‘Tis the Season to be Stressed

IMG_0546Almost the end of the semester. For high school students, the run-up to the holidays is likely to be stressful, thanks to those dreaded final exams. Guest blogger Mike Etzkorn, a math teacher who leads McCutcheon High School’s Maverick Launch program, explains why the short-term stress brought on by finals can actually benefit students–and offers some tips to help students through this and other stressful experiences. Welcome, Mike, to In an American Classroom. 

‘Tis the season to be jolly; however, for so many of our students and children, ‘Tis the season to be stressed.  Finals week is almost upon us and with it comes stress for students. The American Psychological Association conducts an annual survey of high school students relating to stress and has demonstrated that high school students are more stressed out now than ever before.  As of late, a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy has been expended within our educational system toward helping students learn how to cope and de-stress. These efforts are necessary and beneficial, but we also need to look at the difference between acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stress.

Acute stress can actually have many benefits.  Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham, says that “low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins, and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain.” Acute stress can temporarily improve memory and motivate productive behavior.  Dr. Shelton also says learning to deal with stressful situations can make future ones easier to manage, thus teaching resiliency and grit. It’s the idea behind Navy SEAL training, he reports as well.

I like to call this concept raising our stress threshold.  The analogy I use with my students is that stress is like a muscle.  Weightlifters will “max out” when lifting, which means they take their muscles to the top edge of their limit, causing their muscles to fail.  This is a very painful and uncomfortable experience. Their muscles burn, shake, and ultimately can’t handle any more weight. After a recovery period, the next time they lift, they are able to raise their maximum weight.  Acute stress is exactly like maxing out when weight lifting. When we experience acute stress, we are maxing out our stress threshold. This is an uncomfortable experience, but once we have pushed through the temporary stressor, we are able to tolerate more stress the next time.  

When I reflect on my own educational experiences, I can recall numerous all-nighters or tear-filled nights, experiencing my own personal stress threshold max.  My first experience with acute stress occurred during my freshman year history class with Mr. Crismer. Each quarter, we were assigned a nine-to-eleven-page research paper on a randomly assigned historical figure. We were required to have three sources, and in the days before the internet, we had to dive into the old-fashioned library catalog cards. If we were unlucky enough to get one of the more obscure historical figures, it sometimes took three different libraries to find those three sources.  We were given two weeks to complete the assignment, and all the work had to be completed outside of class time. Freshman year was the first time I pulled an all-nighter to complete an academic assignment, and it certainly was not the last. Through my first acute stress experience, I learned how to power through the stress to accomplish my goal.  This particular stressor (my paper) presented itself over a two-week period, with an end in sight, concluding with the completion of the project. 

Learning how to utilize acute stress to boost grit is a lesson every student needs to learn. Academic stressors, which are acute in nature but deployed in a safe, controlled environment, are beneficial and should not be removed or eliminated.  Instead, they should be utilized to teach our students the resiliency that is needed to succeed beyond the classroom.

Although the task of writing a history paper seemed insurmountable when I was a freshman, we all know that life has challenges that are far more overwhelming.  The lessons I learned in resiliency during my high school years helped me fight through a literal battle for my life: cancer. At age 24, I was diagnosed with chemoresistant metastatic cancer.  I spent nine months enduring surgery, traditional chemo, more surgeries, and high dose second line chemo. This nine-month experience not only took its toll on me physically but also mentally. Without my past stress experiences raising my stress threshold, I would not have been able to handle the challenges that presented themselves during that fight.  

As a parent of three adult children, I look back at whether or not I did enough to prepare my children for the stress of adult life.  I always had to ask myself: Did I push my children enough? Did I push them too hard? Did I help them navigate the stressors of adolescence so that their stress threshold was raised enough for them to have the grit necessary to succeed in life?  Were the tear-filled all-nighters worth it? Did the “No, you cannot quit the team, you will finish what you started. Suck it up buttercup!” speech teach them to fight through adversity? Even though the experiences were painful for them, and painful for me to watch, was it worth it?  As educators and parents, it is our responsibility not to remove the stressors from our students’ lives, but to help our students raise their stress threshold in a safe and controlled environment. So as we progress into finals week, let’s utilize this time to help prepare our students for what is to come after they leave the safety of education.  

Ways to help your student through the stress associated with Final Exams:

  • Remind them that their stress is temporary.  
  • Encourage them to put forth their best effort.  “If you do your best, you can walk away holding your head up high no matter the result.”
  • Help your student maintain a healthy balance between work and de-stress time.
  • Be supportive and encouraging, remind them that you are proud of how hard they are working.  
  • Remind your student that healthy eating and sleeping habits are just as important as studying.  
  • Urge your student to ask for help when they need it, share with them a time when you had to ask for help.

 

Advertisements

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

IMG_3253

Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition.  Once more, the holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world.  Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies, and I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office so another of you could give me a shot. I’ve run into you in bookstores, grocery stores, elevators, and train stations, been in attendance with you at concerts and plays, and even been hailed on the street in a distant Western town. One of you approached me in an airport and went on to describe your work repairing the wind turbines in a county adjacent to ours.

Some of you have been wounded in war, and others of you are still serving. I’ve worried about you in Vietnam, in Iraq (I and II), in Afghanistan, and in other troubled spots around the globe. Recently, one of you died serving this country. Our whole community mourned, and that year, in your name, students at our high school collected items for Care Packages for soldiers stationed around the world.

Some of you have worked for my husband or me. One of you is a contractor who remodeled my husband’s lab; another was his lab technician. Two of you have taken care of our yard during the summer when we have been on vacation; another has walked our dogs.  You’ve waited on us in restaurants; you’ve hauled boxes for us when we remodeled.

I’ve worked with one of you on a research project and together we’ve served on the board of a community organization.

Many of you are my Facebook friends; some of you read this blog. Some of you follow me on Twitter.

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another several of you, school principals. Some of you are nurses; some doctors. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least are lawyers, and many of you are college professors, even Department Chairs at your universities. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you a writer, a chef, a veterinarian, and a musician.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Padres and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A welding instructor. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, two of you worked as field managers for candidates in our last election. One of you is a personal secretary to someone in Germany.  Beauticians and therapists and specialists of all kinds. An artist and a computer design expert. A journalist and a newspaper editor. One of you was a nun, but left your order; one is a priest who has stayed. Managers, retailers, and business owners. Police officers and firefighters, automobile salespeople and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and heating and cooling experts. You work in personnel and transportation, retail and manufacturing. You are receptionists and cashiers.  Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and web page designers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and physicians’ assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

Some of you came to this country as refugees and immigrants, only to meet new obstacles here. You worked hard and long to weave yourselves into the fabric of this nation, making me and your families proud of all you have accomplished. Many of you had different struggles–you faced challenges no one should have to–but you had determination and the will to succeed. You still work hard, all of you, every single day, to make this world spin round.

Teachers often wonder what becomes of their students, the youth upon whom they have lavished so much time, attention, and love. I am surprised when I list you out like this, and I see immediately what I didn’t wholly envision would happen when you were before me in my classroom year after year after year.

When I knew you, you were children. But you have grown up, evolved, moved past Crazy Hat Day, experimental make-up, video games, and babysitting. Past blue hair and nose rings, past balloons on lockers and crepe paper streamers suspended across hallways. You have come of age, turned your promise into purpose.

You haven’t all won prizes, achieved fame, or made a fortune, but you all make me proud. I had a hand in helping you learn the skills you need to keep our universe spinning. Now you help me. You ease my life, keep me safe, and bring me joy. I’ll take that.

And give thanks.

It’s Not About the Lure

ELECTROFishing

  • Aquarium net
  • Transparent plastic containers
  • Plastic buckets
  • Golf balls
  • Magnifying glass
  • Ice cube tray
  • Parametric software
  • 3-D printers

and

  • Students in Honors 9 Biology, AP Biology, and Principles of Engineering

Put them all together and what do you get?

Fishing lures!

Except, it wasn’t about the lures.

Teacher Zach McKeever supervises as students float golf balls in tin foil boats to understand buoyancy

Teams of students from these three classes at McCutcheon High School joined forces to learn about the fish that swim in Wea Creek, the insects that attract them, and the design process engineers use to create any new product. The standards addressed by this bioengineering module pulled from biology, physics, math, technology literacy, and environmental systems. The students spent time at the creek in waders, capturing and identifying fish through electrofishing techniques guest instructors from Purdue University showed them. They identified aquatic insects–also caught in the creek that runs behind our school–and preserved them in transparent containers to learn about biomimicry. Using a decision matrix to guide their design choices, the student teams created fishing lures that looked and moved like the insects they’d observed. They floated golf balls in tin foil “boats” and used their math skills to determine the buoyancy of their designs. Ultimately, the students used Inventor, a parametric modeling software program, to visualize a prototype. The most promising prototypes were printed using a 3-D printer.

20180911_121840When they weren’t outdoors, the teams met together in the Media Center where large round tables and lots of space facilitated consultation and collaboration. The four teachers, whose schedules had been specifically arranged to accommodate this project-based learning endeavor, floated among the groups. The large space also improved the efficiency of the project. “It was much easier to walk between tables to answer a question than to send an email from one classroom to another,” commented engineering teacher Zach McKeever.

Finally, each team made a PowerPoint presentation of their experience, including a reflection on their performance in terms of communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and computational thinking. An expert angler was present for some of the final presentations and inspected the lures close-up. The students listened intently to his critiques.  One group was surprised when he told them, “You could market this if you’d make just this one little change.” 

And then, on a warmish October Saturday, they tried out their lures. Total catch: a few nibbles.

20181006_093239

But that’s all right. It wasn’t about the lure.

In their wrap-up discussion, students (predictably) commented that they liked going outside and enjoyed the fishing expedition at the end. They wished they’d spent more time at the creek! They appreciated the hands-on learning and real-world application of their learning. They enjoyed the guest lecturers from Purdue who opened their eyes not only to a new way of fishing, but to the presence of specific species of fish as an indication of water cleanliness, to the connection between bioindicators and our own drinking water, and to watershed ecosystems in general.

Students test their hypotheses about the number of golf balls their vessels will hold as teacher Amanda Cox looks on

Some students did say they prefer a more traditional approach to learning: They wanted textbook learning first, then the application. However, the majority of students said they liked putting the pieces together even though they experienced some anxiety at first when they weren’t sure what was going to happen, how they would get from the assignment “Create a Lure” to the final product without the familiar front-loaded vocabulary lessons, textbook assignments, and the quizzes and tests that usually accompany traditional classroom instruction.

Other students had suggestions for their teachers for improving the unit’s design. The project had been set up to differentiate for experience (Honors 9 Bio and AP Bio) and course credit (Engineering vs. Biology). The AP Bio students, for instance, experienced the electrofishing and were responsible for conveying that information to the rest of their team. The engineering students used Inventor–and explained it to the others. The Honors 9 students did the insect study and relayed what they learned to the rest of their team. That structure led to some problems of communication, so the students suggested ways to ensure better communication and more accountability for each team member. 

Many students commented at length on the communication and collaboration skills they had needed to develop in order to be successful. Some teams reported, quite frankly, that they hadn’t started out working together well–but they overcame those obstacles because they had to. That admission–and the ultimate resolution of the problem–brought smiles to the faces of the teachers because, of course, learning to work together as a team was one of their goals. 

The principles of design apply across the board and collaborative problem-solving among individuals with different areas of expertise and different perspectives will always be the case. For example, Mr. McKeever explained, civil engineers may be commissioned to create a dam. That will certainly disrupt the ecology of a river, so the goal will be to design a structure that minimizes impact but still does the job of holding back the water. Chemical engineers may develop vaccines and the packing materials for those medications. They’ll need to take the impact of chemical emissions, waste, and the product itself into account as they develop the product.

“The biggest takeaway for me,” Mr. McKeever continued, “was the relevancy. The biology part helped the students create lures for a specific fish in a specific environment, making the whole project much more authentic. Without the biology component, the assignment would have been ‘Design a lure you think will catch a fish’.”  Not nearly so relevant and not nearly as challenging. 

For students who have never experienced project-based learning, the first venture into this way of learning can be intimidating.  But in the end, biology teacher Abi Bymaster asserts, “This project forced students to feel uncomfortable, to ‘not know the answer,’ and they couldn’t just look the answers up on Google. However, it is because of this discomfort that they learn; this is what I love about PBL.”

“Learning ‘this way’ made the learning real,” many biology students said in summary. They liked the independence, the taking charge of their own learning, the creativity expected and allowed. The students clearly saw that while the biomimicry and the buoyancy achieved by the unique anatomy of fish were concepts important to understanding predator/prey relationships, understanding the whole ecological system–and the ability to generalize that to other systems–was the greater lesson. 

Teacher Mike McKee watches as his student tries out a lure

No one misunderstood the real learning goals of this endeavor. It wasn’t about the fishing lures. It was about the interdisciplinary nature of learning and the teamwork needed to pull a project together, hallmarks of project-based learning: authentic experiences that reflect real-life problem-solving and decision-making.

This project-based learning experience has a formal name: Designing Bugs and Innovative Technology (D-Bait). It is one unit in the TRAILS curriculum designed by Jeffrey Holland, Todd R. Kelley, Euisuk Sung, and Nathaniel W. Cool at Purdue University and supported with funding from a National Science Foundation grant. The project was new this year to two of the four collaborating McCutcheon teachers, all of whom were trained during previous summers. All four of the high school teachers are looking forward to doing the project again next year–and implementing lesson design modifications suggested by their students, the bioengineers.

 

 

 

 

Under Discussion: Reciprocal Teaching

In time for this week’s workshops on Reciprocal Teaching, here’s a post from two years ago that spells out the basic strategy and offers some variations that you might like.

In an American Classroom

Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article.  What to do to move forward?

The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.

RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool.  Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next.  Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk…

View original post 1,191 more words

Summertime, Summertime

We are almost here! Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Here are 50 ways to do that and a few professional things to do as well.

In an American Classroom

A few of the new teachers I’ve coached this year approached me when school was ending to ask what they should do over the summer to prepare for next year. I started this list with suggestions for their professional task lists…and then I just couldn’t stop thinking about what else I’d recommend. Maybe I was dreaming about what I plan to do?

So first, the professional:

1. Assess your challenges and spend some time learning about these areas of instruction.  Is it an aspect of your curriculum—say, grammar—that you’re weak on?  Study up on that.  Is your repertoire of instructional strategies slim? Learn about some new ones.  Try Jennifer Gonzales’ The Cult of Pedagogy blog. Do you need to sharpen  your classroom procedures?  Read The First Days of School or THE Classroom Management Book by Harry and Rosemary Wong.  Polish the procedures you already have in place or think through…

View original post 981 more words

National Treasure

Never out of date, especially important on this date: Teacher Appreciation Week!

In an American Classroom

To and for all the amazing teachers I know during this, Teacher Appreciation Week: Our world is better and our students’ lives are richer because you have been a classroom teacher. Thank you for all you do every single day.

It’s fashionable right now to blast educators, to focus on data-specific measures of effectiveness, and to prescribe corporate take-overs for failing schools. The critics say “failing schools,” but that’s code for failing teachers. The critics ought to come with me when I am in a school in my role as an instructional coach.

When I enter my colleagues’ classrooms, I am quickly swept up by the lesson—enthralled by the teacher, captivated by the content, and excited to be on the other side of the desk, learning.

In the past month, here are some of the places these fabulous teachers have taken me:

  • To Austria in 1877 when two men stole Haydn’s head from his grave…

View original post 1,327 more words

An Uncommon Interface: Little Kids, Big Kids, and Computer Technology

A few weeks ago,  the children who attend McCutcheon High School’s pre-school class (Creative Corral) and the high school students in Computer Repair and Maintenance (CRAM)–the students who fix the computers for everyone else in the school–came together for a morning of activities the teenaged students called “Pre-TECH.”

Mrs. Arrika Yoder’s Early Childhood Education class at MHS meets every day. In the morning, the students work in the pre-school that is housed in the high school building. In the afternoon, they learn about careers in education, plan lessons, discuss issues, and gain as much exposure to the world of education as they can. These students are on track for careers as educators, day care providers, pediatric nurses, and child psychologists. Some will retake the lab portion of the class next year; some will become cadet teachers in our elementary and middle schools.

Mrs. Christina Bennett’s CRAM class meets every day in a classroom that, years ago, was the school’s only computer lab. Hers are the students who repair the Chromebooks and laptops that students at MHS carry with them from class to class and take home at night. The CRAM students are exploring careers in the computer technology industry: They will become our programmers, technicians, and web designers. They will be the individuals the rest of us will rely on to stay connected, current, and cybersafe.

The collaboration between these two groups really began a year ago when Mrs. Yoder asked the CRAM students to show the pre-schoolers how to use the apps on the iPads in the pre-K classroom. This year, the CRAM students, under Mrs. Bennett’s direction, decided to go giant steps farther and set up learning stations—a format the pre-schoolers would understand—to show the children more about technology.  Just like teachers would, the CRAM students spent one day each week for three weeks clarifying their learning goals and then designing and setting up their stations.

On the appointed morning, the preschoolers, accompanied by Mrs. Yoder and the Educational Careers students who are their teachers, filed into the CRAM room.  Tables had been set up for snacks, and various computer parts—a motherboard, a flash drive, a keyboard, a chip—were used as table decorations. As the children munched on their snacks, one boy explained the function of each computer part. “The motherboard is the heart of the computer,” he told them, and encouraged the preschoolers to play with the decorations. They immediately picked the items up and began manipulating them. 

One boy transferred the keyboard directly to his lap right away. He began moving his fingers across the keys in imitation of what he’d undoubted seen adults do. “What are you typing?” I asked him. 

“My password, “ he replied knowingly.

He didn’t share it with me.

After snacks, the students rotated through the five stations: Coding, Virtual Reality, Fiber Optic Cabling, Repair, and Customer Service.

At the Virtual Reality station, students donned 3-D viewers to experience 360 degree vision. The CRAM students in charge of this station had found a Virtual Reality roller coaster game for the students to view and play.

At the Repair Station, the pre-schoolers used screwdrivers to remove the computer cases. At Customer Service, they learned how to check in a computer for repair and then to check it out again. 

 

For the Coding Station, the CRAM students had gone to Code Academy to find a game that was user-friendly for pre-schoolers, age appropriate, and still would teach the children the fundamentals of coding. What they found was a game that used blocks. Using a simple set of instructions, the children moved the blocks around on the computer screens.

Most complex of all, though, was the Fiber Optic Cabling Station. There, the pre-schoolers encountered plates of jello squares with cookie cutters beside them.  The CRAM students illustrated the way light travels through a cable by directing a laser light through the jello. When the pre-schoolers cut the jello squares, the light was trapped by the twists and turns of the shapes. Even a knife mark on the jello altered the line of light. The effect was even more pronounced when the youngsters entered a tent set up under the table. The pre-schoolers were intrigued. They understood that a straight, stable cable with no impurities or kinks was needed to transmit information. They also noted that the orange jello worked the best, the green not so well.

Before the morning was over, the CRAM students conducted a mini-evaluation of their learning stations, asking the pre-schoolers to rank order the Pre-Tech learning stations. The Virtual Reality Station came in first: The pre-schoolers thought it was the most fun. The jello station came in second; Computer Repair, third.

During their time in the CRAM room, Mrs. Bennett took a Polaroid photograph of each pre-schooler in a photo booth that was decorated with discarded CDs. As they were leaving at the end of the morning, each child received a bag of favors.  Mrs. Bennett had saved the anti-static bags in which computer parts are transported; these became the treat bags. Inside, each pre-schooler found his or her photo glued to a discarded floppy disc, a computer coloring page, 1 big marshmallow and 8 little ones (1 byte = 8 bits), licorice ropes to remind them of cabling, and a few other clever souvenirs of all they had learned that morning. Undoubtedly, computer talk dominated dinner table conversations that evening! 

Later, when I interviewed the CRAM students, I asked what they had learned from the experience.

Zach told me that he was surprised by how much the pre-schoolers already knew about technology. I smiled, remembering the boy who had so quickly put the keyboard in his lap.  

Nikaya was amazed at the children’s reactions to the laser light. “They were so excited,” she said. “I was not expecting that.”

Malachi said he had learned how to interact with kids, and that prompted a discussion about the emphasis Mrs. Bennett has put on learning how to talk to people with different levels of understanding of technology and with people of different ages. “Your audience could be anyone,” she tells her students. “You have to be able to communicate with people with all different levels of experience in ways they’ll understand.”

Mrs. Yoder said that her high school students, who spend a lot of time designing and sequencing instruction themselves, were impressed with the lesson planning the CRAM students had done.  

Mrs. Bennett confirmed that and summarized the experience for the CRAM students this way: “They had a great time because the kids did.”

That’s the wonderful thing about this uncommon interdisciplinary collaboration: Not only was this a great learning opportunity for all of the students–the Educational Careers students, the CRAM students, and the pre-schoolers–it was a whole lot of fun as well!

At the Customer Service counter