In the Trenches…

Yesterday, a casual discussion turned from a student’s progress in understanding electron hybridization of orbits to branching out into VESPR molecular geometry theory. It’s exactly what I want to be doing on a Friday morning before lunch. The scene transitioned into a planning discussion of upcoming Innovation Lab videos with the students organizing who was interviewing who and how to arrange the film segments. Mr. Belanger was demoted to note taker. I turned around as the meeting concluded to a queue of questions about algebraic defense arguments and aided them to utilize the proper vocabulary to express what the students already demonstrated to me that they knew. If I had only spent time reviewing more poetry and primary source citations, I would have had a full In Lab curriculum hour… but that was yesterday.

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Students classifying compounds vs mixtures. It was either this or the structure of bromocresol green, but I didn’t want to make any acidic remarks

The past week has seen my research time focus on less about next year’s content, and more about how the individual students in Innovation Lab learn. Dr. Goldin remarked to me about how differentiation should be easy. In Innovation Lab, it is natural for teachers to go a step beyond and truly individualize content. The individualization doesn’t involve new worksheets and excessive content prep; it focuses on asking the right questions – or even better – the right questions being asked. We, as teachers, can’t be in the mode of “you should already know that” or even the dreaded “we can’t learn that yet.” We are not here to only teach the content, but to make sure the students know the content to the depth they WANT. As an Innovation Lab teacher, we do that for every student, and every student is doing something slightly different. One project with forty three variations.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve felt the blank stare start to glaze over


Keda and Jari working on chemistry while Doc helps Zaire. Polymer chemistry is just so organic.

my eyes when the students ask me a question about something way out of my field, and I have to steel myself and say “Let’s figure this out together!” It’s not only about having them learn, but having them learn HOW to learn. The temptation to tell them how to do something is ingrained in how I approach so many parts of my job, and I confess that it slips out. But even then, a simple turn of a phrase has the student look at what they have produced and come up with their own approach to how their work can apply another way.   

The Innovation Lab teachers have often remarked to me (and I, to them)

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Grayson and Doc practicing with orthoplaster before they immortalize my hand. Can’t wait to see how that turns out. Maybe I can finally get a grip on things.

about how much we find ourselves learning every day. Content that may have been lost to the annals of standardized tests, now becomes important simply because a student needs it for their own purposes. We direct students to sources, and they start discussions to clarify personal understanding. Others still waffle between getting a project “done” for a grade and truly understanding. It’s fun to sit with those students for the extra fifteen minutes and, with the right guidance, they get both. There are even those who will always ask for direct answers and then they start to enjoy the “game” as we lead them down an exploratory path. All different, yet all driven by the the same motivations. Individualized differentiation. Not “by assessment” nor “by instruction”, nor  “by content”, but for each students’ needs.

I never know what to expect when I walk into Innovation Lab. As I prepare for next year, I realize the flexibility that needs to be built into the physics program. Not just for the students, but for me as well. When one student may be working on a electric system to power and control a machine, another might be looking at an optical system to redirect light energy, and then I could be hit with something from way out in left field at any moment. In the trenches, you can’t always be sure of what is coming. We lay down the groundwork and guide them through, but in the end, the choices are their own.

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