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#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? 


SBG, Version 1 (2015-16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emotion of Science Class?

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

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

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

So what is the emotion of science class?