Chelsea Confalone teaches General and Advanced Biology at Sequoyah High School, a new, progressive school in Pasadena, California. She also teaches a biology elective on diseases, and an ecology elective focusing on climate change, urban ecology, and the local ecology of the Los Angeles River.
What do you do to remain current and bring the latest science into the classroom?
Whenever I begin a new unit, I start with a relevant news article from the past year — usually ones I find in the New York Times science section. They’re great at linking to primary sources, so I’ll have my advanced classes read both. In addition to making the content relevant, this is a good way to discuss how science is not a static tome of facts but rather a body of ever-evolving theories. I especially love finding articles that change their understanding of central concepts they’ve already learned (like photosynthesis, for example). I emphasize to my students that it’s much more important to understand why things happen than to memorize specific details as those may change.
What topic do you find hardest for students? How do you teach it?
A lot of my students struggle to find good ways to search for information and to evaluate the sources they find. I went to high school pre-Google, but students today don’t actually need to memorize things the way we did; they need to know how to search for what they’re looking for, analyze sources, and think for themselves. If a student asks an interesting question in class, especially one for which I don’t have a good answer, I stop the class and show them how I would go about finding the answer online.
Why did you become a teacher? Did you always want to teach?
When I was in graduate school I was struck by how little time many scientists spent making their research understandable. The excuse was often something along the lines of “it’s too complicated.” But the more time I spent teaching undergraduates the more I learned that nothing is too complicated, you just have to find the right way to explain it. It became a fun challenge for me and while other graduate students dreaded their teaching assignments, I always piled on as much teaching as I could. I chose high school teaching because I had seen the strengths and weakness of incoming college freshman and wanted a chance to prepare younger students to embark on their higher education.
Tell us about a hobby or passion outside of work.
When my children were born I learned how to make clothes, which came from a desire to opt-out of the high-volume clothing industry and the ecological and social damage it causes. The iterative process of making clothes, trying something, fixing it, trying again until it works — it feels a lot like the scientific research process. Cloning a gene, testing and retesting, designing a new experiment, testing and retesting. Since I no longer work in a lab it’s actually how I engage that part of my brain.
What is your approach to build a meaningful relationship with your students and their parents?
Respect is at the core of our relationships. Each student comes to my class with a unique set of gifts and challenges. If someone is struggling with a concept I don’t automatically assume it’s because they’re not trying. If students in the class are struggling with a concept I first ask what I could do differently to help them. I make them a part of the solution. If a class is particularly unfocused I step out and have them come up with a solution to be more on task. Giving them ownership over their education keeps them more engaged.