Guest post by Casie Zamiara, AP Chemistry and Chemistry Honors Teacher
Lake Norman Charter High School
Lake Norman Charter High School
Casie is in her 11th year at LNC and overall. She was recently named the Lake Norman Charter School district Teacher of the Year. You can follow her on Twitter (@kczamiara). This essay was included in the Teacher of the Year portfolio.
Philosophy of Teaching
by Casie Zamiara
I vividly remember walking into my first graduate education course over a decade ago, eager to embark on my journey towards becoming a science educator. During that year, I received a plethora of advice about “best teaching practices”, ranging from classroom management, to educational technologies, to effective lesson planning. However, nothing(!) can prepare a new teacher for those overwhelming first moments of walking into that classroom with real students who have real personalities, talents, fears, strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of working at LNC is that I have the flexibility to take risks in my classroom in order to discern which teaching practices are truly the most effective for my students; as a result, I’ve developed three major beliefs which I use to drive my instruction in all levels of Chemistry:
1. Students need myriad opportunities to think critically in the classroom. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a noted astrophysicist, articulated that “knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.” Our children are coming of age in a time when the credibility of journalism is increasingly questioned; our social media feeds are inundated with research studies which reference “bad science” or cite misleading statistical data. An unfortunate consequence of biased media is that members of our community are losing trust in the empirical nature of science; scientific principles are increasingly viewed in the same manner as religion, as if one can “choose” which scientific phenomena are considered to be valid. Thus, I believe that one of the most important roles I play as a science educator is not the delivery of specific content – it is, rather, the need to exercise students’ minds in a multitude of capacities, and equip them with the higher-order thinking skills needed to successfully wade through misinformation and become scientifically-literate members of our community.
In my first-semester Chemistry classes, I engage students in an activity where they must perform online research to discern the pros and cons of using a chemical called DHMO – Dihydrogen Monoxide. After students complete their research, I ask them to share their findings as a class: Should we ban the use of DHMO? Why? Each year without fail, almost every student indicates that the chemical should be banned because of its negative impacts – it contributes to global warming, it is used by terrorists, its consumption is fatal in large doses, etc. Ultimately, I prompt my students to recognize that Dihydrogen Monoxide is water (H2O!) and use this opportunity to reiterate the importance of thinking critically about the information we have at our fingertips (after all, those “negative impacts” of water are accurate!) and second, the importance of acquiring a fundamental understanding of the sciences so that we can make informed decisions as community members and future voters.
To help my students cultivate higher-order thinking skills throughout the year, I employ a system of “Skills-Based Learning” (SBL) criteria to quantitatively assess long-term growth of their critical thinking abilities. For example, instead of simply asking a student to construct a scatterplot, I might ask him to hypothesize why a certain data trend exists, using his prior knowledge of chemistry (an “Analytical” skill). Instead of requiring a student to calculate the freezing point of a solution, I might ask her to explain why salt is an effective means of de-icing roads (an “Application of Content” skill). All of my assessment prompts are linked to specific critical thinking skills and quantified using the “Mastery” tool in Schoology; thus, my students can review their SBL performance to gain insight into their individual strengths and weaknesses, and plan concrete next steps for further intellectual development. This assessment strategy is highly beneficial to student learning because it encourages deeper engagement with chemistry content, and also promotes students’ metacognition of their growth as critical thinkers.
2. To cultivate a growth-mindset, students’ mistakes must be normalized and embraced. It is no secret that students feel increasing pressure to achieve academic perfection; as a result, I see a growing number of students each year who harbor a paralyzing fear making mistakes both in and outside of the classroom. Ultimately, the desire to hyper-achieve can be a hindrance to our students’ capabilities to exercise creativity, gain improvisational/problem-solving skills, and persevere through life’s toughest challenges. In my classroom, it is my expectation that all students, regardless of ability level, must be continually challenged in order to reach their academic potential. I do not allow my students to give up when faced with moments of academic discomfort; rather, I encourage my students to persevere through these experiences of adversity in the hopes that they will learn to develop a sense of “grit” as they grow both intellectually and emotionally.
One way that I introduce intellectual challenge into my classroom is by facilitating inquiry-based learning, which encourages self-directed instruction as students explore scientific phenomena. In a traditional structured (“cookbook”) lab activity, students are provided with a step-by-step procedure to follow and often obtain results that seamlessly illustrate a unit objective. Through guided inquiry-based learning, however, my students are responsible for designing and implementing their own scientific investigations. On Day 3 of Chemistry class, I ask my students to participate in their first guided-inquiry lab of the year, and their discomfort and lack of confidence with the task is immediately clear. Students often have limited prior experience with open-ended experimental design, and are “trained” through structured labs to work within a defined set of parameters. They are hesitant to engage in inquiry activities out of fear of “doing the wrong thing” or obtaining an erroneous result. To alleviate these concerns, I introduce many of my inquiry labs as an informal challenge rather than a grade. I want my students to recognize that scientific inquiry is not a linear process; multiple approaches can be used to investigate scientific phenomena, and notable scientific discoveries often evolve from mistakes or unexpected results. Thus, I use inquiry-based instruction as a low-risk opportunity for students to be creative and make mistakes without fear of academic penalty.
After successfully pushing my students outside of their comfort zones, we regularly reflect as a group on the viability of their procedures as well as possible sources of error: How did your chosen methods affect the accuracy of your results? What could be done differently next time to increase your level of precision? Did your results make sense, and why? At the beginning of the year, student responses are often superficial (“I may have measured the wrong amount of water”); however, as my classes become more comfortable with the inquiry process, I am continually amazed at the intellectual growth and sophistication of their ideas. Not only do I see marked improvement in the quality of our class discussions, but an increased confidence and enthusiasm to participate as students begin to recognize that making mistakes is not only normal, but an expectation which should be embraced in my class.
3. Student engagement and relationships are key to maintaining high standards for learning. One of the most effective strategies I use to create classroom rigor is to conceal a difficult task within a “low-risk” activity that feels approachable to students. Breakout Box challenges, Speed-Dating review, and scavenger hunts with riddles to de-code are some of the tools that I employ to promote students’ engagement while simultaneously challenging their content knowledge. Any of my students will tell you that I am the “Chemistry Meme Queen”; I love to incorporate silly jokes, puns and music videos (including the classic “Electromagnetic Spectrum Song”) into my instruction to encourage further engagement with the material and maintain a relaxed atmosphere for learning.
To maintain high academic standards, I believe that my students’ successes – even small victories – must be recognized throughout the learning process. Not all students will think chemistry is a breeze, or achieve an A in my class – and I refuse to use such criteria to define the overall success of my students. True academic success arises from a student’s willingness to work hard, face a challenge head-on, and persevere through stumbling blocks. This can come in many forms: it may be a student who passes a chemistry assessment for the first time; a student who has an “Aha!” moment while learning a complex concept; or a student’s lackluster interest in science evolving into a passion. All of these moments are reason for celebration, and I continuously strive to be my students’ “Number One Cheerleader”.
In my classroom, I have a “Great Work” wall, where I display samples of exceptional student work at the end of each instructional unit; I intentionally choose different students to highlight each time, because I believe that all students should have an opportunity to be acknowledged for their accomplishments or personal growth. This past year, my students and I devised a daily “Top Chemist” list, in which individuals are recognized for sharing an insightful idea or answering a challenging question during class discussion. It is comical how often a student has asked to Snapchat his or her name on the “Top Chemist” list, but also highlights how a small moment of celebration can make such a profound difference in the mindset of the students I teach.
To further promote a sense of rigor in my classroom, I strive to establish teacher-student relationships based on trust and mutual respect. When I ask students to uphold high standards for learning and persevere through academic challenges, I recognize that this territory often comes with a sense of fear and vulnerability. By establishing trusting relationships, I find that my students are much more willing to “step out onto the ledge” for me, because they know that I whole-heartedly believe in their abilities to succeed and am always ready to lend additional support when needed. The importance of these relationships is often reiterated to me through student-written notes, such as the following excerpts from two of my AP Chemistry students:
“Out of my seven years at Charter, you have been the most influential teacher. Although it took me awhile to get chem down, you always encouraged me, and because of that, I never gave up. Because of your incredible teaching, I have fallen in love with chem.”
“You don’t expect anything from your students that you don’t first give of yourself. Because you lead by working diligently, with integrity, and with exemplary leadership, you set up a prime opportunity for your students to be eager followers.”
I will always be touched and humbled by the kind words of my current and former students. By promoting a culture of learning centered on high expectations, engagement and rapport, I hope my future students can experience that same sense of passion and success in my classroom.
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The opinions shared in this blog belong to Craig Smith (or guest blogger) and do not represent the school or district in which he works.