Lesson Planner’s Block

Welcome back to Biological Burblings, and welcome to a new academic year. I hope you all had wonderful summers.

It’s been the usual hectic start to the autumn term. Not one, but TWO (joy) days of INSET, or professional development, or whatever you want to call it (I could think of a few choice words….). Then a day of students in school but no teaching. And then, on the Friday, I took 27 Year 13 students to darkest Somerset for the Biology Field Trip and a full set of ecological Practical Skills Assessments. More joy.

Actually, the field trip is a genuine joy. Nettlecombe Court (http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/nettlecombecourt.aspx) is a glorious setting, an old red sandstone stately home surrounded by deep valleys and ancient woodland and some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen anywhere. The students are invariably brilliant, we always seem to catch the best of the early September sunshine, there are endless cups of tea and cake, and it’s a gentle way of easing back into the term after the summer holiday. With the abolition of PSAs (I have a bottle of champagne set aside for when I mark the very last one of these wretched distortions of scientific inquiry), there is no longer a compelling reason to organise a field trip, but I’m pretty confident we’ll retain it. It’s popular, successful and enjoyable and – with the OCR Biology A course – there needs to be some ecological investigation in the practical portfolio. I rather like the idea of letting students ask their own questions and design their own investigations. What are other people thinking?

We returned late on Monday, so actual teaching didn’t start for me until Tuesday. Four days of lessons later and I already feel exhausted….

….but we’re up and running. This year I have three Year 13 classes, two Year 12 classes, a Year 7 and a Year 8, as I continue my self-appointed task to re-write the KS3 Scheme of Work. So I’ve got no iGCSE teaching at all. The Year 12s are underway with the new A-level, but still starting with Water – see my blog from 22nd October last year for ideas on this. A colleague of mine also had the wonderful idea of freezing equal volumes of water and olive oil in separate plastic cups. The comparison of volume after freezing is dramatic and, better still, the frozen olive oil cube sinks like a stone in liquid olive oil.

I teach both sides of the Year 13 course, so two groups have tackled Squiggle Chemistry, where they figure out Chemiosmosis for themselves using the same evidence that Peter Mitchell used (Squiggle Chemistry) whilst the other one has launched into maggot innate behaviour experiments and the chance to try out their new found statistical knowledge. For any of you who don’t like teaching statistics, try introducing the Chi2 test with the opening from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard. If you don’t know the play, here’s one version of the first scene (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KchhSIVwMdY) And here’s the script http://www.mychandlerschools.org/cms/lib6/AZ01001175/Centricity/Domain/963/Rosencrantz%20and%20Guildenstern%20Are%20Dead%20full%20text.pdf.
The play starts with the two characters gambling by flipping a coin – which has come down Heads 85 times in a row. The winning character, Rosencrantz, who gets a gold coin every time it comes down Heads, is a bit embarrassed but clearly not too bothered. Guildenstern, however, is deeply disturbed, not because he’s lost a shed-load of money, but because there’s something funny with the fabric of the universe. A coin cannot come down Heads 85 times in a row….I ask the students at what point they would stop playing. And introduce the idea that statistics is basically just a way of finding out if you’re being cheated – or if something funny is going on. It’s also a nice way of thinking about alternative explanations – if something doesn’t match your Expected, how could you explain it? Loaded coin? Double headed coin? He’s lying?

As for the KS3 classes, I’m reviewing and revising the Year 7 lessons that I wrote last year, whilst writing an entirely new SoW for the Year 8s. I love the excitement and creativity of generating new lesson plans, but because the Science lessons are standardised across the two year groups, it also means I’m planning new lessons for 3 other teachers who, understandably, want to know they’re getting something good and reliable. That’s quite stressful. I can go into my own lesson completely unprepared and improvise, busk, entertain, distract. But I can’t expect other people to do the same.

And on Thursday night it almost came unstuck. I was shattered, absolutely cream crackered, barely able to keep my eyes open, only just awake. And I had to have a new lesson ready for the next day. I knew what I wanted to do – something on the Nervous System to link to the work they had already done on muscles and bones. But my mind was blank. I scribbled down some random thoughts on how to introduce the topic. But what then? I wanted some kind of experimental investigation that would be fun and different and memorable. The old course was extraordinarily content heavy – masses and masses of facts to be delivered and regurgitated on demand. I want to pull it to the other end of the spectrum – no notes, not much talk, lots of Learning By Doing. But it wasn’t happening for me. My mind was completely blank. Sure, there’s lots of stuff out there, but I was reluctant to steal stuff from the iGCSE course, even if part of me was saying, “oh, just do the ruler reaction time practical, or the skin sensitivity practical.”

But I had no inspiration. So I got up and walked around and did the washing up and turned the children’s lights out and got my stuff ready for the next day….

And then went back to my desk and wrote a lesson plan based around the Sheep Dash gamehttp://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/sheep/. Which would be quicker, to dart the sheep by watching them? Or darting the sheep when they hear a friend say “baaa” when they see a sheep run across. There’s data to collect, means to calculate, graphs to draw, comparisons to make and explanations to explain. It’s not the greatest lesson in the world, but they’ll talk about it when they go home and I’ve bought an extra week to think of the next two lessons….

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