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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.

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. 

#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.

#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. 

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?