, you know what it’s been like to offer hope and…either they reward your hope or they crush it.  But, that’s one of the amazing thing about being an educator.  We hope.

High Hopes for the Semester, part 2

Arrgh!  I hate microscopes!
Arrgh! I hate microscopes!

Microscopy…Arrgh!  It can be a bane for many students.  However, it can also be a gateway for many of them to truly understanding the material if I can only figure out how to help them reach through the fear and trepidation to the actual cool stuff.

It’s been a personal challenge for me for a few years now.  HAPS has been a godsend in helping me with this.  At annual conferences, I keep an eye out for new workshops on histology and microscopy (and I’m never disappointed).  Nina Zanetti‘s always good for an intriguing workshop on using microscopy to teach physiology.  Terry Bidle has a knack for helping make histology more hands-on to students.  Those are the concepts that I’ve tried to take to heart as I (hopefully) improve the histology component of my A&P courses.

Which jar contains the pseudostratified epithelium?
Which jar contains the pseudostratified epithelium?

I’ve tried to create a set of hands-on models that allow my students to see the basic concept of each basic tissue type before we actually look through the microscope.  For the epithelial tissues, I’ve filled small jars with styrofoam peanuts to simulate various epithelia.  In lab, I have 3×5 index cards that describe various locations in the body and the functional aspect of their epithelia, expecting the students to match the cards to the jars.

Can you tell which connective tissue is which?
Which petri best represents fibrocartilage?

For connective, muscle, and nervous tissues, I have created petri dishes with epoxy resin, doll eyes (cells), and other knick knacks.  Again, I have 3×5 cards to describe each tissue and have the students match cards to petris. The important detail, I tell the students, is not to memorize the color of each petri or the “which petri has rubber bands?“, but to understand “what would distinguish elastic tissue from reticular tissue?”  Does that sound familiar?

I see a lot of enthusiasm in the lab and am starting to see more enthusiasm the next day when we dig out the actual scopes and glass slides.  I’m overhearing the students discussing what to look for in each slide (actually figuring out components of the various tissue types).  This appears to be empowering the students; cross your fingers.

Summer Travels, part 2

Physics in action.
Physics in action.

Here’s a fun scientific thought for you.  A beer can (or soda can) one-third full of liquid will stand on its indented angle.  The new fad in several microbreweries is to have glasses shaped like beer cans because it’s familiar to hold and can stand on this angle.  Try it next time.

HAPS President-elect Tom Lehman reporting in, still traveling through the United States this summer in search of inner peace and balance, while also seeking out family, friends, bike trails, golf courses, and (of course) microbreweries.  During weeks 3-6 of my 10-week summer trip, I drove from western Washington to central Minnesota.  I didn’t run into many HAPSters during this part of the trip, but I did get to let my mind wander on a number of topics.

One topic is traditions.  I visited several of my high school classmates this summer for our 30th class reunion in Fort Benton, Montana (“The Birthplace of Montana”).  The town has created an annual tradition – Summer Celebration – where all of the class reunions are held the weekend before the 4th of July, surrounded by art shows, 5K run, town parade, golf tourney, fireworks over the Missouri River, and a street dance.  It’s one of the best weekends that you could ever experience in small town Americana.

A slice of Americana.
I’m a Big Sky boy at heart.

Small towns and big cities have their shares of traditions, but so do educational environments.  We’ve experienced traditions of lab designs (e.g., dissection, microscopy), lecture modes (e.g.,PowerPoints, case studies), and course designs (face-to-face, online, hybrid).  However, there are always new ideas coming up that may become traditions on their own.  Murray Jensen is a leading HAPSter in field of POGIL (we had a very impressive seminar on this topic at the Vegas conference this summer).  Our list-serv and even this blog have lit up with discussions of “flipping classes”.  It’s rewarding to build new traditions while keeping an eye on current traditions.  That’s one of the best things about HAPS to me; how we’re so excited about new ideas and how they can benefit our students.

Remember to exercise your body as well as your mind.
Remember to exercise your body as well as your mind.

As I’ve traveled across the upper stretch of the US, I’ve thought about seminars and workshops from the HAPS conference.  I’ve become excited about how I can incorporate these ideas into my current curriculum, fueled by beautiful scenery and exercised-induced endorphins.  This is so much better than stewing in my office.

As I head southward from Minnesota to Missouri, I leave you with this thought.  Exercise your mind this summer.  See what traditions you enjoy in your class, what traditions you can lose, and what traditions you can start.  You might be surprised where the thoughts take you.Let your mind wander.

Let your mind wander.

The Human Spirit

I’m taking a week hiatus from discussing the next type of alternative therapy on my list. In light of this week’s events in Boston, I would be remiss to continue writing as if an average week in American life occurred. 

As Anatomy and Physiology enthusiasts, we spend all of our time discussing, studying, teaching, researching and appreciating the wondrous creation that is the human body. Its ability to adapt to disease, to recover from major illnesses and injuries, and meet all of the demands we place on it throughout life is nothing short of a miracle.

What we don’t take enough time to marvel at is the power and resilience of the human spirit. Maybe it is because we only hear about that bad things that happen in the news. If aliens came to Earth and stood in line at a supermarket, they would leave with 2 assumptions: 1) Earthlings take enjoyment in the pain and shame of others, and 2) there’s little good to be found. Sadly, it takes the most horrific of events and tragedies, whether committed by fellow humans or unavoidable disasters, for us to look up from our tabloids and reality shows and realize what binds all of us. As humans, we are bound, not by our mutual interest in the pain or humiliation of others, but in our ability to come together in our darkest hours to perform heroic acts of service. I feel I can confidently say that there isn’t a single person in this nation who hasn’t felt deeply saddened by this tragedy and wished there were any possible way that they could help the victims or the search for the responsible parties. 

My hat goes off, and my heart goes out, to all of the emergency response workers, doctors, firefighters, policeman and civilians who worked tirelessly to minimize fatalities in Boston this week. I cannot imagine the things that they saw, and how easily fear could have overcome anyone on the scene. So many people, without regard to their own safety, rushed to help. We saw this on 9/11, and it’s a great comfort to know that even in the face of danger, the innate human desire to help and save others cannot be shaken.

The heart may beat throughout our lives, bones may withstand incredible forces, and the immune system may fight impossible infections. While fascinating, they pale in comparison to the power of the human spirit in the face of adversity. When we think back on April 15th in Boston, let us remember not the cruel and senseless act of the responsible parties, but the immeasurable compassion and bravery of everyone else involved. 

My money is on next year’s Boston Marathon being the biggest event running has ever seen.


Credit Recovery Courses

I have found that one of the great advantages, and challenges, of being a teacher at a Title 1 school is the abundance of opportunities for the students to make up credit, get ahead, and improve their grades. This winter break, students had the opportunity to retake classes they previously failed. An entire semester’s worth of Introductory Biology over four days, for eight hours a day. And yes, I taught it! It was a refreshing change for me since I haven’t been able to put my passion for biology to use this year, and gave me a new interesting perspective on all the opportunities we provide to our students to ensure their success. I was happy to see students taking advantage of that opportunity and working hard to improve.

Essentially, each day was close to an entire six weeks of content, and seemed like the students were seeing this material for the first time in their lives (granted, that happens after just a weekend, too!). Eight hours is a long time to spend working on only one subject, but I found that using inquiry and continually referring to the “big questions” kept the students engaged. This time schedule actually lent itself quite well to the use of inquiry, as many labs and activities can take hours. But with only four days to cover an entire semester, one might wonder how much the students are actually learning anyway, and how much they are just regurgitating. Here I say, once again, inquiry to the rescue! Tell me if you disagree, but I find that learning through inquiry makes it almost impossible to forget…

So, my question for you all… If you had four days to teach an entire semester’s worth of content, what would you focus on? How would your class run? Would you rely on inquiry? And finally, and perhaps most importantly, do you think it’s really possible?