April [00:02:00] Hey, everyone. I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. Our host is Dr. SJ Boulton, an educational designer, and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's interactive virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college, and university. This podcast is our space to share time with you and introduce you to a few of the innovative and inspiring science educators we meet as we, together, go about our mission of empowering the next generation to change the world. Welcome to Episode 24. This episode is Part Two of our conversation with Bonnie Nieves, a biology teacher at Nipmuc Regional High School in Massachusetts and author of the book Be Awesome on Purpose. Let’s rejoin the conversation now.
SJ Boulton [00:30:56] You made an observation that your students work best when they're not being formally evaluated. And when I read that, I was like, 'Of course I hate having someone looking over my shoulder.' And there's a little passage that really dovetails with one of my personal loves in academia is authentic assessment. Getting it right and making the assessment match the outcome that you're trying to get to. And there's a little passage in that, which was "After a good hard look, I had to admit that my grade book did not accurately reflect what the students know and are able to do because student participation and my effectiveness did impact grades.".
SJ Boulton [00:31:34] And I wondered with your project-based learning, and it's very difficult to take something as brilliant as project-based list and where it is a little bit more wiggly, a little bit more choose your own adventure for the students, and squish it to make it fit traditional touchstone moments like multiple choice or kind of things. And so. When you started doing that, when you started with the more project-based, more investigative type learning experiences, how did you change your grade and policies and assignments and assessments to make them more authentic to that mode of learning?
Bonnie Nieves [00:32:16] I honestly, can't really remember what my first step was except for taking a multiple choice traditional test and asking kids, so imagine a roomful of 20 students, and I ask every kid after they've taken it to reflect on what questions they think they got right and wrong and why. And then taking kids individually or in small groups and going through the questions they've gotten wrong and asking them to course-correct like right there, right now. And 'was the question a distraction?' 'Do you know the answer?' 'Do you not know the answer?' 'Can we reteach this?' And, eventually, I found that takes a lot of time to go through!
SJ Boulton [00:33:17] Feedback always does, yeah.
Bonnie Nieves [00:33:19] And the way I resolved that is to not have, I mean, this is after years of practice and tweaking, to not have every kid doing the assessment at the same time - having them do it when they're ready for it. So if a student felt like they were ready to take the assessment now, then I would have given them the multiple choice and then provide feedback to the students that were ready. So now I've got maybe five kids out of 20 that are doing that on that day, and that is manageable for me. And then the other 15 are still working toward being able to take that assessment. Then what that naturally did was set these five students up to be able to do some sort of extension activity where they would pursue a personal interest related to the topic that they're doing. Or put together a lesson that maybe would be the lesson they wish they had back when they were learning this in order to help the students who might be struggling a little bit. And it just kept snowballing into just a larger version of the same thing.
SJ Boulton [00:34:41] So my brain's going a little bit mad, right?
Bonnie Nieves [00:34:43] I believe that.
SJ Boulton [00:34:45] Because one of the things that it's connecting with me on is like, we do this naturally in sports. Like, when somebody is ready to compete, they go and compete. We don't say like, oh, all of you started at the same time, thus you all have to do your first competition at the same time. We say, 'Are you ready?' You're a naturally gifted athlete or you're a little bit more athletic. Of course, you're going to be competition-ready before your friend, who maybe is a little heavier or has never done sports before or is just taking their first steps into whatever sport says. We do this naturally in other places. We don't necessarily do it naturally in the classroom or in science. Yeah, so what a lovely way to kind of move in a slightly Montessori way, move with the student and rather than put in this full-time barrier on, you will be ready by this point and you're going to be tested at this point.
Bonnie Nieves [00:35:37] Yeah.
SJ Boulton [00:35:38] And the other thing that it's making me think too, is what an elegant way to ensure that the kids that are to the right of the bell curve in terms of their academic achievement, that they don't feel like they're being held back in the classroom. They take their assessment kind of, I use early and inverted commas, like ‘they were ready’. It was the right time for them to do it, but they take it early and then they are free to follow their interest further curiosity but still do something productive rather than sit in the classroom and be bored.
Bonnie Nieves [00:36:14] Yeah.
SJ Boulton [00:36:15] And we often, I don't know, often the conversations that I have about pedagogic strategy or academic policy, they focus on bringing slower learners or disengaged students up to the middle of the bell curve and kind of sometimes neglect the gifted kids at the top. So it feels like there's a really elegant way here of both putting support in place for those learners that might take a little longer, giving them the tools they need to become effective self-directed learners, but also ensuring that those kids that are already there don't just sit around doing nothing and don't lose their enthusiasm for something that they're actually really good at. Because there's nothing worse than seeing somebody who's, you know, ahead, doing really well, excited and enthusiastic for something, getting bored and thinking that it's rubbish and we've done a bad job of we end up putting somebody in that place. I love this Bonnie, I love this.
Bonnie Nieves [00:37:20] And that's something that is really close to my heart, is that sometimes we have students that are disengaged and they have behavior problems or behavior issues that we consider inappropriate. And it's really just because they're not interested, because they're not challenged, or the challenge isn't exactly right. If it's too challenging, someone's going to shut down. And if it's not challenging enough, they're going to rush through it and potentially be a distraction to other people in the class because they're bored.
SJ Boulton [00:37:59] Sure. Does this link into, you shared an insight that you realize that you teach better in smaller classes and that the students learn better in smaller classes too. And I'm almost noticing here a grouping of the students. So if folks are moving at their own pace, do they naturally fall into groups? Does this kind of link in to how you were able to overcome the challenge of a large class size? Are there other strategies that play in here?
Bonnie Nieves [00:38:27] Yes, there are students that, because they naturally progress faster, and it could be any number of things, not necessarily interest or background knowledge in science, but reading levels and math skills, there's all sorts of factors that determine how fast a student can move in a science course. Just imagine for a second, side note - imagine this is just in this one science course that I have, but in general, in their whole trajectory of science courses - imagine how their reading abilities would set them on a different course and it just multiplies over the course of their whole academic career based on their reading and writing abilities.
Bonnie Nieves [00:39:22] So for me to be able to accommodate for that in the classroom by putting students with sometimes similar reading levels together, where I can support students who need just some help to get through the thick content or the difficult math while other students move forward. And at other times it would be as one student who is particularly good at or experienced with the thick content and is a, you know, accelerated reader or writer, that student being able to support that group of students, but not with me telling them they have to just naturally putting them in that group where it just happens. And teachers who do groupings, you realize that that's what happens, rather than one person carrying the group, it's just one person clarifying or students asking questions to each other when they're in groups. And as long as there's someone there that knows the answer, whether it's me or another student, they're still getting that information. So creative grouping is a way that I have been able to make sure I can have a conversation with every student every single day.
SJ Boulton [00:40:57] That makes so much sense. And again, I'm kind of thinking back to sports where sometimes if it's somebody's first day, you put them with, you put them with somebody, who's got a little experience, you know, help them, help them find a way, a little bit of creative grouping in the classroom, it makes a ton of sense. But I can imagine and forgive me, I can imagine that there's educators listening to this podcast saying, this all sounds amazing, creative grouping. And of course, but it's nothing I can do myself because I can't add another thing to my day. And when I was reading your book, everything you talk about was very clearly a result of thought effort, and you were very clear that you didn't receive any extra time to improve your teaching. So those folks that are sitting there thinking, I have not got the time, this is cool. I would love to do that, but I have not got the time. What would you advise them?
Bonnie Nieves [00:41:55] I would say, 'what is the thing that you can let go of?' You're absolutely right, you can't make time. Time is finite. And if you have an hour with students, you can't turn that into an hour and 20 minutes. So consider that five-minute thing that you do that you could just transfer all of the ownership of that to students and give yourself 5 minutes to sit back and just look at students, look at how they're interacting, look at their behaviors, and start there. Then if you do that 5 minutes every day for a week, you've just gotten a half hour. So it's as simple as that. Small steps, start transferring ownership to students, give them a warm-up or a beginning of the class question that you will not evaluate. Let them write things down, let them tell you how they're feeling today. And that gives you time to empower students to share their feelings, for one thing, which doesn't happen often in my experience, and it gives you something to read later instead of grading essays and things like that, look at what students are writing about, how they feel about their day, and what they're learning. And you'll immediately get some feedback on how you might be able to creatively group students based on what they're writing when they are writing whatever they want. And, I mean, that's a really entry-level way to do it.
SJ Boulton [00:43:55] It sounds like you're asking people to make time to observe their students and take that step back and actually, you know, yeah, you've got to get through the lesson and keep on top of their behavior and all the rest of it, but taking that time to observe will help you figure out where you can take that time or make the step-by-step changes.
Bonnie Nieves [00:44:14] Yeah, you can. I remember years and years ago I had a friend who was always saying, you know, you have to make time for social, emotional, and behavioral instruction. And I scoffed and laughed and said, You're kidding me, right? There is not a way you see all the standards you see now, like we have the new science standards and there are so much more built into those which changes the way you need to teach. And he said, 'Exactly. It changes the way you need to teach. So this is your opportunity right now. Change the way you teach.'.
Bonnie Nieves [00:45:01] It took a lot of practice and it's still, this is still my learning laboratory every day where I switch things up and use feedback. But now it's to the point where I teach my science through the lens of social, emotional, and behavioral instruction. Like that leukemia lesson that I was talking about. The point is to explain why is understanding cell biology important to everyone, which is going to make connections to people who have ever known someone with cancer, which is everyone, anyone who's ever known someone that has had a bacterial infection, which is everyone, then it all comes together and they're all going to be able to tell personal stories or make a personal connection. And they don't realize it yet, but they will and they'll be more connected.
Bonnie Nieves [00:46:06] It's a work in progress always. And when you start doing it went from, I didn't ever imagine the impact that it would have, to students who are like sometimes actually running into class and eager to share their stories with me about things that happened outside of class and share the stories about what happened inside of our class with everyone outside of class.
SJ Boulton [00:46:43] I mean, I feel like I need another, you know, two or three days to talk to you about all of the other questions I've got. Not to mention what happens when the students graduate from your class and get into another teacher's classroom. But I shan't because I know that I'll spend days. Maybe we can grab a cup of coffee at some time and I can bother you. But our episode is already coming to a close and I, for one, am very sad about that.
Bonnie Nieves [00:47:10] I know.
SJ Boulton [00:47:12] I've really enjoyed talking to you and I just want to say a huge thank you for sharing your time with me today. But before we wrap up, one last big question. Forgive me, since you spend so much of your time reflecting on what works. I wonder how you might be already using the controversial and highly exciting to me tools like ChatGPT as part of your teaching and how you might test and evaluate it.
Bonnie Nieves [00:47:40] Now come on. That's a two hour conversation right there.
SJ Boulton [00:47:45] I know. Okay. Short and sweet.
Bonnie Nieves [00:47:47] My short answer is 'what are you doing and how does it help'? And so I right now am asking kids to use a research template, and this is what I've been doing for years, where students track their research by reading and summarizing, reading and summarizing continually to eliminate plagiarism and to flesh out their own ideas. So now, what we've been doing is taking the information that they put into that research template, which is in their own words. Putting that into ChatGPT and saying, ‘Use my notes to write an essay research paper about’, say ‘leukemia. ‘The subtropics of this should be the diagnosis, treatment, and personal stories’ - or whatever the kids want their subtopics to be. And ChatGPT will take their sloppy notes and put it into a readable form. Then they take that readable form, edit that, add their in-text citations, add whatever missing. And because they know where the information came from, because they've been keeping track the whole time, and then they decide whether or not ChatGPT did a good job. Then they put their next draft back into ChatGPT and ask, 'how well does this writing explain' whatever their content was, and then ask for suggestions about how to improve it and it will give it to them.
SJ Boulton [00:49:33] What a lovely way to get the students to engage with critique in a way that doesn't create an emotional barrier. I'm thinking about you write your own essay, you read it, you can't see the flaws because you made it. And it's obviously brilliant.
SJ Boulton [00:49:50] The other way of doing this exercise. You mark your friend's essay and of course you have to give your friend a good mark because you know, it's your friend, or it's somebody else in the class and you don't want to upset them. So there's an emotional barrier there. This is an A.I. that you don't really care about. Or maybe you want to be a bit harsh on, like, 'Oh, clever A.I., I'll show you stuff!' And you find the gaps and you find the errors. And you're smarter than ChatGPT and you put it all together really elegantly, but it's fresh and you can be objective, right? Because you've never seen this output.
Bonnie Nieves [00:50:26] And it's so fast.
SJ Boulton [00:50:29] And it's not cheating because you're not submitting what ChatGPT made, you're submitting your critique.
Bonnie Nieves [00:50:35] Yes! It's your words just shuffled around said a little more eloquently possibly. But then you go back and edit it to make sure it's written in your voice saying what you want it to say with your citations.
SJ Boulton [00:50:54] I love it. We're teaching students to be editors.
SJ Boulton [00:50:57] Yeah, I love it. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, Bonnie. Thank you so much. Bonnie Nieves, you are fantastic.
Bonnie Nieves [00:51:05] Oh my gosh
SJ Boulton [00:51:06] Thank you so much for sharing this time with me.
Bonnie Nieves [00:51:09] Well, I loved it so much. I love chatting with you.
April [00:51:11] Thank you very much for sharing time with us in this episode, Bonnie Nieves. And thank you for listening. If you liked this episode, we hope you’ll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. We invite you to send us your feedback at April at Labster dot com. Until next time, keep teaching and keep learning!