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Pictionary Definitions

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After grading the third unit test, I noticed that my chem classes were using some words that might be considered interchangeable in an English-context, but definitely are not in a science-context. I had them get into groups and come up with visual depictions of the following words: 

  • molecule, atom, ion 
  • energy, bond, charge 
  • chemical, dangerous

The first set of words was pretty useful for them to distinguish between species. The second set was tricky because we haven’t formally defined “energy” yet (but they should remember something from physics last year). And admittedly, the last set really gets my goat, but there were some interesting conversations as I walked around. And a lot of biohazard symbols and crossbones. But not many chemicals-that-look-hazardous, so I’ll count that as a win. 

The Day After

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Election Day was yesterday. Like many people in my local area, my students today were on edge and largely unbelieving about the results. 

As each first bell rang, I shut the door and greeted each class, mostly like usual. But then I had to get things off my chest. I hadn’t slept well, in part stressing about what I could do with my students in the morning. We talked. I gave them permission to be angry or sad or happy or confused for today, because there’s a lot to process. And I told them that because I’m white with my background, my education, and my economic status, and how that means I have to help those who don’t have my privilege. And I encouraged them to help each other out, and even non-school people who may need help in the next few weeks and years. And I listed some groups of people for us to protect. And I encouraged all of them, who will be eligible for the next presidential election, to vote in four years because if nothing else, this election definitely shows that all votes matter on both sides. And a few students volunteered thoughts and ideas in class, and everyone was respectful and listened. 

And a few students thanked me for saying all the things, which was flattering, but not why I did it. But the gratitude sure eased some of my pain. 
A former colleague came back to school, just to give everyone hugs. Which was so welcome and necessary. Support networks are so important. Making these networks visible to those who don’t believe they have them is also important. 

Work through it today. Tomorrow the real work begins. 

Getting It Together

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I’ve been driving myself nuts with my new AP Chem curriculum, so I finally wrote it out on whiteboards. The problem is that I have some loose chapters. 

Where would you put them? 


SBG, Version 1 (2015-16)

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I never wrote this up. I’m staring down the new school year, and realizing that I don’t have this on (digital) paper. It went sooo well last year, really with next to zero revisions planned for the coming year. I’m super happy (and according to exit surveys, students were pretty satisfied) with how it all worked out. So, here’s what I did:

After getting in contact with Ramsey Musallam last summer (a fantastically generous guy, who spent a chunk of time with me on the phone), I made up a system that works sorta similarly to his.

The unit tests comprised 75% of the term grade. Another 20% was for lab write ups, and the other 5% for miscellaneous classroom stuff.

I reorganized the chemistry content into eight Units for the year. Each Unit had three Standards. For example, Unit Five is States of Matter and Intermolecular Forces, and the Standards are Kinetic Molecular Theory, Gases, and Aqueous Solutions. Implied in those standards are things like states of matter, gas behavior and laws, physical properties based on IMFs, and so on.

Class time was, more or less, normally spent: labs, whiteboard work (also new to me this past year), some notes/slides, and so on. And throwing in a bunch of random stuff that I like, including Beautiful Reactions, xkcd, Compound Chemistry, internet memes and advertisements (sometimes hard to distinguish!), and news articles.

Each unit test was three pages long, one page per Standard. Within each page, five questions with various levels (loosely based on Bloom, my district’s “power standards”, and expectations for the school) covered some aspect of the Standard. Each (often multi-part) question was worth a total of one point. And here’s the weird thing that totally works: each page is worth 10 points, the first five are free as long as the student attempts the problems. So, even if all problems are wrong, they get 5/10 on each page, which is still a failing grade, but they’re not completely unmotivated to do a re-take.

And re-take they did! I had a form to fill out on the school’s LMS. Students had to tell me what they had done to study, with whom they had studied (this human-component was essential), and when they could perform the re-take. Students only revisited a single Standard at one sitting, to focus their studying. Retakes were harder, and not always similar questions, but the format was the same. Some students never performed a retake, and some returned after every exam. But at the end of the school year, nearly everyone who filled out a course evaluation was satisfied with their grades.

I’m absolutely using this system again for the coming school year, and am trying to figure it out for AP chem. I can’t find anyone who uses SBG and AP chem, but we’ll see how it works.

The Emotion of Science Class?

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The past week, I’ve overheard my students reciting passages from various Shakespeare plays, which they have to recite during their English classes next week. And I’ve also heard them grumbling about how easy it is to memorize something, so why bother learning a particular passage.

Although the English class poems are long-gone from my memory, I can still recite a Goethe poem from my high school German class (“Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? / Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind….”). I also remember that although every person in class memorized the whole eight verses, part of our grades was on how the person emoted through the passages. It’s a depth-of-meaning kind of thing, which some people are good at expressing and some are not. And there’s a whole other depth when it comes to poetry contests and spoken word presentations (like this breathtaking example from Harvard’s School of Ed 2016 graduation by Donovan Livingston). Recitations are, for some, a whole art and passion.

So, in science classes, what is worthy of this kind of passage-memorization? And what would be the equivalent of emotion? Mere application of equations seems to be less significant than emotional response, and more of a logic puzzle than art. Application of concepts, however, somehow seems closer. To see something more like Beautiful Reactions or categorization of birds or even videos of marbles and magnets takes the rote skills and makes it into something more sublime.

So what is the emotion of science class?

Giving Them Nothing

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Monday, my chemistry students started their semester final: a three-week, single-partner, no-outside-communication, all-hands-on-deck lab practical. I handed them a stack of papers and told them that I expected to see polished write-ups in three weeks.

Okay, so I don’t give them nothing. They can use virtually anything printed, including their lab notebooks, the textbook, the Internet… Other than people.

But I didn’t tell them exactly how to accomplish the experiments or how to write them up. This is throwing a lot of them for a loop. It’s making them think a little too hard. I had two pairs, who, after pouring a chemical in a beaker and watching it sink to the bottom of a beaker, discuss how to get a chemical to dissolve. After about 5-6 minutes of contemplating various heating implements, acids, and catalysts, I was afraid they were going to actually hurt themselves: I handed them a glass stir rod.

But the thing is, as I struggle to not talk or nudge kids in particular directions (which makes me think about how much/little I do during the rest of the year), they’re realizing how much they rely on being told what to do. They’re finally thinking about what to do rather than what I say. And to do this, they have to ask questions of themselves (and their partners).

I’m starting to think about how to give more goals, give fewer questions. It’s kind of a riff off of Dan Meyer talking about removing questions from textbook problems to make things more interesting/compelling/think-y. [Hmmm… curriculua as a state function? Many paths to get to the end?]

Cross-posted to Better Qs…

Implicit Procedures

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My students are amazing, especially at solving big-idea-type problems, but they’ve been getting a little sloppy with some basics. Today is the first day of second semester, so (instead of worksheets) I figured they needed an activity to review significant figures and other simple skills. 
I came up with The Popcorn Lab. In small groups and the span of 55 minutes, they had to create some sort of procedure, data table, and results to answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the mass, volume, and density of a popcorn kernel before and after popping?
  2. What accounts for the differences between those values?

It was possibly one of the most beneficial things I’ve done recently in terms of getting them to ask their own questions and critique ideas (and as a side benefit, they’re using lab notebooks for, ya know, notes instead of filling in blanks). There was a lot of scratching out and revising, especially for the “after” kernels. A few kids looked up ways to measure volume of popped popcorn on their phones rather than using water displacement. 

Tomorrow, I plan to ask them about:

  1. Easy/straightforward parts
  2. Problematic parts
  3. Differences between groups’ procedures and would they get different answers/results
  4. Sources of error, and how they would be different for different groups

(Cross posting to the Better Qs blog.)