Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A New Aura

I have been moved to a new classroom this year. For various reasons, I am not terribly happy about it. Since I am (the only teacher) teaching chemistry this year, my principal wants me to teach in the chemistry lab. This makes so much sense that I can't come up with a good argument against it.

It's not all bad. I will move from one fairly small room to a suite that consists of a "lecture" room and separate, connected lab room. Now, any sane chemistry teacher would be thrilled with this because it truly is a perfect set-up. But as mentioned, there are a few problems.

Firstly, I have to move all my STUFF from my current room upstairs to my new room. Have you ever tried to move a science classroom? Do you have any idea how much STUFF there is in a science classroom? No, you don't. Even if you have a decent inventory of all your STUFF, I doubt you have any idea how much STUFF you have. Until you pull it all out of the cabinets and try to move it upstairs, you have no clue. For me, I am supposed to try to find a place to put all my STUFF in with the STUFF that is already in my new room. No easy task when you have (I'm pretty sure literally) a ton of rocks.

Secondly, did I mention I have to move all this STUFF UPSTAIRS??

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, the 'teacher' who has occupied this room in the past had a certain way of doing things that sits in stark contrast to how I do things. Namely, I expect kids to stay in class. Oh, I also expect them to do work.

Kids who have taken classes in this room have expected to do pretty much what they want, when they want. I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be a trigger in the minds of some kids that will make them think that in this room, even with a different teacher, anything goes.*

According to Facebook, there are rumblings of students not wanting to take chemistry or physics because the teacher will not be the same. Duh, why would you want to take physics if you can't get out of school thirty minutes early? I'm okay with that, but I am pretty sure there will be at least a low-level mutiny for the first few weeks of school.

The bright side is that I am not a brand new teacher, so kids at least know that I haven't allowed free-for-alls in the past. Of course, this is probably why the rats are fleeing the ship. That's okay, the fewer rats, the better.

I know it's coming and I'm gearing up for it. Wish me luck!

*The math teacher down the hall called this the "Room's Aura." Mine has a bad aura. This must change!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Would You React?

I want this girl for my Secretary of Education.
I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer - not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition - a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Big Idea

Modeling is student centered cooperative inquiry in an active constructivist classroom.*

Without a textbook.

So modeling is based on inquiry and we all know that is a good thing. I have always had trouble with implementing inquiry in my classes. I was taught that inquiry was just letting your kids explore the ideas they wanted to know more about. In a room full of chemicals, you can probably sense my hesitation with that idea. Even if you can overlook the occasional explosion that could possibly occur, there is still the nagging suspicion that my little cherubs might not actually be learning anything.

Insert a solution to this conundrum. This modeling workshop is helping me to finally see how to set up my classroom so the kids are taking charge of their learning. And it is the complete opposite of lecturing.

Each unit has a specific design that has been carefully structured in an order to help kids come to the right conclusions and then reinforce those conclusions. Instead of opening a textbook and staring, glassy-eyed at a diagram on page 713 (while thinking about what they did last weekend), the kids start out with a lab. What really stands out for me is that several of the labs we have done are labs that I already do. Kids then describe not only what they did in the lab, but also what they think happens to the particles involved. Those kids are developing a model from their lab experience instead of trying to make sense of someone else's depiction of what happened.

The ideas are first described (by the kids) after the lab, verbally. Each group gets up and tells you what they learned. This oral presentation is often accompanied by a diagrammatic explanation on the whiteboard. I'm talking a diagram at the particle level. What's really great about this presentation is that those kids have to explain and then defend their models with the rest of the class. This is where they can adjust their ideas. Their discussions are lead by them with questions from me and the other students.
Why did you do that?
How did you do that?

The idea being that if you can describe your thoughts, then you probably understand them. I have had this happen to me many times. As I am talking to my kids about some concept, something occurs to me that never has before. Suddenly, I have a new understanding and a new connection to that idea.

Now what has been impressed upon us in this class is that it is the STUDENTS' responsibility to ask for clarification. The whiteboard sessions are in place of the lectures of a traditional classroom. For some kids, this could take some time to become comfortable in this type of situation. This is where the climate of your classroom is crucial. It's all about trust. Those kids need to feel safe in your classroom. They have to know that no question is wrong and that no one is going to make fun of them for not getting it. There are a couple teachers in my workshop that I really don't see being successful with this type of curriculum simply because of their personality. I could be (I hope I am) wrong.

Then the kids present their data graphically. For example, we measured the mass and volume of substance and graphed this relationship. Traditionally, they would already know that in all matter, there is a relationship between its mass and volume and this is called density. Here, instead, we are letting kids see the linear relationship between those properties. AND (I have to admit, I had never even considered this) those kids are going to put this data into the slope format to determine the relationship. So for example, we (as do most of my kids) know that the equation for a linear relationship is y = mx + b. In this curriculum, we are actually going to plug those values in add labels to all those variables. I don't know about you, but it usually takes my kids about half a year to make the jump from what we are doing in class to what they learned in algebra last year. Here, we throw them right into it and have them create an understanding of what the slope of that line actually means.
THEN the instructor comes in and brings closure to the experiment.** Once I have an idea that the kids truly understand that relationship, then I assign the term. Something along the line of "you know, there is a name for this relationship, and it is density."

So instead of those kids (not) listening to you lecture about density, where they have no ownership in what they are learning, they are taking control and telling YOU what they know. To be able to understand and explain an idea is a powerful ability.

If they can do that, then they understand the world.

*This is my definition with as much edu-jargon as I could get in.
**What I really, really love about this is that this is one of the few times that I will be in front of the class talking to them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

Okay. So I've had a Twitter ID for quite awhile now, but haven't used it. I set it up last fall thinking I would use it as a tool in my classroom. @teachpaperless makes it sound pretty cool, but I never really got into it.

I'm still not sure I'm into it.

I just got back from my homepage. Frank (@fnoschese) (do I need the @?) left his ID on the NSTA list serve, so I followed him. Then I went to his following list and added a bunch more. Mostly these are blogs I follow, so I recognized the names. Some tweeted science stuff, some tweeted education stuff. Jason apparently had a pretty wild birthday party at his house yesterday.

How random of me.

Someone was following Barack Obama, so I looked at his following list. Hmmm...President of Russia, the OFA of every state and a couple people apparently in the middle of playing drinking games. Not sure what I expected there, but I don't think that was it.

I'm going to give it try. I just am not certain this is for me. To me, Twitter seems kind of like a blog on crack. Or at least with a severe case of ADD. I don't think I want to feel, I don't know, so IN TOUCH.

I better go check my page.

PS: @bravesearth

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New Life for Old Labs

"Your kids will be shocked and angry when they first realize there is information on the test that came from the labs." This is a quote from our modeling instructor.

My initial reaction is shocked disbelief. Why wouldn't they be expected to recall information over the labs? Why would I not expect my lab class periods to be just as important as everything else?

Then it kind of dawns on me. Um...I don't do that.

In my classroom (as in lots of others), labs have been used to reinforce information that is given to the student usually in a lecture format. Here is a typical "learning cycle":'
Me: OK class, today we are going to learn about *drum roll, please* DENSITY!
Kids: *Grab pencils and notebooks ready to copy down every word I say.* Well, those who aren't texting, anyway
Me: Density is the unit we use to describe the amount of matter in an object. We use the formula D=m/v and the label is g/mL or g/cm3. Let's do some practice problems. Let's go do a lab to prove I know what I am talking about.
Kids: Do we get to blow anything up today?
Me: No. But don't forget to wear your goggles, because we all know they are oh so important when working with aluminum and water.

Everyone does lab and extremely simple (and sloppy) graph. They hurriedly copy their conclusion from the 'smart' kid and turn in the lab as the bell rings.

This is how I learned chemistry. This is how I was taught to teach chemistry. This is how I have taught chemistry.


I have known for a long time that this isn't how I wanted to teach. For goodness sake, if I am bored, my kids must be comatose. But up until this point, I haven't been in a position to sit down and really analyze my teaching methods (whole other blog post, there).

Herein lies the brilliance that is modeling.

The kids are going to do the SAME lab I have used for years. Except they are going to do the lab before the concept (or even the term density) is introduced. After we do the lab, all the groups come back together and record their results on a whiteboard. Each group gets to explain their procedure and their results. When we did this in our workshop, all the groups put all their data together and graphed all of it. (More on that later.) Then, instead of the instructor showing the graph and explaining what the data meant, the STUDENTS interpreted the graph and explained what the data meant.

This is the key difference. They are not 'proving' that I gave them true information and then memorizing the equation. They are proving to themselves that there is a relationship that needs to be defined. And they are discovering and explaining that relationship on their own.

Now the really hard part. You as a teacher are going to become a wallflower. You become the facilitator of the discussion and ask the kids to think about what they have observed and what it all means. In this system, there is little room for the teacher that likes to be the center of attention. So many of us like to hear ourselves talk. I spent a lot of years and thousands of dollars to learn this stuff and by golly, I'm going to impart some of it to my kids. But that isn't what education is about. It's about learning. And I have found that kids don't truly learn when they have to take notes for 62 minutes.

There HAS to be a better way.

Modeling Unit 1

Today we finished up the third day of our chemistry modeling workshop. We also finished up Unit 1 of the curriculum. This unit is probably the same unit that is done at the beginning of every chemistry class in the nation.

We discussed mass, volume, density, solids, liquids and gases. We covered unit conversions and significant figures.

Sound familiar?

I have been through that unit more times than I can count. Yet I have never come away with a feeling that my kids have understood a word I have said*. This feeling is always reinforced a few weeks (days) (hours?) later when density is mentioned again. You know the look kids give you that makes you want to check to be sure your hair hasn't turned purple? I get that a lot.

This feels different. Granted, I haven't tried it out on actual teenagers, but I just get a sense that this could work. It could possibly be that I came away with a better understanding. I minored in chemistry. I have taught this for years. I KNOW this stuff. But now I feel like I can truly TEACH it. And maybe, just maybe, my kids will be able to LEARN it.

*Truth be told, they probably didn't.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Good First Impressions

As mentioned, I am suddenly involved in a chemistry modeling workshop. I have pretty high expectations for this class and I am sure you want to know how it goes. That and Jason wants to know :)

After all the required paperwork, we started class. You know it's going to be a good class when the first thing you do is blow up a coffee can. Well, try to blow it up. It didn't quite go as planned, but hey, fire was involved.

We were divided into groups of three and given a whiteboard. Not one of those shoe box size whiteboards found in the math department. I'm talkin' table size. Awesome. We were to draw the particles inside the can and how the particles changed over time.

Now, since I minored in chemistry, this was not too difficult of an assignment. For me. But this is something you do with your kids, like, on the second day of school. Each group then presented their ideas to the rest of the class. The teacher* asked clarification questions, support questions challenging questions. The rest of the class is also expected to ask questions of the presenters. One of the key ideas here is the creation of classroom climate. You want the kids to feel safe. They need to accept the fact that this is a science class and it is perfectly fine to be wrong. In actuality, we shouldn't point out something that might be right and wrong, but instead ask the kids to explain what they were thinking. If you see something that is wrong, move on to the next group with a transition such as "let's see what they did."

One pattern I noticed right away was our teacher asked most groups the same question. As we all know, kids don't always pay attention when a presentation is going on.** This forces those kids to listen to the questions as well as the presentation itself. And if they ARE paying attention, then by the end of class, they have heard the same idea five times.

Alan (our presenter) has been at this for several years now and has his questioning down to an art. He can get you to say the same thing three different ways really without you even realizing it.

This wasn't all we did today. We really got into lab writeups, lab data and lab data discussion. I am still processing this and will let you know more on that later.

So far, I love this. This is how I teach. Only soooooo much better. One of the problems that has been bothering me lately is the pace I move through the material. I always come away from a lesson feeling rushed and, I don't know, incomplete. Unsatisfied? I get the feeling that going through this process with my kids would not only involve the kids more in their learning, but also slow it down to make it more digestible.

A nagging feeling I have had in the back of my mind is how this is going to be reconciled with my other obsession (SBG, where have you been?). I am a bit worried I am going to have to sit back down and redo all my targets. I haven't even printed them off yet.

*It should be noted that we have two modes in this class. Teacher mode is us talking about our classrooms and asking classroom questions. Student mode is when we are supposed to be in the position of our students and act as they might during class. This is much more difficult for some than you might think.

**What? That's just me?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Chemistry Modeling

A few weeks ago, I got an email that was a forward from a forward from my principal. It was about a chemistry modeling workshop that was being offered at a university near me. I had heard people talking about modeling on the NSTA list serve, but didn't know very much about it. I only really knew I had always thought it sounded interesting when it was mentioned.

I emailed the lady in charge and was told the workshop was full. Darn. Maybe next time.

A few days later, I got a call from the professor in charge, was informed of a cancellation and am I still interested in attending. Of course I am.

THEN I went to the workshop website to find out more about the whole thing. In some unbelievable stroke of luck, I discovered the workshop was FREE. Plus, I was going to earn 3 credit hours. AND I get a stipend. I will also receive a technology package for my classroom.

AND! There are funds available to attend NSTA 2011!!! I am so excited about this last one. I have never been able to attend either a regional or national NSTA, so I am definitely going next year.

All of this along with some good professional development. I know, those three words rarely go together.

What a good summer.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Chemistry Part II

Ever have a period of time in your life where you just can't seem to get anything crossed off your to-do list?

I am currently at the (hopefully) end of one of those. I went to my classroom yesterday and found a piece of paper in my desk that had the list of my goals for the summer.

And then I laughed.

So before anyone else woke up this morning, I sat down with my terrible chemistry curriculum and set my timer for 30 minutes. The timer is a great tip I picked up from the Fly Lady several years ago and pretty much the only one I have been able to stick with. I'm working on that.

Writing out the second trimester proved to take much less time than the first trimester did. This makes me pretty nervous. I think it's been so long since I taught regular chemistry that I simply wasn't sure what goes into the second trimester. I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be quite a bit of editing involved with this set of targets. Nothing I haven't done before, I guess.

Second Trimester Chemistry
1. Predict the change in the rate of a chemical reaction when temperature, concentration, catalysts, inhibitors, surface area or reaction type change.
2. Describe the role of activation energy in a chemical reaction.
3. Convert the molar mass of a substance to moles.
4. Convert the molar mass of a substance to the number of particles of substance.
5. Calculate the masses (or number of moles) of reactants and products in a chemical equation from the mass (or moles) of one of the reactants or products.
6. Calculate percent yield in a chemical reaction.
7. Calculate the concentration of a solution in molarity, grams per liter, ppm and percent composition.
8. Identify the factors that affect solubility and rate of solution.
9. relate a solution's concentration to its colligative properties.
10. List the properties of acids, bases and solids.
11. Define the dissociation of strong and weak acids and bases.
12. Calculate the pH of a solution and classify it as an acid or base.
13. Calculate the concentration of an unknown solution before and after dilution.
14. Describe the use of buffers to stabilize pH.
15. Assign oxidation numbers to uncombined elements and elements within compounds.
16. Identify the reduction and oxidation processes within balanced half reactions.
17. Name and draw hydrocarbon structures using the IUPAC naming system.
18. Write formulas for alkanes, alkenes and alkynes.
19. Draw structures of isomers for alkanes, alkenes and alkynes.

Again, pretty sure there will be editing involved. Probably more so than the first trimester. It was much more difficult for me to decide what was critical with this trimester since these state standards are not the tested ones.

So I have my chemistry skeleton created. This is what every student MUST learn if they take my chemistry class. Now to flesh out the targets. My plan is to write an extended target for each one.

If the planets align correctly, I should be able to get at least the first half finished before school starts back up.

Maybe I should check the star charts.

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