Endeavor to Persevere: Preventing Burnout in the Classroom

Some days I just don’t feel like teaching anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and I find a lot of fulfillment in helping my students to be successful, but some days are better than others. I sometimes find myself asking “Why bother?” when many of my students don’t seem to care at all. I can spend hours prepping a lecture or an in-class activity and it falls completely flat. Sometimes I just stumble over myself and I feel like I’ve totally confused the entire class on a simple topic. Other times I feel like I can’t compete with the electronic world grabbing for my students’ attention. I can look out over the classroom and see students with their phones in hand half listening to me. Just last week I had a class that completely bombed an exam. It’s hard for me to not take it personally when my students fail. It is times like these that call for chocolate and a bubble bath, and some serious introspection. Here are a few ideas for helping you to prevent these sorts of things from completely dragging you down:

1) Develop a mission statement. Steven R. Covey wrote about developing a personal mission statement in his book , “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. In his TED talk, Simon Sinek, talks about the power of starting with the question, “Why?” We all came into teaching for our own reasons. They anchor us and drive us to action. It is easy to forget those reasons and become disillusioned when we get caught up in the daily activities of our jobs. It is a good idea to write down a formal mission statement and when time get tough take it out and reflect on it. With each new activity that you try, each new class that you teach, use your mission statement as a measuring stick. Are you working toward your mission or is this new thing a distraction?

2) Let it go. Practice the serenity prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can;  and wisdom to know the difference.”  Students will fail. Sometimes you could have prevented it and sometimes it is completely out of your control. I really struggled with this during my first semester teaching. I am beginning to realize, however, that not matter what I do, some students will not pass my class. I have to let it go. I cannot control my students behavior, I can only give them the opportunity to succeed if they so choose.

3) Make friends. Use the buddy system. Teaching can be very isolating. Sometimes we don’t have anything to compare ourselves to. By making friends with other teachers at your institution, or across the internet, you can gain useful information and see how you stack up. Often we are own own worst critics and it helps to know that you are not the only person struggling with an issue in the classroom.

What do you suggest for preventing burnout in the classroom?

How would teaching history change if we could talk to the people of the past?

Ben Franklin

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/elizabethps/3760462201/sizes/m/in/photostream/

If you could ask Ben Franklin anything, what would you ask him?

Please contribute a question to this Google document.    We really appreciate it!

What happens when you add the following ingredients together?

  • 1 bright college student who has a passion for entertainment technology, drama, and computer science.
  • 1 artful user experience designer who loves researching human computer interaction.
  • 1 software engineer who likes to push the limits of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

What happens when you put these people in the same class and ask them to make something cool together to support great teaching and learning? What can this team cook up?

Meet our co-inventor

Patrick Mathis, a college student at Mercer University, came up with an answer. My team and I had the pleasure of meeting Patrick through a technical communications class devoted to writing proposals. My team and I served as technical mentors to this class. In the spirit of project based learning, we challenged Patrick and his fellow students to collaborate with us to create innovations in educational technology. Since this generation of students is greatly influenced by mobile technology and gaming, we asked them to consider creating game based learning experiences.

Patrick and his team proposed the following question:
Could we inspire the study of history by enabling students to talk with major historical figures of the past?
Could we make it possible for students to with talk with Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, or Steven Hawkings? This sort of experience is explored by science fiction all the time! Consider the following example from “Star Trek: the next generation.” In this scene, Commander Data using their Holodeck technology converses with Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and Steven Hawkings as part of his personal study of humanities.

Sounds crazy! Right?

Introduction to synthetic interview – a user experience for meeting historical characters.

It turns out the research for meeting historical characters using technology has already started. Patrick and his team introduced our team to the “synthetic interview” research from Carnegie Mellon University. In their study, students could ask questions of Charles Darwin. Please visit the following link to learn more:


We have been doing some personal research on how we might reproduce the work of the synthetic interview and improve upon it.   I, however, need your help! In my first experiment, I would like to create an experience where a student can meet Ben Franklin, one of the great inventors and social entrepreneur’s of all time. If you could have a conversation with Ben Franklin, what would you ask him? What was he like when he was young? How did people react when he proposed the public library? What was it like to help influence the founding of the United States of America?

Our next step

For our personal experiment to function, we need to gather 1000 questions that represent common inquiries that teachers and students might ask.   This is the starting point for our personal synthetic interview experiment.    You can contribute your question to the Google document below.   This document also enables you to view questions already contributed.

Ben Franklin – Questions from the community

Please include your Twitter handle, link to your profile, or a link to your blog in the comment notes.    I would like to thank all contributors in public.



Key question:  If you could ask Ben Franklin anything, what would you ask him?








Students Becoming Teachers

This week I’ve been at a regional conference for microbiology. Although most of the talks and presentations have focused on research and applied science, we did spend some time yesterday morning on microbiology education. We discussed several strategies for improving microbiology education including collaborative group work, cross disciplinary studies and service learning. Today I want to take a little time to talk about the concept of service learning in the science classroom.

Laura Regassa from Georgia Southern University gave a presentation on the strategy they implemented in their graduate program in biology. In short, their service learning program is designed to partner master’s level graduate students with local high school teachers to bring applied biotechnology resources into the classroom. Similarly, Anna Karis from the University of Georgia discussed engaging undergraduate microbiology students in leading educational activities for students from the local school system.

I found this idea particularly interesting for two reasons. The first is that it addresses a problem that I constantly struggle with: student engagement. My students, primarily non-majors, have a hard time connecting with their subject material. The second is that this approach provides a win-win situation. Anytime you are required to teach material you learn it better. By encouraging the college students to mentor younger students it provides an opportunity to delve deeper into the subject matter. The students from the local public schools benefit from the increased instructional resources and seeing students, not unlike themselves, engaging in science.

I am now thinking of ways that I can bring this idea back to my own college. Right now, I am considering integrating undergraduate biology students into some of our on-campus programs in which local middle and high school students come in for a day and participate in events like the Academic Contest and Science Olympiad. What ways do you think we can connect college students with the local school systems?

7 ideas for creating a student centered learning environment by Paul Andersen


My wife has been raving to me about this cool biology teacher from Bozeman, Montana. Paul Anderson has become a star in the biology community for his Bozeman Biology YouTube channel. I discovered a TED talk that he gave sharing how he keeps his students engaged and learning. I had to share this with you!! I really appreciate Mr. Anderson’s ideas for creating a fun learning environment.

My wife, a college biology and microbiology professor, appreciates that Mr. Anderson has created a class design model that’s very “out of the box.” From a teaching perspective, his classroom model gives him the ability to experiment in designing his learning experiences. His class design is not dominated by the standard lecture format. Mr. Anderson’s students are forced to become engaged active biology thinkers by design! How does he do this? Check out Mr. Anderson’s ideas for creating a student centered learning environment.

1. Make the classroom fun: As social beings, we are hardwired to be interactive. Are there ways that we can design social interaction into our classroom experiences? Can we use small group learning or interactive activities to teach fun lessons?

2. Encourage failure in the classroom: Mr. Anderson asserts that our standard education system stigmatizes failure. All teachers want to encourage mastery of their lessons. We all want to see our students win. Mr. Anderson suggests that the path to subject mastery involves failing at the lesson many times. (or many many times!) He seems to design his interactive quizzes with this idea in mind.

3. Leveling up: Mr. Anderson has designed his biology classroom as a game. Every student starts with zero experience points. As his students achieve mastery on various topics or complete learning activities, they accumulate points and badges celebrating their accomplishments and status. Mr. Anderson shared that his class leader board used frequently by his students. This board shows the “top thinkers” of the class based on experience points per student. It’s neat to see this kind of healthy kind of competition in the classroom.

4. Turn your class into a game: Mr. Anderson’s game class experience is called Biohazard 5. He has produced an amazing collection of lectures for his class room. In addition to covering AP biology, he has created videos on physics, education and chemistry.
[ http://www.youtube.com/user/bozemanbiology ] I also appreciate that he has tried to create a story and engaging narrative around his Biohazard game experience. The quality of his videos is amazing!

5. Learning using challenges: I personally tend to learn by doing. Mr. Anderson has created a very active learning environment. He uses various quests, activities, and challenges to help ensure subject mastery. He says it feels like a “shop class” mashed up with a biology course.   This also encourages creative thinking. (fluid intelligence)

6. Pay attention to student learning speed: Some students just learn quickly. Some students in Mr. Anderson’s learning environment are more deliberate. With the class room design of student centered learning, Mr. Anderson seems to have the ability to provide individualized attention to these students. He seems to be intentional about reaching all of his students. Very cool!

7. Reading becomes more important for students: If the lecture is not the center of your classroom, the reading skills of the students become more important. Mr. Anderson has noticed that learning by reading can be a struggle for some of his students.


Check out Paul’s great blog at http://www.bozemanscience.com/ .


I wonder how some of these ideas might work in a college biology class?


Zombies in the Classroom


My friends, I must warn you. We are in the midst of an epidemic of epic proportions. Our classrooms are ground zero. The zombie apocalypse is upon us. Every day, more and more of our students are becoming zombies. Not the brain eating, Walking Dead variety, but the mindless, blank eyed, non-responsive variety. They sit there in the classroom staring at us at the front of the room, but they do not hear us. They have headphones haphazardly hanging out of one ear and they twitch uncontrollably each time their smartphones buzz with a text message. They may carry a tablet, or a laptop with them to “take notes”, but in reality they are tweeting and surreptitiously checking their Facebook status. It’s only a matter of time before they turn on us. We cannot fend off these zombies with shotguns and baseball bats, but there is hope. Here are a few tips to prevent this from happening in your classroom. While each technique alone may not be enough, when performed in combination they can be very effective.

1) Remain a moving target. Move around in the classroom. It is easy to stand up at the front of the lecture hall and talk. I personally love the sound of my own voice and find everything I say absolutely fascinating. This, however, is a recipe for disaster. After about 5 minutes my students will begin to drop like flies and, before I know it, I am talking to a whole room full of zombies. To remedy this situation I try to use as much of the available space as I can. I pace, I switch sides, I get up real close to my students and then back away. Movement prevents them from locking their gaze and shutting down their minds.

2) Use visual aids. We are working with a generation of students that have had audio/video stimulation since birth. I’m not saying that we need to put on a show, but using  carefully constructed, visually appealing (i.e. not paragraphs of material) Powerpoint slides, Prezi presentations, videos, etc, can make a huge difference in the level of engagement. Low tech aids are also great. When talking about photosynthesis, I bring a plant to the classroom. I use water and food coloring to demonstrate diffusion. Don’t underestimate the need for students to connect the words that they are hearing with an image.

3) Be hands on. A student is much less likely to become a zombie if they can make physical contact with their subject matter. For example,  when discussing a topic like the Krebs cycle, which can be very hard for students to internalize, I use grapes and toothpicks to build molecules.  I have the students walk through each of the steps with me as I lecture. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is less time efficient and requires the use of additional materials. I can guarantee, however, that by the end of a traditional lecture on the Krebs cycle, every last student will be a zombie and no learning will have been accomplished.

4) Force participation. Every time I ask a question during one of my lectures I look out over the classroom and observe a sea of faces trying to avoid eye contact. I may hear a response whispered under the breath or perhaps there will be one or two brave students that speak up. To avoid this dilemma I use an automated student response system. I build questions into my Powerpoint presentations and periodically check in with my students to make sure that they are paying attention and actually assimilating the information. This has been very effective at preventing zombie conversion.

5) Be a dynamic speaker. My uncle Jack is a fisherman and a great story teller. I don’t care a thing about fishing, but he is so engaging and funny that I could listen to him speak for hours. When was the last time that you spent time working on your speaking skills? Take a voice recorder into the classroom with you for your next lecture and, afterwards, listen to yourself speak. One of the single most effective ways to prevent zombies in the classroom is to develop your public speaking skills.

There are many other weapons available to us in the war against the zombies. Together we can win the battle. What are your favorite classroom tools and techniques for fighting the undead?


Learn how to create a mobile app in minutes using Corona SDK

Many of my readers may enjoy learning how they can create apps for their favorite mobile devices: ipad, iphone, or Android.    The Corona SDK provides an elegant framework for quickly creating applications and games.    I have heard stories of middle school students creating rocking games with this tool.    So, I just had to check it out.   In this five minute tutorial, I will walk through the process of creating a simple clock.


The Corona and Lua community have created an extensive collection of learning resources:

Please let me know if you find this tutorial helpful.

What do you want to build today?

local function drawClock(e)
now = os.date(“*t”) — defaults to current date and time

display_width = display.contentWidth
display_height = display.contentHeight

local background = display.newRect(0, 0, display_width, display_height)
background.strokeWidth = 3
background:setFillColor(20, 20, 20)
background:setStrokeColor(180, 180, 180)

— draw circle
center_x = display_width / 2
center_y = display_height / 2
clock_radius = display_width /2

local myCircle = display.newCircle( center_x, center_y, clock_radius)

— draw hours hand
hour = now.hour
degree = -3.14/2 + (3.14*2/12)*hour
hours_x = center_x + (clock_radius-50) * math.cos(degree)
hours_y = center_y + (clock_radius-50) * math.sin(degree)
local hours_line = display.newLine( center_x,center_y, hours_x,hours_y )
hours_line:setColor( 0, 102, 102, 255 )
hours_line.width = 5

— draw minutes hand
minute = now.min
degree = -3.14/2 + (3.14*2/60)*minute
min_x = center_x + (clock_radius-10) * math.cos(degree)
min_y = center_y + (clock_radius-10) * math.sin(degree)
local min_line = display.newLine( center_x,center_y, min_x,min_y )
min_line:setColor( 255, 102, 102, 255 )
min_line.width = 5

— draw second hand
second = now.sec
degree = -3.14/2 + (3.14*2/60)*second
sec_x = center_x + (clock_radius-10) * math.cos(degree)
sec_y = center_y + (clock_radius-10) * math.sin(degree)
local sec_line = display.newLine( center_x,center_y, sec_x,sec_y )
sec_line:setColor( 1, 1, 1, 255 )
sec_line.width = 5

timer.performWithDelay(1000, drawClock, 0)

Why should we teach both character and knowledge?


sad and stressed


I believe that we can agree that the teachers who impacted us the most were the ones that served their students with love and served them with principled discipline.   During a road trip with my wife, we listened to a thoughtful podcast from NPR’s “This American Life.”      The piece entitled “Back to school” shared insights from Paul Tough.   In Paul’s book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character”, he underscores the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.   How should our educational system reach parents and students who are trying to break the cycle of poverty?   How helpful is standardized testing with regard to this problem?   This program suggests that we can promote student success by nurturing loving and caring families and arming students with character building habits. (a.k.a. non-congitive skills)

This program was especially meaningful to my wife Sarah who teaches Biology at a state college in Georgia.    “For me, I see the results of a child whose life has been spent in poverty.  A lot of the students that I work with come from disadvantaged backgrounds.   You can’t even worry about the cognitive skills yet because they haven’t figured out how to learn.   This is why this program hit home with me.”     After reflection on this program, she felt a greater conviction to serve her students well and being aware of their backgrounds. It also gave us a great appreciation for the work that Sarah’s sister does at a non-profit out in Montana that helps to arm parents with the right tools from the start- teaching them parenting skills and building relationships with their children (www.allthrive.org).

I strongly encourage everyone to listen to this program.   In this post, I wanted to share  a few insights that I felt were important:

  1. 87% of students in Chicago public schools come from low income families:  This number was shocking to me.    Poverty is bad enough.   Mr. Tough makes the observation that we can often correlate poverty with forms of domestic emotional trauma.    In May 2012, Sandy Doyle outlines data suggesting that domestic violence is on the rise due to our job crisis.
  2. How much can a teacher help a student who has lived with a high degree of home trauma?  For children who have lived with a high degree of emotional home trauma, what can teacher’s do?   Some of these kids have experienced horrible life events: murder, domestic violence, abuse, and theft.     Common sense would suggest that children who live with high degrees of home trauma will be highly distracted from learning in schools.   What can we do?
  3. James Heckman suggests that we may be putting too much emphasis on standardized testing:   As a numbers guy, I respect the desire to have goals and to measure team against those goals.   James Heckman, a nobel prize winning economist, has spent a large part of his career trying to understand what makes students successful in life.   Consider the GED, a test of cognitive skills that can serve as an alternative to the traditional high-school diploma.   From his study of the GED test data, one can observe that GED students are more likely to have positive life outcomes than those who did not take the test.    GED students, however, are more likely to “drop out” of marriages and college than students who finished 4 years of high school.    If students should be learning more than cognitive skills like those taught by the GED, what other skills should they be learning?
  4. What is the value of teaching non-cognitive skills or character building habits?   Mr. Tough suggests that educators should find ways to teach non-cognitive skills in addition to cognitive thinking.   These are the “don’t give up” sorts of life knowledge.    These skills can include soft skills, character, social skills, grit,  and perseverance.   The 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey may outline a list of practical “non-cognitive” skills.
  5. Trauma from a bad home life prevents your brain from learning cognitive skills: Kids living with domestic home trauma often live with a mindset of “fight or flight.”     When any animal is being threatened in a fight or flight situation, the rational center of their brain is turned off.   The program suggests that it’s biologically intractable to teach young people who live with domestic home trauma and high home stress.



Our Top 14 Blog Posts on Teaching, Productivity, and Leadership

Country road
Top 14 blog posts on teaching, productivity, and leadership since 6/30/2012
  1. 5 ways to get more results in your teaching environment.
  2. Why is perspective critical to leading and teaching?
  3. Michael’s Free Book Index
  4. How to reduce stress by keeping work organized using EverNote
  5. 5 fun learning experiences with Legos
  6. Jennifer Pahika challenges us to “code a better government”
  7. Simon Sinek: How great leaders and teachers inspire action?
  8. How do you do more with less?
  9. Redefining Success
  10. Reduce your stress level with keeping a plan of awesome
  11. 5 reasons to love Khan academy for computer science
  12. Feedback is the breakfast of champions
  13. 5 inspirational educators discovered through #EdCampAtl conference
  14. Boldly going where no one has gone before: KinectBiology.com



Photo taken from http://s3.freefoto.com/images/21/91/21_91_10_web.jpg

How is Scrum leadership evolving?

Agile Dilbert

*** Disclaimer: no project management style is perfect — including scrum ***

What is Scrum?

To introduce scrum project management, I would encourage you to review the following video.  (Scrum in 10 minutes)  While scrum was created for the benefit of the software industry, the ideas can be used in education, general leadership and many other industries.    Since scrum provides a framework for building products, I believe that scrum can provide benefits to teachers who value project based learning.   For other teachers, replace “building software” with the idea of building minds and person-hood.       Please refer to our post “5 ways to get more results in your teaching environment.”

As a scrum master and proud promoter of agile culture, I have found have found the following talks challenging.

Path to Agility 2011 – Ken Schwaber – Scrum and the Product Owner by Agile Toolkit podcast

Pluralcast #12 : The Future of Scrum with Ken Schwaber by Pluralcast

I greatly admire Ken Schwaber, the creator of scrum, for trying to encourage our software industry to focus on creating value and doing so with transparency/quality.   The act of executing work with transparency helps teams and organizations find issues and adapt.

So… what do I mean by challenging?   These talks point to a realization that scrum as implemented across our industry has a few growing pains.

Growing pain #1:  Who writes user stories? Across the industry, it appears that product owners are resisting ownership of writing down user stories and done conditions.   Why is this a problem?   The product owner, as mandated by the scrum process, is responsible for maximizing the value of the product under development.    In many cases, the product owner is a “subject matter expert” in the domain of the product.   If the subject matter expert is allowed to not write down their exact goals and “done conditions,”  the risk is introduced that the team must interpret the intent and goals of the product owner.

Michael Cohn seems to provide a partial solution to this problem by observing that “who writes the user story” is less important than making sure there is open discussion of user stories and done conditions among the team, scrum master, and product owner. (http://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/topics/user-stories)

Growing pain #2:  Ken has pointed out several times that the rules of scrum are easy to learn.    Implementing scrum, however, is still very hard to master.   Many organizations are discovering that scrum uncovers faults in engineering practices, team collaboration, or organizational dynamics.    In many cases, teams abandon scrum so that more disciplined engineering/organizational practices can be avoided.  What’s the problem?   Our industry needs the courage to keep promoting discipline and quality in our daily work.    If scrum exposes organizational or engineering issues, are we facing those issues head on?

On a personal and an organizational level, challenges introduce the opportunity for innovation and adaptation.   In my personal work, I will be searching for solutions to both growing pains.    I look forward to see how the agile / scrum community responds.

To fellow agile leaders, I would enjoy hearing your strategies for documenting user stories.  How do you foster courage on your team?