Mar
12
2010

Sue Mullican’s Biology Students

Alexis Miller's Human Homunculus

Alexis Miller's Human Homunculus

Through the wonderful world of the web, I’ve recently gotten to know an incredible high school biology teacher – Sue Mullican. Sue teaches at Jenks High School, in Jenks, Oklahoma. We first met at the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) meeting, when she attended a workshop on using participatory media tools in teaching biology.  Since then, Sue and I have been corresponding, exchanging ideas, and sharing favorites sites and tools.

Sue was new to all of this but, true to her creative roots, she took to it immediately.  The first thing she did was to build a class wiki.  As you can see, she uses it to post biology in the news type stories, give assignments, feature student projects, and make announcements.

What really strikes me about Sue is that she’s completely internalized the idea of her students as “producers”.  She sees these new media tools as vehicles for her students’ to demonstrate their understanding in new ways.

Take for example this video, created by one of Sue’s physiology students, Alexis Miller.  The assignment was to build a human homunculus out of clay – one sensory area at a time.  For those of you not currently enrolled in Human Anatomy and Physiology, the word “homunculus” is Latin for “little human”.  In biology courses, it refers to a scale model of a human, distorted to represent the relative space occupied by human body parts on the somatosensory cortex (somatic sensory homunculus) and the motor cortex (motor homunculous).  In other words, on a sensory homunculus the tongue would be HUGE.  In the original assignment document, Sue suggests that the students take photos, each step along the way, as they build their clay homunculus, and showcase their photos or assemble them into a PowerPoint deck.  A clever assignment by any measure – but Alexis took it a step further and created this video. Gotta love Alexis. Gotta love Sue. Gotta love Jenks High School for being smart enough to hire a teacher like Sue, support her, and send her to national conferences.

Mar
02
2010

Wisdom from the Niles High School District

Photo credit:  Tom Denham

Photo credit: Tom Denham

I just returned from moderating a teacher workshop at the Niles District’s (just out side of Chicago, Illinois) Institute Day.  Ruth Gleicher and Anne Roloff invited me to spend three hours with a group of 10 high school teachers from the two high schools in the Niles District.  The workshop was called, “Participatory Media, Learning, and Literacy” and it sprung from a session I offered at the 2009 NABT conference.  Ruth Gleicher, who is a biology teacher at Niles West HS, attended that NABT session and thought that it might be a good fit for her colleagues.  Together, she and I designed an experience with a little presentation and a lot of hands-on and discussion.

The session went well, I think.  I sure enjoyed it!  I was so impressed with this group of teachers.  They were biology, chemistry, earth science, english, and special ed teachers.  And they were all – to a person – hard working, creative, and very committed teachers.  We started off the session, going around and introducing ourselves.  I asked them to share with the others how they’re currently making use of new media tools with their students and to describe one new thing they wanted to try.  So we spent the first hour or so in a candid exchange of ideas, things that worked and didn’t, questions they had, and plans for the future.

I love these conversations. And I suspect that you do too – here are a few of the gems that the Niles teachers shared with each other….

Students aren’t as proficient as we think they are with online tools….they don’t know how to download a photo, they’ve never edited a wiki, they don’t understand intellectual property.

Amen to that.  And I would add that many of them don’t know how to set the privacy controls on Facebook, they don’t know how to create and post a video in a safe and responsible way, they are unaware of their digital footprint and how it might work to their benefit, and they forget about replicability, forwarding and the persistence of content.  Our students need help with all of these things.  They must become more aware of the power of online information and they must be more exacting judges of the credibility of what they find there.  They need teachers to help them understand, respect, sort and discern.

As teachers, we need help sorting out what’s the right tool for the job and which – if any -  of the options is worth our time.

Another good point!  There are so many intriguing online options these days – fun tools to try, capabilities to explore, and a huge range of ways to express ourselves, demonstrate our understanding, and deepen our experience.  But how to evaluate them?  How to decide if the time it will take to learn how to use them well (and then show others how to do the same) will be worth it?  With this conundrum, my advice is  – try it yourself first.  Get inside whatever the new thing is with your own projects or interests (a hobby?  a small thing – just enough to learn, or maybe on something you need to do anyway).  Make failure cheap.  Discover the affordances of the tool for yourself and then you’ll be in a good position to judge whether or not it’s worth using it in your classroom.

What I don’t evaluate or grade, my students won’t do.

Yeah, I hear that a lot.  The point these teachers were making was, if we don’t give credit for blogging, contributing to the class wiki, or creating an animoto, our students won’t do it.  I feel their pain.  I can’t help but think that much of this behavior stems from conditioning.  We’ve trained our students (in our assessment-crazed, high-stakes testing world) to think in these terms.  Intrinsic motivation seems to have left the building. But I don’t think that’s due to any character flaw in our students – I think that “we” have set it up this way (I was talking to a friend yesterday, who relayed the story that her kindergartner came home with homework on which “points” would be given by the teacher).  But even if we agree on that, what’s to be done about it?  By the time teenagers get to high school (or college) they are steeped in that tradition.  What’s an individual teacher to do, in order to break the cycle?   I would love to hear your thoughts on that – comments?  ideas?