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March 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 6

My Year as a High School Student

A stint in students' shoes helped a science teacher examine her own practice.

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Like countless other teachers, I decided to take a class last fall. Unlike most teachers, though, I chose to take a biology class at the school where I teach physics, Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia.
I had begun pursuing National Board Certification in Adolescence and Young Adulthood/Science, and I faced the hurdle of showing breadth of knowledge across the four major areas of biology, chemistry, earth and space science, and physics. My biology knowledge was woefully inadequate. Rather than enrolling in a class at the local community college, I decided to sit in on Allyson McKowen's 9th grade Intensified Biology class.
I attended class every day, took notes, did my homework, read the textbook, worked in a lab group, wrote up labs, and took the tests and quizzes. Except for my age and the fact that I came and went from class without a hall pass, I was a typical student. The amount of time I spent on after-school activities probably paralleled the time commitments of a typical high school student. I had family responsibilities as well as a fairly time-consuming “extracurricular activity”—I taught an evening physics class at the local community college. My stint in students' shoes gave me insight into the challenges that high school students face and led me to make changes in my own teaching. The following are my observations from the other side of the desk about practices that I believe help create the best conditions for learning.

What Looks Good from the Student Side

Give students more time for creative projects. Although I have fairly well-honed time management skills, I found myself starting a lot of creative assignments for class late at night. No matter how hard I tried, my daily responsibilities and workload kept me from getting a head start on a pending long-term assignment.
For example, one assignment involved creating an analogy for how a cell functions. I chose to compare a cell to a restaurant, reasoning that just as the various parts of a cell perform the functions necessary to maintain cell health, each staff member at a restaurant performs certain jobs to ensure the restaurant's continued success. Not only did I have to write a paper explaining the logic of my analogy, but I also had to create a physical model of the analogy. This was an incredible learning experience that truly taught me the structure of a cell and the functions of its parts—but it was one of several assignments I finished at 1:00 a.m.
I used to give my physics students a hard time when they complained about late-night study sessions. Now I realize that students' extracurricular and academic commitments often make it hard to work ahead. In teaching future classes, I plan to break long-term assignments into smaller chunks so that students have multiple deadlines along the way and to cut back on homework during weeks when longer assignments are due.
Occasionally use short, straightforward assessments. Although I believe all assessments should require students to demonstrate deep, authentic understanding, at times it is preferable to accomplish this with simple, straightforward assessments. These more traditional assessments can be structured in a way that gauges student learning and probes for true understanding. I remember one lab assignment in which Allyson told us that all we needed to do was analyze the data and complete six questions at the end of the lab. My lab partner and I looked at each other and almost simultaneously declared, “Thank goodness!” We had recently completed a formal lab write-up on a separate experiment, and neither of us had the energy or time to tackle another. The questions were enough for Allyson to make sure we understood the material and had completed the lab without drowning us in work.
Reinforce ethics and clarify plagiarism. In early October, our first formal paper was due. We had been studying water properties and had recently completed a lab on surface tension. This assessment required us to write the introductory section of a formal lab write-up as well as answer several in-depth questions about our data. My schedule that week was quite busy, and I didn't get a chance to sit down and start writing until 11:00 p.m. the night before the paper was due. Around 11:15 p.m., I thought to myself, “Hey, if I don't go to class tomorrow, I won't have to turn the paper in yet.” The thought was extremely tempting, and I went to bed. Somewhere around 3:00 a.m. I woke up, thought better about my choice, and finished my paper.
When I talked with Allyson about my dilemma, she mentioned that she always calls home to talk with the parents of a student who is absent the day a big assignment is due. I suspect that this kind of outside pressure helps students make wiser choices. Without such pressure, even as a teacher and a supposed role model, I made a poor choice for about four hours.
Later in the year, we had to create a brochure about a particular genetic disorder, explaining when the disorder was discovered, its symptoms, the genetic cause of the disorder, how common the condition is, and what treatments are available. I was assigned clubfoot and spent a significant amount of time researching it over the weekend. Although I had done the research and processed the information, I didn't get a chance to actually create the brochure until the following Thursday evening, after I had taught my night class.
That evening, as I drove home from the community college, I continued to plan my brochure in my head. I was tired and wanted to do it as quickly as possible while still doing a good job. At home, I started lining up Web sites from which I could cut and paste the information. After a few minutes, it dawned on me that I was about to plagiarize the entire assignment. When I thought about the situation later, I realized that as a teacher I simply expect my students to know what plagiarism is. Teachers need to be more specific with students and provide concrete examples throughout the year that will help them realize what is and is not academically acceptable.
Change student seats often. Simple as it sounds, shaking up student seating every six weeks or so makes a huge difference in the dynamics of the classroom. I initially knew none of the students in the class. At first, my lab partners were leery of me, but over time they warmed up to me and treated me as normally as possible, even teasing me about getting a low quiz grade. However, had we stayed in the same seats for the entire year, I would have only gotten to know these 3 students in a class of 22.
My experience as the “new kid” made me realize the importance of creating an environment in which students can meet many other students. Because Allyson switched the student seats eight times over the course of the year, I got to know almost the entire class. The regular rearrangement of seats and reassignment of lab groups created a supportive classroom environment in which students felt comfortable asking any other student, not just a friend, for assistance. I now periodically rearrange student seats in my physics classes; I also assign lab groups rather than let students choose them.

How I Learned to Love the “Squishy Stuff”

The most enjoyable thing that I discovered in my year studying 9th grade biology was that it's the teacher, not the content, that makes the class. As a physics teacher, I had no expectation of enjoying biology. I called it the “squishy stuff.” Allyson McKowen made me fall in love with biology. Her way of presenting the material and interacting with students made class enjoyable. Allyson's classroom was student-focused, and her leadership helped every student feel comfortable and courageous. Students asked and answered questions without fear. I looked forward to class and found myself doing outside reading in a college text so I could understand the material on a deeper level. I used to think that British physicist Ernest Rutherford was right when he said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” After a year of biology with Allyson, I know Rutherford was wrong.
My year as a 9th grade student was enjoyable and stressful, and it provided a dose of reality that strengthened my teaching practice. Although I learned an incredible amount of biology, I was more impressed with what I learned about teaching. A year from now, when I'm teaching physics to some of my former biology classmates, I'll draw on my experiences with them that have made me a better teacher.

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