Reflections on Fall Semester ’14

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I am still reeling from fall semester of 2014. It was probably the most tumultuous semester of my teaching career. Our building is under construction, so the science department was relocated for about 2 months. We had to pack up every single bit of our stuff and move it into a room about 80% the size of our original rooms. Can you imagine moving all the science stuff from your class and storage rooms??? Science. It’s the study of how THINGS work. Therefore, we have lots of things…I teach chemistry – which can only be taught using lots and lots of glassware. And chemicals, some of which are stored in the glassware. The potential for disaster was great, and tensions rode high for more than a few days. The good news is that we decluttered and streamlined our inventory and that we are settled now in the updated, renovated classrooms.

Another hurdle that we completed was the implementation of a Modeling curriculum in chemistry. I didn’t anticipate how much work it would be every single day of the semester to figure out the lessons, the labs, and the philosophy behind each topic. We used AMTA (American Modeling Teachers Association), which was wonderful, but I questioned the effort after weeks of learning something new each day. I had finally come to a point where teaching chemistry was a breeze for me; I didn’t have to think much – my lessons just flowed. It is only now that I realize how much I learned about how kids think and how to approach chemistry from an entirely different angle. It wasn’t easy, but it was a great growth experience for me, and this semester will be much smoother. More importantly, our students will have a richer learning experience because we are teaching in a way that deepens understanding.

The philosophy behind modeling is that students visualize and draw diagrams of particles (atoms, molecules) in order to understand and predict how matter behaves. Because of the visual models, the math and computations make more sense to the kids. Creative videos and technology-driven labs are core to the modeling concept. One of my fascinations with science is that it changes constantly; just as the science and technology cannot stagnate, neither can the teaching techniques. I love change; it keeps me fresh.

Back to the highs and lows of the semester. I was unable to start and reach all of the goals I set for myself, but I am okay with that. I have some cool, new projects going on and have changed a few of my original plans. I will write more on those new goals later.

During all of the chaos of the semester my science department carried out what I consider our greatest accomplishment. We hosted a Science Olympiad tournament for fourteen schools and twenty-seven teams. Science Olympiad is the greatest science & engineering competition for K12 students across the nation. Students compete in 23 events, including life, physical, environmental sciences, technology and engineering competitions. Having over 350 students convene on our campus was a thrilling experience for our science faculty. Our department worked diligently to manage all the details of the day, and it was a big success. I can’t believe we did it, and it was certainly worth all the hard work.

One of those original goals that I was unable to accomplish was writing frequently for this blog. Te@chThought inspired me to blog as an opportunity for reflection, and I started strong, but I couldn’t keep up with the pace I set for myself. It’s alright; I was busy with moving, modeling and the Science Olympiad tournament. I achieved quite a bit with plenty of help from my team, and I am impressed that we are still going strong.

When my principal first spoke to us about his own reflections, I honestly didn’t think too much about it as something that I should be doing. After this crazy semester, though, I now understand and appreciate the power of reflection. So, thank you, Mr. Horton, for introducing me to this powerful concept.

Day Ten: Random Lists – 5,4,3,2,1

Learn this, Know this, and LIVE this. You know who you are. Start counting your own blessings instead of (making me feel guilty for) mine.

5 Random Facts about me:

1) My biological father and his family traveled to the U.S. from Cuba to escape Fidel Castro. My last name is no longer Villanueva, and my parents didn’t stay married for long, so it always surprises people that I am Hispanic. Plus, my stepdad is from Pittsburgh, and people always see a resemblance between the two of us.

2) I used to travel to Southwest Harbor, Maine in the summers to visit my aunt and uncle. The smell of evergreen and blueberry bushes bring back great memories for me.

3) I have lived in Greenville, South Carolina – Dothan, Alabama – and Houston, Texas. I am back home in Georgia now.

4) I learned to water ski when I was 40. Probably the biggest “fear” I have overcome.

5) My husband has completed 3 Ironman Triathlons: one in Panama City Beach, FL, another in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and the third in Madison, Wisconsin.

4 Bucket List Items. I would like to do the following:

1) hike part of the Appalachian trail

2) travel in Europe

3) take an Alaskan cruise

4) be a published author

3 Things I hope for this year:

1) to be more organized at school (which results in wasted time)

2) to balance my time more efficiently

3) to be kind to my students (even when I am frazzled)

2 Things that have made me laugh or cry as a teacher:

1) The last day that our seniors attend school in May is a bittersweet day for me and always leaves me in tears.

2) Last year an AP Chemistry student (who is dear to me) answered an FRQ (Free response question), and in her answer she made an analogy between chemical kinetics and teen pregnancy. She made the statement that the molecules in chemical reactions are like high schoolers with raging hormones. They just can’t wait, and just like the chemical reaction takes place, teen pregnancy results. I couldn’t figure out if she got the answer right or not, because the rubric failed me at that point. We all laughed really hard at this, and I am sure that I saved her paper.

1 thing I wish that more people knew about me….

I am working on writing a young adult novel about a group of teens who have unique challenges and secrets but work together to solve a series of crimes using their STEM skills. It is still awkward for me to discuss because it is such a new adventure. Kind of like when you get married and you find yourself talking about your “husband” when it is still such a new part of life. The best part of this work is that it’s so intertwined with everything I love to do: hang out with teenagers and talk about STEM. (Plus it’s on my bucket list!)

Day Seven: Who Inspires Me the Most? Reminiscing my days at Lakeside High School in the ’80’s

Photos of #LakesideHS teachers (circa ’86) have been added to this post!

The STEMtastic Spin: Martha Milam

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For those of us in my profession, I think that it is comical yet strange that WE ARE STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL. There is a transition from being a student to a teacher, and while there is a vast difference in those two periods, we think often about our own days as high school students. Probably with much more frequency than non-teachers do.

From my former life as a high school student, here is a list of my favorite teachers and WHY they made a difference:

Ms. Diane Loring (English) – Her sharp wit and sly (but loving) smile was so fun. I enjoyed trying to figure out if she was telling the truth or not. Her tall tales kept me wondering…. I loved English, and I still do.

Ms. Mary Shelfer (English) – She and Ms. Loring were best friends, and I learned the value of strong relationships in…

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Day Nine: My Biggest Teaching Accomplishment – Finding My Most Powerful Tool

I may be a bit naive, but about once every few weeks I decide that I have just completed the best lesson of all time. I am so thrilled with myself that I run next door to any of my available colleagues and tell them that I have just taught the perfect lesson. They say, “That’s great, Martha. I can’t wait to hear more about it,” and go back to their work, knowing that I get a little overly excited sometimes. So, I have mini-teaching breakthroughs that happen regularly enough to keep me motivated and looking for new and fresh techniques.

BUT – there is something that I can say is my ONE best accomplishment – and it’s huge. It is classroom management. I must make this clear: things are certainly not perfect in my classroom, and I don’t have one hundred percent control at all times, but everything runs pretty smoothly these days.

Discipline is not my specialty. I would rather sharpen pencils all day long than discuss rules and procedures with eye-rolling teenagers. But, teaching an unruly classroom is just as effective as taking notes with a broken pencil tip. So, a well-managed classroom is a must for any of us who want to teach kids well.

After an evaluation one time I decided that I needed to be tougher on the kids – firmer, stricter, more demanding and less friendly…. I tried hard for a few days, but it just wasn’t my style, and I couldn’t keep up being Mrs. Mean.

I had two classroom management issues. First, I couldn’t get the class quiet in order to give instructions and teach a lesson. Second, I used to have students that didn’t like me and that wanted to argue with me. Those students, and their negative attitudes, occupied too much of my time, and it made me neglect the students who were eager to learn.

I have figured out that it’s not just “experience” that improved things, but it was a change in my relationship with the students.

At the beginning of each semester I started to figure out which students came in to the classroom with issues and would become my “problem” students. I learned to “stereotype” them – not by race, gender, or academic talent, but I could stereotype them according to their attitudes. I learned to treat the negative, sinister, teacher-defying scowls with “cool” compassion. I am not overly ooey gooey with them, but I become interested in their lives – their families, their jobs, their friends, their music, whatever I could find to discuss with them. I love doing this, and some of these kids have fascinating stories and are eager to have someone who is interested in them. People feel valued when we are asked for information that is specific to us. It doesn’t take much time to ask those questions; I am not having lengthy conversations while I am helping the students with their work. How many seconds does it take to ask “How is your Mom’s job going?” Just a couple, right? It’s worth the time.

I also avoid sarcasm. I used to think that it was fun to make sarcastic comments, and I know that some teachers are able to do this effectively, but it can yield a negative tone. We laugh and have fun with one another, but sarcasm isn’t part of the humor toolbag anymore.

Calling students by name, however, is my most powerful tool. Using someone’s name, and even better, giving them a nickname, makes students feel special. I have students who visit me after they have graduated or been out of my class for a while, and they come back and wait for me to call them “Al Pal”, “Kay Kay”, “Bobby C.”, or whatever name I had come up with for them. Often I use their first and last name together.

Think about what it feels like to hear the sound of YOUR first and last name together – not when you are in trouble, but as a greeting. It makes you feel important, even famous.

Some people will say that they are not good with names. Well, we are teachers. We need to be good with names. We are in the business of public relations, and the “inability” to know names is equivalent to wearing your pajamas to work. Knowing names comes fairly easy to me; I am lucky. However, I work pretty hard at it at the beginning of the year. I take notes and memorize names and people – just like students memorize the preamble to the Constitution. I practice until I get it right.

Because my students know that I value them, they listen to me when I ask them to be quiet while I am speaking (or while someone else is). I rarely have a”problem” student, and when I do, I end the negative relationship pretty quickly

Like I said, it’s not perfect – some days are better than others in terms of classroom management, but I finally feel like I am in control and have set a positive tone for the classroom.

So, dear Teacher Friend, best wishes to all of us as we work to manage our classrooms everyday.

Rita Pierson, a Lifelong Educator, gives a really powerful message on the importance of building relationships. It is a MUST-SEE!

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Day Eight: My Desk Drawer – my battle with purple pens & how I plan to win the war with the pen!

What’s in my desk drawer? Lots of pens, pencils, highlighters, erasers & whiteout. I use purple Bic pens for grading, and there is always an unbalanced distribution of those pens in my life. I keep the purple pens in one of these places: my car, my kitchen, my purse, my briefcase, behind my ear, and in my desk drawer at school.  Today I reached into my purse and found four purple pens. I don’t need four purple pens in my purse. I have to redistribute them tomorrow. Mondays are always busy, and the redistribution of pens isn’t important enough to make it to my “to do” list, but if I don’t do it, I will feel scattered. That is an example of why Mondays are “Mondays”. Reorganizing the little things requires time and distracts from the higher priority issues.

Tomorrow I am going to start using socrative.com and I am really looking forward to it. It is an online quizzing tool for my students that will require less usage of pens. Chalkup.co is another tool I plan to implement this week – designed for fewer pens and more online grading. I will report later on how those are working for me. Thanks to my colleague Matt East for introducing these to me. He works on the other side of campus, but we communicate often through Twitter, my favorite social media tool.

One quick note: I am slowing down on my blogging. I plan to continue my 30 day challenge, but it will take me longer than 30 days to write 30 posts. Yes – I am differentiating from many of you by going at a slower pace than I originally anticipated. I have gotten behind on grading, planning, and family time. I love the reflection, but I have to do some actual/real work so that I can find material to reflect on! Thanks to those of you who are reading, and Blog Day 9 will be coming one day soon….

Day Seven: Who Inspires Me the Most? Reminiscing my days at Lakeside High School in the ’80’s

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For those of us in my profession, I think that it is comical yet strange that WE ARE STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL. There is a transition from being a student to a teacher, and while there is a vast difference in those two periods, we think often about our own days as high school students. Probably with much more frequency than non-teachers do.

From my former life as a high school student, here is a list of my favorite teachers and WHY they made a difference:

Ms. Diane Loring (English) – Her sharp wit and sly (but loving) smile was so fun. I enjoyed trying to figure out if she was telling the truth or not. Her tall tales kept me wondering…. I loved English, and I still do.

Ms. Mary Shelfer (English) – She and Ms. Loring were best friends, and I learned the value of strong relationships in the workplace. I also read great literature. She introduced me to my favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and to the great acting of Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Ms. Charleanne Pugh (Biology) – She was the most bubbly, spunky teacher I had. I loved asking questions and kept my hand raised because I loved having conversation with her. She never tired of all my questions and filled me with knowledge.

Ms. Joann Williams (AP Chemistry) – She showed dedication to teaching such a challenging subject , and her attention to detail in working problems was impressive. I ran into her recently at church with my parents, and while I spoke to her I knew that she wouldn’t understand how often I think about her.

Mr. Ralph Voris (Trigonometry & AP Calculus) – He was one of the quietest, most stoical men I have met, and his interest in teaching nutty high school kids intrigued me. He was filled with wisdom, and his motivational quotes in the top corner of the board were a window to his non-calculus thoughts. Those quotes are written down in a faded notebook that smells of old paper. I also discovered that the reward of learning something intensely difficult would prove greater than the temporary pain of the 2nd period stress-induced headaches.

Mr. Robert Koff (Math) – He was lively, kooky, and nerdy, and he was passionate about teaching us math. He ran around the room answering our questions, and he was the opposite of Mr. Voris. Teaching high school seemed like the perfect fit for him. (Kooky and nerdy are all GOOD things in my book, btw). One time I inadvertently wrote my last name wrong – I wrote the last name of my rock star crush. He quietly asked me if I had changed my name – out of concern for any changes in my family status. I was embarrassed, needless to say, and told him that everything at home was the same.

Coach Phil Lindsey (Health, PE) – He taught me to understand the importance of nutrition and how I am ultimately responsible for my own health. He taught me the enjoyment of walking and running. Although I can’t estimate distances in feet or yards at all, I know EXACTLY what it feels like to walk (or even drive) 1/4, 1/2 or 1 mile because of all those laps around the track. He was head coach of the football team, but he made me, a small, soft-spoken fourteen year old girl, feel equally as important as as the touchdown-scoring, rowdy football players that were featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution every week.

Ms. Evelyn Brady (Spanish) – She told us funny stories of her crazy life. One story I remember was the time she bought a new Volkswagen bug, but before she drove off the dealership lot the salesman had to teach her to drive a stick shift. He probably regretted making the sale. She owned a big pet snake (a boa?) which always brought interesting stories as well. There was always a student who was getting on her last nerve, and with her exaggeration and big emotion, she could have been a standup comedian. Lucky for us, she was a Spanish teacher.

Ms. Diane McKinney (Chemistry) – She was famous for her molecule dance, and her high energy level kept everyone engaged. She laughed a lot and loved being outdoors. We used bunsen burners and created formal lab reports in composition books. I learned why scientists use pen, not pencil, for recording data, and I still  treasure my composition book from tenth grade.

Mr. Bill Driskell (World History) – Wow! There is so much to say here. Mr. Driskell created nicknames for us. He called me Miss Newhouse because of my last name, Villanueva (which means New House). I loved that. I was special enough to earn a nickname. Our class ate lunch together and had a longer period (due to the class being split with driver’s ed which was taught in Norcross). Because of our extended time he would sit and play games with us during lunch or participate in our teenage conversations. He talked about his family; he was silly, goofy, and way too much fun! He was so expressive and could have rivaled Mrs. Brady for being a standup comedian. Plaid pants and bow ties showed up frequently in his wardrobe.

The best part of the story is that Mr. Driskell’s son was Ken Milam’s roommate at the Sigma Nu fraternity house at Georgia Tech in 1991. Had it not been for Logan Driskell, I would have never met the man who is now my husband. I saw Mr. Driskell not too long ago and told him that I have been teaching high school in Coweta County. His face lit up, and a big smile, filled with years of memories, beamed across his face. “Isn’t it fun?!“, he asked.

Yes, it is fun. There is no other job that I could enjoy as much as this one.

Not only did our teachers contribute so much to all of us who graduated in the 80’s, but their passion for teaching kids lives on through those of us who have filled their shoes….

Thanking you is not enough, but Thank You.

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September 11: What YOU Will Do to Honor Our Country

This is the 9/11 message I send to all my current and former students:

It’s a day to reflect on September 11.  One way to keep our country strong is to be relentless with learning.  You need to learn all you can so that you can help make our nation stronger by developing the best technology, engineering, materials, and medicines in the world.

One of your goals for your education is to prepare yourself for a future for which you do not yet know – you’re not just learning facts.  You are learning how to analyze, predict, think and create; these are the skills that the great leaders and scientists have implemented that have led us from tough times into great times for our nation.

It is YOUR responsibility to determine how you can make our nation stronger. You can do this with your talents and abilities, but it is mostly your dedication to hard work and continual learning that will make the difference and propel the United States to a great future.

Day Six: Two Traits of a Good Mentor

There are two traits required for Effective Mentorship:

1) Close physical proximity and an open door policy...
The only time I was a good mentor was when I worked directly across the hall from my mentee. Since she didn’t know what she needed help with until the moment it needed to happen, she had to be able to ask questions and get quick answers. For example, five minutes before a conference, when grades are due to be posted, after a parent phone call,…. I could help her as the moments evolved.

2) A positive attitude. This is really important. New teachers can be swayed “to the dark side” if they get the wrong mentor. Some teachers are better than others at instilling a productive attitude in others, so choose mentors judiciously.