RSS Feed

Social justice in chemistry, year 2

Posted on

It’s Year 2 of this project. Last year, I used Moses Rifkin’s curriculum around race (specifically, Black and White American chemists). While the conversations were great, it was uncomfortable because of my school’s demographics. We have very few Black students, and I didn’t  moderate properly around some issues (this was pointed out to me later by a student). I had talked with the Black students in my class before the unit happened, but I was still pretty uncomfortable with basically having them anecdotally represent a whole race. While I believe I could moderate and check those conversations more effectively this year, I instead chose to use Moses’ outline with some of John Burk’s resources around gender this year. I have more than 50% women in my AP Chemistry class (interestingly, this demographic is different from the AP Physics and AP CS classes, taught by men, at my school). I wanted to have more students actually in the “minority” class we were discussing, as well as having my (fortunately limited sexism) experience as a woman in sciences.

Day 1: Intro, Ground Rules, and Numbers

I tried to get my chairs in a rough circle to facilitate conversations (I didn’t do it last year, and it was hard to get some people to talk with each other). I have a very large and engaged group this year, and it’s exciting to hear their ideas.

I asked for names of chemists, and got the usual: Marie Curie, Rutherford, other scientists in names of Laws. But no living scientists (one student suggested me, which is flattering, but no one knew a famous living chemist). We discussed what it means that the first name is a woman, and the rest are men. Also, we couldn’t think of a single living chemist, other than a couple of relatives. They remembered that I’d brought up Madame Lavoisier and others in class.

Trying to find a picture of a real chemist, not a stock photo is interesting, too. Online searches for “chemistry” or “chemist” get lots of pictures of white women and men, intently examining food coloring in test tubes. The pictures looked too staged and clean to be real chemists (I think I’m doing something right, having this be a justification).

Day 2: Stereotypes and Perceptions

What does it mean that approximately 53% of college graduates with chemistry degrees are women? Our class demographics (about 42% men, 58% women) match this idea. A few students said that obviously, the newer generations of college graduates will start bringing up the employment numbers (approximately 28% women chemists). But when we looked at how long the 50/50 split had been going, questions remained about why women are underrepresented in chemistry-related jobs.

What is “stereotype threat” and are women seen as “threatening”? Someone (these are juniors and seniors) brought up affirmative action.

Day 3: Cyclic systems

Pay gaps (visualized here in Scientific American). Are they justifiable by “maternity taxes” and women choosing to care for family? Do they then keep women out of furthering their pay? other education? their kids’ educations?

Are perceptions of women’s equality (e.g., while speaking) accurate? I thought about using the AreMenTalkingTooMuch app during class, but didn’t want to alienate or degrade conversations.

Day 4: Privilege

Discussed the articles they’d read for today. A lot of students thought that the Bic pens for her were fictitious things.

I set up Jess Lifshitz’s library book activity. Like last year, I let the whole class go at matching 26 books with my 26 vague descriptions. A few titles were put into multiple slots, but after about 10 minutes, they matched about two-thirds of the books to the descriptions. What did it mean that titles were “correct” or “incorrectly” matched? Does that mean something about how we make judgements on actual people?

I wonder if I could do this book activity with only-animal or non-human illustrations, looking for gender roles and expectations.

Day 5: IAT debrief

Students turned in their results from the Gender-Career and Gender-Sci/LangArts tests. As a group, we skewed toward associating men with careers and women with family, and men with science and women with language arts. Several students commented that the results were what they expected to see. Based on yesterday’s conversations around current statistics appearing about even, I asked about how our group results match up with our demographics and individuals’ expectations of particular college majors. What do our “expectations” have to do with how we collectively think of ourselves as a society? We discussed articles they’d read, relating to IAT and its assessment as a tool and as a resource. Also, about how biases begin, and their (probable) historical use.

Day 6: closure(?)

We took a gander at everyone’s posters. Lots of women. A couple people noted that it’s hard to find a random chemist online with enough biographical and research-related info to make a poster, noting that everyone they found was a university researcher. We discussed proprietary information and ties to industry, and wondered if university women were more or less tied than similar men.

I had them fill out a post-course-survey.

 

Round up:

My students are what my grandma would have called “intelligent, but not smart”, meaning they’re well-read and well-educated, but have no idea how to deal with people in the real world. (Grandma applied this to me and my cousin; I was the intelligent one, he was the smart one.) Academically, my students know what sexism (or racism or other -isms) is, how to dissect it in novels and essays, and whether they’ll face it or not (and many already have). Academically, they know how to deal with bullies and bigots, and how to help others, but they were all pretty scared to realize that now they need to start acting on these ideas. I’m also in their boat. Choosing to do this unit took me a few years to get the guts to prepare it, and I still only do it with my AP students (11th and 12th graders I’ve had for two years of classes) after the exam. I want to expand it to my Honors students (every 10th grader in the building): I think this is my way of starting conversations in my “intelligent” and introverted way.

This year felt very different. Instead of being more comfortable with using the curriculum a second time, it was essentially brand-new. Also, this year I was in the minority group and it made me think really hard about how to present ideas, whether I was over-sharing, whether I was getting too soap-box-y. There was a part of the class that was very certain of the everything-is-fine-sexism-is-dying-out persuasion. To his credit, one student was brave enough to say so during class, and students responding to him shared examples and reasons that made him apologize and start to re-think some things. One day when students were sleepy and responding less, I overstepped and turned preachy. I apologized the next day for adding too much of myself.

I’ve got so much privilege that I haven’t been in this position before. I’ve never had to tell someone what my experiences have been and why they matter. I’ve never had to hold myself back when “my generation” (meaning: I’m old!) was blamed over societal sexism and norms. Getting knocked down was hard manage, especially while trying to not push my own views too hard. I’m obviously not the first person to notice this balance, but it was my first time that I really cared about.

When I teach this unit again, I want to be more conscious of how it feels to be in the spoken-about-group rather than just the moderator. The anonymous class feedback I received was largely positive, and a majority of students said that we need to talk more about things they’ll see outside of our school-bubble, especially in non-humanities classes. I’m excited to continue this work, creating a modular version for other teachers to use. We need to have some conversations around how the identity of the presenter (and identity of the students) will drastically the contents and conversations of the unit.

 

 

Advertisements

On Pursuing Higher Ed

Posted on

Today, my principal asked how I liked working at my school. I enjoy the autonomy of being the only chemistry teacher in the building. I’m beholden to no one else’s schedule, grading policies, or lab constraints. But I also can’t share my responsibilities with anyone else, have to get ideas from outside the building, and (because I do things differently) can’t trade curricula with anyone else. This year is my 3rd year back in public schools, and I love it. I missed it so, but I’m also so glad that I can afford to choose to be part-time.

Lately, there’s been a number of my Twitter-teacher-friends (more than one, less than 15) who have declared that they are going to be taking time off for mental health and/or personal reasons. And a number of them will be pursuing advanced degrees!

I’m completely in awe and in admiration of these teachers’ dedication to enhancing their educations and advancing their practice. I’m so happy (maybe a little jealous?) that they’re getting this chance.

I’m also acutely aware that, for some, pursuing a PhD or EdD is less work than teaching.

This deserves a whole lot of conversation, starting with expectations of K12 teachers in general, along with the internal and external pressures of the job, the dedication with which many teachers throw themselves into everything they do, the money teachers pour into classroom supplies, and the outside hours we use to do that last lesson tweak. It’s the extra time mixing chemical solutions, proofreading both versions of the exams, attending one sports match and a drama production and the orchestra concert, writing letters of recommendation for colleges and scholarships, applying for grants from the PTA, listening to the sobbing student found in the hallway, and filling the copy machine after the last set of originals are fed into the machine. It’s helping the unsure students who come to your room for help and tracking down the weak ones who don’t voluntarily show. It’s confronting the kids who think they got away with cheating and celebrating the ones who finally get it.

SundayFunday #MTBoS: Goals

Posted on

It’s August, and the temperature is in the mid-90s. This isn’t uncommon for a couple of days, but few people have air conditioning around here, including the host-school for the National Boards Jumpstart program that I attended for the last four days. 

I don’t know how anyone completes NBCT stuff without Jumpstart. It’s four days of gradually reading through all of the paperwork, getting ideas off others, finding people to work with, and lots of sticky notes and highlighters. It’s intense. It’s so worth it. Even in the heat (and the haze from Canadian wildfires).

So clearly, my goals for this year include writing up two of the four NBCT components. I’m planning on the other two next year. 

The other part of my goals include seeing my family more this year. Last year was rough… teaching AP Chem for the first time really kicked my butt, and I barely spent time at home. That needs to change. This is also a large reason for doing NBCT over two years. 

I’m also trying to think of a fun goal, but my overloaded brain isn’t letting me. 

On Sorta Being Part of the #MTBoS

Posted on

Five (!!) years ago, I was working in a space that didn’t match well with what I believed I should, as a chemistry teacher, be doing. For the record, I don’t think that school is doing education poorly, but it (and I) had changed over the time I’d spent there. I felt stuck, demoralized, and thought about quitting. I needed a place to explore my professional work as well as to get inspired again. My husband suggested my new handle, and I started this blog. 

I searched for blogs of chemistry teachers, and found very few that were active. But I found this math guy, who was thinking about teaching. And this guy had some pretty faithful followers, who also thought about teaching. This was my gateway back to being involved

As I lurked (and religiously read every post and comment), I became familiar with some frequent names. Their exquisite mental work on how teaching could work in the classroom (beyond the theoretical) was deeply fascinating, optimistic, and supportive, even when disagreeing. They could suggest hypotheticals and explore the intricacies without hints of malice or derision: exploring of any ideas was practically required. Most importantly for me, these names started to sound like old friends and the teachers I wanted and needed to hang out with, even though I had never met them. This was the PD I needed. 

So when someone posted the Math-Twitter Blogosphere and issued challenges, I told my husband that I (the Technophobe) had a digital thing to do, and took some time in crafting some entries, responding to others’ posts, and starting this wacky thing called Twitter. I wasn’t disappointed. Even though I’m not A Math Teacher, sciences are pretty close (I’m of the mind that any teacher can benefit from watching other teachers work their skills). I was welcomed into the fold. 

I’ve borrowed activities, lab ideas, and classroom techniques liberally from countless teachers; learned new ways to calm myself, tried crafty things from a math/analysis perspective, and thought about beauty in images; and I’ve also given back in terms of my own techniques and advice. The sheer number of good teachers who not only want to improve their own teaching, but actively help others also improve, in one small (virtual) space is staggering. And there’s no expectation of publications, excessive praise, or monetary returns. Instead, there’s supportive smacktalk. This, for me, is what the #MTBoS embodies and why I’d be sad to see it go. I even thought about getting a math certification, in no small part so that I’d have a better justification for attending Twitter Math Camp in the summer. 
There have been mentions of cliques, and I’d agree that, yes, there are cliques in the #MTBoS. I don’t think it’s any different from other channels, where there’s a few dominant voices. Unlike some channels I’ve visited, I don’t believe there’s intentional exclusion of newcomers, but just as it is in high school hallways, it’s hard to break into conversations between people who are already real-live-in-person-friends. 

As far as changing the hashtag, there’s some pretty serious blow-back. I think one of the reasons to this defensive stance is that it felt like A Grown Up told The Clique to not talk to each other. That doesn’t go over well in middle/high school, and generally doesn’t work. Also, other hashtags (labels, really) don’t encompass the same group of people. I do not teach math (although I still want to re-learn calculus… it has been so long!), I do (heart) math, but that’s not what the questions are about. Many teachers do a combination of math and something else (two of our science teachers also do math). 

But license-endorsements aside, the #MTBoS isn’t really about math: collegiality in teaching (that’s mostly math-class-related) is what I see as a mostly-outlier. I’m proud to be an honorary #MTBoS member. 

Social justice in chemistry

Posted on

I’m relatively new to social justice, but when I realized what it involves, I knew that I needed to bring it to my classes. A few years ago through Twitter, I stated following a number of teachers and leaders who do and embody this work. I’m nowhere close to their levels of expertise, elegance, or confidence (yet), but I decided that this was the year for me to start bringing it to my classes.

Moses Rifkin is awesome.

Besides being a super nice guy, he has been doing social justice in his physics classes for a number of years. I finally met him at NSTA last fall and had a lovely afternoon discussing things and attending social justice sessions. He generously provided his curriculum in this series of guest posts on John Burk’s pages, I took (very) large chunks of his curriculum, subbed “chemistry” for “physics”, and was off to the races. I tried this unit in my AP Chemistry classes (not my 1st year chem courses) after The Exam was finished. 

Added bonus: I decided that I would try out OneNote for this unit (part of my professional goals), but did a bad job introducing this tool. My students (rightly) objected. 

Side-note: my school district is very strict about showing student work (even without names), so I can’t post any pictures of student work. 

I wanted to set my desks in a circle for discussion, but since only half of my classes did this unit (and they alternated in my schedule with the other classes), it was too much of a pain. I wish I had just done it. I’m lucky in that our English/SS teachers have trained our students well in how to have respectful conversations with each other, even with difficult topics. I did, however, use a “speaking ball” for the whole week: 


My generation’s fidget spinner.

Tuesday

It’s the day after Memorial Day and a week of non-school, so most of the kids hadn’t done the mini-research project of finding an African-American chemist. I asked for the name of a chemist, and most thought first of Marie Curie, but then listed all of the white men found in the names of various laws (Boyle, Avogadro, Hess, etc.). No living person came to mind, and only one woman. (Hey, chemists: do we have a spokesperson?? Nobody like Neil deGrasse Tyson or David Attenbourough or Jane Goodall or…).

I gave them a few minutes to start some searching for images, which pops up a white woman in a lab coat (advertisements/stock photos), a lot of people staring intently at test tubes of colored liquids, a few pharmacists (thanks, English!), and a few shocked people with crazy hair. In short, few actual chemists, nobody doing any real science, nearly all white. 

Then we took a few minutes to compare basic US racial demographics to science industry demographics and college degree stuff. We talked about why. Since 2/3rds of my classes were jet-lagged and they hadn’t completed the first assignment, this was challenging to jump into. I tried to get them to produce reasons for this gap in intended college degrees and attained degrees. This definitely perked up some ears, mostly because they hadn’t thought about it before. 

Homework: pick a hypothesis about differences and research it thouroughly. 

Wednesday

Discussed the stats they found regarding particular hypotheses about why African-Americans aren’t found in proportional numbers in chemistry. Different classes took different interests (one more of a social bent and one more of a financial bent), and threw around a lot of numbers. Students were okay with sharing numbers, but it took a bit to get them to propose possible implications. I’m glad numbers is starting this unit, so that students have something to hold on to that’s not just anecdote. We discussed whether all these numbers were comparing apples to oranges or not, and what it would take to make it more apples-to-apples.

Then I tried to get them to define racism and who perpetrated what. A few students knew a sort of academic definition (relating to cultural dominance/white power), but it wasn’t communicated clearly to others and didn’t stick. 

Homework: read some articles from a list. 
Thursday

Stereotypes and what we can say about them.discussed the articles they read. It’s interesting to me that the students already know that “low-income” and “people of color” often overlap, but some students needed reminders that those terms aren’t synonymous. I brought up two things: how racism was viewed if it was intentional (racial slurs or worse) versus unintentional (implicit bias or microaggression), and trying to identify who can be a perpetrator of racism. 

Privilege was a pretty involved topic. Our school body has a lot of privileges as a whole. There were some good commentions between personal privileges and possible affordances, along with thinking of others’ lack of privileges and possible lack of opportunities. 

Conversations are super involved, very respectful, but I feel like they’re rushed (argh… my carefully planned six day schedule isn’t extend-able at this point!)

Homework: read some articles. 

Friday

Students discussed their thoughts on articles, many of them read one on the history of race and the Oregon Territory. After a bit, I asked them to put their conversations on hold, and try a new thing (which is based on Jess’s mind-blowing classroom… I’d move to get my kid in her classroom!):


I wasn’t sure about a whole day (there’s only so many days left with my Seniors) with this activity, and I knew my high schoolers would, especially after three days of race-thinking, catch on to the predict-the-story-between-two-books thing. Instead, I gave the whole class all 22 books at once, and asked them to match them to the list of descriptions. They did pretty well (each class got more than half correct), but then there’s the larger discussion around why getting them “correct” isn’t the important part, that about half of the stories still weren’t known/were incorrectly judged, that 16 of the books depict people of color, that the more emotion-related stories (divorce, bullies, etc.) largely involved white characters, and of quite literally judging books by their covers. Also, I taped over the library designation on the spines. Our amazing public library system recently re-organized the children’s books into interest sections, such as “Animals”, “Sparkly”, and “Things That Go”. The books I checked out came from either “Our World”, “Life Issues”, or “Biographies”. Our class discussions were far more surface-level than Jess’s class, but I did enjoy it as a first attempt, and am very interested to give it its own day next year.

Students then got into Peggy McIntosh’s “Knapsack”. And the idea of privilege was pretty well-accepted in our class, but how to deal with it created a lot of conversations regarding what’s seen as unearned privilege, and whether affirmative action is a form of unearned something or not. Also some connections to feminism, and a few family stories of immigration. This was a day that I wanted to keep going for a while.

Homework: do two IAT tests. 

Monday

The IAT test results were interesting, and a lot of students were interested in what it all means. We talked about possible problems with the tests, as well as implications. A couple students took the same test multiple times to see if their results remained the same. 

Homework: look up a non-white and/or non-male chemist and make a poster about them!

Tuesday

The posters they generated are fantastic! I gave them the option of posting them in my room, in the halls, or keeping them private. There’s a great bulletin board outside my classroom, filled with pictures and details of non-male and/or non-white chemists, which makes me so proud of the work they’ve done this week. 

Homework: fill in an anonymous survey about the last week. 

 Wrap Up / Takeaway 

In my post-course survey, nearly all of the feedback was neutral-to-positive. A number of students stated that they wanted this discussion in other classes, and wanted to do more. Some said that this provided them with a safe place to have conversations (or at least a place to say things openly with peers). I need to have more conversation-drivers for those quiet times (although I think that the circle of desks will help, as well as having quiet times isn’t all bad). I also need to be more clear about my expectations for the week, including that it’s okay to be uncomfortable in these discussions. 

These are my AP Chemistry students. My students are generally pretty good about completing homework and doing things I ask of them. This unit had the highest homework completion rate of the entire year: they want to have these discussions. And to the best of my abilities, I’ll continue to provide my students a place to have them. 

Stoich Speed Dating

Posted on

Kinda based on the idea by Kate Nowak, I had my students Speed-Date (is that a verb?) stoichiometric practice problems. It’s a little different in format, and it’s in groups… on whiteboards… okay, maybe it’s a lot different.

My students normally sit in pods of three or four. They’re super familiar with the whiteboarding we do (which is at least weekly). After one practice/review stoich problem, I had them clear the boards. We picked some random numbers, and I added “grams” to each (something like, kids shouted out 5, 17, 207, and 73, so I would declare 20.75g and 17.73g). I posted a list of chemical equations on the document camera. Each group picked a random 2-reactant equation from the posted list of equations and started the stoich process (balancing the equation, filling out the BCA table, good sig figs, etc.). For example, if they chose the combustion of hydrogen, then using our random numbers, the stoich problem they worked on started with 20.75g H2 and 17.73g O2.

Now for the speed dating part: Every 2 minutes, I yelled “ding!” and each group moved to a new board to continue whatever the last group had left.

The first “ding!” usually happened just after getting molar masses calculated, so a lot of groans came out, but they knew approximately the step to work on for the next board. The second switch came part way through the BCA table, which really bothered some perfectionists. Some groups found mistakes and had to correct them. Four cycles usually got the boards completed and double-checked.

What I liked:

  • Even in a large class (10 groups), nearly every board had a different equation, so switching meant some big changes but the same process. It’s actually quite a bit of practice.
  • Limiting reactants were not always in the same place/order from one board to the next.
  • Students improved in figuring out the sequence of steps in stoich because they had to repeat/check and see the status of the new board.
  • Struggling kids were able to see how a particular step changed when equations changed (I may have “ding”ed intentionally when I saw a half-fast/slow group getting too comfy).
  • I was able to help one particular kid while everyone else worked through switching boards and checking each other.

What I need to improve/think about:

  • This worked for one round, but wasn’t interesting enough for two.
  • I did not check/grade the boards, but relied on students to check themselves.
  • For the groups that found mistakes, I’d like a way of discussing the mistake with the previous group. I don’t want them making the same mistake on the next board(s).

#MTBoSBlogsplosion: Soft Skills

Posted on

I’ve worked at a large public school, a science museum, a tiny private school, and a small public school. The places I’ve worked have each taught me valuable skills in how to teach different kinds of students.

The private school, in particular, helped me learn how to talk to lots of different kinds of kids. At this school, teachers met with individual students twice a week for 30 minutes. In this way, I taught various sciences (about 6 different kinds of classes), but since each student had different strengths and challenges, I really had a separate prep for each kid (about 30+ different preps). Teaching chemistry to a “normal” high school student is different from teaching to one with dyslexia; to one who is dyslexic, dysgraphic, and dyscalculate; to one with high-functioning autism; to one who has clinical anxiety and depression. And, a lot of these students had previously slipped through the cracks of public schools and larger classrooms. I have no formal special ed training, so a lot of my preparation was on my own and on the fly. But a lot of my work, especially when students came to us in the middle of school years, was to make them comfortable with school and to boost their academic confidence.

Part of making them comfortable again revolved around allowing kids to be wrong without penalty. It’s sort of in three phases: allowing kids to be wrong; brainstorming possibilities; and encouraging fixes to original answers.

I truly believe that it’s invaluable to make mistakes, as long as you figure out how to fix them once you know better. Part of this is classroom culture: I think math and science classes are especially guilty for having only single correct answers to any problem, which may be true for numerical calculations, but usually, there’s something that’s right about most answers. I think this is why I really love the “My Favorite No“, although I haven’t formally used it in class. I can’t always get students to commit their thoughts to paper, but I can get them to write all kinds of stuff on impermanent whiteboards. We use The Mistake Game fairly regularly. It’s on me to not say “no” during class. Instead I try to do the improv thing of “yes, and…”, and request others to help out or refine. (There is a limit to my tolerance, however, when there’s safety issues, like personal insults or goofing off in lab.)

Once kids figure out there’s no penalty in wrong answers and that I don’t shut kids down (which takes at least a month, often more), they’re more wiling to brainstorm. Early in the year, I ask kids to go home and “interview” people about the word “nuclear”. I keep expecting crazy answers and misconceptions, but my kids are (sadly!) so trained to only give correct answers, that they won’t volunteer the weird ones. I have to frame my questions intentionally so that I encourage off-beat things and everything is acceptable. Instead of, “who has an answer?”, I say, “what are some possibilities?” or “what’s the strangest thing you heard?” Distancing their verbal responses from the specter of “correct” has been really useful in getting more kids to talk more often.

Fixing answers is, to me, like making final works out of rough drafts. I’ve been bad at intentionally circling back to original questions (and I wonder if making that connection between original and new would be helpful), but I’m pretty good at helping classes think through lines of logic. Once being wrong isn’t a problem, and brainstorming is totally okay, it’s much easier to try out new things. It’s still difficult for me to stay out of the way and allow kids to try to sort out whether new ideas are right or not (addressing misconceptions seems to work really well). While it’s relatively easy for me to avoid saying “no”, it’s soooo hard to not immediately praise the right answers and get on with my lessons and goals. But I have to remember that it’s not about my learning. I don’t have a method for getting to this third step. I feel like I should be able to verbalize it, but I can’t. It’s a lot about kids’ comfort in class with me and with each other.

I wonder if these kinds of skills are limited to my classroom only. If these ideas are so classroom-dependent, I wonder if it carries to other classrooms or not. Which means I want to know how I can extend open investigation to every class. This isn’t in my control, but I’d like to think my students can get out of the always-only-correct paralysis for an hour a day.