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Meet the Expert Tooling Up for Back to School with Benjy Wood

Welcome to NMSI’s Meet the Expert series, a new feature in which we tap the expertise of our cadre of experienced teacher trainers and consultants, many of whom hold leadership roles in regional and national education organizations in addition to earning recognition for outstanding teaching in their own classrooms. We’ll call on these experts to share their experiences, challenges and lessons learned and to provide commentary on timely issues pertaining to STEM education and college and career readiness.

Today’s post is a Q&A with NMSI expert Benjy Wood, who helps train and support AP Environmental Science teachers as part of NMSI’s College Readiness Program. Benjy currently teaches AP* Environmental Science, as well as anatomy and physiology, and biology, at Pope John Paul II High School in Plano, TX. He also works with the College Board, guiding AP exam graders as a table leader for AP Environmental Science.
We asked Benjy about the challenges of starting a new school year, what he’s looking forward to, and what advice he has for fellow teachers. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of starting a new school year, and what advice would you give to a new teacher facing a similar challenge?
A: For me, the most challenging part is trying to decide what I want to do differently each year. I usually come back from the summer break with better perspective on the previous year and a racing mind full of ideas for activities and labs. I find it difficult trying to decide what to change from last years course.  Should I drop an old favorite lab to try something new? Should I change my grading scheme? What areas should I target based on AP results? 
One strategy that I find helpful is to remind myself that a teaching career is a marathon, not a sprint. While I would love to find the magic combination of labs, activities, and lessons that would allow me to teach the perfect class from here on out, it's probably not going to happen. I try to ask myself what that perfect class would look like and then make a couple of changes each year to keep moving toward my ideal classroom. I try to make one change each grading period. Hopefully I'll find the right mix just in time to retire!

Q: What kind of changes are you integrating into your classroom this year?
A: My big change for the year is to implement a scope and sequence that I have been contemplating for several years now.  I am breaking the year into three "rotations.”
For the first few weeks of the year, I will work through the content of the entire course with my students. This will be done with a combination of direct instruction, classroom discussions, selected reading assignments, quizzes and exams.  
The second rotation will focus on labs and activities. We will spend several weeks conducting labs, watching documentaries and doing activities that allow the students to apply the concepts that were covered during the first "rotation.”
The third "rotation" will be devoted to review and test prep to get ready for the exam. 
My hope is that this will provide an opportunity for students to interact with the course material three times prior to the exam.  I also hope that this new sequence will be a good fit for my mostly senior classes and the inevitable impact of springtime senioritis!  Check back with me next year to see if this turns out to be a great idea or one I'd like to forget. 

Q: What are some of your favorite resources to use with your students?
A: I teach on a "one-to-one" campus, so technology plays a big role in my courses. I use many different resources from online geology labs to a myriad of iPad/iPhone apps that fit nicely with the subjects that we cover in AP Environmental Science. The most useful resources, however, are the online tools that I use to manage the course and communicate with students.
I use Wordpress for my classroom blog; YouTube for storing documentaries, screencasts, and any video that I use in class; Google Drive for file storage and sharing (this has helped me reach about a 75% paperless classroom); and Google Calendar for a classroom calendar that is easy to create, edit and share with students and parents.
If you have trouble accessing YouTube on your campus, HippoCampus.org is a great website that has collections of videos and screencasts that can be used freely for your "flipped classroom" or just for an occasional content-related video. 

Q: What is your favorite lab activity and why?
A: I have a lab where the students build, and compete with, passive solar heaters. This is one of my students’ favorites each year, and I enjoy any chance that I have to let the students build something and practice problem solving. 

Q: If you could enter another profession besides teaching, what would it be and why? 
A: I have a pipe dream of being a writer. I love to share information and tell stories, and I like the thought of working from my living room!

Q: What’s your favorite school supply and why? 
A: Without question my favorite school supply is modeling clay. I have several activities that involve clay including a claymation video project. It's fun, it's colorful it lets the kids get their hands dirty, and—like duct tape—it has many, many uses. 

Click the Button to Tweet: “I try to change something each year to keep moving toward my ideal classroom.” Benjy Wood #MeetTheExpert

 *Advanced Placement and AP are registered trademarks of the College Board.