Friday, March 13, 2009

Professional Development

One of my coworkers approached me yesterday with an idea for a book. Let me pause this little anecdote here and give a little background first.

Our state is rolling out an end of course subject test that will ultimately count towards students high school graduation eligibility. Part of me thinks that more standardized testing is a waste of time, but the other part of me thinks it's great that the state thinks knowing key concepts in biology is important enough to turn it into a graduation requirement. I digress...

One portion of this "end of course" test (I say that jokingly since it's given in May with a month of school left to go) is a so-called performance assessment. Basically that means it's a giant open-ended question that requires students to utilize multiple concepts and skills to adequately solve the task they are presented with. Sometimes you hear this stuff talked about like "authentic assessment" or "problem-based learning". All it boils down to is the students are required to do higher order thinking, not just simple recall - they need to actually apply what they have learned. This type of approach to teaching and assessment is the latest buzz, not just in high schools but also in grad schools and medical schools all over the country. Why? Simple - it's the way people need to deal with problems they will face in their "real" lives post-school. So back to yesterday...

The idea of using this type of questioning to check for understanding on the "EOC" test is great. However, not every student in our state will have been exposed to this type of experience. As with anything, practice makes perfect - so the kids who are used to problem-based learning will fare better. So how do we remove barriers that might be preventing teachers from trying this stuff out? Here's where my coworker's idea comes in...

There aren't that many good resources for high school teachers trying to implement short-term lesson plans or assessments using this approach. If you want to try it, you need to spend the time developing problems for the classroom yourself. I'm sure there are plenty of HS science teachers who have begun to develop a few of these kinds of plans, but the reality is that to create multiple lessons/problems like this for all areas of the science curricula is difficult for one person to do. Who has the time?

My coworker and I have a pretty good idea of what would need to be in a solid resource for other teachers. We've discussed hashing out a solid book proposal, firing off a stellar query letter to some textbook companies, and hoping for the go ahead to write and compile a book. The goal would be to do most of the writing during the summer. If we can't get a publisher to bite, we'll probably still do the book and self-publish. After all, the work that goes into writing the book can be turned into useful stuff for our respective classes next year. So it's really a win-win situation, regardless of the publishing outcome. I'm excited to have an intellectual and creative challenge on the horizon.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

It isn't easy being green...

The economic stimulus package has my mind in a tizzy. The prospect of no sales tax on new vehicle purchases in 2009 has me thinking I need to rethink my original plans for phasing out my beloved Neon, Nigel.

I bought Nigel in 2001 after a death-defying car accident involving my first Neon (a 1997 red coupe) and a tractor trailer. Nigel was 1 year old, a trade-in with less than 7000 miles on it. I believe I paid $10,000 - sticker price anyway. At this point, I've racked up over 100,000 miles. By the time Nigel and I have our 8 year anniversary in July, I expect to have surpassed the 125,000 milemark.

I've been fortunate to have avoided any major problems over this time with Nigel (the guy who backed onto the hood in a parking lot necessitating a new hood and bumper and the deer that ran into my driver's side wheel well necessitating bodywork don't count, as those incidents were neither mine nor Nigel's fault). This has left me hopeful that Nigel could hold out as my primary vehicle until 2010, at which time my eldest son would be getting a learner's permit. However, I suspect that driving 70 miles every day to and from work is probably going to begin to take a toll on Nigel. What if I manage to kill Nigel before I can hand him down?

I've gotten good gas mileage over the years - about 28 miles per gallon. This is especially important given my always in the car lifestyle. In the years since Nigel came into my life, so have many others - our dog, my husband, and then my twins. The reality is that Nigel's replacement needs to have a bit more room, for both people and stuff. On long family trips, we all pile into our Dodge Grand Caravan - affectionately known as Fudgey for its large size and propensity to moan like a whale around certain turns. The downside of Fudgey is the cost of running her - she only gets about 18 miles per gallon and she seems to need a lot more servicing than Nigel. So another van is really out of the question.

I've begun to cook up a scheme. We'll continue to scrimp and save for a few months, maybe we'll begin casually test driving a series of candidates, we'll finally purchase my dream car (sort of compact, great gas mileage, eco-friendly) before 2009 is out, my husband will begin driving Nigel since he commutes less than 20 miles every day and Fudgey will wait patiently at home for our semi-monthly visits to see the kids' Nana, Poppa, and Mema. Sounds great, right?

The problem is money. Right now, we exist on one salary - my teacher salary. DH works two days a week for a family business, but that doesn't even cover all of daycare. He's embarked on a new realty career in the rest of his time (one weekday and both weekend days), but it will be a while before we see any return from that. My salary ends in June and with daycare costs of over $1000 a month, I'm scratching my head as to what I am going to do this summer to pay the bills. If I stay home and watch the boys, then we risk losing their daycare spot for the fall, which we'll need. If the boys go to the nursery school 3 days a week like they do now, we'd need to be able to pay all our household bills plus daycare on what DH makes from the 2 days a week at the family business, which wouldn't happen. So I'd have to find employment. But I'm a little selfish. I have no desire to work 5 days a week over the summer. Summers off was supposed to be one of the perks of becoming a teacher, of throwing away my old life...

So what to do? I have about $13, 000 saved for a car at this point - I've been socking cash away for a couple of years now, worrying about Nigel's inevitable retirement. Part of me says, "Be bold and buy the new car before the summer is out", but most of me says I should wait because we might need to dip into those savings to pay bills over the summer. It's probably just as well that I've got this roadblock slowing me down. I've been practically paralyzed by weighing all the choices - I like hybrids for the potential positive impact on the environment but don't think I can handle the added cost, even after tax breaks of up to $3000; I like the idea of buying American to do my part to "save the auto industry" and "stimulate the economy" but I'm worried about buying from a company that may file Chapter 11; I want the room to fit my entire family in my car but I don't want to sacrafice gas mileage and on and on...

"Indecision is the graveyard of good intentions"

Monday, March 2, 2009

101 Things in 1001 Days

I'm jumping on the bandwagon here. I've been doing a lot of soul searching in the last two years and it seems appropriate to try to prioritize my life goals. At least, life goals in the short term...

1. Lose 10 pounds by my 31st birthday
2. Fit back in a size 12 (or less) by the end of the 1001 days
3. Get a physical (it's been a couple of years)
4. Give yoga another try – every other day for 2 weeks
5. Walk for at least one hour every week
6. Hike to find at least one letterbox per month
7. Finally go see a dermatologist
8. Find a counselor to help me work on becoming less angry
9. Eat 3 solid meals a day instead of skipping meals & bingeing on junk
10. Eat as vegetarian for 3 months
11. Dance with the babies at least once a week

12. Get another stamp in my passport book before it expires (2013)
13. Visit the Thousand Islands
14. Bring all 3 kids to Disney World
15. Explore my mother’s new hometown of Homer
16. Go cross country skiing in Ludlow VT
17. Take a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and have a picnic
18. Show the boys Plymouth MA
19. Spend a week enjoying the beach at Falmouth, Cape Cod
20. Perform in the Horribles' Parade on July 4th in Rockport MA
21. Spend a weekend in Boston
22. Drive to the Outer Banks and spend some time exploring Kitty Hawk
23. Take a family train ride to the Midwest (Chicago maybe?)
24. Visit the Bronx Zoo at least twice before our membership is up
25. Take the boys to see the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan
26. Spend a day at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan
27. Go back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan
28. Visit and take pictures of historical sites of family significance with Uncle Paul
29. Go to CT for Zandra’s doctoral dissertation
30. Plan a trip to stay with Shahin after he starts medical school in NV or FL

31. Read a minimum of one book per month
32. Read a biography of someone influential to American History
33. Read most of the books on the list I gave to my classes for their book report project (My Sister’s Keeper, Never Let Me Go, Stem Cell Symphony, Next, Mutation) by the end of Summer 2009

34. Revamp the kitchen with new counters and new appliances
35. Remove the old air conditioner in the living room
36. Fix the wall in the living room (after removing the a/c)
37. Repaint where necessary (i.e. living room after babies drew on the wall)
38. Clean out the attic AGAIN
39. Convert the attic into useable space by installing heating
40. Donate old baby clothes and toys to Salvation Army
41. Disassemble the IKEA kitchen table & find it a new home
42. Vacuum the house at least once a month (since DH does it most of the time)
43. Fold and put away laundry as soon as it’s been washed and dried
44. Fix the Rubbermaid tool shed or sell it on Craigslist
45. Add topsoil and grass to the side yard this spring
46. Price out a new deck for the front of the house (if affordable, build it)
47. Price out new siding for the entire house (if affordable, install it)
48. Replace the overhead fluorescent light in the living room

49. Buy a new iPod to transfer old iTunes library off of our wedding iPod
50. Purchase two albums per year – one at Christmas time and one at birthday time
51. Join a choir

52. Establish a household budget that we actually adhere to
53. Find another source of income for the summer months
54. Help Corbin get his first job & establish a savings account
55. Pay down my student loans ahead of time (due to end 2014)
56. Purchase a gas-efficient vehicle & keep the monthly payment below $200/month
57. Help Corbin set aside money for college applications
58. Donate 1% of take home salary to charities

59. Sign up for NetFlix to avoid movie theater prices
60. Watch more TMC (Turner Movie Classics) than Comedy Central movies
61. Limit the twins to no more than 2 hours of TV a day
62. Determine if we need a digital converter box for our TV

63. Finish writing my novel
64. Start writing poetry again – shoot for one poem a month
65. Write a history of Grandpa Dotzert & the FBI
66. Develop a digital photography portfolio
67. Enter some photographs in the Morris County 4H Fair
68. Participate in NaJoWriMo in 2009 and 2010

69. Write and publish a journal article
70. Become active in the BTANJ
71. Establish a molecular biology research program at work
72. Commit to spending no more than 10 hours a day on work stuff
73. Develop a teacher portfolio CD/binder for job interviews
74. Study to take the MCAT exam
75. Shadow my mother in law at her radiology practice

76. Participate in Gimme Your Stuff (
77. Send a postcard to Post Secret (
78. Take photographs of all of the graves in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in the woods
79. Fill 5 photo requests for
80. Get Thorn registered with the town every year on time
81. Get Thorn's teeth cleaned
82. Finish my state quarter collection
83. Visit my grandparents’ graves at Hillside Cemetery & replant flowers
84. Spend an afternoon with my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Joyce
85. Help Grandma and Aunt Patti organize Grandpa’s Korea pictures
86. Get all the FBI records possible for Great Great Grandpa Dotzert
87. Join the Historical Society
88. Be trained as a guide for historical walking tours this summer
89. Plan a bi-monthly Girl’s night with my sister, my aunts and cousins
90. Spend at least 20 minutes every night talking to my husband without distraction
91. Learn to make “healthier” desserts for the family
92. Use to declutter semi-annually (December – April – August)
93. Say “I love you” to each of my children every day
94. Set up an area next to house for Chester the pet bunny to stay during the summer
95. Research and visit towns in central/southern Jersey, upstate New York, southern VT, and CT in order to find the “perfect” place to settle until the twins graduate high school in 2024
96. Call my father to chat at least once a month
97. Call my mother to chat at least once a month
98. Plan a get together with my father’s family (BBQ anyone?)
99. Make a list of potential suggestions for DH’s family reunion in 2011
100. Begin collecting original genealogy documents to gain entrance to the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution)
101. Set up a schedule of “mother-son” dates with Corbin

My end date is Monday, November 28, 2011. Wish me luck.

Good days, bad days...

Today qualifies as a good day, as far as my career switching goes. Nearly a foot of snow has blanketed New England and school was cancelled. No school, no work.

I got to really enjoy today at home - playing in the front yard with my babies for almost an hour, building a squat, but jolly-looking snowman with them; teaching my older son how to use our brand new high efficiency front loading washer; catching up with friends and family on Facebook; eating hot chicken soup and drinking warm cocoa; snuggling with the wee ones on the couch as they napped... Yes. Today has been a lovely break.

Days like this are one of the perks of making the committment to be a high school teacher. Days like this make me feel less terrified by my choice.

Unfortunately, I find that there are more days that leave me sad, angry, and bored. Last week, I was driving to my job, which is nearly an hour from my home, listening to NPR in the car. I caught the tailend of an interview with a scientist at McGill University who had worked on a newly published Nature Neuroscience paper detailing the effect of child abuse on the gene expression of a glucocorticoid receptor in the adult brain. It's the second paper from this group in a year that has highlighted the critical balance of nature and nuture that dictates whom we become via epigenetics. I was fascinated.

In the old days, I would have read about these articles nearly as soon as they were published - either by reading a steady slew of journal TOCs that flooded my email inbox, through a weekly journal club meeting, or just casual conversations with lab mates. Now to be fair to myself, the day I heard the NPR piece was the day that the article was pre-published online so I wasn't too far behind the curve. But it was a fluke that I caught the broadcast. What if I had turned the dial to the local Top 40 Pop station instead? I wouldn't have heard about the research or the Canadian Suicide Brain Bank at all.

When I got to work, I tried mentioning the articles to two coworkers and got mildly amused acknowledgement. A third coworker finally gave me the type of response I was hoping for - genuine interest in the mechanism - though I had to explain some basics of epigenetics to him. We pulled up the paper (thank goodness for open access) and skimmed it over. We talked about some of the implications the paper raised. And then I lamented that I couldn't really bring it up in my classes. Because for the most part, freshman in high school struggle with the basics of cell parts and cell division so explaining environmentally induced methylation patterns that manage to "keep off" specific gene expression decades later is really out of the question... After all, I need to teach a little bit about all areas of biology before the End of Course assessment in May - no time for Dr. ResearchRecreant's flights of fancy.

It's like I am a recovering drug addict, slowly weaning myself off of the highs (and lows) of research. I miss the mental stimulation of lab life. My old life. My old identity. The only problem is that like any addict I am struggling and sometimes I relapse. Leaving me very uncomfortable in my own skin.