Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Early Graduates: A Clash in Philosophy

I'm going through something of a mid-career crisis right now. It's not that I don't still love my job, I do. I just feel like I am doing something wrong. Actually, not so much me personally (although I am sure there is a lot I am doing wrong), but more the whole system.

It's pre-enrollment time here at my school. This morning, we sat through an "inservice" designed to help us to help our seminar kids to figure out what classes they need to take next year.

One of our big issues this year has been getting kids (mostly seniors) to take an actual class instead of "volunteer service" or being a student aide. We had some problems with our schedule this year that caused sort of a traffic jam with certain classes and kids ended up being placed into classes they really didn't want to take or being shuttled off to be an aide somewhere.

During our discussion, this issue came up. We were being told to encourage seniors, especially, to take more rigorous classes. Don't let them slack off just because they are seniors*. Actually, encourage is not the right word, more like force them to take classes they really don't want to take, just so we can tell ourselves that we are encouraging rigor.

They are resisting. They are pushing back. I know this is not new. Kids have slacked off their senior year probably since the senior year was invented, but lately, it seems like it's a much bigger issue than it has been in the past.

My district allows early graduates. Traditionally, this option has only been allowed for a few kids a year, and those kids are usually ones that struggle and see it as an incentive to pass all their classes. Since we went to a trimester schedule, it has been a lot easier for kids to get all the credits they need to graduate before the end of their senior year. This has served to add to the list of those who can escape graduate early.

It has also agitated our principal (and many of our teachers) as we cling to the idea that we have these kids from August to May for four years.

I've been thinking about this today and maybe I'm in the minority here, but what I can't figure out is why is this such a big deal? For my state, funding is based on the enrollment at the end of September, so that would not be affected. Are we afraid of everyone thinking that our school is not rigorous** enough?

Maybe I feel this way because I know those kids are going to be stuck in one of my classes because they will think it is the easy way out. When a kid truly does not want to be in my classroom, I hate it just as much (maybe more) than he does.

I feel like we are doing so many things wrong in our schools. We have a system that has not changed in decades. We still require the same things that were required when I graduated. And probably more or less the same things that were required when my mom graduated.

Have you ever really sat down and thought about how much the world has changed since then? Good Lord, we've really only had Internet for the last decade or so.

Kids have different values, different home lives, different expectations. Kids have changed. Is it for the better? I don't know, but I don't think we can ignore that fact.

I think we have to adapt. We can't keep talking about "21st Century Skills"*** like they are things we will need in the future. We needed them a decade ago. We have to find a way to meet the needs of these kids. We have to be willing to realize that we have to change when the world does. 

Otherwise, I just don't see how we can survive.


NOTE: Sorry about that. I realize this may not represent a string of coherent thoughts, but boy do I feel better.

*What you don't have that problem???

**I am beginning to hate that word, but that is a whole other post.

***What are those anyway? Could we BE any more vague?

****Got a little crazy on the foot notes. See NOTE above.

Friday, December 9, 2011

This is Why My Job is So Much Harder

During my seminar, students are not allowed to go anywhere if they are failing a class.

Yesterday I sent a student to a teacher whose geography class she was failing. Today, she was so excited that she was now passing that class. She said that by going in to talk to him about her grade, he was willing to give her an extra 50 points just for having a good attitude.

I really can't compete with this.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Modeling: Year 2

To say that this year is going better is such an understatement that I have deleted and retyped it about ten times trying to find a better word.

For one, my room is MY ROOM this year. There is no ghost of chemistry past whispering to kids that this class was so much easier last year.

I am also much more comfortable with the material. Last year, I just seemed to be a day or so ahead of my kids and really did not feel prepared enough to keep them focused. Not only were they learning how to Model, but so was I. This year, I have been able to sit down and write out detailed lesson "plans" for each day, including a list of questions (and answers) to ask during the whiteboard sessions. Having a clear goal in mind sure helps me focus and get the kids where they need to be. Who knew?*

One aspect that really bothered me last year was the lack of engagement on the part of my kids. Whiteboard sessions were still treated as a presentation to me rather than a class discussion of their results. I just couldn't get them to let go of me as their safety net. This year there have been a couple things, one on purpose and one accidental, that have made a huge difference in our whiteboarding.

After a week or so of whiteboarding "practice", I got tired of asking the same questions of every group. Seriously, did they not hear me ask the last group? So I made out notecards. These are handed out randomly and have a general question written on them.** If the presentation does not include the answer to your question, then you are to ask it of the group. This forces the kids to actually listen to the presentation, evaluate whether or not the question has been asked, and if not, then get it out there.

This has made such an amazing difference that I can't even believe it. All of a sudden, kids are sitting up and paying attention. They are asking questions, and you can bet that if the question has already been answered, someone is going to let you know. The quality of the presentations have also improved. For some reason, having me ask those questions every single time didn't seem to register with them, but now it's their peers who are asking and that seems to be much more important.

The other turning point this year was a total accident. I was gone. There were two weeks in there that I was gone for four days. The first day was typical, not-get-much-done-pull-one-over-on-the-sub-pretend-we-don't-know-anything. I came back the next day and pretty much just lit into them about responsibility and maturity and all that. They rolled their eyes and I rolled mine.

And I told them the test was still on. They panicked and they whined. "But, you are going to be gone!" Yep. So you had better figure out pretty quickly what you need to do to be ready.

I was gone the next day for their review. They whiteboarded the study guide that day and when I came back the next day, you would have thought it was Christmas morning. Kids jumping up and down, grinning from ear to ear. One boy, I swear I heard him giggle.

They had done it. They didn't need me. They could have a group discussion and learn from each other. They even kicked out a student who wouldn't quit talking. They were even relatively excited about taking the test.

Since then, my room has transformed. I can honestly say that kids are (mostly) engaged. And I feel so much less stressed about whether or not I am doing it right. We whiteboarded a worksheet today and I sat in the back and didn't say a word. Kids were following along, asking for clarification and checking each other's work.

This is actually my ultimate goal. I don't want to be the center of attention. I don't want to be needed. I want those kids to figure it out on their own, and I think they are well on their way :)


*I know, you probably knew.

**I have eleven as of right now and am pretty sure I am going to add in some lab specific questions later.
1. What is your independent variable?
2. What is your dependent variable?
3. What is the relationship between _____ and _____ ?
4. Is your y-intercept negligible? How do you know?
5. What kind of relationship is this?
6. What about the particles themselves cause this relationship?
7. Do we know what "x" represents in our equation? "y"?
8. Is the relationship constant? Direct?
9. What does your y-intercept represent?
10. What does the value of your slope mean?

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Delta

Have you ever seen the Mississippi River? I mean really, truly seen it? Thought about how much power there is across those couple hundred yards? All that water, all that sediment. Some coming traveling from the tops of the Rocky Mountains, some washed off a field twenty feet away. All those particles being pushed and shoved hundreds of miles until it reaches the Delta.

And then is just stops. Heavier stuff sinks immediately. Lighter stuff just floating out into the ocean.

That's what I feel like right now.

Floating.

All the rushing has subsided.

I can breathe again.

I can focus again.

I can teach again.

I can visit my home again.

It got a little ridiculous there for a couple weeks. The insanity that is a robotics competition took all of us by surprise and left all of us more than a little shell shocked.

Everything happened so quickly that I have not even begun to process it all.

So here are my goals this week:
     *Finish cleaning up my lab room.
     *Reflect on the robotics competition.
     *Realize the miracle change in my chemistry modeling classroom.
     *Outline eportfolios for astronomy and one chemistry section.

If someone knows what I need to do, I think I will be more likely to actually get it done :)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Robot Initiation

For the third time in not very many weeks, I am watching the sunrise through a school bus window. I am taking about a dozen kids on a two hour bus ride that begins before the day does so we can do our first testing of our robot on an actual game course.

This is where I have been the last two months.

Way back last spring, I asked a couple kids if they would be interested in doing the Team America Rocketry Challenge. I got one wishy washy maybe. The other kid said he was kind of more into robots now, so I shelved that particular project.

Sometime this summer, I received some information about the BEST Robotics competition, so, on a whim, I went to my principal in August and asked if we could start a Robotics Team.

Now, I totally expected him to be cautious, tell me to wait a year, find out more about the program.

He said, "Sure, go for it."

Um...okay...right...I need a team.

Well, lucky (?) for me, I was coaching cross country at the time. So sitting around after practice one day, I recruited a good number of my runners to join my robotics team.

Looking back, I can't believe they all said yes. I was going into this blind and had no true information to give them about what we would be doing.

Kids: What are we going to do?
Me: Build a robot.
Kids: How?
Me: I don't know.
Kids: What does the robot have to do?
Me: I don't know.
Kids: How long will it take?
Me: I don't know.
Kids: What else do we have to do?
Me: I don't know.
Kids: Awesome! Let's do it!

Seriously, I had no idea what all was involved. I had no idea what all it took to build a robot. I had no idea that you had to do other things in addition to building the robot.

What I had was an amazing group of kids who were willing to follow me on this adventure and were totally okay with all of us learning together.

Our motto this year: "We'll figure it out..."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Teaching "Those Kids"

Warning: Rant ahead.

We have a teacher in our Modeling group who has been grating on my nerves for two years now*. His voice is a constant murmur in the back of the room that never turns off. Kind of like the air conditioner fan.

But that's not what has me upset with him.

We were having a discussion about how to guide our kids through the labs and help them draw conclusions that are close to where we want them to go. Now the whole idea here is that we don't make it obvious that we are guiding them, but that they come into these ideas on their own.

Walk into my room at any hour on any given day and you will generally find about half of my kids have an IEP. Most of the others will be considered at-risk. I don't have books. I have had kids who misspell their own name.

What I have is an engaged (mostly) class.**

My class population has had this profile for several years now and while some teachers in my situation would simply curl up under their desks and cry,*** I decided that this was NOT going to do me in. I was going to persevere and triumph!

So back to the guy in class. His argument was that some of his kids wouldn't be capable of learning without him stepping in and explaining every little thing in detail. They simply couldn't do it.

Please.

This is not a student problem. This is a teacher problem. You as a teacher must drop ALL preconceptions you have of any one student or any one disability. These are kids who have been told throughout their education that they can't do it. They aren't smart enough. They're stupid. And they believe it.

Well, I am here to tell you: They can. They are. And no, they are not. Now I am not going to tell you that I have found some magic key that automatically unlocks every child's potential, as much as I wish I could.

What I can tell you is that you (YOU THE TEACHER) are the one that has to convince them otherwise. Never, ever allow a student to get away with calling himself "stupid" or "dumb" or "not smart enough to do this work". It is simply not true.

This is not easy. This is exhausting. Are you going to reach every kid? Nope, sorry. Is it going to matter to one child that you were willing to look past what everyone else sees and help him see himself in a more positive way? Yes. Yes, it will.


*Our awesome Modeling Institute has follow-up online meetings once per month.

**Our English teacher was complaining at lunch one day about having to teach a Remediation class that is a perfect mirror of my regular classes. Welcome to my world :)

***Wait, that was me in 2004.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Teacher Tip #6

Never.

Ever.

Under any circumstances...

...sponsor more than one activity at the same time.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

How To Destroy a Really Good Idea

Present it in a powerpoint presentation with 293 slides.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Battle for Next to Last

Several years ago, I was inexplicably talked into taking on the job of coaching cross country. I was a sprinter in high school and college, so the only thing I knew about distance runners was that they:
a. Left practice for long periods of time.
b. Ran outside in ANY weather.
c. Were more often than not, just a little bit weird.

"Just go run" was heard quite a bit that first year. I have since made it my job to know everything there is to know about aerobic conditioning, anaerobic conditioning, tempo runs, intervals and fartleks.*

Caught unawares, I was a stranger in a strange land at my first cross country meet. You want to see some intense competition, head over to the Wamego Invitational on the second Saturday in September. Simply amazing.

I had coached volleyball and basketball the few years before this, and was unprepared for the radical beating my coaching philosophy was about to take. At a volleyball tournament, my team had been smothered by an unbelievable group of eight girls whose coach never even spoke to them during the entire match. The girls knew what to do. They pressured each other. The corrected each other. They substituted themselves. Their coach had them trained.

Of course, being young and dumb as I was**, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to this coach in the hospitality room. He described his practices and philosophy. I can remember asking him if every girl in the school wanted to be a part of his team and whether or not he had to cut anyone. He said, no, he didn't have to worry about that because he created such an intense atmosphere that they cut themselves. I can remember thinking what a great idea that was and how that was the type of team I wanted to create. I even scribbled a note on the program about it.

Fast forward to me now in charge of a completely different world. I was digging through one of my many "Idea" file folders where I found that old program. I can remember that tournament like it was yesterday. I can see the faces and hear the voices. I can remember how I felt when I thought I had figured out the secret to a great team. I sat down in my chair and stared at that paper and thought, "what an idiot I was."

And then I thought, "what a jerk he was."

Being a part of what I am now, I can't imagine treating kids in the way that coach obviously did. I can't imagine putting a child in an environment where she felt like a loser whose only option was to quit something she once loved.

Now, I will grant you that cross country is not exactly a team sport, so the dynamics involved are somewhat different. But I will also tell you that everyone, everyone, is welcome on my team. I don't care what size or shape you come to me, you have a home here.

This year, I have Nate. Nate should be a part of our offensive line, but hated playing football. As you may well imagine, he is not one of my top runners. He is my bottom runner. Actually, he is everyone's bottom runner. Nate routinely finishes last. He's okay with that, and I'm okay with that. I put an immense focus on personal records (PRs) for my kids and would rather they improve in every race than medal***.

This year, there is a boy from a neighboring school who runs just about at Nate's pace (think turtles, only slower). This makes for some incredibly interesting finishes. The last race of the day. Everyone else is finished and possibly even cooled down. And here come the two last place finishers.

Cross country, I have found, is a sport where everyone encourages everyone else, no matter what uniform they are wearing. There is something about running several miles in a row that just makes people want you to do your best. So the scene at our last meet was just incredible. A hundred or so kids and adults lining the course, cheering on the two people left out there. Nate would surge ahead. The other boy would take back the lead. Nate would make his move. Kids are screaming. Arms are flailing. You would have thought it was for Olympic gold. It was one of the most intense sporting moments I have ever witnessed. 

When it was all over, I heard not a single negative comment. Both kids were congratulated. Both kids came away feeling like they gave it their all and did the best they could do. There were no snide remarks about the last place finisher. There was no one making fun of the "big, fat kid who can't run*."

There is hope for our future.


*To become a true distance coach, you must be able to tell a group of adolescent boys to go run a fartlek and not crack a smile.
**Oh, alright, often still am.
***Don't get me wrong, I love medals and winning, but for some kids, winning is defined in looser terms.
*This is how Nate describes himself.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Late Thunderstorm

It is happening again.

Today we whiteboarded the first worksheet over density. We had discussed our lab yesterday and talked about what the relationship was between mass and volume.

The grumblings have started. I didn't teach them about density! That thirty minute discussion we had yesterday? Oh, we were supposed to pay attention to that?

The good news is that this particular rumbling is occurring a whole ten days later than last year! And it wasn't so much a mutiny as it was just general complaining.

So at this rate, in about 17 years, I shouldn't get any grumbling until after school breaks for the summer. I can't wait :)

All in all, this year is going so much better than last year. I think there are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that I feel much more comfortable with the environment I want to create. Last summer my Modeling class ended in July and I rushed in and, well, just rushed in. I hadn't taught "real" chemistry in several years, so was a bit out of practice and at the same time trying to radically change how these kids expected to be taught. This year, I at least am familiar with the material and the process and have been able to go into class with an actual plan. And I think word got out from last year's group and so the kids' expectations were different coming in.

I know it's early in the year, but I still don't have my classroom climate where I would like it to be. We were in the middle of a discussion today when an administrator knocked on my door and had to talk to me RIGHT NOW. I asked the class to continue on and come to a consensus. Um, yeah, that didn't quite happen. The discussion apparently came to a screeching halt and uncontrolled chaos reigned.

I can handle that. There is something about having a specific problem to tackle, even if you aren't sure how.

I'm just glad that this year my kids aren't openly plotting my demise.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Larger Than Life

Isn't it sad that the only time I will ever know who truly loves me will be at my funeral?

We said good-bye today to a man whose full influence can never possibly be measured.

I talked Bud into taking the head track coach position a few years ago and truly had no idea what I was getting into. Bud was a unique mix of old school football coach and teddy bear. He loved his teams and he loved the competition. And he wasn't afraid to let you know either one. His pregame pep talks often ended in tears when he talked about what he believed you could do.

As we waited around the football field for his final farewell, I watched as hundreds of people gathered in memory of a person who had been so important in their lives. It was an amazing site, though upon reflection, not entirely surprising. It often took us half an hour to walk across the parking lot to get to a track meet. The man knew every coach in the state.

It's days like this that remind me of one of the most amazing (and frightening) aspects of this job. All of those eyes that are always watching me. Those kids who sit in the back and never make a sound. Kids who eagerly sign up for any activity you decide to sponsor. All it takes is one inadvertent comment about something totally unrelated. That one comment could lift a child up. Or it could tear him down. And I might never even know it.

I'm not sure I can ever hope to leave anywhere near the legacy that Bud left behind. I was blessed to have been able to coach with and learn from him. I, like so many others, am a better person because he touched my life.

And I have no doubts that he is up there, right now, teaching the angels to play football.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What He Truly Believes

I have a student in one of my classes who is kind of hard to like.

Now, I can count on one hand the number of students over the years that I honestly could not stand. He is not one of them.

He is loud. He can't read. He is argumentative. He resists doing work (probably because he can't read). His normal speaking voice always sounds like an argument. But all those things don't mean that I dislike him.

I put up with a lot in my classroom. If I didn't, I would have most of my class in the office everyday. I work really hard to remember that these are kids. They are learning who they want to be and some of them are overcoming amazing obstacles simply by getting to school every day. Part of my job is to teach them science. The other part of my job, like it or not, is to model good behavior and to show those kids what is and is not appropriate in a school setting. I can't do either of those things if they aren't in my room.

Today, my "low" kids had a wonderful discussion about energy and states of matter. The kids (all of them!) were interested and participated  in the discussion (where are all the administrators today?) and ended up with all the conclusions I had hoped they would.

As the bell is ringing and the kids are headed out, he turns to me, dead serious, very matter-of-fact and says, "Mrs. Schroeder, I'm really glad that you don't think I'm stupid."

I cried.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Teacher Tip #5

If something like Google Earth or Stellarium is cool enough to use in your classroom, it is totally worth thirty minutes or so to let the kids play around before getting down to business.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My First Day of School and That Pesky Exploding Can

Okay, so my first day of school was over a week ago. If this is how my year is going to go, I should just start hibernating now!

There has been a lot of discussion about this on every listserve you can find about what to do on the first day of school. Everyone is pretty much in agreement that reading through a syllabus is a great way to immediately cause disinterest in your class. The Marshmallow Challenge seems to be a popular choice with the physics crowd, and to be honest, I really want to try that in my classes some day. I teach Chemistry, so I kind of want to keep in with a chemistry theme and, of course, the question on every teenager's lips seems to be "when are we going to blow something up". The Modeling has an Exploding Can Demo set as the first activity to do with the kids and there has been some discussion about that activity as well. Some teachers cannot do this because they do not have access to natural gas. Some like to go over their class rules on the first day (why, why, why??). And some don't like the activity because students have a hard time explaining what is happening.

I love this demo and find that the first day of school is the perfect time to do it. My principal even came in to do a short evaluation on the first day this year (seriously???) and was pretty surprised that we were already in the lab causing a ruckus.

It's a simple demo that catches kids off guard, because about the time everyone stops paying attention and chatting about their summer, the thing explodes. I had one kid this year who actually dove under the lab table to take cover. He may never live that one down.

To specifically address those teacher who don't want to use the demo because kids can't explain it, you are absolutely correct. That is the whole idea. It's OKAY not to be able to explain something. If those kids could perfectly explain every action of every particle inside that can right now, then for goodness sake, send them to the counselor to get into a more advanced class. The whole point of a chemistry class, after all, is to learn how matter interacts with other matter.

This demonstration actually serves several purposes for me. First, most kids have reformatted over the summer and need to get some of those brain gears moving. Second, we come back to this demo several times throughout the year. After talking about reactions, for example, we go back to page 1 in our lab book and re-describe what we think those particles were doing inside the can. And finally, after the demo, the groups draw their particle representations of what they think happened and the next day we whiteboard those ideas. This is where I set up my norms for our whiteboarding sessions.

I try to pick kids that I have worked with in the past or who know a little bit about me and have them be the presenter for their group.

And then I grab my bag of chips. A snack size bag with just a few chips is perfect for this. While the group is presenting, I munch on chips. Doritos work well because they are really loud and kind of messy. I create a pretty decent distraction by crumpling up the bag and stuffing it into these mysterious little compartments in my desks. A couple swigs from my pop bottle (shake it up to get a nice loud escape of gas) and it goes flying across the room into the trash can. Usually by now, kids have noticed. I kind of look around the room, "oh, was that inappropriate?" My apologies. I then have the group make a note on the board.

The next group is a little nervous now, so I leave them alone.

Third time's a charm, so I get out my phone. I have it set to make the beeping sounds when you type so kids know what I'm doing. Of course I "try" to hide it like my students do, but pretty soon, they start to notice. "Oh, was that inappropriate as well?" Please make a note.

Now the last one is kind of tricky. I have to have someone presenting that knows me pretty well or I let them know ahead of time what I'm going to do. I don't want anyone in tears on the first day. After they present, I pretty much argue that my answer is the correct one and their group is just plain wrong. I usually have a hard time keeping a straight face for this one.

So now we have three things on the board that we as a group have more or less decided are inappropriate for the setting. They then get to suggest any other behaviors that might best be left at the door. We talk about how important the whiteboard sessions are when it comes to getting information. We talk about the difference between hearing and listening. We talk about respect. We talk about general polite behavior.

These two days are a pretty good introduction to the class as well as the general setup of the modeling classroom. The kids get to experience what the rest of the year is like and possibly more importantly, do NOT get the answers on the first day. This can be uncomfortable for a lot of kids and some do not handle it well.* I have actually had kids ask me for a textbook so they can look up the right answer. Good luck with that.

Learning in this room isn't about getting the right answer RIGHT NOW. It is about having to discover the right answer in another place and time and connecting it back to what you did on the first day. If I can get you to do that, then I have done my job and can sleep well at night.

Have a great year!


*From some of the discussion, some of the teachers do not handle it well. Get over it. Nobody knows it all. And besides, if all you do is tell kids the correct answer, you are taking all the fun out of science class!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Letter to My Colleagues

Quick, off the top of your head, why did you become a science teacher?

Now, I'm not talking about the whole, "I wanted to make a difference in a child's life" type* of answer.

I want to know why you became a SCIENCE teacher?

Was it because of the textbooks? Because you like to hear how smart you sound when you lecture? Let me guess, you like nice, neat, orderly rows of chairs, right? Good Lord, tell me it isn't because of the math....

I'm going out on a limb here and guessing that your answer has something to do with the fact that SCIENCE IS JUST FREAKING AWESOME!!! You get to build things, discover things, manipulate things, and, yes, every once in awhile, you get to blow things up.

THAT'S why we went into science, am I right?

So how the hell did we end up spending all this time writing on a chalkboard (or horror of horrors pointing at a powerpoint) and having to "find time to do a lab"?

We can blame the standards. We can blame the textbooks. But the fact remains that we have gotten away from what science truly is. It's mostly the way I was taught, both in high school and college. It's the way I knew, so it was the way I stuck with. And then, one bright shiny day, a little gargoyle crept in and whispered in my ear, "pssst...you're doing it wrong."

And suddenly, last summer, I found my way out of the abyss. I accidentally took a Modeling workshop and completely changed the way I teach my kids.

Modeling is not a set of materials that you use in your classroom. I refer to it a lot as a curriculum, but it really isn't that, either. It is a WAY of teaching, a METHOD of getting students to use their own data and observations to construct their own knowledge of the world around them.

Did you get that? Those kids OWN their learning. And that's pretty powerful.

You can describe Modeling with nearly every past and present education buzzword you can think of: cooperative learning, inquiry, student-centered, constructivism, differentiation, critical thinking, problem solving, formative assessment. The list goes on, but it doesn't need to. I have seen what it can do in a classroom, and I don't need any edujargon to convince me.

I have taught both ways to kids on every end of the learning spectrum, and I can say with certainty, that for me, this is the way to go. I have seen brilliant kids take off and run with it, reveling in the challenges the class presents. I have also seen lower kids finally have the success in school that they never would have experienced in a traditional classroom. Modeling can reach them all.

Now, I am not going to claim that there is absolutely no other method that is effective, but I do know that Modeling has been extensively researched and tested in the classroom since the early 1990s. I have met many other teachers who have had the training and have yet to hear one speak negatively about it. This is not to say that it is an easy way to teach. This is one of the most challenging things I have ever tried in my classroom but it has also been one of the most rewarding.

Oh, and have you heard of the Common Core? How about the Conceptual Framework? These documents are soon going to shape what happens in your classroom. I have sat in on sessions on both of these, and you know what the big question that is on everyone's mind? How am I going to learn how to teach this way?

Get thee to a Modeling class, that's how.

Try it, because really, what do you have to lose? It'll put you out of your comfort zone, but that's what needs to happen if you want to change. I have heard one story (undocumented and purely anecdotal) about a teacher (one) who has gone through the training not fallen in love with it. Want to know my first (undiplomatic) reaction?

Go teach math.**


*Don't get me wrong - that's an excellent reason!

**KIDDING! KIDDING! Math teachers don't hate me. In fact, want to truly integrate math and science? Go to a Modeling workshop. That's where I truly learned about the quadratic equation.


P.S. This was written as an assignment for my Modeling workshop as a way to convince a colleague to give Modeling a chance.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Good Lord, We Have a Textbook

I find it somewhat ironic that our Modeling workshop leader gave us a textbook to read. Not just some quick study, tell-me-everything-you-know-about-teaching-physics kind of book, either. Teaching Introductory Physics. This thing weighs more than my car. If I were to have seen this on Amazon, I would never in a million years even have considered buying it. Even if I had an extra $118 and had seen the six 5-star reviews.

Our first read was assigned last night. The first third of Chapter 2: Rectilinear Kinematics. Huh?* Even if I had somehow managed to obtain the book, I doubt I would have ever thought this chapter would be interesting, let alone comprehensible.

Since I am being graded on this, I figured I had better at least skim through it so I could pretend to discuss it during class.

Just goes to show you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover.

This chapter is about motion (yeah, that's what rectilinear kinematics means) why kids really might not understand motion, even after you "teach" it. Basically, don't feel too bad, we aren't truly wired to intuit these ideas and the ideas that we DO have are often not quite right. These concepts are not things that have been discovered, so much as invented, and even then, we didn't really start to figure it out until sometime in the seventeenth century.

Arons has spent  decades not studying physics, but studying how students LEARN physics. Instead of dryly trying to explain the concepts, he comes at it from the perspective of the student. What misconceptions do kids come in with? And more importantly, how do you get past those misconceptions and get kids where you want them to go?

For example, they probably don't have a good working definition of an instant. (Apparently, neither did I.) Arons explains what those misconceptions probably are (same as mine) and for those of use who maybe didn't get much out of our Physics 101 class fifteen years ago, offers up an amazingly simple explanation. An explanation that I could successfully use in my classroom.

Arons reiterates several times the importance of discovery when it comes to the classroom. "Teaching is significantly strengthened if one carefully abides by the precept 'idea first and name afterwards,' in the introduction of every new concept." Otherwise, you have a 'normal' classroom scene where kids are frantically trying to copy the definition of the term you just wrote on the board and memorizing the equations.

This is the whole basis for the Modeling cycle. Introduce those ideas. Let the kids discover the relationships themselves. Once they have a pretty good grasp on the concept, then put a name to it. Arons even goes so far in his discussion of velocity to suggest flipping the equation over and trying to define it, just to see what they come up with.**

I realize I have only read part of one chapter, and this is by no means meant to be a full book review, but at this point, I would encourage you to check it out.

So, tonight, I'm hoping for a reading assignment.


*Interesting fact: When I typed in rectilinear, it did NOT show up as misspelled.

**Did you know that has already been defined by geophysicists? I had no clue. It's obviously not well know as Wikipedia doesn't even have an entry.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Physics Modeling Day 1 and an Epiphany

If you know me at all, you know that I fell in love with Modeling last summer. My first year Modeling Chemistry was filled with ups and downs and everything in between. It was rough. And exhausting. But I know this is one of the best teaching methods out there. I can't help but think this will get somewhat easier with time.

So this summer, I am taking a Physics Modeling class. Three weeks. Twelve days. Great discussions. Lots of goodies. I have been excited about this class since I signed up in March.

What a nerd.

We took the Force Concept Inventory today. Now, bear in mind that I haven't taught actual physics since some time in the last century. This test kicked my butt! I talked myself out of so many answers you would think I didn't have a license to teach this stuff. So when we go into "Student Mode" this time around, I will truly be able to play that part. All the better for me, I guess :)

Today we covered Unit 1. Mostly this shows the kids how to set up labs and take good measurements. We did the Pendulum Lab. Again, this is probably the same lab done in every single physics class in America.

But different. You know, backwards from the "normal" way to teach. Start with the lab and then develop the ideas.

One quote from our teacher really hit home with me today. "It is important to let students take their own data and create their own graphs and discuss it. They have to see for themselves or they are never going to believe it."

I had never really thought about it in terms of "believing" it before. Oh, sure, I am well aware that some kids simply don't pick up on the ideas and need to come at it from a different angle, but for some reason, I never considered that one of those kids wouldn't believe me. This is physics, for crying out loud, not evolution. (I know, I know, touchy subject, please don't yell at me for that one.) And besides, why wouldn't those sponges absorb everything I say in class. I have masters degree, doggone it, I'm know what I am talking about!

But that's the whole key, isn't it?

When we walked in this morning, there was a set of questions on the board for us to think about. One of them was "What is a student-centered learning environment?" It's one of those things that I kind of knew the answer to in the back of my head, but never really sat down to think about and articulate. All it took was one simple quote and a semi-coherent blog post to really bring it all home.

Those kids have to see it with their own eyes. Write it in their own hand and speak it with their own voice. Only then can they "believe" it.

This is the core of Modeling. The entire pedagogy is based on those kids seeing for themselves how this world works.

Man this is awesome.

Friday, June 17, 2011

SBG and the Nightmare that is Grading

So I've implemented SBG. More or less. I have written my targets. I have savagely edited my targets. I have overcome mutinies and parental skepticism. I have brightly colored signs all over my room reminding kids what they need to learn.

Now, how in the name of everything scientific am I supposed to keep track of all this?

This is my first full year of grading by standards. While there are a lot of tweaks I need to make for next year along with a couple of major adjustments, the foundation has been laid and I just need to build on it.

Or out from it. I am so on board with all the calls to get rid of grades. I am so frustrated with kids coming into my room the last week of school wondering how they can get just a few more points. I flat out asked some of the kids if they were more concerned with grades than with learning. Talk about some blank expressions.

So here it is. A break down of the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE TARGETS
My Chemistry, Applied Chemistry and Applied Physics targets were pretty good. I ended up editing them a little bit, but this is more of a skill based class and I found that to be easier to assess. Can you balance a chemical equation or not?

The big problem I had were with my Earth Science Classes (I get to separate out into Astronomy, Geology, Meteorology and Ocean Science). I tried to make the target too skill based. This resulted in beyond epic failure. The thing about the Earth is that it is a system. Everything is interconnected and it makes it hard to separate out those ideas. And even when you do, those ideas do not easily translate into skills for assessment. For next year, those targets are going to be more ideas based. I'm sure this will probably result far fewer targets and we will circle back around several times to those ideas. How in the world I am going to teach in that way, I have no idea.

THE GRADING
Man, I'm beginning to hate that word. I created a semi-complicated way of recording students' grades. Each target was (ideally) assessed at least twice with a score of 4 points each. So each target was worth 8 points. To determine how many points each student received out of 8, I took the most recent score and added it to the highest previous score. So assume little Johnny received the following scores of five assessments on balancing equations: 3, 2, 3, 4, 3. The most recent score (3) is added to the highest (4) for a total of 7 out of 8. My kids were so stunned by the Modeling and just the introduction of not getting an actual test grade that not many of them even stopped to consider how the number was actually determined.

I like it, but I don't.

I read Marzano's Formative Assessment and Standards Based Grading. I am now reading Guskey's Developing Grading and Reporting Systems for Student Learning. Marzano's book talks about how to set up levels within each standard. So in order to get a 1 out of 4, the student must answer this question correctly. In order to get a 2 out of 4, a second, more difficult question must be answered correctly. And so on. I like this and am going to try this next year with a little adaptation. There has been a bit of discussion about binary grading lately that I has me intrigued. If I can get it set up, I would like to make a standard out of the "1" question. You either get it or you don't. A separate standard would cover the "2" question. You get a 1 or 0. To me that seems like there would be less interpretation between the levels. That seems like an awful lot of work, so we'll see how far I get with that.

THE FEEDBACK
I was pretty inconsistent on this. I got swamped later in the year and just couldn't sit down and get it done to the level that I wanted. This is going to be a main focus for me next year. I am thinking about having kids assign their own scores based on what I have written as feedback. I'm sure that will go over well.

THE RETAKES
These are gone. It became so unmanageable I took to hiding in my closet during my plan period. Especially in the second trimester (Chemistry), everything builds so much that we ended up assessing every target over and over anyway. If I can write my targets well enough, this shouldn't be a problem.

THE RECORDING
This got better as the year went on. I kept a bright orange notebook on my desk that contained a spreadsheet for each unit that we covered. The targets were written at the top and the scores were recorded. Red pen indicated a test, black was a quiz, pencil was a retake, any other color was something else (projects, etc.). I know this reveals a bit of my OCD, but it helped me keep track of why a certain kid was missing a grade since I wasn't recording it as "Test 3" anymore.

I started working on a Google docs method of recording grades that would also let me add in feedback. I know Riley has Active Grade available, but for some reason, I just never got the hang of it. Maybe if I can sit down for an hour or so without any interruptions (this seems to be my issue with a LOT of things) and just play with it I could get it to do what I want. I also see Shawn is working on something that I'm sure will shake the education table. I love the idea of getting rid of scores. I think my curriculum director might be somewhat tolerant of the idea, but my principal probably won't want to deal with all the questions it is sure to generate. He's kind of a don't-rock-the-boat sort of guy. Maybe I just won't mention it to him.


On the whole, I like the general set up of SBG. It makes so much more sense to me as opposed to the more traditional method of recording grades. I asked my kids at the end of the year if they liked it or not. 79% said they preferred it, so that is really encouraging and it also gave my principal something to grab onto other than me saying how wonderful it was.

So that's how last year stands. Now that the dust has settled and I can breathe again, I'm going to sit down and start over on my Earth classes. Chemistry just needs some light editing and it's good to go, but those big ideas are what is going to do me in next year.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Schizophrenic

I follow quite a lot of blogs. I mean a lot. I'm not even sure I can count that high.

A while back, I accidentally discovered the math blogosphere. I had no idea what a blog even was, let alone that there were teachers out there using them to share ideas.

From there, I discovered that there were science teachers out there who had classrooms that had kids doing what I wanted my kids to do.

So, I began filling my Reader with teachers who know what they are talking about. There was no organization to it, I would find someone who had something interesting to say and start following.

Today, I got a chance to sit down and do a little much needed Reader organization. I wouldn't have worried too much about it, but I would sit down and start at the top. It was an emotional rollercoaster going from one blog discussing SBG, to someone else trying to explain to the world how education is failing, to still another describing their struggles in going paperless and back to another incredible teacher getting their kids into inquiry.

Looking to compartmentalize a bit, I created six folders:
1. My Classes - Stuff that specifically pertains to the classes I teach. This is mostly connect-me-to-the-real-world type information and a lot of it gets reposted for my kids to see.

2. Technology - Pretty self-explanatory, really. I've come across many incredible tid-bits that I can try to integrate into my classroom.

3. Fun - Not education related, but help my brain change gears. Some days, believe it or not, I just need to not focus on teaching.

4. Policy - Educational policy and commentary on how education is being treated by our federal and state governments. I believe it is important to have this information, but these are the ones that make me cry, cuss and spit. I honestly have a hard time believing a lot of what is being done.

This is what makes me want to quit teaching.

5. Classroom - Here are the people who matter, who make a differenceHere I find my inspiration. These are the teachers who love teaching, love their kids and are not afraid to say so. AND they are willing to let me visit their classrooms.

This is is what makes me want to stay in teaching.

I have to say, this has made a huge difference in my outlook.

Probably because I have read everything in my Classroom folder and have 285 unread posts in my Policy folder.

I can really get used to this.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The End of the First Model Year

School's out.

I think.

It's been a strange year and it doesn't really feel like the end of school yet. Maybe it was the weather, but even the kids on the last day were just kind of laid back about the whole thing. Well, um, okay, see you next fall!

Now that my classroom is finally cleaned up, I've been able to sit down and think about the year. There are so many things I did differently this year that I am having a hard time sorting it all out in my head.

So let's start with Modeling.

If you didn't know, I accidentally took a workshop on Modeling Chemistry last summer that totally changed the way I teach. Well, that's not entirely true. It totally enhanced the way I teach. It filled in all those gaping holes and dead ends that I kept running into. I was so excited as I went through the workshop, and I still love the program. I am taking the Physics workshop in July and can't wait to go.

What I Like: The Plan.
Modeling isn't just a teaching method. A lot of work has gone into developing the curriculum and coinciding the information with the methods.The curriculum starts at the beginning of our understanding of matter and takes those kids through those observations and discoveries. Kids have to think about why matter behaves the way it does. They create their own "model" of matter, just like all those famous scientists did.

What I Like: The Interaction
At the end of our workshop, we were supplied with a dozen giant student whiteboards and even some dry erase markers. This is where it gets good. Instead of me standing up there telling the class what they should be getting as their model, the kids stand up there and tell the class what they got as their model. Even if you don't follow the Modeling curriculum, go get some whiteboards and have those kids work out and explain what they know. The idea here is that kids are able to ask questions of their peers in order to further their understanding. It's brilliant, it's interactive, I love it.

But...

What I Don't Like: The Interaction
I didn't do this well at all. My kids never truly took ownership in their own learning enough to be able to ask the right questions. I would ask them questions, they would more or less answer them. The other students rarely asked questions and when they did, they turned around and asked me. It's hard to create a student centered classroom when they know where I am. This spring, my Chemistry class was the last hour of the day. I would leave for track. Girls would leave for softball. Boys would leave for baseball. Don't even get me started on the FFA teams. We more or less gave up on the whiteboarding toward the end. If I would do it right, it would be a better tool. As it was this spring, it was so much of a stressor that I simply dreaded it. I'm not sure how, but I definitely am going to come up with some ways of getting the kids more involved.

What I Don't Like: The Curriculum
I have never been one to blindly follow a curriculum. There were a few things that simply were not explained sufficiently for my kids. I just needed to come in from a different angle. This wasn't a big deal, but some of my kids needed more support than what this curriculum supplied. I wouldn't even go so far as to say this is a problem with the program, just that some might need more.

What I Don't Like: Inquiry
Now, before you get all in a fit, I don't mean to say I don't like inquiry. I LOVE inquiry. I want to do more. The program allows for inquiry, but isn't really set up that way. When we went through the curriculum in our workshop, we were supplied with all the labs*, so this is what I did with my kids. It's not the worst thing I've ever done, but I would like to do better. It is hard to turn kids loose in Chemistry (well, for me anyway) when they don't know much about the chemicals in the closet. Shawn has his kids apply for a grant in order to start on their labs. I really like this idea, and am going to come up with something like that. Or maybe I'll just use his. I love the internet. When I cleaned up my room, I more or less organized my books according to subject. I have 17 chemistry lab manuals collecting dust on my bookshelf. I'm thinking that if I give kids a question, if they get stuck coming up with a procedure, they can use the manuals to help guide them along. Someone might as well use them.

Now that I have that out of my system, I can honestly say I love this program and would highly recommend the training to anyone who can possibly get it. The problems I have had I think I can chalk up to this being my first year and not knowing what I was doing. Now that I have at least tried it in a real classroom, I can focus on those things that weren't terribly successful the first time around.

It'll be here before I know it.

*Thinking on this now, it's entirely possible this was done because of time constraints. We covered the entire curriculum (including doing the labs) in two short weeks.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Academic Damage

I have to thank the Crazy Teacher Lady for this term. It's something I have been trying to pin down and couldn't seem to put into words. Even though I recognize it for what it is, I'm still trying to put words to it.

Katie is a student in my chemistry class this trimester. She is what most would consider a "good" student, which means that she knows the Rules to the Game and plays it very well. She gets good grades because she can read and can figure out what it is that makes the teacher happy.

She got an A in Chemistry.

And I am simply sick about it.

Katie is a Grade Junkie, make no mistake about it. She struggled early on to find the rhythm of my class, but once she figured out which buttons to press, she flew with it.

The problem was that I had to hold her hand the entire way. I had her in my seminar (30 minute study period) and about three days a week, she would sit down with me to review chemistry. She retook more quizzes than all the others put together and in so doing raised her grade.

Now, I am certainly not going to tell a student that she can't come in and study for my class, and I don't want to sound like I don't want my kids to work hard, but at the same time, it has never been about the learning for Katie.

I think what really hit home for me in this situation was the last quiz she took. She raised her hand eleven time on a three question quiz. Seriously.

"Did I set this up right?"

"Um, do you think you did?"

"Well, I just want to make sure."

Katie has retaken quiz after quiz. I have no idea how many hours she has put into adding points to her total, but she second guesses every single thing she writes down. Her second guessing doesn't stem from wanting to learn, it stems from not wanting to lose points.

What really bothers me is that I don't even think it's that she's not confident in her answers.

I don't think she knows the answers.

This trimester has built on itself. We started with naming and formulas. We used those formulas to balance equations. Those equations showed us mole relationships, that we used to find limiting reactant and percent yield. If you didn't know your naming, you were without a paddle.

Katie didn't know how to name compounds. She would study, pass the quiz and apparently reformat overnight. The next day she couldn't recognize a polyatomic.

Katie has an A in Chemistry, but I would bet my periodic table that if you asked her any question, right now, today, about the subject she wouldn't be able to answer it.

So I have failed Katie. By posting an A for her grade, I am allowing her to leave and give the impression to everyone who cares to look that she understands Chemistry when she truly doesn't.

And I have allowed her to continue on believing that she is getting an education, when I haven't kept my end of the bargain.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Where's the Love?

I was unofficially reprimanded today.

I have a student who has had a rough year. I have come to know her well from several years of being in class, as well as during extracurriculars. She stopped by me in the hall and we had a little chat before lunch. As she walked away, she simply said, "love you, Mrs. Schroeder" to which I responded "love you, too, hon." The power-that-be who was standing nearby swung around and proceeded to tell me that we are never to say something like that to a student.

Probably the biggest issue I have is that I have seen this same person not bat an eye at the disrespectful, hateful comments made toward or about other students. Some of those comments have been by students while others have been by staff members. They never get in trouble.

Why is he so opposed to expressing caring toward a student, but not the other way around?

The problem seems to be the difference between love and sex. I do not for a second believe my kids are confused on this issue. They see me more of a mother figure (their words, although it does kind of make me feel old) that is a stable force in their life and they know they can come to me if they need anything.

This summer I read Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles. (All of them!) What kept coming back to me was that, oddly, the creatures in the books have no problem telling others how much they love each other. There are no sexual overtones (unless I totally missed that part) to the love, it is simply an expression of caring for another individual.

Why can't we all be like that?

Am I wrong on this?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Need. More. Inquiry.

The talk of today is our baseball team. Last night was another sweep for them and we are now 16-0 on the season. GO BRAVES!!

My Applied Physics classes are in the middle of a project, but they came in talking about the games and ended up with a LOT of questions about pitching and how fast our pitchers can throw. What is a good speed for a high school thrower? What do the pros throw? Middle school? How fast do our pitchers throw? Can I throw faster?

Now, I am really not up on my baseball stats,* so I didn't have much in the way of answers. I do know that a good throw in the majors is in the upper 90s, but honestly, that mostly comes from watching Major League. I wasn't really satisfied with my answers and neither were my kids. They wanted to know if we could we test it out?

It's May.

State Assessments are over.

It IS a physics class.

It's May.

So we rounded up some baseballs and went outside.

The first question out the door was, "what about all this wind?" My first thought was to have them figure out the wind speed, but someone had an iphone and just looked it up for us. Maybe I'll have them figure out how to calculate that later.

So we took measurements throwing into the wind and throwing with the wind.

At first, everyone started throwing as far as they could. After some preliminary calculations, there were to big realizations. First off, those baseballs were not going very fast at all. But the big issue came about when the boys realized that the girls were actually throwing faster than they were.

Adjustments were made.

There was a great discussion about the number of steps each person should be allowed and whether or not there should be a minimum distance for it to count.

Aside from a narrow concussion miss by our cameraman, there were no real glitches.

We then tracked down our varsity pitchers and asked them to estimate how fast they can throw a ball. They weren't too sure, so our homework for Friday night is to find out. A couple of kids even realized that they were going to have to convert their meters/second measurements in to feet/second measurements to be able to do that comparison. The only thing I could think here was that if this was on a worksheet, a majority of those kids wouldn't even have noticed that difference in labels.

I really, REALLY want to do more things like this. Even the kids who didn't have the questions to begin with got into the project.

My big issue is what types of projects to do. I have no idea. I am not very good at coming up with open-ended questions, and a lot of the questions I have found seem to be too advanced for my kids. Although after the roller coasters and catapults, maybe I'm underestimating some of their math skills.

I also have a tough time just letting kids come up with their own questions. I don't mind the lab part and kind of thrive on the chaos, I just want to be sure there is some actual learning going on. So I need to find a way to set it up for everyone to be happy and know what the heck is going on.

Anyone have any resources or suggestions?


*I don't hate baseball, but I don't love it, either. My husband is, unfortunately, a Royals fan, so maybe that's why I don't pay much attention.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NCLB: What It Really Looks Like

Today was one of the most stressful days I've had in quite awhile.

Today I gave my state physical science test to our juniors and some of our sophomores.

Just let me say upfront: I detest our state science assessment, and not just because it IS a state science assessment. The whole thing is messed up for several reasons.

First off, Kansas standards are set up to provide "a series of benchmarks, which describe what students should know and be able to do at the end of a certain point in their education (i.e. grades 4, 7 and 12)."

If you are on the ball today, you will notice that the high school standards are set up to measure what kids have learned THROUGH THE 12TH GRADE and you will also notice that we are giving the test to our JUNIORS.

It is required by our state that we test our kids before we get them through school.

And I thought we weren't supposed to leave any of them behind.

The second thing I abhor about the test is that is simply memorization. Even a couple kids today mentioned that there was very little thinking involved. You either know it or you don't. Officially, I do not know the questions on the test. However, if a kid asks me if we have ever talked about how to calculate the strength of charges, I'm going to pay attention. I am also going to go to my standards document and notice whether or not there is a little triangle next to that standard.*

If we simply must continue giving tests, I would really like our assessment to measure whether or not kids can think through a problem, not just remember the formula for gravitational acceleration. Yes, I realize these questions are harder to write and harder to grade. I don't care. I think it would be worth it.

Lastly, our test is just set up poorly. We have two science assessment portions: life science and physical science. You would think these are pretty self-explanatory, but it's not.

The life science portion has questions about biology and environmental science.  The physical science portion has chemistry and physics questions. Pretty straight forward, but where does earth science fit in?

The problem arose when someone decided to add in earth science questions, but apparently didn't want to create an additional test. Their solution was to include some earth science questions on the life science test and some earth science questions on the physical science test.

That would be fine if it matched up with how we (and I'm pretty sure most everyone else) has their class schedule set up. I have yet to find a chemistry class that directly addresses any earth science standards. I have yet to find a physics class that directly addresses any earth science standards. And, you guessed it, I have yet to find a biology class that directly addresses any earth science standards.

My kids need three credits to graduate. Most kids don't take more than that (before their junior year, anyway). So that leaves something out.

Biology is required. Got it.

If students take Chemistry then Physics, they have missed Earth. If they take Chemistry and Earth, they miss Physics. Some kids take Anatomy and have missed TWO sections!

The only solution we have really come up with is to add in a separate earth science unit in the middle of biology and chemistry. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.


Oh, and here's one more thing. Our state science test doesn't mean squat. The state requires that we give it to all juniors and we get to see the results. Beyond that, nothing is done with this data. Apparently, lawmakers didn't really foresee the problems and costs associated with districts that were not making AYP in English and Math and ran out of money somewhere along the line. As a result Science and Social Science got pushed back indefinitely. (Notices I am NOT complaining about this.)

Now that I think about it, I can't figure out why it was so stressful for me. I feel bad for my kids because you could see them struggling through the test. The really "good students" especially probably developed ulcers in that hour. I just told them to do the best they could and not panic over it.

I don't really know what the answer is. We are doing it wrong and can't seem to figure out how to fix it.

What does your state do? Is your assessment more efficient? Good lord, is it worse?


*Our document consists of a huge list of standards. If the standard has a little triangle next to it, it is considered a "tested indicator" and fair game on the state assessment.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Will They Take Home?

I covered for our art teacher during my plan today. I always like going into other classrooms to see how the kids act in a different environment. I found out that kids in the art room behave about the same as kids in my room.

We have three foreign exchange students this year and two of them are in the art class I covered. Both were working on clay masks in a country they have lived in for eight months. My mind wandered off and for some reason I got to thinking about how they would get those clay creations home.

Would they pack them in a suitcase? On a carry on? Maybe they would mail stuff. How much did they bring over in the first place? How do you plan to spend a year away at school halfway across the world?

I don't have any of the girls in my own classes, but they have all been involved in everything they possibly could throughout the year, so I have come to know them a little bit through the track team. I know they are homesick (who wouldn't be?). I know they are all pretty smart and are taking some challenging classes. I know at home they do not have school organized sports and the whole idea of sports competition kind of freaks them out. I know they work harder than a lot of kids that live here.

I haven't had much of a chance to talk to them about the differences in school cultures, so I don't really know how we compare, but from what I gather, aside from the language barrier, they haven't been terribly challenged academically.

So I'm wondering what it is they will take home. When you go home and talk about your experience with your friends, what do you say?

"Those Americans, no wonder they do terrible on international tests!" *


"Those Americans are so lucky to have what they have and they take it for granted!"

"Those Americans, they have it made, short school days AND the school pays for your sports!"

"Those Americans are so lucky, their teacher talks to them like a person!" **

"Those Americans have lots of bad weather!" ***

"Those Americans made me feel like I have lived there all my life!"

I don't really know what they will take home. I hope it is good. I hope their experience has been one that will stay will them for the rest of their lives.

And I hope they look back at their time here as an amazing experience that was filled with everything they expected and more.

Now that I think about it, I truly want that for the kids that live here as well.


*Like I care...
**This is actually paraphrased from one of those kids talking about me.
***I live in Kansas. We have had three tornado warnings this spring, not to mention hail about once a week.
****Got a little heavy handed with the footnotes today, didn't I???

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Catapult Project

We started building catapults today. Unlike the Roller Coasters, I actually came into this one with a plan.

This was based on a Science Olympiad problem that required teams to launch an object of unknown mass to an unknown target. That is a LOT of unknowns, so I have given my kids a little more direction.

I want them to build big catapults, but I want them to understand how a catapult works and what kind of plans they are going to need.

So we started off with mini catapults.

That shoot M&Ms.*

You have not lived until your kids have permission to launch candy across your classroom.


Cody is having WAY too much fun with this. (Also, please ignore the incredibly messy lab room, we are still recovering from the roller coasters.)

Today was the idea day. They got two paint stirrers, 2-4 mini clothespins, one stick of hot glue (I have discovered that this is PLENTY) and a snack pack of M&Ms. Anything else they wanted to use had to be approved by me.

After about three minutes of stunned silence, they took off with this and had a wonderful time trying to figure out how to build their catapult.

I'll give them couple days to perfect their catapult before we have a test day where they have to launch their M&Ms. I'm thinking prizes will be awarded for distance and accuracy.



*Next year, we will shoot marshmallows. M&Ms get eaten pretty quickly and shatter when they hit my floor. I had a lot of explaining to do when the custodian came in this afternoon.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Roller Coaster Success

I have always been annoyed that my Applied Physics class has never actually been, you know, applied physics. We created the class to cover standards on the state assessment for kids who would never be able to pass regular physics. While a typical day in that class is spent doing labs, they have always been pretty canned.

Last week I got bored with it. I was sorting through an old pile of papers and came across a roller coaster project that someone had presented years ago in a teaching methods class. We have been talking about speed and momentum and acceleration and energy. This just seemed perfect. So off to the hardware store I went.

I gave my kids 15 feet of conduit insulation, some masking tape, a marble and some pretty vague instructions about how to build a roller coaster. The only requirements at this point were that the roller coaster had to have two hills and a loop.

They ran with it.

They talked about energy.
They talked about momentum.
And acceleration.
And velocity.

And whether or not their roller coaster was one they would actually want to ride.


This coaster was changed because of that. They ended up putting another length on the end and tried to get the marble to come all the way back to the start. It was close, but couldn't quite make the return loop.
They had incredible discussions about everything we had learned in class. I was truly amazed. There is no way these discussions would never have come out of working problems on a worksheet.

Even when I upped the assignment to figure speed and acceleration, they jumped right in. They had to pick six points on their track and determine the speed and acceleration at each point. Kids who refused to do these problems as practice showed all their work WITH LABELS in order to prove their roller coaster was the fastest.

For a project that took about eleven minutes for me to plan, it turned out really well, although there are several things I am editing for next year.*

-First off, they don't get to use my metersticks as supports. Just a little glitch if you require them to, you know, measure anything. I soooo didn't see that one coming.

-I would also like them to compare the speed and acceleration to real life roller coasters.

-Maybe make a commercial advertising their roller coaster?

-I'm thinking I could have a couple staff members listen to the presentations and pick a "best of show."

-Glass marbles shatter when dropped off the bleachers. Into millions of little pieces.

After I got them all started and I started Googling, I came across several sites on project based learning. New obsession here. While this isn't exactly where we are at the moment, we are definitely going to be doing more of this in class. These guys will be my guinea pigs this year and I think they are totally okay with that.


*Is it considered editing if I didn't have it written up??? I'm not even sure I can claim the planning part.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Teacher Tip #4

When you have dozens of kids scattered around your room doing a lab with motion sensors, do not try to wander around to see if they are okay. All you will really accomplish is anomalies in everyone's graphs.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Chemistries

We finally closed on our second trimester this week. If you remember, we last left our hero* dangling off the edge of insanity. Come to think of it, I really don't ever seem to get too far from that edge.

My Regular Chemistry class settled down a little bit and more or less accepted that I wasn't going to change what we were doing. It helped that the most vocal mob was broken up. It also helped that our incredible librarian told her groupies to suck it up and rise to the challenge. After awhile those rusted wheels started turning and it wasn't quite as painful.

I never could get them into a discussion with our whiteboarding. They just kind of assumed that whoever was talking was right and dutifully copied down those answers. I'm not sure what adjustments to make there. I thought about requiring them to ask at least one question per day, but couldn't decide whether I wanted to fight that battle or not.

I'm not sure my class learned everything I wanted them to. Even the very last day, kids were not able to recognize when a substance had the nitrate polyatomic ion in it. While kids do need to take some responsibility for their own learning, I blame me for the most part. I need to be more aware of when my kids are not getting it and not let them sneak past me when they don't understand. I think I trusted the curriculum too much when it told me to let them figure things out on their own. Having never been in that position before, they weren't ready for that. I let them flounder for too long and I lost them and never got them recovered. And when you lose them in the first couple weeks, they are lost for the rest of the time. The Modeling people do not like you to mess with their curriculum, but I definitely need to add in something in  to help them understand some of those concepts a little more. I have never been one to follow every little detail anyway, so why start now?

Probably what bothered me more than anything, though, was the last day. Everyone was so relieved to be done with Chemistry. Me included. I really don't want my kids to hate my class. I don't want them to see it as something to just get through. I want them to love it. We live in an incredible, beautiful world and I want them to wonder at it. I'm more than a little disturbed that they keep saying that they hate it. I am hoping (praying) that this is just because I haven't taught Chemistry for several years and that once I am comfortable with the material again, it will go a little more smoothly.

My Applied Chemistry took off with the Modeling. We had relatively small groups (12 in each class compared to 22 in my regular chemistry) and they were pretty comfortable with each other. The whiteboard discussion really turned in to learning most times. Of course, every once in awhile, someone would ask something like "why is your shirt green today?" but hey, they are teenagers, you can't expect a whole lot of maturity all the time.

One great thing about Modeling is it forces those kids to actually do something other than copy from their neighbor. They never know who is going to have to speak for the group or what questions I am going to ask, so everyone has to be prepared and know what is going on. My Applied kids truly benefited from this approach and, of course, this is true for Regular as well, but it doesn't seem to be as crucial for them.

Modeling is just what is says it is. You create a model of matter. We start with the basic observations that have been obvious for your entire life and actually describe them. We draw them. Instead of kids reading about these models, we create them ourselves. This has helped those lower kids develop an understanding of where that information came from. When I ask them why is H2O written that way, instead of saying "because you told us," they can look back in their lab notebook and see the evidence for why. That is what I really love about it. And that is why I will keep doing it.


*Hehe, that's me.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Yellow Lab

As you can imagine, and may possibly be experiencing yourself, our run of Snow Days played havoc with my teaching schedule. The last one we had was a week before our trimester ended, and I sat down and re-planned. I resigned myself to the fact that I just wasn't going to get through the next unit and had it figured out how to end on the right day. Looking back now, I think that may have been more planning than I have done all year.

The day we came back, our principal sent out an email asking us to vote whether or not to extend the trimester to the next week. Um, no. No, I don't. I was, however, in the minority.

I sat down again. We were finishing up with molarity, so I went in search of a project that I could use as a final.

As luck (?) would have it, my computer died. It was a quick death, with it dying in its sleep, simply not turning on one morning. This could have been a set back. However, it sent me scrambling into my backed up files. I have been teaching since 1997 and apparently have never deleted a file. I found an "Ideas" folder from early last decade that I had forgotten all about. In it I found a bunch of things I had copied from The Chemistry Coach that was run by Bob Jacobs at Wilton High School. He has since passed away and the site is no longer maintained, although I am definitely going to check to see if there is an archive somewhere. I corresponded with Bob several times (mostly to see if I could use his stuff), so he was sort of the beginning of my PLN.

One of his creations was The Yellow Lab. Its story is based on the Clue board game and the students have to go about finding Miss Scarlett's murderer. The killer either used potassium iodide or lead (II) nitrate to do her in and the molarity of that solution.

After listening to some of the discussions my kids had, I felt a lot better about what they learned this year. For all the complaining that they didn't understand what we were doing, they sure stepped it up when they were required to use that information.

My latest obsession has been project based learning. I've never done much in the way projects, but after this week, I am going to make it more of a priority. If I can get organized, that is.

I also offered the extra credit mini-project at the end. I had three students write hilarious stories and one group create a video. I need to do more stuff like this :)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

If You Give Your Kids a Scantron...

...they become completely different people.

I did a post-test today as part of ASU's monitoring of the Modeling curriculum. The second the first scan-tron sheet hit the desk, an eerie silence descended on the room.

Kids sat up straight. They faced forward. No one made a sound. No one even asked me any questions.

I have no doubt that this comes from years of filling out bubble sheets for our standardized tests.

While I appreciate the fact that they think a scantron equates to serious business, I can't help but feel a little sad about what we have done to our kids.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I Never Thought I Would Say This

I'm tired of Snow Days.

I know, I know. One of the perks of being a teacher is not having to go to work when the weather is too bad.

We have missed seven days since we came back from Christmas. We come to school for a day, are out for two and come back for a couple. And then have a weekend.

I have no idea what day it is, and neither do my kids. Even the days we are here it's really hard to get anything done since we spend so much time just getting re-oriented.

That darn Groundhog promised me Spring. I am so ready.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mass Numbers for Dummies*

I have come to believe in the manipulative. It seems that anytime you can get kids to touch something they are learning about, it sticks so much better than if they just listen or read about it.

Trying to get my kids to understand the structure of an atom had always been a struggle. How to you picture something you can't see? 

A few years ago, we had an Easter egg hunt for our track practice, so I had a hundred plastic eggs sitting in my cabinet. One day, while trying to explain the atom, I picked up an egg and asked the kids what we would find if we could open it up. This set off an amazing chain of events that led to the creation of this activity.

Each colored egg represents a different element.
There are three eggs of each color and each egg represents a different isotope of the element. Each element has three isotopes. I wrote the isotope notation on the outside of the egg. 

Inside each egg is a "nucleus" and electrons. I bought a bag of beads at a craft store and it just so happened that each bead had a mass of one gram. Seriously. I couldn't have done that if I tried. This lets me use the eggs as models again when we talk about atomic mass. The electrons are tiny little beads (relatively no mass) that constantly have to be replaced. I'm working on that.

I tied the big beads together to form the nucleus of each atom. The tying is important, otherwise your kids end up doing nuclear chemistry and that isn't our goal.
For example, the purple eggs represent Hydrogen. The red beads are the protons, while the green beads represent the neutrons. Each element has three versions with different numbers of neutrons, Hydrogen-1, Hydrogen-2 and Hydrogen-3. Everyone starts with Hydrogen to get the feel for the activity. I labeled the protons with a "+" sign so they can distinguish between the protons and neutrons. I did not do this in the other elements because I want them to realize the isotopes all have the same number of protons. 

The kids then go through and answer questions about the atoms.
Structure of the Atom

This leads us into mass numbers and atomic masses. We keep these out for most of the unit and the kids are free to use them whenever they need a visual. While I haven't got any hard data to back it up, I can definitely tell a difference in overall comprehension.

What do you do to help kids understand those abstract ideas?


*Please note that when I say "Dummies" I don't mean my kids. I am actually talking about me.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Teacher Tip #3

Make a sub folder. Have an extra activity available for each class. The activity needs to be something that anyone can do and doesn't require any special equipment. Videos are nice.

Because there will come a day when you are simply too sick to go to school. 

Or even hold your head up long enough to type out sub plans. 

Monday, January 31, 2011

To Praise or Not

I have Collin in two science classes this trimester. He's a "band member" in every stereotypical sense of the word. That's what he wants to do in life. While I do happen to believe that you might want to be sober for a good portion of that lifetime, far be it for me to squash his dreams. For the first half of the trimester, he was either asleep or copying work from the person next to him.

The last couple weeks, though, he has woke up. Turns out, he is a pretty bright kid. Who knew?

He's excited about his Astronomy Observation Notebook and thinks it's just awesome to be able to identify objects in the sky. He has been participating in class discussions. He has been helping other students when they get stuck. His grades have come way out of the failing range.

Every day, I want to say something to him in praise of his new effort. I want him to know how good it is to see him working to his potential.

But then I don't. I have this sneaking suspicion that bringing attention to his behavior might just bring about the end. He seems to be right on the fence, and I'm afraid of upsetting that delicate balance. The very few carefully chosen comments I have dared to make to him have resulted in this really strange look where I can see him closing up and looking around to see if anyone overheard. It's almost like he is angry at himself for doing well in class.

Why is it such a stigma for some kids to succeed?

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