Monday, August 27, 2012

Just...Don't Freak Out

On the first day of school, we talk for just a little bit about how students will eventually receive a letter grade for chemistry, not too much because this is what everyone else does and we want to move on to bigger and better things just as soon as we possibly can. Usually, there are some sideways looks and maybe even a few questions, but what I have noticed is that while there is nodding, the reality doesn't actually set in until there are actual marks involved.

Like today.

On Friday, we finished up our Mass and Change Lab, talked about the Conservation of Mass and turned in our lab notebooks. Pretty routing and straightforward. 

Today, the notebooks were handed back. Along with the notebook is a sheet that I have typed out comments about each target that is assessed. They look something like this...*
Lab Notebook Feedback Sample

There is always (even near the end of the year) that minute or so where kids are turning the paper over, looking for their grades. So I let them flounder for a while, mumbling among themselves, until finally someone speaks up and asks what everyone wants to know. "How did I do on this?"

Most of the time, I come back with something along the lines of, "well, how do you think you did?" This is often met with blank stares while they try to absorb what I am trying to say. I didn't give them a grade, and they have no idea how to handle that. Today, I had them talk to their lab partners about their comments. What are some things you did well? What do you need to work on? If you were to give yourself a grade, what do you think it would be?

I try to get them to see that it's not just about a number, but about what you can do to truly learn about something. Some try to make sense of it, some just humor me.

Then, I pointed to the wall where I have posted the targets we are covering at this particular time. Remember these green sheets we keep pointing to? Let's talk a little bit more about those. So today, I reintroduced my new and improved grading system. There were a lot of wary looking kids sitting out there. And then I handed out their grade sheets.

See, we use PowerSchool as our grading program, and I know there must be a way, but, for the life of me, I can't figure out how to get it off of percents. So if I put in 2 points as possible and you get a 1, it shows you have a 50%. Even after promising not to, some of them freaked out, although, thankfully, none of them cried.

While there wasn't much in the way of excitement about the new system, at least there wasn't any outright hostility. I think just getting over the initial shock and getting used to the idea will be smoother than past years.

I know that I like it much better than what I did last year. Getting rid of the 3 and 4 levels makes this so much easier. Where last year, I would have hem-hawed around and made a judgement call, this year, I can simply say, "not perfect" and give it a 1.

And then.....I introduced capstones. Now that is a different story. There was quite a bit to say about those...

*This is a critique for another day, but there are a few things I would change about this. I find myself only picking out the things a student did wrong. My goal this year is to also leave specific comments about what was done correctly as well. For whatever reason, I find this much more difficult. But I love typing it out. Copy/paste is soooooo handy sometimes.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Failures, Mistakes and Other Learning Tools

Yesterday* on Twitter, Adam asked the question.
This started a conversation that has been bothering me since. Basically, we were trying to come up with working definitions of failure and mistake. Can either of them be fixed? Some mistakes can't, but failure also implies an ending. I don't know the answer, but I know I'm not going to get terribly hung up on the technicalities.

The whole theme was how to get kids comfortable with failing. We teach them from the beginning that it really isn't okay, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise in my classroom that they are afraid to go there.

This is never more evident in Chemistry than when we go through our first lab. It has six parts that reinforce lab skills and investigate the conservation of mass. After each part, we talk about the results and work through an analysis. More often than not, there is at least one set of data that really doesn't allow us to draw any kind of conclusion. We get to talk about precision and careful measurements and what constitutes good data. And we all get to try it again if we don't like our initial results.

Today, however, was the first day I ever had someone cry.

Part five: Does mass change when sugar and water are mixed? Her group had gained a significant amount of mass somewhere between here and there. When I called on the group to explain what they did and how they ended up with those results, it came out that they had forgotten to mass the sugar before they added it to the water. In the following discussion, I looked over, and bless her, she had her head ducked down to the table, sniffling into her lab notebook.

When I asked why she was so upset, she looked at me like I had drowned her kitten and said, "but I was WRONG!"

And I said, "SO?"

Now, my classroom can rarely described as silent, but at that moment, you could hear the hum of my hard drive. She and nearly all of her classmates stared at me like I had truly gone insane.

"What do you mean, so?" she asked. "How am I supposed to get an A in this class if I can't even get the first lab right? I have to start catching up already and apparently chemistry isn't my thing and I haven't even gotten to the hard part yet."

Oh, Honey.**

I asked her if she knew what her group had done wrong and whether or not it could be fixed. Did she think maybe she could go back and redo her lab?

"Well, yes, but..."

"Then let's go do it."

That silent thing again...

"You mean we can fix this?"

Of course, child, how do you think you are going to learn if I just cut you off now? I WANT you to understand the conservation of mass, and I want you to understand it because YOU figured it out, not because I told you it was true.

To be honest, I'm not sure they all bought into it. I don't think they believe that I am going to allow force them to do it on their own. You can see it in their eyes. "Yeah, she might let me have ONE more try. On this easy lab. What if I REALLY screw up later on? What if I try it again and STILL don't get good results. What if chemistry really isn't my thing? What if I get a B?"

I'm not sure if this would be considered a failure or a mistake, and I don't really care. I just want my kids to feel comfortable taking risks in my classroom. This constant pressure to be perfect when perfect doesn't necessarily mean you have any idea what's going on. And for Newton's sake, quit quoting me wikipedia.

Maybe getting this out of the way early is a good thing. I am implementing capstones this year as a part of my assessment, and if I truly want my kids to go places with those, then they are going to have to take those risks and stretch those brains. I know it's scary and I know I am fighting a slightly inclined battle, but I truly feel like it's worth it.

And, really, I'm not good with crying.

*And by yesterday, I mean sometime last summer when I started this post and had to stop to get one of my children somewhere.

**Okay, first off, didn't you pay attention when I talked about grades and reassessment stuff??

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A 180 Photo Project

Last fall, Frank posted the beginning of his 180 Photo Project that was meant to document his school year by taking a picture of his classroom every day. Like so many things Frank does, I was completely inspired by this idea. How amazing to be able to truly peek into someone else's classroom. I really hope he keeps this going this year.

It's kind of funny as I sit here thinking about what types of things would be post-worthy. I would like to be able to say that out of my four classes per day, surely there is something awesome enough to take a picture of every day. And then the anxiety creeps in. What if there is a day where only a normal something occurs in every class? I worry about things like this!

Maybe this will keep me honest.

I, too, am using the Posterous app. A lot easier than I thought it would be, even though is seems to crash on me every once in awhile. Even the busiest, most technologically challenged teacher could do this. Take a picture. Write some words. Post.

So here it is, my 180 project.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Into the Ocean

Several years ago, I started teaching earth science. Like so many teachers, I tried to fit everything we could possibly know about earth systems into 180 days. I was overwhelmed and my kids left shell shocked. The vocabulary alone sent more than one student into tears.

When we transitioned to a trimester schedule, I convinced my administration to let me break out my earth science into its components. So now, I have Geology, Meteorology, Astronomy and Ocean Science as separate classes. The plan was to add in an Environmental Science and Climatology in a couple years, but a series of scandalous events found Chemistry taking up all my "extra" time slots.

Ocean Science has turned into my biggest challenge yet. As it turns out, not too many teachers have a separate elective entirely devoted to the subject. This has made it a little more difficult to collaborate and find out what works best. That and my limited knowledge of the ocean doesn't help either.

I live a short drive to the geographic center of the (contiguous) United States, and as a result, am about as far away from any ocean that you could possibly get. As you might guess, many of my kids have only seen an ocean in pictures and have no real concept of its splendid enormity or it's important impact on them.*

This puts my kids in a pretty unique position when they walk in my room. For one thing, this isn't something they have ever really learned about. There is no review in my class; everything is new. The flip side of that is that everything is new and pretty darn interesting.

I have had this class for a couple years now and am at least a little more familiar with the material. This is my year of the ocean and my plan is to really think about how to approach it. This has been a lecture class for the most part with some labs thrown in. Makes me want to cry. Ideally, I would like to use more of a modeling approach and have kids discover these ideas through observations and data interpretation. Again, without an actual ocean, that makes it a little more difficult.

So I started with my standards. Then I rearranged them. Then I rewrote them. I am sure they will change before the year is out. I need a new verb as there is a whole a lot of describing going on. I am finding it much more difficult to write standards for my earth sciences. These classes are based more on big ideas than skills and so the target for assessment doesn't seem to be as cut and dried, as well as a lot more subjective. At the same time, this makes for wonderful opportunities for students to connect ideas together.

One concept I don't have written up yet is Humans and the Ocean. I want kids to make connections between how humans impact and are impacted by the ocean. I have an idea that this will sort of be like a capstone for each unit, but haven't really fleshed out a plan for that yet.

So, here's what I got...

Unit 1 Water Movement
1.       I can describe the relationship between global wind patterns and the horizontal and vertical circulation of the oceans.
2.       I can explain the causes of El Nino and La Nina and their effect on world climatic patterns.
3.       I can describe the effects of upwelling and downwelling on various populations.
4.       I can distinguish between deep-water, shallow-water and transitional waves.
5.       I can describe the process of refraction as it relates to coastlines.
6.       I can describe the effects of storm surges and tsunamis.
7.       I can use the equilibrium theory of tides and the dynamical theory of tides to describe diurnal, semi-diurnal and mixed tides at various locations on Earth.
8.       I can explain how the Moon-Sun-Earth alignment affects tidal patterns.
9.       I can describe why tidal bores, ebb and flood currents and maelstroms may occur.

Unit 2 Water Properties
1.       I can recognize the factors that affect the density of seawater.
2.       I can describe the factors that affect the salinity of ocean water.
3.       I can predict and explain the changes in salinity, density and temperature of the ocean at different depths and latitudes.
4.       I can describe the significance of dissolved nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.
5.       I can describe the molecular structure of water and relate it to the properties of water.

Unit 3 Productivity
1.       I can list and describe the marine classifications by light in terms of wavelength penetration, photosynthesis and bioproductivity.
2.       I can contrast the bioproductivity of the tropical, mid-latitude and polar oceans in terms of temperature, density, accessibility, upwelling and nutrient availability.
3.       I can describe the pelagic and benthic zones in terms of depth, proximity to shore, photosynthesis, key physical factors and limiting factors.
4.       I can describe the coral reef environment in terms of key organisms, bioproductivity, physical factors and key limiting factors.

If anyone out there does something similar, or if you know of someone who does, I would love to hear from you.

*I had a plan to take my kids to the ocean as part of their final. My principal laughed until he realized I was serious.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Chemistry Standards 2012

Alright. Here they are. These are my newly updated chemistry targets. 

One thing I changed from before is the wording. Each one is now written as an "I can" statement. I started this last spring and simply changing the words "the student will..." was an amazing psychological shift for my kids. 

Right now, my total stands at 31. This seems like a LOT of standards. However, ten of these are lab skills that are assessed nearly every time we do a lab. Since these are assessed in a different way, I'm not sure if they fully count toward the total or not. 

The standards preceded by * are my gold standards. No zeros allowed on these if you want to get credit for learning chemistry. As of now, I have ten. 

Lab Skills
1. I can identify the hypothesis to be tested, phenomenon to be investigated or the problem to be solved. (ΔHS.1.2.2a)
2.  I can identify the tested variables and conditions to be kept constant during an investigation. (ΔHS.1.2.2b)
3.  I can communicate the details of an experimental procedure clearly and completely. (ΔHS.1.2.2c)
4.  I can record and represent data in a meaningful way. (ΔHS.1.2.2d)
*5.  I can analyze laboratory data in order to clarify the questions, hypotheses or methods of an experiment.
6.  I can use common mathematical functions to analyze and describe data. (ΔHS.1.3.3b)
7.  I can use statistical data analysis techniques. (ΔHS.1.3.3c)
*8.  I can report data and calculations in a precise and accurate manner.
*9.  I can use equipment properly and safely. (ΔHS.1.3.3f)
10.  I can follow all lab clean-up procedures.

Physical Properties of Matter
1.  I can define mass, volume and density in terms of a substance's particles.
*2.  I can apply the Law of Conservation of mass.
3.  I can apply density as a conversion factor between mass and volume.

Energy and States of Matter
*1.  I can represent at the particle level, the characteristics (motion, spacing and arrangement) of particles in different phases of matter. (ΔHS.2A.2.a)
2.  I can relate the temperature of a substance to the average kinetic energy of its particles. (ΔHS.2A.2.1)
3.  I can predict the effect on a gas of changing pressure, volume or temperature on any of the other variables.
*4.  I can recognize energy as a conserved, substance-like quantity that is always involved when a system undergoes change.
5.  I can describe the energy transfer between a system and it's surroundings during a phase change. (ΔHS.2A.2.1b)

Describing Substances
1. I can distinguish between mixtures, pure substances, elements and compounds.
2. I can separate a mixture into its component substances.
3. I can use Avagadro’s Hypothesis along with combining volumes of gases to deduce the composition of some compounds.
4. I can describe the Law of Definite Proportion and the Law of Multiple Proportions.

Atomic Structure
1.  I can determine the number of protons, neutrons and/or electrons in an atom or ion.
2.  I can calculate the average atomic mass of an element
3.  I can write the orbital diagram or electron configuration for an atom or ion.

1.  I can distinguish between ionic, molecular and atomic solids. (2A.2.2c)
*2.  I can name and write formulas for ionic compounds. (2A.2.3b)
*3.  I can name and write formulas for molecular compounds. (2A.2.3c)

Counting Particles
1.  I can determine the molar mass of an atom or compound.
2.  I can convert between the number of particles and the moles of an atom or compound. (2A.3.2)
*3.  I can convert between the mass and the moles of an atom or compound. (2A.3.2)
4.  I can determine the empirical formula and/or the molecular formula of a compound.

Chemical Reactions
1.  I can describe chemical reactions in terms of the microscopic behavior of atoms. (2A.3.1)
2.  I can write balanced chemical equations. (2A.3.1a)
3.  I can describe endothermic and exothermic reactions in terms of storage or release of chemical potential energy. (2A.2.3d)

*1.  I can calculate the masses (or number of moles) of reactants and products in a chemical reaction from the mass (or moles) of one of the reactants or products. (2A.3.2)
2.  I can determine the limiting reactant of a chemical reaction.
3.  I can determine theoretical and percent yield of the products of a chemical reaction. (2A.3.2)
4.  I can determine the partial pressure of a particular gas in a mixture.
5.  I can predict the moles of another reactant or product when given the temperature, volume and pressure of a gaseous reactant or product. (2A.3.2)
6.  I can relate the molar concentration (molarity) of a solution to the number of moles and volume of the solution. (2A.3.3)

Okay. Hit me. 

What am I missing? Does everything (anything) make sense? I tend to get stuck on wording and edit things to death, so if you have any wording that would be better, please let me know. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

I Really Should Pay More Attention

So I am sitting here trying to figure out the best way to incorporate Capstones into my chemistry class. I am mostly doing this by studying what John and the Minions are doing in their classroom. I am definitely requiring these this year, I just hope that I can help guide my kids enough so they are able to do the assignment, but little enough that it is still their project.

What I had not noticed in John's post was a link to Kelly (a year ago today) where she describes how she grades her physics classes. If I had noticed this when it was posted, I could have saved myself quite a bit of work. As it happens, a lot of what she does is what I ended up with. Only better. Seriously, how did I miss this??

I like that she has a No Data option as well. I have had kids who could use an entire piece of paper to not answer a question.

I adore her checkoff list. This is something I have struggled with when a skill appears multiple times on the same assessment. I have always sort of made a judgement call on which number to actually assign. I had never thought about just assigning the lowest score, but that makes a lot of sense, especially when you allow reassessments.

I think I understand how she figures her scores into a final grade, but I am pretty sure I need something more cut and dried. I am trying to convince my admin to let me do this, and if he has to stop to figure it out, I'm not sure it will fly.

All in all, I am loving this set up. I think my big roadblock right now is how my standards are written, but hey, I have a whole week to get that figured out :)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Revising My Grading One (?) More Time

I am in my classroom for the first time since May.

I switched over to standards based grading a few years ago, and while I love the way it sets up my classroom, I have yet to find that perfect balance. I have been grading on a 4 point scale and I don't like it. This seems to be the most popular set up, but for me, it has just turned into a nightmare.

Assigning a 1 means you don't get it. Did you totally get it? Good, you get a 4. What if you just made a minor error? Okay, 3.5. But what if you started out like you knew what was going on and then wandered off somewhere? Is it a 2? Did you explain it well the other day during whiteboarding? Maybe it should be a 3.

This is where I really start to have issues. I found myself so often making a judgement call as to whether or not I thought the student really got it.

I am totally intrigued with the binary set up that some are moving towards. This makes it more black and white. You either get it (1) or you don't (0), right? The problem is that I do like a little bit of gray, kind of a light at the end of the tunnel. Some kids just aren't quite there yet and I am a bit nervous about a 0 being taken the wrong way.

So here's what I got:

2 = You got it. No errors, you have mastered this idea.

1 = You are on the right track. There may have been some errors, be it in the arithmetic, set-up, units*, but you at least seem to have an idea about what is going on.

0 = Yeah, you don't get it.

Is this still binary or do we call it tertiary? I'm not sure, but I am pretty excited about getting rid of that middle ground.

Part two of my overhaul involves how I mold this into a letter grade. In my 4 point system, I counted two grades for each standard. The highest mark received was added to the most recent mark. This worked out to being a percentage out of 8 total points for each standard. This worked okay. Some kids never seemed to really understand how their grade was figured, even when I had the keep track on their own.**

With this system, I am going to drop the highest and go with only the most recent. There are few things more frustrating than kids thinking they can forget everything after the test. And so much of what we do in chemistry builds on itself that I can't really allow that to happen.

Now comes the translation. I am still playing with this for a couple of reasons.

First, this is where the only resistance I have ever had from my principal comes in. I am having an incredibly difficult time getting him to let me move away from percentages. I'm not sure why. Well, okay, I'm sure he believes he will have to field more calls from parents. I'm going to hit him up again tomorrow after I finalize my system.

Which brings me to the hard part. Here's my thinking.
*Three or more 0 can't get you through the class.
*0 on any objective and the majority of the other scores are 1 = D.

Now here's where I get stuck. There are some ideas in chemistry that simply must be understood. Conservation of matter, lab skills, nomenclature. (There are more, I am working on my list.) These are the "gold" standards. You must have a 2 on all of these to get an A or B.

*2 on all gold standards, 0 on any objective and the majority of the other scores are 2 = C.
*2 on all gold standards and no more than two 1 on the others = B.
*2 on all standards and and at least two capstone projects = A.

This could change. I am rewriting my objectives today so that they fit more into this grading scheme and also so they are easier to understand. I am thinking I will have 10 gold standards and probably another 12-20 others. (Going to have to call them "blue" I suppose, school colors and all.)

What do you think? Does this even make sense? Is it too hard to follow?

*Not labeling numbers are killing my kids. From here on out, you can't convince me that you have mastered the idea until you label everything. I am pretty sure someone wrote about this at some point this summer, but I can't seem to locate that post. Whoever you are, thank you for putting that out there!

**Of course, an alarmingly large portion of that group didn't know where any of their percentages came from.

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