On becoming

The three weeks between Thanksgiving and the first semester exam is my favorite time of year. And it’s not why you might think. It’s the time of year when my AP Biology students truly begin to understand how all the individual content topics and how their respective facts and principles fit together into an interconnected whole. Since August, they’ve worked diligently to acquire a vast body of knowledge, but until now their knowledge has been merely a collection of facts. As Henri Poincaré pointed out, “Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

   I teach in a small school and host two-hour AP Biology study-sessions at my home before exams. As we review the content of the entire semester, they not only realize how much they have learned, but they see recurrent themes and ideas clearly, often for the first time. Protein structure and function, once a series of concepts to memorize, now become intimately connected to their understanding of immunology, neurology, signal transduction pathways, and plant trophic responses. As we examine the diagrams in the text in rapid succession, they discover similar diagrams across chapters.

   They bear the fruits of their growth over the first semester with pride, excitement, and an impatience to learn more. They are now critical consumers of their text, seeing where details have been omitted for clarity, asking questions beyond the scope of the text and course. We laugh together at how hard those first chapters seemed at the time. They linger after class to ask questions they’ve been considering outside of class. They propose topics to explore in more depth after the AP exam in May. They bring in books, mentioned in passing, they’ve gathered to read over break: biographies of Ignaz Semmelweis, Rosalind Franklin, and George Beadle; essay collections by Sam Kean, Mary Roach, and Penny Le Couteur; the writings of Michael Pollan, Sean Carroll, and Carl Zimmer.

   As wonderful as these weeks are, they came only after struggle, moments of frustration and self-doubt, and sometimes tears. Indeed, they would not be nearly so glorious without the struggle. My students own their learning, having earned it with the labor of becoming. Often those who have struggled the most feel the greatest sense of pride. I too swell with pride as they transition from students to scholars.

   As their teacher, it is my responsibility to provide them with not only opportunities to struggle but also the space and time to engage in fully in the struggle. Such opportunities are the intersection of the science and the art of teaching, where head, hand, and heart meet. I stand at this intersection often in the wee hours of the morning when I lie awake, unable to leave the classroom of my mind. Struggle must always be tempered with success. There’s a knife-edge balance between struggle with hope and struggle with despair.

   This is why teaching is, at its heart, about creating relationships. My students must trust I always have their best interests at heart. That what I ask of them comes from my love for them, not a display of power or payment of dues. The building of trusting relationships cannot be underestimated. They must trust that the struggle will yield rewards of scholarship and the success of understanding. I must trust that the struggle is important, especially when I want to swoop in and save them. I must trust that they are in the process of becoming, even on those days when it would be so much easier for all of us if I would just tell them the answers to questions they’ve never asked.

   One of my favorite National School Reform Faculty protocols is “Zones of Comfort, Risk and Danger.1” While its original use was intended for difficult professional conversations, it is also applicable to the classroom climate of scholarship I want to create. It is my goal to push students out of their Zone of Comfort: the place where safety resides, where they can predict the outcome and know how to navigate occasional rough spots easily. This is not, however, the place where most learning occurs. The richest place for learning is the Zone of Risk, where students don’t know everything or perhaps anything at all but are open to learning with curiosity and interest. Here, they will consider new options and ideas. They are willing to persevere through difficulties and engage in the struggle to attain deep, rich understanding. The third zone is that of danger. Here, there is so much stress, fear, and discomfort that most cognitive functions are inhibited. When working from the Danger Zone, students often retreat to the Zone of Comfort.

   The boundaries between these zones lie in a different spot for each student, changing with the demands of their lives outside my classroom. I must know when to push and when to support, when to stand impassioned and when to show compassion. I must stretch my students so far they can never return to their original shape but not so far they break.

   Some 30-odd years ago, in my first year of teaching, a beloved mentor left a note on my desk:

   Come to the edge.

   We might fall.

   Come to the edge.

   It’s too high!


   And they came,

   and he pushed,

   and they flew.

   - Christopher Logue

   I’d come to my mentor in tears, having read through the first student evaluations of my teaching career. While most comments were innocuous enough, there were several blistering remarks along the lines of, “She doesn’t actually teach us. We have to learn everything ourselves.” My mentor, after assuring me the comments weren’t grounds for dismissal, smiled, and suggested I look at the positives hidden in the comment. I couldn’t find any then, but over the years, I came to understand what my mentor wanted me to learn. The tattered note still holds a place of honor above my desk.

   This afternoon, I was twice interrupted from grading semester exams by former students: one in his senior year of engineering, another just completing her first semester of college. As they shared their successes, challenges, and plans for their future, they also reminisced about their time in AP Biology. What they remembered most vividly were those times they struggled the most. Some of those struggles were content-based or the result of failed lab investigations, but most were struggles of becoming a scholar: developing an ethic of excellence, time management, and learning how to learn. Both wanted to make sure that I hadn’t let up; that this year’s class was also fully engaged in the hard work of becoming scholars.

   My former students have taught me that, in retrospect, it’s easy to value the struggle for scholarship. With each success, however, they become more eager to seek out the next opportunity for growth. They have taught me that my challenge lies in helping my current students embrace the struggle and persevere on their journey of becoming scholars.

1. Wentworth, M. (2001, January 1). Zones of Comfort, Risk and Danger: Constructing Your Zone Map. Retrieved December 20, 2014, from http://www.nsrfharmony.org/system/files/protocols/zones_of_comfort_0.pdf

Cindy Gay has been teaching science to high school and college students for the past 33 years. She currently teaches general biology, AP Biology and human anatomy & physiology at Steamboat Springs High School in Steamboat Springs, CO, where she has taught since 1998. Cindy is a member of the inaugural BSCS/NABT AP Biology Leadership Academy, an HHMI Ambassador, and a consultant for Bio-Rad. In addition, she is currently serving on the advisory board for the Center for Biomolecular Modeling and works with the College Board on the AP Biology Insight Program. Cindy is the current President of the Colorado Biology Teachers Association. In her spare time, Cindy enjoys hiking, mountain biking, gardening, and spending time with her husband and two children.