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Category Archives: Curriculua

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. 

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Stoich Speed Dating

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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: My Favorite

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I’ve been pretty quiet recently, partially due to being ridiculously busy learning how to teach AP Chemistry this year. But also because my district has very strict policies around social media.

Anyway, I saw the MTBoS post about returning to blogging, and figured it was a good time to procrastinate to start again.  And no, I don’t teach math; Honors Chemistry and AP Chem for me!

My favorite thing in class right now is whiteboards. I know… it seems to be everyone’s favorite thing, and for good reason! My students actually cheered today when I told them to fetch the dry erase markers. I am fortunate enough to have two sets of whiteboards! A large set (about 2.5×3′ or so) for groups, and small ones for individuals (one side is blank and one side has periodic tables.)

What do we do with them?

I’ve posted previously about Chemical War, The Mistake Game, particle drawings, and Battleship.

The little boards are great for “secret ballots”. Pose a question, everyone furtively writes down an answer, and either blindly (for my eyes only) or publicly shows it on the count of three. Funny for multiple choice / review days, when I need suggestions for stuff, etc.

Then just plain practice. Yesterday, my honors students took notes about stoichiometry and using BCA tables. Working in groups today made it so much clearer to them! Plus, the groups can do different things: one group made one set of charts/calculations; several groups worked individually and compared work; one group was pretty comfy already, so split into two teams that raced for the right answer.

AP Chem does similar work together. Especially with drawing, the group work is invaluable (these kids are generally fine with the math part). Somehow, whiteboarding lets these (very advanced) kids play with pictures that they would never do on paper, and thereby increases their understanding. I found that if I don’t have a whiteboard day, not only do they complain, but their conceptual understanding has been lower.

Soooo many marker fumes! So little time! (Maybe that’s why everyone loves whiteboards…)

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. 

Cooperative, Competitive

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I started a bunch of posts, but haven’t finished them. Here they are, all combined: I like playing games with my students, and my students are competitive enough (in a friendly way) that they work well in my classroom.

Based on things I’ve seen in the #MTBoS (oh hey, it’s MTBoS season!), I’ve had my students play a bunch of games to practice new and in-progress skills. Also, I’ve never had whiteboards in class before, and I have a set of small, individual boards with periodic tables on one side, and a large set for group work. I’m all over these boards.


Battleship, which I haven’t found time for previously, was a nice way to practice groups and periods on the periodic table. And we needed a low-key class period.

Electron Memory to review electron configurations, symbols, and a sketch of electrons in their shells/clouds. Yes, it’s a match-three kind of situation! Much harder than normal. Not sure it was super effective in review, however.

Chemical War reviewed compound formation. Each kid had a slip of paper with an ion and a small whiteboard. When they met someone with an oppositely-charged ion, they raced to come up with the correct compound first. Some good questions came out of it, and these particular kids are pretty conscious about asking for clarifications.

The Mistake Game is my new faaaaavorite thing! So far, we’ve used them for practicing balancing equations, and now some stoichiometry. Stoich is funny: it’s almost too complicated to make a mistake, and they don’t want to mess up the beauty in the perfected equations. But I love that they’re seeing where mistakes can be made, and how to fix them. (And BCA tables are amazing!)

Particle drawings is kinda borrowed from the Modeling series of stuff. I haven’t gone to the seminars, but I did attend a few sessions while at ChemEd last summer, and I’ve made my own version of them, which goes along with our new textbooks’ examples. While the kids groan about doing it, they definitely have a better grasp about what’s really happening during reactions.


And now that all of this is on the table, I’m left with the educator-part of my brain saying, what questions am I asking? And therefore, what am I valuing?

I mean, I’m supposed to be posting to Sam Shah’s collaborative Better Qs blog, and I haven’t posted anything anywhere recently. Not for lack of interest, but for lack of questions. I’ve asked students to do things this year that I haven’t before (no required homework, SBG, draw reactions rather than entirely equations, etc.), but what’s my implicit question? I guess I’m looking for more explanations rather than merely regurgitating processes, but I need to shift my (non-required) homework to meet that.

Day 114: Getting Comfy

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Day 114/180(?): starting over with SBG

No, I can’t fit all 180 days in before school starts again!

During an interview, I asked a principal what he/she thought about SBG. His/her response was unfavorable, including that kids would have to figure out the system for each class and teacher. I thought it strange, since kids already do that.

I was chugging along with SBG, following what a middle-school colleague had done, when I realized that I didn’t like that version. I needed something else.

So, thanks to some Tweeps I’ve been stalking for a while really neat and well-connected people (I’m looking at you, @jmbalaya!), I contacted Ramsey Musallam, and we chatted on the phone for a good half hour (in between his summer school robot building fun). I’m gonna give his SBG system a shot, and see what happens. It makes far more sense to me than the other version (at least, for my grade-level and subject). And I’d hate for the kids to be a part (again) of a class where the teacher isn’t comfy with the grading system.

Day 113 (and beyond): Doing It Again for the First Time

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Day 113+more / 180: signing a new contract and thinking of next year(s)

I signed the contract for my new school and got a non-sub-ID!

I’ve been working on and off on my new SBG curriculum. While I’m set on trying SBG, I’m now realizing how much I have to do and change from the stuff I already have. And what do I do with lab notebooks on the scale?

And this (start of an) exchange with @rawrdimus:

So how do I get students to use the notebooks after they’ve finished particular labs?

So what it comes down to is… I’m feeling like a first-year teacher. Super insecure. I’ve got the job, and now I have to deliver all that I promised. I haven’t been in a normal classroom — my classroom — for eight years. I have scrounged a basic schedule from the school I worked at last fall, and I have all of my old worksheets (which need to be updated for my new SBG thing). I have tons of resources from other people, but need to make everything my own.