HS science

Lowering Anxiety in the Classroom

Image from an article on anxiety (3).

Image from an article on anxiety (3).

Over our Spring Break last week, I had lunch with a friend who spent a day previous to our meeting at a symposium on anxiety, a topic that has lately made it onto my radar through people that I personally know who suffer with the condition.  Recently I also read the article “Surviving Anxiety” by Scott Stossel (1) , editor of The Atlantic and was very moved by its content.  I additionally learned that 18% of the adult U.S. population is affected by an anxiety disorder (2). I’ve had students that are plagued with different levels of anxiety and wonder how I can best meet their needs.

My friend described how it is important for people with anxiety to face their anxiety to the point that they feel they can’t take it any more and then back off.  Gradually they will learn that they survive the event and can survive feelings of anxiety. 

She gave the example of a student who has anxiety about a certain type of assignment.  Parents will often talk to the teachers and get the assignment somehow removed “for the child’s sake” and that, of course, makes things easier on everyone.   Most importantly, it seems better for the child because the anxiety drops as he/she realizes “Whew, I’ve dodged that bullet”.  However, at this symposium, the professional advice was to allow students to experience the anxiety to maximum tolerance levels, pushing them to complete assignments or give presentations.  Then, in the end, they realize they have survived and it will give them confidence to continue to challenge themselves.

As a teacher, I feel it is not my place to determine the upper acceptable anxiety limit.  I am willing to work with parents and professionals to build modifications for any student with an anxiety disorder.  However, I do want to create an environment that lowers anxiety levels for all students.  Here are some practices that hopefully lower anxiety levels in my classroom.

  1. There is no time limit for tests, especially in grades 6-10 (IB, as always, is it’s own beast).  In the beginning, I try to give at least a 20-minute buffer time on all exams.  I make it very clear that all students can take as long as they need on an exam.  If, later in the year, I realize some students need even more time, I build it in to the schedule.  And yes, sometimes this means allocating an entire block of class-time for an assessment. 
  2. No noise towards end of an exam. Once a student is finished with a test, they are to turn over the page and quietly work on the next assignment, reading, or homework for another class.  I do not want anyone to feel pressure because the rest of the class is finishing up and he/she is still only partway through the assessment.  There is no scraping of chairs and shoving of desks as students attempt to turn in exams, rather, the room remains still and quiet until everyone is finished.
  3. Consult students on assignment schedule. When scheduling assessments and projects for a given unit, I check with the class and tweak the schedule as necessary, dependent on assignments or sport games/tournaments they already have scheduled.
  4. Ease students into solo presentations. Standing in front of a class to give a presentation can be very stressful for students, even those without anxiety disorders.  In the beginning of the year, I pair students to present from their seats, for example, to report on some research they’ve done together to further the class’s understanding on a given topic.  Later, different pairs will actually stand before the class to present a digital presentation of choice (Keynote, Prezi, etc.).  It isn’t until students have been exposed to these types of scenarios several times before I expect them to stand solo before the class. 
  5. Establish rapport. Before each class I ask the students how they are doing.  They all relax and some students share stories from their morning, day, recess, or lunch.  This seems especially important after weekends or vacations.  I am genuinely interested in how they are doing and I hope they feel that.  Furthermore, this practice hopefully makes me more approachable to them.
  6. Greet students. When we pass in the hallways I always say, with a smile, “good morning” or “hello” to students, using their name, even if they initially duck their heads in that teenage awkwardness clearly hoping to not be seen.  100% of the time they return a smile and greeting.  My hope is that the students become more and more comfortable at school and interacting with teachers.
  7. Attend sporting events. As often as possible I try to watch them when they play sports at home games, even if it is only for half the game.  Again, I’m sending the message that I care about them, including parts of their lives that aren’t connected to my classroom.
  8. Love the job. I genuinely love teenagers. Furthermore, I honestly love what I do.  With purpose I chose to teach middle and high school.  I’m not afraid to show my enthusiasm, sometimes resulting in shared laughter with the students.

It is my desire, that taken together, these practices minimize the “scary teacher” relationship with students.  I want students to feel comfortable.  I desire to optimize the learning experience by diminishing opportunities for anxiety in the classroom.  Do you have additional suggestions for lowering anxiety in the classroom?  Please share below.



(1) Stossel, Scott. "Surviving Anxiety." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 22 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/surviving_anxiety/355741/4/>.

(2) "Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA." Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-

(3)  Image from "Anxiety treatment with a computer just as good as therapy, study says." ZME Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <http://www.zmescience.com/research/studies/anxiety-treatment-with-a-computer-just-as-good-as-therapy-study-says/#!GbcnB>. room/facts-statistics>.

My relationship with the laminating machine: student engagement

I used to think the laminating machine was just for elementary teachers.  They have all those fun and colorful things for their cute and cuddly youngsters and we, in the secondary school just don’t.

Last year I participated, as part of Professional Development at our school, in an EAL certification program.  During the course we were presented with all sorts of creative ideas to help the language learners in our classes.  Furthermore we were expected to trial the ideas with our students and follow up with a reporting of the results.  I took the challenge seriously and quickly came to the understanding that these activities were truly “best practices” benefitting all learners in the class.  However, I wasn’t convinced that my IB students would “buy into” such activities, I mean, really, handling laminated cards and arranging the process of antibody production on the tabletops?  I was dead wrong.  Even my Year 2 IB students delighted in the exercises and claimed that such hands-on activities helped them learn.  Thus, I’ve incorporated these type of practices into all of my units.  Wanting to preserve the material for future use, I decided to laminate.  I experienced a feeling of “initiation” and empowerment as I joined my elementary colleagues at the laminating machine.  In the meantime I have collected several binders full of laminated activities. 

Today I used one of my laminated projects on my high school biology students.  In an effort to introduce them to the topic of the chemistry of life that has a load of vocabulary I pulled out the laminated vocabulary squares.   Each pair of students received a stack of cards, half containing bolded vocabulary words and the other half with the corresponding definition or match (i.e. the structure of glucose or a lipid or an amino acid).  The students immediately spread the cards out seeking words they could identify. Discussions of roots and possible meanings ensued.  Communications of reasoning and logic followed.  During this time, I easily assessed any prior knowledge the students had.

Once the students were stumped, I allowed them to consult their book.  Captivated and animated the students immersed themselves in the text reading paragraphs to each other, deciphering meaning and identifying further matches.  Once they “were done” they quizzed each other and additionally mixed up the cards to try again.  I was able to circulate and informally assess how each student's progress through questioning and low-pressure quizzing.  They smiled and laughed as they stretched their brains for understanding and committing content to memory.

With plenty of time left, the class was prepared to begin the lab on chemical testing of certain molecules found in foods.  Thanks to our introductory activity, they were already approaching this task with scientific language and a basic knowledge that will aid them in understanding the lab.

As the students donned their aprons and goggles, I happily placed my laminated treasures back in their designated pocket in the HS binder.  My association with the laminating machine has paid off once again.  Do you have any good ideas that have worked for you or heard your children describe or remember from your own schooling experience?  Please share below!

The Power of Student Blogging

Hope is in the air as the middle students query, “Do we get to work on our blogs?” They are anticipatorily at attention sitting on the edge of their seats with their computers ready to open if I give the “OK”.  I had planned some blogging time towards the end of the lesson but they are just so ready NOW that I alter my plans.

One student is literally bouncing up and down in his chair with excitement.  “THREE people have viewed my blog!”   Other students immediately check their statuses as well.  “Can anyone in the world see our blogs?”  “How many followers will we get?”  The eagerness is palpable. 

They are incredibly focused as they ponder the aspects of global warming that interest them.  They are thoughtful and careful as they attempt to put their reflections into the written word.  Web sites are consulted, images are uploaded, and miraculously, everything is properly annotated with resources.  The quality of work these 11-12 years olds is producing is quite impressive.  They are invested.  It is their voice.

One student wrote, “ I have been asked to consider three effects of global warming that I’d like to do more research on.  This meant for me to think out of the box and do a lot of research on the topic.  I feel like all of my posts should be providing new information at all times.” Over and over I have been surprised by the ambitious approach students have taken with regard to their blogging. 

Using blogs as a method for students to communicate learning and reflection has so far proven to be a far more powerful tool than we originally expected.  My colleague and I initially thought the blogs would center on the progress of each student’s science fair project.  However, the blogs rapidly expanded to become regular forums documenting the progress of learning in all aspects of our classrooms. 

I encourage giving students voice in their own learning.  It empowers them.  It makes them accountable.  It engages them. Plus, it simply energizes the classroom and the learning experience.

12th and 6th grade alike?

They’re between the ages of 16 and 18.  They are IB Year 2 Biology students.  They are applying for college and looking forward to being on their own next year.  They can think critically and debate.  They can grasp high level content.  They challenge ideas.  They are aware of global issues. 

Then, within in minutes of their departure, the “little” ones walk in.  They are energetic.  They laugh spontaneously at the silliest things.  They can’t find their notebook.  They don’t have a pencil.  They pull out a crinkled, torn lab paper from the bottom of the backpack.  They are filled with wonder and thrill in discovery.

I teach 12th and 6th grade students.  On the one hand they are so different but on the other hand I am amazed at the similarities.  The most surprising discovery for me is how much my 12th graders enjoy activities that years ago I considered “beneath them”.   Last year, after a special training course on teaching English language learners, I trialed some hands-on learning activities on my seniors. Truthfully, I thought these activities would only work on my middle school students.   I mean, what 17-year old is going to want work out biological pathways through handling laminated images?  Well, I was wrong.  They LOVE it.  So, I’ve incorporated these “best practice” activities such as sequencing of sentences to form a paragraph on genetic mutations or matching laminated vocabulary words on evolution with their corresponding definitions.  Whenever I present such an activity, my older students become excited and eagerly move into position to participate.  Like the 6th graders, they learn well when they are hands on with the content.

Both grades are unique.  Both grades love learning, especially when they are engaged.  Both grades are a joy to teach.  So yes, they are alike!