Vernon Hills High AP Bio instructor makes e-learning collaborative, engaging
One morning last month, Chris Wolf set up his monitors in a corner of Room 1830 at Vernon Hills High School and prepared for another day of remote teaching.
The sleek new science lab has movable furniture, adjustable power cords hanging from the ceiling and shining sinks and other equipment -- an enviable environment for collaborative instruction, said Wolf, who teaches Advanced Placement biology and human genetics.
"I hope I get squatters' rights," he jokes. "It's pretty cool."
But because they've been learning from home the entire school year, students have yet to share the experience in person. That's scheduled to change Jan. 19, when Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 switches to hybrid learning.
The trick for Wolf, who has taught at Vernon Hills High since 2006, has been determining how best to involve students virtually in a subject where hands-on learning is key.
So during the first semester, Wolf -- true to his Twitter profile -- worked to improve his teaching "one failed attempt at a time."
He's jumped in with both feet, trying new methods and moving along when they didn't work. Students appreciate knowing their teachers are human, he says.
His Tool Box includes a variety of visual, virtual and hands-on materials with names like Pivot Interactives, Nearpod Notes and EDpuzzles used by students to view or perform at-home labs and other exercises.
"I would say Mr. Wolf has been the most effective teacher in e-learning," said AP Bio student Brooke Donaldson.
Donaldson says materials provided by Wolf are "super important," as they allow some labs that would be done at school to be done at home over Zoom.
You could say Wolf, a Downers Grove native and son of a retired chemistry teacher, is the ultimate tinkerer, scouring various avenues for ways to make a dense subject engaging, tactile and collaborative.
"We really want to make all of our science classes as hands on as possible," Wolf says. "We want kids to do science."
Puzzles, interactive games, prizes and even M&M's, suckers and tea packets figure into Wolf's teaching.
Two days last week, for example, the main ingredients for a "taste lab" were tea made with gymnema sylvestre leaves, miracle berries, lemons and broccoli.
The tea temporarily blocks taste receptors that detect sugar and the berries (synsepalum dulcificum) block sour tastes. The lab relates to cell signaling.
"They will brew and taste the tea and rate the taste of food. They'll figure out the tea is masking the taste of the sweet items," said Wolf. "The kids love it and they remember it."
Coloring books of biology diagrams proved helpful in the study of photosynthesis and cellular respiration, says student Sophia Mei.
"I think Mr. Wolf's class is the most socially and mentally engaging class I have, and I love his teaching style ... because it really helps a visual learner like me," she said.
A booklet of diagrams and questions pertaining to certain concepts every so often contain little "stop" signs, she added, which signals students to contact Wolf.
"He will quiz us a bit and he will clear up any misconceptions," she said. "This definitely makes learning more personal, which I feel is very hard to do in e-learning."
Nearly every day, students in Wolf's class break into groups or "rooms" on Zoom.
"It was hard at first, but I know what the goal is -- to talk in small groups and learn together," said Wolf. "They can talk to each other and I can jump in and talk to them."
Student Deborah Choi says Wolf is attuned to students and knows when to slow down or break to give their brains a rest.
"It is almost as if he can read us through the screen," she said. "No student of Mr. Wolf can say that he doesn't care, because he does such and amazing job at teaching and does so much for us."
Advance placement classes generally are a senior course and considered college level, said Mark Prosise, science department supervisor.
"He's really an innovator. He's kind of like the go-to guy for everything from a tech question to a lab setup question," Prosise said. "He's very quietly humble."
Wolf is constantly finding and studying new lab exercises that he tests himself before introducing them to students.
"He's not your average bio teacher. He's done a lot of high tech labs," Prosise said.
Wolf teaches three AP Bio and one genetics section. AP Bio is a yearlong course and genetics starts the second semester. He says he's proud of how resilient students have been.
"I think what's really important, especially in Vernon Hills, is how awesome and supportive kids have been with the ups and downs of at-home learning," Wolf said.
Tips from a great teacher
Vernon Hills High School biology teacher Chris Wolf offers some of his top tips for other teachers:
• Swim with your students, don't just be a lifeguard watching over them pointing out when they are making mistakes. Get in the water and be part of the learning process.
• Celebrate success and failures. Learning needs both.
• Not everything needs to be for a grade. Teach kids that learning is a process and we all learn differently and shouldn't be assessed on how we learn, but only if and when we learn it.
• Model taking risks; don't be afraid to try something new and have it blow up in your face. Your students will appreciate that you are human.
• Teaching and learning can appear messy, disorganized, and hard. In many ways, that's how the brain works to learn something. The more challenging the learning, the most lasting what is learned will be. I often tell my students, the way I teach sometimes is to purposefully confuse you then help you figure things out. That is what makes learning stick and endure.