East Chapel High School, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I teach at East Chapel Hill High School, which is part of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This year I teach standard Biology, Honors Physics, and A.P. Physics 1 and 2. In the past I have also taught Honors Biology. It is a bit of a challenge to have three separate courses while we are fully virtual, but the department is incredibly supportive and always willing to help.
This is the third district and third state that I have taught in, and East has one of the more diverse student populations that I have seen. We have some very high-achieving students from affluent families and many students who have struggled to be successful at schooling for a variety of reasons. Reaching both populations equitably is a challenge I look forward to each day.
Our community is incredibly supportive of the school and is always willing to help out if asked. If I cannot get access to resources that I may want, I can count on that community to help and find an alternative or some other solution that supports the learning of their students.
I think the biggest guiding factor to me becoming a science teacher is my innate curiosity. I want to know how things work and why, and what causes things to go wrong. That desire to know more about the world around me and share what I found definitely pushed my interests towards the sciences. I went back and forth for a little while on pursuing a research career or going into teaching, and clearly I settled on teaching.
But that was heavily supported by my time on the staff of a youth leadership camp through the Boy Scouts of America. My experiences there gave me my first moments of true teaching and from then on, I was hooked. Being able to facilitate moments of growth and learning is a joy and something that I knew I could not give up.
The thing that actually gave me the final push to continue with a career in education was during my first semester of my undergraduate studies. I volunteered as a tutor for a local school district and was paired with some struggling students. Working closely with those students and building relationships that fostered positive educational growth was world-changing. Having the love of science and the hook of true moments of learning helped for sure, but something was different when it was a student who was struggling and it just started clicking for them. That change and desire of those students to do well and learn when given the necessary tools cemented the fact that I was where I needed to be.
Reaching students who, for various reasons, are not participating or showing up to virtual learning was the biggest challenge I experienced. I can’t simply talk to that student during class when they do not show up, or may be having technical issues, or are simply overwhelmed and just need some reassurance. I started inviting students to individual conferences outside of class time and after a few invitations (and some phone calls) many of those students chose to engage in class.
Balancing my time “off-the-clock” and when I answer emails was another challenge. Many students work late into the night, and if I happened to see an email after 10 p.m., I would respond right away. After a while, I found that to be emotionally draining and I was not my best self for my students. Setting expectations with students and modeling a healthy separation helped me to better support my students and I think helped a few of them to begin to balance their own schedules.
The third biggest challenge that I had was providing a collaborative environment for students to experience science and have those in-person “Aha!” moments when they figure something out. This phenomena is much harder to foster in a virtual environment when the factors of life are even more present in my students’ lives. It took a lot of work and building rapport with the students to get to that collaborative point. And while the in-class “Aha!” moments might be fewer, they are still present.
I was already in a sort of good position to transition to virtual teaching. The past year or so I had been working towards a paperless classroom and putting most of my materials in our learning management system (Canvas). But going fully virtual was really challenging, and balancing engagement with student mental health is still a priority for me. Knowing that many students may have added familial responsibilities and would be unable to attend synchronous live classes, I ensured that all materials, lectures, and videos could be navigated independently.
District policy kept me from being able to record the class sessions, so to work around that I use the PearDeck add-on for Google Slides. After going through the slides with the class and structuring our class for the day, I can change the setting and allow students who had to miss class to have a self-paced version of the same information. This process also helps students who may want to review what we did that day. Of course, we want to do more than just lecture notes, so I also use breakout groups to have small group discussions and collaborative teams to support each other.
As far as resources for outside of live class that I use, EdPuzzle videos are high on the list. Being able to ensure that students watch an entire video and checking for understanding in the middle of it is a huge benefit. I have experimented with Flipgrid but found that I need to increase the structure of the questions I ask for my younger students to really engage in a beneficial discussion.
I also use many virtual simulations as substitutes for traditional laboratory experiences. PhET and Explore Learning’s Gizmos are the two main sources of these but there are some others sprinkled in as needed. Fortunately, there are some concepts and labs that can be done at-home with little to no materials. Physics content has a lot of opportunities for this. And when I can, I prefer to use those but the other simulations certainly fill the gaps. I use Canvas to consolidate all of the links and assignments in an easy-to view format for my students. I also run assessments and all digital work submission through Canvas.
I am still doing virtual teaching (for now) and am constantly improving how I use these resources and finding new ways to keep students engaged for meaningful teaching and learning.
Talk to them. Ask questions about hobbies, extracurriculars, other classes, anything to start the conversation. Notice ways in which students express themselves and ask more. As we know, students are much more than what we see in our classrooms. Opening the door and starting the conversation is key to building relationships.
Continue the conversation and share your authentic self with your students. Somehow students have a unique skill to tell when a teacher may not be genuine, and that gets in the way of building that rapport. It is a fine line to balance but if you start small I find that students are willing to build those relationships. This goes with being honest about your mistakes and flaws. If you make a mistake; own it, provide a fix, and move on. It will be much better than trying to pretend that no mistake was made at all.
Differentiation is key to providing an equitable education to all. Some more labor-intensive ways are to adjust handouts and assignments for individual students based on their need and what is rigorous for each person. This can take a lot of time to do successfully, but certainly helps students. What I do more often is purposefully structure collaborative groups that supports the students who may need it and challenges students who need it.
The greatest resource that I use to guide my teaching is my department and colleagues who teach the same subjects. There is an accumulation of knowledge and experience to draw from, and that can only improve my own instruction. Modifying laboratory investigations and activities that have been used the past few years makes great use of available resources and are aligned to our state standards.
Other more tangible resources I use are a variety of published videos on YouTube for extended explanations and animations, College Board’s AP Classroom for practice AP questions, and PhET simulations for some of the more microscopic content. I like to find a wide range of resources to encourage new ideas and connections that I may not have thought of on my own.
The lesson I am most proud of I actually used this past fall for the first time. I was looking at the recent push to more interdisciplinary content and connections and thought of how many students do not see the connection that writing and literacy have to upper-level science courses. So, I structured a unit on linear momentum that heavily supported students in their writing skills, both creative and argumentative. Throughout the unit students were asked to increase their written explanations and peer-edit the work of their classmates. The unit culminated in a choice assignment for them to either write a more traditional laboratory analysis or a creative piece that contained explanations of the concepts of the Law of Conservation of Momentum and the Law of Conservation of Energy. Some students expressed that they disliked the assignment as it was unfamiliar to write so much in a science course, and I took that as confirmation that this was a beneficial unit to use. I plan on adding more writing supports and assignments in future units to further these interdisciplinary connections.
Students are more capable and willing to try new things than we often give them credit for. This has been shown to me a few times but one time that sticks out in particular regards a student in an extracurricular club I advised. The club was part of a state competition for STEM projects that encouraged non-traditional STEM students to foster their interests and exposure to unique experiences. There were four challenges and as part of the requirements we had to participate in three of them. Through some unfortunate events that year, the club enrollment dropped and we were short one project in the couple of weeks leading to the competition. I turned to the team leader and asked for his opinion on if we continue in the competition or forfeit. He rose to the occasion and led the rest of the team to complete the final project that none of them had experience with in time for the competition. We ended up earning second place in that particular competition. Watching him lead the team and coordinate the efforts to compensate for the lost team members was inspiring and showed to me the compassion and desire that our students have to commit themselves to whatever they are passionate about. And I have tried to incorporate student interests in my teaching because of that experience.
I would say to not be afraid to try something new. Be honest with your students and yourself that this idea may not work, but try it anyways. Get input from your colleagues and be prepared for it to not go well, but try it anyway. We learn from that process as much as students do. Try the new idea, it may work superbly or it may fail spectacularly. But if you have worked to build those relationships with students, and are transparent about the process, it will be beneficial for both you and them.
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