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Social Justice in Chemistry, Year 3+

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I’ve written about my social justice unit a couple of times before (Year one, two). The third year I completed it (using the ever-awesome Underrepresentation Curriculum Project (disclosure bias: I’m an editor!)), I changed the timing of the unit to be integrated into the school year instead of an intensive block in the winter/spring.

Note: I have a somewhat unique situation so that I was comfortable making this change. The URC encourages in-class conversations around race, inequity, privilege, and justice. If students aren’t very comfy with each other (or with the teacher), the conversations may not be very fruitful. I work at a small, 6-12th grade school. All of my students have known each other for 4 years before they get to me, and other teachers train them on Socratic Seminars and holding respectful classroom conversations. They know how to do this with each other before I get to have conversations with them. This is a huge benefit for me, and I don’t have to work very hard to create the right conditions for discussions.

Approximately once per month starting in October (I think it was the first Thursday of the month or something), I chose a lesson from the URC. The night before our discussion days, I asked students to do three things:

  1. Go through the journal entry from last time. (This is a private, on-their-honor thing they do. I never look at it.)
  2. Go through two sources of information: one particular resource (read an article, listen to podcast, watch a TED talk, etc.) and another from a list.
  3. Take an anonymous survey about the topic at hand. Each student has picked an anonymous nickname, so I can track particular students’ ideas over time, but I have no idea who it is.

During class, we often start with small groups to discuss the second resource, and I’ll ask for connections to the required material or how it relates to science in general. And then conversations take off on their own. After class, I ask them to complete a journal entry and/or debrief with friends.

After a number of URC lessons around objectivity/subjectivity, racism in STEM, identity, and so on, students want to do something. Actions don’t have to be large and impressive things that make the news: they should have a purpose and a positive impact on somebody. I ask that they create and complete a project that improves something at school and give them two long days in class to complete this work. Their ideas range from creating lists of books for the librarian to get with grant money, to creating coloring books of scientists, to making informational posters about autism, to lists of free events for teens and the bus routes to get there, to lesson plans about LGBTQ+ history for our school mentoring program, to moving the disposable utensils and napkins in the cafeteria so that less waste is generated.

The benefits of doing the URC (or any discussions regarding social affects/effects in science classes) this way, in my opinion, are that it removes the confines of a 1-2 week block of URC lessons. The last thing I want students to say is, “oh gee, the week is done! No more of that!” While URC lessons aren’t generally associated with chemistry content, having the conversations refreshed on a monthly basis means they never really go away, and students bring up ideas about equity throughout the school year. A number of students have gone on to use these ideas for papers and AP Capstone theses.

I’ve been really pleased with how much my students have engaged in this material. My end-of-year surveys always have high marks of approval for the social justice materials. Of course, not every student is interested (and that can go for any class material in some ways), but by making this a part of their own world of school and community, I hope that they can see the power they have in not only producing small changes, but in small ways that they can affect change for the benefit of others who may not have their power (or may not have realized their power yet).

Last year, my school was online for much of the year, and then was split into online/in-person for the remainder of the year. Fewer students engaged in our conversations (it’s hard to have conversations with a bunch of blank non-camera boxes). However, the end-of-year surveys still reflected their interest in the topics we covered, and a request for more information. While it was really challenging for me to stay with it during the year, not hearing the usual banter and questioning, it was really nice to get the acknowledgement that students still saw the value in having the conversations.

I’ll be continuing the conversations this year.

On “Evaluations” for 2020-21 Chemistry

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In my last post, I mentioned that I did unit exams differently, and that students largely liked them. Not just that they liked taking tests this way, but in the end-of-year evaluation, many in both my Honors and AP Chemistry classes specifically remarked that the Evaluations were fun (!?!)

So, how did I trick my students into liking tests create Evaluations that felt good for students and actually measured some knowledge?

Evaluations were kinda like week-long projects. Because my district was remote for much of the year, I gave students some flexibility with dates, but not with content and standards. I’d give a rough topic or a set of starting conditions, then gave them an outline of ideas to cover, including a rubric for how I’d be looking at things. Also, some of the Evaluations were a little weird or out of the norm, so they didn’t feel like tests.

For example, the first APChem Evaluation covered the first unit, which was largely review from Honors Chem. All of this stuff was easily Google-able, so I needed them to explain how everything worked conceptually. So I asked them to choose two concepts and make analogies to two different texts they’ve recently read. AND, they had to be drawn in cartoon-format (stick figures encouraged!) Since many of the chemical concepts dealt with structure and interactions of atoms/particles, analogies were pretty easy to find with nearly any text. Points were awarded on clarity of connections between chemistry and texts, as well how the analogies didn’t work, and a nice citation at the end.

For a mathy unit like stoichiometry, I took an idea I’d read somewhere (sorry, but I don’t remember where!) and used student ID numbers to generate quasi-random assignment to a list of reactants and amounts of starting materials. Students then produced a video explaining how they calculated the amounts of products, the limiting/excess reactants, what happens when the limiting reactant is doubled, and a particle diagram of their particular reaction.

Basically, I emphasized students’ explanations over calculations. They had to be able to explain, either in writing or verbally, how something worked. This also allowed me to help students with tricky parts, so that we could discuss similar problems and they could still complete the work on their own, and they knew whether they knew it or not.

Did Evaluations take forever to grade? Yes. But they were far more entertaining (and dare I say, fun??) to work through. Could students still cheat? Yes. But especially when I asked for explanations to extend analogies/knowledge, it was pretty obvious who hadn’t really done the work. Could students get a re-do? Yes. They had to fix the broken/missing parts, explain how they got their original answers, and explain how the new-and-improved versions were better.

I kinda want to keep Evaluations next year, but I also know that I’ll have to change them up a bit. However, I think it will be worth it for them and me.

Reflections on 2020-21

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Oof. I haven’t written in a while.

Like many teachers, I’m thinking about the complexities of this past school year. Here’s my take on things (tl;dr: The overall plan didn’t work, and as we kept trying to return to it, it continued to not-work, which felt like failure after failure. But nothing is all bad, so what did I get out of it?

In March of 2020, my school (like so many others) closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. This was the correct thing to do, in order to protect the health of students and staff.

Fall of 2020, we started in an all-virtual world of school. While furiously trying to re-imagine a lab science in virtual spaces, as well as cut content so that students weren’t overwhelmed, this felt like so much non-success… and at the same time, society praised teachers for doing the impossible thing of doing our jobs. Except that teachers knew that this wasn’t how school was supposed to work, that we’ve done it differently for years and years and it’s not the same. Very few of my 12th graders (whom I knew from 2 years ago) or the new-to-me 10th graders turned on cameras for very long. It felt like I was tossing materials into the digital-void (and somehow got anonymous materials back). There are a number of students whose faces I did not see all year and will not recognize them next fall. I had no feeling for how my students were doing, whether they were doing anything, or whether they were present at all. All I knew is that I was terrible at my online job.

It was announced that we’d go back in person in April, and that students would be given the option to do so too. I now taught in-person kids and at-home kids simultaneously (the “concurrent” model). While I’d gotten used to the long pauses and wait-times for student responses while entirely online, It was particularly challenging to create the norms for waiting for some kids in front of me, while stalling for bandwidth and electrons for the at-home students. Society demonized teachers for doing their jobs in a way that they didn’t like. Students weren’t allowed to sit too close to each other, weren’t allowed to share materials, could not pass. things to each other, or even face each other in a classroom. Labs still had to be done online because I didn’t have enough spaces in lab for 15 in-person students 3-feet-apart (and 6 feet from water/sinks/me), all assignments were still virtual; it was only that I could see the eyeballs and masks on some students’ heads. For two months, I’ve felt terrible about my two jobs “concurrently”.

Now that school is nearly done for this year, I’m thinking about what has gone well (or at least, not-badly).

I asked students to fill in an anonymous end-of-survey. Things they universally liked this year:

  • Having consistent methods/sources for homework.
  • “Evaluations” instead of tests (I should blog about this separately).
  • Social justice conversations.

That’s it.

Everything else, from chemistry content to pace of course to how I speak was liked and not-liked by somebody.

So, from that list, what can I learn? I didn’t actually change that much. I’ve always been really consistent (sometimes even if it hurts in the long run) about where to find information regarding homework and expectations. Social justice conversations (although I run them differently from that link… that’s another blog post) are an integral part of my class, and although these talks were curtailed this year (along with other chemistry-related content), students saw them as a new side of science class.

Does this show me that they succeeded? No. Does it show student trust? Yes, since some were very blunt and honest about what they did and did not like. I’m glad they’re comfy with me to tell me so. Students wrote that I was the only teacher willing to give leeway and leniency this year (which is why it felt like I’d sacrificed more content than my colleagues… apparently, I did). Did I make room for more students and their anxieties? Yes, and I was able to help a few particular kids who came back in-person and were then able to ask for help that wasn’t available to them online.

Does the survey show that I succeeded? No. But it also doesn’t show that I failed.

What will I take into next year? I need to continue to work on making my class welcoming and open. If I can keep that reputation of being “chill”, I think I’ll continue to get buy-in and, therefore, more work from kids. And we need to keep talking about race and gender and other social constructs and how science fits into those pictures.

Name tents

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I have the hardest time remembering names. Numbers are relatively easy, particular formulas are okay, but names have always been a problem for me. I always tell my students that it’ll be about October that I’ll know most of them, and some will take longer. It stinks, and I always feel bad about it, but I promise I do work at it.

So this year, partially because I needed to try some new technique, partially because I think it’ll work well as part of my National Boards entries, I tried doing Sara VanDerWerf’s name tents.

So. Much. Amazingness. (And the name tents were magical too.)

But really, I didn’t expect to have so much fun with them. And it’s in the vein of getting to know each kid better, even (especially??) the quiet ones. I’ve now had a mini-conversation with each of my students, something I don’t usually get a chance to do.

The types of conversations were interesting too. My AP kids, whom I’ve already had for a year, I now know much better. Their questions to me tended to be much more casual and silly. My new chemistry students were generally more academic or non-personal. But I still got a glimpse of what kinds of things are in their heads. A few asked if we could do another round, so I may see if I can afford that kind of time around the semester break.

Social justice in chemistry, year 2

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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.

 

 

On Pursuing Higher Ed

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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

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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

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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

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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. 

#MTBoSBlogsplosion: Soft Skills

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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.