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. 

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