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Monthly Archives: May 2014

Portfolio Day

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Because I work at a private school, we don’t have to worry about the latest version of the standardized tests. Instead, we have our Seniors do something much more meaningful: Portfolios.


Each of these 3-ring binders is the culmination of years of work. They should contain good-quality work samples from each core subject (and anything else they want to add, such as contestant numbers from ski racing or pictures of dance recitals or photos of sculptures). All of the academic awards they’ve received in their high school career are in another section. And there are two essays. One on their school experience thus far (for better or for worse), and one is on future goals of some sort. The rules to these essays are pretty loose, other than the title, but many of our students finally realize what a different experience they’ve had in our alternative environment. Teachers are required to read through all of the stuff in those binders and make comments (some say “love notes”) to students, which get tucked into the binders.

And Tuesday is Portfolio Day. It actually has nothing to do with the paper part of this Senior assignment. Each kid has to give a 20-30 minute talk on something — anything! — to three teachers (or more) of their choice. Parents and friends can come, if they’re invited. I’ve seen talks on how to be a good athletic coach, rebuilding antique tractors, the physics of a Van de Graaff generator, the current fashion outlook for New York, student-composed songs, and hand-made dolls. After the talks and a quick Q&A, the kids get their binders back with the teacher comments, there’s often hugs or pictures, and they go skipping away.

The most amazing part of the whole thing is that although we teach one-on-one and I know what these kids do, I haven’t seen them doing it until many of these talks. Despite nerves, the kids are usually pretty comfortable (in their element) and things go really well, they get onto strange and cool tangents, and I see whole other sides of kids that I didn’t know about before. Makes me kinda sad to not be able to talk further with them.

I’m looking forward to Tuesday.

What’s the Problem?: Pepper Water

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Act 1: Observations and Hook

Water, pepper, dish soap.

Act 2: Questions, Possibilities, Resources

  • What happened?
  • How does the pepper behave differently at the start, at the end?
  • Why does it swirl around?
  • Where does pepper come from?
  • Does it work with something other than pepper? other than water? other than dish soap?
  • What is soap? What is it designed to do?
  • What does “clean” mean?

Act 3: Resolution and Continuation

  • Here‘s a pretty good explanation of how it works.
  • Would it work again/faster/better if soap was added a second time?
  • What if soap was added in two places at the same time?
  • How’s the pepper/water experiment similar to this? Are they related?

Stick-To-Your-Ribs Learning

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I’ve heard the term “authentic learning” going around recently. It’s being used (by teachers) as a reason to get kids into projects and hands-on stuff, and (by politicians) to make certain curricula sound productive. It’s a pretty disingenuous term, though. I mean, even kids who just memorize vocab, take tests, and forget all of their information have learned (they learned how to game the system, which is arguably a useful skill). Instead, here’s my proposed term:

Stick-to-your-ribs learning

I want students to digest material, to process it, to use the good parts and get rid of the useless stuff. I want them to ruminate on ideas. I want them to be mentally nourished (and challenged!) by its content and rigor. And maybe it can feed their heads and help them grow.

Thinking Is Hard (When You Tell Me What to Do)

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I like to think of myself as a fairly calm and rational person, but there’s a few things that really set me off:

“Science is hard.”

No, it’s not. Mythbusters says so. It’s the story behind the science that may be hard.

I drew this at the beginning of the school year. I don’t remember why. But this is how school often feels to people:


Maybe I should make it my background.

And while I was good at school, I hated memorizing lists and vocabulary (and I am still terrible at remembering names and dates). It’s just not 1. interesting, and 2. meaningful. One teacher called standardized tests “bulimic learning,” because you take in massive amounts of facts, regurgitate it all, and forget it immediately. (Sorry for the graphic nature of that last sentence.)

I taped a quote above my desk:

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught. — Winston Churchill

The reason I’ve been uncomfortable with a couple of sections of my curriculum is that it’s very mechanical and boring; I need (really, my students need) a better story. The reason I hate teaching empirical formula calculations is that it’s not very useful now that lab equipment does the detection and even some identification automatically, and students won’t need this stuff unless they take college placement tests.

There’s a big mental shift between doing calculations mechanically and explaining why it all worked. This conversation (of which similar versions have floated around the math Twitter community lately, regarding algebra, geometry, and calculus curricula) is starting to congeal some ideas I’ve had all year. There’s a question about the depth versus the breadth of the material covered in any classroom.

So where do you draw the line? Teaching chemistry, which isn’t on state tests, I have the luxury of relatively little external pressure (however, there are still elements of chem in the NGSS, although those standards are nebulous enough to get by with a physical science course, rather than a full-blown chemistry course). However, I feel the pressure of potential colleges: if it says “chemistry” on my students’ transcripts, I assume the college thinks I covered particular topics. I feel obligated to give my students what I consider a first-year chemistry course, with chemical reactions, balancing equations, sig figs, moles, and stoich. But all of that is mostly mechanical, and frankly, not very interesting. It also lulls students into thinking that calculations will always be presented in a particular way. They have little to no knowledge as to what they’re actually calculating or why they should care.

After my fantastic class yesterday, I feel obligated to change, not what I’m doing, but how I’m doing it.

Titration Experimentation

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It’s rare for Seattle to have beautiful weather, but this week has been gorgeous. What better way to spend all of class outside, than to measure titrate unknown acids?? ***

I’m generally of the mind that kids can do a lot more than what people allow them to do. It’s why my husband and I are teaching our nearly-3-year-old to chop vegetables with a kitchen knife (supervised, of course), and really like Gever Tulley‘s ideas.

So when one of my students, who has a penchant for performing his own experiments, found an old bottle of muriatic acid in a dark corner of a barn (I didn’t ask), and he asked what the label meant by “35%” strength, I figured it was actually an opportunity.

Having just gone through a unit on acids and bases, we went through the whole shebang of performing titrations: neutralization, choosing appropriate reactants, balancing equations, titration procedures, using indicators, calculating molarities, and (of course) safety measures. Students here aren’t often trusted with the one nice, glass buret (which I think is ridiculous, and, frankly, I didn’t trust plastic for this particular titration).

So after performing a more controlled titration on Tuesday, my students decided that this new titration should be done outside, on a lab table, upwind, and with limited amounts of acid. I approved their procedure, including choices of base and indicator, and they impressed me with their careful handling of materials and glassware and chemicals, as well as careful measurements and each taking a turn with the pipette and buret (even the extra-timid student!). All three trials lead to pretty tight data. Their assignment is to calculate the acid molarity for each trial, and give an average.

In addition to this awesomeness, the neutralization produced a visible precipitate, so they wanted to crystallize it to see if it has the properties (thank you, introduction to the CRC Handbook!) of the predicted salt. I might even throw some stoich/limiting reagents in there to see how much salt should have been generated. For the record, I’ve no idea if crystallizing will work, or if the indicator or impurities will get in the way or something.

For me, this is the best day of the year so far: we covered all of the year’s major “chemistry” topics in about 75 minutes, and it was mostly student-generated. Even better, we’ll have another day (at least!) with more of their questions and ideas.

*** Important note: I don’t generally blog about my current students. Teaching individually means that people could potentially identify them very easily/quickly, and I don’t want that problem. Today, however, my class really, really impressed me!

Thanks to My Teachers

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I was lucky enough to have a few good teachers in my white, suburban, middle-class, Midwestern upbringing. I was also lucky enough to have several truly inspiring teachers.

Mr. Feller
I’ve already written a bit about Mr. Feller. Besides being required to have our concert band play at pep rallies and Memorial Day concerts, the concerts and competitions, and the amazing instruction, he always showed us the utmost respect as people and as musicians. He composed his own music, and encouraged anyone and everyone to do their own thing in addition to music. He was one of the first teachers with whom we could joke while still respecting his authority.

Ms. Aubineau
Ms. Aubineau was my 12th grade Honors English (excuse me, Enriched English) teacher. And we earned it. She guided us through literature, starting with Beowulf and finishing with Death of a Salesman. She collected sheep, and would dance around the room screaming, “SHEEEEEEEEP!” if one appeared on filmstrip. The final exam consisted of three days of writing, comprising every shred of text we’d read through the year. I might still have the “I finished Ms. Aubineau’s 12th grade final” badge somewhere.

Mr. Spreeman
Everyone who went to my junior high and high school knew Mr. Spreeman. He also probably knew you by name, even if you weren’t in his class. For 8th grade Geography, he made the world clear, starting with, “You can’t know anything about the world until you know something about where you’re from.” He was born and raised in our hometown, and he’d tell stories about things he did as a kid. He told stories about things he did in school. He told stories about his family and when his kids (one was our age) were little. He told THE ghost story on Halloween. He taught us what it meant to be a conscious citizen and a good person, as well as what you can do those times when you realize you’re not a good person. He had time to listen for anyone who needed to talk. He took us to see Schindler’s List in the theater, as well as The Gods Must Be Crazy on videotape. It was the first class I distinctly remember as a personal growth experience.

Karen Harpp
And in college, Karen Harpp was not only a fantastic teacher, but a dedicated researcher. She created a student-run chemistry show. She made crazy experiments to see what would work, but only if it was interesting to her. She wouldn’t give “I don’t know” even a passing glance. Because she’s a geochemist studying volcanic structure and history through rocks, I actually ran into her while on my honeymoon in Hawai’i. The biggest part of her education of me was her unrelenting “why?” Her standards for analytic chemistry were through the roof; it was the hardest class I ever took, comprising analysis, statistics, rigor, creativity, and (of course) chemistry. Her desire to expose chemistry in everyday stuff is a large part of my current passion in high school science.

And this is my thanks… thanks to you guys, I became a teacher. I’ve even become an icon (from our art department, representing our science department):