School name: City of Medicine Academy
Type of school: CMA is an urban magnet high school, a small school of 350 that’s 44% African-American and 42% Hispanic, and 82% female. We have a wide range of students who are interested in pursuing a career in the medical field, so they take extra health and medicine electives. Our students can graduate from high school with their CNA license or as certified EMTs.
School locale: Durham, NC – the Bull City!
Classes you teach: AP Psychology, Civics & Economics (and numerous other social studies courses over the years)
Average class size: 20 (has ranged from 5-30)
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?
In 2008 I worked closely with a fellow social studies teacher, who, like me, had spent several years out of the classroom before returning to teaching. She’d worked a lot with beginning teachers, and one day when we were talking about teaching she said, “Look, it’s not that hard – just teach every class period from bell to bell.” She was a great colleague and she of course knew that teaching was always a hard job, but that reminder has always stuck with me. I only have a small amount of time with my students every day, and it’s vital that I use that time wisely every period.
What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher? Like a lot of high school teachers, I was a social studies teacher by training, and it was a surprise when I was first asked to teach psychology. One of the most important books at that time was Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. I was taken in by Sacks’ use of rich language to describe his patients and I became just as fascinated as he was as to what motivated them (and all of us) to think and behave in certain ways. In terms of teaching, the book Make It Stick has greatly changed my thinking about how learning happens.
Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
There’s not one specific topic, but one general idea, which is encouraging students to use the principles of psychology to influence the behavior of others. I don’t mean this in a manipulative way, but when I teach about methods of persuasion or reinforcement principles, I truly encourage students to go out in the real world and try out these methods in small ways. It’s always fun to have them come back and say that their parents were more likely to allow them to have a later curfew, or a friend is acting more warmly to them, because of the principles they used. What could be more enticing to teenagers than to show them the tools for improving their world a little bit?
Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.
“Silly snakes!” This is the activity developed by Janet Simons and Don Irwin (Bolt resources manual, 1996) in which students are asked to listen to 20 strange sentences (“The crafty surgeon won the daily double”) and write down their ratings for each sentence. Each student rates the sentences according to the instructions on their rating sheets, and unbeknownst to them, there are two different rating systems: one asks them to rate the sentences according to how well they could pronounce the words, and the other asks them to rate them on how well they can create a vivid mental picture of the sentence. I then ask the students to turn over the rating sheet, number from 1 to 20, and then I start asking them questions based on the sentences (“Who won the daily double?”) I love this because I’ve done it dozens of times and it works every time! The “vivid mental picture” group always scores higher, and it leads to a conversation about the power of visual images when trying to create memories. I collect the scores by having them raise their hands (“how many got all 20 right?” etc.) and it’s just fascinating observing the “pronounce” group respond so emotionally because they have done poorly, and cannot imagine how someone else could have done so well. I once did this in a meeting with our faculty, and principal, who was in the “pronounce” group, got very angry as I read off the questions, even slamming down her pencil in frustration at one point!
What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?
Unlike most AP Psychology teachers, I have only one semester to teach the whole course, so I have to carefully structure every unit to maximize what I can help my students learn. I introduce every unit with a calendar that lists the page numbers of the reading and major concepts for that day. I regretfully jettison fun activities and projects that I’ve done successfully in the past, but I justify it because my focus is on students doing their best on the exam and gaining college credit. I can often be found in the front of the room, but I view it more as an interactive coaching style than lecturing; the students have already done the reading, so I focus on ways to help them learn the concepts more effectively, by using probing questions, mnemonics, concrete examples, activities, demonstrations, and images to promote dual coding. I also use frequent quizzes to make use of the testing effect, and the unit calendar helps to reinforce the idea of spaced effort over time instead of cramming. (Can you tell I’m a big fan of incorporating cognitive learning principles?)
What’s your workspace like?
Organic – that’s a positive way to say messy, right? Clutter has always been my hallmark, which of course leads me to seek out those research studies that link creativity and messiness.
Three words that best describe your teaching style.
Relevant, responsive, and reflective.
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
“Teaching is performance. Art.” I wish I had written this, but a while back I saw this comment from fellow high school psych teacher Charlie Blair-Broeker and it just clicked with me. Like performance art, teaching may seem on the surface to be easy or simple, but as we all know there’s so much work and thought behind every class period that students never see.
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.
I know this sounds like a cliché, but it really happened. Several years ago when I was teaching memory I was proudly showing my students the mnemonic I had just learned for keeping proactive and retroactive interference straight. For years I had struggled with a quick and effective way to delineate the two, and someone shared with me this idea: you can teach students that “Proactive is when Old interferes, while Retroactive is when New interferes” by focusing on the word formed by the first letters of those capitalized words. So yes, in the midst of me proudly writing PORN on the board and boasting how effective this was for remembering interference, my new principal walked in for a little mini-observation. The debriefing after the visit wasn’t as bad as I had feared, and my students really did perfectly remember the difference!
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you? Okay, this is completely a lie, since I always manage to work it in to my AP Psych classes, but my other students wouldn’t know that I have had five crossword puzzles published in the New York Times. I still love solving them daily, but never seem to have enough free time to construct new puzzles any more. When I teach cognition I always do a mini-unit on solving puzzles by comparing solving methods between crosswords and cryptoquotes, two puzzles that most students have rarely done and seem to enjoy learning how solve. By the end, I can convince some to do extra credit in which they create crossword puzzle clues of varying difficulty or even complete a partially filled grid with their own letters.
What are you currently reading for pleasure? Scandinavian crime fiction – my favorites include Jo Nesbø, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Camilla Läckberg, Lars Kepler, and Karin Fossum. I love the combination of the snowy bleakness, the clever twists, and the miserable detectives always trying to redeem themselves by breaking the big case.
What tech tool could you not live without?
I’m known in my own head as the “Sue Frantz of high school teachers,” so it’s impossible to choose just one. The one that gives me the most peace of mind is Dropbox, because I never have to worry about having my files on the wrong computer or a flash drive I can’t find. It’s also a lifesaver when I realize I’ve just inadvertently saved the wrong version of a file, and I can use Dropbox to download the version I’d saved the day before. Zipgrade has been great for quickly grading multiple choice using a method that gives far more data analysis and speed than the old Scantrons I once used. I’ve done lots of online quiz programs, like Socrative and Kahoot!, but my absolute favorite in the past few years is Quizizz. I can create quizzes in minutes, assign them to students, and get mountains of data back before the end of class. One of my favorite parts is giving students the option to re-take the quiz at home (using a laptop or phone) in “homework mode” so they get more practice with the questions and they can earn extra points by doing so. Oh, also I’ve been an Apple fanboy since 1984.
What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?
We’re a super small school – again, just 350 – so we get to know students much better than the average high school faculty. Most of us get to teach students in more than one class – I’ve taught one poor student four times! Our hallway chatter thus becomes conversations about our students – how’s he doing in your class, she seems sad – know what’s happening, what schools is she applying to, etc. One of our school’s goals is personalization, so having this close network of teachers who know the students well helps us all to be more responsive to the needs of the students.