In my science classroom this week, I’ve been teaching my students the concepts of adaptations and evolution. Alongside that, during my free time I’ve been exploring the idea of the flipped classroom, having engaged with three educators on the topic last Saturday. All those ideas have sort of been mingling together in my mind, so today I decided to give them free reign to merge on the page.
I feel like the Internet has thrust us into a golden age of teaching. Technology doesn’t fix everything in the classroom, but there truly is no end to the resources you can connect with if you just start looking. You literally can google “[instructional style] tools”, find articles with dozens of free apps to download, and if you’re a Mississippian with Wi-Fi, you’re set for the afternoon. I’ve been scouring the web lately for any and all resources to hook my students up with- tools to help them master their content and tools to help set me up to enhance the learning experience in general. This week we even had lunchtime get-togethers in my room to play dog breeding games, improving our understanding of genetics and trait inheritance through simulated selection.
So I got to thinking about the growth of my ability as a teacher- where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going to be one day. It really is an evolution of sorts, if I’m willing to put myself under the microscope as a species of the educational wild. (As a science teacher I have to point out that my analogy only works if I think of myself as a brand new generation of teacher creature each morning, born from the trials and triumphs of the previous day. Individuals may “evolve” in English class, down the hall, but that don’t fly in here. Welcome to Science. This character arc will have to be measured 365 generations at a time.)
The Environment: Welcome to the Jungle!
The Theory of Natural Selection is famous for the “Survival of the Fittest” principle. It doesn’t mean being the strongest, the fastest, or even the smartest individual around, though. It simply involves being adapted to survive and prosper in one’s situation- possessing the traits that matter most. Even the harshest of environments can be conquered by forms of life hardwired with the appropriate toolset. Galapagos tortoises aren’t the strongest, fastest, or smartest animals in their neighborhoods, but they can go for an entire year without eating or drinking anything, and survive. That’s how they beat the rigors of life on a volcanic rock.
Being highly adaptive for the professional educator’s environment can be a challenge. Just yesterday, Mississippi officially withdrew from the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), and the future of the Common Core State Standards is unclear as well. How we teachers are supposed to find any stability in our methods is beyond me, when our standards, curriculum, and assessments are constantly in flux. But that’s my job- to find a way to adapt.
We’re also in the midst of funding controversies, technological revolutions, political chess games at every level, class upheavals, poverty epidemics, and general information overload. Somewhere in there, the bell rings, and we teach. But that’s life in education: Lose your ability to hold onto what really matters in your instruction and you have no identity beyond your mindless wandering from trend to trend for survival. You’re a virus. Lose your ability to adapt at all and you simply won’t last. You’re extinct. The trick is to hit somewhere in the middle: to evolve as the environment evolves, but to still hold on to what makes you you.
Adaptations: There’s an App for That!
All organisms have environmental adaptations- characteristics that help them to survive and reproduce. They can be structural adaptations, like teeth, wings, and camouflage. They can also be behavioral adaptations, like migration, mating calls, or use of tools. The important distinction is that adaptations give organisms critical advantages over the creatures they would have been without them.
In 2015, I have committed myself to exploring new technologies. This week, on the heels of the advice I got from Jennifer Gwilt, Sarah Thomas, and Dr. Will, I have been trying out several apps related to the topic of classroom flipping. The goal has been to find instructional tools that will make me a better teacher, not to just wrap my instruction around the most popular gadgets to download. It’s been a fun experiment.
Some apps I downloaded have fallen by the way side. Sock Puppets, for example, is a hilarious and easy-to-use storytelling app. It has already given me half a dozen hilarious group conversations as I demonstrate how it works and invite others to brainstorm its possible uses. Ultimately though, I think right now I’m looking for something a little more serious and stable in the way of delivery.
Haiku Deck is another I have yet to incorporate. It’s a presentation/slideshow app. I love playing with it, and what I create is attractive and inspiring. But at this point in my instructional evolution, I can just feel the areas my next tech adaptations will fill. I know a tech guru could lay it all out for me, but right now the process is as edifying as the progress. It is so much fun exploring new apps and figuring out what doesn’t work for me right now, and why.
On the other hand, I really like what I’ve seen from the presentation creator app Knowmia. On it, I can create cool but elegant presentations, give voiceovers, package it all, and upload it to YouTube, to which I can direct some links on my class’s Schoology pages.
And there’s still tons of apps and programs I haven’t tried yet. I’m only discussing these three because they happened to pop up this week. And they’re all great apps- they might work for you. They might work for me later on. My point is, the game I’m playing is to try out adaptations each day- new “mutations” in the DNA of my teaching. What fits and helps embolden what I do best, stays. What doesn’t seem to gel or offer a survival advantage at this moment, goes.
Speciation: Where it gets Personal
At some point in the evolutionary process, if a population becomes isolated from other similar populations to the point that they have their own unique characteristics and adaptations, a new species can emerge. For example, on some icy northern plain long ago, a mutation for white fur became a powerful advantage for cold weather bears. Eventually, the white bears prospered, the brown bears moved elsewhere, and both became different species with different adaptations.
Like many teachers, I’m developing, evolving, hoping to become my own species of teacher. It hasn’t happened yet- I’m still a basic learner picking up tricks from others and trying them out. I’m a primordial professor blessed with an abundance of mutations. I’m a different experimental creature every day.
The hope is that I pick up the adaptations that work, and let go of the ones that don’t. I want to evolve into a teacher with his own distinct DNA, teaching as only he can. I think that’s the hope of every educator.
It’s also something I try to share with students. Middle school- and the adult world, too- can be so hard. We tend to see things so concretely, so rigidly in our perspective. It’s a natural defense mechanism. It’s hard enough figuring out how the world works without assuming that everything is in constant flux. But things are changing. They always are. And yet we press on through change, to become better creatures- better versions of ourselves. What I’m trying to show my students is that change is a given. It’s part of life. But if you hold onto the things that are true, To the things that make you you, Let go of doubt, and fear, and worry; You will change, too. You’ll become a new you. Though it might not be in a hurry.
2010 MISSISSIPPI SCIENCE FRAMEWORK, GRADE 8
Content Strand: LIFE SCIENCE: Compare and contrast the structure and functions of the cell, levels of organization of living things, basis of heredity, and adaptations that explain variations in populations.
Objective 3a. Analyze how adaptations to a particular environment (e.g., desert, aquatic, high altitude) can increase an organism’s survival and reproduction and relate organisms and their ecological niches to evolutionary change and extinction.
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