Being a Teacher

Classroom Management: Challenge Them

I’ll admit, for the first time in my teaching career I have struggled with classroom management.  It has come as a complete shock to me. Granted my experience isn't happening in every classroom every day.

Here are a few of the issues I have dealt (or didn’t) with:

  1. Students breaking out in outbursts of strange guttural noises, sounding like wild animals. Seriously, I thought one of the boys had Turrets syndrome.
  2.  In the middle of a discussion a student gets up to borrow the hole puncher, a stapler, or get some hand sanitizer, completely oblivious to the fact that I am talking or the timing is just inappropriate
  3. Laughter, background talking, and side conversations
  4. Cross-communication, literally, in the middle of the class between students on opposite sides of the room (“Hey, are you trying out for basketball?”)
  5.  Students not showing up for class or, in particular, tests.
  6. Cheating and plagiarism.
  7. Students doing no work. I mean no work. Seriously, how can you earn 8% in a class?

It’s like the very last item on the agenda was about learning. And actually I don’t even think learning was on the agenda. Have you seen the movie “Dangerous Minds”? A few of those classroom scenes remind me of some of the experiences I have had with some of the students here. However, these students are pampered and spoiled as compared to those economically depraved individuals depicted in the film.

My instinct has been to turn to the literature and to reflect on inspiring movies like “Stand and Deliver.” But I’m no Jaime Escalante.

So, my inspiration was to challenge my students beyond what any of my colleagues thought the students “were ready for.” It was time for my apathetic, singing, distracted students to attempt a legitimate scientific experiment: “What is the effect on the temperature of lauric acid as it is immersed in warm and cold water baths?” (in other words, the heating and cooling curvesfor lauric acid) in the context of studying changes of state.

I’ve loaded my portable lab station with all the necessary supplies. My planning has to be meticulous, trouble-shooting all the pitfalls and challenges the students will face and setting up the experiment in such a way that students can focus on what is happening without being burdened by too much manipulation of equipment. Because these students have, unfortunately, not had much time in the lab. Thus, their skills are not developed.


The students are questioned as to what they think will happen to the temperature of the solid lauric acid when it is heated. With white boards and markers in front of them, they make predictions. None of them are even close.

“You all have an idea of what might happen. Now you get to do the experiment and discover the truth.” Their eyes widen. The silence is broken with, “Is this the right answer?” as a student points to his white board.

“You will determine that for yourselves.  Your challenge is to keep your mind open as you do your experiment. Be careful so that you obtain accurate data. If you do it correctly, I predict that all of you will be surprised with the results.”

With their enlarged eyes they smile and look around the room at the prepared experimental set-up they will be using. Anticipation settles in and it is clear they are eager to get started. They actually want discover the truth!

After reading through the purpose and procedure, it’s time to begin. The students approach the lab bench with hushed respect like small children who have just been handed a “grown-up” task. Pride exudes from their teenage frames. Serious business is underway as the students operate the temperature probes, record data and make observations.

“The temperature isn’t lowering!”

“Why isn’t the temperature falling?”

And thus the discovery begins.  “Is it the equipment?”  “How is my prediction wrong?” “What is going on?” “Does this have to do with energy?”

And thus they begin their discovery of the role of energy in changes of states of matter. Graphing their data is energizing and clearly they enjoy seeing the visual of their own work. The curves are perfect. Their results demonstrate they are making the connections.

And, I realize that they are learning and that we have had several classes without management problems. Others thought these students couldn’t do it. But I thought otherwise.

My thought for today? Take students to higher levels: they will rise to the challenge and classroom management issues will diminish.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: How does Middle Eastern Life present itself in my classroom?

Map courtesy of used with permission

“It’s like texting your grandmother on Eid instead of calling”  one student explains to the class. There is a unanimous hum of agreement as he continues, “you just wouldn’t do that. It’s wrong”. 

They are debating the plan for Facebook to introduce six new emojis in order to “rope in even more members” by providing users with more ways to interact with each other. These tech savvy youngsters are very critical of the insincere component of these new emojiis. While they have all had fb, Instagram, and snapchat accounts, many claim it isn’t worth their time. They agree that it gives users a false sense of security and well-being. They agree that the new emojis won’t entice them to use Facebook more as they perceive the use of these emojis to be fake engagement.

I must admit, I’m stunned by the fact that only a handful of students actively use social media and that most of them are very critical of it. So far, my experience in the U.S.A., China, and Europe has left me believing that teenagers are, indeed, the same all over the world. However, despite some universals, I am seeing differences in my arabic students as compared to their western counterparts.

It’s all about Getting someone else to do it

To get things done in this country, it’s easiest when one has connections. You want the Internet installed? It’s much faster if you have a friend that works for the company. To get a mobile phone account set up it will be much smoother if you take someone who knows someone who works at the phone store. You find someone to do it for you. Of course if something goes wrong, you find someone to blame.

In the robotics class when a robot doesn’t run the course properly, a student will insist on running the course over and over again claiming, “This stupid robot won’t do what I want.” It is much more logical to them to blame the robot rather than review for error in their own programming. Over and over again I encourage them to return to their program and make adjustments. Over and over again they finally realise that it IS the programming and NOT the robot!

Recently, a student came in to review an assignment on which he received a low grade. We examined the rubric together and as we discussed the first aspect of the rubric he put his finger up to indicate he’d be a minute as he dialed a number on his phone, “I’m with Miss Nina right now and she’s telling me we did something wrong.”

Apparently, it’s not uncommon for a maid, tutor, or parent to complete homework.

Different Educational Expectations

With disbelief a student stares at his poster lying in front of us on the table. A few days prior we had studied the rubric together and he took his project home to rework it for an improved grade. He can’t fathom that the grade has not changed despite his “improvements” to the poster, none of which reflect the expectations of the rubric.

“Then why did I do all that work? I should get some points for redoing it.” Of course secretly I want to ask him why he did all that work without consulting the rubric again! “Miss, can’t you at least give him some more points for making it better?” his pal queries while another pipes in, “Yes, Miss. He is a good kid. He should have an ‘A’.”

And they are serious.

On another occasion, a student points to her lab observations, “Miss, is this correct?” When informed that “there is no correct” as she is the scientist and her observations are real, her face scrunches up, she pouts, and jumps a bit. With near desperation and exasperation she pleads, “Please, Miss. Just tell me if it’s right”

The world of “right and wrong” and rote memorisation is very much a major component of the educational history of some of my new students.


On several occasions students or parents have approached me in a somewhat condescending tone, however, as soon as they realise I have a “Dr.” title, the tune changes dramatically.

In this part of the world, a simple title reduces reproof.

High School Sweethearts

Though I’ve been told that if I look carefully, I’ll see “pairing off”. However, there are no entwined couples. No back massages. No lap sitting. No hugging. Not even hand-holding.

The culture keeps men and women segregated to such an extreme that it permeates even the habits of teenagers attending our school offering a traditional American High School education.

Unique Life Experiences

The large printed words “Innocent kids during war in Syria” loom before us on the screen. As this young woman stands before the class her dark curls jostle gently as she turns from her slide and tells us that she chose this topic because her country, Syria, was “one of the safest countries in the world” but now 5 years of war has changed everything. She claims that most of the children in Syria have had their childhood taken away from them because they live in fear of being killed or bombed. She proceeds to share stunning and touching images of children at play in war-torn Syria and adds, “You can see that the kids are fighting for their childhood in these pictures, and they are much wiser than most of the children you’ll ever know…” The entire class, filled with students from Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, and other countries in the region, is listening, respectful, and sympathetic. 

Most of these 14-17 year olds all have first hand experience with war, unrest, and/or revolution.

Universal but Different

My students laugh, joke, study, and learn. They try to persuade me to to tell them what’s on the test or to make the test easy for them. Hormonal changes affect them. The relentless heat tires them. An exam makes them nervous. Playing sports is important to them. They debate who the best players are in football (soccer). They watch T.V. shows and have favorite movies (even though there are no movie theatres in this country). 

So, they are similar to teenagers throughout the world but they also bring to the table new dimensions that will enrich our classroom experience together. As I look forward to this year, I’m eager for what they will teach me.

Compound Living: Teacher accommodations in KSA

Steve, my husband, outside our gates

Skyler and I have just walked from the photo shop not too far from our compound to obtain photos for his residence visa. The sun beats down upon us. We approach the gate of our compound and I anticipate the shedding of my abaya. The guards check our I.D. status and we enter our residence area. As soon as I’m inside the gate, the abaya is unzipped, removed and thrown over my shoulder for the remaining part of our walk.

Within these walls we can dress and act as we please. Members of the community can be found meandering, biking, running and swimming in what we identify as typical western clothing or athletic attire. There are also shrouded women but here I do not have to join them.

The “Villa”

Upon entering our place, we are greeted by a burst of cold air and cool marble floors. Slowly we're becoming accustomed to the constant din of the endlessly running cooling units that provide us with relief from the sweltering conditions outside.

Along with other teaching families, a row house on the compound has been commissioned to us. These row houses have been coined “villas” in contrast to the apartments that the single teachers and couples without children are assigned to. 

The school was transparent regarding the condition of these aging facilities. Beneath the fresh paint there is evidence of wear and tear. Often one of us must summon the others to battle a sudden swarm of ants in the kitchen. And frankly, there are couple of cabinets I am hesitant to use for food items because they feel too close to potential infestation. This is where we choose to store surplus soap, cleaning supplies, aluminium foil and plastic wrap.

Occasionally we turn off the air conditioning units. The absence of their noise calms my mind and my body is gradually enveloped with a heavenly warmth. And, I relax. However, soon the room becomes humid again and we must choose between enduring mugginess or cold.  The air conditioners go on again and I put on a sweater.

The best aspect of our “villa”? It’s right across the street from a pool and a 2-minute walk from another pool. 

The Pools

Standing at the edge of the pool I still have a feeling of dread, anticipating the cold shock of the water spreading across my body as I enter in. However, every night it is the same. I step on the top of the ladder allowing my toes to sense the water and the pleasure is all mine as my body is immersed in the balmy paradise of the pool. Truthfully, it’s more like a bath. Lap swimming was initially a challenge but now I’m accustomed to my swimming work-out in 27 oC (80 oF) water. In fact, I wonder if I’ll even swim again once I leave Saudi Arabia as I am becoming spoiled with my enjoyment of these temperate waters.  Plus, playing games with Skyler is easy because coldness never settles in. Thus, given that the pool is across the street from our house, we swim nearly every day.

Last night we met another family at the larger pool, a two-minute walk from our place. It was unsettling how difficult it was for me to enter the “cooler” 24 oC (75 oF) water. However, I can imagine myself opting for a work-out in that pool every now and then.

Teen Life

Laughter accompanied by Mario Cart sounds punctuated with outbursts of teenage exclamations permeate our living room. Skyler and three friends are in heated competition on the couches. The entertainment continues until a sudden announcement is made.

“We’re going to go get something to eat.” They depart for “City Station” the local restaurant on the compound offering American and International dishes. The boys opt for pizza and pasta though the hummus and tabouleh are delicious. It’s safe for these 7th and 8th graders to cross the compound for a meal out together on their own and I am left with no concerns about their safety or well-being.

On another evening after a board game of Risk Skyler and his friend head out for a work-out consisting of laps in the pool with a set of burpees on the pool deck in between each lap. Sometimes they also go for a run together. 

Skyler walks or skateboards around the compound to get to friends and activities. He has the spots memorised where the pavement is actually smooth enough to board. Otherwise he hikes his skateboard under his arm and trots to the next even location.

Skyler has a regular-sized room (as opposed to his closet-sized space in the Netherlands), orange sheets, his own bathroom, good friends, and freedom to move around as he pleases. In his mind, his world is complete.

The cats

One evening, out for a walk, passing a garbage bin on the sidewalk I was shocked by a creature leaping from the inside of the bin straight into the air while emitting an eerie screeching sound. As I stumbled to recover from falling off the curb laughter erupted from my 14-year old son as he exclaimed, “It’s just a cat, Mom”. 

The stray cats linger and leer at us from every corner of the compound. They come in every color but all of them are scrawny and tattered. None of them seek out human contact but some are more skittish than others, quickly scurrying under a staircase or into a bush as we pass. 

A white fluffy cat lies at our front door where it seeks out the cool air seeping from underneath the frame. It departs immediately when we open the door or when we approach from the outside. But it’s always there. Skyler has started trying to get it to become “our outside cat that we don’t have to take care of.” Meaning, it hangs around and we can pet it anytime we want without having any responsibility for it. He lures the cat with a fingertip of cream cheese. Within two days the cat will come up to him and allow itself to be pet. When he hears us stirring from within or sees us coming home, he begins to meow. We call him Fluffy.


A woman colleague attempted a bike ride with her husband and a group of other male teachers. She wore sweatpants and her head was covered. However, once outside the Jeddah city limits they were swarmed with arabic men that pestered the group to such an extent that the husband returned with his wife to the compound.

Thus, some might feel “trapped” in the compound because outside our walls restrictions and rules are imposed upon us to a point that it might dictate whether we choose to leave the compound or not.

However, in choosing to move to Saudi Arabia, I knew I was making a choice for a different kind of life. I knew biking and long-distance runs and even driving outside the compound would not be part of my activities. Furthermore, I’m determined to experience all I can outside of the compound therefore I do venture out regularly. So, though I miss some traditional activities (like biking), in these early days of my life here in the Kingdom, the compound is actually a haven for me. 

It’s a haven from abayas, racing cars, rubble piled streets, and being in crowds dominated by males. I can do as I please. I am comfortable. And I swim everyday. It’s a good life.

Freedom in Western Escapes

“No pictures! No pictures!” he shouts as he frantically waves his hands and approaches me.

“Just my snorkelling gear. No people!” In affirming the subject of my photo, I'm hoping to assuage his anxiety.

“No camera. No camera.” His curls are tousled from swimming in the sea and then drying in the warm breeze. With continued hand and head gesticulations he blocks any view of his wife and child as if to protect them from my evil intent.

I’ve just created the ideal scene: my fins, mask and snorkel artistically arranged on a rock ledge with the Red Sea stretching out behind. The snorkel gear would be in focus and the rocks and sea would be a blurry nostalgic background. It was to be the perfect reminder of this glorious day. 

Just hours before, the snorkel gear enabled me to slide into the refreshing waters of the Red Sea and discover, just steps away from the beach where we swam, a pristine coral reef alive with diverse and colourful marine life. Floating there and looking down 25 meters along the reef through the clear waters into the undersea world was a true escape from the heat, humidity, cement, rubble, constantly humming air conditioners, and rules of my new life. 

But here this agitated man is reminding me of more rules! I can’t even take a picture of snorkelling gear? I gather my items, without taking the picture, and stow them under the straw beach umbrella where my husband snoozes in his reclining lounge chair.

Later I notice the large “no video or still photography” signs accompanied with an image of a camera marked through with an “X”. I’m glad I didn’t insist on clicking the button on my camera for that one shot.

We are all guests at a private beach. We women have entered the premises wearing our abayas. However, once inside the gates, we immediately remove them. At other locations where women are allowed to swim, we would be required to wear head-to-toe swimming attire. But not here. We swim and enjoy the beach as we would anywhere else in the world. All afternoon families lounge, swim, and eat together in total relaxation. There are sounds of joy coming from the beach and bursts of laughter from groups seated in lounge chairs or around tables scattered throughout the property. 

It is a sense of freedom I have never before appreciated. But it is also a special privilege and no one wants official documentation of it. In all fairness, my frenetic opponent did not want his (or his family’s) picture from this location to be made public in any way. 

The burning heat on the backs of my legs (as I did not anticipate spending so much time floating on the water due to stupendous snorkelling and did not properly apply sunscreen) serves to remind me of the magnificent escape at the surface of the Red Sea this afternoon. And coming home I take a picture of my snorkelling gear on the floor of my house. Not the same but it’s the best I have. Images of vibrant coral, brilliant Bullethead Parrotfish,  pendulous Masked Puffer fish along with a host of other dazzling creatures observed today flutter through my mind. Those relaxing, peaceful moments on the sea are recollections that stay with me long into the night.

It makes me reflect on freedom. What does it mean to me to be free? Today, to me it means being able to act as I am accustomed within my cultural norms and within the laws of the land. Then, I am free.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Wearing the abaya

It is a law in Saudi Arabia that all women are properly covered when in public. For local women this means wearing a robe, or abaya, and a head scarf, or hijab. Of westerners in Jeddah it is required that we wear only the abaya.  This has been explained and well-outlined to me before we signed contracts to teach in this country. My husband has been given a robe to deliver to me with instructions to put on the abaya before exiting the plane in Saudi Arabia.

In cities throughout the world fully covered (i.e. abaya and hijab) Muslim women outside their country of origins can be seen. Thus, my expectation was to find, at the gate in New York, before boarding the plane to Jeddah, that most of the women would be covered with both abaya and hijab.

However, there are only a handful of woman wearing both abaya and hijab. Many more women are are wearing “normal clothes” i.e. a pair of pants and a shirt accompanied with a hijab. A young mother in jeans and a t-shirt is wearing a white hijab and corrals two little boys into our same row in the plane.

Twenty minutes before landing in Jeddah,  I contemplate getting into the robe. I reach down to the bottom of my Egyptian tent-maker bag and feel the silky abaya rolled up under my computer like a sausage. Secretly, I fear feeling foolish once I don the robe. Since no other women have made an effort to put on the black abaya, I busy myself with a scrabble game hoping these last few minutes of flight will quickly pass. At one point I look up and am astonished to see that the young mother of the two boys has pulled on a black abaya and has switched her white hijab for a black one and added a veil that falls from the bridge of her nose and covers the lower half of her face (I believe it’s called a Niqaab). In fact, her transformation is so extreme that it is by her boys I actually identify her.

In looking around it is apparent that other women have exchanged their lighter abayas and hijab for black. A few, but not all, have added the Niqaab. Non-Saudi arabic women choose to wear black but most of the westerners remain in lighter colored abayas. I resist putting on my abaya until we have landed and it’s time to exit the plane.

The abaya slips on easily and I snap the buttons down the front, closing the abaya around my body.  Indeed, I feel somewhat foolish. My 14-year old, Skyler, eyes me skeptically and I wonder what it’s like for him to see his mother so clad.

We step out onto the stairs descending from the plane to the bus that will take us to the terminal. The heat and humidity take my breath away and by the time I reach the bus I am sweltering. Immediately I am grateful that it is not expected of me to cover my head and face. 

The air conditioning in the airport is a relief from my short foray in the afternoon sun and makes wearing the abaya tolerable. As Steve deals with our lost baggage, Skyler and I have plenty of time to observe people passing through the airport. The women interest me most. First of all, black is definitely the dominant color. Of the women clad in black, there are different levels of facial covering. A few women have elegantly draped Hijabs that allow for their entire face to be seen. For some the face is completely shrouded in black. Referring to women completely enveloped in black, Skyler remarks, “Mom, you could opt for that technique where you just drape the veil over your face and don’t bother wrapping it”. He seems to perceive the burqa (or total covering) as a method of “ease” rather than a level of covering. As such women pass us, I notice several of them pressing the mesh closer to their face so they can see. Some also wear black gloves. None of them have bare feet (even if wearing sandals they have black socks on). Many women have either the Niqaab, covering the lower portion of their faces or the burqa, cloaking the entire face. Near us a women is eating a snack. She places a hand under her veil and pushes it out from her face a sufficient distance to allow herself to bring the food to her mouth. Her face and hands remain completely covered.

Of the non-black abayas there is a diverse ranges of styles, colors, and fabrics. Some of them look outright comfortable and I make a silent note to self to secure myself a lightly coloured abaya made out of linen or other lightweight fabric. If I plan to be out and about I think it will be worth finding a way to increase my comfort level in the heat.

Once again I feel ludicrous as I stumble over my robe in an effort to manipulate a piece of luggage onto the conveyor belt of the scanning machine at the airport’s exit. I notice none of the other women are handling baggage and I follow their example by simply standing by the cart as my husband places and retrieves all of our suitcases on and from the conveyor belt.

At our new home once again I flounder in my abaya as I try to push our suitcases up the sidewalk. Realizing I am not obligated to wear the abaya on the compound, I shed myself of it and enjoy the freedom of being able to help with our baggage.

The next morning I wear my abaya to take take passport photos and undergo medical examination for my iqama (residence permit). There are three of us: another new hire and our woman escort who is helping us out. While waiting for our photos we decide to walk a couple of blocks away to a Starbucks for some refreshment. We question our decision to walk (instead of asking the driver take us) as the sun’s rays bake us beneath our black abayas. After ordering my mango/passion fruit smoothie I follow the other new hire upstairs to the “women’s section”. Both of us trip on our robes on the way up.

I’ve only been here one day and I already find myself debating whether I want to do a certain activity based on whether I need to put on the abaya. YIKES. Steve and I pride ourselves in getting to know and enjoying our host country by immersing ourselves in local tradition and discovering local history, culture, and sites. In order to do this here, I will need to embrace wearing the abaya. I’m going to have to get my mind around this one! There is comfort in observing my western colleagues, already living in Saudi Arabia for over a year, at ease and comfort in their abayas. Maybe it won’t be so bad!

And no, it is not required to wear the abaya while on site at the school. At least while teaching, this burden of apparel will not be mine!

From Bio to Bots: Summer Training and First Triumphs

Part of my identity has always been about Science and especially Biology. However, as part of my new assignment this year I have been given a robotics course. After receiving that initial email my heart sank as I began a mourning process for Biology and a frantic search for a robotics training program. My biggest question was, "Can I be as passionate about robotics as I am about Biology?" Because if not, justice will not be done for my students. 

The Course

A small group of people have assembled at the curb. “Are you here for the robotics academy?” I probe. Nods in affirmative are directed towards me. The shuttle arrives and we all climb aboard. We are off to the Carnegie Melon Engineering and Robotics Centre.

Our EV3 robot with some of our programming later in the course.

An EV3 robot awaits my attention. Two PCs sit behind it. We are instructed to look at the robot and find the input and output ports. Really? What in the world are those? The robot is awkward in my hands and my lego partner is equally baffled at our task. We fumble around with the robot and then set it back on the table. Opening the software and instructional videos, we begin our journey of becoming instructors of robotics.

Feeling Triumphant

Over the next 4.5 days we spend intense and concentrated time with our little EV3 robot. Immediate satisfaction is ours when it performs the first, simple tasks that we have programmed it to complete. As the week progresses our programming challenges become more complex and we find ourselves, along with the other participants rejoicing with each successful program. Entwined with our programming adventure are robotics pedagogy and incorporation of STEM. We engage in great discussions and brainstorming on teaching robotics to 4th graders as well as to university students taking introductory computer science classes.

We end the week with a battery of information, added confidence, 36 hours of professional development and a chance to take the instructor certification exam within the month.

After reviewing the course materials, I face the exam. Once again satisfaction was mine as I earned the EV3 Instructor Certification. And what a benefit it’s been as I embark on teaching a robotics course through a distance learning set-up! 

I’m officially excited about this new adventure! And cheers to all teachers out there facing a new class this year and to anyone learning something new! It stretches the mind, increases awareness of what it means to be a student, and keeps the brain young!

The Triumphs

The first submission I received. And others have followed!!!!!!!!!!!!

From 13100 km and 9 hours in times zones, my students have successfully built their robots and engaged in discussions with me regarding robots and programming. Each mini-challenge has resulted in students sharing their programs as well as their reflections regarding their learning and their challenges. For their first major challenge of each unit I have decided to have them send me a video of their robot completing the challenge, especially since I can't be there to actually see it. This week the first group sent me their video and I realized three important things:

  1. The distance learning is actually working and students are making progress (and it clearly helps that there is a fantastic substitute in the classroom facilitating progress)!
  2. I AM passionate about robotics! The thrill and joy that rushed through me when I viewed their simple video nearly resulted in me jumping from my chair rejoicing. Immediately I gathered those in the room to see. And how I longed to be there to celebrate my students' success in person. It was, indeed, as thrilling as waiting for my biology students to recognise the stomata under a microscope.  
  3. Just like I have, for years, said to my science students, "Isn't science AMAZING", I'll be saying to my robotics students, "Isn't robotics SO COOL?!"

I guess we can become passionate in nearly anything if we invest and commit ourselves. What a great relief this comes to me! Again, kudos to all of you out there embarking in something new and here's wishing you the discovery of passion for what you do!

P.S. I'm still teaching Science (Chemistry and Physical Science) as well as a Basic Apps course which is also really fun!

Delayed Visas, Culture Shock, and Distance Learning: The beginning of a new adventure

Delayed Visas

My husband, in Saudi Arabia, with his Iqama. The aquisition of this document is a significant step in getting us there.

We were supposed to be in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia by August 12. However, it’s early September and I remain at home with our 13-year old son awaiting visas. A week ago my husband departed for Saudi Arabia to secure proper documentation to bring us over. We have no idea when we will be able to fly.

The 24th of August marked the first day of our new school in Jeddah while schools locally began two weeks prior. Since the time-line of our visas was unknown, we made the decision to enroll our 13-year old in a local middle school.

Culture Shock (In the U.S.A.)

My son looks up at me with wide eyes in disbelief. He holds in his hand a bright orange piece of paper titled “Weapons Agreement." “It even tells you what items are considered to be weapons, like a pen!” he muses.  As we’re processing the contents of this friendly coloured paper, a 7th grade boy, eyes brimming with tears, walks into the office with his skateboard: all four wheels have been stolen. Our son looks at us with a look that clearly questions our judgment of bringing him here.

He adds his signature to the orange piece of paper and then flounders as everyone rises to say the pledge of allegiance. An 8th grader appears and escorts our son to his classes.

Skyler comes home with questions like “What is a quart and is the plural of it spelled with a ‘z’? And why aren’t they using the metric system?” His mechanical pencil is stolen the first day he uses it. He is stunned by a heated conversation between a boy and a girl and even more shocked when, following the departure of the girl, the boy says, “Yeah, she’s my ex”. 

Skyler’s accustomed to playing a full soccer game with this peers after lunch. However, here no one does that. They rush to eat and than hang out for a few minutes before returning to class.

Our son manages but he’s eager for the processing of our visas and the return to what he considers “normal education” 

Distance Learning

So where does this leave me as a teacher of Chemistry, Physical Science, Robotics, and Basic Applications? Well, I’m engaging in a “distance learning” experience. All of my lesson plans are submitted to a substitute. Instructions, discussion, and assignments for the students are posted on Schoology, a “learning management system” that works quite well. Each day I post daily activities and students upload their assignments as well as responses to the discussions.

Thus, I manage my classes from afar and it’s going as well as it could, I guess. I can't worry too much about it because I'm doing all I can do.  Being 13000 km and 9 hours in time difference away is, indeed, interesting. My thoughts and posts and classes are taking place on a Thursday while I'm living in Wednesday. It's a bit brain bungling. I wake up to read what my students have done and there's nothing I can do to rectify any problems that occurred during the school day. I just have to work with what happened. For example, I woke up one Friday and all the robotics students posted that they couldn't begin building their robots as planned because there weren't enough parts. In fact, they couldn't even build ONE ROBOT for the entire class because there weren't enough parts. So, I momentarily panicked thinking that there aren't robot kits as promised (supposedly one per student) and that the robot program couldn't work. However, after communicating with my sub (who taught the class last year) it became apparent that he had been sick and HIS sub didn't look in the closet to find the robot kits and the students were trying to build robots from the spare parts bin!!! Oh well. So, they began building on Monday instead of Thursday. I did have a good laugh about that one though!

Through their discussions and posts I’m slowly getting to know my students a little bit.  I Skype regularly with a colleague with whom I share a course with. Thankfully she’s a collaborator and we’re already working as a team despite our distance! I can’t wait to meet her, other colleges, and my students in person.

Thus begins our adventure! We are looking forward to the arrival of visas, flight arrangements, and meeting our new school family in Jeddah!

The Climb of Education (or life).

A young mother recently said to me after dropping her oldest son off at Kindergarten, “I stayed and waited for the bell to ring to see if he’d’ get in line. Then I went to look at him through the classroom door. He hung up his backpack and seemed just fine.” Many parents are sending their children off to school at this time of year. Whether it’s preschool, elementary, middle, high school, or even college each parent hopes their children will do well, be happy, and succeed.

Many different types of parents have passed through my classroom over the years. As a secondary school teacher I often have wanted (but have refrained) to say to the more concerned parents “It’s OK. Give your child some space to make his/her own decisions. Allow your child more independence. Allow your child to self-advocate. Everything will be OK.”

Recently, an experience with a couple of my children and a friend became an analogy to me of this universal life-experience of needing to “let go” and allow our children the freedom to discover and act independently.

We visited the tallest outdoor climbing wall in the world. It towered ominously up into the sky and our three climbers approached it each uniquely. The youngest raced ahead, unaware of the dangers. The older girls went with trepidation and even fear. However, they all faced the tower.  Each climber worked with a “belayer”, the team member who is responsible for maintaining tension in the rope to ensure that the climber doesn’t fall far in the event he/she slips. Additionally, there was a climbing coach giving tips and advice and suggestions for alternate routes when a climber became stuck.

Our youngest, taking the easiest pathway, scampered to the top of the tower with no problem. When challenged with more difficult climbing routes, he slowed down, required some guidance, and learned some new techniques that would help him on later climbs. The older two, gripped by fear during initial climbs took a bit longer and required more coaxing to get to the top, however, they gained confidence and skills that allowed them to ascend at a faster rate later in the day.

Triumphant climbers!

Triumphant climbers!

They strengthened muscles. They developed skills. They enjoyed the climb. They thrilled in arriving at the top. But even once at the top, they weren’t “done” - there are more challenging routes to try, more ways to develop oneself.

The students are the climbers. They must decide the route and perform the climb. In secondary school, students should make decisions about how to study, when to study, and eventually in high school what classes interest them and in college what major to choose and what career to pursue. Teachers are the climbing coaches. They facilitate learning and give tips and advice to help students find the best path to acquiring the understandings they need to progress in their education. And parents, along with the teachers, are the belayers. It is their responsibility to be there, in the background, ready to advise and offer help when it is needed. Both teachers and parents need to allow students to choose the more challenging routes so that they can learn the most.

Sometimes, however, parents think they must make the climb with their child or perform the climb for the child. And, in so thinking, become too involved, preventing the child the opportunity to grow and become strong in good decision making. A belayer who “hoists” the climber to the top is not allowing the climber to gain necessary decision making, troubleshooting, and muscle building skills to master more difficult climbs. A parent who becomes over involved with his/her child also prevents that child from gaining important communication skills and the ability to self-advocate (how many adults do you know who are afraid to ask for a much deserved pay raise). They also inhibit the child’s opportunities to learn how to make good decisions regarding study habits, balancing pleasure and work, and enacting good behaviours in school. 

It is OK for students to “slip” or make mistakes. It is during these moments that lessons are learned and the ability to make better decisions in the future is increased. As both teacher and parent, I speak to all parents: Keep that belaying rope in your hand but keep it loose. Allow your children to learn and grow by giving them more independence. They will find their route, they will find their passion, and they will thrill in reaching the top on their own.

Smiles come with Self-attained Success

Smiles come with Self-attained Success

Sometimes, in the moment, it’s just too much. So, take a break!

It is the end of the day. It’s Friday. There are 30 minutes of school remaining. The entire class is a bit late, probably because of some other IB deadlines. They literally straggle in and plop down in their seats. An atmosphere of exhaustion hangs in the air. I know one student is operating on 20 minutes of sleep from the night before.

Making mug racks for part of a CAS project

Earlier in the day these four delivered their CAS presentations. Each presentation was full of activities that the student participated for their Community Action and Service (CAS) portion of their IB program. Impressive was the volume of activities each individual participated in over the past two years. Noteworthy was each individual reflection on his/her involvement, struggles, and what was learned from the experiences. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable, not necessarily an easy task for 16-18 year olds.

In addition to the CAS presentations, the day had been filled with final submissions for internal assessments, Extended Essays, and Theory of Knowledge essays for the IB.  I had perused the Extended Essay titles that morning: what an impressive stack of work. This pile of papers was evidence of what these students have recently produced. It represents long hours, late nights, and commitment to their studies.

IA work

I know the quality of the Biology Internal Assessments. My class has exceeded my expectation by actually heeding my advice over the last two years! They accepted and applied feedback throughout the course. Then, as they prepared their final internal assessments, they helped each other out, pouring over the rubrics and giving feedback to each other as they each finalized their work.  With pride those papers will be put in the mail to be sent off for moderation. Having worked with the students closely, it is clear they put forth their best effort, challenged themselves, struggled, and stretched themselves. And, they thereby grew from the process.

Here they sit. Wiped out. Without a doubt, the plans I have for review are, in this moment, too much. I suggest they can just go home and rest (especially the one with only 20 minutes of sleep) or they can relax for a couple of minutes. The 20-minute guy, who lives literally across the street from the school, replies, “I think I’ll just chill here for a few minutes” and then I realize he’s too tired to even cross the street right now!

I think it was this time last year, when my own children were going through the IB, that I wrote a post questioning whether the IB is worth it.  Right now, all over the world IB students are feeling the crunch and pressure of the rigor of the program.

So, we just take a step back. They share their hopes for university, their favorite form of exercise, and their summer plans. And it feels really good. Their curved shoulders straighten a bit. They smile. And in 30 minutes they are ready to move again. Their homework for the weekend? To relax and to rest. We’ll begin serious review next week.

I stepped back by taking a day for walking around Rotterdam and taking photographs.

Having also succumbed to over exertion, my Saturday was spent on a little “time-out” as well just taking photographs and spending some time with friends.

Over the weekend I received an email from a friend in which she wrote, “So I decided that on Friday I NEEDED to rest. I couldn't not rest. I hit a wall. Mentally, Emotionally. Physically. Spiritually. So, I decided to take some time and actually rest and not give myself guilt for it.” It reminded me of my IB students and many who are pushing themselves to their limits.  To all I say, it’s OK to stop and take a step back. Rest and reflect. In the end, this is what will make you stronger and more able to carry on.


Last night I found myself sitting next to an elegant woman dressed in white.  Her delicate hands rested on her lap highlighting a perfect French manicure. It was quite clear that her hands would never find themselves where mine had been that day. I glanced down at my appendages hoping were no remains of dried blood under or around my nails.

That morning our lab assistant appeared in my classroom doorway with a heavy plastic bag and a huge grin on his face: his mission had been successful. He handed off the bag and I immediately took it to a lab bench. The items inside were contained within a series of thick plastic bags. As I removed each layer it became apparent why. The mounds of pig tissue within were dripping with blood. Untangling entwined trachea and esophagi, I lifted the first set of lungs from the bag and placed them on a work area on the lab bench. Dabbing off blood as I worked, I arranged the bright pink lungs so that the trachea and esophagi extended neatly from the top.

Then I covered them hoping to mask the rawness of the scene from those entering my classroom and giving myself some mental preparation time with the students before they had to handle the organs.

Some students literally fled the room upon the unveiling of the lungs. However, they quickly realized there was no threat and succumbed to their curiousity which was heightened by the “ooh”s and “aahs” of their peers within.

With gloved hands they carefully handled and explored the tissues. Eventually EVERYONE touched the lungs, followed the trachea to the bronchi, studied the pathway of the esophagus, and made observations on the differences between the structures. Several students were brave enough to insert a straw into the trachea, squeeze down and blow air into the lungs.  The inflating lungs were indeed an impressive sight drawing exclamations of amazement from all observers!

My Grade 10 Bio class was the intended recipient of this lab activity as they have just started a unit on the Respiratory System. However, my grade 11 General Science class studying the human body also benefitted from those lungs. Then, my Year 2 IB Biology students were able to review some of their assessment statements from last year as they investigated the organs. As one of them said following her time with the lungs, “That was a really good class”.  The bottom line? The Respiratory System became real to them.  Now they can imagine it. Now they can discuss it. Now they will remember it.

I’d much rather be part of this kind of journey than sporting beautifully manicured nails!  And as always, I advocate to all, risk the mess and find every opportunity to bring learning to the realest level possible.



Costa Rica here we come!

The program and research itinerary are scheduled. The flight tickets have been purchased. The medical forms and travel consent forms are filtering into my classroom. The reality of our adventure is emerging but it’s still five months away!

This coming summer a group of students and I will travel to Costa Rica to participate in the Ecology Project International  (EPI) research program to study the nesting sites of leatherback turtles.

People often question my choice to spend two weeks of precious summer time to volunteer chaperoning students 24/7. I’ll admit, it’s not a vacation and it’s exhausting. However, I am given a front row seat to a rite of passage in which teenagers experience a once in a lifetime opportunity of rare contact with the wild. The students are offered new and unique perspectives to their relationship with the earth.  As they face issues involving their life-style choices and the future of our world, these students will self-reflect and discover their opinions and where they stand. And what a gift to be part of that!

Of the students still at my school who joined me on the South Africa trip last year, we share a special bond. For those who continue to study with me in the classroom, we enjoy repeated references and curriculum connections to our research experiences from the summer. Daily the exclamation arises, “We learned about this in South Africa!” What a joy to witness the assimilation of authentic science and legitimate issues that link to greater learning later.

Of course, with my students I will also have great pleasure in our participation in research in the Costa Rican wild. So, being in a beautiful area while fostering real education that results in maturation of youth is a perfect way to start my summer holiday. Yes, there is great anticipation for this June adventure!

Now wait, why do I teach Biology?

The morning rain pelts my nose and cheeks. The wind whips my face and presses against my entire body, often slowing my pace. My saddlebags are heavy laden with my computer, paperwork and the fish tank and it’s contents. Yes, the fish tank. I am a bit unsteady as the wind picks up even more and throws me off balance. Mr. “T” is jostled and the water sloshes at the sides of the plastic container hanging from my handlebars. Yes, the turtle is with me on my bike.

Mr "T" all ready to go!

During the Thanksgiving break I had left Mr. “T” at the school for four days. Upon my return he was face down in the bottom of the tank. I thought for sure he had expired. That entire week he didn’t eat and he hardly moved in the tank. I missed his eager spastic motions when I entered the classroom. It worried me and I thought his days were numbered. But then his personality returned and I determined I would never leave him alone for more than a weekend again.  So, he spent the Christmas break in my house and I needed to transport him back to school this morning.

But as I press against the wind and rain, “Why Biology?” I wonder.  I think of my colleagues that arrive with their backpacks and computer bags and the simplicity of their entrance into the school. Not me. No. I have to heave the fish tank out of my saddlebag and coordinate my rain gear, computer bag, spare shoes, lunch bag and the turtle. Thankfully a couple of my colleagues are there and grab a few of my items. I haul that fish tank and turtle upstairs and get Mr. “T” all settled in. I tend to my fish and the plants in the room. Again, “Why Biology?” None of the other teachers are worried about classroom pets and a room full of plants. However, everyone that enters my classroom to wish me a Happy New Year is equally interested in Mr. “T” and they all greet him as well.

My first class is a new group of students taking their choice of Science this semester in preparation for the Group IV IB selections. We are starting with plant nutrition. They are guided down a path to prepare them to study the structure of a leaf and understand how that structure is adapted for photosynthesis. The lesson culminates with them looking at a leaf impression under the microscope. I’m waiting with bated breath, waiting for the first student to spot the stomata and exclaim how cool it is. Waiting. Waiting. Trying hard not to give away the thrill. Then it happens. A quiet young man spies the elusive structures through the optic lens. “I see them!” He pauses and then looks up at me and exclaims, “That is actually really cool!”

And I burst with excitement, “It IS really cool, isn’t it?” Some of the other students chuckle and I realize my exuberance is a bit excessive but I can’t help myself because Biology is just so amazing. Thankfully the excitement eventually trickles throughout the classroom as each team spies the stomata and identifies the guard cells. We revel together in the wonder of the plant world. It’s so fun!

And then I am reminded that this is why I teach Biology.  And my wet and bedraggled arrival at the school with my turtle was totally worth it!

A short word on Gratitude

“Thanks for the lesson, Miss” is a sentence that often rings sweet to my ears. It amazes me that teenagers manage to find and show gratitude within the institution that they readily file so many complaints against. It’s wonderful that even though my class has challenged them, not allowed them to be lazy, ‘forced’ them to think, and insisted on attention to details, some of them are actually grateful, and it’s not necessarily the top students!

One student, in particular, is definitely struggling this year. Struggling academically, personally, and socially and yet without fail, after every lesson, remarks, “Thanks for the lesson, Miss” and will often add, “I really learned a lot” , “That was really good”, “That was really interesting” or “I finally understand now”. It is so sweet and it touches my heart every time.

Even though they are expected to clean up, they are thankful!

The second year IB biology students are in such a stressful time right now and the pressure from my class is mounting as we collect data and prepare to submit their internal assessments to the IB.  Despite the intensity of our classes and the volumes of workload, these students depart from my classroom with a ripple of “thank-you” exclamations rippling back to me. It is a beautiful way to end my day.

Being grateful is not part of the IB Learner profile (IB learners strive to be inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled) so we’re probably not addressing it at school; at least I’m not!

Parents, find comfort in knowing that lessons you teach your children at home are, indeed, being received and acted upon! Today I’m feeling thankful for grateful students and the parents who have set examples of gratitude and who have taught their children to be grateful. Thank you, students and parents!

My home country has been celebrating “Thanksgiving”, this past weekend, a holiday focused on family, feasting, and feeling grateful. Let’s carry the spirit of gratitude with us throughout the year, searching daily for things to be grateful for. If teenagers can do it during school, a place that, in their minds, on occasion “oppresses and limits them”, then we certainly can thankful for something each day of our lives, right?

Breaking Teenage Barriers

How I got my teenage son to talk to me again.

“Well, what do you advise that I do at home?” a pleading father probed. It was parent teacher conferences and he wasn’t the only one asking for advice at home. But, I’m not the parent. And I’m not the expert. I’m just the teacher. However, it’s caused me to reflect.

It’s true I’ve had six children survive the teenage years in my home and number seven just turned 13. But I still don’t feel like I have all the answers. First of all, each child is absolutely unique and what works for one doesn’t work for others. I place a lot of stock in parental intuition, doing research, and thinking outside the box.  

At least, that’s what I’ve relied on as a parent.

With one of our sons it had become a stormy and turbulent yet simultaneously silent time. Despite family dinners little was exchanged and mostly bickering with siblings and parents ensued. If it wasn’t negative then it was a few grunts followed by a retreat to his room. Occasionally we would have a conversation over sports but it could easily erupt into an argument.

Desperation settled in as I tried to figure out a way to re-engage my son. I talked to other parents, researched, and meditated. Finally, an idea came. I had to meet him on his turf: in a video game.

But how to propose such an idea so that he’d buy into it?


The time came during a conversation with his sister about mother/daughter time and he was curious, clearly feeling “left out”. My proposal spouted forth,

“Do you want to play a video game with me?”

He couldn’t believe it. “Seriously?” After all, I was always insisting he shut down the video games.

“Yes, a game for two people”

He immediately knew what to do and sprung into action. Within 30 minutes I had purchased and downloaded the game “Portal” onto my computer.

The next night a new tradition was born.

For those of you who don’t know, in Portal you can engage in a two-player game in which the team solves a series of puzzles (loosely based in physics) together. It is impossible to proceed unless both players actively play a role in the solution. So, one player can’t do all the work while the other follows.


Furthermore, you take on a robot avatar for the entire game.

We’d play 30-60 minutes together every night or ever other night, depending on his schedule. My son was in his element explaining not only the game to me but also how to use my computer to manipulate my robot. He erupted into contagious laughter as my robot ran into walls and fell off cliffs. His robot would beckon me (literally its hand would be waving at my robot) and he would say, “Mom, come this way”. He guided me, he encouraged me, he taught me. Eventually I figured things out and we actually reached a point of problem solving together. “That’s a good idea, Mom. It might work” was music to my ears! We had so much fun together. Often, after the game we’d talk about life, his day, current events, or ideas. Our portal game became an essential part of our evening.

We solved the puzzle together and then continued on with different activities within the game. But what we really gained was a restored relationship.

I think back on different ways I connected with my children: a knitting class, bike rides, exchanging self-written poems and stories, dog walks, or playing soccer. With each child it was so different. And what worked for me didn’t necessarily work for my husband. For example, the knitter enjoyed Saturday matinees with Dad while the writer participated in local theater productions with Dad. Thus, in no way do I feel like I have the answers for others.

My advice? Dig deep down into your heart and ponder how to reach your child. An idea will come and then simply act on it. I had no idea how amazing the video game idea would be but I was willing to try.

It’s never too late! And it’s always worth it. Just reach out.

My family now.

Let Go of Control

It has been 2 months. We’ve spoken once. We’ve instant messaged three times. My daughter is completing volunteer work in South Africa out in the Bush working in conservation for part of a gap year post high school graduation. During our short exchanges she radiates increased confidence and a fierce sense of independence. I rejoice yet I also feel a sense of loss. It’s our goal, as parents, isn’t it? To help our children go out on their own and become productive, independent citizens of the world. However, it’s also heartbreaking to let go.

Walking the dog at night just isn’t the same without my daughter. The heart-to-heart talks and shared secrets are a thing of the past. And I’ll forever miss that. But, more importantly, my daughter is developing into an amazing human being with thoughts, opinions, and passions of her own. She doesn’t parrot me. She is her own person and that is wonderful to see.

Recently, on the playground at school a parent told me her daughter has been resisting the overseeing parental eye claiming, “Mom, I’ve got this. I’m doing it. I know what to do” and to the mother’s surprise, her daughter has been completing homework successfully. This Mother finds it difficult to “let go” though and truly allow her daughter the freedom both to succeed and fail on her own. This Mom still insists on reviewing that essay and forcing her daughter to make changes even though she realizes it’s time for her daughter to take responsibility of her assignments and accept consequences for her imperfect submissions.

Several students are sitting casually in my classroom during a break. We’re chatting about life and they ask me how my daughter is doing in South Africa. I share what I know. They are somewhat in awe and the majority expresses a desire to do something similar when they graduate. Except for one high school pupil whose shoulders droop and smile wanes, “Even if I wanted to do a gap year, my parents would never let me”.  I admit, I was a bit stunned. I wondered, “At what point will this student be permitted to make decisions independently? At what point will the path of choice as an adult be granted?”

That preparation for my children began long before high school graduation. We attempted to give them as much say as possible and within reason with regard to the direction their lives went. And yes, they made decisions sometimes that we weren’t exactly keen on, however, in the end; their lives have been their unique journey. They have developed into remarkable and interesting adults with their own tastes, views, and interests. None of them are products of our wishes or projections of our hopes. They have forged their own paths and have discovered talents and passions that have formed their careers and who they are as adults that could have only happened by them pursuing their dreams instead of ones we might have imposed on them.

As teachers we face the same need to “let go." The Fun Night my Going Green Group hosted a few weeks ago is a classic example. As I previously wrote, it was a night organized by students. And believe me, there were times I wanted to just take over! However, my colleagues and I restrained ourselves. We gave the guidance and let the students choose whether to follow our lead or to do it “their way”. Fortunately, despite the imperfections of the evening, those who attended had a fun time and the night was successful. When our student organizers were asked to reflect on the evening and how to make it better they all commented, “We should have been more prepared” and then they outlined how they would do it differently next time. And there will be a next time! – in April. So we’ll see if they did, indeed, learn. In listening to them reflect and outline the changes they’d make, I realized how important it was to let them get to this point on their own. It was so much more productive than had we become more controlling and insistent at the front end in our desperation to make the night a “perfect event”.  Yes, “letting go” was, indeed, the correct choice.

In the classroom as well, “letting go” has its place. In letting go of rigid expectations with regard to homework, more learning might take place. Recently, in one of my high school classes, I decided to give the students more freedom in how they manage outside preparations for class. Instead of homework assignments I gave suggestions for managing reading and studying from their text following class activities on the topic. Their “homework” was not graded nor would it be the same assignment for everyone, as they would each select their own method and their own focus of study. I decided to give a “reading quiz” that wouldn’t count towards their grade (as it was a surprise) but would help them assess how well they processed information from the text and give me an idea of how well they were learning the material. I made the quiz quite tricky; with the intent to expose any oversights and weaknesses in their approach. To my surprise, they all exceeded my expectations! They each then shared with the group their study techniques and then spontaneously reflected and assessed their own approach. Each one indicated how they could do it even better, without any prompting from me. They were taking ownership for their learning.

Today I challenge us all to discover areas in our lives where we can or maybe should “let go.” I think we will find that the children we are worried about will thrive.




Helping out colleagues and taking risks

There he sat, smiling graciously at me and pleading with me. “You’ll really help us out”. He wasn’t pushy but he clearly wanted an affirmative response. He coaches my son’s U14 soccer team. He’s a really nice guy. So, how could I refuse him?

Oh, it was the last thing I wanted to do and it was way outside my comfort zone.

Thus I found myself standing in the rain on a cold and dreary Dutch day in Amsterdam on the sidelines of a soccer game.

“Coach,” someone calls out, “here is the key to the changing rooms.” Of course I want to laugh out loud and announce to all present, “I’m not a real coach. I’m a substitute and I have no idea what I’m doing!” I resist the urge and follow the instructions to take my team to prepare for the game.

I inform the hosting coach from Amsterdam that I am a substitute coach and that we are without substitutes (our three strongest players are not here today) , not sure why I felt the urge to do that. However, he scans our scrappy little group and for whatever reason, offers us two of his players as substitutes for our first game. We are very grateful for this generous gesture.

Before I feel ready,  our boys are out on the field in a vigorous match against Luxembourg. The opposing team is hammering us. Thank goodness our boys have the option to request substitution to take a break when they are exhausted. One of the boy’s father is knowledgeable of soccer and gives me some pointers that are very helpful. The boys respond to my “coaching” and try to follow the instructions.  However, as the score ratchets up in favor of our opponents I’m feeling more and more like I have a big neon label announcing “new, clueless coach." Despite playing better, our team remains unable to score a second goal. Before I can dive too deeply into my shame, the torture is over and the players are running out onto the field to shake hands and exclaim, “good game." I watch for a moment, relishing the fact that the game is over, before realizing the coaches are supposed to bring up the rear of the congratulatory line. Hurriedly I join them on the field. It’s over. Just one more game to go.

The hosting school is our next opponent and, of course, the coach wants his players back but he offers us another one who wasn’t scheduled to play that day but has showed up and wants to play. So, we have one substitute and that is a huge help, especially since he is a real asset to the team and clicks with our players. The boys start to play better, the goalie is on fire, and I’m feeling more comfortable in my role. We find ourselves leading 3:0. During quarter breaks my confidence manifests itself in my approach with the team. In the end, we triumph with a 6:4 win over Amsterdam. Our boys are exuberant; after all it’s their first win of the season. I realize, that I have had fun myself. I realize, in a crunch, I’d be happy to help out again.

So, the advice my students receive from me is true, in exiting one’s comfort zone (or in IB terminology, in being a risk taker) we enlarge our circles of experience and become more rounded as human beings. Experiencing a soccer game from a coach’s perspective has been invigorating. Seeing my students in a new situation has been enlightening. And I’ve discovered something new that I enjoy.

Therefore, if someone asks you to help out but you’re unsure because you feel inadequate or unqualified, just go for it. It will probably turn out OK, you’ll learn and grow, and you might discover a new pleasure in life.

A thought on practicing what you teach

Here are some stereotypes for you. English teachers pride themselves in grammatically correct emails, texts, and tweets. Educators of math are exact and methodical. Teachers in the arts are creative, interesting, and dynamic.  PE instructors and coaches are athletic and encouraging. History teachers extrapolate advice from past events applicable to current day experiences. You can mention any country in the world and the social studies or geography teacher can tell you where it is. And, science teachers are analytical, employing the use of the scientific method in everything they do.

Not only am I a science teacher, but my focus is biology and that affixes further considerations to my life. The Green Initiative at the school is really important to me. My family eats mostly organic. We recycle. Our car spends 95% of the time parked in front of our house and we’re in the process of getting rid of it, as we tend to opt for our bikes or public transportation. Two weeks of my summers are dedicated to taking students on conservation based ecology research expeditions, mostly because I want to “spread the word” and I feel greatest change will come from the younger generation. When traveling, I consider the impact of our journey.  Basically, the things I teach pervade our lives.

So, my effort to live what I teach has just been taken to the next level. Our high school students have been challenged to participate in the Project Green Challenge.  For whatever reason, it seemed realistic to me to support the effort by joining the challenge. Eagerly I entered my information and signed up.  Well, the first challenge came through today in the form of an email.  I decided to do both the “Green” and “Greener” challenges.  It took me probably an hour (though the “Green” realistically only took about 15 minutes). Now worry fills me to think I might have committed to an hour each night for an entire month. That’s a lot of time!

Surprizingly, I learned a great deal from my endeavor. Do you know what the “Euro-Leaf” is and means? Were you aware that there is organic nail polish remover? My little projects veritably increased my awareness of organic products and instilled a greater desire to purchase organic especially in the areas of hygiene and cleaning supplies. So, it was worth it, tonight at least. It will be interesting to see where this month leads me. Will I regret my attempt to practice what I teach?  I hope not!

Anyone else care to join?  You can do anything for a month, right? Sign up here.

Reducing the stress of last minute preparations

Don’t you hate that feeling when you have a deadline and something goes wrong at the last minute, threatening your ability to meet the deadline? It’s a universal experience, isn’t it, to at least once in one’s lifetime, be in a position of frantically preparing for an event last minute?

A teacher has multiple deadlines each day: every time a class is supposed to begin.  Those deadlines involve having copies ready, resources prepared, labs set up, digital resources accessible for students, a lesson plan worked out with formative assessments built in, project supplies on hand, or summative assessments printed out. Oh, and of course, we need to be there smiling and ready to greet the students when they walk through the door. Other deadlines include meetings (agendas prepared ahead of time) and student clubs (agendas or resources prepared). Often teachers are scrambling to have everything ready for each class in a timely manner.  Frequently there are exclamation such as “The printer isn’t working and I need 10 copies now!” or “Oh no, I forgot I was going to give a quiz this morning first block and I need to get that ready” or “I can’t get the supplies gathered in time!”

Personally, it is my goal to eliminate the last minute panic.  Not to say it never penetrates my day, however, there are some built in practices that minimize my experiencing this kind of daily stress.

  • Awareness and Planning: Each afternoon it’s worth my time, no matter how late, to spend a few minutes looking ahead at the next two days.  Sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes an hour. When other obligations summon me, then this practice takes place later in the evening at home. Thus, when advanced preparation for a lesson is required it can be built in to the following days.
  • Reviewing and Recording Formative Assessment: Of course reviewing formative assessment provides a clear picture of where my next lesson(s) will begin and how it will proceed.
  • Reflecting on the day’s lessons and updating my web site: This enables me to fully process the progress each class made on a given day and provides additional clarity of where I will begin and proceed with the next lesson. The web site also keeps students fully abreast of the on goings of the class, providing more student awareness and mental organization on their part for subsequent lessons.
  • Staying late or arriving early to prep for a lesson: This is especially crucial for a science teacher due to experimental set-up and hands-on activities that simply require advanced preparation to run smoothly. It does mean facing empty hallways at the school when all your colleagues have cleared the building. For example, my 8th grade class recently completed an involved chemistry lab. To ensure smooth running of the lab, solutions were prepared the night before and all the individual lab stations were prepared at 7:30 am, an hour before students arrived in my classroom. Yes, it requires carefully reading the lab and making sure each lab team has the proper number of test tubes, stirrers, spatulas, beakers, and other supplies.  It takes time.  It takes patience. 
  • Taking some time evening and weekends: It’s not necessary to spend hours and hours during “off “ times (this mistake I’ve made before but no longer!), however some time to do additional research on topics, revise a project, rethink an activity, streamline a lesson, or add additional formative assessment reap huge organizational and stress relieving rewards as lessons will run smoother.

This is not to say I have mastered these techniques. There are times when it just can’t be faced and then I’m left with the last minute preparation and associated stress. However, overall, generally speaking, these practices are incorporated into my routine.  The results definitely include a smoothly running classroom, no classroom management issues, higher student engagement (as there is no downtime while I’m trying to figure things out whether it’s a technical issue or finding supplies for a lab), more student awareness (I know what’s going on so it’s easier to communicate it to them), peace of mind, and a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom even during intense and demanding activities.

Becoming a Scientist

It’s how you think.

The gas flame hissed at full height while a pot sat precariously askew on the burner. There, at eye level to the flame and pot stood my little 5-year old son.  He was trying to stabilize the pot with one hand while clutching a partially filled balloon in the grimy damp fingers of his other hand.  Sweat dripped from his temples as he focused intently on his task.  He didn’t even notice me approaching his hazardous situation.

“What are you doing?”

He looks up at me with his big, open, intense blue eyes. Maintaining his grip on pot and balloon he explains, “Trying to figure something out”.  I help him with the pot as he continues; “You know how when you have a balloon in the hot car it pops?  Well, I want to know if that has to do with the heat of the car. “

We study his experimental set-up and he adds, “The balloon should get bigger if I put it in the hot water”

And there it was. The inherent curiosity. The desire to know. The determination to find out. The pursuit of a test. A formed hypothesis. It wasn’t something we taught him. It was just there.

Of course, with my guidance he completed his experiment and jumped with joy when that balloon began to expand.  He loved the idea of air molecules speeding up so fast to take up more space and pushing on the sides of the balloon to make it look like it was “filling up”. 

“If we take it out now, it will shrink again, right?”  Of course, we did it.

It seems his entire childhood was spent in testing the world. As an adult this son continues to think like a scientist, answering everyday life’s questions using the scientific method. He can’t help it. I know, because I’m the same way. 

However, not everyone thinks this way.  I see it all the time in the classroom. One student sits in a stupor while his neighbor has ten great ideas for research questions. Despite learning the proper steps and being shown the way, it still is so much more difficult for some than others.

As science teachers, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to teach the scientific method and use it as the framework for all activities in the lab.  All students can learn to formulate a proper research question, to form a hypothesis, to generate a table of variables, and to carry out an experiment using necessary lab skills.   However, some students will be stronger at thinking up innovative questions and designing creative experiments because their minds think differently than their peers.

The different wiring of brains becomes more and more apparent as students progress into the more advanced classes and are expected to become more and more independent in the design of experiments.  Students really separate out during the internal assessment process in IB science where total independence is required.  Then, there are the students who choose to do their extended essay project in a science, which is an opportunity for them to design and conduct an experiment completely stemming from their own interests, not a small feat.

It is a pleasure to foster the growth of budding scientists but there is something really special about spotting that scientific mind and seeing it wonder and wander through a myriad of questions and possibilities.  It’s true, the best I can offer as a teacher is to teach the students the framework of the scientific method (and content) and to foster the growth and expansion of the mind.  Scientists need the freedom to meander intellectually and be free to test their ideas.  That’s my job, to give those minds that freedom. 

Same Curriculum BUT Different Class, Different Needs

I remember telling colleagues once, “If I’m teaching the same exact lessons in 20 years, please shoot me”.  However, once you’ve put a lot of time and energy into a lesson and it went well, you think, “That could be used again”.   Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, it can always be a little better.  Whether it’s considering the EAL students more, including more formative assessments, being more clear on a given point(s), engaging the students even more, employing the perfect follow-up activity. etc.  There’s ALWAYS something to improve on.

They are new students.  Their academic levels, based on our standards, are unknown.  Their English skills are unknown.  Where to begin?  Well, in Science, laboratory safety is a good place to start.  The students must understand this content before embarking on any experiment and it conveniently serves to formatively assess language skills.

After reviewing the location of all emergency equipment the command is given, “Everyone point to the location of the emergency shower”.  If a student doesn’t respond until he/she sees others pointing, it is a sign of a potential English language weakness.  The items of lab safety have been explicitly discussed and demonstrated and a simple, multiple-choice quiz that is designed for everyone to reach 100% is administered.  When students struggle to understand the questions, taking an exceedingly long amount of time to complete the quiz, or querying several times,“what does this mean” or simply guessing their way through , there’s another sign of a potential English language gap.  A brief one-on-one conversation is usually also a dead give away of some challenges we, as teachers, might face with different students in the upcoming year.

This year, indeed, one of my classes has more EAL learners in it than in preceding years.   Of course, this means immediate adjustments.  The good news, however, is that often these adjustments and modifications are simply what we refer to in the profession as “best practices”.  For example, for EAL learners an introduction to the vocabulary words they will face in the upcoming unit is often beneficial.  So, a gap activity proves useful not only to them but everyone else in the class.  They are given cards to match; one has the definition, while another has the coinciding vocabulary word.  They work in teams to match words they already know and to decipher words they don’t know yet.  The deciphering process is very useful as it encourages analysis of roots within a word (of course, the students don’t know that’s what they are doing) and to study the language for any clues they can pick up from context or correlation to their mother tongue.

Knowing that students would be deciphering vocabulary definitions from Internet web sites with the task of converting the definitions into their own words, I took the Internet definitions and put them on the cards.  The students were encouraged to read words and definitions aloud to each other in pairs, seeking for understanding and finding the matches.  Each card is discussed as a class together, while we work through reading strategies and explicitly cover the content.  Then, I share the glorious trick of Google Translate (which, to my surprise my students did not know): if you copy and paste a web link into Google Translate, it will translate the entire web page for you!  Their eyes really lit up with excitement when I shared that.  Hopefully the research task was, indeed, easier.   

So, the bottom line, is that we must evaluate our curriculum each year to determine how well it fits to the current students in our class(es).  We must not fear change as it is directed by the need to modify and adapt lessons to meet the needs of our students.  It will only make our students more successful and us better.  Embrace change!