I have had the benefit of attending the NSTA national conference 3 out of my 4 years in education and I have to say it’s one of the best professional development experiences. I love seeing and hearing what other people are doing in their classrooms or other sectors of education to help all students science.
That said, 4 days of NSTA can be overwhelming and after 3 years there are some recommendations to make the most of NSTA (or any conference).
1. Go with a group
If at all possible, don’t go alone. My first year going to NSTA I went by myself. I learned a lot but you get at least 4x more out of the experience if you go with a group. Our district has been very supportive in sending a team of 10ish people to NSTA every year including teachers from all schools, TOSAs (science and english!), our curriculum director, and even the assistant superintendent. You may not be that lucky but I’m sure you can find some teacher friends that are interested in going! Here’s why going with a group is better:
You can cover more ground. There’s probably 4 sessions in every time slot you want to go to. If you’re with a group you can divide and conquer.
Learning is a social process. At the end of the day it helps to process what you learned and bounce ideas off of other people.
The group texts are amazing. ————————————–>
It’s more fun! You’re probably in a new city you may have never been to. Explore it with a friend or two or ten!
2. Pick a Focus
National conferences can be overwhelming with all their offerings. There are literally thousands of sessions and workshops to choose from and they all sound awesome! It helps to narrow you focus to one or two things you want to learn about and use that focus to help you set your schedule. Last year my focus was assessment, so I went to a bunch of sessions and workshops on how to write NGSS assessments. This year my focus was equity and discourse. By picking a focus you can narrow the thousands of options down to a manageable amount.
3. Pack Light and Wear Comfy Shoes
At this past NSTA we were averaging 15,000 steps a day. That’s about 5 miles. Dress shoes and a huge bag are a recipe for pain. NSTA and many other conferences usually provide a handy bag. A lot of people like to carry their laptops and the program and chargers and… too much stuff. I live pretty minimally in general so I just toss a few things into my bag and I’m good to go:
Phone, wallet. The basics.
Water bottle. I have a reusable 16 oz Nalgene that I refill throughout the day.
iPad. I used to drag my laptop around to conferences (I have a 13″ Macbook air so it’s not too big) but honestly I don’t need it and lugging it around all day gave me shoulder pain. The iPad is sufficient for my browsing and note taking needs.
Notebook. I prefer jotting down notes by hand and am obsessed with my beautiful Erin Condren productivity layout notebook. I like this notebook because it has lined pages for note taking, sticker flags that I use to label each session, and a sidebar where I jot down resources and websites the speakers share as well as questions. I added pockets for handouts, a ziploc pouch for business cards, a pen holder, and snap in post-its. I really don’t need anything else for notes.
Portable charger and cable. NSTA typically does not have free wifi so I use the heck out of my phone and I burn through the battery 2 or 3 times a day, especially if there are Pokemon nearby. My Mophie Powerstation Duo is a lifesaver. It does up to 8 full charges for my phone and because it’s portable I never have to be attached to the wall. (Side note: I use this a ton at Disneyland and end up being the charger of everyone’s phone).
I have a tendency to get overly enthusiastic and want to do ALL THE THINGS, so I tend to schedule myself from 8am-5pm with no breaks. Then I end up burning out and missing half my sessions. This year I made a rule that I wouldn’t attend any sessions before 9am. It worked out for me.
Private Reasoning Time
In our math classes the teachers use “Private Reasoning Time” to allow students to sit quietly and make sense of their learning before moving forward, and at the end of my 4 days I took a few hours of private reasoning time to organize my notes and reflect on my learning. I mentioned that my focus this year was on equity and discourse. After 4 days of taking everything in at NSTA I was left with questions about my own teaching practice, which is what you WANT to have after 4 days of professional learning. My main takeaways:
Are our competencies (assessments) standards aligned performance tasks? Should they be?
I don’t know what I don’t know about the science and engineering practices. I know what the end goal is but what is the learning progression? How do we get to that end goal?
How can I be more intentional about student talk?
How can I integrate and scaffold reading more in my lessons?
How relevant is my curriculum to ALL students?
What experiences/biases am I bringing to my classroom?
I’m looking forward to exploring these questions further with all the new tools I got from NSTA!
I am a most effective teacher when I am not talking. It’s not a new idea that students learn and retain more when they take ownership of their learning rather than being an information sponge during a lecture. But also, when I talk less I can differentiate more. I am more in tune with where each individual student is at when I am sitting and meeting with them one-on-one to discuss their learning and what support they need to move their learning forward. Students move at different paces, they have different needs, and a conversation is the best way for me to uncover those needs.
Here’s what that looks like for me: multi-day projects or assignments that ask big questions. Recently my partner and I assigned a protein project where students had to choose a protein and conduct research to construct an argument for how its structure affected its function. The result of this was a research page (I say page, not paper because it wasn’t a structured essay and it required creative inclusion of visuals to explain). To accomplish this task, we front loaded some content that students could use to describe structures and functions of proteins, then set them loose for 3 days to research and form their arguments.
During this time I could have just wandered the classroom looking for blank faces, but I decided to be methodical about it. I created a project check in using Google Forms and asked the students to complete the form at the beginning of each class. I pre-loaded the form with what I predicted would be common sticking-points in their research, then got to work. Within the first 5 minutes of class I had a list of people to need help and could prioritize based on their needs.
Let me walk you through my workflow:
I load the form responses in Google Sheets in my iPad and look for the responses that indicate the kid is completely lost.
I go talk to that kid and see if I can get them started. For one I might provide scaffolding from our ed. specialist, for another I might chunk the assignment and direct them to a specific web page, quick fixes that will get them started.
If I feel that the kid is able to move forward without further support I mark their response in green on my Google Sheet. If I want to come back to them I mark their response in yellow.
I move on to the next kid that needs a lot of support.
I also shared the responses with the ed. specialist who is in my room during one class period so we could tag team. The other great thing about this method is I was able to get a snapshot of what the class was struggling with overall and could do some clarification for the whole class on those things:
I love Google Forms (they’re super versatile!) and will be sharing more about how I use them in my classroom.
So right after Thanksgiving break we got a class set of laptops (netbooks?) for our students and with all the tech talk in all my classes I was more than a bit eager to bust them out and get to work. So I’ve been playing around with them, incorporating some tech tools into my lessons, and learning a bit about what does and doesn’t work…
Problem #1: The first few logins So far we’ve had 2 lessons with the netbooks incorporated and something happened that I didn’t anticipate: slow login time. Like 5-10 minutes for the computers to get past the login screen, resulting in a slew of frustrated 16 year olds opting to use their smartphones instead and ragged beginning that threw of the tone of the class. How to fix it: After speaking with seasoned 1:1 teacher Jen Roberts, it seems probable that the slow login is due to the netbooks having to connect to the district server and download all of the files the students have ever saved ever. After a few logins and full shutdowns of the computers this problem should dissipate. The takeaway: for the first few uses plan for lag.
Problem #2: Getting Everyone on the Same Page Even though we are living in a technology world it is still hard to get every student to go to the same page. Some are playing games, some don’t know where to go, some mistype the link several times, some are using Internet Explorer… In general they all know how to navigate to a webpage but be prepared for a chorus of “Where am I supposed to go? It’s not working!” How to fix it: If possible use links. I had huge successes getting students where I wanted them to go when they had a link to click. Alternatively have typed (or written) step-by-step direction on where to go and what the site should look like. Screenshots included. And with typed directions, make sure you use a font where capital “I”, lowercase “l” and the number 1 (one) are distinguishable. It can mean the difference between getting where you want to go and ending up on a Japanese surrealist’s art portfolio.
Problem #3: Trying to do too much too soon I got a bit overenthusiastic about fully incorporating technology into my last lesson. The resulting chaos and confusion as half the netbooks took 10 minutes to login, students couldn’t figure out the website, incorrect email addresses were given, and using an unfamiliar new tool devastated the amount of instructional and practice time in the day. How to fix it: Start out slow. Unless you plan on devoting multiple classes to troubleshooting the problems of some students while the others grow increasingly restless, their fingers twitching at the keyboard, just aim for one thing at a time until everyone is comfortable with the technology rather than planning a whole lesson online.
One thing that worked fabulously for me was devoting 30 minutes at the end of class to getting started with the netbooks. I left an Internet breadcrumb trail for the students to follow. They started out on my homepage and were instructed to find the link to a Google form which asked for their name, email, and things they wanted to do more in class. The submission confirmation page led them to a Socrative quiz on the content for that day. The final question asked the students to find the homework assignment on my homepage. The final feedback page in the Socrative quiz instructed them to Mahjong Chem where they could play a review game until the end of class. Bonus: by the end of class I had a student roster of name, period, and email address sitting in my Google Drive.
When I first started digging into NGSS so much of it made sense to me. The science and engineering practices were clearly things my students should be doing in class and they all fit together. The science and engineering practices clearly rely on each other. To engage in argument from evidence you must be able to analyze and interpret data and to get data you need to conduct investigations. The disciplinary core ideas were the big enduring understandings that we keep coming back to throughout the course. Those things that kids will remember for the rest of their lives when they have forgotten all the details.
The crosscutting concepts were a bit fuzzier. I get structure and function. When I was in college that was a huge epiphany for me: that almost every behavior of an atom or molecule could be predicted by knowing its shape and electronegativity. Cause and effect: obvious. But energy and matter? Patterns? What do they mean by patterns? I asked my students what a pattern was and they all gave me blank stares until one of them pointed at the stripes on the American flag. These seemed like a random assortment of big ideas; obvious or sometimes intuitive ideas with many possible interpretations. I mean, I guess that’s why they are called crosscutting. But how to teach them? And are they really that random?
So after struggling to reconcile with the crosscutting concepts for far too long I finally did what a good researcher does and went to the source material. After digging in and doing a close read of Appendix G, I had another epiphany. I strongly recommend all science teachers take the time to read Appendix G. It’s really helpful. Here’s a link so you don’t even have to google it.
The crosscutting concepts do rely on each other and science and engineering practices to make sense of phenomena. In our math curriculum they have Mathematical Habits of Mind and Interaction and they have instructional strategies for addressing these.The crosscutting concepts are our habits of mind and I’m still working on how to be more explicit about teaching the crosscutting concepts. I want to learn what that might look like from our math department, but I do know that they have the Habits on their walls as anchor charts so now I have this hanging on my wall.
Way back in 2014 I was a young, bright-eyed student teacher. I was tweeting, I was blogging, I was innovating. I was on fire. Then first year teaching hit me like a ton of bricks. I got a job teaching a brand new course at a brand new school designed to close the achievement gap through a complex assessment and grading policy and a system of social-emotional support for every student. It was hard work. I was writing curriculum that blended chemistry, biology, and biotechnology in a way that hadn’t really been done before. I was still figuring out the basics of running my own classroom. I was trying to figure out the systems of this crazy awesome school that really took care of the whole child. I learned so much about my teaching practice being surrounded by skilled professional educators and was very focused on honing my instruction. It was a time of immense challenge and growth. But in these first years I stopped doing a lot of good things too. I stopped blogging and tweeting. My grandiose ideas for changing instruction got shelved as I became bogged down with the day-to-day demands of my job and my life. I felt like I was losing touch with the student teacher that was so fresh and full of ideas. She wasn’t gone, she just wan’t accessible. I was in a slump in both my career and my life.
Lately I have been reminded of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We’re all familiar. To achieve self-actualization basic needs must be met. I began thinking about my life and teaching in terms of this hierarchy. Of course I wasn’t cultivating relationships in my life, I could barely feed myself regularly. I began to wonder what a Hierarchy of Needs might look like to a new teacher so I began to draw it out. At the base a teacher needs basic classroom management and organization as well as curriculum. I didn’t have these starting out. No real curriculum, no workflow systems. I had to build all this from the ground up. My workflow is better but I’m still tweaking it. I’m still battling with curriculum and assessment as our school and department grows and we are constantly changing and aligning and realigning and rethinking assessment. I know I still have growth in my instruction. I’m still developing that “withitness” which does not come naturally to me. I don’t always close my lessons. My transitions sometimes take way longer than they should. But overall it’s better. I’m finally at a point where I feel like I can reconnect with that spunky student teacher. So this post is my way of saying: