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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.

#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. 

Giving Them Nothing

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Monday, my chemistry students started their semester final: a three-week, single-partner, no-outside-communication, all-hands-on-deck lab practical. I handed them a stack of papers and told them that I expected to see polished write-ups in three weeks.

Okay, so I don’t give them nothing. They can use virtually anything printed, including their lab notebooks, the textbook, the Internet… Other than people.

But I didn’t tell them exactly how to accomplish the experiments or how to write them up. This is throwing a lot of them for a loop. It’s making them think a little too hard. I had two pairs, who, after pouring a chemical in a beaker and watching it sink to the bottom of a beaker, discuss how to get a chemical to dissolve. After about 5-6 minutes of contemplating various heating implements, acids, and catalysts, I was afraid they were going to actually hurt themselves: I handed them a glass stir rod.

But the thing is, as I struggle to not talk or nudge kids in particular directions (which makes me think about how much/little I do during the rest of the year), they’re realizing how much they rely on being told what to do. They’re finally thinking about what to do rather than what I say. And to do this, they have to ask questions of themselves (and their partners).

I’m starting to think about how to give more goals, give fewer questions. It’s kind of a riff off of Dan Meyer talking about removing questions from textbook problems to make things more interesting/compelling/think-y. [Hmmm… curriculua as a state function? Many paths to get to the end?]

Cross-posted to Better Qs…

ChemEd Day 5

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Today was the last (half-) day of the conference.

This morning, I heard about games and goofiness in organic chem class. The closing ceremonies speaker was Dr. Donna Nelson, who, among other things, consulted for Breaking Bad. Her talk mostly centered on an interesting idea: being the change you want to see. That is, she consulted because she wanted to influence a television show to have an accurate representation of science and scientists.

And now I’m working on my head again. I have a lot to do and integrate into my curriculum. And only a few weeks to do it. Eeep.

ChemEd Day 4

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Holy cow…

Today brought a bunch of in-class apps, some science notebooking (more like actual note-taking rather than following formulaic sections), the So You Think You Can Demo competition, modeling and stoich, and a lecture on historical impacts of synthetic chemistry.

Mind completely blown by the today’s stoich presentation. First, the ICE-table-like layout makes so much sense!! Whoa. And second (and more importantly), Ellena Bethea. Three years ago, when I was having a really tough time at my old school, hers was one of the first chemistry blogs that I found. And she seemed so genuine and practical and…lovely. I love all of the math teachers in the MTBoS, but her blog, one of the only chemistry-related ones I could find, is what got me back into teaching when I was feeling ready to quit. Anyway, I briefly met her (and probably creeped her out a little with my verge-of-tears introduction). I’m just so grateful.

One more (half) day tomorrow…

ChemEd Day 3

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My day three sessions were pretty cool! Electrochemistry on the morning (with Paul Price), a bunch of ways to teach stoich (variety is helpful!), a bunch of discrepant events, a plenary by Larry Gonick of Cartoon Guide to Chemistry (etc.) fame, all about the Molympics with Kristin Gregory and Doug Ragan, some good stuff on scientific writing in the classroom, and some PBL info. I guess today’s theme was doing-stuff-in-the-classroom, not so much on the philosophy or for me to make up on my own. It was good specific help on specific topics. I definitely need to think through that electrochem stuff, especially the last couple of slides with the ion animations.

*kerpow! brain explodes! in a good way!!*

In the evening, there was a happy hour at a local bar. It was nice to have some chill-time with new acquaintances. We’re a bunch of good people, and I enjoyed having some more-than-half-hour time to just chat about work and family and people and problems and successes. Pretty cool.

ChemEd Days 1&2!

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After a red-eye and a long layover, I’m in Atlanta, at ChemEd.

Yesterday’s opening ceremonies had Aaron Sams, talking about his journey through teaching and flipping and into conducting professional development. It’s good to have re-affirmation for change, for innovation, and for trying new things. I especially liked the (far-too-silent) truth of chemistry teachers having a sort of superiority complex, enjoying the inaccessibility and weirdness that our jargon affords us. Um. Yes.

Today, I went to sessions on NGSS in chem (didja know there’s a phone app??), energy in modeling systems (with Erica Posthuma-Adams… oooh… much to think through), Ramsey Musallam’s keynote address on playing/teaching to your strengths, tips on writing grants, literature connections especially for ELL kids, and agricultural ideas and hydroponics with Jeff Bracken (whoa… so much goodness going on!).

AAAAANNNND, if all that wasn’t enough, I’ve now met a bunch of Twitter peeps! In person! And they’re just as cool as online!


Take Aways

It’s okay to try new things. In fact, you should try new things. Especially piece-meal. Especially one or two things at a time. Even if you don’t know whether it will work or not. (That’s kinda the scientific method of classes; propose, test, modify.)

And it’s okay to fail. And it will happen. And it probably already has. And you can always revert to previous versions of things, even if you know the old version isn’t super good.

And reflection is super important. It wasn’t explicit in any of the presentations today, but most of the presentations were themselves reflections of materials and courses.

Brain exploding… more tomorrow!

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 112: Chemistry Subbing

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Day 112/180: subbing for chemistry

Subbed across the hall from my old class again. Of the five science teachers upstairs, only two were there, so I also helped with another chemistry class during a free period (the rest of his day was in-house period coverage). It’s strange to be a sort-of insider while subbing, but I was asked to peek in on the period coverage.

Just as a note: if a teacher’s sub plans specifically says, “NO FLAME TESTS”, don’t let students do the flame tests.