Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why I Started

Some of you know how this year has been a struggle for me. Just getting through all the new red tape this year is enough to crush anyone's spirit. Couple that with some health issues and I have been about as unmotivated as I can get.

A while back I got an email inviting me to apply for a research opportunity at Kansas University. Part of the application required me to write out my teaching philosophy in less than 250 words. Um, okay. To be honest, I haven't really thought much about my philosophy in recent years. It just seemed like something that was always kind of there at the periphery, but nothing really concrete.

So when I sat down to write this, I really wondered if my overall philosophy had changed much since I began. I can remember being incredibly naive and optimistic about what it took to inspire kids. Then, of course, reality set in and I began to really lose sight of why I was here. Mostly, I alternate between feeling like the greatest teacher ever to worrying that I am doing it all wrong.

But then again, the kids I have now are not the same kids I had a decade ago. Teaching is not the same. Society has changed. Education in general is not the same. So it stands to reason that I am not the same teacher.

Strangely enough, my philosophy hasn't shifted much from its original ideals. I still believe science is the greatest subject out there. I still believe that what I am doing is important. And I still believe in every kid. So here it is, my new and improved (and just under the 250 word limit) teaching philosophy.

I believe a good number of my students are inherently interested in science. Let’s face it, science is cool. On any given day I have at least one reference to the Discovery channel or some really cool item that was heard on the news. The trick is to get them to really look beyond the big picture and see the details; get them to see the how and the why and the what if that comes with true understanding.

I believe I have the power to either nurture or crush a child. I can take their interest and feed it or bore them to death with the mind-numbing details that I used to think were important. 
I believe in challenging my kids. My classroom has shifted over the years. I can now honestly say that my students are active learners. We do labs and the data matters. We draw conclusions and present them to our peers. We have to explain ideas in ways so others can understand them. This sounds so easy on paper, but in reality, this is way out of the comfort zone of so many of my students.

I believe in my kids as students, people and scientists. There is something that makes every student tick. If you can find that and tie into that passion, you've got them. I realize how jaded a teacher can become, so after 16 years teaching, I am glad I still hold on to that belief.

Happy New Year, everyone, I truly hope it is the best yet.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Stop the Insanity...

Today I gave my chemistry class a fun page. There is an old Christmas story written by Bob Jacobs that has the names of elements scattered throughout. Some are obvious, some are not so obvious. The idea is to identify as many element names as you can. My kids jumped in and were having a great time highlighting and laughing about the play on words. Then it got hard. Someone found sixty three names and I told them that I know there are over one hundred and to keep looking. And the Googling began. Seriously? This is not for a grade, not for extra credit. This is simply meant to be a fun activity and a break from what we were doing.

NOTE: Because of the high demand for this particular activity, I am posting it here. The only thing I have changed is the name of the Ebneezers at the beginning. Have fun!

Christmas Story

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Participation Ribbons

So my Chemistry class had a long discussion about grades today.

I was trying to explain my position and I realized that kids don't seem to understand how someone so involved in education can not be obsessed with grades.

We got pretty philosophical about what it means to receive an A in any given class. For some, it means keeping your mouth shut and doing what you are told. For others, it means doing all the extra credit.

I was trying to explain that for me, it truly means they understand Chemistry.

And then someone pipes in..."so what you are saying is that an A in your class is not a participation ribbon."

I think that sums it up nicely, don't you?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Insanity All Around

So a "friend" of mine saw me at a ball game the other night. As we were leaving, she reminded me that I haven't been to the gym to work out lately and that she was going to be in an Insanity class the next morning at 5:30 and that I should be there*. I told myself that if I woke up in time without an alarm, I would go. Of course, my luck, I was wide awake, so I pull myself up and went to town. The first one was hard. The second one was worse. But the third one, I made it through with a bit of consciousness and actually heard the music in the background.

Now there is a certain track that goes along with these workouts. At first, it sounded just like any other music you might hear during a workout video, but as I listened, I noticed something.

Just as my brain was telling me how ridiculous it was to get out of bed for this, a voice came on and said "you can do it." It was subtle. If you weren't paying attention, or more likely if you were nearly unconscious, you would miss it. The words fit right in with the music.

So I listened more carefully. Sure enough, every time my brain tried to convince me I was an idiot, that voice, either as a shout or as part of the song itself, came back and encouraged me to push through.

As I lay staring at the ceiling, "cooling down", I thought about that voice. I wondered if there was some kind of deliberate plan to it. Did the creators of this horror do a bit of research and time it specifically so that there was encouragement when someone most needed it? The more I think about it, the more I have a hard time believing this was an accident. It was just too perfectly aligned with what I needed at the time.**

So it really got me thinking about my classroom. I teach a lot of things that push kids in directions they really do not want to go. They have to think. They have to participate. They have to learn.

They get frustrated. They want to quit. My job is to make sure they don't.

I never let them, but I wonder if I am giving them that encouragement when they most need it. Am I paying enough attention that I catch that frustration before it really sets in? When I yet again answer a question with a question, is that the last straw for one of them? Do they feel like I am just trying to make them fail?

I worry about things like this.

*There are so many things wrong with that sentence, I don't even know where to begin...

**If it WAS an accident, then it was a brilliant one.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Just a Little Flip

Like so many other teachers, I have heard a lot recently about how flipping your classroom is the cool thing to do. While I admire teachers who have the gumption to undertake that challenge, I never really gave it much thought or put it on my list of things to do.

It wasn't that I thought it was a bad idea, I just had a lot of reasons I didn't really think it was for me. (Some of these reasons, I realize are based on my own misconceptions of what flipping actually is. It happens.)

*If I were to describe my classroom, it is unapologetically based on constructivism. My kids learn by doing. This is not to say they are not guided in their discovery or are left alone in hopes that they somehow learn something, but we really focus on what it means to understand a concept and how to understand that concept based on your own knowledge and observations, not just because the textbook says it's true.

*In my mind, watching a video at home is no different than reading a textbook at home, you just get to say that you have incorporated some technology into your homework. We typically don't use textbooks unless we need to make a ramp, so this was a big hurdle for me.

*I'm really not sure what people mean when they say "it leaves class time open for all that cool stuff we wish we had time for."

*I had no idea how to make a video.

*Even if I figured out a way to make a video, I don't have time to do it. Plus, I don't really have the personality it takes to make a good one.

Then I went to a SIDLIT distance learning conference, where I sat in on a session by Aftab Merchant, who has flipped his anatomy lab at the Cleveland Chiropractic College. Since my entire existence as a teacher is based on lab experiences, it was the lab part that caught my eye, so out of curiosity, I went. It took about seven seconds, and I knew this was something I was going to try this year.

What he has done is to take every lab that he does and video the pre-lab. He walks students through the lab, shows them how to make the incisions, shows them where to find each structure and what it actually looks like. He makes sure those kids know exactly what will be expected of them when they walk through the door.

This is something I have struggled with in recent years. Kids are coming to me with an alarming lack of basic lab skills. For way too long, I had this assumption that they knew all of those things that should have been learned in the lab. What does a beaker look like? I know, but way too many do not. I know how frustrating it is for me, but it took me awhile to realize how frustrating it is for those kids.

So I tried it. Yesterday, I gave my chemistry class the assignment to watch the pre-lab video* of our Mass and Change lab. They were to come in today with any questions they might have and be ready to head to the lab.

Now, I fully anticipated kids not doing their homework. Shocking, I know. So our librarian was expecting a good number of them come down if they had not watched the video. In my first section, only four of the twenty had watched it. So off they went to watch the video. The other four started on the lab. Some finished the lab some did not. Those who need to finish will be in here during seminar catching up. They are not happy, but my feelings aren't all that hurt over it. We had a little chat about how very little homework we get in this class and how important it is to actually get it done when it is assigned. Apparently, word got out because everyone in my second section had watched the video.

Not gonna lie. This lab went so smoothly I can't even believe it. Last year, I spent about twenty minutes (longer than the video) going through the pre-lab and answering questions. And more often than not, I forgot something in at least one section. This year, I showed them where the beakers were located.

It was amazing.

Even the kids thought it was a good idea. Some even got stuck on part of the lab and pulled the video up to watch it again.

I like it. I am going to keep it.

I hope. The first video I made took me most of a Saturday, so it's not something I can churn out at a very high rate, but I am thinking that I will get better at it. Now that I at least have an idea of how to set it up, the whole process should go a little more smoothly and with any luck I will be able to stay far enough ahead that I won't stress over it too much.

So what about you? Do any of you do anything like this? Or do you do something different?

*Don't laugh, this is a terrible video. Hopefully this will get better as I go along!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Back to School Blues...I Mean, Buzz...

I'm not gonna lie.

I'm not ready.

I'm not getting that feeling that I am supposed to be getting at this time of year. I'm trying, but if I am completely honest, I am dreading the day after tomorrow when kids come back.

Maybe it's because I don't feel like I had much of a break this summer. Between shuttling kids around, teaching a class and the five workshops I attended, I just do not feel refreshed in any way.

Maybe it's because an old storage room was cleaned out and every one of my lab tables is covered with stuff someone thought I might want.

Maybe it's because I have sat through three full days of meetings. Forget for just a minute that those meetings are brutal based solely on the fact that we have to sit and listen to someone talk for seven hours a day. The bigger issue is the content that may or may not have been heard over the snoring in the back. New ELA standards. New math standards. New science standards. New social studies standards (hey, one doesn't affect me directly!). New evaluation system. Crisis training. Blood Borne Pathogen Training. MTSS training. ESI training. I am pretty sure there was more "training" in there somewhere, but for the life of me I can't remember what it is.

I am trying, but I can't seem to get excited about the upcoming school year.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Science and Inquiry...What is it Anyway?

So Frank tweeted out a post by Paul. Now, coming from Frank, I was expecting a link to some amazing new teacher with some great idea I could steal and implement into my classroom. This is, after all, why I have twitter. So I was quite surprised* to find an article comparing scientific inquiry to reform math (whatever that is). My first reaction was not favorable, so I looked around to see if I could find out more about Paul. His page says he is a middle school science teacher, but I couldn't seem to find much of anything that lets me see inside his classroom. Maybe that isn't the point of his blog, and that is fine, but he doesn't seem to like science education all that much.

But that isn't really my point. I'm not really into bashing other people, but this post bothered me because it seems to reflect what a lot of science teachers (and administrators and parents and others) think inquiry really is.

Go ahead. Ask someone what an inquiry based classroom should look like. For the most part, you will get an answer along the lines of "kids are exploring whatever they want and calling it science." This misconception is why some science teachers "don't do inquiry."

I'm not sure how this perception of inquiry became so mainstream, however, if you actually read The 5 Essential Features of Inquiry described by the National Research Council (2000), you will find an explanation that it probably strays quite a bit from your definition.

1. The learner engages in scientifically oriented questions.
This does not mean they have to come up with their own questions. I can give them a question. I can even give them the procedure. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. The important part is that the activity is focused on a specific idea that I want kids to understand.

2. The learner gives priority evidence in responding to questions.
The key word here is "evidence." It is vital that we are using data to formulate the answer to our question. So we take data. Then we decide whether or not it is good data. If it's not, then we get back in the lab and figure out what we did that doesn't allow us to draw a conclusion.

3. The learner formulates explanations based on evidence.
This is the hard part. In most science classes, the data doesn't mean squat. We did a lab. It was fun, but I can answer all those conclusion questions by reading my textbook. Being able to truly explain what the data means and drawing those relationships is tough for a lot of kids. And adults.

4. The learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge.
So we have made it through the lab and have a conclusion based on our results. Now the big question is whether or not our conclusion stands up against what we already know. Does our data support the accepted theory or not? When you think about it, this is the whole point of science. Using new data to corroborate or not on a given theory and building our knowledge base allows us to question even more.

5. The learner communicates and justifies explanations.
Oh that communication piece. In my classroom, not only do students have to write conclusions that incorporate at least three different representations of their data, but they also have to present their results to the class. This is why I love the whiteboarding. Kids get up and explain to their peers what their data means and what their conclusions are. They have to really understand the ideas and be able to articulate them in a way that can be understood by others. Then they get to answer any questions that might get thrown their way and justify their conclusions.

A student-centered, inquiry-based classroom does NOT mean the students get free reign and control over their learning experience. If that were true, they wouldn't need me. Student centered means that those kids are not just writing down everything I say, filling out a worksheet and parroting it back to me on a test. That isn't learning. Plus, that is boring.

I teach in an inquiry-based classroom and let me tell you, it takes a lot of work and careful construction to get kids where I need them to go. Even Shawn, whose kids go off in the most amazing of directions, gives kids a lot more support than you might think. Again, inquiry is NOT about sending kids off on their own, hoping they come up with the "right" answer. It is about helping construct their own knowledge and make sense of the world around them. Without a textbook. Yes, it can be done.

I will also tell you that teaching using inquiry does NOT "lower the...bar for success." If all you are doing is having kids "do" science with out them learning any science, maybe science (or teaching in general) is not for you. I have mentioned before how good this way has been for "those" kids in my classes and I believe you have heard me talk about how some of those "upper-level" kids really struggle when it comes to actually thinking about the material.

Inquiry is an entire process that encompasses a whole lot more than just the procedure. When done correctly, it is a rich learning environment that involves active, student centered learning, communication and critical thinking.

Really, you should try it.

*Frank was really on a roll today with way out of character recommendations.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Beyond Tourism

For the last couple days, I have been trekking around the Badlands National Park with Don Duggan-Haas as a part of the ReaL Earth Inquiry Project. This is the second year that I have been lucky enough to be involved with this and have loved every minute of it. Not only do you get to hang out with amazing teachers, but we are creating what Don refers to as VFEs. This deserves its own post, so I will come back to that soon.

Today, we were at the Yellow Mounds and while I am over trying to figure out where the fault line actually ran, a tour bus pulled into the parking area. Out jumped a couple dozen people who on average walked about 15 steps away from the bus and took approximately 100 pictures of the "pretty rocks."

I watched them for a few minutes as they pivoted around, smiled, chatted and loaded back on the bus to travel on to their next stop. I couldn't help but think about how different our experiences were at this exact same place.

Yes, the Yellow Mound are gorgeous and deserve to be front and center in a landscape photo. But what really gets me is that so few people are truly concerned with WHY they are so gorgeous. How did they get there? For goodness sake, why are they yellow?

I thought about that for awhile and how I honestly cannot drive by a formation in any location any more without trying to figure out what it is and how it formed. While my family is usually pretty game, at some point I have to roll the window down and snap a picture on the go because they get annoyed when we have to stop more than five times on a trip to pick up rocks. I tried to think back to a time when I just looked at the rocks (or looked past the rocks) without trying to decode the history. And I couldn't.

This is my hope for my kids. When they take my geology class (or astronomy, meteorology, whatever) I hope they begin to appreciate how beautiful a world we live in and that there is so much we don't know about it.

I have had a couple instances where kids have apparently against their will really got into the actual learning. And I cannot tell you how that makes my heart sing.

Jesse came into my astronomy class one day and threw his books down and said, "Mrs. Schroeder, I hate this class." I was extremely confused by this because he seemed like he was really enjoying it. He said he was driving home with his family last night and started pointing out stars and constellations. "You have me talking to my mother and I don't like it."

This spring I overhead the baseball coach talking about kids in the outfield looking like they were staring at the sky during practice. I smiled the rest of the day when I realized they were in my meteorology class and were trying to figure out what types of clouds were out that day.

So it is possible. There is the chance that what I am doing is reaching through and sticking with some. Not as many as I would like, but I suppose I can start small.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Graduation Cards

So the other day, my nephew graduated from Flint Hills Technical College. I was only planning on paying attention as he walked across because I didn't think I knew anyone else who was receiving that honor. But as we were waiting for the ceremony to begin, I skimmed through the program. At the bottom of the third page was a name I recognized, but never would have expected to see there.

And my heart just swelled.

Cory was a student of mine several years ago. He was a great kid, but came to us with a whole host of disadvantages. He was one of those that I wish I could have taken home and just given another chance.

I always feel so proud of my kids when they have accomplished something amazing like that. I never know how some of them are going to feel about it, so I try not to make too big of a deal about it, but when I got home, I sat down and wrote Cory a note. Just a short congratulations to let him know his accomplishment had not gone unnoticed.

The next day, I had the opportunity to watch my seniors walk across the stage. Mary and Garrett are two kids that I have loved watching grow over the last few years and I am going to miss them terribly.

Mary is one of those students we wish we could duplicate. She is brilliant, organized, driven and she loves learning. As her track coach I threatened to put her in the 3200 m so she would get bored running in circles and discover the cure for cancer. There has never been any doubt that she wouldn't make it through high school and there is no doubt that she will make it through college and graduate school.

Garrett holds a special place in my heart as well. As a freshman, he was awkward and more than a little bit annoying. As a sophomore, he was still awkward, but slightly less annoying. He never made it out of the slightly annoying phase, but really grew into his own person. He is unique in a lot of ways and I really believe that one of these days, he will discover his calling and find his niche.

I have tried to write notes to each of them, tried to express how much I learned and benefited from having them move through my life. I still haven't found the right words for either of their cards.

Sometimes they just don't come out right.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Minecrafting My Class

So there has been kind of a barrage of events in the last week or so that have really got me thinking about how my classroom (and school in general) is set up. I know I am doing it wrong, I am just having trouble figuring out how to get it right.

First, Frank tweeted a link to a place that takes your online class for you and somewhere around 17 seconds later, Shawn posted his thoughts on it. "We’ve bred an entire crop of people who think school is something to finish. That learning is somehow terminable."

Later that day, our curriculum director sent us a link to an edudemic article discussing whether Minecraft is the new "ultimate tool in education". Now, my eleven-year-old loves this game, but I have never played it, so maybe I am missing out on a golden educational opportunity. But I doubt it. I am always a little leery when someone starts using video games as a major avenue for their classroom. I can see where there might be a place for something like Angry Birds or Endless Ocean on a limited basis, but to set up your entire class around it? Just not my thing. What I do know about the game is that you pretty much start from scratch and build your own world. Now, that is a good idea.

And then there was Monica, her hexagonal bubbles and an accidental capstone. It all started one morning with a failed attempt at paper mache. One of the girls who visits me every morning was looking at her friend's project. A balloon had been coated in tacky glue the day before and it was not sticking like all had hoped. So Monica was given permission to peel the glue off the balloon. This was kind of cool in itself because it all came off in a big sheet. So she wadded it up and played with it for awhile. Then came the questions. How does glue work? How can it be a liquid in the bottle but a solid outside? Can we make it a liquid again?

To be honest, I have no idea how glue works. The thought had never even occurred to me, so I told her she could heat it up if she would like to see if it would melt again. She did, and eventually discovered that this was not a physical change.* But then someone suggested that adding water would restore the liquid state. So she tried that. Nope, but the water boils up around the ball of glue in thousands of tiny hexagon bubbles. Now that is cool.

This started an entire chain of questions that just keeps getting longer. On the third day, I finally suggested that this could be a capstone if she were to write it up.

Then she got nervous.

Because she didn't have an answer that she thought was "correct." How in the world was she supposed to get points** for something when she didn't really know what it was. So we had a really good discussion that sometimes it isn't about what you know for sure, but what you don't know for sure. Because, really, she now has a whole list of things that she knows this type of glue is NOT. Sometimes, dear children, that is how science works.

This really got me to thinking about how I could make my classes a lot more like those before school projects. I know Shawn does an amazing job with this, and ultimately, I would like to move in that direction. I want to find out what I can do to get kids interested again; to make them curious about the things around them, and to not just turn to Google for a quick answer. I realize I am fighting an uphill battle, but I want them to realize that learning is beautiful and it really, truly is never ending.

*I cannot express my joy at her using those actual words.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

How We Write a Conclusion...Lab Skills 5

So what does that data mean???

That's always the big question isn't it? We take the measurements, make the mess, graph the data and then....


Well, traditionally, we answer an overly structured set of "right there" questions that really have nothing to do with the data, but perfectly mirror the textbook definitions that we want our kids to parrot back to us on standardized tests. Because, surely, if they can repeat the definition and maybe even remember the formula, then they understand the concept, right? 


To be honest, for the longest time, I thought that was okay. I didn't realize that even though my kids could spit out the correct words, they probably weren't really getting to the heart of the concept. I had learned about density from a textbook and I understood it just fine, thank you, so surely everyone else could as well. 

When I asked kids to write a conclusion, I was really just looking to see that they could write a coherent paragraph that somehow worked in the definition of whatever idea we were trying to cover. I rarely, if ever, asked them to explain how their data described that definition. One reason for that was because I knew they hadn't taken very good data, but another reason was simply that I myself didn't really know how to analyze data. This is actually something that I have always struggled with. For one, I am not very good at writing in general, but mostly because I didn't know how to explain what my data meant. This goes back to the fact that I didn't NEED the data (thank you, conclusion questions). In fact, for the longest time, I didn't even realize it had a purpose. Looking back, I am pretty hard pressed to pinpoint a time when I truly had to write a decent analysis. So I really struggled with how to explain to my kids about the importance of summarizing their data.* One of the first assessed targets I wrote was Lab Skills 5: I can analyze laboratory data in order to clarify the questions, hypotheses or methods of an experiment. I knew I wanted my kids to be able to do this, but it feels like it has taken me forever to actually get a handle on how to, you know, assess it.

Several years ago, I realized I was doing it wrong and started trying to change how I taught my kids to write that paragraph at the end of the lab. And for years I struggled to get them where I wanted them to go. This year, I had sort of an epiphany when I had a chance to sit down and really look at what I was teaching my kids.

I know I keep referring back to this, but the Modeling has been so good for me in so many ways. I also know I am a little slow on the uptake here, but this year, I realized that it breaks down a conclusion into four parts**. Now, many of you modelers will recognize these four different representations of data. We use words, numbers, mathematics and pictures to show what our data means. So this year, I have hit my kids pretty hard with writing good conclusions.

First, we summarize our data in words. Basically, we want to answer the lab's original question. What IS the purpose of our data? What are we trying to find? What is the relationship between the variables? I have a poster on my wall that shows how kids should begin their conclusion. And until we get the hang of it, all conclusions begin with the words "According to our data..."***

I have a lot of kids that want to try to simply summarize their procedure. They seem to believe that putting lots of words on paper will make it appear like they know what they are talking about. This might work if I didn't actually read the words, so sometimes I have to do a bit of steering towards why we did what we did. Our first lab in chemistry is a six part Conservation of Mass series, so we do a lot of walking through the entire lab write-up during the first few parts. I gradually take that support away and by the last couple parts, they are on their own.

A mathematical description of the data typically comes in the form of the slope equation. Algebra is a prerequisite for chemistry and our kids spend an awful lot of time with  y = mx + b. This is a perfect example of being able to spit out the "correct" answer but having no clue what to do with it. We talk about "x" and "y" being generic variables that can represent anything. We also talk about how we have independent and dependent variables in our experiment and we can substitute these variables in for "x" and "y". It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes for kids to realize that the term variable means the same in math as it does in science. In chemistry, we don't always have a mathematical relationship, as these are usually derived from graphs, but kids have to be able to recognize when it does not apply and that is apparently a lot harder than it might seem on the surface.

Assigning a number value, however, is done for almost every lab. Whether that number comes in the form of a ratio determining an empirical formula, a slope value giving us a density or an amount of recovered product, we can usually describe our data with a specific value in some form or another. In some cases, there can be more than one number to report, often in the form of the original data and then in percent error.

The last part of our conclusion is a particle diagram. Until I did the Modeling, it had never really occurred to me to have kids draw picture representations of what happened in the lab. Modeling is big on particle diagrams, whether it be the chemistry or the physics, and for some kids, this is no problem. For a lot more than I would have predicted, this is a huge problem. Because this is hard. You are looking at a whole new level of understanding when you require someone to draw a particle diagram of a chemical reaction. I have an amazing number of kids who can balance a chemical equation without being able to explain it in terms of the particles involved. This is really another example of being able to get the right answer without understanding the underlying concept.

About half way through the first trimester, I typed up some basic posters to stick on my wall. For some kids, I STILL have to point to each one in turn and remind them what needs to be included.

These were my rough drafts that I did on a whim. I plan on editing them a little bit when I get a chance, but that isn't too high on my priority list for this year. 

I have done a decent job of sticking with assessing these four parts this year. I like, and I think the kids appreciate, the structure involved with it. If nothing else, it gives us a starting place. I am somewhat surprised I haven't changed it up at all. It is by no means perfect, but so far it has really done what I want it to. ****

*It has suddenly occurred to me that I did this backwards. No wonder my kids were struggling with conclusions...we weren't focused on the data...

**In my defense, Modeling workshops are extremely intense! You cover an entire years worth of material in 2-3 weeks. I am still trying to digest it all! I KNEW this in the back of my mind, it just didn't click until this fall.

***Or in Mary's case, "The lab data suggests..." Whatever, she got what I was asking.

****See, terrible conclusion...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lab Skills 8...What to Do with It...

I have never understood how someone could teach science without including labs as a part of that teaching. I mean, really, isn't that the whole point???

Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not always done my kids justice when it comes to the labs. Like so many others, I "did labs" without clear goals in mind. With any luck, kids could get some decent results and probably be able to decode the conclusion questions at the end. The lab didn't really mean much other than they would maybe get a better visual of the book description and I wouldn't have to talk all day.

In the last couple years, my focus on labs has shifted. A large part of that shift is a direct result of the Modeling. Here, labs are vital. This is where we get our information. We don't read out of a textbook that density is mass per unit of volume, we actually measure that relationship and define it later on. So if Group 4 doesn't get a graph that is at least somewhat linear, we can't see that relationship, and therefore, can't define it. 

Taking good data has become important

The problem is, my kids have virtually no lab skills. They just don't do labs in middle school.* What few labs they did do were more of a "hands on" let's take a break from reading kind of thing. You know, what I used to do...

The lab skills didn't matter. 

So what if I should have gotten 7.8 grams of salt and I ended up with 23.4 g???** This was okay because the teacher is going to summarize what we should have gotten and if I pay close enough attention, I will get the answer right on the test.

This has always bothered me. A lot. I just wasn't sure what to do about it. So this has turned into my year to really focus on what I need to teach my kids about precision, accuracy and basic lab skills. This has not always gone smoothly, but taking a few minutes during a lab to teach some of those things has made all the difference.

So enter Lab Skills 8. Originally, I wrote this skill to assess whether or not kids were rounding correctly. We would discuss significant figures and what accuracy and precision were appropriate to record. I ended the summer with it written as: 8.  I can recognize accuracy and precision of data depends on instruments used. (ΔHS.1.3.3d)

I never liked that wording, mostly because I had to explain it to every single person who read it. Before school even started, Bryna suggested this: I can use significant figures to appropriately communicate the precision of data and calculations.

I liked this wording so much better, so I changed it to begin the year.

Now, I like significant figures just as much as the next science teacher, but with all the upheaval I had going on in my room, I didn't focus on them very much. And really, do those rules REALLY make any sense?? Not, at least, to a teenager. They tend to focus so much on the rules that they miss understanding why those rules exist. So basically, I told my kids to round to least precise decimal place and be done with it. Even with that we were still struggling, but for the most part, my kids are rounding to a reasonable place and I am okay with that.

Then I actually started assessing with it. The more I got into it, the more I realized I wanted this target to assess more than what it was. The original idea was to assess only on the recording of the data, but as I mentioned, I wanted kids to be held accountable for the accuracy of their data. 

I debated quite awhile about how I wanted to handle this change. I thought about leaving this skill alone and adding in a separate skill specifically for data collection. I didn't like this for a number of reasons***, but I really thought those skills should go hand in hand.

We started a new trimester last Monday, so I took the opportunity to yet again rewrite that skill. I think I like this one, but I guess we will see how it plays out.

So here it is...the new and improved....

Lab Skills 8.  I can report data and calculations in a precise and accurate manner.

*I KNOW!!! I have issues with this and have made them known...I am working on that.
**Actual results.
***Not the least of which is that then I would have 11 lab skills instead of 10 and my OCD would not allow that to happen.

Friday, February 8, 2013

This Year's Great Grading Experience

So I am sitting in the back of a freezing cold gymnasium waiting for parents to come visit with me about their* children's progress in my classes. My time this year has actually been punctuated by actual conferences, so this is a pretty new experience for me.

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more parents, as was my principal. A child in my class has some major adjusting to do learning-wise and some of them do not take it well. So far, I have weathered the storms that came with Modeling and Standards Based Grading and have come out the other side all the better.

But this year, I took away percentages.

Turns out this was the biggest adjustment yet. And the most difficult to deal with. Now, I didn't really think my whole set up was all that difficult to understand and the truth is, it really isn't, but it is something different and some kids are having trouble getting past that. The good news is that of all the parents I have discussed this with, not one of them has had any complaints. I have even had one parent thank me for making it more difficult for students to get an A. While this wasn't exactly my end goal, I really think this system more accurately reflects a student's level of knowledge.

The Good
I love it. My scores are recorded as 0, 1, 2 or ND (no data). In the past, I went with a 4 point system. That basically turned into estimating a percent correct and there was such a big decision between 2 and 3 that it was really starting to stress me out. I found myself making out a rubric for every single target and finally decided that was ridiculously too difficult. I still find myself leaning towards a 1 when it should probably be a 0**, but I think that will get better with time. Either that or I will get rid of the 2 and simply go to a 0/1 system.

I also ended up with a huge shift in philosophy when it comes to how to actually assign the scores. All of my targets are assessed multiple times with three seeming to be my minimum right now. The score that is recorded in the grade book is the most recent assessment. Mostly. This year, it occurred to me that sometimes, kids just have a bad day. So I am looking at how to make the call on someone who has scored all 2s up until today when she scored a 0. Did she just not understand the question? Had she been copying off her neighbor? Did her allergy medicine kick in last hour? This has been a tough one for me to reconcile, so I will see where it gets me. Today, I opened it up for discussion with my kids. They have all of their scores available to them. If they want to come in and argue for a certain score, I will let them. This announcement was met with deafening silence and more than a little bit of suspicion. One student finally asked me if it was a trap, so that might just be a little too much for them to deal with at this point.

Another part of this is making up assessments that were missed because of absence. Do they need to? If I have four other data points to work with, does that ND in the grade book matter? This came about from a student that was going to make up a test if I had to drag him in by his ears. He has been a pain all year and I wasn't going to let him get away with skipping my class again.*** His argument (when I calmed down) was a good one. He had already shown me that he could do that skill. What difference did it make if he didn't show me one more time? I finally admitted he had a point. A few days later, he came in when he wanted to retake a target that had been on his missing test. He just wanted to test over the one target. Smiling my evil smile, I told him he couldn't just do a retake on a target if it was available on a missing assignment. So my new and improved (?) policy is just that. I don't require them to make up quizzes if they don't want to, but if they want to retake a target that is on that quiz, that is how it must be done.

The Bad
Using PowerSchool has been a challenge for me with this system. First and foremost, I haven't figured out a way to turn off the grades for the individual assignments (targets). This looks really, really bad if you have anything but 2s, because PowerSchool still records the percentage and letter grade.

When a student or parent looks at this, they automatically zoom in on the column of As and Fs. This student isn't doing too badly, but when the focus is on that letter, people don't tend to look at the overall picture.

PowerSchool also doesn't show what each specific target means. So when you see Lab Skills 9 (which for some reason is NOT in alphabetical order), you don't automatically know what skill is assessed there. You have to click on the link to go see what is actually means.

I started putting in each individual score every time that target was assessed. I like that a lot, but I also want to start adding in comments. I'm not sure if this will just get too messy. All of our students have a Google account through our school, so I have thought about doing something with a spreadsheet. I really haven't decided on this yet. At the beginning of the year, I was going to have a Blue Harvest or Active Grade account for each student, but that just seemed like one more thing to have to access. I am still up in the air about that. I want that feedback available, I'm just not sure of the best way to make it so.

Retakes became a nightmare. I expected the race for points to be so ingrained as to be inescapable and should have been more prepared for it. I require students to come in and "study" before getting a new quiz, usually in the form of correcting a test or quiz. I had a week or so in there where there was just such a rush that I didn't do a good job of checking that work and ended up with scores that I know do not in any way reflect that student's level of understanding. This next trimester, I am going to make it a little more difficult to earn a retake. Joss and Mylene have developed an amazing quiz reflection tool that I am totally going to steal and modify into an application for reassessment.

The Capstones
The capstones are what really caused the panic. My policy right now is that in order to get an A in the class, you must do three capstones. Students can do a lab investigation or a research paper over any of the targets. I am also considering letting them create a tutorial that would go up on the class website. These are not meant to be major research projects, but an extension of a chosen target.

I am completely aware that this is a new frontier, but it really hasn't worked out in the way that I wanted. (I wanted it to work, you know, perfectly.) The physics community pioneered the idea and I love it. Chemistry, I am finding, however, is a little more difficult to work with. One big issue I have is the safety factor and how to make sure kids aren't doing something that could get them hurt.**** Also, physics you can literally see everywhere. We are dealing with a bit more abstraction in chemistry and my kids and I are struggling with how to go about it. Even things that should be more straightforward have issues like how much and what concentration of acid they should use.

I am not happy with these as they stand. A lot of this (oh, alright, all of it) is my fault. I gave them a pretty vague idea of what I wanted, so I am getting pretty vague attempts.

So right now, pretty much any attempt has been counted as a successful as long a the student writes it up in a way that convinces me he or she truly understands that target. Again, soooo not happy with this, but it is getting better. That is not to say that I haven't had some amazing attempts. One girl wrote research paper about exploding ketchup packets in Pennsylvania. Another tied in gas laws to the Red Bull space jump last fall. One student created the most beautiful density column I have ever seen. So there is hope and I am sure it will get better with time.

All in all, even though it has significantly upped my stress level, I am happy with this shift. And once kids get past the "this is stupid and if I complain enough, she will change her mind" stage, the feedback I am getting is mostly positive. Now, there are some students who are used to getting A's that are not too happy about the "extra credit" they have to do, but overall, anyone who gets an A here, I truly feel has earned it. They like knowing exactly what they need to work on. They like being able to show that knowledge multiple times. Some of them even like the challenge.

*Sooooo just typed "my children" there. Maybe I need a vacation.

**What bothers me most about these decisions is that I find a little voice in my head saying "but he tried so hard on this question."

*** I realize I was on a power trip and I really don't like that version of me, but it is what it is.

 ****In chemistry, everyone wants to blow something up. I tell that that's fine as long as they can tie it into one of our targets.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Just Post Something Already

I have so many things running through my mind right now that I simply have no idea where to start. So I am making a list of all the things I really need to get out there and come back.

1. My grading. While I am absolutely loving the way my grading is set up, my kids are absolutely hating it. My grades are low (not that I care). A lot of kids really don't believe that I will not fudge a little and bring them up. The good news about this is that, in general, parents are very supportive once the whole idea is explained. This shift from percentages to not is a lot bigger than I would have expected, and PowerSchool doesn't help matters in that I can't get it to not report each target as a percent. Since there are only two points, it is either an A or F that shows up. This is, of course, what everyone zooms in on.

2. Chemistry Capstones. We are getting there. I came in with a pretty vague idea of what I wanted kids to do, and so as a result, I am getting some pretty vague attempts. I can't really be upset about this, but I really want this to go better. I am debating about the three. Maybe make it one, but make it more involved?

3. My third hour. My goodness, you would think they had never seen a variable before. I have spent the last three days reviewing how to "solve for x" and they still don't seem to have any recognition of algebra. Normally, I would think they are just messing around, but they seem to be legitimately lost.

4. QuarkNet. I am a bit nervous about this for a couple reasons. First and foremost, particle physics seems to overload my brain. And then there is the time it will take to do the activities. I am worried.

5. Online Physics. I have been hired by a nearby community college to develop an online physics class with a lab component. Why I thought I could do this is a little beyond me at this point. It has been ages since I have taught physics, so I am doing quite a bit of brushing up as I go along. I also have no idea how to set up an online class. This is the polar opposite of how I normally teach, so I am really struggling with how to make it more interactive. The lab component is what is really throwing me off. Do you know how hard it is to find a good lab that does not use some type of computer sensor? The students are required to buy a lab kit, but I am trying to keep the cost down. I think I am going to have to break down and have them purchase a motion detector. We are still working out the kinks on that one.

6. Along those same lines...what is a good program to record lectures to upload?

7. 180. My poor blog has been so neglected. My goal is to begin again on Monday, mostly because I have had a lot of people tell me they miss it :) Along these lines...I desperately miss the Global Physics Department....

Oh, and my husband decided to build a house, so my "spare time" has been eaten up by painting and deciding and packing and moving.

Whew. Well, those seem to be the big issues I am dealing with at the moment. I actually feel lighter now that I have it down in black and white. They are all things that need more reflection and I will definitely do that here in the next couple weeks. But, I am going to go home. Take a deep breath. Bake some cookies. And for goodness sake, get the Christmas tree put away.

Have a good weekend!

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