Episcopal High School, Alexandria, VA
I teach at Episcopal High School, a private100% boarding school located in Alexandria, Virginia. I live on the 130-acre residential campus where students and faculty live in a setting that fosters connections and strengthens character. The founding principles of honor, academic distinction, and spiritual growth help build a strong sense of community. Moreover, teaching at a boarding school is a transformative experience for students rooted in self-discovery, which I fully take advantage of through programs like the Washington program.
This program, along with a flexible schedule, allows us to take our students off campus to build relationships in the community outside our gates. As a result, you can create authentic experiences outside the classroom. For example, I take my anatomy and physiology students SCUBA diving when we learn about respiration, or I take my biology students on a boat to test water from the Potomac River and compare different sites in the city like Anacostia and Georgetown. We go to museums, the National Institutes of Health, Georgetown Medical School, Congressional hearings, the National Zoo, wildlife preserves, hospitals, and many more places.
In addition, before the pandemic, the school fully supported international travel with my students. We went to Costa Rica for antibiotic research with Seeds of Change (https://www.soc-cr.org/) and traveled to Panama with ADOPTA (https://adoptabosque.org) to preserve the Cloud forest of Cerro Chucanti. Whatever you can envision, you can do. The school fully supports your ideas and has the resources to make them happen.
I have taught science at Episcopal for thirty years, and I currently teach Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, and Forensics. In addition, I coach various sports, typically tennis and field hockey. However, what I value most about my years as a teacher here at this institution is that I get to teach to the “whole child.” You form a strong bond with the students by coaching, living with, and teaching them.
Recently, as we navigate the pandemic, it is even more critical to provide social and emotional support to my students. It has been challenging, but I try to lead my classes to support my students. I try to begin most classes with a meditation to allow my students space and time to reflect during their day. I also use stories that students can relate to, get excited about, and use them to find the inspiration to love science.
Stories are what binds humanity together, and these lived experiences speak to us in ways that foster authentic learning. When you listen to people’s stories, you become more empathetic, learn about thier culture, and discover differences and threads of similarity. This interconnectedness is the part of the tapestry I try to build into my curriculum that helps to foster a sense of community. I try to infuse storytelling in my classes throughout the year. I start the year by asking my students to tell me their journey and stories they are willing to share with the class and me. They record their personal stories on Flipgrid, where all the students in the class can see each other’s stories. It is a start to the class community I try to build that allows us to feel safe and gives us the freedom to share ideas.
I try to make my teaching into units that start with a story. For instance, when learning the cell division unit, I begin with the cancer story and create a narrative by reading a letter, a gift from my friend Madeleine, who had cancer. She wrote a letter to my class about what it feels like to have breast cancer. She has since passed away, but she left behind a powerful story that I share every year with my students.
Then, I ask my students to write a cancer story. I give them the option of telling their story about someone they know who has had cancer or finding a story from someone online. If they have never encountered cancer in their young lives or have had too painful of an experience to recount the story of their loved one, they have an option to explore other people’s stories. We spend class time delving into their narratives and then relating them to the science behind cancer.
After the narration of our stories, the students are more energized to explore the cell cycle—interphase, mitosis, and the control mechanisms for the cell cycle. Once the students master the skills and knowledge, they learn about the loss of control of the cell cycle, how tumors form, and how cancer ravages the organs. This knowledge base leads to a better understanding of what happened to the people they love in their stories.
Lastly, we have a Harkness discussion about Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman treated in the 1950s for cervical cancer. Her cervical cells were collected and called HeLa. We explore and discuss the contribution and breakthroughs that have taken place using HeLa cells over the last decade, such as the effects of zero gravity, development of the polio vaccine, study and advancement of Leukemia cells and other cancers, AIDS, and even COVID-19 vaccines.
After we talk about the HeLa cells and their various contributions, we explore the stories of Henrietta Lacks and her family. Through their lived experiences, we dive into social justice issues. The Lacks’ family story is expanded to help students inquire into other injustices concerning the mistreatment of African American people, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Other social justice issues surrounding medicine and the inequity of how African Americans are mistreated throughout history and even into current-day situations are analyzed.
I never really started out wanting to be a teacher. When I graduated from Dickinson College, I had a fellowship to be involved in research with Dr. Robert Galow at the National Institutes of Health. I became part of the team that was involved in the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus. Continuing my pursuit of research, I went on to work at George Washington University on HIV/AIDS with Dr. Goldstein and colon cancer with Dr. Fromm. Life became challenging as a graduate student and a new mother. I chose to leave research and began to explore the possibility of teaching at the Episcopal High School. I loved research because it was a giant puzzle. Still, I soon discovered that I loved creating passion in students and helping them understand the joy of research and how important data is for supporting our ideas and new finding. I am constantly trying to make data and class research authentic.
Data can be confusing to students, and they struggle with graphing. However, I found that if you present data as part of a story and have data sets portraying real events, students engage in the process much more willingly. One data analysis program that has brought data alive to my class is Dataclassroom, https://about.dataclassroom.com/. These authentic data activities help inform the students of some of the world’s biggest problems, such as climate change, poverty, and public health. The site also had unique pandemic data and data about the blooming of cherry blossoms in Kyoto, dating back 1,200 years.
The students are invested and jazzed by this type of data that aligns with history and the passing of time. In addition, there are other data sets from universities called Data Nuggets. Data Nuggets help teachers bring data sets from graduate student research into their classroom and help students become comfortable working with messy data and unexpected results. “Data Nuggets have gone through an iterative development process, where materials developed by scientists were used in the classroom and modified based on teacher and student experiences and feedback.” (Schultheis et al. 2015). Data is a different and powerful way to tell a story. Data supports ideas and makes them come alive. I hope to instill a passion for research and data in my students and explore critical thinking.
I am a dynamic teacher, constantly searching for new ways to reach my students. Professional development helps me create up-to-date and unique experiences for my classes. Relying on organizations such as the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) and the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) for professional development helped me to expand my knowledge and skills. During the pandemic, I learned to teach using online resources such as Gizmo, Pivot, and Teachers Pay Teachers. I also use case studies from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (https://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/). Cases studies are a powerful pedagogical technique for teaching and help present material in a story-like manner. Lastly, I love learning and am currently getting my master’s degree in leadership and policy with a social justice mindset from American University in DC. I think it is essential to show my students that learning never stops but continues throughout their lives.
I am a naturalist and find joy in all living things. There is a rare White Oak tree outside my building that is one of the oldest surviving members of its species. I often wonder what stories have played out beneath its boughs. How many children have passed by this tree? Have children 100 years ago leaned against this tree? I believe everything and everyone has a beautiful story to tell. I try to help my students find the stories in nature and their lives, and to find different ways to communicate and learn. I am in awe of my students. Their creativity and passion for learning have helped me be a better teacher. High school is a unique age because the students are discovering who they are and dealing with powerful emotions. They have taught me to listen, make mistakes, and grow as a teacher. In turn, I hope that the students learn and grow into curious lifelong learners. We move along, creating our own stories that will be passed down to the next generation under the great White Oak as a witness.
Schultheis, E. and M. Kjeluuik. 2015. Data Nuggets: Bringing Real Data into the Classroom to Unearth Students’ Quantitative & Inquiry Skills. The American Biology Teacher 77 (1):19-29. http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1525/abt.2015.77.1.4