I’m Teaching AP Biology!

I am so excited to be teaching AP Biology this year!

The last time I taught the class was in 2010, when my son (recently graduated from University of Michigan) was my student (in and of itself a good story, which perhaps I’ll tell one day if he gives me permission). In the intervening years, I’ve taught biology to 9th graders, as well as a class called Introduction to Renewable and Sustainable Energy in Berkeley High School’s now defunct Green Academy (of which I was a co-leader). I’ve also served as the co-coordinator for professional development at BHS, a position that I’m relinquishing next year, partly so that I can teach AP Biology.

AP Biology has changed a lot since I last taught it. It now has a well developed outline and conceptual structure, something we all had to guess at until the course was redesigned in 2012. The new course is designed around four big ideas, each of which is broken down into many sub ideas. I won’t be using the outline as my sequence (I’ll explain why in a later post), but the effort was noble, and I appreciate the College Board’s efforts. There are learning objectives, and a new set of lab activities. The old course paid lip service to scientific thinking; this new course is clearly aligned with modern approaches to science pedagogy, and reflects the science and engineering practices of the Next Generation Science Standards (which I’m involved with in a training capacity in my role as a co-leader of Berkeley High School’s Science Department). Some major content areas have been cut: plant and animal evolution and diversity are gone. So are a bunch of body systems: digestive, circulatory, excretory, muscular. I’d estimate that that’s about six weeks of content. That’s going to leave me a lot more time for discussion, for student-initiated inquiry, and for investigation. It’s going to, hopefully, free me from the bad feeling that I always had when I previously taught the course: that I was standing in front of these smart, capable kids, and engaging them at the lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy: memorization and recall.

I’ve changed a lot, too. While I’ve been taking my guitar into the classroom and singing with my students since I’ve been twenty seven years old (half my life ago!), barely any of my work had made it online by 2010: my sciencemusicvideos youtube channel, was in its infancy, with only a half-dozen songs. Now I have 21 songs that are linked to AP Biology content. I’d developed my own, intuitive approach to recall and retrieval practice, and taught my students how to play a flashcard-based game called “Get Your Card Back!” to enhance memory, but I only very recently was lucky enough to be exposed to some of the cognitive science, as explained in one of my teaching bibles, Make it Stick. I was always committed to using pedagogical techniques that involved my students in sharing their ideas through partner shares and its variations: “ask/wait/think/write/partner-share,” “ask/wait/partner-share/write/read/comment,” numbered heads together, etc. But I hadn’t received any training in how to support students in using academic language (which has been a major part of my job as professional development co-coordinator at Berkeley High School). As I stated above, a lot of my thinking about science teaching was about content mastery. Now I’m deeply immersed in the NGSS science and engineering practices. And I hadn’t teamed up with my programming partner, Dan Kirshner, with whom I’ve developed the qwizcards interactive online learning platform, which I’m currently deploying on this website.

I’ve often told my colleagues that it takes about three or four years to put together a good course. In year one, you flail about, and half of what you create isn’t very good. During year two, you can improve what didn’t work well. Year three involves a lot of refinement. And by year four, you’ve something that’s pretty solid. So, here I go. I’ll use this blog to share my plans, to reflect on successes and failures, and to answer any questions or respond to any comments that you’d be kind enough to share with me.

AP Biology in 2016-2017. The adventure begins!