What’s on Your Playlist?

The cast of NBC’s Today Show has been sharing their personal playlists on air this week, and I am wondering if some of us non-celebrity teachers should share ours as well.  Playing music before and sometimes during class is a way of injecting sensual pleasure into my anatomy and physiology lab that I didn’t even consider for a long time.  In fact, I backed into it quite by accident.

iPod Nano

Like many people, I prefer to exercise to music.  This has led me to learn how to navigate iTunes, an iPod Nano, and various accessories. Once I realized how motivational the right songs can be, I started using the music to help push me through other tasks, including housework and setting up practical stations for exams.  I sometimes left my music blaring as I allowed anxious students to enter the lab to begin their exams.  I suspected that students would find my mix of Stones, Motown, Celtic, jock rock, and goodness-knows-what-else a little corny, but several of them mentioned on their evaluations of the class that they enjoyed the music and felt that it helped relieve pre-test jitters.

Emboldened by their comments, I devised special playlists for the first day of class.  Everyone seemed to feel more comfortable entering a rooomful of strangers with upbeat music pumping in the background.  I moved on to playing music while the students performed dissections or set up mock practicals for one another.  Students began to share their favorite songs with me and with each other, encouraging the development of a class community.

My vision is to develop a short playlist for each of the topics that we cover in A&P.  “Bad to the Bone” might work.  “Total Eclipse of the Heart”?  “Every Breath You Take (“I’ll Be Watching You”)?  This could be fun.

Here’s my current playlist for the first day of class:

  • “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones
  • “Kernkraft 400 (Sport Chant Stadium Remix) by Zombie Nation
  • “Horse Power” by the Chemical Brothers
  • “Let’s Work” by Mick Jagger
  • “Galvanize” by the Chemical Brothers

Have you tried bringing music into your classroom?  If so, please share your playlist!  I would welcome any suggestions.



Clever Clip

My students wrestle with the spelling and pronunciation of many of the words used in anatomy and physiology.  I often hear, “But I was almost right.”  I explain almost can be confusing and potentially dangerous in healthcare.  This little clip helps me make the point:


Do you have favorite clips that make a point?  Please share or comment!

Do You Speak the Language?

Several years ago, I was driving down our hometown’s messy strip of eateries, storefronts, and billboards with my then 6-year-pld son.  (Don’t the most interesting conversations with our children occur when we are driving them around?) He said, “I wish that for just one day I would not be able to read.”  Puzzled about that odd wish, I asked for clarification. “Because I would like to see what the signs look like when I don’t know what they mean.” Hmm…this was the child who had been labeled “a divergent thinker” by his teacher. I think he may have been on to something.

I have been speaking the language of science, in one form or another, for close to half a century, so it is very difficult for me to remember when I didn’t know what the words meant. Worse, I am married to another physician, so the language of medicine really is a first language in our household.  I tell my first semester anatomy students, as they struggle to learn directional terms, that one of the great things about this state of affairs  is that one can direct spousal back-scratching with pinpoint accuracy: “A little more medial, Honey…infrascapular…now just a tad superior..that’s the spot…ahhh!”  The words of my discipline are so woven into the fabric of my thinking that I can’t remember what it was like not to know what they mean.

My students are often overwhelmed by the volume of new vocabulary to be mastered in anatomy and physiology.  During my first class period this term, one student raised his hand and asked “Do you want us to know all of this?” “Of course,” I replied, “and there will be a lot more tomorrow and the day after that.”  (Cue generalized moaning and wilting.)

Ever mindful that learning ought to be pleasurable, I offer the class a few advantages to really mastering the language:

  • You will become part of an exclusive club.  When the docs on Grey’s Anatomy holler for a bag of normal saline or diagnose an epidural hemorrhage, you will know what they are talking about.  You, too, will realize how silly it is for cosmetic ads to tout their product’s ability to “neutralize free radicals.”  You will understand how Viagra and Cialis get the job done!
  • You will enjoy the sensual pleasure of having cool phrases like “pseudostratified ciliated columnar epithelium”  and “poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis” roll right off your very own tongue.  And you will feel so smug that you actually know what they mean. This is an achievable challenge that you can master.
  • You can surprise your child’s teacher!  Young children are linguistic sponges who love to help their parents memorize the myriad terms of anatomy.  They will happily allow their bodies to be plastered with Post-it® notes  designating bones, muscles, and regional terms.  And they will learn those terms faster than you will, then proudly share their knowledge at school.
  • You will own something of value. This will become evident long before you touch your first patient.  When you use appropriate medical terminology in conversations with healthcare providers, those folks notice. Rightly or wrongly, the level of care and attention that you and your loved ones receive goes up. (Student after student has made this “discovery.”) Providers recognize that they are dealing with one of their own.  You can read your own medical reports.  You ask better questions. You understand the process.

I also share three ways that I know we are getting the job done:

  1. Your child’s teacher will ask where she’s getting this stuff (see above).
  2. Your family and friends will start to scream “Enough already!”
  3. You will dream about anatomy and physiology

As these “symptoms” indicating successful transfer of knowledge begin to appear in our class, students take pride in sharing their experiences, adding to the sense of community and often injecting a bit of humor into our day. Still, like my son Brian, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to “un-know” it all….just for a day.


Do you have a way of helping your students master discipline-specific vocabulary? D0 your students have common experiences that let you know you’re getting the job done?  Please share.

Cool Tool of the Week: A Cure for Messy Heads

So often we forget that we teachers are usually people who were pretty good at the game of school. (Not all of us, to be sure, and some of the former not-so-greats make the best teachers, at least in my experience.)  The strategies that came to us naturally, or that we adopted so early that we have forgotten how we learned them, are sometimes the ones we forget to introduce, because we feel that they need no introduction.  I mean, how else would you do this?


Charts (Photo credit: GrapeCity)

Still,  the best information that we can offer our students may have less to do with the subject we teach and more to do with how to tackle it.  Anatomy and physiology, the subject that I teach and adore, is laden with intimidating content: hundreds of tongue-twisting terms, complex physiologic algorithms, and category upon category of cells, tissues, glands, hormones, enzymes, bones, muscles and assorted minutia. For us literal-minded left-brain types, there is only one clear way to tackle this monster—grapple it to the ground with a graphic organizer, aka, a chart.  I mean, how else would you do this?

I am surprised that so many of my students, with all their fancy gadgets, have never made a chart.  I suppose that when Latin and diagramming sentences fell out of vogue, the systematic approach went out with the bath water.  However that misfortune happened, it’s really a lot of fun to introduce students to the joy of the self-made chart.  Here’s how I approach it:

  • The first chart is a mandatory assignment given early in the course.  First-semester students make a chart of the chemistry of organic systems; second-semester students make a chart of the endocrine glands and their array of hormones.
  • Students are given a great deal of latitude in the form that their charts take.  They may use color, lists, concept maps, computer-generated charts, fold-outs, posterboard, whatever.  I do make it clear that a sheet torn from a composition book with a few scribbled words will not pass muster.
  • This is a pass/fail assignment.  I do point out that the better your chart, the more you will learn.
  • Students are warned that their first charts will probably be a mess and reassured that this is a very good thing!  The act of revising the charts is the magical part of the process.  If you know why you want to tear your chart up and start over (not enough space? wrong categories? unclear relationships?), then you have already learned something.  In setting things right, your mental image will become ever clearer.
  • I refuse to provide a sample chart: “Any chart that I show you will be an image of how my brain works, not yours.  I have a very boring brain that thinks in outline form…utterly non-creative. I am sure yours is much more interesting, and your chart needs to be a reflection of your better brain.”  Invariably, a student who thinks like me will sheepishly present a chart almost like the one I would have made.
  • Exception to above rule: When I know that a lot of utterly confusing territory is ahead, I will provide a framework to keep students from becoming hopelessly lost.  On the day that we tackle tissue types, each of which has several sub-types, I pass out a blank template with suggested categories.
  • I allot time during class for groups of students to compare charts.  Students are given a prompt that guides them in evaluating the different types of charts.  (“What good idea did you see on another student’s chart?  What did you see on another chart that you wish you had included? Make 5 good exam questions based on the information that can be gleaned from the charts in your group.”)  This is a great team-building exercise and helps students to respect each other’s learning styles.
  • I circulate and award credit for adequate charts.  Inadequate charts…usually only a few… must be revised and presented to me later to earn credit.
  • Then, I never mention it again.  This was a great leap of faith at first. Years of parenting have taught me the futility of nagging and the value of wait-and-see. Sure enough, the strong students quickly grasp the value of charting and use it for every chapter.  When confused classmates ask for assistance or admire the star’s quiz grades, I often hear, “Well, I made this chart that helped me…….”  Charting can be contagious in the best sense of the word.

If you, like me, have difficulty imagining more than one type of chart, visit A Periodic Table of Visualization.  Who knew there were so many cool charts?  I may be forced to think beyond the outline.


Do you have a good way of using charts or graphic organizers in your classes?  Please share!

Super Site of the Week: KhanAcademy.org

Writing a piece about the Khan Academy has been rattling around in my head for a long time, so when I tuned into Sixty Minutes Sunday evening and saw a fascinating piece about the founder and his methods, I knew I had reached that fabled tipping point.  Much has been made of “flipping the classroom” recently, so it was interesting to see how this potential game-changer has sprung from the simplest and sweetest origins: a kind man with impressive academic credentials and a creative spirit looking for a way to help his struggling cousin conquer her math assignments.

The Khan Academy has grown from those first YouTube videos to a not-for-profit with the breath-taking goal of providing “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”  Wow.  The site now boasts 3300 videos that have been viewed by hundreds of millions of students around the globe.  Many schools now embrace a strategy whereby students view Khan Academy videos at home, then practice using the concepts that they have learned in a classroom with a teacher nearby to assist them when needed.  The “flipping” means that what was once done in school (mostly lecture) is now done at home, and what was once done at home (practicing applications) is now done in school.

If you have students who struggle, this site almost certainly contains a video that will provide a virtual tutor to explain the concept in an engaging and non-threatening manner…and that tutor will tirelessly repeat the lesson as many times as it takes to get the point across. Geared for K-12, but certainly appropriate for community college students, the videos average 10 minutes in length and cover topics in math, chemistry, physics, and biology.  There are new videos for computer science history and finance as well, with plans to expand offerings on a continual basis.

This one is a keeper for students and teachers alike.

Revising Might Be Your New Hobby

Revising a theme draft sounds dreary. If you had asked me two years ago, “Do you like revising your own work?” I would have said, “No, who enjoys that?” However, a new angle on revising turned it into something pleasurable for me, and this has helped me communicate the same to students in my writing classes.

It’s humbling to realize that our first work on a paper is seldom our best work. If we expect that, discouragement is likely. Writing is more a process, like with painting or sculpting, where the best results come from playing with the medium until satisfied.

With writing, trying to compose, revise, and edit all at the same time will lead most people to see writing in a legalistic and mechanical way rather than a creative and exploratory way. I find that often I discover what I am saying by saying it. If I have to always know in advance, then there’s no safe zone for typing away as part of finding out what I think, thus the value of getting thoughts out first and arranging them later.

But of course, great drafting isn’t the final goal; the theme is. With my own work, I started looking at pieces I had written and seeing that what looked good at first was often wordy and rambling: something reminds me of something that reminds me of something else, and then I ask, “Now what was it I was trying to say?” It’s easy to feel inadequate or to take blame for not doing it correctly the first time.

I learned to laugh at myself and start cutting words or lines and then smoothing connections to keep a flow with the main points intended. When I started to see this as creative instead of legislative, it became art and enjoyment.

A huge influence on me in improving my own work has come from reading student papers. As I noticed things that clog their clear flow of thought, I began recognizing where I do the same things. Part of this comes from getting down in part onto paper what is a whole picture in our heads. We see a thing in all its steps and transitions, but in writing, it’s natural to have gaps where we hope the reader can fill in, as if seeing into our heads.

 This rarely happens. Those gaps leave the reader saying, “You were just talking about this, and now suddenly you bring up that. How did you get from this point to that point?” To complicate matters, the reader may be looking at a long paragraph with apparent multiple ideas and hardly any transitioning.

The good news is this is normal for drafting. So when a student brings a draft to me for feedback and I find myself lost trying to follow a long paragraph, I say, “I’m having trouble figuring out what this paragraph is about.” To assure the student, I say, “Don’t think of me as the teacher who has the one correct way in mind. Think of me as a friend you’re sharing this with, and I’m merely saying that I’m having trouble figuring out your main idea here and how these individual points connect.”

This helps put the student at ease, along with more emphasis on “This is perfect as a draft. How can you get these thoughts into a flow that makes for a paragraph with one main topic?

Often too, I say, “This sounds elementary, but I think of it like having colored marbles. Imagine that I have yellow ones, green ones, and blue ones, but they’re all mixed up, and I want to group them by color.” This helps a lot of students.

The excitement in class as students are working on their papers increases when they see their drafts as perfect starting places and that I am not measuring their drafts against a finished standard and saying, “Why is this unclear?” When they believe me that I am responding to them as their audience and not as someone looking to say, “Ha, gottcha,” they get excited about helping me understand what they are trying to say.

And similar to my experience in discovering as I go, they might find out more about what they want to say. Revision turns out to be nothing to fear. An old mentor of mine used to say, “Confusion is the pathway to clarity.” That’s a relaxing thought and good for writing pedagogy.

(pleasureteam note: Brian is one of my office mates, and our desks are separated only by a “cube wall.”  I marvel on a daily basis at Brian’s gracious and gentle guidance of his aspiring writers.  Anne and I offer our sympathy for the mountain of less-than-stellar themes he tackles with kindness, good humor, and diligence.  He teaches not only his students but, by his example,  this teacher as well. —- Karen)