Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Chemistry Capstones...OK...Now You Can Freak Out

Earlier this week, my chemistry class got their first taste of my new take on that whole "rigor" thing.

Because this year, I have introduce capstones. We are close to half way through our first trimester, so many of my kids are starting in on the grade anxiety. I have never really had a giant uproar over the standards part of my grading, so that isn't so much the problem.

But now...

"You mean, I'm not going to get an A in this class?"

Not easily, no.

"You mean I can be perfect and still not get an A?"

Nobody's perfect, sweetie.

"But, I'm a senior, you can't go changing the status quo now!"

Okay, I see your point, but too bad.

"So, this is like extra credit?"

Well, no, not exactly. Extra credit implies not a lot of work in order to get your grade up to where you want it.* When a student says, "can I write the definitions out twenty times to get my grade up to an A?" I just want to scream.

We discussed capstones this morning, and to be honest, I can't believe I haven't heard from a parent yet. For the most part, the reception was not favorable. We talked about why it is important for them to be able to not just memorize all this important chemistry stuff, but also why they should be able to apply it. And not just because it is chemistry class. This is a life skill, children.

To kind of ease them into it, we did a practice capstone with the last part of our conservation of mass lab. In that part, we add Alka-Seltzer to water. The mass at the end is not the same as the mass at the beginning. For our system, technically, mass was not conserved, but most kids recognized that it was because the gas escaped. So I had them think about what we could do to show that this incident did, indeed, support the law of conservation of mass. While much simpler than what I would probably require for a capstone, this was a good one to walk through and get them in the questioning mode.**

There was arguing. There was bribery. There was attempted blackmail and coercion. But we stuck with it and eventually, everyone came up with a plan and submitted a draft proposal. We went and did the experiment and I talked about what kids should have in a formal write up. There was even one or two, very grudging, "that wasn't so bad" mutterings in the back.

When it was all said and done, my kids seemed a little bit calmer. At this point, they are terrified at the idea of having to come up with ideas for a project. I totally get that. I am terrible at writing engaging questions, plus this is brand new to these kids. We spent so much time beating the curiosity out of them, that when we try to instill it back in, of course there is going to be some struggles.

But I'm sticking to my guns on this one. If I have learned nothing in the last few years, it has been that big changes can't be made if you give in even just a little bit.

*The most accurate portrayal of education in the media, ever, is the Spongebob episode where Mrs. Puff tries to give him extra credit so she doesn't have to have him back in class.

**Looking back, this was actually a lot more difficult for them than I thought it would be.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Inner Peace...A Modeling Update

I don't think there has ever been a time in my teaching career where I could say that I have truly become comfortable with what I am teaching. I taught at my first school for one year before getting married and moving on. My second year teaching was at a school so far away from my home that I moved to a closer district the next year. I taught at the middle school level for two years before being non-renewed, and fell into my current position the next year. I have now been in my district for eleven years, which might have found me in a fairly comfortable place if not for all the new classes I have been "allowed" to develop. In those eleven years, I have taught twelve different classes. Now, some have a little overlap, but creating a new class from scratch nearly every year was a lot more stressful than I realized.

Until today. Today, I got an idea what it really feels like to know what is going on.

Right now I have two sections that are working through the Modeling Chemistry. One is a regular chemistry class and one is what we call applied, that is made up of "those" kids.

My first year with Modeling was, well, tumultuous. The entire situation was new to my kids as well as to me. Even if they hadn't been so incredibly resistant, I am pretty sure they would have sensed my unfamiliarity with the process. They can smell fear, you know.

Last year was my second year, and while I was at least more familiar with the material, I still had some issues and wrinkles that I needed to iron out. Luckily, the kids I had were much less resistant. I think word had spread that I could take whatever they could send my way and stick to my guns. I am pretty sure that if I had given in, just a little bit the year before, I would have had a lot more testing of boundaries. As it was, I had a great group of kids who for the most part bought in to what I was trying to do. For my part, I spent a lot of time writing out exactly* what I wanted to accomplish with each lesson just so I could go back and remember what worked and what didn't. While I'm not obsessed enough to read it all out during class, it has proved invaluable to look over beforehand and remember what types of things tripped kids up. Since I seem to know where I want them to go, my questions and prompts are actually leading them there.**

The other day, I assigned the first worksheet in my chemistry class. This is not a common occurrence, as I really try to save homework for special occasions. The worksheets in the Modeling units are wonderfully done. These are not "right there" questions that kids can google, nor are they all repetitions of the same problem. When my kids came to class today, there was true panic going on. They had tried. They didn't get it. Their parents didn't get it. They were never going to pass this class.

It took awhile, but I reminded them that we had had this conversation about homework awhile back. Remember how it's practice? And struggling is actually a good thing? This doesn't count toward a grade, so let's whiteboard the problems and see what we come up with.

Then things got really tense.

The first couple of questions were pretty straightforward. The group presented and every head in the room turned to me to see if I was confirming their excellent work.

Cue the crickets.***

Finally someone, almost with a twitch, said, "well, is it right??"

So I said, "do you think it is?"

These pauses are going to kill me.

The group presenting, of course thought they were correct. When I asked if anyone had written anything different, no one spoke up. So I asked them if they had any questions about how this group came up with their answers. Again, not a sound.

As the group started moving towards their seats, one student turned around with her paper and asked me if what she had was acceptable. So I stopped the group and had them go back up to their whiteboard.

Now, here's where it got tricky. We stopped and talked about the overall purpose of whiteboarding. It isn't just about copying down the right answer on your paper. This is about learning from each other and being able to ask questions when you don't understand. Not necessarily asking ME, but asking your classmates to explain their thinking.

The big question for this question was that the student had done the problem in a different manner, but came up with the same answer.**** There followed a huge discussion about whether or not this was "correct" for this problem. Apparently, in the past, there has been only one way to get to the right answer, and that is how the teacher has already explained it. No free thinking allowed.

Yeah, whatever. Personally, I would like to see this every time. While this student explained how she came up with her (same) answer, a couple other kids were nodding their heads. Comments like, "oh, I get it now" started rumbling around the room. Kids were talking to one another, asking good questions. There was really only one smart-alec in the room and he was put down pretty quickly.

By the end of the hour, I had students fighting to present their problem on the whiteboard. I had retreated to the back corner and didn't say another word.

It took us two days to whiteboard this worksheet. In fact, with this class, we are taking quite a bit longer on everything, but I am so okay with that. All of those little details that have taken all trimester to even get the nerve to bring up the last two years are being addressed here in the first month.

And they are buying into it!

So today, we are whiteboarding a lab. The discussions going on are amazing and so beyond anything I would have expected up to this point. I am wandering around the room listening, waiting for questions. There are none. I hear one group who seems to be struggling say "well, we will present it and see what everyone else has done. Maybe they can show us where we messed up." Whoa! Really? I move on to eavesdrop on another group. They have a gorgeous multi-color whiteboard that oh-my-goodness includes a particle diagram!

I'm pretty sure I'm dreaming here. I am also a little nervous because I don't really know what I did to get here so quickly (or, for that matter, at all). I'm not entirely sure I did anything at all. I think, though, that it comes from knowing exactly where I want my kids to go and having a plan as to how to get there. What I do know is that I have never been so excited, or relaxed, about where my classroom is headed.

*When I say exactly, I mean word for word, every-question-that-makes-sense-OCD-scripted type of write out.

**Now this is probably not news to most of you. I can see you shaking your head, wondering, "is she serious?" All I can say to that is, yes. Yes, I am.

***There seems to be a lot of awkward pauses in my room this year.

****Seriously, the stars are all in alignment today.

*****My footnote addiction seems to be getting worse...sorry about that...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

So Tell Me How You Really Feel

Now that we are a couple weeks into school, we are starting to get a little deeper into actually assessing some work. So now the questions on how to actually get an A in my class are really starting to be asked. There has been so much talk about GPA in my classroom lately that I am seriously starting to twitch.

My chemistry class is still pretty quiet. Most of them do not know me well enough to come right out and complain, but they are nervous, to be sure. I have an amazing first section this year, and they are pretty used to getting high grades. For the most part, they seem to be up to the challenge. We ended up walking through how to do a capstone* so they know what it should look like. I think they are slightly less anxious now.

However, students in my ocean science class, for the most part, know me pretty well. And they let me know exactly what they think about the new system. I have this class set up just slightly different than my chemistry. I don't have the blue and gold standards, mostly because wasn't completely happy with the standards I had written. This turned out to be good thinking because I have already changed some of the targets. I am really debating on this, because this system seems to be a little more straightforward with not as much in the way of decoding to figure out your grade. But then I like the idea of those big ideas, so who knows where this will all end up.

Today, I handed back an ocean science test along with a grade sheet. There was freaking out and some of them just can't let go of percentages. The majority of complaints seem to stem from the fact that they can't get away with not understanding something. To them, it is completely fine to not understand how waves travel through a medium because next week, they can do better on tidal movement. It will all average out and they will never have to come back to understanding waves. This is apparently a much bigger safety net than I had realized because there is some major panicking (and complaining) going on.

Going along with that is grading out of 2 instead of, say, 10. Or 50. Or some other arbitrary number. Basically, they either understand it or they don't. There really is no "partial credit" here. Again with the safety net.

I mentioned capstones to my ocean science and was immediately bombarded with the extra credit question. That is how they are viewing the idea of capstones. I am having a hard time getting them to see it from another angle, because they see this "extra work" as equating to "extra credit". I can honestly say I understand their perspective, but I think it's a little too overwhelming for them to cope with the idea of applying knowledge at this point. So we'll come back to that in a couple days.

I pretty much had two camps in my ocean today. On one side are those who kind of accepted the idea and are going to humor me in hopes I change my mind when everyone's grades are terrible. The other side is made up of those who are still pouting.

What I really need to do a good job of is guiding my kids through this system. I can't just throw it out there and hope they catch on. This is such an enormous shift in philosophy that I'm not sure they are all going to follow. Giving examples and keeping kids from giving up is going to be crucial. And exhausting.

Lucky for me, my principal is on board. I gave him a print out of my set up and he was intrigued. A couple days later, I stopped in his office and he pulled out a little green book called A Repair Kit for Grading and asked if I had read it. No, do I have to? I was a little nervous thinking I had really done something wrong and he was going to make me revert back to a more traditional grading approach. However, he congratulated me on already implementing what he thought was a good system. Whew.

So tomorrow is a new day. My ocean is going to get their first taste of capstones and what it really means to take all this information and use it. Hopefully, we will discover together the difference between extra credit and actual learning.

*Another post that hasn't been finished yet.

My Menu