Remember back to a time when you had your best moments learning. What made those moments your best times? (Take a pause and reflect.)

Remember back to a time when you had your least favorite moments learning. What made those times your least favorite moments? (Take a pause and reflect.)

The differences are very significant where those effects can lead to either being turned off from school or being immersed in learning. Not only does the teacher builds a strong and safe classroom culture, but they also bring themselves personally into their work.

I had my best learning moments in middle school because I had a team of teachers who brought their experiences and their presence into their work. I remembered as a college student, I was invited by one of my middle school teachers, Ms. Ferenz, to give a talk to teachers in the credentialing program. I describe our journey on the Oregon Trail, to my HyperStudio Stack on Paul Revere, and to the significance of the hero’s journey on my educational outlook. Out of all the experiences that happened in my educational career, why did those events stick for all those years and until my current age of 39. Something special happened.

1994 Ben Franklin All Star Interdisciplinary Team — A flash back to middle school

Looking at the video above, somehow learning was optimized when learning was filled with rich experiences that my teachers brought in from their personal lives. What does it mean to bring your whole self into your work and how does this enrich and optimize the student’s learning?

Students Want To Interact With The Real You

Your students know when you are authentically you. They know when you are alive, present, and care. When they see that, they will engage and sometimes mirror that same behavior because whatever you are doing is fresh. How do you make sure students see the real authentic “you” in your teaching craft?

In my first couple of years of teaching, I was a chemistry teacher. When I was hired, I inherited a curriculum binder from a highly experienced and engaging chemistry teacher. There were a lot of great resources and I followed it line by line, word for word like a book. I noticed and I can read that my students were not engaged. The problem with that curriculum binder was it was customized to the experience of that previous teacher and they were experiences that I had trouble finding connections with. Though the curriculum gave me a template, routine, and structure to go by, my students saw that disconnect between me, them, and their learning. My presence with them was missing. I had to change something up.

I decided to focus my first couple of years, on not only establishing my procedures and routines and setting boundaries but also developing relationships with my students. From going to the baseball games, co-sponsoring the Asian Pacific Islander Club, inviting the baseball team to one of my Muay Thai matches, being an advisor, being outside at lunch with students, and having a normal conversation at a Taqueria afterschool, they got to see me as a person. Relationship building became an essential part of my work while keeping boundaries intact.

This is a video our Asian and Pacific Islander Iron Chef Cook Off At Golden Gate Park

I realized through building relationships, you are forming a character through your actions and interactions with your students. From the student’s point of view, I asked myself, what will your students remember you by when they become adults. I currently interact with my students from 14 years ago on Facebook and Instagram and I have Randy who remembered my push up challenges, Donald who remembered getting him into prom because his parents were sick and couldn’t afford it, Prisca and Michelle who remember the Asian and Pacific Islander cook-offs, baseball team remembering a Muay Thai match I invited them to, and Marvin who remembers our Jammin the Basics week-long course. They, as adults now, deeply remember and internalized those pockets of positive relationships and experiences they’ve had in their high school years. But when I asked them, “What did you remember from chemistry?”, they remembered pockets of experiences and less about the structures of atomic particles. I got some work to do.

Week Without Walls – Jammin the Basics. This a one week interim where I had the taught basic guitar to students at Leadership High School.

If students can internalize and remember the interaction and experiences they’ve had during school, how do I leverage that to optimize learning so that students can use experiences to explain abstract concepts and demonstrate understanding?

Students Want To Engage In Contextualized Learning

Building On What They Know: The Chemistry of Kool-Aid

Though I was working tirelessly in setting my teacher presence, they were still not engaging in chemistry and not understanding chemistry concepts. At the time, I couldn’t grasp my mind around that gap. As a new teacher, developing instruction for learning was not my forte. Implementing a curriculum like a book was.

In my 3rd year of teaching, I noticed students bringing in sodas, Gatorade, and other sweet drinks into the classroom. This made me think about how I enjoyed making beverages and shakes at home. I realized we can do chemistry around determining the correct concentrations, chemical reactions, and stoichiometry with different edible chemicals to make the Kool-Aid concoction taste just right. A connection was made between a prior personal experience, a student experience, and chemistry. I decided to bring Kool-Aid into the classroom. They got hyped up knowing later on other teachers after my class will be experiencing sugar high students. Though that didn’t matter, I got them engaged doing science by having them:

  • measure the baking soda, citric acid, and Kool-Aid
  • testing, iterating, and optimize the taste
  • using the concepts of stoichiometry, molarity, balancing chemical equation, and gram to mole conversions to determine the correct amount of chemicals,
  • while students competing with each other on who has the best tasting Kool-Aid.
Though this was not the actual footage of me teaching in my first year, this is an example of how chemistry content can be contextualized through making beverages.

After the Chemistry with Kool-Aid Project, I realized that covering the curriculum was not enough. Though the Kool-Aid experiment was fun and engaging, it wasn’t one of those experiences that “sugar coats” the content rather the experience is there to contextualize the content. When you contextualize content, you give students a springboard to make connections between the content and the context. The abstract chemistry content now becomes a tangible experience that they will remember for a long time especially when you have motivating experiences such as testing and making the best tasting Kool-Aid. It wasn’t until later in my teaching career when I finally understood that. My goal is to make sure that these abstract concepts are associated with positive and relatable real-life experiences so that my learners can use those experiences to explain the scientific phenomenon and the concepts behind it.

Would You Drink This?

A chemistry student testing the pH Level of the water at Lake Merced

I remembered it was one of those years when California was going through a minor drought. Our classroom was extremely warm and students were asking to get a sip of water in the hallways constantly. This made me think about one of my favorite topics, Water Quality, as I had fond memories of collecting and analyzing biota and chemical samples from different water sources when I was in high school advance biology. To make the chemistry of water real for students, I had to elicit some of the things they know about water and it’s properties. Start off with what they know. Then I brought in water samples from Stow Lake and ask the students a driving question “Would You Drink This?”. They started looking at a number of water samples and I had them make some observations so they can have an initial hypothesis and claims with evidence from their observations. Once the students were able to understand the chemistry of water, they were able to apply the concept of precipitation reactions, ionic compounds, pH, soluble and insoluble compounds to assess the quality of water at Lake Merced and to assess whether or not Lake Merced would be a safe drinking spot. Then they designed filtration contraptions and used chemical tests that we learned in the past to optimize the chemical properties of the water so that water is drinkable. Water quality becomes the context in which students can explain chemistry concepts.

In Conclusion

Bringing yourself into this work to create a safe haven and community with students is key in optimizing learning. They want to feel safe around you and the space you created. They want to connect with you in some capacity. It is essential to find that linkage between you and your students and for you to really leverage that to your advantage. Unfortunately, a positive connection with your students is not enough for them to learn. It’s just a springboard so they feel safe to learn in your presence and in the space you created for your learning community. Once you establish a sense of security and community, you can now focus on designing the learning for optimal learning.

We need to be efficient in optimizing learning. Drill and kill practices have it’s place if the tasks are simple but if concepts are complex and abstract, you will have to figure out a way to make it a tangible experience. The goal of tangibility is for your learners to associate the abstract concept with the experiences that you planned out so that concepts stick in your learners’ long term memory. That is when mastery happens. Students will always refer to the experience to explain the concept.

A couple ways of making this happen is:

Use your favorite personal experiences to contextualize an abstract concept

In doing so, you have made an existing connection between your personal experience and the concept. Your job is to make sure your learners are also making those linkages and associations between your experience and the concept. I recommend broadening and exploring other interests outside of your comfort zone as they can be a potential starting point for designing instruction. The weakness behind this model is that sometimes your experience is not within the schema of your learners. Learning is optimized when you and your learners have similar experiences and therefore are able to make associations between the concept and the experience together which leads me to the next strategy.

Build off of existing student experiences

When you interact with your students outside of the classroom, listen and observe them. They are teaching you something about them and somehow you will need to use their existing knowledge as schema to build your instruction so students are able to link their personal experiences to the abstract concept.

All in all, learning is more than covering content, it is making sure our students are able to find connections so that they deeply understand the concepts being taught. Our work is to create those experiences so that learning sticks.

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